Archives » Scottish Fiction

Hawkfall by George MacKay Brown

Triad Granada, 1983, 253 p.

This a collection of stories all set in the author’s homelands of Orkney. Each is a beautifully rendered snapshot of life in those Northern islands

The title story, Hawkfall, is told in five parts, illustrating the history of Orkney in stages, showing aspects of life – and death – there from ancient times through those of the Vikings, the brutal, rapacious Earl of Birsay, the Napoleonic Wars and the early twentieth century.

The Fires of Christmas relates two historical violent confrontations in the Great Hall of Ophrir, which occurred eighty nine years apart.

The subtitle of Tithonus, Fragments from the diary of a Laird, outlines its structure. The Laird in question had inherited the Hall (a big house) on Torsay from his great uncle, along with two hundred pounds a year. By the end of the story, among many other changes, that sum is exiguous and the Hall is falling apart. It is his interactions with the locals that have most attention, particularly those with the schoolmaster, the Minister, the local gossip and Thora Garth, the only child of Armingert and Maurice, arriving after twenty-one years of marriage, who later causes a scandal by jilting her fiancé and shacking up with a ferryman. The tale has a neat twist at the end.

The Fight at Greenay occurred after the men of Harray, on their way to the sea to harvest seaweed to use as manure, had been insulted by the men of Birsay, reluctant to let strangers across their lands, in the halfway inn where the Harraymen had stopped for refreshment.

The Cinquefoil is told in five parts (Unpopular Fisherman, The Minister and the Girl, A Friday of Rain, Seed, Dust, Star and Writings,) in which are laid out the various relationships over time of the narrators of each and their acquaintances/friends/lovers. As a result it encapsulates the closeness and complexity of island life as a microcosm of life in general.

The Burning Harp is described as a story for the eightieth birthday of Neil Gunn. In 1135 a cottage is set on fire by intruders, who decide to let out, in turn, children and servants, a priest and finally a poet whose singing they heard and recognise as that of Niall of Dunbeath. (His songs mirror those of Gunn’s stories.)

To anyone familiar with Scottish folklore Sealskin’s title tells the reader more or less all. It is impeccably told though. A man finds a sealskin on the beach and stores it in his barn. A day or so later encounters a naked woman swimming by the shore. She has no knowledge of the language and he takes her in; to the great ire of his mother. Marriage and children ensue. Years later he discovers the skin again and the inevitable happens. An afterword mentions the tale was inspired by a famed Orkney musician, Magnus Olafson.

The Girl spends an afternoon lazing on the sea-bank almost in earshot of a group of men gossiping while repairing fishing nets and such, till she hears the approaching sound of a motor-bike.

In The Drowned Rose, William Reynolds, the new schoolmaster on Quoylay, is visited on his first night on the island by a young woman in a red dress, looking for a man named John. Reynolds befriends the local minister, Donald Barr, who refuses to elaborate on the woman’s history. She had been the previous schoolmistress, Sarah McKillop, well remembered by her pupils, and it is only a spiteful neighbour called Henrickson who reveals her tragic end, taking great relish in describing what he regards as the scandalous goings on which preceded it and why the islander shad resolved on a male as her successor.

The Tarn and the Rosary shows episodes in the life of Colm, a writer, from his grandfather’s death, through his first trip to the small Loch Tumishun in the centre of the island of Norday, the burgeoning of his confidence and aspirations when his first composition is praised by his teacher, his overhearing a group of men bemoaning the superstitions of Catholics, to his sojourn in Edinburgh trying to write but also attending mass. It’s an almost haunting evocation of Northern Island life.

The Interrogator has set out from Leith to Norday to question the locals about the death of Vera Paulson, found in the sea a month after she disappeared. None of them is very forthcoming. When the girl herself appears – as a ghost – her story does not quite match with any of theirs.

Pedant’s corner:- “and the shore of Firth” (of the Firth,) “a gonner” (goner,) bissom (usually spelled besom,) “it muirburn (its muirburn.) Suppper (supper.)

Scottish Books I Read This Year

It’s that time of the year when people post ‘best of’ lists.

This isn’t a best of, merely a list of the books with Scottish authorship or Scottish flavour which I read this year. A round 30, of which (since Scotland in Space was an anthology* containing stories and articles** by both men and women) 14½ were by men and 15½ by women, 28½** were fiction (Snapshot being about Scottish Football Grounds.)

