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Lobsters on the Agenda by Naomi Mitchison

House of Lochar, 1997, 251 p, plus ix p Introduction by Isobel Murray and i p About the Author. First published 1952.

This is a deceptively unshowy tale of a week in a Highland district in which apparently nothing much happens but by the end a lot has been resolved. It starts with widow Kate Snow, a trained doctor but now not practising – only occasionally called in as a locum – milking her cows, and receiving a visit from a man called Chuckie with the news that a cache of lobsters belonging to Matta has been stolen. This is a shocking circumstance as it means someone from the local community is responsible. Thereafter the question of the lobsters pops up from time to time – at least until the explanation is revealed near the end – but the main preoccupation of the village of Port Sonas is whether or not it ought to have a Village Hall. There is also an incident involving one of the boarded-out children from Glasgow being treated unfairly by the man of the house where she is billeted and an outbreak of measles in a family from up the valley. The Hall is the most easily dealt with issue at hand; others such as the state of the roads and whether or not there will ever be a bridge built across the loch to shorten the locals’ journeys require much more investment. Kate of course being a modern-minded person and indeed a District Councillor is in favour of the Hall and becomes chairwoman of the committee set up to facilitate it. Despite her status as a doctor and District Councillor Kate is still the subject of sexism, asked by a male Councillor if she knows anyone suitable – as if it’s up to her to find a cleaner for the school toilets.

Naturally most of the opposition comes from the churches, not so much the Established Church but the more hardline Free Presbyterians and even harder line Wee Frees. At one point Kate thinks about some women who speak against the Hall. “They wanted to believe evil. They were brought up to think in terms of sin. They would have liked to have sinned themselves, to have some pleasant memories to brood over – as most of the men had. But when you think of sin in terms of sex and when birth control is ill understood, women can’t afford to sin.” This is also an example of the novel’s more or less candid approach to sexual matters. The question of the nature of relations between men and women is more open here than in most Scottish books of the novel’s era. Lad about town (well village) Donnie Cameron, dragged to church every Sunday by his staunch father, is set to make a “godly union” with his cousin from Halbost but, though never seen with them, finds time to dally with lassies – especially one always referred to as Kenny’s Chrissie. She in turn, via a lawyer, sends Roddy MacRimmon a letter accusing him of being the father of her (still not showing) baby. While not denying spending time with her he is adamant he is innocent of that particular offence. “‘She never had her skirt up. Not for me.’”

Opposition to the Hall is not intrinsic. Through Kate the author tells us “any association that was not directly of the church was a distraction, was a temptation and a leading away from the true race and the only goal. Therefore all such things were evil, whatever good earthly intention they might have, aye all, Boy Scouts, political parties, the Women’s Rural Institutes, the Farmer’s Union, above all anything which in any way encouraged games, dancing, the heathen Highland pipes or any other thing to do with the body where Satan might enter to seize from there on the soul.” The most strict local Minister, Mr Munro, was “mainly troubled in the Lord over two things. One was the Roman Catholic Church, forever assailing the realm of Scotland, and the other was the Port Sonas Village Hall.” He had come to the conclusion that Village Halls were part of a Papist plot. This, despite the fact that, from the text, there appear to be no Roman Catholics at all in Port Sonas.

The fear of modernity is at the heart of it, not lost on Kate herself, as she says to a friend, “‘Odd, isn’t it? These things which have come in our own time: the cinema and the wireless, and both breaking up the community! And when there’s the television, we won’t need to go out of our own lonely room.’” Her attitude to the churches is perhaps reflective of Mitchison’s own, “‘If once we could start treating the Ministers like ordinary decent folk, we’d get help out of the churches instead of the harm they mostly do. ….. You know there are a few folk who contrive to be good without the fear of hellfire at their tails. But maybe we’ll not manage to treat the Ministers right till they stop wanting to be treated as something special.’”

A curious addition to the list of characters is a member of the Highland Panel, come to assess the possibility of allocating funds for the Hall. This is a “‘Mrs Mitchison from Carradale. She writes books.’” This may be an attempt by the author to deflect suspicion that Kate is in fact her avatar. I also mused on whether this is where Orhan Pamuk might have got the idea of referring to himself in his novels. But I don’t suppose there’s any reason to believe he’s ever read Scottish Fiction of any kind, still less Mitchison.

The concerns over change in the community are bound up with the thought that the Highland way of life is in danger. Kate puts this into perspective when she thinks, “You could sum up the Highland way of life, she thought, if you were unkind, in four words: devilment, obligement, refreshment, buggerment.”

This novel is steeped in that way of life, speech patterns and all, only aspects of which now remain seventy years on, yet the capacity for gossip and innuendo, interest in other folk, is a human perennial. These are recognisable people, behaving in familiar ways.

Pedant’s corner:- commas before and at the end of a piece of direct speech in a continuing sentence are routinely omitted, “The Revie’s had come” (Revies,) oursel’s (this is ‘ourselves’. It’s a plural so does not need that apostrophe,) gunwhale (gunwale, and spelled as such on the next page.) “‘Were you thinking ou an extension, Dugal?’” (printer’s typo? ‘u’ for ‘n’? ‘thinking on’,) a-hold (ahold,) an end quote mark inserted into the middle of a speech, Bits’ (Bits’s.) “‘So long as it’ no’ me’” (it’s,) crochety (crotchety,) rhodies (x 3, rhoddies,) Balnafearcha (elsewhere always Balnafearchar,) “all it’s horrible narrowness” (its,) “an seven-day incubation period” (a seven-day,) Angus’ (x 2, Angus’s,)

To Be Continued by James Robertson

Or, Conversations with a Toad Penguin, 2017, 332 p.

 To Be Continued cover

The Scottish novel is not noted for humour, nor even light-heartedness. Neither can that be attributed to the author of this one, whose previous forays into the realms of Scottish letters have dealt with serious issues – Covenanting times, meetings with the Devil, slavery, the independence question, and the Lockerbie bombing. Yet this can only be described as a comic novel. There’s really not another way to describe a book in which not just one but three characters have conversations with, and a couple of sections are narrated by, a member of the species Bufo bufo – the common toad (though it describes itself as uncommon.)

