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Scottish Short Stories Edited by Theodora and J F Hendry

Penguin, 1945, 123 p.

Scottish Short Stories cover

The back cover says this book was mostly edited by Theodora Hendry but she was killed in the London Blitz. The criteria for selection in the volume was Scottish stories with a Scottish setting or else it “would almost certainly have assumed an international aspect.”
The first, The Coasts of Normandy by George Blake, is the story of a tragedy which befell the narrator’s childhood friend and its effect on the child’s mother as reflected through the prism of a chance encounter with a stranger many years later on the coast of Normandy. It takes a slightly circuitous route to its revelation (which the reader intuits well before the narrative gets there) but this allows for such thoughts as, “The simple feel as warmly as the clever and the learned.” Another of its observations is a reminder that, for some soldiers at least, the Great War was not only a horrific trial and ordeal but also an opportunity to remake their lives in its aftermath.
In A Sunday Visit by Colm Brogan two boys are dragged along by their mother to the Mortons’ house, where the family has just suffered a bereavement. Amid all the whispering, the boys are left to their own devices.
A Hike to Balerno by Ronald McDonald Douglas sees two boys on the titular hike, the escapades they get up to, the banter between them, “daft, just plain daft.”
Clay by Lewis Grassic Gibbon is the story of Robert Galt, a man from a chancy background who takes a farm and devotes all his time to it, to the neglect of his wife and his daughter’s prospects.
Beattock for Moffat by R B Cunninghame Graham tells of the last journey of a dying Scot on the train up from London with his cockney wife and his brother come to take him home to die. The author observes of the accomodations married couples make with each other that “usually … good points, seen through prejudice of race, religion, and surroundings, appear … defects,” and refers to the Cockney wife’s reticence being explained by, “the English theory, that unpleasant things should not be mentioned, and that, by this means, they can be kept at bay.” The prose evidences that Scottish authors’ eye for landscape.
In The Sea by Neil M Gunn a twelve-year-old overcomes his fears, staggering through the night down to the harbour to witness the perilous return of his father’s and brother’s boats during a great storm. Here it is seascape (or land-meets-sea-scape) which the descriptive powers bring to life.
J F Hendry’s Chrysalis is a fragment of the childhood of a boy who wants to be good but fears he is bad because he sometimes is too enthusiastic in his activities.
Clock-a-Doodle-Doo by Willa Muir is set in a room full of clocks (all wag-at-the-wa’) which can speak to each other, having theological discussions over whether the Son or Moon is the primum mobile and aspiring to Pure Horological Thought.
Neil Munro’s The Lost Pibroch could be characterised as a Scottish version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Two pipers come to Half-Town. After a night of musical vying with the blind piper there he finally plays them the titular pibroch he “got from a man in Moideart.” It has “something of the heart’s longing and the curious chances of life” and sets up a wanderlust in those who hear it.
In The Matinee by Fred Urquhart a fifteen-year-old newly graduated into long trousers reverts to shorts to get into the cinema more cheaply, dragging his younger brother along for corroboration. Engrossed in a film where a factory owner exploiting the workers is presented as virtuous he fails to acknowledge his brother’s increasing personal discomfiture.
Eric Linklater’s Kind Kitty is an old woman who likes a drink, then dies through lack of it a few days after throwing a party for Hogmanay. She inveigles her way into heaven but finds the company there uncongenial, and the beer far too poor.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing full stop, “brigh” (is missing a final ‘t’,) missing commas before pieces of direct speech.

Dunbeath, Caithness

Just over the Dunbeath Water from the small harbour lies Dunbeath Castle. This photo was taken from up the hill the road ascends north of the village, where we had parked the car:-

Dunbeath Castle

This is a closer view taken from the harbour:-

Dunbeath Castle Close-up

On a wall by the harbour is this memorial to the SS Gretafield which was torpedoed off Wick on 14/2/1940, set on fire, and finally ran aground on Dunbeath beach. 12 men died.

