Read | Wigtown Ploughman revisited

28 May 2020

Raging bull

Farmer and author Patrick Laurie is repelled and thrilled by John McNeillie's classic novel about the hardships of rural life

It’s hard to stomach Wigtown Ploughman. Published in 1939 to a mixture of outrage and acclaim, the novel was serialised in the Daily Mail alongside lurid headlines and graphic illustrations of domestic abuse and violence. In a surge of hype and excitement, the 23-year-old John McNeillie provoked a national discussion about working conditions and the degeneracy of rural life in south-west Scotland. Even today, the strength of McNeillie’s work is stubbornly persistent, and the book continues to gnaw at our imaginations like a nightmare. 

The tale follows the early years Andy Walker, a ploughman raised from snivelling wean to raging lout. In terms of character development, it’s tempting to watch for that formative moment when Andy is turned over to “the dark side”. You can take your pick of the beatings and deprivations visited upon him as a child, but it gradually becomes clear that Andy is the product of something altogether bigger than his own experiences.

Fear Andy as you would fear Begbie in Trainspotting. He’s unpredictable, stubborn and prone to acts of extraordinary violence - a man like that could hardly exist today without substantial police intervention, but it’s clear that Andy makes sense to himself and his surroundings. When he works, he works well. He’s every bit as tough and functional as a Clydesdale horse, and while nowadays we’re inclined to sigh with nostalgia at the memory of “traditional” farming, those old systems were damn hard. When rain hammers on the window and work lies half-done in the mud, I’d sooner have one Andy Walker on the job than a dozen nicer men. Even as the book draws to a close and Andy blunders into a fresh disaster, the novel allows him to pass out sight without reprimand or apology – he merely moves off to pastures new, reinforcing the fatalistic idea that a man may ignore morality or goodness in a world which values strength and determination above all else.

But if the book has an obvious weakness, it is the plot itself. Having established the basic premise of Andy’s bullishness, the story becomes a lengthy investigation of that same misery from a variety of different angles. The cyclical boom and bust of Andy’s temper is almost sickening, and it returns like a belly ache until the very last page, without any refinement or development. You could split this book in half and serve either piece as the whole thing, but Wigtown Ploughman is saved because there is far more to this story than static characters and the churn of blackness.

In moments when we are allowed to escape from the brooding pressure-cooker of Andy’s mind, we slip to go poaching with him under cover of darkness. It’s no surprise that John McNeillie (later writing as Ian Niall) became a well-kenned face in the world of “nature writing”. Andy’s encounters with hares and rabbits in the moonlight are so intricately perfect that they would chime with anybody who has felt the urge to go creeping along the hedgerows in a clear frost. And there is texture and feeling in the simplest descriptions of horses and harnesses; collie dogs and conversations in old farm byres. Galloway itself is a leading character in Wigtown Ploughman, and the grim tone of the novel seems to shine a glaring spotlight on a landscape and a lifestyle which is often portrayed as idyllic. We mustn’t forget that this book was published at a time when Galloway had become famous for its “quality of light”. While winsome paintbrushes fluttered delicately over canvas in Kirkcudbright “artist’s town”, a young man in Wigtownshire was busting open a can of literary battery acid. 

The book is a burning point of fury, but it also has to be placed in literary context. It’s unfortunate that Wigtown Ploughman should have been published within a few years of Grassic Gibbons’ Scots Quair trilogy and James Barke’s Land of the Leal. These works set the benchmark for Scottish rural writing in the 20th century; they do everything that Wigtown Ploughman does and far more besides. McNeillie is left treading water in their wake, but there is still value in the grim and urgent energy of Andy Walker. In some ways, he is a prototype for the Angry Young Men who would follow him twenty years later in books like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Room at the Top

Unlike the characters in those later novels of working-class frustration, Andy Walker is not sharp or curious enough to be self-aware, but he can match them fist for fist when it comes to boiling intensity. And Andy is hamstrung by his ignorance and stubborn acceptance, flaws which sometimes cast him as a tragic figure. I’ve heard Andy described as “a bull in a china shop”, but it’s worth unpacking that expression. Most people wring their hands and fear for the china, but my sympathy always goes to the bull who has no business in a shop and breaks things because that’s all he can do. We’re meant to shy away from Andy Walker in horror and disgust, but he lacks the malice to be evil. Strong-minded, callous and lacking any form of self-control, he is better described as a force of nature, harnessed for work by a system which places no value on niceties. In this, Andy is more than just a device or talking point. 

Wigtown Ploughman is subtitled “part of his life”, and it closes when Andy is still a young man. I would dearly love to see another part of Andy’s life; the same man in different circumstances. Imagine him in prison or pressed to serve in the Second World War. Given a fair plot to draw him out into the open, Andy Walker might’ve cast a far longer shadow in the landscape of Scottish literature.

McNeillie adopted the name Ian Niall to draw a line under the realism of Wigtown Ploughman. He wanted to move away from the book in later life, and he would never write anything so well respected or socially relevant again. His best writing was recently compiled into a vivid and beautiful anthology entitled If the Corncrake Calls – it’s a fitting tribute to the man at his best, but it’s also worth remembering that while “the complete works of Ian Niall” would fill a bookcase, this volume of his “Greatest Hits” is decidedly slim. 

Wigtown Ploughman stands apart from the Ian Niall canon as something quite unique. McNeillie’s work is fearsome, graphic and unapologetic, and it bears the marks of a young author who is desperately passionate about his subject. The book will always be treasured in Galloway because it speaks to our unique landscape and culture, but there is more than “local interest” in this novel. Wigtown Ploughman may not belong on the top shelf of Scottish literature, but there is a strange and disturbing energy which drives this novel on through an atmosphere of gloom, filth and heavy rain. You wouldn’t read this book to lighten your mood or make you laugh, but the tale is a mesmerisingly raw study of life in a community that is both broken and strangely perfect. And when McNeillie’s writing begins to crackle upon the page, prepare to shield your eyes.

Patrick Laurie's memoir of farming in Galloway, 'Native: Life in a Vanishing Landscape', is published by Birlinn. Buy it here

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