The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

Canongate, 2012, “the canons 15”, 234 p, including iv p introduction by Paul Giamatti. One of the 100 best Scottish Books. Returned to a threatened library.

The Cone-Gatherers cover

The trees on a Scottish country estate are to be cut down for use in the Second World War. This requires their cones to be gathered so that the trees might be replaced. The cone-gatherers of the title are brothers Neil and Calum McPhie, brought in from Ardmore to do the work. The pair has been housed in a make-do shelter in the woods despite there being a perfectly adequate beach hut available. Neil has a keen sense of the injustice of this situation. He had volunteered for the war but is too old and ailing. In any case he feels protective of Calum who, while angelic of face, has no neck and is hunchbacked. This deformity and Calum’s aversion to the suffering of rabbits in snares and deer during shoots render him an object of hatred to the gamekeeper Duror. “How incomprehensible and unjust it was that in Europe, in Africa, and in China, many tall, strong, healthy, brave , intelligent men were killing one another, while in that dirty little hut those two sub-humans lived in peace, as if under God’s protection. He could not understand that, and he was sure nobody could.” Yet Calum is accepted in his local community of Ardmore where the people have come to know his essential goodness.

Duror is the villain of the piece but Jenkins is careful to render him in the round. His wife is bed-ridden and his bitter and scathing mother-in-law runs his house. A certain twisting of the soul is to be expected. Other characters are also well-nuanced. Despite her ten year old son Roderick’s intense sense of fairness the estate owner’s wife, Lady Runcie-Campbell, is staunch in her defence of social status. Roderick has a weak constitution and she wonders if he can be sent to public school. Their doctor reminds her, “‘The Scots tradition of education has always linked the school with home.’ She said nothing but he could see she was not pleased at his insinuation that by sending their children to public schools the Scots gentry were aping a foreign tradition.”

Like many a Scottish novel The Cone-Gatherers exhibits a feeling for landscape and deals with religion. The local doctor says of his wife to Duror, “Mrs Matheson is an incorrigible Scot. Food is to eat to keep health to work and praise God. Tatties and saut herring are food. Caviare and venison are gluttony.” Other phrases reflect the Scottish character. One of the estate workers, Erchie Graham, says to Neil, “A Scotsman, if he’s worth his porridge, nurses his grievance till it grows to be a matter of compensation,” but the stand-out sentence of the novel deals with the human condition. “By being born, therefore, or even conceived, one became involved.”

If Duror is seen as a representation of the Devil it puts the novel firmly in the Scots tradition. (Even if he is merely the devil within us all the same holds true.) Calum meanwhile is a less common subject, the epitome of goodness. While well worth inclusion in that 100 best Scottish Books list, like the best literature from anywhere The Cone-Gatherers at its core transcends nationality.

Again it was as well I left the introduction till after reading the book, as it contains spoilers.

Pedant’s corner:- “neither tocher nor dowry” (my understanding is that a tocher is a dowry, or at least a wedding portion,) shrunken (shrunk,) “enter the Golden Gates into San Francisco” (Golden Gate, I believe,) with weary wave (a weary wave.)

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

free hit counter script