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The Gleam in the North by D K Broster

Windmill, 1958, 302 p.

The Gleam in the North cover

This is the second of Broster’s Jacobite trilogy (the first of which, The Flight of the Heron, I wrote about here.) Again it follows the fortunes of Ewen Cameron of Ardroy and also once more starts with a scene set at the Loch of the Eagle on his estate. Ewen’s son Donald pushes his younger brother Keith into the loch as revenge for him throwing his favourite object, a sword hilt memento from the Battle of Culloden, into the loch. Ewen has to effect a rescue but Keith becomes ill and the local doctor is summoned but is on a call. Meanwhile Ewen’s cousin Archibald Cameron, still in the service of the young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, and so subject to government attainder, turns up at the house and, as a doctor himself, ministers to the child. When Doctor Kincaid arrives he surmises the Camerons’ visitor is indeed the wanted man and informs the authorities. So Ewen’s adventures begin once more, as he is taken in to Fort William to be questioned and eventually bust out.

In his peregrinations about the Western Highlands trying to avoid government soldiery Ewen comes across Viscount Aveling, half-brother of the Major Keith Windham whom he befriended in The Flight of the Heron and from whom he learns that Archibald Cameron’s whereabouts have been betrayed. In the process, though, he makes an enemy of Aveling. Trying to warn Archie, Ewen only ends up injured during his capture.

After convalescing, Ewen makes his way to London to attempt to secure Doctor Cameron’s release and one night rescues a gentleman from street thieves. This turns out to be Lord Stowe, Aveling’s father. Coincidences being stretched a mite too far here perhaps. The rest of the book is made up of Ewen’s encounters with Aveling’s mother, Jacobite turncoats and trying to intercede with the Duke of Argyll, a Campbell and so sworn enemy of the Camerons but the government’s man for Scottish affairs.

While not as immediate in its chronicling of historical events as was The Flight of the Heron Broster manages to keep the level of peril reasonably high. A description of the Aurora Borealis could be taken to be the gleam in the north of the book’s title, as well as an allusion to the residual glimmer of the hopes of the Stuart dynasty, but the aurora’s relatively quick disappearance “as if it had never been” does not, quite, apply to the ramifications of the 1745 Jacobite rising.

Sensitivity alert. In a piece of stereotyping racist to modern eyes, a black servant of Lord Stowe is named Sambo.

Pedant’s corner:- had …. sowed (sown,) “would none of the thanks” (would have none of,) an extra comma in “‘Yes,, you may do that’”,) “once for all” (once and for all,) “They an prove nothing” (They can prove nothing,) gillie (ghillie,) “requires, it for his chaise” (no comma necessary,) a missing single quote mark at the end of a thought followed by a missing start one at the direct speech following on from it, a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech where the sentence carried on, paplably (palpably,) Gailbraith (elsewhere Galbraith,) Lock Arkaig (Loch Arkaig,) caryatides (caryatids.)

End Games in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

Penguin, 1982, 158 p.

It is the duty of the detective story to set the world to rights, to remedy the transgression at its heart (usually a murder) by bringing its perpetrator to justice. The literary novel, however, affects to resemble the world in all its aspects – albeit mostly via a microcosm of that world – and therefore, unlike in the classic crime novel, good does not always prevail.

Massie’s series of books set in Bordeaux during wartime and occupation (of which the previous three were Death In Bordeaux, Dark Summer in Bordeaux and Cold Winter in Bordeaux,) seeks to square that circle, employing a literary sensibility but examining various crimes highlighting the more sordid aspects of human nature. In this final instalment things are again seen mainly from the point of view of Jean Lannes, Superintendent in the police judiciaire, who has been suspended from duty for being less than cooperative with the German occupiers, whose marriage has seen better days, whose sons are variously working for Vichy or acting as an agent for the Special Operations Executive and whose daughter’s boyfriend is on the Eastern Front with the Legion of French volunteers against Bolshevism. Wartime France in microcosm then.

Massie’s Bordeaux quartet is of course dealing, albeit obliquely, with an almighty transgression, the enormity of Nazi ideology. Inextricably bound up with that in these novels is the reality of French collaboration; willingly or not most French people were compromised by it, soiled by association. These are, however, matters that Lannes cannot remediate in any way. While the reader knows the outcome of the war, the prospect of the usual consolation of the detective novel is nevertheless withheld. It is to Massie’s credit that he illuminates the sheer grubbiness of life in such circumstances and intimates the deceptions with which the French people will reassure themselves after the war. Even the Allied landings in Normandy do not lift the gloom as the Germans still hang on in Bordeaux and their adherents, such as the Milice, continue to persecute those they deem traitors either to (Vichy) France or to what they would call decency.

