In a bid to polish its tarnished reputation the BBC has announced various programmes designed to the whet the appetite of those who of late have feared it was more interested in protecting its back and its bonuses than serving the nation with quality broadcasting.
Among the trumpeted line-up, we are told, is a programme presented by Andrew Marr, telling the story of Scottish literature. It is to be called The Men Who Invented Scotland.
When I read this my jaw dropped with such force I thought it had dislocated itself. Disbelief was followed by the sort of fury that fuels volcanic eruptions. Indeed, whoever came up with that title could only be excused if they had been buried under ash in Pompeii these past few centuries and only recently exhumed. That said, I suspect even the living dead are aware that the history of Scotland, and its literature, is no longer seen as the preserve of men, and that those who view it as such should be exhibited alongside the dinosaurs at the National Museum of Scotland.
Let's put aside the question of why Andrew Marr has been chosen, when there are plenty of better qualified literary experts in the country. I am a great admirer of Marr, who is not only talented but generous and kind. His only flaw, it seems, is that the word no has been excised from his vocabulary. At the very least, he should have vetoed the title.
Far more aggravating than his involvement, however, is the idea itself. If the BBC's intention is to regain the trust of its viewers, it has at a swipe alienated half of us. The history of Scottish literature may well be dominated by men - Barbour, Dunbar, Scott, Burns, Stevenson - and in the past century, those such as MacDiarmid, MacCaig, MacLean, McIlvanney, Kelman and Gray. But women have always played an important role in our literary heritage. What about the likes of Margaret Elphinstone, whose novels were the bestsellers of their day, or Mary Brunton, whose fiction was so good it made Jane Austen anxious?
Only in the 20th century did women writers fully come into their own. At the same time, reading became one of our favourite pastimes, meaning their work reached millions. Muriel Spark was inarguably the most acclaimed Scottish novelist of last century. Her international reputation was built around The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a novel that effectively reinvented Edinburgh, but there are many others beyond Spark.
Since it would take the rest of this column merely to list them, I'll mention only a handful: Naomi Mitchison, Violet Jacob, Nan Shepherd, Lorna Moon, Catherine Carswell, and Jessie Kesson. As for recent times, Liz Lochhead has perhaps as much claim to have shaped Scotland's literary scene as any of her male predecessors. An original who was utterly undaunted by the male-dominated world of books, she inspired the next generation, among them A L Kennedy, Janice Galloway, Kathleen Jamie and Ali Smith, four of the most talented of today's writers.
No wonder some still rage at the marginalisation of women in Sandy Moffat's glorious portrait of seven great writers in Poets' Pub. Tantalisingly, though, rumour has it he has been asked to create a companion all-women version. He'll have trouble fitting them all on to the canvas.
Yet, even if no woman had ever lifted a pen to write a poem or novel, the notion of male writers inventing Scotland is infuriating on a deeper level. There is scarcely any writer who has made his way to fame without the help of a woman, whether it's his mother, wife, sister or companion. Without Jean Armour as his muse and crutch, would Burns's poems have been so rich? Would Thomas Carlyle have had the energy to write as he did without Jane's help? Had it not been for his wife's devotion, would Walter Scott have been as prolific? And regardless of the practical and emotional role women have played, their concerns, experiences and ideas have always found their way into men's work.
The invention of Scotland is thus every bit as much the story of women as men, and it is profoundly offensive to suggest otherwise. In many cases women may be invisible, either written out of history, or naturally self-effacing. Read between the lines, though, and you can always catch their voices.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.