Friday, October 22, 2010

Like spice in a bun it lends a briskness - George Douglas Brown and Scottish

When I conceived the Scottish Challenge, or, really, when I researched it, I began to wonder what, exactly, Scottish literature was.  The Scottish content of Lord Byron or Margaret Oliphant or George MacDonald or Thomas Carlyle seemed perfunctory.  Robert Louis Stevenson’s turn to Scotch literature, in a few novels and stories, was deliberate.  Walter Scott, curiously, made a conscious turn away from Scottish subjects (think, Ivanhoe (1820)), although he never gave them up entirely.  But is even a Scottish subject especially unique?  Is Madame Bovary a Normandy novel?

The tradition that does seem uniquely Scottish, to me, at least, is literature that really uses Scottish dialect.  Scottish in fiction begins with Scott, although his use of it is limited, and is continued by James Hogg and John Galt.  For Galt, the dialect is essential, but it is important to remember that he is writing for the larger English audience.  He had to deftly flavor his writing with cask-aged Scotch without drowning it.  George Douglas Brown adopts Galt’s method.

A sample: 

There had been a fine cackling in Barbie… Not even in the gawcey days of its prosperity had the House with the Green Shutters been so much talked of.

The Canongate Classics edition of The House with the Green Shutters I’m using does not have a glossary, but does it need it?  For one thing, the reader has the internet; for another, “gawcey” is clear in context, not to mention “a fine cackling” – any writer would be happy with that one.

This is the narrator, who mostly uses standard English, with little nuggets of dialect worked in.  Here’s a limited third person example, with the Scottishness not in the vocabulary but the expression:

And here Gourlay had treated him like a doag!  Ah, well, he would maybe be upsides with Gourlay yet, so he might!

And finally, some dialogue, where one might expect a lot of juicy Scottish, and a clue to some of the pride in the Scottish tongue:

"Well, I like young men to be quiet," said Sandy Toddle.  "I would rather have them a wee soft than rollickers."

"Not I!" said the baker.  "If I had a son, I would rather an ill deil [devil] sat forenenst me at the table than parratch in a poke.  Burns (God rest his banes!) struck the he'rt o't.  Ye mind what he said o' Prince Geordie:

[snippet of Robbie Burns snipped]

Dam't, but Burns is gude."

"Huts, man, dinna sweer sae muckle!" frowned the old Provost.

"Ou, there's waur than an oath now and than," said the baker.  "Like spice in a bun it lends a briskness.” (Ch. 21)

That’s it, exactly, like spice in a bun.

The House with the Green Shutters may very well mark the end of the Scottish Reading Challenge for me - 38 books over the last year, more or less, not bad.  This novel, a direct response to the 19th century Scottish novel, but also the beginning of a new tradition, is a logical place to stop.  There are still two months for anyone else to play along.  Good, clean fun.  Or not.  Perhaps my favorite passage from Brown’s novel:

"Deacon Allardyce, your heart's black-rotten," he said at last.

The Deacon blinked and was silent.  Tam had summed him up.  There was no appeal.


  1. "He had to deftly flavor his writing with cask-aged Scotch without drowning it." Nice line--maybe the blogging equivalent of waxing rhapsodically over a "well-turned ankle," in fact! On the other hand, I'm very disappointed that nobody chose to read The Adventures of Roderick Random with you. May have to play the guinea pig on that one myself, I guess, though I can't imagine any Scottish novel jumping the James Hogg title in my queue. Dada/Surrealist and/or Brazilian/ Portuguese challenges still comin' up next?

  2. Thanks. Although when you pull out the line, I see that I use the word "deft" too much. Something to work on.

    Yeah, Smollett would have been more than all right. I'm glad no one read Peregrine Pickle, actually - long devil. The Hogg novel is so interesting, full of surprises. Nicole and I beat the stuffings out of it pretty well last June. Great fun.

    Up next: good question. Portuguese? Italian? Austrian? Or some other kind of concept. We'll see. Maybe I should have a poll.