Scottish Humour Books
Once upon a time, my father used to read aloud to me and my younger sister. He began this when we were just toddlers, and one of my earliest memories is of watching his face while he told me a version of the Three Little Pigs (rather fussily house-proud creatures, to my mind) and the Wolf (with whom I sympathised, being myself, at that age, totally averse to eating vegetables). He was an actor, and in later years he'd read from things he was working on, scripts for radio, or television, and their source material. So it was his voice that introduced me to the nuggets of Scottish Literature which remain like pearls in the grey matter of my oyster-brain. By this method I became addicted to narrative, and amongst the first writers to amuse – and enchant, and scare - me, were Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott.
In Kidnapped, besides the historical and tragic elements, Stevenson's portrayal of David Balfour's friendship with Alan Breck Stewart is filled with moments when injured pride and priggishness, combined with tense situations, provide fuel for comedy. That chance pairing of opposites, two stubborn men thrown together on a dangerous adventure, has been reprised since in many a buddy-movie.
The only part of Scott's oeuvre which remains vivid to me from that time comes from Redgauntlet, in which there's a legal wrangle of epic dimensions, entitled Peebles V. Plainstanes (not unlike the better known case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Dickens's Bleak House). There, the language of legality versus the language of common sense, and the slow grinding wheels of justice, offer some wincingly true but funny moments, mostly in passages of dialogue.
Neil Munro's obituary describes him as 'wearing the mantle of RLS' and another source called him ‘the greatest Scottish novelist since Walter Scott.' Unsurprisingly, then, great dialogue is at the heart of his work, too. Munro's Para Handy tales first appeared in the Glasgow Evening News, from 1905. Their genius lies in the very different traits of the central characters, two Highlanders and three Lowlanders, shipmates of The Vital Spark. As they steam up and down the West coast of Scotland they manage to provoke in each other a variety of exaggerations and follies, as for instance this discussion of a particularly Scottish phenomenon, the dreaded midge:
"A gun would be no' much use wi' the mudges of Colonsay," replied the Captain; "nothing would discourage yon fellows but a blast of dynamite. What wass there on the island at the time but a chenuine English towerist, wi' a capital red kilt, and, man! but he wass green! He was that green, the coos of Colonsay would go mooin' along the road efter him, thinking he wass gress. [...] The first night on the island he went oot in his kilt, and came back in half an oor to the inns wi' his legs fair peetiful! There iss nothing that the mudges likes to see among them better than an English towerist with a kilt: the very tops wass eaten off his stockin's."
Sticking with the theme of Highlanders and their views on the English, Iain Crichton Smith's Thoughts of Murdo contains a fine portrait of the type who tries too hard to fit in to a Hebridean community. An immigrant from Hampshire, the Major teaches himself Gaelic, and refuses to speak anything else. He wears a kilt, makes oatcakes and crowdie, and is despised by the ‘natives' as bad for their image. His little dog looks "like the bottom of a mop." Alas, "it was one of his great sorrows that he could not find the Gaelic for poodle."
Fellow Leodhasach (native of Lewis) Kevin McNeil's novel The Stornoway Way is a darkly funny contemporary story about being young and wild in a remote part of "the DQ (Disunited Queendom)." Unsurprisingly, there's a lot about the weather - "Rainfall, rainfall to break the toughest spirit. A guy has to face it - life in Lewis is composed of days that are mostly B sides" - and the church - "I will not view the world through the Wee Free's morose-tinted spectacles."
Back in the central belt, and popular since his creation on TV in the late ‘80s, Rab C. Nesbitt's famous rants are equally amusing on the page. Ian Pattison's scripts contain hundreds of small gems of Glaswegian philosophy, shared by self-styled ‘scum' Rab C., in his own inimitable patois:
"See that's another thing about life these days. There's no human contact. I mind the time when total strangers would stop each other in the street, say ‘what the hell are you looking at, broken nose?' And there'd maybe be a wee flash of steel, a wee puddle of blood and then offski. Maybe I'm sentimental. But I look back on them days as being kinna like the golden age of criminal violence, know?"
Equally philosophic, but never yet seen wearing a string vest in public, is the famous ex-accountant turned stand-up comic Arnold Brown, whose Are You Talking To Me, Jimmy? examines, amongst other things, the differences between Rangers and Celtic, ‘proddies' and ‘papes', and the dangers of being teetotal; the latter includes the "old Scottish tradition" of being thrown into pubs by kindly strangers, and forced to partake. Or else.
For overt violence and comic language, one need flick no further than the writings of Irvine Welsh and Christopher Brookmyre. Welsh's fearsome characters employ every swear word known to man (or woman), and Brookmyre takes an equal pleasure in his scathingly opinionated creations; two very different styles of writing, but each informed by the particularly euphonious joys of cursing in the vernacular.
