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The Lament: A Scottish Tradition.

I mentioned recently in my review of Christopher Rush’s A Twelvemonth and a Day that it fell into that long list of laments with which the Scottish novel is liberally bestowed – going back at least as far as the poem on the state of the nation written on King Alexander III’s death after falling from a cliff in Fife in 1286, but which may well be an oral tradition older still.

This sense of things lost seems to be an itch which Scottish letters is unable not to scratch.

Many of the books on the 100 best Scottish Books list fall into this tradition; of the ones I have read not only the Rush but also Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies, Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place, William McIlvanney’s Docherty, George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe, Neil M Gunn’s The Silver Darlings, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song certainly qualify. Arguably Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes also fits the bill; its title certainly does.

Whether this dwelling on things gone by is due to a sense of lost nationhood or not is a matter for debate but the itch is played out not just in Scottish literature, the lament is a major strand in bagpiping and has a long history in song (eg The Flowers o’ the Forest.) The Proclaimers’ Letter From America – “Bathgate no more” etc – is merely a modern take on the form.

Another important strand in the Scottish novel is that of the döppelganger/the supernatural. Here James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which can certainly be seen as a reflection on the duality of the Scots psyche after the Treaty of Union as well as an illustration of Scottish literature’s fascination with the Devil, is the prototypical – and arguably the finest – example though Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is perhaps better known furth of Scotland.

On thinking about all this I realised that, despite being Science Fiction, my own novel A Son of the Rock was also such a lament (though it eschews any truck with the supernatural.) The book was certainly conceived in part as an allegory of the decline of shipbuilding on the Clyde which had occurred in my early lifetime but I had not consciously been aware of any wider resonances while I was writing it. I did though somewhat impertinently consider it as a “condition of Scotland” novel.

Perhaps Scotland’s condition has always been in decline, its writers always noticing what has been, is being, lost. I note here that Andrew Grieg’s Fair Helen is a retrospective lament for the loss of “wit and laughter, music and dance and kindliness” in the Reformation.

My 2015 in Books

This has been a good year for books with me though I didn’t read much of what I had intended to as first I was distracted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books and then by the threat to local libraries – a threat which has now become a firm decision. As a result the tbr pile has got higher and higher as I continued to buy books and didn’t get round to reading many of them.

My books of the year were (in order of reading):-
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Electric Brae by Andrew Greig
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman
The Affair in Arcady by James Wellard
Flemington and Tales from Angus by Violet Jacob
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi
Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison
The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Born Free by Laura Hird
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

If you were counting that’s 25 in all, of which 15 were by male authors and 10 by women, 8 had SF/fantasy elements and 11 were Scottish (in the broadest sense of inclusion.)

Reading Scotland 2015

A lot of my Scottish reading this year was prompted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books I discovered in February. Those marked below with an asterisk are in that 100 best list. (In the case of Andrew Greig’s Electric Brae I read it before I was aware of the list and for Robert Louis Stevenson his novella was in the book of his shorter fiction that I read.)

Electric Brae by Andrew Greig*
A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone
The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson*
Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre
Buddha Da by Anne Donovan*
Flemington by Violet Jacob*
Tales From Angus by Violet Jacob
Annals of the Parish by John Galt
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Change and Decay in All Around I See by Allan Massie
The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald
Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay
The Hope That Kills Us Edited by Adrian Searle
Other stories and other stories by Ali Smith
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi*
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison*
No Mean City by H McArthur and H Kingsley Long*
Shorter Scottish Fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson*
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett*
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind*
Fur Sadie by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown*
Stepping Out by Cynthia Rogerson
Open the Door! by Catherine Carswell*
The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn*
Scotia Nova edited by Alistair Findlay and Tessa Ransford
After the Dance: selected short stories of Iain Crichton Smith
John Macnab by John Buchan
Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson
Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith*
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan*
Poems Iain Banks Ken MacLeod
Mistaken by Annie S Swan
Me and Ma Gal by Des Dillon*
Tea with the Taliban: poems by Owen Gallagher
A Choosing by Liz Lochhead
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins*
Born Free by Laura Hird*
the first person and other stories by Ali Smith

That makes 42 books in all (plus 2 if the Violet Jacob and Archie Hind count double.) None were non-fiction, 3 were poetry, 2 SF/Fantasy, 19 + (4x½ + 3 doublers) by men, 13 + (3 doublers and 1 triple) by women, 2 had various authors/contributors.

Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown

Polygon, 2004, 249 p, plus vi p introduction by Ali Smith.

(Not borrowed from but) returned to a threatened library.

 Greenvoe cover

Of George Mackay Brown, a native of Stromness in Orkney, Wikipedia says “he is considered one of the great Scottish poets of the 20th century.” He nevertheless also wrote plays and prose. This novel, Greenvoe, is in the list of 100 best Scottish Books. While showing many of the characteristics of Scottish writing – the descriptions of landscape and, here, seascapes, a sense of things lost, the pervasiveness of Calvinism – Greenvoe is also distinctly Orcadian.

