Book Week Scotland #6

A personal rake through my favourite books for Book Week Scotland

Book 6: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner; with a Detail of Curious Traditionary Facts and Other Evidence by The Editor, by James Hogg (1824)

Title Page of ConfessionsI haven’t put up a cover image of one of my most favourite books because none of the versions I have do justice to the contents – they don’t quite get the tone or the image across of how I read the book. There are 77 versions of this book listed on Good Reads – nowadays, it’s a popular 19th-century novel. Popular, because different people find different things to like/admire/enjoy. One of the oft-criticised things about Hogg’s writing is that he wrote too much, too quickly, too wide in his range – he’s hard to pin down. A romantic poet, historical novelist, cultural archivist, songwriter, dramatist, satirist, – all things to all men and nothing particularly brilliant because it’s watered down – so they say, those who ‘know’ about literature. I disagree and this book is the best evidence. No one has been able to pin it down, not because it’s bad but because of skilful plotting and ingenious, inventive storytelling.

I’ve blogged about this book once or twice before.

Book Week Scotland #5

A personal rake through my favourite books for Book Week Scotland

Book 5: A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, edited by Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan (Edinburgh, 1997)

A History of Scottish Women's Writing front cover image

The first comprehensive critical analysis of Scottish women’s writing from its recoverable beginnings …

A magnificent work of recovery research and editorial scholarship, this book is a reminder of how literary history is skewed in favour of the male. Something to remember today – 30 November – Saint Andrews Day.

It’s a huge, thick book – 716 pages of Scottish women’s writing – running from Christian Lindsay c. 1560 to Liz Lochhead, Scotland’s present National poet – our Scots Makar. Packaged – recovered and brought to our attention. Every single woman in this book deserves her own book, her own study, her own prominence.

[extract] ‘From a Mouse’, by Liz Lochhead

Ploughman? That will be right! Heaven-taught?

He drank deep o The Bard, and Gray, and Pope – the lot.

I, faur frae the spontaneous outburst you thought,

Am an artifact.

For Man’s Dominion he was truly sorry? Not!

’T was all an act.

Burns, baith man and poet, liked to dominate.

His reputation wi the lassies wasna great.

They still dinna ken whether they love to hate,

Or hate to love.

He was ‘an awfy man!’ He left them tae their fate,

Push came to shove.

Couldnae keep it in his breeks? Hell’s bells, damnation,

I wad be the vera last to gie a peroration

On the daft obsession o this prurient Nation,

His amatory antics.

He was – beating them tae it by a generation –

First o th’ Romantics.

Arguably I am a poem wha, prescient, did presage

Your Twentyfirst Century Global Distress Age.

I’m a female mouse though, he didna give a sausage

For ma sparklin een!

As for Mother Nature? Whether yez get the message

Remains to be seen.

[extracted from SPL website version. Original published in Addressing the Bard: twelve contemporary poets respond to Robert Burns, edited by Douglas Gifford (Scottish Poetry Library, 2009)

Read the poem in full on the SPL website

Book Week Scotland – #4

A personal rake through my books for Book Week Scotland

Book 4: The Lecturer’s Tale, by James Hynes (1996; 2001; 2002; 2006)

Not a Scottish book, I know, it wasn’t published in Scotland and Hynes isn’t Scottish [so far as he’s admitted] nor does he live in Scotland. But The Lecturer’s Tale says so MUCH about what’s wrong with Scottish literature and literary history and blasts the WESTERN LITERARY CANON apart – that, for me, it’s one of my favourite books. Hynes shows how to look away from the subject under discussion to highlight the glaring omissions. How could I not love this book?

Hynes doesn’t ‘lecture’ the reader. He makes his point with grace and wit and fun. The tale is steeped in the Supernatural and the Gothic [a clever, academically slanted Gothic and daft supernatural magic finger], sometimes, real laugh out loud guffawing humour. He plays stereotypical university types for big laughs (especially the leather-clad dominatrix!). I won’t spoil the fun by giving away the funniest moments (and also I wouldn’t know which ones to give you because they are in abundance) but, be warned, don’t read this book on a bus.

