Published: June 1, 2008 By

[1] Teaching in rural Ohio, I have been surprised by the number of students who become pregnant, defying the current trend towards delaying motherhood. It is easy for those of us educating these students to shake our heads sadly, reflecting on the premature responsibilities and lost opportunities we imagine they will experience. Yet I am also impressed by how many of them, with or without the support of the father, choose to have their babies, return to the classroom within days, and graduate on time, posing for photographs with the baby nestled in one arm and the diploma tucked under the other. Relying on a supportive family network, they scarcely seem to skip a beat. Scotland in the 1920s and ’30s may seem to be worlds away from southwest Ohio, but an examination of the literary treatment of single motherhood by avant garde writers of the Scottish Renaissance provides an alternate way to understand the choices and experiences of these young women. Nan Shepherd, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and Neil Gunn portray unmarried mothers unsentimentally but sympathetically, denouncing the cruelty of an institutionally imposed moral stigma.

[2] Early twentieth-century Scottish attitudes towards unmarried mothers developed over centuries. According to Leah Leneman and Rosalind Mitchison, the disciplinary arm of the Church of Scotland, the Kirk Sessions, used both civil and church laws during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to punish “sexual irregularities,” such as illegitimacy (41). Until dissent and a more mobile population undermined its authority, the Kirk was a “more or less monolithic structure,” and a reduced illegitimacy rate in the 1780s suggests that it “was able to contain sexual expression” (45, 49). Following the Act of Union in 1707, Scottish women were also subject to the 1624 “Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murthering of Bastard Children,” which presumed that a mother who concealed the death of an illegitimate child must have murdered it. Josephine McDonagh writes that by the late eighteenth century, the law was increasingly considered ineffective and inhumane, but it had shaped attitudes: concealing not only a death but the pregnancy itself was now seen as “evidence of an intention to murder the child” (3). The repeal of the law in 1803 was followed by a series of acts ameliorating the legal vulnerability of single mothers. However, the prevailing moral code, administered from the pulpit, still left women with few choices. Concealed or not, pregnancy before marriage led to shame, scorn, and suspicion.

[3] In 1858, the Registrar General released the results of a study measuring illegitimacy rates in Scotland. According to Andrew Blaikie, two aspects of the “regional bastardy indices” jolted bourgeois complacency. Firstly, the revelation that Scotland’s rate exceeded England’s suggested that Scottish morality was not as unimpeachable as previously thought. Secondly, the indices showed that “bastardy was predominantly a rural phenomenon,” shaking the comfortable belief in urban immorality and rural rectitude (11). Nineteenth-century Scots reacted with typical Victorian vigor. Their “impulse to measure,” to understand the nature of rapidly changing social conditions, combined with an “infusion of moral judgement” to make illegitimacy a central concern (10). A solution to the perceived moral decay had to be found, and the Kirk was again willing to assume the task. Blaikie argues, however, that in encouraging a “traditional family, a well-constructed myth of a past that never existed . . .their social policies [were] subsequently doomed” (61-62). While urban rates of children born to unmarried mothers fell, rural illegitimacy continued to rise into the twentieth century, resulting in only a slow overall decline (16).

[4] What bourgeois Scotland saw as a problem may not have been seen as such within rural communities. While the middle class made a public ritual of courtship, delaying or hiding sexual activity and illegitimacy, the rural working class did the opposite (Blaikie 41). Middle class lovers walked out together; country lovers took to their beds. As a result, pregnant brides were “the norm” (Blaikie 213). Even when mothers remained unmarried, farmers and crofters considered children an economic asset and so accepted their pregnant daughters back into the home. Mothers and children, therefore, were not necessarily outcasts and victims (25, 215). Such behavior did not “conform to the respectable stereotype,” and, as Blaikie points out, the high illegitimacy rates that so shocked the church may have resulted from “country courtship patterns, ” a value system that accepted unmarried parenthood as a positive way to form a family (35, 219).

[5] Published in 1993, Blaikie’s research supports arguments Willa Muir posits in her 1936 essay, Mrs Grundy in Scotland. Muir defines Mrs Grundy as an English symbol of “social forces” that act as a “valiant guardian of the status quo” (7, 13). Transplanted to Scotland, she has pooled her energy with the Kirk’s and evolved into “Mrs MacGrundy” (24). Mrs MacGrundy discourages creativity as well as independent and radical thinking. She personifies bourgeois respectability and comes to life as the church social workers who, Blaikie claims, misunderstood the realities of rural sexuality and community standards. In order to illustrate Mrs MacGrundy’s destructive power, Muir describes the same traditional features of rural courtship as Blaikie: bridal pregnancy, economic value of children, and lack of stigma attached to illegitimacy (117-119). “Must we keep Mrs MacGrundy?” Muir asks, concluding with a call to action, “a reevaluation of the function of women in the world.” If Mrs MacGrundy is not deposed as the moral arbiter of Scottish thought and behavior, she “may persuade people that she is the national spirit of Scotland” (186-187).

