1. Preparing the ground. So you think you know your Kail?
Digging up the Kailyard is a long overdue task. But it’s difficult ground to turn over. As Scots we’ve been eating Deep Fried Mars Bars for too long (and calling it haute cuisine) when it comes to our consumption of fiction. Note I use the word fiction because at the root of this whole debate is a battle for ‘literature.’ It is interesting that at the very time the term Kailyard was coined, this battle really commenced. Scots exude duality (we are told) as part of our psyche, and there was no bigger cultural duality in the late 19th century than the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘quality’ literature and ‘mass’ or ‘popular’ fiction. I leave that battle aside for now, though it must be tackled head on at some point.
But this is just the first stage in a big project. In this first article I am barely breaking ground, and if I manage to prepare, or clear some ground around the weed infested mess that we are faced with, I will feel I have achieved something. To quote Dougie Maclean’s ‘Scythe Song’ (is contemporary Scots folk music an illustration of a penchant for kail?) ‘this is not a thing to learn inside a day’!
You’ve got to hold it right feel the distance to the ground
Move with a touch so light until its rhythm you have found
Then you’ll know what I know.
But we must start somewhere, so I’ll begin just before the very beginning. A very good place to start! While the Kailyard ‘school’ is accused of parochialism and ‘smallness’ you will soon find that the ground we are digging up is huge – especially if we get down to soil level rather than use machinery fashioned for us by later generations.
Kailyard, and ‘the Kailyard School’ it has to be said is pretty much a literary construct. The most recent work on the subject, Andrew Nash’s excellent ‘Kailyard and Scottish Literature’ (2007) begins the digging up process in the academic field.
I take a stance outside academia. I’ll confess, the ground there is too claggy for me. I find for a good, loose soil, one needs to step away from the critical milieu and look at the world from, dare one say it, a less rarified view. While I can mix ‘meta’ with the best of them, I’m a son of the soil and I read fiction (whether it is then ‘elevated’ to literature or not by critical or popular endorsement) for enjoyment. Which isn’t to say I don’t like to learn, or that I don’t believe you can find profound truth within fiction. My opinion is quite divergent from that of Leatham in this month’s cultural piece ‘The Place of the Novel’ I can see a value in fiction he could not. I don’t have a problem with that. He prefers history to novel and the world is big enough for all of us. But fiction, for me, is perhaps a more personal thing, a communicative relationship between the writer and the reader. It may be the case that narrative is significant in the battleground of politics and culture, and of course one’s political and cultural beliefs will colour what one reads, but I don’t think the scapegoating of individual stories (or authors) adds anything to the overall fight. Reading can offer some freedom and the chance to experience the world differently – I think we embark upon a dangerous path when we begin to lay claims or establish categorisations for stories (and authors) beyond or outwith their individual experience and expression. Kale is and always will be a brassica. It will only be a ‘superfood’ for a limited time. The ‘fame’ attached is a double edged sword.
As an academic outsider, usually when I engage with literary criticism it just makes me angry. I think my unease may stem from confusions in explorations and explanations of ‘narrative’. Narrative is a word that is being made to work very hard these days and its meaning is becoming increasingly loose. Personally, I’ve moved beyond thinking about fiction as ‘text’ and simply see it as ‘story.’ I don’t do show competitive show vegetables. Kale may or may not be a superfood at present, but for me it’s just a good, nutritious ‘green’ which doesn’t need to be mucked about or juiced or smoothied. Just plant, grow, eat, enjoy. Easy.
It seems to me that the world (and by this I include the academic world) has embraced (at its perils) the vastness of our technological revolution in a counter-productive way. Primary sources appear to seem less and less important to literary criticism. Favour is given to the latest comment (or article) on an existing theory or position.
To give him his due, Nash tries to push the Kailyard debate on. To get out of the box if you like. But the very box the debate is contained in, seems to hold him back. Wittgenstein said ‘all the world is in the box.’ I find that profound and scary at the same time. And I don’t want it to be true. Either way, it is a lonely and long furrow we plough when we seek to go against the dominant ideology. ‘Twas ever thus.
Scratching at surface weeds does little to deal with the deep rooted problems which must be dug out by hand. I am advocating some hard hand weeding of the ground as a proper preparation for the planting. It’s time to get our hands dirty – in good clean soil!
Surveying the soil.
In digging up the Kailyard, you could be excused for thinking the place to start is with the authors (or purported) Kailyard authors. Our Edinburgh boys J.M.Barrie and S.R.Crockett are two of the three ‘named’ (and shamed) as Kailyard novelists. But to build a clearer picture, we actually need to look at the men behind the authors. That is the publishers. And the soil we are inspecting is the soil of publishing as it was circa 1890. Here we see the sort of branding battle that is familiar to us today in consumer goods such as Nike/Addidas or Pepsi/Coke. In those days however, the battle was between two major publishing houses (and their ‘front-men’), Hodder & Stoughton and Longmans. (Other brands and battles were then, as now, available).
While Hodder was established in the 1840s it only became Hodder & Stoughton in 1868, and one William Robertson Nicoll (oft claimed as the godfather of Kailyard) was in on the ground floor of the business. They published religious and secular work and their roots were firmly Non-Conformist. They are still a big publishing ‘player’ although they’ve had many name changes with the mergers and acquisitions over the years. The history of publishing is a lot more interesting a subject that you might think (and one that isn’t as easy to research as you’d think!)
In 1882 one of the other key workers at H&S, Thomas Fisher Unwin struck out on his own (store this information for use later on) in something of an early example of entrepreneurship or perhaps ‘diversification’. Certainly it was a time of expansion in publishing. By the 1890’s T Fisher Unwin was ‘the’ publishing company for ‘new’ writers and many authors of note got their start here, including our Edinburgh boys J.M.Barrie, S.R.Crockett and others including Joseph Conrad, John Buchan and J.R.R.Tolkein.
