Green Hills Literary Lantern

The Birks

 

 

      One of the publishing successes of 1906 was an album of water-colour illustrations, with prose descriptions, by one G. W. Scott. He described domestic life in a house and garden on the outskirts of an unnamed Scottish town. Canny readers identified the town as Carnbeg, a spa resort in the wooded Perthshire hills.


    The book ran to twelve printings in just two years, and was produced in a variety of finishes—quarter, half or full goatskin or superior calf binding, different weights of paper, types of endpaper, etc.
 

    At the Birks was the first album of nine. The series followed the same family over fifteen years. It was the Scott family, to the tiniest detail, although only Christian names were used. By the final volume the baby of the second was now an attractive adolescent, seen holding her new nephew in her arms.


    The albums, with their vivid pen and ink drawings (outlines were all neatly defined with a black edge), offered a vision of the good life, enjoyed in healthful Highlands surroundings. The sandstone villa had bright, airy rooms; décor and furnishings were not-too-purist Arts & Crafts, or Bohemian. (Untidiness was one of the features readers identified with.) The family seemed to spend as much of their time outdoors, in the three acres of garden which any child would have longed to play in. The same birch trees appeared in each album, re-encountered like old friends. (It was strange, how Scott could make even the trees have individual personalities.) A small loch (a ‘stank’) allowed opportunities for fishing, swimming, and accidentally falling in.
 


    George Scott had been a commercial artist working in Glasgow. He originally studied at the School of Art, where he met his future wife, Marguerite Cowan. Mr. and Mrs. Cowan were patrons of the arts, especially impressed by modern developments in Vienna and Scandinavia. Their spirited daughter was prepared to marry, as her friends considered, ‘beneath’ her. She must have recognised that her fellow student had ambitions to make his mark, but in more accessible form than their rarefied contemporaries of the Mackintosh and Keppie generation at Bath Street.


    The married couple, with two children and a third on the way, staked everything on a move to the country. Unwilling to be beholden to the Cowan parents, they rented a number of properties in quick succession. None proved suitable for their needs, but Scott had already begun recording their misadventures as well as the picture-book customs of Carnbeg. At last they persuaded themselves to accept a loan from the Cowans, and bought a substantial but tumbledown house with an abandoned garden. Scott set about restoring the buildings with as much paid labour as he could afford; Marguerite’s territory was the garden, and it was there that she discovered an aptitude for botanical drawing.


    The rest of the Scotts’ story became publishing folklore. The great popularity of the albums tailed off in the later 1920s, but revived again during the Depression. That idyllic existence at ‘The Birks’ (‘birk’ being a Scottish word for ‘birch’) was more captivating than ever.



    The public’s favourite pictures, reproduced endlessly since, show the family sitting down to a meal under the birch trees (you can sense the trembling of the leaves, the breeze ruffling the cover, the long grass tickling the back of a child’s knee). Or trawling a brackeny brown burn for minnows, with jam jars fastened to string. Or Mother mending a rip in someone’s party frock, while tears of frustration threaten. Or the smudged red mouth and the guilty look of someone who’s eaten too freely from a raspberry bush. Or dressing up ((trying to dress up, but FESTINA LENTE, the more haste the less speed) for a Christmas nativity. Or skinny-dipping in the stank, with the crucial protection of modesty from a low-branched tree (not a birch).


    For all the group pictures, and the studies of two or three children together, at least a quarter of the total output features single members of the family, attending to tasks about the house or reading or writing or—a characteristic pose—staring out of the window, wishing they were doing what they seemed to do more of in the early albums, sitting on a swing or lying in the grass looking up through the canopy of branches.


    The public has always recognised the down-side, too.


    In the pictures children sometimes cry. They get left behind as the others run off, or they twist an ankle, or a wasp buries its sting in summer-tanned flesh. Scott also conveys the boredom of existence when you’re too young to see far enough forwards or back. The children are working at difficult homework, redoing sums which just won’t work out, or getting impatient as they wait for the rain to clear. The whole family get mud on their clothes, and a downpour surprises them while they’re out and they end up soaked to the skin.
 

    It’s life in the round.



    Decades on, Elinor Scott, who had inherited a more extreme form of her mother’s rebelliousness, wrote a book. It was a 1960s attempt to demystify. No, life at The Birks (that pretentious name!) hadn’t been so perfect. (There was hope for everyone after all!!) Lots of exclamations marks, but the prevailing tone was bitter.


    She felt the albums had thrown long shadows over their lives. They’d been obliged to play up to their ‘images’ (a new concept, but used retrospectively by the author to apply to ten- and fifteen-year-olds before the First World War.) Their parents’ marriage had been like any other, with its rough patches. In the pretty pictures, Elinor Scott wrote, you can’t hear: the muttered asides, the chink of a bottle against a tumbler as another drink is poured, a door banging off-stage. Think of the maids, always so young and comely, and interchangeable—they were actually selected by their mother, not because she showed lesbian tendencies (although who ever knows?), but because it meant their father, her husband, didn’t have to go wandering.


    One of her brothers, Edward, condemned the book in a letter to ‘The Times’ of London. A younger sister then claimed Elinor’s book was mostly true, and Edward went back into print to say, apologising for his indiscretion, that Helen had always been under her big sister’s thumb. The remaining three children chose not to get involved, at least publicly.


    Xandra, the youngest sister, was the curator of ‘The Birks’, the preserved house and its garden. Oddly, the book did business no harm at all; in fact they experienced a boom. On the ticket profits they were able to complete well ahead of schedule a glassy new gallery by the poolside, where the original art work could be displayed. Elinor wasn’t invited to the opening, and that rift was never healed; she would continue to snipe from the sidelines, but her tactics didn’t dent sales of calendars and greetings cards. The albums were repackaged in coffee-table paperback format, and sold especially well at Christmas time.


    A century on, it’s a modern kind of old-fashionedness that’s there in the books. High Street chain-shops sell the same style of dresses, and ankle boots are never quite out of fashion. The faces are faces you might see today. The rooms at ‘The Birks’ are open and welcoming and well-lit, it’s like alfresco living indoors: rugs on bare floorboards, pale wood furniture, potted plants, and not a left-over Victorian bobble or wall-panel of fumed mahogany in sight. All is youthful, and—catching the incisively clear north light—optimism rises: like the sap of those timelessly elegant, elegantly timeless birch trees.
 

 

Ronald Frame was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and educated there and at Oxford University.  Five of his novels have been published in the US; the most recent, The Lantern Bearers (Counterpoint), is being developed as a motion picture.  Among awards he has won are the Samuel Beckett Prize, Most Promising Writer New To Television, Scottish Book of the Year 2000, and the Barbara Gittings Honor Prize from the American Library Association.  He writes a weekly short story for The Herald newspaper in Scotland.  (Planned to appear online also, augmented by regular new material).  He has written many plays and short stories for BBC radio in Great Britain.