There are few things more guaranteed to provoke a pleasurable wallow in melancholy than a ruin. For me, exiled in Brooklyn, with temperatures rising, the air-conditioner on the blink and police sirens screaming down Flatbush Avenue, reading the opening pages of Roderick Grant’s Strathalder was just the thing for an enjoyable reflection on the dust and ashes of worlds now disappeared.
Grant begins his depiction of the life of a Scottish estate by describing the estate’s farms and cottages, greenhouses, potting sheds, dairies and laundry rooms – all now abandoned to rowan trees and wandering sheep. You won’t find Strathalder on a map – it is a composite portrait of an estate made up from interviews and the reflections of those who worked, indoors and outdoors, on Scottish estates between the wars. The book first appeared in 1978, only some thirty years after the shepherds, ghillies, gamekeepers and dairymaids had been dispersed by the Second World War. Even so, Nature had already covered man’s tracks at Strathalder with devastating speed and efficiency.
The son of a Scottish gamekeeper himself, Grant portrays the estate in ‘a time of opulence and dignified magnificence’, a period of order and harmony, when laird and servant worked together in mutual respect to maintain and preserve the natural order of both land and home. Yet what makes Strathalder such an interesting book is the ambiguities that inevitably leak out around the edges of the straightforward accounts that Grant has put together, and which reveal a much more elaborate filigree of relationships.
By the 1930s, the huge social changes of the mid-twentieth century had already brought with them the end of assumptions and mores that had never been as old as they appeared. The era of the great Scottish sporting estate with its legions of dairymaids, footmen and housekeepers, its groaning tables of silver, its carefully cultivated traditions of leisure and hospita
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