Extremes

“I’ll ha’e nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur / Extremes meet …”
Hugh MacDiarmid

A new project to explore ‘the soul of Scotland’ through specially commissioned poems which will examine the extremes of the nation’s culture from all angles.

Scotland: a Split Personality?

If a nation can be said to have a soul then the soul of the Scottish nation is surely one which is permanently strung out between the extremes that MacDiarmid evokes in one of his most quotable lines. Taken from his great early poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, it seems to sum up both the irascible poet and his nation so well.

It was not, of course, his only foray into examining the split psyche of the country. He also explored the notion of the Caledonian Antisyzygy, a term coined by G. Gregory Smith in 1919 to encapsulate the conflicting extremes within the culture of Scotland and which MacDiarmid expanded on in a 1931 essay. In his original essay Smith wrote of Scottish literature as being “remarkably varied, and becoming, under the stress of foreign influence, almost a zigzag of contradictions.”

Perhaps the most famous examples of this “split personality” in our country’s culture are Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. But such dichotomies are all-pervading. The rural/urban split now best seen in the Highlands/Lowlands extremes goes as far back as the 1480s and Robert Henrysoun’s The Taill of the Uponlandis Mous and the Burges Mous.

Rivalries seem to be almost a given. It is not difficult to think of numerous examples: Edinburgh/Glasgow, Rangers/Celtic, Native Tongues/English, Protestant/Catholic, not to mention Scottish/British that was so central to 2014’s referendum. Even within such dichotomies, further conflicts are apparent. There is currently something of an invented spat over whether Gaelic is over-subsidised at, it is suggested, the expense of Scots. Within Calvinism, Scotland’s very own rigorous form of Protestantism, there is the conflict between the saved – those predestined for heaven – and the eternally damned. Just read Burns’s Holy Willie’s Prayer for elucidation.

The whole split personality of the country is perhaps best seen in the contrast between two of the best know attitudes with which Scottishness is associated: the posturing of “wha’s like us? – damn few an they’re aa deid” and the cultural self-abnegation exemplified by the ‘Scottish cringe’. Where else can anyone live – and write – who lives in Scotland than “whaur extremes meet”?

Scotia Extremis: Poems & Poets

This poetry project explores the soul of Scotland through an examination of extremes. Each week we will publish a brace of poems on a particular Scottish theme – people (past and present), places (real and imagined), culture (high and low) and customs (ancient and modern).

The project will last one year, from Burns Night 2016 to Burns Night 2017. Those invited to participate are either poets from Scotland (though not necessarily living there) or poets resident in Scotland (though not necessarily Scottish).

Writers have been invited to contribute poems inspired by themes drawn up by the editors Andy Jackson (an Englishman based in Scotland for over twenty years) and Brian Johnstone (a native Scot, long resident in the country), and while the list of themes reflects the interests and obsessions of the editors, it is hoped that it also picks out some of the most telling strands of the nation’s DNA.

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