[6] Mrs MacGrundy’s disapproval of rural community values had, Muir maintains, literary consequences. “The vigorous Rabelaisian life of the country-side . . . had to creep into print with deprecating sickly smiles,” she writes, referring to the late-nineteenth-century fictional depiction of rural life, dismissed by early twentieth-century critics as the “kailyard [cabbage patch] school” (165). While more recent scholarship acknowledges the cultural elitism that informs much criticism of kailyard literature, its sentimental and historically inaccurate representations of Scotland are seen as powerful tools in the construction of national identity (see, for example, Gifford, Dunnigan and MacGillivray 324; Wade 51-54; Cook 1053-1073). According to Ian Campbell, kailyard is a “packaged environment,” a contract between writer and reader which encourages reader passivity and discourages independent thinking (Kailyard 116). In the same vein, Richard Cook argues that kailyard narratives “[encode] a distance between . . . reader and text” (1059). The reader is an “outsider peering at an attractive museum piece” (1061). Cook also echoes Campbell’s notion of a “packaged environment” by emphasizing “boundaries” “contain[ment],” and “limits,” particularly in relation to women: the “construction of gender . . . leaves women no room to move. They are defined by and restricted to the home” (1063-64, 1066-67). Crossing the boundary, he continues, causes “community crises” (1068). Kailyard fiction preserves the myth of urban immorality by portraying the city as a chamber of horrors, where women who leave the domestic sphere will meet their “Ruin.” At the same time, Campbell points out, “Ruin [is] flinched from in a word” (Kailyard 14). Kailyard’s women are “ever baby-bearing,” but they are respectably married, part of its “bourgeois fantasy of merrie auld Scotland” (Cook 1059). In the context of Blaikie’s study, this “myth” or “fantasy” clearly involves ignoring the statistical reality that had worried Scotland since 1858, denying country courtship patterns and premarital pregnancy, and instead promoting family values that may never have existed.

[7] Much Scottish fiction of the early twentieth century is aimed at tearing the cabbages out of the kailyard, exposing its idealistic and misleading picture of rural life. Campbell argues that a new generation of writers uses aspects of the kailyard to subvert it, to “resume” “the process of synthesizing a view of Scotland.” The “limitations of the kailyard” are then “overcome,” and the literature can provide readers with “the possibility of creating a flexible synthetic view of the country in a wide range of audience response” (Kailyard 100). Campbell’s language recalls Muir’s: the kailyard, like Mrs MacGrundy, encourages passivity, conformity, and limited thinking while discouraging creativity, independence, radicalism, and flexibility. The kailyard is a “state of mind” (113), just as Mrs MacGrundy has elbowed her way into the Scottish national psyche. Campbell describes a resumption while Muir calls for a reevaluation; both words imply renewal, and the writers Campbell discusses include those associated with the Scottish Renaissance—Muir’s contemporaries. Although Campbell does not closely examine the Kirk’s role in the emergence of kailyard literature, his argument suggests that Scottish Renaissance writers liberate Scotland from Mrs MacGrundy. One way they accomplish this is, as Muir suggests, “to [reevaluate] the function of women” by placing them and their sexual behavior center stage, focusing frequently on premarital pregnancy.

[8] Single motherhood is just one of the many themes shared by Nan Shepherd’s The Quarry Wood and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair. In the villages of Wester Cairns and Kinraddie, respectively, country courtship patterns survive, but the traditional interlocking of rural sexual behavior and farm economics is disappearing. In The Quarry Wood, seventeen-year-old Madge, inverting kailyard mythology, comes by her “ruin” in the village and tries to escape rural limitations by running after her lover to Glasgow, only to become one of the city’s anonymous “outcasts” (178). Shepherd does not romanticize country life and is realistic about the difficulties the city might present to a single mother and child. Aunt Sally, abandoned by her husband, admits to a “venturesome” life in Glasgow, to which the narrator adds, “For venturesome readbetrayed, persecuted, forsaken, hampered, and undaunted.” Sally only survives because her child dies, which (unthreatened by the 1624 Act) she sees as “a good thing,” and because of her “hearty capacity for life” (40,182). It is not clear, though, why Madge, never one to hide her interest in boys, feels compelled to hide her pregnancy since the villagers are not particularly critical when they mistakenly suspect Martha Ironside of having secretly given birth to a child. When Mrs Davie questions her about it, she does so “genially” and “cheerily.” After Martha denies being Robin’s mother, Mrs Davie pushes her to eat: “She would have been just as hospitable had Martha owned to the child” (174). She expresses no shock; nor does she speak of sin and shame. Later, Martha’s mother remarks that their neighbors are “happy’s a blake amon’ traicle” (a beetle in treacle) when hashing over other peoples’ lives (176). Gossiping in Wester Cairns simply offers the same short-term thrill as bingeing on sugar. Even though Martha is a teacher, the village seems to accept making love to a “lad” in the Quarry Wood as the latest intriguing example of country courtship in action.

