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Authors: Iain Crichton Smith

The Red Door

BOOK: The Red Door
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Iain Crichton Smith was born in Glasgow in 1928 and raised by his widowed mother on the Isle of Lewis before going to Aberdeen to attend university. As a sensitive and complex
poet in both English and Gaelic, he published more than twenty-five books of verse, from
The Long River
in 1955 to
A Country for Old Men
, posthumously published in 2000. In his
1986 collection,
A Life
, the poet looked back over his time in Lewis and Aberdeen, recalling a spell of National Service in the fifties, and then his years as an English teacher, working
first in Clydebank and Dumbarton and then at Oban High School, where he taught until his retirement in 1977. Shortly afterwards he married, and lived contentedly with his wife, Donalda, in Taynuilt
until his death in 1998. Crichton Smith was the recipient of many literary prizes, including Saltire and Scottish Arts Council Awards and fellowships, the Queen’s Jubilee Medal and, in 1980,
an OBE.

As well as a number of plays and stories in Gaelic, Iain Crichton Smith published several novels, including
Consider the Lilies
In the Middle of the Wood
(1987) and
An Honourable Death
(1992). In total, he produced ten collections of stories, all of which feature in this two-volume collection, except the Murdo stories, which appear in a separate
Murdo: The Life and Works

Kevin MacNeil was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis and educated at the Nicolson Institute and the University of Edinburgh. A widely published writer of poetry, prose and
drama, his Gaelic and English works have been translated into eleven languages. His books include
Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides
(which won the prestigious Tivoli Europa Giovani
International Poetry Prize),
Be Wise Be Otherwise
Wish I Was Here
Baile Beag Gun Chrìochan
. He was the first recipient of the Iain Crichton Smith Writing
Fellowship (1999–2002).

This eBook edition published in 2013 by
Birlinn Limited
West Newington House
Newington Road

First published in 2001 by Birlinn Limited

Stories copyright © The estate of Iain Crichton Smith, 1949–1976
Introduction copyright © Kevin MacNeil, 2001

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.

ISBN: 978-1-84158-160-6
eBook ISBN: 978-0-85790-716-5

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Version 1.0


Editor’s Acknowledgements



The Ships

Survival without Error

The Exiles

Close of Play

‘Je t’aime’

Goodbye John Summers

The Black and the White

Sweets to the Sweet

Murder without Pain

The Adoration of the Mini


On the Island


The Idiot and the Professor and some others


The Dying

At the Party

In the Station

An American Sky

After the Dance

The Telegram

The Wedding

Getting Married

The Little People

God’s Own Country

By the Sea

The Black and the Red


A Day in the Life of . . .

The Crater

The Fight

In Church

Through the Desert

The Return

The End

Journeying Westwards

The Professor and the Comics


Easter Sunday


The Old Woman and the Rat

The Delicate Threads

The Conversation

I’ll Remember You

The Ghost

The Red Door

The Blot

The Vision

The Phone Call

The House

The Painter

The Existence of the Hermit


The Old Man

The Prophecy

The Letter

Jimmy and the Policeman

After the Film


Old Betsy


Mother and Son

New Stocking for Young Harold

The Scream

The Angel of Mons

The General

Incident in the Classroom

The Hermit

The Long Happy Life of Murdina the Maid

The Injustice to Shylock

In the Maze

The Meeting

Waiting for the Train

In the Café

On the Road


Publication Acknowledgements

Editor’s Acknowledgements

First of all, I would like to thank Donalda Smith, whose support during my period of tenure as inaugural Iain Crichton Smith Writing Fellow has given me some idea as to why she
was such an inspiration to her late husband.

I want to express my most sincere thanks to the following for their many, many efforts on behalf of this book: Neville Moir, Stewart Conn, Helen Templeton, Andrew Simmons, Hugh Andrew, Gavin
Wallace, David Linton, David McClymont and Morna Maclaren.

Grant F. Wilson’s
A Bibliography of Iain Crichton Smith
has been indispensable.

I must also thank the staff of the National Museum of Scotland (Edinburgh), the Mitchell Library (Glasgow), and the Scottish Poetry Library (Edinburgh) for their helpfulness.

