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Writers Who Deserve to be Better Known – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

Writers Who Deserve to be Better Known

November 12, 2011 | by SRB


Lorna Moon was born in Strichen, Aberdeenshire, in 1886, the latest edition of a disapproved-of line of atheist-socialist stock. Her first marriage came with a ticket to Canada where she met (but did not marry) the Mr Moon whose name she adopted and became a screen-writer for Cecil B. de Mille, later giving birth to de Mille’s illegitimate son Richard.

Her short story collection, Doorways in Drumorty (1925), and novel Dark Star (1929) paint the small town life of Aberdeenshire that is the story of small-town life everywhere, written, despite Hollywood’s place in her heart, in the cadences of her native shire.

To find her is all revelation. There’s an edge of Flannery O’Connor in her empathy for “outsiders” and a bootleg kick of Dorothy Parker too: certainly, the female fictional creations of her more famous Scottish male contemporaries can’t complete with hers for acerbic wit, sly humour and clear-eyed observation of petty power-mongering. It comes as a shock but not a surprise to learn her books were banned from the local library at Strichen, her home-town, until not long ago.

If she had not fled Aberdeen and found staunch ‘foreign’ supporters, she would never have produced her books or – her more prolific legacy – the Hollywood film-scripts at all. Find her and be glad she did.

From Wantin’ A Hand by Lorna Moon

The moisture from the tub curled her hair into babyish ringlets that hung about her flushed face. Despite her form made from the daily travail washing clothes, and her face pouchy with drink, suggestions of beauty still lingered about her as perfume might cling to a garment after it was soiled and torn.

There was no hint of age or decay in the square tower of her body, no thought of handicap in her actions as she squeezed and rubbed the clothes upon the board with her one powerful hand. The small stump of her missing arm jerked vigorously from the shoulder in time to the hand upon the board. She would stop at times to pin the empty sleeve more snugly to her side and then resume the crawling, gripping method of her one hand in the tub. It was a great-jointed hand, corded along the back, and broad, and when it had squeezed the water from a garment she could defy any woman with two hands to wring one drop more from it. The clothes washed by Jean Sclessor were truly  washed, and clear and fragrant when she took them from the line.

And so, although she tried them sorely by her frequent drinking spells, the good wives of Drumorty would rather wait for Jean than have some feckless  two-handed woman wash in her stead. And the greatest church-goers among them would ignore the smell of whisky on her breath and would even comment sympathetically upon her bunions when her steps began to waver.

But Jean was long past caring what Drumorty thought about her drinking, long past the time when she turned her head away so that they wouldn’t catch her breath. She cared only for evening to come, and she worked through the day with a driving force which became a frenzy of haste as nightfall drew near, for she was going home to the kist under the stairs, home to dreams, home to love and revenge and despair, home to forgetfulness, home to the flat-sided bottle of whisky wrapped in a grey petticoat.


Elspeth Davie was one of our greatest short story writers. She published four fine novels, but it’s the short stories that stay in the memory – five collections from The Spark in 1968 to Death of a Doctor in 1992. She was a quiet presence in the Scottish literary scene in the 1970s and 80s, not showy or pushy, content to get on with the work, doing only the occasional reading (when asked by folk like me!). A distinctive voice, a world and a style all of he own, she made these small fictions that resonated, often disturbingly, in the imagination of the reader. Beautifully observed with a precision and clarity of description (she was an artist and taught painting for a time) they deal with the ordinary, the everyday, but seen with a unique eye of vision. Often surreal, they suggest deeper levels of meaning, imbue situations and objects with a symbolic power. She did receive recognition in her liftime, winning the Katherine Mansfield Prize and a Scottish Arts Council Award, but nothing on the scale her talent deserved. Canongate (bless them!) have issued a selected stories, The Man Who Wanted to Smell Books, and a revival of interest in her work is long overdue.