[9] This reaction is not surprising as, judging by the number of illegitimate children Emmeline Ironside takes into her home, many in Wester Cairns do their courting in bed. Year after year she brings home babies with unhappy results. The children add to the disorder of Emmeline’s household, irking her biological daughter, Martha, and when Madge repeats the cycle, Martha declares that she has “had enough of illegitimate bairns” (169). Emmeline’s motive in fostering all these children is financial: she is paid to take them in and would “undertake any expedition for gain” (15). This, and her husband’s realization that the children represent a net loss for the family, suggests that children no longer carry economic value on a farm. Furthermore, Geordie makes no effort to get them to help him in the fields. Any economic advantage is Emmeline’s illusion. The children in Wester Cairns keep coming, an accepted element of village life, but they only add to both emotional and financial instability.

[10] Sunset Song, part I of the Gibbon trilogy, is also set in a scattered agricultural community. Kinraddie’s lovers, like Wester Cairns’, observe rural traditions, and illegitimacy is common: John Gordon, for example, has “two-three queans in trouble and him but barely eighteen years old” (30). “Harvest madness” affects the community, and Ewan Taverndale and Sarah Sinclair are “seen coming out of the wood above the Upperhill” (78-79). Kirsty Strachan is a pregnant bride; her “bairn, a bit quean, was born before seven months was past” (21). The reader learns of these stories through “the speak,” the voice of village gossip. Like Wester Cairns’ hearsay, the speak is unreliable, infuriating Will Guthrie when he is suspected of having got his girl pregnant, but even if some lovers’ trysts are figments of community imagination, many Kinraddie couples do enjoy themselves in hidden corners of the countryside. Avoiding the clacking tongues, however, is impossible: “You might hide with your lass on the top of Ben Nevis and have your bit pleasure there, but ten to one when you got up to go home there’d be Mistress Munro or some claik of her kidney, near sniggering herself with delight at your shame” (79). The word “shame” recurs throughout A Scots Quair like a whispering chorus, “Shame, Shame, Shame,” drilling the notion of respectability into the minds of the people. Chris Guthrie is troubled by it. Tolerant herself of Ewan’s dalliance with Sarah Sinclair, she ponders the senseless hypocrisy of the community: “the old ways of sinning and winning, having your own pleasure and standing affronted at other folk having theirs, seemed often daft to her”(129). At the same time, Mistress Munro’s “delight” suggests that, as in The Quarry Wood, Kinraddie gossips out of a desire for entertainment rather than spite. It is fun to talk about courtship, delicious to feel a shiver of shock, but nobody is truly ostracized or expelled from the community. Scandal functions as the village soap opera and does not threaten the “warm communal life” of Kinraddie (Campbell “Introduction” xiv).

[11] In Cloud Howe, however, Gibbon moves the action to the mill town of Segget, a community that is far less cohesive. As in Wester Cairns and Kinraddie, aspects of country courtship survive, but here the gossip is more malicious, exacerbated by class distinctions. As Hanne Tange notes, “Segget voices are individualized and competitive” (255). The annual Segget Show, a cross between village fête and Highland Games, is a throwback to the town’s rural past. The people physically cross the town borders and congregate in “a great ley park with a fringe of trees, the hills up above” (325). Every year, men and women go “home from the Segget Show in their pairs” (338). Chris Guthrie (now Chris Colquohoun, wife of the minister) feels old and wistfully longs for an irretrievable past, to “be young and be held in men’s arms, and seem bonny to them and look at them sly, not know next hour who would take you home, and not know who would kiss you or what they would do” (336-337). Initially it seems as if the community response to this coupling is similar to that in Kinraddie:

A farmer went out in his barn, early next morning, and what did he see? Two childes and two lasses asleep in his hay. And he was sore shocked and went back for his wife, and she came and looked and was shocked as well, and if they’d had a camera they’d have taken photographs, they were so delighted and shocked to see two queans that they knew in such a like way, they’d be able to tell the story about them all the years that they lived on earth; and make it a tit-bit in hell forbye. (339)

The humorous repetition shows that they are definitely not seriously “shocked.” Again, this is entertainment; the shock is titillating, causing “delight,” and the joke is that the farmer and his wife, not at all self-righteous, are planning for their own lives in hell. Presumably they can recall their own youthful barnyard activities with pleasure.

