Edwin Muir came from the Orkneys, and remembered his childhood in those islands as a kind of paradise compared to the grinding poverty he subsequently endured in Glasgow when his family moved there. Working in dead-end jobs, he saw the brutalising effects of unemployment, pollution, heavy industry and the slums up close. Later, when he had to some extent escaped this background, he became, because of his experience of being both scarred by his upbringing and a permanent outsider from it, the best observer of 20th century Scottish life who ever made it into print.
It's this dual sense of detachment and horror that gives his "Scottish Journey" its uniqueness. Muir studies the land of his birth as he travels through it as if he's a newly-landed alien, recording the gloomily-charged atmosphere of Edinburgh tea-rooms and the dwarf alps of the Motherwell bings with equal fascination. In fact it's debatable whether the picture of Scotland which emerges is as much a portrait of Muir himself, and of the politics of the group of writers he belonged to, known as the "Scottish Renaissance", as their shared vision of the twenties dissolved into doubt and dispute during the thirties.
So why should you read a book about Scotland in 1934 if you're neither Scottish nor especially interested in history? Well, because it isn't about those things, but about a search for identity, Scotland's and Muir's, both of which had been broken and lost, and were still in the process of emerging. As the ever-wondering, disappointed but hopeful traveller, Muir speaks for everyone who has tried to piece themselves together from the bits they know. His journey through Scotland speaks to us today as if we're on that voyage with him.
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