Call the Nurse

Combine James Herriot, John McPhee, Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging with a dash of Call the Midwife. Mary J. Macleod moved her family from southern England to become a district nurse on an island twenty miles long in the Inner Hebrides. She, along with a 70-year-old doctor, provided medical care for all the inhabitants in the 1970’s. She writes with a clear-eyed, unsentimental, but affectionate voice.

The book is a series of vignettes: like a gurgling stream it ambles along, making it an satisfying read in pockets of time. Macleod worked (tending elderly, administering daily injections, attending to medical emergencies) with her patients in their homes. She was called at all hours and had to traverse a mountain or be taken by sea in a boat. She cared for people from newborns to octogenarians, many who spoke only Gaelic.

This book taps into three fascinations: island culture, self-sustaining lifestyle, and Scotland. I have been on two islands in Scotland, which is knowledge enough to be dangerously ignorant. To protect the privacy of the inhabitants, Macleod calls her island Papavray. This fired my curiosity, sending me to Google to unsuccessfully tease out the island’s true name.

The best thing? The author wrote her first book (of three now published) in her 80’s. It fuels my hope. Check out her Facebook page.


Photo taken from Iona, a small — but important — island on the western coast of Scotland.

The second best thing? This book is $.99 on Kindle today.

Father Smith, a Scottish Priest


Bruce Marshall’s author blurb on the back cover:

Bruce Marshall is a dark, smiling man, fundamentally serious, four-square in appearance, definite in manner. He has a great fund of pity for humble, toiling people whose virtues are seldom proclaimed, a vigorous and delightfully malicious humor, and a savage dislike of bullies, stuffed shirts, humbugs and toadies.

Many of my favorite stories involve priests: G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown; dear Mr. Harding in Anthony Trollope’s The Warden; Father Tim in the Mitford books and Father Tim novels; Brother Cadfael in Ellis Peter’s medieval mysteries; the priest in Jon Hassler’s Dear James.

Father Smith is a Catholic priest in Presbyterian Scotland, a priest who prays daily for Scotland’s conversion. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with such a strong emphasis on Catholic theology, and, at first, I found it off-putting. But I discovered that I appreciated many of this humble man’s thoughts. I think any conservative would appreciate the struggle to hold on to the old ways.

When he had been a boy himself, Father Smith had longed to be grown up, because he had believed that it would be easier to obey our Lord as an adult than as a child, and he had been disappointed when he had found it was more difficult.  

When he was happy, Father Smith always sang snatches from the psalms as he walked the street.

Always remember that you can’t see into other people’s souls, but you can see into your own, and so far as you really know there is nobody alive more wicked and ungrateful to Almighty God than yourself.

Father Smith felt that it was a pity that one ever heard anything at all on wireless sets, because it seemed to him that new inventions were coming out much too quickly, and that if amusements went on becoming more and more mechanized as they seemed to be doing, people would no longer require to use their intelligence to fill their leisure, and literature, poetry, and the drama would be pop goes the weasel per omnia saecula saeculorum…

…and those who weren’t weeping had a great distress on their faces because they knew that a great clumsy slice of man who had known all about God’s mercy would walk among them no more.

The book opens at the start of the twentieth century with the priests wondering how to respond to the first cinema in town. Father Smith baptizes two babies, whose lives we follow throughout the story. When the Great War begins, Father Smith works on the front line as a chaplain, hearing confessions and praying over the dead. His bishop predicts a spiritual revival will come out of the war, but Father Smith finds reality to be much different. What held my attention was Father Smith’s grappling with the tension from the static doctrines of the church and the rapidly changing culture.

I learned a host of Catholic nomenclature: sedilia (stone seats for the clergy), asperges (the rite of sprinkling Holy water), pyx (the container that holds consecrated bread), and pro-Cathedral (parish church temporarily serving as cathedral). 

I wish I could remember who recommended this. I found it absorbing reading, but I have no desire to read it again. The cheerful humility makes me want to explore another book by Bruce Marshall.