[12] Gibbon continues to develop the theme of bucolic courtship by introducing Cis Brown, who, after a moorland walk with Dod Cronin, far from the jute mills, “the low smoulder of Segget,” experiences the “quivering” emotions of her first “shy, unaccustomed kiss” (340). The scene is timeless and sweet, but Gibbon immediately undermines it through the contrasting tale of Else Queen, Chris’s maid. Irritated because her boyfriend has vanished, Else goes home with a local farmer and elder of the church, Dalziel of the Meiklebogs, who rapes her. The event blots out the pastoral idyll of the Segget Show:

He louped on her as a crawly beast loups, something all hair and scales from the wall; or a black old monkey; she bashed him hard, right in the eye, just once, then he had her. . . . his hands upon her were like iron clamps. She cried You’re tearing my frock, he half loosed her, he looked shy as ever, but he breathed like a beast.
Ah well, we’ll take the bit thing off, Else. (342-343)

Else recalls later that she “wept in his bed”; nevertheless, inexplicably even to herself, she allows this animal of a man to court her and eventually moves in as housekeeper (369). When she bears Dalziel’s child, he disowns it and refuses “to register the child as his” (387). She continues to work “outdoor and indoor,” the baby alongside her, until finally, sickened by his cruelty to his horse, she returns to her parents’ house in another village (385). This step would have been typical of rural behavior since, according to Blaikie, “Unmarried mothers appear to have relied heavily on kin, especially their parents” (220). Else’s experience is sordid and sad in many ways, but never pathetic. She retains her dignity. She fights back during the rape, excels as a strong farm laborer and efficient housekeeper, cares for her baby, bosses Dalziel around, and moves out the minute she decides she has had enough.

[13] Through the community’s response to Else’s behavior, Gibbon takes aim at both the Kirk and the class system. Despite her resilience, she remains an outsider and a maid, and from the moment she leaves the Manse, she is the subject of Segget’s prejudicial gossip. Even though Dalziel is a church official and Else just the latest in a succession of his housekeepers to have become pregnant, the town ignores his religious hypocrisy, seizing instead on Else’s social class and apparent lack of embarrassment: “No, no you didn’t blamehim overmuch, but she fairly must be an ill tink, that Else Queen. And you’d look at her hard the next time that you met, not a bit of shame she would show as she passed” (384). This is not mere entertainment, not simple snickering for the “delight” of the snickerer. Deemed by all to be the guilty party, Else is scornfully dismissed as an “ill tink” or gypsy. Even worse, apparently comfortable with the values of country courtship, she shows no shame although the town is trying to force it out of her with its disapproving stares. As a mill town, Segget has more significant class diversity than Kinraddie. Besides the minister, the doctor, and the teacher, the citizens include shopkeepers; craftsmen; a dissipated young mill owner; and his discontented workers, known disparagingly as “spinners.” The community is in transition from agriculture to industry, and the class tensions are drawn tightly, symbolized by the division between New and Old Towns. Country courtship in this context offends conventional morality, and Else is shunned because she is a woman and has lower social status than Dalziel. Although Chris welcomes her back to the Manse, the baby is exiled to its grandparents at Fordoun.

[14] The denouement of Cis Brown’s youthful love affair with Dod Cronin provokes a similar response, complicated by Cis’s role as a student. After learning of her pregnancy, she and Dod marry. The hasty wedding fits country courtship patterns, but again, the town pounces:

But then, when you met with her out in the street, and looked, and heard the news from the Manse, she and Dod Cronin to be married in a week—your throat went dry, you went into the Arms and had a bit dram and swore at the bitch, all the folk said she was a foul creature, but they said it with something catching their throats, they’d been proud of Cis, all Segget had been, and here she was showing herself in that way, no better than that tink Else Queen at the Manse. (435)

The town tears apart Cis’s reputation too, but with less ease than it had with Else’s. Cis is the local academic star, so in becoming pregnant, she has betrayed Segget. In order to come up with the appropriately damning epithets, the gossips have to loosen their tongues with alcohol at the pub, but the words still come haltingly, almost as if they are trying hard to convince themselves that Cis is “no better than that tink” because they know that that is what they are supposed to think.

