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: A Can of Worms and Chapman

Joy Hendry looks back on the long, storied and combative history of Chapman, ‘Scotland’s Quality Literary Magazine’


Portrait of Joy Hendry by Alasdair Gray (2002)

The Scottish literary scene in 1970 was a veritable minefield: embattled, embittered by decades, if not centuries of neglect, distortion and misrepresentation and ignorance. Aspiring practitioners or scholars of literature like myself at the time, aged seventeen, could not be blamed for not even being aware of its existence, due to its absence from the curricula in education at every level. In terms of public recognition and funding, it was similarly invisible, deemed unnecessary, or a low priority in bodies like Arts Councils and universities.

Chapman began that year as The Chapman, a tiny, eight-page demi-quarto affair, the central impulse being simply to provide publication for poets (initially) in a scenario where much of quality was being written, for outlets very few. In no time, however, the combativeness of the scene and the struggle for scarce resources led to an editorial desire for controversy and ‘stirring it up’, especially when the founding editors had their application for Scottish Arts Council funding roundly rejected. The rude remarks made about other more fortunate magazines, and ‘established’ literary figures in The Chapman no 6 editorial, still make entertaining reading. (Straight intae the fechtin, almost…)

George Hardie, Hamilton-based poet, was the founder, and he teamed up with local poet Walter Perrie, whom I met in my second term at Edinburgh University, where we were both studying. He looked at my poetry and promised to publish two of my poems in the next issue. Eighteen months later, I found myself joint-editor of a literary magazine, aged only nineteen, though initially editorial policy came primarily from Walter. He wanted to place the magazine in the European and international mainstream, à la Pound, Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, and with a commitment to intellectualism and new ideas. From that lofty perspective, he tended to devalue current writing in Scotland. There was a firm commitment to quality in writing, giving airtime to new voices, including those espousing unfashionable and unpopular ideas, and to ‘speaking out’ about important cultural matters. We both wanted to avoid the destructive in-fighting going on in some of the magazines, and regretted the feuding between dominant personalities of the time. From the first, we sought out areas and authors suffering neglect or marginalisation. It’s hard to believe, now, that Sorley MacLean came into that category, as did Tom Scott and others.

The smaller the duck-pond, the fiercer the fight among the ducks, it seems. From a UK perspective, Scottish literature barely existed, and its individual cultural mores were misunderstood, perhaps wilfully – this despite its astonishing fecundity over centuries. We were young newcomers on the scene, but it became quickly evident that ‘the establishment’ (UK and Scottish) favoured endeavour in English only, and that both Gaelic and Scots suffered as a result. There was a strong and distinct bias against nationalism, which was almost treated with intellectual contempt. (Socialist ideas and postures were more acceptable, especially Internationalist, though Hugh MacDiarmid remained largely beyond the pale in university literature departments into the 1970s.)

Cartoon by Gerry Mangan from Chapman No. 66 – ‘of sundry bods failing to live up to N MacCaig’s expectations’ (1987)

As Scots, we’ve always been more than keen on vicious feuding, fechtin, flyting of a terrifyingly ferocious kind, and, the duck pond being a small one, this happened big time. Individuals even of ‘the native species’, once secured in a position of power or influence, had a grim proclivity to use that to marginalise any rivals. As editors of Chapman, we were keen to promote precisely those writers whose work was being marginalised, though the magazine itself suffered as a result, its grant being withdrawn in 1977 on grounds of poor literary quality. When we’d just been publishing Tom Scott, Sorley MacLean (and others more favoured too)?  Both Scott and MacLean had powerful enemies, and both had hardly been published or featured on the BBC for years.

By 1975, I had begun to get my bearings in this duckpond, and was exercising more editorial muscle, making the magazine much more centrally Scottish. We published one issue on the wonderful Rainer Maria Rilke, but when I began work on a second, mostly already commissioned, and with a third in view, I stopped dead, thinking: Why are we doing this?– and changed direction, though not entirely abandoning the magazine’s original aims and ideals. I became sole editor and redirected the magazine to prioritising Scotland – not as any backward-looking restoration, but so that the sheer quality and range of Scottish literature in English, Scots and Gaelic achieved better promotion and exposure. Inevitably that involved politics, though with a non-partisan small ‘p’.

A key moment in this process came in 1975, when we visited Sorley MacLean in Braes, on a crazy impulse arising late one evening in Sandy Bell’s, and travelled overnight to Skye, arriving drookitly on his doorstep unannounced – three of us, dishevelled toe-rags, with two dogs – to an immediate welcome. At the time he was writing his long poem, ‘Uamha ’n Oir’, the first two parts of which had already been published in English magazines. Starting off to tout for the third part, I was horrified to find out that Sorley had no expectation that any part of this poem would see publication in Gaelic, given the setup then. I immediately committed to publishing all parts written to that date, three in all, in Gaelic only, which I did (Chapman 15). Earlier that year, because of our collaborations with magazines and writers south of the border, Chapman was able to ensure Sorley’s appearance at the first Cambridge Poetry Festival, where had had made an enormous impact.

