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The Lantern Bearers by Ronald Frame

Duckbacks, 2001, 244 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 The Lantern Bearers cover

In a very short Part One we find Neil Pritchard is about to turn down a contract to write the biography of a famous musician, Euan Bone, he knew in his youth. A diagnosis of cancer persuades him to change his mind. The much longer Parts Two to Four relate his remembrances of the summer he spent living with his Aunt Nessie in the town of Auchendrennan on the Solway Coast, where he was sent while his parents worked through the problems in their marriage. His boyhood treble singing voice gained him an entry to Slezer’s Walk, the house where Bone lived with his companion (as such a relationship was publicly referred to in those days) Douglas Maitland. To test how the music sounded, Neil was to be the vocal guinea pig performer of a piece Bone was composing inspired by a Robert Louis Stevenson essay “The Lantern Bearers”. Part Five rounds off the tale of Pritchard’s entanglement in Bone’s life.

Frame’s style here is writerly but nevertheless highly readable. The author being Scottish we of course have various comments on the country’s attitudes. “The Scots have a way of cutting other Scots down to size but Bone was lucky in that respect ….. received opinion” holding that he was a leading figure in Scotland’s musical renaissance. Via Neil, Frame tells us Bone’s music has a “typical unresolved Scottish conflict of intellect and emotion, that timid repressed life of the feelings.” We also have a typically Scottish observation where Neil says of his father, “My mother shot him A Look.”

The unfolding of Neil’s relationship with Bone, the explanation for Maitland’s unease at Neil’s presence in Slezer’s Walk, the awkwardnesses of Aunt Nessie’s navigation of ‘difficult’ areas of life to do with an adolescent boy, the repression of feeling in 1950s Scotland (I might add of Scotland since the Reformation till very recently indeed) are all brilliantly and subtly depicted. Neil’s complicated response to Bone’s distress, and distancing when biology intervenes in their relationship (which lead to the actions for which Neil wishes to atone years later) are beautifully handled. The only off note I could detect was the introduction – albeit offstage – of Scottish nationalist activists, but that provided the impetus for the novel’s defining moment.

On the evidence of this novel Frame is a master, The Lantern Bearers well worth inclusion in that 100 best list. Why had I not heard of him before encountering it? I obviously read too many London-based reviews.

Pedant’s corner:- On the back cover blurb “on the the Solway Firth” (only one ‘the’ required.) Otherwise: arrengements (arrangements,) “vocal chords” (x2: they are cords,) “bundling them in a boorie – every which way – ” (Frame doesn’t feel the need to explain other such Scots words in the text,) McLuskie (I’ve never seen this alternative spelling to McCluskey before,) “a prospect of canal, the Clyde and Forth” (it’s usually called the Forth and Clyde canal, I’ve never the reverse before,) “the Arts Galleries” (this is the one in Kelvingrove, Glasgow, usually designated as just ‘the Art Gallery’,) cromandel (coromandel.)

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 Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst

Harper Collins, 1999, 304 p, including i p preface, ii p acknowledgements, i p list of illustrations, viii p introduction

 The Lighthouse Stevensons cover

Had Robert Louis Stevenson not gained such fame as a writer his surname would now be more associated with – and more widely remembered for – the astonishing achievements of his immediate forefathers, beginning with his grandfather Robert, who under the auspices of the Northern Lighthouse Trust (Scotland’s lighthouse authority, which later became the Northern Lighthouse Board) were in total responsible for the building of no less than ninety-seven lighthouses round the Scottish coast.

The first lighthouses were built against no little opposition, rescue from shipwreck being seen as thwarting God’s will and prevention as a threat to the livelihoods of those who benefited from salvage – or were, indeed, active wreckers. The technical difficulties at some of the sites were enormous, the hazard only visible at high tide, their bed-rock virtually unworkable – or both. Nevertheless, Robert built the lighthouse at the infamous Bell Rock which threatened the entrances to the Firths of Forth and Tay and the passage of shipping up and down the east coast. His sons Alan, David and Thomas respectively built at the even more difficult Skerryvore, Muckle Flugga (occasionally swept by two hundred feet high waves) and Dhu Heartach. Before finally settling on a writing career RLS, Thomas’s son – known to the family as Louis – had a hand in the construction of that last.

