Scots Whay Hae!

Talking About Scottish Culture So You Don't Have To

Caw Canny: A Review Of James Yorkston’s Three Craws…

418DU4pdayL._AC_UL320_SR208,320_The Scottish traditional children’s song ‘Three Craws’ is a classic example of folk tradition being run through with dark themes. If you are unfamiliar with the fate of the birds then, depending on the version, one “canne find its maw”, one “fell and broke its jaw”, and the other “couldnae ca’ at a'”. Disney, it is not. However, nothing which befell those famed corbies matches the fates of the ‘three craws’ in James Yorkston’s novel of that name. If it’s a children’s lullaby you’re after, look away now.

Equal parts pitch-black comedy and tragedy, Yorkston’s Three Craws concentrates on the intertwining lives of Johnny, Stevie and Mikey. The first two are close childhood friends – bonded by the bad times more than the good. Johnny is returning home after trying and failing to make it in London as an artist. Home is Strathhillock in Fife, where Stevie, himself only recently returned due to the death of his aunt and uncle, has promised to give him a room should he want to visit. This is all the encouragement Johnny needs to leave a life of out-of date sandwiches and less than welcoming boozers behind.

As Johnny’s journey begins he meets Mikey, who has just had to ingest half of his stash of speed to avoid being done for dealing. This makes him a less than ideal travelling companion. Mikey proves to be more persistent than the stains on his “once blue jeans”. Claiming to be a friend of Johnny’s brother from school, he is a reminder made flesh that the past is not easily left behind, and there is instantly the feeling that Mikey is going to scupper any chances of a happy homecoming. This foreboding increases as the book unfolds and it becomes clear that three is definitely a crowd.

Mikey’s narrative voice is heard in short page-long chapters where he bemoans his lot in life, and cannot understand why everyone seems to distance themselves from him, while at the same time refusing to take the hint. Seen through the eyes of others we are in no doubt as to why he is shunned, but there is enough humanity there for the reader to feel sorry for him, while at the same time being appalled by his actions. It’s something that Irvine Welsh manages to do when he is at his best, and Yorkston pulls it off brilliantly here.

Anyone who was brought up in, or spent any length of time in, a Scottish small town will recognise the backdrop to Three Craws. It’s not just geographical but social. The book opens with a quote from Sunset Song, and there is the same sense that while people may be drawn to the place itself it’s the inhabitants that will cause you problems. The constant reminders of youthful indiscretions, the impossibility of keeping a secret, the threat of violence from those who may not share your opinions, musical tastes, or even haircuts – all of these seem heightened in a small town.  In a city you can lose yourself, or get lost as Johnny discovered. In a small town everyone knows your name, and that is often more of a hinderance than it is a help. Not just a case of “I kent his faither”, but also, “..and his faither before that”.

There is a rich tradition in recent Scottish fiction which looks at those salad days (irony intended) of growing up in modern Scotland; books such as Alan Bissett’s Boyracers, Laura Hird’s Born Free and Gordon Legge’s The Shoe being three of the best. However, not many compare the promise of youth with what comes later in life, when often those early dreams have faded and the reality of adulthood proves to be a series of disappointments. Iain Banks did a fine line in such twisted nostalgia, with many of his characters carrying the scars of childhood traumas and tragedy – events which return to haunt the protagonists in later life. Three Craws is a superb example of this. Johnny, Stevie and Mikey don’t want to return home. For different reasons they have to. They have nowhere else to go. Yorkston captures the complex nature of this sort of homecoming; a sense of failure combined with the comfort of the familiar. Ridicule and reassurance.

As a songwriter, Yorkston is a master at telling tales, and is also well aware of the ballad tradition, so it should be no surprise that he writes as well as he does, or that his debut novel touches upon the themes that it does. There is a lyricism in his use of everyday language which is rare and believable, and he uses his musicians ear to master the phraseology not only of how his characters talk to each other, but how they ‘talk’ to themselves. It is this that allows the three voices to remain individual when there was a real danger they would not be distinctive enough. It allows the reader to comprehend what makes the three different, and what ties bind them. Three Craws is in some ways a ballad for modern rural life, but like the children’s song with which it shares its title, it’s one which isn’t afraid to show you the dark as well as the light. It also introduces Yorkston as a welcome new voice in Scottish fiction, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Here is James Yorkston, with Jon Thorne and Suhail Yusuf Khan with ‘Broken Wave’ from their album Everything Sacred. I saw these three play live earlier this year and it was mesmeric, so don’t let it pass you by if you get the chance to do likewise:

James Yorkston will be at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival alongside Tom Lanoye at 7-8pm, Sunday 28th August.

