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The Gates of Eden – A Story of Endeavour by Annie S Swan

Read Books, 2008, 319 p. First published 1893.

This is a facsimile reprint (presumably via photocopy) reproducing the original in all its aspects – including illustrations at each chapter heading and one of Swan opposite the title page – of an edition published in 1893 by William Briggs. The title page has the writer’s married name (Mrs Burnett-Smith) after her author’s credit.

I would not have picked this up (my previous reading of Swan left the impression of her as an adequate talent but not worth seeking out) had it not been lent to us by a friend since part of it is set in the nearby village of Star (aka Star of Markinch.) I am therefore familiar with the local places mentioned, Star (Swan has her characters refer to it as the Star,) Markinch, Kennoway and the Lomond Hills. Swan actually lived in Star for two years but in her biography said she didn’t much like the place. However, “it did give her two books.” Of which I assume this is one.

It is essentially the tale of two brothers, Alexander (Sandy) and Jamie Bethune, whose mother had died in childbirth. Sandy is apparently favoured academically and his father sets him down for the Church. James is designated to keep his father’s holding at their croft. His better education, eventually graduating from University at St Andrews, leads to Sandy having a high opinion of himself and coming to look down on his young adult sweetheart, Mary Campbell, whose broad Scots manner of speaking he thinks will ill become him in his first charge at Lochbroom where he is in any case captivated by Beatrice Lorraine, the daughter of a widower recently moved to a big house in Lochbroom.

Meanwhile James is taken under the wing of the local schoolmaster and taught Latin and literature but it is only once the boys’ father has died that James strikes out on his own, seeking a job on a newspaper in Edinburgh to work his way up. His attendance at St Giles leads to its minister, Doctor Kinross, inviting him to his home and befriending him. It turns out that Kinross and Lorraine are brothers-in-law and James too meets Beatrice but recognises a deep sadness in the Lorraines’ lives.

What follows is fairly predictable, Sandy proposes to Beatrice, who turns him down, James eventually gets a job in London whereupon Beatrice asks him to seek out her disgraced brother, whom her father has sworn never to see again.

The Gates of Eden is a reasonably typical Victorian novel, overly sentimental at times, not too taxing, and one where virtue is rewarded. Even Sandy comes to his senses. It has the style and cadences of its origins but some people may have difficulty with the very broad Scots of the inhabitants of Star. There are, too, occasional interpolations by the author which tend to break the suspension of disbelief.

And once again we have that intimation of the Scottish character of yore, “she belonged to a stern, undemonstrative race, who deemed any exhibition of the finer feelings a sign of weakness.”

Pedant’s corner:- cotttage (cottage,) “‘these sort of gatherings’” (strictly speaking ‘sorts’ but it was in dialogue,) ““Lux Benigna”” (later rendered as ‘Lux Benigna’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “insolvable problem” (Victorian usage? – insoluble/unsolvable,) a missing full stop, a missing ‘close quote’ mark at the end of a piece of direct speech.

Ringan Gilhaize by John Galt

Or, The Covenanters.

Edited by Patricia J Wilson. Scottish Academic Press, 1984, 375 p (including 33p Notes on the Text and 10 p Glossary) plus xii p Introduction ii p Notes, ii p Acknowledgements and iii p Note on the Text. Originally published in 1823.

Ringan Gilhaize cover

Compared to the lost cause of the Jacobites, endlessly retrodden by Scottish (and other) writers, the rise and defence of Calvinism in Scotland has been relatively neglected in the Scottish tradition. James Hogg’s The Brownie of Bodsbeckis an exception, as is Scott’s Old Mortality whose unsympathetic treatment of the Covenanting cause impelled Galt to write this riposte, and much more recently James Robertson gave us The Fanatic. The relevant events are seen through the eyes of the Gilhaize family but only in so far as any of its members were directly involved in them. The book is narrated by the titular Ringan Gilhaize and its first section tells of his grandfather’s activities during the Scottish Reformation, which in later life he endlessly recounted to the family round the fireside, and features his encounters with, among others, John Knox and James Stuart (the illegitimate half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots and whom on taking up the throne on her return from France she made Earl of Moray. A confirmed reformer, after Mary’s exile to England he became Regent of Scotland.) This time period was when the groundwork for the stern Calvinistic bent of Scottish Presbyterianism was laid and the text contains many examples of invective against prelacy, papistical idolaters and the Whore of Babylon.