The Corncrake and the Lysander by Finlay J MacDonald
Light by Margaret Elphinstone
Snapshot by Daniel Gray and Alan McCredie
And the Cock Crew by Fionn MacColla
A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh
Ringan Gilhaize by John Galt
The Gates of Eden by Annie S Swan
Close Quarters by Angus McAllister
Vivaldi and the Number 3 by Ron Butlin
End Games in Bordeaux by Allan Massie
The Gleam in the North by D K Broster
A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark
Scotland in Space Ed by Deborah Scott and Simon Malpas
Being Emily by Anne Donovan
The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson
Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner
The House by the Loch by Kirsty Wark
Summer by Ali Smith
Glister by John Burnside
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes
The End of an Old Song by J D Scott
The Rental Heart and other fairy tales by Kirsty Logan
Republics of the Mind by James Robertson
The Dark Mile by D K Broster
Highland River by Neil M Gunn
The Clydesiders by Margaret Thomson Davis
The Last Peacock by Allan Massie
A Day at the Office by Robert Alan Jamieson

That last one was of course my final (unless I ever get round to Trainspotting) book on the Best 100 Scottish Books list.

I am part way through George McKay Brown’s collection of short stories, Hawkfall, which would make the above sex ratio of authors 1:1 but am unlikely to post about it here before the New Year. (I’m four behind as it is, though one of those is for ParSec.)

* It was also the only one to be SF or Fantasy.

A Day at the Office by Robert Alan Jamieson

Polygon, 1991, 236 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

This seems a consciously literary endeavour. It has no fewer than four epigraphs, a prefatory two-page introduction telling us that what follows is a day and night in the life of a Scottish city and that its three main characters are encompassed by a sequence of symbols of the major arcana of the Tarot, before riffing on the importance of dreaming and the imagination. Each subsequent narrative section begins with a page or two in page-centred bold print, sometimes using multiple fonts and sizes, headed with the time of day it refers to. Characters’ thoughts – italicised and also centred on the page – pop up in between the descriptive, or indeed speech, passages making the layout for those elements appear as a poem might. In the sections focusing on Douglas Shaw speech is denoted by opening ‘<<’ and closing ‘>>’ rather than the usual quote marks. Throughout, contractions such as can’t, won’t, couldn’t etc are rendered without their usual apostrophe.

Those three main characters are nineteen-year-old Ray Craig, searching for some blow, Helen Orr, 24, who married at seventeen but left her husband because he hit her (yet her mother wants her to get back with him,) and works in a casino’s restaurant, and Douglas Shaw, a drug dealer using an antique shop in a run-down but likely to gentrify area as a front and who is waiting for a big deal in Holland to come off. Helen now lives above Douglas’s shop in a flat rented from him – with whom she is in a loose relationship – while Ray comes across Douglas while seeking his hit and is offered a job (and that flat as a place to stay) by him.

There is nothing particularly memorable about their interactions or, indeed, their backgrounds. The only thing lifting A Day at the Office out of the ordinary as a novel is the typographical eccentricity of its layout. Which is not to say it’s bad. Not at all. I have certainly read a lot worse. I don’t think I would put it near my list of best 100 Scottish books, though.

Pedant’s corner:- mantlepiece (mantelpiece,) “taken care off” (of,) Douglas’ (several times, Douglas’s,) St Leonards (St Leonard’s,) “a gang of scaffolders were setting up” (a gang … was setting up,) “a second gang were at work” (was at work,) |”that brought to Douglas mind his brother” (Douglas’s,) a missing close quote mark at the end of one piece of speech, “or spit back” (spat back,) some missing full stop at sentences ends, stunk (stank,) focussed (focused.) “The opera was reaching a crescendo” (no. It wasn’t; the opera’s crescendo was reaching a climax,) “making with an effort at a smile” (that ‘with’ is unnecessary,) beneficient (beneficent) “on the bed next her” (‘next to her’ is more organic.)

The Last Peacock by Allan Massie

Robin Clark, 1982, 187 p.

