In 2018 I’m tasked with exploring the unco calendar authors. This gives me the chance (and excuse) to read and re-read some unco Scots authors, mostly from the 19th century – what’s not to love. It’s the kind of exploration I relish.
The first of these is James Hogg. You can find my wee guide on www.unco.scot. But here at Gateway I’m offered the privilege of going into the author in a bit more depth and offering more of an opinion and bias than might be strictly acceptable over at unco.
Previous to this task I’ve never really given James Hogg the space he deserved. I’ve fallen prey to reading the ‘bestseller’ and then never really exploring the lesser known paths. That’s something I’m in the process of rectifying. I say process because I have to alert you to the fact, you’ll not get to know James Hogg in an instant. So I got reading… and came across this:
Brownie’s Here, Brownie’s there,
Brownie’s with you everywhere.
You’ve got to love that wee rhyme! It makes me smile and instantly I read it I thought Before Batman there was The Brownie of Bodsbeck. Somehow the rhyme just put me into the zap,pow, kaboom frame of mind. And folks, that’s just the start of Hogg’s box of tricks. Expect fireworks.
His writing is contemporary with Scott which has its challenges. I’m up for much longer and more complex sentence constructions than 21st century or even 20th century fiction favours, and can more than hold my own with work from the second half of the 19th century. But when I head back to the early 19th century, and beyond that, into the spill over of the 18th century, I begin to struggle. Mostly I don’t bother. Mostly that’s because the content is as difficult for me to swallow as the form. But with Hogg this isn’t the case. Hogg is not your usual writer.
He’s unapologetic in his use of Scots dialect. That can slow things down, but slowing things down can help you to savour them. And yes, he uses long and convoluted sentences so you have to hold onto your hat to try and keep up with the complex ideas. Unlike Scott (and most other late 18th/early 19th century writers) he’s not writing from the position of the upper ‘ gentle’ classes. Nor even from an emerging aspiring middle class. He’s writing, if not exactly from the position of the working class, (his Ettrick Shepherd routine is partially a construct) then at least he writes honestly about them and with a knowledge that is neither patronising nor damning. That’s enough to keep me reading.
Hogg has lots to offer, and to readers who have substantially different interests to my own, I know that. So don’t just take my word for it. I’ll tell you what I like about him, but there’s plenty more to reward time spent in his company.
My particular favourite at present is The Brownie of Bodsbeck. I’m not big into the supernatural, but I do love a good Aiken Drum/Brownie tale. I like the ‘outsider/community’ aspect of the tale. And in The Brownie of Bodsbeck Hogg is being really clever in his delivery. It’s actually the cover for a Covenanting Tale. So if you’re interested in the history of Covenanting (or indeed the history of Covenanting stories) as I am, it’s a must read. We are often sold our Covenanting history on the back of the Jacobites with ‘Whiggism’ constructed as a lackey of the Union. S.R. Crockett goes a long way to redress this balance, and he drew much of his inspiration from Hogg. It’s a connection which has not been explored nearly fully enough to date –let’s hope that changes some time soon.
Without wanting to spoil the story for you, Hogg’s mysterious ‘Brownie’ is in fact a Covenanter, and the guts of the story is to do with the viciousness and violence visited on the ordinary folk of the Borders as part of the Killing Times. As such it’s raised far beyond a tale of the supernatural, and into an exploration of society and politics of the time. That’s what I love about it anyway.
Hogg is a subversive writer. Brownie shows this, and as I am working my way through the Perils of Man and the Perils of Woman I am finding the same thing – though in ever different ways. He keeps you on your toes as regards structure. He deals with a load of complex ideas about people and society. He’s definitely no Walter Scott - and that, to my mind, is a good thing. But that said, if you like Scott (and can thole the dialect) you’ll probably like Hogg too.
There’s enough reading in Hogg to keep you going all year – though perhaps you might want to pair him up with something easier and save him for the times you can spare a good few hours or days to really get your teeth into him at his own pace. He’s the complete opposite of the beach-holiday read, though for me, were I stuck on a beach for a week, Hogg is the man I’d want to take with me. His brand of escapism is for those who like to escape while keeping their brain engaged. Is he the thinking man’s (or woman’s of course) Walter Scott? I think he possibly is.
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