Perhaps it is because of the mingled historical heritage, rip-roaring adventurism beside domestic providence, that so many of the great Scottish writers have sprung from the country's southern soils. You can visit the shades of three of the greatest in a single day's pilgrimage -- it is never much more than a hundred miles from east to west of the southlands.
First, of course, through the crowd of tourist buses always lined up in the car park, to Abbotsford on the Tweed, home of that Scott of Scots, Sir Walter. This is one of the great literary destinations of Europe, one of the principal founts of Scottish reputation, and it also offers a touching insight into Scottish character: for just as Scott personally brought into being a Scotland theatrically heightened and new-colored, so through the medium of Abbotsford he transformed himself from a man of the bourgeoisie into a full-blown southern laird.
Abbotsford was a modest farmhouse when he bought it, frankly named Clartyhole, or Dirty Place, but he made of it a half-baronial, half-monastic mansion. With its rooms full of antlers and armour, its peacocks in the garden, its coats of arms and its private chapel, it is mostly sham -- "the most incongruous pile," Ruskin called it, "that gentlemanly modernism ever designed." At the same time it is endearingly genuine, and for myself, the longer I wander around its preposterous grandeurs, the more I warm to it. The Scotland that Sir Walter imagined has survived for ever after, sometimes more convincingly than the less lofty Scotland of fact: and he himself really did become a great gentleman, as he deserved, there among his escutcheons, his books and his royal mementoes above the river.
Hardly half an hour to the west, and you are driving up a narrow unpaved lane to the home at Brownsbank, near Biggar, of Hugh MacDiarmid, born Christopher Greave, the most celebrated Scottish poet of the twentieth century and one of its most contentious characters. MacDiarmid's home is the very antithesis of Abbotsford, but is no less movingly embedded in the nature of the country -- an old crofter's cottage, set in a rough field beside the lane, with miscellaneous out-houses attached and a glass porch full of potted plants.
MacDiarmid's widow lives there still, and the house is snug, low-ceilinged, bookish, picture-hung, instinct with the quirky fun of the poet, and with memories of the long line of pilgrims who found their way here down the years. MacDiarmid was southern Scottish through and through, so difficult and provocative in some ways, so merry and sweet-natured in others. He even looked the quintessential Lowlander, with his huge striking head, his bird-like postures and his blazing eyes -- "an eaten an' spewed lookin' wee thing," his own mother thought, "wi' een like twa burned holes in a blanket." His personality is all-pervasive, almost tangible at Brownsbank to this day, and on a paving-stone beside the door, as if engraved on the matter of the land itself, is carved the best-loved of his lyrics:
The Rose of all the world is not for me,
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland,
That smells sharp and sweet -- and breaks the heart.
And so, on an even more frequently trodden road, to a house more famous than MacDiarmid's, more reverently approached even than Scott's -- the low, thatched cottage at Alloway, on the coast near Ayr, where was born in 1759 the darling of his people, the emblem of his nation, the hero of every retired mill-worker's favorite anecdote, the one writer of whom every living Scotsman knows a line or two, if only "Old Lang Syne" or "A man's a man" -- Robert Burns. There is probably not a poet in the world, writing in any language, so beloved by his compatriots as is Robbie Burns of Alloway. In the absence of any triumphant festival of Scottish sovereignty, the birthday of this minor functionary and incompetent farmer, Burns Day, is to Scotland what Independence Day is to the United States or Bastille Day to the French.
There is not much numen to the little whitewashed cottage now -- it has too long been sanitized and veneered by tourism -- yet never-ending streams of devotees wander star-struck through its rooms or linger on the high-arched Brig-O'Doon nearby, quoting stanzas to each other. It is hard to feel the presence of the poet himself, in a site so thoroughly and repeatedly done over, yet not just in Alloway, but anywhere in southern Scotland his influence and his example can be sensed. Burns' hold over his people is one of the great phenomena of literature, and raises in my own mind fascinating doubts about the popular reputation of the Scots.
For what does it say of such a famously ambitious nation that its paragon of paragons, admired beyond all statesmen, soldiers or sportsmen, should be this homely scribbler? Why does so practical and hard-headed a people respond so easily to his often sentimental views, and sympathize so readily with his financial ineptitudes? What do the elders of kirk and chapel think of his complex sexual life? What do the sycophants or kings and chieftains make of his sturdy egalitarianism? When I was in Alloway once I bought a selection of his poems at the souvenir shop, and read them aloud in my bath in all the glory of their commonsense and kindness --
My Son, these maxims make a rule,
An' lump them aye togither;
The Rigid Righteous is a fool,
The Rigid Wise anither ...
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's comin' yet for a' that,
That man to man the world o'er
Shall brother be for a' that.
And I resolved that night, as I lay there soaking, that I would never presume to judge the Scottish character without remembering that somewhere in every Scot, however improbable it seems, a Robbie Burns is hidden.
From "Scotland: The Place of Visions," by Jan Morris, photographs by Paul Wakefield. Text copyright,
1986 by Jan Morris. Excerpted by permission of Clarkson N. Potter Inc.