Archives » Scottish Literature

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.

Cold Winter in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

Quartet, 2014, 237 p.

 Cold Winter in Bordeaux cover

This is the third of Massie’s Bordeaux series, set in that city during World War 2. The first, Death in Bordeaux, I reviewed here, the second, Dark Summer in Bordeaux, here.

In this one Police Superintendent Jean Lannes is called in to investigate the death of Gabrielle Peniel whose body was found strangled and sordidly arranged. It looks like a crime of passion as in pre-war times – which Lannes would welcome as a relief from having to juggle French law with German oversight – but he senses something amiss. Peniel was a piano teacher to young girls and it is soon revealed she was a procuress for men who had such a taste.

In terms of the book’s thrust the murder is something of a red herring. Massie is really only using the crimes Lannes investigates as hooks to hang his series on. As Cold Winter in Bordeaux unfolds it is more obvious that he is illustrating the exigencies of living under occupation, the compromises that must be made, the care that has to be exercised. At one point he has Lannes reflect, “conversations all over France went round in circles, and said nothing.” In his home life Lannes’s wife Marguerite has withdrawn from him as she blames him for letting their younger son Alain go to join the Free French in London (where he has been found suitable to be recruited by the SOE and parachuted back into France,) his elder son Dominique is still employed by the Government in Vichy, his daughter Clothilde fallen in love with the Michel whom Lannes always thought unsuitable for her but she is unhappy that due to the influence of his cousin Sigi, Michel has joined the Legion of French volunteers against Bolshevism, so looks set for the Russian Front. However, news of the US landings in French North Africa, the possibility that they promise of a positive outcome to the war, gives a new charge to those longing for exactly that.

It may be a means to underline the claustrophobia of life under occupation but the circles in which the novel works itself out again feel too small, the connections between the characters and Lannes’s own life and problems too close. The last chapter mentions one François Mitterand as setting up a group of ex-POWs, probably for resistance purposes. This feels like too much of a wink to the reader with knowledge of subsequent French history.

It is though all very readable and well enough written. It is also a reminder that in bad times people may be forced to accede to acts they would in other circumstances shun.

Pedant’s corner:- In response to an allusion, Lannes says he’s never read Dickens and that, “My English novelists are Walter Scott and Stevenson.” Both were of course Scottish, not English, which Massie could not be unaware of, but would his protagonist Lannes be unaware? Surely not. I suppose, though, he could argue he was speaking of English language novelists. Otherwise; “when they had first met – at the time of …….., himself now dead, Lannes – had” (has that second hyphen misplaced: ‘when they had first met – at the time of …….., himself now dead – Lannes had’,) Michael (Michel,) Travaux Ruraux’ (Travaux Ruraux’s,) a missing end quote mark after a piece of dialogue, a missing comma before one (x 3,) “his copy book spotless” (copybook,) a missing full stop, “more than couple of hours a night” (more than a couple.) “He wore only a singlet despite the freezing weather and a pair of blue cotton trousers” (syntax, syntax; ‘He wore only a singlet despite a pair of blue cotton trousers?’ Put ‘Despite the freezing weather’ at the beginning of the sentence.)

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times – Andrew Crumey

Again the books for Judith’s Bookshelf Travelling meme now overseen by Katrina are on my shelf of Scottish books.

Eight idiosyncratic novels by Andrew Crumey.

Books by Andrew Crumey

I have read all of these since I started my blog and hence reviewed them all over the years. You’ll find them listed below in order of reading, with links to the reviews.

Though not all of his fiction deals with the subject, his background in theoretical physics colours some of the books. One of his accomplishments is that he has managed to illustrate quantum mechanical concepts in fictional form – and without sacrificing comprehensibility. His interest in historical figures and mathematics also permeates his work and he is aware, too, of the hinterland of Scottish literature. There’s not a dud here.

