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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

XIII. The road to devolution

86. A Silent Clearance is Going on in Industrial Scotland, 1935

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1Critic, translator, autobiographer and poet, Edwin Muir (1887-1959) is an important figure in Scottish literature. In 1936 he wrote Scott and Scotland, a highly controversial study, one famous example being his comment about Scottish literature: “Scotland can only create a national literature by writing in English”. In 1942 Muir began working for the British Council in Edinburgh. In 1950 he took a post in an adult education college near Edinburgh. After a short time spent as Professor of English at Harvard he went back to live in Cambridge where he stayed until his death in 1959.

2Edwin Muir, Scottish Journey (1935), Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing Company, 1979, p. 2-4.

A century ago there was a great clearance from the Highlands which still rouses the anger of the people living there. At present, on a far bigger scale, a silent clearance is going on in industrial Scotland, a clearance not of human beings, but of what they depend upon for life. Everything which could give meaning to their existence in these grotesque industrial towns of Lanarkshire is slipping from them; the surroundings of industrialism remain, but industry itself is vanishing like a dream. Airdrie and Motherwell are the most improbable places imaginable in which to be left with nothing to do; for only rough work could reconcile anyone to living in them. Yet a large population lives there in idleness; for there is nowhere else to go […]

This is the heart of Scotland, but Scotland is, like all countries, a confusing conglomeration, containing such strange anachronisms as Edinburgh, a great expanse of cultivated and a greater of fallow land, and a number of different races. In the course of my journeyings I came in contact with these various Scotlands, passing from one into another without rhyme or reason, as it seemed to me; but what Scotland is I am still unable to say. It is Edinburgh, certainly, and Airdrie, and Glasgow, and Kirriemuir, and the Kailyard, and the rich agricultural areas of the South, and the depopulated glens of Sutherland, and the prosperous islanded county of Orkney. It has a human north and south, east and west, as well as a geographical; but though they have been clamped within a small space for a long time, one feels they have never met. Then there is the rivalry between Edinburgh and Glasgow, ridiculous in essence, jocular in expression and acrid in spirit; there are the various classes, of which I found the working—or rather the workless—lass by far the most honestly admirable; there are the Socialists, the intellectuals—mostly anti-Calvinistic, but sentimental compared with their forerunners—the Catholics, the Orangemen, the Fascists, the Nationalists, the hikers, and the churchgoers. Most of these might be found in any other country, though the proportions would be different; the intellectuals, the hikers and the Fascists would be more numerous, the Socialists and the churchgoers fewer. Finally, cutting across these classifications, come the Highlanders and the Lowlanders. No two sets of people could be more temperamentally incompatible. I shall have to say something about these various divisions in Scottish life in the course of this book, and perhaps when I have done that some picture of Scotland will emerge. But I should like to put here my main impression, and it is that Scotland is gradually being emptied of its population, its spirit, its wealth, industry, art, intellect, and innate character. This is a sad conclusion; but it has some support on historical grounds. If a country exports its most enterprising spirits and best minds year after year, for fifty or a hundred or two hundred years, some result will inevitably follow.

England gives some scope for its best; Scotland gives none; and by now its large towns are composed of astute capitalists and angry proletarians, with nothing that matters much in between. Edinburgh is a partial exception to this; but Edinburgh is a handsome, empty capital of the past. And as no civilisation that is composed merely of exploiters and exploited can endure far long, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen, and Greenock are now following Edinburgh. They are monuments of Scotland’s industrial past, historical landmarks in a country which is becoming lost to history.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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