Daunderlust – meaning the compulsion to meander – is a term as applicable to the scope of Peter Ross’s latest essay collection as its content, collated as it is from four years of Scotland on Sunday columns. With a remit to report from within where most have never dared nor thought to enter, the peripatetic journalist has gained renown for his colourful accounts of Scotland’s most eccentric and secretive “common” people. United by a personal ‘daunderlust’, the vignettes gathered here cover subjects ranging from aria-singing chip-shop owners to bondage fanatics, aging steel bridges to the murmurations of starlings, all being enlivened by a similar amiable inquisitiveness.
Described by the author as “a sort of tapestry, each story a stitch”, the result is a singularly vibrant representation of modern Scotland. Combining hearsay with anecdote and popular trivia, Ross’s sketches are consistently engaging and, more importantly, convincing. While the line-of-questioning taken may sometimes appear superficial – ideological inconsistencies repeatedly going unquestioned – the compilation’s greatest value lies, arguably, in the same willingness to allow subjects to fashion their own narratives and to impose their own concerns. Elegiac, almost wistful, reflections upon Glaswegian tenement folk memory predominate, told from the perspective of their most celebrated curios: the fishermen of Dalmarnock, the “Castlemilk Lads” of Marzaroli’s famous photograph, and the “doo men” with their council-estate networks of dovecots and towers. Familiar narratives rooted in class division are eschewed in the name of a broader national character; an account of the Duke of Buccleuch’s fox-hunt precedes one of a Lodging House Mission for the homeless; the “fake bake”-scented chaos of Ladies Day at Musselburgh is juxtaposed with the – surely more fragrant – tranquillity so relished by the naturists of Loch Lomond. It is an evolving nation he depicts, one developing beneath the popular veneer of crags and kitsch that is rarely seen by any other than the most intrepid of Scots.
In an unashamedly figurative – if occasionally overwrought – fashion, Ross evokes ‘Scottishness’ in its broadest sense. Caricatures are notable by their absence; and his recourse to the national vernacular is neither patronising, nor mocking. Rather than the “pidgin” dialect to which it is so-often reduced, Scots’ expressive, emotive qualities come to the fore, becoming the language of the unrecorded, the “drag queens and drug addicts, sheep farmers and street preachers, monks, drunks and dudes smoking skunk”. Often dismissed as society’s “victims”, Ross affords agency – and a voice – to those more comfortable on its margins, alongside others who quietly make our nation tick from within. Whether relating the skinning of a stillborn lamb by a farmer seeking to bond its mother to an orphan, a paramedic team’s all-too-late arrival to the scene of a fall, or the nightly karaoke at Glasgow’s Horse Shoe bar, the focus rightly remains on the subjects’, rather than the journalist’s, experience. Like the senior anatomist of Edinburgh’s Medical School highlighting the “attractive…intricacy” of a cadaver for his student observers, Ross imparts not merely the outer idiosyncrasy incisively, but the human agency beneath. Thus sorrow, humour and eccentricity overlap to stimulating effect.
“There are more things in Perth and Irvine than are dreamt of in our philosophy”, concludes Ross. For the Scots appearing in his collection, “our philosophy” seems an unjust limitation. Whether evangelising before the sinners of Edinburgh’s Princes Street, or carrying out their fortieth lambing on Mull, the author’s subjects each seem to possess a personal, unwritten Tao. This is journalism at its most pleasantly enlightening, illuminating facets of this nation rarely heeded, if not actively avoided, by the print-media industry from which it derives.