Archives » Margaret Elphinstone

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.”

Bookshelf Travelling For Insane Times

The good lady is taking part in a meme, which originated with Reader in the Wilderness in the USA.

It’s not quite in the spirit of the meme but I thought I would give you a glimpse of some of my bookshelves over the next few weekends. (Monday counts for this.)

So these are the top four shelves of the bookcase where I keep those works of Scottish Fiction I have already read. (Unread books are kept elsewhere.) The bookcase was bought from IKEA and fitted well in our old house which had high ceilings. When we moved to Son of the Rock Acres we wondered where it could go. Not downstairs, not enough clearance. Upstairs though, the ceilings are three inches higher! The removal men were great at manœuvring it into place with so little margin for error. It now sits on the top corridor just outside my study. (You can’t always see the books so clearly, there’s usually more stuff placed in front of them. A few history books are still perched above some in the bottom row.)

Scottish Books 1

Scottish Books 2

Edited to add:- The meme was set up to include recommendations for reading. Well, on that note Lewis Grassic Gibbon is always worth it, most especially Sunset Song in the A Scots Quair trilogy. So too are Alasdair Gray, Iain Banks, Anne Donovan, Margaret Elphinstone, Andrew Crumey, Andrew Greig, James Robertson.

Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone

Canongate, 2004, 474 p.

 Voyageurs  cover

This formidably researched novel is set mainly in North America before and during the War of 1812 which was fought between the US and Britain (plus its Native American allies) but it is not concerned with that conflict except peripherally. The book is an example of a found manuscript, as supposedly written by Mark Greenhow, a Quaker from Cumbria – topped and tailed by an Editor’s Preface and Afterword, signed MNE, January 2003.

Greenhow was a Quaker from Cumbria. Most of his life was spent on a farm called Highside where the manuscript was ‘found’ hidden away when the ‘editor’ moved in. It reveals Mark’s life was turned upside down when his family received a letter from Canada telling them that his sister Rachel, previousy disowned from the Quaker Society of Friends for marrying her husband, Alan Mackenzie, before a priest, had disappeared somewhere in what was known as Upper Canada and therefore presumed dead. For Mark the ties of family outweighed the strictures of the Society and he resolved to go to Canada and try to find her. All his voyages (barring his final return home) as well as some incidents of his home life in the time before Rachel left for Canada are described in detail. Like most Scottish writers Elphinstone has a gift for landscape description, here deployed to convey the vastness of the North American continent and the local conditions. The customs of the time and the politics of fur-trading by the SouthWest Company are all necessary ingredients to the tale while the background to the war, whose prosecution, barring one small incident, remains off-stage, forms part of the novel’s plot as does Greenhow’s Quaker pacifism – or, I should say, his refusal to be involved in killing people.

The narrative is unavoidably tinged with Greenhow’s Quaker beliefs, with much talk of Monthly Meetings, the vanity of clothing, his soul-searching about relationships with the opposite sex and his failures fully to live up to the Society’s ideals.

A serious injury to Alan, who had additional reasons for undertaking once more the arduous journey to the island where Rachel disappeared, forces the three-man expedition to over-winter in the climate of north Lake Michigan, which even the indigenous peoples find inhospitable, and whose exigencies end up with Mark accommodating to what he considers pagan beliefs. They also bring home the unlikelihood of Rachel having survived. The sojourn also allows the three trapped men the opportunity to tell each other their life stories and so expand Elphinstone’s portrayal of their times. And far from being a hindrance Mark’s refusal to kill people ends up as an asset.

The ‘manuscript’’s text is peppered with Scots words – feart, clarty, grat – which I suppose could easily have been in the Cumbrian vocabulary in the early 19th century but will have to take on trust. And we have footnotes! Always a delight.

It is the characters, though, that shine through. Even the least is given careful consideration and expression. The puzzlement and, on being informed of its significance, the subsequent acquiescence of a local Ojibwa Chief when Mark extends his hand for shaking to seal a deal is a lovely vignette. Elphinstone makes you believe that this is really how people of this time were, and how they lived.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Acknowledgements; a capital letter after a semi-colon. Otherwise; “our line of the family have lived” (our line … has lived,) “if I ever I did” (only one ‘I’ needed,) “cost me Jaques favour” (Jaques’s,) “Kerners’ agent” (Kerners’s, though I concede it would probably not be pronounced with two ‘s’es,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s, ditto,) wigwam (from the limited descriptions in the text of the structures concerned it isn’t entirely clear whether these were in fact tepees,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “that we’re used to here” (that we were used to,) span (spun, as used later,) James’ (James’s,)

Hy Brasil by Margaret Elphinstone

Canongate, 2002, 444 p.

