A Christmas Marag

18 12 2009

Further to our last entry concerning Mr Charles Dickens, we were fortunate to come upon a copy of the first draft of one of his most loved novels, ‘A Christmas Carol’. This faded manuscript was found by chance in the Stornoway Public Library, misfiled in the Sheep Husbandry Section.

The first draft of this famous story was called ‘A Christmas Marag’, and was probably written by Dickens whilst on his holidays in Stornoway. It is likely that this early version was written in the back pews of St Columba’s Church during a particularly long sermon on why the townsfolk of Stornoway should really stop worshiping Norse Gods, as the Vikings had left years ago.

This first draft explored the general themes later to appear in ‘A Christmas Carol’, but was heavily influenced by young Dickens experience of Stornoway life. It told the tale of Earshader Scrooge, a well-known skinflint and maker of marags. Scrooge had set up a butcher’s shop with his business partner Jacob Barley, and had soon built a reputation for producing marags of the highest quality. Both men shared the details of the unique recipe and guarded the secret very closely.

However, Scrooge soon developed the reputation for not putting very much in the Church collection plate. His fortune was hoarded under the bed and he became cruel and heartless. His poor butchers were treated with utter contempt and had to survive on a mere pittance, especially the Head Butcher, poor Borve Cratchit who struggled to feed his family.

The death of his partner Jacob Barley made the situation even worse, with Scrooge descending into a world of miserly misery.

One Christmas Eve, as Scrooge lay in bed in his cold dark house, the ghost of Jacob Barley appeared to him. Barley gives Scrooge a dire warning that unless he changes his ways, he would forget the secret recipe for the marags. He also warns Scrooge that three other spectral beings would appear as the Eve progresses.

The first apparition, the Ghost of Marags Past takes Scrooge back to his younger, more carefree days. In this vision, Scrooge watches himself and Barley develop the secret recipe for marags. The Ghost shows him the queues outside the butcher’s shop with townsfolk clamouring to buy their marags. Soon, the vision disappears along with the first Ghost, and Scrooge is left in his room with a flickering candle.

Next, The Ghost of Marags Present appears. This Ghost takes Scrooge to see people happily buying marags, and shows him the importance marags bring to everyone’s quality of life. This vision ends with a visit to Borve to see Borve Cratchit’s family gathering to enjoy their Xmas Marag (turkeys didn’t become standard Xmas fare on Lewis until after the wreck of a turkey carrying ship in Loch Seaforth resulted in 100’s of the beasts escaping and forming colonies on the sea-cliffs of Pairc) and having a great time despite being near poverty. Scrooge is quite taken with Cratchit’s disabled son Tiny Timsgarry.

Next, ‘The Ghost of Marags Yet To Come’ appears. This ghost shows Scrooge a future where mainland marag makers can claim that their marags are ‘Stornoway Black Puddings’, and sell them with impunity to Hotels and Guest Houses for their ‘Full Scottish Breakfast’. Worse still, Scrooge was shown a vision of Tiny Timsgarry dying because of an allergic reaction to inferior mainland marags.

Scrooge awakens the next day vowing to become a reformed character. He brings Borve Cratchit a huge Xmas Marag with extra suet and increases his wages. And they all live happily ever after.

Until, that is, Jacob Barley’s family stage a hostile takeover bid for the firm.

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A Dickensian Stornoway at Christmas Time

23 11 2009

Christmas is just around the corner (unless you’re an FP). If you watch a lot of telly you’ll have noticed the quaint Dickensian themes of winter pervading every single bleedin’ advert; snowy cobblestones, candle lit shop windows with frosted glass, roast chestnuts and barefoot urchins. Much of this imagery is associated with A Christmas Carol, one of Dickens best known works. Many people believe that this imagery came from London, but it actually stemmed from Dickens fond memories of Stornoway.

Charles Dickens spent many Christmas’s in Stornoway when he was a young man. His auntie came from Bayhead Street and the young Dickens used to go on his holidays there.  His auntie ran a Religious Bookshop known locally as ‘The Old ‘Coorie’ Gossipy Shop’. This was the place to catch up on all the latest Church gossip and scandal.  It was in snowy Stornoway, with its quaint little bay-windowed Cromwell St shops with the frosted panes of glass, that he got the idea for writing A Christmas Carol. Back then, for two months of winter, the snow was always deep (and crisp and even) because the Gulf Stream had yet to locate the Hebrides.

Often, in the snowy streets of the town, the Young Dickens would watch the rich gentlemen in their top hats and fine winter clothing browsing the goods in the windows of  ‘Murdo MacLean’s Gifte Shoppe’ and ‘Ye Olde Events At Christmas’.  With the help of his mate Artair ‘Dodger’ MacAulay (from Carishader) , Dickens soon learned to pick the pockets of the rich Goathill Road gents and make off with the ill-gotten gains. Often the two boys would sell their stolen goods on to a local Wagon Contractor who had a yard on Perceval Road.

These childhood memories stood Dickens in good stead when he started writing. It’s easy to see where the inspiration for many of his first drafts came from. If it wasn’t for his publisher trying to widen his appeal, we may have seen titles such as ‘The Adventures of Olivers Brae’ (where the young protagonist memorably goes to the cattleshed at Knockgarry Farm and asks  ‘Can I have some todhar?’,  for his fathers roses) and ‘David Plasterfield’ (about the young David helping the destitute Mr MicKinnon, who runs the Plasterfield bakery). Another well-known book ‘Great Expectations’ was also originally going to be about the struggle of a poor resident of Garrabost trying to order new bits for his fireplace from Lewis Crofters. Each morning the man would waken early and stand at the end of his croft looking for the deliveryman, so he could light his fire. The original title was of course going to be ‘Grate Expectations’.