It was with some trepidation that I left for Scotland just one day after the 2015 General Election in which the SNP gained over 50 seats in Westminster and jokes along the lines of ‘will we need passports?’ raised no laughs from my travelling companion. But one thing reassured me as I changed trains at Edinburgh’s Waverley station- in my rucksack nestled a copy of ‘Sunset Song’ by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, said by Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP to be her favourite book. I had been thrilled to discover only days before the fateful Thursday 7th May that Nicola shared my passion for ‘Sunset Song’: I had read it for the first time on a trip to Glencoe 5 years ago and this was to be a second read. And it’s a book which really does bear a second read. It’s set in the early years of the twentieth century in the mythical Highland village of Kinraddie, whose nearest town is Stonehaven, south of Aberdeen. The book is an account of the childhood and young adulthood of Chris Guthrie, daughter of a poor farmer/ crofter, and the rural community in which she grows up. The account of rural poverty is at times shocking: her mother left her home to go to work at the age of 9 and didn’t wear shoes till she was 12. It is also an account of loss- of family members through illness, men disappearing to find work elsewhere, men lost fighting in the First World War. Despite the hardship of their lives Chris and her neighbours feel an affinity to their land, both for the livelihood it provides but also for its beauty and this is wonderfully evoked in lyrical descriptions of the moorland, birdsong, smell. Like Chris, we are given the sense of a landscape which will endure when all we mortals have been long dead and forgotten. The characterisation is excellent and as a result the family tensions and interactions vividly depicted are compelling and relevant to today’s world. The community is represented without sentimentality- this is a small community where gossip is rife and at times destructive- yet it is also a political class ultimately subject to the needs of the landowners and the government as the men go off one by one to war. My one caveat is that the book is written in dialect and so the reading does require patience and attention- there is thankfully a glossary at the back- but the effort required is repaid in the pleasure of reading this account of the sun setting on the crofting way of life.
And so to Orkney and George Mackay Brown, whose books I saw everywhere. I asked the bookseller at Stromness Books and Prints to recommend me a title and he suggested the short stories. So I bought a copy of ‘A Time to Keep’ and enjoyed it while exploring Orkney’s South Ronaldsay, Hoy, Mainland, its red sandstone cliffs at the extremities of land, ancient standing stones, sunlight on green treeless hills and warm bars providing respite from winds cutting to the bone. The stories are of Orkney characters at a time only occasionally specified, but probably in the first part of the 20th century. These are tales of seafaring folk and so of departures and arrivals bringing new things to the Islands – an accordeon, a wireless. They are a musical people who love a ceilidh and a fiddle song, but who are also prey to the temptation of liqueur and gambling, especially when returning from whaling with a few sovereigns in the pocket. There is a pragmatism to love and marriage, contracted by two people in need of mutual financial support and human succour : life is short and unpredictable and the burial shroud is sewn the moment the wedding is over- just to be ready. The writer bases some stories on actual historical events: in ‘A Treading of Grapes’ he uses a fragment of Master John Halcrow’s sermon from 1548 on the wedding feast at Cana and contrasts it with an imagined contemporary sermon and the sermon of a Dr. Fortheringhame of 1788. He cleverly employs different voices and rhetorical devices to express ‘the changing style of the Scottish sermon’ but also shows us the change in power relations between priest and congregation. My favourite story was ‘The Wireless Set’ where Howie returns from whaling just before the second world war with a wireless set, to the amazement and incredulity of his parents and community. There are comic moments as the community try to come to terms with the ‘disembodied voice’ they hear- especially when they tune into Lord Haw- Haw and know his claim that the Ark Royal has gone missing to be a lie- they have just seen it making for Scapa Flow, the Naval base in the Orkneys during the war. But the wireless set, like Lord Haw- Haw, comes ‘to a bad end’ in the story’s sad denouément. Mackay is an Orkney writer- Owen Sheers’ programme gives details of his life, not sure if that’s available to watch anywhere- and his intimate knowledge of Orkney and its landscape is reflected in his lyrical imagery: ‘the oats had heaved at the sun like a great slow green wave all summer’. These stories are a pleasure to read.
Returning to Edinburgh for a few days seemed like the perfect opportunity to read a Rebus novel by Ian Rankin, based in Edinburgh as they are. ‘Set in Darkness’ did indeed seem relevant as the plot harks back to the 1979 Scottish referendum and corruption surrounding those events and the more recent building of the Scottish parliament. Now, as an ingénue in matters of crime fiction, I’m not going to launch into a proper review of this book. Suffice it to say the book certainly evoked well the piercing cold and darkness of Edinburgh nights in the Christmas period as well as the bleak personal lives of the urban detective. Lots of drinking, lots of banter and lots of characters which at times I lost sight of-probably my fault. This book was a good read and the element of sexual crime was dealt with straightforwardly but not allowing for voyeurism. Thank you Ian Rankin.
So that was my Scotland in books. Now back home to England, the holiday’s over.