Oh, Power of Scotland
Scotland has had and still has many writers of romantic fiction. Take John Buchan, for instance. His passion for the Scottish countryside is evident in his writings and many of them could easily be classified as romantic novels, both in the simple boy gets girl and in the more idealized stories of Romance, deeds of derring do. Buchan created romantic heroes, Richard Hannay, Dickson McCunn, and Sir Edward Leithen, and liked them so much he used them in several books.
In the 1960's the late great Dorothy Dunnett, created Francis Lymond, recently voted the international reader's number one romantic hero, outstripping the next two, Rhett Butler and Mr Darcy by a country mile. (I do have a sneaking suspicion that admirers of Darcy are more familiar with Colin Frith in a wet shirt than they are with Miss Austen's hero but would be happy to be proved wrong.)
Other great Scottish writers have written novels where romance plays a large part. Think of Sir Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian. The heart of the title is partly what Scott saw as the sick heart of some facets of Scottish life and behaviour set against the healing heart of, it has to be said, mainly sturdy peasants like his superb creation, Jeanie Deans. Ivanhoe is a romantic novel but is also classed as literature. Is that perhaps because it was written by a man?
Another great romantic novelist is Robert Louis Stevenson whose tales were probably responsible for the revival of the Romantic novel at the end of the nineteenth century. Stevenson paints beautiful word pictures of desolate highlands and rocky coasts; we have high drama, skulduggery, honour, bravery, all ingredients of the Romantic novel par excellence, and in Kidnapped he created the romantic and mysterious Jacobite hero, Alan Breck Stewart.
Possibly the two greatest writers whose work influenced me strongly and continue to enthral me – and countless thousands of other readers and writers - are D.K. Broster and Mary Stewart. Mary Stewart, whose wonderful novels continue to capture a worldwide audience, has lived in Argyle for many years and Dorothy Kathleen Broster set three of her finest novels, 'the Jacobite Trilogy', in Scotland. In Ewen Cameron, Miss Broster created a character possibly more complex than Dunnet's Crawford but equally appealing.
Jenny Haddon, chair of the Romantic Novelists' Association, extols the virtues of the novels of the multi-talented Lucilla Andrews, a long-time Edinburgh resident. Several of her works are set in Scotland, from Edinburgh to the Shetlands.
The romantic novelist writing today whose work has stirred more hearts worldwide with dreams of Scottish glens is undoubtedly Rosamunde Pilcher. Unlike too many of her imitators, Mrs Pilcher's Scottish characters are real and she does not use Scotland as a universal 'band-aid'. Probably this is because her great love of Scotland and her knowledge of it permeate her books.
But what is it about Scotland that makes it 'flavour of the month' as a setting for a romantic novel? For most writers of romantic fiction who live in Scotland, it is natural to set our work here. We know the country and its people, its history and its idiosyncrasies; we are at home. But why do major foreign publishers encourage aspiring writers to set their novels in Scotland, except – for some reason I have never been able to fathom - those actually living and working in Scotland? (Could it be that the Scottish writer is too authentic, that her lairds and loons are more grounded in reality and are not so much creatures of Hollywood myth or variety performance?)
I write commercial women's fiction and my publisher and my readers insist that the stories are set mainly in Scotland. I may take my hero or heroine to New York on business, to Tuscany on holiday, to Vienna to wow the musical world at the Statsoper, but it is preferred that they live out the main parts of their story in an Angus glen, in Argyllshire, or even in the Georgian grandeur of Edinburgh's New Town. Why?
It's because Scotland is seen by millions world-wide as the land of Romance, the land of great glens and misty mountains, of inland lochs and stormy seas. It is viewed as the location where the haunting music of the pipes and the even more haunting tragedies of places like Culloden are paramount. Its history has many highlights and personalities: the triumph of the underdog at Bannockburn, tragic heroines like Mary, Queen of Scots, heroines to emulate like Flora Macdonald, heroes like... well, no, I've grown out of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Canada and New Zealand have scenery just as beautiful, glens even more remote; Hawaii has better weather, is spectacularly lovely, and, like the two former countries, has a formidable Scottish history.