The incident which starts proceedings here isn’t a crime, though. Lannes is asked privately to investigate the disappearance of Marie-Adelaide d’Herblay, a nineteen year-old who has gone off with one Aurélien Mabire, apparently of her own volition. This is something of a red herring as it serves only to draw Lannes once again into the sordid realm of the advocate Labiche whose various misdeeds have preoccupied Lannes for the whole Quartet, but it does relate back to earlier events where a music teacher was procuring very young girls for those who had a taste for them. Lannes is desperate to find someone to testify against Labiche, of whom he has a compromising photograph, but when Marie-Adelaide eventually turns up to see him her reaction is not what he expected.

Massie’s object is not to have justice done. It is to illustrate the complexities of human nature – especially under stress. No-one in the book is without fault of some sort – except perhaps the prostitute Yvette, for whom Lannes developed a soft spot and who of course, as a horizontal collaborator (even if out of necessity,) suffers the consequences of being labelled as such when the occupation ends.

In the end here, no-one is as they were at the beginning, the war has changed everything, except the influence of the powerful, or those who gravitate towards it. As is usual the literary novel unveils evolution; hence that circle isn’t squared. I’m not sure crime aficionados will be satisfied with this. The literary reader may also find the quartet’s focus to be too narrow.

Pedant’s corner:- Lannes’ (all names ending in ‘s’ are given s’ for their possessive form; but still, Lannes’s,) staunch (stanch,) Chemin-les-Dames (Chemin-des-Dames,) “no older that Dominique” (than,) Francois’ (since the ‘s’ in Francois is never pronounced its possessive demands ’s after it; Francois’s,) a question mark at the end of a spoken sentence that wasn’t a question, “and distrusted rather that envying the rich” (rather than envied.) “‘Expect it is, really’” (in context ‘Except it is’ makes more sense.)

Vivaldi and the Number 3 by Ron Butlin

Illustrated by John Sibbald. Serpent’s Tail, 2004, 210 p, including 14 p Notes about the composers and philosophers. Plus vi p of Acknowledgements and lists of contents and illustrations.

This is a collection of 26 short stories, none of which is longer then twelve pages and even that includes one of the illustrations. Their tenses shift from past to present and back again. Trappings of the present day irrupt into the past or vice versa, modern day phenomena like pizza deliveries precede composing by candlelight with quill pens. Within the context, though, it all makes a surreal heightened sense. Unlike a lot of Scottish fiction the writing is laced with humour. Seventeen of the stories are listed under the heading “The lives,” four under, “The letters,” three are “The thoughts,” and, finally, one is “The last word.”

All of it is delightful stuff.

The lives:-
Sheep being scarce in Venice would-be priest Antonio Vivaldi – familiar with McDonald’s, TV and spaghetti westerns – tries to sleep by counting cardinals jumping off the papal balcony, one of whom brings to him both God and music via the number 3. 500 concerti later Vivaldi tries to go on holiday but is caught up in a war. A later incarnation learns to walk on water by channelling his anger at a Stravinsky comment that he always writes the same concerto.
In the glass box of her marriage Alma Mahler writes down the notes of the string quartet she is composing only for them to disappear from the paper as soon as she’s finished. Bach, who in his youth had aspired to be a professional footballer until a retired player suggested his true vocation, struggles to respond to the deluge of parcels he receives following the publication of an article titled ‘If Only Bach Had a computer’ in the previous month’s Digital Digest. Beethoven anticipates the benefits due to flow to him from a pyramid scheme while striding the mean streets of Edinburgh till he comes to “the Zone-of-Everything-and-Nothingness” that is South Bridge, which always defeats him. A Hamburg perpetually mist-bound and stuck at 4.45 in the afternoon due to the composer’s previous failures waits for Brahms to complete his first symphony: a fantastic interlude brings resolution. Antonin Dvořák finds his knowledge of Science Fiction and fairy-tale useful while stalking the Bohemian wilds for musical inspiration. Fresh from an invitation onto The Jerry Springer Show, Haydn hears a voice telling him just how many trios he still has to compose. Enthused by a cable channel film noir series, Mozart decides on a new career as a private investigator in a story which also features him bicycling through the air like the ident scene at the start of a Dreamworks© film. Schubert glides through the streets of 1828 Vienna on his skateboard before being given a magic business card. In a manifestation which may be an indication of Schumann’s state of mind Liepzig morphs its architecture daily: then he takes the underground to Herr Wieck’s flat where he meets Clara. An aged Sibelius is in his last hours invited to join the circus by three clowns. Richard Strauss and Amenhotep IV share their dreams of finessing Nazi racial policies and building pyramids respectively. Tchaikovsky laments the madness of his marriage as he considers a last ballet. Georg Telemann writes his best-selling concertos amongst the mountain of mail order goods he has requested (or not) while his agent adopts his identity. One of the Mighty Handful of Russian composers who form a five-a-side football team conceives the idea of introducing passing to their game; their results get worse.

