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Jean Berton and Bill Findlay, eds, Le crime, le châtiment et les Ecossais / Crime, Punishment and the Scots

Presses Universitaires de Franche Comté, 2019
Claire Wrobel
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Presses Universitaires de Franche Comté, 2019, ISBN 978-2-84867-659-3

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1The book is a collection of short articles, each about a dozen page-long, which were published in the wake of the 16th annual conference of the French Society for Scottish Studies held in 2016. As the tartan pattern which ornaments the book cover indicates, the notion of Scottishness is central, running throughout the collection and creating a link between chapters which offer varied perspectives on crime and punishment. The collection is rooted in the idea that “each nation has its own distinctive relationship to these questions, a relationship which has evolved in harmony with its changing sense of national identity.” (introduction, p. 11) Thus, the introduction claims that because Scotland has been a “stateless nation” since 1707, “the notion of the community and the social context” have played a central role (p. 12).

2The book is organized in seven parts, each section being devoted to a specific theme and mixing articles which analyse literary works with articles which deal with civilizational aspects. Fourteen articles are written in English while the remaining six are written in French. Taken together, the articles offer a rich overview of crime and punishment as they manifest themselves within a Scottish context.

3Part I focuses on “Tartan noir”, i.e. Scottish crime fiction, and retraces the evolution from crime fiction to thanatography. It opens with a lecture by Lin Anderson, herself a practitioner of the genre, who highlights the importance of history and landscape in Scottish crime fiction. Similarly, the editors in their introduction insist on the fact that “Crimes and murders, discovering the guilty, and exposing the necessary fight between good and evil are mere excuses to exhibit Scotland and Scottishness” (p. 13) and that the adventures of detectives and inspectors “are but excuses for celebrating a city, a district or an island”, thus “making Scotland’s scenery part and parcel of the story itself” (p. 15). Lin Anderson’s genealogy of the genre starts with James Hogg (The Confessions and Private Memoirs of a Justified Sinner) and ends with more recent detectives such as Laidlaw (William McIlvanney) and Rebus (Ian Renkin) via Walter Scott.

4The next chapter, by Jean Berton, examines a novel by Lin Anderson (Paths of the Dead, 2014) through the notion of “thrawness”, i.e. the idea that the Scots are, in Lin Anderson’s words, characterized by “a healthy disregard for those in power and a predisposition to be thrawn”: “if Scots are told what to do, or what to think, we’ll go for the exact opposite.” (p. 29)

5Part II is entitled “The Roots of Evil” and centres on key figures in Scottish history. In “Knox et Burne sur la question religieuse du crime et du châtiment”, Christian Jéremie takes readers back to the XVIth century and the religious controversy which opposed Knox and Burne. The central question was that of the attitude of the Church of Scotland to punishment. Controversies arose between competing visions of what constituted crime and what punishment should be. The chapter offers a very detailed analysis of the rhetorical strategies relied on in the controversy, especially those of Nicol Burne.

6The next chapter, by Marion Amblard is entitled “Marie Stuart : coupable ou innocente ? La réhabilitation d’un personnage historique dans l’art pictural”. It offers a historical overview of the iconography related to Mary Stuart, and shows how its evolution went along with changes in the definition of Scottish identity.

7The last contribution in this section studies a novel by Walter Scott, entitled The Talisman (1825), which is set in Palestine and centres on the Third Crusade by Richard Coeur-de-Lion and his battle against Saladin. Andrew Monnickendam builds on Huntington’s notion of the “clash of civilizations” to show how religions reveal their true nature in how they administer justice.

8Part III gathers three articles under the heading “Questioning Poetic Justice”. Arnaud Fiasson’s piece examines Jacobite legacies to Scottish popular culture, subscribing to Richard Finlay’s idea that “Scottish popular culture may emphasise the emotional appeal of historical events at the expense of historical accuracy” (p. 98). The author thus identifies a “gap separating the objectivity of the historical event from its perception in Scottish popular culture” (p. 106) when it comes to the Massacre of Glencoe and of the Jacobite risings. He also argues that Jacobitism “retains a spectral influence on the Scottish electorate which may be exploited for nationalist ends” (p. 105).

9Karyn Wilson Costa then presents Robert Burns’s satirical response to the unfairness, bigotry and hypocrisy he identified in the Kirk Sessions where cases were heard which very often involved fornication or adultery. In his poems, Burns created an “alternative code of morality” (p. 111) in which “Fornicator” was transformed “from a stigma into an accolade” (p. 113).

