ParaGraphs 2 - page 1/3

Not the Kailyard...

By Ian Campbell

THE question to face today is quite a simple one. Neil Munro appears, as is his due, in the standard reference works on Scottish literature. Sometimes he is the author of the Para Handy tales, sometimes the journalist, sometimes the author of the more landmarktitles like Doom Castle.

We know him here as the author whose works generate enough interest to give birth to a society with annual meetings; perhaps more astonishing, birth to a series of reprints with publication in the thousands, and new titles in the pipeline. To have Para Hardy, Erchie and Jimmy freely available in paperback is excellent news: to have The Lost Pibroch collection alongside them perhaps even better, along with the bigger historical works.

It means a fuller picture of Munro in the public mind, a greater chance he will be (like Barrie) appreciated not for the lighter pieces tossed ofl, but for the serious work in danger of being overshadowed.

Barrie is the case in point for those general works on Scottish literary history can hardly avoid mentioning the word kailyard, any more than people can who try to write about Para Handy and his crew and assign them a place in Scottish fiction. The same remorseless success that drove Barrie's Thrums work to the forefront of popular taste has driven Munro's likeable, beautifully written, consistent Glasgow and West Coast short fictions into popularity.

How much danger do we run from the K word? Is there a whifl of kailyard in the air? This is the question to address.

First, some clearing of the air. When Barrie wrote at the end of the nineteenth century, Scotland was quite a different place from Munro's South West in the early decades of the twentieth century. Kirriemuir, in the lifetime of Barrie's own parents, was slowly catching up with an industrial revolution and a remorseless move to the cities which was changing the face of Scotland. A Window in Thrums and Auld Licht Idylls is about a world where handloom weavers still earned a precarious living from their own machine in their own front room, where farming was still tightly organised on a local scale, and where the larger industrial cities might as well have been on the surface of the moon for all the impact they had on the the immediate life of the kailyard Thrums - or indeed Maclaren's Drumtochty in Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush or The Days of A uld Lang Syne.

It is interesting that these splendid kailyarders - and they were splendid writers of high journalistic standards - wrote about a world where there were railways and roads to take people away from the kailyard to the slums of the new cities, but where people simply failed to take advantage of that mobility. To be sure, the odd lad o pairts made his way to Edinburry, the Minister to the Assembly, the odd professional man to Glasgow or even to London.

On a more modest scale, Maclaren's farmers use the Tochty train weekly for the market, and have their own third class coach attached to the branch line for their weekly parliament of kindly gossip and banter. But the train, the cart, the road mean little to the people who live in the kailyard towns; at best, the distant cities mean employment, education, advancement: at worst, they bring estrangement from parents and even - coded but real - the threat of Ruin for any girl who ventures to service in the city.

A lot of this is the merest generalisation, but it is important to have a sense of the kailyard before asking if Para Handy lives there. Barrie and Maclaren were fine writers - how fine, one need only look at their imitators to judge - and they had a sense of change: nothing underlines this more than the splendid opening and closing section of A Window in Thrums where Barrie (who had no doubt read "The Mill on the Floss", and knew of George Eliot's use of memory in its opening chapter) describes a village he knew in his youth, but which he quite openly admits has been extinct for years.

The sketches which form the chapters of both Barrie and Maclaren are evocations of a vanished Scotland, pre-railway, pre-industrial: its Churches are full (even if the Disruption has doubled their number) and its schools rigorously producing a new generation of Scots to people the world with engineers and ministers.

The realities of the 1880s and 1890s were perfectly well known to Barrie (a London journalist) and Maclaren (a busy parish minister in Liverpool) and to most of their readers - in Scotland, and beyond - and all will have known what they were reading. In the kailyard, secure, serene, was a Scotland which had been - in Kirriemuir, in Logiealmond where Maclaren had been minister - but which was long gone. Barrie had to ask his mother for her memories to reconstruct that Scotland: A Window in Thrums recognises that today's readers would not recognise the Kirriemuir it depicts.

All this, I would suggest, is intensely relevant to a discussion of Neil Munro emerging from obscurity into a new phase of popularity. Before Munro himself, step forward his most celebrated creation. At first sight, Para Handy's world, chust sublime, is patterned on that secure, undemanding, retrospective view of a country whose darker industrial badlands are kept well out of sight, in favour of the glories of a Clyde Coast populated by puffers rather than nuclear machines of death.