Belinda has come up from London to the family home, an old Manse in Perthshire, as her grandmother is dying. Belinda is divorced but her ex-husband Oswald still hangs around. While Belinda will inherit most of the money her elder brother Colin will get the estate. But does not know what to do with himself and wastes his days in drinking and idle pursuits. Her other brother Andrew is homosexual (which Belinda finds “somewhat sordid” while acknowledging that at her brothers’ school it was rampant.) Her straightlaced sister Fiona has fallen under the spell of one Gerald Morgan, recently returned from overseas, a nasty piece of work “‘wanted for rape in seven countries and genocide in Outer Mongolia, where men are men and they don’t normally trouble about such things,’” and who wants to restore hierarchy to the country starting with the local MP (at the book’s time of course, a Tory,) Mansie Niven, who has held a torch for Belinda since young adulthood. Morgan has a black chauffeur/manservant whom he treats abominably. The children’s awful mother stravaigs about the world with a succession of young men barely older than her children and carefully, as they knew she would, keeps herself away until her mother, the matriarch, has died.

It is difficult (all right, it is impossible) to find any of these characters or their views attractive, burdened as they are by too much money and not enough responsibility nor any feeling of social solidarity. If this is the way the landed gentry think and behave it is long past time their privileges were dispensed with.

There are some memorable lines though:-

“What is the sexual act without love but a cry and rejection, the assertion of the ego?”

“The trouble with this city” (Edinburgh) “was it couldn’t decide whether it was a museum or a place to live in, a capital or a shopping centre; it didn’t know its own essence.” (That is essentially true about Scotland as a whole.)

When the supposedly devoted Kwame’s complaint against Morgan comes to light, Fiona’s husband Gavin says, “‘It’s like marriages. You think everything’s fine, between two chums, and then, bang, you discover they can’t stand each other. Or the husband’s been having it off with the maids or the wife having it off with his best man or the gardener. You just can’t tell what people think of each other.”

At the end Colin laments, “‘The death of will… the idea of service … all gone.’”

There is a peacock – the last of many once on the estate – but as Colin says after it dies and has been stuffed it is “symbolism, nothing but symbolism.”

(Note to the sensitive; the book contains instances of the n-word.)

Pedant’s corner:- “as late as late as he can find an excuse for” (only one ‘as late’ required, “the greengrocers” (the greengrocer’s,) “wanted for rape in seven counties and genocide in Outer Mongolia” (appeared twice for emphasis. Once it had ‘counties’ the other it was [correctly] ‘countries’,) Margo (elsewhere always Margot,) “sound of sermons thud through the windows” (thuds,) “honey mooners” (honeymooners.)

The Clydesiders by Margaret Thomson Davis

Black and White, 1999, 276 p.

In an Oxfam bookshop I picked up the second book of the trilogy of which this is the first to check the flyleaf blurb. It mentioned the Empire Exhibition 1938, which its characters visit, so of course I had to buy it – and the third instalment which accompanied it. That left this one, which fortunately (or not) was available through Fife Libraries.

The Clydesiders starts in 1914. Victoria Watson is a young woman raised in a room and kitchen in the Gorbals, now in service as a kitchen maid in Hilltop House, the home of the Cartwright family. The son of the house, Nicholas, takes a fancy to her one day when she is out picking mushrooms for the table. The inevitable progression happens. With him being an Army officer the outbreak of war means their enforced separation but not before she has informed him, and he his mother, of her pregnancy. Against his professed wishes that Victoria be kept on, Mrs Cartwright summarily dismisses Victoria the day of his departure for Belgium and she is forced back to the dismal, insanitary conditions of her parent’s home. Not that its interior is unclean, that was a source of pride to working-class women. It is the overcrowding, the overflowing communal lavatory which the landlord will not fix, the vermin, and the back middens which make the building a slum.

Mrs Cartwright changes her tune when her son is reported dead, takes Victoria on temporarily as a maid/companion in her Helensburgh house and offers to bring her granddaughter up in comfort provided Victoria will have no more to do with the child. Despite her misgivings Victoria accedes to the request (which is really more of an order,) hands over her baby son and returns to her parents’ home.