The latter two sections deal with Ringan’s own life and times when, first Charles I and later his son Charles II, tried to reintroduce elements of episcopacy into Scottish religious observance. This led in the former’s time to the signing of the National Covenant and a few years later the Solemn League and Covenant, which latter was essentially an anti-royal but certainly anti-Catholic agreement between Scottish Protestants and the English Parliament for Presbyterianiam to become the established religion south of the border. (These two Covenants are sometimes rolled into one in people’s minds but it was from them that the Covenanters – in that word’s pronunciation the emphasis is placed on the third syllable – gained their name.) The Covenanter’s insistence on the view that no king could interfere between a man’s conscience and God and that rebellion against any king who attempted to do so was justified, effectively made the Covenanters heirs to the Declaration of Arbroath and holders of the Scottish conscience.

The text of “Gilhaize’s” account is mainly in English larded with Scots words and forms of speech but has that wordiness that is characteristic of novels of its time and of course is reflecting the language of between two and three hundred years earlier than when Galt was writing. The dialogue, moreover, tends to be in very broad Scots indeed.

The novel is in part a history lesson since “Gilhaize” has to provide the background to the events he himself took part in. He therefore mentions the protests in St Giles Cathedral against the prayers in Charles I’s new Prayer Book as supposedly started by Janet (aka Jenny) Geddes (though her name does not appear in contemporary accounts,) a defiance of authority which led to open rebellion and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. (For a long time these were known as the English Civil War despite the fact that they were precipitated by the necessity for Charles I to recall the English Parliament to provide money to suppress his Scottish religious rebels.)

After the Restoration of the Stuarts, fierce resentment resulted from Charles II’s apostasy in the matter of the Covenant which he had signed essentially in bad faith in what would now probably be called an act of real politique to bring the Scots Parliament onto his side in his war against Cromwell – a hopeless endeavour given the outcome of the Battle of Worcester. To the Covenanters signing was a sacred and binding act. Reneging on that could not be forgiven.

Galt’s focus on the affairs of one family allows him to illustrate the build up of both the petty and the major injustices of the anti-Covenanter legislation as well as Covenanters’ hatred of the favourite General of both the latter Stuart kings, James Graham of Claverhouse, whom the Covenanters dubbed “Bloody Clavers” for his enthusiastic prosecution of the sequestrations, fines, imprisonments and hangings which feed into the slow descent by Ringan into a haze of self-righteousness and moral zeal. A minor drawback of this is that most of the battles mentioned in the book take place off-stage since neither his grandfather nor Ringan himself were present at them. (Exceptions are Drumclog, Rullion Green in the Pentlands, and Killiecrankie, in all of which Ringan took part.)

The final vindication of the Covenanting resistance was the outcome of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 – here Galt has Gilhaize believe in the false propaganda that a man child was palmed off on the nation as the lawful son of James VII (and II,) known to Covenanters as “the Tyrant,” and his papistical wife – which secured the Protestant ascendancy in the form of William and Mary.

Two hundred year-old fiction is problematic for the modern reader at any time – patterns of language have changed, writers no longer need to pad out stories to reach a required word count, sentences tend to be less laboriously constructed – but the remoteness here is compounded by the dense nature of the history, the numbers of historical figures, the intensity of the religious discourse. Throughout, the book rings with Biblical imagery and allusions.