Douglas Findhorn Elder’s life is drifting. Having taken voluntary redundancy from his job at the Spear newspaper, his relationship with Sonya Strachan foundering, his mother dead, his father Thomas Ythan Elder in a care home, he has moved back into the parental home. On the way to the funeral of a former colleague on his fiftieth birthday on a bus that is stuck in traffic he reflects ruefully on his situation. That evening, stepping out onto a patio – what his father called the sitootery, or in inclement weather the raindaffery, or even the naechancery, but when it’s bitter cold, the skitery – he finds himself having a conversation with a toad; a toad whom they mutually agree to name Mungo Forth Mungo (since the Elder family always gives itself a middle name after a Scottish river,) a toad which gives him a different perspective on life.

The early chapters detail Douglas’s somewhat drab existence and include an awkward encounter with Sonya’s daughter Paula, a commentary by Ollie Buckthorn – still on the Spear’s payroll – on the exquisite embarrassments of the procedure to obtain a sample for the bowel cancer screening test plus the frustrations of a visit to the home where his dementia struck father is now living.

The main plot motors up when Douglas is asked by the Spear’s editor to undertake a series of (fee unspecified) freelance pieces on the Idea of Scotland, to gauge how the nation sits after the Independence referendum. During this encounter Douglas lets us know he hates the word ‘heft.’ “Book reviewers use it to describe tedious literary novels that they feel obliged, tedium notwithstanding, to admire.” The series is to start with an interview with forgotten near centenarian novelist Rosalind Munlochy, who lives in a house called Glentaragar somewhere in the wilds of Argyll.

Both Douglas’s conversations with Mungo (which are numbered) and the extracts from Rosalind Munlochy’s biography which he provides us with are concluded with the words [To be continued] thus giving the novel its title.

The journey to Glentaragar will not be easy. Sonya has refused Douglas’s request to use their car and he will have to travel by public transport. As it turns out he is deposited at a request stop at the apparently deserted Shira Inn and, since it’s quiet, is asked to man the bar by Malcolm the manager while he goes off on a quest of his own. A musician called Stuart Crathes MacCrimmon drops in and starts to drink the place dry, as do various groups of tourists. A woman named Xanthe who seems to know the place well calls in, starts to help and takes a shine to Douglas.

The next day both Xanthe and MacCrimmon have vanished and Douglas makes his way to the Glen Araich Lodge Hotel, near Glentaragar, to find the manager, Ruaraidh MacLagan, is identical to McCrimmon but will not admit it. It is here that a subplot involving the whiskies Glen Gloming and Salmon’s Leap enters the picture.

Yet more confusion awaits Douglas once he has hitch-hiked to Glentaragar and finds the house’s general factotum Corryvreckan is also a double (triple!) for MacCrimmon and MacLagan and moreover that Rosalind Munlochy’s granddaughter Poppy is actually the Xanthe he’d met the day before. In her case the reason is simple, she had wanted to check Douglas out before allowing him to interview her grandmother. The fact that she had checked him out thoroughly does not ameliorate his initial discomfort.

Rosalind, though, is engaging and an obliging interviewee, “‘People wade in it’ (knowledge) ‘now without any sense of direction or any notion of what it is they are wading in,’” but is at cross purposes as she believes Douglas has come to inquire into a family secret relating to Rosalind’s daughter (Poppy’s mother.)

The tanglings of the plot are cleverly worked. Corryvreckan turns out to be an Englishman who had sought a bolthole. Poppy says of him, “‘he went native. It’s not uncommon in the Highlands.’” The whisky sub-plot links in both to Corryvreckan’s present and past and to Douglas’s life in Edinburgh. Unlikely connections are established – in one case re-established. Ends that had not seemed loose are tied up. The novel finishes affirmatively.

Along the way Mungo Forth Mungo has some of the best lines, “If someone tells you that there are already enough stories in the world, they are missing the point. The point is the world is stories,” and has a justified rant on the dispositions of human thought, “‘We, or our ancestors, have been around a hundred times longer than you, a thousand times longer …… You think you know more than we do …. that you are greater than any other living thing. But the toad, the toadstool, the ant, the blackbird, the deer, the daffodil, the jellyfish – you are less than all of these … You know nothing and have nothing and are nothing.’” A demonstration that a novel doesn’t need to have heft to have something worthwhile to communicate.

Pedant’s corner:- sailboat (sailing boat,) staunch (stanch.)

Something Like Breathing by Angela Readman

And Other Stories, 2019, 245 p.

This novel of adolescent friendship is told in alternating sections from two viewpoints, one written in retrospect by Lorrie who at the book’s start has just moved from further south to live on a Scottish island that is her family’s ancestral home, and the other as extracts from the diary of Sylvie Tyler, who lives in the next door property.

Sylvie’s mother is strict with her and reluctant for her to make friends – with anyone. It is only gradually, through an incident which Lorri witnesses and the episodes Sylvie confides to her diary, that we learn exactly why.

Both strands are well written and capture their character’s viewpoints all but perfectly. That ‘all but’ is one major caveat, which I shall come to.

The island is certainly Scottish. (Lorrie’s grandfather – Grumps – owns the distillery there.) Her observation that, “‘they’re alright’ was the most glowing review I’d heard anyone on the island give anyone. Compliments were spat out as reluctantly as saying the weather looked fine; acknowledging anything was okay was tempting fate,” could not encapsulate the national character of the 1950s (and later) any better.

Sylvie and Lorrie have their ups and downs but at one point as they grow older and boys begin to come into the equation Lorrie is swayed towards the more outgoing and freer spirited Blair Munro as a potential friend. Sylvie is the one who is more sensible, though. Adults and their ways are suitably mysterious.

Two things did not ring true for me. Despite no apparent connection with the place beyond her mother’s correspondence with someone living there and through them introducing tupperware to the island, Sylvie employs US terms such as ‘ain’t’ and ‘assignment’ (for homework) but above all, ‘kinda’. Sylvie also mentions a hound dog – not a traditional Scottish or even British usage – yet has the word fearty in the same sentence. These also bleed into Lorrie’s narrative – raise instead of rise, snuck for sneaked. Jarring. Then we had Lorrie’s mother and a workman, albeit one she’d known in school (and with whom it is obvious both still hold a torch for each other,) sit out one afternoon and sip beers. A woman drinking beer in public on a Scottish island in the 1950s? No. Just no. It wouldn’t have happened.