10The third chapter of this section (“Natural Feelings, Crime and Punishment in Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy”) is discussed in greater detail below.

11Part IV focuses on “Confessing and Punishing”. Emilie Berthillot looks at the evolutions in Edinburgh’s prisons in the nineteenth century, from the Old Tolbooth prison to the Calton Hill penitentiary. The latter is presented as influenced by English panopticons while retaining the style of a Scottish castle.

12Marie-Odile Pitti-Hedon’s chapter on Punishment and Crime in Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon is presented in greater detail further down.

13The last contribution in this section, by Robert Wirth, discusses Graeme Macrae Burnet’s second novel, His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae (2015) which raises the question of legal responsibility in cases of insanity.

14Part V deals with “The People and Justice”, with articles which examine the Invergordon “mutiny” of 1931 (both the historical events and their adaptation on stage in a contemporary play) as well as the Porteous and Gordon riots. Tri Tran discusses “The Invergordon ‘Mutiny’ 1931 and the Admiralty” from a historical point of view. The events at stake are the last and largest mutiny in modern British naval history which took place off the coast of Invergordon in 1931. Danièle Berton-Charrière then looks at the adaptation of these events on stage while the last contributor to this section, Michael Murphy, discusses the Porteous Riots of 1736 and the Gordon Riots of 1780 by looking at Allan Ramsay Father and Son.

15Part VI is entitled “From Guilt to Sentence” and features three articles, each of which analyses a literary work: Denise Mina’s The Fields of Blood (2005), Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe (1972) and Susan Fletcher’s Witch Light (2011).

16Finally, the last part (“The Law and Tartanisation”) sheds lights on important legal issues (litigants’ rights, the immigrant-crime connection, and prison policy as well as alternatives to custody and youth justice) while questioning a number of myths about Scotland (the idea that it is more welcoming, Scottish egalitarianism, or the tartanisation of penal politics) and showing the political purposes they serve, one of which being of course to assert Scotland’s distinctiveness in comparison to England. Discussions of penal policies are thus indissociable from the debate on the nation’s identity.

17Two chapters in particular are of interest for those interested in utilitarianism: the one on “Natural Feelings, Crime and Punishment in Adam Smith’s moral philosophy” (by Trung Thien Kim Nguyen, p. 119-142) and the one on “Punishment and Crime in Jenni Fagan’s Panopticon” (p. 163-173).

  • 1 Alan Norrie, “Punishment and Justice in Adam Smith”, Ratio Juris, vol. 2 n3, Wiley Online Library, (...)

18Utility features in the chapter devoted to Adam Smith’s theory of justice and punishment. While some critics (in particular Alan Norrie1 with whom the author engages throughout the article) argue that Smith’s theory of punishment may be read as “limited form of utilitarianism”, Trung Thien Kim Nguyen endeavours to show that Smith challenges the idea that punishment should have purely utilitarian ends. From that point of view, Smith, whom the article places within the tradition of modern natural law, is to be distinguished from Hume, for whom justice is based upon utility (Second Inquiry III).

19The chapter aims to deal with three objections which have been raised to Smith’s conception of punishment: that it fails to provide proper moral and universal justification of punishment; that it is inconsistent on the role played by injury; that there is a discrepancy between the requirement that the impartial spectator mechanism should offer a universal point of view and the fact that in its operation the latter depends on its immediate context. By dealing with these objections, the chapter aims at offering a defence of natural feelings as a basis for a “sound, moral and universal justification of practice of punishment”.

20The author explains that because “Smith adopts the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century understanding of justice as the principal condition for the possibility of sociability does not entail that consideration of the utility of the laws of justice is the purpose of devising such laws.” (p. 123) The central elements highlighted in Smith’s theory are those of injury (which give rise to a natural feeling of resentments which is the basis of punishment), of sympathy (the mechanism by which a judgment is made as to whether an act should be punished) and of the impartial spectator (the mechanism by which natural feelings become moral sentiments). The impartial point of view of the latter becomes “the universal judgement that individuals seek to adopt.” (p. 138)

