‘Heely, heely, Tam, ye glaiket stirk’: Tak Tent o William Alexander
O Scottish novels scrievit i the late nineteenth century, the heich pynts are Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae, frae 1889, and William Alexander’s Johnny Gibb o Gushetneuk frae eichteen year airlier. Thon statement micht lead some fowk ti concludethat Tam the glaiket stirk is nane ither nor my guid sel. Sae lat’s take an initial keek at thae twa maisterpieces thegither. Stevenson’s buik is a romantic tale wi mainly aristocratic chairacters – in parteicular the twa rival sons o the Big Hoose o Durrisdeer. In1871, the Scotsman’s reviewer remairked on ‘an almost startling reality’ in Alexander’s novel: indeed, it’s as faur frae bein romantic as ye can get, and the chairacters are fir the maist pairt ferm warkers, no landit gentry. Thon ‘startling reality’ awes muckle ti the virrsome North-Aist Scots – the Doric – spoken bi the fowk. Forby, Stevenson sets his tale at the ither end o Scotland, within the radius o Ayr and Dumfries.
A landit gent, fir aa that, duis appear i Johnny Gibb o Gushetneuk – fir this is a tale o an ideological natur, concernit wi the warsle atween social clesses. The ferm fowk want ti choose their ain meenister fir the local kirk, but the laird, Sir Simon Frissal, is determinedti impose his ain candidate, a body wha can be coontit on takkin the side of the lairds aginthe tenants, wha’ll preach frae his poupit that sairvants suid aye obey their maisters! The title character, Johnny Gibb, is pitched inti the leaderskip o the releigious and poleitical opposition ti the laird.
An estate’s tenants appear alsweill i The Maister o Ballantrae, forby the warkin fowk o the nearby toun. Certes, there are tensions atween thae characters at the boddom o the heap and the highheidyins up at the Big Hoose. Houever, thir tensions are mair personal an individual raither nor collective, and they centre on Jessie Broun, a quean o the toun made pregnant bi the roisterin elder son o Lord Durrisdeer. She still adores him – he’s weill-lookit and charismatic, unlike his dull and unpopular younger brither. The tenants resent their rents bein collectit (an it’s the younger brither wha rins the estate) but there’s naethin that we’d cry solidarity in the modern sense.
Baith buiks hae their characters speikin Scots: fir the lower orders in Stevenson’s buik it’stheir ilkaday means o expression. But the upper orders yuise it anaa, at times o deep emotion or banterin familiarity; or, ti pit it anither wey, whan the psychological temperature o the moment caas fir the yuise o Scots bi fowk wha wadna normally speik the leid. In Johnny Gibb, though, there’s a muckle clearer linguistic divide. Sir Simon the laird speiks the Queen’s English. Johnny Gibb, on the ither haund, even in confrontation wi Sir Simon up at the Big Hoose, isnae prepared ti modify his speik. Nae wey will he talk fine ti the laird. (Ither characters in the novel, sic as hae pretentions ti haut-bourgeois
respectabeility, speik in an awfy taigled mainner – the Suddron juist disnae come natural ti them. The snobs are the main source o the novel’s fouth o humour, nae least in the genteel reaction o the pews ti the unfortunate worshippin fermer whase poochfu o birdshite – ti be yuised as fertiliser – fills the kirk wi its distinct reek.)
A leid develops alang wi human labour, and mony o the guid Scots words in Alexander’s buik are ti dae wi fermin, juist as a less-kent novel (this time set i the Lothian coalfields), Peter M’Neill’s Blawearie (1887), introduces us ti the vocabulary specific ti the pits. Onybody eident ti extend their command o Scots cuid weill bear aa this in mynd, and recognise that the Doric o the North-Aist isnae aathegither ayont the kennin o readers fraethe Central Belt. Ye cannae dae ither nor faa in luve wi a novel that begins wi the words: ‘Heely, heely, Tam, ye glaiket stirk – ye hinna on the hin shelvin o the cairt.’ Ye’ll be swept alang bi the sheer pouer o Alexander’s Scots conversational prose; forby, aa editions o Johnny Gibb cairry extensive glossaries, sae ye’ve naethin ti fash abbot.
Sae wha wis this William Alexander (1826-94)? He cam frae a fermin family, but an accident ti his leg meant he had ti find a mair sedentary occupation. He wis a bricht loun and becam pairt o the Mutual Improvement movement – whit we’d cry a people’s university – wi its debates and the scrievin and discussion o members’ essays. William gaed inti journalism, and it wis in the newspapers that Johnny Gibb first appeared. It wis the anerlie novel o his that appeared in buik form in his ain lifetime; there wis indeed a buik o short stories (1875), but the ither novels had ti wait ontil the 1980s and 1990s whan the doyen o Alexander scholars, Dr William Donaldson, rescued thaim frae the newspaper columns and issued thaim as buiks. Alexander wisna pushy; modest ti a fault, he wisnae unlike his Johnny Gibb, thon people’s champion wi his dour, ego-free integrity.
“Ye cannae dae ither nor faa in luve wi a novel that begins wi the words: ‘Heely, heely, Tam, ye glaiket stirk – ye hinna on the hin shelvin o the cairt.’ Ye’ll be swept alang bi the sheer pouer o Alexander’s Scots conversational prose; forby, aa editions o Johnny Gibb cairry extensive glossaries, sae ye’ve naethin ti fash abbot.”
Thon chapter towart the end o the novel, whan the agein Johnny kens that he’ll süne hae ti haund ower the ferm ti his nephew and niece-in-law, is ane o the maist movin in aa Scottish leiterature. Sittin outside the hoose wi his wife, and leukin oot on the grund, aince staney and unpromisin but made fertile bi decades o haurd darg, he muses that ‘though Sir Seemon may ca’ the rigs o Gushetneuk his, I’m maistly seer, gin the rigs themsel cuid speak, they’d ca’ me maister rather nor him.’ I’ve taught this chapter, thegither wi an English owersettin, ti students in Hungary, France and the USA, and it’s led ti animatit discussion: efter aa, it’s universal, thon phenomenon whaurby there’s the few wha awn the laund and the monie wha wark it.It suid be addit that, in terms o leiterary history, Alexander’s buik belangs ti thon nineteenth-century European rural realism sic as we find in novels and short stories bi Ivan Turgenev and Émile Zola.