Though in their particulars its concerns have now passed into history in Scotland (except for their remnants being attached to a certain football rivalry) Ringan Gilhaize, as an examination of the mindset of the religious zealot, the firm believer in a higher calling, is salutary, and still has resonance for the present day. I’m glad I read it even if the prose does not always flow as smoothly as I might have wished.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “worthy the attention” (worthy of the attention, or, worth the attention.) Otherwise: “the Earl of Angus’ house” (Angus’s,) St Giles’ kirkyard (St Giles’s,) her Highness’ presence (Highness’s.) “When she heard the voice or anyone talking in the street” (the voice of anyone talking,) juncutre (juncture,) a capital letter in the middle of a sentence (this may have been to signify a spoken phrase immediately after it; but that was followed by an opening quotation mark to signal the speech’s continuation,) thougt (thought.) In the Notes; divive (divine.)

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

John Murray, 2014, 362 p.

It was strange reading this during a Covid lockdown. In the background of this novel is traced the progress of a disease known colloquially as “the sweats” – fever, vomiting, diarrhœa – which seems to kill most of those who contract it. The differences between what most novelists used to imagine such an epidemic would bring in its train (selfishness basically) and what transpired in real life (cooperation and compliance, mostly) are marked. Future disaster novels may need to take a different tack. But then again “the sweats” appears more virulent than Covid and its mode of transmission (not really elucidated in the book) less amenable to preventive measures.

The actual plot of the book is more of a straightforward thriller. Stevie (Stefanie,) a presenter on a shopping channel, starts off worrying why her boyfriend, Simon Sharkey, a flashy surgeon, did not meet her as planned nor contact her later. When she goes to his flat she finds him dead, apparently not in suspicious circumstances. She soon begins to suffer the effects of “the sweats,” suffering alone in her flat for days but is one of the seemingly few who survive catching it. A note left for her by him asks her to deliver a laptop he’d left in her loft specifically to a Mr Reah (and only him) at the hospital where he worked. The reception she gets there raises her suspicions. Reah is also dead and the other medics seem very keen on getting the package from her. The rest of the book is concerned with her search to find out why Simon died and who killed him.

Welsh’s first two books, The Cutting Room and Tamburlaine Must Die were superb. She seemed to shift tack a bit with her next few, straying further into crime/thriller territory. This, the first in a trilogy (The Plague Times,) is firmly within that category. To my mind it suffers by that. Welsh’s writing, though, cannot really be faulted.

Pedant’s corner:- sneakers (why this USianism? Welsh uses the term trainers, as well as sneakers, later,) bannister (banister,) “the letter from beyond the dead” (seems oddly phrased. It’s usually ‘beyond the grave’ but the person in question hadn’t had a burial/cremation at this point,) “a cellophane-wrapped syringe” (unlikely to be cellophane, that’s far too brittle to be wrapping syringes in. ‘plastic-wrapped’ or ‘bubble-packed’,) Amir Kahn (Amir Khan,) Summers’ (several instances, Summers’s,) “electoral role “ (roll,) Forth Railway Bridge (that’s the original, it doesn’t need a qualifying adjective; Forth Bridge,) “the name Fibrosyop discretely etched on a sign” (separately etched? Singly etched? Or discreetly – ie subtly, tastefully, modestly – etched? Perhaps Welsh meant ‘etched in isolation’, in which case it’s fine.)

And the Cock Crew by Fionn MacColla

Canongate Classics, 1995, 184 p, plus vi p Introduction by John Herdman. First published 1945.

The author, Thomas Douglas Macdonald, adopted the pen name Fionn MacColla (the Introduction always spells this as Mac Colla) on taking up writing. In his work he seems to have made it his mission to document the loss of the Highland Gaelic culture and way of life. And the Cock Crew is in line with this undertaking as it is set during the onset of the Highland Clearances. It also examines the crisis of conscience of a profoundly Calvinist minister, known as Zachary Wiseman to non-Highlanders but Maighstir Sachairi to his flock.

