Back to Issue Three Contents

Marco Fazzini, ed., Alba Literaria: A History of Scottish Literature

Venice: Amoz Edizione, 2006

825 pp., ISBN: 9788887670127, €25


Reviewed by Sergi Mainer


Alba Literaria takes pride in being 'the first history of Scottish literature planned and produced outside Scotland' (p. xiv), which indicates the good health and international appeal of the discipline of Scottish Studies. Indeed, the volume boasts a number of contributors from all over the world. The 35 contributors seem to have embraced the project with great enthusiasm with some writing up to three different articles - almost as much enthusiasm as Marco Fazzini, the editor, who single-handedly edited the whole volume.

The apparatus of the book is divided into an introduction, 48 articles ranging from the Middle Ages up to the year 2000, dealing with Scots, Gaelic, English and Latin literature produced in or related to Scotland and also an excellent contribution dealing with the linguistic aspects of Scots throughout time; a list of contributors and the index. Unfortunately, the index only includes the names of most the writers mentioned, but not their works.

In the introduction, Fazzini delineates the main purpose of Alba Literaria: 'the re-definition of the Scottish canon' (p. xv). The introduction gives the impression of presenting 'a postcolonial history of Scottish literature', in which the tensions between the old English and/or Anglicised centre and the Scottish peripheries will be destabilised. However, owing to the very nature of the volume, this is not always the case. The contributors approach Scottish literature from many different perspectives: some of them do try to redefine the canon, while others write about existing canonical authors. There is no homogeneous (or rather heterogeneous) postcolonial narrative of Scottish literature. For an introductory book this is not a bad thing. In fact, the reader will certainly benefit from the diverse literary and theoretical approaches to Scottish literature throughout time.

The 48 essays are chronologically ordered. The book very fittingly opens with an article devoted to Michael Scot, who spent part of his life in Italy. As with most of the chapters dealing with the Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance, some basic biographical information and cultural contextualisation are followed by an overview of the author’s work. Out of all the authors studied in this period, Michael Scot is the only one who 'subverts the Scottish canon', in that he is not normally included in general anthologies of Scottish literature. Indeed, most of these essays read as traditional essays found in histories of national literatures (only R.D.S Jack applies postcolonial ideas to his discussion of Hary’s Wallace). At any rate, it is precisely because of their traditional structure that they are extremely useful for undergraduate students who might be completely alien to Scottish literature before Burns. Only the essay on Dunbar’s Goldyn Targe follows a different structure. Being an excellent piece of work in its own right, the discussion presupposes some knowledge of Dunbar and his texts beforehand, which might not be completely appropriate for an introduction to students.

The Scottish Renaissance (the early modern period, not the Modern Scottish Renaissance) has traditionally been ignored. It is only during the last 40 years that some scholars have masterfully reassessed the literary achievements of the time. Even so, still today the studies based on the Marian and Scottish Jacobean periods are scarce in comparison to any other ages of Scottish literature. Unfortunately, Alba Literaria, a history of Scottish literature which attempts to undermine and re-conceive the canon, does little to re-evaluate the importance of the Scottish Renaissance. There is one single article to cover both the Marian and the Jacobean periods. It is admirable that Sarah Dunnigan’s Herculean effort synthesises so much material so successfully. Obviously, it is impossible to be wholly balanced when designing a vast anthology, which covers 800 years. Nevertheless, to devote so little space for such a long period is the only major weakness of Alba Literaria, which may unintentionally contribute to outdated but still pervasive paradigms of a Renaissance-less Scottish literature.

