27 July 2014

From Stone Voices

I've been reading Neal Ascherson's Stone Voices, surprised to find it full of the mid-Argyll landscapes of my childhood. The looping Kilmartin Road, running down to Ardfern. Lonely standing stones and unconsidered monuments, bristly lichen marking the grooves, fashioned by some ancient hand in rock, and long worked to smoothness by the wind and rain. The echoes of Dalriada at Dunadd, rising from the Great Moss with its stylised boar and its lasting, kingly footprint, hewn into the stone. Saint Columba's cave, where the holy man fetched up from Ireland in his coracle and where I, miscast as a musical nipper, provided tuneless clarinet accompaniment to annual evening services, hazy with midges and smirr. 

Elemental Christianity in the raw in several senses, and evidence enough for this young heathen, that any creator God which had summoned those gnawing clouds from His imagination could not be perfectly good. My other juvenile experiences of the divine were largely limited to South Knapdale Parish Church - an uninhabited, musty, plain, grey whitewashed spot just up the Ellary road, whose minister boasted a pair of ears to outmatch Roald Dahl's BFG and a brass singing voice of such profundity and noise, that it drowned out the rest of the congregation. Already an irreverent little mite, and godless too, I thought this absurd mismatch in resonance extremely amusing. 

Ascherson's book is pensive, rich in detail and delightfully written. But for my legal readers, I wanted to pluck out this entertaining passage on the history of the Scottish Land Court, which was entirely new to me and concerning which a brisk trawl of the internet provides few details. Disputes between landlords and tenants are not the natural stuff of comedy. But bear with Ascherson. He's recovered a rare old character in Lord Gibson, who chaired the Court between 1941 and 1965.

"The Court met in the community hall at Balivanish, on Benbecula. The chairman was Lord Gibson, a judge of powerful eccentricity in an old Scottish tradition. Advocates in Scotland tend to declare political allegiance as their careers advance, more as a sort of gamble on the party likely to hold power than as a statement of personal conviction, and Lord Gibson had long ago declared for Labour. For that reason, and because he was unpopular in the Faculty of Advocates, Gibson's career had not prospered, and his appointment to the Scottish Land Court had been regarded in Edinburgh as the equivalent of managing a power station at Krasnoyarsk, which in those days was the Soviet reward for Politburo veterans who had fallen out of favour.

Lord Gibson, however, took over the Land Court with relish. He would show them! Not short on vanity, he insisted that as Chairman of the Land Court he was entitled to a ceremonial mace, to be carried before him in procession. The Lord President of the Court of Session had a mace. Why not the President of the Land Court? Attempts to dissuade him failed; he persisted and grew aggrieved. The exasperated Faculty consulted the Lord Lyon King of Arms, Scotland's chief Herald, who at that time was Sir Thomas Innes of Learney.

A resourceful Lyon, Sir Thomas went to his toolbox and made a mace out of his kitchen rolling pin. He turned it and carved it into pretty contours, then applied varnish and polish. Finally, he tipped it with a gleaming gold point which was one of Lady Innes's old lipsticks. This mace was borne before Lord Gibson on great occasions, but whether he ever took a closer look at it is not recorded."


16 comments :

  1. "Bass" singing voice, even? Makes sense in context.

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    1. A deliberate turn of phrase. For some (possibly idiosyncratic) reason, I've always thought of Old Testament prophets as having brass voices...

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    2. I liked the Brass singing voice. I knew exactly what you meant,

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  2. The cynicism of the Scottish advocate knows no bounds. How ironic for you to publish this the same day that Wings has Flipper with his big republican banner!

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  3. The tale of Lord Gibson's departure from the Land Court is told in Lord Stott's magnificent "Lord Advocate's Diary" (1991). It involves underpants and a railway train, and Gordon Stott tells the story with great panache.

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    1. I'll have to see if I can scrounge up a copy.

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  4. I thought I knew Stone Voices must have missed or forgotten that many thanks LPW! Great anecdote.

    My copy is not to hand but my main issue with the (beautifully written) book was that Ascherson seems to identify presybterian Scotland with Scotland - enormously influential of course but one of several Scotlands we can identify with, in part if not in whole.

    Perhaps Joyce in full satirical mode was closer to the mark with regard to presbyterian piety -


    Poor sister Scotland! Her doom is fell.
    She cannot find any more Stewarts to sell.

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    1. I'm only about half way through it, myself, but as my own asides here suggest, my own upbringing glanced against Scotland's Presbyterian form of Christianity - but the community itself was to all intents and purposes an atheistical one, and the family didn't go to church. That said, an encounter with lavish high Anglicanism in Oxford, and visits to the opulent Catholic churches of Italy convinced be that I don't believe in a rather different sort of God. Not a God of icons and gilding, but an undivinity in that Knapdale church, whitewashed, undemonstrative and uninhabited.

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    2. There's a classic tale that I heard told of Ian MacDonald, senior tutor of Queen's College Oxford in the 1960s and 1970s, though I suspect it may be older. MacDonald was a 'character', an outspoken socialist and atheist, so someone twitted him with inconsistency when he started sending his son to Sunday School at Oxford's Presbyterian church. To which MacDonald replied "I'm and atheist and I hope my son will be an atheist too. But by God he'll be a Presbyterian atheist".

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    3. Ha! You see? It isn't just an aesthetic matter of whether the Madonna and Child in Christ Church Cathedral vexes you. It is important not only to discipline your beliefs, but also your disbeliefs too...

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  5. You have illegal readers?

    It takes all sorts I suppose...

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  6. I was just thinking about the Labour Party and it's vanities as I read the story about Lord Gibson. Seems I have missed an excellent book and must remember to read it.
    I must be a Presbyterian atheist having been forced to attend the local Parish Sunday School as I child who then dabbled briefly with Dad's church the Scottish Episcopal. I could never get round the ceremony and the decoration so decided enough was enough. Apart from attending funerals mostly, I am never in a church these days.

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