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.