Para's odd exterior, his astonishing crew of eccentrics, his relations to his wife, his employer, his customers, the pointed rejection of city values in favour of the ambling pace of life Para Handy sets - all seem transplanted from the kailyard.

It isn't till we look at the stories themselves that the question becomes more complicated. Are the stories escapist in the kailyard sense? Do they divert attention from the unpleasant now to a past remembered in haze of happiness? Far from it. The editors of the modern reprint make the point, trenchantly, that Munro's stories in the series are bang up to date, to the extent that the last of them deals with the new invention of the moment, - the wireless - which posed a seeming threat to the very form of writing in which Munro excelled, the weekly column in a regional newspaper. As the editors of the reprint point out,

It is appropriate that this, the last of the Para Handy stories to appear in the Glasgow Evening News before Neil Munro's final retirement, should look forward to the new and wonderful medium of radio. During the nineteen years in which these stories had delighted the newspaper's readers the world in which they were set had experienced many changes; changes which Munro had faithfully recorded through their impact on the crew of the Vital Spark. As we have seen, the ninety nine stories of this collection owe much of their inspiration to an astonishingly wide range of contemporary events and concerns, ranging from German spies to Clyde gales and General Elections, all of which were able to provide Para and his crew with the raw material for an enjoyable baur. It is thus fitting that this, the final tale, about the crew's 'Intercourse with the Infinite', was, in its day, equally topical.

This is the real world of a Munro a long way from the kailyard, a world of industrial life and grime and noise. Take this description of the Clyde:

There was a haze, that almost amounted to a fog, on the river. The long, unending wharves on either hand, and the crane-jibs, derricks, masts, hulls, and sheds, looked as if they had all been painted in various shadows of smoky grey. From the vague banks came the sound of rivet-hammers, the rumble of wheels, and once, quite distinctly, from out of the reek that hung about a tar-boiler at the foot of Finnieston Street, The Tar, who was standing by the Captain at the wheel, heard a gigantic voice cry, 'Awa', or I'll put a finger in your e'e!' 'We'll soon be home noo,' said The Tar. 'Man, it's a fine cheery place, Gleska, too.' (p.343)

My own favourite Para story - everyone has a favourite - is very much on this point. It is about the real world Para lives in, the world of hard work and coal, dust and grime, money and trade, the sort of Glasgow business world the kailyard would shy away from. Para Handy's Apprentice is the wonderful tale of the boss's son who wants to go to sea, and the boss asks Para if he can lick the idea out of him. Para sees the problem at once.

'I don't care what you do to him so long as you don't break a leg on him, or let him fall over the side. Give him it stiff.' 'Chust that!' said the Captain. 'Iss he a boy that reads novelles?' 'Fair daft for them!' said the owner. 'That's the cause of the whole thing.' 'Then I think I can cure him in wan trip, and it'll no hurt him either'. (p.46)

The last thing Para wants is to have the boy go through the kind of life he does. And the comedy is played out as the dream hits the grim reality.

'What! Is THAT the boat I'm to go on?' cried the boy, astounded. 'Yes,' said the Captain, with a little natural irritation. 'And what's the matter with her? The smertest boat in the tred. Stop you till you see her goin' roond Ardlamont!' (p. 47)

Not only is the boat without romance, the boy is confined below decks for fear he gets wet or his clothes dirty, and worst of all has to spend the time on the very school books he thought he was leaving behind in his West End comfortable home.

