Sun 16 Oct 2005
O thou that in the heavens does dwell!
Wha, as it pleases best thysel,
Sends ane to heaven an ten to Hell,
A’ for thy glory!
And no for ony gude or ill
They’ve done before thee.
From Holy Willie’s Prayer by Robert Burns
Columba’s Altus Prosator, The Maker On High, dates from the 6th century and is the earliest known Scottish poem. It carries the message Celtic monks brought from Ireland, that God is everywhere and heaven touched our world. A remarkable poetic generation at the end of the 15th century led to the assumption that Scottish literature began in the late Middle Ages. But the discovery of poems such as Altus Prosator has caused the date to be adjusted by almost a thousand years.
Robert Henryson died in 1490, William Dunbar disappears after Flodden in 1513, Gavin Douglas died nine years later and Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount died in 1555, five years before the Reformation. Lyndsay believed the Church was corrupt and urged reform. His play Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estates is the most important surviving drama of early Scottish literature. Theatres were closed after the Reformation and the stage became a no-go area for almost 200 years. By putting false words into the mouths of men, playwrights were said to be mocking God’s greatest creation.
Allan Ramsay opened a theatre in Edinburgh and his play The Gentle Shepherd appealed to a wide public. The Kirk hated it and Ramsay was forced to close. Ten years later, in 1756 a play written by a Church of Scotland minister, The Tragedy of Douglas by John Home, opened in Edinburgh. Home was forced to resign along with other ministers who attended the performance.
The Kirk’s belief in predestination, the idea that God has decided which souls to save, created its own social and spiritual elite, which provided a rich source of material for writers like James Hogg and Robert Burns. ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ is one of the greatest satires in European literature. And a similarly powerful attack on the Kirk came with James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner in 1824.
James Thomson also challenged the church. Wandering the streets of an imaginary city, The City of Dreadful Night narrator finds ìdead Faith, dead Love, dead Hope.î The city is never in sunlight and is populated by sleepless people. Thomson’s atheism was a response to the squalor of the newly industrialised cities, which mocked the idea of a loving God. For the first time a Scottish writer questioned God’s existence, though many refused to give up on the idea of a meaningful way of life.
In the 1920’s, reaction against the First World War led many to find faith in political ideologies. Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Neil Gunn suggest society can be rectified by socialism. MacDiarmid wrote his Hymns to Lenin, and Sorley MacLean composed An Cuillin, which draws on the Gael’s history of suffering. The Cuillins of Skye rise above history and spread from the Western Highlands across the world.
Something like half a century after Thomson, Alexander Trochhi also embraced a kind of nihilism, using the far more contemporary methods of sex and drugs. Trocchi, with fellow travellers Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs, was a voice of the 1960s Beat generation and his ideas would later be pursued by likes of Alan Warner, Janice Galloway and Irvine Welsh.
But not all Scottish writers rejected God completely. Muriel Spark continually stresses the importance of spirituality and works by Norman MacCaig, George Mackay Brown, Iain Crichton Smith and Edwin Morgan reveal a spiritual dimension. Morgan’s poem Message Clear, which at first sight is a textual maze, offers visual difficulties that reflect its spiritually hopeful message.
The poet Tracey Herd sees religion as a benevolent influence, while Alan Spence’s Buddhism and Leila Aboulela’s Islam have not simply influenced, but lie at the heart of their work, just as Christianity enthused, inspired and stimulated Columba.