The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison

A Scottish classic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the tale of three sisters, daughters of the minister in a parish in the Highlands of Scotland. Our narrator is the youngest of the three, Lisbet, who over the course of the couple of years of the book’s story grows from a girl only half comprehending her elder sisters’ early forays into the world of romantic love, into a young woman on whom the two older girls come to depend for support. The date is unspecified, I believe, but the book was published in 1933 and it reads as if the story is set somewhere in the decade or two before that, at a time when young girls had more freedom than Austen’s heroines, for example, but were still confined by lack of opportunity and girded round by social restrictions, breaches of which would inevitably lead to scandal and ruin.

I mention Austen in my little introduction because the comparison was running in my head throughout most of my reading of the book. Like Austen, this is fundamentally a book about young women seeking the men they will eventually marry but, also like her, it’s much more than that. It portrays the society of a particular place at a moment in time and does so brilliantly, showing the subtle social stratifications that limit the lives and suitable marriage prospects of these moderately privileged girls still further. Since this is Scotland, the book also shows the stranglehold of Protestant intolerance that has blighted the country since Knox, and the anti-Catholic discrimination that goes hand-in-hand with that.

The dominie could read from a snail on a blade of grass or the flight of a bird every whim of the weather. He would tell us it was not going to thunder because he had noticed a trout jumping in the loch or that we must expect rain for he had seen a craikie heron ‘take to the hill’. There were other things he told us of as he helped us over dykes or went in front to guide us through boggy places: how death and the eddying fairies came from the pale west, and the white chancy south brought summer and long life, giants and ill-luck strode from the black north, and only good could come out of the sacred east.

The writing is superb and, to continue the Austen comparison a little further, the characterisation of these young girls is beautifully done. None of them is perfect – each has her flaws and idiosyncrasies. The two eldest, Julia and Emmy, are a little like Elinor and Marianne from Sense and Sensibility – Julia’s strong feelings masked by her outward calm, and with the intellect and strength of character to overcome the slings and arrows of her fortune; Emmy driven by emotion, unwilling, perhaps unable, to accept society’s restrictions. Lisbet is clear-sighted about her sisters, and about herself. Although she is young during the events of the book, it is written as if by her older self looking back, giving her narration a feeling of more maturity and insight than her younger self may have had at the time. Lisbet is also profoundly affected by her physical surroundings, describing the landscape and weather in lush passages of great beauty, full of colour and a sense almost of mysticism.

A pale green light poured down from the wintry sky, as though this earth were lit by chance rays from some other world. Grey sheep silently ate split turnips in the brown fields. The snow had melted in the low lands, leaving everything sad dun shades, and only streaked the mountains, where it lay like the skeletons of huge, prehistoric animals. The shouldering outline of the mountains cut against the horizon, their detail of burn, crag and ravine lost in the immensity of their shadowed bulk. It was as though, in those transient windless seconds between dawn and daylight, the world had resolved itself again into the contours and substances that composed it before man trod on its earth and drank in its air.

But despite all my comparisons, there are elements that make the book very different in tone from Austen. Although there are plenty of moments where we see the touching love and loyalty among the sisters, there is little of the wit and humour displayed in most of Austen’s works. This book is darker, with a tone of pathos and impending tragedy created by the subtlest hints of foreshadowing. I don’t want to tell any of the story because its gradual unfolding is one of the book’s great strengths. But there isn’t that feeling of certainty that all misunderstandings and obstacles will be cleared away in time for a happy ending for all of these girls. And, dare I say, the eventual outcomes have something more of the ring of truth about them as a result.

‘There’s plenty of time for my breakfast and your wedding,’ he informed her, ‘as I’m sure Drake would tell you. You know, our whole lives consist of this kind of thing – seeing things out of proportion. Think of the furore and fever we worked ourselves into last year over something that now leaves us quite cold.’

‘I hope it will take more than a year for my marriage to leave me cold,’ Julia rejoined.

‘You never know,’ he replied lugubriously, ‘for after all love is merely seeing the loved one hopelessly out of proportion. Then, you’ll find, you’ll both waken up one day to the fact that the other is quite ordinary and is peopling the world in hundreds. That’s why I never married,’ he added complacently, ‘ I always knew I would be the first to waken up.’

The vast majority of the book is written in standard English, with just some Scottish dialect in the dialogue of one or two characters. However there is a sprinkling of Scottish words throughout, some of which have faded into complete obscurity now, but many of which are still used by older Scots. The meanings of most of them are clear by their context, but I was a little disappointed that my Canongate Classics edition has neither a glossary nor footnotes – not that they are essential, but to add to the interest for non-Scots and younger Scots alike. I would also warn forcibly not to read the introduction by Edwin Morgan before reading the book – he gives away the entire plot (and frankly adds little depth to the understanding of the book).

I was not, however, disappointed in any way by the book itself. In my opinion, it’s easily of the quality of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s much better known Sunset Song and, in fact, I think I enjoyed it even more. I am sorry it seems to have sunk into relative obscurity. The quality of the writing and characterisation; the beautiful descriptions of the wild landscape and weather of the Highlands; the delicately nuanced portrayal of the position of women within this small, rather isolated society; the story that manages tragedy without melodrama and hope without implausibility – all of these mean it richly merits its status as a Scottish classic, and deserves a much wider readership than it has.

