Nairn is best

Neal Ascherson

  • Nairn: In Darkness and Light by David Thomson
    Hutchinson, 303 pp, £12.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 09 168360 2

Some sixty years ago, when David Thomson was a boy, he suffered from a condition that badly affected his eyesight. He could see, but poorly. He read Braille and, though this was forbidden, the printed page. On two occasions, when the condition grew worse, he was condemned to spend six weeks at a time lying on his back in a darkened room. In general, all heavy physical exertion was banned. His mother sent him away from London to live with her family at Nairn, in north-eastern Scotland, on the shore of the Moray Firth. The years that he passed there built the emotional and imaginative foundations of his life.

Some people contend that this is the most ‘Scottish’ part of Scotland, even in our own times. It’s an assertion which begs too many questions, in a nation so acutely regionalised. But the Scots speech lives on more strongly here than elsewhere, and the coast, especially, is lined all the way from Inverness down to the East Neuk of Fife with small towns which have conserved their proud, sometimes narrow individuality and their sense of history.

The burgh, the town which is – or was – self-governing as a tiny urban unit and at the same time closely linked to the farming and crofting world of its hinterland, is in many ways the real locus of Scottish history, and also of Scottish imagining and writing. Most fiction which is not patrician in authorship takes the small-town anatomy for its subject, and this is one of the grounds for regarding Scotland as, socially and culturally, much closer to the European pattern than England. No coherent answer has yet been provided to the problem of why English culture has so consistently averted its attention from the small-town scene. Political centralism is part of the answer, but so is the derivation of English taste and fashion from the landowning aristocracy, commuting between palace in the shires and London town house.

This book should be on the reading-list of all ambitious courses in the literature and social history of Scotland. David Thomson, his senses sharpened by poor sight, managed to absorb the way that Nairn ‘worked’: not only its economic and political history, and its legends, but the patterns of life of rich and poor who – although the differences of wealth in the Twenties were not so much enormous as infinite – still knew each other well. His mother’s family was one of those large and ramifying oligarchies of power and money which are still to be found in the North-East. David Thomson lived in their big houses, which, in contrast to the English model, lay within the town boundaries rather than at the centre of distant country estates, but passed his days with fishing people and small farmers, carters and vagabonds.

Nairn lies on the fringe of the Highlands, a few miles from the battlefield of Culloden. There was still some Gaelic spoken there in Thomson’s time, and it was the place where Dr Johnson first heard the Erse language, sung by a young woman at the spinning-wheel. In those days, it struck most visitors as a squalid little place, its standing as a Royal Burgh an irony. In the 19th century, however, the railway arrived and Nairn developed into a mildly celebrated place of retirement and resort. As McGonagall put it,

in conclusion I will say for good bathing Nairn is best
And besides its pleasant scenery is of historical interest.

The Finlay family, to which David Thomson’s mother belonged, was very grand and patriarchal. The patriarch, ‘Uncle Robert’, was Viscount Finlay of Nairn who had been a Liberal MP with Gladstone, Lord Chancellor under Lloyd George and, in his eighties, a judge of the International Court at the Hague. Twenty or thirty people, servants or relations, stood in the dining-room for morning prayers every day before breakfast, which was preceded by a separate grace. Uncle Robert started with porridge, followed by ‘two boiled eggs, then Arbroath smokies, Finnan haddock or a pair of Nairn speldings, or kippers, then steak, kidneys with bacon or two mutton chops. He ate slowly. It took him at least an hour.’

Before the First War, things had been even more majestic. When Uncle Robert travelled to Nairn from Euston, he was accompanied by 40 servants (the Daimler had already left in order to be ready at the other end). The whole retinue changed trains at Perth; the train which took them on to Nairn had 11 passenger coaches, three private family saloons, two trucks for private carriages, five luggage vans, one meat van, one travelling post office, 13 horse boxes and one guard’s van. Two locomotives and a shunting engine were required to get it over the hills.

It is difficult to conceive now of a world in which it was thought quite normal that the first call on the fruits of the Industrial Revolution should be reserved for the convenience of the rich. The Finlays, however, were not aware of being spoilt. Like most of the great professional Scottish families, intellectual or industrial, they were pious, anxious not to grow ‘soft’, and thrifty. David’s grandmother, an especially severe figure, supplied him with matches for his candle four at a time; his moment of revenge came when he discovered that, being mean about turning up the lights, she had by accident lit a fire with a five-pound note. She, incidentally, practised a Scottish habit which may well now be extinct: eating porridge not sitting down but on the hoof, wandering about her house with bowl and spoon.

These were the years of David’s adolescence. While acknowledging the universal temptation to remember only sunny days, he proclaims his determination not to be sentimental. There is a certain amount about bare feet scampering through the dew, and there are fantasies about the girl in church with long fair hair. However, the bristlier aspects of growing up are also here. If the curse of Scottish childhood is the prevalence of what I would call ‘unlovingness’ rather than lovelessness, David Thomson experienced it in a landscape of sensual beauty. Sex was not to be mentioned, but waterfalls, whin-bushes in flower, the beasts of the field all spoke of it. He watched the bull being put to the cow, and the backside of a smooth, plump mare filled him with incomprehensible yearnings. The canon of the Episcopal Church, before his confirmation, urged him not to waste his seed. A local laird, Alexander Brodie of Brodie, had written in his journal three centuries earlier: ‘In going about the fields, I found the heart apt to rise with carnal delights in fields, grass, woods –c. This I desired the Lord to guard me against.’

David, lonely in his grandmother’s house, came to live a double life of which the better part was spent with a family on a croft a few miles out of Nairn. At this time, there were fishwives, gathering fir-cones in the woods for fuel, wearing woollen mutch and shawl and wide, long skirts. Some would walk twenty or thirty miles a day into the hills; the fish from the creel on their back, caught by husband or brother, was not sold but bartered for food. There was a population of travellers, mendicants and ‘gangrels’, singing Gaelic or Scots songs for a few pennies, selling wild birds, or merely wandering – like Long Tom and Lady Mackintosh, he with his roll of oilcloth under the arm, she crocheting as she walked. David watched the moment in spring when the cattle are let out of the byre where they have stood all winter and, dazzled by light and unsteady on their feet, move out to pasture. The timbers of the byre, studded with nails, might be older than the Reformation.

Sometimes David Thomson gives his version of what happened in Nairn’s past. He tells of the great sandstorm of 1694, when the Culbin Sands were lifted by a gale and moved inland over farmland and houses like a pale river two miles wide, leaving even the Culbin church buried above its tower. He describes the sacking of Elgin cathedral in 1640, and the floods of 1829; and, at length, the battle at Culloden and its aftermath, somehow the least successful of these recountings – perhaps because memories of his boyhood novel on the battle keep intruding sentiment, perhaps because so much has been written on it that little remains to be said.

The ‘darkness’ of the title is also present. Not so much in the fairy tales and myths, but in bleak episodes of peasant life. The farmer’s son emigrates to Canada: he does not say goodbye but ‘looked at the clock on the mantelpiece, got up and walked out of the house with the usual nod that everyone gave after a meal ... They all knew they would not see him again.’ Later, the emigrant’s brother forces David against the byre door and rams a hen in his face as he slowly twists its throat. ‘Bob’s face frightened me.’ David Thomson is saying, I think, that it was also the face of the men beheading statues, putting the hammer into the frescoes, in Elgin cathedral. Not much later, he left and finished his growing-up somewhere else.