The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd

Canongate Classics, 1987, 223 p including iv p introduction and iii p glossary of Scots words. Canongate Classics 4. First published 1928.

 The Quarry Wood cover

From a young age Martha Ironside loved books, so much so she kicked her great-aunt Josephine for taking her from them. Her mother – a looker in her youth – had married (beneath her the aunts said) her father for love. But Martha is an Ironside and takes after him in looks. In Aunt Josephine’s words she is “’as ugly a little sinner as ye’d clap e’en on in a month o’ Sabbaths.’” And it is true that, “’Men have decreed rights to beauty that reason need not approve.’” Not that it matters to Martha as she knows what she wants – to go to University and become a teacher. Perhaps surprisingly it is her father who is the one eager not to deny the child her further education.

At university Martha is attracted to and a little intimidated by people who cleave to the life of the mind, the seemingly confident Lucy Warrender, and Luke, who is married to Martha’s friend Dussie. Her interest in Luke eventually develops into something deeper but can never be fulfilled. Yet their one close, more or less innocent, encounter in the Quarry Wood late at night will later give rise to gossip. Luke and Dussie remain Martha’s friends but have by that time long moved to Liverpool to avoid any possibility of blandishment.

Martha’s post university life as a teacher in a school twelve miles from her home is complicated by the growing infirmity of Aunt Josephine who is reluctant to take a woman in to look after her. Martha steps into the breach, bicycling back and forward each day. The arrival from South Africa of Roy Rory Foubister, the son of the man who disappointed Aunt Josephine long ago, stirs up both memories and hopes for Aunt Josephine.

Another of the aunts, Jeannie, is all too recognisably self-righteous. “She had carried her habit of bigotry from her religion into the minutest affairs of daily life; and surer every hour of her own salvation, grew proportionately contemptuous of the rest of mankind.”

The Quarry Wood is told in English larded with Scots words but, as the phrase quoted in the earliest paragraph above demonstrates, the dialogue presents us with unapologetic, uncompromising North East of Scotland dialect. Shepherd’s fine descriptions of landscape are entirely at one with the traditions of the Scottish novel. Her evocation of weather, though, is exceptional.

Pedant’s corner:- Birelybeg (spelled elsewhere Birleybeg,) “he could have showed them off (shown,) that Warrrender creature (Warrender,) “how little she had seen of Harrie recently and how seldom she had visited her thoughts” (context suggests how seldom he had visited her thoughts,) back and fore (a north of Scotland usage then,) “had know heartache too” (known,) exhilirated (exhilarated,) baack (back,) an end quote missing.


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  1. Peggy Ann

    This sounds wonderful Jack! One I’ll keep my eye open for while I’m there.

  2. jackdeighton

    It’s very good indeed. I’m sure you’ll be able to find a copy somehow or other when you’re over here.
    (I’ll link my review to Read Scotland 2016 when we get back home.)

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