The vagaries of the ongoing pandemic meant that my plans to spend at least some of the summer bobbing about in the Pacific Northwest, fishing for salmon off the back of a floating gin palace, were thwarted for the second year running. Like so many people, I opted instead for a domestic break: in my case in Scotland, staying with friends in Angus, 20 miles north of Dundee.
I had not been to that part of the country before, so Dundee was virgin territory; a strange combination of high culture, faded glory, and drunk topers shouting at each other in the street. In this city of contrasts the handsome, neo-Gothic Episcopal cathedral proudly professed to welcome anyone – “gay, straight, trans, single, married, partnered, single again, old, young, local, non-local” – while being very firmly closed.
In a second-hand bookshop on Reform Street I snapped up a bargain: Stephen Bullivant’s Mass Exodus, which I have wanted to read for a while; it was the result of a well-stocked window and a momentary lapse into weakness, but I am glad to have it. My goal lay at the waterfront; not the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Scottish outpost, which will have to wait for a return visit, but the bridge that carries trains back and forth across the Firth of Tay.
The Tay Bridge has been in my consciousness since I was a child, when first I read about its dramatic collapse in high winds on New Year’s Eve in 1879, which sent 70 poor wayfarers plummeting to a cold and watery death. It was seared there later by William McGonagall’s poem “The Tay Bridge Disaster”; like so much of the œuvre of the man who has been acclaimed in some quarters as the worst poet in the English language, a piece of work so bad that it’s good.
McGonagall died in 1902, but his collected works are available. There is something irresistible about someone who wrote and published like a dervish, all the while remaining totally untroubled by any sense of structure, rhythm or self-doubt. The only thing he did apparently understand was rhyme, but even that was a loose accomplishment. “Edinburgh” only rhymes with “sorrow” if I do a cod Scottish accent, which these days is probably Not Allowed.
As far as I can tell, my only contemporary with a similar critical appreciation of McGonagall is the writer ASH Smyth. Earlier this year, he recounted in the Critic a Burns Night dinner given by the Caledonian Society of Sri Lanka, at which he was the guest speaker. A witty speech extolling the merits of McGonagall was met with stony silence; his fellow expats had come for Rabbie Burns, and naught else. Smyth now lives on the Falkland Islands, although that may be a coincidence.
Mercifully, when it comes to Scottish poets, there is plenty of choice. All of them are better than McGonagall; then again, who wouldn’t be? Among my travelling books was Carve the Runes, a volume of the poetry of George Mackay Brown (1921-96), edited by Kathleen Jamie and kindly sent to me by the publishers shortly after its appearance earlier in the year. Brown’s twin muses were his home on wild Orkney and his Catholic faith.
Quite apart from the sheer beauty of Brown’s imagery and the graceful structure of his writing, subtle theology pervades. Wildness of scene provides a conduit for doctrine, yet here is no ham-fisted or heavy-handed proselytising; just the harnessing of the elements and a deep-rootedness in teleological truths. Elijah sought God in the tempest and met him in a still small voice; so too Brown found him amid Orkney storms and in the lengthening and shortening of the light.
In some of his poems, Brown revisits the tales that we know so well, as in the heart-wrenching “The Good Thief”, to stir ideas previously unthought and illuminate angles previously unseen. Elsewhere, he joins time and space and being, as in “The Harrowing of Hell”. “Daffodils” could hardly be further from the Wordsworthian pastoral idyll that its title evokes; it culminates breathtakingly at the foot of the Cross.
Shawled in radiance
tissue of sun and snow
three bowl-bound daffodils
in the euclidian season
when darkness equals light
and the world’s circle shudders
down to one bleeding point
Mary Mary and Mary
triangle of grief.
There will be no other spoilers; you will have to read the rest for yourselves. I went on holiday in company with William McGonagall, and returned with George Mackay Brown: from the ridiculous to the sublime.
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