The country to which John Herdman's title refers is Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s, when anyone who mooted the idea of an independence referendum would have been carted off to a loony bin, as it was invariably called in that pre-PC era.

Back then, Scotland - pace Macbeth - was almost afraid to know itself. Nationalist fortunes went up and down like a Munro bagger and the movement, if such it can be called, in favour of radical constitutional change was fragmented and dominated by a broth of eccentrics, bampots, artists, students and - another term you don't often hear nowadays - patriots.

Herdman was born in 1941 and thus grew to maturity in the period he writes about. If any Scottish writer merits the "neglected" label, he does. He is the author of a number of quirky but stimulating and often very funny short novels about which there is a echo of Hogg's Justified Sinner. I have a particular fondness for his loosely autobiographical novella Pagan's Pilgrimage (1978) which, had it Flann O'Brien's name attached to it, would be much better known. He also wrote one of the earliest studies of Bob Dylan's lyrics.

As he relates in the first part of Another Country, Herdman left Merchiston Castle School (which he does not name) in Edinburgh in 1959 and was introduced by his father to "the wider city". Specifically, he was taken to Rose Street with its characterful bars, faithful denizens and inimitable proprietors where, in due course, he came into contact with the cream of the Scottish Renaissance. At its epicentre, of course, sat Hugh MacDiarmid who even now, 35 years after his death, is a divisive, controversial and much misunderstood figure.

For Herdman, however, meeting MacDiarmid was akin to Boswell encountering Dr Johnson. Like many others he made the trek to the cottage near Biggar that the poet shared with his wife Valda. Expecting to find MacDiarmid "combative" and "excoriating", he was pleasantly surprised to be given a genial welcome. "And if," adds Herdman, "when he was expatiating on some of his betes noires in politics or literature his eye took on a vatic gleam and the edge of his voice hardened into Stalinist steel, these were quickly dispelled when he reached you a plate of home-made scones with a persuasive smile of unfeigned, innocent sweetness."

As Alexander Moffat's painting Poets' Pub illustrates, it was around MacDiarmid that Scotland's post-war cultural world whirled. He was, as Herdman avers, an incontrovertible and unabashed elitist, desperate to drag his country out of the kailyard mirk. Sweet-natured in person, he could be a tyrant in print or on a platform, impatient as he was to see into being a Scotland that was not afraid to know itself, or anywhere else for that matter.

Politically, MacDiarmid diced dangerously and daftly with dictator-inspired dogmas, including fascism and communism, which made him an easy target for shallow thinkers. He made enemies as quickly as he did friends, among them the folklorist and poet Hamish Henderson, whom Herdman describes rather inelegantly as "an uncompromising man of the Left and anti-nuclear stalwart and anti-apartheid campaigner". MacDiarmid had no time for folk music because of its appeal to "the vast majority of men" or "the undifferentiated mass". A 20th-century Burns he most certainly was not, except in his verse and his poverty.

Such jousts, however ridiculous in retrospect, were at the time invigorating, enlivening and dominated the correspondence pages of the newspapers for days on end, something, suggests Herdman, that no editor would countenance today. This is nonsense, as the recent hullabaloo over Alasdair Gray's settlers and colonists essay demonstrated. But what is surely undeniable is that 50 or so years ago there was an identifiable group of people who spoke passionately and informedly for Scottish culture, and often disagreed with one another over what form it should take and what should be celebrated, championed and nurtured.

We know of the main movers and shakers - MacCaig, MacLean, Garioch and Mackay Brown. Less well remembered others, however, are resurrected by Herdman, who was himself a peripheral figure. For example, he recalls Stuart MacGregor, whom he met in 1970. MacGregor was, as he wrote in his song of the same name, a Sandy Bell's Man, thus distinguishing himself from those whose preferred howffs were the Abbotsford or Milne's Bar or Ma Scott's. A doctor, he was also a well-known writer on the basis of his first novel, The Myrtle And Ivy, which showed much promise.

"It was recounted of him, possibly apocryphally," notes Herdman, "that one Hogmanay afternoon his wife Jane had sent him out to buy a loaf of bread and hadn't seen him again until the 3rd of January." MacGregor died in a car accident in Jamaica and his second novel, The Sinner, was published posthumously.

Politically this was a period when Labour and the Tories dominated in Scotland. Neither party really took the possibility of nationalism seriously, but the SNP gradually emerged as a force that could no longer be ignored. Its was a story of steady advance, accurately described by Andrew Marr in The Battle For Scotland as "an unheroic history of fundraising, finding cheap printers, compiling policies at long meetings, relentless membership recruitment and the establishment of research departments". Glamorous it was not. For two turbulent issues Herdman was editor of Catalyst, the organ of the 1320 Club, a pro-nationalist fringe organisation, among whose members were two odd and mysterious men who would grace the pages of a Le Carre novel, Ronald MacDonald Douglas and Major FAC Boothby.

Herdman's portrait of the latter is worthy of Evelyn Waugh. A cousin of Lord "Bob" Boothby, whom Alex Salmond defeated to become an MP, Major Boothby "had apparently spent some years in his youth as a gaucho in Argentina. Thereafter he seems to have been a regular officer in the British Army: I was later to discover that he had had to flee the Home Counties as a result of allegations in the popular press that he was involved in witchcraft and cavorting in the woods with naked boys and girls. Thereafter he turned up, some time in the 50s, in the Borders as a fearless nationalist leader in search of troops to lead. He was frequently kilted, sported a clipped grey beard and had an eye which looked as if it might have been glass. He spoke with what used to be called a 'natural tone of command'."

Both Boothby and Douglas, Herdman suggests, were agents provocateurs, though he offers no evidence. Nevertheless they were typical of that febrile time when at last things seemed to be moving the nationalists' way. Herdman was on the cultural wing of the movement and deplores, rightly in my view, the current concentration on economic matters. He was a member of The Heretics, who mixed poetry and prose with song in pubs and clubs across the country and which attempted to redress the dearth of Scottish content in the programme of the Edinburgh International Festival.

Edinburgh is at the heart of Herdman's story, populated by characters who loved and loathed each other in equal measure. It was a male-dominated milieu, and women feature fleetingly. Herdman makes no mention of Stella Cartwright, muse to several of the poets, including George Mackay Brown, Tom Scott and Sidney Goodsir Smith, and of whom Stanley Roger Green wrote movingly in his memoir A Clamjamfray Of Poets. Nor is any heed paid to writers of Scottish formation, such as Muriel Spark, who during the 1960s and 1970s became an international star.

But Herdman is to be congratulated on bringing illumination to a period in our history when it seemed we were stuck in limbo. Like many of us he is fearful that culture, which once dominated the national (and nationalist) agenda, has been commodified to a deleterious extent. He is also, like many of us, saddened that when someone of Alasdair Gray's stature dares to speak out he is subjected to a barrage of ignorant abuse while the issue he attempted to address is overlooked. It is, concludes Herdman, "a salutary reminder of what can still be the cost of speaking one's mind in Scotland". Finally, it should be pointed out that the two overlapping essays which comprise Another Country have appeared previously in editions which were not widely circulated.