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Elphinstone Kist   Background and Contexts

Northeast Scots In Fiction     by: Young, Douglas F.

Stories have always been important to the folk of the northeast, as they have to people everywhere, and for generations this need was satisfied by the traditional ballads and folk tales which are the great glory of our regional literature. But as we go through the nineteenth century, and literacy becomes more widely spread, there is an inevitable movement away from the oral tradition and a demand for printed stories.

This move towards the novel form presented some real problems of language for the aspiring storyteller, especially if brought up speaking Scots. The first is a commercial one, a problem of publication. Folk songs publish themselves; they are circulated in oral tradition. But the physical production of a novel requires a substantial capital investment, and therefore a guaranteed return from wide sales. And you won’t get that if your language is densely local. Secondly, Scots by the nineteenth century had become merely a colloquial spoken language, and whilst this made it suitable for the mouths of some of the characters, there is usually another voice being heard in a novel, the voice of the narrator, who stands back from and above his characters. This voice is more formal so almost has to be English. Put these two points together and our would-be northeast novelists are being told that they may get away with Scots for some of their dialogue but even there they mustn’t go too far.


This certainly was the experience of George MacDonald (1824-1905) who was born and brought up in Huntly. Having failed in his career as a minister, MacDonald turned to the novel to make a living for his very large family. Determined to be a commercial success, he pays heed to Victorian tastes. Thus his narrative is in English, and English of a rather stiff and pompous kind, which may owe something to his pulpit training, but in his dialogue he displays a remarkable (and perhaps unwise) commitment to local speech. Several of his many novels are set in the northeast, and in what is perhaps his best, Alec Forbes of Howglen, he deals with growing up in what he calls Glamerton, but which is really the Huntly of his own childhood.

The spirit of mischief had never been so thoroughly aroused in the youth of Glamerton as it was this winter. The snow lay very deep, while almost every day a fresh fall added to its depth, and this rendered some of their winter amusements impossible. At the same time the cold increased and strengthened their impulses to muscular exertion.
“Thae loons are jist growin’ perfect deevils,” said Charlie Chapman, the wool-carder, as he bolted into his own shop, with the remains of a snowball melting down the back of his neck. “We maun hae anither constable to haud them in order.”

