In 1896, six years before creating Peter Pan, the Scottish writer J.M. Barrie published a memoir of his mother called, as she was, Margaret Ogilvy. Its prevailing tone is set in the opening chapter. “When you looked into my mother’s eyes,” Barrie writes, “you knew, as if He had told you, why God sent her into the world—it was to open the minds of all who looked to beautiful thoughts.” The way Barrie tells it, his mother began each day “by the fireside with the New Testament in her hands.” The rest of it she spent cheerfully performing domestic tasks, and enjoying the works of George Eliot and Thomas Carlyle.
In his encyclopedic Scotland’s Books: The Penguin History of Scottish Literature, Robert Crawford declares Margaret Ogilvy “the only book-length account of a mother by a male Scottish writer.” But that was in 2007. Now, with Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart’s avowedly autobiographical first novel, Barrie has some competition at last. The contrast between the two books, though, couldn’t be starker—because this time, we’re faced with a mother whose day is more likely to begin with a blinding hangover, a spot of dry heaving, and an urgent quest for any drink still lying around. Should this quest fail—and it often does—she generally pops to the liquor store for twelve cans of Special Brew, a high-strength lager niche-marketed to alcoholics. Alternatively, if she’s short of cash—and she often is—she might swap sexual favors for booze with a local husband or two, leaving her young son Shuggie to fend for himself. Or to fend for her, by collecting her welfare money so she can temporarily top up her lager supplies. At no point does she read either Eliot or Carlyle.
But this contrast isn’t just striking in itself. It also has much to say about the trajectory of Scottish writing over the past century or so, from the wholesomeness of what’s known as the “Kailyard” movement to the grittier, more booze-fueled and all-round bleaker works that now predominate.
During its wildly popular late-nineteenth-century pomp, Kailyard literature (so-named for a cabbage patch) was characterized by sentimental depictions of rural Scottish folk in all their close-knit charm. The local authority figures—such as doctors, clergymen, and, above all, schoolmasters (known as dominies)—were touchingly benevolent. And while some of the younger villagers might occasionally prove unwise enough to let their heads be turned by thoughts of a more exciting life elsewhere, they soon learned the error of their ways.
An archetypal example was Ian Maclaren’s best-selling 1894 collection of tales, Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush, which came complete with a dominie who “gave all his love to the children, and nearly all his money too, helping lads to college, and affording an inexhaustible store of peppermints for the little ones.” This was also the book that gave the movement its name—although not in a way that Maclaren would necessarily have liked. The epigraph—“There grows a bonnie brier bush in our kail-yard”—inspired the Oxford-educated Edinburgh critic J.H. Millar to coin the term Kailyard in 1895 as a pejorative description of what he regarded as phony, over-fond portraits of an impeccably bonnie Scotland, often by writers—Maclaren and Barrie included—who didn’t live there anymore.1
Millar’s use of the term—together with his scorn—quickly caught on. Later the same year, the Glasgow Herald ran a satirical interview with a fictional Kailyard author (long resident in London) named Saunders McWhannel. According to McWhannel, his chosen genre was
the brawest and easiest way o’ makin’ siller [money] that you are ever likely to come across…I just keep blethering awa’ aboot a’ the things that happened lang syne in Drumwhinnie…and dress them up to hit the ideas o’ the Cockney public.
As for his uncompromising use of Scottish dialect—authentic or otherwise—“The mair unintelligible it is the better they’re pleased.”
Yet, as the critics chortled, the public continued to buy these books in large numbers—and not only in Scotland and England. Maclaren died in 1907 during his third lecture tour of America. His Canadian fans included L.M. Montgomery, herself of Scottish heritage, who found Maclaren’s 1896 novel Kate Carnegie a “delightful” reminder of her own childhood; she was reading it about the time she wrote Anne of Green Gables (1908).
But by then the anti-Kailyard backlash from other Scottish writers was already underway. It was led—ferociously—by George Douglas Brown, whose The House with the Green Shutters (1901) was written, as Brown said, with “the sentimental slop of Barrie…and Maclaren” firmly in its crosshairs. “No one pictures the real Scottish village life,” he told a friend. “I will write a novel and tell you all what Scottish village life is like.”
The result owes an obvious debt to Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. At the start of Brown’s novel, John Gourlay—violent domestic tyrant and proud possessor of both the eponymous house and a terrifying glower—controls all trade in the fictional village of Barbie. But then along comes the more modern James Wilson, who takes some delight in destroying Gourlay’s business.
