Continuing our sojourn in and around the Kailyard, this month we’re tasked with selecting the seeds. If you read Leatham’s piece on Galt elsewhere in this issue, you will note that he claims Galt as ‘The First of the Kailyarders’ but suggests that it is Galt’s gritty rural realism that puts readers off. He describes Galt as ‘A realist without hope.’ I have a certain empathy with this stance. But you have to admit such a claim is worlds away from the contemporary ‘reading’ of Kailyard as sickly sweet sentimental clap trap devoid and divorced from realism. Which variety do we pick? You’d think that if you planted Kail you’d grow kail, but we can see that it’s not obvious what a kail seed looks like, never mind grasp what the final plant will look like. If we don’t know what kale is or what it looks like we’re not going to find the job easy, are we?
Let’s give Leatham his head. His opinion is as valid as any surely? And he’s closer by far to the whole debacle than I am today. To begin with, he gives a good critique of Galt, and it is in terms of his style that he starts the claim to Kailyard.. Forgive me if I seem to be cherrypicking in the kailyard - you can read the whole article HERE
The Scots Galt writes is deliberately and droll-ly unique. To this day no well-known writer has made so much of the Scottish air and manner of expression. The late S.R.Crockett and Mr John Buchan catch something of the trick; but what was a natural turn with Galt, as being the language of his contemporaries, and especially his own ‘droll, peculiar’ mother, is with later writers a thing overlaid and artificial.'
Note that Crockett and Buchan are here mentioned as other exponents of ‘the Scottish air and manner of expression.’ I certainly think there are many connections between Crockett and Buchan (which Buchan might well have tried to deny) and that Leatham seems to think that it is this ‘Scottish air and manner of expression’ which is marked as a main feature of Kailyard. For him, the battle ground of ‘dialect’ and ‘national Scots’ language is key. This very quickly takes us down a path towards Modernism and the ‘creation’ of a national language by the likes of McDiarmid. I won’t go there just now because I don’t want to choke my seeds with weeds before I even plant them. Drunk men addressing thistles is all very well, but I want to keep a pristine planting bed. Focus on the job in hand. And Scots dialect/language was (and again is) a battle ground. I’ll refer to it as the ‘leid’ effect and stick to my own point. Leatham continues:
‘It is not that Galt wallows in dialect. Far from it. There is broad Aberdeenshire in George MacDonald’s fictions, and some fairly recognisable Lothians in Stevenson. But Galt’s Scots is not local. He has a copious Scots vocabulary, composed, not of localisms, but of such words as will be found in Jameson’s ‘Dictionary of the Scottish Language’ as being in fairly general use.
I am not of those who pretend that there is such a thing as classic Scots. Burns wrote Ayrshire Scots, Stevenson (as he himself says) ‘the drawling Scots of the Lothians.’’ George MacDonald and William Alexander wrote very pure Aberdeenshire. Galt’s Scots has little or no dialect in it. Sir Walter similarly avoids dialect. But there is a Scots manner of writing, and there are occasional Scots words – ‘galravitching,’ for instance – and Scots expressions, often borrowed from scripture – ‘chambering and wantoning’ occurs to one – that set a stamp of Scottish individuality upon a piece of English writing and Galt has this character to a degree that is nowhere equalled. His best imitator is Dr. Moir in ‘Mannie Wauch.’
So we can see that Leatham at least thinks that there is both dialect and a ‘Scots way’ of writing. Crockett is often abused for writing ‘dialect’ and certainly the use of ‘dialect’ seems to be one of the standard features attributed to kailyard fiction. I will say that Crockett’s dialect when used, is accurate Gallovidian, there is no tweeness about it and it is realistic not nostalgic. But Crockett also employs ‘scots humour’ which I take to be an important part of what Leatham calls the ‘Scots manner of writing.’ I don’t believe he’s just talking grammar and syntax, I believe he’s talking humour and, dare I say it, emotional depth. But as we dig a bigger and bigger hole, still I cannot quite see the shape of the seed we intend to plant. I am not alone. Leatham feels called upon to consider what a ‘kailyarder’ might actually be. He asks:
'What is a Kailyarder?
This is why I call Galt the first of the kailyarders. I do not know that I have ever seen a definition or short description of what a kailyarder is, but I take it the essential feature of the school is its concern with the old-fashioned life of the village or small town where every family had its own garden of simple kitchen stuff and a few homely flowers.'