SS Gretafield Memorial, Dunbeath

A small building had a kind of museum to the small boats people used to use for fishing out of Dunbeath. This is a model of the type. I kept thinking of The Silver Darlings:-

Model Boat, Dunbeath

Dunbeath, Caithness, and Neil M Gunn Memorial

On the way down from Orkney and Thurso we stopped at Dunbeath, Caithness. This was the birthplace of Scottish writer Neil M Gunn.

This stone was laid in his memory. “To commemorate Neil M Gunn, author of world renown, born into this community 8th November 1891.”

Neil M Gunn Memorial, Dunbeath

This statue, erected 100 years after Gunn’s birth, is in honour of the character Kenn from his novel Highland River:-

Kenn + Salmon

This is the river running through the village, the Dunbeath Water, possibly that same Highland river:-

Dunbeath Water

This information board was on a wall nearby. As well as mentioning Gunn it notes other local attractions:-

Information Board, Dunbeath

Young Art and Old Hector by Neil M Gunn

Souvenir Press, 1985 reprint from 1942, 255 p. One of the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books.

Young Art and Old Hector cover

On finishing this uplifting book I reflected that it depicts a kind of relationship which either no longer exists or will expire shortly. Young Art is eight or so years old, hence not well versed in the ways of the adult world. His friend and confidant, Old Hector, the ancient of their small village, is a repository of sagacity, wisdom and local knowledge. Their warm, mutual affection shines through the prose describing their interactions. These days I fear the world of the young is so divorced from that of the old that common ground such as Art and Hector have here would be very hard to find.

Young Art and Old Hector is another chronicling of a way of life that was passing – had passed at the time of writing. This is one of the perennial themes of Scottish literature. Hector says to Art, “‘I know every corner of this land, every little burn and stream, and even the boulders in the stream. And I know the moors and every lochan on them. And I know the hills, and the passes, and the ruins, and I know of things that happened here on our land long long ago, and men who are long dead I knew, and women. They are part of me. And more than that I can never know now.’” Hector tells Art, “‘There are many places, many many places, with names that no-one knows but myself, and they will pass away with me.’” Whereupon Art asks Hector to teach them to him so that they won’t die. That instinct may have been what prompted Gunn to write this novel. Whatever, while people still read old books the past is never entirely dead.

There isn’t really much of a plot, what there is revolves around an illicit still set up to produce whisky for a wedding party, the authorities’ attempts to catch those operating it and their subsequent outwitting, but Gunn’s facility in entering the mind of a child is superb. An example of Art’s misunderstanding of grown up ways is his conclusion that courting must be a very bad thing. A conclusion only compounded when his hand is innocently held by a young girl. Gunn makes the comparison with the second childhood of the elderly but emphasises it does not entirely hold, especially in their differing perceptions of time.

Hector has a few good lines. “Old Hector maintained that money wasn’t everything… and in his young days people didn’t hanker after it so greedily as they did now.” To the objection that had they been more alive to it they might not have been cleared out of the Clash in the time of evictions he replies, “‘It was the lairds and the factors who were keen on the money, and it’s because they were keen on the money that they drove the people forth.’” Hector also says “‘I have not observed that it’s the people who are out to make money who are the helping kind…. the more they make the grippier they become.’” “‘Whenever the prime concern in life is money-making then you have trickery and brutality and wrong.’” “‘Human dealings are founded – founded – not on money but on what is fair and just all round.’” He relates how the legalisation of distilling in effect stole the people’s drink from them and had not left them “‘wherewith to buy it.’”

And here’s a thought that feels almost quaint in this modern age. “‘What’ asked Art, ‘is the most wonderful thing in the world.’ ‘A kind heart,’ answered Old Hector.”

