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Volume 5 – Issue 1 – Gallimaufry – Scottish Review of Books
by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

Volume 5 – Issue 1 – Gallimaufry

September 14, 2009 | by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz


Gallimaufry – Lesley McDowell and Theresa Munoz

Scotland: A Very Short Introduction
Rab Houston
pp140, ISBN 019923079X

Racing through Scotland’s history in a hundred and forty pages isn’t an easy task: although a rare exception is made for Mary, Queen of Scots, there aren’t too many stopgaps for Houston to take a breath, which means that individual paragraphs, especially in relation to early Scottish history, are generally so chock-full of kings, reigns, battles and treaties it can make the head spin. The value of such a compressed work lies in that it permits the reader to trace a century or two in only a few pages, and so to make a manageable narrative of the most important events. It’s the perfect guide for the i-Pod generation. Scotland’s narrative is a fascinating one, all the more so because Houston refuses to let aristocrats drown out the part played by ordinary people in the country’s history. Nor does he skimp on details, short on space as he is; one is interested to read, for example, that the last execution for blasphemy took place in 1697, or that the last witch was hanged in 1727 – whole books could be written on the connections between those two dates and events alone.

The Earth Hums in B Flat
Mari Strachan
pp300, ISBN 184767304X

In her debut novel, Strachan cleverly marries the feyness of a child’s perspective with the very real and tragic problems of domestic abuse and madness. Growing up in the Welsh countryside, Gwenni is the lesser-loved daughter of her disturbed mother, who fears for her daughter’s ‘gifts’ – she might have second sight. Gwenni believes she flies through the night over her village and sees events before their results are discovered. Her father, in contrast to her mother, adores and encourages her. There are things, however, that Gwenni has more of a problem seeing: when she goes to babysit neighbour Mrs Evans’ daughters, she misses signs of domestic violence because she is too young to understand what she is witnessing. It’s hard to draw originality from as well-worn a form as the bildungsroman, but Strachan has done just that, with a fresh voice and a strong sense of living in a small community. A tiny complaint – although the novel is set in the 1950s, the period could perhaps be more vividly evoked. Still, it’s an excellent debut.

A History of Scottish Philosophy
Alexander Broadie
pp304, ISBN 0748616276

In any study of Scottish philosophy, one would expect David Hume and Adam Smith to dominate, and indeed they do here, meriting entire chapters to themselves, where other philosophers such as Francis Hutcheson or Thomas Reid have to make do with a section within a chapter. However, there is no sense of unevenness or disproportion in Broadie’s meticulous work, drawing attention as he does to John Duns Scotus in his overview of medieval philosophy, and stressing the importance of the German influence for nineteenth century philosophers like Ferrier and Seth. Questions of truth and beauty, pleasure and pain, first posed by Hutcheson, have been somewhat subsumed into other disciplines since then (studies of cinema and photography all deal with these, as does psychiatry), but it’s fascinating to chart the history of Scotland’s contribution to philosophy down to our present-day understanding of the human mind, how it works and, on occasion, how it doesn’t. Broadie demonstrates, with an academic rigour that the casual reader might struggle with, how the origins of our understanding lie in philosophy – without it, there would have been no Enlightenment, and our attitude to sensation and thought would still be dominated by that unsympathetic forebear, religion.

Enlightenment and Change: Scotland 1746-1832
Bruce P. Lenman
pp240, ISBN 978-0748625154

Lenman’s book was first published under a different title in 1981 during the time of another recession, and his partial history of the banking industry in Scot-land, one of the results of Enlightenment, can’t help but catch the eye. The parallels are too chilling: one encounters the fall of the Ayr Bank, due to, yes, unwise and reckless over-lending and the rise of the Royal Bank, willing to lend more and to less reliable customers, which allowed it to eclipse the “more cautious” Bank of Scotland. The thought that at least today we’re not benefiting from the slave trade is small comfort. The link, too, between a country’s commercial prosperity and its artistic activity is forcefully and depressingly made through figures like William Robertson, whose history books made him a fortune. “Starving in a garret”, Lenman dryly observes, “for the sake of Art or Truth was not a lifestyle admired by the Scottish intellectuals of this period. They all tried to make money”. A more fascinating and relevant study than its title suggests, it touches even on London’s hatred of prominent Scots thought to betaking over in the period the book covers.

The Bird Room
Chris Killen
pp202, ISBN 9781847672605

This debut novel focuses on the troubled lives of young people. Written in a self-consciously detached style, the book is divided into two narratives where Killen’s characters contemplate their unhappy, low-income existences. The first narrative describes a monotonous relationship in its dying stages. Self-defeatist Will grows insecure about his relationship with Alice, whom he suspects is interested in one of his friends. Rather than confronting her, he finds solace in the vapidity of pornography. Some of the clips feature a fake brunette named Helen, formerly known as Clair. Helen hopes this kind of work is a mere phase before she becomes a real actress. Her willingness to place herself in compromising situations is more compelling than Will’s pessimistic and circular monologues. In the author’s portrayal of a confused adulthood in Northern England, he draws conclusions between sex and loneliness, and paranoia and love. He explores what drives generally reasonable people to act irrationally. The book’s title refers to a series of paintings of small bright birds that intrigues Will, and supports Killen’s theme of being caged in. Killen’s study of basic human instincts can be interesting, but his commitment to a minimalist, understated style leads to the book imploding to reveal a hollow core.