Though in both strands the writing is resolutely realistic Sylvie’s secret lends an element of the fantastical to the tale. Without it, though, the overall story would have to have been utterly different as it is the catalyst for the novel’s dénouement and Sylvie’s later fabled status on the island.

Pedant’s corner:- On the back cover blurb “two complimentary styles” (complementary.) Otherwise; span (spun,) fit (fitted,) Grumps’ (x 2, Grumps’s,) “agreeing to play for same stakes next week” (for the same stakes,) “tartar sauce” (tartare sauce,) “Sylvie begged Seth to let stay”(let us stay?) “We lay on our bellies” (the rest of the passage is in present tense; so, “We lie on our bellies.) “And none of them are good” (none of them is good,) “for as long possible” (as long as possible,) assignment (homework,) raise (rise,) snuck (x 2, sneaked,) “though they’d never spoke till that day” (spoken,) “take her hand and be lead” (and be led,) bannisters (banisters,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, imbedded (embedded,) lay (laid,) “be furious at me for me for getting her boyfriend in trouble” (no need for that ‘for me’,) “sour plums” (in Scotland these sweets were always ‘soor plooms’.) “Neither of us move” (moves.)

At the Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Greig

Quercus, 2011, 324 p, including i p Reading and ii p Acknowledgements.

This non-fiction book is Grieg’s tribute to Norman MacCaig, one of that generation of Scottish poets which included Christopher Murray Grieve (Hugh McDiarmid,) Sidney Goodsir Smith, Sorley MacLean and Edwin Morgan, to whom Greig as an aspiring poet himself looked up. Not long before MacCaig’s death he laid on Greig a request that he catch for him a fish at the loch of the green corrie (which isn’t the loch’s real name) in MacCaig’s beloved Assynt in the western Highlands. But it is much more than a mere tribute. It is an appreciation of MacCaig’s poetry, a voyage into Greig’s past and present relationhips, and into the Deep Time which geologist James Hutton divined must be the case from his studies of the native rocks of that area and the changes which had been wrought on them, a threnody to the landscape of Assynt (and Scotland as whole,) a paean to friendship, a meditation on the usefulness – or otherwise – of literature, a celebration of what it means to be human. Anyone familiar with Greig’s fiction will recognise the affinities with it that this book displays, the same sympathetic observation of people and customs, the same sense of a writer exposing the human soul.

That disposition makes itself felt from time to time, “Most team games have their roots in warfare or fertility rituals – shinty dispenses with the fertility part,” a consideration of Deep Time with the present moment leads to a comparison with bifocal lenses, “the close-up and the long distance are true, while the middle distance is fuzzy and befuddled. Unfortunately that is where we live most of the time,” a reference to “the curious indifference of our English friends and partners to being English” indicates the vagaries of nationality. The culture of the western Highlands is illuminated via the thought that drinking is sacramental as long as it’s done in company, “what possible pleasure could there be in drinking alone?” Grieg touches on the importance of scale and size in making the Scottish landscape so alluring. The hills of Wales and the Lake and Peak districts of England are somewhat tame in comparison, “domestic,” while the Himalayas are too austere and grand. (As well as fishing, composing poetry and writing fiction Greig has mountaineering as one of his pastimes. How does he find the time to write?)

But it is literature that is a continual spur – and disappointment, a poetical apprehension of failure. “The word is an arrow that will always miss its mark. ‘The curse of literacy’.”

Pedant’s corner:- “A phantom pantheon of poets come trooping up these winding stairs” (a phantom pantheon comes,) “the short, direct terms that Low Dutch imported into English to such forceful effect” (surely Low Dutch exported these and English imported them?) missing commas before pieces of direct speech, “two core principals” (principles makes more sense,) sprung (sprang,) “born off downstream” (borne off,) “ropey weed” (weed like rope, used, I suppose, to distinguish from ‘ropy’ weed, weed that’s not good at being weed,) “Johnson‘s Baby Powder” (Johnson’s.)

The Young Team by Graeme Armstrong

Picador, 2020, 391 p.

No question of cultural appropriation could possibly be held against Graeme Armstrong in this his debut novel. The Young Team is firmly rooted in his background and experience of growing up in a working class housing estate in Airdrie in the West of Scotland. The book is written in language steeped in those surroundings. Raw, visceral and confident, it is profoundly demotic and could be called dialect (some may even dub it slang) but is certainly far from the genteel prose of the usual literary novel. Yet it is also undeniably expressive, and capable of handling all the nuances of a novel.

The first person narrative follows Alan Williams (aka Azzy Boy,) member of the Young Team Posse gang, from the brash bravado of barely teenage youth, “Obviously, A’ve hud ma hole,” looking up to the previous generation of gang members, through young adulthood, the creeping influence of hard drug dealers and a more reflective sense of time passing, of putting away childish things, “Yi huv tae break free fae aw these demons n live tae the fullest yi kin.”

There are several accounts of violent confrontations with the Young Team’s rivals the Toi (‘defendin yir scheme’.) Here we might comment on the narcissism of small differences; one West of Scotland housing estate is much like another, to construct rivalries on the basis of which side of a road you live is an exercise in nit-picking, but nevertheless the thing that gives the Young Team – Wee Broonie, Kenzie, Azzy, Danny, Addison, Finnegan and Wee Toffey – a focus for living, for anticipating Friday night. Girls, while part of the extended gang, are peripheral to its main activities but still strange creatures, with their own motivations. Azzy holds a lingering torch for Monica Watson, a bright girl flickeringly receptive to Azzy’s charms but always destined to leave the estate and not willing to settle for less. (Late on in the book when the prospect of a new life beckons Wee Broonie tells Azzy, ‘Yi pure luv her so yi dae.’)

Music is a more constant companion. Many passages refer to the sound track to Azzy’s life.

