Archive for the ‘Fionn MacColla’ Category

Scottish Noel

December 4, 2021

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.

And the Cock Crew

February 10, 2013

and the cock crew

Our third novel of the Highland Clearances is Fionn MacColla’s And the Cock Crew, originally published in 1945. Like Iain Crichton Smith, MacColla was a teacher, but unlike Smith, he also falls into that unfortunately common category of Scottish writers: those who publish little. Enrique Vila-Matas has written a whole novel (Bartleby) about writers who only publish one book, and indeed, if only he had known, Scotland provides numerous examples (we may come to some of them). MacColla was lucky enough to publish two novels in his lifetime; another two appeared posthumously. Despite this, he was strongly associated with the Scottish Renaissance (a revival of Scottish writing during the first half of the twentieth century most associated with Hugh MacDiarmid, with whom he shared strong nationalist views).

As the title makes obvious, And the Cock Crew is a novel of betrayal. As with Smith, MacColla is most scathing of what he saw as the Highland people’s betrayal at the hands of the church. Religion takes an even more central place as the main character is a minister (it’s not a proper Scottish novel, of course, unless there’s a minister in it somewhere). Maighstair Sachairi first appears heroically at a gathering of the community ordered by the Factor (frequently referred to as the Black Foreigner, a satanic nom-de-plume which also suggests his distance from the Highland people). He is seeking to punish those who he claims chased a “sheep man” away from their land; Sachairi speaks up strongly for them:

“If he was pursued it was by his conscience jabbering at him, and the fear he was in wasna bodily.”

However, in his own conscience, Sachairi is tormented by the problem of whether the Clearances are a punishment from God as the other ministers believe. This doubt leaves him helpless when he discovers the Factor setting fire to the heather, an act he knows will leave no grass for cattle:

“So long as he saw this calamity which threatened his people as no more than a wrong conceived in the proud hearts of wicked men, so long he had been able to act with vigour and decision, for he saw his duty clearly…But meeting the Factor at the very moment when he did not know whether he ought to regard him as the instrument of Divine vengeance, he had found himself deprived of all decision.”

In the meantime, his congregation continue to believe he will protect them.

The centre piece of the novel is a long conversation that Sachairi has with the Poet who led the community before his arrival. The Poet acts rather obviously as a vehicle for MacColla’s own views. He points out to Sachairi that no man can really know God’s intentions through a series of probing questions. He also comments on the relationship between Scotland and England:

“For consider…Conquest is not only a matter of defeats in battle. If a nation gives up its ways and its language and the things that belong to its nationality, and takes the ways and language of another nation, then it can be said to have been conquered by that other nation.”

It comes as little surprise, then, that when Sachairi is injured during the clearing of the glen, he wakes to find himself being cared for by the Poet. Though this might make the novel seem overly didactic, Sachairi is treated sympathetically as a character throughout, though MacColla is less forgiving of those responsible for the Clearances than either Gunn or Smith. It is ironic, however, that in a novel so fierce about the vanishing Highland way of life, it features so little.