Hy Brasil cover

Hy Brasil is a fictional mid-Atlantic archipelago, its main island geologically active. Supposedly first discovered by St Brendan, its original inhabitants were so keen on keeping themselves unknown to the outside world that betraying its existence was a capital offence. It was later colonised by the British, and, despite gaining independence via a daring coup against the NATO base which enabled it to garner US and UN support, still uses pounds, shillings and pence as its monetary system. It still seems to be close enough to the UK though for one of its main communications links to be the Southampton ferry.

The novel is carried through the first person jottings of Sidony Redruth (engaged by a London publisher to produce a guidebook for the archipelago after misrepresenting herself in a writing competition) as a set of Notes for her projected book – working title Undiscovered Islands – and third person accounts featuring some of the islands’ inhabitants, most notably Jared Honeyman, amateur explorer of the wreck of a Spanish galleon, the Cortes.

Elphinstone manages to convey the archipelago’s odd mixture of apparent Britishness, names such as St Brandons, Ferdy’s Landing and Lyonsness, with some aspects of ex-colonial polities elsewhere, strong man government, illiberal policing, the sensitivities of the locals. There is a wonderful description of a volcanic eruption with lava rendered in the terms, “It’s rock, it’s liquid, and it’s fire. Three incompatible things made one.” Other felicitous writerly touches include, “like the smoke from a gigantic steamer that’s gone over the horizon along with the age it came from.” We also have one character observing, “‘Your family imbues you with guilt. That’s what families are for.’”

Elphinstone seems to be incapable of writing badly though here her strengths are perhaps not best served by a thriller style plot involving events just after the coup that ensured Hy Brasil’s independence and which resonate down to the present day. The characters and their relationships and Elphinstone’s landscape descriptions are very well rendered though.

Pedant’s corner:- Millais’ (Millais’s, x2,) “apart from….apart from” (twice in two lines, only six words separating them,) “a bowel of fruit” (a bowl, I would think,) desdendents (descendants, x2,) halbards (halberds,.) “‘Dorrado? you don’t think anything’s happened in Dorrado?’” (Dorrado? You don’t think…) “The only indication anything had changed were the big rooflights, and a satellite dish” (The only indications … were … the lights,) Aristophanes’ (Aristophanes’s,) the island called Despair in the text is rendered in Sidony’s journal as Ile de l’Espoir (espoir actually means hope,) Coleman’s mustard (Colman’s,) “various Gunns, Hawkins,” (Hawkinses,) archeology (archaeology – or even archæology,) Hawkins’ (Hawkins’s,) “among less privileged stratas of society” (among less privileged strata of society. Strata is already the plural, one of them is a stratum,) “and so he told it her again” (told it to her is a less awkward formulation,) Ormulu (Ormolu,) pernickity (pernickety,) atop of them (just ‘atop threm’, or else, ‘on top of them’,) the Marseilleise (the Marseillaise.)

The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone

Canongate, 2009, 381 p.

The Gathering Night cover

This is set in Mesolithic Scotland, a time about which very little is known. This gives Elphinstone scope to portray a fully imagined subsistence society with its own mythology and belief systems. Its characters live off the land (and sea) and feel close to the animals they hunt and the spirits which govern all their interactions. (Since it makes sense to the people in the book, that the belief system doesn’t actually cohere is neither here nor there. In any case very few such things do cohere.)

The tale is told (literally) by various of the characters taking turns to narrate the central events round a campfire, perhaps at one of the various gatherings the Auk people, around whom the book revolves, attend throughout the year. The people are prone to humble-bragging of the “I’m sorry this catch is so meagre” or “I’m sorry this gift of food is so inadequate” type.

As events unfold the tightness of the plot becomes apparent. This is cleverly done, things that at first appear unrelated turn out to be pivotal, and the characters within are all believable as actors in the scenario and as people full stop. Apart from their belief in the closeness of their spirits and reincarnation (if a child isn’t recognised by a family member within days of birth it will be cast out,) their intimate connection with their environment, they could be you, me, or anyone you meet. “People like to think their lives are very difficult, just as they like to think their troubles are unlike anyone else’s,” applies to any society as does, “I’m old. I know that people have always cared about the same small things, and they always will,” and the lament that, “There aren’t enough tears in this world for all there is to weep about.”