The World According to Bertie

Alexander McCall Smith, in The World According to Bertie gives us a sizable dose of our favorite six year old, Bertie Pollock. He is a precocious child who ‘wanted so much to be the average boy, but he knew that this would forever be beyond his reach.’ McCall Smith delivers more of his warm humor, cultural commentary, names of Scottish artists, and the lives of the familiar characters of his Edinburgh series. He is famous for his repeated adjectival phrases, such as the traditionally built woman, Mma Ramotswe.  In this book Matthew wears a distressed-oatmeal sweater and crushed-strawberry trousers. Never beige, Matthew’s distressed-oatmeal sweater appears with comedic frequency.

Bertie’s mummy Irene is laughable in all her pomposity: “It had to do with the idealisation of the female parental figure, or mother, to use the vernacular.”

What Miss Harmony faces in her job teaching: “Much had been forgotten, and the rest of the morning was devoted to the re-installation of vanished knowledge.”

Here are a few more quotes to sample:

We live in a culture of complaint
because everyone is always looking
for things to complain about.
It’s all tied in with the desire to
blame others for misfortune and
to get some form of compensation
into the bargain.



Exercise bicycles in gyms might be used, but this did not apply to those — the majority — bought for use in the home. They stood there, in mute affront to their owners, quite idle, before being moved to a spare room and ultimately to an attic. They there were recycled, which did not mean, in this case, that they had been cycled in the first place.

For light reading, and some laugh-aloud moments, I recommend The World According to Bertie.


She Married a Scottish Laird


I knew when I married the man that I married the mansion.

This is on my short list of great first sentences.  (N.D. Wilson’s (Leepike Ridge) is hard to beat: In the history of the world there have been lots of onces and lots of times, and every time has had a once upon it.)

On Rick Steve’s recommendation (in a UK guide book) I read Belinda Rathbone’s memoir The Guynd (rhymes with the wind). It is a poignant account of an American woman who marries a modern Scottish Laird.  Does this sound romantic? The stuff of Jane Austen, Robert Louis Stevenson, or the Brontë sisters?  Their quirky courtship is more dalliance than alliance.

When she married the laird, he offered her the land.  But the Guynd is not Pemberley; no servants dusted and hoovered the carpets.  “I had left Mansfield Park and entered Bleak House.”  Overwhelming effort is required to restore the run-down Georgian house and 400-acre estate.  But “the Lady” has determination and energy and good taste.  When they roll up the brown linoleum that was put down during WWII her spirits pick up the promise of more dramatic change. Anyone interested in interior decorating will join in the excitement.  Photos here.

I had no experience with rooms of these proportions or with architecture of this gravity. Small gestures were lost in the spaces, but large gestures were all the more daunting.

Different sensibilities and priorities create tension between John and Belinda.  The story begins with a crumbling mansion and ends, sadly, with a decaying marriage.  Belinda writes exceedingly well of modern Scotland: landowner-tenant relationships, tea rituals, famous frugality, education, sense of time, and the bitter cold.

So one learns to appreciate the native frugality within the context of generations upon generations of people born to poverty, and understand why the Scots might be inordinately grateful for small things and careful with what they have. When times are hard the Scots are better prepared for them than most of us, for a life of hardship is never buried too deep in the Scottish memory.

It was an easy/hard read.  For the portrait of Scotland, and the well-crafted prose, it was engaging, winsome, even charming.  For the heart-ache and depleted spirit, the seeming futility and failure of restoration and of relationship, it was depressing.

Marriage is like a house, I thought, staring up at a crack in the bedroom ceiling. It’s a shelter, first of all. And it needs to be kept in good repair. Signs of water seeping through the wall need to be investigated before the paint begins to flake off, a bare patch is exposed, the fabric begins to crack, and the job of fixing it is too discouraging, too expensive, simply the last thing you can be bothered to do.            


A Modern Gothic Thriller

But it’s a brave old house, Hugh.
And the name is Gaelic, not English:
‘fear’ is spelled ‘fir’ or ‘fhir,’
sometimes, and it means ‘man.’
Old House of Fear is Old House of Man.

