By North East, I mean this part of Scotland rather than England, as that is how they term it here and I’ve adopted that nomenclature. It covers Aberdeenshire, but also Moray and Angus (the region around Dundee). As a linguist and traveller I’ve always found reading the literature associated with a region a great way of feeling my way around a place. When I was about to move to Ecuador, I made a trip to the inimitable Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street and was delighted to find all the South American books on one shelf; not just the travel books but also the literature. It got me off on exactly the right path for that adventure.
Likewise, here I’ve found people I’ve met have recommended books and writers to me. I did see a TV programme about Nan Shepherd on BBC4 shortly after arriving, her ‘The Living Mountain’ came out loud and clear as a must-read. I thought I’d wait until I started venturing into The Cairngorms but finally read it before the end of last year.
An Aberdonian writer of mid-20th century, whose works are mostly set in earlier decades, she was, of course, neglected due to her gender but now experiencing something of a revival. She writes sensually of the mountains, the fauna and flora, the experience of walking and being in those captivating places. They are still virgin territory for me, though I’ve had some walks and drives and feel the call; not least because The Living Mountain has opened up my imagination and started sensitising me to the myriad inspirations on offer. I’m a little afraid of mountains, their majesty, feeling more comfortable in woodland and burns, but the call is there so we shall see how that develops.
Buy the whole Grampian Quartet, which includes Living Mountain, and you won’t be sorry. Of her three novels, I’ve read Quarry Wood and am halfway through The Weatherhouse. Much of the dialogue is in the local dialect, the Doric, a North East Scots - which some say has much Dutch and some say has much Danish in it. It’s spoken very widely here and a joy to my ears; maybe the nerdy linguist in me likes the challenge of a new language. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading and don’t understand every word; it’s important to plough on as you normally understand the gist and the language gets easier as you read more. And, of course, it is part of the richness in these works. Shepherd writes of communities in rural Aberdeenshire with the landscape and seasons beautifully foregrounding individuals in communities undergoing the changes largely brought about by the First World War. Books and learning are scattered throughout the various simple crofts and manses with a randomness which delights me, as though a thirst for learning is no indicator of class, nor are baser instincts.
The Quarry Wood treats of a female protagonist who gets into Aberdeen University and how she manages a luminous internal life, an aching love and the reality of a hard rural community. I really loved it - and am now reading her ‘masterpiece’, The Weatherhouse. I am enjoying it too and now fully engaged with the lives of Garry Forbes with his sense of justice, founded in his own journey of self-education, war experiences and the return to a community he’s never quite been part of, but seems to yearn to belong to, since his father isolated himself in the town. It reminds me very much of the Italian verismo writers I studied in my degree in Italian (Giovanni Verga, Grazia Deledda etc).
Living in this community the distances in time and culture don’t always seem so great; especially when you hear this language in daily life, and walk across fields and alongside great rivers and modest burns. It really is exotic if you’re from South East England.
The more famous writer, of course being a man, is Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and his trilogy, A Scots Quair. His work is good and I recommend it highly but I do feel Nan Shepherd is moving and exciting in her landscapes and characters.
Grassic Gibbon’s most famous work is Sunset Song, recently made into a film by Terence Davies - ‘a lyrical triumph’ according to The Guardian. I enjoyed it too but the language and accent weren’t right for me, annoying purist that I am. I feel the language here so distinctive and different that in the film the melange of accents and Scots didn’t have the powerful resonance that the vernacular has in the book. Of course, the book also softened the Doric but kept its essence, the film didn’t quite. His forthright female character, Chris Guthrie, and the glorious landscape sustained me through Sunset Song and its successor, Cloud Howe. I’m looking forward to Grey Granite.. up next after I finish Nan Shepherd.
Alongside these two greats I delighted in The Christian Watt Papers, set around Fraserburgh - near my maternal family home. Though somewhat unreliable in fact and fantasy, this real person writes about her life in this late Victorian community of fishermen and wifes, with that tough poverty peppered with learning and lairds.
On the more laird end of the spectrum I also recommend Elizabeth Grant’s Memoirs of a Highland Lady - a delightful, gossipy and not-without-suffering account of late Victorian life on the Moray side of the Cairngorms. The joy of the community and again the awesomeness of the landscape are wonderfully inviting.
Finally, I can’t miss out on a book from my beloved Persephone Books: Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson. It’s somewhat of a grand estate fantasy but fortunately I read the introduction by Candia McWilliam (a favourite contemporary Scottish writer of mine - see previous blogpost). She excused the obvious failings in the book but kept me going as the darker side to the novel gave it depth. In fact, it’s set in Fife, so not strictly North East. The themes are the same with much more weight given to a long since disappeared life of the Great Estate, of Victorian vintage. I also have from Persephone Books, Marjory Fleming, by Oriel Malet waiting to be read. This I bought as part of my research into early 19th century life, which is one of my family history research angles. The book is written by a prodigious talent of 20, about an equally young woman - set in Edinburgh, so definitely lowlands. Hopefully much joy awaits me there, as well as my more adventurous forays into The Cairngorms when spring arrives.