Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro

I was surprised and intrigued to discover that Alice Munro, the Canadian short story writer and Nobel prize winner had connections with James Hogg and the Ettrick Valley.
I read and enjoyed some of her work several years ago.  

Her writing has an understated precision, the stories set in rural and small town Canada, mostly in the mid-twentieth century.

The View from Castle Rock takes its title from the story that one of Munro's ancestors, James Laidlaw, pointed out to his son, Andrew, the Kingdom of Fife on the far side of the Forth, declaring that it was America.  An example of the Laidlaw love of stories, which runs through the generations from at least the time of Will o'Phaup, the last man in Scotland to speak with the fairies.

I was warned that Munro was not very flattering about the Ettrick valley - and indeed she is not, though her first visit involved walking around the graveyard in the rain, not the best way to see a place and very different from our first visit in glorious summer weather.

Ettrick church on a gloomy morning

Of course, I was fascinated, as I usually am, by the mention of places I had seen, near to the cottage where we were staying, and the way the history of the Laidlaws is woven into the fabric of the valley. Much of Munro's material here comes from Hogg's writings, in the Shepherd's Calendar in Blackwoods Magazine, brought back to life with her usual deft touch.

When it came to her ancestors' journey over the Atlantic and their first years in Canada, the book continued to hold my interest. She adds her imagination to the bare bones of a factual account, helped by the fact that "...every generation of our family seemed to produce somebody who went in for writing long, outspoken, sometimes outrageous letters, and detailed recollections."  She was lucky to have the material, but the treatment of it is very much her own, wonderful storyteller that she is.

I think anyone who has been caught up in an obsession with family history will recognise this sentence in her epilogue.
"We can't resist this rifling around in the past, sifting the untrustworthy evidence, linking stray names and questionable dates and anecdotes together, hanging on to threads, insisting on being joined to dead people and therefore to life."

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg

We recently spent a week in the Ettrick Valley, and became interested in James Hogg through an exhibition in the old primary school.
I have also written a couple of short posts about some of his work. There is plenty of info available online too.

James Hogg was born in the Ettrick Valley, late in 1770. His father was a tenant farmer at Ettrick Hall, and his mother Margaret Laidlaw was the daughter of Will o'Phaup, reputed to be the last man in the Borders to talk with the fairies. His mother knew lots of traditional local songs and stories.
James left school after six months and went to work as a cowherd to help the family finances.  In his teens taught himself to read and write, and play the fiddle. He began to write poems and songs.
Around 1800, while he was working as a shepherd, he met Walter Scott, who was Sheriff of Selkirk, and was collecting material for his Border Ballads. The two men became and remained friends.
Tibbie Shiel's Inn, visited by James Hogg and Walter Scott

Hogg moved to Edinburgh in 1810, as he was unsuccessful as a farmer.  He didn't make a lot of money from his writing, but began to make a name for himself.
In 1815 the Duke of Buccleuch granted him, rent-free, the farm of Altrive in the Yarrow valley.
His most famous work,  The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, was published in 1824.
James Hogg died in November1835, and is buried in Ettrick churchyard, near his parents and Will o' Phaup.

James Hogg's tombstone

Tombstone of William Laidlaw (Will o'Phaup), and of his daughter, Margaret Laidlaw Hogg, and her husband, Robert Hogg. Robert and Margaret were the parents of James.

Alice Munro, the Canadian short story writer and Nobel Prize winner, was a Laidlaw before her first marriage. She descends from James Laidlaw, a cousin of James Hogg, and from Will o'Phaup.
She tells the story of this in her 2006 book, The View from Castle Rock. Thanks to her book, I was able to find and decipher the gravestones - and James Hogg's epitaph for Will o'Phaup.

Here lyeth William Laidlaw
the far famed Will o'Phaup,
who for feats of frolic, agility and strength,
had no equal in his day . . .

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

James Hogg's most famous book, published in 1824, was rediscovered and praised by André Gide, and influenced Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Ian Rankin has also praised it highly.
I decided I should read it, and found it surprisingly easy in spite of occasional bursts of Scots speech.

It contains comedy alongside horror.  There are echoes of the conflict between episcopalians and presbyterians. There's plenty of criticism of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination - giving the chosen ones a free pass to heaven.  There's a shape-shifting demon, and undertones of Faust. 

His examination of fanaticism, and the way it leads people to believe they are justified in killing those who disagree with them resonates strongly today.

Monday, June 13, 2016

A boy's song by James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd (1770-1835)

A boy's song

Where the pools are bright and deep,

Where the gray trout lies asleep,

Up the river and o'er the lea,

That's the way for Billy and me.

Where the blackbird sings the latest,

Where the hawthorn blooms the sweetest,

Where the nestlings chirp and flee,

That's the way for Billy and me.

Where the mowers mow the cleanest,

Where the hay lies thick and greenest,

There to trace the homeward bee,

That's the way for Billy and me.

Where the hazel bank is steepest,

Where the shadow falls the deepest,

Where the clustering nuts fall free.

That's the way for Billy and me.

Why the boys should drive away,

Little sweet maidens from the play,

Or love to banter and fight so well,

That's the thing I never could tell.

But this I know, I love to play,

Through the meadow, among the hay;

Up the water and o'er the lea,

That's the way for Billy and me.