Three Craws is nominated for the EBIF First Book Award. You can vote here.

Edinburgh Book Festival 2016: The SWH! One-A-Day Guide…

Main brochure cover imageFor many people, today’s the day that Edinburgh’s Festivities really kick in with the first day of the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

For 16 days Charlotte Square Gardens becomes an oasis of relative sanity and calm in a city gone pleasingly potty.

This year’s programme is as rich and diverse as ever. However, there is often the problem as to who to see on any given day, especially as, at this late stage, many of the ‘headline’ events are sold out.

If you aren’t one of those organised people who book their festivals with military precision, or if you happen to find yourself in Edinburgh with time on your hands, then the Scots Whay Hae! one-a-day guide is just for you with a suggestion for each day of the festival (tickets still available at the time of writing).

13th – Edward Ross

Comic book artist, writer and illustrator, Edward Ross has created something special in his fantastic voyage through cinema. Filmish looks at the ideas behind famous movies; at big issues such as censorship and at great directors like Hitchcock and Tarantino. The book takes the form of a graphic novel, taking a visual approach to serious filmic challenges like time, propaganda and different ways of looking.

14th – Victoria Hendry

Victoria Hendry’s debut novel, A Capital Union, received plaudits from the likes of Alan Warner and Manda Scott, telling the story of Scottish nationalism during the Second World War. It is a different war which features in her latest novel, The Last Tour of Archie Forbes, which brings the impact of global conflict onto the streets of Edinburgh with a compassionate account of PTSD and one man’s fight to survive in austerity Britain.

15th – Metaphrog

Graphic novelist duo Metaphrog return to the Book Festival with their highly-acclaimed retelling of some of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic stories, The Red Shoes and Other Tales. Hear them talk about what it takes to turn fairy tales into compelling comics, watch them recreate some of their lavish illustrations, and pick up some tips for creating a comic book of your own.

16th – Lucy Ribchester & Sara Sheridan

Two Edinburgh-based writers discuss fast-moving historical adventures, featuring intriguing women at their heart. Sara Sheridan gives us On Starlit Seas in which a celebrated 1820s writer leaves a civil war-ravaged Brazil for England. Lucy Ribchester’s follow-up to The Hourglass Factory is The Amber Shadows, a pacey wartime tale of a Bletchley Park typist who finds herself embroiled in murder and intrigue.

17th – A.L. Kennedy

In her first novel for five years, the wildly talented A L Kennedy has produced a tale profoundly in tune with our times. Serious Sweet is a love story that brings together a good-hearted civil servant who can no longer bear the unmentionable acts perpetrated by the government, and a bankrupt accountant – ‘two words you don’t want anywhere near your CV’. An unforgettably moving story that unfolds over 24 life-changing hours, which she discusses with Viv Groskop.

18th – Jan Carson & Lara Williams

If there’s a future for shorter fiction in the UK, it might well reside in the work of these two gifted writers. East Belfast provides the backdrop for many of the stories in Jan Carson’s collection Children’s Children, with a particular focus on social divides in Northern Ireland. Manchester-based Lara Williams has produced Treats, a gift of a collection which explores love, sex and alienation in the 21st century.

Vote for Treats by Lara Williams in the First Book Award.

19th – Jenni Fagan & Andrew McMillan

In the wake of her rapturously received debut novel, The Panopticon, Edinburgh-based Jenni Fagan presents The Dead Queen of Bohemia, a new collection of poems from across her career. Andrew McMillan’s debut poetry collection, Physical, won last year’s Guardian First Book Award and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. His work has been described by fellow poet Helen Mort as ‘alive with subtle reflections on masculinity.

