Nancy Brysson Morrison - The Gowk Storm (1933)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
The Gowk Storm is the story of three close-knit sisters, the daughters of a minister, living in a remote parish on the fringes of the Highlands. Narrated by Lisbet, the youngest sister, the novel is written mainly in English, but given a strong sense of place by the use of Scots words and some Scots dialogue. Lisbet describes the love affairs of her older sisters, Julia and Emmy, each of whom falls in love with a man deemed an unacceptable match by their patriarchal, rigid and prejudiced society.
The gowk storm of the title is 'a storm of several days at the end of April or beginning of May; an evil or abstract obstruction of short duration'. During the gowk storm, Julia's father discovers her with a lover, the dominie, sheltering in a hut. The community has recently become aware that he is Roman Catholic, and thus unsuitable. Their relationship echoes a gowk storm; he is forced to leave the parish while Julia marries the suitor preferred by her family. She is profoundly affected by the experience. A year later, another gowk storm is to have more tragic consequences for Emmy, who has violated the moral framework of society by falling in love with her friend's fiancé.
The Gowk Storm is one of the most atmospheric books I have ever read and the claustrophobia of the setting acts as a metaphor for the restrictions society places on these strong, intelligent and articulate young women. The symbolism of weather and the force of nature underpins the narrative. The weather is a character in itself, central to the main figures' lives; sometimes joyful, more often uncaring or malevolent, but always lovingly described and full of significance. What I love about the book is the detail; the way in which the author brings alive a character or place with economy and precision. The ferryman is 'a mere paring of a man', Christine Strathern's features are 'like a wax doll's which have melted ever so slightly at the fire'.
Lisbet, left at home when her sisters attend a party, studies the dregs of her milk: 'I looked at the milky castle peaks and milky brides at the bottom of the drained tumbler and at the skin, lined like a bat's wing, which clung to the side of the glass.' Haunting, lyrical, passionate and a real page-turner, The Gowk Storm is definitely one of my favourite Scottish novels.
Further reading: Breakers (1930) depicts three sisters trapped by convention and an oppressive existence in a Highland manse; Mary Queen of Scots (1960) beautifully imagines the life of the hapless monarch.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.