Yet even Hardy might have considered what happens next a little on the gloomy side. John Jr., his father’s last hope of social and financial recovery, returns from Edinburgh University a fully fledged alcoholic, who, after years of paternal oppression, finally stands up to his domineering old dad by smashing his head in with a poker. Unfortunately, John Sr. continues to glower from beyond the grave, leading a terrified John Jr. to commit suicide. His stricken mother and sister—by this stage both suffering from terminal illnesses—then kill themselves too.
And just in case we miss his anti-Kailyard point, Brown regularly serves up unflattering analyses of “the Scots character,” with its tendency to “an envious belittlement” of anybody who considers themselves a cut above their neighbors. Hence the “fine cackling in Barbie” as John Sr.’s business fails and the gleeful gossip about John Jr.’s alcoholism. There’s also tension between these solid Protestants and the Irish Catholics arriving in the area: “Scotland’s not what it used to be! It’s owrerun wi’ the dirty Eerish!”
Robert Crawford understatedly argues that Brown’s novel “marked a direction for future Scottish fiction.” And The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature Volume 3 (2007) refers to the work of Irvine Welsh, such as 1993’s Trainspotting—with its famously lurid scenes of drug-taking, violence, vomiting, and double incontinence—as “the culmination of a movement in Scottish writing dating back to…The House with the Green Shutters.”
The Kailyard/anti-Kailyard division is also central to the book voted Scotland’s favorite Scottish novel in a 2016 BBC poll: Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song (1932).2 After introducing us to the fictional village of Kinraddie, Gibbon clarifies its literary—rather than geographical—location by saying that it was “fathered between a kailyard and a bonny brier bush in the lee of a house with green shutters.” The book that follows duly reflects both the Kailyard affection for Scotland and the anti-Kailyard disgust, mixing scenes of communal kindliness with plenty of drink, domestic violence, religious sectarianism, and envious belittlement. The same double perspective is also shared by the novel’s heroine, Chris Guthrie. Throughout the book, she feels there are
two Chrisses…that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk…one day; and the next…almost you’d cry for…the beauty…and sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.
But the idea of a divided self in Scottish writing goes back a lot further than the Kailyard debate. In Scotland’s Books, Crawford traces it to the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, a leading figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, who saw the self as “in a perpetual flux.” (“Generations of critics have detected dramatically divided selves in Scottish fiction: those selves are Hume’s children,” Crawford ringingly asserts.) Either way, it’s certainly there in the murderous Calvinist narrator of James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)—voted number 10 in that same BBC poll; in (of course) The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson, who later explained that Hogg’s book “has always haunted and puzzled me”; and even in the inspirational and/or fascist main character of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel. (In a 1962 essay, Spark explained that much of her work was based on the simple word “nevertheless.”)
By 1919 the idea of the double self in Scottish writing was sufficiently established to gain its own label when Professor G. Gregory Smith came up with the less-than-catchy “Caledonian antisyzygy.” Decades later, Irvine Welsh put it more bluntly: “All that duality stuff,” he said, “it’s a massive theme in Scottish literature.”
It is, then, a testament to Douglas Stuart’s talent that all this literary history—along with the tough portraits of Glaswegian working-class life from William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, and Agnes Owens—can be felt in Shuggie Bain without either overshadowing or unbalancing the novel.
We first meet Shuggie (a Scottish version of the name Hugh) in a short opening section set in 1992, when he’s sixteen, working in a food store and living alone in a Glasgow boardinghouse. We don’t yet know how a teenager’s life has come to this, but several of the novel’s themes are deftly foreshadowed here. When Shuggie goes out to bingo with his middle-aged female colleagues, they drunkenly fondle him. When he stays in, he hears the other boarders drunkenly return home once the pubs have closed. He also has an awkward encounter with a boarder who’s carrying twelve cans of lager, wearing a gold sovereign ring, and wrongly expecting that his sexual advances will be welcome. The man then gives Shuggie a heartfelt lament for the old Glasgow:
In ma day a person’s religion said something about them. Ye came up through the school having to fight yer way there through bus-fulls of cabbage-eating Catholic bastards. It was something to be proud of.3
From there, the novel moves back to 1981, when Shuggie was five and sharing his maternal grandparents’ rented apartment in a grim Glaswegian tower block with his parents, Agnes and Shug, his half-brother Leek, and his half-sister Catherine. The atmosphere in the apartment on what’s evidently a typical night is one of somewhat desperate jollity as Agnes and her friends play cards and get drunk. With Margaret Thatcher letting Glasgow’s traditional heavy industry die, “The women all had men at home. Men rotting into the settee for want of decent work.” Not that these men are entirely without their uses. As the women drink more, they look forward to when they “would go home and climb on top of them…. It would be drunk open mouths, hot red tongues, and heavy clumsy flesh. Pure Friday-night happiness.” In the meantime, they consult shopping catalogs that show people living more carefree lives “somewhere far from here.”
