Scottish Noel

Fionn Mac Colla (born Thomas MacDonald – like his friend Hugh McDiarmid he wrote under a different name) was a novelist who wrote intensely but sporadically. His first novel, The Albannach, which Alan Riach has said “bears comparison with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, was published in 1932, but his second, And the Cock Crew, a novel of the Highland Clearances, did not appear until 12 years later. Another 13 years passed before Scottish Noel, which, at 68 pages, was advertised as an extract from a novel – a novel which was eventually published posthumously in 1994 as Move Up, John.

The story’s Christmas setting is established in the opening pages by a priest conducting a Mass and reading (in Scots):

“Joseph gaed up from Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea with Mary his espousit wife, and her days being accomplishit she brocht forth her first-born son and wrappit him in swaddling claiths and layit him in a manger.”

Do not let this gentle beginning fool you, however, as what follows will almost entirely focus on battle, its violence leavened only by the beauty of Mac Colla’s prose:

“From the house roofs and right up and over the near-full moon spread a vast luminous net spangled innumerably with swimming motes.”

As the Mass ends one of the two priests, Ninian Kennedy, hears approaching horses, and shortly after notices the beacon has been lit which warns, “The English are ower the Border!” As the other priest, John Erskine, comments, “I wad better ha’ been a sodjer and never a priest!” but soon the two of them are heading for the battlefield to tend to the dying. (It is probably worth pointing out that only the dialogue, of which there is little – and not all of that – uses a form of Scots). The journey takes them through dark woods in the cold winter night (“the cold touching his eyeballs”) and soon they discover that the beacon which warned them of the English incursion should have been lit much earlier but that the four men sent to light it had been killed by ‘traitors’. This introduces a theme of unity and division which, as Mac Colla was a founding member of the National Party of Scotland, may have a had a contemporary resonance. As Kennedy says when a group of Scots soldiers appear from the direction of the English camp:

“…seldom or never have the Englishmen borne the advantage over us except there was division among ourselves.”

The narrative is entirely on the side of the Scots. When the Scots noble, Menteith, comments that Scottish pride in their martial ability can also be their undoing – “through contempt of enemies they can be worsted at times by those that fight better by the ruse and stratagem” – Kennedy suggests this is because:

“…we Scots have always fought only in a just cause, have never tried to enslave or despoil others, only to defend ourselves. When your cause is just, your eye is single, your heart pure, guile and cunning do not attract you…”

This is not history as propaganda, however. MacColla’s main aim is to recreate, as authentically as he can, the 16th century battlefield. As he says in a brief forward, “What was it like, to live in those days.” He describes the battlefield both from afar:

“At the moment it was like a battle on a tapestry…No sound of conflict came. But ever and again, as though a draft had rippled the stuff faintly, movements here and there could be detected and silver points would sparkle out under the moon.”

And close up:

“As they approached the place the impression of a picture faded. Its smell was crude and real: of blood and entrails of men and horses with which the trampled ground was putrid, torn flesh and sweat and leather.”

The reader soon becomes completely immersed in the world of the story which makes no concession to modernity. It is this intensity which is the focus of the praise from other leading figures in the Scottish Renaissance which accompanies the book: Sydney Goodsir Smith describes the writing as “extremely vivid” and goes on to say:

“All is as if seen under a cruel surgical light by a miniaturist using a dagger for a pen.”

Naomi Mitchison adds, “The visual picture you are left with has a Breughel-like intensity.” Its fidelity and precision render it beyond the topic, just as we may admire a painting when the subject holds no interest for us. As a Christmas tale, however, it is a cruel one.

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4 Responses to “Scottish Noel”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    I love Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow, so the comment about the reader being left with a Breughel-like image definitely resonates.

    Despite the story’s length, I’d love to see this as part of an anthology of Christmas stories from across the UK – down the ages as necessary. I don’t know if such as collection already exits, but your knowledge is these things is probably between than mine!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Wow. Dark stuff for a Christmas story, but an author I’d like to read.

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