The Tenement by Iain Crichton Smith

The Tenement by the Scottish author Iain Crichton Smith was published in 1985. I must admit that I was a bit disappointed by it as there aren’t really any likeable characters, until almost right at the end.  The tenement of the title is past its best, it’s over 100 years old and hasn’t been well maintained over the years. There are six flats within the building and over the years there has been quite a lot of coming and going and nowadays the inhabitants don’t mix with each other much. The setting is a small coastal town in Scotland.

Mrs Miller has lived there the longest, she had been widowed early in her married life and she’s now 80 and drinks a lot. Mr Porter’s wife dies and it’s only then that he realises how unhappy he had made her by the decisions he had taken over the years, he only appreciates her after her death.

Mr Cameron beats his wife up every weekend, and nobody does anything about it.

I found this book to be quite a miserable read, which might be entirely my fault as somehow I was expecting something completely different. I think the only other books with the setting of a tenement building is the funny and heart-warming ‘McFlannels’ series by Helen W. Pryde. I got the impression that Crichton Smith didn’t think much of the type of people who lived in tenements. According to Wiki elderly women and alienated individuals were common themes in his writing. He was however predominantly a poet.

Depite being born in Glasgow his widowed mother moved to the Isle of Lewis when he was only two years old. I was amazed to read that Crichton Smith had become an English teacher and taught in Dumbarton around the time that I was at school there. I can only presume that he taught in the local boarding school for boys.

The Winter Visitor by Joan Lingard

The Winter Visitor by Joan Lingard was first published in 1983.

The setting is the 1970s in a seaside town in the east of Scotland, not far from Edinburgh (Portobello?) where Mrs Murray is living with her two teenage children. Mr Murray is working in the Gulf, but for how long nobody knows, he seemed to have dificulty holding on to jobs. To help with finances Mrs Murray runs a boarding house during the high season, visitors rarely want to have a holiday in winter, it’s freezing.

So when Ed Black turns up looking for a room the locals are surprised, especially as he comes from Northern Ireland, as Mrs Murray’s mother comes from Belfast the rumour locally is that Mrs Murray and Ed knew each other in the past. Nick, the son isn’t happy about the situation. The injured Ed had apparently been a victim of a car bomb which had killed his wife. ‘The Troubles’ mean that N. Ireland is a dangerous place to live.

This is the first of Lingard’s Northern Irish books that I’ve read. Although she was born in Edinburgh she lived in Belfast from the age of 2 to 18, from then on she lived in Edinburgh again. The atmosphere in Belfast was/is very similar to that of the west of Scotland, with ‘mixed’ marriages between Protestants and Roman Catholics being more than just frowned upon. I think things have moved on nowadays as religion has less of an influence on people in general.

I enjoyed this one so I’ll seek out her books that have a Northern Irish setting – eventually.

I really like the book cover which was designed by Krystyna Turska.

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker was first published in 1991. In some ways it reminded me of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith which I liked but I ended up liking this one more, possibly the Scottish setting had something to do with that.

At the beginning of the book we are told that 16 year old Janet, who is the narrator has been murdered. Then in chapter one we’re told that Janet had been born in Edinburgh during wartime, she was her parents’ first child and as her father went back to the war having been unimpressed by his new baby daughter, her mother settled with the baby in her in-laws’ house by the sea, it was a cold and damp manse. But Janet was adored by her grandparents and the nanny, then 14 months later her brother was born, and all was right with the world as far as the grandfather was concerned, boys being much more important! According to grandfather Janet is a plain girl, girls are supposed to be pretty I presume.

Luckily as the family grows larger and larger they inherit a castle in the Scottish Highlands, but Janet has never fitted in. As she grows up her mother longs to have girly conversations about clothes and make-up with her, but Janet is only interested in books.  Luckily for Vera the mother, the younger daughters are pretty and girly.

When they were given the castle it was on condition that they allowed the father’s cousin Lila to stay there too and Janet is more like Lila who is seen especially by Janet’s mother as being a misfit, she collects fungi to study and draw – as well as drinks a lot of whisky.

When Janet is sent  to a boarding school she’s also a misfit. Not only is she bookish and studious but she dislikes playing games and has nothing in common with the other girls, so they pick on her.

Janet’s closest ‘friend’ is Claws a young jackdaw which had been blown out of its nest during a storm. Claws roosts on the end of Janet’s bed, she’s like the mother the bird can’t remember, but inadvertently Claws will settle his beloved Janet’s future, or should I say – lack of future.

A Flute in Mayferry Street by Eileen Dunlop

A Flute in Mayferry Street by Scottish author Eileen Dunlop was first published in 1976.

