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.

Nae the Best, Nae the Worst

I had to push myself –more than once–to read this book.  I saw the cover (cheesy, I thought) and anticipated 703 pages of semi-cheesy writing.  But I love Scotland; I love Columba; I love Iona.  So I gave it a shot and was pleasantly surprised.  The Fields of Bannockburn roams through the history of Scotland in four sections: Columba coming to Iona; Kenneth mac Alpin uniting the Picts and Scots; Queen Margaret and her work of reformation; and William Wallace at Stirling Bridge / Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn.

Donna Fletcher Crow weaves the historical stories around a modern tale of three college students and their friend, storyteller Hamish MacBain.  While I dinna find Mary, Gareth and Brad’s story compelling, I enjoyed the way fiction can bring ancient history to life.  The inner thoughts of the main Scottish characters seemed anachronistic at times, but not so much that I had to stop reading.

There are several ancient prayers incorporated into the story. For example,

The blessing of God be on you,
The blessing of Christ be on you,
The blessing of the Spirit be on you.
O giver of the sweet honey,
O giver of the sour cheese,
O giver of the Bread of Life and Living Water,
Be with us by day,
Be with us by night,
Be with us for Thy service.

What really excites me is the author’s website, particularly the section My Life As a Reader

I had an ideal childhood for a reader. I was an only child, living on a farm. I would take a book out to the middle of the alfalfa field in front of our house, lay down flat and revel in the fact that God was the only person in the whole universe who knew where I was.    

My reading life has always gone by passions, finding a writer I loved, reading everything he or she (usually she) wrote, then feeling absolutely bereft when I came to the end. Much the same feeling as having a child leave for college, I later learned. My passions have included Norah Lofts, D. E. Stevenson, Mary Stewart, Rumer Godden, Elizabeth Goudge and Elswyth Thane with whom I carried on a delightful correspondence just before she died and I began writing professionally.

Donna Fletcher Crow, a former teacher of English literature, lists her most influential authors as Jane Austen, Dorothy L. Sayers, Barbara Pym, P.D. James, and Susan Howatch.  With a list like that, I’d say she is credentialed.

If gardening is your passion, visit Donna’s garden in Boise, Idaho.  A delightful meandering through links brought this great discovery:  The Plot Thickens, a blog devoted to novelists and their garden spots. 

Samuel Rutherford, Master of Metaphor

When I am in the cellar of affliction,
I look for the Lord’s choicest wines.

~ Samuel Rutherford

The popular quote above isn’t found in this edition of Letters of Samuel Rutherford, but it illustrates Rutherford’s masterful use of metaphor.  This collection of 69 letters is a treasure-trove of wisdom and pastoral care.  Tender with the weak, bracing with the proud, honest about his own struggles, this man is remarkable.  (All emphases mine)

What does he say to a mother who has lost a child? 

~ Courage up your heart; when you tire, he will bear both you and your burden.

What does he write to a man in prison a week before he is to be hanged? 

~  Be not terrified; fret not…Cast the burden of wife and children on the Lord Christ; he careth for you and them.  Your blood is precious in his sight

How did he express his own distress of soul?

~  I did not dream of such shortness of breath, and fainting in the way toward our country…this is the thickest darkness…Dear brother, help me, and get me the help of their prayers who are with you.

How did he encourage a woman going through various trials?

~  Believe his love more than your feeling, for this world can take nothing from you that is truly yours, and death can do you no wrong.  Your rock doth not ebb and flow, but your sea.

See how he writes very frankly to a proud laird of a castle:

~  Dear Sir, I always saw nature mighty, lofty, heady and strong in you; and that it was more for you to be mortified and dead to the world than for another common man. You will take a low ebb, and a deep cut, and a long lance, to go to the bottom of your wounds in saving humiliation, to make you a won prey for Christ.  Be humbled; walk softly. Down, down, for God’s sake, my dear and worthy brother, with your topsail.  Stoop, stoop! it is a low entry to go in at heaven’s gate.

He models godliness for his parishioners:

~  I have learned some greater mortification, and not to mourn after or seek to suck the world’s dry breasts.

Two things helped me as I read through the letters.  Rutherford was born around 1600; that made it easy to ascertain his age by noting the date of the letter.  In the back there are brief notes about the recipients of Rutherford’s letters.  It’s worth it to flip back and learn more about the correspondent before reading the letter.

In short, this is a book worth reading, worth buying, worth giving, worth re-reading.  If you want a sample of letters, check here.

Fair Sunshine, Fair Samuel

What shall I say in this great day of the Lord,
where in the midst of a cloud,
I have found a fair sunshine.
I can wish no more for you,
but that the Lord may comfort you,
and shine upon you as He does upon me,
and give you that same sense of His love in staying in the world,
as I have in going out of it.

~ Archibald Campbell, on the day of his execution

I slipped out of bed early this morning, filled the wood stove, picked up my highlighter and these two books.  I’m half way through Fair Sunshine, a book I was introduced to by my daughter-in-law Taryn, on her first visit to our home. 

This is the perfect pairing of two books. Fair Sunshine is the story of 13 Scottish Covenanters, men and women who died with uncommon grace, people who boldly articulated their faith up to the moment the noose was put around their neck.  Samuel Rutherford, most famous as the author of Lex Rex, was a pastor in prison. Many of the recipients of the Letters of Samuel Rutherford are the subjects of chapters in Fair Sunshine. 

Reading these books is like looking at aliens who are somehow familiar.  The strength, the clarity, the courage they displayed is beyond the beyonds.  Who were these people?  What kind of love is that? One can only wonder. 

My breath is caught reading about the two Margarets, sentenced to death by drowning.  One was 70, one was 18.  They were tied to stakes where the tide would eventually cover their heads.  The older was placed so she would be submerged first. 

So came the hungry waters up and up, every wave splashing death, until she was choking in their cold, cold grasp.  As she struggled, before she became a poor limp thing lying in the swirling flood, they said to young Margaret, “What do you think of her now?” “Think!  I see Christ wrestling there,” said she.  “Think ye that we are sufferers?  No; it is Christ in us, for He sends none a warfare at their own charges.”

Astonishing words from an 18 year old girl. 

I’ll be quoting more from these books…