Literature and the Union

Institute of Scottish Historical Research Banner St Andrews University

 Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland logo

Funded by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland

Project led by Prof Gerry Carruthers (University of Glasgow) & Prof Colin Kidd (University of St Andrews)

Cultural themes are part of the wider debate about independence in Scotland.

Already a controversial volume has been published under the title Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence (2012). Within literary circles the Union is widely perceived as purely instrumental and lacking in deep indigenous cultural roots.

The political class has also bought into this version of literary and cultural history. The Claim of Right (1988) of the Constitutional Steering Group of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly proclaims that ‘the Union has always been, and remains, a threat to the survival of a distinctive culture in Scotland.’ However, this perception does not arise simply from a nationalist bias on the current Scottish literary scene, but also from a more general imbalance within literary studies as a whole.

There has been a great deal of academic work - both in the Scottish context and more broadly  - on the relationship between literature and nationhood, but almost none on the relationship between literature and unions. There appears to be an assumption - at least among literary scholars - that identity is indivisible.

Nevertheless, historians have worked for some time now on the phenomenon of concentric loyalties, and, since the publication twenty years ago of Linda Colley’s seminal work, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (1992), the subject of Britishness has come to the forefront of historical concerns. Yet there has been no serious attempt to introduce the insights of the new British history into Scottish literary scholarship.

Project Aims

Traditionally, literary historians have assumed that Scottish writers became nationalistic and defensive after the Union of 1707, which induced an eighteenth-century Scottish crisis of identity and the emergence of a vernacular renaissance in Scots championed by Ramsay, Fergusson and, of course, Burns.

This project will interrogate these assumptions. It will look instead at the way in which Union influenced Scottish self-fashioning in the fields of poetry and the novel. Moreover, it will retrace the history of unionism as an indigenous Scottish conception, which long predates even the Union of the Crowns of 1603, and show how Scottish writers themselves actively shaped a shared British identity both before and after 1707.

Unionism in Scottish culture was not simply a matter of collaboration or a mere assimilationist reaction to the realities of post-1707 power politics. Such approaches are too reductive and miss not only the confident and creative underpinnings of Scottish-British literature, but also the ways in which – contrary to the assumed run of literary analysis – Scottish writers reshaped English culture and identity.

In place of the dominant existing mode of literary interpretation which assumes a close relationship between Scottish literature and Scottish nationhood, this project will interrogate received ideas about the ‘national’ basis of the Scottish literary tradition. To what extent has Anglo-Scottish Union - notwithstanding the acknowledged role of Scottish nationhood - influenced the Scottish literary tradition?

The primary focus of Scottish literary scholarship has been on what might be called expressions of literary nationalism. Yet supposed literary nationalism often turns out on closer inspection to be something of a mirage – though the findings of historical scholarship do not always manage to dispel received assumptions in literary criticism.

These days we are used to being presented with a familiar alternative: nationhood or Union? However, identity is not a zero-sum game. Multiple identities have been a common feature of early modern and modern Scottish history. Unionism is in some ways as Scottish as nationalism.


Literature and Union Workshops:


University of St Andrews

Friday 23rd May 2014

The second of our series of seminars focussed on the relationship between Literature and Union. The programme featured literary critics Robert Crawford, Penny Fielding and David Goldie debating the Literary negotiation of the Union. Participants also enjoyed a special event to mark the publication of Christopher Whatley's new book, The Scots and the Union: Then and Now.

Conference Programme

10.00-10.45 Roger Mason, 'Mair and After'

10.45-11.00 Tea and Coffee

11.00-12.30 Alasdair Raffe 'John Arbuthnot and John Bull'; Richard Whatmore, 'Geneva'

12.30-1.30 Lunch

1.30-2.00 Sandro Jung, 'Clerk of Penicuik and his polite-architectural negotiation of the Union'

2.00-2.30 Richard Holmes, 'James Arbuckle'

2.30-2.50 Tea and Coffee

2.40-3.35 Robert Crawford, Penny Fielding and David Goldie, '"Acts of Union", "Archipelagic English" and "Devolving English Literature"'

3.35-4.05 Ralph McLean, 'James Thomson and "Rule Britannia!"'

4.05 Special event to mark the publication of Chris Whatley, The Scots and the Union: Then and Now  (new EUP edition, 2014)


University of Glasgow

Friday 29th November 2013


Conference Programme

10.00-11.00 Colin Kidd, 'Union and the Ironies of Displacement in Scottish Literature'.

11.00-11.15 Coffee and Tea.

11.15-12.30 Catriona Macdonald, "Anxious and Insecure'. The search for significance in the after-life of a covenanted royalist'.   

Nick Phillipson, 'The Puritan-Provincial Vision'.

12.30-1.30 Lunch.

1.30-2.45 Douglas Gifford, Allan Massie and James Robertson, 'The Union and the Historical Novel'.

2.45-3.05 Coffee and Tea.

3.05-3.50 Jeremy Smith, 'Scots Language'.

3.50-4.30 Gerry Carruthers and Colin Kidd, 'Literature and Union: The Project'.