Back to Issue Five Contents

Louisa Gairn, Ecology and Modern Scottish Literature

Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2008

ix +384 pp., ISBN: 0748633111, £50


Reviewed by Lawrence Buell


Ecology and Modern Scottish Literature is, I believe, the first book-length ecocritical study of Scottish literary history. Its five chapters survey the field impressionistically from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, taking in all relevant literary genres except for drama. Considered as literary history and literary criticism the book is – perhaps inevitably – somewhat sketchy and impressionistic; and considered as an intervention in literary theory it is somewhat derivative, resting very strongly upon the Heideggerean framework elaborated in Anglophone scholarship most influentially by the leading English ecocritic, Jonathan Bate. But the element of sketchiness is an understandable and reasonable price to pay for ranging widely across writers, genres, and disciplines; and the theoretical slant, albeit somewhat self-limiting, is also quite fruitful in focusing attention on a concern of the first importance for virtually all the writers treated here at any length: the symbiosis between the rival impulses of place-centripetalism and dispersal, homecoming and diaspora, dwelling and roaming.

Gairn rightly views such crucial historical episodes as emigration, exploitative disruption of the Highlands and the Celtic fringe, urban relocation, industrial blight, and the genesis of modern ecological design (of which Patrick Geddes stands as the most renowed exemplar) as having shaped Scottish literary culture in ways that make it exceptionally fertile ground for ecocritical approaches. Although she is certainly not the first to have suggested this, and although her readings of individual authors and texts rarely surprise, any interested reader will find a wealth of biographical and bibliographical information here. and a number of promising leads for further study presented.

Two of the book’s chapters are allotted to the nineteenth century, the other three to the twentieth and beyond. Chapter One stands out from the rest as organised primarily in terms of thematic strands rather than constellations of individual writers. Gairn here stresses three distinctive emphases in mid-nineteenth century Scottish literature and intellectual-social-cultural history more broadly: attention to the theory and practice of sensuous perception, enthusiasm for the salubrity of the outdoors, and concern for land rights – and wrongs. In each case the exposition is enlightening, though one might wish for a more concerted comparative analysis of their synergies and contradictions. Chapter Two begins to develop the problematic of dwelling vs. roaming with special reference to John Muir and Robert Louis Stevenson. The treatment of both careers is a bit spotty and of their affinities with such American precursors as Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman even more so. But the chapter identifies a crucial link between these two canonical eminences that accounts in no small measure for the complexity of their work, as Gairn shows especially well in Stevenson’s case through one of her most extended textual discussions, of The Master of Ballantrae, where the two brothers are seen to embody the chapter’s featured antinomy.

The ensuing chapters on modern and contemporary writers strike me as being on the whole stronger than the first two, more 'dense' in the good sense of the term, although I confess that this is less familiar ground for me. Chapter Three, which centres on Hugh MacDiarmid and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, seems especially instructive and illuminating for its account of MacDiarmid’s long relationship with Geddes and the likely significance of that relationship as a catalyst or at least reinforcer of an uncannily prescient 'planetary consciousness' (81) in MacDiarmid’s work. Chapter Four, the book’s longest and in some ways also richest, scrolls perceptively through a series of writers, including the Muirs, Neil Gunn, Duncan Ban MacIntyre (n.b. Gaelic literature, though secondary, figures recurringly throughout the book), Kenneth White, George MacKay Brown, Edwin Morgan, and Archie Hind, whose Dear Green Place supplies the chapter’s title. The chief linking contextual thread here, as the decision to start with Edwin Muir and end with Brown suggests, is the residual pull of local community in the context of urban migration, that historical shift being registered as Gairn sees it in the contrast between Muir’s finally somewhat premodern, neo-romantic version of place attachment as against the greater anthropological detachment of Brown’s work. This strategy of presentation perpetuates a never-fully-addressed self-division within the book between the overt attention paid throughout to literature’s engagement with exurban landscapes as against a nominal emphasis on the momentum of social and cultural history from country to city. Indeed even the 'gritty realism' of Glasgow fiction, as instanced by Hind’s novel anyhow, can be read, as Gairn says, 'as a kind of distorted pastoral, bringing the urban roots of pastoralism back to the flashpoint of tension itself, the industrial city' (140). Although clearly she does not believe that the dominant emphasis in Scottish literature of an ecologically self-conscious kind is pastoral nostalgia, Chapter Four comes perilously close to suggesting precisely that – one consequence, perhaps, of Gairn’s Heideggerian emphasis on eco-writing’s preoccupation with home(lessness) and the alienation effects of technological modernism.

Chapter Five, focused on the work of Kathleen Jamie, Alan Warner, and especially John Burnside, partially amends this impression, opening discussion with Burnside’s pronouncement that 'the relationship we have with the natural world . . . is the main thing we should be exploring right now,’ which is careful to stress that he means 'the whole natural world, not just green woods and verges and stuff' but also 'cockroaches and other people’ (156). What Burnside evidently calls for here – and Gairn’s examination of his work is one of her most searching – is a kind of biocentrically-conscious aesthetic not tied to any particular landscape but as likely to direct itself to scenes of industrial blight or suburban 'non-place'(anthropologist Marc Augé’s term for 'supermodernity'’s antiseptically-engineered environments tailored to personal comfort of a standardised kind) as to traditional green spaces or the 'organic' communities of imagined yesteryear. This seems pretty closely to match Gairn’s own implicit normative position.

Even if its argument seems at times at odds with itself and its conceptual horizon somewhat limited, Ecology and Modern Scottish Literature is without doubt a helpfully illuminating monograph, one that amply substantiates the closing assertion that much (even if not quite, as Gairn puts it, 'the essence') of 'the ecological vision of modern Scottish writing' consists in 'an acknowledgment that our relationship with the natural world needs to be physical, as well as contemplative, and above all, that the practice of poetry and prose-writing requires close attention, intuitive observation and a sense of reverence for the "other": the sacred dark of an Orkney night, a blackbird singing in the garden, or the tug of the wind on a kite’ (187).