‘Moths in My Sporran’: From Scottish Journal to Scottish International

Sarah Leith investigates some mid-century satire on the ‘tartan monster’


In September 1952, a new periodical appeared on the Scottish literary scene, aiming to paint a ‘month by month picture of Scotland – our doings, thoughts, humours and aspirations’.[1] This magazine was the devolution-seeking Scottish Journal (1952-3), edited by Hugh MacDiarmid and Compton Mackenzie (amongst others). It emerged as questions of Scottish self-government were becoming more serious, first via the Scottish Covenant campaign in 1949-51 – which gathered up to two million signatures calling for Home Rule – and then by the 1952 Catto Report on Scotland’s share of UK expenditure and revenue, which strengthened calls for administrative devolution and led to a Royal Commission on Scottish Affairs (1952-4). The possibility of even minor constitutional change prompted reassessments of the national self-image, looking backwards to contemplate a different future. In the first number of Scottish Journal, we find Australian John J. Alderson’s speculations about a federated Britain printed alongside Harold Stewart’s intriguingly titled ‘Moths in My Sporran’.[2] While we cannot be exactly sure who Scottish Journal’s Stewart was, it is possible that he may be the Daily Record journalist who authored the novel Bats in the Belfry (1935).[3] Although his identity is uncertain, we do know that he embraced the Scottish Literary Renaissance critique of sentimental visions of Scotland.

Evoking images of decaying tartan and moth-eaten fur, this article is recognisably part of a much broader battle against ‘inauthentic’ images of Scotland and Scottish culture, one that stretched across the twentieth century from the Scottish Literary Renaissance to Tom Nairn’s famous evisceration of the ‘vast tartan monster’ in the Red Paper on Scotland (1975), and far beyond.[4] Literary and political magazines played their role in this critique. It is clearly present in the 1968 launch issue of Scottish International, which promises ‘to look for what is really there [in Scotland], and to call people’s attention to it’.[5] A sobering high-point in this endeavour is Father Anthony Ross’ article ‘Resurrection’ (May 1971). Ross, the University of Edinburgh’s Catholic Chaplain, emphasised ‘the struggle of living here in the fog of romantic nostalgia for a world that never existed, and lies and half-truths about the world that does exist’.[6] For him, Scotland was ‘sick and unwilling to admit it. The Scottish establishment at least will not admit it. The tartan sentimentality, the charades at Holyroodhouse, the legends of Bruce and Wallace, Covenanters, Jacobites, John Knox and Mary Stuart, contribute nothing towards a solution’.[7]

‘It might help’, Ross argued, ‘if we could set aside for a time the image of Scotland presented in the glossy magazines which decorate our station book-stalls’ and consider instead

the distressed girl of sixteen drifting round the city, turned out of a home she had five months ago, pregnant, it was believed by her own brother […] or the defeated woman who longs for the day when another of fourteen children will leave school and she can tell him to go and look after himself […] The list could stretch until this [book] was full, a roll call of those people in Scotland whose tragedy is buried in statistics but who challenge all the conceit with which we brag about our great traditions.[8]

 

Attacking a different set of myths, concerns about the decay and appropriation of Gaelic culture were raised in Scottish International in November 1969. Donald John MacLeod’s ‘The Sellers of Culture: A Look at Interpretations and Some False Interpreters of Gaelic Culture’ blamed Lowland tourist and native ‘interpreter’ alike for the perpetuation of ‘false’ images of the Highlands.[9] MacLeod observed a circular quality to this traffic in myths:

In interpreting their native society to the Gall, the exiled Gaels – both because they wish to popularise and so perpetuate the culture and because they value acceptance by the city middle class – have amended their model to make it as acceptable as possible to the non-Gael. The interpreters on the other side of the fence – those Lowlanders, from comedians to scholars, who feel qualified to comment on Gaelic culture – have contributed an image of their own to which that of the native interpreters has gradually assimilated. This popular stereotype often appears in humorous caricature – the Highlander as a kilted, whisky-sodden, sentimental giant.[10]