Over twenty years before the events of the novel Maighstir Sachairi had arrived in Gleann Luachrach (or Glen Loochry, as rendered in a later sentence uttered by a non-Gael) to find it to his mind far too frivolous and ungodly. Under his influence the people had slowly come round to his way of thinking and behaviour except, perhaps, for Fearchar the poet. The times are, however, about to change. “Something else has come among us, something from altogether outside our way of life, and a man has to take account of it although he doesn’t even understand it or know what it wants for him…..Nowadays a man has to honour God and the Factor.”

That factor, Master Byars, known to the glen’s inhabitants as “The Black Foreigner,” though he is in fact a Lowland Scot, has an abiding and visceral hatred of anything Gaelic and cannot bear even the sound of that language. His antipathy towards Gaels led him to believe his life had been threatened by local men who had thought him lost and offered to help him. He called a contingent of redcoats to accompany him to where he had summoned the local villagers to assemble in order to arraign them for this. Two other local ministers are on the factor’s side but Maighstir Sachairi temporarily resolves the confrontation by interviewing the men concerned and telling Byars, “They are a people upright, peaceable, temperate in their ways and righteous with their neighbours to a most seengular degree in our times and generation.” The resultant reprieve for the villagers leads them to believe that they are in Sachairi’s protection.

It is, though, the Black Foreigner’s intention to remove the people from the glens and to replace them with sheep. The clan leader, Mac ’Ic Eachainn, to whose forefathers the clans could have looked for succour in the past “is now no better than an Englishman,” lives down south, does not speak Gaelic and is in fact in favour of the new economic project.

There is an impediment to marrying in the glen in that any man who does so will lose his holdings and be banished. In the absence of a wedding, Mairi-daughter-of-Eaghann-Gasda, an otherwise devout and modest woman whom Maighstir Sachairi would not have believed capable of misdeeds, has become pregnant. She cites the marriage bar as an excuse and refuses to name the father. This throws Sachairi into a crisis of conscience, wondering if he can still truly discern the will of God. It is into this vacuum of decision that The Black Foreigner steps, taking advantage of Sachairi’s hesitancy to confront him about the burning of the heather at the neighbouring village in preparation for the sheep.

Sachairi’s discomfiture is compounded by a meeting with Fearchar in which the poet questions him concerning doctrine, “Poetry and music are sinful, we say – yet with poetry and music a man improves himself in his nature it seems…. How is it that a sin can be experienced as a good?” and in which he concedes that the light of the spirit could be withdrawn from one of the Elect without his knowing it, that one of the Elect could be mistaken as to whether a thing is according to the will of God or not. This compounds Saichari’s indecision and he withdraws from interaction with the community giving Byars the opportunity to carry out his evictions unhindered.

In that long conversation Fearchar posits the relation between two neighbouring nations, long in conflict as the larger tried in vain to conquer and subject the smaller. “The big nation understands at last that it is no use to try to conquer them by force of arms. Suppose they try another way … and by some trick get power over the smaller nation and unite them to themselves. And so they will get from pretended friendship and a trick what they could never win by war and arms.”

He names it. “England. There is a nation that would never rest – never until she had taken away our freedom ….. Now she is more subtle, for Cunning is her name. Now she comes with feigned friendship and with lying promises and gold for our traitors she is able to obtain it, and our liberty is at an end.” For Fearchar the adoption of the English language by those who did so meant they became English, indistinguishable from true Englishmen.

It is within these passages that are laid out Mac Colla’s concerns, the nature of Man’s relationship to God, the repressions inherent in Calvinism, and the replacement of Gaelic culture by this alien one. Concerns not entirely absent from the Scottish novel in general.

It is as a novel, though, that there is something lacking in And the Cock Crew. The characters seem too designed to illustrate the sides to the conflict to have substance as people in their own right. The incidents of cottage burning and removal of people from their homes and livelihoods, harrowing as they may have been, are not shown to us from their victims’ perspective, only from afar, or by others in their aftermath and so their impact is lessened somewhat.

