Like summer nights in June, by the 1970s the roster of good Scottish books is growing longer and longer. Those we chose between read like a roll-call of some of the finest writers of our times, whose names are recognised across the world. There’s the likes of Elspeth Davie’s gently devastating short stories, The High Tide Walker (1976) or Alan Spence’s Its Colours They Are Fine (1977), Joan Lingard’s groundbreaking political children’s novel Across the Barricades (1972), and former convict Jimmy Boyle’s sobering and soul-baring autobiography, A Sense of Freedom (1977). That’s before mentioning poetry such as Tom Leonard’s acclaimed collection Glasgow Poems (1976), Edwin Morgan’s experimental From Glasgow to Saturn (1973) and Douglas Dunn’s tender Love or Nothing (1974). Where should one start?
Rosemary Goring, Literary Editor / Columnist The Herald
There was probably a touch of sentimentality in our choice of George Mackay Brown’s first novel, Greenvoe, for this decade, as there certainly is in the novel itself. Yet no selection of the best books of the century would be complete without including the Orcadian bard, and while one could argue that this is not his finest work, it is nevertheless a gem of a book, bringing alive a fictional Orkney island and the threat of extinction faced by the village of Greenvoe when a high-tech and highly secret military project makes the village its base. Though short on plot, this closely framed story of local characters and outside interests draws for its power on Mackay Brown’s poetic eye, and his feeling for the heart and soul of his native land. And it is unforgettable. Even the simplest domestic sentence is telling: “The mince pot and the potato pot and the cabbage pot bubbled on the moons of the stove.”
Where Mackay Brown set his novel in the 1960s, William McIlvanney’s third novel, Docherty, drew on the first half of the 20th century for its backdrop, as he depicts some of the political, social and emotional struggles of the working-classes, in the guise of miner Tam, and his eagle-eyed son Conn. Himself the son of a miner, McIlvanney knew what he was talking about as he threw into relief the hardships and intellectual challenges his hero and son face. “He’s a wee man but he makes a big shadda,” he writes of the doughty miner, who has to claw his and his family’s way through the great depression.
Docherty was the first of McIlvanney’s novels to become truly influential. It won him the Whitbread Novel Award, but more importantly it sealed his reputation as one of the finest and most uncompromising writers of his generation. With his next novel, Laidlaw, whose hero was a thoughtful, troublesome detective, some readers mistakenly believed he had moved into crime. In fact, with this complex, dark emotional thriller, he used all the skills and imagination he had brought to Docherty to kickstart what has since become the most popular Scottish literary genre. But Laidlaw, like Docherty, is a one-off, and defies any label. Beyond the pleasures of the novel itself, it represents an important new voice and style in Scottish writing which many have since tried to emulate. As the years have shown, however, McIlvanney is inimitable.