Tag Archives: William McIlvanney

Men, fathers and grandfathers


It is not unusual that writers share similar biographies and write about similar topics. Nevertheless, Andrew O’Hagan and William McIlvanney  are two particularly interesting examples.

They both grew up in Ayrshire although 30 years apart, and each has written fiction which draws heavily on their national and regional backgrounds and which also deals with families and politics.

McIlvanney began his career as a teacher until early book successes allowed him to write full-time. He appeared regularly in newspapers and on TV but through most of his life he might fairly have been regarded as a big fish in the small cultural pool of Scotland. In contrast, O’Hagan became a full-time writer soon after university and established himself promptly within the London literati. His brief biography to my paperback edition of his novel Our Fathers (published in 1999 when he was 31) says, “He is on the editorial board of the London Review of Books and is a contributing editor to Granta”. While his name appears on the website of neither publication now, he still enjoys sufficient prestige to have been allocated a full issue of the LRB for a long article about the Grenfell Tower fire.

O’Hagan’s Our Fathers and McIlvanney’s 1975 novel Docherty each share at their centre an older powerful male character who exerts strong influence on the younger members of his family.

In Our Fathers, he is Hugh Bawn, a long-serving Labour councillor in Glasgow with a personal devotion to housing, influenced explicitly by two great real-life socialists John McLean and John Wheatley and by one fictional one, his mother Effie Bawn, supposedly a comrade activist of Mary Barbour.


The centre of Ayr where the New Bridge crosses the River Ayr. “Hugh (Bawn) was born in Ayr in the winter of 1913…”


O’Hagan seems to have based Bawn at least partly on Robert Bruce of Glasgow Corporation who produced the Bruce Report of 1945, with its wartime fondness for grand plans, tower blocks and architectural brutalism. Hugh’s powerful personality and political dedication alienates his son Robert, who shares none of his father’s ideas, suffers from alcoholism and moves away to England. However Hugh and his wife Margaret have positively influenced their grandson James who goes to live with them when his parents’ marriage break up. Much of Our Fathers deals with the adult James’ return to Ayrshire to his grandparents and to his family roots.


Govan Old Parish Church in 2013, looking north towards the River Clyde. “(The Bawns) moved to Govan with a bundle of blankets and the map of Cork…(They) were only in Govan a month when Britain went to war.”


Similar to the relationship between Hugh and Robert Bawn is the stormy relationship which William McIlvanney portrays between Tam Docherty and his three sons, especially with Angus, who believes much less than his father in community and much more on self-improvement and financial independence.

Reading Our Fathers brought back memories not just of Docherty but also of Just a Boy’s Game, the TV film written by Peter McDougall and screened by the BBC in 1979. Where O’Hagan and McIlvanney come from Ayrshire, McDougall grew up in Greenock and Just a Boy’s Game is set in the town. Here the patriarch is McQuillan: like Hugh Bawn at the end of his life, but, unlike him, a veteran gangland street fighter. McQuillan also has an adult grandson who is influenced by him. Jake McQuillan, a restless surly taciturn young man with a taste for street violence, seems to have grown up with his grandparents, estranged from his mother and with his father dead when young apparently in a street brawl. The relationship between the McQuillans is much less close than that between the Bawns: Jake’s grandfather’s dying message to him is that he has never liked him and considers himself a better fighter than Jake is.

All three of these older men are portrayed as physically strong and brave and tough. Tam Docherty and Hugh Bawn have had respectable working lives, and Hugh Bawn has often been loved, we are told, by those who have benefitted from his reforming zeal. But all three are also selfish and frightening, of fixed beliefs, men who have become addicted to the power they exert over others and who have resisted disagreement and challenge.


