David Robb, Auld Campaigner: A Life of Alexander Scott
Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, 2007
220pp., ISBN 1903765388, £35
Reviewed by John Corbett
In 1971, a long-playing record, A Double Scotch, was released by the Irish label, Claddagh. It featured two prominent Scottish poets, almost exact contemporaries, Edwin Morgan and Alexander Scott, reading from their work. The album cover consists of two symmetrically balanced, black-and-white photographs; each poet, suited and bespectacled, is sitting on a park bench, legs crossed, Scott with a trademark cigarette held casually in his right hand. Despite the symmetry of the photographs, the later careers of each man diverged markedly. Then, both poets were also lecturers at Glasgow University: Morgan in the Department of English Literature, while Scott was in the process of taking charge of the first (and still only) Department of Scottish Literature in the world. Today, Emeritus Professor Edwin Morgan, at 87 years of age, is Scotland’s Makar, a national treasure. Alexander Scott, whose inveterate smoking finally took its toll in 1989, has in the words of his biographer fallen ‘victim to the oblivion of history’ (p. xiii). David Robb’s excellent, even-handed biography of Scott’s life and career seeks to rescue Scott from that oblivion and stake out his claim to being not only a poet of substance but also – and perhaps more importantly – an influential cultural activist in the foundational years of the study of Scottish Literature as a separate subject.
Here I must acknowledge a personal interest: I stumbled upon the Department of Scottish Literature as an undergraduate, at perhaps its most difficult time, the late 1970s, discovered a lifelong love of the subject, and consequently have fond memories of Alex Scott as a lecturer and tutor. The profile that arises from David Robb’s pages is indeed a recognisable one, weighing Scott’s personal and artistic limitations against considerable strengths and enduring achievements, not least the Department itself. Robb has been aided by access to Scott’s personal papers and numerous interviews with former colleagues, family and friends – and this, too, has contributed to a rounded portrait of the man, lightened by many telling details, such as his colleague Jack Rillie’s wonderfully accurate description of his lecturing style: ‘he was not orating – more like dictating methodically down a very bad phone line’ (p. 60).
The aspiration to bardic authority is the key to Scott’s careers as poet and academic. It is not an aspiration that was highly valued in literary academia at Glasgow at the time, nor did his highly-crafted, declamatory Scots verse remain fashionable once the historical moment of the post-war Scottish Renaissance had passed by, and the social and artistic experimentations of the 1960s were in full swing. Robb traces the roots of Scott’s cultural activism to his youthful schooldays in Aberdeen, where his solitary inclination found compensation in forming a close-knit set of friends around juvenile literary enterprises – such as the production of home-made comics. Indeed, Scott’s first published work was a science-fiction story for The Hotspur, printed in 1935 when he was 15 years old, and his sentimental affection for this piece was such that he disastrously included it in his list of publications, submitted to Glasgow University’s promotions committee, over 40 years later. Study at Aberdeen University was interrupted by war service. Scott served with distinction, being wounded in the Normandy campaign, then receiving the Military Cross for ‘gallantry and devotion to duty of the highest order’ in an attack on the Reichswald Forest – an event Scott would in later years play down in characteristic sardonic fashion. On his return to complete his studies at Aberdeen, Scott sailed through his English course, achieving a First Class degree, despite having taken his studies rather less seriously than his extra-curricular activities in student dramatic and literary societies. During this period he came under the influence of Matthew P. MacDiarmid, who had started teaching courses in Scottish Literature within the English Department, and he also made a life-long friend of fellow poet, Derrick Thomson.