Every effort has been made to track down all of Iain Crichton Smith’s English-language stories, but, given how phenomenally prolific Iain was, I must accept the possibility that these
volumes are not quite complete. If any reader knows of a story by Iain Crichton Smith that is not included in these volumes (other than those stories in Stewart Conn’s recent edition of
Murdo: the Life and Works
) I would be most grateful if they would get in touch with me via the publisher, in order that any such story might be included in future editions.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that working on these volumes has been a genuine labour of love and I wish to dedicate my own efforts to the late Iain Crichton Smith.


Iain Crichton Smith (1928–1998) was one of Scotland’s greatest literary phenomena. A voracious reader and a tremendously prolific writer of English and Gaelic
poems, plays, novels, short stories, essays and reviews, he was legitimately described by Sorley Maclean as ‘one whose imaginative and creative fertility and energy were to become the wonder
of literary Scotland.’ His success was not – and ought never to be – confined to literary Scotland; for a writer of Crichton Smith’s imagination, intelligence, and humanity
demands a readership that is as wide-ranging as his work.

It is perhaps inevitable that some misconceptions should arise concerning a writer whose work harnesses a great many seemingly contradictory impulses. Iain’s writings are by turns
confrontational and subtle, crafted and spontaneous, irreverant and thought-provoking, darkly ambiguous and redemptive. The very titles of many of his works suggest opposites.

One misconception – sustained by some of his editors, publishers, and readers alike – is that Iain was born on the Isle of Lewis. In fact, as he pointed out in the elegy
lived in Glasgow
, he was born in that city, albeit to a mother and father who were from Lewis, the island on which Iain was subsequently raised:

I left you, Glasgow, at the age of two

and so you are my birthplace just the same.

However, Iain, a
through and through, was to say that during his childhood Glasgow ‘was as distant to me as the moon’. By contrast, he said in an interview
The Scotsman
in 1985 that Lewis ‘follows me around wherever I go, a sort of question mark at the back of my life’.

His father having succumbed to tuberculosis, Iain was raised along with his two brothers on Lewis by a mother who, like the island itself, is a profound and dominating presence in his

Like his peers, Iain spoke Gaelic as a child (except, of course, in the classroom). A bookish boy, keen on football but given to reverie, he was often kept off school by his protective mother,
prone as he was to attacks – and suspected attacks – of asthma and bronchitis. The village in which they lived, Bayble, on the Point peninsula, was home to a small, close-knit, and
tightly Presbyterian community, aspects of which can be traced in many of Iain’s writings.

At eleven years of age Iain won a scholarship to study at the island’s principal high school, the Nicolson Institute, Stornoway. This set an attitudinal as well as an actual distance
between Iain and his fellow villagers:

When I left the village community in order to attend the secondary school in Stornoway I felt as if I was abandoning the community. There was a subtle alteration to me
in the attitude of my contemporaries who were not taking the road of education but would work on the land or on the fishing boats.

A sense of abandonment (of abdication, of exile, of being different) recurs throughout Iain’s work.

The classes he took at the Nicolson and the teachers who taught him there were to influence Iain greatly, not least of all by instilling in him a love of the Classics. He was also to write a
number of Nicolson Institute characters and incidents into his stories many years later. He whiled away his lunchtimes in the local library, poring over magazines that described a world entirely
different to that of his village. Iain’s mind was already assimilating the necessity of duality: between Gaelic and English, between rural and ‘downtown’, between the insular and
the cosmopolitan, between the suffocating restrictions of dogma and the multifarious freedoms of art.

Apprehensive but excited, Iain made his way to the University of Aberdeen and an environment that afforded him greater freedom (and therefore a greater breadth of experience). The city of
Aberdeen appears often in Iain’s poems and short stories, a glittering place of new learnings, of lodgings, cinemas, students, pubs and beggars. In a celebrated essay ‘Real People in a
Real Place’, Iain writes:

It is far more difficult to live in a community than to live in a city, for in a community one must have an awareness of the parameters beyond which one cannot go . .
. One of my clearest memories is at the age of seventeen arriving at Aberdeen Railway Station and finding sitting there a beggar in black glasses with a cap in front of him on the
pavement and in it a few pennies. Such a sight would have been unheard of in an island community. The beggar’s blatant economic demand and his overt helplessness, this individual
throwing himself on the mercy of chance, would have been a contradiction of everything that the community represented. The shame of dropping out of the community to become pure
individuality in a void would not be a concept that a community could sustain.

BOOK: The Red Door
4.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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