The carriage moved forward. We turned the bend in the road where we used to stand to see if any one were coming. I heard the immeasurable murmur of the loch, like a far-away wave that never breaks upon the shore, and the cry of a curlew. All the world’s sorrow, all the world’s pain, and none of its regret, lay throbbing in that cry.

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Book 11 of 90

51 thoughts on “The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison

  1. I get so annoyed when introductions and forewards give away plots, FictionFan. I really wish they wouldn’t do that. That rant over, the book does sounds like a really thoughtful portrait of these sisters’ lives. And the setting and context appeal to me, too. I was intrigued by your comment about the Scottish words and phrases that aren’t really used any more. Just shows you how language changes over time. Hmm….a somewhat darker, more recent cousin to Jane Austen’s characters….that does sound interesting!

    • So do I! I can’t see why they don’t shove them at the back as afterwords. Actually I rarely want to read about a book just before I read the book anyway – I’d rather form my own opinions and then see if the introduction has anything to add to my understanding. But this is a lovely book – it’s a pity the cultural dominance of England within the UK means that so few books from Scotland and Wales get read by new generations. And of course that’s why so much of our language continues to disappear too. I’m hoping schools maybe do a better job at promoting Scottish classics nowadays than they did in my time. And despite my disappointment with Canongate, at least they’re making a big effort to get some of these forgotten books back in print…

  2. I have never heard of this – clearly my knowledge of Scottish classics stops at Sir Walter Scott or Robert Burns. Am making a note of it… let’s hope my local library has it.

    • Me too, sadly, and with much less of an excuse! I had to consult lists to come up with some Scottish classics for my classics club list, and truthfully I haven’t ever heard of several of them. Despite my criticism of this Canongate edition, at least they’re doing a lot to bring some of these forgotten books back into print. What a pity your library doesn’t have it – maybe they could order it? I believe her biographies are well regarded – that seems to be what she’s best remembered for now.

  3. What is it with people writing ‘introductions’ that are really just a long synopsis that adds nothing in the way of insight?! It really aggravates me. I recently read ‘Northanger Abbey’ for the first time, and my edition had an introduction by P.D. James and I thought to myself, ‘Well, this should be interesting; I’m sure she’ll have some insight into the circumstances surrounding the publishing and writing of this book’ – and she did, for about two paragraphs. And then the entire rest of the so-called introduction was just a summary of the entire story! Why even bother!? I think it’s just so they can put a popular modern author’s name on the book to lure people in, as though the strength of the story isn’t enough on its own.

    • I know – it drives me mad! I love a good introduction if it tells you about the historical context or explains themes that might not be obvious to modern audiences or whatever, but even then I think they should be afterwords rather than introductions. But ones that just summarise the plot? Gah! Who on earth would want to read that, especially just before they read the book!

    • I’ve found that these people who write introductions often point out their favorite–that is, best–parts in the book while they give their summer, so in total the reader gets a summary, the best parts spoiled, and someone they don’t know gushing about a book. I mean, that’s what blog friends and book clubs are for. I don’t need the author’s favorite writer friend or former professor doing that. It reads as rather “circle jerking,” as my husband likes to say. I read one book this year in which the introduction quoted literally ALL the best parts in the books, so when I got there, it was old hat.

      • I know – it drives me crazy. I’m well-trained now, so I never read them till afterwards but even then as often as not I don’t see the point. But on the rare occasion that you get a really good informative foreword it can make a big difference. Martin Edwards does the forewords for all these British Library Crime Classics books I’ve been reading, and he tells just enough to give some background, but never gives any spoilers, so I’ve learned to trust him and now happily read his intros first…

  4. This sounds wonderful! It seems it has everything – and from what I’ve read here, the descriptions of the Scottish landscape sounds fabulous. I’m afraid it will have to go on the list… along with the other one… my list is getting rather long!

  5. The last quote is a piece of lovely writing. I haven’t read this one, but I can see how you’d find it interesting. Why do publishers feel compelled to include intros that spoil a story for readers? ‘Tis bad enough when they put such stuff at the end of a book, but to place it at the beginning is uncalled-for! It does a real disservice to both writer and reader.

    • Isn’t it? And it rather sums up the tone of the book perfectly, I thought – sorrow, but without despair. These intros drive me crazy – why would anyone want to read a plot summary just before they read the book?? Stick it in as an afterword by all means, but honestly in some cases they really add so little that you have to wonder why they bother at all.

  6. I’m so glad you enjoyed this, it’s been a favourite of mine since I read it at Uni. Her other books are well worth reading, but I think The Gowk Storm was her best. If Scotland had had an educational system that valued Scottish literature, these and other modern classics would not come as such a surprise (gets off soapbox, fans herself, takes a deep breath – and relax!).

