A book on the Highland Clearances

From the Observer 21 October 2001

If, as Ambrose Bierce argued, a violin is the revenge exacted by the intestines of a dead cat then history, in the hands of a skilled interpreter, may avenge vanished generations. The Highland Clearances are a good example of the phenomenon.

One view is that landowners brutally swept away the native people. Harder-nosed academics say that the Clearances were part of an inevitable change. But although we are in an age of opulence, a time when, in the words of Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Brazilian football coach, we tie dogs up with sausages, we seem to grow ever more bitter about the misfortunes of our Highland forebears who lived not in Arcadia but often in poverty.

On a compilation of Scots poetry

The Observer, Sunday 1 July 2001

    At the heart of what makes poetry Scottish lies the question of language. There are at least four varieties. First, there is the Scots of the old court before the Union of the Crowns. Then came the vigorous and assured tongue used by Robert Burns in his best poems, or richly put in the mouths of his native characters by Sir Walter Scott.

John Updike’s autobiography

THE writer must quarry his own life: he has nowhere else to turn. ThatJohn Updike has done so has always been clear enough, but what hasalways puzzled me has been his underlying attitude as a lyrical butclear-eyed chronicler of domestic and sexual politics.

Was Taggart McIllvanney sleuth’s doppleganger?

THIS week I finally got round to reading William McIlvanney’s latest book, Strange Loyalties. It has already been favourably reviewed in the Herald by Hayden Murphy and I too enjoyed it immensely.

It is the latest and, Willie tells me, the last of the novels about Jack Laidlaw. In the book the Glasgow detective goes in search of the truth about the death of his brother. It is set inter alia in Glasgow, Ayrshire, Kelso and Edinburgh. As a crime novel it seems to me considerably superior to the new Elmore Leonard, Maximum Bob, which is piled so high in all the bookshops.