IN the short novel Consider the Lilies (1968), Iain Crichton Smith (1928-98) produced the most lucid, spare and moving account of the Highland Clearances in fiction. It might be read alongside Neil Gunn’s Butcher’s Broom (1934) and Fionn Mac Colla’s And the Cock Crew (1945) as three great modern Scottish novels of the Clearances, but Crichton Smith went on to produce numerous collections of stories and novels which amount to a substantial oeuvre, complementing his poems, plays and other writings.

Consider the Lilies is written with dream-like restraint, almost as if the gentleness of Crichton Smith’s prose is a counterpoint to the dramatic, violent and emotionally charged events it describes. The larger context for the story is the social upheaval which followed in the aftermath of the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 and Culloden in 1746, the relentless and remorseless devastation of the Highland clans and families throughout the Highlands and islands of Scotland, and the assertion of Anglocentric military authority on the Gaelic-speaking people of the north and west; but the novel centres on one old woman, at first baffled and bewildered by her notice of approaching eviction, then gradually comprehending her place in the world of Sutherland, Scotland, Britain, and the moral universe being viciously assaulted by the priorities of monarchy, government and power. When the minister gives her no help or solace but an atheistic neighbourly stonemason does, she realises her own capability and capacity for change at the same time as she comes to understand the atrocities of oppression of which some people are capable.

The depth of human meaning demonstrated in this novel is a lasting and prevailing opposition to the depravities of monstrous regimes, and Crichton Smith’s writing supplies a timeless, floating, shrewd quality to the storytelling. We know, by the end of the book, how the judges themselves will be judged, and this is not only a consolation but a continuing source of strength in resistance, an endorsement of sensitivity and profundity of sympathy, affection and indeed love. The book is unsentimental and deftly avoids emotional excess and is all the more effective for that.

READ MORE: What makes a Scottish bestseller?

Among his later story collections and novels there are The Last Summer (1969), Survival Without Error (1970), My Last Duchess (1971), which records the breakdown of a marriage, Goodbye Mr Dixon (1974), a tentative love story with a happy ending, The Hermit and Other Stories (1977), On the Island (1979), with its idyllic elaborations of a young boy growing up; A Field Full of Folk (1982), which presents the lives of a number of characters in a small village, most centrally a minister struggling as he loses his faith, and The Search (1982). There are vivid depictions of school life on Lewis in Mr Trill in Hades, and Other Stories (1984) and interrelated stories set in different apartments in The Tenement (1985).

In the Middle of the Wood (1987) is a frightening account of paranoia and breakdown. The central character is a writer, a married man, who, without warning, falls victim to paranoia, convinces himself that his wife is having an affair and that he is being spied on and monitored. He loses touch with reality and is driven to contemplate murder and suicide. He spends time in a mental hospital and then, equally suddenly and unexpectedly, recovers. He returns to his wife and the book ends in repair and stability. It’s a strange novel, both threatening and ultimately reassuring, delivering a sense that the inexplicable can bring both bad and good things to any human life. Similarly tentative resolutions of enigmas occur in The Dream (1990), in which the relationship between Jean, dreaming of sunny islands far away from her troubled childhood and her husband Martin, a university lecturer in Gaelic dreaming of the western isles of Scotland, negotiates its difficulties.

Smith’s last novel is a tragedy. An Honourable Death (1992) tells the story of Major-General Sir Hector Macdonald, a boy from the Black Isle who rose through the ranks of the army and was renowned for his courage, admired and loved, yet whose reputation was ruined by accounts of his homosexuality and encounters with young men in Ceylon. He shot himself in a Paris hotel, avoiding a court-martial. The story is moving, loaded with pathos and oblique judgement on social prejudice and personal fallibility. Human liabilities are its central concern and the limpid, neutral style counterpoints the sensational subject matter.

The National:
Gordon Williams, right, with Terry Venables

HIS quasi-autobiographical character Murdo first appeared in funny, satiric stories in 1981 then reappeared in longer, more personal and moving novellae. Edwin Morgan describes him like this: “Murdo is mad, but harmless. He shatters the complacent surface of life wherever he goes. He casts some doubts on the supremacy of reason. Like MacGonagall, he is perfectly serious, and that is what makes him so funny”. Here’s a sample:

One day Murdo visited the local library and he said to the thin bespectacled woman who was standing at the counter:

“I want the novel War and Peace written by Hugh Macleod.”

“Hugh Macleod?” she said.

“Yes,” he said, “but if you

don’t happen to have War and Peace I’ll take any other book by the same author, such as The Brothers Karamazov.”