The letters:-
Composer Q makes a compact with the Mr Sinclair who turns up at his door: thereafter the music flows and Q’s domestic life becomes blissful. There is a catch of course. Composer X’s career creating music for films has given him all the trappings of success – girls, glamour and real estate. He flees the Calvinistic persecutions of messages in the Edinburgh sky to Tenerife only to find the stars have rearranged themselves into a message in Spanish. Composer Y labours under the affliction of coming between “the celebrated X and the no less renowned Z” (perhaps due to his fondness for the double-bass) till one day the world pauses and the sky becomes a Tiepolo-style ceiling of angels; suddenly he is in constant demand. Composer Z gazes from his window into the vista beyond the end of the alphabet through the large plate-glass window installed for just that purpose. In one universe the glass becomes insubstantial and he is pulled through. (This story contains a comparison between Scottish midges and the dead in Hades – both are summoned by human blood.)

The thoughts:-
A drunken David Hume cosies up to a woman “who had come so close to freezing to death on the pavement outside the Caledonian Hotel she had never warmed up again” before he is, in a phrase which could summarise this whole book, “stranded in this makeshift world put together from the sweepings of history.” Nietzsche tries to break free from monetisation at the hands of his University by keeping chickens. Seneca settles on Edinburgh’s Southside as the perfect place to prove Stoicism firmly as number one of all the world’s philosophies. Socrates attends the opening of Greece’s first supermarket, ‘Zealous Hellas’.

The last word:-
On her death bed Nadia Boulanger is visited by other female composers – her sister Lili, Hildegard von Bingen, Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” and “within seconds” count; substantial – a few had gone by before I noticed the prevalence but they soon become extremely intrusive. Otherwise; crochets (crotchets,) manoeuvering (manoeuvring,) vermillions (vermilions,) “a set of garden furniture say with no memory of ever having ordered them” (ordered it,) extendible” (extendable,) the text implies the great Real Madrid team of 1959 had invented the passing game (they didn’t. It was the mighty Sons of the Rock in the 1880s/90s who did that,) “Puskas, Di Stefano, Santa Maria … [were] … to secure the European Cup for Real Madrid three years in a row” (Real won that cup five years in a row, the first five of its existence; those three players may not have been present for all five, of course.) “A few second’s later” (seconds,) “duvetted by straw and feathers” (should the spelling be ‘duveted’?) An unindented paragraph, Socrates’ (Socrates’s.)

Close Quarters by Angus McAllister

Matador, 2017, 493 p.

When I picked this up I wondered if it might be a kind of Glasgow riposte to Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh set 44 Scotland Street novels. Close is of course the Scottish word for the entranceway and stairwell of a tenement block and the inhabitants of such a building do live in proximity to each other – if not necessarily always on good terms – and there are certainly differences between the two cities to be exploited in a project of that sort. However, Close Quarters, while still genteel in its way, has a more earthy, more Glaswegian, approach to the aspects of communal living, and is its own thing.

There are faint echoes of A Christmas Carol in the opening line, “Walter Bain was dead,” but McAllister is not providing us with a ghost story. What he does is outline the various reasons why the building’s occupiers over the years might have had a motive to kill Bain. As the officer in charge of the case says to his sergeant in the prologue, “We’re talking about Walter Bain. The Walter Bain. Did any of them not have a motive?”

For Walter Bain was one of those self-appointed, nit-picking guardians of moral and social welfare, forever peering out through his windows at visitors or residents arriving at the close to check they’d shut the gate of the small enclosure at the front of the building, posting through doors misspelled and ungrammatical missives scribbled onto scraps of paper regarding the stair and window cleaning rota, or the undesirability of wheelie bins being left outside for hours on end, harping on disturbances to the tranquillity of the family nature of the building; or else arranging meetings of tenants to discuss problems with cleaning, maintenance and upkeep, though reluctant to take on himself his portion of any financial burden that might necessitate.

