SARA Sheridan’s (below) novel The Fair Botanists is set in the summer of 1822, in an Enlightenment Edinburgh buzzing with talk of the imminent visit of King George IV, currently being organised by Sir Walter Scott.

Recently widowed Elizabeth Rocheid arrives from London and becomes fascinated by the Botanic Gardens in which an Agave American aloe is about to blossom, a once-in-decades prospect.

Elizabeth is an artist, whose services might record the moment, but her meeting with Belle Brodie, a beautiful young woman working as a “courtesan” while surreptitiously engaged in the arts of perfume creation, prompts complications of more than one kind.

The National:

This is a novel which challenges literary expectations about the perspectives from which major events and authors might be seen and interpreted. It knocks predictable conventions of perspective off kilter. It refocuses attention to priorities that are often neglected or oppressed – the experiences, perspectives and judgements of women. It’s engagingly written, compelling, lucid and surprising, with a memorable cast of characters and a social vision of an Edinburgh caught up in the Hanoverian ascendancy, which it has never completely left behind.

Gerard Carruthers’s Pocket Classics Everyman Anthology of Scottish Stories collects work by authors from the past two centuries ranging from Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle to Irvine Welsh, and many more.

But as well as the familiar names, its drawing on “Celtic folklore” and a “long tradition of spine-tingling ghost stories” and tales which evoke “the gorgeous landscapes of the Highlands and the Western Isles and the rich histories of Edinburgh and Glasgow”, the book’s inclusion of lesser-known works by less familiar authors revises expectations as much as it fulfils them. As Carruthers says in his preface: “Female experiences and writing are a prominent part of the Scottish short-story tradition.

That experience is reflected in male writers such as Galt, Gibbon and Mackay Brown as well as in the work of Oliphant, Muriel Spark, Janice Galloway, AL Kennedy, Jackie Kay and Ali Smith.

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“Diverse intersections between race and sexuality complicate identity here, Spark being of Jewish origin, Kay and Smith gay, Kay also black. Scottish identity as revealed through its writers and literature is no more straightforward or uniform than anywhere else.

“Into the mix of a Scotland that remains one of Europe’s less ethnically diverse countries comes work by Bernard MacLaverty, from Northern Ireland but resident for most of his life in Glasgow, and Leila Aboulela, Sudanese-Egyptian in her origins but based for much of her writing career in Aberdeen.

“Both are superb prose stylists and are adroit in the little ironies and tender poignances of human life that transcend place and nationality … There is no one ‘Scottishness’ that binds the writers altogether easily or at all, but every one of them has a Scottish footprint or accent.”

Alan Riach’s Scottish Literature: An Introduction is an inevitably doomed attempt to cover the whole territory of its subject in a mere 724 pages – no more than an “introduction” indeed! It describes the “canon” (or “a loose canon”) but leaves all the doors and windows open to new interpretations. What follows is drawn in part from this book’s final chapters. A canon is a form of cultural empowerment. At times this power can be used badly, closing off options and limiting possibilities. At times it can work as an effective resistance to the foreclosure and oppression intended by others, however those “others” may be defined. There are always others. There are always people out there wanting to colonise you. That’s just the way it is.

The National:

But a canon can be more than defensive. A canon can be a good thing intrinsically because it prompts curiosity and can lead to worthwhile company. It can also be a bad thing because the canonists themselves – or ourselves (them is us) – are sometimes out to exert their power over you or colonise you.

What do good teachers do, if not tell you what’s good for you, and demonstrate convincingly exactly why it’s good? What do good novelists do, if not persuade you that their novels are worth reading, leaving you both satisfied and wanting more?

In any conflict of power, making use of both strengths and limitations helps, knowing your own and understanding those of others. So, just as it can be an empowerment, a canon can also be a liability. Inescapably, it’s a limitation. Limitation can give form to identity, and form can give power. Yet form means constriction, and power is always negotiated by position.

When I started work on drawing up what I called “a loose canon” of Scottish literature a few years ago for my book Scottish Literature: An Introduction, one of my colleagues suggested I could produce such a canon in no more than a dozen authors. That’s true, but it wouldn’t get us much further than where we already are. A short list would have its uses, but they would be very strictly limited.

What is “a canon”? What’s it for? The canon is always up for debate. And even at its most irreducible it’s something to build from, not to be excluded by.

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In his magisterial but contentious study, The Western Canon (1994), the American critic Harold Bloom lists his own selection of major works from world literature – as far as he can. Nobody’s knowledge is fully comprehensive, of course. But Bloom gamely sets out on his impossible task.

It runs to more than 30 pages and literally hundreds of authors and works are named. There are four sections, chronologically: The Theocratic Age, The Aristocratic Age, The Democratic Age, The Chaotic Age. So, among many names, we have Homer, the Mahabharata, the Bible, the Koran, and then Dante, Cervantes, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Villon, Rabelais, Goethe, and then Leopardi, Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, Blake, Austen, Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Emily Dickinson, Whitman, Melville, Poe, Mark Twain, and that’s all before we get to the last section, “A Canonical Prophecy”.

In the whole list, Bloom includes 17 Scottish authors and a selection of their works: William Dunbar – Poems; James Boswell – Life of Johnson, Journals; Tobias Smollett – The Adventures of Roderick Random, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker; Robert Burns – Poems; Sir Walter Scott – Waverley, Old Mortality, The Heart of Midlothian, Redgauntlet; Lord Byron – Don Juan, Poems; John Galt – The Entail; James Hogg – The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner; Thomas Carlyle – Selected Prose, Sartor Resartus, James Thomson / “Bysshe Vanolis”, The City of Dreadful Night; John Davidson – Ballads and Songs; Robert Louis Stevenson – Essays, Kidnapped, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Treasure Island, The New Arabian Nights, The Master of Ballantrae, Weir of Hermiston; George MacDonald – Lilith, At the Back of the North Wind; David Lindsay – A Voyage to Arcturus; Edwin Muir – Collected Poems; Norman Douglas – South Wind; Hugh MacDiarmid – Complete Poems.

