James Hogg – The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of All Time
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is one of cinema’s Holy Grails. Plans, scripts, outlines and pitches lie in archives, collections and bottom drawers from Holyrood to Hollywood. Hardly a writer who knows the book – myself included – hasn’t tried to adapt it. Written at the beginning of the 19th century, it’s screaming out for the big screen. So what’s the problem? Nothing in the story itself. Robert Colwan (the original Dorian Gray/Mr Hyde), considers himself above ordinary smelly mortals like you and me. Then he meets a twin more daring and desperate than himself. How much more cinematic can you get?
The difficulty is which Justified Sinner do you make? Zone in on the violence and depravity, American Psycho-style? Pick up on the dark humour and do a Witches of Eastwick? Orson Welles could have used Robert Colwan as Howard Hughes for a case study in madness triggered by loneliness. Scorsese might capture the dull throb of soulless, everyday evil. Tim Burton would invent a satanic Brigadoon peopled by Covenanting bogles and Jacobite brownies. Polanski’s your man for doppelganger hysteria. But each of these would give you only a part of the book. James Hogg – his nickname ‘Ettrick Shepherd’ sums up the myth – is in the great Scottish tradition of untutored, ‘natural’ geniuses. Perfectly poised between Burns and Stevenson, he was raised on a diet of fairies, ghouls and witches at a time when science and industry were changing the world forever, yet where religious reaction and superstition shackled the masses: a place not unlike today’s Midwest. Hogg’s is a tale in which reason and unreason meet, where a privileged hierarchy face a disgruntled populace, unsure of their own demands and desires.
Cinematically, it’s the devilry and extraordinariness that first appeals. Finally though, it’s neither the Great nor Good, the Mad nor Bad, who force the climax, delivering redemption. That’s found in the muddle of ordinary characters Colwan encounters. Justified Sinner is as much Triumph of the Common Man as Evil Bastard’s Midnight Romp. When a Scottish director combining the talents of Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Jackson and Ken Loach comes along, we’ll have one hell of a night at the movies. But nothing will ever beat the book. Gruesome, gripping, witty, salacious and candid, Hogg’s yarn is not just a Scots classic, it’s a universal masterpiece.
Further reading: The Three Perils of Woman (1822) powerfully explores the terrible aftermath of Culloden; A Queer Book (1832) is a comprehensive collection of Hogg’s greatest verse.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.