In one brilliant descriptive passage Azzy expresses what it’s like to be at a rave. “Everycunt is yir pal in here. Maybe it’s cos we’re aw fuckin oot oor nuts on pills that we’re feelin the love. The ecktoplasmic euphorian fellowship wae our common man. Harmony wae aw humanity. A love the strangers next tae me n they love me back. Peace n love tae aw mankind. Utopian society,” where there is, “No a sea, but a fuckin ocean ae people aw bobbin n weaving, knitted together by sound, ecstasy and passion fur the tunes. … The crowd is a single entity, a cult, n our deity behind the decks,” and the effects of the drugs and adrenaline on cognition, “A’m pushin against the current, goin against the grain, The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. Pure random thoughts n mince n tatties in the brain.”

Azzy doesn’t ignore the down side of such indulgence, depicting the aftermath of imbibing a cocktail of drugs and alcohol – “A come down is beyond roughness. Stomach cramps, cracked lips, a white sandpaper tongue, a blocked nose, chest pains and feelings ae total run-down deterioration. Yi feel sad, depressed n on the verge ae total misery, cripplin longin and melancholy. It’s a confusin n paranoid pathos tappin intae hardwired emotional issues, fears and desperation ae aw forms. There’s nae escaping the ecstasy blues” – more terminal velocity than gentle drift back to earth. “Yi sink further doon than the place yi left fae. …. Ironic, in’t it? The place yi were so desperate tae escape wid noo be a near paradise.”

The indulgence eventually takes its toll and Azzy succumbs to panic attacks, forswearing drugs and seizing the chance of the always likely tragedy to move to Gateshead with Nicola, who’d always had her eye on him. When the inevitable happens and he comes back, “Aw the normal folk hud been driven oot ae the town centre, fadin one by one. The rest ir stuck here, forever wheelin roon this nightmarish carousel ae degradation that used tae be a proud n thrivin market town. Any dreams ae that huv vanished.”

Background is not so easy to avoid, gang culture sucks him in again, made more dangerous by the intrusion of drug cartels and the concomitant brutal enforcement of their will, culminating in a hospital vigil. “This is where it always ends. Sittin in a fuckin magnolia room, waitin.”

Azzy, like Armstrong, comes to the understanding that, “Our conditionin, two hundred years ae hard labour, made us believe this shite is aw there is fur us – our lot, the drink n drugs, anaesthetic n elixir tae this social nightmare. A didnae believe that.”

The content and language of The Young Team may not be to some readers’ tastes but Armstrong’s illustration of that conditioning, his use of a means of expression totally true to its origins, his depiction of characters normally dismissed by literature, is eloquent demonstration that their, his, language is as expressive – and nuanced – as any other, as capable and worthy of delineating the world.

Pedant’s corner:- Williams’ (x2, Williams’s,) “in elder cunts motors” (cunts’,) “bang tae rites” (rights,) “takin mare pills” (mare is usually spelled ‘mair’.) “A’m thinking A’ve just huv a brush wae death” (just hud a brush.) “The polis’ words” (polis’s.) “‘How yi hoddin up, son?’” (hoddin is usually spelled ‘haudin’.) “The rumours aboot developers building flats hus finally come tae pass” (huv finally come to pass.)

The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn

faber and faber, 2013, 380 p, plus i p Table of Pipers at The Grey House, i p definition of piobaireachd, iv p Foreword, lxvii p Appendices, ii p Glossary, v p Bibliography, xix p List of Additional Materials and i p Index.

 The Big Music cover

This is a variation on the ‘found manuscript’ novel – or in this case manuscripts, being the papers left behind by bagpiper John Callum MacKay Sutherland in the little hut he had built for himself in the hills beyond the Grey House at Ailte vhor Alech (the End of the Road) in Rogart, Sutherland, (turn left somewhere between Golspie and Brora and keep going to the unmarked fork in the road then follow it to the right.) This is the house, expanded and extended over the years, where the Sutherland piping dynasty set up its school of bagpiping and later, in an attic room, also a proper school for children from the area, now all defunct. Other relics, transcripts of radio and TV broadcasts and illustrative extracts from monthly journals contribute to the overall mix.

The human story in the book concentrates on the latest Sutherlands to be brought up in the House, those from the twentieth century to now, the aforementioned John Callum MacKay Sutherland and his son Callum Innes MacKay Sutherland. Both had left this Highland home to pursue careers in London, both were/are drawn back to confront the imminent death of a parent, in John’s case his mother’s and in Callum’s his father’s.

The novel itself begins early one morning with John taking from her cot Katherine Anna, the grand-daughter of his housekeeper Margaret, and spiriting her away with him. He intends to take her to the little hut as inspiration for part of the final piobaireachd he is composing. This act of kidnapping persuades the household – Margaret, her husband Iain Cowie, and daughter Helen – that Callum must be summoned back from London.

It becomes obvious (though heavily foregrounded earlier in the footnotes by invocations to note the increasing intrusion of the word ‘I’ to the text) that the guiding hand in the assembly of the text is meant to be that of Helen. This is highlighted by the information that the title of her dissertation was, “The Use of Personal Papers, Journals and other Writings in the Creation of Modernist and Contemporary Fiction.”

The family dynamics are complicated. Margaret and John had had a long-standing affair that produced Helen. While John was away down south Margaret had married Iain who now looks on Helen as his own daughter and on John’s return to the house resolutely tried to avoid any knowledge of his wife’s past (and rekindled) affair with Helen’s true father. Helen and Callum had become lovers when she was seventeen – some time before they both moved away for further education. Thankfully Katherine Anna is not Callum’s child.

The narration is not straightforward. It often adopts that form of Highland speech heavily influenced by Gaelic (to which is not difficult to accommodate) but it is interspersed with passages on the history of the Sutherlands, the Grey House itself, and of bagpiping. And it has copious footnotes.

Now; I love a footnote. But there are footnotes and footnotes. In a novel they are ideally used sparingly but here they appear very frequently – almost, but not quite, on every page, sometimes three or more to contend with. There is such a thing as overkill. Moreover, many of these impart the same information as previous ones or recapitulate something that has already appeared in the text. In some of them, too, there are comments on the text, as if the author is telling us how to interpret it, what to look for, which smacks of hubris and reads as if the author does not respect us as readers.