Patriarch Robert was a hard taskmaster and his sons – especially Alan, whose leanings towards poetry Robert regarded as suspect – relatively reluctant lighthouse builders. Alan, never in good health, was later wracked with conscience over his insistence that the men at Skerryvore should work on the Sabbath. Bathurst says of this, “The God that Scotland believes in has always been unusually retributive, quick to punish and slow to forgive, making, particularly in His more zealous, Calvinistic, manifestations a particular speciality of guilt. After his retirement Alan seems to have worshipped a uniquely Scottish God.” The lighthouse keepers were also subject to a strict code and inspection at any time (principally for untidiness indicating a general laxity and signs of, among other things, “hunnish practices.”) Very few let Robert down.

In the course of his duties Robert often travelled to London, to which he did not take. He was of the opinion that England had little except government to offer Scotland. (Perhaps coincidentally Trinity House – the lighthouse authority for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar – has frequently had a predatory eye on its northern counterpart.)

Bathurst incidentally sheds some light on the wider history of the Scotland of the time. Lighthouse construction gave employment in road building and the like for those affected by the Highland Clearances and the potato famine (not as devastating in Scotland partly due to government relief whose co-ordinator was the unforgettably named Sir Edward Pine Coffin.)

She also makes several asides on the peccadillos of the strange country in which these endeavours took place. “Scottish history was not generally taught to Scottish children until the 1960s” (I can attest that in some cases it did not come in till even later: apart from Iron Age brochs – safely distant in time and so not contentious – I was taught none at all; having to rely on my own background reading and absorption from the general culture) and “(Edinburgh) managed to sustain several wildly contradictory faiths: anti-Englishness and fervent Britishness; improvement and nostalgia; depression and vivacity” which is actually remarkably few contradictions for a Scottish town……

The Lighthouse Stevensons is an engrossing book on a fascinating subject. A fine tribute to all those who contributed to what even today would be daunting tasks.

Pedant’s corner:- Prince’s Street (Princes Street,) Secretary at War (Secretary of War?) canon ball (cannon,) copice (coppice,) row-boats (rowing boats,) throve (I prefer thrived,) “it was a simpler design that Winstanley’s” (than,) (John Rennie) was jointly responsible for widening the Clyde to allow for deeper hulled vessels (dredging and widening the navigable channel?) “a tangle of rocks….. with the sea beating against their sides” (against its sides,) stancheons (stanchions,) the only matter … were proceedings (was; or else, matters,) the next generation .. were appearing (was,) “holophotal meaning ‘whole light’ in Greek” (no; holophotal means ‘whole light’ in English,) “but here was no time” (there was,) supernumary (supernumerary,) “caught comprised” (compromised,) I can imagine what “hunnish practices” might mean but it isn’t spelled out (and the internet is surprisingly unenlightening on the subject.) “Then Thomas Smith began his work” (When Thomas Smith began,) the number of incidents have… (the number has.)

A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil

Polygon, 2011, 219 p.

 A Method Actor's Guide to Jekyll and Hyde cover

As a Scot I could only warm to a novel that begins – as this one does – with the sentence, “I’m in two minds.” Two minds, duality, or, as the front cover blurb here has it (medically inaccurately I would think) schizophrenia, has been a running theme in the Scottish novel from James Hogg’s brilliant Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner through Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Angus McAllister’s The Canongate Strangler and beyond. This book has not one, not two, not even three but no less than eight prefatory quotations and its Part One is entitled “The Unbearable Likeness of Being” where our protagonist is named Robert Lewis; an actor cast in the lead role – roles – in a new stage version of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, at least until a new cast member appears. He is attracted to the lead actress Juliette but her interests seem to lie elsewhere. However he has suffered an accident on his bicycle and his tale may be an hallucination – especially given Part Two, “That Small Theatre of the Brain, Lighted,” which starts with Julie’s Narrative. As she waits in the hospital where her man (a writer who suffers from depression) is fighting for his life after an accident on a bicycle, Julie writes down his tale to give her comfort. He is tended to by Nurse Stevenson. The narration flips over to the man halfway through. He has the sense of, “Everything being nested inside something bigger. Images, stories, identities,” and refers to his writing as method imagining.

