It’s a joy to see Nan Shepherd’s image o the new five-pound notes. I have loved her work for many years and was surprised she was not better known. The re-publication of her masterpiece of nature writing, The Living Mountain, championed by Robert Macfarlane, has brought her well-deserved fame; I hope those who have enjoyed this wonderful book will also read and enjoy her three novels and her poetry.
But there are other writers whose work is not as well known as it might be, and I’d like to use this blog to recommend them. One of my favourite writers is Nancy Brysson Morrison. She was a contemporary of Nan Shepherd and their first novels were published within two years of each other. But while Nan Shepherd published three novels in five years, then devoted her life to teaching, Nancy Brysson Morrison was a prolific writer who published novels, non-fiction, articles and gave radio talks. Sadly, most of her books are out of print or difficult to find, but The Gowk Storm is a gem.
The Gowk Storm
This is the story of three sisters, the daughters of a minister, living in a remote parish on the fringes of the Highlands. Narrated by Lisbet, the youngest sister, the novel is written mainly in English, but given a strong sense of place by the use of Scots words and some Scots dialogue. Lisbet describes the love affairs of her older sisters, Julia and Emmy, each of whom falls in love with a man deemed unacceptable by their patriarchal, rigid and prejudiced society.
The Gowk Storm is one of the most atmospheric books I have ever read and the claustrophobia of the setting acts as a metaphor for the restrictions society places on these strong, intelligent and articulate young women. The symbolism of weather and the force of nature underpins the narrative. The gowk storm of the title is ‘a storm of several days at the end of April or beginning of May; an evil or abstract obstruction of short duration’. The weather is a character in itself, central to the main figures’ lives; sometimes joyful, more often uncaring or malevolent, but always lavishly described and full of significance.
One of the things I love about the book is the way in which the author brings alive a character or place with economy and precision. The ferryman is ‘a mere paring of a man’, Christine Strathern’s features are ‘like a wax doll’s which have melted ever so slightly at the fire’.
Lisbet, left at home when her sisters attend a party, studies the dregs of her milk: ‘I looked at the milky castle peaks and milky brides at the bottom of the drained tumbler and at the skin, lined like a bat’s wing, which clung to the side of the glass.’ Haunting, lyrical, passionate and a real page-turner, The Gowk Storm is a beautiful novel.
Other books by Nancy Brysson Morrison
If you enjoy The Gowk Storm, it would be worth searching for some of her other work.
Those I have read are powerful, daring and complex; her poetic prose and mastery of symbolism bring her characters and setting to life.
Her first novel is the story of Callum Lamont, the illegitimate son of a minister’s daughter. Rejected by his mother, he grows up a troubled soul. This novel is set in the time of the Highland Clearances.
The Hidden Fairing (1951)
Bartle MacDonald lives with his widowed mother and aged granny on a croft in a remote Highland village. His mother is cold and unaffectionate and he bonds with his grandmother (his father’s mother) and loves her strange stories, shared in secret, about her past on the island of Wrack. He is noticed by Lady Wain, who visits the area each summer. Bartle goes to Glasgow University where he gains a First in Mathematics and, thanks to Lady Wain’s patronage, is offered a prestigious research post. However, his life does not follow the path he might have expected; he must make moral choices and live with their consequences in a society impressed by material success and divided by class and religious prejudices.
The Strangers (1935)
An Italian brother and sister take over an inn on a remote Scottish island. They are friends with Willis, governess to the children of the laird. Willis falls in love with the laird and his wife, suspicious, dismisses her but instead of returning home she remains on the island. The book deals with illegitimacy and adultery (which must have been daring for a novel written by a single woman in Scotland in 1935); the characters are treated with empathy and subtlety.
Biography of Nancy Brysson Morrison
Nancy Brysson Morrison: A Literary Life by Mary Seenan (Kennedy &Boyd, 2013)
This was shortlisted for the Saltire Society Research Book of the Year Award