Themes in Scottish Literature: A new project

I’m one of those people who wants to know everything. Not in a ‘I’m 21 and actually know all there is about life and you can’t tell me otherwise’ kind of way (trust me, 21 is long gone and I’ve learned that I know nothing about life), just in a ‘I don’t want to be ignorant so I’d better learn everything, absolutely everything’ kind of way. And I’ve been thinking over the past week and I realized that this is what I know about Scottish history:

  • . . .

Yes, that is a blank list.

In general, any history I’ve learned, I’ve done on my own time. I took the mandatory Canadian History in the tenth grade and stopped there; the memorization of names and dates and places bored the heck out of me, not to mention no matter how much I tried or didn’t try, I seemed to get the same less-than-a-B, which was, in my house, equivalent to a fail. Also, my teacher was insane — the essay we had to write explaining why women were unfit for sports pretty much did it for me. That was related to Canadian History how?

When I got to university, I’d already decided that chemistry was the route I was to follow. It wasn’t until I changed to a joint major with English lit that I really noticed that there was a massive gap in my knowledge. I spent a fair bit of time after that switch procrastinating researching the worlds of the authors I studied. However, a joint major at Trent let one get away with fewer required courses and I crammed those requirements into two and a half years (I call my fifth year a half year, as I was working full-time and only taking two courses). Hence, I only covered the bare bones of the English Lit canon. I’d love to go into more detail, but degree requirements from 10 years ago (!) are fuzzy in my mind and looking at Trent’s current requirements only show me that the programme has changed significantly. I started to make a list of things I learned as I raced through my degree, but it turns out to be a long one. In short though, I graduated with a decent understanding of fair amount of England’s history, but that’s it. England. There was a brief discussion of Cromwell and Ireland (very brief: Cromwell popped up in one lecture in my Metaphysical poetry course), and a couple of different courses touched on colonialism/post-colonialism as it related to England.

Somehow, I managed to get this degree without discussing the bulk of the world. No Can Lit, no American Lit and definitely no Scottish Lit, unless you count The Scottish Play.

To top it all off, I’ve never even seen Braveheart, so my cognizance doesn’t even include the Hollywood/Mel Gibson version of this bit of Scottish history. I did see Trainspotting and read a chunk of Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name, but that seems more in keeping with the drug culture in the 90’s than really delving into what made Scotland what it is — although I’m sure I’ll come to how the two relate to each other.

Basically, everything I know about Scotland:

  • it’s north of England
  • it’s part of the UK
  • I met a guy once from Dundee and his accent was quite different from other Scottish accents I’d heard
  • Haggis and Robbie Burns Day
  • I keep picking up books by Scottish authors or that take place in Scotland

It’s this last point that has made me think things over this past week and discover this gap in knowledge (or as they’d say at The Gap, this learning opportunity, ha ha).

So far this year, I’ve read two books by authors who reside[d] in Scotland: Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon and Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory. Both have stuck with me though they were several books back (Fagan’s was the first book I completed in 2014, yet I still am mulling this one over). Both were horrifying in their own right. Both were stark tales of identity, loss, and falling through cracks in society. As I finished The Wasp Factory, I began to wonder what was it about Scotland that produced such grim literature? Was it anything to do with the country where these authors hailed from, or was it more to do with me and my reading choices?

My reading choices. That penultimate definer of personality. Those unfamiliar with my reading habits should note that I alternate serious and/or dark books with fluffy chick lit and the like. Yeah, I’ll admit it. I am right now in the middle of what was meant to be a ‘light’ book. The Girl on the Landing by Paul Torday sounds like it could be the latter. An excerpt from the back cover:

. . . Then, on a visit to friends in Ireland, something appears to trigger a change in Michael’s behaviour. On the way back, Elizabeth tells herself: “There was something different about Michael’. And there is: life with Michael suddenly becomes so much more fun . . . and Elizabeth sees glimpses of a man she could finally fall in love with. . . .

Coupled with this cover:

The edition of Torday's novel that I picked up. Looks innocent, sweet even, yes?
The edition of Torday’s novel that I picked up. What appears red on the screen was actually a spangly pink.

One would think this is a fluffy book, yes?

No.

The characters head north for — you guessed it — Scotland and the themes turn dark. I can only make half-guesses at how things will play out, but at the halfway point of the book, instead of silly fluff and non-thoughts, this story is delving into such concepts as identity of both one’s self and of the ‘strangers beside us’ (I should’ve seen that one coming as the jacket also reads “‘You think you know someone — but you never really do.'”), and societal norms; it’s also flirting with ideas of racism and mental illness. So not fluffy. However, so beautifully written and handled (so far) that I don’t even care that my reading pattern has been disturbed.

I will finish this book before I comment further on it, and before I decide if it fits into my Scottish reading list. According to preliminary research, Torday lived in northern England, near the Scottish border but not over it. So preliminarily (yes, it’s a word), I’m guessing he doesn’t fit into this canon, though I’m sure I can find an excuse to write about his work in the near future.

But I’ve completely digressed. Basically, Scotland keeps popping up, making it glaringly obvious that this country deserves at least a little space in my brain. So my new project is to do some research into the country’s history, come up with a somewhat comprehensive reading list (both classical and contemporary), and then, make sense of it all here, possibly with some input from you, oh invisible reader.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5G1rUewM9o)

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