We are shown the experiences with Bain of new tenants Jenny Martin and Joe Robinson, of long-term residents Gus McKinnon, George Anderson and his girlfriend (later wife) Cathie, Billy Briggs, Henrietta Quayle, and that of more recent occupant Tony Miller. Most are rendered in third person past tense but Anderson’s (a lecturer in English at Strathkelvin University – a recently upgraded technical college) is couched as a set of diary entries he composes for Cathie to read as practice for the novel he intends to write and Henrietta Quayle’s is in the form of a psychiatrist’s report by one Philomena Warner who treated Quayle when she had a breakdown after her mother’s death.

The story also centres round the Centurion pub on the corner of Byres Road. Several of the drinkers there are lawyers and McAllister has a lot of scope in his tale to send up both the law and academia. Since Briggs is a dealer in comic books we are also provided with a history of the graphic novel.

Despite the body on the carpet this is not a typical crime novel. McAllister’s interest is not in the murder per se and his treatment is far from po-faced. At several points in reading it I could not suppress giggles. Close Quarters, is also, due to the time frame of McKinnon’s, Briggs’s and Quayle’s occupancies, a social history of the 1980s and 1990s.

It is not difficult to guess who the murderer was. I had my suspicions from early on and indeed it turned out to be the only person it could possibly have been, revealed in an epilogue titled Who Done It. However, working that out in no way spoiled my enjoyment of the book. The gratification here is in the journey, in the many ways in which Bain could wind up his neighbours, and in their reactions to him.

Pedant’s corner:- “the epicentre of the West End” (I don’t think McAllister meant it was off-centre,) a missing punctuation mark – either a comma or full stop would have done the job – before a piece of direct speech, margarene (margarine,) a projected graphic novel is titled Last Exit to Salcoats (that town is spelled Saltcoats,) e-mails (the passage was set in 1999, so fair enough, but this book was published in 2017 so, ‘emails’,) “e mail” (inconsistent with the previous instance,) “‘put his gas on a peep’” (usually ‘gas at a peep’,) syllibi, (syllabi, or, syllabuses.) “None of our classrooms … were big enough” (None …. was big enough,) “divided about half in half” (half and half,) “which would allow me make these appearances” (allow me to make,) “which he he’d recently missed” (remove ‘he’,) “that Matilda has aked me to collect” (the rest of the passage was in the pluperfect so, ‘had asked me’,) “‘glad to be assistance’” (glad to be of assistance’,) “had showed” (had shown.)

The Gates of Eden – A Story of Endeavour by Annie S Swan

Read Books, 2008, 319 p. First published 1893.

This is a facsimile reprint (presumably via photocopy) reproducing the original in all its aspects – including illustrations at each chapter heading and one of Swan opposite the title page – of an edition published in 1893 by William Briggs. The title page has the writer’s married name (Mrs Burnett-Smith) after her author’s credit.

I would not have picked this up (my previous reading of Swan left the impression of her as an adequate talent but not worth seeking out) had it not been lent to us by a friend since part of it is set in the nearby village of Star (aka Star of Markinch.) I am therefore familiar with the local places mentioned, Star (Swan has her characters refer to it as the Star,) Markinch, Kennoway and the Lomond Hills. Swan actually lived in Star for two years but in her biography said she didn’t much like the place. However, “it did give her two books.” Of which I assume this is one.

It is essentially the tale of two brothers, Alexander (Sandy) and Jamie Bethune, whose mother had died in childbirth. Sandy is apparently favoured academically and his father sets him down for the Church. James is designated to keep his father’s holding at their croft. His better education, eventually graduating from University at St Andrews, leads to Sandy having a high opinion of himself and coming to look down on his young adult sweetheart, Mary Campbell, whose broad Scots manner of speaking he thinks will ill become him in his first charge at Lochbroom where he is in any case captivated by Beatrice Lorraine, the daughter of a widower recently moved to a big house in Lochbroom.

Meanwhile James is taken under the wing of the local schoolmaster and taught Latin and literature but it is only once the boys’ father has died that James strikes out on his own, seeking a job on a newspaper in Edinburgh to work his way up. His attendance at St Giles leads to its minister, Doctor Kinross, inviting him to his home and befriending him. It turns out that Kinross and Lorraine are brothers-in-law and James too meets Beatrice but recognises a deep sadness in the Lorraines’ lives.

What follows is fairly predictable, Sandy proposes to Beatrice, who turns him down, James eventually gets a job in London whereupon Beatrice asks him to seek out her disgraced brother, whom her father has sworn never to see again.

