Returning home to a small rural community after a long spell in the city is a favoured plot device for the Scottish short story. Dormant relationships are rekindled, age-old feuds refired and underlying tensions hook the reader from the off. Lowlander squares up against Highlander, town dwellers grapple with village politics. Many of the works in the annual publication New Writing Scotland deal with these ideas of home and what it means to leave. But Scottish writers have been exploring these themes for centuries, as those who have read the anthology The Devil And The Giro: Two Centuries Of Scottish Stories can attest.
Carl MacDougall knows more than most about the power of the short story. As well as editing the volumes mentioned, his fiction has won numerous awards and fans around the world. The presenter of two BBC series on Scottish literature and language, he is a towering figure in writing circles. Someone Always Robs The Poor is his first short story collection in more than a decade and shows he has lost none of his distinctive style or ability to shock. The opening tale involves a young man returning north from London. His mother is dying and there is an unresolved family issue requiring immediate attention. Familiar themes, but MacDougall creates a complex world over a dozen deftly crafted pages.
In other stories, he requires even fewer paragraphs to create something far more shocking. Spitting It Out is a searing vision into a family hell; a daughter refuses to speak with her dying father, while her mother looks on helplessly. What is the cause of this unhappiness? Who is at fault? We’re left to draw our own conclusions – the stoic Scottish male, bitter, thrawn, unable or unwilling to confront his past, is a reoccurring theme in MacDougall’s stories. These traits are not confined to those stuck in poverty. Elsewhere we meet alcoholic architect Derek. Drink is killing him but he can’t hack the rehab centre. Money alone won’t save him.
For a collection of stories that deal with alienation, domestic violence, poverty and alcoholism, the prose never descends into misery for misery’s sake. MacDougall addresses these prevailing societal issues through his characters and resists the temptation to get on a soapbox. Other writers require the padding of several novels to convey their confused political stances while he can neatly summarise an issue in one short story. This is a masterful collection and a reminder that MacDougall’s talents as a writer are just as great as his editing skills. Let’s hope it’s not another decade before his next collection appears.
*Someone Always Robs The Poor, by Carl MacDougall, Freight, £9.99