The Reader’s Gazetteer: E


The second post in this Dickson McCunn mini-series takes him, and us, to Evallonia. We’ve left Dalquharter; we’ve left Glasgow. But, for the duration of Castle Gay at least, we are still in Scotland.

Buchan does a thorough job of setting up Evallonia, taking advantage of the disarray at the end of the Great War to suggest that it was always there; we just hadn’t been paying attention. In the middle of the newspaper magnate Mr Thomas Carlyle Craw’s biographical note he reminds us:

It will be remembered that a republic had been established there in 1919, apparently with the consent of its people. But rifts had since appeared within the lute. There was a strong monarchist party among the Evallonians, who wished to reinstate their former dynasty, at present represented by an attractive young Prince, and at the same time insisted on the revision of Evallonian boundaries. To this party Thomas gave eloquent support. He believed in democracy, he told his millions of readers, and a kingdom (teste Britain) was as democratic a thing as a republic: if the Evallonians wanted a monarch they should be allowed to have one: certain lost territories, too, must be restored, unless they wished to see Evallonia Irredenta a permanent plague-spot. His advocacy made a profound impression in the south and east of Europe, and to Evallonian monarchists the name of Craw became what that of Palmerston was once to Italy and Gladstone to Bulgaria.

My father skipped most of this chapter when reading the book to me as a child, so we could get straight to the action. But I rather think he included this paragraph. It establishes Evallonia in the guise of telling us more about Mr Craw; it gives us a vague geographical location; in describing current politics it suggests the past; and, invoking real names and real countries, slots it neatly into real history.

Mr Craw is repaid for his interest in Evallonia with a visit. Several visits. But the action doesn’t leave Scotland. Evallonia comes to him.

In the next book we go there. Incidentally, if I had to credit one book and one book alone for my desire to go wandering around Europe, it would be The House of the Four Winds. It’s this passage that did it:

The milestones in his journey had been the wines. Jaikie was no connoisseur, and indeed as a rule preferred beer, but the vintage of a place seemed to give him the place’s flavour and wines made a diary of his pilgrimage. His legs bore him from valley to valley, but he drank himself from atmosphere to atmosphere. He had begun among strong burgundies which needed water to make a thirst-quenching drink, and continued through the thin wines of the hills to the coarse red stuff of south Germany and a dozen forgotten little local products. In one upland place he had found a drink like the grey wine of Anjou, in another a sweet thing like Madeira, and in another a fiery sherry. Each night at the end of his tramp he concocted a long drink and he stuck manfully to the juice of the grape; so, having a delicate palate and a good memory, he had now behind him a map of his track picked out in honest liquors.

Each was associated with some vision of sun-drenched landscape. He had been a month on the tramp, but he seemed to have walked through continents. As he half dozed at the open window, it was pleasant to let his fancy run back along the road. It had led him through vineyards grey at the fringes with dust, through baking beet-fields and drowsy cornlands and solemn forests; up into wooded hills and flowery meadows, and once or twice almost into the jaws of the great mountains; through every kind of human settlement, from hamlets which were only larger farms to brisk burghs clustered round opulent town houses or castles as old as Charlemagne; by every kind of stream – unfordable great rivers, and milky mountain torrents, and reedy lowland waters, and clear brooks slipping through mint and water-cress. He had walked and walked, seeking to travel and not to arrive, and making no plans except that his face was always to the sunrise.

It takes him – this is the first chapter, so it’s hardly a spoiler – to Evallonia. Which is all set for a revolution, but nobody can quite agree on what it ought to look like. It has a youth movement, Juventus, which I suppose is what the Hitler Jugend might have been like had it somehow managed to get rid of Hitler and become its own thing: ‘… no less than a resurgence of the spirit of the Evallonian nation,’ says Count Paul Jovian.

He explained how it had run through the youth of the country like a flame in stubble. ‘We are a poor people,’ he said, ‘though not so poor as some, for we are closer to the soil, and less dependent upon others. But we have been stripped of some of our richest parts where industry flourished, and many of us are in great poverty. Especially it is hard for the young, who see no livelihood for them in their fathers’ professions, and can find none elsewhere. Evallonia, thanks to the jealous Powers, has been reduced to too great an economic simplicity, and has not that variety of interests which a civilized society requires. Also there is another matter. We have always made a hobby of our education, as in your own Scotland. Parents will starve themselves to send their sons to Melina to the university, and often a commune itself will pay for a clever boy. What is the consequence? We have an educated youth, and no work for it. We have created an academic proletariat and it is distressed and bitter.’

Although Jaikie notes that it doesn’t quite sound like his friend talking. You can’t quite believe what anybody tells you about Evallonia.

(I always have to check the publication date on this book. 1935, though my Penguin copy says 1925. This would be impossible in terms of Jaikie’s age if nothing else: he can’t be older than about nine in Huntingtower, just after the War.)