20th – Neil Broadfoot & Michael J. Malone

The much-missed William McIlvanney didn’t care for the phrase Tartan Noir, but his work paved the way for a vibrant crimewriting scene in Scotland. Two of the most exciting new talents are Neil Broadfoot (described by Magnus Linklater as ‘the one to watch’) and Michael J Malone (who, according to Douglas Skelton ‘delivers a belter of a yarn’). Join them to hear about Broadfoot’s All the Devils and Malone’s Bad Samaritan. Belters, both.

21st – Chris Brookmyre

For years he’s been regarded as one of Scotland’s best-loved and funniest crimewriters, but Chris Brookmyre’s critical reputation has also steadily grown over that same period and now he counts among the best-respected writers in his field. With Black Widow, Brookmyre bravely strides into new political territory with a thriller that takes in sexism in the workplace, revenge porn and internet trolling.

22nd – Open Book on the Short Stories of James Kelman

Marjorie Lotfi Gill and Claire Urquhart from Open Book, a charity that organises shared reading groups, explore the short stories of James Kelman. Often very short in length, Kelman’s stories present vivid fragments or brief moments that point to the isolation and powerlessness of the working class. No previous knowledge of Kelman’s short stories is necessary to enjoy this workshop. There will be an open discussion from the start.

23rd – Malcolm Harvey & Michael Keating

The debate over Scottish independence shows no signs of easing in a year when our parliamentary election has been dominated by debates over Britain’s future in Europe. Malcolm Harvey and Michael Keating, co-authors of Small Nations in a Big World, place independence squarely back on the agenda as they discuss the Nordic and Baltic states – and the valuable lessons they offer Scotland as it ponders its future. Chaired by Magnus Linklater.

Part of the The Scotland We’re Shaping series of events.

24th – Tom Gauld

‘Living on the moon? What were we thinking?’ The lunar colony is winding down and the last cop’s beat is getting steadily smaller. In the plaintive, pared-back style of his popular Guardian cartoons, Tom Gauld’s new graphic novel Mooncop is a story that beautifully captures the personal realities facing a dying community. A witty, melancholy adventure that confirms Gauld as a star of British graphic novels.

25th – Iain Maloney & Glenn Patterson

Devastating fictions can be woven out of events that are only too real. In 1988, the Piper Alpha oil platform exploded off the coast of Aberdeen, killing 167 people. The Waves Burn Bright is Japan-based Aberdonian Iain Maloney’s moving novelisation of a tragedy that blew families apart. The subjects of Irish novelist Glenn Patterson’s Gull are an iconic gull-wing car built in troubled west Belfast, and its creator, the entrepreneur and conman John DeLorean.

You can hear Iain Maloney talking books on the Scots Whay Hae! Podcast.

26th – Stuart Cosgrove

The notable Channel 4 broadcaster and BBC football pundit rarely avoids the opportunity to obsess over his favourite music. In Young Soul Rebels, Stuart Cosgrove recounts the fascinating story of Northern Soul, weaving his own personal history into the biography of venues such as Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca. In today’s event he gamely compares his favoured musical subculture with the likes of mod, punk and rave.

You can read the Scots Whay Hae! review of Young Soul Rebels here.

27th – Kevin MacNeil & Peter Verhelst

Kevin MacNeil’s The Brilliant & Forever is the Lewis-born writer’s satirical third novel, featuring three best friends – two human, one alpaca – competing for glory at a Hebridean literary festival. Meanwhile, leading Flemish novelist Peter Verhelst presents The Man I Became, a heart-warming fable about human relations narrated by a gorilla. Both are immaculately insightful fables for our strange times.

28th – Tom Lanoye & James Yorkston

Two doppelgänger Belgian exiles are on the run in Tom Lanoye’s latest novel, Fortunate Slaves. When they finally meet they realise that each could hold the solution to the other’s problems. James Yorkston is familiar as one of Scotland’s finest singer-songwriters and he turns his storytelling skills to new use in his debut novel, Three Craws, a gorgeously atmospheric, quirky story of broken dreams and longing.

Vote for Three Craws by James Yorkston in the First Book Award.

