Archives » Scottish Fiction

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 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.

free hit counter script