In the meanwhile the political circumstances of the time background the story. The slum conditions, the raising of rents and most especially the perceived injustice of the war, fought by working men against working men for the benefit of their rulers, fired up a teacher, John Maclean, to protest. Victoria’s family are keen socialists but, even so, one of her brothers is working in a munitions plant and gets her a job there. Many of the “Red Clydesiders” protests and the authorities’ heavy-handed measures to restrain them are covered in the book. Due to her involvement in the movement Victoria meets another dedicated socialist, James Mathieson.

Tragedy then hits the Watsons as brother Ian is killed in an explosion in the factory. Mathieson then discovers the factory owner is none other than the Mr Cartwright who is Victoria’s son’s grandfather. Though she does not love him things progress between Victorian and Mathieson, but nevertheless she marries him. All this might have been fine but proceedings descend into melodrama when a few months later Richard Cartwright is found to be alive in a hospital in England and Victoria’s feelings are torn.

The writing here never rises above the workmanlike. There is a high degree of information dumping with too many circumstances of early twentieth century life deemed to require explanation, like the prevalence and cause of the disease rickets, the Scottish word ‘douts’ for dog-ends, and so on. The nature of Mr Cartwright’s business is unnecessarily kept from the reader so as to heighten the later conflict. The overall story relies too much on unlikely incident and coincidence. Victoria’s father, brothers and husband are throughout little more than mouthpieces. Nearly all the characters are types rather than individuals.

This is not high literature then. I suppose it was never intended to be. But it does highlight the conditions and grievances which led to the notion of socialism as a potential remedy for them

I still have two more books in the sequence to read……

Pedant’s corner:- lambant (lambent,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3,) Mrs Smithers’ (this, on the same page as Nicholas’s, ought to be Smithers’s,) ditto Tompkins’ (Tompkins’s,) bisom (usually spelled besom,) “‘who madam wants to speak to in the living room?’” (wasn’t a question so needs no question mark.) A man sings ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ in the street (in mid-1914?) There are mentions of munition workers turning yellow (again, in 1914?) “stunted childrens growth” (children’s,) “leaning back in this chair” (his chair.) “The Gairloch” (It’s ‘Gare Loch’, Gairloch is a village in northwest Scotland,) John Maclean is arrested as a “prisoner of war” (he could not have been a prisoner of war. He wasn’t an enemy combatant,) James’ (many times, but also – more than once – the correct James’s.) “She’d certainly could not have imagined” (She certainly could not,) St Andrew’s Hall (x 2, it was always ‘St Andrew’s Halls’,) “the crowd who welcomed” (the crowd which welcomed.) “‘Who’s side are you on?’” (Whose side,) a telegram is sent to Mrs Watson to tell her her son is missing in action, believed killed. (He was married, it would have been sent to his wife,) “for goodness’ sake” (varies between this and ‘for goodness sake’,) during one encounter Nicholas refers to our heroine as Virginia Mathieson (he would more likely have used her maiden surname here.)

Highland River by Neil M Gunn

Canongate Classics, 1996, 246 p, plus vi p Introduction by Dairmid Gunn. First published in 1937.

Though it is couched as a sort of biography of Kenn, a young boy growing up into manhood and early middle age, this is an unusual novel in that its focus is really on the river of the title – almost a character in its own right – and clearly rooted in the author’s upbringing in the town of Dunbeath in Caithness and his knowledge of the Dunbeath Water which runs into the sea there. Evocation of landscape is a major component of the Scottish novel in general but not always as to the fore as it is here. Gunn’s descriptions of the river are precise and detailed so that the reader almost feels present. Not that he neglects characterisation; Kenn’s mother, elder brother and father are sketched economically but powerfully and all the minor characters have the stuff of life. It is, too, a philosphical novel, crammed with the thoughts Gunn puts into Kenn’s head as he recounts his experiences. It joins the long roll of Scottish literature about times lost and a way of life remembered.

The first scene is of a very young Kenn’s struggle with a huge cock salmon in the lower reaches of the river. In the end he manages to land it and this marks his transition into boyhood. (This episode is also commemorated by a statue erected by proud locals alongside the harbour in Dunbeath. I featured the statue in this post.)

This is one of many instances where the catching of fish (whether trout or salmon) is portrayed, the elaborate precautions taken to avoid gamekeepers, the deep knowledge of the likely pools, the intricate procedures needed to spy the fish and entrap it. Another early scene shows the disconnect between geography lessons about the main industries of English cities and Kenn’s daily life. None of that mundane esoterica is relevant to existence in a small village. Kenn finds himself dreaming through such lessons and as a result becomes the subject of his teacher’s wrath, expressed as was the custom of the times via the institutionalised violence of the tawse.

