Peter Marshall

Taking the High Road

John Knox


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In the broad sweep of Scottish history, very few figures have proved as divisive as the fiery Protestant reformer John Knox – by comparison, Alex Salmond looks like everybody’s favourite uncle. To some, Knox is the father of the modern nation. An iconic statue, raised in the late 19th century, stands near the entrance of New College on the Mound in the heart of Edinburgh. For others, he bears primary responsibility for deep scars in Scotland’s social and cultural life, a kind of national psychosis from which it has been trying to recover for centuries. The late George Mackay Brown viewed Scotland as ‘the Knox ruined nation’. His fellow Orcadian poet Edwin Muir published a life, John Knox: Portrait of a Calvinist, which might win a prize in any competition for most hostile historical biography. Poets (Hugh MacDiarmid was equally critical) are unlikely to be fans of Knox, whose suspicion of the arts and of anything not explicitly commanded by God in Scripture was elemental. Muir’s revenge was a searing poetic indictment of the society that Knox created in Scotland: ‘The Word made flesh here is made word again.’

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