The Stornoway Way by Kevin MacNeil

Hamish Hamilton, 2005, 269 p

The Stornoway Way cover

“If you are easily offended, consign this book to the flames immediately, or return it to the shop from which you stole it.” So begins The Stornoway Way, but not the novel of that name contained within this book. The conceit is that the embedded novel is a manuscript sent to our author Kevin MacNeil by one R Stornoway (yes, the schoolboy joke is acknowledged) whose real identity – the town of the surname being one where everyone knows everyone else; and their business – MacNeil has sworn to keep secret. I doubt we are supposed to be taken in by any of this. In any case there is not really too much to be offended by; except I suppose if you are one of those determined killjoys for whom “the Old Testament was a good start, but it didn’t go far enough” with which the Western Isles and Scotland generally have historically been saddled.

The cover is a work of genius, by the way, invoking both Whisky Galore and the island obsession, also shared by much of the mainland, with alcohol. The cartoon figure, blotto, with bottle still in hand, is a particularly apposite touch. Unlike in Compton MacKenzie’s book though, the dark side of alcohol dependency gets an airing here. In case this sounds gloomy I should say that in many ways The Stornoway Way is an amusing book, but while at times comedic it is never light, and always serious. (The recitation entitled “The Neighbours We Could Have Had” might not find favour in southern parts of these islands though.) And it has copious footnotes!!!! Who doesn’t love footnotes? Admittedly a lot of these are translations of various Gaelic terms – some of which aren’t even in the text – but better footnotes than a glossary. In them for example we find the Gaelic Sasanach has no pejorative connotations, unlike its Scots/English borrowing.

Before the internal novel begins we are presented with a map of Scotland upside down compared to the usual occidentation*. This helps to illustrate the point that in Stornoway, “We do not live in the back of beyond, we live in the very heart of beyond…. Our blood relatives in Scandinavia to the left, our blood relatives in Ireland to the right.” Though “R Stornoway” perhaps overdoes it when he says, “The Western Islander’s response to our diminishing way of life is that of the oppressed the world over, from Native American to Australian aborigine: a powerful urge to drink oneself underground.” The Western Islanders – and the Scots – have been drinking themselves underground for centuries.

When the novel proper starts, poverty has brought would-be artist “R Stornoway” back to Lewis and his childhood home, which he had been avid to leave as soon as possible. From there we range over various incidents from his life, his first experience with alcohol being a seminal moment. In all of these, even his relationship with Eva, a student from Hungary, alcohol plays a significant part – as it does for Stornoway the town.

An example of the narrator’s sardonic humour occurs when he is accused of being uncaring – and an alky. He replies, ‘Some people will believe anything if you tell them it’s a rumour.’

His existential crisis comes when he wakes up beside a beautiful woman and, due to the booze, cannot remember who she is, how she came to be there, nor exactly what happened between them the night before. His decision to fetch the ingredients for breakfast without waking her backfires when he returns to find her gone. At this point there is still a substantial part of the novel to come though. Eventually he comes to terms with himself and his relationship with alcohol. “Drink doesn’t give you a better sense of who you are, it gives you a nonsense of who you are.”

The latter part of the novel has a more downbeat nature than the delicious early chapters, concomitant with the cumulative effects of alcohol on the individual personality, but even with that The Stornoway Way is overall brilliant stuff.

*One of MacNeil’s coinages, see also gloominous clouds, muselicious.

Pedant’s corner:- smoothe (smooth,) Captain Moses’ place (Moses’s, several instances,) Stevens’ (Stevens’s.)

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