The Scottish magazine scene, in parallel, was similarly fractious and war-torn, with some though not all of the main protagonists slugging it out in their pages. Over the course of the twentieth century, some very fine magazines had come and gone: The Voice of Scotland (1938-61), Scottish Art and Letters (1944-50) and others too numerous to list here. In the 1970s, there were nine in hot competition for the limited funding: a long-running magazine in Gaelic (Gairm) since 1952, Lines Review also founded around then, published by Callum Macdonald and edited by a series of hands (1954-98), New Edinburgh Review (various editors, 1969-84), and Akros (Duncan Glen) appeared in 1965, running until 1983. Beginning around the same time as Chapman were Scotia Review (1972-1999, initially Scotia 1970-72), very much nationalist in thrust, edited by David Morrison, Lallans, devoted to Scots language (1973-) and Tocher, from the School of Scottish studies (1971-2009).

We were very much the upstarts, being the youngest editors by quite a long way. There was a Trojan horse at the time, the magazine Scottish International, founded by the Scottish Arts Council itself in 1968, edited for most of its run by Bob Tait, regarded by some as a favoured child of the Scottish establishment and in receipt of as much funding, just about, as the rest of us put together. The scene throbbed with suspicion and distrust. That SI did good and worthwhile work over its duration is beyond doubt, but it was generally felt that its stance was ‘anti-nationalist’ and the sheer disparity in the funding levels seemed deeply unfair. The very good, strongly nationalist magazine Catalyst (1967-74), similar in range of content, had been refused any funding from SAC and it was felt this could only be because of its political stance. Since most of the editors were nationalist, to differing degrees, this left people feeling wary and insecure.

Some of these were in outright war with each other; but almost all felt embattled and suspicious, guarding what little funding they had as best they could. To some extent at least, Walter and I were brought into the fold by SAC Literature Director, Trevor Royle, who became a close friend and, insofar as he could, supporter. Weary of the feuding, Trevor and Walter dreamed up a magazine association (SCAMP – Scottish Association of Magazine Publishers) which brought all the editors together in an attempt to maximise distribution. Before long we became friends and collaborators, organising events, holding regular meetings and employing magazine reps. Sadly, perhaps, the only thing that really worked, distribution-wise, was yours truly trudging round universities, trawling pubs, selling hand to hand. My record in one day was 144, sold at The East Kilbride Mod in 1976. Walter and I tried hard to foster a quasi trade-union mentality amongst editors, with at least some success, and there’s a hangover from that amongst editors working today. An abortive attempt to revive SCAMP was made by Gavin Wallace and myself in the early 2000s, but it didn’t (and couldn’t) work.

In editing Chapman, I didn’t allow feuding or gratuitous nastiness in its pages. While quite prepared to champion one writer to the chagrin, perhaps, of another, I did so for literary reasons and managed, over time, to ensure that both ‘parties’ appeared in its pages. At no time did I allow anybody, or any body, to dictate who or what I should publish, though I was open to ideas from everywhere and learned what I needed to learn from wherever I could.

Thanks to benign and careful manipulation, especially from SAC directors Trevor Royle and Walter Cairns who argued tirelessly for more support for literature, the whole literary scene in Scotland became much more harmonious and well catered-for, with everyone involved – writers, publishers and the rest – feeling that we were working towards common goals to the benefit of Scotland as a whole. Indeed some, myself included, now lament the lack of a good centrally disputatious issue, because things are maybe just a bit too cushy and ‘dumbed down’. I always tried to be even-handed, making literary quality, insofar as my judgement allows, my principle criterion; losing friends from turning down their work and publishing people with whom I was not exactly ‘at one’. I even published work I found personally abhorrent or distasteful in some way, because it had some quality or other I thought important.

From issue to issue, I would look out for some area that needed exploring, or radical change, and often devote an entire issue to discussion of that area of Scottish life; Scots: the Language and Literature (No. 23-4, 1979) looked at the language across the boards and tried to adumbrate what action in each aspect was needed to better its status and condition; Woven by Women (No. 27-8, 1980) was the first ever attempt in Scotland to open Pandora’s Box and look at the contribution of women to culture in the twentieth century. Another important issue was No. 35-6, The State of Scotland: A Predicament for the Scottish Writer? (1983) in which writers aired views about Scottish identity, its pros and cons, from all the political airts and perspectives (that caused a storm). And the Theatre Issue (No. 43-4) provoked a major re-think of the whole theatrical scene, pointing to the absolute necessity of giving more support to ‘the native industry’. The National Theatre we now have grew uninterruptedly, though not without huge difficulty, out of that issue, and both the magazine and I were heavily involved in the process right along the line.

