New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 27: Glenbucket

Angus looked at his watch. “I would love to discuss Neanderthals at greater length, but look at the time.” He sighed, “If I’m to achieve anything today …”

Tuesday, 15th September 2020, 7:30 am

“It’s Saturday,” Domenica pointed out. “You don’t need to drive yourself quite so hard, Angus. Your studio will still be there on Monday.” She added, “Deo volente.”

Angus raised an eyebrow. “Saying Deo volente is like warding off the evil eye. Throwing salt over one’s shoulder. That sort of thing.”

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“Perhaps. But who amongst us is strong enough not to worry about tempting Providence?”

Angus glanced at his watch again. “I know I don’t have to, but I really would like to get some work done today. I’m at a crucial point in that portrait of …” He looked at her and smiled. “That portrait of our tartan-bedecked friend.” He looked at Domenica and uttered the name with relish: “Glenbucket. Robert Andrew Glenbucket of Glenbucket, the Glenbucket.”

Domenica rolled her eyes. “How do you keep a straight face? Is that what he actually calls himself?”

Angus nodded. “He’s absolutely serious. And he’s actually a rather charming man. Eccentrics often are, in my experience.” He paused. “Lord Monboddo, for example. Nicholas Fairbairn. Hugh Macdonald, who opined on the world from Kay’s Bar in India Place and who could complete the Times crossword puzzle in under seven minutes. David Bogie, who was once overheard carrying on a lengthy conversation with the pygmy hippo in Edinburgh Zoo. All of these were wonderful people.”

Domenica smiled. “They added a certain something to Scotland, I agree. But your man sounds obsessed, quite frankly. He’s spent ages – not to say a fortune – working on genealogy, hasn’t he?”

“People do,” said Angus. “It’s an extraordinary human preoccupation.”

Domenica frowned. “Do you have the slightest interest in who your forebears were? I don’t. It’s not that I’m indifferent to them – I’m certainly not ashamed of them – all those faceless Macdonalds who came before me – it’s just that …” She shrugged. “It’s just that I don’t see the point.”

“I know what you mean,” said Angus. “My Lordie ancestors were a very dull bunch. None of them is recorded as having done anything, or gone anywhere. They hung about Pitlochry for generations. One or two of them went to Dundee, but didn’t stay long and headed back to Pitlochry. That’s it.”

“But then this person you’re painting, this …”

Angus smiled. “Glenbucket.”

“This Glenbucket: why does it mean so much to him?”

“He’s half-American,” said Angus. “Americans like to know who they are. And who can blame them? They have that vast country with goodness knows how many people. That means a mass culture, and they want texture in their lives.” He paused. “And texture, I suppose, requires rootedness, requires history.”

Domenica looked thoughtful. “Does it?”

Angus did not hesitate. “Yes, it does. If you don’t know how you started, your story is somehow incomplete. And we all want a story, don’t we?” He asked the question rhetorically, but now that he had posed it, he was genuinely uncertain as to what the answer might be.

Domenica, though, was struck by something else. “Those who have no history seem to acquire it,” she said. “While those who have it, seem to want to divest themselves of it.”

He looked at her quizzically. “Meaning?”

“Well, we have rather too much history that we’re uncomfortable about. We’re keen to unburden ourselves of it, aren’t we?”

“Scotland has too much history?”

Domenica hesitated. “A bit. A lot of people in Scotland would like to get rid of the last few hundred years,” she said. “Roughly the period after the Union. The British Empire. We were part of that, remember. And now we’re embarrassed and like to say that it was a purely English enterprise. And the historical burden, therefore, is theirs, not ours.”

Angus saw her point, but then if you had something imposed on you, was it part of your story in quite the same way as if you had been the imposer? “Well,” he said, “nobody asked the people of Scotland whether they wanted a Union in the first place. And it wasn’t all of us who did the Empire thing. It wasn’t the crofters in the Highlands. It wasn’t the men who went out in the fishing boats, or the shepherds, or the riveters on the Clyde, or the men who went down the pits in West Lothian, or …”

Domenica shook her head. “A class analysis gets everybody off the hook – everywhere. It puts the blame on a small number of people and exculpates everybody else. I don’t think that will work. They rallied under the same flag, you know.” But then a thought occurred to her: did such an approach let off all the women? So much of history was men’s history. They did the plotting and fighting and land-grabbing. Women weren’t allowed to vote, nor occupy crucial positions, and so none of what happened was their fault. That was tempting. And yet women, surely, condoned the things that men did; they egged them on and enjoyed the proceeds. It was a different sort of historical guilt, perhaps – the guilt of an accessory – but it was still guilt.

Domenica toyed with her copy of Evolutionary Anthropology. It was easier – far easier – to think about Neanderthals, rather than the eighteenth or the nineteenth centuries. Or to think about Glenbucket, and his desire to establish himself in some creaky and highly romantic vision of Scottish history. She looked at Angus. “Does your man have a claim to be whom he wants to be?”

Angus looked thoughtful. “I suppose he does. He’s gone into it very closely, and he says he’s found he’s descended from Old Glenbucket – through one of his sons, who went off to Jamaica. He had a mistress there, apparently – a Frenchwoman from Martinique – and he says that he’s found a direct link between himself and the product of that liaison. Wrong side of the blanket, of course, but most of these interesting connections are.”

Domenica admitted this was colourful enough. “Rather more interesting than my standard Macdonalds in their crofts on Skye. Or your Pitlochry people, for that matter.”

Angus agreed. “But, look, I’d better go. I’ll take Cyril.”

“And will Glenbucket be sitting?”

“Not today. I have photographic references for his outfit. I’ll be working on those. Painting tartan is quite complicated – as you can imagine.” At every level, he thought. It was complicated because it was symbolic of such a complex story. A cloth of sorrow, he thought.

He looked down at Cyril, who sensed that a walk was imminent, but was not sure. The dog looked back up at him and Angus saw in his eyes that burning longing that was so characteristic of canine eyes. But a longing for what? What did dogs want that made them look so needy, so plaintive? Love? Like the rest of us? Was it as simple as that?

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