British and Irish Literature Irvine Welsh
Craig Lamont
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0170


Irvine Welsh is one of the most revered writers of his generation and is globally renowned for his debut novel Trainspotting (1993) and the film adaptation that followed. Though his biography is sketchy—perhaps deliberately so—we can say with some certainty that he was raised in Leith and Muirhouse, Scotland, and that he gained useful life and work experiences in London during the late 1970s and 1980s. His year of birth in Edinburgh is mainly given as 1958, though some reports offer an earlier date. Upon returning to Scotland in the late 1980s, he completed an MBA at Heriot-Watt University (his thesis was based on creating equal opportunities for women), and soon became acquainted with writers such as Alan Warner, Duncan McLean, and Kevin Williamson. Trainspotting was once a series of diary entries that were published in parts from 1991 onward in small independent magazines like DOG and Rebel Inc. Draft sections were also printed in A Parcel of Rogues and Past Tense: Four Stories from a Novel. It was through this network that Welsh became known to the director of Secker & Warburg, who published Trainspotting in its entirety. Set in the late 1980s, the novel was a critique of capitalism, individualism, nationalism, and war. This sweat-lashed, dialect-driven journey into the self and the nation was met with very high critical regard and a good measure of disgust. The novel is said to have missed out on the Booker Prize shortlist for causing offense to female judges. One year later James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late won the same award, much to the bemusement of one or two judges, and so the pair have been entwined as controversial antiestablishment types ever since. For Welsh, his reputation as a writer of mind-bending literature was enhanced with The Acid House (1994) and Marabou Stork Nightmares (1995), both showcasing an impressive range of narrative skills. Danny Boyle’s film version of Trainspotting (1996) propelled Welsh into a stratosphere that few Scottish writers have enjoyed, and while three more books were published before the sequel to Trainspotting, Porno (2002), he is chiefly remembered for creating one of the great novels of the late 20th century with his debut. Welsh’s extensive novels, short story collections, and stage and screen plays have kept him at the forefront of the Scottish literary scene, though he has revived the Trainspotting case time and again, most recently with Skagboys (2012), The Blade Artist (2016), and Dead Men’s Trousers (2018).

Introductions and Overviews

The mythic status of Irvine Welsh as the conduit of an angry, acid-tripping generation of ravers was not an instantaneous product of his landmark debut novel. Welsh’s own life, often draped with tales of petty criminality and with generic “punk scene” place markers, has helped enhance his status as an author. These texts were written to guide the reader through the myriad references, especially those that seem to speak most directly to the generation of Scots on whom the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s policies was most felt. For this reason, Kelly 2005 and Morace 2007 are helpful starting points for anyone new to Irvine Welsh. They present the life and works of the author in a natural fashion, while the scholarly critical takes in Karnicky 2003 and in Schoene 2010 take us deeper into the most present realities of Welsh’s literature.

  • Karnicky, Jeffrey. “Irvine Welsh’s Novel Subjectivities.” Social Text 21.3 (2003): 135–153.

    DOI: 10.1215/01642472-21-3_76-135

    This article takes several cues from Trainspotting and draws in several other works by Welsh to establish his most recurring themes. An examination of Welsh’s use of Scots versus “the Queen’s fuckin English” is followed by a study of the existentialism of some of Welsh’s main characters, especially in Mark Renton (Trainspotting) and Bruce Robertson (Filth).

  • Kelly, Aaron. Irvine Welsh. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005.

    This book in the Contemporary British Novelists series is a concise study of Welsh through his major works, each with their own chapter. The emphasis on social, class, and political issues with each new publication is drawn out with segments of Welsh’s own thoughts, taken from an interview between Kelly and Welsh in 2004.

  • Morace, Robert A. Irvine Welsh. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-01934-9

    A thorough overview of Welsh’s writing and its context. Divided into three parts (an introduction and a helpful timeline of global events from 1960 to 2006, Major Works, Criticism and Contexts), Morace’s work remains a helpful study of Welsh’s career until 2007.

  • Schoene, Berthold. The Edinburgh Companion to Irvine Welsh. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

    A collection of ten essays, setting Welsh in the company of the Scottish literary tradition before delving into studies of the novels and shorter fiction. The issues of class, gender, identity, and place are all given a place of their own, and these have been included elsewhere in other sections of this article.

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