“I never saw sic widdiefows!” chimed in a farmer’s wife who was standing in the shop. “They had a tow across the Wast Wynd i’ the snaw, an’ doon I cam o’ my niz, as sure’s your name’s Charlie Chapman - and mair o’ my legs oot o’ my coats, I doobt, than was a’thegither to my credit.”
“I’m sure ye can hae no rizzon to tak’ shame o’ your legs, gude wife,”
was the gallant rejoinder; to which their owner replied, with a laugh:
“They warna made for public inspection, ony gait.”
Here Andrew Constable dropped in, and Chapman turned towards him with the question:
“Did ye hear, Mr Constable, what the loons did to Robert Bruce the nicht afore last?”
“No. What was that? They hae a spite at puir Rob, I believe.”
“Weel, it didna look a’thegither like respeck, I maun alloo. - I was stannin’ at the coonter o’ his shop waitin’ for an unce o’ sneeshin’; and Robert he was servin’ a bit bairnie ower the coonter wi’ a pennyworth o’ triacle, when, in a jiffey, ther cam’ sic a blast, an’ a reek fit to smore ye, oot o’ the bit fire, an’ the shop was fu’ o’ reek, afore ye could hae pitten the pint o’ ae thoom upo’ the pint o’ the ither. ‘Preserve’s a’!’ cried Rob; but or he could say anither word, butt the house, scushlin in her bauchles, comes Nancy, rinnin’, an’ opens the door,wi’ a scraich: ‘Preserve’s a’!’ quo she, ‘Robert, the lum’s in a low!’ An’ fegs! atween the twa reeks, to sunder them, there was nothing but Nancy hersel. The hoose was as fu’ as it cud haud, frae cellar to garret, o’ the blackest reek ‘at ever crap oot o’ coal. Oot we ran, an’ it was a sicht to see the crater wi’ his lang neck luikin up at the chimleys. But dell a spark cam’ oot o’ them - or reek either, for that maitter. It was easy to see what was amiss. The loons had been o’ the riggin, and flung a han’fu’ o’ blastin’ powther down ilka smokin’ chimley, and syne clappit a divot or a turf upo’ the mou’ o’t. Deil ane o’ them was in sicht, but I doobt gin ony o’ them was far awa’. There was naithing for’t but get a ladder, and jist gang up an’ tak aft the pot-lids. But eh! puir Robert was jist rampin’ wi’ rage! No ‘at he said muckle, for he daur hardly open his mou’ for sweerin’, and Robert wadna sweer, ye ken; but he was neither to haud nor bin’.”
“What laddies war they, Charles, do ye ken?” asked Andrew.
“There’s a heep o’ them up to tricks. Gin a haena the rheumateese screwin’ awa’ atween my shoothers the nicht it wonna be their fau’ts; for as I cam’ frae the ironmonger’s there, I jist got a ba’ i’ the how o’ my neck, ‘at amaist sent me howkin’ wi’ my snoot i’ the snaw. And there it stack, and at this preceese moment it’s rinnin’ doon the sma o’ my. back as gin’t it were a burnie doon a hillside. We maun hae mair constables!”
“Hoot! toot! Charles. Ye dinna want a constable to dry yer back. Gang to the gudewife wi’t,” said Andrew, “she’ll gie ye a dry sark. Na, na. Lat the laddies work it aft. As lang’s they haud their han’s frae what doesna belang to them, I dinna min’ a bit ploy noo and than. They’ll no turn oot the waur men for a pliskie or twa.”

The language here may not seem too difficult, but even so it brought howls of protest from publishers and readers. A contemporary Scottish reviewer, Margaret Oliphant, could ask,

Why will Mr MacDonald make all his characters, almost without exception, talk such painfully broad Scots?

Some of the pirated American editions took the initiative and removed or anglicised the offending passages. Even a modern academic critic (albeit an American), Richard Reis, can assert,

To many the language of MacDonald’s characters will so closely approach unintelligibility that the ordinary reader will simply abandon the attempt to read him.

The case of MacDonald highlights the difficulties associated with the use of northeast Scots in fiction, certainly if you want to make a living at it. The experience of the other major nineteenth century northeast novelist, William Alexander (1826-1894), was different, largely due to the fact that his living came from elsewhere. Alexander was for many years editor of an Aberdeen newspaper, and most of his fiction was serialised in his own paper. Aiming at a local audience, he had more freedom in his use of language, and in Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk in particular he gives us the most authentic, and uncompromising, presentation of local speech. But this has meant that his work has not been recognised beyond the northeast in the way that it deserves. In this passage our hero is about to retire and looks back over his years as a tenant farmer. It shows not only Alexander’s command of northeast Scots, but also where his social and political commitment lay.

