Joyeux Noël à tous !!!
Santa Claus will very soon be at our doorstep or should I say up on the roof, ready to drop precious little presents into our chimney, ‘wee surprises’ as Iain and Margaret would say . Why not read or re-read some good Scottish Christmas stories while waiting for him?
Storytelling has always been very popular in Scotland and indeed the country has given birth to some of the greatest storytellers: Sir Walter Scott, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson first come to my mind but there are so many others…
George Mackay Brown being my favourite storyteller, I’ve chosen him to illustrate my purpose. He wrote a number of Christmas stories, some of them being very thrilling ghost stories which I’m particularly fond of. Most of these stories were first published in the newspapers in very attractive Christmas special issues. Some of them have been collected in Winter Tales. The two book covers I’ve inserted below are quite expressive of the contents of this marvellous book which I intend to re-read during Christmas holidays:
Light and darkness are common themes in these tales, which all have a fireside ambience.
It is easy to imagine Mackay Brown… enthralling all before him as the peat crackles and another bottle of malt is broached.
It was in winter that the islanders gathered round the hearth fire to listen to the stories (…)
Going over tales I’ve written during the last decade or so, I was not too surprised to see that many of them are calendar tales, that yield their best treasure in midwinter when the barns are full.
The mystery of light out of darkness has been with us since the builders of Maeshowe five thousand years ago. The Celtic missionaries gave the mystery breadth and depth.
I like to think I am part of that tradition.
(George Mackay Brown - Winter Tales)
I am a raving fan of gorgeous book cover designs as those of Winter Tales, for example, and I always like to anticipate my reading on catching a glance at the contents of a book even before buying it. Below is the contents of Winter Tales :
- The Paraffin Lamp (first published in Hydro Electric Magazine – 1975)
- Lieutenant Bligh and Two Midshipmen
- The Laird’s Son (1989 in The Scotsman )
- The Children’s Feast (1989 in The Tablet)
- A Crusader’s Christmas
- The Lost Sheep (1990 in The Tablet)
- A Boy’s Calendar (1990 in The Scotsman )
- The Woodcarver (1991 in The Scotsman )
- Three Old Men (1991 in The Tablet)
- Ikey (1992 in The Scotsman)
- A Nativity Tale (1992 in The Tablet)
- Shell Story (1993 in Xanadu, USA)
- The Architect (1993 in The Scotsman)
- St Christopher (1993 in The Tablet)
- The Sons of Upland Farm (1994 in the Daily Telegraph)
- The Road to Emmaus
- The Fight in the Plough and Ox
Winter Tales is a superb collection of tender and compassionate tales, focusing on light and darkness, winter and its festivals,
by one of the greatest story-tellers of the twentieth century.
Through a variety of characters from shipwrecked Scandinavians to an Edinburgh gentleman,
George Mackay Brown looks at the impact of new ways of thinking on the traditional way of life of Orkney.
(From the back cover of Winter Tales Polygon 2006 )
In my Folio Edition of Christmas Crime Stories I’ve found The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (L’escarboucle bleue, in French), written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This story was first published in Strand Magazine in January 1892.
Below is the summary I’ve found in Wikipedia:
“Watson visits his friend Holmes at Christmas time and finds him contemplating a battered old hat, brought to him by the commissionaire Peterson after it and a Christmas goose had been dropped by a man in a scuffle with some street ruffians. Peterson takes the goose home to eat it, but comes back later with a carbuncle. His wife has found it in the bird’s crop (throat). Holmes makes some interesting deductions concerning the owner of the hat from simple observations of its condition, conclusions amply confirmed when an advertisement for the owner produces the man himself: Henry Baker.
Holmes cannot resist such an intriguing mystery, and he and Watson set out across the city to determine exactly how the jewel, stolen from the Countess of Morcar during her stay at a hotel, wound up in a goose’s crop. The man who dropped the goose, Mr. Henry Baker, clearly has no knowledge of the crime, but he gives Holmes valuable information, eventually leading him to the conclusive stage of his investigation, at Covent Garden. There, a salesman named Breckinridge gets angry with Holmes, complaining about all the people who have pestered him about geese sold recently to the landlord of the Alpha Inn. Clearly, someone else knows that the carbuncle was in a goose and is looking for the bird.
James Ryder imploring Holmes’ mercy
Holmes expects that he will have to visit the goose supplier in Brixton, but it will not be necessary: The other “pesterer” that the salesman mentioned shows up right then, a cringing little man named James Ryder whom Holmes prevails upon to tell the whole sordid story, by first mentioning that Ryder is probably looking for a goose with a black bar on its tail, a remarkable bird that “[laid] an egg after it was dead”. Of course, Holmes has already deduced most of it.
Ryder, believing he was being pursued for the theft, fed the carbuncle to a goose being bred by his sister Maggie Oakshott. He was to have that goose as a gift, but lost track of which one it was.
Thus, when Ryder cut open the goose and found no gem, he went back to his sister, who had provided the Alpha Inn geese, and asked if there was more than one goose that had a black bar on its tail. She said there were two, but he was too late: she had sold them all to Breckinridge at Covent Garden. Breckinridge already sold the geese to the Alpha Inn, and the other goose with a black bar on its tail found its way to Henry Baker as his Christmas fowl. Ryder and his accomplice — the countess’s maid, Catherine Cusack — contrived to disguise the crime to frame John Horner, a plumber who worked at the same hotel as Ryder and had previously been imprisoned for robbery.
Holmes, however, does not take the standard action against the man, it being Christmas, and concluding that arresting the clearly anguished Ryder will only make him into a more hardened criminal later. Ryder flees to the continent and Horner will be freed as the case against him will collapse without Ryder’s perjured testimony. Holmes remarks that he is not retained by the police to remedy their deficiencies.”
You can read the whole story on Gutenberg website=> http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1661/1661-h/1661-h.htm#7
It is, I think, much more likely that Henry Baker is an absolutely innocent man,
who had no idea that the bird which he was carrying was of considerably more value than if it were made of solid gold.
(Arthur Conan Doyle The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle)
I would like to end this Christmas post on one of the most remarkable stories I’ve ever heard about. It’s a mystery story but also a true story, the kind of story that can only happen in Scotland . It took place in Edinburgh, the Unesco City of Literature, the very place which gave birth to Sir Conan Doyle, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Luis Stevenson…
Just try to imagine: since the month of March 2011 where the first sculpture had been dropped on the doorstep of The Scottish Poetry Library, seven beautiful and very elaborate book sculptures have been left all across the City of Literature by an anonymous artist, all wearing the same tag with the words “in support of libraries, books, words, ideas.”
I invite you to read the whole story on the Edinburgh City of Literature website. George Mackay Brown would certainly have found this story ‘marvellous’ and written about it in the Orcadian .
‘Ian Rankin, ex-board member of the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust, drops in to marvel at the sculpture that was left for them.’
Isn’t that an extraordinary story to enjoy at Christmas, an opportunity to rejoice at the end of a year which has given us so many occasions to be sad and last but not least, in our never ending quest, an invitation to discover more about Scotland and its amazing capital, Edinburgh, the UNESCO City of Literature…
Happy Christmas to everybody!