Mobius Dick
Sputnik Caledonia
Music, In a Foreign Language
PfITZ
D’Alembert’s Principle
Mr Mee
The Secret Knowledge
The Great Chain of Unbeing

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

Two Roads, 2018, 368 p, plus i p A Note about Icelandic, iv p List of Characters, i p Maps and i p Contents.

 The Sealwoman’s Gift  cover

The author is well-known (in Scotland) as a television newsreader and possibly more widely as a presenter of Songs of Praise. (Her father Magnus also made a career in television – he was the questioner on the original Mastermind – and translated various works from Icelandic to English; see The Fish Can Sing.) In this book Magnusson draws on her Icelandic heritage to tell the tale of a woman, Ásta Thorsteinsdóttir, caught up in a traumatic incident of Icelandic history, the abduction and enslavement of hundreds of Icelanders by Barbary corsairs in the mid-1600s.

The novel begins on the corsair ship taking the pregnant Ásta and the rest of her kidnapped family to Algiers. Despite her pregnancy, her defiance – in contrast to the more accommodating attitude of her husband Ólafur, a priest in the staunch Icelandic Protestant mould but who wishes to converse with his captors – fatefully takes the eye of the ship’s captain, Wahid Fleming, a man of Dutch origin. On board, and just before she gives birth she receives a cryptic piece of advice, the gift of the title, from the dying Oddrún, who had long claimed to be a sealwoman who once took off her skin to bask in the midnight sun but found it stolen when it was time to return to the sea so had to make a life for herself as an Icelander.

In Algiers Fleming sells Ásta and her family to Ali Pitterling Cilleby, with the suggestion of petitioning the King of Denmark (Iceland’s ruler at the time) for their ransom. Cilleby’s wife had hoped for a seamstress, in which regard Ásta is a disappointment. Cilleby sends Ólafur on the long journey to Copenhagen with the ransom demand, which the King refuses. Once back on Iceland, Ólafur, with the local bishop’s encouragement, sets about raising the money by community effort, via the selling of knitted socks etc.

The Icelanders in Algiers make their own accommodations with their new life. Some convert to Islam in order to make their way, others remain true to their own traditions. Even as she realises that this society, with its sights, sounds, smells, opulence and food abundance so in contrast to the harsh realities of life in Iceland, is in many ways much more civilised than her own, Ásta is anguished when her daughter, brought up among the strange foreign customs, becomes more at home with them than with her mother’s.

The ransom not forthcoming, Cilleby’s attention falls on Ásta. Inviting her to his chamber one night, he is astounded by her refusal to lie with him, which by the laws of his state he may. Her understanding, she tells him, was that she was not bought as a concubine. Moreover, she is married so cannot take another man for herself. This clash of customs and the building of the relationship between them forms the majority of the book’s largest section. Cilleby’s interest in her becomes intellectual as well as sexual as she relates the details of Icelandic sagas, in which he manages to find material to contradict her abomination of slavery. It is here that the book explicitly riffs on the tales of the Thousand and One Nights (not that Ásta is in any danger of execution, as Scheherazade was.) Yet there cannot be a meeting of minds. Both are too steeped in their respective values.

Via a Dutch intermediary, the ransom eventually arrives – for all the Icelanders, not all of whom wish to return. Cilleby offers Ásta the choice, he will turn down the money if she wishes to stay. Though torn between her children and her husband, duty wins out. Ásta’s equally long return to Iceland, via Denmark, allows Magnusson to explore other instances of human frailty and the conflict between religion and emotion. Back in Iceland Ásta fails to recognise the old man her husband has become and has to come to terms with how her experiences have changed her.

This novel is many-layered; it is among other things a story about stories, about love and loss, the ties that bind, and the barriers between cultures. Magnusson’s writing is assured and even her minor characters have depth. This novel is very good indeed.

Pedant’s corner:- span (x 2, spun,) focussed (focused,) maws (x 2, a maw is a stomach, not a mouth,) smoothes (smooths.)

