The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

Richard Drew Publishing, 1985, 533 p including 1 p Note on the illustrations, 5 p prefatory poem, 4 p Haldane family tree and 125 p Notes on the text,

The Bull Calves cover

The novel is set in 1747, the year following that of the Jacobite cause’s final downfall at Culloden. Its plot unfolds over two days at Gleneagles, seat of the Haldanes (and Mitchison’s ancestral home) but the backstories of both Kirstie (Haldane) Macintosh and her husband William of Borlum delve into the long shadow thrown by the 1715 rebellion and the now all but forgotten Glenshiel rising of 1719.

The Jacobite rebellions are an itch that Scottish writers were seemingly unable not to scratch. (That this is no longer self-evidently true is, perhaps, a measure of how times have changed.) Walter Scott arguably had an excuse when he kicked off the historical novel with Waverley, Culloden was only ‘sixty years since’ as his subtitle attested (though see my caveats in that post’s Pedant’s Corner,) but this book was first published in 1947 a full two hundred years after the last of those events. (Then again, consider Zhou En Lai’s remark about the ramifications of the French Revolution -though it seems he was slightly misunderstood.) It cannot be denied however that the defeat of Jacobitism cemented the Union (which was then tempered by the acquisition of Empire) and the changes it brought about altered the Highlands, and their relations with the Lowlands, for ever.

Mitchison herself provides copious, very readable, sometimes intriguing notes on her novel, covering incidental details of the Scotland in which the book is set, the history of the Union and its effects on Scotland, the evolution of grouse shooting and much more.

The main characters in The Bull Calves are Kirstie and William Macintosh who are making a visit to Kirstie’s childhood home at Gleneagles. William’s family had been “out” in 1715 and his land was confiscated as a result. William himself had a price on his head and fled to the American colonies. On his return he managed to regain his Highland lands but despite not joining in the ’45 his assumed Jacobite sympathies mean his in-laws regard him with some suspicion. In that same interim Kirstie had made an unwise marriage to a dour Minister with the typically unsympathetic attitude of his type to the miners in his Ayrshire parish. There were doubts about his death and she has confessed to William that she had indulged in what may have been witchcraft, something which he dismissed out of hand. An on-the-run Robert Strange, who had been contracted to design and engrave Bonnie Prince Charlie’s (never distributed) banknotes – and was one of the author’s great-great-great grandfathers! – turns up, whereon William and a Haldane nephew contriving to hide him in the attic. Lachlan Macintosh of Kyllachy, who had set his cap at Kirstie in the long ago and therefore holds a grudge against her and husband both, and now believes he has compromising information about William’s sojourn in America, also arrives, thus putting all the plot motors in place.

Mitchison’s characterisation is delightful, extending even to minor figures such as Phemie Reid, Kirstie’s childhood nursemaid, and Mrs Grizzie, the Gleneagles housekeeper.

On the treatment meted out to the Mcgregor clan one character says, “‘If evil is done to one man or woman they may be able to … forgive their enemies. But if evil is done to a whole race of folk, they will be bound to do evil again.’” A more general, and still true, observation is that “…’those who are making the best living out of a country, they will be expressing their fine moral sentiments… But they will not be seeing the kind of a lie they are telling themselves….. they will believe that the present ordering of life was ordained of the Lord. Which is …. blasphemy…. But… (Highlanders) will do best when they are sharing, with everything held in common, the old way.’”

A flavour of the times is given by exchanges such as (between William of Borlum and Mungo, head of Gleneagles,) “‘It seemed to us that the Union with England was destroying Scotland. It had been bad enough with Queen Anne, but the new lot had no interest at all in Scotland, we were thought of as a county of England.’
‘Ach, yes,’ Mungo replied. ‘We found that down in Westminster, “Have we not bought the Scots and the right to tax them?”’

About the unequal conditions Scotland was subject to in the Union’s early days we have, “‘Our fisheries could compete with the bigger Dutch boats but the salt tax ruined them, our coal trade with Ireland suffered from a duty not put on English coal, our linen trade was attacked, for all it was our staple, …they wouldna buy our timber if it would mean spending money on roads.’”
Of the Ayrshire miners Kirstie incidentally remarks, “‘They would even keep the Popish holidays, such as Christmas.’” And Mungo supplies us with the typically Lowland sentiment, “‘English or Highland, what’s about it? You canna be trusting either of the two of them, although they have different kind of villainies.’”

Many people may ignore the Notes but I would urge you not to as for me that was where a lot of the interest lay. In them Mitchison made a plea for Scottish children to be allowed to express themselves in spoken and written Scots of their own district. That plea is no longer unheeded though it took nigh on forty years to be so.

She says, “At that time, as now in Scotland, a married woman was known by her maiden name.” This perhaps became slightly less true in some of the 70 years after her book’s first publication but has become so again, less as a cultural practice than an assertion of a woman’s individuality. In any case Scottish gravestones always attested to this phenomenon.

We are told that on his peregrinations down the country and back up again Bonnie Prince Charlie “paid for everything that he and his household got. Doubtless it was good policy for the Prince to pay, but – he did so. Cumberland was less particular.” On piety – or lack of it, “The Pharisees are well in control now, just the same as they used to be,” and, on the west coast, “in each succeeding generation the Elect manage to torture their children slightly less with fear of hell-fire,” On Scotland’s clinging to tradition, that “a church of hell-fire will be against change. In Scotland attention is still directed on personal sins, such as fornication, drunkenness and playing football on Sunday rather than social sins such as usury, and the forcing of the destructive facts of poverty on millions.” A cultural tic that has vanished in those 70 years is that, “God is called to save (the King) after every stage and screen performance, as well as by the BBC.”

We find in a note on Robert Strange that his betrothed, Isabella Lumisden, “did actually do the traditional thing, and hid him under her hoop, when a sudden searching of the house took place. Which only shows how much more gentlemanly, or less efficient, the soldiers who did the search were in those days.” Quite.

Much Scottish anxiety rested (rests?) on the tension between respectability and the desires of the flesh. Historically, respectability outwardly prevailed but Mitchison counters, “We would have it supposed that sculduddery (lewd behaviour, fornication) is far removed from our kailyards. Our illegitimacy statistics prove otherwise. So does our great national song, to a strathspey tune, of which not one verse is publishable.” Which last has me mystified. Does anyone know the song to which she refers?

In the context of authors seeking a new symbolism there is a mention of SF visionary Olaf Stapledon. Unlike others’, his was external rather than internal.

Pedant’s corner:- Forbes’ (occurred one line after a Forbes’s, but this one was in dialogue,) span (it was in dialogue but there was a “would be spun” later in the same speech,) Bearcrofts’ (Bearcrofts’s,) James’ (James’s,) Dundas’ (Dundas’s,) “better than it had use to be” (used.)
In the Notes:- Prince’s Street (Princes Street,) “now that the Department of Agriculture provide” (provides,) Blythwood Square (Blythswood Square,) out there is was possible (it was,) the Elect manage (strictly manages,) King of England (an odd thing for a Scot to write,) a Dago thing (not an expression likely to find favour today,) Cloud Cookoo Land (Cloud Cuckoo Land,) Americars (Americans,) “The evidence seem to come” (seems,) Mickie (Mickey,) less (fewer.)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

free hit counter script