‘Don’t you think that woman’s hat looks like a rather dirty snowball?’ We were on a bus and I had to strain to hear as Elspeth Davie’s speaking voice was so quiet. Her writing voice was equally quiet, her work unshowy but finely crafted, often wry, always individual. Scenarios might appear mundane, unpromising even but her love of quirky, verging on surreal occurrences and oddball characters can take events in unpredictable directions. Beneath the polished surface, there’s often a sense of creeping menace, like the dry rot in ‘Family House’, a story in which elderly siblings finds their home and its accumulated possessions exacting a heavy toll on its owners; or in ‘Allergy’, in which a rejected landlady engages in a vicious form culinary revenge. The devil is always in the detail: from a bag floating on a Venetian canal, to the pointillist fleck of a tweed suit, to a collection of wishbones, Davie invests objects with an insidious and often unsettling power and the short story, a perfectionist’s art, suited her best:

‘“Yes, it’s amazing, isn’t it,” he said with a resigned sigh, “How he’s managed to make even the flowers look freakish?”’

From Family House by Elspeth Davie

Anyone visiting this house for the first time found himself unexpectedly and uncomfortably exposed before going a step from the iron gates. Tough soles and a thick skin were needed from the moment when, turning in from the soft country road, he would find the thickly-sown, cutting little stones of the drive working their way over the tops of his shoes and through his shoelaces. And if, while removing them, he were to raise his eyes, he would meet the unbroken, aggressive glare of rows of unscreened windows. For there was no hiding from this place. The gravel was not harsh but noisy underfoot. There were no soft bushes to screen the visitor while he made his way to the front door, and nothing about the place made a concession to nerves, withdrawals or second thoughts of any kind. It was a large house – not distinguished by age or design, but formidably plain and square, built in a smooth, grey stone which had begun to take on the polish of marble simply through the care spent on it since it was first built. No one, after meeting the people who lived in it, could think of it again as a house which was owned, but painfully served. It existed not for shelter or comfort, but to announce its own immense gravity and the fact that it was packed from top to bottom with a massive deposit of possessions. The foundations of any ordinary house would have sunk askew, the walls and roof, long before this, have bulged and cracked under the strain.


Robert Garioch’s work, though still in print, doesn’t seem to be much read or referred to since his death twenty years ago and is now in danger of falling into neglect. This would be a great shame, as he produced some of the finest poetry in Scots this country has seen. He was a master of the sonnet form in particular, capturing the rhythms and quirks of spoken language within the strictures of the form, and many lines are as telling as they are funny: ‘The kirks used to convert the sinners, / Noo the sinners convert the kirks.’ Though he wrote in Scots, which might be thought to be old-fashioned, he addressed modern issues such as battery farming and mass production methods, and was an unstinting commentator on the City council’s shenanigans, as in ‘Heard in the Cougate’: “…somethin ye dinnae see just every day, / fou’nans in the Gairdens, muckle spates / dancing t’music, and thir’s t’be nae / charge t’g’in, it aw comes aff the rates.” Given that many younger Scottish poets are reviving elements of Scots in their poetry, they could do worse than to look to Garioch for inspiration and understanding of the language.

‘Festival 1962’ by Robert Garioch

The Festival sterts in a bleeze of gloir
wi sad processioun outbye St Giles’:
Scotland’s Estaiblishment in seemly files
wi siller trumpets sounan at the door,

the seenil City Faithers, that decoir
our seignories, hirple in borrowed tiles,
fu sanctimonious, til historic aisles
whaur Knox held furth and Jenny Geddes swore.

Sibilant crowds hiss, Thon yin’s Shostakovich –
pointing admiringly wi mistaen finger –
Tadeucz Wronski, Oistrakh, Rostropovich.

Loud-speakers, gey distortit, gae their dinger;
some pacing provost – Thon yin’s Aronowitz –
passes, to music frae Die Meistersinger.


