A Pass in the Grampians by Nan Shepherd

Part of “The Grampian Quartet,” Canongate, 1996, 120 p, plus vi p Introduction by Roderick Watson. First published in 1933.

 The Grampian Quartet cover

The village of Boggiewalls lies in the lee of the Grampians; beneath a pass through which various military commanders have travelled on their transitorily important campaigns. It is one of those deceptively sleepy communities wherein lie universal human dilemmas and dramas, hidden or otherwise.

From it the Kilgour family had spawned scholars. His three brothers had all gone off to University and made a place for themselves in the world but Andrew Kilgour had preferred to stay on the farm. The impact of two deaths, his wife’s and his son’s (in the Great War) had led his daughter Mary first to give up her ambition to follow in her uncles’ footsteps until the second provided the chance for the widow, Milly, to come, with her daughter Jenny, to tend to the house – allowing Mary to fulfil her desires, and eventually set up a typing school in London. Jenny is the apple of Andrew’s eye but, now she has grown, her friendship with elderly local shepherd, Durno, who lives with his spinster sister Alison, is seen as no longer seemly.

But now the return of well-known singer Dorabel Cassidy, the one-time Bella Cassie, whose mother Peggy had fallen to her death from a hayrick in Andrew’s farmyard and whose welfare he had seen to by taking her in as part of the family – leading to the inevitable gossip – before she took off to make her way in the wider world, her building a modern house within sight of the Kilgour farm, her unconventional behaviour, all threaten the delicate balance of the relationships in the village. Dorabel has a capacity to enthrall others. She has an artist, Barney, in tow, on a string, obedient to her every whim and Jenny, too, falls under her spell. Andrew Kilgour is less enamoured.

There is an awful lot packed into these 120 pages, a network of complications, obligations and acceptances. A whole existence of self-abnegation is summed up in a phrase relating to Milly’s “eternal grey jersey – this year’s, last year’s, sometime’s.” We all know uncomplaining women like this. And it is conveyed in just eight words.

Shepherd’s usual eye for landscape description is demonstrated and the economy with which the plot unfolds, we find the true reasons for Peggy’s death, and the real identity of Bella’s father is exemplary.

There is an aside on good Scots stories, “For salt and subtlety these ….. were unmatched, and, at their best, great art, in which, as in a perfect lyric, not a word could be altered.” You could say the same for Shepherd’s writing.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech.

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