However, The Big Music is a bold venture. It attempts to set out in novelistic form the characteristics of the apotheosis of the art of bagpiping, the piobaireachd (usually rendered in English as pibroch,) while also making the case that it is an extremely complicated and worthy musical form, requiring a large amount of training by previous pipers as its essence is not truly captured by any musical notation. To that end we have sections of the overall story relating to the structure of piobaireachd, the ground, Urlar, a variational development, Taorluath, more variation, Crunluath (the Crown,) and a conclusion, Crunluath A Mach, which returns to the Urlar and ideally fades away as the piper recedes over the horizon.

But therein lies its main flaw. The playing of piobaireachd necessarily entails repetition, of notes and phrases. While some recapitulation and some emphasis by repetition may be necessary in a novel, it ought not to be taken to extremes. “Running over the same old ground” is not generally desirable. Mirroring piobaireachd unfortunately obliges it. That tendency in this novel may not quite be ad nauseam but certainly leans towards ad irritatem.

Occasionally the footnotes contain snippets that read as comments on the text. In piobearachd “Like in a story, one may return to a central idea that is never quite resolved, as in a fable or a myth there may seem to be an ending but the ending is not there.” A piobeareachd has no formal conclusion and in its performance, “The two extremes to be avoided are dragging and hurrying. …. Steadiness is more important than speed.” This commenting is made explicit when we are told “the idea of music that sits behind the words, of entire lines and phrases that sound rather than represent … Is at the very heart of the project here in hand.”

We are told that at the heart of John McKay Sutherland’s attitude to the music of his forefathers is “A loneliness that some might describe as a quality of mind that won’t let anyone in, come close. A loneliness that may be described as a quality of heart that can’t admit love.” I read this as a reflection of the influence of Calvinism on the Scottish male’s soul. In this context the observation that “The history of women in these places is always a quiet story, it’s quietly told” holds a harsh mirror up to history.

As a novel The Big Music certainly has ambition – especially in its attempt to extend the limits of the form. In its execution, though, it strays too far from the reason why people engage with novels. Its concentration on its characters – well drawn as most of them are – is too episodic, too sparse, too smirred, to resonate as it might.

A note on the book’s title. Within the piping fraternity piobaireachd is known as the big music, Ceol Mor (as opposed to strathspeys, reels etc which are regarded as Ceol Beag, little music.)

Pedant’s corner:- missing commas before and at the end of a piece of direct speech embedded in a sentence, “post offices” (Post Offices,) fine’ness (why the apostrophe?) green’ness (again, that unnecessary apostrophe,) stubborn’ness (ditto,) clean’ness (ditto,) Arogocat (elsewhere Argocat,) “someone taking over on a bad corner” (someone overtaking on a bad corner,) scared’y (‘scaredy’ would be fine,) “Then Callum hears his father’s breath starts coming again” (hears his father’s breath start coming again,) “smirring of the tune” – a footnote says “the glossary defines smirring as a general smudging but it is often used in the Highlands as a metaphor for light rain” – (the dictionary definition of smir is ‘light rain’ not ‘smudging.’ Smir is in widespread use in Scotland as a description of rain so light it can hardly be seen but nevertheless soaks through to the skin. I suspect the word’s use in piping actually derives from that rather than the other way round. Aside: when I visited Bilbao I was delighted when a local said a particular similar weather condition there – now, with climate change, no longer so prevalent – and had been called ‘smirri-mirri’ and I told her of the Scottish equivalent.) “Slowly, year by year, in every country except one the bagpipe either disappeared completely or was left ‘to the lonely hill-men or the occasional crank’.” The text says this is because mediæval conditions lingered in the Highlands longer that elsewhere in the world. (Yet later parts of the book acknowledge that different bagpipe traditions than Scotland’s still exist. Off the top of my head I can think of the uillean pipes, the Northumbrian pipes not to mention Galician and Cornish versions,) “the general lay of it” (lie of it.) “The connection between piobaireachd and lyric ….. and come to bear” (comes to bear,) footed’ness (again; what’s with the apostrophe?) Eric Richards’ (Richards’s,) “and how you could call someone a wife who doesn’t look to the man she’s married?” (how could you is the usual word order in English.)
In the Appendices: “the boundary between the districts of Sutherland and Caithness were slightly redrawn” (the boundary …was slightly redrawn,) an extraneous apostrophe, “the area of grounds and land surrounding the Grey House amount to some 400 acres” (the area … amounts to,) “the earliest references to a MacCrimmon (who was also a piper) appears in Campbell lands” (the earliest reference,) “a good representation of the terms of tuition etc that is available” (of the terms .. that are available.)

The Thistle and the Grail by Robin Jenkins

Polygon, 2006, 296 p, plus vi p Introduction by Harry Reid. First published 1954.

 The Thistle and the Grail cover

The thistle of the title is the local team of the small town of Drumsagart, Drumsagart Thistle Junior Football Club, whose blue shirts have a red thistle crest. The grail is the ultimate quest for a Junior* football team, the Scottish Junior Cup.

Despite the apparent thrust of the title that the novel will be about football, it isn’t really. There may one day be a definitive novel that deals with that perennial Scottish obsession but this isn’t (quite) it. The quote from John Cairney on the cover to the effect that this is “easily the best book written on the relation between football and society in Scotland” may well be true but the novel’s narrative more or less skirts football. Instead, it is more about a small town, the characters who inhabit it, and the distraction from their lives that football represents. Bill Shankly is supposed once to have said, “Football isn’t a matter of life and death; it’s more important than that.” While at times, in the throes of a match, it can perhaps seem that way, it really isn’t. But as a distraction from life’s tribulations it can be a temporary balm – even while adding to them.