In Robb’s account, the experience of war, friendship with Thomson, and the discovery of the poetry of ‘Hugh MacDiarmid’ were all instrumental in re-shaping Scott as a poet and a cultural agitator. He was energised by MacDiarmid’s vision of writing a new Scotland into being, through the medium of an ‘aggrandised Scots’ that he began to use to increasing effect. His tribute to Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘The Gallus Makar’ (1947) shows both his skill in his newfound medium and, at the time, his almost messianic adoration of his elder brother in the muse, whom he describes as shifting ‘a haill yearhunder’s wecht/Wi ae yark o his tongue’. By this time married with two young sons, Scott found a lectureship in Edinburgh University, and for a period was an active and central part of the Renaissance literary scene, featuring prominently in a drawing by Gregoire Michonze that was produced for the French Institute in 1948 – an earlier version of Sandy Moffat’s more famous ‘Poet’s Pub’. Robb’s volume reproduces what remains of this drawing, which shows the young Scott seated at MacDiarmid’s right hand in a group that includes Norman MacCaig, Douglas Young and Sorley Maclean.
From Edinburgh, Scott accepted a lectureship in Scottish Literature at Glasgow University, where, since 1909, funds had been donated initially to provide annual lectures in Scottish History and Literature, and then to institute a department. By 1948, the then professor decided that a separate lectureship for Scottish Literature was necessary, and Scott found himself in an apparently desirable but in fact anomalous position – a literature lecturer in a history department. In the event he neither found nor cultivated allies either in Glasgow’s Departments of Scottish History or English Literature, and over the years his nostalgia for his time in Edinburgh and Aberdeen was to intensify. However, an energetic new professor of Scottish History, Archie Duncan, arrived in 1962 and enlisted Scott in a drive to create a separate Department of Scottish Literature, which was duly established in the academic year 1971-2. Robb supplies plenteous details of the trials of its first decade and a half under Scott’s leadership, a time of falling student rolls, clashes of personality, rumours of merger and a minor scandal over the creation of an established chair that saw Scott end his career as a Reader rather than a full Professor. The first holder of the Chair in Scottish Literature at Glasgow University was eventually Douglas Gifford, whose doctoral thesis on James Hogg was supervised by Scott.
Robb provides enough detail about the academic politics of Glasgow University to satisfy the most ardent trivia addict; what relevance or interest does it hold beyond that small circle of us who were there and who can be prompted to recall the heat of half-forgotten battles? The tortuous academic politics are of broader interest to the literary community principally because Glasgow University’s Department of Scottish Literature still occupies a unique position as the only department anywhere fully devoted to the literature of (principally lowland) Scotland. Robb is careful to flesh out the academic position elsewhere in Scotland, and points to important work done by academics in other Scottish universities to promote the subject. Even so, Glasgow was in the position of having to pioneer a full undergraduate curriculum – and a vision – that, in the face of long-held prejudices to the contrary, saw Scottish Literature as an organic and self-sustaining subject, and not as a bundle of Scottish authors and texts that had somehow to be integrated into an Anglo-centric canon. As a student of English and Scottish Literature at Glasgow in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I certainly felt liberated by the transformation in perspective that came from considering literature from the perspective of my own community, its history and concerns. I still especially value the curricular space that allowed me to dwell on, say, the court poets of James VI, the histories of Bellenden, Lindsay and Pitscottie, or the fiction of Margaret Oliphant, all relatively minor writers from an ‘Eng Lit’ perspective, but intricately woven into the complex and challenging tapestry of ‘Scot Lit’.
Scott saw the Glasgow Department of Scottish Literature establishing ‘a precedent, which the other Scottish universities can’t afford to ignore’ (p. 76). That this is true is evident in the growth and maintenance of Scottish literature components in English courses at universities elsewhere, as well as a series of ever more ambitious volumes that aim to tell the distinctive story of literature in Scotland, the most recent being edited by Brown, Clancy, Manning and Pittock (2007). Nevertheless, Scott would no doubt have been discouraged that, 35 years after its inauguration as an academic centre dedicated to the study of Scottish Literature from undergraduate level through postgraduate research, Glasgow’s Department remains so solitary a beacon in the discipline.