In contrast, despite the reticence bred by Calvinism – “None of the mothers in that land kissed their sons. If it were known that a boy had been kissed by his mother, not a dozen school fights would clear him of the dark shame of such weakness,” a weakness seen as more the mother’s than the son’s, “Nor can Kenn remember having seen his father kiss his mother ….. affection was as shy and as invisible as death,” – his parent’s quiet attitude to Kenn’s academic success and his own reluctance to declare it speak volumes.

As for the rock of the family, “Kenn’s mother did not go to church simply because she believed she was not worthy ….. She had done nothing to make herself unworthy. She was seen in her life as a good woman and without reproach. Yet she believed herself unworthy.” The men, too, did not take communion; their lives, tainted by rough living (and the odd drink,) had “not contained enough solemnity of holiness to justify them in going forward.”

The narrative flits back and forth through time between Kenn’s childhood, his experiences in the Great War and his life as a physicist afterwards, but the transitions are not jarring. They seem to occur organically, scenes flowing smoothly into one another. It is a kind of stream of consciousness, but controlled, always alert to the point. The removal in the Highland Clearances of Kenn’s not so ancient ancestors from the land they had worked since time immemorial, henceforth to make their living through sea-fishing, is mentioned in passing but without it they would not have been in reduced circumstances.

Through it all the river exerts its pull, Kenn’s last journey in the book marking his progress at last up to its source where he thinks, “Out of great works of art, out of great writing, there comes upon the soul sometimes a feeling of strange intimacy.” Here, Gunn’s intimacy with his subject, his feel for his particular hinterland, reaches beyond the Dunbeath Water, beyond the village which shares its name, beyond Scotland, to become universal, recognised by Highland River’s award of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for 1937.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; a quote is given partly as “you make me try to see him” (the text actually has ‘you made me try’,) “no so ancient” (not so ancient.) Otherwise; Sans’ (several times, Sans’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3,) milennia (millenia,) Archimedes’ (Archimedes’s,) acction (action,) “this land of bare moors had their austere effect” (had its austere effect.)

The Dark Mile by D K Broster

William Heinemann, 1958, 370 p.

 The Dark Mile cover

While Ewen Cameron of Ardroy, the protagonist of Broster’s first two books of her Jacobite trilogy (see here and here) does make an appearance in this last of the three, the book’s main focus is on the troubles of his cousin Ian Stewart of Invernacree. While riding home one day Ian witnesses a coach overturn into a loch and is called upon to rescue the lady trapped inside and take her to his father’s house to be cared for till she recovers. She turns out to be Olivia Campbell, the daughter of Campbell of Cairns, the man who commanded that part of the government forces which killed Ian’s elder brother Adam at the Battle of Culloden. Despite his growing feelings towards her this impediment to marriage means that any liaison is foredoomed.

In the meanwhile, Finlay MacPhair of Glenshian, an old foe, has contrived to make it look like Ewen Cameron or one of his tenants (which amounts to the same thing) has stolen two of his cattle and is pursuing him in the courts for restitution while he has attempted to persuade a Mr Maitland, the sender of the letter to the Government which had in the end resulted in the execution for treason during the rebellion of Ewen’s kinsman Archibald Cameron (and for which Maitland now suffers pangs of conscience,) to give the credit for this to Glenshian so that he can claim recompense for the many favours he thinks the government owes him. Maitland is a friend of Olivia Campbell’s family; indeed she calls him godfather. There is also some toing and froing as regards Hector Grant, who has formed an attachment to Ian Stewart’s sister, and whose imprisonment by Glenshian leads to him discovering the truth of the ploy with the cattle by overhearing a conversation in Gaelic which Glenshian’s retainer does not realise Grant can understand.

There is a degree of buckling of swashes, (made difficult it’s true by the bar on bearing arms suffered by Highland gentlemen in the wake of the ’45,) a high degree of coincidence and a blizzard of exclamation marks, not to mention a convoluted means by which our thwarted lovers may achieve a happy conclusion – all of which signal that the literature here may not be quite of the highest quality. But it fulfils the function of the adventure story (the good guys win and the baddies get their comeuppance) and serves as a reminder that the ramifications of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s defeat resonated and not only in the general but also the personal lives of the inhabitants of Highland Scotland – and beyond – for many years afterwards.