Light of heart and bright of face:
The daughter of a noble race...
Recognise the poem? It's by Robert Lewis Stevenson, resident of Hawaii, and written in honour of the beautiful Princess Ka'iulani, daughter of Princess Miriam Likelike and her Edinburgh born husband, Alexander Scott Cleghorn. But just ask if you may set your next novel there!
Some writers today tend to use Scotland, in the words of aspiring writer, Jeannette Groark, as 'wallpaper,' and their books are redolent of what Ms Groark terms 'the Brigadoon effect'. Bring your walking wounded, especially rich English ones, and Scottish air, Scottish mountains, and salt-of-the-earth farmers or gamekeepers will cure them of all ills and set them on the road to happiness which usually means wedded bliss. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in this and some of their tales are well written and researched; some are not but the same is true of books in every genre. For some inexplicable reason only in the wide-ranging field of romantic fiction is the worst example of the genre held up as the definitive example of the art form.
It might be interesting to see whether the American interest in Scotland as a setting especially for historical romance or 'time slip' novels came before or after the successful film, Brigadoon. When I was resident in the US I attempted to read several of these books but finished very few. To me their 'Scottishness' is not authentic - dialogue being the biggest offender, mixing dialects and even inventing language. The great Georgette Heyer invented much of the language that her delightful Regency heroes and heroines use and I believe she laughed when she found her words being trotted out by later writers - I did it myself - but she made it real. To my mind, even the best of the American writers, do not achieve this – something is always not quite right. These books sell in their thousands, in some cases hundreds of thousands and we have to ask ourselves, does it really matter?
Does the reader of these American Scottish books know where reality ends and fantasy begins? Is there a fusion of the two and does the reader really care? In a supermarket a few weeks ago I saw a small boy putting a jar of coffee into his mother's trolley.
'Look,' he said proudly. 'I've learnt the French for coffee.'
Of course he had not. Carte noir does not translate as coffee. That wee lad will learn that one day, but what about the anachronisms that stand out like sore thumbs in romantic novels – and let's not start with the half-truths in Braveheart.
I asked several of my well-read colleagues in the The Romantic Novelists' Association to tell me what they thought about the Scottish set American books. Several including Jenny Haddon, and Amanda Grange sent me to the Internet to find Diana Gabaldon, Sherrilyn Kenyon and Eloisa James and others. Henriette Gyland, a member of the RNA's extremely successful New Writers Scheme, found Ms Gabaldon's books 'well written' and with 'page-turning' quality, but like many others she found them full of gratuitous violence and gratuitous sex. Pia Tapper Fenton, another NWS member, disagreed and said that the first three of the Outlander series 'give an incredibly detailed portrayal of Scotland at the time of the Jacobite rebellion' and had a 'wonderful hero'. The superb historical novelist, Elizabeth Chadwick, alerted me to Su-Ellen Wellfonder's, Devil in a Kilt. Now there's a title to set the pulses racing – I don't think. (Which is probably why Elizabeth told me!) Ms Chadwick and Penny Jordan were among the many who are avid Dorothy Dunnett readers.
One correspondent summed up what most thought:- The books are pure – enjoyable – hokum!
But why is Scotland the Holy Grail?
Several years ago I toured Scotland with a Spanish exchange student, a very sophisticated and practical young man. Everywhere we went I teased him, 'Ignaçio, there are ghosts here.'
He would politely say, 'Nonsense.'
We reached the Clava Stones and stood quietly in the middle of that oasis of peace while the early evening light made magic among the trees. None of us spoke at all while we were there and eventually we returned to the car. Ignaçio walked beside me. 'Eileen, aqui hay fantasmas.'
'There are ghosts here.'
Perhaps that's the answer.
© Eileen Ramsay
Books featured in this article
Eileen Ramsay is the RNA award winning author of The Stuff of Dreams, Someday, Somewhere and A Way of Forgiving. Her new novel, Rainbow's End, will be published by Hodder in June 2006.