Definitions of Kailyard are still hard to come by. Current thinking seems to be that it has become so clichéd a term as to have no more value. (This does not stop the perpetuating of the ‘myth’ of the Kailyard ‘school’ of Barrie, Crockett and MacLaren, which in turn stops people from reading their work and discovering that it is anything but kailyard in terms of the disparaging definitions adopted by the Modernists and their followers.)
But are we beginning to select our seed? Must it be one in which an ‘old-fashioned’ life of the village or small town is the central concern? ‘Old-fashioned’ is a word that does get linked to ‘nostalgia’ (unfairly I contend) and I think it’s overly pejorative for our needs. How about stating that ‘kailyard’ has the focus on the rural rather than the urban, on the natural rather than the ‘civilised’ – or at least shows the tensions between rural and civilisation from a different perspective – perhaps more akin to Romance than Modernism? But there is clearly a realism in both. As the weather shows us, often you don’t get much more ‘real’ than nature. It’s so easy to get bogged down by the detail of definition of words when we try to describe Kailyard. I will simply say – if Kailyard is properly described as writing which is cloylingly sentimental and unreasonably nostalgic – especially if it is simply written to ‘hit’ an audience emotionally in order to get them to put their hands in their pockets – then it is a bad thing.
But if Kailyard simply means writing from the rural perspective then I have no problem about it. Writing about any past is in some sense nostalgic. More important, I suggest, is discovering where the honesty lies. Writing about one’s own experienced community (past or present) is different to ‘constructing’ something for narrative or profit driven purposes. Be that past or present.
The seed I want to plant may grow up into a strong kail plant. And if so, I will be proud of it. It will not be a superfood, or a fashion accessory. It will be an honest, dare one say sonsy, plant which tells of the ground it grew in, reflecting on both good and bad from the perspective of one who was there, who observed, who was nurtured and grew in the very soil of which it smells. There is nothing wrong with that. I have no problem with good wholesome fodder. If those who require Michelin stars and designer dining do not appreciate my plant, that is their problem not mine. I, at least, am happy that the world is big enough for all of us to share. They can leave me in my field to my picnic and I will leave them in their posh restaurant to their tasting menu.
In the ‘marketplace’ of publishing of course, fashion still holds sway. In the early 21st century I’d like to think we are beginning to have enough of a distance from the late 19th century to offer a mature reflection on it. We have moved beyond the knee jerk antipathy of Modernism towards what I might call ‘late Scottish Romance fiction’ and are beginning to see the value of the plant – whether or not we call it kail. I suppose a key issue I keep coming back to is whether we should be ‘proud’ of Kail, or whether we should ‘deny’ the appellation. This is only the same issue that every minority or oppressed group has to wrestle with. Colour, gender, ability all have had (and continue to have) the same issue. Do you find ‘queer’ a term of abuse or of pride? Are people disabled or is it society which disables them? It is in this same sphere that we should be looking at Kailyard as a literary term. I’m not giving you an answer here – just suggesting you think about it.
Barrie is beginning to be dug out of the Kailyard by dint, ironically, of an attempt to ‘place’ him into a Modernist context. Crockett is following him. The case to clear Maclaren has not yet begun. One thing is sure, if you ask around for ‘definitive’ Kailyard texts to discuss, no one seems able to name any but ‘Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush.’ Even this text, set in rural Angus/Perthshire can be ‘read’ a number of ways.
The relationship between reader and writer and the personal experience of both is, I suggest, one important way of defining or understanding the constructed terminology. An urban Modernist perspective is not the most appropriate one for a clear ‘reading’ and understanding of Scottish rural Romance style. how do you compare ‘The Cone Gatherers’ with ‘A Window in Thrums?' or 'Kidnapped’? To try and compare ‘Sentimental Tommy’ or ‘The Dark o’ the Moon’ with ‘Docherty’ is ridiculous. I'm not saying comparison is impossible, or even a bad thing - it depends on what you think you are comparing with what. Comparing ‘The Land of the Leal’ with ‘Rose of the Wilderness’ and ‘A Scots Quair’ or ‘Highland River’ with ‘Kit Kennedy’ can offer some fertile ground. If we take each for what they are rather than trying to shoehorn square pegs into round holes. It also goes without saying that trying to compare poetry with prose is akin to genetically modification of the crop. You may compare MacDiarmid with Burns (Modernism vs Romance) and you may compare Grassic Gibbon with Crockett – incidentally, if you do so you might find a lot more in common than you think – but denigrating Scots Romance fiction from the high ground of Scottish Modernist poetry is simply a pointless endeavour deriving, I suggest more from prejudice than from a positive desire to embrace Scots culture/s.
