Almost half a century ago Gore Vidal derided writers who, as he put it, wrote novels to be taught rather than read with enjoyment. They were clever books, often tricksy, the authors keen on intertextuality and all that. At first I thought Hame just such a novel, and indeed I can imagine it being enthusiastically dissected in places where Creative Writing is taught. And why shouldn’t novelists craft their work for that market?
By Annalena McAfee
Harvill Secker, 673pp, £16.99
Happily however, although Hame bears many of the marks of the novel written to be taught, it is better than that. This investigation of the life of Grigor McWatt, a reclusive but combative bard – I think “bard” is the word for him – island-dweller, Scottish Nationalist, Anglophobe, sometime frequenter of Edinburgh’s Rose Street pubs along with MacDiarmid, Goodsir Smith, McCaig & Co, is really rather good.
Briefly, Mhairi McPhail, a young Canadian, comes with her nine-year-old daughter to the Hebridean island of Fascaray, where the bard lived for more than 60 years, in order to write his biography and help set up a museum. It was also the island from which her ancestors were driven by poverty and harsh landlords a couple of generations back. Besides being a poet, McWatt was a provocative columnist for a local newspaper and the author of a Compendium of Fascaray, much of which McPhail quotes.
McWatt was a champion of the Scots language (while regretting that the wicked English had deprived him of Gaelic, which nevertheless many of the islanders speak). Boldly, McAfee gives us many examples of his verse, mostly translations of well-known English-language poems into his idiosyncratic version of Scots. Very terrible they are too, stuffed with words rooted out of old dictionaries, and a long way from what passes as spoken Scots today – far worse than the worst of MacDiarmid, and that’s saying something. Mhairi’s researcher, Ailish, has no time for McWatt – “he’s not exactly Yeats” – or for the Scottish Government’s promotion of Scots: “All this language pretence is pure politics. There are about four Scots dialects and ten subdialects and they’re all variations of English with a bit of Norse thrown in”. (Quite so.)
Still Mhairi, who is a very likeable narrator, presses on. McAfee has a lot of fun letting her re-create Edinburgh’s literary life, and she rather cheekily gives him Stella Cartwright (scarcely disguised as Lilias Hogg), the Muse of Rose Street, as the woman who loved him but was eventually harshly rejected by him. All this is good.
Mhairi comes to realise that there are problems with her bard. He claims descent from the McWatt chieftains of the Isle, but nobody knows who his parents were. Then there is the matter of his war service. He intimated that he had first come to Fascaray as a Commando trainee when the Big House was commandeered by the War Office; but the Commandos have no record of him. Moreover, though he was devoted to the island, the locals seem not to have cared greatly for him, though – like everyone of a nationalist persuasion and many who were not capital N nationalists – they know and cherish his famous folk-song Hame Tae Fascaray, which became an unofficial national anthem, preceding Flower of Scotland (and making it unnecessary) and rivalling Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come All Ye. Royalties from it made McWatt rich, though for a long time Mhairi doesn’t know what he did with his money. Eventually the mystery of McWatt will be cleared up, convincingly, though not entirely unexpectedly. Still it’s a fine hook on which to catch and hold the reader. There is much more to enjoy too. McAfee handles her double time-scale – Mhairi’s life now and McWatt’s then – deftly. The book is too long – I could have done with less of the Compendium – and you may find yourself engaged in what Walter Scott called “the laudable practice of skipping”. But it’s a remarkable performance, nevertheless, one that should sit nicely on the same shelf as Robin Jenkins’ Fergus Lamont and James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still, all three reflections on the past and present state of Scottish literary and political culture. And what fun Annalena McAfee must have had concocting McWatt’s verses.
*Hame by Annalena McAfee, Harvill Secker, 673pp, £16.99