Being the 72nd and Last Post of my
Journey into Scotland
Everywhere I went in Scotland, I met people who were proud of their culture and happy to bring a friendly pedaller up to speed with what I should be reading and watching if I truly wanted to become au fait with life north of the border. A drunk near the Burns’ Memorial in Alloway ordered me to read Lewis Grassic Gibbon. I hadn’t even sought his opinion. Mind you, he also threatened to kill me with a knife. I was paying close attention. A nurse near Crianlarich took my notebook off me and wrote a long list. I’ve probably still got the notebook as it’s not the sort of thing I throw away. From memory, it contained two books by Robin Jenkins: The Cone Gatherers and The Awakening of George Darroch.
“They don’t teach any Scottish history in English schools. It’s a shocking omission. None of our history. And when was the last time a class read a Scottish book in one of your literature classes? No. As far as education in England is concerned, we don’t exist.”*
He went on to add the names of Alasdair Gray and Iain Banks to my reading list. I wasn’t short of advice.
I’m a believer in the power of the novel, above all other arts forms, to give an insight into a culture. Well, not a single novel. Too small a sample can give a very distorted picture. I read Lanark and I read Unlikely Stories Mostly by the brilliant Alasdair Gray and I thought them wonderful. I’d already read Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon but I added Sunset Song from his Scots Quair and I’ll soon complete the trilogy with Cloud Howe. I read both of the books by Robin Jenkins and by that time I was on a roundabout with one book suggesting its successor. When I began this project I’d only dipped my toe into the water. Now I’m fully immersed and ready to have a go at swimming across the wide stream of Scottish literature. The country has only produced one winner of the Booker Prize, but that says more about the metropolitan tastes (and backgrounds) of the judging panel. If I were to choose my shortlist of the best 100 books published in Britain over the last fifty years it would contain at least twenty Scottish titles. Here are a few that I have read especially for this journey.
Whisky Galore by Compton MacKenzie
It’s a hoot. I laughed my way through it and immediately ordered the dvd of the 1949 film. The writing isn’t perfect, the characters are over-drawn to the extent of approaching caricature, the setting is idealised and, like Dylan Thomas’s The Outing, makes a bunch of men getting drunk sound almost fabulous; my experience is that it is rarely thus. But it has magic. It pulls together it’s different strands (it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t set in wartime) to make a very special weave. Very few books have made me laugh more than this one. I hasn’t made me want to drink whisky but it has provided a more than ample substitute.
Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell
The book describes an almost idyllic isolation in the north west of the country. A touch sentimental. A touch from a previous time. I bought this with paper-round money when I was 12. I think I would have enjoyed it then. I certainly enjoyed it 44 years on. I like human company and I like being left alone. But I would hate to live without animal companionship. The real achievement of this book is as a celebration of what animals bring to us.
Also serves as a first-rate wildlife guide to the north west of Scotland.
How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman
Caused controversy when it won the Booker. The sniffy reviews caused Kelman problems later on when looking for publishing deals. A rare case of winning the Booker closing doors for a writer. It opened doors for other writers though. This is brilliant. To manage the first thirty pages is impressive, to write the entire novel in faultless, poetic, realistic, crude, funny, genuine language is an immense achievement.
What did the gripers want from a novel? Storyline – gripping; characterisation – superb; language – as good as it gets; settings – you’re there! I’ve waited a long time to read this novel. It was worth the wait.
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Sadly Iain Banks died last year but he left us with great grace and dignity.
This is the first book he published and the only one I’ve read so far. It certainly held me, it un-nerved me and it surprised me. It seemed gruesome and I wondered at the wisdom of having it on the English syllabus in schools and then I watched the news and realised that it was no more x-rated than the lunch-time bulletin. What makes it disturbing is the voice. Sustaining this voice throughout is quite something. It isn’t a fun read but it is a worthwhile one.
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
I’m glad I read this. It seemed dated at first and has fallen out of fashion (it is dated but you soon get into the trick and rhythm of the language), and the story seemed a little slow in getting going. The Prologue is worth reading at the end as well as at the beginning. A history of the Highlands told through the history of a few square miles.