At the start of the novel Drumsagart Juniors are hopeless, suffering regular drubbings – usually to nil – every week. This culminates in a mass protest after a 7-0 humiliation at the hands of their fiercest local rivals, Lettrickhill Violet, wherein the committee members are the subject of intemperate threats and club president Andrew Rutherford is in danger of being dismissed. Mysie Dugarry, granddaughter of the club’s most famous player, who had gone on to play for Scotland, suggests they try one Alec Elrigmuir whom she describes as the best centre forward in Scotland. (He plays for a pit team and she is sweet on him.) Under pressure Rutherford agrees. Committee member and local pub owner Sam Malarkin offers to provide a free drink to everyone should the Thistle go on to lift the Cup, safe in the knowledge it won’t happen.

Apart from the possibility of Elrigmuir, a further potential hero arrives when Turk McCabe, a former centre-half, returns to the town from a sojourn in England. Now in his mid-to-late thirties he is an unlikely saviour but has determination and turns out still to have positional sense. And so the journey to the grail begins. There is a brief description of the first-round game at Carrick Celtic but Jenkins’s writerly gifts are not convincing here. (I suspect this may be true of any attempt by any novelist to depict an imaginary football match.)

There is a whole cast of minor characters each of whom is drawn realistically and sympathetically. Sam Malarkin’s interest in Alec Elrigmuir is more than football related as is his sister Margot’s – a source of dismay later on when Mysie gets to hear of it and Elrigmuir threatens not to play as a result of her displeasure. Elrigmuir himself may be a good footballer but off the field he is all but a simpleton.

Despite not being published till 1954 this reads like an interwar, even a 1920s, novel. Harry Reid’s introduction tells us, though, that Jenkins was a reluctant author with many manuscripts kept in his locker.

The attitudes to women of the male characters in the book read as being decidedly off-kilter these days. “The apple had been a gift. Eve’s to Adam had been free too, and it had soured the world,” and, “With women it was, of course, different; their brains were lighter, no-one could expect them to be as serious as men.” At a club committee meeting discussing the team’s problems we have, “‘Have you noticed, gentlemen,’ said Wattie Cleugh, ‘how it’s women causing all the trouble? …. It would seem that what started in Eden’s still going on.’” However, Agnes Elvan’s observation that, “‘There’s not a woman in Scotland doesn’t know the importance of football is exaggerated,” is probably still widely applicable. There is also a wonderful Scotticism when a character describes another as having, “the mind of a five-year old lassie whose backside was underskelped.”

That the times have changed in other ways too is illustrated when a doctor – called in to examine Turk after his put upon mother had poured boiling water over his feet – says of the offer of a cigarette, “‘Do him good.’ The doctor intercepted the packet and took one himself. ‘Do me good.’”

Turk is of course an habitué of the pub. When the local minister, who does not like football – or pubs – came to proselytise, Turk, in his eagerness to berate religion but wanting to show some knowledge, responded with a misquote, saying, “‘I am become a sounding brass or a tingling simple.’ That’s Bible.” A few lines later Jenkins transforms this double Malapropism into an inspired pun. On leaving the pub McCabe castigates those who remain as, “A shower of tingling simples.’”

The novel does not neglect wider issues. There is a small diversion into Politics. Rutherford’s father is a long-time socialist councillor, while Rutherford himself runs on behalf of his brother-in-law a biscuit factory, producing Drumsagart Bannocks in their distinctive blue and red liveried packets. His dismissal of Lizzie Anderson for theft, leaving her and her mother to likely penury excites his father’s ire. That Lizzie has falsely implied Rutherford had got her pregnant does not weigh in the balance for him. In his turn Rutherford interprets his father’s concern for the poor as a desire not to have the latter’s grandson well provided for. Poverty and the misery of unemployment are described but presented as matters of fact. Fecklessness on the part of impecunious men spending money on a triviality like football is implicitly deplored.

Yet it does not escape Scottishness. On a trip to an away game Rutherford reflects, “Scotland was a country where faith lay rotted like neglected roses, and the secret of resurrection was lost. We are a dreich, miserable, back-biting, self-tormenting, haunted, self-pitying crew, he thought. This sunshine is as bright as any on Earth, these moors are splendid: why are not the brightness and splendour in our lives? Seeking them, here we are speeding at fifty miles an hour to see what – a football match, a game invented for exercise and recreation, but now our only substitute for faith and purpose.” But there is still the lingering shadow of Calvinism, “too much pleasure on Earth weakened the promise of heaven and strengthened the threat of hell.”

*This designation does not mean for young players. It was a peculiarity of the Scottish footballing landscape that up until a year or so ago there were two separate non-amateur grades of football in Scotland; the Seniors, all those whose names are familiar from the Saturday football scores plus some in four non-national leagues, and the Juniors, still (semi-)professional but playing in a different set of closely geographically-based leagues – except for the all-encompassing Scotland-wide Junior Cup. The former Junior sides have now all joined the Scottish football pyramid system.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “fifty miles and hour” (miles an hour.) Otherwise; “Wheehst” (Wheesht,) “‘They’s come flocking in’” (they’ll come flocking in,) “crotcheted tie” (x 2, crocheted,) Saunders’ (Saunders’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “as any owner at potential Derby winner” (at a potential Derby winner.)

Chronicles of Carlingford: The Perpetual Curate by Mrs Oliphant

Virago, 1987, 544 p with viii p Introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald. First published 1864.

 The Perpetual Curate cover

Frank Wentworth (who appeared as a minor character in The Doctor’s Family) is the permanent curate of the title, in charge of St Roques’s church. As well as his ecclesiastical duties he is engaged in good works, evangelising the bargees of Wharfside in which endeavour he is aided by Miss Lucy Wodehouse. Their appearances together are the subject of warnings to her by an older woman as being liable to gossip. As a perpetual curate Wentworth’s prospects are dependent on either a living turning up elsewhere or the good will of the parish’s Rector.

Unfortunately the new Rector of Carlingford, Mr Morgan, has taken a dislike to Wentworth precisely because of those good works, since he had not sanctioned them. That the previous Rector, Mr Proctor, had done so is neither here nor there. Morgan’s wife has no such objections; her strictures are directed at the hideous carpet installed in the Rectory by the previous incumbent. Of her, Oliphant tells us in an odd unsisterly phrase, “Though she held that elevated position” (wife of the Rector of Carlingford) “she was only a woman, subject to outbreaks of sudden passion, and liable to tears like the rest.” But this is a Victorian novel after all.

