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From Renaissance to Referendum: Poetry Culture and Politics

Scotland’s national identity has always been intertwined with art, music and most importantly, literature. From the publication of Blind Harry’s The Wallace to September 2014 by Carol Ann Duffy, lyrics of the time have shaped the idea of Scotland and vice versa.

Never was this more true than in the post-war years that came to be known as ‘The Scottish Renaissance’: a time of cultural introspection that drew on ballads and bards of the past to reshape Scotland’s identity and politic, leading inevitably to the referendum of 2014. Poets such as Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Muir came to represent a new Scotland that celebrated its heritage as well as tackling social issues of poverty and the class division.
However was the Scottish Renaissance a long overdue attempt to unearth a cultural past, rich with poetry and song, or was it a politically fierce movement that narrowed Scotland’s outlook on art, music and literature? This is the question that both Corey Gibson and Eleanor Bell addressed in their respective talks at the Scottish Poetry Library on The Scottish Renaissance. The discussions around the Scottish poetry are part of a larger series called From Renaissance to Referendum, Poetry Culture and Politics that, in light of recent events, attempts to answer questions concerning the narrative of Scottish identity.

Eleanor Bell, one of Scotland’s leading scholars in post-war poetry and lecturer at Strathclyde University, came at the question of Scottish nationalism through the pejorative symbol of The Knitted Claymore, and image invoked by Alan Jackson. Bell’s talk focused on exploring the darker side of the Renaissance through the stifling effect it had on independent magazines of the 1960s and 1970s with MacDiarmid held up as the grand operator of what many of the time described as ‘Tartan Toryism’.

Corey Gibson however approached the topic from a completely different direction; his focus was not on the Renaissance’s larger political effect but rather a narrow but wonderful exploration of Scottish anonymous folk tradition. The culture surrounding Scottish folksongs and ballads is addressed through the incredibly important work of Hamish Henderson, who was an instrumental figure in the folk revival of the time. Although Gibson’s premise was small, the message espoused the organic purist nature of ‘anon.’ poetry. Following on from Bell’s attack on the likes of MacDiarmid, Gibson argued that, during a time of politically charged sparring between artists, academics and writers, Hamish Henderson looked not to shape a Scottish identity but to revel in the collective voice of Scotland’s past; a voice housed in the united front of the anonymous.

Both explorations of Scottish identity in the 1960s and 1970s were thought-provoking in content and light-hearted in presentation, Bell and Gibson had no trouble in holding the audience’s attention throughout their talks, as well as in the Q&A afterwards.

Image: Wikipedia/Okonski

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