Coulter, Culture and Culter! by James Christie
“The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively > a refined understanding or appreciation of this.”
(Concise Oxford Dictionary. – 10th ed.)
“We are simply passing through history. This, this is history.”
(Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Coulter Burn flows down through the toun from Birthwood, the Border Fells and beyond. Unremarked across the road from the mill stands Culter Reading Room, instituted in 1838, built in 1888 and well-settled beneath an oak tree. It boasts a matching set of stained glass windows and its books were recently weeded and reshelved.
The Scottish section sits near one of those windows, and hosts a few old novels by John Buchan. One, called John Macnab, tells the tale of the titular character, Macnab: a fiction within a fiction, who wagered three Highland landowners he could take a stag, a salmon and a brace of grouse from their estates without being caught.
John Macnab was first published in 1925. A sequel, The Return of John Macnab, was written by Andrew Greig in 1996, but you won’t find it on this shelf.
Rather, you will see another novel, a second sequel. It was published in 2015, five years after Buchan’s copyright expired, for he died relatively young, in 1940.
It’s a slim volume, easily overlooked; but it tells the tale of a story stranger than the fiction within a fiction who (on paper at least) stole a Scottish icon greater than the Stone of Destiny. The book itself is the physical manifestation of an incredible human intellectual achievement conceived in a personal hell and inspired in a private library, not far away, with a shadowed semblance to Culter but lost in time, two decades away.
Remove the impossible and whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth; and the duality of tales beneath the book’s cover are indeed based on truth obscured by myth and legend, evoked via fiction and drawing on experiences which really took place.
So I tend to think the title’s quite suitable:
The Legend of John Macnab
I am its author, but to achieve its publication I had to pull myself out of my own personal hell – a sadistic course at a major Scottish publisher in 1990 which destroyed my ego and (or so I thought at the time) my future. I didn’t know I had Asperger’s syndrome then, which would have helped to explain the utter humiliation. The only way to redeem myself, I felt, was to have a book accepted for publication on merit, one of the hardest things in the world to do.
And though I have no clear memory of this, I somehow faced up to the fact of my own failure without excuse.
It’s ever so easy to play the blame game, the way some Scots blame Westminster for everything and refuse to accept their own failings. It’s far, far harder (as I did) to accept my own disgrace and set myself an impossible target in order to achieve personal redemption.
But that was the first intellectual achievement; or more precisely, the first tectonic grind of my character and personality against the escarpment of a life far more unforgiving than most people would like to acknowledge.
If, though, a man fixes on fighting his way up that escarpment, and he’s willing to take enough punishment along the way, fate might just let him find a route towards that fabled sunlit city through its tapestry of stories still on offer.
So, if culture be the manifestation of intellectual and artistic endeavour, I then came upon a private library (Culter’s predecessor) not ten miles from the Reading Room I work in today, but in another time, far away.
The library where I truly learnt my trade was the personal fief of the greatest Scots scholar of his day, then let fall to dust and dark.
It stood within a stately home by a great waterfall, a literal Wayne Manor suited to the Gotham darks of my subconscious. There, with self-taught academic precision, I filed and dusted and shelved the rare books, reordering the mind and works of that other scholar. I slowly rebuilt my own self-respect brick by brick as I did so, and by some subtle transference, bits and pieces of Victorian times came to life around me, like a window into the past.
And also, like librarianship’s version of the fictional archaeologist Indiana Jones, I came across the Spalding Club’s 1869 reprint of a lost and forgotten work.
It wasn’t quite the Ark of the Covenant, which Dr.Jones rediscovered in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but you’re close.
The Book of Deer is a forgotten Scots icon, predecessor to the Book of Kells, annotated with the first words in Scottish Gaelic. An icon greater, arguably, than the Stone of Destiny.
To find and read words and history like this was the nearest real life equivalent you’ll see to coming across the Ark and, like a Dark Age acolyte, I still understand much of its symbolism and value. But if the Ark, as described in Raiders, was “a radio for talking to God,” that splendid little book, a gospel illuminated manuscript written at the Abbey of Deer in the 9th century, was a window for looking at God.
Fate and other factors then intervened. The Return of John Macnab came out a year or two later and gave me an idea for a book of my own, and for its main protagonists: John Macnab, the fiction within a fiction and John Sandiman, a disillusioned Glasgow librarian who would take on Macnab’s mantle and steal the Book of Deer (by then shelved in Cambridge University Library) on the eve of Scotland’s first referendum in 1997.
But to write the Great Scottish Novel (!), tell the tale of the Book of Deer, do a PhD’s worth of research work, weave it into the history of Scotland from Columba to Donald Dewar, relate it to current events and fit all that into the format of a conventional paperback…
I’d rather have been thrown under the truck carrying the Ark to Cairo like Dr. Jones was; and in a literary sense, that’s just how it felt.