29th – David F. Ross & Chris Russell

David F Ross discusses The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas, a deeply human tale of rivalries, music and confused adolescence set in small-town Scotland, accompanied by an exclusive single written by Bobby Bluebell. Songs About a Girl by writer and musician Chris Russell is a novel of first love, paparazzi, backstage bickering, pop music and the power of teenage obsessions. Join them for music and words.

Part of the Music and Meaning series of events.

That’s our picks of 2016, but there is lots more on offer, and you can keep up with all things bookish by following the Festival on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

p.s. As a wee treat for reading all the way down here, Zoe Howe is also in town on the 29th to talk about her terrific book on the late Lee Brilleaux, Rock and Roll Gentlemen. Brilleaux, as any fule kno, was the lead singer with the great Dr Feelgood, whose guitarist, Wilko Johnson, is also at this year’s festival. When all of that is added together it gives the perfect excuse to show them in their prime. This is ‘She Does It Right’:


Into The Valley: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talk To Pauline Lynch…

603b850df163bda80d18583b6aeac148_w700For the latest podcast, Ali headed down the Clyde Valley to talk to writer and actor Pauline Lynch. The primary reason was to discuss Pauline’s terrific debut novel, Armadillos, which is out now, and you can read the Scots Whay Hae! review here.

It’s a terrific read and the two talk about it at length. For a debut novel from a Scottish writer it is unusual in being set outside of Scotland, in this case in Texas, a decision which was to prove a wise one when it came to research.

Pauline talks in detail about how Armadillos grew from a single idea to become one of the best books of the year. But don’t take our word for it – it’s now included on the long list for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize, so someone must agree.

The two also touch 29547067on the pros and cons of university writing courses and how Pauline’s focus moved from acting to writing over the years. She has had a fascinating life, treading the boards and touring the world, as well as being a key part of the cultural phenomenon that is Trainspotting.

It all makes for a really warm and interesting listen, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did recording it.

If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes or by RSS where there’s a sizeable back catalogue waiting for your pleasure.

You can also download it by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud

..or on YouTube:

Oh, and this podcast is brought to you by the fabulous Atkinson-Pryce Books, Biggar’s award winning independent bookshop – they just don’t know it…

Caledonia Homesick Blues: A Review Of Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia…


Parallel worlds, or the Multiverse theory, feature prominently in recent Scottish writing. The best known examples are Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and Iain Banks’ The Bridge, two books where real life runs parallel to another, more fantastic, although often dystopian world, with the central character inhabiting both. Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia is another example to add to the list.

Set initially in a recognisable 20th century Scotland, Robbie Coyle’s story also takes place in a military-controlled fantasy future. The past is cloaked in nostalgia for an ideal and idealised childhood, which most readers will identify with to some degree, while the future examines what pressures come to bear on an individual once that childhood ends. The former is fantasy set in reality, the latter a harsh reality set in a fantastic world, and Crumey uses this device to ask interesting philosophical, political, scientific and moral questions.

It’s a structure that initially poses a problem as Crumey’s depiction of Robbie’s childhood is so vivid you may be tempted to linger there. The young Robbie obsessed with space and dreams of becoming a cosmonaut – a particular stance swayed by his fervently socialist father. Crumey sees the world through a child’s eyes quite beautifully, inviting long forgotten memories and musings to come to the fore. These include believing your parents are not who they say they are, trying to understand why certain family rules apply only to you, and the confusing approach of lust and attraction from an already uncertain adult world. Robbie struggles to come to terms with his growing up, armed only with his increasingly vivid imagination.

Just as we are getting comfortable in Robbie’s childhood, he and we are suddenly thrown into the future. Although jarring at first, you begin to get your bearings when you realise this world just as involving if much more threatening. It is a society where paranoia rules, something the state openly encourages and supports. Robbie still dreams of going into space and is competing against other candidates to fulfil his ambition. Many tests and tribulations are placed in his way, in all aspects of his life. Sex, for instance, is used as collateral, to blackmail, and sometimes even more bizarrely. Without going in to details here, the phrase “I think I saw the Red Star” may be one you use in the future.