Poking Seaweed With A Stick And Running Away From The Smell
Alison Whitelock
POLYGON, £8.99
pp240, ISBN 1846971152

No matter how far some Scots get away from their homeland, they can’t stop looking back. In her charmingly cynical autobiography, Whitelock chronicles her desperate childhood in Glasgow before fleeing to Australia. Short chapters with lengthy titles portray a working-class family with a shared hatred for Whitelock’s father. Stories of their father stamping on a puppy, staggering drunk into midnight mass, and accidentally burning down the house fill the pages. Whitelock even admits the entire family fantasised about murdering him with a sawn-off shotgun or from a steady diet of high-cholesterol meals. She interchanges these bleak memories with happier ones, including the time she penned a catchy jingle about the River Clyde and won the class prize. Whitlock’s stark honesty and comical turns of phrase buoys this gloomy account of her adolescence. However, her scattered memories don’t form a clear timeline of her own life, and one suspects an even sadder story lurks behind her humorous recollections. Whitelock invites us into her difficult relationship with her father but not the process of how she eventually forgave him; a disparity which tugs at the reader’s mind the entire way through.

Rekindling Community: Connecting People, Environment and Spirituality
Alistair Mackintosh
pp112, ISBN 978-1900322386

A Professor of Human Ecology, Alistair Mackintosh presents a study on the spirituality of urban and rural regeneration. Recalling EF Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, Mackintosh explores what connects humans: the environment and nature. At only one hundred pages, Mackintosh condenses the booklet into five sections. The first explores how communities are understood by the people in them. The second, the internal and external difficulties that communities face. The third concentrates on what it means to be human, and how a cycle of regeneration strengths a community. How spirituality connects people to the land comprises the fourth part, while the last section discusses “economics as if people mattered” – how our basic human needs affect corporate social responsibility. Mackintosh illustrates his thought with intriguing anecdotes, many based on his work in schools in Papua New Guinea. Thirteen case studies by Mackintosh’s students also pepper the pages. The students’ research is mostly conducted in Scotland and topics include a study of urban community in Govan; a discussion of the theology of Scotland’s Modern Land Reform; and a study of why the Isle of Arran is considered sacred to Christians and Buddhists. Though the booklet is loaded with specialised ideas and terms, Mackintosh’s clear writing and the interesting case studies make the doctrines accessible to punters.

The Thistle and the Crescent
Bashir Maan
pp256, ISBN 1906134243

The purpose of Bashir Maan’s pioneering study is to promote harmony between Muslims and other communities in Scotland. He discovers the first contact between Scotland and Islam in the seventh century and traces its development through pilgrimages, Crusades, the travels of diplomats and scholars, and the involvement of Scots in the British Empire. Maan is hampered by a lack of documentary evidence which requires the deployment of “some historical imagination and hypothesising”. A chapter on the settlement of the Muslim community in Scotland, however, draws on his own experience as the first Muslim councillor in the United Kingdom as well as benefiting from community memory. Personal stories illuminate the development of the community from its dependence on peddling clothing in the 1920s to employment by transport authorities, the purchase of corner shops and, finally, access for some to politics and the professions. There has been some dreadful racism in Scotland, but the book ends on a generally positive note. The service of repentance for the Iraq War at St. Giles Cathedral was stopped at 6.15 to allow the Muslim call to prayer next to the altar and “such an unprecedented and noble gesture could only have come about in Scotland, where tolerance and benevolence in some quarters of society sometimes exceed expectations”.

Monkey Puzzle Man: Archibald Menzies, Plant Hunter
James McCarthy
pp223, ISBN 1904445616

Archibald Menzies is not Scot-land’s best known plant collector, but he was the most prolific. He is credited with the collection of 190 species. These include the Monkey Puzzle tree, the Sitka Spruce, and even the Douglas Fir, which was named for fellow Scot David Douglas but hides its correct attribution in the scientific name Pseudotsuga menziessi. Menzies made two journeys to the North West coast of America, the last one on the HMS Discovery with Captain Vancouver. Menzies was answerable to the redoubtable Sir Joseph Banks of Kew Gardens who had the ear of George III, so Vancouver was powerless to resist when Banks insisted that a plant hatch be built on his quarterdeck. Menzies reported directly to Banks and could be critical of his captain, complaining, for instance, that Vancouver Island “should I think, with more propriety be named after His Majesty”. On the return journey to Britain the relationship between Vancouver and Menzies broke down completely. McCarthy’s is the first full length biography of Menzies and you don’t have to be a botanist to enjoy it. There is, however, some dissonance created by the author’s insistence on Men-zies’ heightened appreciation of Native peoples and the repeated references to the Scot ‘discovering’ plants in places where people had lived for thousands of years before he got there.




From this Issue

Brothers in Arms

by Stuart Christie

A Life in a Year

by Alan Taylor

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