As we await the announcement of this year’s Walter Scott prize for historical fiction, Liz Macrae Shaw reflects on Scott’s Scottish legacy and the writers that have followed in his wake.
The books we read when we are young mark us like tree rings and become part of our DNA. While I was at primary school I devoured only Enid Blyton stories. So when I started at secondary school I was astounded to learn that other authors even existed. I attended a small Girls’ Grammar School in Farnham, Surrey. In those frugal times most of the budget went on the set books for ‘O’ and ‘A’ level English. As a result the books we were given during the first three years were the sweepings from the cobwebby recesses of the English cupboard. There were some lucky finds, such as Robert Louis Stevenson. Other trawls were less welcome, like the copies of ‘Norse Myths and Legends’, so tattered that they looked like survivors of Viking raids themselves or thick tomes of Walter Scott written in tiny print on flimsy paper.
Still, Sir Walter Scott has to be my starting point as he is the author credited with creating the historical novel as a genre in its own right, even though he suffers from the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most famous writers of the nineteenth century and one of least read. He is also credited with creating the romantic myth of the Highlands, rebranding a part of Britain previously considered to be a primitive wilderness. He was very successful in portraying the Highlands as a place of passion and imagination, remote from ordinary life, with a dramatic landscape peopled by noble but unpredictable savages. As a result he inspired the English upper classes to come and see the likes of Loch Lomond and Staffa. Even George IV himself was persuaded to visit, kitted out in kilt and silk stockings. His hosts must have found it hard to keep a straight face at this corpulent vision but his arrival was a triumph in promoting the new image of Scotland. It was significant that he was the first English king to cross the border from England without an army at his back. Better a fat man in Highland fancy dress than one wielding a sword.
So what are we to make of the ‘Waverley’ novels, the series of books on Scottish history Scott wrote before turning to English medieval history? He is criticised for being a turgid writer, known for longwinded descriptions and undigested lumps of research. However he was not a blinkered romantic. Edward Waverley, the eponymous hero of his first novel, set in 1745, is a naïve and impressionable young man. Andrew Hook in his introduction to the Penguin edition writes, ‘Waverley is dazed and dazzled by his Scottish experience; more specifically he is dazzled by Fergus, chief of the clan MacIvor, and by his sister Flora. Scott on the other hand is dazzled by nothing and no-one.’ Instead he portrays all the Jacobite leaders as flawed characters.
Despite finding Scott’s prose a hard trudge I enjoyed reading about the part of Britain where I spent every summer holiday as a child and teenager, staying with my grandparents on the Isle of Skye. So I was excited when another Scottish historical novel emerged from the gloom of the English cupboard. As a bonus, this time the copies had a picture of a Highland landscape on the cover and were only lightly shop soiled. This book was ‘The Flight of the Heron,’ written by D.K. Broster and published in 1925. Dorothy Kathleen Broster was born in Liverpool in 1877, educated privately and became one of the first students at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Her book, the first part of a trilogy, became a bestseller. Like ‘Waverley’ it was set at the time of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. I can remember how the story gripped me. It started with an old Highland seer’s vision of a flying heron, a vision that would trigger a series of encounters between Captain Keith Windham, an English redcoat and Ewen Cameron, a member of a Highland chief’s family. Ewen is the very model of the handsome and chivalrous romantic hero. Windham is amazed at how civilised his erstwhile enemy is. However Broster contrasts this portrayal with her depiction of the ordinary Highlanders, brave and loyal noble savages who are also superstitious and brutal.
On re-reading the book I can still appreciate the lively pace of the action but am struck by how difficult it is to write convincing historical dialogue. Broster tries for a more realistic effect than Scott. She scatters Gaelic words into the text and attempts a Highland intonation but it comes over as self-conscious antique speech, the earnest efforts of an outsider.