The cover dubs this “a wilderness adventure” but it isn’t an adventure as such. It is a description of a way of life that may have been, of a simpler kind of existence. It occurred to me a few days after reading it that it therefore bears similarities to the same author’s The Incomer and A Sparrow’s Flight. It also aligns itself firmly with the Scottish novel in general in its descriptions of land- (and here especially) seascape.

I’ve yet to be disappointed by an Elphinstone novel.

Pedant’s corner:- Amets’ (Amets’s,) Aurochs’ (Aurochs’s,) “that man would never had given us his name to pass on” (would never have given,) Oroitz’ (Oroitz’s.)

Best of 2017

Fifteen novels make it onto this year’s list of the best I’ve read in the calendar year. In order of reading they were:-

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
The Stornoway Way by Kevin MacNeil
The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
The Untouchable by John Banville
Swastika Night by Katherine Burdekin writing as Murray Constantine
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Imagined Corners by Willa Muir
This is Memorial Device by David Keenan
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer
Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi

That’s six by women and nine by men. Six were SF or Fantasy, counting in The Underground Railroad, (seven if the Michael Chabon is included,) seven were by Scottish authors.

The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone

Canongate, 2002, 254 p including ii p list of principal characters and ii p map of the North Atlantic Ocean. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 The Sea Road cover

This is the story of Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, who sailed beyond the end of the world, gave birth to the first European to be born in the Americas beyond Greenland, voyaged to the court of the King of Norway and made a pilgrimage to Rome. Her tale is so extraordinary that I was irresistibly drawn to the parallel of Poilar Crookleg, whose first sentence (see here) I have echoed above.

Expanding on her source material in the Icelandic sagas, Elphinstone in The Sea Road has Gudrid’s story framed by a Praefatio and Postscriptum written by Icelandic monk Asgar Asleifarsson who is – at the behest of Cardinal Hildebrand for the sake of some ephemeral Vatican political intrigue – taking down the memories of a Gudrid now a grandmother. On her dark (to Icelanders) appearance – though in Italy she is fair – she says, “Now it makes no difference. Old women are the same the world over.” The text is mostly Gudrid’s as supposedly written down by Asgar but there are occasional scenes observed in the third person and rendered in italics.

Elphinstone’s handling of her tale is exquisite. The characters live on the page and the relationship between Gudrid and Asgar is deftly portrayed. Despite his replies to her never being transcribed we still get insights into his thoughts and feelings. There is a prefatory list of principal characters which is unnecessary as there is never any difficulty in distinguishing them.

Gudrid was born just after Christianity had come to Iceland and on the death of her mother was fostered out by her father to his sister’s home. She herself was baptised when she was fourteen. There is tension between the old religion and the new in Iceland and Greenland both and some in Gudrid herself. Her first crisis comes when she is asked as a young girl to help a witch (this is the word used in the text) by singing along with the old songs.

Her father Thorbjorn, a friend of Eirik Raudi (Eric the Red) had always hankered after adventure and finally undertakes the voyage to Greenland taking Gudrid with him. Though of course the winters are harsh, through Asgar Gudrid tells us that “Eirik’s land is better than any she saw till she went to Norway” and at least till the time she left, “There have been no killings in the Green Land.” Leif Eiriksson, Raudi’s son, has by this time discovered Vinland. Gudrid might have been married to him but for his dalliance with an earl’s daughter in Ireland. Instead she marries another of Raudi’s sons, Thorstein, with whom she made her first voyage to Vinland, but he falls sick one winter in Greenland and dies along with Grumhild, the wife of their host Thorstein the Black. The two survivors spend five months in the same hut with the dead bodies, haunted by their ghosts. “In that place the dead watched everything,” she tells Asgar. “All that winter we were outside the boundaries of this world of yours,” and, “You look as if my callous attitude shocked you, and yet you’d not be shocked at all if I were a man and told you I’d wiped out a whole settlement in blood feud.” Spirits were never very far away in Gudrid’s world. “The launching of a ship is no place for new gods.” It is with a second husband, Thorfinn Harlsefni, come to the Green Land to make profit, that she again sails to Vinland and this time beyond.

Among Gudrid’s many insights we have, “You think there is a pattern to the way people behave… But I have never got to know any household well, when I didn’t find out quite soon that they don’t keep to the pattern….. the pattern doesn’t exist. I’ve never met a family that behaved normally. Have you?” which may be a comment on Tolstoy’s dictum about happy families. Then we have, “Girls are much harder to deal with generally but as far as I can make out boys of that age never think about anything except sex.” Make that boys of any age perhaps.