Now, the values that inform this list are clear: these are recognised classics that most well-informed English-speaking readers would acknowledge but it would be wrong to say it is sufficient. For example, it does not admit anything in Gaelic and there are no women.

If I were to offer a canon of Scottish literature, what criteria would I want to endorse? I should say that there must be representation: 1) of what we could demonstrate as “literary merit” and of what helps us understand what that term might mean; 2) of women as well as of men; 3) of the three languages in which most Scottish literature has been composed – Gaelic, Scots and English – even if we can only approach the work through translations or with a glossary; 4) of Scottish people, or of Scotland, and the variety of identities that constitute those terms (geographical, historical, industrial, rural, residents and travellers, exiles and tradition-bearers) across centuries; 5) of accessibility and difficulty (some authors present more problems than others and contemporary readers may find the language of Dunbar, the extensive narratives of Scott or the extremisms of MacDiarmid particularly challenging): in other words, the construction of a canon would have to pay attention to its own limitations as well as its strengths, not to be constrained entirely by fashion, and to estimate the extent of unknown regions, and indicate that they exist.

These criteria are themselves up for debate but any construction of a canon of Scottish literature is an act of reclamation, a resistance to the canonical weight of English, or Anglo-American, or Anglophone literature(s), including post-imperial literatures in English, what used to be called “Commonwealth” literature and is now usually called “Postcolonial” literature. In this respect, the very idea of Scottish literature is already an acknowledgement of the relativity of value.

The word “canon” normally signifies a selection of books approved as containing the most important or indeed sacred texts, an inviolable choice, amounting to a collection of essential knowledge. It’s usually as important for what it keeps out as for what it puts in.

MY own “canon” of Scottish literature would emphatically not be a list of “All You Need to Know” but it could offer a summary of some of the riches of Scottish literature in historical sequence and include a selection of authors whose works open connections between Scottish literature and other nations and disciplines and ways of approaching reality.

For example, I included some works of philosophy, literary criticism and history, the autobiography of the composer Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (1847-1935) and a book about painting by the artist JD Fergusson (1874-1961). There might have been more inclusions of this kind, such as the Memoirs (1948) of another Scottish composer, Frederic Lamond (1868-1948), or Points in Time: An Autobiography by the major artist William Johnstone (1897-1981), which has revealing things to say about Hugh MacDiarmid and FG Scott. There are always further reaches.

The list should amount to an indication rather than an attempt at essentialism or comprehensiveness. It is only temporarily fixed. It includes some things that may be considered inessential. It is there to be challenged, added to, subtracted from, made relative by future inclusion of other authors and works. It is there to prompt thought about how it should be extended and what should be excluded next time. Some readers might come across material which, to their thinking, should never have been included at all.

More controversially, some names were included to question canonicity itself and normally would not even be accepted as “Scottish”. Partly this should prompt consideration of what “Scottish” might mean, and how the term constitutes a basis for the choice of inclusion or exclusion. Accidents of birth or belonging? Deliberations of commitment, residence and decisive engagement?

There’s more than one possible reason to identify an artist with a nation. But the list should also indicate authors and texts whose work triggers questions about ways of thinking about Scottish literature that otherwise might not have been asked.

For example, I included the West Indian novelist Wilson Harris but not William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf or George Orwell, though all of them were related to Scotland and Scottish literary history in various more or less important ways.

I was tempted to include the novel Loot and Loyalty (1955) by the Polish poet and author Jerzy Peterkiewicz (1916-2007), as its subject is the professional mercenary and brilliant Scottish composer Tobias Hume (1569-1645).

Peterkiewicz left Poland, took a degree from the University of St Andrews and worked closely with the Scottish poet Burns Singer (1928-64) on translating an anthology of Polish poems, so again there are definite connections.

Neither did I include Frederick Douglass (1818-95), who is rightly identified as an African American whose autobiographies, A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised 1892), chart his journey from slavery to freedom.

The National Library of Scotland’s website identifies Scotland and Edinburgh as being influential after his visit in 1846, noting that he was struck by the fact he was treated as an equal in Scotland and was appointed “Scotland’s Antislavery Agent”. Alasdair Pettinger’s book Frederick Douglass and Scotland, 1846: Living an Antislavery Life (2020) tells the story in detail.

However, I did include James McCune Smith (1812-70), who, resident in Scotland, was the first African American to take a medical degree from Glasgow University.

In his 1841 lecture on the Haitian revolution and Toussaint L’Ouverture, he invoked Robert the Bruce: “Like Leonidas at Thermopylae, or the Bruce at Bannockburn, Toussaint determined to defend from thraldom his sea-girt isle, made sacred to liberty by the baptism of blood”.

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Noting this, alongside his lecture The Destiny of the People of Color (1843), helps keep the conduits clear for new approaches, reconsiderations, and unexpected angles from which to re-examine contested territories.

We cannot but remain open to, and indeed eager to know more about, the plurality of languages and other forms of identity that contribute to the mongrel singularity of our nation. That openness is as essential as the truth that we have to stop somewhere. Ultimately, I would look on a “canon” as no more than an invitation.

But if a canon – even a loose canon – of Scottish literature can help us be confident about our culture, our national identity in all its multifarious, contradictory complexity, and hold at bay those colonising powers of neighbouring canons, we’re always going to need one. So long as we use it well, and keep it pointed in the right direction.