Compared with Scott and D.K.Broster, Robert Louis Stevenson’s reputation has fared much better because he blends the romance of adventure with a realistic understanding of character. In ‘Kidnapped’, the Lowlander David Balfour and the Highlander Alan Breck embody the divide within Scotland that exists to the present day. The cautious and pragmatic Balfour with his conventional beliefs stands against the brave, headstrong Alan with his violent tribal loyalties. RLS’s skill lies in showing them as individuals, not just types. Although they appear at first to be opposites as their journey unfolds we find that they share more character traits than either of them are willing to admit.
I have always been intrigued about how perceptive RLS was about the Highlands, given that he was brought up in Edinburgh. However in his youth he travelled northwards with his lighthouse building father. In my second novel, ‘A Wide and Starry Sky’, he appears as a child on the island of Rona, off Skye and later in the book reflects on how this experience affected him.
Neil Gunn, unlike the other authors I’ve mentioned was not a relic from the English cupboard. I discovered him much later. His writing has the vigour and conviction of someone writing from the inside. Born into a fishing and crofting community in Caithness in 1891 he was one of a group of writers of the Scottish Renaissance in the first part of the twentieth century. They included Edwin Muir and Hugh MacDiarmaid. This group believed that the renaissance had to be rooted in political independence and economic development as well as Scottish culture. In ‘The Highland River’ Gunn writes about a young man enduring the hardships of the Western Front and finding refuge in his memories of his boyhood. Gunn’s strength is his muscular, clear-eyed prose. Unlike Scott and Broster he didn’t write about the Highlands like an anthropologist seeking to record a dying culture but rather from the perspective of a lived and living experience. He knew what it was like for his central character Kenn to hunt and kill a wild salmon. He could understand the boy’s pride in his catch and his respect for the creature’s beauty and its struggle to return to the river where it was spawned.
Gunn saw identity as belonging to a community rooted in its landscape and history. The formal education system with its focus on alien Romans and Saxons ploughed up these roots. The Picts and Vikings who had peopled the village became ‘sounds in the empty places of history.’ Perhaps because he was attuned to the tradition of oral storytelling, his style of writing is episodic but the underlying theme is the continuity of life. In later life Kenn returns, like the salmon, to search for the source of the river, with no great hopes. The stream seems to disappear into the ground but re-emerges to flow into a deep pool. Although the old way of life has ended the beauty of the natural world links him to the values of his childhood.
Turning to contemporary writers about the Highlands I only have space to mention one book, ‘Corrag’ by Susan Fletcher. Her main character, a witch, is driven northwards by persecution and arrives in Glencoe. The MacDonald clan, at first wary, come to value her healing skills. She is found guilty of involvement in the 1692 Massacre and sentenced to death by burning at the stake. While imprisoned she is visited by a clergyman, Charles Leslie. She tells him her story in a lyrical stream of consciousness while his letters to his wife show how his view of her shifts from horror and disgust to understanding and affection. Corrag’s character is portrayed with sensitivity but without romanticism. Her speech has a poetic simplicity that is beguiling and convincing.
‘I sink my heels into bogs and watch the tiny droplets on the tips of bright-green moss. I crouch down by lochs that are so still that they have their own mountains, their own moving sky.’
Like Scott, RLS and D.K.Broster, Fletcher uses the relationship with the stranger as a lens to reflect the otherness of the Highlander. Her protagonist is female, an outsider by gender and class as well as nationality. In my novel, ‘Love and Music Will Endure,’ Mary MacPherson had to overcome similar barriers to become the bard and champion of dispossessed Highlanders. She also had the extra barrier of language to overcome. Her poetry was forged by her rage and distress at being found guilty of theft in an Inverness court room where she couldn’t understand the proceedings.
This is a personal and fleeting snapshot of authors who have written about the Highlands. They all created an imaginary vision of a landscape and a people seen through the lens of their own times. The history and culture of this wild and beautiful place continues to inspire writers today.
All photos author’s /editor’s own.