To Johnny Gibb the Autumn of 1847 had been a season of varied and engrossing business.There was first the erection of Mr MacCassock’s new manse. So long as the project had remained a matter merely to be talked about and resolved upon, there had been no lack of people to express their ideas and give their advice, but when it had assumed the practical aspect of settling contracts for the building, some of those who had talked most fluently became remarkably vague, and did not seem in haste to commit themselves to any specific action... .Then there were the private arrangements at Gushetneuk, in view of Johnny Gibb ceasing to be “tacksman”. The general belief was that Johnny would flit down to the Broch, buy half-a-dozen acres of the unfeud land, and settle down in a sort of permanent attitude as a small laird, cultivating his own land. Johnny meditated much on the point but said little, until one day, addressing his wife on the question of their future arrangements, he ran over one or two points that had come up to him, and without indicating any opinion, abruptly finished with the query, “Fat think ye, ‘oman?”
“Hoot, man,” replied Mrs Gibb, “fat need ye speer at me? I’ve toited aboot wi' you upo' this place naar foorty year noo, an' never tribbl't my heid the day aboot fat ye micht think it richt to dee the morn; an' aw sanna begin to mislippen ye noo at the tail o’ the day.”
“Weel,” said Johnny, with an air of more than his ordinary gravity, “I’ve been thinkin ‘t ower, a’ up an’ doon. It’s a queer thing fan ye begin to Iuik back owre a’ the time byegane. . .. Fan we begood the pilget here thegither, wi’ three stirks, an’ a bran’it coo’t cam’ wi’ your providin’, the tae side o’ the place was ta’en up wi’ breem busses an’ heather knaps half doon the faul’ies, an the tither was feckly a quaakin’ bog, growin’ lithe but sprots an’ rashes. It luiks like yesterday fan we hed the new hooses biggit, an’ the grun a’ oon’er the pleuch, though that’s a gweed therty year syne. I mm’ as bricht ‘s a paintet pictur’ fat like ilka knablich an’ ilka sheugh an’ en’ rig was.”
“An’ ye weel may, man, for there’s hardly a cannas breid upo’ the place but’s been Iawbour’t wi’ yer nain han’s owre an’ owre again to mak’ it.”
“That’s fat aw was comin’ till. Takin ‘t as it is, there’s been grun made oat a’ fat wasna grun ava; an’ there it is, growin’ craps for the eese o’ man an’ beast - Ou ay, aw ken we’ve made weel aneuch oat upon’t; but it’s nae i’ the naitur’ o’ man to gang on year aifter year plewin, an’ del’in’, an’ earin’ an’ shearin’ the bits a’ howes an’ knowes, seem’ the vera yird, obaidient till’s care, takin’ shape, an’ sen’in’ up the bonny caller blade in its sizzon, an’ aifter that the ‘fu’ corn i’ the ear’, as the Scriptur’ says, onbeen a kin’ o’ thirled to the vera rigs themsel’s.”
“Weel, a bodie is wae tae think o’ lea’in’ ‘t.”
“Ay, ay; but that’s nae a’. Gin fowk war tae luik at things ae gate we wud be wae to pairt wi’ onything ‘t we hae i’ the wardle. But here’s oorsel’s noo ‘t ‘S toil’t awa’ upo’ this place fae youthheid to aul’ age, an’ wi’ the lawbour a’ oor nain han’s made it ‘s ye may say - Gushetneuk the day’s nae mair fat Gushetneuk was fan we cam’ here nor my fit’s a han’ saw. Sir Seemon ca’s ‘imsel’ laird o’t; but Sir Seemon’s deen nae mair to the place nor the man a’ France. Noo, you an’ me can gae roon an’ roan aboot it, an’ wi’ a’ honesty say o’ this an’ that - “Here’s the fruit o’ oar lawbour - that’ll bide upo’ the face o’ the earth for the eese o’ ithers aifter we’re deid an’ gane.” Noo, this is fat I canna win at the boddom o’ ava. I’m weel seer it was never the arreengement o’ Providence that the man that tills the grun an’ spen’s the strength a’s days upon’t sud be at the merciment o’ a man that never laid a han’ tilI’t, nor hardly wair’t a shiilin’ upon’t, to bid ‘im bide or gyang.”

But notice that even here, whilst the characters speak in uncompromising dialect, the narrator uses English, and English of a rather formal kind.

This pattern of English narrative and Scots dialogue can be found in a large number of northeast prose writers, in David Grant, William Robbie, William Philip, Gavin Greig, W.P. Milne, Lorna Moon, to mention just some. In more recent times it is to be found too in the much more powerful work of Jessie Kesson, and in the contemporary fiction of Sheena Blackhall. But let me draw attention to the writing of Nan Shepherd (1893-1981), not only because her work has been generally neglected, but more specifically because in it is to be found a vivid presentation of local speech. She was born in Cults, lived most of her life there, and it is the ‘speak’ of Lower Deeside that comes alive in the mouths of her characters, not only in terms of vocabulary but in the idioms and sayings which give that speech its distinctiveness. In this passage from The Quarry Wood, the heroine has become the target of local gossip, even suspected of having had an illegitimate child, and her mother springs to her defence.

