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The Glorious Thing by Christine Orr

Merchiston Publishing, 2013, 235 p, plus i p Acknowledgements, iii p iv p Introduction by Yvonne mcCleery, iii p Afterword by Alistair McCleery, ii p About the author, ii p Discussion Questions. First published 1919.

The Glorious Thing cover

This novel is set on the Home Front during the Great War. David Grant has been invalided out of the Army and has returned home to Castlerig near Edinburgh to convalesce and build himself up. His path crosses with that of the Sutherland sisters, Effie, Nannie, Marion and Jullie.

Marion is unobtrusive and divides men into Bounders (too objectionable,) Selfish Lumps (too absorbed in their conversation to thank you when you passed them tea,) Silly Asses (attempting either to be funny or, worse, sentimental,) Nice Boys (foolish beyond expression) and Dear Old Things (usually friends of Uncle Alexander.) Only her brother Pat was an exception and she realises David Grant too doesn’t fit any of the bills.

Nothing very out of the ordinary occurs in the book: it is a quiet examination of ordinary lives carried on in uncommon circumstances. As soon as David encounters Marion it is obvious where the story will lead but there are complications along the way. “There is nothing more bitter than to have the sweetness of a friendship turned sour by a few interfering words, or the jests of thoughtless outsiders.” However, David’s early thought that “Life is a thing too glorious to be enjoyed” is not borne out except in the circumstances of Nannie’s fiancé’s death in the war and her subsequent attempt to find solace via spiritualism.

This sits somewhat at odds with David’s musings on “the artistic temperament” which he conceives “is a real and wonderful thing; nothing less than the power to understand and love the eternal beauty of the world.” Of course, it is; but the eternal beauty of the world can be an elusive thing to grasp.

The blurb describes Orr as a true hidden gem on the Scottish literary scene. Hidden certainly. I had never heard of her until a recent (though well pre-lockdown) visit to the Scottish Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh; an institution dedicated mainly to Burns, Scott and Stevenson but on one of whose walls was a description of Orr’s career – enough to spur me on to seek her writings out. Unfortunately most are long out of print; and scarce.

Despite being set during the Great War, The Glorious Thing still has a kind of Victorian sensibility – much like the Findlater sisters’ Crossriggs, but better written, and underneath it all, with the prevalence of women in the narrative, a sense of the changes the war wrought.

Pedant’s corner:- Minnie Grant says, ‘Aren’t I swanky?’ (The Scottish form is ‘Amn’t I?) Chambers’ (Chambers’s.) “‘I wonder what be thinks of us’” (what he thinks,) a missing comma before or after a piece of direct speech (a few times,) shrunk (shrank.) “All telegrams do not bring bad news.” (Not true; some telegrams did. What Orr meant was, “Not all telegrams bring bad news,) a speech which was carried over into the next paragraph had an end quotation mark before the paragraph break, “hearts tae break and nine tae sell” (“hearts tae break and none tae sell” makes more sense,) appall (appal.)


Dumfries is the old county town of Dumfriesshire long since absorbed into the larger Dumfries and Galloway region.

It is famous, among other things, for its connection to Robert Burns who at one time worked a farm a few miles north of the town.

A statue of the poet occupies a prominent position in the town centre.

Burns Statue, Dumfries

By the river Nith there is an artwork commemorating Lady Devorgilla, after whom the older of Dumfries’s two bridges over the Nith is named. This plaque is set into the paving by the river:-

Dumfries Riverside Sculpture Text

You have to go down some steps towards the river itself to see the figures in relief:-

Riverside Sculpture, Dumfries

The Birks of Aberfeldy

The Birks (birches) of Aberfeldy is a local beauty spot lying just outside that Perthsire town encompassing the Falls of Moness.

They inspired Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, to write a poem/song called The Birks of Aberfeldy.

We dondered up there in February. The path is steep in places and there was snow and ice lying at the time.

The Falls of Moness:-

The Falls of Moness, Birks of Aberfeldy

The Falls of Moness, Birks of Aberfeldy 2

A statue of a seated Burns has been situated at the spot where he is supposed to have derived inspiration. I doubt it’s much of a likeness:-

The Birks of Aberfeldy, Robert Burns Statue

And this is said view:-

The Birks  of Aberfeldy

More falls:-

The Birks  of Aberfeldy

The Birks  of Aberfeldy

Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott

Oxford World’s Classics, 2008, 505 p including advertisement to the first edition, author’s introduction, postscript, Scott’s notes, editor’s notes and glossary + xl p acknowledgements, introduction, note on the text, select bibliography, a chronology of Sir Walter Scott and a map of Rob Roy’s Country.