Josephine Tey was born in Inverness in 1896 and wrote one of my favourite mystery novels of all time, Brat Farrar (1949)  which is highly ambiguous story of identity impersonation that begins when a young man arrives at a country estate to announce he is its missing heir.

Tey is a master of suggestion and psychological insight and this novel shows the powerful human impulse for wishful thinking.

The Franchise Affair (1948) is another highly wrought tale of two schoolgirls apparently witnessing a murder from the top of a double-decker bus. Her historical mystery, The Daughter of Time (1951), sensitively investigates whether the princes in the tower were indeed, as largely rumoured, murdered by their uncle, Richard III of England. Like Daphne du Maurier, Tey combines a cracking plot with atmosphere and emotion. Like du Maurier, her novels were filmed by Alfred Hitchcock – a fitting tribute to the powerful sense of suspense in her books.


Neglected writers are like Shetland on a wider map – marginalised and boxed away like an afterthought when recognised at all. It is to Shetland I turn your attention, and a contemporary writer who is a one of the UK’s best and most original poets. In Shetland literary circles Alex Cluness is quietly revered; elsewhere he is quietly ignored. He is a typical islander in that he devotes his energies to promoting the work of others – as Shetland’s literary development officer, then while working in literary promotion in South West England, now as a visionary leader at Uist’s Taigh Chearsabhaigh. Cluness’s poetic output is eclectic, impassioned and wide-ranging, encompassing Shetland and Other Poems, Disguise, 2005, and Mend. 2005 is an intense, cinematic, rain-soaked collection, a paean to Wong Kar-wai. The astonishing lines in the poems of Mend are so long the book had to be published in letterbox format. Disclaimer: Alex’s work is also included in a recent anthology I edited, These Islands, We Sing. My primary intentions in editing this book were to emphasise how disproportionately high is the quality of poetry from the Scottish isles and also to give greater prominence to writers such as Cluness. I have read his work at quite a few events promoting the anthology and it always elicits a physical response, a gasp. Cluness’s poetry is epic, intimate, elemental, complex and beautiful.


I remember reading one of the anthologies of twentieth century Scottish women poets that appeared at the fin de siecle and thinking that one of the strongest voices, right across the century, came from a couple of tiny poems by Olive Fraser. Fraser, a prize-winner for her poetry in her youth and her middle years, had a life of wretched bad health and rough luck, died in her sixties in Aberdeen and is only remembered at all because her friend, the renaissance academic Helena Shire, rescued, edited and published her poetry after her death in a slim pamphlet, The Pure Account (1981), and a fuller volume, The Wrong Music (1988). The fuller volume revealed it as work that’s marked and marred by archaism, religion and poverty, but at its best Fraser’s poetic is clear and shining, persuasive, original, well ahead of its time.


Mollie Hunter was born in 1922 in the village of Longniddry in East Lothian, where she grew up, attending first the local primary school and then Preston Lodge High School. Her career as a children’s novelist was launched with the publication of The Smartest Man in Ireland in 1963, after which she went on to write some 30 or so further books.

An ardent Scottish nationalist, the history and folklore of the country has been her passion and provided the inspiration for her work, such as the Jacobites in The Lothian Run, the Clearances in A Pistol in Greenyards or Mary Queen of Scots in Escape from Loch Leven. She brings history vibrantly to life on the page. Her books have always enjoyed great popularity in the United States and deserve to be more widely read by children in Scotland today. Amongst many honours and awards she has received in the UK and the USA was the Carnegie Medal for The Stronghold in 1974. She lives now in Inverness.


