On a dank and bone-chilling Hallowe’en evening, a young witch screams for mercy, lashed to a hawthorn tree in a mist-shrouded Borders village. Such are the traditionally spooky trappings of this heartwarming and understated novel, and yet – quite rightly – they play second fiddle to a touching exploration of the qualities that Rumer Godden celebrated so affectingly in her 1972 book The Diddakoi: the pride and integrity of the underdog and the outsider.
The village in question is the small farming community of Menoock, and the wannabe witch is Selina Russell, gauche younger sister of the more socially mobile Muffet. Although, at the beginning of the story, they share aspirations (mainly the acquisition of a pair of ponies, facilitated by an unexpected inheritance from their despised Great Aunt Emily), the schism between the sisters quickly becomes apparent. While Muffet befriends the hoity-toity Elspeth, the duo pretentiously rebranding themselves as “Marguerite” and “Eleanora”, Selina finds herself drawn to earthier company: Tim Scobie, the neglected “gnome of a boy” ward of itinerant hard-drinkers, and reclusive local misery guts Angus McFadden.
McFadden is an elderly, miserly, misanthropic loner holed up in the remote, outlying farm Drumlarach, his only company of note being his faithful collie Lady and a foul-tempered goose, Big Wullie, whose name was surely responsible for more than its fair share of 1970s primary school titters. His fractious relationship with the residents of Menoock becomes positively toxic when it is revealed that Great Aunt Emily has, in fact, bequeathed a substantial philanthropic sum to the village itself, to be used for the construction of a much-needed park. However, the only land suitable belongs to the reclusive McFadden – who steadfastly refuses to sell.
And so Selina, who has forged an unlikely friendship with McFadden after rescuing him from beneath a collapsed wall during a solo pony trek around the Drumlarach turnip fields, finds herself in an unenviable position. She is torn between her relationship with her new friend, which burgeons as she helps the irascible farmer recover from a badly broken foot, and between her self-conscious keenness to please the residents of the village – including her own father, a prominent member of the local committee formed to get the park built. Soon, the toxicity aimed towards Mr McFadden extends to both Selina and Tim, who – as the languorous summer holidays give way to bleak, September melancholy – are brutally beaten on their return to school. Their plight echoing that of the equally despised Kizzy, whose violent assault at the hands of her adopted village’s resident schoolchildren proved such a shocking turning point in The Diddakoi.
At this point, with Selina, Tim and McFadden boldly refusing to allow their pride to be dented, Godden draws up her battle lines. For her, the world of the underdog, despite everything, clearly remains far more vividly real than that of dreary, workaday society. As the village effectively imposes economic sanctions on Mr McFadden, with the local shop refusing to supply him with his weekly basics, the trio form an improbable support bubble of outsiderdom. Increasingly holed up together in the rotting, cobweb-strewn Drumlarach farmhouse, they enjoy a cosy form of isolated hygge beside the blazing fireplace. And here, Godden’s gift for understanding and explaining the motives of even the most superficially unpleasant of characters becomes truly apparent.
Angus McFadden, we learn, spent his youth as a penniless crofter, and his ownership of land is the symbol of his escape from that unforgiving existence. His isolation has divorced him from the trappings of the late 20th century: he mistrusts the local doctor who tries to heal his broken foot (“What did ye do before ye had these new-fangled things?” he gripes, when a visit to the nearest hospital’s X-ray machine is suggested) and, crucially, he is unaware that an influx of 1970s traffic into Menoock’s streets has made the safety of a village park a necessity for the local children. He is a Victorian recluse living in the age of the Ford Cortina and the colour TV, wilfully removing himself from the noisy intrusion of both, finding pride in his rotting pastures and integrity in his silent seclusion. What Selina and Tim offer him is an olive branch from modernity: they are disillusioned children of the 1970s drawn to the simple trappings of the Drumlarach lifestyle, effectively and unwittingly building a bridge between the two worlds.
But it is the otherworldly that drives the book to such a thrilling conclusion. Selina’s seemingly throwaway comment in the book’s opening line – “I shall be a good witch”, an ambition inevitably pooh-poohed by Muffet – gains delightfully subtle traction throughout, as the traditional supernatural stories of the Scottish Borders become an increasingly powerful motivation for her. “From elves, hobs and fairies / That trouble our dairies / From fire drakes and fiends / And such as the Devil sends / Defend us, good Heaven!” she recants, as the predictably superstitious Mr McFadden warns her of the dangers of “spunkies” – the Borders incarnation of the Will O’ The Wisp.
And those inexplicably secure in their knowledge that Hallowe’en is an imported American tradition, unheard of in Britain until the 1980s, may wish to look away at this point. For the celebration is a long-standing fixture in the Menoock social calender: an occasion heralded by “hideous, horrible masks” filling the shelves of the Post Office shop, all in advance of “the night when children dress up, and have the right to knock on anyone’s door”. Selina, fired by the allure of the uncanny, vows to make Hallowe’en the night when she will finally transform herself into that “good witch” and persuade Mr McFadden to acquiesce to the village’s wishes by giving up a patch of his land for the greater good.
This could have been the cue to smother an intensely human story in layers of stock supernatural weirdness, but Godden’s interest in people prevails, and the concluding battle between good and evil is played out on a very personal level. In full witch’s regalia, astride her trusty pony Haggis, Selina travels to take toffee apples and tablet to the lonely Mr McFadden, aiming to melt his heart by giving him the first Hallowe’en treats of his miserable life. On the way across his lonely fields, she is intercepted by a party of mask-wearing local boys. “drunk with mischief” and possessed by the sense of bitterness that now threatens to consume the entire village. They assault Selina once again and leave her trussed to a remote tree trunk on a foul and filthy Borders night, thick with mist and drizzle. Spunkies and boggarts begone: human nature is something far darker and more disturbing indeed.
Ultimately, Godden’s ability to understand and convey the motives of all parties in this bitter dispute wins the day. You could even make the case – just as with The Diddakoi – that the book’s conclusion, with underdogs and villagers immaculately reconciled and all recriminations withheld, is a fraction too pat and sentimental for comfort. Even Muffet comes good. But dwelling on such matters would unfairly undermine the effect of a charming and evocative tale, and distract from the sheer poetry of Godden’s writing, which is a immersive joy throughout. “She had to ride under the thorn trees that overhung the lane with their bare knotted branches and she remembered how she had once thought that trees at night bent down and twisted their twigs in your hair to pull you up…”
Happy Hallowe’en, everyone.
POINT OF ORDER: Mr McFadden’s Hallowe’en was inexplicably never turned into a bagpipe-laden six-part BBC series broadcast at 4.40pm in the autumn of 1976. But if it had been, John Laurie would have made the perfect Mr McFadden.
MUSTINESS REPORT: A satisfying 8/10. My original 1975 copy has pages the colour of tatties and neeps, and also – intriguingly tucked inside the cover – a roughly cut circle of lined paper from what I assume to be an original 1970s school exercise book. Would anyone like to speculate as to which arcane, occult practice this might have been intended for? My money’s on origami.