Nowe Szkoty

Gdańsk Scottish Studies Research Group


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15th annual conference of SFEEC – the French Society for Scottish Studies

Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès,  14 – 16 January 2016

The tandem “crime and punishment” has an eternal feel to it which seems to take us back to the origins of mankind, but, at the same time, it is deeply rooted in the society we live in. Despite the fact that since 1707 Scotland has been a “stateless nation”, the Scots have always adopted a distinctive national approach to these questions which can be seen through their use of language, literature and their collective attitudes in daily life.

For centuries Scotland’s powerful judeo-christian culture has attributed a central place to the notion of guilt and the naming and shaming of the “guilty”. Not even exalted social and political status could exonerate people from such social judgements as the Darnley murder shows us for Mary, Queen of Scots. From 1567 Mary has been seen as a martyr by some and the incarnation of evil by others … and, to this day, as Alison Weir’s recent investigation into the murder clearly underlines, a mystery which still has the power to captivate the nation’s imagination.

The crime thriller has always embodied in its own way the multiple and complex images of Scotland. The deed, the search for the guilty parties and the struggle between the forces of good and evil are all rich pretexts for the exploration of Scottish culture; while the analysis of the punishments meted out take us to the heart of this society which has constantly sought to underline is own identity.

English literary research has often taken Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868) as the birth of the modern detective novel but, from a Scottish perspective, the popularity of this form of intrigue can be traced back much further. Murders and detective mysteries can be found in abundance in Sir Walter Scott’s novels, such as Rob Roy (1818) where the hunt for Morris’s money concludes with the execution of the guilty party. A few years later James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) invited the readers to explore the recesses and motivations of the criminal mind which is, at one and the same time, fully integrated into the social reality of the period and yet finds its source in the Bible story of Cain and Abel. From this perspective the works of Scott and Hogg can be said to trace a continuous thread, through the works of James McLevy in the 1860s to Robert Louis Stevenson and others later in the century, of Scottish fascination with tales of intrigue and outrage.

Scottish crime stories, obviously share certain criteria with those of other countries, such as the high doses of adrenaline, social commentaries, historical references, the analysis of the criminal mind and that of the detective but, it can be claimed, recent trends in Scotland seem to introduce a new “character”, the town or area where the action takes place. The most obvious examples of this are Glasgow and Edinburgh which seem to come alive through the stories of Taggart/Laidlaw and Rebus. But other parts of Scotland are now under investigation through the writings of, among others, Rhona MacLeod for Glasgow and Argyll, Bob Skinner for Edinburgh, Alice Rice for the Lothians, Logan MacRae for Aberdeen, Fin Macleod for the Isle of Lewis, Jimmy Perez and Willow Reeves for Shetland…. In each case, the local context with its unique cultural identity is finely interwoven into the intrigue of the detective mystery as Scotland and its fascination with crime is analysed from yet another angle. Hence the emphasis shifts from the cruelty of the acts to the backdrop against which they are committed and the Scottishness of the crime novel itself.

Crime and punishment are central to the definition of civilised society yet despite the historical tendency towards the harmonisation of definitions and legal codification, integrated methods for its prevention and detection and a scientific and humane approach to its punishment, each nation has its own distinct way of dealing with these questions. French law, for instance, focuses on punishment – le droit pénal – English law on the transgression – criminal law – and Scottish law on notions of community – common law.

The distinctiveness of the Scots’ relationship to crime and its punishment is well documented but, arguably, has never been analysed in its totality as a statement of Scottishness. The formal nature of Scottish legal proceedings illustrates this point very clearly. The law governing criminal trials in Scotland, for instance, does not allow the accused to elect a judge or jury trial; juries are composed of 15 members; judgements require corroborative evidence from at least two different and independent sources and provides the unique possibility of three different verdicts: “guilty”, “not guilty” and “not proven”.

Punishment of criminals also has a distinctly Scottish bend to it. At the present time, Scotland has one of the highest per capita prison rates in the EU despite having one of the widest ranges of community sanctions available in the world. Community involvement in this process is also one of the intriguing aspects of the nation’s history. Not all crimes punished by the courts have been condemned by the Scottish people and not all crimes condemned by the Scottish people are punished by the courts. The Scottish socialist John MacLean (1920-1999) was released from prison early repeatedly through public pressure. What this says about Scottish society, about the way the Scots see themselves before the law is less evident and needs exploring.

2013 saw the creation of a new Police Service of Scotland but how the peace and tranquillity of the nation as a whole was kept in the past is remarkably scant and we have no clear map of its relationship to the civic traditions of the country. The informal ties between crime and society are equally intriguing. Some of the great advances in Scotland’s medical faculties in earlier times also owe a debt to criminal activities of body snatchers like the infamous Burke and Hare … as do the unique architectural design of some of Edinburgh’s graveyards.

The impact of crime and the criminal on the popular imagination is even more fascinating. In fact and fiction, crime and its detection seem to have a special hold on the Scottish people. From Percy Sillitoe and Joe Jackson to Alan Jack Laidlaw, Jim Taggart (the world’s longest-running TV police drama) the seamless line between fact and fiction highlights some remarkable characters. Allan Pinkerton was a pure product of the Glasgow Gorbals. All represent the various facets of Scotland’s relationship with crime, yet, as Ian Rankin suggests about his detective John Rebus they are also an insight into “Scotland’s soul, its phobias, psychosis and mistakes, and [about] the people there”.

The organisers of the conference invite researchers into these questions, (from a linguistic, stylistic, literary, legal, historical, sociological … or multidisciplinary approach) to submit their proposals (a working title and a short summary) before 1st July 2015 to Jean BERTON ( and Bill FINDLAY ( Conference papers may be given in French or English.


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