When I first pitched my debut novel The Tick and The Tock of The Crocodile Clock to publishers, a lot of them asked the same question.
“Is this book Scottish enough?”
I’m Scottish. My mum is from the tiny village of Cromore on the Isle of Lewis where I grew up and I went to school and university in the central belt of Scotland. I’m Irish. My dad is from the village of Loughanure in Co Donegal and Ireland is my second home.
These two halves of my identity are distinct and separate to me, but you wouldn’t know that our countries are different places to see us represented in the rest of the world, though, would you? If there’s one thing we have in common, it’s the stereotypes we are represented by.
Far too often we’re pushed into one of three categories. Either we are represented as the dangerous gangsters or hooligans, steeped in menace and victims of socio-economic hardship, these characters are usually drug dealers, drug users, or drunk; or perhaps we are represented as Celtic heroes, who roam the hills, ginger locks whipping in the wind, expressing almost violent levels of back slapping friendliness in between expressing actually violent displays of swinging around really big swords, and who are drunk; or we are the comedians, or the comedy relief, the people with the funny accents made even more funny by American actors, who can’t really do them, having a right good crack at it anyway, and who’re drunk.
Scottish and Irish characters in books, film and TV might well be very likeable sometimes, but we don’t often get to be nuanced. Too seldom do Scottish or Irish characters get to show vulnerability, or appreciate beauty, or tell someone we love them. We are shown as the bolshie underdogs, always up for a scrap but never in charge and never very smart or caring. It’s difficult when every character you see in a book or TV show that comes from where you do is represented in this way for it not to see in. Eventually we start to believe we are nations of support characters, underdogs who will never achieve anything more, people who will never feel love or experience beauty.
And I’ve had enough.
Irvine Welsh is perhaps one of Scotland’s most famous contemporary writers, and his gift to the world was Trainspotting. It was a seminal book which became a seminal film and put Scotland on the map in terms of gritty storytelling. It’s brilliant, of course it is, but sometimes I worry that its very brilliance is what shackled us to creating a huge amount of crime and social injustice stories at the expense of everything else. In Trainspotting the character of Renton says “it’s sh*** being Scottish” and I think there is at least one whole generation of Scots who really believe it is.
It’s not. It’s brilliant being Scottish. It’s brilliant being Irish. Look at the incredible beauty all around you. And I don’t just mean the beauty of our scenery, nor do I mean the beauty of our wildlife, I’m talking about the people. Have you ever known people as caring, compassionate and intelligent as Irish and Scottish people? Have you ever known countries so relatively small to produce such world artists influencing as Robert Burns, James Joyce, JM Barrie or Samuel Beckett?
my debut novel, The Tick and The Tock of The Crocodile Clock, was eventually picked up by a publisher and released this year. It’s a modern retelling of Peter Pan set in Glasgow and the Trossachs and, though it wanted serious on the story of two young Glaswegian girls in their early twenties and deals with some very mental health themes, I was aware at all times that I to tell a story that reveled in the cultural beauty of Glasgow rather than painting it as a foreboding or sinister place. T
he protagonists, Wendy and Cat, are a poet and artist respectively. Their antagonist doesn’t come in the form of a gangster, drug dealer or murderer but instead in the form of the modern world which insists they grow up too quickly and leave whimsy and art behind. The girls rebel and go on a spree of mischief, which ultimately results in Wendy going too far, stealing a priceless work of art, and being forced to go on the run from the law. It’s a quintessentially Scottish story… after all, JM Barrie was Scottish… but perhaps it’s not the kind of Scottish story you’ll have heard often. Perhaps, in straying from the tropes the world expects, it became not “Scottish enough” for people who want to sell a sanitized and simplified idea of our identify like they would a tartan shortbread tin.
In my upcoming radio play Knock Of The Ban-Síthe, which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on August 18th, I explore a different side of Scotland entirely. Knock of the Ban-Síthe is a ghost story steeped in our often forgotten mythological Scottish creatures, and interspersed with our often maligned Gaelic language which is so closely related to Irish, and similarly under threat of extinction.
Crocodile Clock and Ban-Síthe aren’t what you might expect when you pick up a book or tune into a radio play that is Scottish. But Scottish they are, and they represent stories from Scotland that get overlooked amidst all the boozing, and grit.
There is more to Celtic countries than we are given credit for. We have new stories to tell, stories that have never been heard before. It’s time for the world to listen.
Kenny Boyle is an author, actor and playwright from the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. His debut novel The Tick and The Tock of The Crocodile Clock is available now in all good bookshops and his debut radio play The Knock of The Ban-Síthe will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on August 18th at 2.15pm.