If you live in the UK, the news has been dominated by one story for weeks: the Scottish referendum. On 18 September the Scottish people voted in favour of staying the union, but this wasn’t a vote for the status quo, and as such the news coverage continues, assessing the changes that are needed. Prompted by this current affairs Caledonian focus, I thought I’d look at work by Scottish writers who engage with ideas of land and home, and how complex those fundamentals can be.
Firstly, a Booker-nominated debut novel, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber & Faber, 1999). This was a lesson to me to persevere with books, sometimes it pays off. At first I found the story of male familial relationships utterly depressing:
“My father found it easy to hate his father; he had much more ease, in that sorry business, than his own son would ever have.”
The reason I stuck it out was because I’d read other novels by O’Hagan and I knew what a beautiful and sensitive writer he is. Our Fathers is narrated by Jamie, son of Robert, grandson of Hugh. The lives of the family are imbedded in the landscape of Glasgow, a landscape that Hugh is determined to change:
“For years the city vibrated to the sound of diggers and pneumatic drills. Old powdery tenements fell to the ground. Whole townships cleared away. It became part of the noise of Glasgow…there were half-chewed buildings on every street”
As an adult Jamie returns to Glasgow to visit the dying Hugh, from Liverpool where he has been trying to forget the past. As Jamie returns to Scotland, he feels his way amongst the people, places and language that are at once entirely familiar and entirely apart:
“The men at his table had similar faces. Red and watery-eyed. All the trace of former good looks upon them. …The air was filled with their smoky laughter and the sound of the jukebox. Music, laughter, the shadows of words.”
“‘Are the spirits high?’ I asked. And then all of a sudden I felt how foreign that phrase would sound… ‘Can he… can he thole the pain?’”
And what made Our Fathers initially so depressing for me was what made it ultimately so rewarding. Out of pain, abuse, mistakes, recriminations and hardship comes forgiveness, wisdom, kindness and redemption:
“I stood beside him, and listened to his life, and I held his hand, and I finally grew up”
It was an incredibly moving book, finely observed and insightful regarding the delicate meaning in moments that can barely be articulated.
Secondly, a poem by Kathleen Jamie, Here Lies Our Land.
Here lies our land: every airt
Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun,
Belonging to none but itself.
We are mere transients, who sing
Its westlin’ winds and fernie braes,
Northern lights and siller tides,
Small folk playing our part.
‘Come all ye’, the country says,
You win me, who take me most to heart.
It’s a short poem, and so I don’t want to analyse it to death, but I will just say I think the way Jamie creates a gentle, reflective tone through metre and language captures something fundamental and enduring; its language like the land she speaks of. You can read Kathleen Jamie’s thoughts on the poem and her writing process here.
To end, a man who shares my view on what Scotland’s finest export is (not counting Sean Connery):