‘In fact’, MacLeod noted, and ‘(as many may have already suspected), most Gaels do not wear kilts, sing all the time, compose village-poetry, or speak Gaelic all day long’.[11]

Now let us return to the September 1952 edition of Scottish Journal, and the perturbing predicament of Harold Stewart. ‘Moths in My Sporran’ only appeared in three editions of Scottish Journal, but Stewart’s three columns wittily mock the pervasive images of kilts and kailyards that were sold both to visitors and to the Scots themselves. Stewart’s cheeky title implied that authentic Gaelic culture, symbolised by the sporran, and used to (mis)represent both the Highlands and the Lowlands, had been left to fester and rot in a dusty cupboard, while at the same time being abused for financial gain. Scottish Journal was not as radical as Scottish International, but it did have a clear sense of what the Lowlands and the Highlands were not, and it poked fun at those it blamed for commercialising a false and tawdry image of the nation.

The first ‘Moths in My Sporran’ column emphasised both the alleged fakery of popular tartanry, and the uses and abuses of Highland culture. Through his use of satire, Stewart highlighted a worrying Bonnie Prince Charlie problem:

Then there is the traffic in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s lovelocks, based on the historical fact that the Young Pretender, during his brief bid for a throne, went up and down Scotland scattering curls in all directions. Satisfied as we are with the Board of Trade returns which show that some 1,000,000 bushels of the Chevalier’s chevelure are sold to romantic visitors annually, there is a darker side to the business.

For one thing, it deprives the stranger of the pleasure of seeing Scotland’s handsomest dog, the golden Labrador, which vanishes from view at the outset of every tourist season, leaving its hair behind in antique lockets and pathetically shaded sachets of silken ribbon. And while it probably does the shorn bowwows no harm to go to the dog-racing tracks and masquerade as greyhounds for a time, I am against the practice. I invariably back those dogs.[12]

The Young Pretender’s dusty and moth-ravaged ‘locks’ may have been on sale in Edinburgh at festival time. ‘Hail Ceilidh-donia’, the third ‘Moths in My Sporran’ column, satirised the fashion for ceilidh parties held by members of the Scottish Labour movement in the period, including by Hamish Henderson (leader of the modern Scottish folk revival movement) at the Edinburgh People’s Festival, as well as the ceilidhs held by the Bo’ness Rebels from 1948 onwards.[13]

For Stewart, the first People’s Festival Ceilidh (1951), was no better than either J.M. Barrie’s sentimental Kailyard novels or Edwardian song-collector Margery Kennedy-Fraser’s Anglicised folk-song. In ‘Hail Ceilidh-donia’, Stewart began by ‘remembering’ that ‘a thinker firmly on returning home from the Rothesay Mod’ had explained to him that ‘only in the ceilidh does the essential nature of the Gael find full and free expression’.[14] However Stewart’s description of this ceilidh presents his reader with a palpable atmosphere of fakery as he recalls ‘the subtly nostalgic scent of peat-reek in the room. Or maybe the aroma came from the fag-ends smouldering on the carpet. No matter. The atmosphere was just right. There was the singing! […] And poetry!’[15]  It is in his description of the ‘Highland’ dances that Stewart’s wit and frustration reach their peak, as he describes the dancers as enjoying

The rumba (named from the wave-washed Hebridean isle of Rum [sic]), the conga (invented, as the title implies, by Conn of the Hundred Battles), [and] the mamba (traditionally derived from Mambeg), [which] invited our light-springing footsteps to trample the floor in the ancient rhythms[16]

In Stewart’s opinion, the folk revival was not only promoting a false image of Gaelic culture but also actively repressing this culture and spirit. Of course, Hamish Henderson intended the folk revival to unearth and liberate authentic Scottishness, not to traduce it. Perhaps a suspicious Stewart simply had the wrong, unromantic end of the stick: arguably, Henderson and his fellow folk revivalists were just as averse to cultural appropriation and nostalgic peat-reek.