“I thought,” she said doubtfully, “I mean are you sure that…”

“I’m quite sure that the book is by Hugh Macleod,” said Murdo, “and I often wonder why there aren’t more of his books in the libraries.”

“Well,” she said, “I think we have War and Peace but surely it was written by Tolstoy.”

“What’s it about?” said Murdo, “Is it about a family growing up in Harris at the time of Napoleon?”

“I thought,” she said, “that the story is set in Russia,” looking at him keenly through her glasses.

“Bloody hell,” said Murdo under his breath and then aloud.

“Oh well I don’t think we can be talking about the same Hugh Macleod. This man was never in Russia as far as I know. Is it a long book, about a thousand pages?”

“I think that’s right,” said the woman, who was beginning to look rather wary.

“Uh huh,” said Murdo. “This is a long book as well. It’s about Napoleon in Harris in the 18th century. Hugh Macleod was an extraordinary man, you know. He had a long beard and he used to make his own shoes. A strange man. I don’t really know much about his life except that he became a bit religious in his old age.”

Although in fact born in Glasgow, Smith began with the austerities of his favoured place, the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides with its pressures of religious disposition, confronting his own abundant imagination with priorities he struggled to transform into strengths in his writing. Through his own breakdown and recovery, he gradually permitted a kind of quizzical intelligence to emerge supreme, confident and strengthened. Murdo came out of this process and remains a brilliant creation, tough and resistant but also spontaneous and at times hilarious.

READ MORE: George Mackay Brown and Alexander Trocchi: two startlingly different Scots novelists

EDWIN Morgan comments: “Murdo is not the only character in Smith’s short stories to have been brushed by the wing of insanity. One of the best of these stories is Napoleon and I, about an old married couple where the husband has gone mad and thinks he is Napoleon, leaving messages for the milkman to deliver five divisions of troops tomorrow, calling his wife Josephine, and dressing in a Napoleonic coat and hat. The story is told by his wife, who is at her wits’ end knowing what to do with him; she thinks a hospital would be cruel; she simply has to look after him, though they are both in their 80s. Like the Murdo stories, it is extremely funny – even the wife finds her husband comical at times. But the comedy is very deceptive; it is really a tragedy where no-one is at fault. The wife remembers that she once loved him – where is that love now? They cannot even talk to each other. The contrast between what might have been and what is now is very moving.”

The most famous novel by Gordon Williams (1934-2017) is probably The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969), notoriously filmed by Sam Peckinpah as Straw Dogs (1971), yet the novel bears little resemblance to the film except for its essential scenario, given in its title. It is a masterpiece of suspense writing and is best read without reference to the film. By contrast, later in the same decade, Williams wrote The Duellists (1977), an adaptation of a Ridley Scott film based on a screenplay by Gerald Vaughan-Hughes, from a story The Duel by Joseph Conrad.

With Terry Venables, under the name PB Yuill, Williams wrote three novels about a London-based cockney private eye named Hazell, which triggered a successful TV series: Hazell Plays Solomon (1977), Hazell and the Three Card Trick (1977) and Hazell and the Menacing Jester (1977). His last novel was Pomeroy, an American Diplomat (1983).

Williams’s other novels include The Last Day of Lincoln Charles (1965) and The Camp (1966), a grainy, grim and gravel-toned account of life in RAF Zeedorf in post-war Germany. Sex, drink, fighting, crudity and some of the least attractive aspects of masculinity tip over into worse yet: outright sadism and brutality. More seductive, equally insidious temptations suffuse The Man Who Had Power Over Women (1967). The duplicities and desperations of masculinity are Williams’s

recurrent subject and in much evidence here. The Hard Case (as Jack Lang, 1968) was followed by From Scenes Like These (1969).

This is based in Ayrshire and presents a number of boys and young men at crucial turning points in their lives. Again, the potential and squandered energies of masculinity, along with sharp records of time and place, are central.

After The Upper Pleasure Garden (1970), Williams wrote Walk Don’t Walk (1972), which Edwin Morgan selected as one of his “Twentieth-Century Classics”. It’s an extraordinary novel, an updated version of Eric Linklater’s classic Juan in America (1931). As Morgan says, it’s “a fast-moving, fast-talking story of a Scots novelist’s publicity promotion tour of the United States”. There is almost no plot, just a full-throttled run through encounters and escapades, self-deprecation and self-indulgence, lust for booze and starlets, what was then the novelty of flights, hotels and television publicity, and finally the return to the heavy conformities of home, wife and babies’ nappies, in a Scotland “where nobody had a name like Jelly Roll Morton”. Its humour is acid, its velocity unstoppable and its aftertaste depressing and exhilarating in equal measure. An American nightmare, in fact.