The Players: Nicoll versus Millar.
William Robertson Nicoll. (1851-1923) was a very influential man in his day. A very successful man. Yet all but forgotten today. He’s not even a heritage variety. The son of a minister from Aberdeenshire, he was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and University. Ill health meant he had to abandon the ministry as a career and instead he moved to London to pursue a journalistic career. He certainly ‘made good’ in London. In 1886 he became editor of the influential British Weekly magazine.(A Hodder & Stoughton publication). By the early 1890’s his ‘stable’ of writers were becoming the commercial success of their day. Robertson Nicoll was big on success. Backed by Hodder & Stoughton he took full advantage of the opportunities for mass publishing amongst the newly literature working classes. We might see Robertson Nicoll as a prime example of Barrie’s quote a ‘Scotsman on the make’ This did not make him popular in all quarters of course. Nicoll’s level of commercial success irritated at least as much as his Nonconformist stance. Nicoll was profoundly religious but he was also profoundly commercially driven.
It may seem strange to us today that religious organisations were in the forefront of the ‘propaganda’ battle for hearts and minds which found its natural home in the mass market publishing of the day. But it’s just a variant on today’s secular equivalent – the capitalist press barons. The late 19th century saw the transformation of reading matter (especially fiction) from expensive stand alone items into serialised penny (or cheap) magazines. This was the crop of the day. Publishing was then, as now, a battleground for competing sales. Today ‘sex’ sells. Then a sort of ‘morality’ may have been touted in preference. Who is to say which is better or worse. Either way, fiction was a vehicle for something beyond ‘story.’ And the new breed of ‘professional’ writers learned that they had to please, not just the public, but the publishers.
As with all publishers everywhere, the avowed goal of ‘giving people what they want’ stands in close proximity to the darker arts of how to convince people they want what it is you have to sell. Nicoll had a clear plan on both counts and his papers delivered. They were very successful. I cannot tell you hand on heart which came first, the supply or demand, but Nicoll hit pay dirt. He was a man on a mission, and he had a curious belief that success and morality were parts of the same plant. He was, if you like, an early exponent of Miracle Grow.
Robertson Nicoll’s publications sold to a rural and an urban working class (and lower middle class) both in Scotland and in England. There was (or was manufactured) a desire to read about times as they were before urbanisation. You have to remember that many of the readers were either first or second generation ‘migrants’ to the cities and so could either remember for themselves, or at one step removed, that ‘their’ Scotland used to be different. This is not in and of itself nostalgic – though that is the first of the mud to be thrown in the Kailyard debate. A rural life can be just as ‘real’ as an urban one. But it is certainly a different reality, then as now. Nash deals with this in his book and begins to outline the way in which Kailyard had a lot less to do with the writers and a lot more to do with the cultural and political jockeying for position. Nash points out that at the time many so called Kailyard stories were realistic stories of their locale. But they were then (mis)represented as Scottish – meaning the whole of Scotland – and from that of course, a lot of trouble ensued. Kale is a great thing, a superfood even, but it isn’t actually Broccoli. Nor does it represent the entirety of the Brassica genus.
This is where J.H.Millar comes in to the fray.
John Hepburn Millar (1864-1929) came from quite different stock than that of William Robertson Nicoll. You might say he was in an entirely different class. (And you might begin to realise the significance of class in this whole debate!) He was the son of Lord Craighall, a senator of the College of Justice. From Edinburgh, he was educated at Edinburgh Academy and Balliol College, Oxford. He was called to the Scottish Bar in 1889 and after lecturing in law at Edinburgh University he was appointed Professor of Constitutional Law and Constitutional History in 1909, a post he held until his retirement in 1925. It was Millar who first coined the phrase ‘Kailyard’ in literary critical circles in an article in The New Review (edited by W.E.Henley and published by Longmans.) The article ‘The Literature of the Kailyard’ appeared in The New Review, April 1895. We will make that article available as a Public Domain article next month. In his subsequent work A Literary History of Scotland (1903) which was for many years the standard work on Scottish literature and he maintained his attack on the then fashionable kailyard writers, though he does credit Henley with the phrase. Henley had just died at this time and wasn’t there to defend himself any longer. I still don’t know what Henley’s position actually was regarding our Edinburgh Boys/Kailyard authors – but he was friends with Stevenson and it seems therefore he would not necessarily be hostile to other writing in similar vein. More digging needed!
Back to the soil structure. Might I suggest that if nothing else, Roberston Nicoll represents non-conformity whereas Millar represents the Establishment. And each represent opposed commercial enterprises. So much of the Kailyard debate was manufactured like so many GM crops. But is it the fault of the plant that it can be genetically modified? Is it the fault of the writer that they are ‘adopted’ into critical schools? I think not.
We need to be very careful when treading around the conceptual Kailyard. It’s a big place, covering many acres. I am more interested in a few small fields and specimen plants than in engaging in a wholescale battle regarding the genus. And I am particularly interested in discovering to what extent, and whether at all, our Edinburgh Boys could be described or categorised as ‘Kailyard’ writers.
You’ll note we’ve still not arrived at a comfortable definition of what this is. We don’t know what we’re looking at plant-wise. We’ve not even planted them yet. I did tell you it was a big field and we were only at the start of the whole affair. In articles that follow I will look at our Edinburgh Boys and their impact on the Kailyard ‘field’. Next month I will start by selecting seeds, with a little help from Leatham and not a modicum of confusion from Millar.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.