or should that be W for Women, S for Scottish or even N for non-fiction?

I’m as confused about the title of this entry as I am about how to review a book containing such an eclectic mix of material.  Short stories, poetry, essays and dialogues.  All by women and all about being a woman in Scotland.  It’s a book that has been on my bedside table for months because it’s perfectly suited for dipping in and out of between longer reads.  And I have been doing just that, dipping in and out, finding little gems of writing, with sentiments sometimes echoing the way I feel about being an English woman in Scotland.

With contributions from 35 writers, of which only 5 were previously known to me, there was a lot for me to discover.  Not all of the authors are Scottish, some are immigrants (like myself), others are Scottish emigrants.  A small biography of each, explaining the individual connection to Scotland, is included prior to the entries. 

So what is it that causes this cleaving to Scotland?  Time and time again it comes back to the landscape.  Elizabeth Reeder’s Passage Migrant tells of her emigration to Chicago and her resulting yearning for the sea.  (Apparently, in Scotland,  one is never further than one hour from the coast. ) The narrator of Breaking Stones lives with her son, Ben, in the shadow of a mountain while her husband travels the world mountaineering elsewhere.  That story written by Anne Morrison whose story Out West (not included in this anthology) won the 2007 Neil Gunn Adult Prose Prize.  In that same competition Alison Napier’s Stac Jenny was highly commended and that story does feature in this volume.

My favourite contribution was Aschenputtel ’07 by Lesley MacDowell.  Sure the German title (Aschenputtel = Cinderella) gave it a head start but beyond that it’s a modern retelling of the fairy tale with a reversal of the generational roles.  The wicked step-sisters becoming step-daughters whilst the step-mother is reduced to the drudgery of cooking and cleaning and carrying ….

On the poetry side there are verses in Gaelic alongside others that I can understand!  I particularly enjoyed Dorothy Baird’s What does it mean to be a woman in Scotland?  while not agreeing with every line – well, the last line of stanza 2 to be precise.

abseiling through an argument
answering the phone from Bombay
aiming to grow old with a chuckle
abrogating responsibility for haggis

What does she mean?  Haggis is a wonderful (seriously!) contribution to world cuisine. It beats deep-fried Mars bars by a mile!  (Aye, she mentions those as well!)

There are moments of pure beauty, humour and wry recognition of my experience in Scotland between these pages.  Why, for example, would the mountaineer in Breaking Stones be off climbing the mountains abroad when he has plenty on his own doorstep? 

Sometimes, when the clouds refuse to roll back or the approach to the slopes becomes impassable with flood water, my husband travels to mountain ranges in other countries ….

Oh, I recognise that.  20 years in Scotland and I have still to travel to the Highlands. Because I’m a wimp whenever I book time off to travel north, the clouds do exactly that.  They roll in and they refuse to roll back. I have abandoned trips to Ullapool at least 3 times despite the rumours of white sandy beaches and palm trees.  But now that it has the added attraction of Two Raven’s Press, publishers of Cleave, one day I may just get there.

(Thanks to D’akota at Flikr for the appropriate image of Ullapool under threat …)

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