History of Scottish PEN

For over 90 years, Scottish PEN has been committed to fostering a dynamic literary culture in Scotland. This is vital for the nation to play its part on the international stage.

Our history

Histoy of Scottish PEN Interviews and Event

In August 2020, members of the Scottish PEN Board took part in a series of interviews and an online public event which explored the history of Scottish PEN and the challenges we face today. You can watch these interviews (featuring Carl MacDougall, Jenni Calder, Mario Relich and Lady Joyce Caplan) as well as a recording of the event on our YouTube channel, or via the playlist embedded below.

Beating in harmony: the 1920s

The heart of each separate living thing

Beats differently, according to its needs,

And all the beats are in harmony.

Hugh MacDiarmid, founder member, Scottish PEN

For over 90 years, Scottish PEN has been committed to fostering a dynamic literary culture in Scotland. In 1927, Hugh MacDiarmid, with Professor Herbert Grierson of the University of Edinburgh and the novelist Neil Gunn, proposed setting up a Scottish Centre of PEN.

Other founder members were Compton Mackenzie, Helen Cruickshank, Edwin and Willa Muir and Robert Cunninghame Graham. In the 1920s MacDiarmid played a leading role in a resurgence of Scottish writing and a growing national consciousness. In 1926 he published A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle in which he reflected uncompromisingly on the state of Scotland.

At the 1928 International PEN Congress in Oslo, Scottish PEN fought off claims that Scottish PEN did not represent a separate culture. Scottish PEN’s case was made by journalist William Power. Scottish PEN set a precedent. A few years later there were Yiddish and Flemish PEN centres. By 1931, there were 40 PEN centres, most of them in Europe. They were city rather than country based and including two in Scotland – Edinburgh and Glasgow.

MacDiarmid became Scottish PEN’s president – ‘extraordinarily lively and energetic’, according to Compton Mackenzie – with the poet Helen Cruickshank as secretary. Outspoken and often controversial, MacDiarmid made an impact both within and outwith Scotland.

The birth of Scottish PEN was a radical act, culturally and politically.

Find archive material spanning Scottish PEN’s history at the National Library of Scotland.

Scottish PEN through the decades

Caring for the world’s mind: Scottish PEN today

The mind of the world is largely in the care of its authors.

Herman Ould, secretary, International PEN, 1926-51

The world needs its writers. With the ominous increase in attacks on the written word it is more necessary than ever to protect writers and readers. It is appalling that writers are killed for sharing experiences and ideas. And there are many insidious ways in which writers and publishers can be pressured into silence. Scottish PEN has for 90 years played its part in alerting the world to these threats.

Today Scottish PEN’s Writers at Risk group vigorously highlights the predicament of threatened writers and campaigns on their behalf.

Its participation in PEN International’s Rapid Action Network means that members in Scotland can act quickly to support writers under threat.

Scottish PEN members work with exiles and refugees in Scotland and produce an online magazine which features their work. International Women’s Day is marked every year with a joint all-day event with the University of Edinburgh. Scottish PEN is playing a key role in campaigning for defamation law reform.

Since 1927 Scottish PEN has been a part of Scotland’s literary life. Its membership is growing and it is now open to readers as well as writers. By joining you too can help to care for the world’s mind. 

What does Scottish PEN do?

At Scottish PEN we are committed to promoting literature and defending freedom of expression.

We campaign on behalf of writers imprisoned and exiled, and bring Scottish and international writers together to share experience.

We promote Scottish writing in all its languages, encouraging translation and the promotion of writing from traditionally underrepresented communities.

We play an important role in the PEN International community, including participating in the international congress which is hosted each year in a different country.


Events are organised throughout the year in different parts of Scotland. Regular highlights include Scottish PEN events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the annual Naomi Mitchison Memorial Lecture at the University of Glasgow, and an annual symposium to mark International Women’s Day in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh.

Scottish PEN is a member of the Literature Forum for Scotland and works with other Scottish literature organisations to promote writing and reading in Scotland.

How is Scottish PEN run?

Scottish PEN is run by an executive committee which meets about six times a year. Elections are held at the annual general meeting, usually in September. Our work is coordinated by a Project Manager, and four committees:

“All my experience as a woman of Scottish background leads me to believe that the principles of PEN are especially natural to the Scottish character, with its independent-mindedness, its will to sincerity in public affairs, its sense of our being unquestionably born free.” – The late Muriel Spark, honorary member of Scottish PEN

Scottish PEN’s future

Membership of Scottish PEN is open to all who subscribe to the PEN International charter. We always welcome new members!