An unreliable but knowing narrative then, which nevertheless gives MacNeil the opportunity to comment on the state of Scotland, “Edinburgh. Home to a national parish council, an almost powerful parliament indolently bustling with her irreconcilable flow of accurate rumours and unreliable press releases. The tiny capital of our proud-to-be-humble and fighting-to-be-fought-for nation that isn’t a nation, where our Old Testament God has cursed us with a fear of failure and blessed us with a fear of success,” on being Scottish, “I went because I expected to learn how to further extend my range of emotions, harness those joyous emotions for which we Scots are so uncelebrated,” and the national sense of incompleteness, “There is no Scotland. No Edinburgh. They exist in the plural. These are places that have not yet found their true and lasting selves.” Duality isn’t quite enough to contain all Lewis’s (or Scotland’s?) dichotomies: “I contain multitudes.”

Along the way MacNeil throws barbs at the instrumental approach to acting, “‘The greatest deception the devils of method acting ever perpetrated was the myth that method acting is anything better than actual acting,’” and the insecurities of the profession, “‘Jekyll and Hyde. Which. One. Are. You. Being. Now?’”

He also tells us, “Stevenson did not create Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde. He revealed them. Him. Them. He shed the right amount of shadowy light upon that which is within us all.”

That front cover blurb says, “May well be the last, and funniest, word on Scotland’s national schizophrenia.” While I doubt it will be the last such word it certainly has its moments. I’ll be looking out for more MacNeil.

Pedant’s corner:- vocal chords (cords,) “a quickening bourne out of sudden love” (born out of makes more sense,) smartass (smartarse,) “‘The neutrons in the nerves are responding.’” (That would be neurons; but the speaker is confused,) “I have plants out back” (USian; out the back or in the back is more usual in Scotland,) “to help leverage myself up” (to help lever myself up.)

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.

A Literary Gent

In the loosest sense.

This is one of the many sites in Edinburgh associated with men of letters of which the most prominent is of course the Scott Monument.

It’s the statue of Sherlock Holmes which stands in Picardy Place; erected in memory of his creator Arthur Conan Doyle who was born in 1859 near to this site. The Conan Doyle Pub is just over the road in York Place. The childhood home of Robert Louis Stevenson is less than a stone’s throw away from here.

Sherlock Holmes Statue

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 Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Penguin, 2007, 159 p. One of the 100 best Scottish books. Borrowed from a threatened library.

The 39 Steps cover

This is another story which, like Stevenson’s “Jekyll and Hyde” being familiar from film and television, people perhaps think they know.

In it, Richard Hannay begins as a bored ex-patriate in London who perhaps should have been careful what he wished for. His upstairs neighbour, who calls himself Franklin P Scudder, a man who refers to “the Jew” being behind the conspiracy he regales Hannay with, begs for shelter in Hannay’s flat for a few days till he can thwart said conspiracy. But of course Hannay returns to the flat one day to find Scudder dead and so has to flee under suspicion of murder. The majority of the novel then consists in Hannay being chased around southern Scotland in what is now Dumfries and Galloway getting into and out of various scrapes and predicaments which are sometimes evaded too handily, meanwhile solving the puzzle of the thirty-nine steps and disrupting the plans of his adversaries of the Black Stone. It all rattles along at a glorious pace without much pause for thought and incidentally allows descriptions of the landscape he flees through; a common Scottish authorial trait.

Unlike all three film adaptations I have seen – and the most recent TV one – there is not a woman companion in sight. Barring a wifie who provides shelter to Hannay one night there aren’t any women at all. It does, though, have the merit of being able to be read quickly.

I can only think that this creeps into that 100 best list for historical reasons. It has no literary pretensions. Buchan himself, in his preface (addressed to Thomas Arthur Nelson) refers to it as “the type of tale which Americans call the ‘dime novel,’ and which we know as the ‘shocker’”.

