On 18 September 2014 voters in Scotland will take to the polls to answer the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ Many people have been asking themselves first, ‘What does this question mean?’
Scotland is made out of cities and the country and the sea, which means it is so much more, as an imagined space or a geography of the mind, than its centres of population. No-one has understood this question of the authority of identity more deeply, in its relation to geographical and historical position, and political and military power, than the writers and artists of Scotland.
Poetry, literature and the arts give us the most essential information about what it is to be human, in every country, in all sorts of ways. Great art connects us to all the great writers of the world, and in that sense, it is universal, not tied to any flag. It is about deeply human things, both qualities and failings. Yet at the same time all great works of art arise from their own time and place. There is an intimate and vital relation between art and identity.
The culture itself extends beyond any individual through time and across geography, but without the arts, we diminish ourselves hopelessly. What they encourage us to understand deeply is the political potential of diversity, as opposed to dividedness. Scotland is multiform, plural, rich in possibility, and its writers and artists demonstrate this in every way. They lead the opposition to sectarianism and violence. They show us how the country’s potential can best be realised. Almost every one of them want an independent Scotland.
Alan Riach is professor of Scottish literature at the University of Glasgow.