The novel is set mainly in the titular village on the fictional island of Hellya and follows the lives of its inhabitants over the course of six days, focusing on each in turn. Over time this builds up into a convincing portrait of the village and island life but one of the drawbacks of Brown’s approach is that before we have had the opportunity to get to know them well we are thrown over twenty named characters in the first few pages thus making keeping track difficult to begin with.

The population includes three fishermen, the wastrel Bert Kerston whose wife Ellen feels much put-upon; Samuel Whaness, married to Rachel who bemoans her childlessness and The Skarf (always capitalised) who tells stories of the island’s history in the hotel bar every night. There is a concupiscent ferryman, Ivan Westray; hotel-keeper Bill Scorradale, who substitutes the whisky; an alcoholic minister, Simon McKee, whose mother, racked with guilt, daily imagines her trial on various charges; the local posh girl, Inga Fortin-Bell, home for the holidays; shopkeeper Joseph Evie and his wife Olive; the frustrated schoolmistress Miss Inverary; Alice Voar, “Every man in Hellya has lain with her,” the mother of seven children (each with a different father); elderly Ben and Bella Budge; meths drinker Timmy Folster; and a mysterious hotel guest who sits typing away all day in his room. On the third day the travelling salesman Johnny Singh arrives to make the annual rounds. This section, entirely narrated from his point of view in the form of a letter to his uncle Pannadas – the usual salesman – gives an additional perspective. In it he says, “The island is full of ghosts.” This is a foreshadowing. For like many classic Scottish novels Greenvoe is an elegy. The island life shown here is on its way out – and not merely due to the Government project, Dark Star, which arrives to hollow out the land and cover it with wire fencing. Each chapter of the book (bar the last) covers a single day and ends with a description of the (all different) initiation rites of the Ancient Mystery of The Horsemen.

In her introduction Ali Smith suggests that the core of the book is in the one character who never sets foot in Greenvoe, Mrs McKee’s niece Winifred Melville, who has an illegitimate child, refuses to marry the father, becomes a Catholic and makes a living writing novels. This would be to neglect how much island life itself is a pervasive aspect of the narrative, the almost impossibility of true privacy, the inability to avoid gossip, the depredations of the modern world.

To my mind it is Mrs McKee herself who is the fulcrum. In one of his perorations her imaginary prosecutor (in fact Mrs McKee’s conscience) tells us, “’Become a Catholic,’ said Aunt Flora. ‘What’s good about that? If you ask me it’s worse than the illegitimate child.’ Hers is, thank God, the authentic, affirming voice of religious Scotland.” Describing an incident in which Mrs McKee allowed Winnie to shelter from the rain in a Catholic Church he adds, “Mrs McKee – whose hand plucked an innocent girl out of a Highland rainstorm into – Lord have mercy on this poor Scotland of ours – the abode of The Scarlet Woman.” She it was too who introduced her son to drink by way of a medicinal toddy. Such are the scars Calvinism inflicts on the true believer.

Yet Brown also tells us, “The essence of love is pain; deep in the heart of love is a terrible wound.” Perhaps it is this pain, this wound, that Calvinism seeks, on our behalves, to avoid. Literature (thankfully?) does not.

Pedant’s corner:- (Some of these look as if they are mistakes in transcribing a handwritten manuscript.) Greenove (once, for Greenvoe,) ona (on a,) meth (methylated spirits is more usually shortened to meths but Mackay Brown uses it consistently,) “like a toby jug came to life” (come to life,) knit (knitted,) under a wide are (arc,) becareful (be careful,) “whoal” (“whoa!”?) fetor (foetor*,) “ says be to me” (“says he to me”,) blashphemous (blasphemous*,) “This lie glimmers at.” ??? Ceileidh (Ceilidh,) stange (strange?) flat heer (beer,) a lap wing (lapwing,) scorpian (scorpion,) telesceope (telescope,) mantlepiece, (mantelpiece*,) “The Window” (the context suggests a rock, The Widow, twice mentioned higher up the same page,) “Now them, Sidney,” (Now then,) Belia (Bella,) elegaic (elegiac,) “his date of birth ‘ll be in” (birth’ll,) a missing end quotation mark, Aunt Alora (Flora,) Fergus’ (Fergus’s,) “by the rose bush, Her basket was always …” (full stop for comma?) Gaderene (Gadarene?) spur (spar makes more sense,) back and fore (maybe it’s northern thing, then,) a thin keep (since this is of a wind, a thin keen?) “…an hour ago said Bill Scorradale’ He must have…” (“…an hour ago said Bill Scorradale. ‘He must have…”) “corn-beef” usually “corned beef”,) what a fine, big housel (house! ?) Wedgewood cups and saucers (Wedgwood?) Prince Street (Princes Street,) and and (one “and” would suffice,) gableends (gable ends,) but this time (by this time?)
*correctly spelled elsewhere.

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