In defence of the pedigree of nations;Comment;Opinion

5th January 1996 at 00:00
I suppose that in some ways we should be grateful to Tino Ferri (TESS, December 8) for highlighting the dilemma of choice following the introduction of prescribed texts to the revised Higher English examination for, within this context, the term English literature is inappropriate. English literature in the correct sense surely means that body of work created by Englishmen or Englishwomen which is an indisputably great and glorious literature that we Scots can have immediate access to, due to a common language and shared cultural values. And of course it should enrich the lives of the rising generation throughout our schools.

The likes of Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens deserve their place, yet whatever their genius or importance, they are not Scottish. As English is a major world language employed in a galaxy of discrete communities, and developed within diverse cultural settings, literature in English now has a meaning substantially different from, and independent of, the clearly differentiated inheritance specific to England alone.

Writers of first rank such as Whitman in the United States (whose poetry did so much to forge a sense of national awareness there); Yeats and Synge in Ireland; the novelists Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri from Nigeria; or the fine Australian poet Les Murray, all have English as their literary medium, but they could never be thought of as English writers. They belong to their own countries, having adapted the language to their own particular needs. For Mr Ferri to lay claim to such writers as English is arrogant cultural imperialism.

We Scots are lucky: we live in a country with a rich linguistic background. The untold resources of three distinct and vibrant languages are available to us. In addition to English, a relative newcomer, we have the proud and indigenous tongues of Gaelic and Scots. Gaelic was without doubt the ancient language of the Scottish kingdom, and Scots, which is now the linguistic inheritance of the majority of our people, was at one time the state language of a fully independent nation.

In Scotland, therefore, we are the inheritors of a fine literary tradition dating back many centuries. I am amazed that Mr Ferri should even challenge the assumption that texts written by Scottish authors are more relevant to Scottish students than those written by non-Scots.

As an identifiable community which has gone through that common set of experiences we call our history, we are bound to feel greater identification with the work of our compatriots than with that of writers at a greater remove. Colin Nicholson put it succintly in his introduction to Poem, Purpose, and Place-Shaping Identity in Contemporary Scottish Verse published in 1992. "If contemporary Scottish writing is not a natural curriculum component in our schools and universities then critical enquiry into what might constitute either a nationhood or personal identity is correspondingly impoverished. It is because literature is our way of speaking to each other within and across time, that looking into it helps us to look into ourselves." William Power, the doyen of 20th-century Scottish Renaissance critics, anticipated the truth of this attitude some 60 years earlier when commenting on "The essential, the European Scotland . . . the Scotland that is a product of authentic spiritual and intellectual processes of geographical position, of soil and climate, and scenery." This, I hope, would be the natural state of affairs of the educational system of any civilised society.

Unlike Mr Ferri we should not be applauding the absence of the Breton language from schools in Brittany, rather we should be doing the reverse: condemning and deploring a contemptible policy of deracination. Perhaps Mr Ferri has unwittingly raised points of legitimate concern which contradict his argument instead of supporting it. The Scots language has often, although inaccurately, been viewed as an aberrant form of English and as it has not been taught in the schools as a separate linguistic system, students have not been given a model of what constitutes good Scots.

Thanks to the splendid efforts of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum this attitude is changing and Scots is now to be accorded its rightful place in our educational system. Although this will be a significant step it will not be wholly satisfactory because an otherwise different subject will remain under the general aegis of English. When we move onto the broader ground of Scottish literature confusion continues as it still falls within the false compass of Higher English. I assume that the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, a body of distinguished academics, and an organisation far removed from the pressure group of Tino Ferri's imagination, ultimately aspires towards rectifying this anomaly.

Neil MacCallum is a poet, critic and editor of Lallans, the magazine for writing in Scots.

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