Literary Scotland on the independence vote

Salmond says Burns would vote Yes, but living writers are not all on the same page


Scotland’s best known literary icon, the poet Robert Burns, would vote for independence in this week’s referendum, according to Alex Salmond, the nation’s First Minister. As the leader of the Yes campaign, Salmond is hardly impartial but he may well be right. Burns’s famous line that Scotland “was bought and sold for English gold” comes from his song about the union of the parliaments in 1707, with its suggestive title Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation.

Dead literary greats don’t get a vote in the upcoming referendum, however, unlike the country’s living authors who have vocalised their support for either side at various stages throughout the campaign. Never one to shrink from an opinion, Irvine Welsh has used his Twitter profile to announce his support for the Yes side. Urging his followers to find information from websites as opposed to traditional media, the Trainspotting author tells younger fans to talk to their friends and ignore advice from anyone over the age of 25, which presumably includes himself.

The novelist and playwright Alan Bissett has also used Twitter to get his views across, tweeting that he thinks the Yes side deserves to win but “if we lose, we lose proudly and with no shame”.

Writing in the Guardian, the crime author Val McDermid says she was a “mibbe” for a long time, uncertain about issues such as currency, devo max and the Trident nuclear weapons programme. McDermid eventually based her Yes decision on the improvements Scotland has made for its people since receiving limited powers: “I prefer what we’ve done north of the border – free prescriptions, no student tuition fees, social care for elderly people. So, with a degree of trepidation, I’m going to nail my colours to the mast of aspiration and vote ‘Yes’.”

The No side counts high-profile literary figures such as JK Rowling among its supporters. The author donated £1 million in June to its Better Together campaign, fronted by her neighbour Alistair Darling. Rowling was recently attacked online following a blog posting where she compared extreme nationalists to Death Eaters, supporters of the evil Voldemort in her Harry Potter series.

Other writers have changed their mind as the referendum date draws closer. Having joined the Yes camp four months ago, the author Ewan Morrison recently switched sides because he felt the pro-independence campaign lacked a “revolutionary and inclusive debate”. In a posting on the Wake Up Scotland blog, the acclaimed author sets out his reasons: “I realised there was absolutely no debate within the Yes camp. The focus was instead on attacking the enemy and creating an impenetrable shell to protect the unquestionable entity.”

Morrison won the Scottish Book of the Year Fiction Prize for his novel Close Your Eyes last year. The author of six books, he is also an award-winning screenwriter who has been nominated for three Baftas. According to the Scotsman news site, reaction to his posting has been largely positive.

Born and living in London, the British author James Meek isn’t eligible to vote in the referendum but if he could, he would be pro-independence. Meek grew up in Dundee and says that self-determination as opposed to nationalism is at the root of his decision. In a recent article in the London Review of Books, he writes: “In the context of England’s hostility towards Europe, Scottish independence seems, like Ireland’s now, a choice to continue a Europe-wide struggle between social democrats and tax-dodging global capital from within a community of half a billion people.”

The broadcaster and writer Richard Holloway, a former bishop of Edinburgh, is also backing the Yes campaign, noting in the Guardian that he agrees with the priest in TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral who saw “nothing quite conclusive in the art of temporal government”.

The acclaimed poet John Burnside and the novelist Alan Warner are both in favour of a Yes vote. The novelist and short story writer AL Kennedy regards the electorate’s enthusiasm for potential change as both “inspiring and depressing”. Harnessing that potential is what counts, according to Kennedy. Her compatriot Janice Galloway laments the “scaremongering” tactics of the No campaign: “Telling me I am doomed is not a case for union, it is a case against aspiration.”

With the majority of the Scottish literary elite backing the Yes campaign, the journalist and author Allan Massie advises caution on the Guardian’s website over the “general impression” that independence will benefit the arts.

Using Ireland as an unfortunate example, he says: “It’s possible that the achievement of independence might prove stimulating. Many believe it would. But it might not. We might mirror Ireland’s experience, where the exuberant creativity of the years of struggle for independence died away soon after the creation of the free state. Of course, an independent Scotland would not resemble De Valera’s Ireland; there would be no clerical dominance, no church-inspired censorship. Nevertheless, the battle won, it might prove a duller place.”

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.