Tag Archives: Scotland

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

To create her compelling fiction Sarah Moss places her characters out of their usual location, often on holiday. The characters are tested, by each other and by the environment and having wound them up she sits back and lets the drama unfold. This is something of a pattern in her books and it is very effective.

In Summerwater the characters are staying in log cabins in a holiday park in Scotland beside a loch. It is summer and it should be beautiful, but it is raining. It is raining so much that it feels like the end of the world. They have no phone signals and no nearby shops. The rain and the random selection of guests at the holiday park isolate the cabins’ occupants from each other.

Summerwater

We begin with the rain.

the sounds of blood and air

Light seeps over the water, through the branches. The sky is lying on the loch, filling the trees, heavy in the spaces between the pine needles, settling between the blades of grass and mottling the pebbles on the beach. Although there is no distance between cloud and land, nowhere for rain to fall, it is falling; the sounds of water on leaves and bark, on roofs and stones, windows and cars, become as constant as the sounds of blood and air in your own body.
You would notice soon enough, if it stopped. (1)

Short interludes, such as this one, separate the chapters. But pause a moment before getting into the story to notice the quality of the writing, the observation that rain in these circumstances gets everywhere and distorts the landscape (the sky is lying on the loch … no distance between cloud and land) and feels visceral. 

The occupants of the log cabins emerge into the day slowly, for what is there to do? Justine takes an early morning run. As she creeps out of the cabin, leaving husband and children sleeping, we learn about her frustrations, the lack of money, the lack of opportunities for families like hers. Her observations about the other occupants of the holiday cabins are revealed, including the Rumanians who held another loud party the previous night.

We meet a young lad who goes kayaking and ventures out on the loch and whose trip nearly ends in disaster. He does not tell his parents. A young teenage girl climbs out of her bedroom window to find a phone signal or to visit the ex-soldier in his tent. Here she is as she escapes from her parents for a while.

She goes along the side of the gravel track, not that anyone would hear her footsteps over the weather, past the cabin with the sad woman who never goes out and the two kids. They’re still having their tea, and the scene reminds her of her old Playmobil dolls’ house, the stiff-jointed figures you could arrange around a green plastic table, the tiny plastic cutlery Mum was always telling her not to lose. The rain is seeping through her leggings and Alex’s hoody is beginning to cling to her hands at the cuffs. (150)

A couple spend most of the day in bed as they pursue his ambition of simultaneous orgasms. An older man, with his increasingly disabled wife takes her for a drive. He muses upon the happy times they had in the park when the holidaymakers owned their own cabins and came every year, providing consistency and friendship. Those times have long gone, and he must take care of his wife in the face of the limitations of the cabin, the park and the weather.

There are nearly middle-aged women who, like Justine, are finding life hard, and this cheap holiday is no holiday for them. Children are bored. The men are bored. Only the Rumanians appear to be enjoying themselves, although some of the holidaymakers think they might be Bulgarians and other that they might be Russians. What’s more, they appear to have phone connections, for as evening arrives so do visitors with drink and music and another party starts.

Here is a nightmare scenario: rain all day, nothing to do, nothing to see except your neighbours, the only thing to think about is your sad life and then loud music at night prevents sleep. Resentment is building and the partygoers are clearly going to be the object of judgements and aggressions that are building up. The men decide to go and ask the Rumanians, or Bulgarians or Russians, or Shit-chenkos, (according to one family) to turn the sound down. 

Watching from the neighbouring cabin the little girl see what happens when they knock on the Rumanians’ door.

The Shit-chenko woman steps back into the cabin and a man comes out with two bottles dangling from between his fingers and nods and hands one to Dad and one to the other dad, and then all of them go inside. (193)

By now the tension is very high and the novel’s resolution unfurls very fast, rather surprisingly and very badly. The little girl witnesses the events. She sees the tragedy, but also the community that is suddenly created in response. 

Sarah Moss writes so well, so succinctly, with detailed observations and, in this novel, fully inhabiting the range of characters in the cabins. 

