‘The Monarch of the Glen’ and Compton Mackenzie have both hovered on the edge of my reading conscious for a very long time now. ‘Whisky Galore’ is one of my favourite films but although I’ve had the book well over a decade I’ve only made one half hearted attempt to open it (about to change). ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ came to my attention through the TV series, and was rejected for the same reason, but over the last six months I kept picking it up and finally gave in to temptation on a stealthy amazon visit. All credit to Vintage – I love their current cover designs and after such success with John Cheever and John O’Hara I feel very inclined to give anything on their classics list a go, that and I’m genetically inclined to have a soft spot for eccentric Lairds.
There’s a moment that comes in a book where I know I’m going to love it, treasure it, and hopefully persuade someone else to read it (doesn’t always happen). In Monarch that moment came respectably early on with this line:
“Kilwhillie’s faded eyes were lighted up with that strange light which was never on sea or land, but is only to be seen in the eyes of a landed proprietor in the Highlands who hopes he has found a buyer for an overtaxed forest...and a shooting-lodge that looks like a bunch of tarnished pepper-pots.”
I have seen that light or at least something very close to it and clearly so had Mackenzie. It’s the combination of generally affectionate humour and sharp observation that made this such a beguiling read for me.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of Nancy Mitford’s ‘Wigs on the Green’ (I’m assuming Mackenzie would have known it) and although Monarch is by far the better book I did wonder if there was a nod in the direction of Mitford and her type of fiction. For those who know the TV version – forget it and approach the book with fresh eyes. This is the story of Donald MacDonald, Laird of Glenbogle (also known as Ben Nevis) and his attempts to snag a rich wife for one of his sons. A distant Macdonald connection from Canada (Carrie) has had the good sense to marry a fortune and as Mrs Chester Royde she, her husband, and most importantly her unmarried sister in law are invited to enjoy some Scottish hospitality. The Laird’s hopes for a happy outcome are high, the sun is most unaccountably shining and it’s the glorious 12th – the scene is set for a grouse massacre of legendry proportion when disaster in the form of hikers strikes. The MacDonald wrath knows no bounds and before long all out war is declared between castle and the national union of hikers. Meanwhile Carrie has fallen in with some Scottish Nationalists (almost worse than hikers) including a distractingly handsome poet.
The hikers lead by the fanatical Percy Buckham, with their passionate devotion to their corduroy shorts and healthy outdoor life call to mind both Mosley’s blackshirts and the Hitler youth movement. It’s not an allusion that’s hammered home to hard – Percy Buckham of Primrose Hill is not an evil or even particularly sinister figure, but he’s an excellent example of how far a charismatic character filled with self belief and a desire for direct action can carry a crowd. It’s just this comparative lightness of touch which makes this book seem so fresh despite being almost seventy years old. Issues over Scottish Nationalism, what heritage is, who owns it, and who owns the land around us have never really gone away. Rambling is still a topic (in rural areas anyway – I’ve yet to talk to a farmer who’s keen on the breed) and people still travel from across the globe to find their roots in the old country.
Which brings me back to Chester Royde, who is by far and away my favourite character; his assessment of stag stalking is a joy, as are his clothes. They start off as simply colourful and then progress far beyond (I thought) cliché and into something for more sublime and wonderful. In short I cannot help but love a book where everyone is laughed at but which contains no discernable malice; is the perfect comfort read and has a bit of substance to it as well!