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Scottish politics: the writing on the wall

How have writers and intellectuals shaped constitutional change in Scotland? Tracing the “dream” of cultural empowerment and the “grind” of electoral strategy, Scott Hames sets the influence of magazines such as Scottish International, Radical Scotland, Cencrastus and the Edinburgh Review alongside the fiction of William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, A. L. Kennedy and James Robertson to provide a radically altered picture of Scottish devolution


The Canongate Wall forms the northern edge of the Scottish Parliament building, at the very foot of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Embedded in the wall are twenty-six decorative panels of Scottish stone with inscriptions that gather a kind of pebbledash pantheon of modern Scottish literature, including Robert Burns (twice), Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hugh MacDiarmid (thrice), Hamish Henderson, Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan and Alasdair Gray. The first version of Gray’s stone—bearing the unofficial credo of devolutionary nationalism, ‘work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation’—misspelled his first name, and had to be re-made. But the ‘vernacular’, hand-crafted particularities of the wall make errors of this kind seem forgivably natural. 

     No element of the design places democracy on a solemn neoclassical pedestal, or encourages hushed reverence for governing power; indeed, the human faults and frailties of parliamentarians are a running theme. In pride of place, the left-most stone quotes Mrs Howden from Scott’s Heart of Midlothian: ‘When we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament-men o’ our ain, we could aye peeble them wi’ stanes when they werena gude bairns—But naebody’s nails can reach the length o’Lunnon.’ A firm reminder, in demotic Scots, that the parliament is accountable to the local voices and dissenting energies of its immediate lifeworld. Far from monumentalising their power, the wall reminds MSPs of the socially limited character of their role.

     This patchwork of stone and script—including several Gaelic inscriptions, works by English authors, and religious texts—might be held to embody the ‘diversity of voices’ the building exists to represent, and yet it would be impossible to read the wall as democratically reflecting the nation. Of the twenty-six panels, twenty feature quotations by men. There are four authorless proverbs and songs, a Psalm, and just one stone featuring the name of a woman, the songwriter and communist mill-worker Mary Brooksbank. All the named authors are white. 

     If we pursue this thought, and think critically about the imagery of national representation, the Canongate façade begins to take on a rather different countenance. Its oblique planes and irregular surfaces might even begin to suggest handholds and footholds: potential means of scaling the outer skin of Holyrood, perhaps to seek another point of entry, from an angle discouraged by the confident architecture. That thought is close to the impulse behind this book.