The ruined Alloway Kirk outside Ayr. ”Hugh wanted to see Auld Alloway Kirk before the light went out…The stones of the kirkyard looked bent and grey…”


The short road leading to the old Brig o’Doon in Alloway. The hotel on the right of the picture, formerly the Burns Monument Hotel, now the Brig O’Doon Hotel, is named the Cottars’ Arms in “Our Fathers”. “We got off near the Brig o’Doon. Hugh wanted to pee. We went into a hotel, the Cottars’ Arms, and I stood at the bar whilst the old man disappeared…”


McIlvanney was always regarded as a major Scottish writer from the 1970s until his death in 2015. O’Hagan, although successful, does not perhaps exert the wider cultural influence within Scotland as did McIlvanney – although that is quite probably O’Hagan’s preference, since he has usually lived and worked outside Scotland. Despite similarities between the two writers, it is intriguing to note the differences in their writing styles. As already mentioned in an earlier post, McIlvanney’s writing is heavy with description and imagery and a didactic narrative voice; O’Hagan is more light and deft, more nuanced, more musical – showing more readily associations with Joyce or Lawrence or Philip Larkin. To complete the trio, McDougall is closer in age to McIlvanney and is also much more similar to him, and, as a TV writer, aims for quotable epithets and one-liners and for imagery and scenes which draw from Hollywood western and crime genres.

I am sure my characterisations of these three Scottish writers is not fanciful. When James Bawn defends his grandfather’s political record against the angry reporter in the Ayrshire pub, O’Hagan has the latter insult James as “English” and “middle-class”. In the same pub on the same evening, he describes James’ mother’s second husband as being “civilised” and showing “a feminine manner of patience”. O’Hagan seems to have a strong awareness of the way masculinity and masculine values have changed in Scotland during his lifetime and that he may be quite different from McIlvanney and his characters and his style of writing.

But, despite growing up in a later period and having absorbed many social changes, O’Hagan is clearly still fascinated by some of the classic elements of west of Scotland life. Our Fathers draws its title from the well-known Christian prayer and also deals with Catholicism and the writing of Robert Burns. The subject and style of Our Fathers shows O’Hagan as writer and man being pulled simultaneously in two different directions, back to the past and forwards to the future. As we all always are.


Reference:  O’Hagan, Andrew (2000) Our Fathers   London: Faber and Faber


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The Docherty family


Lanark by Alasdair Gray and Docherty by William McIlvanney are two novels by two contemporaries which are often collected together in lists of the best which Scottish writers have ever produced.  A further similarity they share is that within the past six months I finally got around to reading both.

On a BBC Scotland programme around 1980, I remember McIlvanney saying something highly provocative about  the role  of a writer, such as that Shakespeare’s only flaw as a writer was that he didn’t write about the working-class. In a later (1992) STV interview which is still available on You Tube, he described Docherty as an attempt to celebrate working-class life, which he felt that most literature ignored, or at best, categorised as something which should be escaped from.

Docherty is set in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, mostly during about 10 years on either side of World War One. Much of the book does evoke powerfully working-class life during the period, especially male working-class life. Scenes take place in the tiny Docherty house in High Street, Kilmarnock (which McIlvanney renames Graithnock), and in the streets around, in the coal mine where the Docherty men work, at weddings and funerals and in the countryside outside the town.



“High Street was the capital of Conn (Docherty’s) childhood and boyhood…Both as a terrain and as a population (it) was special”. Part of the present-day High Street in Kilmarnock.



“In one of the yards in Soulis Street they made wheels…you could creep into the stables under the railway arch that marked the beginning of the Foregate”. Behind is the Old High Kirk.


McIlvanney’s tone is serious and grave, moralistic, even pious. He seems to see himself almost as an anthropologist, explaining a way of life which the reader might not understand or appreciate without his help. In the 1992 TV interview he conceded that he did a lot of research, oral and reading. The result, as Alan MacGillivray suggests, is that McIlvanney’s style can be a bit too dense with imagery and that the words he puts into his characters’ mouths are often too heroic or sentimental.

For example, in these two pieces of description,

“High Street… was special. Everyone whom circumstances had herded into its hundred-or-so yards had failed in the same way. It was a penal colony for those who had committed poverty, a vice which was usually hereditary.”


“(Tam) saw families as little fortresses of loyalty and sanity and mutual concern, set defiantly in a landscape of legalised looting and social injustice”

However, that may be a reminder only that some of the literary giants who influenced McIlvanney  (he mentions Balzac, Flaubert and Melville in a 2010 interview with the Scottish Review of Books)  are figures from a hundred years or more ago.



“High Street and its continuations of Soulis Street and Fore Street made a straight line to the Cross at the centre of the town”. Only a tiny part of Soulis Street still exists. The road would have led approximately across where this car park is now located and towards the right.


