Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 September 2020
I Delving for Scotland
In the autumn of 1966, Ian Hamilton Finlay and his wife Sue took over an abandoned croft in the Southern uplands of Scotland. For Finlay, a poet, short-story writer and editor, best known for his poems in Glasgow dialect, Glasgow Beasts, an a Burd (1961), and for the avant garde internationalism promoted by his journal Poor. Old. Tired. Horse., the setting seemed an unlikely one. The croft was called Stonypath, a name all too appropriate to its environment, set as it was in a landscape of rough pasture that had been ravaged by two hundred years of grazing sheep. The Finlays’ empty croft might have been an emblem of the Scotland which, even more dramatically than the rest of the UK, had declined from the ‘workshop of the world’ before the First World War to the ‘sick man of Europe’ after the Second. Uniquely, Scotland had the same population in 2000 as it had in 1900, a lack of growth matched by its low economic performance. Abandoned crofts in the countryside, slums in the cities, identically endless housing estates in the suburbs: Scotland was Europe's ‘hard case’, a place where housing was worse than in the communist states of Eastern Europe, a place where inner-city deprivation was among the worst in Western Europe, a place as resistant to art as its climate was to fertility – a place recollected in 1999 in Andrew O’Hagan's Our Fathers:
In my father's anger there was something of the nation. Everything torn from the ground; his mind like a rotten field. His country was a country of fearful men: proud in the talking, paltry in the living, and every promise another lie. My father bore all the dread that came with the soil – unable to rise, or rise again, and slow to see the power in his own hands. Our fathers were made for grief. They were broken-backed. They were sick at heart, weak in the bones. All they wanted was the peace of defeat.
A country incapable of growth, ‘a rotten field’ – like the croft that the Finlays took over, Scottish culture through much of the century was imaged as derelict.