Still, someone had to undertake the task of representing in fiction the brutal upheaval of the way of life of an ancient and hard done by people. Not that that will ever stop such things from happening.

Pedant’s corner:- Crew (that would be ‘crowed’ in English. Even in Scots I have never heard crew as the preterite of crow,) “a heavy hammer leaning leaningly against the anvil” (in what other manner does something lean?) “was caught at unawares” (was caught unawares.) In the list of Canongate Classics at the end of the book the author’s name is misspelled as Fiona.

Light by Margaret Elphinstone

Canongate, 2007, 429 p.

It is May 1831. The lighthouse on Ellan Bride, a small island south of the Isle of Man, was once owned and run by the Duke of Atholl but its care has recently passed into that of the Scottish based Commissioners of Northern Lights. The Ellan Bride light is obsolescent and a team to survey the island for the purpose of replacing it is about to arrive. For the past five years since the death of Jim Geddes, his unmarried sister Lucy has been lightkeeper, assisted by Jim’s widow Diya and the three children they have between them. Diya is of Indian extraction, brought to the Isle of Man by her father, an official of the East India Company, but reduced in circumstances after both he and his mother had died. The mechanics of keeping the light going, lighting the lantern, the daily cleaning of the lenses and windows, the care the Geddeses take, are revealed in detail as are the exigencies of everyday life in an isolated location. The news of the survey and the likelihood of their imminent removal from their living – the idea of a female lightkeeper is unlikely to recommend itself to the Commissioners – has perturbed the Geddeses, whose ancestral responsibility the light has been for generations.

The main surveyor is Archie Buchanan, who has an invitation to join Captain Fitzroy on HMS Beagle, and therefore the promise of adventure, in his pocket but his surveying commission to fulfil in the meantime. He is accompanied by Benjamin Groat who does most of the groundwork while Buchanan records notes, an activity for which the children dub him the Writing Man.The third member of the party, Drew Scott, got himself in bother and put in jail in Castletown on the Isle so they are a man short, allowing Lucy’s son Billy the chance of paid employment (twopence a day; a man’s wage even though he is only ten years old) for the first time. This puts a crack into the relationship between the Geddes children who had formed a pact to frustrate the surveyors if possible.

We see events from many viewpoints – all the above save Diya’s younger daughter Mally, who mainly because of her youth is the only one not to impact on the unfolding story – and what plot there is is packed into the three-day spell for which the surveyors are on the island but through their reminiscences and thoughts the past histories of all the characters are also unfolded. Elphinstone evokes her scenes well, the transition from sail to steam, the evolution of lighthouse keeping, the remoteness of the island – Ireland, England and even the Mull of Galloway are the far lands, sometimes lost in the mists – Diya’s awareness that position once lost cannot be regained, the class-consciousness of all the adults, the breakthrough to a hitherto unlikely communication when Buchanan reveales a particular enthusiasm. The tale may be small scale – the impact of the strangers on the Geddes family dynamics and of them on the members of the survey party – but universal human drives, fear, love, hope, compassion, are all conjured up. Each of the characters is an individual, each has a different way of expressing her- or himself.

Elphinstone again displays the Scottish novelist’s flair for evoking landscape – and necessarily in this case seascape. Added to this are descriptions of the island’s flowers, the local wildlife, particularly the seals and seabirds, the never-ending shifts of the tides and the passing shipping near or far. Indeed, the island is so well brought to mind that it is almost a character in its own right and its topography as revealed to Buchanan through his survey and laid down to Billy via the map he has drawn is crucial to a sub-plot.

My only caveats are that one of the relationships which evolve in the novel perhaps develops too quickly and that maybe on occasion the narrative lingers a little too long on the surroundings. But that last is an indicator of how involved Elphinstone makes the reader in the characters’ interactions, how eager to know what happens to them.