21The chapter by Marie-Odile Pitti-Hedon focuses on Jenni Fagan’s first novel, The Panopticon (2012), the title of which, as the author notes, “invites a reflection on Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth-century design and on its social and psychological implications” (p. 163). In Fagan’s novel, the building is not just a background or setting – rather, it is “elevated to the rank of protagonist” (p. 164) although the “official” protagonist is Anais, a fifteen-year old serial offender. Like other authors who have staged the Panopticon in their fiction, Fagan offers a description which is very much influenced by Foucault’s in Discipline and Punish, especially its insistence on the lack of privacy. While the Panopticon is not a prison in Fagan’s novel (it is a care home for children and young offenders), the author explains that it is nevertheless an “object of oppression” (p. 164), the goal of which is to “subdue people through constant watching” (p. 165). The chapter claims that Fagan’s intention was to “invent a Panopticon that has reached perfection” (p. 165) and become a “totalitarian world of total control” (p. 167).

22Drawing on Gramsci but also on Stephanie Lehner’s Subaltern Ethics in Contemporary Scottish and Irish Literature (2011) the author introduces the notion of subalternity to locate Fagan’s work alongside other contemporary works such as A. L. Kennedy’s short story “The role of notable silences in Scottish History” (1990) and James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late (1994). Contemporary Scottish authors have been paying close attention to “marginalisation, oppression and disempowerment”, giving a voice to those who have been deprived of it. More precisely, the author argues that in The Panopticon, “what is being examined is the oppressiveness of state power over the most fragile members of society”: “The panoptic experiment therefore becomes a Kelmanian environment in which what is taking place is an oppression of the subaltern, as seen from the point of view of the oppressed, disempowered character.” (167)

23The author analyses the text as a “voyage backwards, from the perfect system of discipline and punishment, to the reason that led to it, from the punishment to the crime” (165). This chronological reversal “emphasize[s] the inadequacy of a system that foregoes crime to focus on punishment” as the children are indeed treated in a punitive way. While the social workers refer to their wards as “cared-for young people” and “clients”, the latter call themselves “lifers” as they are doomed to stay in social care (at best) and are very likely to end up caught in the meshes of the criminal system. The novel thus illustrates a “blurring of line between care and punishment” (166).

  • 2 In “‘Daughter of an Outcast Queen’ – Defying State Expectation in Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon”, Th (...)

24The last part of the chapter expands on Bentham’s suggestion that his project was based on psychological rather than physical control to highlight the mind control exercised within Fagan’s Panopticon. In the final analysis offered here, Anais is a prisoner of “her own social and psychological condition” (p. 168), a situation which for the author can be interpreted allegorically in light of “the historyless condition of Scotland itself.” (168) The author elaborates on Fiona McCullock’s thesis2 that “policing and surveillance metaphorically parallel the plight of the Scottish nation and its uneasy relationship with Anglocentric hegemony” (p. 168). Fagan is said to have gone a step further “by suggesting a displacement of the labyrinth it creates to an ontological level superior to that of the characters, from the plot to the text” (p. 169). Indeed, the text itself is labyrinthine, with the use of repetitions and of internal focalisation which suggest entrapment. Finally, the author shows that the protagonist manages to escape her “mental Panopticon” (p. 170) by creating a fictional world for herself, which includes inventing alternative origins and pasts for herself: “The Panopticon seizes this narrative power to create, or rescue, a category of the population from being obliterated from the records of history.” (p. 172)

25Beyond these two specific chapters, the collection as a whole offers a wide-ranging overview of varied aspects of crime and punishment within a Scottish context. The historical period covered is very broad - from pre-union Scotland to the present times – and the approaches used in the different chapters are quite diverse, which makes for a very rich volume.

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1 Alan Norrie, “Punishment and Justice in Adam Smith”, Ratio Juris, vol. 2 n3, Wiley Online Library, 1989, 227-239. The author notes that little attention has been paid to Smith’s theory of punishment. A more recent source is R. F. Stalley, “Adam Smith and the Theory of Punishment”, The Journal of Scottish Philosophy, vol. 10 n1, Edinburgh University Press, 2012, 69-89.

2 In “‘Daughter of an Outcast Queen’ – Defying State Expectation in Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon”, The Scottish Literary Review, 2015, 113-31.

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Claire Wrobel, « Jean Berton and Bill Findlay, eds, Le crime, le châtiment et les Ecossais / Crime, Punishment and the Scots »Revue d’études benthamiennes [En ligne], 17 | 2020, mis en ligne le 30 septembre 2020, consulté le 08 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Claire Wrobel

Université Panthéon-Assas

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