Jessie Kesson’s fiction is still read and honoured, but it richly deserves to be better known than it is at present. Take the early novella The White Bird Passes, which is set in Elgin, where she grew up and where, or whereabouts, she married before moving to London. And to a producership in BBC Radio’s Woman’s Hour, amongst other jobs. The novel thrives on the living portrait of a young girl, Janie, who’s full of “smeddum”. I would add “pawky” had the word not acquired the shortbread air of a trademark Scottish commodity. Let’s say lively and shrewd. She lives lovingly with her mother, who is on the streets, but she is then transferred to an orphanage by ‘the Cruelty Man’, the local expert on fit mothers. The women in the book are in the majority, and they speak an Anglo-Scots of great expressiveness. Kesson believed, perhaps correctly, that southern readers can’t bear too lavish a use of the Scots she writes so well. A later novella, Glitter of Mica, concerns the passions and frustrations of country folk. There they go, to the life, riding along in their all-important buses. The book is at times a bumpy ride, but if it misses a few shots, its goal is as luminously present as that of the early one. The subject of both books is poverty – that especially of abused farm labourers and their families in the traditional countryside experienced in her youth. Strong and subtle feelings go in her books with a strong grasp of the realities of the Scottish North-East. Poverty excites, where it does not extinguish, the smeddum Kesson evokes. One old man lacks it. He is said never to have outgrown his fear of the landlord.


We tend to think of the twentieth century Scottish Literary Renaissance as being male-dominated, and particularly MacDiarmid-dominated. There were strong female voices too, however, including those of Willa Muir, Catherine Carswell and Nan Shepherd in prose (both fiction and non-fiction), and Violet Jacob and Marion Angus in poetry. Like both of the latter, Helen B. Cruickshank (1886–1975) hailed from Angus, yet while most of their poetic output has in recent years been reprinted, Cruickshank’s has not. She worked as a civil servant, and settled in Edinburgh from 1912 until her death, where she was a founder-member and first secretary of Scottish PEN. An industrious and stalwart supporter of the cultural revival, good friend to MacDiarmid, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and others, she was a woman of wit and intellect despite her modesty: ‘I am not asked out to drinking parties and I have never been in a Rose Street pub. I can’t be a poet,’ she wrote in her posthumously published autobiography. Yet her verse – by turns thoughtful, tender, acerbic and, when she writes in Scots, rich in Angus vocabulary and idiom – belies this ironic claim. Best known for her poem ‘Shy Geordie’ (memorably set to music by Jim Reid), she falls no doubt into the category of ‘minor poet’, but the minor notes she often strikes are memorable and provocative. Her work deserves to be reissued, perhaps prefaced by an essay reassessing her life and achievements.


James Kennaway died in 1968 from a heart attack at the age of forty. He had written seven novels and various screenplays. He’s an interesting novelist in that he came from a privileged but unliterary background. He went to boarding school (Glenalmond), did his national service as an officer in various Scottish regiments and then went on to Oxford to read PPE. He’s one of those writers whose best fiction is fuelled largely by personal experience and consequently his finest novels, in my opinion, are his first two – Tunes of Glory (1956) set in a post-war Scottish regiment and the underrated Household Ghosts (1961), a novel that perfectly captures the rackety life of the down-at-heel minor Scottish aristocracy. It’s also worth mentioning that Kennaway wrote the screenplay for The Battle of Britain – an astonishing, epic film of the 1940 aerial battle. It’s pointless to speculate what reputation Kennaway might have enjoyed had he not died so young but one feels that he had perhaps reached creative burn-out in his thirties. Two novels were published posthumously but his renown — forty years on – should rest on the precocious, dark brilliance of his early work.

From Household Ghosts by James Kennaway

The gymnasium at Dow’s Academy that night was a monumental patch-up of ugliness and joy. Fifty tables covered by hand-stitched linen clothes  were squeezed in the shadows , at one side, hard against the climbing bars; and at the other side, beyond a huge square mirror (in front of which, in term time, flat-footed grammar school boys performed remedial exercises) all the instruments of torture – the horse, the horizontal and parallel bars – were crowded into the corner and inadequately covered with a huge Union Jack, as if for a mass burial at sea. Sad streamers were looped across the hall but all they succeeded in doing was to draw the eye to the two climbing ropes strung up like giant nooses. Amongst the climbing bars by the mirror pale ribbons were interwoven and tied in pussy bows. Framed in the middle of these was a coloured photograph of the Duke of Edinburgh on his wedding day, provided by the local confectioner whose best pre-war line had been boxes of George V chocolates. Above the platform, at the end of the hall, set against the blue sackcloth curtains was a big banner which shouted VOTE UNIONIST and carried, one each side, prints of Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Anthony Eden, both wearing confident smiles.