Pedant’s corner:- Master Forbes’ (Forbes’s,) Wells’ (x 4, Wells’s,) Geddes’ (Geddes’s,) some missing commas before pieces of direct speech, “‘I wish no hear no more about it.’” (wish to hear,) “Et in Arcadia ego. Even this must pass.” (Yes, the “I” is usually taken to mean death but Et in Arcadia Ego translates as, “Even in Arcadia I am here,” rather than “Even this must pass.”

The Corncrake and the Lysander by Finlay J Macdonald

In The Finlay J Macdonald Omnibus, Warner Books, 1988, 187 p. First published 1984.

The Finlay J Macdonald Omnibus cover

This final instalment of the author’s childhood memoirs sees him, having at the second attempt passed the bursary exam, finally off to the “big” school in what he perceives as the metropolis of Tarbert though by wider standards it is little more than a village. In his new school the headmaster “didn’t really expect boys to behave themselves – he had seen too many boys for that – but he did expect them not to get caught.”

Before that, though, the author had time to aid Old Hector, debilitated by malaria contracted in his sole journey away from the village as a seaman, with milking his cow daily – which has the side advantage of providing the opportunity to have a sly smoke without the knowlegde of his parents. Hector wasn’t really old but his infirmity meant he depended on others, a dependency made worse by the death of his sister who had dedicated her life to looking after him. Macdonald, in considering how Hector would have to sell his cow when he leaves for school, conceived of the idea of advertising for a household companion ‘with a view to matrumony’ for Hector, a plan kept secret between the two of them. (Later, however, Macdonald’s father surprises him with his knowledge of Finlay’s part in the scheme. How did he know? “You never could spell matrimony.”) The first replies were unsuitable in various ways but in Macdonald’s absence at school someone did come to fulfil both aspects of the design. These machinations give the opportunity for some light humour as does the visit of the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, that particular incumbent being a Gaelic speaker.

There is a more reflective aspect to the text when the author mentions the melancholy of being present when a language goes into its death throes. (Though nearly ninety years on from the times described here the Gaelic language still manages to survive.) The assumption in the village and more widely on Harris and elsewhere in the Hebrides was that to get on a child had to get out, that not to do so would be a failure, a factor which would inevitably lead to a hollowing out of life on the islands. Macdonald’s going to the big school was a first step on that journey. This quality of Macdonald’s memoir is of a piece with one of the perennial considerations of the Scottish novel; the sense of nostalgia, of things lost, of a strange incompleteness. I suspect that is one of the hangovers of the Union of the Parliaments and the formation of the United Kingdom in 1707. Macdonald also has the Scottish novelist’s eye for landscape description.

Macdonald’s growing to adulthood lay under the shadow of the looming Second World War. There is a grand set piece when the lads who have signed up are piped on to the ferry to the mainland to join their regiment, the ill-fated 51st Highland Division. This was before the actual formal commencement of hostilities when, “Nobody heard Chamberlain’s declaration of war on the Sunday because, in the Hebrides in those days, radio sets were never switched on on a Sunday – not even for the news.” The “wireless” in those days had vagaries of its own which is illustrated by the author with a comparison that is now itself outdated, “the sudden demise of the accumulator tended to have the sort of explosive effect that the telephone bill has nowadays on a house with daughters.” Macdonald’s thoughts on the whole matter are expressed by the sentiment that, “Nobody ever had a ‘good’ war and I can’t imagine how anyody could coin the phrase in cynicism or in jest.” He had a near escape himself when he and his brother unscrewed the spikes from a mine that had floated onto the shore and then hammered them onto their door as a makeshift knocker. His father was appalled when he discovered this.

He himself had been a sniper in the Great War (a conflict to which he never referred) and would not touch a gun since. So it is that on one of Macdonald’s returns home for the holidays he is surprised to find his father kitted out in khaki and with a rifle. He had joined the Home Guard. He allows Macdonald one shot of the rifle (wildly inaccurate of course) but on practice with his platoon merely jerks the rifle instead of firing it.

