Of course, Scott’s work is now found old-fashioned, wordy and slow. The romantic novels do have the fustian air of the historical curiosity. Literary criticism has faulted his characterisation and found much of it wooden. Gradgrind historians have quarrelled with his grasp of factual detail. Others have objected to his snobbery, his Toryism, his hobnobbing with royalty, his part in creating the romantic myths with which the modern Scottish spirit is so impatient.
Yet Scott was one of the very few international geniuses Scottish literature has produced. His influence on the European novel was profound. He is still read with respect and enjoyment in France and Russia. Without some knowledge of Scott’s greatest works, those which reflect, however subjectively, the social and political history of Scotland, no Scot can have much hope of understanding the past. Yet in modern Scotland he is read hardly at all.
The neglect of Scott is perhaps understandable, given that we live in a visual and disposable culture where the fast-forward button is king, but an equally striking phenomenon is the embarrassment with which Scotland now regards John Knox.
He has been put out of our minds because our society has been so rapidly secularised and he stands for a collection of cultural baggage which we have tried hard to discard.
Knox in particular and the presbyterian tradition in general have been blamed for Scotland’s neglect of theatre and music, for making us a repressed and unimaginative nation, and for countless other failures. The schismatic tendencies of the Church, our most significant national institution to survive the Union, and its defeat at the hands of politicians after the Disruption, was certainly a defining moment in our history, and perhaps does much to explain our incurable failure to achieve any kind of political coherence.
Perhaps most of all in the modern era Knox was unfairly represented as standing for an outdated bigotry that could not be sustained in an urban, materialist, pluralist and open culture. In Scotland, if not in Northern Ireland, religious turbulence is a distant echo and our new and largely secular society has brought many benefits. I for one would not wish to return to the dreary Scottish Sundays of my youth, when the only bright moment in the morning was 20 minutes with Oor Wullie and the Broons before Kirk, when the highspot of the afternoon was the dreary and maddeningly repetitive radio programme Down Your Way, and when bona fide travellers drank furtively in suburban hotels so as not to scandalise the lieges.
The pace of secularisation in Scotland has been faster than in either the rest of the UK or in Ireland. We shop on Sunday without much thought, whereas in England the very idea is still resisted. A couple of Irish visitors, over for the rugby international last month, were amazed, on their first visit, to find how much Scotland had departed from the stereotype of Calvinist gloom which they had believed still to be the truth.
I cannot regret the fact that the Scottish people have found release from a preternatural sabbath gloom but in this great change there has, of course, been a loss. Knox cannot be erased from Scottish history as if he were some newly incorrect figure in a Soviet official encyclopaedia. That an attempt was being made to disinvent him became clear when, in the seventies, the authorities in Edinburgh renamed the John Knox Steps, running down from the Mound beside the National Gallery, the Playfair Steps. The greatest Scot had been supplanted by the architect of Edinburgh’s New Town, who died in 1857.
Was it a fair exchange? I think not. Playfair gave us one of Europe’s finest architectural passages in Edinburgh’s golden age. Knox gave Scotland something even more profound — its democratic temper and its respect for universal education before such ideas took root elsewhere. These ideas were later to suffuse its special brand of socialism.
Modern Scotland may desire to set Knox in a different light. We clearly have wished to strike in new directions from those in which presbyterianism led us. We have sought liberation from a tradition that was in many ways oppressive. Our age is ecumenical and pluralist, as it must be. But that does not mean that we should forget our history and our great men.