Reviewed by Mary McWay Seaman, Celtic Connection, September, 2007
Belinda Rathbone”s new memoir is an exceptional combo of history, lament, battle cry and chronicle of what is, sifted from what once was, in rural Scotland. To read THE GUYND: A SCOTTISH JOURNAL is to become an intern folded into the intimate workings of a culture with tattered veils of medieval custom. Guynd is the Gaelic word for a “high, marshy place,” the name given to the Ouchterlony family estate near Arbroath in Angus. An award-winning photography historian, the American Rathbone married John Ouchterlony, the Guynd”s 26th laird, and moved to his 416 acres of farmland and forest to restore the tribe”s crumbling 200-year-old, 32-room Georgian country house near the older (1615) homestead with its stone-walled, relict garden. Ouchterlony had been an adventurous engineer working around the world with little time for his holdings. Rathbone, daughter of an English mother and well traveled throughout Europe, expected to be prepared for life anywhere in Britain. However, the landscape and culture of Scotland astonished her. Dismayed at the Guynd”s neglect, she states that “This was not the cherished family retreat in the White Mountains of New Hampshire or the lakeside log cabin camp in the Adirondacks.” The richness of detail delivered from the pen of this lyrical writer is a treasure unto itself, recounting a decade at the Guynd that began in 1990. “Once upon a time country society revolved around places like the Guynd, with each estate conducting its own little orbit. It was like a village, in which all inhabitants played their role and knew their place.” So begins a section with misty traditions wafting through the old home place stuffed with antique furniture, silverware, china, pictures, weaponry, books, dance cards, diaries and dunning notices. By the 1920s imports of foreign goods had killed local production, and income from tenants, crops and pasture could not maintain large properties. Many were leveled or turned into hotels or schools. Remainders are termed “the centerpiece of a system gone to seed, deeply suggestive of the forbidden desire to give up and get out. Some hidden force kept them there, but it wasn”t exactly love.” As for the Guynd, The long-absent man and his mansion “belonged first to each other, and only after that to anyone else.” Seeking simple comforts, especially after their son Elliot was born, Rathbone shoulders heroic cleaning and renovation efforts that drive assistants out the door. She employs the age-old rule when confronted with overwhelming tasks ” break them down in manageable components. Schedules and timely performance become paramount. Advice from historical societies and government groups on restoration arrives with a horror of bureaucratic “historical correctness” to be accompanied by inspections and endless paperwork, but the eminently common-sense Rathbone saves the Guynd from such shackles. The volume of multi-tasking involved with refurbishing the house, outbuildings and furniture, along with field and forest work, prevents most projects from crossing the finish line. Indeed, works-in-process dragging through years appear to be the modus operandi of several other Scots, stoical do-it-yourselfers with the long view of centuries. Completed tasks, strangely and vaguely devalued, put Rathbone and Ouchterlony at odds. The hardship of living with mounds of hopelessly broken stuff, a crude kitchen, primitive heating, and harsh cultural economics eventually crushes ambition. Heat is never turned on before December 1 or after March 1, no matter the weather or temperature. The archaic kitchen creates hours of extra work. An egg-timer by the telephone inhibits leisurely conversations. A misery of clutter is warehoused in every room as centuries of hard times had led to hoarding. Comical interludes include an attempt by Rathbone to load junk for the dump, only to be apprehended on her way to the car. Candle stubs, string, shredded stockings, mysterious mechanical parts, decades-old canned goods ” nothing is considered trash. A feel for legendary Scottish frugality is offered in a description of Arbroath. “There are thirty-two pubs in Arbroath, but their street profile is more like that of a speakeasy. The doors remain shut, even when the pub is open, and it will stay open until the last man leaves. Drinking is a serious occupation in Scotland and there”s no need to waste money on a sign.” The quiet Scottish Christmas, so different from the English one, is expected. Scotland, rooted as it is in post-Reformation, 16th-century Presbyterianism, is not famous for its Nativity spirit, although folks do whoop it up on New Year”s Eve (the ancient Celtic/Norse Hogmanay). “Not-very-bonny Dundee” propels tenants to the Guynd”s cottages and flats. Retired folks with home maintenance and gardening skills fare well. Younger, rougher lodgers with emotional baggage, poor educations and addictions provide absorbing studies of the welfare mentality. Rathbone constructs a fascinating feudal heritage concerning entitlement attitudes among the tenantry, “an erratic population of fugitives ” Occasionally they might spend a day lifting tatties for a local farmer or banging in fence posts for John, if he pays them under the table so as not to compromise their unemployment status with the Department of Social Services. Being mainly the descendents of that class of feudal society who worked for the laird and in turn were looked after, they continue to expect to be looked after to this day.” The government now takes responsibility for these people. Puzzled by these renters, Rathbone observes that most Americans descend from immigrants who “expected to strike out on their own.” A journey through this magical book illuminates the ongoing potency of history and custom in an enduring culture, no matter how superficialities like dress and decorating may change, no matter how family structures may shift, or how governments may rule. Readers in company with Belinda Rathbone throughout the pages of THE GUYND: A SCOTTISH JOURNAL, quickly learn that they are joining her “in another land, in another time”"

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