The Gowk Storm – Nancy Brysson Morrisson
If the Brontë sisters had been the daughters of a Church of Scotland minister in the Highlands, rather than a Church of England priest in Yorkshire, I think that one of them, probably Emily, would have written The Gowk Storm. It has many of the familiar tropes from the Brontë’s works: doomed love affairs, sparse moors, parental distance and tragic deaths, and even the presence of a single character speaking incongruously in dialect, though they are all given a very Scottish twist.
The title refers to a Scottish term referring to ‘a storm of several days at the end of April or beginning of May; an evil or abstract obstruction of short duration’, and the main catalyst for the plot takes place during one such storm. The narrator’s eldest sister is discovered to be having a relationship with the dominie (schoolmaster) of the parish. This would be controversial enough, never mind the fact that he has just been outed as it were as a Catholic, and the fact she is the minister’s daughter makes this match completely unconscionable. The List’s review said that the storm itself was a symbol for their relationship as a whole, and I suppose I can kind of see that, but it didn’t strike me as being one at the time. The rest of the novel continues on in a similarly miserable vein. The middle sister falls in love with an already betrothed man, which ends about as well as you can expect, their emotionally distant father falls ill and is replaced in the kirk by an even less pleasant man. It’s all terribly depressing. That said, in terms of setting and atmosphere, The Gowk Storm is masterfully written. You really get a sense of the isolation and oppression of small highland communities, and it’s worth reading just for that alone.
It was an interesting read in an academic sense, because as it was published in 1933, over 75 years after Charlotte Brontë’s death, the similarities in style and subject matter seem somewhat dissonant. It reminds me very much of the criticism of Scottish Literature that it is always outdated and lagging behind that found south of the border. I’ve never thought this to be a fair, or even accurate, accusation, and of course, historical novels written in period appropriate styles are a wonderful thing, but I think I would have to read another of Morrison’s books before I reach a conclusion on the matter. After all, the Brontë association is one that I’ve made purely on my own, and one that is perhaps not echoed by anyone else. Another reader may see similarities between The Gowk Storm and Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies, which has a similarly bleak tone, is set in the Highlands, and features a number of similar images throughout. (As an aside, I highly recommend Consider the Lilies, as though there’s quite a lot of artistic licence taken with the history, it’s a very well written story of the Highland Clearances, and one of the best pieces of Scottish fiction I’ve ever read.)
The Gowk Storm isn’t a bad book by any means, and I think that as a picture of a Scottish community it’s excellent, it’s just that at times it’s hard to relate to the characters, which in a story like this, is quite a major downfall. It’s worth reading, and obviously it’s considered good enough to be included on a Top 100 Scottish Books list, but don’t go in expecting to be blown away.