Ultimately, Robb strains somewhat to identify Scott’s enduring achievement. He was not a natural university politician, though his reputation for being a ‘thrawn bugger’ and his lack of perceived value as a colleague might on several occasions have saved the Scottish Literature Department from being merged with its larger cousin. His research output was minimal, consisting mainly of a biography of William Soutar, his fellow Renaissance poet, and various editions and anthologies of Scottish verse that erred in the direction of the popular rather than the scholarly. His teaching was workmanlike rather than inspirational; once he had completed a lecture, he apparently considered that it never needed updating. His mature poetry went through two main phases: the MacDiarmid-influenced period of the 1940s in which he produces a number of finely-crafted poems in dense but accessible aggrandised Scots, and, after a period of painful writer’s block, a renewed blossoming in the 1960s, when he produced work in a more satirical and colloquial vein, including series of epigrams, ‘Scotched’, on which his popular fame might ultimately rest, since examples such as ‘Scotch Education’ (‘I tellt ye/I tellt ye’) have passed into the folk repertoire. His most sustained achievement was ‘Heart of Stone’, a fine, long poem on Aberdeen commissioned for a BBC television broadcast in 1965; its gruffly affectionate lines were illustrated by black-and-white photographs by Alan Daiches. His satirical phase was bound up, however, in a suspicion that the ideals that drove his beloved Renaissance were being diluted in voguish experimentalism and what he considered the abandonment of Scottish traditions for Anglo-American substitutes; it is hard, now, for example, to understand the depth of animosity that was aroused in Scott and others of his ilk by Edwin Morgan and Ian Hamilton Finlay’s engagement with concrete poetry and the founding of the journal Scottish International. Scott’s fate, as Robb acknowledges, was to consider himself a torch-bearer for a revived Scottish culture, only to find himself tagged as the representative of a fading old guard, or as he put it himself, ‘The Last of the Mohicans’.
Although Scott would have seen his poetry as his main legacy, Robb makes a strong case for considering Scott’s value as one of the largely unacknowledged activists whose work, often ephemeral and invisible, changes the cultural landscape. This case is built on Scott’s tireless work from the 1940s on in editing small magazines and contributing journalism and reviews to newspapers and to BBC radio, on which he became a kenspeckle voice, if on what was characterised by Tom Leonard as ‘a stuffy programme with old men in it’ (p. 150). Scott’s career as a radio and theatre dramatist in the 1950s is another facet of an extra-university career that strove to build a popular appetite for a distinctive Scottish literary culture. For Robb, this perhaps culminated in Scott’s work in the 1960s and 70s as a consultant for the Scottish Arts Council, which in turn led to his active involvement in the resurgence of affordable publications of Scottish literary texts, and the establishment of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS). Scott served the ASLS as Secretary, then President, and co-edited the first of its long-running annual anthology of original work, New Writing Scotland with James Aitchison in 1983. Among the contributors to this first volume are relative newcomers such as Iain Banks (whose brief biographical notes describe him as completing his first novel, The Wasp Factory), Robert Crawford and David Kinloch, alongside familiar names from Scott’s established literary circle, Derrick Thomson and Maurice Lindsay. Scott’s greatest achievement was perhaps in creating spaces where others could thrive.
Certainly, Scott’s cultural activism did change the landscape for the better. In the late 1970s, when I wished to write an undergraduate essay on James Leslie Mitchell’s Spartacus, Scott had to lend me his own pre-war paperback to read. Critical editions of recent Scottish work were as scarce as hen’s teeth and when I wanted to engage with older texts I had to spend many happy hours with the mouldering leathery Scottish Text Society editions in a corner of Glasgow University Library. Scott campaigned all his life for a cultural environment in Scotland that would treat Scottish literary history and culture seriously on its own terms, and for accessible and popular texts that would introduce readers at home and abroad to the wealth of Scottish fiction, poetry and drama. Robb’s biography is a welcome account of the battles he fought, lost and won.
 David Robb ed., The Collected Poems of Alexander Scott (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1994), p.36.
Brown, Ian, Thomas Clancy, Susan Manning and Murray Pittock (eds), The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, Vols 1-3 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007)
Morgan, Edwin and Alexander Scott A Double Scotch (Dublin: Claddagh Records Ltd, 1971) [http://www.claddaghrecords.com/www/archive.asp]
Robb, David (ed.) The Collected Poems of Alexander Scott (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1994)