As Scottish Journal’s ‘Moths in My Sporran’ columns show, then, pointed critique of sentimental Scotland and its ‘great traditions’ did not vanish for a time during the mid-twentieth century, and an impulse to expose harsher and more unsettling truths about Scotland exists alongside popular tartanry.


Sarah Leith has just completed a PhD at the University of St Andrews, on repression, counterculture and Scottish national identity, c.1926-c.1967.

[1] ‘The Journal of a Nation’, Scottish Journal (September, 1952): 1-2 (p.1).

[2] John J. Alderson, ‘A Federated British Isles’, Scottish Journal (September 1952): 8-9; Harold Stewart, ‘Moths in My Sporran: Pss! Wanna Nice Feud?’, Scottish Journal (September 1952), p.9.

[3] Many thanks to Dr Paul Malgrati for helping to find a possible identity for Harold Stewart.

[4] Tom Nairn, ‘Old and New Scottish Nationalism’, in The Red Paper on Scotland, ed. by Gordon Brown (Edinburgh, EUSPB: 1975)

[5] Scottish International (January, 1968): cover-p.3 (p.3).

[6] Anthony Ross, ‘Resurrection’, Scottish International (May, 1971): 4-10 (p.6).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p.9.

[9] Donald John MacLeod, ‘The Sellers of Culture: A Look at Interpretations and Some False Interpreters of Gaelic Culture’, Scottish International (November, 1969): 49-52 (p.49).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Stewart, ‘Psss! Wanna Nice Feud?’, p.9.

[13] Harold Stewart, ‘Moths in My Sporran: Hail Ceilidh-donia’, Scottish Journal (November, 1952), p.5.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

Mag Memories: John Herdman

John Herdman reflects on the social and political currents surging through Scottish magazines in the 1960s and 70s.


This blog is a companion to our podcast interview with John Herdman.

The cover of ‘Another Country’ shows The Paperback bookshop in Charles Street, Edinburgh, 1959

I became a Scottish nationalist while an undergraduate at Cambridge from 1960-63.  I can identify three strands in this conversion: firstly the discovery that I had a different kind of cultural identity from my new friends and acquaintances; secondly, my enthusiasm for Irish literature (particularly Yeats, Joyce and Beckett), and the sense that this felt much closer to me than did English literature; finally my discovery (initially in an anthology edited by Moray McLaren, The Wisdom of the Scots) of the poetry and ideas of Hugh MacDiarmid, of which I had been wholly ignorant.  Between 1963 and 1966 I was variously in Edinburgh, Cambridge and Europe, but very much in touch with the cultural developments that were taking place in Scotland in those years: Jim Haynes’s Paperback Bookshop, of which I was a habitué, the Traverse Theatre Club which was a huge source of stimulation, and the International Writers’ Conference of August 1962 and Drama Conference the following year.

During 1966-67 I was a research student at Cambridge studying James Hogg. When I finally returned to Edinburgh in 1967 it was to a consciousness that there was a new element of life in the city, a cosmopolitanism and an innovative spirit in the arts which stood over against the very traditional middle-class world in which I had grown up, and that this was making for a far more complex interaction of different cultural and political forces than had existed hitherto. It was against this background that Winifred Ewing’s by-election victory for the SNP at Hamilton in November 1967 brought about a change in the political and cultural face of Scotland that was to prove permanent.  It meant that an aspiration which had seemed little more than an unattainable pipe-dream began suddenly to appear a realistically possible, if still very distant, political goal.  It was a heady time; all at once every other person in the street seemed to be sporting an SNP badge. There was of course a substantial element of fashion in this. Personally, I became quickly disillusioned by the philistinism and tokenism of the SNP’s cultural policies, and with its excessive preoccupation with economics to the detriment of the issues that seemed most important to me; and I had hoped for a far more determined and militant follow-up.

