Notions on reading ‘Shuggie Bain’

My ancestry is mostly Scottish, instilled in me at an early age by my father and the books I found on our shelves when I was young. I am surprised, though, at my comfort level in reading Scots and how soon after reading a book written in Scots my speech takes on that unmistakable lilt. It’s somewhat embarrassing actually because people think I’m putting on airs.

I have argued for years with authors writing about highlanders who are presented as speaking Scots, a lowland language, rather than Highland English which is influenced by Gaelic. It comes down to the notion, I think, that Americans think all Scots speak the language of the lowlands but exhibit the fiery passion of the Highlanders which, some say, is characterized by sex, fighting, and drinking.

Shuggie Bain, the Booker Prize-winning novel by Douglas Stuart, is altogether another tin o’ worms. If you’re planning on visiting Glasgow, I urge you to read this book first so you’ll be used to not only the profanity of choice but Glaswegian often called “Glasgow Patter.” If you have trouble with it, consult 100 Glaswegian words that prove you are from Glasgow.

The article notes that Glasgow patter is a language of the streets, and that’s certainly true of the characters, speech, and lifestyles you’ll find in Shuggie Bain. In “real life”–unless we travelled to Glasgow and ended up in the “wrong” part of town–most of us would never meet such people, forget wanting to know them better, much share a strong lager with them.

Critics have called the novel “dark” and they are right. They’ve also called in a masterpiece, and the farther I read, the more I’m convinced they’re right about that, too. I have always thought that the Brits, in general, are a lot more earthy than Americans–perhaps demonstrated in such common expressions as “oh bugger” and “sod off” that we wend to avoid on this side of the pond. This earthy tone is clearly prevalent in the novel and would be viewed in the States as over-the-top chauvinistic, if not misogynistic.

But the writer in me wants to know what makes this novel a masterpiece and what motivates its characters. So I will continue, often with a smile at some of the things people say and do, to keep reading even though I might be totally scunnered by the time I get to the last page.

Is anyone else here reading the book yet?

Malcolm

Am bu chòir seann eòlas a dhìochuimhneachadh?

Should old knowledge be forgotten as my Gàidhlig title asks or as we are asking when we sing “Auld Lang Syne”?

I take comfort in this old song, perhaps from my Scots heritage, perhaps from the sweet sentiments set down by Rabbie Burns in 1788. When I think of him, I am saddened by the fact he was only with us for 37 years. But what a great influence he was.

I was very much aware of him as a child, and when we were asked in a high school class to memorize a poem and recite it to the class, I chose his “Scots Wha Hae” (Scots Who Have) about William Wallace, doing my fair best with the dialect:

Scots, wha hae wi Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome tae yer gory bed,
Or tae victorie.

I’ll no fash you by copying in the entire poem!

My father knew Scots history and the particulars of our family tree, so I grew up filled with stories about everyone who opposed the English threat to the sovereign kingdom, especially the Highlands. I feel like I’ve been waiting for Scotland to break away from Britain ever since the sorry Acts of Union in 1707. 

But so much for politics. In “Auld Lang Syne,” Burns, I think captured our feelings for old times and the continuity of the past–and our feelings for each other over time.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

Chorus:

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stoup!
and surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Chorus

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin’ auld lang syne.

Chorus

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.

Chorus

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.

Chorus

Ah, now I’m ready to face 2021.

Malcolm

The Flooers of the Forest

My ancestors play this Scot’s lament for me on Memorial Day, and though it’s forever a reminder of the country’s loss to the English at the battle of Flodden, in September 1513, I cannot help thinking that after every battle in every war the flower of the nation’s youth will not be coming home.

Here’s the song as I hear it. I’ve added some translations at the end.

I’ve heard the liltin at oor yowe-milkin,
Lassies a-liltin before break o day
Now there’s a moanin on ilka green loanin –
The Flooers o the Forest are a’ wede awa

At buchts, in the mornin, nae blythe lads are scornin,
Lassies are lanely and dowie and wae
Nae daffin, nae gabbin, but sighin and sabbin,
The Flooers o the Forest are a’ wede awa

In hairst at the shearin, nae youths now are jeerin,
Bandsters are lyart and runkled and gray
At fair or at preachin, nae wooin, nae fleechin –
The Flooers of the Forest are a’ wede awa

At e’en at the gloamin, nae swankies are roamin
‘Bout stacks wi the lassies at bogle tae play
But ilk ane sits dreary, lamentin her deary –
The Flooers of the Forest are a’ wede awa

Dule and wae for the order, sent oor lads to the Border
The English, for aince, by guile wan the day
The Flooers of the Forest, that focht aye the foremost
The prime o our land, lie cauld in the clay

We hear nae mair liltin at oor yowe-milkin
Women and bairnies are heartless and wae
Sighin and moanin on ilka green loanin –
The Flooers of the Forest are a’ wede awa

yowe=ewe
ilka=every
wede=withered
buchts=cattle pens
dowie-sad
wae=woeful
daffin’=dallying
gabbin’=talking
leglen=stool
hairst=harvest
bandsters=binders
lyart=grizzled
runkled=crumpled
fleeching=coaxing
gloaming=twilight
swankies=young lads
bogle=peek-a-boo
dule=mourning clothes

–Malcolm