The drawbacks of progress are illustrated by the demise of the corncrake whose cry is Macdonald’s abiding memory of his childhood and whose habitat was destroyed by the improvement of the soil’s richness by the application of fertiliser reducing their scrub ground cover. Also the local oysters and wolf mussels die out because the run-off from the new internal toilets was being directed straight into the sea. The Lysander in the title refers to an RAF spotter plane which patrolled the waters round the islands in search of U-boats.

It is odd to see words such as ‘carry-out’ and ‘screwtops’ given quotation marks but English was Macdonald’s second language.

Pedant’s corner:- focussed (focused,) a closing inverted comma where there hadn’t been an opening one, Coolins (a curious Anglicisation given Macdonald’s Gaelic childhood, in most texts in English Skye’s mountains are spelled as in Gaelic, Cuillins,) “since the balances of males to females was totally disproportionate” (the balance … was,) some commas missing before or after pieces of direct speech, miniscular (x2, minuscular,) “honoured more in the breech” (breach.)

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark

Two Roads, 2014, 445 p.

 The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle cover

Like Sally Magnusson, Wark is a female Scottish journalist who has turned her hand to writing novels – though Wark is probably more widely known and her novel was published first.

The titular legacy here (though its nature makes the reader suspect it may have a double meaning) is of a house in Arran – an island of which we are provided a map between the title page and the story proper – in response to a written request Elizabeth Pringle received from Anna Morrison, a summer visitor to the island in her daughters’ youth, that if she ever wished to sell, Anna would be interested in buying. Years later Pringle remembered this and almost on her death bed and with no close relatives to consider made the bequest. By this time Anna is developing dementia and it falls to her daughter Martha to accept the offer on her behalf and occupy the house. Chapters dealing with Martha’s experiences are interspersed with extracts from a journal Pringle made shortly before her death at the behest of a US citizen, Saul, now a Buddhist on the off- (Arran’s) shore Holy Isle, wherein her life story is unfolded.

Martha is troubled by the bequest, not least due to the presence of a Cadell ink-and-watercolour painting on one of the walls. (Cadell was one of the Scottish Colourists and his work is valuable.) The solicitor assures her Pringle was in her right mind and surely wished the painting to be included. She forms a friendship with Catriona, proprietrix of a hotel where she stays while setting the house to rights. Catriona’s brother Niall was Pringle’s gardener and very attractive. Martha’s problems with her mother’s ongoing dementia are exacerbated by the absence of her younger sister, Sue, working in Copenhagen, with whom her relationship is strained.

Pringle had on the surface an uneventful life, marred by the death of her father and subsequent loss of the farm he worked, which necessitated the move of her mother and herself to the house she would leave in her will. Her fiancé Robert had ambitions, and, given a chance of running a sheep station in Australia took it, but Martha was too attached to Arran and distressed by the recent death of her mother to go with him. She enjoyed walking in the Arran hills and during the Second World War helped with the parties searching for the many aircraft downed in fog or other unfortunate circumstances. Her only other liaison apart from Robert was with a US airman in his brief spell on the island. It is Pringle’s recollections which form the most interesting strand of the book even if Martha’s difficulties with her mother and sister are well enough handled. An entry in Pringle’s journal tells us one of her “favourite books was Sunset Song….. I would like to have met someone like Chris Guthrie…. If I had a heroine, it was her.” However, neither of the lead female characters here approaches Chris Guthrie’s stature. The journal also comments on the repressions endemic in a Scots upbringing before recent times. “It had always been a mystery to me why ministers would encourage children to believe they were sinners.”

