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Novel is a lyrical trip to the Scottish Highlands

Novel is a lyrical trip to the Scottish Highlands

“Caledonia” was the Latin name used by the Roman Empire to refer to the part of Great Britain that lies north of the River Forth, which includes most of the land area of Scotland.

Today, it is used as a romantic or poetic name for all of Scotland, and is the title (“O, Caledonia,” London, 2014, 206 pages) of Scottish writer/journalist Elspeth Barker’s first and only published novel. It is also the title of a well-known poem written by Sir Walter Scott, which was then revised as a Scottish folk ballad in 1978 by Scottish folk artist Dougie MacLean on his first album.

Let me tell you that I love you

That I think about you all the time

Caledonia, you’re calling me

Now I’m going home

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 Since then, this song has been covered by numerous popular singers and groups and called Scotland’s “unofficial national anthem.” I have seen Dougie MacLean in Asheville at Diana Wortham Theatre several times in the past, pre-covid, and heard him sing “O, Caledonia” when he would come to the U.S. on his world tours.

Sir Walter Scott writes: “O Caledonia! Stern and wild/Meet nurse for a poetic child!” And this line from Scott pretty much describes the book’s main character, Janet, and the personal plot line as conceived by Barker in her book that was written at the age of 51 and is now considered a Scottish classic.

“O, Caledonia” is a coming-of-age story and we go from early youth to late teens over the course of this story and follow Janet and her independent and sometimes inexplicable behavior and mind in intimate detail. Or as Maggie O’Farrell, who typed Barker’s manuscript for the publisher and wrote the books Introduction says: “The world you are about to enter is one of prickly tweed coats, of grimly strict nannies, of irritatingly perfect younger sisters, of eccentric household pets, of enormous freezing castles. It is one where girls are considered to be merely ‘an inferior form of boy’ and Calvinist propriety is thrown into relief by the seductive wildness of the Highland landscape.” 

So, we get an inside peek at Janet’s life, as well as getting many a beautifully poetic word-painting from Barker capturing several of Scotland’s most well-known destinations and landscapes. In fact, it is Barker’s descriptive passages of places in Scotland that stand out in my memory after reading this book.

Being of Scottish heritage and having traveled in Scotland on more than one occasion, I loved reading Barker’s descriptions of places I’ve seen for myself, as well as customs and cuisine I’ve learned and experienced on those journeys. My people are from the Scottish Highlands, a region prominently featured in Barker’s “O, Caledonia”and which she brings to life again for me in lyrical passages such as this:

“Janet forgot her earthly doom and rose before light to ride bareback up the grassy tracks through the woods to the moors. She watched the sun rise over the far hills, the mist float in steamy filaments off the glen and the silent golden day bring glory to the somber pines. She passed out of the hills, over the crossroads, toward the bare stone-walled pasturelands where the few trees hunched and bent inland, straining away from the bitter blast of the sea wind, their branches clawing vainly for the shelter of the glens. When they reached the glen she galloped the length of the meadows by the burn, wild with glee.”

Although “O, Caledonia” is rife with such passages as the above, it also portrays Janet as a voracious lover of literature. “She shut herself in her room and read Baudelaire,” writes Barker, and Janet’s list of favorite authors is noted throughout the book referencing others such as Charlotte Bronte, Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Walter Scott, Edward Gorey and Molly Keane. So, one could say that Janet is “a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,” as Bob Dylan so succinctly put it. Or, that she is belligerently wise. An island in the stream, to quote another pop song classic. Both Janet and Barker, I think, get their wisdom and their literary gifts from reading. From that virtual library in their minds that has given them a certain amount of clarity when it comes to language and to the ironies of love. In “O, Caledonia,” the language sings and the reader can see the Scottish Highlands and all the beauty and uniqueness it entails that mirror almost exactly what we, living in the Southern Appalachians, see and experience here in this place. That is one reason I loved spending time in Scotland, as it feels like home and in many ways is, if genetic memory has a real presence, a real place, in the life I am living now.

So, I guess you could simply say that “O, Caledonia” is an account of Janet’s life, from birth to early death, taking in sibling bonds and betrayals, parental intolerance, the horrors and discomforts of adolescence, and maybe above all, the saving grace of books.

(Thomas Crowe is a regular contributor to The Smoky Mountain News and author of the multi-award-winning non-fiction nature memoir “Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods.”)

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