'Who ever heard a'anything else?' retorted the Captain. 'Do you think a sailor need any edyucaation? Every apprentice has to keep going at us Latin and Greek and Bills of Parcels, and the height of Ben Nevis, and Grammar, and aal the rest of it. That's what they call navigation, and if you havena the navigation, where are you? Chust that, where are you?' 'Do you mean to tell me that when you were an apprentice you learned Latin and Greek and all the rest of that rot?' asked Alick, amazed. 'Of course I did', said the Captain unblushingly. 'Every day till my heid wass sore!' 'Nature Knowledge, too?' asked Alick. 'Nature Knowledge!' cried Para Handy. 'At Nature Knowledge I wass chust sublime! I could do it with my eyes shut. Chust you take your books, Alick, like a sailor, and wire into your navigation, and it'll be the brudge for you the sooner.' (p.49)

And of course the apprentice deserts ship at the first opportunity, and back to Kelvinside, where Para follows him a day or two later with his clothes and books; Para's boss, the father, is delighted. 'Advice to a boy iss not much use', Para says: 'The only thing for it is kindness, chust kindness'. And then 'There wass some talk about a small rise in the pay, but och -'. 'That's all right, Peter; I've told the cashier,' said the owner, and the Captain of the Vital Spark went down the stair beaming. (p.50)

And there is the essence of Munro's success: beautiful economical writing, a sting in the tail, quizzical humour (note the 'unblushingly'), the triumph of the small man against the system even in industrial Clydeside. Kailyard it is not: it is the Glasgow of here and now.

Then what of Munro himself? A working journalist, caught up in the life of the second city of Industrial Britain could hardly have been further from the kailyard, whatever his attachment to Inveraray, Helensburgh, to the beauty on Glasgow's doorstep. Nothing could do more to emphasise this (and what a project for the Munro Society) than the republication of The Looker-On Munro's journalistic column from the Glasgow Evening News which reads so well today, an antidote to any tartan tushery that people might like to indulge.

They would get short shrift from a tough-minded journalist who saw no shame in his weekly columns in trashing the second-rate, in lamenting anything he thought a weakening of the Scotland he lived in and watched change. The kailyarders come in for a dig, with a reference to the time when 'the Kailyard school of Scots dialect verse and fiction was at its zenith' - Munro is writing about primitive typewriters which seemed to mis-spell bizarrely, and with that assistance a writer 'might have made a name as great as Barrie or Ian Maclaren' (p.95). Quite so: Munro had no time for the second-rate or the unprofessional, and The Looker-On includes a marvellous attack on Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury, for an Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott club speech where he uttered this nonsense:

If you take the shorter catechism, the psalms, and Sir Walter Scott, and mix them with porridge, you will breed a great race of men. (p.290)

This kind of drivel brought out the best in Munro.

'When I read this stupendous utterance in the papers, the very thought of breakfast became repellent to me: I walked up and down my room with feverish agitation for ten minutes...'. Munro lays into the distinguished driveller - 'How little the Archbishop knows and feels about fiction became luridly apparent when he proceeded to compare the novel of this age with that of Scott' - and he deplores the churchman's suggestion that modern novels are hot-eyed, panting, lascivious. 'I fancy I read as many new novels in a month as his Grace will read in a year. I say so with befitting modesty. It is not my fault. I would sooner be fishing, most of the time, or building gargoyled houses like Walter Scott, but there it is! ... They pant with the most proper restraint, and there is rarely a single bleary eye among them'. (p.294) In the same vein he savages the Inverness Highland Gatherings and their social pretensions, 'those long lists of noble and alien ladies and gentlemen who have honoured the Balls or the grand-stands' and whom the papers fawn over without mentioning the Scots whose games they are. (p.229)

When Munro writes more seriously - the last day of the summer season on the Clyde coast, or a simply splendid essay on the emigrant ships sailing away from the Clyde with two or three thousand of the best of young Scotland on board ('No country can afford to lose them without misgivings and regret') - The Looker-On establishes itself as a book which must be reprinted, so it can be read by more people who need to know that Munro was a tough-minded Scottish commentator as well as a splendid novelist and short story writer.

There is nothing so refreshing to underline the quality of Munro's picture of Scotland as a re-reading of The House with the Green Shutters. Munro welcomed the book, and had an interesting meeting with the author whom he thought most unfairly depicted as someone bitter against Scotland - like Brown himself, Munro saw that one of the best compliments to be paid to Scotland was to take it seriously as a country in the throes of change. For change sweeps through Brown's Scotland like a tornado, wrecking the kailyard cosiness of Barbie in months, bringing railways and coal mines, new ways of doing business and new ways of making money which make simply a mockery of the pawky Barbie worthies who are in charge when the shuttered house is new.