One of the 100 best Scottish Books

 Rob Roy cover

Well, this is odd. The book’s title is Rob Roy and while that gentleman does appear within it it is not until over 100 pages in that he first crops up and even then his name is not revealed as such. The narration is in the first person by one Francis (Frank) Osbaldistone, son of a self-made man in London, who has been disowned by his father for not going into the family business and banished to the ancestral home in Northumberland. It is on the journey north that Frank encounters a certain Mr Campbell as well as a Mr Morris who is over protective of the contents of his luggage.

At Osbaldistone Hall (whose inhabitants, unlike the proud Protestant Frank, are all, barring their Scottish gardener, Andrew Fairservice, Catholics) Frank meets and falls under the spell of the unconventional Diana Vernon, the niece of his uncle Sir Hildebrand, and encounters the villain of the piece, his cousin Rashleigh. Both contrive to save Frank from the charge of robbing Mr Morris by enlisting the aid of Mr Campbell. At the Hall Frank notices unusual goings-on at night but his deference to Diana ensures he does not inquire into their nature too closely.

After some longueurs at the Hall the plot kicks into gear when news reaches Frank of the potential ruin of his father which requires he travel to Glasgow to enlist the help of his father’s trading partners to recover sums of money Rashleigh has spirited away. Here he again encounters Mr Campbell, whose true nature as Rob Roy is finally revealed. Bailie Nicol Jarvie also becomes his travelling companion as they venture into the Southern Highlands where various perils to do with the planning and thwarting of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion are surmounted. During these, Rob Roy’s wife, Helen MacGregor, is presented as a fearsome creature (one of Scott’s notes suggests she had good reason to be so) and the Highlanders as some sort of equivalent of North American natives.

Even in all this Rob Roy still appears almost peripherally and as a character fails to spring to life. Another oddness is that Frank’s agency throughout the tale is limited to that of onlooker. (Spoilers follow.) Frank’s success in his quest to recover his father’s fortune owes more to Diana Vernon and Rob Roy than his own efforts and his father turns out in any case to have all but made good his reverses himself. In the latter stages of the book a quite frankly (ahem) ridiculous combination of circumstances sees all obstacles to Frank’s future fortunes and happiness removed. This is all carried through with a degree of prolixity in the prose which may be typical of early nineteenth century novels in general and Scott in particular but presents something of a barrier to modern readers. Perseverance reduces that problem, though.

Scott’s status as the begetter of the historical novel as a genre is founded on tales such as this and Kurt Wittig regarded him, along with Robert Burns, as at the high water mark of Scottish literature.

Pedant’s corner:- In Ian Duncan’s introduction: premiss (I prefer premise.) Otherwise: stupified (stupefied,) “domini regis” followed immediately by “Damn dominie regis” (one or the other spelling of domini surely?) acquaintance’ (acquaintance’s) and the archaic spellings dulness, tædium, sate (though sat appeared once,) Bagdad, fagots (faggotts,) winded (wound,) jailor (or is this a conflation of jailer and gaolor?) Bucklivie (Buchlyvie,) and Aberfoil (Aberfoyle.) Sprung, sunk and rung were used consistently where sprang, sank and rang are the modern usages.

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.)

Scotia Nova: Edited by Alistair Findlay and Tessa Ransford

Poems for the early days of a better nation.

 Scotia Nova cover

I was searching the poetry shelves of one of the threatened libraries when this collection’s title intrigued me – mainly due to its inversion of Nova Scotia the anthology to which I contributed my story Dusk. I used to read poetry back when I was a lad, but it’s not my usual habitat. Nevertheless I borrowed it.

The book contains poems solicited from January-March 2014 regarding the possibility of a better Scotland, across every aspect of life. Timed, as this call was, for before the Independence Referendum, many of the poems reflect the choice Scotland faced. Others do not. Here are poems in English, Scots, Gaelic – even in Arabic. (For the Gaelic and Arabic ones an English version is also provided.) Aonghas MacNeacail’s Saorsa/Freedom/Freedome appears in Gaelic, English and Scots.

The ordering of the poems is strange, being mostly alphabetically according to the poet’s surname. The exceptions are few, even for those with two poems in the collection their second ones follow a similar order to their first. It is remarkable how many of the poets have had books published by Luath (but it was to these that invitations to contribute went in the first instance). On that evidence Scottish poetry seems to be in rude health.

Donald Adamson’s In Thir Haunds was notable for a similarity to Is there for Honest Poverty? (aka A Man’s a Man for a’ That) – but others also alluded to Burns’s works – and I appreciated the classical sonnet form of William Hershaw’s Aye but especially its denunciation of Calvinism.
The poems in Scots beg to be spoken aloud. The sound of the leid (language) is just so earthy and vigorous.

The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan

Bibliobazaar, 2008, 298 p.

 The Guinea Stamp cover

Anyone with even a passing interest in Scottish literature knows the source of this book’s title, a title which jumped out at me from the shelves of a local library. And there the quote lay at the bottom of the title page, the affirmation that position in society is no indicator of moral probity.