The modern sections are more heavy going. There is something about the prose that is plodding, leaden, adjective-laden, with too much description of interiors. Despite Wark’s knowledge of Arran the occasional forays into its landscape do not fully spring to the mind’s eye and her handling of Martha’s romantic attachment to Niall verges on the Mills and Boon. The central event of the tale, Martha’s main discovery about Pringle’s life, is not adequately foreshadowed. We are told Martha feels apprehension about opening the door into the eaves which had been wallpapered over but have been given no prior reason for her to feel any such thing. Wark has written a second novel: I’m not in any great hurry to read it.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” count: 8. Otherwise; St Clements (St Clement’s,) “wiled away the years” (whiled away,) missing commas before and after pieces of direct speech, “aren’t I?” “Aargh!! Wark is Scottish, the speaker was Scottish. The phrase is, ‘amn’t I?’,) “the Botanical Gardens” (Usually referred to as the Botanic Gardens,) “before” (appears three times in the space of two lines, twice in succession at the end one sentence and the start of the next; a might excessive, I would submit,) “to go the graveside” (to go to the graveside,) Yeats’ (Yeats’s,) crafts (of ships, the plural then is ‘craft’,) a reversed double quotatiom mark at the beginning of ‘”splinter filled…”’, “since she’d had been” (either ‘she’d’ or ‘she had’,) “‘I looked it up the imternet’” (up on the internet,) Mrs Beetons’s (Mrs Beeton’s,) twin-engine (usually twin-engined,) airplane (aeroplane, please,) “the Waverly paddle steamer” (Waverley,) artemesia (artemisia,) soflty (softly,) clam (calm.)

Reading Scotland 2020

35 Scottish books read this year, 18 by men, 16 by women, and 1 by both. Four non-fiction (one on football, three autobiography,) three with fantastical elements. Three (in bold) were on the 100 best Scottish Books list. (I’ve not got many to go now.)

Scar Culture by Toni Davidson
Lifted Over the Turnstiles by Steve Finan
The Finishing School by Muriel Spark
Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone
Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin
The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh
The Coral Island by R M Ballantyne
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
Scottish Short Stories Edited by Theodora and J F Hendry
The Pure Land by Alan Spence
Where the Apple Ripens by Jessie Kesson
Crossriggs by Jane & Mary Findlater
Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Death in Bordeaux by Allan Massie
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Naomi Mitchison
Crowdie and Cream by Finlay J MacDonald
The Rector and the Doctor’s Family by Mrs Oliphant
The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside
Murdo, The Life and Works by Iain Crichton Smith
The Glorious Thing by Christine Orr
All the Rage by A L Kennedy
Scruffians! by Hal Duncan
Dark Summer in Bordeaux by Allan Massie
The Flight of the Heron by D K Broster
Crotal and White by Finlay J MacDonald
Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett
The Brownie of Bodsbeck by James Hogg
After a Dead Dog by Colin Murray
Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark
Wild Harbour by Ian MacPherson
The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson
Cold Winter in Bordeaux by Allan Massie
The Dragon of Og by Rumer Godden
A Sense of Freedom by Jimmy Boyle
The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark

Best Reading of 2020

I don’t usually do this till after Christmas even though others seem to do it well before. However, my reading for the rest of the year is planned out and I don’t think I’ll be adding to this list. 14 this year; 9 written by men, 5 by women, 1 non-fiction, 3 in translation, 7 Scottish, no SF or Fantasy.

Listed in order of reading. The links are to my reviews.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
Lifted Over the Turnstiles by Steve Finan
The Use of Man by Aleksandar Tišma
Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin
The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
The Pure Land by Alan Spence
The Apple (Crimson Petal Stories) by Michel Faber
Where the Apple Ripens by Jessie Kesson
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness
The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside
The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times – Lewis Grassic Gibbon

This will be my final entry for Judith’s meme now collated by Katrina.

This one concentrates on Scotland’s best writer of the twentieth century; J Leslie Mitchell, better known as Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

Boks by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Here you’ll find his classic A Scots Quair, whose first instalment, Sunset Song, is the best Scottish novel of the past 150 years plus.

Also present are his two Science Fiction novels Three Go Back and Gay Hunter, his historical novel Spartacus, two other novels, two collections of shorter stories and a history book, Nine Against the Unknown, recounting the voyages of various explorers.

Another collection of his shorter fiction Smeddum is on my tbr pile as is A Scots Hairst, which contains non-fiction pieces.

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