Frank’s high church tendencies are somewhat looked down on by his aunts who have the living at Skelmersdale in their gift. Their extended visit to Carlingford coincides with the of the plot.

Frank lodges at Mrs Hadwin’s where he has vouched for a mysterious man going by the name of Tom Smith, who comes and goes by night. Also lurking round Mrs Hadwin’s is Rosa Elsworthy, an orphan taken in by her shopkeeper uncle. She is referred to as a child but later revealed to be seventeen. Finding her at the garden gate as he comes home one evening Frank makes the mistake of escorting her straight home, instructing her uncle to take more care where she is concerned, but is of course seen by those who are out and about. Carlingford is a rumour mill at the best of times and this is a juicy morsel.

A message from his brother’s wife calls him home to Wentworth where Gerald Wentworth, the vicar there, has decided to turn to Rome. Their father is the local squire and greets Frank by “holding out his hand to him as became a British parent.” (Wentworth senior has had various families with successive wives.) With Gerald’s situation not resolved Frank is recalled to Carlingford by a mysterious missive from their elder brother Jack, the black sheep of the family. In the meantime Rosa Elsworthy has disappeared and Frank is given the blame.

The attentive reader notices several thematic and plot similarities to the author’s other Carlingford novels – especially Salem Chapel – and her continuing interest in ecclesiastical doings.

The unravelling of the above plot strands, the identity of the mysterious lodger and his connection with other characters, the resolution, all take some time. The book’s wordiness is of a piece with the Victorian novel and is exacerbated by Frank throughout the book being referred to not only as Mr Frank Wentworth, but at times as the Perpetual Curate, or the Curate of St Roque’s, and even the Evangelist of Wharfside. This is one of Oliphant’s stylistic tics. She far too frequently refers to characters with phrases such as these or attributions like “said the disturbed monitor” instead of using a character’s name. Was this to add to the word count or perhaps to avoid close repetition? In any case, less here is more. In addition Oliphant has Aunt Leonora Wentworth objecting to things “‘ending off neatly like a novel in this sort of ridiculous way,’” thereby bringing attention to the fact that it does.

This is not great literature, but it is serviceable. Oliphant had an audience and catered to it. Presumably they liked what they read.

Pedant’s corner:- “the Miss Wentworths” (many times; the Misses Wentworth,) “the Miss Wodehouses” (also many times; the Misses Wodehouse,) “the Miss Hemmings” (a few times. The surname here is Hemmings, its plural would be Hemmingses; the formulation ‘the Miss Hemmings’ does not make either part plural. Utilising ‘the Misses Hemmings’ would have got round that,) “‘did not use to be so’” (did not used to be,) villanous (villainous,) “upon whom a curious committee of aunts were now to sit” (a … committee … was to sit,) “a group of ladies were visible” (a group of ladies was visible,) “which almost drive that troubled citizen to his knees” (the narrative is in past tense; drove,) “neither here not there” (nor there,) “Virginian creeper” (x 2, Virginia creeper,) “the trouble which has overtaken his brother” (had overtaken,) several instances of a comma missing before a piece of direct speech,) “wiled the night away” (whiled,) receipt (recipe,) unbiassed (unbiased,) “the entire family were startled into anxiety” (the entire family was,) “he put up his handkerchief to this eyes as he spoke” (to his eyes,) “was quite stanch and honest” (an unusual case of ‘stanch’ for staunch’; it’s normally the other way round,) cruelest (cruellest,) dulness (dullness,) fulness (fullness,) mantlepiece (mantelpiece,) “could in this pleasant condition of mind he went down-stairs” (that ‘could’ sticks out oddly,) trode (trod.)

A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside

Jonathan Cape, 2011, 333 p.

It is not uncommon for Scottish literature to deal with the supernatural (mostly meetings with the Devil) and Burnside himself had a sideways look at the topic in his earlier novel The Devil’s Footprints. What is uncommon is for the story to be set, as this one is, in Norway. The Norwegian Arctic to be precise, where the midnatsol night sky is white. More precisely, the story takes place on Kvaløya, one of a string of islands north of Tromsø to where our narrator Liv’s mother, Angelika Rossdal, has gone in search of the perfect place to compose her paintings.

The pair have an equable existence, no father on hand (by Angelika’s decision,) moreover one whose existence is barely acknowledged, but near neighbour (in as much as they have neighbours) Kyrre Opdahl has acted as a very distant surrogate. Kyrre’s nearby hytte, which he lets out to visitors, plays a significant part in the tale.

This novel is a gem, Burnside draws you in and maps out the circumstances which forged a life with a pin-sharp eye.

The summer of the title is described from the perspective of years later by narrator Liv. Its strangeness began with the drowning of her school contemporary Mats Sigfridsson who had borrowed a boat on a flat calm night and whose body was found washed up in a day or so. His brother Harald, with whom he had formed an inseparable pair until in the recent past Maia, “a dark-eyed, mocking girl with a loose tomboy walk who had always been the outsider,” had begun to hang out with them, suffers a similar fate within a fortnight. Kyrre, who is steeped in local myth, begins to link their deaths to the old beliefs. “It was like one of those tales people in the old days made into legends, stories about wraiths and seal people and mermaids, all of them dark warnings about what the woods or the sea or the mountains can do, if you don’t show them enough respect.” He suspects Maia is a manifestation of the huldra, a phantom who lures men to their doom.

The last portrait Angelika ever painted before she began more abstract work was an unfinished one of Liv, which, with no warning, she eventually hung on the wall outside Liv’s bedroom. The two’s mutual communication is often unspoken, “Some gifts are like that. They are given and received in silence, almost secret and, no matter how inexplicable or strange they may seem, they are never mentioned again.”

Liv likes to observe the world around her. She describes the arrival of Martin Crosbie, the latest tenant of Kyrre’s hytte, and his entanglement with Maia. At the same time she is aware that “this is the first law of the observer: never be a witness. The true observer is permitted to see what no one else sees on one condition, and that is that she never tells.” But of course, Liv, as narrator, is telling us, albeit at a remove.