The rank is but the guinea stamp,
The man’s the gowd for a that.

When George Fordyce, here, in conversation with his mother, refers to this quote as “that Burns rot” it adds confirmation to what we already knew, that he is the villain of the piece.

Mind you, that title page also has a subtitle A Tale of Modern Glasgow. Given that the novel was first published in 1892 and is set in the 1880s it hardly applies now.

The centre of the book is Gladys Graham, newly orphaned daughter of impecunious painter John, taken in by her skinflint uncle Abel, and transported from her Lincolnshire home to live in his dingy warehouse in Glasgow where she meets his assistant, the steady Walter Hepburn. She slowly softens Abel’s heart and on his death he bequeaths her both a large country house – the ancestral seat of the Grahams – near Mauchline in Ayrshire, plus a fortune to go with it.

It is almost impossible to read this sort of stuff without imagining parallels with Dickens. Not that we see any of him, but what we are told of Gladys’s father says he was Micawberish, her uncle is plainly Scrooge and Walter a mixture of Pip and Oliver with a bit of Bob Cratchit thrown in.

Gladys’s inheritance of course inserts obstacles to her destiny. Her new status certainly does not allow her to remain living in the warehouse with Walter. This throws her into the orbit of society types. It is here that she meets George Fordyce, to whom her indifference presents a challenge to be overcome. Any thought of contact with Walter and especially his wayward sister Liz is to be abhorred. But Gladys’s early poverty has imbued her with a keen sense of herself and of her purpose. She resolves to help the less well off.

When accused by Abel of impudence Liz replies, “Some folk ca’s the truth impidence, because they’re no accustomed to it.” Liz later disappears and Walter fears the worst, “The innocent must suffer for and with the guilty always. There is no escape,” he says and as Gladys’s chaperone, Miss Peck, tells her, “Women are the burden-bearers and the scapegoats always.”

The prose is of its time, but even then it may have appeared overwritten, now it seems dreadfully so. There is a high degree of telling rather than showing and Swan adopts the technique, not so much of foreshadowing, as of outright telling us what is to pass later. There is, too, a touch of melodrama to the proceedings and that title, whatever the twists and turns along the way, always has us in its tram-lines.

Pedant’s corner:-
There are some antique spellings such as waggon and chaperon plus we had, “in which the Fordyce household were concerned.” A household is singular. Gladys’s first intended chaperone, Madame Bonnemain, is said to be from Shandon on the Gairloch. That would be the Gare Loch. Gairloch is a completely different place.

A Short Survey of Classic Scottish Writing by Alasdair Gray

Canongate Pocket Classics, 2001, 159 p

Short History Scottish Fiction cover

The book is diminutive in size (16 cm tall, 11 wide) but not content. It rattles through the history of writing in and by Scots from Anglo-Saxon times till the early 20th century. It focuses on what Gray – and most other commentators – consider to be the best in the tradition; hence classic in the book’s title. More recent Scottish writing is deliberately excluded as being too close for a proper perspective.

Several of the works mentioned in the survey were of course overlooked or even derided on first publication and it is only with time their merits have come to be recognised. Overall, though, the literary output from this small nation is shown fit to stand comparison with any.

It's Your Other National Day

For reasons to do with the Calvinist traditions of Scottish Presbyterianism Scotland’s national day of celebration actually covers two days, Hogmanay and New Year’s Day. (Christmas could not be celebrated riotously due to its religious nature, besides it was tainted with Catholicism.) Everyone, though, needs a blow out at the depth of winter to rejoice at coming through so far and look forward to the turning into light.

Today, however, is your other national day, if you’re Scottish.

It marks the birthday of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most renowned poet, lauded worldwide – most notably in the US and Russia.

Though the tradition may be dying out a little there will still be hundreds of Burns’ Suppers taking place around the world today, and in the days around, in his memory.

I shall not be addressing the “great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race,” nor toasting the lassies (only the good lady will be present,) nor even proposing the immortal memory, but I will be supping on haggis, neeps and tatties tonight.

Burns’s contribution to Scottish letters and culture lies not only in his own verses but in the collection of traditional songs which he sometimes revised or adapted. Without him many of these might have been lost.

He may have treated the women in his life badly, or off-handedly, but there is a concern for common humanity, and indeed for animals, in evidence in his work.

This is Is There For Honest Poverty (A Man’s A Man For A’ That) sung by Ian Benzie.

A Man’s A Man For A’ That

Alloway War Memorial

I suddenly realised today that I hadn’t posted the photo of Alloway War Memorial that I took in early August. It’s set into the wall of the Public Hall more or less opposite Burns’s cottage. The upper area commemorates the Great War. The smaller plaque below is for World War 2.

Alloway War Memorial

Just to the side is a seat. I like the fact it is inscribed “Lest We Forget.”

Seat by Alloway War Memorial, Ayrshire

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