    • I wasn’t sure how I’d get on with it – the fact that it’s so forgotten didn’t bode well. But I think it’s right up there with any of the great classics, Scottish or otherwise, and certainly isn’t so Scottish that it would be difficult for anyone else to read. Yep, our educators have a lot to answer for – I keep hoping it might be better now, but the fact that so many Scottish classics are still out of print suggests things haven’t improved as much as I’d have hoped. So despite my criticisms of Canongate, at least they’re making the effort to get some of these books back out there…

  7. Your great review and comparison to Austen has me intrigued. I looked on Amazon and saw that there’s a copy used shipping from Florida – most of the others are shipping from the UK. I’ll try to get a copy!

    • Oh, if you manage to get one, I do hope you’ll enjoy it! I knew nothing about it – so many Scottish classics have been allowed to sink into obscurity – so I was delighted to love it so much. I feel it deserves the title of ‘classic’, plus it’s just a lovely book to read. You may need extra tissues and chocolate though… 😉

  8. Your excerpts show the author was a wonderful writer, and I certainly feel tempted. I do love proper evocation of the natural world. When the writer does this well, as here, pictures form in my mind.

    As for those pesky introductions, they really should be Afterwords. The revelations of a journey which should be up to the reader to make in innocence, as the writer intends, always make me think the foreword writer is lost in an A level Eng Lit paper mindset, and feeling they must tell the story so the teacher knows they have read this. Okay, perhaps a little cruel. First year undergrad, lecturer.

    • Well, I hate to say it, but I do feel this is a Lady Fancifullish book. The writing is wonderful, and the characterisation is just as good. And it sets it within society with a bit of anger about the place of women, without getting either political or polemical about it.

      Gah! These intros drive me mad – who would ever want to read a plot summary just before reading the book?? When I saw it was Edwin Morgan I thought it might be really insightful, but truthfully he didn’t state anything except the obvious, so even as an afterword it would have been disappointing. But despite my criticisms, I’m still glad Canongate are making the effort to bring some of these forgotten Scottish classics back into print, so kudos to them for that…

  9. I’ve been curious about this book since you mentioned it a while ago, so I’m pleased to see such a positive review from you. What a shame it isn’t better known. It definitely sounds like something I should think about reading. Thanks for the warning about the introduction – although I have learned from experience never to read them until I’ve finished the book!

    • So many Scottish classics are not well known because our education system means we’re all brought up reading the English classics instead of our own. So I was delighted that I liked this one so much and might be able to introduce at least a few more readers to it! Yes, I’m the same – I flick quickly past the intro, and then go back to it after I’ve finished. So many of them are full of spoilers – grrr!!

  10. As always a superb review of a book that I’ve never heard of and yet suspect I would thoroughly enjoy. I’m glad you gave the warning about the introduction – I no longer read them until the end of the book having been caught out before – if it gives the plot away and adds nothing it sounds like the publishers efforts would have been better spent on the glossary.

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, I think you might indeed like this one, if you ever get a chance. These intros drive me crazy – why do they do it?? I never read them till afterwards now, but it’s still tempting and they so often spoil the whole story. I wish Canongate had included a glossary, but I still give them credit for at least trying to bring some of these forgotten Scottish classics back to life… 😀

  11. This book sounds great! Thank you for your excellent review.

    I hate when introductions tell the whole story. Obvious that writer was a little unclear on the meaning of introduction.

    • Thanks, L. Marie – and it is great! One that definitely deserves to be better known.

      These intros drive me nuts – why would anyone think a reader wants to be told the whole story just before they read the book?? Grrrr!!

  12. I wonder why some classics continue to thrive and some don’t, when there appears to be no clear reason for it? Well, I’m glad to hear you liked this so much – now I have a good Scottish classic to add to my list (something I was lacking).

    When I first saw the cover I thought you were reviewing “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” – my copy has the same girl on the cover. Maybe Tess had a twin living in Scotland? 😉
    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1835591.Tess_of_the_D_Urbervilles

    • I know – lots of great books get forgotten while with some of the ones that are still considered classics, it’s hard to understand why. With Scottish classics, though, a lot of it is to do with our education system which has enforced the reading of English literature rather than Scottish literature for most of the last century. So most Scots know embarrassingly little about our own literary tradition. If you do get to read this one sometime, I hope you enjoy it!

      Ha! Yes, it is indeed the same girl! Another blogger did a post last week on books that used the same or similar pictures as covers, and she found one picture of an old dilapidated hut that had been used as the cover on no less than five different books, several of them well known! So much for creativity… 😉

  13. I did enjoy the Sunset Song Trilogy and I’ve downloaded The Gowk Storm now after reading your review. Looking forward to a good story and connecting with my Scottish heritage 🙂

    • Oh, I hope you enjoy it! One great thing about Kindle (or e-books in general) is that they make so many more books available than any bookshop could reasonably stock. I’d love to hear what you think of it. 🙂

  14. I find that quote in which the man says he never got married because he knows he would be the one to “wake up” first quite chilling…I feel like he’s right but also way off but also honest. It’s a lot of emotions that hit me at once, thus the chill.

    • It’s excellent writing, isn’t it? And in the context of the situation (without giving spoilers) it’s actually got an added level of poignancy that doesn’t come over when it’s given out of context like this. Her writing is really quite stunning…

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