The Gates of Eden is a reasonably typical Victorian novel, overly sentimental at times, not too taxing, and one where virtue is rewarded. Even Sandy comes to his senses. It has the style and cadences of its origins but some people may have difficulty with the very broad Scots of the inhabitants of Star. There are, too, occasional interpolations by the author which tend to break the suspension of disbelief.

And once again we have that intimation of the Scottish character of yore, “she belonged to a stern, undemonstrative race, who deemed any exhibition of the finer feelings a sign of weakness.”

Pedant’s corner:- cotttage (cottage,) “‘these sort of gatherings’” (strictly speaking ‘sorts’ but it was in dialogue,) ““Lux Benigna”” (later rendered as ‘Lux Benigna’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “insolvable problem” (Victorian usage? – insoluble/unsolvable,) a missing full stop, a missing ‘close quote’ mark at the end of a piece of direct speech.

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

John Murray, 2014, 362 p.

It was strange reading this during a Covid lockdown. In the background of this novel is traced the progress of a disease known colloquially as “the sweats” – fever, vomiting, diarrhœa – which seems to kill most of those who contract it. The differences between what most novelists used to imagine such an epidemic would bring in its train (selfishness basically) and what transpired in real life (cooperation and compliance, mostly) are marked. Future disaster novels may need to take a different tack. But then again “the sweats” appears more virulent than Covid and its mode of transmission (not really elucidated in the book) less amenable to preventive measures.

The actual plot of the book is more of a straightforward thriller. Stevie (Stefanie,) a presenter on a shopping channel, starts off worrying why her boyfriend, Simon Sharkey, a flashy surgeon, did not meet her as planned nor contact her later. When she goes to his flat she finds him dead, apparently not in suspicious circumstances. She soon begins to exhibit the effects of “the sweats,” suffering alone in her flat for days but is one of the seemingly few who survive catching it. A note left for her by him asks her to deliver a laptop he’d left in her loft specifically to a Mr Reah (and only him) at the hospital where he worked. The reception she gets there raises her suspicions. Reah is also dead and the other medics seem very keen on getting the package from her. The rest of the book is concerned with her search to find out why Simon died and who killed him.

Welsh’s first two books, The Cutting Room and Tamburlaine Must Die were superb. She seemed to shift tack a bit with her next few, straying further into crime/thriller territory. This, the first in a trilogy (The Plague Times,) is firmly within that category. To my mind it suffers by that. Welsh’s writing, though, cannot really be faulted.

Pedant’s corner:- sneakers (why this USianism? Welsh uses the term trainers, as well as sneakers, later,) bannister (banister,) “the letter from beyond the dead” (seems oddly phrased. It’s usually ‘beyond the grave’ but the person in question hadn’t had a burial/cremation at this point,) “a cellophane-wrapped syringe” (unlikely to be cellophane, that’s far too brittle to be wrapping syringes in. ‘plastic-wrapped’ or ‘bubble-packed’,) Amir Kahn (Amir Khan,) Summers’ (several instances, Summers’s,) “electoral role “ (roll,) Forth Railway Bridge (that’s the original, it doesn’t need a qualifying adjective; Forth Bridge,) “the name Fibrosyop discretely etched on a sign” (separately etched? Singly etched? Or discreetly – ie subtly, tastefully, modestly – etched? Perhaps Welsh meant ‘etched in isolation’, in which case it’s fine.)

And the Cock Crew by Fionn MacColla

Canongate Classics, 1995, 184 p, plus vi p Introduction by John Herdman. First published 1945.

The author, Thomas Douglas Macdonald, adopted the pen name Fionn MacColla (the Introduction always spells this as Mac Colla) on taking up writing. In his work he seems to have made it his mission to document the loss of the Highland Gaelic culture and way of life. And the Cock Crew is in line with this undertaking as it is set during the onset of the Highland Clearances. It also examines the crisis of conscience of a profoundly Calvinist minister, known as Zachary Wiseman to non-Highlanders but Maighstir Sachairi to his flock.

Over twenty years before the events of the novel Maighstir Sachairi had arrived in Gleann Luachrach (or Glen Loochry, as rendered in a later sentence uttered by a non-Gael) to find it to his mind far too frivolous and ungodly. Under his influence the people had slowly come round to his way of thinking and behaviour except, perhaps, for Fearchar the poet. The times are, however, about to change. “Something else has come among us, something from altogether outside our way of life, and a man has to take account of it although he doesn’t even understand it or know what it wants for him…..Nowadays a man has to honour God and the Factor.”

