Scottish Gothic: towards a (de-)definition

Posted by Kirsty MacDonald on February 01, 2009 in Dr Kirsty McDonald, Guest Blog tagged with

Post 1 (*suggested soundtrack: The Phantom Band, ‘Howling’*)

Greetings all, and many thanks for having me as guest blogger this month. It’s most pleasant to be back, if only in a virtual sense (I did the M.Litt back in 2001/2).

I will examine the concept of Scottish Gothic over the next few weeks, as recent research has rekindled my misgivings regarding the notions of distinctiveness and even exceptionality that some previous critics have ascribed to the Gothic as manifested in Scottish texts. I would very much appreciate your thoughts on this. I propose to introduce and discuss some essential generalities here, and then move on in later posts to test these on specific examples of what we may or may not be able to call Scottish Gothic.

Firstly, it’s worth summarising some of what has already been claimed. The indomitable David Punter is ‘the man’ when it comes to Scottish Gothic. And as former Professor at Stirling, it seems all the more apt to start with him. In his important article ‘Heartlands: Contemporary Scottish Gothic’ (1999), he pinpoints that idée fixe of the Gothic – a concern with history – as a defining feature of the texts he discusses. He refers to ‘a range of contemporary Scottish fictions, which … suggest some of the issues and problems which accompany the depiction of past and present national history’ (101), and focuses on ‘Gothic’s chief mode of functioning, which has to do with a certain dealing with the necessary distortions of history.’ (102) For Punter, a number of examples of contemporary Scottish literature are concerned with distortions of the nation’s history (albeit, and perhaps moreover because it is, a stateless nation), in particular the myths and fabrications on which national identity is so often based.

Ian Duncan develops this idea when referring to early Scottish Gothic, and in particular the work of Walter Scott and James Hogg, in his chapter ‘Walter Scott, James Hogg and Scottish Gothic’ (2000). He argues that ‘the thematic core of Scottish Gothic consists of an association between the national and the uncanny or supernatural. To put it schematically: Scottish Gothic represents (with greater historical and anthropological specificity than in England) the uncanny recursion of an ancestral identity alienated from modern life.’ (70) He acknowledges that this return of the historic repressed is a feature of other traditions (such as in England), but simultaneously claims that it is more acutely present and more specifically pertinent in Scottish manifestations of the mode.

James Hogg - the grandfather of Scottish Gothic

Certainly, what should be highlighted in terms of the ‘original’ Gothic of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century – that which he specifically discusses in this chapter – is that the incursive past in Scottish texts is not represented by a foreign other (as in Otranto, The Italian and The Monk, for example), but by the other within, usually the Highlander, marked out as dangerously different via language (Gaelic), religion (Catholic) and politics (Jacobite).

Meanwhile, in his (admittedly problematic) introduction to the 2001 collection of short stories Damage Land: New Scottish Gothic Fiction, Alan Bissett highlights precisely the same concern:

Gothic…has always acted as a way of re-examining the past, and the past is the place where Scotland, a country obsessed with  re-examining itself, can view itself whole, vibrant, mythic.  When myth becomes channelled through the splintered prism of the present, however…what emerges can only be something distorted and halfway monstrous. And while the Gothic has often been the conduit for collective fantasies and nightmares, there is something/someone/somebody that haunts the fringes of the Scottish imagination…perhaps the whisper of history, pain, feudalism, legend, all or none of these things, but undoubtedly Scotland’s is a fiction haunted by itself, one in a perpetual state of Gothicism. (6)

Any nation that predicates its identity on an affirming common history is on a potentially dangerous trajectory. However, via the co-ordinates of the Gothic, if this body of texts problematise the past as myth then they are capable of highlighting the distortions that past produces in the present – they reveal national myths as Gothic forgeries. Is this the quality that makes ‘Scottish Gothic’ a pertinent label?

Something closely related to this treatment of history, which again appears commonly in Gothic texts of Scottish origin, is the motif of the journey North. Yet this also is a recurrent motif in the Gothic more generally. Classic examples include Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847). The west in Ireland serves a similar purpose (cf. Joyce’s ‘The Dead’). In terms of contemporary examples the wonderful horror film 30 Days of Night brings the point home for North America (although this was directed by a Englishman), while in Britain, Scotland is still the Northern Gothic periphery, in BBC 3’s ‘interesting’ (as discussed elsewhere on this site) series Being Human. George is transformed by a werewolf attack that takes place in rural Scotland, almost certainly the Highlands given the references to Nessie: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/beinghuman/2008/12/george.html. This confirms the premise of Neil Marshall’s 2002 horror film Dog Soldiers, where the residents of a small Highland village near Fort William are revealed to be werewolves, attempting to entrap and feed on a group of soldiers from the South.

Dog Soliders - a documentary confirming my long-held suspicions about the people of Fort William

In all these texts, the journey North is a journey back in time, to a more primitive location where conventional rules do not apply. Again, we see the urbane present menaced by primitive, ancestral forces. The fact that this is such a prevalent concern in contemporary Scottish texts in the Gothic mode might again provide evidence for a national Gothic tradition – the journey north features in the identifiably Gothic work of David Mackenzie in film, and in fiction in the work of Iain Banks, John Burnside, Christopher Whyte, Muriel Spark, Alan Warner, John Herdman and Alice Thompson, amongst others. Although Scotland still represents the Gothic North in terms of Britain as a whole, within this imagined community its own northern periphery serves the purpose well.

I’ll examine some of the texts and writers mentioned above in future blogs. All are both Scottish and Gothic, and appear to have much in common in terms of their concern with history, tradition, and the North. But are they ‘Scottish Gothic’?…

 

(*In the interests of interdisciplinary, for each post I’ll suggest a track or two of recent Scottish music with a Gothic sensibility that you may want to listen to while reading and commenting. The Phantom Band are a 6-piece from Glasgow, and ‘Howling’ is from their LP Checkmate Savage.*) 

References:

Alan Bissett, introduction to Damage Land: New Scottish Gothic Fiction. Edinburgh: Polygon. 2001.

Ian Duncan. ‘Walter Scott, James Hogg and Scottish Gothic’. A Companion to the Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell. 2001.

David Punter. ‘Heartlands; Contemporary Scottish Gothic’. Gothic Studies. Volume 1 Issue 1. August 1999. pp 101-118.

 

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