Pedant’s corner:- On the book’s back cover; Donal (in the text it is always Donul.) Otherwise: dike (dyke is the preferred British spelling for an embankment or low wall,) primeval (I prefer primaeval,) “‘Are there? “I have never’, said Mary-Anne” (has the comma misplaced outside the quotation marks,) “and t but half the size” (has the space for the “i” of it but the “i” itself is missing,) “does not now what to make of me” (ditto the “k” of “know”,) “Every littl place (ditto the e of little,) paradisaical (I’ve only ever seen this as paradisiacal before but it’s an accepted variant.) A big thumbs up for “Amn’t I?”

Progress in Scottish Reading

A suitable post for St Andrew’s Day.

You may have noticed on my sidebar that I am reading Neil M Gunn’s Young Art and Old Hector.

This is one of The Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books.

Of the thirty books that were actually listed on that now defunct web page this means I will now have read twenty-nine (having made that my Scottish reading project for the year.)

The only one from that Herald list I have so far missed is Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, which has appeared on all four lists I’ve been working from* – a distinction it shares only with the otherwise incomparable Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

For some reason I have a reluctance to tackle Welsh’s book. I have seen the film that was made from it and wasn’t overly enthused. I’ll get round to it sometime.

*Those four lists:-
100 best Scottish Books;
The Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books;
Scotland’s favourite books;
and The Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read (from 2005.)
This last is the one I shall be working from next year. I’ll post the list in the new year.

The Scottish Tradition in Literature by Kurt Wittig

The Mercat Press, 1978, 304 p, including ii p preface, ii p contents. A facsimile of the 1958 edition.

The Scottish Tradition in Literature cover

On the surface it seems a little odd that a book on Scottish literature should be written by a German but Wittig’s second sentence begins, “Scottish literature is part of our European heritage.” He goes on to say he does not wish to erect an invisible barrier that would isolate it from “the larger world to which it inseparably belongs,” but nevertheless, “We must do the literature we are studying the honour of recognising that it has both ‘a local habitation and a name.’” He notes, “Deep down in the heart and mind of many Scotsmen there is a kind of schism arising out of the clash of his conflicting loyalties,” but stresses that “someone from outside can distinguish between the typical and the specific.”

Wittig’s starting point for the Scottish tradition is John Barbour’s epic poem The Bruce, which is, he says, without parallel in the Middle Ages, finding its neglect by scholars (of whatever stamp) truly astonishing. The Bruce predates Chaucer’s great poems and its theme that knightly virtues are of no account unless supported by the ideals of “fredome” and “richt” – ‘A! Fredome is a noble thing!’ – sets it apart from its contemporaries. Barbour is the “first of a long series of Scottish writers who seem not only to be on terms of an informal intimacy with God (or the Devil), but even to be disposed, on occasion, to argue with him. No wonder that the Scottish people were later to find the spirit of the Reformation so congenial.”

Since it manifests itself in pre-Reformation works (of which – William Dunbar’s “Lament ‘Quhen he was sek’” (aka “Lament of the Makars”) with its Timor mortis conturbat me refrain apart – to my shame I was mostly unaware) it would seem therefore that the gloomy prognostications and demeanour of Scots (“the mistrust even of happiness”) are not so much derived from Calvinism but are much more deep-rooted, part of the character induced by harsh, dark winters and the sair fecht of scratching a living from the land. It’s almost as if Scots were marking time till a belief system to embody their experience came along; and thereupon embraced it with masochistic fervour.

Barbour also employs what Wittig identifies as a typical Scottish trait; understatement, particularly in regard to the emotions, and he possessed a keen enjoyment of sense impressions. In Robert Henryson he notes, “genuine emotions of the soul are rather suggested than expressed, but the airs men give themselves are heightened to grotesquerie.” Such sense impressions, personification, or animism – visualisation – is another thread that Wittig discerns in the Scottish tradition. Others include alliteration, an intense economy of expression. He notes that much Scottish poetry is interlinked with music, using traditional metres, often very complicated, internal rhymes, frequent refrain on a thematic word.

