The first present my wife Sheena gave me, a few weeks after we met, was a copy of Alastair Reid’s poetry anthology Weathering. It came around the world with me, from the siege lines of Sarajevo to the killing fields of Rwanda and Congo and the sunlit promise of Nelson Mandela’s South Africa.
Though he lived his entire adult life overseas, much of it in the Spanish-speaking world, Alastair thought and wrote about his native Scotland for more than 60 years. As a young man he left Scotland to escape what he saw as the suffocating joylessness of its Presbyterian heritage, but in later life came to delight in what Scotland had become in the half century he’d been away from it.
I met Alastair for the first time in a smart cocktail bar in Manhattan. When I told him I was from Wigtownshire he looked at first astonished and then laughed and said “We’re probably related!” Alastair was born in the Manse at Whithorn in Wigtownshire. His father (whom he adored) was the parish minister there. My mother was born at the Isle of Whithorn a few years after Alastair, and I grew up in a village nearby. Alastair called Wigtownshire his “Eden”. I admired Alastair hugely for finding the words to express what I had felt but struggled to define.
The shadow of Calvinism lies heavy on the land [he wrote in a visit to Edinburgh in 1964], frowning on pleasure, making a barren waste of Sunday, and insisting that life is something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
The Scottish landscape – misty, muted, in constant flux and shift – intrudes its presence in the form of endlessly changing weather; the Scottish character, eroded by a bitter history and a stony morality… subscribes to illusions of permanence, of durability, asking for a kind of submission, an obedience. I felt from the beginning exhilarated by the first, fettered by the second… Spain was an antidote to my frowned-on beginnings.
All the other countries I have lived in have seemed comparatively joyful. The gloom, I hoped, would stay in Scotland and not follow me about.
But he carried an affection for Scotland, and especially for his roots in Wigtownshire, around the world with him. I love seeing that part of the world through the haze of Alastair’s memory, partly for its own sake, but also because it chimes with my own memory, and my own mixed and contradictory feelings about the place.
Whithorn lies close to the tip of one of the southern fingers of Scotland known as Galloway: isolated, seldom visited, closer across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland than it seems to the rest of Scotland; closer too to Ireland in the softness and cadence of its speech… Galloway contains the kindliest of people in all that flinty country – all in all a good place to begin.
Behind the house were stables and outhouses, and all around lay green fields. If you trudged across them, careful in summer to skirt the golden edges of standing oats and barley, you reached the sea – an irresistible pilgrimage.
My own mother used to say, as we crossed the River Cree going west, into the Rhins of Galloway: “over the Cree and into the Irish”. We felt ourselves in that little corner to be somehow separate from Scotland proper.
But I like in Alastair’s description that one observation: that the kindliness of the place is what stays in his memory. As an adolescent I couldn’t wait to escape the enclosing narrowness of Wigtownshire but as I grew into middle age the single human trait that I value above others is, I think, kindness, and my childhood, like Alastair’s, was peopled by kindliness. I was well into middle age before I understood fully that that, as Alastair wrote, it was indeed a good place to begin.
Like Alastair I have spent much of my life being a foreigner, and like him I have liked being a foreigner. I tried to truly live in other countries and not just to visit; to learn their languages and their habits of mind, to know and even sometimes share their prejudices and assumptions about the world.
To enter another language is to assume much more than a vocabulary and a manner; it is to assume a whole implied way of being… I felt in those early years in Spain as though I was growing another self – separate and differently articulate. That experience was liberating…
But for all his articulate repudiation of Scotland, Alastair never fully escaped his own Scottishness. He felt it “spinally” he said. He retained the very thing that he identified and admired in Robert Louis Stevenson, what he called “a strong Scots accent of the mind.” His own English prose was shaped by the undertow of the Scots you can hear in it, the language he’d known as a child and which sat so familiar on his tongue and in his heart all his life.
Writing in Lallans (he wrote] revealed the distinctive qualities of Scots speech – an intimate directness, a tenderness, a humour, and an intensely individual kind of expression… A language in which you can wither and scunner and blether and skyte is not likely to yield up its treasures to the flatness of BBC English.
The arc along which his relationship with Scotland moved, over decades, inclined, more than anything, towards forgiveness: Alastair, I think, came to forgive Scotland. I think I have walked a similar path. I left as a young man with great enthusiasm and few regrets, to build a life far away, in other people’s lands and languages. And I came back to a Scotland with a mixture of trepidation and exhilaration for the way Scotland has changed.
This is what he wrote in 1964, still in his thirties:
Whenever I went back to Scotland, I realise that I put out an extra wary antenna, to pick up any trace of what we used to call the Scottish Condition. The Scottish Condition can show itself fleetingly in the smallest of gestures, a sniff or a sigh, or it can take a voluble spoken form; but it has lurked for a long time in the undercurrents of Scottish life. It wells from ancestral gloom, from the shadows of a severe Calvinism and from a gritty mixture of disappointment and indignation, and it mantles the Scottish spirit like an ancient moss. I grew up under a low cloud of girl and grumble, yet never quite knowing what the injustice was, for it was never identified. It was just something in the air, a kind of national weather, a damp mist of dissatisfaction.
And by the 1980s, now in his fifties, this:
When I return, I realise that the place [Scotland] exists spinally in my life, as a kind of yardstick against which I measure myself through time – a setting against which I can assess more clearly the changes that have taken place in me, and in it. When I go back, I am always trying on the country to see if it still fits, or fits better than it did.
It is those last six words that matter most: “or fits better than it did”. Alastair grew back into a Scottish self he had cast off as a young man. His most famous poem, called simply Scotland, followed him wherever he went in Scotland. He was asked to recite it again and again:
It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
When larks rose on long thin strings of singing
And the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
Greenness entered the body. The grasses
Shivered with presences, and sunlight
Stayed like a halo, on hair and heather and hills.
Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
The woman from the fish-shop. ‘What a day it is!’
cried i like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak,, her ancestors raged in their graves,
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
‘We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!’
Alastair came to hate this poem. It no longer represented the Scotland he saw around him. At a poetry festival in St Andrews he was asked to recite it. After he’d read it, he took a lighter from his pocket and burned the paper it was written on.
Alastair translated both Borges and Neruda and knew them both as friends, though Borges was quite blind by the time they met. In a piece about them, after their deaths, he wrote something that his own friends can now apply to him.
Borges used to say that when writers die they become books – a quite satisfactory incarnation in his view. With luck, however, I think they become voices. In many conversations with Borges, from the formal to the fanciful, I realised sharply that to him I existed only as a voice. That may have led to my deep conviction that voice is perhaps the most essential and lasting incarnation of any existence. More than that, it is in voices, far beyond photographs, that the dead continue to live… I hear them often in my head, always with awe and with enduring affection.