A welcome new chapter in our approach to literature

18th January 2013 at 00:00
It is right that today's pupils should be encouraged to turn the pages of some classic Scottish texts

I once had the privilege of teaching a pupil who could recite Tam o' Shanter without any notes. The recital, of all the poem's 224 lines, took 17 minutes and would be a quite brilliant rendition with excellent pronunciation and comic gestures. The verses of what is one of the masterpieces of Scottish literature never failed to provoke delight and laughter.

I don't know of any other piece of literature that can achieve that sort of response from pupils. Certainly, Shakespeare offers quite brilliant plays, but many pupils find his style and ideas difficult to comprehend and appreciate.

Pride and Prejudice, arguably the most popular novel studied south of the border, offers useful lessons on story structure and text composition, but has a storyline that avoids important social issues and has been criticised as "chick lit".

There is a real Englishness to English literature, just as there is a clear Scottishness to Scottish literature. And while English literature is much more than love, social status and crowds of daffodils, Scottish literature offers more wide-ranging and relevant themes, a clearer moral purpose and a greater appreciation of reality.

Sir Walter Scott was a key figure in the development of the novel, with popular works that provided great narratives and, at the same time, addressed issues such as how societies change over time.

Thomas Carlyle helped to popularise prose writing, while James Boswell showed the world how to write a biography. Robert Burns may be our national poet, but he is also an international figure whose work has been translated into many languages. American John Steinbeck demonstrated his respect for Burns by taking the title Of Mice and Men from one of the bard's poems.

Robert Louis Stevenson and many other Scottish writers are responsible for some of literature's most distinguished novels and most enduring characters.

Scotland has produced world-famous writers and a literary heritage that other countries can only envy. Criticism of the move to introduce a compulsory question on Scottish literature in the Higher English exam on the basis that Scottish texts aren't significant enough doesn't hold up.

Indeed, the absence of a mandatory question on Scottish literature has had the effect of reducing the status of Scottish novelists and discouraging many pupils from reading the literature of their own country.

A higher profile for Scottish literature in our schools, including a mandatory question in Higher English, is a positive move and can only lead to a greater appreciation of our literary heritage and provide an inspiration for future writers and poets.

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