Is my ‘Scottish’ book good enough? I’m tired of stereotypes. We have new stories to tell – The Irish Times
When I pitched my first novel for the first time The tick and tock of the crocodile clock to editors, many of them asked the same question.
“Does this book Scottish sufficient?”
I am Scottish. My mother is from the small village of Cromore on the Isle of Lewis where I grew up and attended school and university in the central belt of Scotland. I am Irish. My father is from the village of Loughanure in County Donegal and Ireland is my second home.
These two halves of my identity are distinct and separate to me, but you wouldn’t know that our countries are different places to see us represented in the rest of the world, would you? If there’s one thing we have in common, it’s the stereotypes that represent us.
Far too often we are pushed into one of three categories. Either we are depicted as dangerous gangsters or hooligans, steeped in menace and victims of socio-economic hardship, these characters are usually drug dealers, drug addicts or drunkards; or perhaps we’re pictured as Celtic heroes, roaming the hills, red hair whipping in the wind, expressing almost violent levels of back-slapping amiability between truly violent displays of swinging around very large swords, and who are drunk; either we are the comedians, or the next generation of comedians, the people with funny accents made even funnier by American actors, who cannot really doing them, having a good crack anyway, and being drunk.
Scottish and Irish characters in books, movies, and TV can sometimes be very likable, but we’re not often nuanced. It’s too rare for Scottish or Irish characters to show their vulnerability, appreciate beauty, or tell someone we love them. We are presented as the bolshie underdogs, always ready to fight but never in charge and never very smart or caring. It’s hard when every character you see in a book or TV show that’s from where you’re from is portrayed that way so it doesn’t creep in. Eventually we begin to believe that we are nations of supporting characters, underdogs who will never achieve anything more, people who will never feel love or know beauty.
And I’ve had enough.
Irvine Welsh is perhaps one of Scotland’s most famous contemporary writers, and his gift to the world was Trainspotting. It was a seminal book that became a seminal film and put Scotland on the map in terms of gritty storytelling. It’s brilliant, sure, but sometimes I worry that its very brilliance has shackled us into creating a huge amount of stories of crime and social injustice to the detriment of everything else. In Trainspotting, Renton’s character says “it’s crap to be Scottish” and I think there’s at least a whole generation of Scots who really believe that.
It’s not. It’s great to be Scottish. It’s great to be Irish. Look at the incredible beauty all around you. And I’m not just talking about the beauty of our landscapes, or the beauty of our wildlife, I’m talking about the people. Have you ever known people as caring, compassionate and intelligent as the Irish and the Scots? Have you ever known such relatively small countries to produce globally influential artists such as Robert Burns, James Joyce, JM Barrie or Samuel Beckett?
My first novel, The tick and tock of the crocodile clock, was eventually picked up by a publisher and released this year. It’s a modern Peter Pan tale set in Glasgow and the Trossachs and although it focuses on the story of two young Glasgow girls in their early twenties and deals with very serious mental health themes , I was aware at all times that I wanted to tell a story that reveled in the cultural beauty of Glasgow rather than portraying it as an eerie or grim place. J
he protagonists, Wendy and Cat, are poet and artist respectively. Their antagonist does not come in the form of a gangster, drug dealer, or murderer, but rather the form of the modern world that insists they grow up too fast and leave behind fantasy and art. The girls rebel and embark on a series of misdeeds, which ultimately results in Wendy going too far, stealing a priceless piece of art, and being forced on the run from the law. It’s a quintessentially Scottish story…after all, JM Barrie was Scottish…but it might not be the kind of Scottish story you’ll hear often. Perhaps, in moving away from the tropes the world expects, he hasn’t become “Scottish enough” for those who want to sell a sanitized and simplified idea of our identity as they would a box of tartan shortbread.
In my next radio play Knock Of The Ban-Síthe, which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on August 18, I explore a whole different side of Scotland. Knock of the Ban-Síthe is a ghost story steeped in our oft-forgotten Scottish mythological creatures, and interspersed with our oft-maligned Gaelic language that is so closely related to Irish, and also threatened with extinction.
Crocodile Clock and Ban-Síthe are not what you might expect when picking up a book or listening to a radio play that is Scottish. But they’re Scottish, and they represent stories from Scotland that are overlooked amid booze and spunk.
There is more to Celtic lands than you might think. We have new stories to tell, stories that have never been heard before. It’s time for the world to listen.
Kenny Boyle is an author, actor and playwright from the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. His debut novel The Tick and The Tock of The Crocodile Clock is available now from all good bookshops and his first radio play The Knock of The Ban-Síthe will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on August 18 at 2.15pm.