Pedant’s corner:- “the two Miss Stewarts” (the two Misses Stewart,) Campbell of Cairns’ (Cairns’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, staunch (stanch,) focussing (focusing.) “None of the farmhouse people were stirring” (None … was stirring,) “he dare not touch her again” (the narration is in past tense; ‘dared not’,) a missing full stop.

Republics of the Mind by James Robertson

Black and White, 2012, 280 p.

The first eleven stories in this collection were originally published in The Ragged Man’s Complaint (which I reviewed here) so I started this book on page 155. Throughout the other eleven tale shere Robertson’s writing is crisp and economical, capturing the situations and his characters in all the words required and no more. This is good stuff.

Opportunities is the tale of one evening in the lives of a pair of couples when various interpersonal dynamics swirl under the surface.
In The Shelf a couple has moved into a new smaller home and need to remove a shelf to place a flat-pack wardrobe against the wall. It turns out to be a bigger job than expected. In the meantime, strange things are going on in the street outside.
One day The Dictionary stops working. The words slide about all over the place, disordered, making it impossible to find the one our first person narrator is looking for. Even the new ones in the bookshop have the same defect.
The Dayshift worked by a border guard takes on even more meaninglessness when the regime changes and people can move to and fro across the border without being checked.
Don’t Start Me Talkin’ (I’ll Tell Everything I Know) features an old lady entering a specialist record shop wanting to buy music with some feeling. The guy there introduces her to the blues. But he’s not the owner and doesn’t work there.
Willie Masson’s Miracle. Willie is a housebound man, barely able to move and whose wife is in a Home. His neighbour, Mrs Bovie, drops in from time to time and a nurse comes in to see to his needs. One day he manages to get his arm to jerk.
Mr Meiklejohn has just left the dentist when The Rock Cake Incident occurs as he relaxes in a café afterwards. As a result he will need to visit the dentist again.
Old Mortality is set in an old, apparently deserted, graveyard where a man has taken his pregnant partner to see the headstone of his ancestors. They come across an old man whose purpose in life seems to be chipping the names from the monuments.
Christie lives alone in a house overlooking the field wherein lay MacTaggart’s Shed and imagines he sees ghosts there – but they may only be sheep. There is some kind of civil war still going on and not long ago an atrocity took place in the shed which was then burnt down.
The Future According to Luke is a repeat of the past. Luke Stands Alone is a native American living on a reservation. He, Dean and Johhny’s only entertainment is to cross the reservation’s border to Jubal’s Buffalo Saloon, situated between Bombing Range Road and the highway to Custer. Luke’s predictions all come true but that’s because they’ve already happened.
A man goes to visit an old building where everything is at Sixes and Sevens. His grandfather, a casualty of the Great War, once lived there, but it is now being sold off. The two caretakers treat him as if he’s a patient.

Pedant’s corner:- not a single thing to note. Remarkable.

The End of an Old Song by J D Scott

A Romance. Canongate Classics, 1990, 214 p, plus iv p Introduction by Christopher Harvie. First published in 1954.

Things lost. The times they have achanged. It is not for nothing that the lament is the signature example of bagpipe music. Scottish authors have always chronicled disappearance. It’s there in this book’s title and its epigraph – the source of that title – is of course the quote from Lord Chancellor Seafield on the dissolving of the Scottish Parliament in 1707 after the Treaty of Union was signed, “There is the end of an auld sang.” Scots have been struggling with a sense of absence, of incompleteness, ever since.

But there are wider literary echoes here too. This review ought perhaps to have begun with the words, “Last night I dreamed I was at Kingisbyres again,” Kingisbyres being the name of the “big house” where narrator Patrick Shaw had his formative experiences. Indeed, the book could also have been titled “Kingisbyres Revisited”.