Angus Martin was born in Kintyre in 1952, the same year in which I too was born in South Uist. It not only makes us contemporaries, of course, but fellow witnesses to ways of life which have now largely disappeared. In Angus’s case, it was herring-fishing, which was destroyed by industrial fishing. When Angus left school in 1967 he became a fisherman, so here we have a poet who has physically handled the history he writes about. He has published four collections of poetry, including the marvellous The Larch Plantation in 1990. The title of that collection clearly indicates that Martin concerns himself with the land as much as the sea: here we have a great modern poet who was articulating ecological and environmental issues (so interconnected with cultural and linguistic and economic issues) before we all realized that we were destroying our world.

Angus has worked as a postman in Kintyre for a number of years, and that itself sets him apart from the increasingly academically-inclined literary scene in Scotland. He bears a realism which almost everyone else lacks. It seems to me a scar on our nation that this wonderful poet is not lauded as he ought to be, even though Angus himself would (rightly) baulk at such praise. And it is about time one of our major publishers brought out a Collected Poems. I suspect, however, that he himself identifies more with the forgotten tiller (of a boat) as he so well shaped in a wonderful poem, simply called ‘The Tiller’ which ends:

There’s not a man in all Kintyre
will point me to the open sea;
I’ll bear no other master’s hand,
but burn instead – unship me.


The people in the south have often not heard of William McIlvanney, which is their loss and a disgrace. The Kiln is by any standards a masterpiece. We up here do honour him. Enough? Who can say what’s enough; to be read more, that’s the thing. Willa Muir deserves to be read and reread. Her novels, including Imagined Corners, shed light on life for women in Scotland in the early and mid-twentieth century.

Her writing is intelligent and empathic, as you would expect from the co-translator, with her husband Edwin Muir, of Kafka, and from one half of a literally inspiring and, in substance and effect, beautiful marriage. They were cosmopolitan Islanders, Scots of Shetland origin in her case and Orcadian extraction in his. ‘The Brocher’, George Bruce, long-lived Fraserburgh-born poet and author, I personally unconsciously neglected till far too late. He lived down our street with successive I think Sealyham terriers and his tender wife of fifty-nine years, Elspeth. To the very end he was writing, and across disciplines. Joy Hendry writes illuminatingly about him; I’m only just learning about him now.


A mixture of true justice and academic fashion means that it’s often Scottish women writers who are presented as unfairly neglected. My candidate in this category would be Naomi May, whose long out-of-print novel At Home (1969) is a telling and deft examination of gendered power and powerlessness. However, I think that the most overlooked Scottish authors are a bunch of Renaissance blokes: the poets of the first ever anthology of Scottish poetry in book format, the Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum, published in Amsterdam in 1637. Many of its poets have never been translated into English, and several are fascinating. At the moment, using a prose crib from a generous Paisley Latinist and the last vestiges of my much eroded schoolboy Latin, I’m trying to make an English verse version of a poem by James ‘the Admirable’ Crichton. Born in Dumfries-shire in 1560, and educated at St Andrews University, Crichton was a Renaissance polymath. He died in a sword-fight in Italy while still in his mid-20s, and was later so much mythologized by other writers (from Sir Thomas Urquhart to J. M. Barrie), that people have tended not to realise that some of his original poetry survives. His poem about arriving in Venice in an age of plague is, in part, the work of a young man showing off, but some of it is genuinely moving as well as rhetorically stylish. The most neglected Scottish writers are the Latinists.


From this Issue

Nobel Thoughts

by Brian Morton

Beebus Scotticus

by Kenneth Roy

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