The Kiln by William McIlvanney

A man and a nation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When we first meet him, Tam Docherty, the first person narrator, is on his way from his home in Grenoble back to Graithnock, the Ayrshire town where he was born and bred. As he travels, he is visited by memories of his childhood and adolescence, his later life and marriage, but mostly of the summer of 1955 when, between leaving school and going to University, he worked in the local brickworks for a few months, and learned a little about life, girls and himself.

Tam is the grandson of the first Tam who was the central character in Docherty, McIlvanney’s earlier book set before and after WW1. In that book, the first Tam was determined that his son, Conn, would not follow him down the mines – that Conn would get an education and raise himself out of the hard-scrabble hand-to-mouth existence of his forebears. Older Tam’s dreams took a little longer to be realised, and it’s with young Tam, Conn’s son, that we see the first generation of the family go to university and move out of the working class, economically at least.

In large part a coming-of-age story, the present of the book, published in 1996, also shows us Tam in middle-age, contrasting the hopes and dreams of his seventeen-year-old self with the reality of how his life has turned out. Tam’s early story, I would guess, is heavily autobiographical – he is a working-class lad from a fictionalised version of McIlvanney’s birth town of Kilmarnock, with an education and aspirations to be a writer. The later years, I suspect, diverge more from actual events in McIlvanney’s life, but read very much as though we are reading his personal reflections, and perhaps glimpsing his own feelings of disappointment that life hadn’t turned out quite as glitteringly as he’d once dared to hope.

However, Tam’s story reflects the lives of so many Scots of his generation that it also tells the story of the nation in the latter half of the twentieth century. Growing up in the ‘50s in a country that had emerged from the second devastating war of the century determined that this time we really would make a better world, Tam had opportunities no previous generation of working class children had, not the least of which was free university education. For many families like Tam’s, this would be the first time when social mobility was a real possibility, with graduates able to lift themselves out of the pits and shipyards and factories into teaching, medicine, law. But McIlvanney shows the disconnect this caused for many between their working class roots and their middle class ambitions. As Tam, the wee lad from Graithnock, becomes Tom, Master of Arts, a teacher and writer, he sits uneasily between the two classes, neither fully one nor the other, and perhaps he never truly believes that he deserves the life he’s now living. As a result, he seems unable to avoid wrecking everything he achieves. And his feelings of personal failure mirror those of the nation, as those dreams of the ‘50s fade into the industrial devastation of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with Scotland too left disillusioned and angry.

The book is a wonderful mix of humour, nostalgia and pathos. Young Tam, with whom we spend by far the most time, is on the cusp of adulthood and in the midst of a desperate and very funny quest to lose his virginity. Although the period is a couple of decades earlier than my own teen years, I found the attitudes and social manners entirely recognisable, and described with real warmth and affection. It’s a man’s world, for sure, but the women are strong and opinionated, and give as good as they get. It’s Tam’s mother who is the driving force for him to go to University – his father, like so many men of that time, is struggling with the idea that his son won’t follow in his footsteps. Again, McIlvanney uses them to show the two opposing forces faced by the youth of that era – the push to leap into the adventure of the unknown, the pull to stay in the safety of the familiar.

William McIlvanney

I found middle-aged Tom just as believable, though less entertaining. His disappointment leads him to be argumentative and confrontational, to the point of driving away those closest to him. However, his journey home reminds him of who he once was and what his hopes were, and gives him time and space to reflect on who he now is and, to a degree, on what Scotland now is. I wondered how the tone might have changed had McIlvanney written the book ten or twenty years later, when his personal stature had grown to the point where almost every Scottish writer points to him as an influence, and when Scotland had achieved its own Parliament and revived its sense of national identity. But that would have been a different book, and not necessarily a better one. Another excellent novel from the pen of the Scottish master – an insightful and enjoyable look at a man and, through his story, at a nation. Highly recommended.

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32 thoughts on “The Kiln by William McIlvanney

  1. As I was reading your post, FictionFan, it struck me that this is as much the history of Scotland as it is of this one character. And I really do love it when a story of history is told from the points of view of the people who lived through it. I think that’s the most powerful way to tell stories about historical times. And, with McIlvanney writing, I’m not surprised you were drawn in by the style…

    • That’s the thing about McIlvanney – even the most straightforward story is pretty much about the “state of the nation”, I’ve found, and he’s very insightful. He’s also a kind of everyman – he seems to me to be talking about ordinary lives, even though he himself was far from ordinary. His books seem to me to be the Scottish equivalent of the GAN…

  2. Your enjoyment of this one shines through loud and clear, FF. I’ll have to check it out, as I must confess my knowledge of Scottish history is sorely lacking!

    • I’m glad to have found McIlvanney even if I’m late to the party – there aren’t too many writers writing about Scotland except crime writers, which always makes us look as if we’re always murdering each other! 😉

  3. This is one I would probably never have considered on my own, but your review makes it (and its predecessor) sound very appealing. I know little to nothing of Scotland during that time period, so perhaps I should add him to my list of authors I need to read.