[15] The townspeople’s reluctance to malign Cis suggests that they are under pressure from the Church and their own desire for middle-class respectability, both of which Gibbon attacks through the school master’s wife. When Mrs Geddes visits the Manse for dinner, “calling it lunch of course, she was so genteel,” she asks Chris if she will help with her “social work.” Chris bluntly refuses, explaining that she was brought up on a croft and knows “what a nuisance we thought some folk, visiting and prying and blithering about socials, doing everything to help us, or so they would think—except to get out and get on with the work!” (365). Apparently agreeing with Blaikie about the ineffectiveness of church social programs, Chris invites a lecturer from the city to speak on birth control at the Manse. Childless herself, Mrs Geddes wants to make sure that people who can ill afford them keep having babies: she refuses to attend. The community is behind her and turns on Chris: “all the folk were against it at once, except the tink bitch the minister had married” (455-456). Mrs Geddes and the gossiping Segget townsfolk are the agents of Mrs MacGrundy.

[16] Three characters resist the MacGrundy mindset. Aik Ogilvie, the joiner, astutely observes that the gossips had previously held Cis up as a paragon of brains and virtue, as “clean as they might have been” (435). Now that she has fallen and is no better than anyone else, she has let the town down, and Segget denounces her (in contrast to Wester Cairns’ reaction when it believes its academic success, Martha, has had a baby). Cloud Howe predates Mrs Grundy in Scotland, but Aik could have been reading Willa Muir: “The fearful thrill of contemplating one’s own iniquity easily passes over into a thrill at the iniquity of others” (47). Segget’s gravedigger, John Muir, also sympathizes with Cis and Dod, placing their sexual activity in the context of the cycle of life:

God knew there wasn’t much shame in the thing, a lot overrated this bedding with a quean—you worked yourself up and got damned little, and where did it end then, all said and done? Down here with the clay and the grass up above, be you rich be you poor, unwedded like Cis, or as bonny as Mrs Colquohoun was bonny. (436)

Muir, digging at his graves, scales down the significance of Cis and Dod’s shotgun marriage by seeing it as part of the natural order of things, a natural order that supercedes the class system. Lastly, Chris remains as alert as she was in Kinraddie to the joys of courtship and the cruelty of gossip. She describes Cis’s unplanned pregnancy as “a tale so old—oh, old as the Howe, everlasting near as the granite hills. This thing that brought men and women together, to bring new life, to seek new birth, on and on since the world began” (431). To Chris, courtship, love, sex, and childbirth are part of nature. They endure, unchanged throughout history, as solid and ancient as the “granite hills.” These are minority views, however, and Segget offers no moral or financial support to Cis and Dod. Whereas in an agricultural economy their new young family might have been absorbed into the community, the stigma is now so strong, the tongues so sharp, and the economy so altered, that they must leave Segget for the city of Dundon. Country courtship, the “tale so old,” is as irretrievable for the community as it is for Chris.

[17] Mrs MacGrundy and her disciples cause even greater damage in Neil Gunn’s 1926 short story, “Birdsong at Evening,” which, like Cloud Howe, takes place in a small town. The Mrs Geddes figure here is Miss Grainger, “an elderly maiden lady, an active worker for the Church Militant” (140). She directs her wrath at a young librarian, Miss Storey, who gives birth after having hidden her pregnancy since arriving in the town just eight months previously. Miss Grainger spits out her words:

“The wanton!” came in cutting feminine tones. “She with her college training and all her orders! Corrupting [. . .] ” . . . .
It’s just what I warned them. And that’s for the vicar! And she won’t open her mouth, the hussy! And even before she came here she must[ . . .]” The high-pitched voice choked. “I don’t know how she could have had the face!” (140)

While the Segget gossips have catches in their throats because they are half-reluctant to utter their words, Miss Grainger is choking because she can’t get them out fast enough. She is so affronted by Miss Storey’s having fooled the community, so certain that she has known all along, so desperate to say, “I told you so,” even to the vicar, that she can barely form sentences. Miss Storey is a “hussy” and a “wanton,” and probably only Miss Grainger’s carefully constructed gentility—she “mince[s]” as she walks away—prevents her from using even more offensive language. As the more sympathetic Mrs Gill says, “Miss Grainger’s hot on it,” making sure that the news is “all the talk” (141).

[18] Her campaign to expel Miss Story from respectable, middle-class circles is deadly. By moonlight, Miss Storey takes her baby to the river: “Her hood slipped from her hair. No sound came from her, and like some fateful figure in a preordained tragedy, in whom emotion and life had played out their parts, she turned to the grey-glooming pool” (143). That she is a character in a “preordained tragedy” emphasizes that this is a drama that has been played out many times, her “hooded form” lifting her out of the 1920s. She could be from any age. As Willa Muir writes, “Girls murdered their illegitimate children rather than face the ordeal of being pilloried.” In fact, “so common was infanticide that as late as 1751 . . . the General Assembly had to order the Act against the concealment of pregnancy to be read from every pulpit. This awful authority of the kirk session endured” (49-50). It continues to reverberate into the 1920s. Shaped by both her religious heritage and the lingering impact of the 1624 Act, Miss Grainger vilifies the secrecy as much as the pregnancy, thereby doubling Miss Storey’s sin. The baby is saved, but its mother dies, persecuted by Miss Grainger’s verbal pillory. As in Segget, Mrs. MacGrundy has triumphed, and Miss Storey knows that the town will never accept her as a single mother.