That factor, Master Byars, known to the glen’s inhabitants as “The Black Foreigner,” though he is in fact a Lowland Scot, has an abiding and visceral hatred of anything Gaelic and cannot bear even the sound of that language. His antipathy towards Gaels led him to believe his life had been threatened by local men who had thought him lost and offered to help him. He called a contingent of redcoats to accompany him to where he had summoned the local villagers to assemble in order to arraign them for this. Two other local ministers are on the factor’s side but Maighstir Sachairi temporarily resolves the confrontation by interviewing the men concerned and telling Byars, “They are a people upright, peaceable, temperate in their ways and righteous with their neighbours to a most seengular degree in our times and generation.” The resultant reprieve for the villagers leads them to believe that they are in Sachairi’s protection.

It is, though, the Black Foreigner’s intention to remove the people from the glens and to replace them with sheep. The clan leader, Mac ’Ic Eachainn, to whose forefathers the clans could have looked for succour in the past “is now no better than an Englishman,” lives down south, does not speak Gaelic and is in fact in favour of the new economic project.

There is an impediment to marrying in the glen in that any man who does so will lose his holdings and be banished. In the absence of a wedding, Mairi-daughter-of-Eaghann-Gasda, an otherwise devout and modest woman whom Maighstir Sachairi would not have believed capable of misdeeds, has become pregnant. She cites the marriage bar as an excuse and refuses to name the father. This throws Sachairi into a crisis of conscience, wondering if he can still truly discern the will of God. It is into this vacuum of decision that The Black Foreigner steps, taking advantage of Sachairi’s hesitancy to confront him about the burning of the heather at the neighbouring village in preparation for the sheep.

Sachairi’s discomfiture is compounded by a meeting with Fearchar in which the poet questions him concerning doctrine, “Poetry and music are sinful, we say – yet with poetry and music a man improves himself in his nature it seems…. How is it that a sin can be experienced as a good?” and in which he concedes that the light of the spirit could be withdrawn from one of the Elect without his knowing it, that one of the Elect could be mistaken as to whether a thing is according to the will of God or not. This compounds Saichari’s indecision and he withdraws from interaction with the community giving Byars the opportunity to carry out his evictions unhindered.

In that long conversation Fearchar posits the relation between two neighbouring nations, long in conflict as the larger tried in vain to conquer and subject the smaller. “The big nation understands at last that it is no use to try to conquer them by force of arms. Suppose they try another way … and by some trick get power over the smaller nation and unite them to themselves. And so they will get from pretended friendship and a trick what they could never win by war and arms.”

He names it. “England. There is a nation that would never rest – never until she had taken away our freedom ….. Now she is more subtle, for Cunning is her name. Now she comes with feigned friendship and with lying promises and gold for our traitors she is able to obtain it, and our liberty is at an end.” For Fearchar the adoption of the English language by those who did so meant they became English, indistinguishable from true Englishmen.

It is within these passages that are laid out Mac Colla’s concerns, the nature of Man’s relationship to God, the repressions inherent in Calvinism, and the replacement of Gaelic culture by this alien one. Concerns not entirely absent from the Scottish novel in general.

It is as a novel, though, that there is something lacking in And the Cock Crew. The characters seem too designed to illustrate the sides to the conflict to have substance as people in their own right. The incidents of cottage burning and removal of people from their homes and livelihoods, harrowing as they may have been, are not shown to us from their victims’ perspective, only from afar, or by others in their aftermath and so their impact is lessened somewhat.

Still, someone had to undertake the task of representing in fiction the brutal upheaval of the way of life of an ancient and hard done by people. Not that that will ever stop such things from happening.

Pedant’s corner:- Crew (that would be ‘crowed’ in English. Even in Scots I have never heard crew as the preterite of crow,) “a heavy hammer leaning leaningly against the anvil” (in what other manner does something lean?) “was caught at unawares” (was caught unawares.) In the list of Canongate Classics at the end of the book the author’s name is misspelled as Fiona.

Light by Margaret Elphinstone

Canongate, 2007, 429 p.