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey meets John Buchan.  (Not exactly: Northanger is a parody of Gothic novels. But I have an extremely limited supply of Gothic references.)  Russell Kirk’s  Old House of Fear, set on an island in the Outer Hebrides (Scotland) has all the necessary ingredients for a modern Gothic thriller: a Scottish castle, mist, mysteries, death, secrets, romance, a dying octogenarian, a beautiful maiden, an evil tyrant physician, and, of course, a brave daring hero who rescues the maiden.        

Kirk does an excellent job of pacing this page-turner.  I admit to being late to work one morning because I had to know what happened next.  Hugh Logan, our hero, reminds me of Buchan’s spy, Richard Hannay: intelligent, shrewd, tough, daring; an excellent foe for the evil Dr. Edmund JackmanMary MacAskival, the twenty-year-old captive of Dr. Jackman, is spunky, steady, fierce, spritely, loyal. She is a girl with gumption.

Old House is well-written and a clean Gothic: the thrill of the chase minus vampires, werewolves, sex, demons and skeletons.  
Time Magazine’s 1961 review


Real Scottish Fiction

The crisp onions were making a great crackling,
and on a cold night the smell was enough to
draw water out of dead teeth.

If you decided to write a romance, chances are you’d put your muscular man and breathless heroine in the highlands of Scotland.  Don’t do it.  There’s a flood of fake Scottish mumbo-jumbo on the market.  Ditto for historical fiction. 

Here’s a better idea.  Read some authentic Scottish fiction, written by a Scot.  You cannot improve on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped; I am especially fond of John Buchan and his sister Anna, who wrote under the pen name O. Douglas

The mother passed the cups of tea.
She had the natural air of
dispensing life’s mercies.

If you are sweet on Stevenson, if you love Buchan, Neil Gunn (1891-1973)  is another Scottish author worth a look.  Rick Steves, the travel guru, mentioned him in a guidebook.  Gunn is called “the most important Scottish novelist of the 20th century.”

Morning Tide, a coming-of-age story set in an impoverished fishing village takes you to the shore of the sullen, relentless sea and into the cottage of the MacBeth family. 

She could get up and lift a boiling kettle from the fire
while her husband was saying grace
without destroying the moment’s harmony,
as if wisdom dwelt also in her movements.

Life is harsh, difficult, but not without comfort of onions and the pleasure of practical jokes.  Twelve-year-old Hugh MacBeth is always hungry, often running, impatient with school, and coming to grips with the reality of a harsh life. 

He [the schoolmaster] was clever,
there was no doubt of that.
And he could speak seven languages.
Seven.  Ay, ay.
The old men nodded their heads.
Learning was a great thing.
They looked far beyond one another.
A great thing, learning.
A far and wonderful thing.
There was no denying that.
It was a strange thing, too.
Its strangeness excited them a little,
and its wonder.
Love of learning was in their marrow.

Gunn writes about the survival of the folk living in the fishing village.  The men leave in boats; the women wonder if they will make it back home.  Breakfast is always porridge; dinner is a question mark.  They stare death in the eye daily and yet clearly see the sweetness of life.  More Gunn here.  Particularly recommended to mothers (and fathers) of boys.

To Be the Provider, the Giver


Collin, this morning, after a solo turkey hunt

Sometimes my reading life and my living life perfectly coincide.  At lunch I was browsing through Neil Gunn’s novel, Morning Tide.  I’m quite sure you have heard neither of Neil Gunn nor this title.  However, if you lived in Scotland, Gunn would be a familiar author.  In this-coming-of age tale, twelve-year old Hugh MacBeth is reckoning how he can help the family while his father is away fishing and his mother is ill.  I can say with certainty that my sons have all experienced a moment like this.  

But if he got this fish now and Bill and himself set rabbit-snares tonight, it might be something. A great desire came upon him to provide for the house.  To hunt and kill, to bring food home, and fire.  His eyes glistened, but in their light there was also something of awe.  Life could hold nothing more supreme than that.  To be the provider, the giver.  The importance of it made him quiver.  He saw in a flash deep into man’s estate.  The glory, the power, and the self-restraint that smiles thanks shyly away.  To be able to do that…and then for his father to come home, to learn about it, and–to look at him for a moment with his quiet man’s look.  Nothing on earth could beat that.