Fictional Memorials of the North-East
Partly because I was born in Aberdeen and my deepest family roots lie in Buchan, and partly because of idyllic summer holidays in small coastal communities along the North-East coast, I’ve always had it in the back of my mind to write a novel set in that part of the world.
Some of my favourite authors – Neil Gunn, Jessie Kesson and Lewis Grassic Gibbon – had fictionalised the area in classic novels. (Gunn was more specifically a writer of the Highland landscape but The Silver Darlings features the east coast.) Kesson’s The White Bird Passes, The Glitter of Mica, and Another Time, Another Place are set in Aberdeenshire as is Gibbons’ monumental trilogy A Scots Quair, as well as many of his short stories. Writers are hugely influenced by their predecessors, both literary and genetic. Even though I don’t have ‘the speak’ and struggle to come up with more than sentence or two of pure Doric in a conversation, the North-East is my homeland in some deep emotional sense.
Sense of place has always been a key theme of my own writing. I’ve always sought to respond creatively to my location, and early in the gestation of a new piece of writing, I’m thinking about the physicality of place and trying to answer questions like: ‘What kind of people lived here? What was their story? How can I re-imagine their experience?’
My first two novels, Tumulus (Polygon, 2000) and Estuary Blue (Polygon, 2001) attempted to memorialise Dundee and East Perthshire. In Tumulus, I felt the pressing need to ‘represent’ the modern city of Dundee, to wave flags for the place, to show that fiction could be written there, that it is a worthy location for a novel. And I wanted to memorialise to individuals I had known, including many friends who had died, on the page for posterity. I’ve lived in Dundee for nearly forty years and the North-East of Scotland is where my deepest family roots lie, as far back as I’ve traced them – to a John Scott in Fraserburgh in 1840. He had eleven children. I like to think – and it is quite probable – that my ancestors were ‘loons and quines’ who had hard lives working on the land or on the sea.
My great uncle Dod had a 30-acre hill farm at South Thornhill in Cuminestown, Aberdeenshire, where my dad played as a boy. I remember sitting on Dod’s knee holding the great steering wheel of his grey Ford tractor high above the wobbly wheels, scattering the hens in front of me. Dod, who lived to be a hundred, and his wife Lizzie, are buried at Montquhitter Churchyard in Cuminestown, near to my father’s memorial plaque and these real details were in my mind when I came to write what became my fourth published novel, The Big J. I’ve always had the view that something real has an indelible, intrinsic truth which is not possessed by anything made up. All fiction is a trick, a manipulation of different facets of reality. Fictional places and characters must be convincing and the inclusion of at least some real elements can help to create a greater illusion.
I enjoyed numerous boyhood holidays on the coast in Gardenstown, Crovie, Cullen, Portsoy, Tain and Portmahomack; by conflating elements of several places, the fictional location became at once specific and generic, realer than real.
I had many reasons for wanting to write a ‘North-East novel’ but, I asked myself, what story needed to be told from that area? For a while I considered using stories based on my own family tree but gradually, other ideas began to accumulate. I had mental images of a small fishing community, a rampart-like harbour wall, surly seas, red sandstone cliffs battered and sculpted by salt spray into apple-core shapes… The name of the place was to be Dounby. There is of course, already a Dounby – in Orkney, and I’ve been there – but I still wanted to use the name, in its Scots sense of ‘doun by’ – as in marginal, overlooked, neglected. And the name has a particular appropriateness in a place that slopes steeply down a cliff to a harbour. I am sure that the residents of the real Dounby don’t mind me borrowing the name.
I had a photograph from that earlier time of holidays on the coast, a black and white Box Brownie picture of a group of boys on the steps of the harbour wall at Gardenstown, circa 1966. I had always thought that my brother and I were in the picture but on examining it with a magnifying glass, realised that we are not. But this close group, this sense of kinship, somehow became a feature of my fictional landscape of Dounby. And the fictional place was somehow made more real by making it six miles from the city of Duncairn. This was the city in Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song – ‘which the good folk of the Mearns have yet to build’ – according to the author’s preface to the second edition. He was responding to reviewers of the first edition having wrongly associated it with Dundee, Aberdeen and even Edinburgh.
