When I came back to Scotland in 1990 after living in London for 20 years it seemed like a different country to the one I had left.
The spirit of John Knox had finally been banished from the streets of Edinburgh. You could eat well (well, a lot better), get a drink on a Sunday, have a cup of coffee outside on the pavement on a sunny day. There were good clubs and gigs, plays and shows. The capital seemed to have acquired a cultural life outside of August and optimism was the order of the day.
Writing was undergoing a tremendous renaissance with the contemporary Scottish novel being hailed far and wide. The music scene was transformed too. In my own particular area of interest, traditional music, the change was nothing less than radical. I had left to the strains of Jimmy Shand and his ilk, the old guys, with their slick, strict tempo country dance band sound. Now the young guys (and girls) had thrillingly claimed it for themselves, doing dangerous things with their fingering and bowing and breathing, nonchalantly and expertly playing fast and loose with melody and tempo, making music worth listening, as well as dancing, to.
And then, of course, there was devolution. Donald Dewar was a much admired figure across the political spectrum, although his flagship legislation for the new Scottish parliament was causing some consternation outside the Central Belt.
Having been brought up among landowners I had never given a moment’s thought to the fact that, thanks to the Napoleonic code and other European inheritance laws, Scotland is the last place in Europe where it’s still possible to buy a very large piece of wilderness, sit in the middle of it, and effectively keep out the rest of the world. But now the issue of landownership was squarely on the political agenda – not least because it was one area where the new parliament, with its limited powers, could make a significant change – and I found the whole issue fascinating.
Put simply, on the one hand, very large tracts of the Scottish countryside were in the possession of a very small number of private landowners; on the other hand those landowners with their deep pockets managed and maintained this largely unproductive wilderness as an amenity for everyone else. It was a polarising debate, and at the time I returned there were those on both sides who believed it heralded the revolution.
In the end the Land Reform Scotland Act did little more than enshrine the ages-old Scottish precept that as long as you were sensible and respectful you could go where you wanted; though it did raise people’s awareness of the fact that in Scotland, ownership in law was philosophically underpinned by the notion of stewardship or custodianship, and it paved the way for some high-profile community buyouts, notably on the islands of Gigha and Eigg, and on the Assynt peninsula.
It also, however, gave me the background for the novel I wanted to write; my response in part to the whole experience of being back in Scotland again, in part to the Balkans conflict and the horrors of Sarajevo and Srebrenica (I think of Homs and Idlib today and despair). It enabled me to concoct an independent Scotland of the near future in which land had been nationalised and in which, after years of mismanagement, the disgruntled Highlanders had risen up, alongside their dispossessed former lairds, against the government – a civil war arising out of a kind of reverse Highland clearances.
The book was published in 2007. It did reasonably well, was shortlisted for several prizes, and despite being pitched by the publishers at the top end of the young adult market, was read by just as many adults as teenagers. At the time of writing it I never imagined that five years later the SNP would be in charge, much less that independence would be heading the agenda. Nor did I imagine that my publishers would have ditched me and that I would be free to republish the book myself for use on a then only-dimly-imagined electronic reading device.
But that is what has come to pass and now The Witness is available on Kindle at a very modest £1.95. If you haven’t already read it, it will give you an edge-of-the-seat glimpse into a possible, though I sincerely hope not probable, future Scotland. If you have already read and enjoyed it, you can help me bring it to the attention of other readers by adding it to your Kindle library for less than the price of a pair of Ratner’s earrings. Well worth it I’d say … but then I would, wouldn’t I. I hope you’ll agree. You can find out by clicking here!