The Song of the Forest [Review]

The Song of the Forest: coverIt is sad that the work of the Scottish author Colin Mackay never received the attention it deserved. In spite of the bleak nature of some of the themes with which he dealt, his work stands out as a product of vigorous enthusiasm and vivid imagination at a time in which, according to Mackay, the spectre of gritty realism loomed large in Scottish literature (indeed there is perhaps grounds to suggest that the literature of writers such as the fictitious Jimmy Glasgow will in turn come to be seen as having done more harm than good to Scottish literature’s capacity for imagination).

Mackay’s first novel, The Song of the Forest, embodies this vividness and stands out as a lovingly written evocation of Scotland and of the people who lived there in the times of the dark ages. Just like Calvino’s Baron in the Trees, Mackay too seems to have been captivated by the forests that used to cover much of northern Europe and in his afterword to the book, he mentions having been fascinated by the idea that “as late as 1800 a squirrel could travel branch to branch from Caithness to Cornwall without ever touching the ground,” echoing Calvino’s claim that a monkey could travel from Rome to Spain in a similar manner. Throughout the novel, Mackay succeeds in evoking the density of the wild and untamed landscape of Scotland in the dark ages. He describes in lyrical prose the straths and woods, the sights and sounds of the forest, the animals and the birds that lived there, and the summers and winters that defined the rhythms by which its inhabitants lived.

The novel’s characterization of the period draws heavily upon two sources in particular: Florence Marian McNeil’s Silver Bough, a compendium of Scottish folklore, and the 7th century epic The Gododdin, which tells the story of the knights of the Lothian. Perhaps its greatest success lies in being able to integrate the material from these sources into a twentieth century novel and bring them to life in the recreation of a land and time whose folklore and customs predate the hardened cast of the nation we know today. In mixing scholarship with imagination, Mackay has succeeded in creating a piece of writing that relates to Scotland and its culture at the most profound of levels: by taking the landscapes, customs and people of the dark ages and making them accessible to the present day, Mackay’s novel hints at the excavation of a deeply embedded substrata; the novel reminds us of the presence of our origins, of the relationship between the Scottish land and its people in its most primitive sense and how, from that relationship, a culture, a people, and the nation by which they are encapsulated were able to develop.

In a recent piece for the anthology Headshook, William McIlvanney made the pertinent observation “if you lose where you come from, you lose where you’re going.” At a time in which Scotland has much to consider as regards its future, and given the burdensome role that has been played by the union for over three hundred years as a key factor in determining our national identity—regardless of whether positive or negative—perhaps there is much to be learnt from returning to examine our deepest of roots, of remembering a society whose beliefs and customs predate the nation we know today; perhaps by stepping beyond the confines of a comparatively recent history, we can learn something about ourselves that has all but been buried by the sands of time. The Song of the Forest may not be perfect, yet it is hard to deny the talents of a writer whose potential, sadly, was never fulfilled, and whose first novel provides an enjoyable and thought-provoking recollection of Scotland’s ancient history.

MacKay, C. (1986) The Song of the Forest, Edinburgh: Canongate.



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