After Gavin Douglas – the last of the Makars – and David Lyndsay this spring tide, as Wittig puts it, of the tradition begins to ebb and Scots as a language began to diminish in importance and scope. While the Union of the Crowns meant the old cultural ties with France were cut, more significantly the printing presses were in London and, perhaps crucially, the Bible, and therefore the word of God – in Church and elsewhere – was in English and so English came to be associated with serious, dignified subjects. As a result “‘guid hamelie Scots’ seemed unfit for higher and more intellectual purposes.” In the meantime the Scottish Ballads – “A Treasure-trove” – helped to keep the language alive.

A resurgence came in the eighteenth century with once again as in the Makars an expansion of the language and its uses. This reached a “High Water Mark” with Robert Burns and Walter Scott before tailing off again. In the twentieth century “Another Spring” had its highlights in Hugh McDiarmid, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Wittig’s prime exemplar Neil M Gunn.

Wittig emphasises the cross fertilisation of Scots with Gaelic. The two languages existed side by side for centuries, even at court. Many Scots sentence constructions have their roots in Gaelic which, according to Alexander MacDonald, is supreme over all other languages, “strong, fluent, copious, resonant, and so forth” but in the main “it is the one language in which, since the Tower of Babel, bard or satirist can scold best. Modern Scottish speech, too, is often said to be unsurpassed for deflating an opponent.” It is especially apparent in poetry, “The chief respects in which Scots differs from English poetry are that it shows a stronger feeling for colour (and for other sense impressions); imagery is sharper and more detailed, it is capable of greater metrical complexity, is apter to personify inanimate objects, takes a keener interest in nature, is full of the spirit of clannishness, and makes a speciality of flyting and extravaganza,” all features, Wittig says, even more strikingly characteristic of Scottish Gaelic poetry.

Wittig states that, “Perhaps no other European literature is so dramatic” yet contrasts that with the lack of Scottish drama, a delicate, developing flower at the time he was writing. Nevertheless quoting James Bridie (Dr O H Mavor) “we cannot perceive the Universe except as a pattern of reciprocating opposites.”

The Scot displays “sometimes an aggressive spirit of independence or egalitarianism,” and is adept at the art of flyting, a contest consisting of the exchange of insults, often conducted in verse, between two parties. Then again the mediaeval Scots proverb has it that, “nippin and scartin’s Scots fowk’s wooin.” “The Scots as a nation are passionately addicted to argument.” “The Scots argue not to find a compromise but in order to disagree, to make their point, to assert their rugged independence and individuality. It is an innate tendency to challenge blind acceptance.” Disputatious for the sake of it, “the fervid Scottish delight in arguing – with themselves if no other opponent is available – ” is prevalent in the works of Scott, the first Scottish writer who endowed landscape with a life of its own to the extent of making it one of the protagonists in his novels. (Wittig’s italics.) Landscape in Scott is much more than mere background, it is a formative influence.

James Thomson the younger wrestled with sin and guilt, and repeatedly saw himself as two separate personalities: “I was twain,/Two selves distinct that cannot join again;/One stood apart and knew but could not stir” typical of the emotional and intellectual dualism of Scots – the “Caledonian Antisyzygy” – which may have arisen due to coming to use one language to express thought, another to express feeling.

In the context of why a Scots tale seems to need a sharply portrayed character to tell it Wittig quotes Robert Louis Stevenson as saying, “the English speak with less interest and conviction, while the Scot puts his whole personality into it” and asks, “Is there any such thing as an absolute detached prose in Scots? Is it indeed, possible?”

Wittig occasionally casts aspersions. He calls William McGonagall the “shabbiest of public-house rhymesters” and says that here it is “not rock-bottom that we touch…. that would suggest something solid; with him, poetry is irretrievably sunk in mire,” while John Buchan’s English verse “reads like exercises in a foreign language.”

He notes how many Scots poets do not mention the sea at all. Neither do most writers of prose. (This may well, though, be related to the lack of fishing till well on in the eighteenth century.)