Chapman of course had its critics, and its detractors, some of whom tried to accuse it of unthinking Tartanry, or ‘narrow nationalism’, neither of which charge sticks at all. One of the things I most value in hindsight is serving on the committee, headed by Professor Sir Robert Grieve, which produced A Claim of Right for Scotland (1988), which lead directly to the Scottish Constitutional Convention and the Holyrood Parliament. I find it amusing, and quietly satisfying, to observe writers gradually adopting positions which they had previously criticised the magazine for espousing, for example, realising the potentials of Scots language, which they declared had no future. And many swung away from looking primarily to influences from south of the border or across the Atlantic to realise for themselves the sheer amazing originality, fertility, and creativity that has emerged from Scotland over the centuries. Now, it is no longer deeply un-cool and backward-looking to be Scottish, but something to exploit and enjoy. At no time did I completely ditch the policy to publish international work, but, having realised in those early years just how much had to be done to build a deserving cultural framework here, it simply made no sense to do anything other than consider, as priority, the needs of Scotland and its writers. From about 1995 onwards, as huge progress was made, I felt able increasingly to publish work from all over the world.

And what of being a woman in that very male world (especially up until about 1980)? I think I am the first solo woman editor of a magazine, certainly a literary magazine, in Scotland. It’s been my great fortune to know and work with so many of the mainly male writers of the Scottish Literary Renaissance. I never felt, or was made to feel, in awe of any of them, though one or two gave me rather less regard than I might be due because I am a woman, and at first such a young woman. Without any self-consciousness at all, I approached even Hugh MacDiarmid as someone I could interact with on equal terms. I spent wonderful evenings with Norman MacCaig, Hamish Henderson, Iain Crichton Smith, Tom Scott, Alasdair Gray (who provided our covers for years) and many others; and those I didn’t meet so often were hugely supportive and always happy to write for me: Edwin Morgan, George Mackay Brown and many others. I missed knowing Helen B Cruickshank, which I deeply regret, but became very friendly with Jessie Kesson and Naomi Mitchison, both of whom I published regularly.

I would say that most (not all), like MacCaig, Crichton Smith, Hamish Henderson and others, appreciated me more for doing what I had done, because I was a woman. I used the magazine to encourage and support as many women as I reasonably could. However I am certain that both Chapman and I suffered in being unthinkingly passed over for many benefits and ‘official’ opportunities (in respect of status and reputation) due to two factors, one being my gender, and the other that Chapman operated independently from any officially-recognised institution. Being the particular age I am, I luckily ‘caught’ that older generation in a crucial cross-over period from neglect to recognition, but I notice women even ten years younger have a self-confidence which was systematically knocked out of the age-group I was born into. Looking back, I am narked, feeling I could in fact have done quite a lot more. In 1980, it was still possible for an established Scottish male poet to remark, when I probed him during researches for the Woven by Women issue: ‘Scottish women poets? You mean there are any!’ Nobody could ever say that now.

I think there were in fact advantages in my being female in this very male world, simply because I didn’t have to cope with having a ‘male ego’ myself, and could look dispassionately, sometimes even amusedly, at the trouble caused by the inter-tussling of the men, and see it clearly for what it was. Chapman has never been a vehicle for my ego, but a means to get certain things achieved in Scotland. I’m trying, nearing 70 now, finally to pay some attention to my own ego and personal needs – though finding it more difficult than one might expect to switch focus. But I am gratified that both Chapman as a magazine and I as an individual have played a significant role in the journey towards the devolved, thriving and much more robust Scotland we now enjoy.


Joy Hendry is a poet and editor based in Edinburgh. In 2019 she was honoured by the Saltire Society as one of the ‘Outstanding Women of Scotland’. In 2020 she became the inaugural winner of the Scottish Poetry Library’s Outstanding Contribution to Poetry in Scotland Award.

‘Mind that Magazine?’ Event 2 Digest

The public launch of the network was held 12 May 2021, as an audience of 40 scholars, students and former editors gathered (online) to ‘Mind that Magazine’.

We began with two special guests: Peter Kravitz and Glenda Norquay reflecting on the overlapping worlds of Edinburgh Review and Cencrastus in the 1980s.

Both talks were hugely useful in mapping out the various connections — social, practical, institutional — which defined the world of these magazines, and included some wonderful anecdotes and challenging questions.

An audio recording of these opening talks can be found below, or on Apple Podcasts.

 

We didn’t record the wide-ranging discussion that followed, but we’ve picked out a number of themes and highlights (based on the excellent notes of Alice Piotrowska). We’ll be pursuing several of these questions further as we move toward our next event, on possibilities for digitisation, and the edited book project.


