RB Cunninghame Graham (1852-1936) was born in London, travelled throughout Europe, Morocco and North Africa, the United States and South America, gathering a vast resource of experience and a reputation as an aristocratic adventurer. He was a highly cultivated literary man of action, a professional amateur, a flamboyant optimist whose belief in socialism, Scottish nationalism and cultural authority made him friends even of people who totally disagreed with him. In Morocco, it’s said that he was once confronted by armed tribesmen who challenged him with the question, “Are you a Christian?” He replied with self-righteous indignation and hauteur, “I am of the Church of Scotland!” and was told to pass freely. One good friend, the novelist Joseph Conrad, wrote to him sternly in a letter dated January 31 1898: “There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope…” But Cunninghame Graham, with ironic humour, deep understanding and Quixotic idealism, maintained his belief in all three. Yet he was a practical man and a realist. In 1886-87, he was an MP in the House of Commons in London. Famously, condemning the hypocrisy of the London parliament, he was told to withdraw. He replied, “I never withdraw!” Unintimidated by the priorities of civil disobedience, he was truncheoned to the ground at “Bloody Sunday”, the protest in Trafalgar Square in 1887.

Along with Keir Hardie, he was a founder member of the Scottish Labour Party (1888), which joined the Independent Labour Party (1895) and later the Labour Party (1906), and he was also a founder member of the National Party of Scotland (1928), evolving into the Scottish National Party (1934). His conviction was that principles of universal socialism and Scottish independence were intrinsically aligned, both in need of each other and neither ultimately able to deliver without the support of the other. His priorities were to nationalise land, mines and other industries, abolish the House of Lords and the Church of England, and establish an eight-hour day for working people, free school meals, universal suffrage and Scottish Home Rule. He was ahead of his time.

Conrad was a pivotal figure for him, as for Neil Munro and Hugh MacDiarmid (the former two were Conrad’s friends and MacDiarmid met him in the early 1920s). Cunninghame Graham never attempted a novel but his range is as wide as Conrad’s: travel writing, astute political accounts of the grandeur and squalor of the British Empire, perfectly poised short stories, sharp, ironic, compassionate vignettes of Scottish life. Various pieces are gathered in substantial collections crossing different genres, made up of sketches of landscapes and the lore and characters of particular places (in South America, North Africa, Scotland and elsewhere), evocations of scenes of high tension, stories distilled to pointed, if sometimes oblique, resonance, speculative studies arising from actual events all reflecting upon a central theme: the transition from imperial to post-imperial or postcolonial worlds.

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“A Memory of Parnell”, from His People (1906), and “Inveni Portum”, from Redeemed (1927) are accounts, respectively, of the Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-91) and Conrad’s funeral in 1924, factual but with narrative structure, a personal tone, shrewd, passionate, wry, committed, ambiguous. “Might, Majesty and Dominion”, from Success (1902), is a depiction of the funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901. It opens with a sense of optimism: “Full sixty years of progress; wages at least thrice higher than, when a girl, she mounted on her throne; England’s dominions more than thrice extended; arts, sciences, and everything that tends to bridge space over, a thousand times advanced, and a new era brought about by steam and electricity...” However, by the end of the piece, the tone has changed. The crowd disperses, “leaving upon the grass of the down-trodden park its scum of sandwich-papers, which, like the foam of some great ocean, clung to the railings, round the roots of trees, was driven fitfully before the wind over the boot-stained grass, or trodden deep into the mud, or else swayed rhythmically to and fro as seaweed sways and moans in the slack water of a beach”. A dog or two roams around, sniffing the rejected scraps of food, an old man stumbles about, slipping on the grass, devours from the scraps of paper whatever food the dogs have left, and disappears in the gloom. It is not a happy ending, and unsettles any sense of the glory and wealth of an empire that might have been, momentarily, present.

His finest work is in Thirteen Stories (1900) and Scottish Stories (1914) but he is best read in his entirety, preferably in the sequence in which his books were first published. Thirteen Stories includes a variety of locations: South America, North Africa, Scotland, New Caledonia, New Zealand, a German tramp steamer. This geographical range belies the links between the stories, which often deal with common human activities driven to extremes by circumstance. “The Gold Fish” is a classic tale of commitment and futility where the absurdity of the proposition and the realism of the depiction generate tension as the story develops. An Arab messenger is entrusted to carry a bowl of goldfish across the Sahara desert and dies in the attempt. It’s an account of the futility of misplaced loyalty but its pathos disallows superficial judgement. Like many of the stories, this was based on an actual meeting in Morocco, when Cunninghame Graham encountered a man on exactly such a mission, who told him that his failure would be his death. “Cruz Alta” offers exoticism in its subject of buying, riding and selling horses in South America, but the commercial transactions driving the narrative bear a moral weight that tempers the action. This is not escapist adventure.

Hugh MacDiarmid said that he was introduced to Cunninghame Graham in the early 1920s: “My decision to make the Scottish Cause, cultural and political, my life-work dates from that moment.”

Another kind of outsider, Patrick MacGill (1889-1963), born in Donegal, Ireland, left school at twelve and headed for Scotland at fourteen as a “tattie-howker” (an itinerant potato-picker) and a labourer working on the Caledonian Railway before publishing poems, novels and autobiographical accounts of working-class life, stylistically similar to his American contemporary Jack London. Children of the Dead End (1914) and The Rat Pit (1915) are classics.

