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This article is taken from PN Review 191, Volume 36 Number 3, January - February 2010.

Antithetical Folk Neal Ascherson

They’re a gey antithetical folk are the Scots,
jurmummelt thegither like auctioneer’s lots
or a slap-happy family of bickeran brats…

So wrote Robert Garioch. No mean ‘bickeran brat’ himself, he meant these lines to satirise some of the easy, helpless definitions of Scottish identity as a jammed knot of contradictions - the notorious ‘Caledonian Antisyzygy’, a term now fortunately out of fashion.

This bold book sets out to show that there is, after all, a consistency to modern and contemporary Scottish culture, which can be traced by setting together the development of literature and the visual arts in the last century and a half and studying them against two backgrounds. These are place, locality and landscape, and, secondly, social and political change.

Alan Riach, one of the co-authors, suggests that the ‘foundational myth’ of Scotland is the desire for ‘some kind of social justice and egalitarianism’. Scotland to him is not so much ‘antithetical’ as diverse and thereby open: ‘our distinction is in a sense of our own multiplicity in languages, voices, geographies … And anyone who comes here or lives here should have equal access to all these different ways of understanding’. If this is our foundational myth in Scotland, maybe it is a good one.

Arts of Resistance began as a famous series of three lectures, or rather of lively and unscripted public dialogues between a poet and a painter, about the condition of the arts ...

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