The great wave of Romanticism that swept over Scottish literature from the mid-Victorian era onwards was always going to have its answering cry. This tendency was particularly marked among the group of twentieth-century writers who had grown up in its paralysing shadow. There you were, in your draughty schoolroom somewhere near Inverness, being lectured about Queen Victoria’s ‘Jacobite moods’ and having it dinned into your head that Waverley was the greatest novel ever written north of the Tweed, while outside the window the unemployment queues grew longer and the winds swept in from continental Europe.
In these circumstances a work like Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy (1932–4), whose lyrical treatment of life in Kincardineshire is always undercut by a kind of bedrock realism, was perfectly understandable reaction to what had gone before. But one curious aspect of the dozens of novels written in almost conscious opposition to Sir Walter Scott, kailyards and stickit ministers was how closely they began to resemble the thing they were rebelling against. And so Gordon Williams’s From Scenes Like These, though set on the most dismal Ayrshire farmstead known to Scottish agriculture and featuring a fine old collection of toughs, seducers and misanthropes, soon reveals itself as a deeply romantic book.
Published in the autumn of 1968 and included on the followingyear’s inaugural Booker shortlist alongside Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark, Scenes should ideally have propelled Gordon, or Gordon M., or G. M. Williams (the title-page rubric varies) firmly towards the summit of literature’s Mount Olympus. As it was, he opted to follow its delicately ground-down realism with a pot-boiling thriller – The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969) – written in the space of a fortnight.
This, it turns out, was entirely characteristic of Williams’s no-nonsense approach to the business of making a liv
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