Magazines as organisations that work together and form relationships. Talking about his experience in the early years of Radical Scotland, Graeme Purves mentioned the challenges of working as a small, idealistic and determined ‘editorial collective’: a model that is difficult to sustain in the long run. Glenda Norquay agreed, noting parallels with Cencrastus.

Why should this Edinburgh sandwich shop be a major fixture of literary tourism? Listen to the podcast to find out…

Distribution: Glenda Norquay mentioned her interest in the practicalities of magazine distribution. For instance, Edinburgh Review was operating within a fairly professional publishing set-up as part of Polygon/Edinburgh University Student Publications Board, but she also recalls people packing magazines (such as Cencrastus) into cars and driving them around Scotland themselves. Getting magazines into shops was a major challenge, and she is interested to know more about how other people did it.

SCAMP: Joy Hendry (Chapman) agreed that distribution was a major and perennial challenge, partly addressed through the formation of SCAMP (Scottish Association of Magazine Publishers) in 1973, at the urging of Trevor Royle and Walter Perrie. [Modestly funded by the Scottish Arts Council until 1976, SCAMP was a co-operative marketing/distribution scheme and selling agency intended to professionalise Scottish periodical publishing.] The situation did not really improve throughout the 1980s and 90s, and Joy would still be packing copies into her car and selling them directly in pubs, sometimes with the help of volunteers. (See also Joy’s blog on Chapman.)

From a December 1980 issue of ‘Student’ discussing developments at the Edinburgh University Student Publications Board (including the recent launch of Polygon). Full issue here.

Digitisation and research: Graeme Hawley (NLS) asked about the research questions people would like digitisation to open up for them. What is not currently possible, as a research question or method, that could be pursued through digitisation?  (Technology can do a lot of things, but it’s the research questions that will drive its use.) Scott Hames agreed this is an important discussion to begin, and that it is important to consider the new kinds of research/use digitisation would enable, rather than viewing it simply as a repository.

Glenda Norquay suggested that digitising magazines could help produce a ‘map’ of contributors who overlapped across different magazines – i.e. who was writing for which magazines? Graeme Purves mentioned that he is currently exploring related questions, and that there are a lot of names that crop up across magazines (such as Alastair McIntosh and Rob Gibson in Reforesting Scotland.) Once you start mapping those names, you pick up many connections.

Graeme Macdonald wrote in the chat that ‘digitisation would be great not only for research purposes but especially for research students geographically unable to immediately access Scottish university holdings (which by themselves are still pretty patchy), but also for use in general undergraduate teaching.’

Editorial freedom: Joy Hendry mentioned that being a ‘solo operator,’ while challenging on an administrative and financial level, meant that she could follow her own vision. She felt that she had a lot of editorial freedom to publish what she wanted, and it allowed her to do her ‘job’ as an editor – creating a ‘democratic’ outlet for varied voices but also realising her vision for the magazine, as she ‘knew where she was going’ and what she wanted to achieve. She cited Patricia Oxley of Acumen saying that editing a magazine is like ‘educating yourself in public.’

Allegiance to different magazines: Glenda Norquay said that she was particularly interested in people’s reading habits at the time – for example, did people read all magazines, or did they choose one or two outlets (e.g., would you be an ‘Edinburgh Review person’)? Murdo Macdonald remembers reading everything – although there was an element of competition, it was within ‘an overall sense of cooperation’ among magazine editors, with a lot of cross-interest. Similarly, Ray Burnett (Calgacus) said that he read ‘everything that he could get his hands on,’ including Chapman, Radical Scotland, and Akros.

Women in magazine publishing: Joy Hendry noted that Scottish literature was very much a male world in the 1970s and 80s, and that the inspiration driving Chapman would come from mostly male authors/connections. She mentioned trying to find a bridge between the ‘two worlds’ as a feminist editor working with male writers. (Jenny Turner’s blog is relevant here, and so too Glenda Norquay’s comments during this event – see recording above.)


‘Underlying social fabric’:
Rory Scothorne mentioned his interest in the social life/communities that gathered around the literary magazines – were there particular pubs, cafes, or bookshops that were important to the magazine scene? A few mentioned by the participants: Sandy Bell’s, Proctors and various Rose Street bars in Edinburgh, Star Club and the Scotia Bar in Glasgow, St Katherine’s Club in Aberdeen. Graeme Purves noted that the working world of Radical Scotland was very much centred around small pubs. Joy Hendry mentioned that she would distribute Chapman around pubs and universities in Scotland.


We hope to make an ‘audio scrapbook’ podcast from people’s memories of these magazines, so if you have a story or anecdote you’d be willing to share, please do get in touch on scotmagsnet@gmail.com. There will be a few other ‘Magazine Memory’ blogs appearing over the coming months.

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.