Souvenir Press, 1985 reprint from 1942, 255 p. One of the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books.
On finishing this uplifting book I reflected that it depicts a kind of relationship which either no longer exists or will expire shortly. Young Art is eight or so years old, hence not well versed in the ways of the adult world. His friend and confidant, Old Hector, the ancient of their small village, is a repository of sagacity, wisdom and local knowledge. Their warm, mutual affection shines through the prose describing their interactions. These days I fear the world of the young is so divorced from that of the old that common ground such as Art and Hector have here would be very hard to find.
Young Art and Old Hector is another chronicling of a way of life that was passing – had passed at the time of writing. This is one of the perennial themes of Scottish literature. Hector says to Art, “‘I know every corner of this land, every little burn and stream, and even the boulders in the stream. And I know the moors and every lochan on them. And I know the hills, and the passes, and the ruins, and I know of things that happened here on our land long long ago, and men who are long dead I knew, and women. They are part of me. And more than that I can never know now.’” Hector tells Art, “‘There are many places, many many places, with names that no-one knows but myself, and they will pass away with me.’” Whereupon Art asks Hector to teach them to him so that they won’t die. That instinct may have been what prompted Gunn to write this novel. Whatever, while people still read old books the past is never entirely dead.
There isn’t really much of a plot, what there is revolves around an illicit still set up to produce whisky for a wedding party, the authorities’ attempts to catch those operating it and their subsequent outwitting, but Gunn’s facility in entering the mind of a child is superb. An example of Art’s misunderstanding of grown up ways is his conclusion that courting must be a very bad thing. A conclusion only compounded when his hand is innocently held by a young girl. Gunn makes the comparison with the second childhood of the elderly but emphasises it does not entirely hold, especially in their differing perceptions of time.
Hector has a few good lines. “Old Hector maintained that money wasn’t everything… and in his young days people didn’t hanker after it so greedily as they did now.” To the objection that had they been more alive to it they might not have been cleared out of the Clash in the time of evictions he replies, “‘It was the lairds and the factors who were keen on the money, and it’s because they were keen on the money that they drove the people forth.’” Hector also says “‘I have not observed that it’s the people who are out to make money who are the helping kind…. the more they make the grippier they become.’” “‘Whenever the prime concern in life is money-making then you have trickery and brutality and wrong.’” “‘Human dealings are founded – founded – not on money but on what is fair and just all round.’” He relates how the legalisation of distilling in effect stole the people’s drink from them and had not left them “‘wherewith to buy it.’”
And here’s a thought that feels almost quaint in this modern age. “‘What’ asked Art, ‘is the most wonderful thing in the world.’ ‘A kind heart,’ answered Old Hector.”
Pedant’s corner:- On the book’s back cover; Donal (in the text it is always Donul.) Otherwise: dike (dyke is the preferred British spelling for an embankment or low wall,) primeval (I prefer primaeval,) “‘Are there? “I have never’, said Mary-Anne” (has the comma misplaced outside the quotation marks,) “and t but half the size” (has the space for the “i” of it but the “i” itself is missing,) “does not now what to make of me” (ditto the “k” of “know”,) “Every littl place (ditto the e of little,) paradisaical (I’ve only ever seen this as paradisiacal before but it’s an accepted variant.) A big thumbs up for “Amn’t I?”