“He was undoubtedly a man of original genius, but of coarse manners and low and offensive opinions.”—William Wordsworth, on James Hogg
If you grow up working class in Scotland, you have a split personality. You speak in Scots, but you write in English. Almost everything you read in school is in English. The class in which you learn about books and writing is called English.
But you know you’re Scottish. You know it because the books tell you and the TV tells you and the movies tell you. They tell you by never showing anyone like you, or any life like your life. In most media, if there’s a Scottish character it’s a drunk man in a tartan bunnet (English translation: flat cap) who’s there for comic effect. And, though you certainly meet such men in Scotland (as you do everywhere else), they’re tragic, not funny.
You know you’re Scottish, and you know being Scottish is wrong, because most of your teachers speak in affected English, and they try to get you to do the same. They don’t even acknowledge that they’re trying to get you to speak in a second language—they call it “speaking properly,” because they don’t accept that Scots is a language. They pretend it’s a dialect of English (when it’s no closer to English than German is), and because it’s spoken by working class people it’s the opposite of “speaking properly.”
So, if you speak in Scots, your speech is improper. And so, it follows, are you.
The newspapers tell you, because, even though the news is of Scotland, it’s in English. When reading an article aloud to a family member, you read it in English. The newspapers are proper. Teachers are proper. Lawyers are proper, and so are doctors. You are not.
The cops who harass you have working class accents, but they try to speak in English. They say “yes” instead of “aye,” and “do” instead of “dae,” because they think it gives them more of an air of authority. Testifying in court, they try to sound like the judge who will sentence you.
You grow up trying to speak like the people you resent, the people who condescend to you. If you’re both ambitious and a toady, you aspire to become one of them, and maybe you do. But, whatever the case, you can feel confused about who to hate, the proper ones or yourself. You can feel confused as to who the hell you are.
If you’re not Scottish, you probably think these are the words of a bitter prole—and you’re right. I don’t just have a chip on my shoulder, I’ve got a whole fish supper. But they’re true, and I can prove it to you. The evidence is there, because Scottish people have been writing it down (mostly in English, of course) for centuries.
If you don’t understand the Scottish split personality, the books can be confusing. Stephen King, in an essay in his book Danse Macabre, found the contradictions at the beginning of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde baffling:
Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable. At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life. He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theatre, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years. But he had an approved tolerance for others; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds; and in any extremity inclined to help rather than to reprove.
“I incline to Cain’s heresy,” he used to say quaintly: “I let my brother go to the devil in his own way.” In this character, it was frequently his fortune to be the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of down-going men. And to such as these, so long as they came about his chambers, he never marked a shade of change in his demeanour.
Mr. King’s bafflement comes not from any lack of intelligence, but a lack of Scottishness. The black-and-white, conditioned thinking of the American experiences the Scottish mind as alien, and so Mr. King misses the evidence even as he notes it; one side of Jekyll’s building faces onto a bourgeois street, the other onto a slum. Utterson, the book’s protagonist, though a wealthy lawyer, is a friend to “down-going men.” Reading this, even though Utterson is English, I cannot help but see him as Scottish, in his dichotomies and his absence of class snobbery. And, make no mistake, although the book is set in London, it is as Scottish a novel as there ever has been. It should surprise no one that Stevenson, while living in Edinburgh where he grew up, led two lives; by day he was a law student from a Calvinist family, living in the upscale New Town—and by night he wore a velvet cloak and caroused in the pubs and brothels of the Old Town. Mr. King points out that Stevenson’s novel, published in 1886, predates and anticipates the theories of Sigmund Freud by decades. But it is not a story about conscious and unconscious, ego and superego, Eros and Thanatos. It is a psychological story about something far harder to separate and file away in neat categories—the fragmentation of the Scottish psyche.
If Stephenson got there a few decades before Freud, he was still late to the schizoid Scottish party. The psychological crime novel has been the essential literature of Scotland since a working class writer named James Hogg give birth to the tradition in 1824.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written by Himself: With a detail of curious traditionary facts and other evidence by the editor may be the first noir novel. I am not alone in considering it the greatest Scottish novel of all time, but that, of course, is a matter of opinion. That it is the most influential Scottish novel ever is, I contend, a matter of fact. It resonates through Jekyll and Hyde, and through George Douglas Brown’s The House With the Green Shutters, and through Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam, and through Irvine Welsh’s Marabou Stork Nightmares, and through Tony Black’s Gus Dury novels, and through Allan Guthrie’s masterpiece Slammer… and through such films as Ratcatcher and Red Road. I would challenge you to find any serious Scottish crime novel, great, good or bad (with the exception of the romantic, sentimental work of William McIlvanney, whose Laidlaw novels have more in common with the overrated American Raymond Chandler) that does not bear the imprint of Hogg’s opus.
Justified Sinner, set mostly in Edinburgh, is horrifying and funny in equal measure. The eponymous protagonist may be the spawn of an affair his fanatically Christian mother from Glasgow had with her clergyman while she was married to a decadent landed gentleman. (Since she finds her husband debauched and vile, Mr. King would probably find it odd that she married him.) He encounters someone who may or may not be the devil. There is a murder. There is a mystery about identity. There is so much uncertainty that it becomes an awful clarity.
I should say no more about the plot, because, unlike Stevenson’s book, Hogg’s (which sold poorly in its time) is not well-known, and I would hate to spoil it for anyone. Devotees of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me and Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place might be unsettled to discover that it had already been done better by a Scottish shepherd a century earlier.
When it looked as though Scotland might become independent, I considered moving back there, so I asked a friend what had changed there in the two decades that I have spent living in the US. He answered, “Fuck all.” When I recently reread Justified Sinner, it occurred to me that the same answer could be given if the ghost of James Hogg appeared today and asked the same question.