Hame by Annalena McAfee

The Fascaray Archives, Harvill Secker, 2017, 585 p.

 Hame cover

This delightful book positively reeks of Scottishness. Told in Pairts Ane (Incomers), Twa (Cauld Handsel,) Thrie (Oor Ain Fowk), and Fower (Haste Ye Back,) and with a Glossary of Scots words, a Select Bibliography and two Appendices, it is not a straightforward novel – though I must say it pleased me from the first pages in having footnotes. It is on the one hand the journal of Mhairi McPhail, a Canadian of Scots extraction recently living in New York, returned to her ancestral home of the Hebridean island of Fascaray to investigate the life and papers of the late poet Grigor McWatt (self-styled Bard of Fascaray) and set up a museum in his memory, on the other a history of Fascaray (and through it the wider Scottish experience) as delivered through extracts from a supposedly forthcoming volume composed by McWatt entitled The Fascaray Compendium (as edited by McPhail and to be published by Crumlin Press) plus extracts from McPhail’s own book on McWatt’s life, A Granite Ballad – The Reimagining of Grigor McWatt (Thackeray College Press, 2016,) all interspersed with examples of the poet’s work (mostly owersettings – translations – or reimaginings of poems familiar from other sources.)

Blessed – and blighted – by the success of his song Hame tae Fascaray in the early 1960s (the list given of artists who have recorded it includes among the great, the good – and the unlikely [The Three Tenors? Dolly Parton?] – the wonderfully named Shooglenifty) and whose lyric bears some (undoubtedly intentional) similarities to The Mingulay Boat Song, McWatt is stand-offish – except perhaps in his cups – curmudgeonly, opinionated, a staunch supporter of both the Scots language and the islanders’ interests, fiercely anti-landlord and even more virulently anti-English – almost a caricature, although solidly fleshed out, of the dour Scot. His relationship with Lilias Hogg (the Flooer o Rose Street) – represented here as something of a poet’s groupie but evidently devoted to McWatt – is predictably distant, not helped by Hogg’s discovery of letters to McWatt from a mysterious woman named Jean.

Our partial narrator McPhail also has a troubled history, a straying husband and her disastrous retaliatory affair in part precipitating her decision to take the job on Fascaray, necessitating bringing along her nine-year old daughter Agnes, who in turn suffers a more or less benign neglect. But who finds the island interesting. At one point in her journal Mhairi describes the contrast in Glasgow’s atmosphere from the night of the Independence referendum to the day after. “Yesterday Glasgow was a carnival. Today it’s a funeral,” and tells us, “Scots have little time for overt sentimentality, though the covert sort has its place.”

Such meditations on Scottishness are never far away. In his Compendium McWatt quotes a Spaniard as writing, “‘Scots go to war, and when they run out of wars, they fight each other,’ and goes on to add, “While our native hostility and suspicion of each other may be ingrained, it is as nothing – a mere shadow dance – to the contempt we hold for our arrogant southern neighbours.” Mhairi’s journal contains a narrator’s aside about the smoothing out of an interviewee’s Scots for tourist consumption. “For ‘very’ read ‘gey’, for ‘aren’t’ read ‘arenae’. It’s not so hard is it?” But her transcriber avers, “‘There’s no Scots leid1…. There are about four Scots dialects and ten sub-dialects, and they’re all variants of English with a bit of Norse thrown in.’” (To which it’s a pity that Mhairi doesn’t reply, ‘But Scots was once one of the great languages of mediæval Europe. On equal footing.’) Later, though, Mhairi does come across McWatt writing that Scots is “no more a dialect than Catalan is a local variant of Castilian Spanish.”

Among McWatt’s many lists of Fascaray’s plant life, animals, sea creatures and the like is one of Scots words denoting fine weather – most of which necessarily describe short interludes – and one, deow, which is defined as “gentle rain”. We are also treated to his view of what makes a Scot – “a modest stoicism, a sense of social justice, a distrust of rank and the trappings of fame and an unbragging appreciation of the beauty and majesty around us.”

The titles and nominal publishers of McWatt’s writings add further grace notes:-
his Memoirs:- Forby (as by Virr Press, 1962) and Ootwith (Smeddum Beuks, 1994,)
his Collected Journalism – mostly reprints from the local (mainland) newspaper The Auchwinnie Pibroch:- Frae Mambeag Brae: Selected Columns and Essays of Grigor McWatt (Stravaigin Press, 1980) and Wittins: Mair Selected Columns and Essays of Grigor McWatt (Stravaigin Press, 2011,)
the books of poetry:- Kenspeckelt (Virr Press, 1959,)
Kowk in the Kaleyard (Virr Press, 1975,)
Wappenshaw (Virr Press, 1986,)
Warld in a Gless: The Collected Varse of Grigor McWatt (Smeddum Beuks, 1992,)
Teuchter’s Chapbook (Smeddum Beuks, 1998,)
Thoog a Poog (Smeddum Beuks, 2010,)
That’s me Awa (Smeddum Beuks, 2013,)
The Whigmaleerie’s Ower – The Complete Collected Verse of Grigor McWatt, ed. Ailish Mooney (Smeddum Beuks, 2015.)

The book’s endpapers display an illustrated sketch map of Fascaray and its environs. The first appendix contains recipes for Fascaray delicacies – the method for a fish piece2 takes up one line, as does that for the soorocks salad – the second is the sheet music for Hame tae Fascaray (as published by Stramash Music.)

Though it is twice (subtly) foreshadowed I’m still undecided as to whether the twist in the final sections revealing the nature of Jean’s relationship to McWatt enhances or detracts from McAfee’s overall tale; either response is legitimate.

No matter: notwithstanding the embedded tales with which McAfee has provided us here, what is impressive is the journey, the relish in the use of Scots, the demonstration of its vitality, its refusal to lie down and go away. Hame is a book which revels in the ongoing Scottish tradition in literature.

1leid = language
2piece is of course a Scots word for sandwich.

Pedant’s corner:- benificent (beneficent,) Menzies’ (Menzies’s,) “the English national anthem on the Home Service” (would actually be the UK one I would think,) Mhari-Ann (elsewhere Mhairi-Ann,) there is an opened parenthesis on page 176 which remains resolutely unclosed, Fascaray is described as being in the Hebrides but Mhairi at one point puts it in the North Sea, “met at a dance in Green’s Playhouse, Glasgow” [where the Sensational Alex Harvey band was playing.] (I doubt it was a dance then; a concert maybe.) Millais’ (Millais’s,) the Fringe Festival (back in the day it was called the Festival Fringe,) a nude revue in Edinburgh in the 1950s? (I don’t think so,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, span (spun,) “as a ‘a quisling’” (remove one of those “a”s,) “It is to the inhabitants of my tiny isle that I turn to” (one of those “to”s is superfluous,) “ the new dance the twist had come to Auchwinnnie” [the nearest town on the mainland] “in 1968” (a trifle late even for the back of beyond. Early 1960s, more like,) midgies (midges,) The festival (Festival,) “was said to be have been launched” (was said to have been launched,) “on the the fact” (only one “the”,) Miss Geddes’ (Geddes’s,) “a Harry Potter star” (in 2000? The first film came out in 2001,) “none the the wiser” (only one “the”,) sea-sclaters (sea-slaters?) “domestic woodlouse or sclater” (I have only ever heard or seen this as “slater”,) catapaults (catapults,) “and where if fell” (it fell,) in the Glossary “wheen” is defined as a small amount (I have only ever heard or read “wheen” as describing a relatively large amount.)

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