Drink is “a gateway to a new kind of world that provides distortion, new perspectives, and surprising insights.” Wittig says, “I do not know of any other country in which is found a similar attitude to drink: but when Magnus Merriman speaks of this violent Scotland with its hard drinking as a country worth living in and refashioning it reminds me at once of several Scottish acquaintances, poets and others.”

J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon) produces the effect of a “reality that is both subjective and communal. This is the culmination of the inherently dramatic character of Scots, for all the time somebody is imagined to be speaking – or letting his thinking become audible – though his identity may not be specified.” A person can view himself as “you.”

This is a magnificent book. Wittig’s knowledge of his subject appears encyclopaedic, his insights are sharp, his advocacy of the existence of such a thing as a Scottish tradition in literature and his demonstration of its importance and enduring relevance a stirring redress to those who would claim otherwise.

Pedant’s corner:- Reflexion (reflection,) connexion (connection,) medieval, irreverance (irreverence, which appears four lines later!) simplyc alled (simply called,) for convenience’ sake (convenience’s sake,) sublter (subtler,) Blaweary (Blawearie.)

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.

The Herald’s 100 Best Scottish Fiction Books.

The Herald – formerly The Glasgow Herald – is, along with Edinburgh’s The Scotsman, one of the two Scottish newspapers of note. (Aberdeen’s Press and Journal and Dundee’s Courier could never compare; not least in circulation terms.)

I found the following list of The Herald’s 100 Best Scottish Fiction recommendations just under a year ago at a now defunct webpage http://www.heraldscotland.com/books-and-poetry/your-100-best-scottish-novels where only thirty works were actually given; with a solicitation to readers for further suggestions. Perhaps the page has been removed. It provides some fuel for future reading, though.

Of the 30, I have read 19 (asterisked below – where I also include from the Herald’s webpage the comments which accompanied the nominations, complete with any typographical and other errors.) Where applicable I have also linked to my review on this blog of that particular novel. Those in bold also appear on the list of 100 best Scottish Books.