Marion and Colin Ramsay live with their mother in a Georgian house in Edinburgh’s New Town, their father is dead and life is difficult, there’s never enough money.  The house they live in has been in the Ramsay family for generations and their mother doesn’t really know too much about the history of the house. Everything in the house had belonged originally to the previous Ramsays.  Marion has left school, she had an accident and damaged her spine and is now paralysed. The doctors had been hopeful that given time her damaged nerves would mend, but it has been a few years now and she’s giving up hope and is sinking into a depression.  She has also become scared of being in the house on her own as she keeps hearing someone playing what sounds like a flute – in the empty house. She won’t go out in her wheelchair and her only friends are the lodgers, a young couple whose rent helps with the family budget.

The housework is proving to be never ending for Mrs Ramsay and she asks Colin to dust and sort through the books in the bookcase, it’s full of things that have just been stuck on the shelves too, and shouldn’t be there. Marion helps too and that’s when she finds an intersting letter dated 1914.  This leads to a bit of a treasure hunt although they don’t know what they’re looking for.  Marion is interested in life again.

The blurb on the back says:

A Flute in Mayferry Street has all the ingredients of a classic ghost story, mixed with the harsh realities of a life set apart, and its implications for those around. An inspiring tale of the magic of dreams and the power of the supernatural.

I really enjoyed it.

 

Death of a Chief by Douglas Watt

Death of a Chief by Douglas Watt was first published by Luath Press Ltd in 2009.

Tthe setting is Edinburgh, it’s 1686. To begin with there’s a ‘prelude’ which tells of Lachlan MacLean’s experience as a youngster on the battlefield of Inverkeithing where he had lost two of his brothers. But now he’s Sir Lachlan MacLean, clan chief, but not for long as he is the chief referred to in the book title.

When Sir Lachlan’s body is found in his bed in his Edinburgh lodgings it’s not clear if his death was murder or suicide. The victim had borrowed money from people for years and often hadn’t been able or inclined to pay his debts.

The Edinburgh lawyer John MacKenzie is tasked with the work of investigating, helped by his young scribe Davie Scougall. They have to travel to the Highlands to Sir Lachlan’s home to look through the papers in the chief’s home, looking for clues. Davie Scougall had barely been out of Edinburgh before and he had certainly never been to the Highlands. He’s nervous about the journey as he has heard so many stories about the lawless area which is apparently populated by violent marauders. Even his granny has warned him never to go there! There’s a possibility of clan warfare to avenge the death, but there are plenty of suspects, including the new clan chief.

This was a quick read at just 187 pages but it’s an enjoyable read with some likeable characters, it’s well written by an author who prior to writing fiction was more used to writing about Scots history. He wrote The Price of Scotland: Darien, Union and the Wealth of Nations. I might give that one a go – sometime. I borrowed this one from the library.

 

Natasha’s Will by Joan Lingard

Natasha’s Will by Joan Lingard was first published in 2020. It was a Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ Pick of the Year. I must admit that I’ve never heard of that group. It’s a very quick read at just 166 pages.

This is a dual time and place setting. It begins in contemporary Scotland where Natasha has just recently died. She had been over 90 and had been cared for in her own home by family friends of generations’ standing.  Natasha had started life in St Petersburg where she had a very privileged life – until the revolution in 1917. After a lot of difficulty danger and disasters Natasha and her mother had managed to make their way out of Russia and eventually ended up in Scotland, along with Eugenie, a friend who marries a Scot.

Years later it’s Eugenie’s family that look after Natasha in her own home until she dies. Natasha had always said that she was going to leave the family her house, but her will can’t be found anywhere, and it’s thought that she didn’t actually get around to writing it. It’s a disaster for the family, especially when Natasha’s official next of kin turns up to claim his inheritance. This was a good read with plenty of tension although I was pretty sure  that everything would turn out right in the end.

As ever it’s a plus when you know the locations and I was happy to be able to recognise St Petersburg as well as Scotland. I didn’t know anything about this book when I saw it in a charity bookshop in Edinburgh, but I’ve started to collect Lingard’s books whenever I see them, which isn’t that often, even in her hometown of Edinburgh.

 

Robinsheugh by Eileen Dunlop

Robinsheugh by Eileen Dunlop was first published in 1975.  The setting is the Scottish Border Country, but it begins in London’s King’s Cross Station where Elizabeth has just boarded a train bound for Scotland. She’s not at all happy, her parents are going to America for months and Elizabeth had been desperate to go with them, but it couldn’t be afforded and Elizabeth is having to go to stay with her aunt, a historian who usually lives in Oxford but at the moment she’s doing research at Robinsheugh into the family that lived there during the 18th century.

When Elizabeth reaches her destination she’s absolutely miserable, it’s evident that her aunt has very little time for her and she’s more interested in the past. But when Elizabeth finds an old hand mirror which by coincidence has her own initials on it strange things begin to happen and she finds herself being drawn back into the past to become part of the 18th century family.

