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Bonnie Kailyard Booicks: Scottish Novels

Last Monday, the Wifey and I were returning from Wisconsin and stopped at one of our favorite small-town antique shops, Desperado Antiques in Wyeville. They’ve got a lot of paper and magazines, which is well worth stopping, and their antique book section generally has things I haven’t seen before. This time we stopped, I found two books of a similar genre: Scottish novels.

The genre is called the Kailyard school of storytelling. A ‘kailyard’ is vernacular for a cabbage garden, a staple food of poor Scottish families. Novels in the kailyard style are stories of the blue-collar, hard-laborers of Scotland, composed in their style of language and detailing the everyday aspects of Victorian Scotland. The style reminds me of southern Black novels of the same time period, describing the lifestyle of low-income, hard working people in their vernacular, converting their accent to text as well as the alphabet could allow. The Kailyard movement was very brief, appearing for a few years just before the end of the 19th century. James Barrie, best known for Peter Pan, was the most notable member of this movement, his novel Auld Licht Idyls being considered one of the finest of the genre. The style was considered somewhat ‘lowbrow’, being accused of corniness or excessive sentimentality, but as a approachable subject of a relatively exotic culture for English and Americans alike, the genre had a brief popularity. The two books I purchased are not the most common books overall, but their authors are both frequently mentioned as leading authors in the genre.

Wee Macgreegor by John Joy Bell was originally published in 1902, and is a compilation of stories Bell wrote for the Glasgow Evening Times. Bell attended the Glasgow University, starting in the sciences but ending up in the J-school. Writing for various papers and magazines, he eventually found his niche with the Wee Macgreegor stories. “Wee Macgreegor” is the young son of the Robinson family, living in Glasgow, and the young lad’s interesting adventures and precocious nature make for good tales. The book I have is the first in a series of books published revolving around the same Scottish family. Understanding the trouble with the Scottish dialect, Bell had the foresight to include a glossary at the beginning of the book. The dialect appears to be a combination of phonetic spellings of common words (“gundy” is “candy,” “wannert” is “wandered”), along with many words seeming to be of a pre-modern-english source or pure slang (“drookit” is “soaked”, “canny” is “careful”). An average sentence from the book is: “Deed, I wis thinkin’ it wis mair nor naethin’ than wis makin’ ye saw jokey-like, said Lizzie, with a laugh.” You can read Wee Macgreegor online via Google Books.

Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush by Ian Maclaren was first published in 1894, after parts appeared in serialized form in the British Weekly in 1893. Maclaren, however, us just as fictional a person: “Ian Maclaren” was the pseudonym of Rev. Dr. John Watson, a fine generic British name. Watson was educated at Edinburgh University and entered the clergy at his father’s behest not long after finishing his education. He had little intention of becoming a writer, but the editor of a magazine called the Expositor encouraged Watson to contribute articles. Brier Bush focuses on community life in the fictional Scottish town of Drumtochty, documenting the trials and tribulations of the colorful citizens, with an understandable focus on the Church’s presence in the community. This book has far less dialogue than Wee MacGreegor, which should make it more readable despite lack of a glossary, but the dialogue is no more clear than the former: “weel, yon’s the last sicht o’t ye’ill get, or a’m no Drumsheugh. I’ve nae objection masel’ to a neebur tastin’ at a funeral, a’ the mair if he’s come fraw the upper end o’ the pairish, and ye ken I dinna hold wi’ thae teetotal fouk.” This book, as well, is available via Google Books.

I originally picked up the two books just for their unique language, and now that I’ve discovered that these comprise examples of a lost literary style, I’m all the more anxious to read them — I better take my time, though; as we’ve seen, the language that embodies the Kailyard style might hang me up a bit until I get into the swing of things.


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