Face to face with eight Scottish writers whose stories went global

Long John Silver. Peter Pan. Jean Brodie. Inspector Rebus.

Known the world over, these are some of the most instantly recognisable names in literature, the inspiration for countless theatre productions, television programmes and even a 'Muppet' movie.

And each is the creation of a Scottish writer. Robert Louis Stevenson dreamt up Silver, the antagonist in his novel ‘Treasure Island,’ in Braemar, while JM Barrie’s childhood playground in Dumfries was to become Neverland, the world of wonder in his play, ‘Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’. Look no further than Edinburgh as the ‘birthplace’ of Muriel Spark’s Brodie and Ian Rankin's Rebus.

Scotland’s contribution to literature is breathtaking. Even setting to one side the fame of Robert Burns – surely one of the worlds’ most celebrated and oft-recited poets - the nation’s place in the history books of, well, books, is assured.

The worlds of visual art and literature are so often intertwined, and so it proves at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, where the likenesses of a number of Scots writers hang in celebration of the stories they gave the world. Take a whistle-stop tour of the literary figures who feature in our collection by watching this film, and explore eight writers whose works went global in more detail below.

Sir William Nicholson Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1860 - 1937. Author 1904

1. James Matthew Barrie (1860-1937)
Portrait by Sir William Nicholson

Painted between rehearsals for the first stage production of ‘Peter Pan,’ at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, Sir William Nicholson’s 1904 portrait shows novelist and dramatist Barrie in the weeks before his characters and the island of Neverland changed children’s literature forever.

The portrait, featuring Barrie as a relatively small figure surrounded by empty space, hints at the essential loneliness of a man who always regretted leaving the world of childhood behind.

It is a fitting and yet extraordinarily sad image as Barrie is said to have based Pan on his elder brother David, who died aged 13, when Barrie was six.

Thomas John Clapperton Sir John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, 1875 - 1940. Author and Governor General of Canada Modelled 1935; cast 1940 © The Estate of the Artist

2. John Buchan (1875-1940)
Bust by Thomas John Clapperton

Buchan is perhaps best known for ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ (1915), one of his many ‘ripping yarns’ to feature the hero Richard Hannay.

The novel set the template for countless man-on-the-run thrillers, and spawned a successful theatre production and a number of internationally successful films, including a 1935 version directed by Alfred Hitchcock, which counts the Forth Bridge and Glen Coe among its shooting locations.

Norman McBeath Jackie Kay 2001 © Norman McBeath

3. Jackie Kay (1961-)
Photograph by Norman McBeath (please book an appointment to view this portrait in the print room)

Adopted at birth in 1961, poet Jackie Kay published her first collection, ‘The Adoption Papers’, in 1991. Other works by Kay, including poetry, fiction and plays, explore the power of language, health and sickness, the experience of being black in Britain and gender identity issues.

Inspired by the real life story of American transgender male jazz musician Billy Tipton, Kay’s 1998 novel ‘Trumpet’ won the Guardian Fiction Prize. In 2000 the work was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, a prize for which nominations are submitted by public libraries from across the world.

In March 2016, Kay was appointed Scots Makar - the National Poet for Scotland.

Gunnie Moberg Liz Lochhead, b. 1947. Poet and dramatist 1984 © Estate of Gunnie Moberg

4. Liz Lochhead (1947-)
Photograph by Gunnie Moberg (please book an appointment to view this portrait in the print room)

Scots Makar from 2011-2016, poet and playwright Liz Lochhead studied at Glasgow School of Art.

In 1971 she published her first collection of poems, ‘Memo for Spring’, which won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award.

Lochhead’s writings cross the boundaries of poetry, prose and drama and question assumptions of female and Scottish identity.

In addition to poetry, she has written several theatrical pieces, the best-known being 'Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off', which dramatises the history of Scotland from the female point of view.

Wyndham Lewis Naomi (Lady) Mitchison, 1897 - 1999. Author 1938 © The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust. All Rights Reserved. Bridgeman Images

5. Naomi Mitchison (1897-1999)
Portrait by Percy Wyndham Lewis

Naomi Mitchison was a novelist, poet and passionate campaigner for social justice and women's rights.

Her first novel ‘The Conquered’ was published in 1923, when Mitchison was 26.

She wrote over 70 books during her lifetime and edited and contributed to many more – including as a proofreader of good friend JRR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ (1954-1955).

As well as producing hundreds of articles for newspapers and journals, Mitchison travelled extensively over five continents, and was involved in the campaign for access to birth control from the 1920s.

She spent nearly 20 years as a local councillor in the Scottish Highlands and was awarded a CBE in 1981.

Guy Kinder Ian Rankin, b 1960. Author 2013 © Estate of Guy Kinder

6. Ian Rankin (1960-)
Portrait by Guy Kinder

Grape-picker. Swineherd. Taxman. Alcohol researcher. Hi-fi journalist. Punk musician.

Blockbuster crime writer Ian Rankin lists them all as former professions in his biography. His creation Inspector John Rebus made his debut in the 1987 novel ‘Knots and Crosses’ and since then, the series of novels featuring the detective has been translated into 22 languages, won multiple awards and spawned a television series.

Here, Edinburgh-based artist Guy Kinder has depicted the author in the city’s Oxford Bar – a favourite haunt of both Rankin and Rebus.

Alexander Moffat, Dame Muriel Spark (1918 - 2006) Writer © Alexander Moffat

7. Muriel Spark (1918-2006)
Portrait by Alexander 'Sandy' Moffat

Muriel Spark was born in Edinburgh and attended James Gillespie's School for Girls. One of her teachers there, Christina Kay, was immortalised in her most famous novel, 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'.

The novel was turned into a 1969 film which was a hit worldwide and won two Academy Awards, including a Best Actress nod for its star Dame Maggie Smith.

In 1993, Spark was made a Dame of the British Empire. She died in Tuscany in 2006, aged 88.

Count Girolamo Nerli, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850 - 1894. Essayist, poet and novelist.

8. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
Portrait by Count Girolamo Nerli

The list of works that the Edinburgh-born writer penned is extraordinary. His repertoire includes ‘Kidnapped’ (1886), ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1886) and ‘The Black Arrow’ (1888).

It is perhaps for his 1883 novel ‘Treasure Island’, however, that Stevenson is best known. Arguably responsible for many of the traits with which fictional pirates are fondly associated (think shoulder-dwelling parrots, buried treasure, a rum culture and, well, talking like a pirate), the novelist is shown here in a portrait by Count Girolamo Nerli.

Stevenson married American Fanny Osbourne in 1880, and died in Samoa in 1894, aged 44.

This list is far from exhaustive. If you'd like to discover more Scottish writers, you could begin by exploring our online collection which celebrates literature, or examine in more detail the portraits of Jessie Kesson, Agnes Miller Parker, Sir Walter Scott, Alexander McCall Smith and the Kelvingrove Eight, to name a few.

By Alex Johnston, 26 February 2019