William McIlvanney – Docherty (1975)
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of All Time
Docherty is the most brilliant, forceful and yet measured example of William McIlvanney’s desire to ‘give working-class life the vote in the literature of heroism’. The struggles of the eponymous Docherty family in the early decades of the 20th century offer a microcosm of a broader working-class impulse towards emancipation and dignity. The central patriarch, Tam Docherty, embodies the west coast hardman tradition of Scottish writing; he’s a miner whose own impulse to do the right thing often results in righteous and troubling violence.
Tam and his sons Conn, Michael and Angus all wrestle with inarticulacy, with a need to find an appropriate medium and language in which to express their experiences of hard industrial labour, grinding poverty, the horrors of war and the daily grind of working-class life. In a key scene, Conn is beaten in school for using Scots vernacular – supposedly the language of the gutter and an inappropriate medium for ‘civilised’ discourse in the classroom – a moment which neatly associates the imposition of Standard English with a kind of violence. Similarly, when Michael attempts to write to his family about the horrors he witnessed in World War I, he equates the lines on the page with the bars of a prison cage.
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