It’s already apparent that the woman dreaming most keenly of a different life is thirty-nine-year-old Agnes, with the “movie star smile” she’s had since she was fifteen and got her teeth replaced by ones “broad and even and as straight as Elizabeth Taylor’s.” In her twenties, the same yearning for something better had caused her to leave her first husband—a dependable but unexciting fellow Catholic—for Shug Bain, who’d struck her as appealingly vain “in the way only Protestants were allowed to be.”
But, as Agnes’s mother puts it, “Look where better has gotten you”—because of all the novel’s many characters, the villainous Shug is the least nuanced. At the end of the card game he shows up briefly, before disappearing for the night with one of Agnes’s friends: part of his policy not merely to womanize but to make sure that Agnes knows he’s womanizing. How romantic that tryst would have been we can possibly judge from a later encounter with another of Agnes’s friends. “But ah love ye,” the woman tells Shug tearfully. “Aye, well, take yer fucking knickers off then,” he replies. “I’ve only got five minutes.”
Initially a flashback to a seaside vacation Shug and Agnes took a few years before seems to promise memories of happier times. But not for long. After she gets drunk, he pulls her up the stairs of their cheap hotel by her hair and, as “she cried out from the pain…hammered his sovereign ring twice into her cheek.”
Agnes and the five-year-old Shuggie’s first scene together again foreshadows much of what follows, as he embarks on a futile, book-length mission to do whatever “would make her happy.” The two are in her bedroom where, between maternal lagers, they dance with each other, and she corrects his Scottish pronunciation of “aboot” to the English “Ab-oww-t.”4 Then, in what will become a recurring phrase, her voice cracks with “the poor me’s” and she deliberately sets fire to the curtains with a cigarette.
Agnes thinks their life will be transformed when Shug finds the family their own rented apartment in Pithead, a coal-mining community on the edge of the city. Her hopes of a new beginning don’t survive the first day there. Having set off feeling “like the star of her own matinee,” she discovers the apartment is much smaller than promised. The recent closure of the coal mine means the local men now drink all day, while their families live on welfare. Most shattering of all, Shug doesn’t unpack his cases, announcing instead that he’s leaving Agnes for another woman: “I can’t stay with you. All your wanting. All that drinking.”
Agnes’s violent wanting persists—despite having few ways to express itself except an undimmed pride in her appearance compared to her neighbors’, with “their dirty skirts and tea-coloured tights.” Even so, it’s her drinking that takes center stage, much to the delight of those badly dressed neighbors—themselves no strangers to a drunken blackout5—who watch her decline with the same glee as the Barbie townsfolk watched John Jr.’s in The House with the Green Shutters.
Catherine, the elder child from Agnes’s first marriage, is old enough to escape, which she does at the first opportunity, marrying and moving to South Africa. Leek, too, pretty much gives up on his mother—although more regretfully, and while still keeping an eye on his younger brother. But for poor Shuggie, Agnes remains the center of his world. By the age of around nine, he already knows how to read the signs when he comes home from school: “If there was the sound of country guitars and sad melancholy singing, then the warm moistness of shit would start to wet his underpants.” Nonetheless, he always puts her to bed with great gentleness and ensures that she has mugs of water, milk, and the flat leftovers of Special Brew waiting for her in the morning. “I’d do anything for you,” he accurately tells her at one particularly low point, wrapping himself around her waist.
And Agnes is not short of low points. Indeed, the longer the book goes on, the more you wonder when she’ll reach rock bottom. Will it be when she shows up drunk at her dying father’s bedside? When she’s sick all over one of her gentleman callers? When a frantic Shuggie tracks her down at a party, and finds her “half-naked and crumpled” under the coats in the bedroom? The answer, in all three cases, is no.
So how is it that Agnes can be so utterly exasperating without ever losing our sympathy? One obvious reason is her own distress at her behavior. Another is that, as the latest exponent of Caledonian antisyzygy, she’s capable of real kindness as well as viciousness. The kindness tends to come during her occasional periods of sobriety, when, to Shuggie’s delight, she makes resolute attempts to be a better mother. But even in her cups she’s clumsily affectionate to him (some of the time)—and in one scene she drunkenly takes her own knickers off and puts them on her chief nemesis, Colleen, who’s lying in the street with her genitals exposed. Mostly, however, it’s because of Stuart’s Grassic Gibbon–like ability to combine love and horror, and to give equal weight to both. Not only is Shuggie Bain dedicated to his mother, but in the acknowledgments he writes that “I owe everything to the memories of my mother and her struggle”; he’s clearly determined to give all the contradictory aspects of that struggle their full due.