I sat down, unemployed, at the kitchen table at home in Roberton one summer’s day in 1996, and worked in hopelessness on Macnab for twelve years.
Thousands and thousands of hours. First on a paper pad, then an electronic typewriter, upgraded to a Canon word-processor, itself swapped for an early PC with a modem. Slowly, painstakingly, I picked up pebbles of insight into the Book (thank you John Evelyn, Henry Bradshaw, Whitley Stokes and Professor Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson) and as I put it at the time (seemingly humorously), “manacled myself screaming to the word-processor.”
I was not joking. It was true.
It was an intellectual achievement.
But putting all those aspects of Scotland’s culture coherently together? I couldn’t make it work!
In 2008, I unwisely submitted my manuscript to a Glasgow writers’ group and the verdicts (again in literary terms) were worse than the hanging, drawing and quartering Mel Gibson went through at the end of Braveheart.
I’ve never complained about the need for criticism – every writer must take that – but that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt. It does.
And with that, my Macnab and all my work was consigned to the back of the computer and the bottom of the archive box, and there it stayed.
But with deepest irony, I was then swept up into the quest and carnival which led to a trek across America and the publication of Dear Miss Landau, the manuscript of which was accepted by Chaplin Books on merit.
The incredible effort I’d made to master the multiple aspects of Macnab had sculpted writing skills which were by then ready to go to work on Dear Miss Landau. Which they did.
And that, I reasoned, was the secret of my success: spend twenty years in the salt mines, go to hell and back, then become an overnight success.
So Dear Miss Landau swept me up in acclaim while Macnab stayed lost in its box.
For seven years.
The night of the General Election, May 2015. I was at my publisher’s book launch in London’s South Bank Centre while the fate of the nation was being decided and (from my perspective) the second Scottish referendum had been won by the No voters the year before. With that and the election, interest in politics was running at fever pitch, and a thought had occurred to me.
“I’ve got this old thing,” I said to my publisher. “It’s got lots of politics and history and referendum stuff. It doesn’t work, but maybe we can make some money out of it.”
“Okay, send it down to me.”
“Okay, but it doesn’t work.”
I levered the old Word file out of the back of the computer and sent it on its way, expecting to hear no more.
I was therefore more than a little surprised, four days later, to receive an email from her essentially saying Macnab was “too good to be forgotten” and “just needed a bit of revising and tightening.”
Against all the odds, all the intellectual work was paying off, and after twenty-two years the second sequel to John Buchan’s John Macnab was about to become a reality.
But it was never easy. I worked eleven hours straight on revisions the last night. Not thirty feet from where I’d started all those years before. I sometimes think the creative effort should have killed me, and that it very nearly did.
Amazingly, the manuscript came in at about 75,000 words. The standard commercial length. I look at some sentences sometimes, and reflect on the years of work it took to hone them down.
The Legend of John Macnab is the only book in modern times essentially to publicize the Book of Deer, a pivotal part of Scotland’s culture and history. Although I didn’t physically bring it back across the border from Cambridge, there are actually some parallels between myself and Indiana Jones. I am a rare books librarian, self-taught. He was an archaeologist; and by accident or design we both crossed the world, discovered historic icons and brought word or fact of same back to our homelands’ authorities.
And the funny thing is, very often nobody notices.
Dr. Jones brought the Ark to America, and it was locked away and forgotten in Area 51.
I brought word of the Book of Deer back to Scotland, and nobody paid any attention.
But I climbed the escarpment and proved myself beyond question, and that is enough for me.
Among other things, a nation’s culture comprises stories not part of the norm – the hopes and fears and dreams beneath the mask of the everyday. The obsessive quests driven by hatred, ambition, desire – or all three. The vital spark which drives some to stand out and prove themselves. The million-to-one chances and near-misses which lead to that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Then they come home, and there is no one to hear their stories.
These days, quite unofficially, I take care of Culter library. The last of the rare book cataloguers, who rediscovered the Book of Deer and crossed the world to meet his
Hollywood film star on Sunset Boulevard one Sunday morning in March.
Coulter burn still flows down through the toun from Birthwood, the Fells and Broughton beyond. John Buchan used to visit his grandparents there, just over the hill. Now, scarce seven miles away, the author of John Macnab’s second sequel tends the library Buchan may well once have visited.
Stories such as these, of hope, intellect, passion and achievement of the impossible against incredible odds, are what make up our culture. The warp and weft of myth and legend which flow over, above and around the kitchen sink reality of the everyday give our culture form, depth and texture.
It is only by telling these stories, though, that said riches are preserved.
So look upon the books on Culter’s forgotten shelves. Their stories still ring true.
And the librarian, too, has much to say to you.
James Christie 28th March 2017
This section: James Christie Blog
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