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…
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