A streak of often dark humour runs through much of Scottish literature, from the poetry of Robert Burns to the fiction of Alexander McCall Smith. Sometimes, as in the Wee MacGreegor stories (the eponymous hero was an irrepressible Glasgow laddie created by journalist J.J. Bell in 1902, and the stories enjoyed phenomenal popularity for decades) the humour is unashamedly sentimental but just about saved by the accuracy of the Scots vernacular. Sometimes, as in the novels of Irvine Welsh or Christopher Brookmyre, the humour is more scatological, edgy and violent.
Just in time for Burns Night, James Robertson lists some of his favourite comic reads from his home nation.
The Antiquary by Sir Walter Scott
Scott isn’t usually thought of as a bundle of laughs but this, his third novel, 200 years old this year, is a warm and funny portrait of community life in a 1790s coastal town (Fairport, a thinly disguised Arbroath) where the gentry expect French invasion at any moment while the lower orders just get on with the job of surviving. The novel does contain some tragic episodes, notably the loss of a young fisherman at sea, but its portrait of the eccentric Laird of Monkbarns (the ‘antiquary’ of the title) and his rivalry with fellow amateur historian and neighbour Sir Arthur Wardour is genuinely entertaining. The novel kicks off with a comic scene on the High Street of Edinburgh which is the quickest start to any of the Waverley Novels.
Annals of the Parish by John Galt
The reputation of Ayrshire novelist John Galt (1779–1839) was obscured by that of Sir Walter Scott when the two men were alive, and the same is true today. Galt’s take on writing fiction was very different to Scott’s dashing approach: his humour is so dry it’s almost desiccated. Social comedies like The Ayrshire Legatees (a family go to London to claim their inheritance and by the time the city and its lawyers are done with them it is all spent) and The Entail are great fun, but Galt’s best-known work is the Annals, in which the Reverend Micah Balwhidder records the history of his village, Dalmailing, from 1760 to 1810. Balwhidder is a Pooterish kind of figure, who fails to see his own shortcomings but is essentially a benevolent, if somewhat bumbling, minister to his parishioners.
England, Their England by A.G. Macdonell
This is an excursion south of the Border. Macdonell (1895–1941), a journalist who fought on the Western Front during the First World War, wrote this delightful satire from the point of view of an outsider (a Scotsman obliged by the terms of his father’s will to reside in England) who is both puzzled and enchanted by English habits and values. Among its highlights are a wonderful paragraph on changing fashions in the titles of novels, and a famous description of a cricket match between a village eleven and a visiting team of London literati.
Magnus Merriman by Eric Linklater (1934)
From the same era, this novel tackles politics, pub culture and literary rivalries in Scotland in the 1930s, and is a rich mixture of satire, ribaldry and fine social observation, based in part on Linklater’s own experience as a (unsuccessful) Nationalist candidate in a by-election. Its cast of characters includes the formidable poet Hugh Skene, a caricature of Hugh MacDiarmid, who happily declared, ‘That’s me to a T.’
Murdo: The Life and Works by Iain Crichton Smith (2001)
Written during the 1980s and 1990s, this assemblage of stories and reflections is almost impossible to categorise. Murdo Macrae is a tragicomic figure, a struggling novelist and poet beset by political, religious and cultural hang-ups, a trial to his long-suffering wife Janet, a philosopher for whom existence is bizarre, inexplicable and yet also endlessly engaging. Murdo is the kind of man who goes to the library to borrow The Brothers Karamazov by Hugh Macleod (‘It’s about three brothers and their struggle for a croft’) and is exasperated by the librarian’s ignorance. His collected ‘Thoughts’ are modelled on those of Mao, but are infinitely funnier.