Yet this exercise in Scottish nostalgia, displaying the typical Scottish writer’s flair for landscape description, is narrated by one Patrick Shaw who tells us he deliberately cultivated English snobbishness. Indeed, the novel reads as being written with an English sensibility, and people are always described as Scotch, not Scottish. As a result, the Scotticisms, when they occur – “‘Away, man,’” – do so with increased force. Despite his leanings towards Englishness Patrick intuits “the essence of the past of Scotland, its dark, fated, cruel quality and the contrasting strain that ran through it of lightness and grace and gaiety ….. something powerfully charged with love and hate, pride and violence, which, in given circumstances, it might discharge in some tremendous flash of lightning.”

In the 1930s Patrick was a pupil at the nearby fee-paying but far from top drawer school, Nethervale, (his alcoholic father reduced to teaching there) and was invited to Kingisbyres by his friend Alastair Kerr, himself brought up by an aunt in the village and who, local rumour had it, was the natural son of the house’s owner, Captain Keith, who paid for him to attend the school. In Kingisbyres a room once graced by Bonnie Prince Charlie is kept perpetually ready for “the King over the water” to return. One summer, Captain Keith, no longer able to afford the upkeep, lets Kingisbyres to the nouveau riche Harveys (the money was made in biscuits) and Patrick was immediately struck by their daughter Catherine, a presence who is to flicker in and out of Patrick’s and Alastair’s lives for the remainder of the book. Catherine is used to having her own way and even as a young adult knows how to deploy her charms to get it. The establishment of the three’s irregular relationship takes up more than half the novel before the focus shifts to the book’s narrative present after the Second World War.

Captain Keith, like many of the landed gentry, has some very right-wing views and Alastair frequently indulges in casually pejorative mentions of Jews – sometimes not so casually, even after the war. He also has some acerbic comments to make on his countrymen’s attitudes, “being stuck-up is a crime in Scotland. That’s why everybody who makes money leaves it in the end. What’s the good of making money if you can’t be stuck-up?” and the cultural cringe, “like the good wee Scotty I am, I’ve been conditioned to feel that success is genuine only when it’s been registered in London.” He cites those objects of aspiration, “‘That old Kentish manor house,’” along with an English rose for its mistress, two children and a picture in the Tatler but after the war, in its austere aftermath, such longing is obsolete, “‘Now we have to give it up for an apartment on Fifth Avenue.’” When he says, “‘God save us from the romantic outlook,’” Patrick asks him, “‘It’s goodbye to the English dream?’” Alastair replies, “‘Yes,’” and Patrick says ironically, “‘You might call it the end of an old song.’”

The characters in The End of an Old Song are well-drawn, Catherine’s youthful carelessness and flightiness apparent from Patrick’s first encounter with her, Alastair always a hard, uncompromising presence (though Mrs Harvey is a type; a recognisable and all too familiar type, but still a type.) The novel speaks both of its time and to timeless Scottish concerns.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; a missing end quote mark from an illustrative passage. Otherwise; gulley (gully,) Agnes’ (Agnes’s,) “thee fingers of whisky” (three fingers,) “Mrs Mathers’ voice” (Mathers’s,) “Bonny Prince Charlie” (usually spelled Bonnie, as it is on the next page and elsewhere in the book,) “‘If you boys arenie’ to be working’” (usually spelled arenae – and there’s no need for the apostrophe.) “After Dunkirk time I didn’t see Alastair …. for nearly two years … I went abroad … and until early 1943 I was in the middle East” (Dunkirk was in 1940, 1943 is 3 years later, not 2,) glaiket (usually spelled glaikit, is said to mean wandering in one’s mind; I have always understood it as meaning gormless, or slightly dim.)

Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes

4th Estate, 2020, 395 p.

Like the best murder mysteries, we start with a body. But this isn’t a crime story. (Not in the conventional sense anyway – and the crimes it touches on are, or were, not usually considered as such.) It is, instead, a mosaic of a life, that of Cliodhna Jean Campbell (known as Clio,) who in January 2018 has committed suicide at her friend Ruth’s house in Kilbarchan, leaving no note in the house, and left Ruth to find her body. It is a novel about its times, our times, political commitment and hope.

