The lost writers of Scotland

No other country would consider allowing its schools to drop all native authors from the list of set texts, says Jean Anderson

WHAT well known band of tinkerers have been busy again, bringing their skills to bear on Higher Still English. The compulsory Scottish text has been quietly buried, without even a lone piper to play a dirge over it. Why? Is it because the exam authorities do not think it is important to ensure that Scottish literature is taught to examination standard?

Does the fact that so many English teachers know more about American, French and English writers than they do about those of their native land have something to do with it? Could it be that examiners have contracted a kind of literary jaundice from reading too many essays on Sunset Song and The Cone-gatherers?

The study units produced for pupils studying both of these novels are a shining example of how to reduce a great literature to a pedestrian level and could probably be the reason why so many students think that Scottish literature is "boring rubbish". Because pupils know that a Scottish text is studied compulsorily, they think of it in the same light as a dose of unpleasant medicine that you must take for your own good.

No other country would even consider this as an option: we cannot leave the teaching of Scots literature to the whims of teachers and individual departments. It has to remain a compulsory course element - not an option. It should remain an examinable subject.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was sneered at for daring to say that Disney was a bad influence on young people. Yet look at what the Disney studios have done to great literary creations: Quasimodo has become a loveable little pet; Pocahontas was a "babe".

And what about characters from Scottish literature? Long John Silver, the villain from one of the world's greatest adventure stories, has been turned into a loveable rogue overacted by Robert Newton. Even Captain Hook, the terror of Barrie's Peter Pan, has been given likeable traits.

How many children have read Peter Pan or heard of J M Barrie? Worst of all, Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe has been synonymous with a third-rate English actor, Roger Moore, via a truly awful television series which, hopefully, the present generation will never see.

I have heard Scots teachers of English saying the Scots classics are too difficult to teach to pupils brought up on the quick fix of television. Should we abandon everything that is difficult to teach then?

There are modern Scots writers as well as Grassic Gibbon and Robin Jenkins - Irvine Welsh, Ian Banks, Liz Lochhead, Christopher Brookmyre, William McIlvanney, an almost endless list of "new" Scots writers and a bit further back George Douglas Brown, George Friel, Compton Mackenzie and Eric Linklater, who will disappear (some of them have almost done so already) if they are not made part of the literature component.

Iain Crichton Smith and Norman McCaig will become as lost to future generations as John Galt is to the present; Hugh MacDiarmid will continue to be better known and respected in foreign lands than he is in his own, and Burns will be accorded the same status as Oor Wullie and the Broons.

I know the high heid yins who decide these things will not change their minds on my say-so. After all you must be pretty strong-minded to decide that there is no need for Scots pupils to be taught the literature of their country, unless the teacher feels like teaching it. teachers should not abandon this important part of our culture so lightly.

Jean Anderson was a secondary English teacher.

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