Observing the way we subtly edit ourselves and one another – the limits that puts on us, as well as the strengths it creates – is Moss’s metier. [Melissa Harrison in a review in the Guardian in August 2020]

It is bleak, and harsh and almost apocryphal. It captures the current generally depressed mood and seems to be a comment on the modern world.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss (2020) Picador. 202pp. A paperback version is available.

Related post about books by Sarah Moss on Bookword

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011) in a post of two short reviews

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)

Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland (2012) in a post called Bookword in Iceland

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Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

It is unusual is to find a novel of historical fiction that features an older woman. And not many books in this series about older women have been written by men. Iain Crichton Smith locates this old woman at the start of the 18th century at the time of the Highland clearances in Scotland. Why did the author explore the experiences of this old woman in this context?

Many readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women. This will be the 45th in the series. This novel was suggested to me in August when I was guest blogger on Global Literatures, looking at older women around the world. Thanks to that reader and I’m sorry I did not keep a record of who recommended what.

Consider the Lilies

It is the time of the Highlands Clearances in the early 1800s. An old woman, Mrs Scott, is visited by the agent of the Duke. Patrick Sellar tells her that the Duke will be putting her out of her house. The land is to be used for sheep.

Mrs Scott is over 70, a widow. She lives on her own, looked after by the village, and a staunch church-goer. She has lived in the house all her life. She has no family to turn to as her son emigrated to Canada. What is she to do? 

She seeks advice from the village elder, who has nothing to offer. And then from the minister, who disgusts her by lying and counselling compliance with the Duke. On her return from her visit to the Manse she falls into a stream and is rescued by a radical family who care for her until she recovers. Mrs Scott revises her opinions of this family. Like all the villagers, the Macleods are also to lose their homes. The villagers will face the threat together.

Mrs Scott

Mrs Scott is an independent woman, with a great deal of pride. She believes in behaving correctly, according to the dictates of the church. In the first chapter, when she receives Patrick Sellar with highlander’s courtesy, it is clear that the old ways will not protect her against the threat this uncouth man presents. He sees her as stupid when she is being respectful.

Her life is governed by her strict adherence to religion, the Old Testament kind. In the past, we learn, this belief led her to care for her mother, suffering from dementia, without revealing the terrible demands to her neighbours. It also meant that her own son left for Canada. And although the villagers provide some help, this crisis reveals that she has no one to advise her. She is a woman of some resolution however and does not wait patiently for her fate.

She consults the church elder, who turns out to be more concerned for his own future and is weak in the face of this crisis. And she approaches the minister, a man to whom she has never before spoken. He lies to her, blames the sins of the villagers for this misfortune and recommends compliance with Patrick Sellar’s order.

It is this betrayal by the church that provides the turning point for Mrs Scott. She stumbles away from the Manse, but falls into a stream on the way home and is rescued and cared for by another villager, Donald MacLeod. Until this moment he has been everything she stands against, including an atheist. But she comes to see that he and his family are more caring than those to whom she turned.

She refuses to betray the Macleods to Patrick Sellar when he returns and we see that she has learned the value of community, care for your neighbours, has moved to a different set of values and beliefs.

Writing the novel Consider the Lilies

The demographic trends, probably as a result of better public health and improved medical science, means that we are living longer today. It was rare for people to reach their 80s in the past. Iain Crichton Smith had a reason for choosing a very old woman to be the protagonist of this novel. Using one of the weakest villagers emphasises the inhumane actions of the landlord and his agent.

The novel strongly conveys the cruelties of the Highland Clearances, and was very much in tune with social history at the time it was written, in the 1960s. The landowners and the church together are the antagonists in this novel. Iain Crichton Smith (1928 – 1998) was brought up on the Isle of Lewis and spoke and wrote in Gaelic as well as English. He was critical of dogma and the abuse of authority, as revealed in this novel.

And the title? It is from the New Testament and suggests that Mrs Scott is as significant as any other person. But it also suggests that appearances can deceive and its use questions whether God will provide. 

Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and tomorrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? And seek not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind. For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: and your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:28-31)

The author mixed fact with fiction. The clearances took place and there was an agent called Patrick Sellar who went on to make a good living out of the farms that replaced the villages. He worked for the Duke of Sutherland’s estates. He was later accused of causing the death of an old woman in an arson attack on her cottage. Of course he was acquitted. 

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith, 1968. I read the edition published by Phoenix in 2001. 144pp

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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Into the Mountain by Charlotte Peacock

Not many weeks ago I blogged about The Living Mountain  by Nan Shepherd. This was a book I had wanted to read for sometime. Then our book group decided to read this biography of Nan Shepherd for our November meeting. I imagined she was an intrepid and relentless walker and explorer of hills before I read the story of her life. I was glad to find out that she was this and so much more.

Into the Mountain: a life of Nan Shepherd  by Charlotte Peacock

She lived a long life: born in 1893 and dying in 1981. Her life was an interesting one, not least because she lived near Aberdeen all that time. She travelled and had friends in other places, especially in Scotland. By using bus and rail she ranged widely from her home in Cults. When her parents first moved there it was a village, but it is now a suburb of Aberdeen.

She was educated during the First World War at Aberdeen University, and went on to teach literature at the Teacher Training Centre. Her life was much involved with writing, and with Scottish writing in particular. She wrote three novels all set in northeast Scotland.

  • The Quarry Wood (1928)
  • The Weatherhouse (1930) and
  • A Pass in the Grampians (1933)

She also wrote poetry, publishing a collection called In the Cairngorms  in 1934. She corresponded and spent time with many Scottish literary figures, and was herself considered an influential modernist writer of the Scottish renaissance.

Towards the end of the Second World War she completed The Living Mountain, her description of her explorations of the Cairngorms. She sought advice, and approached one or two publishers, but it was not considered saleable, and it was not published until 1977 when the public mood had changed. Recent success has been attributed to Robert Macfarlane’s responses to the book in The Wild Places  (2012).

Nan Shepherd was a feminist. She is known to have been the lover of the philosopher John Macmurray, who married one of her school friends. She lived with her parents until they died, and never married. She adopted a daughter, Sheila.

Writing the biography

This was a tough book to read. The subject and the impending Book Group discussion kept me at it. But it was hard.

In part the book was a prisoner of too much research. Every possible connection seems to have been traced. One can admire this, but would like a little discrimination in the use of the research. It also contained 1112 endnotes, and (a bit of a bugbear this) while some of them were simply references, others contained information such as the disputes about the resurrection of Scots language and dialect. There was no way to tell which was which from the body of the text, and no way I was going to check 1112 notes.

Even more, it lacked a good dose of hard editing. If Charlotte Peacock had been writing in my university class I would have written SO WHAT? frequently on her drafts. We were served up with lots of information, but the connection to Nan Shepherd was not always clear.

For example the opening paragraph of the chapter 1936-43 begins with an announcement of the abdication, and a recording a visit to Aberdeen by the new King where he left his duties to his brother in favour of meeting Mrs Wallis Simpson. The connection to Nan Shepherd is not made.

Another example: the opening chapter is called 1941. It concerns a meeting with another writer on a train. But why this episode was used as the introductory chapter is not clear.

And the lack of explanation was especially true of the many references to the many people in her life. It was hard to know the significance of the person unless reminded by the author.

And further, her personal life was hardly revealed by this long biography. Instead the writer has used the characters from her novels to presume Nan Shepherd’s reactions. Adopting a child, losing a brother, her attitude to the First and Second World Wars, none of this made its way into the text. She was indeed a private person, and perhaps this information is not available.

Despite all this the subject is important. She has been recognised in Scotland by her appearance on the £5 note.

And, according to Erland Clouston, who knew her when he was a child and is her literary executor, she teaches us to see what we haven’t noticed before. This is a valuable skill for a writer.

Into the Mountain: a life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock. Published in2017 by Galileo Publishers. 393pp

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