Claire King


The High Roads and Low Roads of Scottish Fiction

Posted on: November 6th, 2012 by Claire - 10 Comments

I read with interest recently an article that said Scottish children are not being taught enough Scottish literature. A debate has now sprung up over whether or not it should be made mandatory in schools up to exam level. Personally I don’t think that’s a useful approach, but I do believe strongly that if you don’t engage with the culture of the place you live – including the literature and art as well as the local surroundings – then you are likely to feel disengaged from the place, with all the associated problems this brings to a society. Here’s an interesting essay on the subject.

I mentioned this to my Twitter friend, Scottish author Alison Bacon, and she offered to post here on the subject. I asked her if she would talk about what Scottish fiction has meant to her. What did she grow up reading, and how has that influenced her writing?

Here’s what she has to say: My early preferences were the usual suspects: – Enid Blyton (any or all) and series like Sadlers Wells  and The Chalet School,  but for a while adventure stories by Scottish author Jane Shaw were my real favourites. (Like the period feel? Collector’s items now, apparently!)

I went on to historical novels – any period, any country, including Rosemary Sutcliffe, Mary Renault and with them D.K. Broster’s Jacobite Trilogy And so, if we let pass that Broster wasn’t actually a Scot (!) I’d still argue that Scottish literature was always part of my reading mix. As a teenager I progressed to the miscellany of fiction with which our house was filled, popular novelists of the forties and fifties like Howard Spring, Ernest Raymond, Agatha Christie, and amongst them Scottish classics –  Kidnapped,  Catriona, The Heart of Midlothian. I can still see them lined up around the walls of the ‘front room’ although if anything nudged me towards them it was probably the good old (can we say that now?) BBC whose Sunday serials gave a pretty decent nod to RLS as well as Dumas and Dickens.

Meanwhile, school neither encouraged or discouraged us in reading ‘home-grown’ authors: Burns, Buchan, and Barrie all figured, if briefly. But in the sixties the trend was for modern (in many cases American) authors. I think I only got to the fabulously lyrical Sunset Song and the rest of A Scots Quair via the 1970s TV adaptation (which wonder of wonders, is now available on YouTube!)

To be honest, as I grew up, I don’t remember distinguishing in my mind between Scottish and other writers. Books were generally good things, any decent story would do. But I’m reminded by a member of the Facebook Support Scottish Writing group that I and an entire generation were brought up on the Sunday Post, an icon of popular culture and the prime motivator in my learning to read!

Later, married in England and burying myself in Margaret Drabble and Penelope Lively, I was brought back ‘home’ in reading terms by none other than Inspector Rebus. Never mind the plot or the body-count,I was instantly hooked by the writing ‘voice’. I still can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something in the prose that just feels right. Rankin, like Iain Banks, is from my own neck of the woods, but I find that other Scots writers have the same effect, particularly poet and novelist Moira Forsyth whose dialogue has a ring of authenticity that is instantly satisfying. There are still more gaps in my Scottish reading than I will ever have time to fill, but I’ve recently added James Robertson and Janice Galloway to my favourites as well as Scottish indie authors like Catherine Czerkawska and  Chris Longmuir  all of whom to satisfy that need to hear the ‘guid Scots tongue’.

Going on to writing,  I’m inevitably influenced (no iconoclast me!) by the books I have read, including all of the above. But I don’t consciously ape any writer either. So is my writing style ‘Scottish’? I’m not sure I could answer that for myself! Nor do I feel that Scottish writers have particularly influenced what I choose to write about. My first novel (unpublished) was set in Oxford and France. But a trip to Scotland in 2007 (our first for many years) prompted a strong feeling of homecoming, and maybe even a sense of guilt at having gradually let the idioms and rhythms of speech slip from my conscious memory. And so A Kettle of Fish became, literally, a nostalgia trip, not in the sense of a memoir (I hasten to add!) but I think I used Ailsa’s story not so much to rediscover my roots as to repair my memories of them. Does that make sense?

From my point of view, the experiment worked, because I feel I know Fife better now than I did when I started the novel.I just have to hope that it works for my readers too. I’m afraid I’ve shied away from what is maybe the crucial question of what makes a Scottish writer. Scottish blood? Living in Scotland? Writing about Scotland? Any or all of these will play a part. As an exiled Scot with a desire to write, I’m not sure that I would have put myself in that group before I started Kettle. But it feels like I’m part of it now

 About Ali and her Writing  Ali Bacon was born in Dunfermline in Scotland and graduated from St Andrews University. She now lives near Bristol. Her writing has been published in Scribble, The Yellow Room and a number of online magazines. She was shortlisted for the A&C Black First Novel Competition 2006. Her first published novel is A Kettle of Fish.

Website and blog:

A Kettle of Fish  is a rollercoaster family drama set in Scotland and published by Thornberry Publishing Buy it from Amazon UK (£1.99) or Amazon USA in Kindle format. You can ‘Look Inside’ to read a sample.

Facebook page: Print edition coming soon.

10 Responses

  1. Ali B says:

    Many thanks to Claire for having me along today and allowing me to ramble a bit. Hope my reading choices will strike a few chords with Scots and others!
    Ali B

  2. I think a love of literature, art and culture stems from introduction in childhood, at least giving us the knowledge to make choices in later life. Interesting post, Ali!:)

  3. Ali B says:

    Yep – a houseful of books and fights over library tickets definitely helps!
    Ali B

  4. Interesting to hear your influences and about the great stockpile of books you had in your house growing up.

  5. Looking forward to reading A Kettle of Fish, Ali.

  6. claire says:

    Thank you for your lovely informative post, Ali, and from all the tweets it seems as though you have a lot of fans! xxx

  7. Janet O'Kane says:

    As an Englishwoman who’s lived in Scotland for 20 years I really enjoyed your post, Ali. And thank you for the news that A Scots Quair is on YouTube, as I’m currently reading Sunset Song for my OU degree. I was fortunate to study Scottish literature at Edinburgh University for a year and this introduced me to so many writers who’ve never made it across the Border, so it’s great that at least Scots crime fiction has bucked that particular trend.

  8. Ali B says:

    Hi Janet
    It’s only now that I’ve thought about the study of English lit in Scottish universities, which seems odd, even if we have been one nation up to now. As for Sunset Song, I don’t know that watching it on Youtube in short clips will be much good, but at least you can get a flavour of it. It certainly applealed to the romantic in me!
    Ali B

  9. Linn B Halton says:

    School is often where a love of literature and the arts begins to flourish in our children’s hearts. Although for others it will begin much earlier – at home! I remember fondly two particular teachers I had at school whose own love of books encouraged me to read a very wide range of genres. From Gerald Durrell to Dickens! However, I do think celebrating ‘home grown’ works help to reinforce the message that with talent and passion, anything can be achieved. It’s not just about Shakespeare and the top ten best sellers! Interesting post, thank you.

  10. Ali B says:

    Just wondering if any readers saw the BBC Imagine programme with Ian Rankin? – one of the more illuminating programmes I have seen on the writing process.
    Ali B

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