THERE are also two classic “anti-Kailyard” novels, full-blown works of imaginative horror. If you stand outside the house where George Douglas Brown (1869-1902) was born, in the long main street of the little Ayrshire town of Ochiltree, you can look downhill and out for miles over the widening farm landscapes to the north and east. On the tall, sloping street, his birthplace is commemorated by a plaque but while the street and prospect are pleasant and broadening, any reader of Brown’s masterpiece, The House with the Green Shutters (1901), must feel a sense of small-town social oppression, the weight of malicious gossip, the fierce contestation in a capitalist economy at the moment when (even in Ayrshire!) the agricultural world was about to give way to the priorities of industrialisation. The novel hinges on the period when the small-town patriarch, Gourlay, dominating family, workers and town, is matched and outdone by the younger merchant James Wilson, who knows better how to exploit the coming changed world in which trains have taken over from horse-drawn wagons. Barbie – the fictional small-town – is a foetid nest of horrible people, brutalised by the economy in which they are embroiled, taking cruel pleasure by inflicting nastiness upon each other, and commented on by the local men who foregather every day to talk about the latest miserable occurrences and developments. By the end of the book, even they seem stunned by the violence. Gourlay’s son has returned from university, his gifts squandered in alcoholism and inadequacy. His temper flares and he murders his father. Coming upon the scene, his mother despairs: “Mrs Gourlay raised her arms, like a gaunt sibyl, and spoke to her Maker quietly, as if He were a man before her in the room. ‘Ruin and murder,’ she said slowly, ‘and madness; and death at my nipple like a child! When will Ye be satisfied?’”

No answer arriving, the son poisons himself. His mother and sister, discovering some poison left in the bottle, kill themselves too. What would be melodrama is held down to believable and horrifying reality by a precision of language and stylistic restraint which delivers clear, understated descriptions and a gathering strength in the story’s development. Conspicuous by their absence in the novel are any depictions of church or minister. There is no saviour and no redemption. All the characters are caught in an intensifying vortex of forces that destroys them, as devastating as Dostoevsky. No other novel ends in such an utterly comprehensive vision of death, disease and disaster.

Gillespie (1914), by John MacDougall Hay (1880-1919), tells a similar story on a larger scale. The location for this apocalyptic vision of small-town Scotland is Brieston, based on Tarbert, Loch Fyne, a fishing village with its own small-town rivalries, hostilities and nastinesses to rival that of Brown’s rural Barbie. Hay grew up in Tarbert and, like Brown, went to Glasgow University, becoming a headmaster in Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, moving back to the mainland to teach in Ullapool before returning to Glasgow to study divinity. He became a church minister in 1909 and in the same year married Catherine Campbell. They had two children, Sheena and George Campbell Hay, who was to become a fine poet. Hay had been writing journalism for various magazines and newspapers such as The Glasgow Herald and when Gillespie appeared he wondered about leaving the ministry to take up writing full-time. A second novel appeared, Barnacles (1916), and a poem “Their Dead Sons” (1918), but Gillespie has sustained his reputation.

The central character, Gillespie Strang, combines the qualities of Brown’s Gourlay and Gourlay’s nemesis, Wilson: he is both brutally domineering and commercially astute, but in the moral and social world he is shown to be completely bereft of decency. He is almost literally monstrous. The novel is deliberately extended and epic in scale, both in its social vision and its thundering denunciation of the evils it displays. As in Brown’s novel, there’s a tortured, self-doubting son, and a cataclysmic ending in which all the principal characters meet their demise. There are passages of heavily-written prose reminiscent of Herman Melville at his least buoyant, yet the book stands the comparison. There are two lastingly memorable sections, one describing the effect of plague decimating the town, at which point the doctor, rather than the minister, offers real help; the other describes the burning of the fishing fleet in Brieston harbour, the whole town illuminated by the hellish blaze on the water. This is one of the most spectacular scenes in modern Scottish fiction and suggests the book’s filmic potential. Again like Brown, Hay’s health failed him early. When he died in 1919 at the age of thirty-nine, his funeral was held at Paisley Abbey.

By contrast with these dark classics, Hamewith (1900) by Charles Murray (1864-1941) was one of the most popular books of poetry for generations, culminating the long tradition of 19th-century poetry of exile (the title means “Homewards”). Sentimental as much of his verse might be, Murray sometimes hits a universal note with absolute accuracy. “Dockens Afore His Peers” is a desperately moving monologue spoken by a soldier at an exemption tribunal. The Scots voice registers a sense of helplessness, human resilience and utter vulnerability. In “A Green Yule”, the sense of imminent mortality is shocking:

Dibble them doon, the laird, the loon,

King an’ the cadgin’ caird,

The lady fine beside the queyn,

A’ in the same kirkyaird.

The warst, the best, they a’ get rest;

Ane ’neath a headstane braw,

Wi’ deep-cut text, while owre the next

The wavin’ grass is a’.

This connects him in the Scottish tradition to Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makars” but also internationally and across time to the great poet of 15th-century France, Villon, translated here by Basil Bunting:

Remember, imbeciles and wits

sots and ascetics, fair and foul,

young girls with little tender tits

that DEATH is written over all.

The same sentiment is perhaps more sympathetic in the Scots verse as in the nasty jingling rhythm and rhyme of the English version of the French original, but both are making the same, black, absolute and irrefutable point. As far from Kailyard conventions as you can go.