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Just ask yourself: what would Scott do?

The independence debate has fixated on currency, tax, oil and Europe.

Alan Riach and Sandy Moffat, above, discuss the influence of Sir Walter Scott, who is commemorated in Edinburgh, right
Alan Riach and Sandy Moffat, above, discuss the influence of Sir Walter Scott, who is commemorated in Edinburgh, right

One big topic that hasn't made it anywhere near the top of the agenda is culture and what role it should play when it comes to deciding Scotland's future.

The issue is finally creeping into the spotlight, though. It was addressed by some of Scotland's leading writers and thinkers during the week at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. In the same debate, artist Sandy Moffat and poet and scholar Alan Riach lamented the absence of great Scottish writers - especially Sir Walter Scott - from English literature courses in schools.

So, what would a giant of Scottish writing like Scott say about the independence debate today? Would he be Yes? No? Would he care? Or do we all, in fact, project onto a figure like Scott our own political prejudices? After all, last year, First Minister Alex Salmond suggested the father of the historical novel would have been tempted to vote Yes, which was disputed by members of the Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club, who said the author had been a Tory "all his days".

In a bid to navigate such choppy literary and political waters, we decided to ask scholars, critics, writers and historians what they think the great man might have said.

Cultural commentator Paul Henderson Scott, former-vice president of the SNP, believes Westminster is still clinging to a tradition of "pretending" Scott was a Unionist, because he wrote about Britishness in novels such as Ivanhoe.

He says: "Surely it is no longer tolerable to suppress the reality? It's time for the Walter Scott Association to tell the truth."

He is critical about Scott's Malachi Malagrowther letters of 1826, in which the novelist complains about Westminster's intervention in Scottish affairs, not being reprinted until 1981.

The letters, written under literary pseudonym, attacked government proposals to reform the issue of banknotes and this grew into a campaign which led to Scottish banks continuing to print their own banknotes.

Scottish cultural historian Professor Murray Pittock claims that the novelist would see current relations between Westminster and Scotland as "unhealthy".

Pittock, head of the College of Arts at Glasgow University, said: "Predicting how historical figures may have voted is a bit of a mug's game, but I don't think Scott would be as secure a No voter as some may think.

"In the last decade of his life, he stood up for Scotland, and especially the currency, which is obviously very topical right now."

Pittock added: "I think he would find modern politics unhealthy.

"One of the main issues for him would be that Scotland doesn't have its own voice in the world. Scotland probably had a bigger voice as part of the British Empire. I think he would see elements of the No campaign as seeking to exclude Scotland.

"The focus is on London in terms of promoting the UK and I think Scott would find that very unhealthy.

"He would see the way the UK is promoted abroad as excluding Scotland.

"Like many Scots today, he wouldn't have voted Yes, but he would have been pretty uncomfortable voting No."

Renowned Sir Walter Scott expert Professor David Hewitt, of Aberdeen University, said: "Scott wouldn't want to break up the Union. But in the Malagrowther letters, he complains about what we would now call centralisation. He believed in the Union."

Hewitt, a member of The Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club, said Britain being part of the European Union throws up a dilemma which Scott did not have to consider in 1826.

"There is one factor which makes it utterly different," he explained. "Voting for independence from England is voting for a different kind of union. I think that out of 1826 into now, Scott would be voting No.

"He never again wanted to see hostility between Scotland and England."

Rosemary Goring, literary editor of The Herald and Sunday Herald, and author of the historical novel After Flodden said: "How would Scott vote in today's referendum? It's impossible to say, since the political temperature of our times is entirely different from his.

"Those with a fertile imagination can twist his famous Malachi Malagrowther letters in whichever direction they like, so long as they mirror their own views.

"So, in his staunch defence of Scotland's interests against southern interference, he can be seen as nationalist in the broadest sense; but equally, his protectiveness and diehard passion for his homeland is that of a romantic of the early 19th century, his patriotism going hand in hand with high esteem for the union.

"All one can say for sure is that, were he alive today and he voted Yes, it would be because he thought he could help make an independent nation work.

"And if he voted No, he would continue to work every hour of the day, regardless."

Sunday Herald columnist Iain Macwhirter echoed views that Scott may not have been a "straightforward" No voter: "Nineteenth-century Unionists, like the Tory novelist, Scott, weren't in the least afraid of Scottish nationalist history - in fact, he invented a lot of it."

Academic Professor David Purdie, who edited an abridged version of Ivanhoe, has previously disagreed with suggestions Scott could be swayed to Yes, saying he was "a nationalist with a small n". He said: "Sir Walter Scott would not [have voted 'Yes']. He was very much a Unionist all his days. He was a Tory all his days. He would have voted 'No'."

Professor Chris Whatley, a Dundee University historian, said he believed Scott would have been suspicious of the idea of the referendum in the first instance.

He said: "Scott lived at a time when very few Scots had the vote. He'd witnessed at first hand the emergence of political radicalism - and didn't like what he saw.

"He was very much a paternalistic Tory who would have been profoundly suspicious of if not downright hostile to the idea of a popular referendum. Unlike his near contemporary and fellow writer Robert Burns, Scott was no democrat."

But Whatley said that if Scott had come to terms with the referendum, he would have been "very much torn" on the independence issue.

"He was a proud and patriotic Scot who didn't like a number of aspects of the Union," he said.

"In his novels he ensured that much of Scotland's history was recorded and that his countless readers were more aware than would otherwise have been the case, of Scotland's past.

"On the other hand he recognised that economically Scotland had modernised within the British union state and perhaps even more important, Britain united had resisted the external military threat from Revolutionary France and after that, defeated France under Napoleon.

"In the early 19th century, very few people questioned the Union. Had he been alive today, though, there's just a chance he would have concluded that Scotland is now in a different place than it was 200 years ago [when he wrote the first Waverley novel]and that the Union was no longer necessary."

However he added: "As a Tory though, and unlike many Yes supporters who see independence as turning Scotland into a Tory-free state, he'd have had a lot more time for David Cameron and for Scotland's landlords - staunch No voters.

"The prospect of permanent left-leaning Scottish governments would have been anathema to him.

"One issue that would have interested him enormously is the currency. Given his staunch defence of the Scottish banknote and recognition that Scotland's needs were different than those of England I think he may well have been drawn to the idea of a separate Scottish currency, had there been a Yes vote."

Scottish poet and academic Professor Alan Riach, said: "Scott is conventionally considered a Unionist but the truth is more complex.

"By writing so much that deeply implanted ideas and images of what Scotland so uniquely is, he preserved a sense of distinctive Scottish identity, different from any other nation. Highlands and Lowlands, islands and cities - he was the last great writer before Hugh MacDiarmid to take a comprehensive view of Scotland in all the country's diversity and singularity.

"He helped keep the idea of Scotland alive. He knew what the reality of Unionist politics was, the way economics was moving, but he valued above all the human variousness in Scotland, the whole, complex theatre that Scotland still is.

"Also, in The Letters of Malachi Malagrowther, he wrote about the vital value of a Scottish currency and the need to preserve our own identity against the domination of London.

"He knew that since 1707, Scotland has been caught in a trap. But although he wrote about violent people, he was a great advocate for moving forward peacefully, understanding differences.

"He would have welcomed absolutely the free, democratic process which has taken us to the point where we can vote about this. People have died for their independence. All we have to do is go to the polling booth.

"He would have approved of that. And he would have voted Yes."

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