Eck’s literary luvvies


By Kenneth Roy

When I called one day at his lovely old house in Aberlady, Nigel Tranter was hard at work on the beach. The beach was his office. It could be reached by walking to the foot of his garden and on to the sands of East Lothian, where he could be found sturdily dressed as a country gentleman, notebook and pen in hand, writing on the hoof some adventure novel set in a steamy Amazonian jungle.

He paused long enough to write the next sentence before resuming his walk. When another sentence occurred to him, he stopped briefly again. The routine never varied from season to season, but although the torrid heat of the Amazon was rarely a problem in Aberlady, persistent rain often was. The writer’s notebook had an all-weather cover.

I thought of Nigel Tranter at the weekend when I looked at the list of Alex Salmond’s literary luvvies – the writers who have signed up as the advance guard of Yes voters in the distant referendum. Mr Salmond seems to be looking for a million signatures and hopes that the endorsement of these and other cheer-leaders will help him to achieve his goal. I should be impressed. Somehow I’m not.

The closest parallel to the present campaign was the phenomenon of the Scottish covenant movement in the late 1940s/early 1950s, organised by John MacCormick and his young friend Ian Hamilton with the help of Nigel Tranter and others. The covenant movement had no showbiz razzmatazz behind it, no million quid from a dead poet bankrolling it, and the media exposure was mostly hostile. It depended on the efforts of a bunch of volunteers and students who chapped tirelessly on doors.

Some local authorities – by no means all – were generous enough to provide booths where people could sign. One or two influential figures in Scottish life, including the dean of the faculty of advocates, John Cameron (later Lord Cameron), spoke eloquently in support. The trade unions backed it, and the Communist Party of Great Britain; the churches too.

At a great event in the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh, the Duke of Montrose was the first to sign the covenant. After that day, two million people followed him. Now, it is true that what they were signing was a demand for a Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom. Sixty years later, Alex Salmond wants a Scottish Parliament outside the UK. But given his enormous comparative advantage, he ought to be aiming to at least equal the covenant movement’s remarkable total.

Mr Salmond has decided to place his faith in the cheer-leaders. He feels, perhaps, that the ordinary people cannot be relied upon to make up their own minds about the merits of an independent Scotland – that they need to be inspired by expat strolling players and an assortment of fiction writers. Precedent suggests that this policy is misguided.

I barely know Alex Salmond’s literary luvvies. No doubt they are genuinely devoted to the crusade. But I wouldn’t discount the possibility that one of them will thrust a dagger into Eck’s fast-beating heart when our leader least expects it.

Nigel Tranter was an exception. He was that rare bird, a benevolent figure in Scottish public life as well as a writer. He led the campaign for the Forth road bridge, although he failed in his opposition to the introduction of tolls to pay for it. Even in old age, that walk of his across the beach at Aberlady spoke of a man with a purpose.

But the other writers involved in the post-war home rule movement were more or less unqualified nightmares. Naomi Mitchison, an office-bearer in Scottish Convention (John MacCormick’s original vehicle for promoting the cause), claimed to be the chief of an African tribe which she ruled from Carradale House in Kintyre. From there she fired off shrill, slightly batty letters to the press. She was not a tremendous believer in the innocent pleasures of the common people, demanding at one stage that films made in the United States should be banned from British cinemas.

She was, however, relatively harmless – until, with a single letter to the Glasgow Herald, she undermined the political ambitions of her friend John MacCormick while he was fighting a winnable by-election in Paisley. With friends like that…

But Mitchison, even Mitchison, was a model of loyalty compared with another literary supporter of home rule, Christopher Murray Grieve (who wrote as Hugh MacDiarmid). A charming chap socially (as I can personally testify), in public and in print he could be, and often was, the purest poison. His racial loathing of the English was boundless and frankly expressed, yet he got away with it. And he could never be trusted. At the great event in the Assembly Hall, a large representative gathering unlike last week’s corresponding bash in Edinburgh, Grieve delivered one of his tirades, refusing to sign the covenant. Of course, the anti-home rule press loved it and the wonderful day was spoiled. Years later, in his autobiography ‘The Flag in the Wind’, John MacCormick wrote bitterly of Grieve and of the damage he caused to the movement.

I barely know Alex Salmond’s literary luvvies. No doubt they are genuinely devoted to the crusade. But I wouldn’t discount the possibility that one of them will thrust a dagger into Eck’s fast-beating heart when our leader least expects it. They’re writers, after all. Had I been advising the first minister – a fate we have both managed to avoid – I would have counselled against the use of cheer-leaders and put myself at the disposal of the people, even if most of them don’t look too good in this heat.

But a million signatures? Mr Salmond, if he is to guide us to the promised land, really should do better.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review