    • He really is a great writer so I think you should definitely add him! 😉 A word of warning though – this one is in standard English, but the earlier one, Docherty, is full of Scots dialect which makes it a much harder read for non-Scots. He also wrote a brilliant trilogy of crime novels – the Laidlaw trilogy, which I also highly recommend.

      • Hey, I made it through Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men with all the Nac Mac Feegles speaking in dialect! 😂 I’ll check out the Laidlaw trilogy. It sounds like I definitely need to read something by him.

    • Haha! I was thinking that while I was reading it, that my own middle-aged life wouldn’t make much of a story for a book… 😉 He is a great writer – if you ever get a chance to try him, I hope you’ll enjoy him!

  4. I absolutely love how this sounds, FF. I’ve not read nearly enough books involving Scotland, and this time in history sounds fascinating. You’ve definitely piqued my interest. You’ve read some wonderful books lately! Terrific review!

    • Thank you! 😀 I’m saddened to say I don’t think there’s an awful lot of good literature coming out of Scotland at the moment except for crime novels, so it’s good to be able to recommend McIlvanney, who I think is our best writer of the last fifty years at least.

        • Well, it’s only my own feeling, but I think most Scottish writers head for London and quickly start writing books about England rather than Scotland, probably because it’s a much bigger market – about ten times the size, in fact. The population of London alone is about four times the size of Scotland. There are loads of famous Scottish writers, like Ali Smith and William Boyd, for example, but they don’t often write about Scotland. I am enjoying the Scottish classics, but to be honest there’s not many of them either in comparison to English classics… it’s all a bit sad. 😦

          • It is sad because Scotland is rich in history and its own culture. I don’t know why everyone would want to read about their own backyard (in England’s case), and instead, explore some place different through a book. I know not every reader thinks like we do, but I like my books set close to home for fun sometimes, but also all over so I can learn and experience new things.

            • I do too, and really wish there were more Scots writing about Scotland, in genres other than crime. Meantime I’ll just have to stick with the classics!

  5. I read The Kiln after reading Docherty some years back (prompted by your review of Docherty). I relished the Scottish setting, and was interested in the ideas that McIlvanney’s story explores about the benefits and costs of social and economic ‘development’.

    • I do think he gives a very accurate picture of the benefits and pitfalls of social mobility, and that feeling so many people have of not quite fitting in to the middle class their education has thrust them into. Overall, I thought Docherty was a better book though – I didn’t feel the language in this one was quite as powerful. But then at least being in standard English makes it more accessible to people who struggle with Scots. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed McIlvanney – he’s weel-kent* here but I feel he deserves to be read more widely…

      *well-known 😉

      • I enjoyed Docherty more too, it made it into my Notable pile, but The Kiln didn’t quite. I loved the language in Docherty. I wonder if I could pick up the meaning of the Scots as easily if I heard it spoken rather than seeing it on the page. Perhaps, as when I’ve learnt other languages I can usually process meaning better on the page than by ear.

        • That’s how I felt about them too – I’d re-read Docherty for sure, but though I enjoyed this one a lot, I felt I got everything out of it on one read. The problem with Scots is that it’s not standard across the country – every small region has its own dialect and accent. BigSister lived for many years in Dundee which is only about a hundred miles away, and honestly I sometimes had difficulty understanding the locals. But most Scots are used to using standard English in work situations, so they’re always willing to change to that if “foreigners” are having difficulty understanding them… 🙂

  6. This sounds excellent. It’s reminded me of a friend of mine who has a doctorate from a very prestigious uni & her brother is similarly academically impressive – they were encouraged by their working class parents, but now the parents feel alienated by their kids’ education. It’s really sad and even more pertinent for the generation McIlvanney is describing.

    • Yes, it’s a tricky situation. My dad was determined we’d all get to go to Uni – his elder brother did, but the family could only afford for one of them to go and he always felt he’d missed out. But he did struggle when his children began to be horrible little over-educated snobs, looking down on him. Fortunately, we mostly grew out of it by our mid-20s… 😉

  7. I love your passion for reading about Scotland, and Scottish people. It’s such a blank spot in my knowledge, I can learn so much from you blog about these topics/areas/people. Plus you make the subject interesting 🙂

    • Aw, thank you – how lovely! 😀 I do find reading about my own country fun, even though I tend to get a bit political about it sometimes… 😉 I just wish there was more great Scottish fiction than there is – I’m always jealous of the amount of fiction coming out of Canada…

      • does it seem like we have alot coming out? That’s a good thing I suppose…maybe because we’re so spread out, we need to tell each other’s stories just to get an idea of what’s going on on the other side of the country? haha

        • Yes! Between you and Naomi, you’ve given me an inferiority complex! And the real problem is, loads of them sound so good. I think we might need to poach some of your writers…

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