“It’s a sair haud-doon for a girl,” she says. “A haud-doon,” I says. “It’s you that wad need to be hauden doon,” I says. “It’s yer lugs nailed to the gallows that you wad need. Ye wad gar a deid dog tak the kink-hoast. But I’ll pit the Deil’s trot on the lot o’ ye if I hear ye at yer lees again. I’ll ram yer lees doon the ugly throats o’ ye.” “Lees,” she says. “Weel, weel, there’s some lees gey like the truth.” “It’s mebbe the truth,” I says, “but it’s gey like a lee. Yer wits is hairy-moulded if ye suppose I cudna see a thing like that aboot ma ain lassie an’ her back an’ fore ilka week an’ whiles twa-three times a week a’ the time. An’ her as flat’s a bannock for a’ ta see. Sic a say-awa,” I says, “aboot naething. They’re an ill-thochted crew, the fawk hereaboots - the best at ransackin’ ither fowk’s affairs ‘at ever I heard tell a’. As happy ‘s a blake amon’ traicle fan they’re cairdin’ honest fowk.”

What differentiates the work of James Leslie Mitchell (1901-1935) from these writers that I have mentioned is that he sought a way of avoiding the split between English narrative and Scots dialogue. Mitchell was brought up in a Scots-speaking home, but like many of us he was conditioned into using more ‘correct’ English at school, and from the books he read assumed that English was the only proper language for literature. Not surprisingly, when he himself began to write, it was English that he turned to. But Mitchell was never satisfied with his writing in English, and he was sufficiently self-aware to acknowledge that the reason for this was that, despite everything, his first language was still with him.

But for the truly Scots writer it remains a real and a haunting thing, even when he tries his best to forget its existence and to write as a good Englishman.

But to identify the problem was not to solve it. Writing in broad dialect would have been a commercial impossibility. His solution was highly personal and ingenious, and confirms him as one of the great experimental writers of modernist literature. What he does in effect is to invent his own language in which he tries to capture the rhythm and intonation - the voice if you like - of northeast speech without a lot of dialect words. And he uses it for everything, not just dialogue. It first emerges in Sunset Song, which is essentially a spoken novel. The voice changes, the point of view fluctuates, but there is always a distinctive spoken voice behind the prose. The result was so different from what he (or anyone else) had previously written that he adopts for it the new name of Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

You can hear the voice too in a short story like Smeddum, which begins:

She’d had nine of a family in her time, Mistress Menzies, and brought the nine of them up, forbye - same near by the scruff of the neck, you would say. They were sniftering and weakly, two-three of the bairns, sniftering in their cradles to get into their coffins; but she’d shake them to life, and dose them with salts and feed them up till they couldn’t but live. And she’d plank one down - finishing the wiping of the creature’s neb or the unco dosing of an ill bit stomach or the binding of a broken head - with a look on her face as much as to say Die on me now and see what you’ll get!
Big-boned she was by her fortieth year, like a big roan mare, and If ever she was bonny ‘twas in Noah’s time, Jock Menzies, her eldest son would say. She’d reddish hair, and a high, skeugh nose, and a hand that skelped her way through life; and if ever a soul had seen her at rest when the dark was done and the day was come he’d died of the shock and never let on.

Here the narrator is not detached from the action, but is a central part of it, for it is that rather hard-bitten northeast character embodied in the voice against which Meg Menzies has to establish her ‘smeddum’.

It is the emergence of this widely comprehensible but authentically Scots style of Lewis Grassic Gibbon that best solves the problem that we have been discussing, for with that voice comes the ability to present northeast life from the inside in a way that had never been done before, and not from the point of view of some alien external narrator. For the first time ordinary northeast folk are given their own voice to present themselves warts and all.



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