1 The Death of Men, Allan Massie, 2004*
Anne Marie Fox says: Compelling as suspense and profound as a philosophical exploration of political ideologies and terrorism, ‘post-Christian’ consumer society and family.
2 The White Bird Passes, Jessie Kesson, 1958*
Alistair Campbell, Elgin, concludes: Writing of the highest quality, pared to poetic essence. The unforgettable tale of Janie’s childhood in crowded backstreets richly peopled by characters who live on the margins.
3 The Well at the World’s End, Neil Gunn, 1951*
Janet Feenstra recommends Gunn’s most personal novel: The metaphor of light reflects Gunn’s quest for personal enlightenment. Its optimism has relevance for Scotland now more than ever.
4 The Bridge, Iain Banks, 1986*
Allen Henderson, on Facebook, says: I’m a big Banks fan and for me, The Bridge just pips the Wasp Factory.
5 Cold in the Earth, Aline Templeton, 2005
Julia MacDonald, on Facebook, says: a novel with a clear description of Scottish towns and folk.
6 Fergus Lamont, Robin Jenkins, 1979
Ian Wishart, Edinburgh made this choice.
7 The Antiquary , Sir Walter Scott, 1816
Bryson McNail, Glasgow, writes of the second Scott entry to our list: It has some of the finest descriptive writing ever – the scenes and vistas open before you. It also has a great story line.
8 Joseph Knight, James Robertson, 2004*
Megan Mackie says: It is both a great story and a powerful history lesson rolled into one…a narrative of family relationships, betrayal and social justice told within the context of Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade.
9 Body Politic, Paul Johnston, 1999
Elaine Wishart, Edinburgh, concludes: As well as a great crime novel it paints a very very believable picture of Edinburgh as a city run for tourists – brilliant satire and cracking characters. I read it in one sitting.
10 A Disaffection, James Kelman, 1989*
Mark Barbieri says: Any one of Kelman’s novels could make the top 100 but the story of frustrated school teacher Patrick Doyle is his finest. Sad, honest, funny, vital, incomparable and simply brilliant..
11 The Holy City, Meg Henderson, 1997
Diane Jardine, Glasgow, says: Captured my home town with unnerving accuracy and helped me appreciate its psychology and community just a little bit more.
12 Young Art and Old Hector, Neil M. Gunn, 1942
Myra Davidson, Livingston, concludes: Wonderful depiction of childhood and old age. A Glasgow child, I was evacuated to a croft on Arran and I am still grateful for the introduction to a way of life I would not otherwise have had.
13 Whisky Galore, Compton Mackenzie, 1947
Elizabeth Marshall says: A lovely book that deserves to be included.
14 The House with the Green Shutters, George Douglas Brown, 1901*
Joan Brennan: This has to be among the very top of the finest 100 Scottish novels
15 Consider the Lilies, Iain Crichton Smith, 1968*
Derek McMenamin nominates the writer’s best known novel, about the Highland clearances.
16 Gillespie, J. MacDougall Hay, 1914*
Alan Mackie, Kinghorn says: An epic tale. And just as dark, if not darker than Crime and Punishment as an insight into what it means to be human. Not the happiest book but in terms of style and sheer enjoyment it is right up there with the best for me.
17 The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg, 1824*
Kenneth Wright justifies his choice: Theology might not sound like a promising subject for fiction, but Hogg’s critique of the hardshell Calvinism that was Scotland’s religious orthodoxy c.1700 is compellingly expressed as ghost story, psychological thriller, earthy kailyaird comedy and drama of personal morality.
18 One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, Christopher Brookmyre, 1999*
Vicky Gallagher says: I really enjoyed Christopher Brookmyre’s books, especially this one and A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Pencil – very funny – very Glaswegian!
19 The Heart of Midlothian, Sir Walter Scott, 1818
Robert Miller is convinced it’s a forgotten masterpiece: This book has a real Scottish heroine and is very accurately based in a interesting time in Scottish history.
20 Greenvoe, George Mackay Brown, 1972*
Siobheann Saville says: Tragic, funny, poetic, descriptive – a book that has it all. Some of the passages read like poetry and have to be re-read several times. The wit and setting of ‘Local Hero’ and the family sagas of ‘Stars look down’ – a personal favourite I can read many times and still be surprised.
21 Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, 1932*
The first – and best – part of the Scots Quair trilogy explores several key issues, such as Scottish identity and land use, war, and the human condition. All bound up in an accessible, moving human tale. An evergreen classic.
22 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961*
First published in the New Yorker magazine, the novel’s heroine was memorably brought to life by Maggie Smith, complete with the girls who comprised her “crème de la crème”. It’s a bitingly funny examination of love, relationships, and power.
23 Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh, 1993
The graphic portrayal of a group of junkies made a huge impact, helped by Danny Boyle’s film. Welsh added a sequel, Porno, and a prequel, Skagboys, is due out in 2012.
24 Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886*
It may have been written as a “boys’ novel”, but the book’s basis in historical reality and its ability to reflect different political viewpoints elevates it to a far higher place, drawing praise from such figures as Henry James and Seamus Heaney.
25 The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan, 1915*
The first of five novels to feature Richard Hannay initially appeared in serialised form in Blackwood’s Magazine. A rollicking good read ¬- if rendered slightly outdated by its kanguage and attitudes – it inspired British soldiers fighting in the WWI trenches, and the various film versions cemented its place in the literary canon.
26 Lanark, Alasdair Gray, 1981*
Gray’s first novel but also his crowning glory: a marvellous mixture of storytelling, illustration, and textual subversion which set the tone for his future work. The author cited Kafka as a major influence, but just about any interpretation of his words is possible…and that’s the fun.
27 Black and Blue, Ian Rankin, 1997
Not everyone will agree with this choice, but Rankin is the acknowledged king of Tartan Noir, and the eighth Inspector Rebus book won him the Crime Writers’ Association’s Macallan Gold Dagger.
28 The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald, 1872
This son of Aberdeenshire’s fantasy is regarded as having had a seminal influence on children’s literature, with such luminaries as Mark Twain and GK Chesterton paying homage. Film versions of the book have not been huge successes, but it appears in the 100 Classic Book Collection compiled for the Nintendo DS.
29 Clara, Janice Galloway, 2002
Galloway first came to prominence with The Trick is to Keep Breathing, but Clara, based on the life of the composer’s wife Clara Schumann and which won her the Saltire Book Award, is seen as her finest achievement.
30 The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, Tobias Smollett, 1771*
Born in Renton, West Dunbartonshire, Smollett trained as a surgeon at Glasgow University, but moved to London to find fame as a dramatist. A visit back to Scotland inspired his final novel, a hilarious satire on life and manners of the time. His fiction is thought to have influenced Dickens.