[19] Concluding his trilogy with Grey Granite, Lewis Grassic Gibbon creates a complex picture of single motherhood in an industrial city of the 1930s. Brief references to two minor characters imply that pregnancy outside marriage occurs commonly among the metal workers: “Norman had got a tart into trouble,” and Bob’s “quean was “two months gone already” (526, 648). More significant to the plot is Meg Watson, the kitchen maid at the boarding house run by Chris (now a widow and herself a single mother). Meg, like Madge and Miss Storey, hides her pregnancy for months. When her brother Alick finds out, class prejudices color his angry reaction, and he is sure Chris’s son, Ewan, has fathered the child: “Where did he do it, the bastard? Up in his toff’s room in Windmill Place?” (605) His suspicion of Ewan is not unreasonable. The powerful stereotype of the educated “toff” taking advantage of the uneducated maid is rooted in fact: church records document a high incidence of illegitimate births among women in domestic service (Leneman and Mitchison 58; Blaikie 215). Alick’s assumptions, though, are mistaken because the father is Steve Selden, the Communist organizer who lodges at the Watsons’. Ironically, Meg’s own prejudices might have warned her to be wary. Earlier, she has been appalled at the thought of “trying to land a Red in the house, maybe rape you and gut you in the middle of the night” (502). But it appears that Selden does not live up to this demonization. When Alick confronts him, he insists that he did not know Meg was pregnant and that if he had, “he’d have done the decent thing.” The men witnessing this take Selden’s side: “those daft Bulgars the Reds were as scared and respectable about bairning a quean as though they went to the kirk three times a Sunday and said grace afore every meal, there was hardly a one but was doucely married” (615). They are buying into a different stereotype, but they are right: Selden immediately marries Meg, and when she is unwell, embezzles money from the Party to care for her, putting her welfare before his political allegiance (615).

[20] Social, political, and sexual forces collide in this story of Ewan, the educated activist; Selden, the Communist organizer; Alick, the hotheaded foundry worker; and Meg, the young maid. The characters inGrey Granite are trying to cope, barely understanding a rapidly changing public world that imposes its confusion on the personal. Ewan and his schoolteacher girlfriend, Ellen, both educated and active in the Communist Party, conduct a relationship bearing little resemblance to the country courtship pattern probably followed by Ewan’s crofting ancestors. Rather than romping in the hay on first acquaintance, they discuss class and politics and get around to consummating their relationship only after Ellen realizes that Ewan has been sexually abused by police in a holding cell, a “Horror” that haunts him (609, 625). She first buys a wedding ring, in order to pass as newlyweds at an inn. Then, having educated herself about birth control because “there were thousands of unwanted babies already,” she steels herself to buy condoms in the “little shop with the ghastly books and the half-hid door” (555, 622). Next she gets bus tickets and, significantly, takes Ewan out to the countryside, perhaps trying to reconnect with his rural roots and create a more traditional courtship. Indeed, they pass Kinraddie, scene of his parents’ young love, but Ewan convinces himself it was “long ago” and “nothing to do with him” (624). Even so, Ellen successfully orchestrates the affair while Chris, waiting at home, is “hop[ing] to God they’d at least been careful” and used that birth control (630). As they sneak between bedrooms at the boarding house, Ewan and Ellen are deaf to the disapproving clucks of a fellow lodger—an aspiring Mrs Geddes; instead, class and politics destroy their relationship. Despite her Communist sympathies, Ellen reacts in “blank, dead silence” when Ewan takes a job as a “labourer” (641). When she confesses that she has acquiesced to pressure to leave the party, without much regret since she has become disillusioned and wants a secure domestic life, Ewan brutally breaks off the relationship, accusing her of prostituting herself in her desire for a bourgeois lifestyle. They have ignored the pressures that chase away Cis and destroy Miss Storey, but divided loyalties, class conflict, and the painful frustrations of political activism prove too much.

[21] Amidst the pain, however, one positive development gleams brightly: Ellen has avoided an unwanted pregnancy that would have cost her her job. When she asks, “Ewan, will you put this on for me,” she is speaking of the wedding ring, but the reader can infer that she means the condom too (629). Tange argues that A Scots Quair “falls short . . . on the visionary level,” and “offers little prospect of future regeneration” (262). However, Gibbon (to whose memory Muir dedicates Mrs Grundy in Scotland) does envision a changed role for women. The “grey granite” city is not “solid and ancient” as Chris’s “granite hills.” It is a society in flux. Out of that instability a new woman is born, sexually active, but free to pack her bags and earn her own living.