Now and again, this leads to something approaching admiration for Agnes’s refusal to be cowed:
Shuggie…understood that this was where she excelled. Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high. When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world.
Shuggie also clings, sometimes almost credibly, to the belief that her charisma and sense of style are enough to make her feelings of social superiority to her neighbors not completely delusional. Nevertheless—as Muriel Spark might have said—it isn’t hard to see the neighbors’ point of view too, as voiced with characteristic vigor by Colleen:
Walking around thinking yeese are better than the rest of us, with yer hairspray and yer handbag there. Ye…try and rub oor noses in it, and the whole time yeese are lying in yer own piss and fucking other wummin’s men.
Stuart’s capacity for allowing wild contradictions to convincingly coexist is also on display in the individual vignettes that comprise the novel, blending the tragic with the funny, the unsparing with the tender, the compassionate with the excruciating. He can even pull off all of them in a single sentence—as when Agnes decides to go to AA, not locally but in a posher part of Glasgow: “It was a fresh start, she had thought, and hopefully a better class of alcoholic.”
Unexpectedly, this classier AA does the trick. Agnes sobers up so successfully that she gets a job and a boyfriend, in the red-headed shape of Colleen’s brother Eugene, one of the book’s few decent men—although, in a typically shrewd psychological aside, Stuart notes Shuggie’s ambivalence about Eugene’s benign effect: “She looked as happy as he could ever remember, and he was surprised how this hurt. It was all for the red-headed man. He had done what Shuggie had been unable to do.”
The trouble is that Eugene can never believe that his charming Agnes was once the same “alky hoor” he’d heard being gossiped about. He’s especially unsettled by a party to celebrate the first anniversary of her sobriety, unable to accept that she belongs among the “sad pitiful bastards” (aka her AA colleagues) he meets there. On their next night out, to a fancy restaurant, he persuades her to drink like “normal people” and join him in a glass of wine. By the time he gets her home, she’s already “rolling in and out of a stupor.” In the teeth of strong competition, possibly the saddest line in the novel comes in the final section, back in 1992, when Shuggie tells his friend Leanne—another child of an alcoholic mother—that “my mammy had a good year once. It was lovely.”
Meanwhile, the other strand of the book is Shuggie’s own desperation to be “normal”—because it’s evident to everybody from early on that he’s gay. Evident to everybody, that is, except Shuggie, for whom “something inside him felt put together incorrectly. It was like they could all see it, but he was the only one who could not say what it was. It was just different, and so it was just wrong.”
From time to time, Stuart plays the gayness for laughs. “We need to talk,” the six-year-old Shuggie tells his mother publicly when they arrive at Pithead. “I really do not think I can live here.” “Wid ye get a load o’ that,” chuckles one of the onlookers. “Liberace is moving in!” But 1980s Glasgow is not a place accepting of sexual difference, even by the person who’s different. Shuggie is badly bullied at school, and not just by the students. In the total absence of benevolent old dominies, the best of Shuggie’s teachers let the bullying go on; the worst join in.
Stuart says that he considers Shuggie Bain “a queer novel.” (Rather less persuasively, the jacket claims a resemblance to the work of Alan Hollinghurst, whose elegant Jamesian fiction about highly educated gay men has never shown much interest in Glasgow housing projects.) But the queerness plays only a supporting role, at least until the last sentence, which ends the book on a note of hesitant, painfully earned hope that Shuggie may yet be willing to acknowledge who he is, and one day even enjoy it. (For the record, Stuart himself is now a New York fashion designer.) Otherwise, the author is too generous—and, it would seem, too fond of his mother—for the central focus to lie anywhere but in the fierce, warm-hearted portrait of Agnes in all her maddening glory. As a result, this overwhelmingly vivid novel is not just an accomplished debut. It also feels like a moving act of filial reverence—if not, perhaps, of the sort that J.M. Barrie would have recognized.
While Millar acknowledged Barrie’s superiority to his paler imitators such as Maclaren, he also wrote that, thanks to books like Auld Licht Idylls (1888) and A Widow in Thrums (1889), Barrie was “fairly entitled to look upon himself as pars magna, if not pars maxima, of the Great Kailyard Movement.” ↩
For Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, Sunset Song is “without a shadow of doubt, my favourite book of all time.” ↩
In her play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, Liz Lochhead, a former Scottish poet laureate, provided a guide to Scotland that included the information, “National flower: the thistle. National pastime: nostalgia.” ↩
Both The House with the Green Shutters and Sunset Song also feature characters who advertise their social superiority by trying to speak in an English accent. ↩
As Stuart idiomatically notes in his only other published work, The New Yorker short story “Found Wanting,” “It is Glaswegian to like a good drink, to get blootered, pished, steamboats, absolutely fucking rat-arsed.” ↩