29 Mar 2010

Dusting off a literary gem

All day there has been trouble with Blogger and photos not showing up. I think it may be fixed now, but let us pretend that it’s not. Let us pretend there is a storm outside (actually there is. The rain is lashing in from the side like countless frozen kamikaze pilots). Let us also pretend the power is out, the candles are lit, and it is time for a story.

A few months ago some friends of mine in Canada saw a book in a charity shop and bought it for me. First published in in 1991 by Aberdeen University Press, this book had managed to find its way from Scotland all the way to a bargin bin on the West Coast of Vancouver Island.

It is The Land Out There: A Scottish Land Anthology.

This book is a sensualist’s dream and I absolutely love it. Compiled by the late poet and critic George Bruce (1909-2002), it is a treasure trove of poems, memoirs, interviews and stories about Scottish life, the land, the stones, the people. It is the kind of writing and story-telling that my mind wants to climb inside and experience, the way the cold water thrillingly creeps around you when you walk into a northern loch. You can feel it everywhere; that’s what this writing does for me.

There are fantastic titles that lure you into each story. Titles like He Learns about Lifting the Peats (F.G. Rea), Life At The Bu - A Farm in Orkney (Edwin Muir), and The Solitary Crofter (Neil Gunn).

A quick Google search has revealed only a couple of places where one can still buy this book, including Barns & Noble and Bigger Books. They are used and all prices seem to be in US Dollars, which leads me to believe that copies in the UK are few and far between. However I believe many of the libraries around Scotland still possess copies.

If you love Scotland and ever have the opportunity to read all or any part of this wonderful collection, lunge at it. Once you hold this precious book in your hands, make a cup of tea, sit down by the fire, and let the stories float up at you like steam. I know I will be using this book for reference and inspiration for years to come.

The following are two excerpts that I particularly enjoyed:

From Between the Sea and Moor by Iain Crichton Smith:

My house lay between the sea and the moor; which was often red with heather, on which one would find larks’ nests, where one would gather blaeberries: the moor scarred with peat banks, spongy underfoot: blown across by the wind (for there is no land barer than Lewis).

From Walking Into the Past, by Alexander Smith:

Walking into the Interior of Skye is like walking into antiquity; the present is behind you, your face is turned toward Ossian. In the quiet silent wilderness you think of London, Liverpool, Edinburgh, or whatever great city it may be given you to live and work in, as of something of which you were cognisant in a former existence. Not only do you breathe the air of antiquity; but everything about you is veritable antique. The hut by the road-side, thatched with turfs, smoke issuing from the roof, is a specimen of one of the oldest styles of architecture in the world.

Finally, a poem by Maurice Lindsay. As soon as I read it I thought “I know her.” Because this is just how I feel when I get a whole, dreamy Sunday in my kitchen.

Farm Woman

She left the warmth of her body tucked round her man
before first light, for the byre, where mist and the moist
hot breaths of the beasts half-hid the electric veins
of the milking machines. Later, she’d help to hoist
the heavy cans for the tractor to trundle down
to the farm-road end, while her raw hands scoured the dairy.
By seven o’clock, she’d have breakfast on the table,
her kitchen bright as her apron pin, the whole house airy.
Her men-folk out in the fields, the children off to school,
she’d busy herself with the house and the hens. No reasons
clouded the other side of the way she brought
to her man the generous amplitude of the seasons

Not much of a life, they’d whisper at church soirees
as they watched her chat, her round face buttered with content,
unable to understand that for her each moment
rubbed out the one before, and simply lent
nothing for words of their to touch to argument

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