The Speak of the Mearns by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Polygon, 2011, 254p

The Speak of the Mearns cover

The Speak of the Mearns is an unfinished novel first published in 1982, almost 50 years after Gibbon’s death. The book also contains several of his short stories and some essays. The fiction’s setting lies in lands near Stonehaven in North-East Scotland, close to those in Gibbon’€™s most celebrated work, the trilogy A Scots Quair, which I have yet to read. (I saw the BBC Scotland television adaptation many years ago and will get round to reading it some day.) It is an almost elegiac chronicling of a way of life, a way of being, that was all but extinguished even as he wrote about it, though he recognised it as a harsh existence.

Gibbon also wrote under his real name of J Leslie Mitchell, works which included two Science Fiction novels, Three Go Back and Gay Hunter. (You can’€™t imagine anyone naming a novel Gay Hunter nowadays.)

Most of the fiction in the book contained an ingredient I had not previously associated with Gibbon: humour. However the final three stories – after a second introduction – stand in contrast to the others, being set in Egypt – as were several other of Mitchell’€™s novels and stories.

As an unfinished novel The Speak of the Mearns naturally has some infelicities but has an interesting narration, most being in standard third person but with parts in the second person. However the viewpoint can shift from the internal thoughts of one of the characters to another within the same scene. The introduction (which, for safety’€™s sake, I did not read till after the fragment novel) suggests this is a technique Gibbon employed to good effect in A Scots Quair.

One of the essays, Literary Lights, is about Scottish writing. He says that those Scots writing in English felt alien to our southern cousins, as if they had translated themselves. Gibbon takes care to make the distinction between writing by Scots and that in Scots, claiming that none of the practitioners of the time (himself included) wrote in Scots, barring only the poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid and Lewis Spence. That writing in Scots would necessarily restrict your readership and thus was a very valid reason not to (and still is to this day) does not seem to have weighed with him. As far as he himself is concerned he says his technique was to “mould the English language into the rhythms and cadences of Scottish spoken speech*, and to inject into the English vocabulary such minimum number of words from Braid Scots as that remodelling requires.” (*Surely a tautology there.)

Since a fair few of the Scots words he uses were unknown to me (though their sense could be inferred fairly easily) he surely failed in the second part of that mission. In my defence I plead that I am only half-Scots. It has to be said, however, that if their use by English TV presenters is any guide then some Scots words are now more widely spread than when I was young.

Gibbon also claims that Scottish writing was about 20-30 years behind the times, A J Cronin, for example, dragging realism into Scottish letters long after it had appeared in English or foreign writing. That in the 21st century it is English writers -€“ as opposed to Scots or Irish we must suppose – who are now backward was noted in the last paragraph of this review in the Guardian on 4/1/13.

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