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times – Alasdair Gray

This week’s books for Judith’s meme now overseen by Katrina are on my shelf of Scottish books.

Books by Alasdair Gray

This illustrates my idiosyncratic filing system. Within an author’s books, first come novels in order of publication,* then collections of short stories,** then anthologies edited (if any: in this case none,) then collaborations, finally non-fiction. But here we have two books of plays – one a verse comedy – before the non-fiction Independence.

Two further books, A Short Survey of Classic Scottish Writing and A Life in Pictures are of odd sizes and housed elsewhere as is the as-yet unread by me Old Negatives 4 verse sequences and The Book of Prefaces.

*See here for my review of Old Men in Love.

**I reviewed one of these here.

Straw in the Wind by James Wilson

Hutchinson, 1960, 205 p

  Straw in the Wind cover

John Gavin was just too late to be involved in the Great War. He has nevertheless managed to learn to fly and after a period barnstorming in the US takes up a post in South America in a nascent air postal service. This book is very good indeed on the practicalities of early aviation, but especially its drawbacks. The rigours and contingencies of operating such a service in a potentially unstable country are also a major consideration. It is James’s relationships with his employer, the locals, his fellow pilots and their wives, which provide much of the substance here though. The characters, even those met briefly, ring true to life.

There are said to be only seven plots in literature. It would not be too much of a spoiler to say that the one deployed here is, “the getting of wisdom.” There is an element too of the Scottish novel’s penchant to lament time past, the something lost, as Gavin realises that the (not quite) carefree ‘knights of the air’ era is coming to an end. “For me, the biplane was part of the dream. It belonged with the free-roaming life of the barnstormer, and, when it went, that free, vagabond life went with it,” and later, “I had taken part in the end of an era, and in that I felt privileged as a man would feel privileged to have sailed in the last of the windjammers. But there was no going back. The freebooting days were gone for ever.”

There is too a recognition, in the form of a missionary storekeeper named Meikle, that the indigenous peoples will not be well-served by civilisation being brought to them.

Wilson could certainly write. I reviewed his Interrupted Journey here. It is a pity that he only ever published two novels. I would like to have read more.

Pedant’s corner:- Guinivere (Guinevere,) a missing quotation mark at the end of a piece of direct speech (x 2.)

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 2001, 216 p

Aiding and Abetting cover

Hildegard Wolf is a psychiatrist in Paris. She has not one, but two clients who claim to be the fugitive Lord Lucan. One gives his name as Robert Walker, the other is known as Lucky. Between them though they have plotted to blackmail Wolf as in a former life she was the fake stigmatic Beate Pappenheim, still wanted for fraud. To avoid this she disappears herself, not even telling her lover Jean-Pierre Roget, where she has gone.

Spark leavens this pretty slim stuff with relatings of the details of Lucan’s murder of his child’s nanny and assault on his wife, his penchant for salmon and lamb chops (which the police could use to apprehend him if they ever got near,) mentions of his aiding and abetting by his friends, his frequent resorts to them for money. There is also a frankly unbelievable liaison between Lacey Twickenham, daughter of one of Lucan’s acquaintances and widower Joseph Murray, yet another who had known the earl, and accounts of their serial near-misses in confronting Lucky.

Spareness can be a virtue but here Spark is taking it to extremes. As in her later The Finishing School, she has given us a sketch for a novel rather than a rounded whole. I am really struggling to see why people hold her writing in high regard.

Pedant’s corner:- imposters (I prefer the spelling impostor,) “a nail-wound on each hand and foot, and a sword wound in the side” (this is a commonly held perception, but crucifixions were carried out by nailing the wrists and ankles, not the hands and feet. And wasn’t it a spear wound in the side?) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “One way and another” (One way or another is the usual – and more sensible – expression.) “Could that young woman in the department store in Oxford Street be really Ursula?” (What kind of syntax is this? ‘Could that young woman in the department store in Oxford Street really be Ursula?’ is the more natural way to say this.)

free hit counter script