RADIO / A pair of tartan truisms: Robert Hanks on what Scott's lost in translation

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The Independent Culture
There are, roughly speaking, two kinds of classic books: the ones that still look good after posterity's had a while to chew them over; and the ones that don't look good as such, but remain interesting - you can see why people might once have liked them. Sir Walter Scott's Waverley, the new Classic Serial (Radio 4, Sunday), is the second sort. That much is plain from a swift re-reading of the blurb on the Penguin Classics edition (the only way of forging an impression of literary expertise without actually placing a dangerous strain on the eyes), which tactfully avoids questions of literary quality and sticks to telling you about the book's enormous popularity and influence.

Being a not particularly good book isn't necessarily a disadvantage when it comes to being transferred to radio, where literary qualities usually disappear in the translation. In the case of Waverley, the story comes across as livelier and more plot-driven when not bowed down by the weight of Scott's prose. Even so, Patrick Rayner's production got off to a slow start, the first part packed with small incidents, but very little beginning to connect up into a narrative just yet.

What's interesting here is not, in the end, what happens to Edward Waverley, the young English cavalry officer visiting Jacobite connections just in time to get embroiled in the '45, so much as the compendium of idyllic views of the Highlands, seen from the safe distance of 19th-century Edinburgh. These Highlanders are post-Arthurian heroes, elaborately courteous, fastidious in their adherence to a feudal code of honour, capable of prodigious drinking and sprinting 15 miles over rough ground, but with a strange moral blind spot when it comes to cattle rustling.

It's a horribly romantic caricature of Scottishness, and one that has infected the world's view of Scotland ever since. This may have helped Scotland's tourist trade, and probably its whisky and textile industries; but not its self-respect. Who wants to feel like the respectable tail- end of a nation of bards and warriors? That way lies massive inferiority complex.

New Year's Eve, appropriately, provided a more sober view of Scottishness, in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (Radio 3). In Dave Batchelor's production, first heard on Radio Scotland in 1992, Hugh MacDiarmid's epic poem was abridged and set to music by William Sweeney. It was overlong, and the scoring wasn't always fabulously original or appropriate (in particular, a gospel pastiche misfired badly). On the other hand, that's an honest reflection of the scale and flaws of the poem, where the drunkard's meandering dialogue with the national emblem is periodically interrupted by translations from the French and the Russian.

'Translation' may be too strong a word - it implies making something comprehensible; whereas A Drunk Man . . . is in Scots. There's a grand folly to writing an epic on national identity in a language that most of the nation doesn't speak, and fewer read; and an even grander one in putting it on radio, where the audience doesn't even have footnotes to alert it to what's going on.

But there's a pleasing common sense in MacDiarmid's crowded stanzas, extolling Burns and railing against the way he is plundered by other countries, who use him as a peg on which to hang truisms. After a while, following the text seemed easier, but also less important than enjoying Sweeney's score, and the more overtly melodic sound of Iain Cuthbertson's voice, narrating. All in all, a more intellectually rousing way of seeing in Hogmanay than the White Heather Club.