It was in 1968-9 that I began to write for Scottish periodicals, first for Catalyst of which I was briefly editor in 1970, then for Akros. Within the next few years I contributed to most of the magazines then publishing. They provided an enviable critical culture in which the new creative work of Scottish writers both established and emerging was received and evaluated, and ensured that new work was noticed even when ignored by the press; although newspapers too were mostly assiduous in reviewing new Scottish work. (To give a personal example, my second novel, Pagan’s Pilgrimage, received nine reviews when it appeared in 1978.) Another very important function performed by the literary journals lay in providing work and activity – reviewing and the writing of longer critical articles on contemporary Scottish writing – for writers like myself. Financial rewards may have been small, but one felt part of a literary community, and the interactions involved gave rise to many friendships and the formation of wide circles of acquaintance.  Though some of the connections made may have been confrontational, the magazines as scenes of literary and cultural debate were educational. Writers quickly came to learn who represented what sets of attitudes, but over the literary community as a whole there was a sense of overall cohesiveness which made the atmosphere very different from that of the more fragmented and perhaps individualistic scene of today. Also very important were the book publishing arms of several of the magazines which gave many young writers, including myself, the chance of publication which they were unlikely to receive from the large metropolitan publishers.

The most obvious ideological division among poets was that between the advocates of Scots or Lallans, and the considerably larger number, never really constituting a coherent grouping, who for one reason or another chose to write in English. This debate originated in Hugh MacDiarmid’s espousal of the Scots tongue (although most of his own later work was in English), and the association of that choice with Scottish patriotism and nationalism. Within this group, however, there were infinite gradations and inflections, both in ideas relating to what sort of Scots was employed (a “synthetic” diction combining contemporary speech with a drawing on the heritage of the makars, a stronger emphasis on the contemporary, or simply “the Scots I hear in my head” as Duncan Glen, the editor of Akros, used to say); and in how all this correlated with an overt political stance.  Among the “second generation” Scottish Renaissance poets the most militantly patriotic was probably Tom Scott, followed by Sydney Goodsir Smith and Alexander Scott (the two Scotts hated each other). Robert Garioch was less overtly political; Duncan Glen was younger than this group, militant culturally but tended not to make political statements.

Of course the linguistic question was all-important for Gaels: Sorley MacLean, though never describing himself as a nationalist, supported independence and was never shy of identifying himself as both a Scottish and a Gaelic patriot; Derick Thomson, much more the official face of Gaeldom, was a straightforward SNP man. Almost all of these writers were also socialists, but here again the differences of nuance were considerable. The “Renaissance” men, often taking a John Maclean line, were socialists of a quite different kind from the younger writers who gravitated around Scottish International, the new journal launched in 1968 with very substantial backing from the Scottish Arts Council, and who were much more oriented towards an “internationalist” outlook.  The principal of these was Bob Tait, SI’s managing editor who was supported on the editorial board by Edwin Morgan and (as a mere makeweight in MacDiarmid’s view) Robert Garioch. MacDiarmid and Tom Scott regarded all this grouping as toadies of the establishment, and despised the cultural interests of at least some of them – the Beat poets, Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi, concrete poetry. (MacDiarmid and his followers would have regarded themselves as definitely internationalist in outlook, but not as cosmopolitan – a very significant distinction.) Meanwhile Norman MacCaig, the leading Scottish poet writing in English and MacDiarmid’s close friend, remained politically au dessus de la mêlée; while Robin Fulton, a long-time editor of Lines Review around the middle of this period, was notably hostile to nationalism, both political and cultural, without showing any other overt political leaning.  There can be little doubt that the main impetus for the remarkable explosion of magazine activity in these years was the slow awakening of national consciousness in Scotland exemplified by the influence of Hugh MacDiarmid but mediated by a host of less readily definable historical and social developments.

