Beyond Outlander: An alternative history of Scottish romantic fiction

a portrait of Dr Amy Burge

To mark Burns Night, Dr Amy Burge of the Department of English Literature argues for a reconsideration of Scottish author Annie S. Swan’s legacy as a bestselling author of Scottish romance in the early twentieth century.

When one thinks of Scotland and romance, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (1991) is probably what comes to mind for most people. Rugged landscapes, lochside castles, and kilted Highlanders – this American author’s book series (adapted for television in 2014) has helped to establish many of the tropes now common to romance novels set in Scotland. The impact of Outlander has even led to a rise in tourism to Scottish locations used for filming the television adaptation.

However, Gabaldon was not the first smash-hit author of Scottish romance. Over the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Scottish author Annie S. Swan (1859-1943) wrote over 250 romantic stories set in Scotland, most of which were serialised in popular magazine The People’s Friend. Just like Outlander, Annie Swan’s stories presented a particular vision of Scotland – predominantly rural, studded with stately homes, and populated by gentry families and their servants, local villagers and townsfolk. Using settings from across Scotland – from the lowlands to the isles – making use of Scottish dialect, and featuring common romance motifs of misunderstandings, meddling from other characters, and romantic rivals, Annie Swan’s works were key in establishing the tropes of ‘romantic Scotland’ used and adapted by later authors, including Gabaldon.

Indeed, Swan is undeniably one of the most successful and prolific Scottish authors in recent history. In 1938 the Scottish novelist Neil Gunn, himself seen as one of the most influential Scottish writers of the early twentieth century, wrote to Annie Swan to say: “I do not think the name of any Scottish writer is so well known to the folk of our country as your own. It was a household name about as far back as I can remember.” Her stories were popular outside Scotland; her archive at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh contains several letters sent by readers in Canada and the United States.

So why, then, have so few people heard of her today? I think there are a couple of reasons why Annie Swan’s legacy has been downplayed. The first is that she is often dismissed as a ‘Kailyard’ author. The Kailyard School of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Scottish fiction was blamed by more ‘serious-minded’ literary critics as misrepresenting Scotland as provincial, parochial, and sentimental. More recently, academics have called for a reconsideration of Kailyard fiction, arguing that we should acknowledge its success and influence. Yet this has not resulted in a widespread recognition of Annie Swan as probably the most commercially successful Kailyard School author – we’re far more likely to have heard of J. M. Barrie, or S. R. Crockett.

The second reason why I believe Annie Swan has not been granted the recognition she deserves, is because she is seen by many as a popular romance writer. As Scottish literature moved away from the Kailyard School in the second decade of the twentieth century, Annie Swan’s writing became increasingly classified as romance fiction. A relatively recent anthology rather unflatteringly remarks that Swan’s “later fiction […] surrendered entirely to the romance appetites of her huge (largely female) readership” (Sutherland, Longman Companion to Victorian Literature, p. 622). Romance fiction has long been unfairly criticised for its supposed lack of literary merit – accusations that are rarely levelled to the same degree against male-dominated genres like detective fiction. If critical reception of Annie Swan’s work is bound up with negative critical reception of popular romance, I think this is a key reason why she has not been celebrated as other Scottish authors have been.

So this Burn’s night, why not celebrate a different kind of Scottish literary heritage and get to know one of Scotland’s most under-appreciated authors, Annie S. Swan?

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