DURING the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, the Edinburgh-based artist and weaver James Donald began to take photographs of details which attracted his attention during his daily walks.

The grain of an old wooden door, textures of stone and brick, swirls of paint from urban graffiti; he photographed them all, giving a colour to each walk, and eventually making them into postcard images which he sold online for the benefit of NHS charities.

It is James Donald’s blue series of pictures that Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow have chosen as the cover image for their anthology, Scotland After The Virus; and there’s something about its combination of intense observation, clear-eyed modernity and sheer beauty, expressed in a colour so closely associated with Scotland, that seems like a perfect fit for this ground-breaking collection of essays, poetry and fiction about where Scotland finds itself, in the course of the Covid pandemic*, and whether we – along with other countries across the globe – can turn the multiple shocks and threats of the past year into opportunities for positive and life-giving change.

Across 40 essays and 300 pages, the book – a speedy crisis follow-up to Hassan and Barrow’s previous anthologies A Nation Changed? (Luath Press, 2017) and Scotland The Brave? (Luath Press2019) – surveys the potential for transformative change in diverse areas of Scottish life ranging from the justice system, football, mental health, and racial inequality, to the urgent need to abandon perpetual economic growth as a marker of national success, and to nurture new kinds of grassroots democracy.

Beyond that, though, it also seeks to tap into the creative inner life of the country, weaving a rich pattern of stories and poems through the chapters, in which writers including Kirstin Innes, Kapka Kassabova, Alan Bissett, and Anne C Frater delve into the deep experience of the pandemic, from Cheryl Follon’s wild and gorgeous dream of a hairdresser deprived of clients, to Christie Williamson’s Shetland vision of a world turned upside down, and “severed for ay fae the past’s teddir”.

And just occasionally, there are powerful pieces – including Pat Kane’s eloquent essay on Scotland as potential ark and laboratory in an age of global meltdown, and Simon Barrow’s conversation about the spiritual impact of the pandemic with Alison Phipps and Alastair Mcintosh – that succeed both as political essays and as creative visions of a different future; all of them informed by a profound understanding that to return the old normal, after this profound disruption to economic and psychological patterns that were proving so destructive to our humanity and our planet, would be a missed opportunity on a catastrophic scale.

The question of Scottish independence is present in the book, of course; not least in brief and thoughtful essays by former SNP MSP Marco Biagi and former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish about the current perceived balance of risks around independence, and about the historic failure of the parties of the Union fully to engage with the new reality of UK politics since the devolution settlements of 1997-99. At the end of his essay, Pat Kane even refers to the famous title page quote in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, published 40 years ago this year. “To permanently imagine yourself ‘in the early years of a better nation’ was never more relevant and helpful a mindset than now”, says Kane.

Yet this anthology – vibrant, poignant, full of unexpected angles, acquainted with despair, yet often charged with hope – offers a living example of how little those visions of a future Scotland now have to do with separation; and how much, at least in the language, concerns, fears and insights captured here, with the task of finding that deeper sense of connection with humanity and nature, across all boundaries, that is fast becoming an essential tool of survival in our time.

Scotland After The Virus, edited by Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow, Luath Press (2020).

* This review first appeared in The Scotsman on 13 January 2021, and is republished with the author’s permission.


© Joyce McMillan is theatre critic of The Scotsman, and also writes a political and social commentary column for the paper. Her book Theatre in Scotland – A Field of Dreams (edited by Philip Howard) was published by Nick Hern Books in 2016.  She has been a columnist, critic and broadcaster for more than thirty years, living in Edinburgh and working for various Scottish and London-based newspapers. Joyce has also been involved in prominent Scottish and European campaigns for democracy and human rights. In 2003 she helped launch the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland, now an annual event.

This retrospective review, about a book which co-editor and contributor Simon Barrow comments upon further here, is part of Ekklesia’s ‘Pandemic Humility and Hope’ series, launched to coincide with the third anniversary of the first Covid lockdown on 23 March 2020. See also Everyday Sacrament: Visual Meditations in an Age of Pandemic (review) and ‘The pandemic: an issue of life and death’, and ‘Beyond the deadening grip of the ‘old normal’.’