Except we don’t actually start with the body. First there is a newspaper article from June 1990, a profile of Clio as her first album is about to be released following her successful but unconventional appearance on Top of the Pops the previous March, where she pointedly refused to mime while promoting her anti-Poll Tax single ‘Rise Up’ and ‘provocatively’ revealed an anti-poll tax T-shirt. Newspaper extracts like these appear intermittently between chapters (the next is a heartfelt but subsequently misconstrued obituary) and chart her swift rise, slower fall and occasional re-emergence to the public eye. One of these is a particularly barbed review of her album of Burns songs, The Northern Lass by a reviewer totally unsympathetic to its subject matter. The meat of the novel however, is in the unfolding of Clio’s life revealed, in non-linear order, by chapters dealing with incidents or stages in her life.

Astutely on the author’s part, we never see events from Clio’s perspective, only from people whose paths she crossed, was affected by, or affected, in one way or another: fourteen different viewpoint characters helpfully noted on a page labelled Some People inserted between the epigraph and page one. Listed in alphabetical order of their given names these are: Adele, a nurse; Danny Mansfield, a tour manager, a husband; Donald Bain, a godfather (unofficial;) Eileen Johnstone, a mother; Hamza Hussain, a boyfriend; Ida Edwards, a woman on a train; Jess Blake, a comrade; Malcolm Campbell, a father; Neil Munro, a journalist; Ruth Jones, a friend; Sammi Smith, a girl who lives in a squat; Shiv West, a popular musician; Simon Carruthers, a man at a wedding; Xanthe Christos, a former comrade. Taken in all they present a picture of a caring individual, who is at times blinkered to the ripples of her wake but is more sinned against than sinning.

Clio was brought up in an Ayrshire mining village by her mother and stepfather. (Her less than adequate father, also a musician, kicked out by Clio’s mother, had left to make a career in the US.) The 1980s miners’ strike left its legacy on Clio and through her life she remained a tireless advocate for the working-class cause, leading to not only that one hit song, but involvement in various political causes including a squat in Brixton, and devastation at the result of the Scottish Independence Referendum.

The journalist, Neil Munro, carries an unrequited torch for her and reflects somewhat jealously on her relationship with Danny Mansfield, “Beautiful women take lovers. He’d just never worked out why the lovers they took had to be such total arseholes.” One chapter set in the squat gives us Xanthe’s scathing verdict on lefties, “all of them so sure that their rollies, their pouches and their papers were another way of sticking it to corporate culture.” Another includes an explanation of the card game Scabby Queen, where there is only one queen in the deck. The card gets passed around as quickly as possible since the person left with her at the end loses and suffers a forfeit. (If this is supposed to be a metaphor for Clio’s life it doesn’t quite work.)

In the squat a man called Mark Carr had sex with most of the female activists. Clio later discovers he was an undercover policeman and therefore they had been “raped by the state”. The exposure of Carr, seeking justice against him and his superiors for his actions, becomes one of Clio’s causes, one she single-mindedly follows to the hilt despite the potential wreckage this pursuit could cause to the lives of others who were in the squat.

Ruth remembers her outlining all the good that could have flowed from an independent Scotland, including “amazing Scandinavian education” plus “an oil fund underpinning a citizen’s income and putting money into green energy programmes and all those beautiful things we were going to do,” how that would have confounded the sceptics. She hoped, “That they’d see then.”

But, given the ‘No’ vote, she laments, “Nothing I do or you do will ever make the slightest bit of difference …. They knew most of the country was fearty little boys like them, making snidey jokes because they’re afraid to believe in anything …. It’s why anyone from here who goes away and does well, we start laughing at them when they come back again …. There’s always some wee Scottish gremlin sitting there on yer shoulder, whispering its mantra. Naw. Naw. Naw.”

The suicide was Clio’s last act of political theatre, her final grab for attention and validation. In a note released to the press days after her death she says, “The codes that this modern world was built on are breaking down, allowing the worst bits of ourselves to rampage.”

Neil’s anguish over writing Clio’s obituary, “How did you use words, black on white with a finite limit, slotting into a pre-designed space on a page, to describe what a person’s life had been?” are belied by the story we are reading. This novel shows exactly how you use words to describe a life.

Scabby Queen is brilliant. A superb portrait not only of a complicated, contrary character, an embodiment of Caledonian anti-syzygy, but also of the society she lived in and the times she passed through.

Pedant’s corner:- snuck (sneaked, but snuck may have been in character,) “one wee Fife village” (it was Clackmannan which is not in Fife, and actually it was not the village but Clackmannanshire as a whole.)

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