I would still have difficulty pointing to Evallonia on a map (‘er… somewhere in the Balkans…?’) but Buchan does a very good job of making me believe that if I set out walking south and east, not really bothered about where I was going, I’d have a good chance of ending up there.

There are, because this is Buchan, some glorious landscapes, but I’m going to save most of them for towns that begin with letters later in the alphabet. Here, though, is Jaikie looking back towards the frontier:

His eye crossed the Rave and ran along a line of hills ten miles or so to the west. They were only foot-hills, two thousand feet high at the most, but beyond he had a glimpse of remote mountains. He saw to his left the horseshoe in which Tarta and its Schloss lay – he could not see the pass that led to Kremisch, since it was hidden by a projecting spur. To the north the hills seemed to dwindle away into a blue plain. Just in front of him there was a deeply-recessed glen, the containing walls of which were wooded to the summit, but at the top the ridge was bare, and there was cleft-shaped like the back-sight of a rifle. In that cleft the sun was most spectacularly setting.

Ivar followed his gaze. ‘That is what we call the Wolf’s Throat. It is the nearest road to the frontier. There in that cleft is the western gate of Evallonia.’

Finding your way to a place is one thing. Finding your way out again can be another thing entirely.

Books referred to in this post

Castle Gay, John Buchan

The House of the Four Winds, John Buchan


The Reader’s Gazetteer: D


D and E will both feature books from John Buchan’s Dickson McCunn series. I’m not going to apologise for this: I can think of few authors who are so good at landscapes, either real or imaginary, and, if you don’t know the place yourself, it’s difficult to tell where the seam is between the two.

D is for Dalquharter, but it’s interesting to see how Dickson McCunn gets there. He starts in Glasgow – real enough – and takes a train.

A little after midday he descended from a grimy third-class station whose name I have forgotten. In the village near-by he purchased some new-baked buns and ginger biscuits…

We’re already in imaginary countryside. Dickson stays overnight in a village called Cloncae, which Google optimistically suggest might be an anagram of ‘Conceal’, and passes through Kilchrist, which also seems to be fictional. Then he reaches Kirkmichael, which might or might not be this village, and spends the night at the Black Bull before setting out again:

Westward there ran out a peninsula in the shape of an isosceles triangle, of which his present high-road was the base. At a distance of a mile or so a railway ran parallel to the road, and he could see the smoke of a goods train waiting at a tiny station islanded in acres of bog. Thence the moor swept down to meadows and scattered copses, above which hung a thin haze of smoke which betokened a village. Beyond it were further woodlands, not firs but old shady trees, and as they narrowed to a point the gleam of two tiny estuaries appeared on either side. He could not see the final cape, but he saw the sea beyond it, flawed with catspaws, gold in the afternoon sun, and on it a small herring smack flapping listless sails.

And then he gets the map out:

The peninsula was called the Cruives – an old name apparently, for it was in antique lettering. He vaguely remembered that ‘cruives’ had something to do with fishing, doubtless in the two streams which flanked it. One he had already crossed, the Laver, a clear tumbling water springing from green hills; the other, the Garple, descended from the rougher mountains to the south. The hidden village bore the name of Dalquharter, and the uncouth syllables awoke some vague recollection in his mind.

By this point I’m very happily convinced. I’ve had my railway journey (and some extra trains), I have a reasonable idea how I’d get there from the real world, and I have been shown the map.

Dickson encounters a poet, John Heritage, who he’s been avoiding, and they speculate about Dalquharter and Dickson’s psyche before heading towards the village.

In front of groves of birch and rowan smoked the first houses of a tiny village. The road had become a green ‘loaning’, on the ample margin of which cattle grazed. The moorland still showed itself in spits of heather, and some distance off, where a rivulet ran in a hollow, there were signs of a fire and figures near it…

… There were not more than a dozen whitewashed houses, all set in little gardens of wallflower and daffodil and early fruit blossom. A triangle of green filled the intervening space, and in it stood an ancient wooden pump. There was no schoolhouse or kirk; not even a post-office – only a red box in a cottage side. Beyond rose the high wall and the dark trees of the demesne, and to the right up a by-road which clung to the park edge stood a two-storeyed building which bore the legend ‘The Cruives Inn’.

And we’re off. Up until now, Dickson was on holiday; from here on it, it’s an adventure. And this, I think, is why the McCunn stories are my favourites. I don’t have mysterious men getting murdered in my London flat, and I don’t get recruited for spying missions. But I do go on holiday. I haven’t had a holiday turn into an adventure as yet, though there was that time I found myself in Vienna, explaining to an opera singer how to go about organising a strike…

Come to think of it, that’s probably John Buchan’s fault, too. More on that next time.

Books referred to in this post

Huntingtower, John Buchan