Hame thoughts from abroad
Annalena McAfee’s tale of a New Yorker who unearths secrets on a fictional Scottish island is an engrossing read
25 April, 2017 — By Maggie Gruner
Annalena McAfee. Photo: Ollive Grove
TETCHY Grigor McWatt, the “Bard” of the fictional Scottish island of Fascaray, wins a place in the global spotlight. But his past remains shadowy.
Hame, the latest novel by Annalena McAfee, founder and former editor of the Guardian Review, investigates the life of her deceased imaginary poet.
Fame and fortune found reclusive, kilted anglophobe Grigor after he wrote the words to folk song Hame tae Fascaray, which became a nationalist anthem.
Blurring the line between fact and fiction, the novel lists a panoply of real performers – from Andy Stewart to Paolo Nutini – who have “recorded” the song.
The story’s Mhairi McPhail, a Canadian of Scots descent, is tasked with writing Grigor’s biography and setting up a museum in his honour on the Hebridean island, known as “Scotland in miniature”.
Uprooting themselves from their New York home, Mhairi and her nine-year-old daughter Agnes move to Fascaray.
McAfee, who divides her time between Camden and the Cotswolds – with regular trips to Scotland – told this paper she did lots of research to create her island “from the seabed up”. She pulls together the novel’s threads – Mhairi’s experiences, her biography of Grigor, his writings – into a tale exploring secrets, national and personal identity.
The increasingly engrossing story overcomes any off-putting first impressions given by the novel’s bulk, and interjections of Grigor’s poetry, his life’s work. Usually this is translation of classic English language poems into Scots. Getting mind and tongue around it can be an interesting challenge.
Extracts from Grigor’s Fascaray Compendium illuminate the island and his passion for it. Gorse turns it into “a shield of shimmering gold”, dolphins and porpoises “joyously arc and dip as if stitching the ocean’s silken canopy of turquoise, gentian and cobalt”.
Language is key, and Scots is hardwired into McAfee. She grew up in north London with Scots-Irish parents, and her family spoke Glaswegian Scots (one of “at least 10 dialects” of the language) at home. She also “mined the Dictionary of the Older Scots Tongue” for the book.
Mhairi, its likeable narrator, claims her education, which changed the way she spoke, “stifled my Scottish self”. In losing the voice of her forbears she became “a permanent exile” internally as well as geographically.
McAfee, who is studying Gaelic, was aware of her parents’ “shared sense of exile and their yearning for home”, although they came to love London. “I now accept a layered identity – I’m a Glasgow-Irish Londoner, with a passion for Scotland.”
Her novel’s fact-fiction boundary blurs again by associating Grigor with the real-life Rose Street, Edinburgh, poets.
Fascinated by the group – including Hugh MacDiarmid – who met in the pubs of Rose Street in the 1950s and 60s, McAfee places her fictional poet “at the heart of that intriguing milieu”.
MacDiarmid sneers that it’s odd to see “McWatt, this passionate defender of the Scots tongue” re-writing “the literature of the enemy”.
The novel’s Lilias Hogg, the “flooer o Rose Street”, falls for Grigor, whose love life is among the elusive aspects of his background probed by Mhairi.
Outcomes of the story are satisfying, if not all unforeseen.
McAfee said her depiction of Fascaray was inspired by places including the tidal island of Oronsay off Colonsay and the remote mainland peninsula of Knoydart.
The novel’s American billionaire leisure-complex magnate’s plans for Fascaray chime with events on the Aberdeenshire coast.
There, said McAfee, a community’s lives “have been blighted by a new golf resort set up by an American billionaire. Since I began writing the novel, the American billionaire has become President of the United States.”
Grigor McWatt, who, with his briar pipe clamped between his teeth, is dubbed “The Popeye of the North” by a newspaper, campaigns to defend Fascaray’s residents and their environment against various threats.
Towards the novel’s close Agnes comments: “We live in the most beautiful place in the world.” Her words ooze love and belonging. Hame is where the heart is.
The story doesn’t end on the page. The author recorded her poet’s famous song (she also composed the music) with musician friends in Scotland. She plays tin whistle and her brother does backing vocals with their cousins. It’s been played on BBC Radio Scotland. “I also designed a rather fetching tartan for the Isle of Fascaray,” she added.
• Hame. By Annalena McAfee. Harvill Secker, £16.99