Looking Backward: James Campbell Reviews His Own 1982 ‘Nation’ Essay on Leaving Scotland

Looking Backward: James Campbell Reviews His Own 1982 ‘Nation’ Essay on Leaving Scotland

Looking Backward: James Campbell Reviews His Own 1982 ‘Nation’ Essay on Leaving Scotland

“How can I have seemed so settled in my opinions? So smug in my attitudes?”


In 1982, the Scottish writer James Campbell penned an essay in our pages describing his decision to leave his native land. “Whatever pride I felt in being a Scot was a mere reflex of having been born here, and not something I could possibly have earned,” wrote Campbell, a former editor of the New Edinburgh Review, who announced he was moving to London. “Sometimes it seems to me that since 1707, Scotland has been marking time around the place where its Parliament used to be, and that to lead a life in this country—particularly the life of ‘a man who is fond of letters’—is to circle endlessly around that empty site.” Near the end of the essay—which can be read in full here—Campbell took aim at “the contradictions, and the desperation, besetting the mind that immerses itself in the dream of an independent Scotland.”

The Scottish Parliament, as even many Americans now know, was reconstituted in 1999, to satisfy the burgeoning Scottish independence movement. That failing to sate Alex Salmond and his cohort, the United Kingdom permitted Scotland to hold a referendum last week, which the independence campaign lost. (One cannot quite say the unity campaign won.) In the wake of the heated campaign, we asked Campbell—still a resident of London, he is now a columnist at the Times Literary Supplement and the author of Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin (1991), among other works—to reflect on the 1982 essay and on how his concerns of more than thirty years ago remain operative or otherwise in the great debate that culminated, but did not end, last week.—Richard Kreitner

Scotland is one of the oldest nations in Europe, but in the thirty or so years since I wrote this essay for The Nation, it has become younger. The Scottish National Party, which I treated as a joke in the early 1980s, has transformed itself into the leading political force in the country. There has been a renaissance in literature and the arts generally, propelled by the singular force of Alasdair Gray (mentioned in my piece), author of the fictional masterpiece Lanark, as well as a distinctive painter of portraits and church murals. When I studied at Edinburgh University, Scottish literature was the least popular—least cool—option, which is certainly not true today. Specialists in the subject were regarded as eccentric, as were some of the then-current poets. If a young Scot like me happened to be immersed in poetry, it was Robert Lowell whose new book he awaited with eagerness, not Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan or Iain Crichton Smith—Scottish poets I now hold in the highest esteem. Sport in general, and soccer in particular, which provided the public events round which the Scottish public rallied, has correspondingly gone into decline. In short, the country these days is full of intellectual reach and artistic ambition. To be a Scot was always to be proud of one’s nationality. “It’s better to be Scottish,” quipped Muriel Spark, our greatest twentieth-century novelist; “morally better somehow.” It is a witty statement that no English person would dare to venture. It is part of the Scottish mentality and the Scottish identity that every Scot knows just what she means.

And yet all through the campaign leading up to last week’s referendum on independence, I hoped Scotland would remain part of the United Kingdom. “It’s too small,” said my French hostess during the recent summer holiday in Normandy—the population of the country is around 5 million—a feeling not all Scots would admit to, though many might harbor it furtively.

Maybe the brash fellow who wrote that piece for The Nation is younger, too, today. How can I have seemed so settled in my opinions? So smug in my attitudes? I was writing out of the weight of a certain predicament—the magazine editor’s problem of teasing good political copy out of writers in a political stasis, as well as the impossibility of making a living as a writer in Scotland—and I ought to trust to what I felt then. But the negativity of the essay doesn’t please me.

I was influenced, in particular, by two writers and their ideas: first, the anti-nationalist Edwin Muir, poet and author of the great Autobiography spanning his life in Orkney and Glasgow; and by James Baldwin. The latter, who had already written for my magazine (“Of the Sorrow Songs”, an essay on jazz, appeared in the New Edinburgh Review in 1979) and with whom I had since become acquainted, was my idol above all others. His gospel appealed to me from the moment I read the first lines of The Fire Next Time on a Sunday evening train bound for Edinburgh—I remember the moment vividly—and his tone pierced me in a way that that of no Scottish (and certainly no English) writer had ever done. I didn’t want to be wrapped snugly in a tartan tea-towel; I wanted to be a free man in Baldwin’s difficult but fluid universe. His fingerprints are all over this essay, in ways perhaps discernible only to me.

Paradoxically, I have matured into my Scottish nature in the years since I stopped living there. Nowadays, it is London that’s more likely to feel like the “blank”—Muir’s word, but dished out by me in the essay with too much relish—a metropolis with a population twice the size of Scotland’s but no settled identity. I’ve been fortunate in being able to stand with a foot planted on each side of the dividing torrent, and I feel it all the more so now that Scotland has voted to remain a part of Great Britain.

James Campbell’s essay, “Leavin’ Scotland Afore Ye,” from the January 23, 1982, issue of The Nation, can be read in full here.

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