The Sea Road is a wonderful reminder that the Dark Age world was not as parochial as we might believe; a magnificently told tale about an extraordinary woman and extraordinary times, yet times which to Gudrid herself were unexceptional.

Pedant’s corner:- In the list of characters; Chirstianity (Christianity.) Otherwise:- Asgar mentions the clock; mechanical clocks were not invented till the late 1200s – but water clocks were well known, “the herd of ponies come out” (comes out,) Halldis’ (Halldis’s,) “the family quarrel with their neighbours” (the family quarrels with its neighbours,) Eirik says ‘Aren’t I enough for you?’ (Do Icelanders say this so ungrammatically? Wouldn’t they say, “Amn’t I?”) “none of her children believe” (none believes,) “the household have discussed” (has discussed,) staunch (stanch,) unfocussed (x2, unfocused,) “In the darkness Gudrid eyes escape the blank face of the dead” (Gudrid’s eyes,) Freydis’ (Freydis’s,) Chistendom Christendom.)

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.

A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone

Polygon, 1989 , 257 p.

A Sparrow's Flight cover

Subtitled on the cover “A Novel of a Future”, A Sparrow’s Flight is set in the same post-apocalypse universe as Elphinstone’s The Incomer and features the same lead character, Naomi. Here, on her last night before travelling across to a tidal island (which internal evidence in the text suggests is Lindisfarne) she encounters Thomas, an exile from the once “empty lands” of the west, and is invited by him to return there with him. The lure is that she will discover there something from the past about music.

The novel covers a span of 29 days in which Thomas and Naomi traverse the country east to west, stay awhile at Thomas’s former home then travel back again. The chapters are of varying length and each covers just one of the days. Elphinstone’s future world is one in which the ruins of the past are feared, only low-tech exists; there is no transport, except perhaps for oxcarts and rowing boats for crossing water. Distance is an alienating factor. Once again the incomprehension Naomi has of the local norms is one of the themes. Complicating things are the fact the empty lands’ inhabitants are mistrustful of strangers and that Thomas himself has a past he wants to expiate.

Again, like The Incomer, this is a book in which nothing much happens, especially if you consider the music element of the story as more or less incidental. But quiet lives led quietly are worthy of record. When Thomas and Naomi return to their starting point they have both found things out about themselves and each other, of the importance of relationships and mutual benefit.

Pedant’s corner:- than you lead me to believe (led made more sense,) picked her her nightshirt, sprung, whistled under is breath.

Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

Harper Voyager, 2014, 266 p. Published in Finnish as Teemastarin Kirja (The Tea Master’s Daughter.)

 Memory of Water cover

In a far future Scandinavian Union run by the military dictatorship of New Qiao, the seas have long since risen, fresh water is a scarce resource, water crime a capital offence, insect hoods have to be worn outdoors and travelling is difficult. Noria Kaitio is the daughter of a tea master, the latest in a long line. Despite being female she is apprenticed to him. Her life is changed when her father reveals to her the secret spring which allows his tea to be the best his clients have tasted – anywhere. The implications of this follow Noria throughout the novel and it is a mark of Itäranta’s handling of the story that our sympathies for Noria’s fate are not lessened by its inevitability. In parts I was reminded of Margaret Elphinstone’s The Incomer – mostly by the more or less rural setting – but I have seen comparisons with the writing of Ursula Le Guin and in its evocation of a quiet life carried out quietly Memory of Water does bear some similarities with that great Mistress’s work. There are no epic scenes here, no large confrontation between Noria and the soldiers, but the details of a small life are beautifully rendered.

A plot complication occurs in the plastic graves (rubbish dumps) wherein can be found all sorts of oldtech, most of it useless, other parts salvageable. Noria’s friend Sanja has an ability to tweak broken artifacts into workability. Their joint discovery of a set of discs that tells the story of an expedition into the Lost Lands and sheds light on the Twilight Century that is now long gone history propels them into a scheme that promises escape and yields the only consolation the book provides.

The story tells us that water has a consciousness, that it carries in its memory everything that’s ever happened in this world. And the nearest the story has to a “baddie” says when asked why he behaves the way he does, “Because if this is all there is, I might as well enjoy it while it lasts.”

For a first novel, this is very accomplished, especially as Itäranta is a Finn. She apparently wrote Memory of Water simultaneously in English and Finnish.

Pedant’s Corner – most of these may be due to the fact that English is not Itäranta’s first language:- I followed Sanja to a circuitous route, Mhz for MHz, Xinjing might have burned to ground, it was only a matter of time when my suspicions would be confirmed.

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