Jim Morphy discusses two literary obsessions that have given him two very strong and very different visions of Scotland.
Kevin Williamson’s Edinburgh-based Rebel Inc. magazine and publishing house has shaped my reading habits more than anything else. In my early twenties, I scoured second-hand bookshops looking for the alluring grey and white, numbered spines of the publisher’s Classics series (the antithesis of what I then saw as the staid literary canon). Rebel Inc. led me to the Scottish authors of Alexander Trocchi, Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, Laura Hird, James Kelman et. al. and it took me to the world authors of Knut Hamsun, John Fante, Richard Brautigan, Nelson Algren and many other ‘outsider writers’. But, even more than the individual authors, it was the spirit of Rebel Inc. that got to me: ‘Fuck the Mainstream!’ its to-the-point slogan went. I was discovering a new literature. It was entirely revelatory. In some way, Rebel Inc. and its books conjured up an image of a rebellious, no-nonsense Scotland. When I thought of Scotland, it was the characters, the pubs, and the chat found in the books I was reading that came to mind.
Rebel Inc. (defunct by the time I found it) showed me a literature – and a Scotland – that was real, that was counter-culture, and that didn’t give a shit who it pissed off. And I liked the sound of it.
Nowadays, my Scottish-flavoured reading is likely to be entirely different from tales of drink and drugs in the country’s inner-cities. My hiking hobby means mention of Scotland now brings to mind the likes of Ben Nevis, Ben Macdui, Buachaille Etive Mor and Suilven.
Hence, I find myself collecting any writings about the Highlands I can lay my hands on, including a silly number of step-by-step guides to walks I’ll never do. Two walking works in particular have lodged themselves into my fuzzy picture of a Scotland.
Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain is a beautiful, slim book about the author’s times walking in the Cairngorms. It’s stunningly written, with wonderful observations about the ‘essential nature’ of the hills. Shepherd’s book shows that walks in the mountains shouldn’t be about sprints to the summit. The Living Mountain has helped define how I think about hiking, how I think about the Cairngorms, and how I think about this country of hills.
The book, written in the 1940s, had to wait until 1977 for publication. Thanks partly to Robert Macfarlane’s championing of it, The Living Mountain is finally getting the acclaim it deserves. To accompany that book, I’ll point to Macfarlane’s own account in The Old Ways of walking though the Cairngorm massif. It is a fantastic piece of writing. It has made me desperate to walk the great pass of the Lairig Ghru – to see the sights that now come to mind when I hear the country’s name.
Scotland: country of rebels and country of Munros.