It is May 1831. The lighthouse on Ellan Bride, a small island south of the Isle of Man, was once owned and run by the Duke of Atholl but its care has recently passed into that of the Scottish based Commissioners of Northern Lights. The Ellan Bride light is obsolescent and a team to survey the island for the purpose of replacing it is about to arrive. For the past five years since the death of Jim Geddes, his unmarried sister Lucy has been lightkeeper, assisted by Jim’s widow Diya and the three children they have between them. Diya is of Indian extraction, brought to the Isle of Man by her father, an official of the East India Company, but reduced in circumstances after both he and his mother had died. The mechanics of keeping the light going, lighting the lantern, the daily cleaning of the lenses and windows, the care the Geddeses take, are revealed in detail as are the exigencies of everyday life in an isolated location. The news of the survey and the likelihood of their imminent removal from their living – the idea of a female lightkeeper is unlikely to recommend itself to the Commissioners – has perturbed the Geddeses, whose ancestral responsibility the light has been for generations.

The main surveyor is Archie Buchanan, who has an invitation to join Captain Fitzroy on HMS Beagle, and therefore the promise of adventure, in his pocket but his surveying commission to fulfil in the meantime. He is accompanied by Benjamin Groat who does most of the groundwork while Buchanan records notes, an activity for which the children dub him the Writing Man.The third member of the party, Drew Scott, got himself in bother and put in jail in Castletown on the Isle so they are a man short, allowing Lucy’s son Billy the chance of paid employment (twopence a day; a man’s wage even though he is only ten years old) for the first time. This puts a crack into the relationship between the Geddes children who had formed a pact to frustrate the surveyors if possible.

We see events from many viewpoints – all the above save Diya’s younger daughter Mally, who mainly because of her youth is the only one not to impact on the unfolding story – and what plot there is is packed into the three-day spell for which the surveyors are on the island but through their reminiscences and thoughts the past histories of all the characters are also unfolded. Elphinstone evokes her scenes well, the transition from sail to steam, the evolution of lighthouse keeping, the remoteness of the island – Ireland, England and even the Mull of Galloway are the far lands, sometimes lost in the mists – Diya’s awareness that position once lost cannot be regained, the class-consciousness of all the adults, the breakthrough to a hitherto unlikely communication when Buchanan reveales a particular enthusiasm. The tale may be small scale – the impact of the strangers on the Geddes family dynamics and of them on the members of the survey party – but universal human drives, fear, love, hope, compassion, are all conjured up. Each of the characters is an individual, each has a different way of expressing her- or himself.

Elphinstone again displays the Scottish novelist’s flair for evoking landscape – and necessarily in this case seascape. Added to this are descriptions of the island’s flowers, the local wildlife, particularly the seals and seabirds, the never-ending shifts of the tides and the passing shipping near or far. Indeed, the island is so well brought to mind that it is almost a character in its own right and its topography as revealed to Buchanan through his survey and laid down to Billy via the map he has drawn is crucial to a sub-plot.

My only caveats are that one of the relationships which evolve in the novel perhaps develops too quickly and that maybe on occasion the narrative lingers a little too long on the surroundings. But that last is an indicator of how involved Elphinstone makes the reader in the characters’ interactions, how eager to know what happens to them.

Pedant’s corner:- Master Forbes’ (Forbes’s,) Wells’ (x 4, Wells’s,) Geddes’ (Geddes’s,) some missing commas before pieces of direct speech, “‘I wish no hear no more about it.’” (wish to hear,) “Et in Arcadia ego. Even this must pass.” (Yes, the “I” is usually taken to mean death but Et in Arcadia Ego translates as, “Even in Arcadia I am here,” rather than “Even this must pass.”

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark

Two Roads, 2014, 445 p.

 The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle cover

Like Sally Magnusson, Wark is a female Scottish journalist who has turned her hand to writing novels – though Wark is probably more widely known and her novel was published first.

The titular legacy here (though its nature makes the reader suspect it may have a double meaning) is of a house in Arran – an island of which we are provided a map between the title page and the story proper – in response to a written request Elizabeth Pringle received from Anna Morrison, a summer visitor to the island in her daughters’ youth, that if she ever wished to sell, Anna would be interested in buying. Years later Pringle remembered this and almost on her death bed and with no close relatives to consider made the bequest. By this time Anna is developing dementia and it falls to her daughter Martha to accept the offer on her behalf and occupy the house. Chapters dealing with Martha’s experiences are interspersed with extracts from a journal Pringle made shortly before her death at the behest of a US citizen, Saul, now a Buddhist on the off- (Arran’s) shore Holy Isle, wherein her life story is unfolded.

