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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.

Gerry Rafferty

The newpapers, television and radio have been full today with obituaries and tributes to Paisley born Gerry Rafferty who died yesterday.

His first well known appearances were with The Humblebums, a group of folk oriented musicians which included a certain Billy Connolly as a member.

When they split up Rafferty set out on his own for a while. Mary Skeffington, a song apparently about his mother, shows his folkiness at the time of his first solo LP, Can I Have My Money Back?, recorded before he joined the group where he had his first big success, Stealer’s Wheel, effectively a collaboration between Rafferty and Joe Egan.

The big hit, Stuck In The Middle With You, needs no introduction nor explanation but on that LP I liked more Rafferty’s quirkier song Benediction, a web friendly version of which unfortunately I cannot source. Also a hit was Star, said at the time to be a reflection of Rafferty’s fractured relationship with Connolly but in fact written by Egan. Any rift with Connolly was later repaired.

Stealer’s Wheel’s second LP was the unusually named Ferguslie Park, after a well known Paisley housing estate.

Rafferty’s biggest success came of course after the demise of Stealer’s Wheel when he resumed his solo career and recorded the LP City To City. There is barely a dud on there. My particular favourites are the title track, Mattie’s Rag and that fantastic ballad Whatever’s Written In Your Heart.

The blockbuster was Baker Street with its signature saxophone playing from Raphael Ravenscroft. (No. It wasn’t Bob Holness.) This recording was, as I recall, the first ever winner of a Brit Award for a single (though it may have been a similar award that was the Brits’ precursor.)

The two subsequent LPs Night Owl and Snakes And Ladders still saw Rafferty at the peak of his powers but a reluctance to tour and a shrinking from fame meant more big hits weren’t forthcoming.

[Edited to add:- Rafferty’s last brush with chart success came with his production work on The Proclaimers’ Letter From America (for an unusual take on which see here.) That recording’s final musical flourish – after the drawn-out “Lochaber no more” – seems to me to be pure Rafferty.]

A sad descent into alcoholism followed in his latter years.

Everyone will be featuring either Baker Street or Stuck In The Middle but I’m going with a song each from those latter two LPs where Rafferty was still in his pomp.

Gerry Rafferty: Get It Right Next Time

Gerry Rafferty: The Royal Mile (Sweet Darlin’)

I’ve just listened to Whatever’s Written In Your Heart again.

I can’t not put it in.

Gerry Rafferty: Whatever’s Written In Your Heart

Gerald Rafferty, 16/4/47-4/1/11. So it goes.

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