When dealing with the eighteenth century, Alba Litetaria concentrates not only on the most famous authors such as Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson, James Boswell, James Macpherson and Robert Burns, but also the less known Gaelic poetry of Alexander MacDonald (Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair in Gaelic), William Ross (Uilleam Ros) and Duncan MacIntyre (Donnchadh Bàn Duncan) and another article on ‘Traditional Gaelic Women’s Song’, whose origins goes back to the Middle Ages. Being the author of both essays, Franco Buffoni manages to relate Ramsay’s and Fergusson’s works nicely, clearly demonstrating that the former is the necessary antecedent to the latter. Derick Thomson writing on the male Gaelic poets contextualises and analyses eighteenth-century Gaelic poetry – a contextualisation which is enormously helpful due to the lesser familiarity the intended reader may have with these poets and their cultural background. Equally excellent is William Gillies’s introduction to Gaelic female singers, which works as a masterful introduction to the form and meaning of traditional song, mostly composed by women – a necessary article in this collection. Finally, Ross Roy examines Burns’s most well-known poems and their interaction with the poet’s society.

Some of the essays discussing nineteenth-century literature are probably the most innovative and those trying to redefine and expand the Scottish canon. As well as the more traditional articles on James Hogg, Thomas Carlyle, Walter Scott and R.L. Stevenson, the inclusion of Thomas Pringle, Lady Anne Barnard and Lord Byron confers new perspectives on Scottish literature and posits questions about what the limits of Scottish literature should be. Tony Voss presents Pringle as both a Scottish and South African writer, cataloguing him as a colonial poet. Margaret Lenta analyses Lady Anne Barnard, born in 1750, in regard to her position in society both in Scotland and England and the way in which her writings help to understand women’s history. Even if Byron regarded himself as brought up as a Scot, not many scholars would include him in an anthology of Scottish literature. Tom Hubbard, however, successfully argues for his inclusion in Alba Literaria. He approaches Byron not only as an English or Scottish poet, but as someone working in a Northern European tradition, whose Calvinist education in Aberdeen influenced his writings.

The last 320 pages are devoted to an exhaustive analysis of the twentieth century from the Modern Scottish Renaissance to the year 2000. Alan Riach concisely contextualises the Modern Renaissance for undergraduate students, emphasising its role as a cultural movement against nineteenth-century representations of Scotland and Scottish literature. This is followed by two essays on the leading figures of Scottish modernist poetry, Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Muir. Christopher Whyte examines MacDiarmid’s difficult political affiliations and the thematic and ideological convergences in his poetry; whereas Seamus Heaney takes the reader in a journey through some of Muir’s most important poetry, paying especial attention to themes and style. Carla Sassi offers a postcolonial approach to the novels of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, which underlines the tension between the peripheral Scotland and the British imperial centre. Two other remarkable essays dealing with poetry in Scots study Robert Garioch and Tom Leonard. Regarding the former, Whyte highlights how Garioch’s poetry goes beyond the limitations and stereotypes associated with Scots poetry, while Colin Milton discusses the importance of Leonard’s working-class speech, being as valuable as any other cultural expression. After examining other important writers in Gaelic, Scots and English the volume ends with three articles on “New” Scottish poetry, drama and prose: Lillias Fraser offers a general evaluation of contemporary poetry, including seven poets; Adrienne Scullion argues for the pivotal role of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in the development of contemporary drama; and Paola Splendore concentrates on the creation of a female voice and female subjectivity in the prose of Janice Galloway and A.L. Kennedy.

Together with the treatment of the Scottish diasporas, one of the most interesting aspects of the volume is the chapter on Scots by Colin Milton. It is not always possible to find an essay whose main focus in language in a literary collection. Milton’s essay operates as a complete introduction to Scots from 1870 to the present, covering its revival, connection to nationalism and the contrary views of its deployment amongst writers, ranging from heteroglossic to synthetic Scots. It is a pity that there is no essay dealing with Older Scots in the same manner.

As a whole, Alba Literaria is a very good introduction to Scottish literature for undergraduate students. One of its few weaknesses is to devote a single essay to the Marian and Jacobean periods. Apart from that, the way it deals with authors who have traditionally been excluded from histories of Scottish literature is very refreshing. The price of over 800 pages of Scottish literature from the Middle Ages to the present is also very attractive 25€ (about £15) – a price students can afford as opposed to more expensive three- or four-volume histories.