It seems as though I need cheering up – I’ve read more comedy this year than anything else. Hence the second post in succession about comic novels; both of these set in Scotland, one extremely well-known, the other, not so much, but it should be.
Compton MacKenzie’s classic Whisky Galore is perfect for those long dark nights of winter: curled up with a suitable accompaniment. (It must be the not so subliminal message!). The edition from Birlinn has a great dust jacket too! Everyone in that whisky bottle seems to be having a great time.
One February morning in 1941, a cargo ship carrying hundreds of thousands of bottles of whisky ran aground a few sea-miles north of Compton MacKenzie’s home on the Hebridean island of Barra. The islanders rushed to the rescue – the ship’s crew were safe, but the precious cargo? From such stuff was this spirited classic novel born.
Set in the same time frame as the historical incident, whisky is noted by its absence in the first half of the novel. It is a strictly rationed substance as most of Scotland’s output was reserved for export to provide funds for the war. The locals are disgruntled – one dram a day is their allowance, soon reduced further to one dram every two days, The ration is distributed by the local landlord with draconian efficiency. In addition, two couples wish to marry but cannot proceed to their nuptials without the Scottish nectar to oil the necessary ceremonies.
So when the ship is grounded and the rescue operation mounted ….the islanders are very happy … Or would be if the pesky customs and excise and home guard folk would leave them (and their booty) in peace.
MacKenzie (not a Scot, an Englishman and founder of the SNP) left Barra for England in 1944 and wrote this novel as a homage to the Hebrides in 1946. His love for the islands, its people and their language is clear. The introduction to this volume identifies those characters who were modelled on the larger than life islanders of MacKenzie’s acquaintance. So too other plot elements such as the Presbyterian/Catholic divide and rivalries of the Outer Hebrides, transposed without malice onto his two fictional islands: Great and Little Todday. And the incomprehensibilty of the local lingo to foreign (English) ears.
“… really beautiful stuff. You’ll just think you’re sippng cream. Really a babe in arms would hardly know it was whisky. Uisge beatha. Water of Life!”
“That’s garlic, I suppose.”
“Ay, Gaelic it is. What a pity you don’t know our glorious language.”
“Say that again, will you, Father Macalister’
“I see. Something like a sneeze and a yawn,” said Mrs Odd.
Nothing like the novel, I hasten to add.
Switching now from the west to the east of Scotland and Inverness, Bobby Darbyshire’s Love, Revenge and Buttered Scones promises a treat that is as delicious as it sounds. Particularly if you like the idea of a book group and an author event with unforeseen consequences.
Henry Jennings is Marjorie MacPherson’s biggest fan. Having bombarded her with fan mail and love letters over the years, she invites him to a very special event at Inverness Library. He decides to travel up from London to attend. Things begin to go awry on the train – he spots his estranged younger brother and would-be poet, Peter, and is horrified when he also disembarks at Inverness.
He makes his way to the library, as does Peter. Chaos ensures as he manages to avoid his brother, meets a lovely librarian, named Fiona (honestly, all Fionas are lovely), bumps into a Spanish lady called Elena and, of course, encounters Marjorie MacPherson, who surprises him in a way he cannot handle. One snowstorm, and a day later, a wounded Henry Jennings grabs his opportunity to flee Aberdeen, accompanying Elena to The Loch Craggan hotel to interview the reclusive author, Angus Urquhart. He is surprised to find Fiona is driving them there and horrified that Peter is already sitting in the front seat!
Nor is that the only unpleasant surprise for Henry because Marjorie MacPherson turns up at the hotel as well! Poor man: chagrined beyond all measure, tormented by the cruel wit of his brother, can the new ladies in his life provide comfort? What is about the old goat, Angus, who bounds up and down the mountains as sure footedly as a goat, that binds Peter, Fiona and Elena together? Who will find love, who revenge and who will settle for buttered scones?
I have no notes/no quotes to refer to because I was too busy turning the pages of this fantastic farce with melancholic undertones. Embellished with loneliness, vanity, revenge, sexual politics and a chef who bakes buttered scones to die for! Together with surprising happy endings for all. The plot is, of course, slightly unfeasible, but who cares?
I read this novel as part of #tbr20. My only regret is that it sat unloved in the TBR for nigh on 5 years before I did so.
Whisky Galore / Love, Revenge and Buttered Scones