[22] Writing in the mid-thirties, Gibbon offers a model based on increased access to birth control. Gunn and Shepherd, however, present another alternative: unmarried parenthood by choice. In “Birdsong at Evening,” a “bachelor clerk of sixty” adopts Miss Storey’s baby (132). Hoping to avert the “vast silence and aimlessness of retirement,” Philip Pope takes up the study of birds (134). He seems to have practiced the lifelong celibacy implicit in his surname, but when he meets the librarian, he is bewitched by her “mesmeric eyes” 136). Fed by Miss Storey, his burgeoning knowledge of ornithology elicits feelings Mr Pope has never known. As spring blossoms, he experiences a psychological awakening, described in sexually loaded terms: he hears “ecstasy” in the bird song, he “glow[s]” with “secretive pleasure” (137). He is so energized by watching the springtime rituals of the birds that “the wonder is he did not . . . expire from over-hasty acceleration of his untried heart. Life was a debauch” (137). Gunn piles on the images: Mr Pope “lick[s] his lips when Miss Storey refers him to poetry about cuckoos and leaves the library, “his mind . . . aflame” (138). After learning of Miss Storey’s baby, he spends a Keatsian evening listening to nightingales, and it is then he prevents her from drowning herself and her child, “putting an arm around her and drawing her up against his heart (144). Already ill, Miss Storey does not survive, but claiming he is “in loco parentis,” a phrase that “pulse[s]with life,” Mr Pope adopts the child (145). The extremity of his emotions—his “divine agony” on reading Tennyson and his spirit’s trip “Lethe-wards ” as he hears nightingales—are comedic. But Mr Pope is not simply a target of the narrator’s more sophisticated sense of humor. While his transformation is real to him, he knows he is slightly ridiculous and is capable of “self-mocking” laughter as he formally redefines his world (146). The name at the top of his notebooks, previously “ever-bare, inadequate,” is now “Philip Pope and Son.” Rather than arid solitude, his “vision” of his remaining years promises emotional fullness: “dark and mysterious blood currents,” “wonder,” “gratitude,” “sorrow,” “joy,” and “love” (145). “Birdsong at Evening” offers a non-traditional family as resolution. In gender, age, and sexual experience, Pope departs radically from traditional models of parenthood. It is, after all, only recently that single men and women have been able to adopt children.

[23] Nan Shepherd’s protagonist, Martha Ironside, also chooses single parenthood as a way to fulfillment. Martha tackles her education with the same intensity and single mindedness as Philip Pope does his bird watching. Like Gunn, Shepherd employs a “sexual metaphor for Martha’s pursuit of knowledge” (Carter 52). She “pant[s],” she is “in a jealous agony,” and she “intrigue[s] like any lover” (50, 93). In both Philip Pope and Martha Ironside, the hungers of the body sublimate themselves into the hungers of the mind. As celibate as Pope, Martha, nevertheless, undergoes a coming-of-age process involving three men: Luke, a married doctor, who when he kisses her thinks she is an insubstantial phantom; Andy, a serial kisser, who boasts that he has added her to his list of conquests; and Roy, a colonial farmer, who assumes he can colonize her too. Given this trio, it is hardly surprising when Martha famously asks herself, “Am I such a slave as that? Dependent on a man to complete me!” and declares, “I can be my own creator” (184). Although she values her agricultural inheritance, she flirts only briefly with the idea of returning to the land like Chris Guthrie (204). The legacy she draws on instead is the money and house left to her by Aunt Josephine (herself a new, positive model of single womanhood). As her “own creator,” Martha turns fantasy gossip into reality by choosing to make baby Robin her own, a virgin birth that ironically recalls Luke’s vision of her as Mary in Rossetti’s annunciation (77). The decision empowers her: “She had no idea that she could be so masterful . . . . Her old diffidence was gone. The current of her life was running strong and sure” (197). Like Philip Pope, she plans to educate her son and can imagine a future with all of life’s unpredictable joy and sorrow: “another game for the gods was ahead of her” (206). Single motherhood in The Quarry Wood is not a sinful aberration, but part of the “game” of life.