It reminded me most of DH Lawrence (also fast falling out of fashion). It most nearly resembles The White Peacock and it is a much better book. For all its limited geographical range it paints a broad canvas. It is a great rough pastoral to go alongside Wordsworth’s Leech Gatherers and decrepit huntsmen and idiot children. It is a great picture of the First World War and its effects on the people far from the monstrous anger of the guns. It is a magnificent telling of the end of Crofting. It is a great Feminist novel. It is modernist and determined to speak with a Scottish voice and it is in this that it has aged badly. The style interferes with the narrative flow (ironic for a stream of consciousness) and the Scottishness is of a 1930s vintage. It may succeed in always making you aware of itself as a human construct but this prevents me (at least) from becoming totally immersed in, what is otherwise, one hell of a story.
Hebridean Connection by Derek Cooper
A personal description of the western islands by the burgundy voiced former presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme.
A well written account of the Hebrides as a place to live and work with much less time for those who come in search of their own idyl (and bugger up everybody else’s by bringing a guitar and a passion for making crap out of shells); and much, much less time for those who use their obscene and ill-gotten wealth to play the landowner at the expense of real people and a real way of life.
Perhaps a few years out of date but I haven’t come across any thing more recent that is anything like as good.
The First Fifty: Munro Bagging Without a Beard by Muriel Gray
Buy this book and read it. End of review.
Portrait of Orkney by George Mackay Brown
A near perfect gentle guide. George Mackay Brown is the ideal companion. It’s an afternoon stroll or a morning walk rather than a detailed archaeological exploration. A pleasure. (Bonus fact: Robert Frost’s grandmother was an Orcadian.)
Swing Hammer Swing by Jeff Torrington
Christopher Brookmyre gives a much better summation of this brilliant book than I could do so I’ll unashamedly print his. “A surreal portrait of Sixties Glasgow, related via the keen – if well-bevvied – eyes and coruscating patter of amateur philosopher, father-to be and diligently dedicated waster Tam Clay. The essence of my home city finely distilled; every dram is a relished drop.”
Scottish Journey by Edwin Muir
A gem of a book that takes you around a Scotland reeling from the blows of the great depression in the company of someone worth listening to. A companion piece to JB Priestley’ English Journey and a worthy one. Like Priestley he deliberately travels to parts of the country that tell different stories, that have suffered differently in the economic turmoil of the times. Muir has been criticised for waxing political as he wanders among Glasgow Slums or talks of farm labourers’ struggles under surf like conditions; their wives dying in childbirth to avoid the cost of a doctor or refusing to take time off to become ill because they know it will cost a livelihood; in the end it costs a life. How can a sensitive and caring man wax anything other than political? (Priestley certainly does as he visits Tyneside).
Here is a proud Scot who doesn’t care for the cult of Burns and Scott (though he admires both as writers). A man who resents the wrongs done to his countrymen, who is happy to point out the good when he comes across it…and he comes across plenty… and who sees a great need for change (and who sees hope in that need).
The book is a pleasure to read and a warning to myself that I have a long way to go before I can call myself a true travel writer.
Oh, and the prose is as beautiful as you’d expect from a true poet.
I read plenty more but I think that gives a flavour. I learned an enormous amount by cycling around Scotland the autumn of 1987. I went off in search of myself and came back a different person. The more I discover about Scotland the more I like it and the less I seem to know. At 10 miles per hour you see so much and there is so much to see. Every day revealed a landscape as different from the day before as Norway is from Portugal. And my education has continued through this writing. In school’s there is an old saying that if you really want to know something, then you should teach it. A good teacher should be a good learner else what are they in the classroom for? I’ve found the same thing to be true of writing. I’ve discovered as much about the country by writing about Scotland as I did by visiting.
A great many people have dropped by to read chapters and leave messages. Some of you have been with me through the whole 100,000 plus words (and who knows how many photographs?) All I can say is thank you; I have really enjoyed your company, appreciated your likes and comments and hope that I have given you a few new views of a very auld country.
* Some Scottish writers have made it onto the English Schools’ Syllabus; among them are Anne Fine, Iain Banks Liz Lochhead and Robert Louis Stevenson. Liz Lochhead adding something very different as you don’t get many words with a double h in them!