Once again the prose shows itself to be of its time: as in John Macnab, there are several unflattering mentions of Jews not in particular but as a type, and a “you’re a white man”, plus also here a Greek is referred to as a dago.

I note, too, a “minutes later” count of six or seven.

Pedant’s corner:- There were several editions at the library (they’re running a Buchan competition.) I chose this one because I liked the 1930s style of its cover. Yet the book was first published in 1915. Moreover the biplane is wrong. The text several times emphasises that Hannay is being chased by a monoplane. Buluwayo (Bulawayo,) Liepsic (context suggested Liepzig,) jiffey (jiffy,) – were these words spelled that way in the 1910s? – rung (rang,) whiskys (whiskies,) Karolides’ (Karolides’s.)

Shorter Scottish Fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson

Canongate Classics, 1995, 303 p, plus xvi p introduction by Roderick Watson.
Borrowed from a threatened library.

Shorter Scottish Fiction cover

This is a collection of shorter works by Stevenson each of which has either a Scottish setting or theme (perhaps both.)

In The Plague Cellar a minister is summoned by letter to a meeting with a seemingly slightly deranged Mr Ravenswood who tells him, “to save our Church from its present wretched state,” he must enter a cellar in which all who have trespassed contract the plague. Ravenswood breaks down the door and goes in. Thrawn Janet* is a typically Scottish tale of possession by the devil and of the minister who witnesses it. The thrawn Janet of the title is his disfigured housekeeper, the subject of the haunting. The Body Snatcher* is the tale of Fettes, employed to take in the grisly charges of the body-snatchers and hand over payment for them, and of Dr Wolfe McFarlane who encourages his complicity in the most illegal aspects of the work. The Misadventures of John Nicholson include being robbed of a considerable sum of his father’s company’s money, fleeing to the US, coming back and as a result being suspected of theft, then stumbling upon a dead body. Despite this his story has – for a Stevenson tale – an unusually happy ending. This story contains the phrase, “Stupider men than he are now sprawling in Parliament.” Some things never change. The Pavilion on the Links is the setting for a tale of a dishonest banker, his daughter, the two men who wish to marry her and the Italians who seek revenge for their financial losses. The landscape round the pavilion and the building itself are described in detail, as is the Scottish habit. The following story The Merry Men is atmospheric, and very Scottish, a gothic tale of madness and shipwrecks; again chock full of descriptions of land- and sea-scapes, the Merry Men of the title being the fifty feet high breakers that boom and dance together off the not-quite island of Aros between the forty-six reefs and the land. Of a negro our narrator says, “I had almost forgotten, and wholly forgiven him, his uncanny colour,” a sentiment somewhat jarring to the modern sensibility. Despite being set in London, Markheim features that most traditional of encounters in Scottish fiction a meeting with the devil. Here it causes Markheim to examine his conscience.

The last section of the book has its own title, “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” (and its own epigram) and contains the story everyone thinks they know; on its own one of the 100 best Scottish Books. However, the story title page omits the definite article and the title is given as Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.* Once more the tale is set in London but as it uses the döppelganger trope could hardly be more Scottish. Except Hyde and Jekyll are not true döppelgangers, as they vary in appearance and stature. The story is seen through the eyes of Mr Utterson, lawyer to Dr Jekyll who has made a strange provision in his will in favour of Mr Hyde. I can’t make up my mind whether this remove heightens or dilutes the effect Stevenson tried to imbue. Strange Case is an examination of the dualities within us all and a timeless warning about inability to control desire as well as an illustration of the perennial attraction of the dark side of human nature to the Scottish writer.

In the stories marked * there is displayed what was once described to me as a tendency to the throat-clearing preamble.

The figure in the cover art – a detail from Lord Advocate Prestongrange by N C Wyeth – to my mind bears a resemblance to the actor Charles Dance.

Pedant’s corner:- Some such as carpetted, exhibitted, noctious are noted in the text. These occurred in The Plague Cellar which was apparently an apprentice work which Stevenson disowned. Everyone … were (was,) augery x2 (augury,) inflamable (inflammable,) conscience’ (conscience’s,) wth (with.) And, in the introduction:- or (of.)

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