I liked this one although I was almost rolling my eyes at what at first seemed to be the usual cliche of the old mirror and a time slip, admittedly there is something strange about really old mirrors. It’s the thought of all the people who have looked at their reflection in the glass that you’ll never know, and what were they thinking, what did they look like?

Anyway, it turned out to be not such a cliche. Apparently this was the first book by Eileen Dunlop who was born in Alloa and was  a teacher at Dollar Academy.

Camerons on the Train by Jane Duncan

Camerons on the Train by Jane Duncan was published in 1963. Jane Duncan is probably better known as the author of the ‘My Friends’ series for adults. Camerons on the Train is aimed at children around ten years old I think. It’s an adventure tale which is told by Shona, the only girl in the Cameron family. She has three brothers, Neil who enjoys being dramatic, Donald who always likes to have something to read and Iain who is only three years old so doesn’t feature much in the adventure.

They live in Scotland near a village called Inverdaviot, but during the school holidays they always travel by train to stay with an aunt in the Highlands in a village called Jennyville, and this year they have been deemed old enough to travel there by train on their own. Iain will be staying at home with their mother, he isn’t well and she doesn’t want to take him out in the cold.

The journey from Inverdaviot to Rioch where their aunt lives is fairly unveventful and they can see their aunt at the end of the platform when they get to Rioch, but Shona realises that she has left her watch in the loo and dashes back to get it, her brothers follow her and they end up getting knocked down by three men who had been hiding in the loo, they were obviously small men!

This is a very quick read at just 125 pages. The tale has an authentic feel of being told by a young girl and it features an exciting adventure. I have a feeling that I read it when I was about ten but I can’t say for sure. I would have liked it just for the Scottish setting as at that age I just wanted to move to the Highlands and live in a wee white cottage, half of me still does, but I’m a Ggemini, so the other half of me wouldn’t!

 

 

Race of Scorpions by Dorothy Dunnett – 20 Books of Summer 2023

Race of Scorpions by Dorothy Dunnett was first published in 1989 and it’s a while since I read it, it was way back in June in fact. It’s quite a difficult one to write about I think, especially from such a distance! It’s the third book in the Niccolo series.

The year is 1462 and Nicholas van der Poele is now a widower and his step-daughters see him as their enemy, they have booted him out of the Charetty family business despite the fact that he has done so much work to build the business up. He’s not aggrieved though, he has moved on and travels in Europe with his band of mercenaries, sailing the Mediterranean, and being attacked and boarded by enemies. He ends up being caught between rival siblings, Carlotta and James, both of whom are vying for the throne of Cyprus.

As ever there’s an awful lot going on in this series, and you have to keep your wits about you, they’re not ideal bedtime reading for that reason and it’s probably getting on for two months since I read this one, I always find them difficult to write about because they’re so convoluted. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the two previous books, but I already have the others in the series so I’ll carry on with it.

This one was on my original list of 20 Books of Summer.

 

Bridal Path by Nigel Tranter – 20 Books of Summer 2023

Bridal Path by Nigel Tranter was first published in 1952 but my copy is a 1996 reprint. The cover illustration is from a painting by the Scottish artist Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell called The Dunara Castle at Iona. Nigel Tranter wrote a huge amount of historical fiction, but this one was a contemporary novel, and it was such a good laugh, just what I needed.

It’s set in the 1940s, on a remote Hebridean island called Eorsa.  Ewan MacEwan had been a prisoner of war, which was bad enough but now he is a widower and is having a tough time looking after his young son and daughter and running his farm too. Kirsty and Ewanie are more than a handful for him and if they’re not getting lost among a whole load of sheep they’re falling into the sheep dip. According to his uncle it’s time he looked for a new wife, but there has been so much inter-marriage on the small island that there’s nobody left that Ewan isn’t already related to, and he draws the line at marrying a cousin. So it is decided that he will go to the mainland to look for a wife. All the men are giving him advice on what to look for in a wife, all things that might help in the running of a farm such as having strong legs, a deep chest (?) not from the terrible island of Erinsmore, not a Campbell and not a Catholic!

Ewan has been given directions to an inn at Oban on the mainland and has been asked to deliver a salmon to the woman there, this sets off a police chase as they’re sure he’s a poacher from Glasgow and Ewan ends up running all over the hills ranging for miles and miles. He finds shelter in various remote cottages and meets up with some women such as he has never met before. As you can imagine with women living in remote locations some of them are determined to make the most of this manna from heaven in the shape of a man (with money) looking for a wife. Ewan is fairly terrified at times!

There’s such a lot of humour in this book, it was quite a tonic really. There’s a lot of dialogue in a Highland dialect which is really just with the English words being said in a different order and I think it’s easy to get used to the rythym of it.