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Yes or No? Why great minds don't think alike

IT was the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir who said Robert Burns and Walter Scott were "sham bards of a sham nation".

Muir had a gift for such soundbites which, when presented to the likes of Hugh MacDiarmid, were like a red rag to a bull. No fan of nationalism, Muir, who with his wife Willa was an early translator of Kafka, was fearful that an independent Scotland would grow even more isolated and parochial than it already was in the 1930s.

Back then, the break-up of the United Kingdom was more of a dream or an argument than a possibility. At its forefront, however, were writers, including the electric-tempered genius MacDiarmid, Compton Mackenzie, best-known today for Whisky Galore, and R.B. Cunninghame-Graham, a globetrotter long before budget airlines came on the scene.

All three men were prominent in the formative days of the National Party of Scotland, the precursor of the Scottish National Party. That they wanted Scotland to be free of English governance was one of the few things on which they were generally agreed. Otherwise their vision of a future Scotland was fractured. MacDiarmid, for example, flirted with fascism and communism and wrote often in a language no one, including himself, spoke.

Would the Yes campaign embrace such followers now? I rather doubt it. Certainly, many Nationalists distanced themselves from Alasdair Gray's division of incomers to Scotland into "colonists" and "settlers". No one, though, can be in any doubt where Gray will put his cross when asked in September, "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

In that regard he has many fellow travellers. As Robert Crawford acknowledges in his new book, Bannockburns: Scottish Independence and Literary Imagination, 1314-2014, it is easier to find writers who are in favour of independence than those who avowedly are not. "Vocal supporters of Unionism among the Scottish literati," writes Crawford, "and particularly among those who reside in Scotland, are notably scarce."

That certainly is my experience. For many writers, it is not a question of economics or defence or whether the European Union will have us that is uppermost in their thoughts, undoubtedly important as all of these are. Rather it is matter of self-respect: if you believe there is a nation called Scotland - and not a "national region" as the BBC sometimes has it - then for better or worse we should run things ourselves. No-one puts it more trenchantly than James Kelman: "How we determine our own existence, this is what we do as adults for goodness sake, it's our culture, ultimately it concerns survival."

Alas, you will not find many echoes of such sentiments in the 650 pages of Scotland's Future, admirable though it is in many respects. The language of real writers is far removed from that of civil servants and party apparatchiks. Nor is culture high up the agenda of the authors of the white paper. Though it is aspirational it is also pragmatic. Writers - artists in the broadest sense - are not like other people. They think differently, often selfishly, unpredictably, even eccentrically. Which is why they are tricky bedfellows to welcome on to your bandwagon. Show them a party line and they are likely to take a duster to it.

Why, then, does it matter to both sides of the debate whether Scott or Burns would vote Yes or No? I have friends who spend many of their waking hours debunking those who have the gall to suggest that were they alive at this hour both these "sham bards" would vote No. Scott, it's said, was a Unionist, but how can that be, argue his nationalist aficionados, when he wrote the Malachi Malagrowther letters in which he railed against attempts by the British government to interfere with the independence of Scottish banks?

Burns, meanwhile, has often been enthusiastically embraced as a Unionist on the basis of songs such as the one he composed for the Dumfries Volunteers: "Be Britain still to Britain true" and so on. But as Burnsians have legitimately pointed out he wrote that under duress. In his heart of hearts, they insist, he would have been on the side of nationalism.

And so it goes, generating more heat than light. For my part, I believe one of the bards may have voted Yes and the other No, though who is in which camp I'd prefer to keep to myself.

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