Last year’s Commonwealth Games prompted a lot of discussion and debate about Scotland’s place in the Commonwealth, the creation of the British Empire, and, in turn, its role in the slave trade. Thanks to events such as The Empire Café and the ‘How Glasgow Flourished’ exhibition at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove many people learned a lot more about an area of Scottish history that has been overlooked. In terms of fiction, there have only been a few books that have tackled this subject head on, with James Robertson’s ‘Joseph Knight’ the most notable example. This month’s novel is a lesser known example. It is set in the mid-19th century and is a fascinating exploration into a specific time and place, and an attempt to build a New Caledonia on the other side of the Atlantic.
The novel is Chris Dolan’s ‘Redlegs’ and it follows Elspeth Baillie, an aspiring actress from Greenock who gets talent spotted, by way of the Georgian version of the casting couch. The Right Honourable Albert Coak is setting up a colony on the Island of Barbados and he wants to bring art and culture to his new sugar plantation, and sees Elspeth as the perfect face of his proposed theatre. Elspeth needs little persuasion to leave her family, excited by the lure of the new.
Initially, Elspeth blossoms in her Caribbean home, feeling her self grow taller and stronger away from the driving wind and rain of Inverclyde, and more confident as she grows into her role as Coak’s muse. She becomes the centre of attention in this new community, with many admirers, but it is with the enigmatic and headstrong George Lisle with whom she falls in love. Unfortunately, their happiness does not last long, and the land that has offered all of this opportunity then takes it away in breath-taking fashion.
It’s in the second half of the book that ‘Redlegs’ really takes off. Elspeth becomes the ‘lady of the house’ as 20 women from Scotland are shipped to the plantation with the promise of a better life in this new world. The idea is to set up a New Caledonia, and the women are there to try and ensure as pure a bloodline as possible to maintain its genetic purity, something which is doomed to fail from the start.
Questions are asked about nationalism, the rights of the individual versus the group, and what it means to belong. This bizarre undertaking falters almost immediately as factors such as a misunderstanding of their new home, human nature, and a twisted ideology of supremacy and entitlement prove to be hurdles too great to overcome, even if, initially, everyone appears to pull together. Elspeth becomes fixated with the inevitable new borns who arrive, looking for proof that her own lost love has somehow survived, and mourning the passing of her youth and dreams as reality takes hold. You are never sure if the way she copes with her life is down to self-deception, or is she is simply playing another role that someone has directed she undertake? Whatever the case, Elspeth Baillie is an unforgettable character.
As you would expect when part of the story concerns Scottish theatre, there are plenty of references to folk songs. One of the finest is Burn’s ‘Green Grow The Rashes’ (although the women’s version in the book is a wonderfully filthy rendering), and it gives me the excuse to post a clip of the great Michael Marra:
Chris Dolan has written for stage and screen, and it shows in ‘Redlegs’ as not only is his knowledge of Scottish theatre obvious, the novel is one which would be easily adapted for TV, and I can see it as three-part Sunday night drama. The clash of cultures and climates of the west coast of Scotland and Barbados are equally vivid in their own way, and are another example of how harsh reality can help persuade people that life will be better elsewhere. In the same way as art and real life can never match up, the promise of New Caledonia is a fantasy when compared to the life these women have left behind, with their friends and family, but a dangerous, and often fatal, one.
Dolan has written a novel which acts as an insight into a part of Scotland’s history it seems we would rather ignore, but also as a warning to the dangers of fictionalising a nation while ignoring those things which matter most.
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel: We have spoken before in ‘Indelible Ink’ about ‘The Chemical Generation’ of writers from the late ‘90s, a group who included Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner and Gordon Legge, all of whom appeared in the influential collection of short fiction ‘The Children Of Albion Rovers’ as well as on these pages.
One of the few women involved in this group was Laura Hird, and her 1999 novel, ‘Born Free’ is one of the seminal texts of the time. Challenging, angry and with a black comic streak, it stays the right side of sensational to tell the story of a dysfunctional family struggling to cope.