Martha is troubled by the bequest, not least due to the presence of a Cadell ink-and-watercolour painting on one of the walls. (Cadell was one of the Scottish Colourists and his work is valuable.) The solicitor assures her Pringle was in her right mind and surely wished the painting to be included. She forms a friendship with Catriona, proprietrix of a hotel where she stays while setting the house to rights. Catriona’s brother Niall was Pringle’s gardener and very attractive. Martha’s problems with her mother’s ongoing dementia are exacerbated by the absence of her younger sister, Sue, working in Copenhagen, with whom her relationship is strained.

Pringle had on the surface an uneventful life, marred by the death of her father and subsequent loss of the farm he worked, which necessitated the move of her mother and herself to the house she would leave in her will. Her fiancé Robert had ambitions, and, given a chance of running a sheep station in Australia took it, but Martha was too attached to Arran and distressed by the recent death of her mother to go with him. She enjoyed walking in the Arran hills and during the Second World War helped with the parties searching for the many aircraft downed in fog or other unfortunate circumstances. Her only other liaison apart from Robert was with a US airman in his brief spell on the island. It is Pringle’s recollections which form the most interesting strand of the book even if Martha’s difficulties with her mother and sister are well enough handled. An entry in Pringle’s journal tells us one of her “favourite books was Sunset Song….. I would like to have met someone like Chris Guthrie…. If I had a heroine, it was her.” However, neither of the lead female characters here approaches Chris Guthrie’s stature. The journal also comments on the repressions endemic in a Scots upbringing before recent times. “It had always been a mystery to me why ministers would encourage children to believe they were sinners.”

The modern sections are more heavy going. There is something about the prose that is plodding, leaden, adjective-laden, with too much description of interiors. Despite Wark’s knowledge of Arran the occasional forays into its landscape do not fully spring to the mind’s eye and her handling of Martha’s romantic attachment to Niall verges on the Mills and Boon. The central event of the tale, Martha’s main discovery about Pringle’s life, is not adequately foreshadowed. We are told Martha feels apprehension about opening the door into the eaves which had been wallpapered over but have been given no prior reason for her to feel any such thing. Wark has written a second novel: I’m not in any great hurry to read it.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” count: 8. Otherwise; St Clements (St Clement’s,) “wiled away the years” (whiled away,) missing commas before and after pieces of direct speech, “aren’t I?” “Aargh!! Wark is Scottish, the speaker was Scottish. The phrase is, ‘amn’t I?’,) “the Botanical Gardens” (Usually referred to as the Botanic Gardens,) “before” (appears three times in the space of two lines, twice in succession at the end one sentence and the start of the next; a might excessive, I would submit,) “to go the graveside” (to go to the graveside,) Yeats’ (Yeats’s,) crafts (of ships, the plural then is ‘craft’,) a reversed double quotatiom mark at the beginning of ‘”splinter filled…”’, “since she’d had been” (either ‘she’d’ or ‘she had’,) “‘I looked it up the imternet’” (up on the internet,) Mrs Beetons’s (Mrs Beeton’s,) twin-engine (usually twin-engined,) airplane (aeroplane, please,) “the Waverly paddle steamer” (Waverley,) artemesia (artemisia,) soflty (softly,) clam (calm.)

Reading Scotland 2020

35 Scottish books read this year, 18 by men, 16 by women, and 1 by both. Four non-fiction (one on football, three autobiography,) three with fantastical elements. Three (in bold) were on the 100 best Scottish Books list. (I’ve not got many to go now.)

Scar Culture by Toni Davidson
Lifted Over the Turnstiles by Steve Finan
The Finishing School by Muriel Spark
Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone
Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin
The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh
The Coral Island by R M Ballantyne
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
Scottish Short Stories Edited by Theodora and J F Hendry
The Pure Land by Alan Spence
Where the Apple Ripens by Jessie Kesson
Crossriggs by Jane & Mary Findlater
Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Death in Bordeaux by Allan Massie
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Naomi Mitchison
Crowdie and Cream by Finlay J MacDonald
The Rector and the Doctor’s Family by Mrs Oliphant
The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside
Murdo, The Life and Works by Iain Crichton Smith
The Glorious Thing by Christine Orr
All the Rage by A L Kennedy
Scruffians! by Hal Duncan
Dark Summer in Bordeaux by Allan Massie
The Flight of the Heron by D K Broster
Crotal and White by Finlay J MacDonald
Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett
The Brownie of Bodsbeck by James Hogg
After a Dead Dog by Colin Murray
Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark
Wild Harbour by Ian MacPherson
The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson
Cold Winter in Bordeaux by Allan Massie
The Dragon of Og by Rumer Godden
A Sense of Freedom by Jimmy Boyle
The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark

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