Above the industrial hum rose the steady murmur of lonely women in their thirties and forties, their cubicles lined up like sewing machines in a shirtwaist factory. … In each cubicle a thin woman in thrift shop couture sat earnestly tutoring some groggy student in a point of grammar or the construction of an argument, and each woman looked up at Nelson as he passed with the hollow-eyed, pitiless gaze of the damned. … They combined the bitter esprit de corps of assembly-line workers with the literate wit of the overeducated: They were the steerage of the English department, the first to drown if the budget sprang a leak. They were the Morlocks to the Eloi of the eighth floor.

The serious undercurrent is not over-bearing. Hynes’ novel came out just at the same time that the very serious topic of bringing out a collected edition of Hogg’s works was being discussed in literary circles -or rather, discussed by some but pointedly ignored and belittled by others. The project eventually took off [thanks to the late Douglas Mack, the founding General Editor] and the Stirling/South Carolina Research Edition will run to around 36 volumes when complete. Reviewers don’t mention this fact – which is so telling and deeply ironic, and makes me so angry. A key point is when the books written by authors within the English literary canon are tossed out of the library tower as it burns to the ground. Always on the periphery, Hogg isn’t in the canon and his books are amongst some of the precious few that are saved and form the basis of the new library.

Crossing the Quad on a Halloween Friday, as the clock in the library tower tolled thirteen under a windy, dramatic sky, Nelson Humboldt lost his right index finger in a freak accident. Someone called his name three times out of the midday press of students, and as he turned to answer, Nelson stumbled over a young woman stooping to the pavement behind him. Falling backward, he threw his hand out to catch himself, and his finger was severed by the whirring spokes of a passing bicycle.

Only minutes before, in the shadowy office of Victoria Victorinix, the English Department’s undergraduate chair, Nelson had lost his job as a visiting adjunct lecturer. He had sat on the far side of Professor Victorinix’s severely rectilinear desk, his hands tightly clutching his knees, while she told him with a cool courtesy that the department was forced by budget necessities to terminate his appointment at the end of the semester, only six weeks away.

[grabbed from The NYT ] which has the whole of the first chapter & a link to their review – read them both for a glimpse into Hynes’s joyously absurd book.

Book Week Scotland – #2

A personal rake through my favourite books for Book Week Scotland

“So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.”

Voted ‘Best Scottish Book of all time’ by public vote in 2005 – this is one of my all time favourite books. James Leslie Mitchell  – or Lewis Grassic Gibbon – published Sunset Song in 1932 to global acclaim but parochial narrow-sightedness, which is ironic, as this is a major theme of the book. Writing in 1939 after Mitchell’s untimely and unexpected death (33, in 1935), Helen Cruickshank wrote about its local reception

In 1935 Aberdeen Public Library ‘withdrew “Sunset Song” from the lending department as “unsuitable for general circulation” … “Sunset Song” had not been banned, as one copy was available to anyone in the reference department. In all quarters of Scotland eager moralists seized their pens to tell the world through the local press how filthy and untrue to life Gibbon was.’

The book’s fate since then – on the school curriculum since the 1960s and voted ‘Best Scottish Book of all Time’ – is a testament to Mitchell’s skilful storytelling – the book coheres – language, characterisation, and setting combine to create a vivid picture of early 20th century Scottish farming life in the north-east. That he did so through a female protagonist is outstanding; Chris Guthrie is fiction’s best male-created female heroine [in my opinion]. That he did so by using Scots words and dialect is remarkable. Mitchell was writing during a renaissance in Scottish literature, a deliberate movement away from what went before, from recent couthie ‘kailyard literature’. Neil Gunn speaks for Mitchell; writing in 1927, ” the Renascent [sic] Scot is – must be – intolerant of the Kailyarder, that is, of the parochial, sentimental, local-associative way of treating Scotland and the Scots.’ Sunset Song is steeped in kailyard tropes but navigates a way out of it to expose its shortcomings, to create a new way of thinking and seeing Scots and showing the possibilities of Scottish literature.