Tam Docherty, who lives “in a personal climate of squalls of sudden temper, spells of infectious pleasure that couldn’t be forecast (and) brief winters of brooding isolation”, and is “several men, not all of them nice”, dominates the first half of the novel. Later, we read more about the lives of his three sons, Mick, Angus and Conn.

For me, the best parts of the novel are those which depict how his sons, each similar to their intimidating father in some ways, are able to develop differences and independence from him partly because the world they are all growing up into is different. A phenomenon which of course repeats itself every generation.

The eldest, Mick, joins the army when war is declared, even though his father thinks it a “dishonourable…capitalist war”, and his battlefield injury seems to be the point which pushes Tam to a profound sense of his failure and lack of control over his life and environment.

Angus’ more individualist impulses, shown, first, by his joining a new coal mine and “contracting for the coal”  in a system of payment by results with a group of other miners, and, then, by his preferring to support financially a girl whom he has made pregnant rather than marry her, appal his father and prompt violent responses. “Ah’m better aff deid than needin’ the likes of you,” says Tam.

Finally, Conn, despite an aptitude for learning, prefers to leave school and work as a miner, ignoring his father’s statements about the importance of education and his potential for intellectual development.



“To walk through Graithnock with (his grandfather) Mairtin was (for Conn) to be ambushed at every corner by the past. From the fluted pillar inset in the wall of the Old High Kirk ‘To the memory of Lord Soulis AD 1444’ (of whose murder Mairtin was able to give an eye-witness account)”. This inscription can still be read on the curve of the arch to the left.


Because all three sons have taken key attributes from their father, the true heir of Tam Docherty is a combination of all. As Mick and Conn have been compatible from childhood, the former feels that “you an’ me’s whit’s left o’ ma faither”:  he with his clear political ideas although with one arm missing from the war and Conn with physical strength and greater intelligence and imagination but ideas which are less defined. However, Angus’ capacity for hard work and belligerence is also an obvious bequest from his father, regardless of the fact that, as Angus says, “Ah wisny punching the right faces…Ah’m no playin for his team. An’ whit he kens is his team is gonny lose. An’ ah’m gonny win….”

A sharp piece of description of the social attitudes shifting around the young men shows Angus coming into the family home at a New Year party with three friends. “They  were all respectful enough but their self-confidence was somehow so gaudy that they couldn’t help making the others feel that they were bystanders at a procession. Like the soldiers of an army that has never been defeated, they didn’t know to come into a place without taking it over…The others felt their separateness, each being partly defined by not being one of that vigorous group who wore their smiles like badges (and) seemed to have taken out a joint lease on the 1920s”.



“(Conn) found that thirty people had once been crushed to death in the old Laigh Kirk during a panic when the congregation thought the roof was falling in.”



Kilmarnock Cross, to where “(Tam Docherty and Tadger Daly) had just stepped down…to bring in the New Year.” At the time when the novel was set, another statue, of Sir James Shaw, would have stood here rather than this of Burns. The street to the right of the curved building is the present-day version of Fore Street.



“Conn tended more and more to happen offstage. His favourite place was in the Kay Park..”


Many are McIlvanney’s statements of working-class solidarity in the novel but no suggestion that political parties might be the conduits of that solidarity, until the last three pages when we hear that war veteran Mick has joined the Communist Party. This perhaps is a summary of how class loyalty for a man like Tam is a deep, inbred natural practice, which needs no formal leadership or assembly point. His shouted arguments against Angus’ proto-capitalism are not fully formed: “It’s too late for arrangements. A copper here, a bit of paper there…ma joab (is) tae deny them every day o’ ma’ life.” His admiration for Keir Hardie is mentioned as a “familiarity with a friend” rather than a follower of political ideals.

Likewise with trade unions. There is clear evidence of the solidarity between working men, such as at the pit accident at the end. However there are few mentions of union organisation, and one of the most noticeable is that of a strike which has failed, which leads Tam Docherty to say bleakly, “This is the feenish”.

In the story it tells and the way it is written, Docherty definitely reads like a book from a different era.



McIlvanney, William (1987)   Docherty     London: Sceptre



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