Sunday, January 18, 2009

Scottish Stories

I was pleased when I was asked to reviewing a collection of short stories from Scotland called ‘Bucket of Frogs; New Writing Scotland 26’. I've always felt a connection with Scottish writing.

My love for Scotland started with my junior school singing teacher, Mrs Buchanan, a doughty woman who conducted singing lessons while standing on a bentwood chair. I remember the combined gusto and suspense as we sang:

'Sure, by Tummel and Loch Rannoch and Lochaber I will go.
By heather tracks wi' heaven in their wiles;
If it's thinkin' in your inner heart braggart's in my step,
You've never smelt the tangle o' the Isles.'

Much later I was asked to read a poem by Robert Burns at the funeral of a friend’s husband, a Glaswegian. The words reflected the man's own befiefs in a mix of nostalgia and optimism that seems to characterise much Scottish writing:

'For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.'

A more personal connection was set up when as a teenager I hitch-hiked over the border to get married. We were delighted by the generosity and friendliness of the lowlanders, who would stop their cars or trucks almost as soon as we set foot on the road, offering us a lift to ‘Gala’ (Galashiels), the nearest town of any size to where we stayed. Inevitably, sooner or later we were asked whether we were ‘runaways’ our denials greeted with knowing smiles.

Marriage laws are the same all over Scotland, not just Gretna Green, and it seemed a good idea in 1962, when my boy-friend was 25 and I was just eighteen, and my parents wouldn’t give consent. They were still mad at me for leaving my home in Preston a year or so earlier and in those days you had to be 21 to marry without your parents' permission. We lived in Portsmouth, where, as a student, my partner wasn’t allowed to live outside ‘approved’ digs unless he was married. Lack of money meant we'd have to hitch-hike to Scotland and back, but that was just a bonus.

We stayed in a YHA hostel overlooking a romantic ruined abbey, in the tiny village of Melrose. Like Gretna, it had a registrar’s office. This was to establish the required two week's residency in the country. When the hostel warden asked us, reasonably enough, ‘Will ye no’ be moving on to the Highlands?’ we assured him we were happy to walk the nearby Eildon Hills. They had been adored by Sir Walter Scott, who died at the house he built at Abbotsford, his sofa placed so he had a good view of them.

After reading the novels of Ian Rankin, Jackie Kay and Val MacDiarmid, I was anticipating more of the same quirky humour, gritty settings and down-to-earth characters in the collection I reviewed. They were there, right enough, in some beautifully written poems and stories.

I wasn’t expecting dismal urban living, the decline of traditional industries and loss of thriving rural or seaside communities. Maybe the short story format brings these aspects into sharper focus., or maybe it's a corrective to the 'tartan heritage' tourist theme.
Here’s what I wrote for ‘The Short Review’, a website devoted to short story collections:

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