So that was Kinraddie that bleak winter of nineteen eleven and the new minister, him they chose early next year, he was to say it was the Scots countryside itself, fathered between a kailyard and a bonny brier bush in the lee of a house with green shutters.And what he meant by that you could guess at yourself if you’d a mind for puzzles and dirt, there wasn’t a house with green shutters in the whole of Kinraddie.’

Sunset Song is the first in the trilogy collectively known as A Scots Quair [Cloud Howe (1933) and Grey Granite (1934) followed] featuring Chris Guthrie. Thomas Crawford’s introduction to Sunset Song (reprinted in the Canongate edition) is still the best – read it in full on the GoogleBooks edition, where you can see the original map of the fictional Kinraddie from the first edition, showing Long Rob o’ the Mill’s Mill and Chae Strachan’s farm, Peesie’s Knapp.

Book Week Scotland – 1#

A personal rake through my favourite books for Book Week Scotland

Book 1: The songs of the Ettrick Shepherd / [James Hogg ; illustrations by Jessie M. King]; Edinburgh : T.N. Foulis, [1911]

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I came across Jessie Marion King’s book illustrations and book designs in the Glasgow Mitchell in 2007 while researching for the James Hogg Songs Project. The Mitchell’s edition still has the paper covers over the seven beautifully coloured plates depicting fairies and angels, idealised country scenes, dreamy, misty-eyed women and bonny wee girls. The illustrations are mostly of scenes in ‘Kilmeny’, Hogg’s most well-known and well-loved lyrics from The Queen’s Wake (1813), oft-reprinted. Closer to King’s time, Hamish McCunn composed a cantata titled Bonny Kilmeny (performed in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on 13 December 1888).

I like Jessie Marion King (1875-1949) for lots of reasons, not just her delicate watercolours, detailed pastel paintings, her Arts and Crafts book covers or her art nouveau pen and ink drawings. A student of Glasgow School of Art (1899-1907), she won a Queen’s Medal for her design work in 1899. She taught book art design at Glasgow from 1902 and in that year she won a gold medal for a gold-tooled while velum book cover year at the International Exhibition of Decorative Art in Turin.  She married the artist E. A. Taylor and with him set up an art school in Paris. They lived in Manchester and eventually, moved to Kirkcudbright in 1914 to deepest south-west Scotland. She had a daughter, Merle, and they lived in the artists’ colony around Hornel at Kirkcudbright until her death in 1949.

King worked across artistic fields – in ceramics, wallpaper, jewellery, textiles, costume design, as well as illustrating cards, books and book covers. She illustrated the book cover for an edition of R. L. Stevenson’s Memories (Edinburgh: Foulis, 1911) and designed covers and illustrated editions of prominent poets and authors, including, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Morris and the Rossettis.

She’s a favourite of mine because she had it all – more than many women manage in the 21st century – wife and mother as well as a commercially successful artist – a free spirit and an independent mind.

There’s an interesting list of her illustrated books (including Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’) on

Book Week Scotland – launch day

Book Week Scotland 26 November – 2 December 2012

At the National Library of Scotland this morning, the first week-long project to promote reading in Scotland was launched. Government-led via Creative Scotland, it is being managed by Scottish Book Trust.

Over 400 book-related events are planned in libraries, councils, and schools taking part, including at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, ‘The Reading Hour’ call to action on St Andrews’ Day, Book Bug sessions, and many more- like this one on Sacred Texts with James Robertson and Richard Holloway at the Scottish Poetry Library .

I’ll be posting a Scottish book-related post each day during the programme. Join in and spread the book love!

Follow @BookWeekScot for details -BWS website will be up later today/tomorrow