It won’t have escaped anyone’s notice that Christmas has now been and gone . It’s impossible to avoid these days (believe me, I try). And mostly these days when people think of Christmas stories they think of Dickens. I also grew up with a good dose of Scrooge and Tiny Tim. But now I’m more Raider than Dickensian, I turn instead for my festive cultural sustenance to the stories Crockett wrote for and about the end of the year.
[picture Craignaw icicles]
It is, as they say, a fact, that Crockett was brought up by strict Cameronian grandparents William and Mary. And indeed one might see them as the ‘last of the Cameronians’ since the sect became more or less contained within the Free Church in the 1870s. The origins of the Cameronians came from the Covenanters some two hundred years earlier, and they had a particular (some might say fundamentalist) view of things.
While a Cameronian view of the world in general and Christmas in specific may seem odd to the point of absurdity to some, older readers will remember that until the late 1960’s Christmas was not even a public holiday in Scotland. Sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves of what life used to be like, rather than spend all our time craving the next best ‘new’ thing which will make our lives complete (and yet, somehow, just never quite seems to do that.) Reading Crockett offers us the chance to reminisce about how relatively recently it is that the all-consuming event we now celebrate became what it is. And to look at the alternative.
This year (marking the 100th anniversary of his death) has seen Crockett’s Galloway works republished into 32 volumes both as paperbacks and in digital format. Ayton Publishing also decided to mark ‘the festive season’ by publishing a volume of stories and excerpts from Crockett’s novels. ‘A Cameronian Christmas and other winters’ tales’ is the first new collection of Crockett stories since 1909 and contains six short stories and four excerpts which give the reader a flavour of Galloway in the harshness of winter and of what life was like for herds in the hills and the ordinary people of Galloway past. It’s porridge rather than turkey. Snow-storms and funerals replace happy family gatherings round a roaring hearth, but somehow a reader feels all the better for that.
[picture Cameronian Christmas cover]
If you’re looking for Dickens’ transformational message you won’t find it here. The closest we come is in the story ‘Peter Peatrack’ where the minister of the Presbytry of Biteangry (whaur’s yer Chairlie Dickens noo?) gets his come-uppance as his daughters defect to St. Brides Kirk to celebrate Christmas Eve. Here we see Crockett not as an apologist for ministers, as some often miscontsrue him, but employing a heavy dose of ironic (or as he called it ‘Scots’ humour) regarding religion. And hey, if you can’t talk about religion at Christmas when can you?
In Crockett’s stories there is death, murder and intrigue to go along with that humour even, perhaps especially, at Christmas. And this collection is a great introduction into Crockett’s writing.
From the ‘ice running’ of ‘The Raiders’, to the kilted carryings on of ‘The coming of Snow’ in ‘A Galloway Herd’ (which describes a boy very like the young Sam Crocket), there is history, adventure and romance in equal measure. We even get a glimpse of the Alps in the Romantic Gothic styled ‘Lucy of the Eyes,’ which was described by contemporaries as a prose version of Keats ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci.’ There is more than one suspected murder and more than one funeral in Crockett’s Christmas offerings yet through it all the beauty of the hills, even in all their harshness and the indomitable spirit of the Gallovidian shines like a torch.
So if you want to move away from ghosts and plum pudding for one festive season, why not try out the storms and snow, find out about Cameronians and smugglers and let Crockett take you back to Galloway of old. Forget Tiny Tim’s, ‘God bless us every one’ for a year and see Christmas through the eyes of young Robin Stiel:
‘So this is Christmas Day,’ he said, ‘and in England where they hae a’ the siller they want, folk get presents and grand gifts, and as muckle as ever they can eat?’
He took one spoonful and then, recollecting that he had forgotten to say grace, he reverently took off his bonnet and asked a blessing. Then he took another spoonful.
‘But after a’,’ he added thankfully, ‘Christmas or no, porridge is hard to beat.’
I’ll be back in 2015, and in this monthly slot I’m going to begin ‘placing’ Crockett’s stories in the Galloway landscape he loved, giving you the chance to see (and go) to some of the places he writes about.
But for now, I recommend you join me in wrapping up warm, battening down the hatches in advance of the winter of 2014/15 and why not read a good book or two while you’re waiting for spring? If you want to get hold of a copy of ‘A Cameronian Christmas’ or any of Crockett’s other works you can do it without even leaving home. Visit the Ayton virtual Bookstore here.http://www.aytonpublishing.co.uk/