[24] Critics have sometimes read the end of The Quarry Wood as a betrayal of feminist values. As Roderick Watson observes, it is possible to see Martha’s choice as “a return to women’s traditional place,” and Margery Palmer McCulloch has noted that she “seems to lose the will to pursue her intellectual ambitions after university” (Watson 418; McCulloch 368). One can detect a disapproving tone in these comments similar to the typical response to a student pregnancy. Realistically, however, Martha’s ambitions have never gone far beyond teaching. Gillian Carter points out that she “chooses to remain in the domestic world of her home and take on the upbringing of the baby Robin, yet retains her Anglicised speech and her work as a primary school teacher in the public world” (54). This synthesis of the public and private is that of every contemporary working mother. Martha’s decision to be an unmarried, working mother before World War I is a radical choice, but it also affirms the legitimacy of traditional rural values. Disarming the voice of the gossipers and exercising the increased choices of an emancipated woman, she restores single motherhood as an acceptable way to make a family.

[25] While “transgressive behaviors are disciplined and contained” within kailyard fiction (Cook 1064), Shepherd’s, Gibbon’s, and Gunn’s work validates Ian Campbell’s claim that in fiction of the Scottish Renaissance, the “limitations of the kailyard have beem [sic] overcome” (Kailyard 100). In acknowledging premarital sex as a natural, if messy, reality, they burst open the “packaged environment,” and a more complex Scotland emerges as surely as Aunt Josephine’s chickens run freely across the fenceless boundaries of her garden (Shepherd 4). The characters discussed here (and others, such as the residents of Shepherd’s The Weatherhouse, Meg Menzies in Gibbon’s “Smeddum,” and Martha Williamson in Gunn’s “The Tax-Gatherer”) rescue women from the “lifeless propriety’ of a fenced-in life (Shepherd 4). They demand more of readers, giving them moral ambiguity and the possibility of alternatives, the “flexible view of the Scots” to which Campbell refers.

[26] Using a metaphor completely opposed to the notion of flexibility, Willa Muir writes that “the Reformation was a kind of spiritual strychnine of which Scotland took an overdose. Instead of acting as a tonic on the individual Scot, it cramped him in a tetanic rigor. . . . And that cramped stiffness was perpetuated in the tradition which I have called Mrs MacGrundy” (165). Shepherd, Gibbon, and Gunn relax that “rigor,” attacking the MacGrundy alliance between the Church and middle-class respectability, showing how it controlled thought, persecuted individuals, and prescribed strict codes of behavior. Against a background of urbanization and shifting class demographics, they depict narrow-mindedness overpowering tolerance and country courtship losing viability in an industrial economy. Working to reinvigorate Scottish culture, they offer antidotes to the “strychnine”: new gender roles and alternative family structures that honor traditional rural values.

[27] They also prefigure today’s domestic reality in Scotland. In 1986, the term “illegitimate” as a descriptor for children disappeared from the Registrar General for Scotland’s Annual Reports. The percentage of children born to unmarried parents had risen from a low of 4% in the late 1950s to 19% in 1985. This increase proved “inexorable,” and in 2004, nearly half of Scottish children were born outside marriage (“2004 Annual Review”). Both attitudes and family patterns have changed dramatically over the last half-century. According to the Scottish Executive, by the turn of the 21st century, 25% of children lived with a lone parent and 10% in “cohabiting couple families”; only 55% of Scots agreed that “people who want children ought to get married” (“Family Formation”). Clearly, the stigma attached to pregnancy outside marriage has faded; indeed, the concept of illegitimacy itself has all but vanished.

[28] Perhaps with its acceptance of premarital sex without shame, bridal pregnancies, and single parenthood as legitimate ways to create a family, twenty-first-century Scotland has revived some elements of country courtship. This possibility has caused me to re-examine my immediate response when, working here on the fringes of Appalachia, I hear of yet another pregnant student. In her study of childbearing among West Virginia adolescents, Sally J. Reel points out that “an exploration of Appalachian issues parallels many rural concerns” (2). Although she acknowledges that teen pregnancy has a negative economic and educational impact on women, Reel concludes that “pregnancy for some adolescents . . . may be viewed as normative, desired, and financially protective” (8-9). Her subjects see pregnancy as an affirming “‘rite of passage,'” the “process by which independence, adulthood, and separate identity is achieved” (4, 8). Recalling Martha Ironside’s own declaration of independence as she decides to become a mother to Robin, Reel’s language suggests that pre-marital pregnancy in contemporary rural communities is a positive expression of a “tale so old,” a type of country courtship. Many in academia, on the other hand, have chosen to delay parenthood into our thirties and even forties in order to establish careers. We might cheer on fictional single mothers for their dissident choices while privately questioning the decisions made by real life single mothers in our classrooms who don’t happen to share our values. As an institution, academia needs to make sure it does not emulate the Kirk by buying into its own form of MacGrundyism, failing to recognize and respect the influence and importance of local tradition.


I thank Wilmington College for its support, my colleagues for their interest and advice, and Edward Gale Agran for his help and encouragement in the writing of this essay.

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