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.

The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn

faber and faber, 1989, 590 p. First published in 1941. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 The Silver Darlings cover

Set just after the Napoleonic wars, this novel (one of the 100 best Scottish Books) describes the beginnings of the good times when the fishing of herring – the silver darlings of the title – brought a measure of prosperity to the villages between Brora and Wick on the seaboard of the Moray Firth. Many of these families had been cleared from Kildonan to make way for more profitable sheep and would otherwise barely scrape a living by crofting. In particular the novel focuses on Finn, the son of Catrine. The book opens with a scene where Finn’s father Tormad is press-ganged from the sea by a navy cutter. Tormad dies five days later from the blow on the head he received while resisting but this is not confirmed till Finn is a full-grown man. As a result Catrine’s relationship with accomplished fisherman Roddie is not acknowledged – even by themselves – to be what it is until the last few chapters. Incidents in Finn’s life to that point are interwoven with depictions of village life, fishing, sea voyages and the economics of the herring trade. It provided livelihoods not just for fishermen but for the local women as gutters, not to mention sundry curers, coopers, exporters and boatbuilders.

The time was one of religious revival and fervour as hardliners complained, “The Established Church of Scotland … was selling God’s kingdom for the comforts of a manse.” In the person of Sandy Ware we are given an exemplar of these strict killjoys. The austere developments are not altogether welcomed, though. Finn makes a couple of trips to the Western Isles where an old islander complains, “ – there are places in these islands where dancing of any kind is stopped by the new ministers. A terrible blight is coming upon the happiness of the human heart and upon the happiness of the world.”

In common with many Scottish novels the book contains detailed descriptions of landscape and, in this instance, seascapes. The two trips to Stornoway necessitate navigating through the notorious Pentland Firth and various accounts of storms pepper the tale.

On returning from his service in the navy one of Finn’s father’s companions on the boat that was pressed tells him, “Where all is compulsion and enforcement, it’s the bully that rules,” but it isn’t all serious stuff. We hear tell of, “Big John Angus McGrath – an elder in the church, too. Every time he took a dram, he would shake his head and say, ‘Nasty stuff! Nasty stuff!’ To my father’s knowledge he said it for over fifty years,” but the focus is mainly on Finn and the important business of growing up and making a place in the world.

Pedant’s corner:- back and fore (a northern thing, then, x2,) “the eyes in, clined to stare” (the eyes inclined,) “Youlikethatname?” (no spacing,) had entranced (no spacing,) one sharp prog (prod? ) wen (when,) “s even nets” (seven,) Cathechism, Catechism, a missing full stop, (x 4,) an unnecessary line break, couldnot speak (could not,) thier (their,) “We’ll go the Shetlands,” (go to the Shetlands,) Lock Skiport (Loch Skiport appears correctly twice later on the same page!) The spelling gunnels, rather than gunwales, is used throughout.

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