ONE 3 • Orwell and the Scots

Orwell’s early attitude to the Scots and Scotland could best be described as frosty.

In his excellent biography, Bernard Crick refers to the period during 1934 when Orwell had a girlfriend in Hampstead, a member of the Labour League of Youth, who remembered that he talked little about politics, “except to curse the Empire and the Scots by whom he appeared to imagine it dominated’”.

{quotes align=right}Another former girlfriend recalled how Orwell would rather cross the street than pass Scots poet Edwin Muir and his wife Willa.{/quotes} Strictly speaking, the Muirs, who moved in the same literary circles as Orwell at the time, were originally from Orkney and Shetland. He also apparently railed against what he described as the “whisky-swilling Scottish drunks” who misgoverned and maltreated the Burmese.

The irony was probably not lost on Orwell that he lived much of the end of his life in Scotland. Nineteen Eighty-Four was largely written in his remote cottage on the Western Isle of Jura.

For all this time spent in Scotland, it rarely featured in the subject-matter of his Tribune newspaper columns—save for two pieces in early 1947, both of which take Scots attitudes to Polish post-war immigrants as their subject. In the first, he describes an overheard conversation between two Scottish small businessmen bemoaning the influx of Polish war refugees. He concludes by comparing their attitude to these Polish imports as the contemporary equivalent of anti-Semitism.

The second deals with a letter he received from a Scottish Nationalist. In this piece, he admits that he was unaware of the Scottish Nationalist movement until recently and that “Scotland has a case against England”. He moves to argue that increasing the BBC’s Gaelic programming output would “buy a little goodwill”.

{quotes}Clearly his view of Scotland and the Scots changed considerably over time{/quotes}—perhaps unavoidably given that his younger sister Avril married a Scot, Bill Dunn.

Towards the end of his life, he spent much time in Hairmyers Hospital in East Kilbride. In a letter to Julian Symons of January 1948, he wrote: “It’s funny, you always think Scotland must be cold.”

For a man who always sought to be on his guard about conventional wisdom, he clearly had his blindspots.