The next best thing to a real city is a city created by the imagination of Lewis Grassic Gibbon! With Gibbon, Neil Gunn and Jessie Kesson, the North-East has been well served by writers, and you could add to that list, the poems of Charles Murray (a particular favourite of my father’s) and work by Peter Buchan and David Toulmin. Of course, I had already decided that mine was to be set in the 1980s. So I had a place and a period but where were the characters to be found?
My relationship to this nascent fictional landscape was as a very much younger person and so I began to think about what it would be like to live in such a place, rather than just visiting. My recollections of my late teenage years were of a yearning for travel and a desire to ‘get beyond the horizon’. I those childhood holidays – and then, unexpectedly, someone popped into my memory. A person I had known for two weeks when I was seventeen – the ‘Big J’. And he had no connection whatsoever with my fictional North-East community.
When I was a teenager, I used to go hillwalking in the Lake District, the Peak District and the Trossachs. It was on one of these holidays that I met ‘Big J’ and, by the way, his nickname is intended to be pronounced in the Scottish way, as ‘jye’. One of my earliest pub visits was with him. I was about sixteen and my brother was only fourteen and ‘J’ led us around a loch in pitch black, three miles from the Youth Hostel, to a stone-flagged inn, and back again three pints later. These were seminal adventures with a flavour of freedom I didn’t get from school or family life or playing with my friends in the Angus village of Wellbank.
In my memory, ‘J’ was tall, dark-haired, neat sideburns, no zits. I also remembered a denim cap a la Donovan. When the novel was nearly complete, I discovered that I have a picture of ‘Big J’, a single Kodak slide dating from August 1970, with ‘Big J – John Winter’ written on it. He had a name! I was astonished to see that he was nothing like my memory of him. Not particularly tall; fair-haired instead of dark; not even particularly good looking, and no denim cap. So my ‘Big J’ is a truly fictional construct, only loosely suggested by Mr Winter, thanks to my faulty memory! After several drafts it became obvious that ‘Big J’ was the central figure around whom the action revolved, and so his name was right for the title. Of course, non-Scots readers will probably pronounce the title ‘J’ as ‘Jay’ rather than rhyming it with ‘guy’; I like that added cultural resonance. The idea that readers in a certain part of the country would pronounce it ‘correctly’ appealed, gave the novel an extra layer of meaning for me, added allusiveness.
The novel, once underway, found its own path. The narrator, Robbie Strachan, is on the verge of manhood. He lives in a place where you’ve to ‘have a story ready’, where everyone knows everything about you. So he keeps some things private, learns to hide his true feelings. But there’s a woman who comes to Dounby every summer, an American sculptress in her early thirties. He thinks she’s the sexiest woman he’s ever seen. Robbie cuts her grass and does odd-jobs around for her and notices there’s a hint of flirtatiousness in her manner… Then along comes a stranger – enigmatic, handsome, ultra-cool and, chronologically, only two years older than him, but with a lifetime’s experience – and suddenly the stranger is in a relationship with the woman. Robbie’s awestruck by the stranger. Wants to be with him, wants to be him. But he can’t stop thinking about the woman. And there’s a girl his own age dangling him on a string. Robbie quite fancies her but think she’s just shallow, really. Life can be so confusing. All his pals are about to split up. When the summer’s over, he will go off to university. Suddenly, there are lots of surprises and secrets. It’s the end of something; it’s the beginning of everything, the last summer of boyhood. There’s even some sunshine and there’s going to be a party on the secret beach… I had the plot. In the end, The Big J wasn’t at all the book I imagined when I started it. You never really know where the writing will take you – but you have to go with it.
© Andrew Murray Scott
THE BIG J by Andrew Murray Scott
Steve Savage Publishers, £7.95
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