Scottish Writers
From Hugh MacDiarmid to J. K. Rowling


At the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, from 1st June to 31st October, 2001, there was an exhibition of photographs, books and manuscripts, entitled the Write Stuff. This selection of portraits, taken through the camera lens of Gordon Wright, aimed to celebrate the rich, colourful and diverse wealth of literary talent which has emerged across Scotland over the past 50 years. Here is a review of the exhibition by Edinburgh-based writer Vivien Devlin.

The Write Stuff
Writers are often very private people. Writing by its very nature, is a private secretive and secluded occupation, taking place in the proverbial unheated garret. That was certainly true up until relatively recently. Today, there is likely to be a small photograph on the back flap of a book, a public appearance at a book shop reading event, or literary festival, television and newspaper interviews. In the contemporary world of the media circus, the publication of a new book brings welcome publicity and recognition. But apart from their allocated 15 minutes of fame, writers still do tend to remain in the shadows and silently retreat to their lonely study and once again the blank screen of their computer.

All the more reason to welcome this fascinating exhibition of photographs featuring a superb selection of some of Scotland's greatest and most popular writers from across the past 50 years. The portrait of the master of Gaelic poetry, the late Sorley MacLean hangs alongside a delightful manuscript copy of an early notebook, of unpublished poems as well as extracts from some of major work, always touching on the gentleness of the soul and humanity.

"I walked with my reason
out beside the sea
We were together but it was
keeping a little distance from me...

    from The Choice

Around the corner there is a smiling Irvine Welsh, renowned world wide for his honest urban realism in such novels as Trainspotting. On display are several copies of the book in translation - I wonder how the local Scottish expressions and dialect are accurately translated and how Japanese and Korean cultures understand the underworld of Edinburgh nightlife.

"... Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments, choose washing machines, choose cars, choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit crunching game shows, stuffing junk food inta yir mooth.."

Gordon Wright Gordon Wright (pictured here) has been photographing some of Scotland's leading writers and poets for over 30 years. His professional career was in publishing, which brought him into the private world of many writers. He was introduced to and invited to join the inner circle of the Scottish Renaissance writers and poets. He soon became friends with the late, great Hugh MacDiarmid, renowned for the epic poem, " A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle",

" And let the lesson be - to be yersel's
Ye needna fash gin it's to be ocht else
To be yersel's - and to mak` that worth bein`
Nae harder job to mortals has been gi`en."

Norman MacCaig is remembered for his biting, dry wit, as well as an astute observation of place and emotion.

"The night tinkles like ice in glasses,
Leaves are glued to the pavement with frost
The brown air fumes at the shop windows
Tries the doores, and sidles past."

    November night, Edinburgh.

These photographs, especially of the writers no longer with us, are extremely valuable as an artistic and literary archive. It is not just a case of pointing the camera and shooting. To create an intimacy and an understanding it is best if the photographer and subject know one another, to allow a relaxed atmosphere and for the personality to shine through.

Other famous names from the Scottish Renaissance era, between the 50s and 70s, bringing a fresh new poetic and often political voice in Scotland, also include Robert Garioch, whose poem, Auld Reekie, is a moving tribute to Robert Fergusson`s poem of the same name. Then there's his friend and fellow poet, Sydney Goodsir Smith and the much loved and highly respected Gaelic writer and teacher, Iain Crichton Smith.

LanarkComing more up to date there is the inimitable Alasdair Gray, writer, painter, and illustrator whose novel, Lanark was regarded on publication 20 years ago in 1981, as a modern classic of its time.

" Glasgow is a magnificent city," said McAlpin. "Why do we hardly ever notice that? " Because nobody imagines living here " said Thaw.

First drafts, manuscripts, edited jottings and juvenilia are always interesting to see, to show on the page how a writer slowly develops their literary skills and crafts his or her art. On display is a very early typescript of a short story by Gray dating from 1954, which had been typed by his father. This eventually became part of Lanark. This illustrates clearly the long years of apprenticeship involved in the long winding road to becoming a published writer.

As valuable as the exhibition of 40 stunning photographs, equally fascinating are the books, first editions, poems, notebooks, scraps and scribbles of ephemera, drawings and memorabilia all relating to the writers`s private and public worlds, before and after publication.

Liz LochheadAnother polymath of the modern Scottish literary scene is the remarkably talented Liz Lochhead. Poet, playwright, and translator, Lochhead has adapted several Greek classics and French comedies - such as Moliere`s Tartuffe - reinventing their original characters and situation into a relevant Scottish setting and Scots vernacular.

She also writes astutely about women, love, marriage and family life, often wickedly funny, but always quietly observant of the way people speak and behave.

"How does she feel?
Her face is sullen. ...
The golden hands with the almond nails
that push the pram turn blue
in the city's cold climate. "

Her play "Perfect Days" about a 39 year old single woman, desperate for a baby, premiered at the Edinburgh Festival a few years ago, was a huge hit and went on to London's West End.

Talks and Readings
During the summer there will be weekly events, with a selection of the writers featured in the exhibition appearing in person to talk about their work. Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, and Stewart Conn are just three of many writers who will be at the library, at these free events. A second series of events will be announced later for August, September and October.

Ian RankinIan Rankin is Scotland`s best known and celebrated crime novelist. His portrait shows him avoiding the camera lens, looking away with a serious expression, as if he is thinking of another dark and evil plot. He knows Edinburgh as intimately as his best friend or family, and wherever in the world you may be reading his Inspector Rebus thrillers, [ and he is very popular in Sweden], you are right there, amidst the grey stone of the tenement buildings against the backdrop of Arthur `s Seat, walking the dark, mean streets of the ancient Cowgate, into a dark pub in a wynds off the Royal Mile, with the bitter winter haar hiding myths and legends of the city's past and present day murderous intent.

"Rankin weaves his plots with a menacing ease.. His ear for dialogue is sharp as a switchblade . This is quite simply, crime writing of the highest order."
   Daily Express

J K RowlingAnd one final face to mention which cannot be forgotten. Edinburgh's greatest literary export of recent years is J. K. Rowling, the creator of the little boy wizard, Harry Potter. The first story Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was, according to various stories, begun on a train to Edinburgh and written and re-written over several cups of coffee at the Nicholson's Café on North Bridge. Beside J. K. Rowling slept her baby daughter. The manuscript was rejected by several publishers before an astute and imaginative editor at Bloomsbury Publishers in London believed there was merit and potential in this little children's fable.

The rest is history. Rowling is a multi-millionaire but still very much writing away and enjoying the completion of the Harry Potter series. The first book has been adapted for the cinema screen and will be released in November.

No wonder her photograph shows a happy and relaxed woman, confidently staring straight at the lens. She has now found the success she deserves for inspiring children all around the world to read her magical stories.

Are you sitting comfortably? This is how it all began

Chapter One. The boy who lived... "Mr and Mrs. Dursley of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.....

Now read the rest of the Harry Potter books.

Where else would you like to go in Scotland?

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