On the question of all this activity bringing together nationalists and socialists, in the shorter term it may have reinforced differences, but over time the effect was different. The approach of Scottish International was broadly sociological; the stance it took on Scottish issues could be described as anti-centralist, perhaps devolutionist from a socialist perspective. Many of those who took this line and started off very distrustful of “bourgeois nationalism” and identity politics in general, became in the course of the 1970s increasingly conscious of the national dimension, and progressively gravitated towards a more pro-independence position. Bob Tait himself was to join Jim Sillars’s breakaway Scottish Labour Party, and eventually the SNP. The political and social commentary in SI, especially after it changed from quarterly to monthly publication, probably encouraged the emergence of the incisive and influential political commentators on Scottish society such as Tom Nairn and Neal Ascherson who began to be prominent towards the end of the ‘70s. A lasting impression of these years is the sheer profusion of cultural activities and events which they spawned – poetry festivals, innumerable readings, book launches, film showings, theatrical events and “happenings” of all kinds – and the remarkable phenomenon of the folk music scene, which tended to bring together artists of many different shades and temperaments and of varied political and other persuasions.

Bob Tait, as editor of SI, planned the “What Kind of Scotland?” Conference of April 1973 with the controlling idea of showing that it was insufficient to argue for independence for Scotland without a clear idea of what kind of society was envisaged for that independent entity. He invited two nationalists (Stephen Maxwell and myself) to join the organising committee. The conference was successful, I think, particularly in encouraging the development of the movement of informed and committed political and social commentary alluded to above. But the undoubted and quite unexpected highlight proved to be the originally unplanned rehearsed reading of John McGrath’s play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil – the first airing by the 7:84 Company of the explosive work that was to take audiences throughout Scotland by storm on its first tour, which immediately followed this occasion. This play brought into focus the whole question of the degree to which socialist and nationalist objectives, and interpretations of history, might differ or coincide.  The 7:84 Company insisted that its message was entirely socialist, yet again and again its audiences interpreted the story it had to tell as a nationalist object lesson. This was a tension which would have a long history and would not easily disappear.

The pub life of the Edinburgh cultural world of these years had two main foci – the Rose Street pubs where the older poets of the “second wave” Renaissance were accustomed to meet, drink, laugh and argue: Milne’s Bar, the Abbotsford and Paddy’s Bar were the most frequented. The atmosphere around the bards could be jovial but it could also be argumentative, given to “flyting”, even at odd moments violent. This was against the background of a normal Edinburgh pub atmosphere in which people from widely differing social backgrounds mingled easily. The second focus was Sandy Bell’s Bar in Forrest Road, which had a clientele of which the core consisted of “folkies” (it was and still is the main Edinburgh folk music pub) and students, at that time predominantly medical students, and was favoured by intellectuals of all sorts, by poets, writers and artists. As it is a very small, narrow pub (and in those days very smoky) the boisterous crowding was considerable and very much part of its charm. One of its many fixtures was the great folklorist Hamish Henderson, who united socialism and nationalism in his extraordinary person.

A story told me by a friend who often visits Turkey says a lot about the Sandy Bell’s of those days.  In Istanbul a young Turk was showing an assembled company photos of his visit to Edinburgh. Coming to one photo he said, “And this is the School of Scottish Studies.”  “No, no,” said my friend, “that’s Sandy Bell’s Bar.” “No, no, School of Scottish Studies!” He couldn’t be convinced otherwise; and it’s perhaps not difficult to imagine how the confusion might have arisen. This was still to a large extent a man’s world, but women writers were becoming rather more visible by the end of the ‘70s.  Among the female poets who were emerging in those years the most prominent was Liz Lochhead; others of note were Val Simmonds, later Gillies; Tessa Ransford, later founder of the Scottish Poetry Library; and Catherine Lucy Czerkawska. An outstanding editor was Joy Hendry, who after co-editing Chapman for some years with her then husband Walter Perrie, continued for very many years as an enormously hard-working sole editor. The most memorable and protracted debate which took place in the magazines of those years was the one which arose from the cleverly provocative attack on nationalist writers by the poet Alan Jackson in the pages of Lines Review in 1971. In the special supplement which followed, some of the writers attacked, and several others, had a chance to air and express their personal positions in a way which allowed them to dissent from being assimilated to any stereotyped view.

As F.R. Leavis used to say, “Minorities can be disproportionately influential”, and this is doubtless true of those who wrote in these Scottish magazines in the years under discussion, though the reach of their impact is impossible to estimate, far less quantify. What is certain is that these publications performed a most valuable cultural function in the discussion of Scottish writing and politics at a time of great intellectual ferment, and that they contain still great resources for the study of twentieth century Scottish writing within its wider context.


