Inverness Book Festival: Robert Crawford
by Margaret Chrystall
ANYONE worried that Robert Crawford’s look at how the battle of Bannockburn had been portrayed in Scottish literature might be dusty and dry was in for a big surprise.
The Inverness Book Festival session couldn’t have been more relevant to the Referendum question every 16 and over Scot will have to answer in the next few weeks.
And as well as writing Bannockburns – a look at how Scottish writers have thought about Bannockburn and Scottish independence – Robert has just written Testament, a book of poems with some black-humoured gems such as Daveheart, starring a prime minister named Cameron...
Robert, who is professor of modern Scottish literature at the University of St Andrews, read Daveheart with great gusto after dipping into some of the topics he’s been looking at in Bannockburns.
And it was unexpected to find that – like war reporters right now risking all on the frontlines of Syria, Ukraine or Iraq – Edward II had employed his own ‘reporter’ back in 1314 … to make sure every detail of his planned victory at Bannockburn was witnessed and glorified.
Of course, the battle didn’t go his way.
And victor Robert the Bruce made it a condition of the captured poet Robert Bastion’s release that he had to write the poem anyway.
"The modern equivalent would be a war artist, but then it was quite usual for poets to chronicle victory. But it’s unusual to have an eyewitness account of a battle at the time," said Robert.
He pointed out that the poem was unearthed for the 600th anniversary of Bannockburn – in 1914.
"It’s a poem with carnage described and that eerily goes with what was going on in 1914," he said.
Like the story this week of Highland Council employees asked not to carry Yes or No stickers in their cars, customs man and government employee Robert Burns had difficulties in expressing views on independence. Robert Crawford revealed – with a couple of examples – moments in the Bard’s letters where he hinted at views he clearly didn’t feel he could come out and say.
But in the run up to the Referendum, it’s Burns’ lines that are proving the most frequently quoted, according to the literature professor.
Session interviewer, features editor of the Press & Journal, Susan Welsh asked: "In your book you reference hundreds of Scottish authors, which one has been the greatest influence on seeing Scotland as independent country?"
"I think Alex Salmond knows that – Robert Burns," was the instant reply.
But some of the poems and songs where useful phrases are harvested from might surprise people.
Robert said: "The phrase ‘social union’ is a phrase Alex Salmond used."
Where was it from, he asked us. Surprisingly, from one of Burns’ most familiar poems, Tae A Mouse.
"And when he talks about not introducing university fees, he has said ‘the rocks will melt with the sun before…".
"It’s a slightly unexpected appropriation from one of Burns’ greatest love songs," said Robert, referring to A Red, Red Rose.
The professor also stopped off at some big figures in the history of Scottish independence – the poet, communist and nationalist Hugh MacDiarmid. And, less well-known, might have been American James H Whyte, colourful in the 1930s as a rich, gay, Bugatti-driving St Andrews art gallery owner and publisher of magazine The Modern Scot.
"The magazine had Edwin Muir translations of Kafka, WH Auden, Thomas Mann and a range of European writers to give a Scottish-international accent. Whyte’s editorials were among the most thoughtful visions of Scottish nationalism to be produced in the 30s, because of his Jewish background he had a particular awareness of what was going on in Germany with Hitler and what he was doing to the Jews. Whyte didn’t want a Scottish nationalism that was based on race, soil – or any idea of art that was ‘It’s Scottish so it’s very good’."
Whyte wanted an international measure of excellence.
Though Robert pointed out that the university town where Whyte had been based is often thought of as a "haven of right wing ideas" and a bastion of British Unionists, it had also been where Alex Salmond studied under Scottish history professor George – GWS – Barrow who had written Robert Bruce And The Community Of The Realm Of Scotland with "at its heart an account of the Battle of Bannockburn".
The student Salmond’s special topic had been Bruce and Bannockburn, Robert revealed.
So where had Robert's own first awareness of Scottish independence begun, his interviewer Susan Welsh asked – a question he had never been asked before, the academic and poet admitted.
The literature professor’s answer may have been unexpected – his boyhood Ladybird books on William Wallace and Robert The Bruce.
But anyone visiting the new Bannockburn centre – recommended by Robert – might find an approach perfect for a new generation of youngsters, seduced – just like that young Robert - by the cut and thrust of the past.
Robert describes it as "a bit like the National Trust meets Zombie Apocalypse".
Robert Crawford’s Bannockburns (Edinburgh University Press) and his new book of poems Testament (Jonathon Cape) are out now.