Archive for January, 2013

Sun Circle

January 3, 2013

sun circle

What better way to start our tour of Scottish literature than with a novel set before Scotland existed? Sun Circle was Neil Gunn’s fourth novel, originally published in 1933, but something of a departure from the first three, largely contemporary, novels that preceded it. In it he attempts to transport us back a thousand years to a time when Christianity was slowly beginning to take hold on Scottish shores threatened by Viking invaders.

The tension between Christianity and the old religion is quickly seen in the novel. The Master, the leader of the old religion, warns that the Northmen are on their way. As the leaders of the tribe meet, they are summoned by Molrua, the missionary – a message passed on by the chief, Drust’s, wife, Silis, a devoted Christian who has married into the tribe from further south:

“’He expects you to lead them to his hill,’ she concluded. ‘That’s his message.’
‘Do you mean,’ said her husband, turning round, ‘that that is his order?’”

Though they are moved by Molrua’s speech, they still intend to fight the Northmen when they come. That battle is one of the most successful scenes in the novel, Drust leading his men against the more experienced and better armed Vikings to an inevitable defeat. The survivors scatter, and the Northmen lay siege to the Tower, an ancient stone building even then, where Sisil and her daughter Nessa are hiding.

Gunn handles scenes of action intensely and vividly, but unfortunately takes up much of the novel with a love triangle between Aniel, a servant to the Master, Nessa, and her servant, Breeta. Despite Aniel’s pivotal role, his choice between Nessa and Breeta does not relate to the novel’s theme of transition, nor does he agonise much over it, generally fancying whoever is nearest. The girls, too, seem unconvinced, and the whole plotline is made to seem trivial in the life or death situation in which they all find themselves. Gunn’s female characters are often his weakest and his reliance on Breeta in particular to carry much of the story is to the detriment of the novel. Nessa’s appearances, on the other hand, are fleeting, making her desire for the man responsible for both her parents deaths seem irrational rather than profound.

The novel is, however, a brave attempt to bring largely unrecorded history to life. Gunn uses an omniscient narrative voice which moves among the characters, including those of the Vikings – in fact, it is when describing those male relationships he is most successful. The novel ends with the Master prophesying:

“I was looking at the smoke there a little while ago, and far into the years to come I saw the glen smoking again.”

Aniel sets off to bring Drust’s son back from his southern (Christian) education. The holy place of the old religion, the Grove, has been burned to the ground. The glen will burn again in Gunn’s next novel, Butcher’s Broom, which will deal with another time of transformation – the Highland Clearances.

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Every Short Story – ‘The Star’

January 2, 2013

unlikely stories2

Alasdair Gray’s first collection of short stories, , was published in 1983 shortly after the publication of Lanark. Like Lanark, however, it had been many years in the making, with the earliest piece, ‘The Star’, originally published in 1951. A mere three pages long, it first appeared in a magazine for children and concerns a young boy, Cameron, who witnesses a star falling to earth and retrieves it. It not only displays Gray’s tendency to mix realism with fantasy, but creates a rather wonderful metaphor for it when the star is found “in the midden on a decayed cabbage leaf”. Presumably intended for the widest possible audience at a time when Gray was keen to be published, he still cleaves to a Scottish setting through the use of the word ‘midden’ and the brief dialogue (“A’m gawn out”). The ending is equally uncompromising: Cameron, in order to prevent a ferocious teacher (and we’ll meet plenty of them in Scottish literature) from confiscating his star, swallows it:

“Teacher, classroom, world receded like a rocket into a warm, easy blackness behind a trail of glorious stars, and he was one of them.”

A rather terrifying thought for a young child, I would have thought, though one of the more benign transformations we shall find in Gray’s work.

Alasdair Gray

January 1, 2013

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Who knew, when I decided that the recent publication of Alasdair Gray’s collected short stories (the prosaically titled Every Short story) was an excellent excuse to tackle them all (one at a time) over the next few months, that Gray himself would be making headline news? ‘Alasdair Gray attacks English for ‘colonising’ arts!’ screamed one hysterical headline. (That’s about as screamy as it gets in the Scotsman, and I added the exclamation mark).

The cause of this furore was an article that Gray had written for an anthology of Scottish writers’ thoughts on independence, Unstated. (You can read the whole article here). In it he divides invaders (those we now tend to call immigrants) into settlers and colonists. This is partly a distinction of longevity – settlers stay, colonists don’t – but also represents a state of mind. Where settlers accept and absorb the culture of the country they settle in, colonists seek to impose their own values on it. Gray’s particular complaint was that too many important jobs in the arts go to those from outside Scotland; and by ‘outside Scotland’ I don’t mean that the country is home to an international cast of thousands, I mean England.

These comments immediately made Gray a racist in the eyes of some (raising the interesting question of whether the English are actually another race), many of whom had, as is the way with these things, not read the article. Really though, it’s a mathematical problem. At no point does Gray suggest that no-one from outside Scotland should be allowed a job in the arts; but he does suggest that it is unhealthy that so many of these jobs go to English candidates. What percentage of similar jobs in England would have to go to Americans before eyebrows were raised, I wonder? Of course, you would have thought that one enterprising journalist might have bothered to find out how many people in important positions in the arts in Scotland are English. Isn’t that what journalists used to do? If it’s only one or two then clearly Gray doesn’t have much of a point. The fact that nobody seems keen to publicise the number makes me think it may be more…

Before this, however, Gray was best known as a writer and artist. Though perhaps not Scotland’s greatest writer of the twentieth century, he certainly has a claim to have written Scotland’s greatest novel of that time in Lanark. Recently he seems determined to collate all his work with his collected stories following recent collections of his plays and poems and his autobiographical A Life in Pictures. Whether Every Short Story is the final piece in this jigsaw remains to be seen.

A Scottish Literature

January 1, 2013

If a language is a dialect with an army and navy, as the adage has it, then presumably a national literature can’t be far behind. With Scotland counting down towards a referendum that might potentially establish an army and navy, the question of whether it has a national literature is a relevant one. Recent debate over the control of the arts in Scotland has made it moreso – one argument used to refute Alasdair Gray’s assertion that too many prominent positions in the arts go to English candidates is that there is no Scottish culture for them to be ignorant of. (This will be discussed further in the next post).

Over the next year or so I therefore intend to liberally sprinkle my posts with a selection of Scottish classics. A few will be well known outside Scotland but many will probably not be; if nothing else it may bring some neglected writers to wider attention. I have no intention of tackling this chronologically or of attempting to be exhaustive, but do hope to touch on prose, poetry and drama in the course of the year. If you have a favourite Scottish text, feel free to let me know.