Dundee's contributions to the literature of Scotland, hitherto most popularly represented by William Topaz McGonagall's verse in praise of the Silvery Tay, boasts a new voice in Bill Duncan. The Smiling School For Calvinists is a collection of stories featuring characters like The Maist Ignorant Man In The World, who claims to have seen the only surviving man-eating eel on the east-coast. "Noo you tell me whut thon bugger Attenborough's daein wandering aboot wi walruss at the South Pole an monkeys in Amazonian rainforests when aa he needs is a camera crew doon beside the shitepipe at the Broughty Ferry sewage outflow." Also worth seeking is Duncan's The Wee Book of Calvin, a self-help guide "that promises to make you feel a lot worse after you read it." Aye.
The Scottish sense of humour - if anyone should dare to analyse and categorise that elusive thing - seems to thrive on adversity (weather, religion, obstacles of poverty and understanding, etc), and is often expressed vehemently, bitterly and tinged with defensiveness, but it comes in subtler forms, too. In the poetry of Edwin Morgan or Liz Lochhead, of Ivor Cutler or Robert Crawford, humour leavens seriousness, truth is dressed in wordplay. Alan Spence's haiku have wit and charm, and his novels, such as Way To Go, brim with comic observation and insight. Though Frank Kuppner's best known book, A Concussed History of Scotland, is no longer in print, his post-modern, mocking style appears to good effect elsewhere, such as in his spoof Chinese-in-translation verse, A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty.
Elspeth Davie's short stories exemplify the sort of gentle humour all too often overshadowed by the male variety. Her story Allergy, which compares an intolerance of eggs with the poisonous realities of being taken for granted, is a particularly delicious example of small but perfectly formed comic writing. A.L. Kennedy's intelligent and provocative stories are often spiked with quirky, dark humour, and with moments of pure daftness such as The Mouseboks Family Dictionary. And while one would not immediately categorize her as funny - or indeed as any one thing - the novels and short stories of Muriel Spark are gorgeously seamed with wit.
Having spent a large part of the 80s lurking about on the comedy scene, often under the guise of my alter ego Marina McLoughlin, I'm most often drawn to humour which derives from putting characters into situations where their vanity or awkwardness leads them to reveal facets of personality with which we can all identify. Brian Hennigan's novel, The Scheme of Things, is set in the world of business, and Alan Cumming's novel Tommy's Tale, in a world of glamour; both have chosen to explore, with comic zest, things they know about, lives they have - to some extent - lived. Both have been comedy performers, too, and in that way their writing connects to the older generation of Scottish comedians. People like Chic Murray, or Stanley Baxter - those wonderful Parliamo Glasgow scripts can be found, if you hunt for them - and my favourite wide-boy patter-merchants Francie and Josie, (aka Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy) whose act began in 1958. Fans of the latter now have the opporchancity to relive their act in print, in the book Hullawrerr China!.
The appeal of comedy is, of course, entirely subjective. One cannot prescribe it for others, only offer to share it, in the hope that friends will wheeze and cackle and shake at the same daft, outrageous, sublime or elegant things that make us laugh ourselves. In that spirit, I hope this personal meander through the groves of Scottish comic writing has suggested avenues for your own exploration, and that, like me, you relish the journey.
Books featured in this article
- Add to BasketPara Handy: The Collected Stories From 'The Vital Spark', 'In Highland Harbours With Para Handy' And 'Hurricane Jack Of The Vital Spark' - - Paperback
This is a collection of stories about Para Handy, who originally appeared in the Glasgow Evening News nearly a hundred years ago. The mariner and his crew recall the age of puffers sailing between West Highland ports and Glasgow.
This is the essential guide to understanding the intricacies and nuances of one of Britain's most colourful dialects. Centred around a number of dialogues which deal with everyday situations, it introduces a whole range of vocabulary and expressions likely to bewilder the uninitiated.
- Add to BasketThe Smiling School For Calvinists - - Paperback
This collection of tales alternates between the enclosed, austere fishing community of Broughty Ferry and the implacably encroaching tower-blocks of nearby Dundee.
- Add to BasketThe Stornoway Way - - Paperback
This novel chronicles the misadventure of an idiosyncratic young Scotsman cartwheeling further and further into a Hebridean hell, railing against the constraints of his extraordinary but vanishing island culture as well as Western civilisation in general.
- Add to BasketThoughts Of Murdo - - Paperback
Dismissed from his job as a bank clerk Murdo sets out to convert all he meets to his extraordinary philosophy and unique vision of the world.
Former actor, comedian and TV presenter Susie Maguire is the author of two short story collections, The Short Hello (2000) and Furthermore (2005). She is also co-editor of three anthologies: (Scottish Love Stories (1995), Hoots! Scottish Comic Writing (1997), and Something Wicked, Scottish Crime Fiction (1999) all published by Polygon. A fourth anthology will be published in March 2006: Little Black Dress features 15 women writers on the theme of the iconic frock. Susie lives in Edinburgh, and is currently writing a novel.