It could be read as a warning against the communism that Robbie’s father desires, but I don’t believe Crumey is being that specific. Rather, this is a warning of how the individual can be controlled and suppressed by any government that professes to act for the greater good, and Robbie finds himself having to break their rules to survive. The comparison with Iain Banks is a particularly apt one as Crumey not only shares his sense of humour but also his political rigour, and like The Bridge, Sputnik Caledonia tests free will against state control.

It is a novel which is as ambitious as the young Robbie Coyle himself, and similarly threatens to fail at times, but when you reach the unexpectedly emotional finale you are in awe that Crumey has, once again, pulled it off. When taken with his other novels Pfitz and The Secret Knowledge, it could be argued that Andrew Crumey is not only one of the most interesting and challenging novelists around, but one of the very best. He may be your new favourite writer; you just don’t know it yet. Universally approved.

*This review first appeared in Gutter Magazine

There’s No Place Like Home: A Review Of P.K. Lynch’s Armadillos


*You can listen to P.K. Lynch talking about Armadillos on the Scots Whay Hae! Podcast by clicking here…

In our recent podcast with novelist Iain Maloney we spoke about a writer’s responsibility when tackling certain subjects. In Maloney’s case, his novel The Waves Burn Bright deals with events surrounding the Piper Alpha North Sea Oil Platform tragedy, and he talked about the importance of making sure his research was thorough and his prose unsensational so as to avoid any possible accusations of exploitation or disrespect.

It’s something that James Robertson and Kirstin Innes have also spoken to us about with reference to their novels The Professor Of Truth and Fishnet, books which examine the Lockerbie bombing and the sex industry respectively. Writers have a responsibility to their subject as well as their readers, and with some subjects that responsibility should be taken very seriously indeed.  It’s a difficult balancing act to pull off, to tell an engaging story while respecting those who you are wishing to draw attention to, but when a writer gets it right it can be far more affecting than any mere reportage or documentary.

Armadillos is the story of 15-year-old Texan Aggie, who is described as “a ‘sub’ from a ‘sub’ family”, which means she is at the bottom of a food chain where food is scarce to begin with. Literary theorist Antonio Gramsci used the term ‘subaltern’ to refer to those who belonged to groups of people denied power and wealth by the ruling classes. They are those who struggle to have their voices heard, so often cease trying.  If you are considered a ‘sub’ within such a group, then in common parlance you are viewed within, and often without, that group as the ‘lowest of the low’. Continue reading

New Musical Success: The Best New Music From The Last Month…

a3715261681_10To say we live in strange times is understatement veering towards sarcasm. I don’t wish to appear trite, but in the worst of times, for whatever reasons they may be, music in particular brings me comfort like nothing else can.

Feeling down? Listen to Smokey sing, Johnny play guitar, or Dylan do anything. It never fails me, and it hasn’t this time round. With that in mind, putting together this roundup of the best in new music from the last month has not simply been a pleasure but seriously uplifting. In short – I needed that.

First off, we have what I consider the pop song of the summer. Ette’s album Homemade Lemonade is out on the 22 July – and you really should get your order in now. But you don’t need to take my word for it as listening to ‘The Attack of the Glam Soul Cheerleaders (Parts 1 & 2)‘ will persuade you within the first 10 seconds. This is pop music at its very best, from the opening handclaps and keys, through the guitar riff which drives things alongside Carla J. Easton’s perfect bubblegum vocals, to the false ending and joyous wig-out which follows. It’s a reminder that the best pop music does not need a big production – it can spring from anyone and anywhere when the inspiration strikes. If Phil Spector had lived round our way, this is the sort of wall of sound he’d be making:

Ette headlined the Olive Grove Records Review at Oran Mor last month, which is one of the gigs of the year so far. No real surprise as it also featured Call To Mind, The Moth and The Mirror (and what a set that was) and the debut of The Royal Male, the solo venture from Woodenbox’s Ali Downer. The Royal Male’s album is Plastic Throne and the single is ‘Start When It’s Over’. Both have a wonderful mix of eclectic piano, understated horns, and a liberal sprinkling of whip-smart melodies reminiscent of Neil Hannon and Ben Folds. Having heard the whole album I can confirm it’s an absolute joy. The single alone brings a smile to my face every time I play it, which has been a lot. What say you?:

Continue reading

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