Andrew Marr is a senior political figure at the BBC, having previously edited the London Independent. More recently, in between hosting Radio 4’s prestigious Start The Week he’s begun presenting his own documentaries. His latest, on great Scottish writers in comfortably his best to date.
The first episode was on James Boswell. Like so many Scots before and since, Boswell was torn between his blinding ambition, which demanded that he leave Scotland and head for London, and the resentment he felt at being forced to do so.
Bizarrely, he ended up teaming up with the archetypal 18th century Englishman, Samuel Johnson. Even more bizarrely, Boswell lured the jingoistic Johnson up north for a tour of Scotland, which both insisted was the most enjoyable couple of months that either of them had ever spent.
The second episode was even more successful, not to say prescient, comparing the contrasting styles and politics of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. Scott the conservative unionist who harboured dreams of rebellion, and Burns the Romantic poet par excellence who wrote in florid Scots inciting actual rebellion, but who worked by day as a tax inspector for the British government.
Marr strikes exactly the right balance between literary history and political analysis. Placing these literary giants in the context of the fierce political debate that followed the dissolving of the Scottish Parliament after the act of union in 1707, he sounds out the clear echoes without ever labouring the point.
As a proud Scotsman who nonetheless left his native soil to take the British coin at the BBC in London, Marr knows only too well of what he speaks. Wryly, he reminds us, as the Scottish so often do, that Jekyll and Hyde was written by a Scotsman. That tension that governs how they view the land south of the border and the people who live there has always been there.
So will the Scottish vote for independence this September? I get the impression they are coming to regard that previous vote accepting union some 300 years ago with increasing shame. I’ve a funny feeling the heart might rule the head. That 9–2 is looking extremely inviting. In the meantime, Andrew Marr’s Great Scots continues on BBC 2 on Saturday evening.
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