John Herdman was born in Edinburgh,  and educated there and at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he read English and later took his PhD. He is a novelist, short story writer and literary critic, whose most recent story collection is My Wife’s Lovers (2007).  As a critic he has published a study of Bob Dylan’s lyrics, Voice Without Restraint (1982), and The Double in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1990), as well as much work on modern Scottish literature.  Another Country (2013) is a memoir of literary-political life in Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Mag Memories: The Day I Received a Death Threat

Ahead of our public launch event on 5 May, we’ll be running a number of blogs and podcasts sharing the memories of magazinists.  To start us off, Prof Alistair McCleery offers a behind-the-scenes tour of how many Scottish magazines have been funded.


Is this thing on? Will I start?

The Scottish Arts Council, which had been established in 1967, in an early example of devolution from the overarching Arts Council of Great Britain, had a clear mission to promote cultural creation and reception across the nation. When I first became involved with it in 1988, the Literature Department was headed by the erudite and humane Walter Cairns and its Literature Committee was chaired by the energetic and diplomatic Deirdre Keaney. New projects flowed from their passion: the Edinburgh Book Festival, the Canongate Classics series, and the Scottish Poetry Library. Walter and Deirdre were both primarily responsible for the commissioning of the 1989 readership survey that in turn led to a number of key initiatives such as ‘Now Read On’ and ‘Readiscovery’.


And magazines?

I was coming to that. But you need to understand the culture Walter and Deirdre, and later (from 1996) Gavin Wallace and Derry Jeffares, created at the SAC and specifically how decision-making took place. In particular, the committee structure allowed for a great deal of transparency in decisions on the distribution of tax-payers’ money. The decisions were made by committee members who were representative of, and circulated within the wider groups of, writers, editors, and publishers as well as academics like me. Derry Jeffares, who had come to Stirling University from Leeds with enormous, entrepreneurial experience of academic publishing, built on the work of Deirdre when he took over as Chair of the Literature Committee, and further encouraged the development of writers and readers, both directly and indirectly through the support of book and magazine publishers. Derry acted as a mentor to me at this time, as he did for so many others; he constantly reminded me of my roots in the ‘Black North’ [of Ireland] as he persisted in calling it from his sophisticated TCD upbringing – even when I was enjoying his hospitality at Fife Ness, a long way from Derry and Dublin for both of us. Anyway, I also served on two sub-committees of the Literature Committee, the Mixed Arts and the Magazines, where it was a very positive experience to work alongside the likes of James Robertson.

Can you tell me more about the Magazines sub-committee?

We were all committed to the importance of small literary magazines. We valued them highly as an outlet for new writers, not only in terms of seeing their work in print but also as an opportunity for editorial advice and support to shape and encourage their careers; as a place for more experienced writers to experiment without losing either their usual publisher or a readership accustomed to a certain style or subject-matter; and as a print venue where writers with similar views and/or styles could coalesce to form more influential groupings to contribute to the constant regeneration of Scottish literary culture. These might seem rather high-minded views but they were the guiding principles behind our decision-making.

 

To be honest, we really only encountered one persistent difficulty: staleness. Let me explain. Sometimes, editors who had typically founded a magazine, and poured a great of their own time (and occasionally money) into it, found it difficult to comprehend that they and the magazine needed to change and adapt from what it had been at its beginnings. For example, Gairm had been founded by Derick Thomson in 1951 and he was to act as its editor for fifty years. It published all the great Gaelic writers of the twentieth century from Sorley MacLean through George Campbell Hay to Iain Crichton Smith. And Derick was an absolute giant in both the literary and the academic spheres. (I also served alongside him on the Council of the ASLS at one time.) But after nearly forty years, the magazine no longer seemed as – what’s the right word – as exciting, innovative, leading-edge as it once was. It seemed to be only going through the motions. We felt that a change of editor would likely reinvigorate it but Derick, when approached informally, was very resistant to abandoning the role, even to take up an honorary editorship. You can understand why. However, in the end, we continued to support it financially because there was no sign of any other Gaelic literary magazine on the horizon.