I am sure there are (as in all types of creative endeavour) many poorly constructed ‘cheap imitations’ of the Kailyard ‘style’ , especially prevalent when it was ‘on the rise’ as a publishing phenomenon. But to dismiss a whole movement/style of fiction as ‘kailyard’ and thereby damn authors who are actually both diverse in their output and creatively pioneering as well as being popular, seems to be throwing any number of babies out with the bathwater. It is not an issue of separating the wheat from the chaff, the weed from the seed, that I’m talking about. I am interested in discovering what our seed is and what it may taste like when it is grown to its best potential. I have no problem with emotion or sentiment or ‘heart’ in my fiction. I do not look at Scotland through the blinkers of the contemporary, or the intellectual or the urban. There is room for all. Rural life may be a minority experience as a reality, but that does not make all rural fiction nostalgic and unreal.
I might say of the kailyard that if, along with Leatham, we suggest that it (at least in terms of Galt) is not popular 'because people do not want to read the lives of the rural poor '–that in itself does not seem to be a criticism of the ‘quality’ of the writing. It suggests simply that fashions change and that where the dominant class or establishment do not value rural life (or writing) it will be pushed out of their self-created canon. The Scottish Literary Renaissance had no time for kail. Even if people wanted to consume it, the fiction was treated the same way as the vegetable for many years. Ironically of course, Kail, now a superfood, is becoming trendy once more. How long before the ‘Kailyard’ fiction follows?
Where we have been told for generations to eat our greens they are good for us, so we have been told not to read ‘Kailyard’ fiction because it is bad for us. We avoid anything that might be tainted with the name as surely as many folk avoid broccoli (or kail/kale).
You will note that Leatham doesn’t say there’s anything wrong with the subject matter of kailyard fiction per se. Others redefine ‘Old fashioned’ as ‘nostalgic’ and then criticise on that misguided definition. The main Modernist argument against ‘so called’ Kailyard is that it is twee and mawkishly sentimental. Leatham does not go along with this. He suggests:
'With the primitive housing of the village community, the garden would in any kind of feasible weather, be the natural place of resort both for ‘talking age and whispering lovers.’
Leatham’s use of the word Kailyard in his article on Galt does not aim to disparage. He then continues to look at the misunderstanding of what we might call ‘Scots humour.’ Barrie, Crockett and Maclaren all suffer from this. As Leatham says:
In the ‘Thrums’ series of tales we are invited to smile at its absurdities, its gossip, its spying, and the hopeless contradictions of its outlook. A London journalist, misreading Mr Barrie, long ago visited Kirriemuir expecting to find a community of humourists and overlooking the patent fact that we laugh at and not with Sam’l Todds and Snecky Hobarts. He declared that the inhabitants of Thrums posed as humourists; but the results were ghastly. This was so entirely what he might have expected that one wonders why he went. Mr Barrie no more presented his fellow countrymen as humourists than George Eliot and Thomas Hardy conceive their chaw-bacons as humourists. To laugh with the inventor or discoverer of humour is one thing, and to laugh at unconscious absurdity is something totally different. The simple villager, one foot resting upon the bottom of an upturned pail, solemnly describing what he would say to Queen Victoria and how he would say it, and the simply bystanders solemnly drinking it in, all parties showing that they have no knowledge whatever of what the other world is like, is grotesque enough; but that the characters should be devoid of humour is an essential condition of the characterization. That is what the author means.
If you don’t get ‘Scots humour’ you will not ‘get’ the work of writers such as Barrie, Crockett and Maclaren any more than if you do not ‘get’ the irony of Austen you will not enjoy her novels. So I suggest we should think of the literary construct ‘kailyard’ as defined by the likes of Millar and denigrated by the likes of McDiarmid, as simply that, a distortion which should now be defunct. It’s time to plant our own seeds, grow and nurture our own tastes and enjoy what we read without having to be told what is good for us.
One thing is certain. There is much more to the kailyard than meets the eye. There is scope for (and the need to) engage with a wholesale re-evaluation of both the term, the ‘school’ and the reasons behind its adoption.
Those engaged in the history of Scottish literature would do well to roll their sleeves up and get digging. It’s time to get down and dirty with the whole concept of Kailyard. From definition to finished work – from seed to plate – we need to question all that we have been told for generations about this neglected (and possibly non-existant) ‘school’ of Scottish writing.
Digging up the Kailyard will take us on a journey into cultural politics – one I suggest which is still relevant to today and to how we as Scots see ourselves. We have been sold a pup. We’ve been told to avoid our greens and fed deep fried Mars Bars for too long. I challenge you to get out into the kailyard.
Next month we'll get back to our Edinburgh Boys...
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