21 December, 2014

The Gathering Night, by Margaret Elphinstone. Book review

Canongate, 2009. ISBN 978-1-84767-288-9. 368 pages.

The Gathering Night is set in Mesolithic Scotland around 6150 BC, when an underwater landslide off the coast of Norway (the Storegga Slide) caused a tsunami that devastated the east and north-east coast of Scotland. All the characters are fictional.

The Auk people live on the coasts and islands of what is now the western Highlands of Scotland, grouped into individual families who come together once a year at the Gathering in late summer. One autumn, Bakar, a young hunter, disappears without trace from his family’s winter camp. At around the same time, four young men of the Lynx people arrive on the west coast, having crossed all the way from the east coast where their lands have been destroyed by a catastrophic tsunami. Three of the Lynx men stay among the Heron people, south of Auk lands, and one, Kemen, comes on alone to the Auk people. At the Gathering, Kemen is accepted into the Auk people, marries an Auk girl who has just survived a murderous attack by an unknown assailant, and is accepted into the family of the missing Bakar. These events cause some resentment among other Auk families, notably the family of the assaulted girl and the Auk hunter who hoped to marry her himself. When Kemen’s brother Basajaun also turns up in Auk lands, having left the lands of the Heron people, conflict flares. Have these Lynx refugees brought ill fortune to the Auk people? And what are the Auk people going to do about it?

The Gathering Night is an unusual novel. It doesn’t really have a plot as such, although the mystery around Bakar’s disappearance and its eventual resolution provides a loose structure. The narrative is structured as a group of people taking it in turns to speak around a campfire, telling of events that happened several years previously. There is not really a central character, either. This is an egalitarian society in which people think of themselves primarily as part of a group or groups – a family, the Auk people – and only secondarily as individuals. The only one who seems to have something resembling a modern sense of self is Kemen’s brother Basajaun, and when he says to Kemen after the destruction of their lands and tribe, “A man is his own self”, Kemen is fearful and disturbed by this strange attitude. So characterisation in the conventional sense is limited, and the voices of the various narrators all sound very similar. I could sometimes tell who was speaking if I forgot to look at the tag line because of the different roles they play – shaman, hunter, child, young woman, wife, mother – but rarely from the style of speaking, because their society does not work that way.

What makes The Gathering Night stand out is its wonderful portrayal of daily life as it might have been for the Mesolithic people of western Scotland about 8,000 years ago. This period of pre-history, before the coming of agriculture, is so far removed from the modern world that it’s difficult to even begin to imagine what it might have been like to live at that time. Almost nothing is known, as there are no written records and very few physical remains. Archaeology has identified the sites of some camping places, food debris such as shell middens and nutshells provide some information about the diet, and stone tools say something about the technology available. But the cultural, social, artistic and spiritual life of the people who used the tools and ate the food is completely unknown. The author has imagined how it might have been by drawing on the traditions of more recent nomadic and hunter-gatherer societies such as the Sami, Inuit and Native Americans. Language is also completely unknown, so the author chose Basque names for the characters, as Basque is thought to be the only pre-agricultural language surviving in western Europe.

From these sources, together with the author’s own forays into hunter-gatherer skills (such as building a coracle), The Gathering Night creates a Mesolithic society complete with details of the hunting and gathering skills that might have been used, the wide range of foods utilised at different seasons, the reckoning of time and location, travel among the islands and lochs of the west coast, social organisation, conventions and values, spiritual beliefs, rituals, art and storytelling. We cannot possibly know what Mesolithic Scotland was really like (short of time travel), but The Gathering Night imagines it as a richly complex culture and brings it to vivid life on the page.

The Author’s Afterword outlines some of the sources underlying the novel, and hints at some of the places involved. There is no map because, as she says, “my characters imagined their land in other ways.” However, the landscape descriptions are so detailed and appealing that I couldn’t help trying to figure out how they might fit into the modern geography, and after an enjoyable hour or two with maps of Ardnamurchan, the Isle of Mull, Ardgour and Argyll, I reckon I can make a stab at identifying ‘Mother Mountain Island’ and ‘Gathering Loch’ at least, and maybe some of the other locations.

Beautiful portrayal of Mesolithic Scotland as it might have been about 8,000 years ago.

19 December, 2014

December recipe: Winter chicken hotpot

Winter chicken hotpot

This casserole is warming, easy to make, and a versatile user-up of odds and ends of vegetables. In this version I’ve used chicken pieces, although you could also make it with leftover turkey if you have a lot of turkey to use up after the Big Day. It’s a complete meal cooked in one pan, so the washing up is minimal, and if you use tinned pulses it will take under an hour to make.

You can vary the vegetables as you choose, depending on what you like and what you happen to have available. Carrot, parsnip, turnip, swede* and cooking apple would all be quite at home. Similarly, you could use butter beans or haricot beans instead of chick peas.  It’s the sort of recipe that’s more of a general guide than a set of specific instructions, and will probably be different every time you cook it. Here’s the version I made the other day, in the middle of a busy week.

Winter chicken hotpot (serves 2)

2 oz (approx 50 g) dried chick peas, or twice the weight of tinned chick peas
Two chicken pieces (wings, drumsticks or thighs all work well)
8 oz (approx 250 g) butternut squash
4 oz (approx 125 g) leeks
Half a red pepper
2 oz (approx 50 g) mushrooms
1 small onion
1 clove garlic
Approximately 0.25 pint (approx 150 ml) water
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon medlar jelly** (optional)
1 lb (approx 450 g) potatoes

Soak the chick peas in cold water overnight. Rinse the soaked chick peas three or four times, then put them in a saucepan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil and then simmer for about 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes until tender. If using tinned chick peas, follow the instructions on the tin.

If using chicken wings, halve them at the ‘elbow’ joint. This is quite easy with a sharp and strong cook’s knife. I find it easier to cut just on the lower side of the joint, where the wing has two small bones instead of the single thick bone in the upper part of the wing.

Peel the butternut squash, scoop out the seeds in the core, and cut the rest into chunks about 1.5 - 2 cm (0.5 - 1 inch) cubed.

Trim, wash and slice the leeks.

Remove the seeds from the red pepper and cut into pieces about 1.5 cm (about 0.5 inch) square.

Peel the mushrooms. Quarter them if small, or slice them if large.

Peel and chop the onion. Peel and crush the garlic.

Peel the potatoes and chop them into dice about 1 cm (about 0.5 inch) cubed.

Brown the chicken pieces in cooking oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat.

Add the chopped onion, squash, leeks, pepper and mushrooms. Fry until the vegetables are starting to colour. Stir in the crushed garlic.

Add the cooked chick peas and diced potatoes, along with the water, paprika and medlar jelly. Season with salt and black pepper.

Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30-40 minutes until the chicken and vegetables are all cooked. Stir from time to time, especially towards the end of the cooking time, as the potatoes tend to stick to the bottom of the pan when they are nearly cooked. If it starts to get dry, add a bit more water. 

*I believe previous discussions here established that the root vegetable that’s called ‘swede’ in the UK is called ‘rutabaga’ in the US
**Recipe for medlar jelly.  Crab-apple jelly or redcurrant jelly work equally well.