Did you have any other criteria for funding magazines?

I think it would be fair to say that we enjoyed idiosyncrasy and encouraged diversity – of authors, topics and so on, to encourage as many readers as possible.  However, there were two key principles that we insisted on: a professionalism in design and production (these being the far-off days of print); and the payment of contributors.  The first was intended again to encourage readers – although I have to admit that most sales of these magazines were through subscriptions, individual and institutional, and only a few bookshops handled copies for the impulse buyer.

James Thin’s on North Bridge was an honourable exception, offering a wide range for what may have been a largely student market. The second criterion was more readily understood: we offered funding not only to support the production of the magazine but also to support the authors; you cannot create a healthy literary culture on the back of volunteer or amateur – I mean in the sense of unpaid – writers. We never used circulation figures as a funding criterion, as compared to content and presentation, but we did expect proper accounts, even of a rudimentary kind. On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, we perhaps should have been proactive in creating some form of central distribution system, perhaps with an existing firm, to strengthen circulation here and elsewhere.

You had a later involvement with the SAC and magazines, I believe?

A minor one. Sometime after I left the SAC committees, in 2004 in fact, Gavin Wallace commissioned Marion Sinclair, who had also previously served on the Literature Committee and is now, of course, Chief Executive of Publishing Scotland, to write a Review of Scottish Publishing. One of our key recommendations was the establishment of a new magazine to promote Scottish writing and publishing along the lines of the very successful Books Ireland that had been going from 1976. That had acted as a very successful ambassador for Irish literary culture, particularly in its overseas distribution through the country’s consulates and embassies. Unfortunately, the British Council was less enthusiastic about a Scottish iteration. Anyway, that was the origin of the Scottish Review of Books in 2004.

(Books in Scotland had already existed up to 1998. It had been founded by Norman Wilson of the Ramsay Head Press in 1976. On his death, his widow Christine took over as editor with the support of his son Conrad. Christine was very generous to a young academic with a large family in both employing me as a reviewer and providing my daughter and sons with lots of mint children’s books – a genre that Books in Scotland did not cover.) Where was I?

The ‘Scottish Review of Books’.

Yes. The magazine was eventually stabilised through its link with the Herald newspaper which distributed it as a supplement to its standard Saturday edition. This was due, I think, to the then links with the Herald of its Editor, the dynamic Alan Taylor. However, it still needed support from the SAC, now Creative Scotland, particularly after the link with the Herald was broken. In 2019, Creative Scotland stopped funding it and it survives now online only. Coincidentally, Books Ireland became online only in 2019 as well but it continues to be supported by the Irish Arts Council. You know, if Scotland were an independent nation like Ireland, then it might lose its…


We’d better stop there. But what about the title you’ve given to this interview?

Oh, the death threat, you ask. I noted earlier that a key criterion for funding was that the magazine had to pay its contributors. We didn’t set the rate but they had to be paid. One of the editors steadfastly refused to do this and we had to withdraw support for his magazine. He then wrote to the sub-committee threatening to kill each of us next time he ran across us. It was a less litigious time and we just ignored him. And of course, it was not the first extreme reaction I’d ever received. In the 1980s, I undertook a review of small poetry presses (basically everyone except Faber and Chatto) for the ACGB [Arts Council of Great Britain] and I had to make some negative recommendations. Well, you’ve never seen vicious vituperation like that of vitriolic versifiers. But that’s for another day…

Thanks. We’ll leave it there then.

(Alistair McCleery interviewed by Alistair McCleery, St Patrick’s Day, 2021)


Alistair McCleery has published much work on the history of the publishing trade as well as on its contemporary prospects. He is the author of over 120 refereed articles and book chapters as well as some 15 books. He has written on Scottish authors from John Buchan to Neil M. Gunn, and on Scottish literary magazines from the 1920s to the 1990s.