Commonplace Book: Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith (of theThe No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series among many other books) has penned a gentle tribute to W. H. Auden. He’s an enthusiast rather than a scholar in my view, and these “How writer x can change your life” usually leave me cold (is there nothing that can’t be instrumentalized into self-help, even reading for pleasure?)  But this effort charmed me. Here he is recalling a trip to a speaking engagement in Perthshire, Scotland, a beautiful landscape that sets up his claim for the central role books play in the Scottish character.


The library lay at the end of the Roman Road, surrounded by fields in which wheat and barley were yet to ripen—lush green paddocks half-hidden by unruly hedgerows. Rioting nettles, clumps of blackthorn and rowan, wide-leafed docken grew along the side of the road until suddenly we reached an old schoolhouse and an ancient graveyard of weathered gray stones. The organizers appeared and introduced themselves, and I was taken to see the library before the guests arrived.

Belief in the word can assume the qualities of a religious faith. At the time when Lord Drummond built this place to house his precious collection of books, Scotland was prone to outbreaks of lawlessness and fierce local enmities. The lives of many were lived under the heel of powerful local clan chiefs who administered rough justice. Life was hard in every respect: this was not the rich landscape of settled England—Highland Scotland was a place in which people scraped a living and more often than not went to bed hungry.

It was a place of strong religious views. The Scottish Reformation was late but had been passionate and had brought with it a commitment to the setting up of a school in every parish. What later came to be seen as a strong Scottish commitment to education had its roots in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Books were the instruments of truth. Books were the means by which the poor could free themselves of what Auden once described as “the suffering to which they are fairly accustomed.” This attitude toward books has stubbornly survived in Scotland, mirroring, perhaps, the Irish attitude to music: both are consolations that will, in their individual way, always see one through.

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