Samuel Rutherford Crockett. I’m not going to go on about how he was once one of Scotland’s bestselling and best known authors. Or how he has been much neglected and often maligned by successive generations of literati. Or how both his reputation and his work have been revived in recent years through the singlehanded efforts of playwright, author, publisher and good friend of mine Cally Phillips. Instead of all that, I want to go on about the book I’ve just finished reading.
Now, ever since that aforementioned revival by Cally through the estimable Galloway Raiders, I’ve read many of the great man’s novels. I’ve also enjoyed every one of them, but none more so than Strong Mac. So, first of all, how do I categorise the book? Well, it’s a romance, for sure – a love story runs through the heart of it. But it’s more than that, so much more. There’s treachery and murder most foul and torture and fighting – at one point, we’re even plunged into the midst of Wellington’s Peninsular War. But there are also scenes of high comedy, including the laugh-out-loud proceedings at a murder trial. And, of course, since it’s a love story, there are many moments of quiet tenderness.
In short, therefore, the book has everything – adventure, mystery, humour, romance. But what makes it stand out for me, what turns it into a Scots classic to compare with anything produced by Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott are the following three qualities.
First, there’s Crockett’s characterisation. From the adorable Adora Gracie, the novel’s heroine, through to the multitude of bit-part players – the taciturn blacksmith, for example – the characters are so finely drawn you feel you’d know them if you met them in the street. But, believe me, there are some of them you wouldn’t want to bump into!
Then there are the landscapes. Crockett can’t help himself. With every new scene, he’s compelled to paint the landscape, sometimes in the minutest detail. His paintings are so accurate, so alive, that you’re transported there with the characters. You can see that tiny icicle sparkling in the winter sun. You can witness the colours unfolding and hear the sounds building across that vast, empty moor as it awakens to a new spring morning.
Last, but not least, is the dialogue. Crockett has all his characters speaking in their native Scots tongue, not in the Queen’s English and certainly not in in some half-arsed English/vernacular hybrid. Now, I realise that whole theses have been written by the literati on the use of “dialect” in novels. But listen to the rhythm of Crockett’s dialogue, feel the sharpness of it, laugh at the wryness of it, and you’re bound to support the full-dialect side of the argument.
But don’t just take my word for it. Go read this neglected Scots classic for yourself.
Review by Brendan Gisby