There is one interpolation into the novel that sits obliquely to it. Liv receives a letter from England from a Kate Thompson who is living with Liv’s father, Arild Frederiksen, whose name up to this point was unknown to her. She is told he is dying and wants to see her. Liv is neither up nor down about this person she’d never seen and had no relationship with but in the end decides to go to see him despite Angelika not pressuring her to. Of course she arrives too late and Kate is confused by her lack of concern.

A Summer of Drowning is also a story about stories, about how we see the world, and the comfort fiction can bring. Another of the island’s inhabitants, Ryvold, tells Liv, “stories are really about time … once, in a place that existed before we were born, something occurred – and we like to hear about that, because we know already that the story is over.”

It is also about disruption, about the world(s) we don’t see, “no matter what form we give it, or how elaborately it is contrived, order is an illusion and, eventually, something will emerge from the background and upset everything we are so determined to believe in. Or that’s how it is in stories – in real life, that something is always there, hidden in plain view, waiting to flower. A turn of phrase, a blemish, an unspoken wish – it doesn’t take much to open the floodgates and let the chaos in.” They are “invention, in the old sense, which is to say: revealing what there is, seen and unseen, positive and negative, shape and shadow, the veiling and the veiled.” Through Ryvold we hear that, “That’s how the stories work. They remind us that anything can happen. Everything changes, anything can become anything else – and there’s nothing supernatural about it.”

The crucial scene of the book, when Martin Crosbie goes off onto the lake watched by Maia and Liv, and they both do nothing (Maia understandably as an incarnation of the huldra but it could just as easily be as a normal human being) is about choice, or about what we wish to tell ourselves. Alternatively, “it wasn’t a dream, it was a story – and that’s different.” Or else, “Maybe everything was already decided, the way it is in fairy tales.”

Perhaps it was why Liv came to have “no career, no husband, no lover, no friends, no children,” but it is what she remembers for us. Then again; “remembering is a choice if it’s done well, and nobody can make you remember what you choose to put out of your mind.”

However, everything might just be a story; with Liv’s narration unreliable. How could it not be when the odd, the weird, the uncanny intrude into her life? On the edge of the world, where the forces of nature are capricious at best, it might be hard to resist the thought that fate is a matter of luck, that demons lie in wait for the unwary.

However interpreted, Liv’s story stands “to try to give a sense of the world beyond our illusory homelands,” what she seems to consider the real world behind the everyday.

Pedant’s corner:- “Struwwlepeter hair” (Struwwelpeter,) “she couldn’t quite leave go of the world” (‘couldn’t quite let go of the world’ is a more natural way to say this.)

The Gourlay Girls by Margaret Thomson Davis

B&W, 2000, 237 p.

This is a sequel to Davis’s novel The Clydesiders, though it might as well not have been. The actual plot here does not require it. It could as easily have been anybody’s daughter who fled the house after her grandfather died in front of her when she had frozen at his fit and not fetched his medicine. As it is, Davis more or less uses it as a thread to tie this one to the first book in her trilogy.

Wincey (Winsome) is that much-loved daughter of Virginia and Richard Cartwright, whom everyone sees as close to her grandfather. Wincey knows his darker side though. When he takes that fatal fit she watches immobile as he dies, before fleeing off and taking the first tram she sees. She ends up crying on a street in Springburn where Florence Gourlay befriends her and takes her home – as an orphan otherwise destined for the workhouse. In a sense Wincey strikes lucky. The Gourlays – father Erchie, mother Teresa, eldest sister Charlotte, twins Euphemia and Bridget and Granny, Erchie’s mother, who gets all the best lines – are a friendly loving family and treat Wincey as one of their own.

It is the thirties though, and times are hard with Erchie unemployed. Salvation comes with the family’s sewing activities spearheaded by Charlotte but which, with Wincey’s help and Erchie’s knack for mending machines, is built up over the years into a successful business. Flies in the ointment are employee Malcy making up to Charlotte with an eye to the main chance and Wincey’s total aversion to men. She is cold even to Erchie, who has given her no reason to be. Very occasional chapters deal with the loss Virginia and Richard feel at Wincey’s disappearance, the strains it places on their marriage and their ongoing friendship with Virginia’s first husband James Mathieson, bound as they are by their socialist principles.

All this takes place in the shadow of the 1930s, the growth of Nazism in Germany and the shadow of forthcoming war. One bright spark is the Empire Exhibition of 1938 held in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park, the mention of which in the book’s blurb enticed me to buy it in the first place. Literally bright; the night time illuminations were famously spectacular. Though Davis has clearly researched it (she may even have attended the event,) the scenes at the Exhibition itself are a little cursory. Then again a lot of the book is. Relationships are sketched out, developments telescoped, the treatment rushed, the information dumping and drawing of background somewhat crude. Sometimes conversations are too obviously designed to provide the reader with explanations. Though probably true to life as it was then the female characters seem much too eager for Wincey to be married off given she’s still in her mid-to-late teens.

Davis has been described as Glasgow’s Catherine Cookson. I’ve not read any Cookson. And I won’t in the future.

Pedant’s corner:- Davis uses the term ‘abusing’ of Wincey’s grandfather’s treatment of her. That’s an anachronistic word for what was more likely known in the 1930s as molesting or interfering with.
Otherwise; “of the abdication King Edward VIII” (abdication of King Edward,) “‘Any digestives,’ Granny asked” (a question mark, not a comma, after ‘digestives’,) “hokey kokey” (hokey cokey,) an end quotation mark in the middle of a piece of direct speech. “‘For years they’ve been these camps’” (there’ve been,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “‘Did she do along with this story’” (go along.) “‘Hiding’ yer heid in the sand’” (Hiding, [or, Hidin’] yer heid.) “‘An aw wis right’” (An ah wis right,) “‘When’s she ever been a blether,” Granny wanted to know’” (a question mark, not a comma, after blether) “along side” (alongside,) “the Atlantic restaurant” (it’s a proper noun, so Atlantic Restaurant,) “‘You really do believe there’s going to a war, then’” (going to be a war.)

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