Saturday, March 15, 2008


When I was studying Literature at Lenox School and later at the University of Mississippi, I questioned my professors why the works of Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Boswell, John Buchan, James Barrie and Sir Walter Scott among many others were classified under English Literature? They hemmed and hawed and stammered out something about the common language. But, how about the obvious cultural differences and, for example, the unique Burnsian lowland Scots dialect? There was never a definitive answer which didn’t help the inquisitive nature of a young confused and later disgusted student.

Fast forward. I now have the works of many of these Scottish authors in my library and indeed one of my most precious possessions is the complete of works of Robert Burns gifted to me by my Mother several years before her passing.

Then, most recently the US Library of Congress moved to reclassify ‘Scottish Literature’ as a subsection of ‘English Literature’ in what appeared to be an attempted, unashamed coup of English imperialists to further subjugate and dominate their remaining possessions that include Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. With their announcement, all Hell broke loose!

Holyrood, the seat of Scottish Government and Scottish literati in the person of Glasgow's Poet Laureate and playwright Liz Lochhead called the decision a ‘huge piece of cultural imperialism’ and an attempt to further neutralize the cultural identity of Scotland. Scottish author Ian Rankin, one of the best-selling crime writers in the United Kingdom (such as it is) noted that the decision of the Library of Congress failed, “to take into account the cultural differences between the countries that comprise the United Kingdom.”

Many English sided with the US Library of Congress on the other side of this issue by throwing further fuel on the fire questioning why the “study of Scottish literature” is an issue in our globalized world? In Why Scottish Literature Matters in 2006 Carla Sassi of the Edinburgh Saltire Society and Associate Professor of English at the University of Verona notes that the question is certainly relevant to Scots, and especially to those expatriates that comprise the Scottish Diaspora.

Sassi even speculated that many Scottish writers, consciously or unwittingly, may have challenged their cultural models by marginalizing their native culture and language(s) within Great Britain. Indeed, some Scottish intellectuals (suck ups to many) were eager to erase traces of Scots from their written works in order to achieve parity and harmony with their new English overlords. I will forever maintain, however, that especially with the works of 18th century luminaries such as the Ploughman Poet, that concession was never made.

So why did so many British/English Nationalists revel at the intellectually bereft and absurd decision of the US Library of Congress to catalogue all Scots writers as English? In an age where a not too benevolent England has already lost Pakistan, India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, and with the continuing devolution in Wales and especially Scotland, they realize that they are nearing the end of their United Kingdom. While it also may be politically incorrect to draw attention to the fact that the English also lost the United States of America, I do so enthusiastically.

The by now mostly desperate Unionists (their numbers are dwindling) are willing to gleefully concede that the solution would be to catalogue all such works of literature as, “British.” They would have you believe that since, “We’re living in a globalized mass-media age, with most of our popular culture being dictated to us anyway from across the Atlantic and with all of us now part a truly multi-ethnic and cultural United Kingdom - is it really still that important which part of our nation an author or poet has been born in? Is it even possible any longer to differentiate most of British contemporary writing between "Scottish" or "English" literature, "Northern Irish" or "Welsh" poetry?”

The answer to this incredibly arrogant, ethnocentric question is a resounding, “Aye.”

As one Edinburgh blogger recently wrote, “The difficulty, then, is that books written in English by Scottish writers are still Scottish books. The books and their authors (regrettably) are British books and authors. The one thing they are not is English books and authors: in English, but not English, especially when they register cultural particularity (if not even cultural difference or resistance). The situation emphasises, I think, the cultural pen into which Scottish nationalism was corralled when its political outlet was plugged. Cultural distinctiveness was the most available conduit for the exploration and performance of Scottish identity. Quantifying and classifying it, however, is quite a thorny issue.” Here, here! Well stated.

While all the above is a pretty right on synthesis of the whole conundrum, I am sure that some Scots, Welsh and Irish would not even take kindly to being called “British” which initially was just a geographical reference to the island of Great Britain that devolved to a political reference to the union of England, Scotland and Wales. To continue the use of this term would mean a continuation of the English heel and imposition of a foreign culture and a concession to cultural homogenization even as the clock of devolution and sure emancipation edges even closer.

So, now comes the US Library of Congress with hat in hand realizing that the controversy they created is more than a tempest in a teapot and reversed their decision to reclassify Scots authors and their works as English.

Scottish Culture Minister Linda Fabiani welcomed the reversal. "I am delighted that the Library of Congress has listened to our concerns and recognized the distinctive nature of Scottish literature," she said. "I am sure this will help those exploring the wealth and wonders of Scottish literature while properly acknowledging our nation's great contribution over the years and the success of modern day writers."

The British Library’s Director of Scholarship and Collections, Ronald Milne said that the move reflected "Scotland's long literary tradition and the significance of its literary canon" and strongly supported the decision to return to classifying Scottish literature as a separate category.

I just scratch my head and wonder why something like this was formulated by our ain folk at the Library of Congress. Remember, we pay their salaries.

I could not sum up my perspective on this issue any better than, “The sheer variety of Scotland itself, with its contrasting landscapes, racial mix, and its three distinct languages have always underpinned this creative vigour. By any standards the literary heritage of Scotland is amazingly rich and diverse.”

And I might add the culture of Scotland is demonstrably different from her neighbors and with her magnanimous hospitality remains to this day, unique. Let us continue to recognize and celebrate that rich culture and her peoples from a separate and distinct perspective.


Ned Buxton

1 comment:

Cailleach Beira said...

Hey, great blog!

I'm a Scot who definitely classes English and Scottish as different and i would hate for Scottish literature to be referred to as English literature - British isn't as bad, but ENGLISH!! ha ha ha!!

I'm by no means a fanatical nationalist, but i also am not embarrassed to be a patriotic nationalist, one can be a nationalist whilst still appreciating the fact that Scotland is part of the UK.