By the end of Brown's novel, Scotland has changed beyond belief: with John Gourlay ruined, Jimmy Wilson has taken over the running of Barbie from the ineffectual Provost Connell, and although the railway has passed the village by, it has swept its institutions - including its carter - into oblivion. Most of all, it ushers in the reign of Gibson the builder, the man of business who operates from Glasgow, who knows the ropes and does not waste his time gossiping at the Cross, who cleans up the business of Barbie and casually manipulates the smaller men who cannot capitalise on change. Ironically, Barbie looks very much the same in the last chapter as it did in the first - the changes bare all safely out of sight - but the reader knows otherwise.

This is the gift Munro brought to his writings about Scotland, and the gift which sets him apart from all the kailyarders of his time and since. The Scotland he writes about is one where railways have come, and tramways, and trades union, and all the other things Erchie and Jimmy live with and comment on. Their Scotland is thoroughly up to date: they have no interest in trying to stop the clock. Neither had Munro: he had a column to write, and he was keen to use the money to turn to his major fiction writing, so often (though there is no time today to do more than mention this) set at a time of change, change between societies, between languages, between long-standing customs or arrangements threatened by war or death.

Whether he was looking out of the window on a Glasgow in the full flood of life, or writing about the Scotland of the past being coerced to change towards an unlovelier present, Munro is a Scottish novelist of the here and the now, even if here and now may not be so pleasant as there and then. But here and now is where Munro worked. And his fiction is the stronger, and the longer-lasting, for it.

1 Para Handy intro. Brian D Osborne and R Armstrong (Edinburgh, Birlinn, 1992,1993), 432.

2 Edinburgh, Porpoise Press, 1933.

3 In The Looker-On pp.279-82. 'Better were his luck, probably longer his life, and more enduring his influence and memory, had destiny and his fellow countrymen left him, unobserved and for a dozen years, to find himself'. (p.282).

© 2002 Ian Campbell.


The Case For/Against 'Colkitto'

HOW best to describe Alasdair MacColla who burned Inveraray in 1644 for real (and also depicted as so doing in John Splendid) poses problems for writer and editors.

In Gaelic, he is the son of Coll, that old rogue Colkitto who killed the last chief of the MacPhees on the island of Colonsay (or on an islet nearby) as part of his campaign to ensure Clan Donald held on to the Headship of the Gael in the face of the expansionist Campbells.

Colonsay-born Alasdair, the greatest of the sword and buckler men and the Achilles of the Gael, is often erroneously given his father's nickname of Colkitto which may be a corruption of Gaelic for left-handed although clever-cunning and ambidextrous have also been suggested.

Clan Donald spread harmoniously through marriage to Co. Antrim, in Northern Ireland, and both Alasdair and his father took part in the brutal 17th century political and land wars there.

In English Alasdair is normally given as Sir Alexander MacDonald because Alexander is, of course, the Scots or English for Alasdair. He was one of Clan Donald's main leaders and he was knighted during the campaign of 1644-46 when his commander, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, tried to win Scotland for Charles I.

Alasdair is also featured in John Splendid at the great Campbell defeat at Inverlochy.

It is worth noting that Nell Munro gets the designations of Alasdair right on the whole.

He does refer to him as "Colkitto MacDonald", but very early in the novel clarifies this as "Alasdair MacDonald, the Mac Colkitto". Neil rightly says Alasdair is a Gael, but Erinach by career. Later in the novel he again refers to MacColkitto and calls him (possibly unfairly) "an uncouth dog".

But Neil does say at a time when such sentiments were not fashionable that Alasdair was a better general than Montrose and that, at Inverlochy, he laid out the clans with amazing skill. Alasdair's role is being more widely recognised today. In that, Neil was ahead of his time.

It should also be noted that in Ireland today some historians argue that Colkitto as a name there was interchangeable with the son.

Alasdair was killed in battle in 1647 at Knocknanuss, in Co. Cork. He was buried in the O'Callaghans vault at Clonmeen where a plaque to him was erected last year by the district council.

This November a battle memorial was unveiled at Knocknanuss and commemorates Alasdair and many other West Highlanders who died with him.

© 2002 Rennie McOwan.