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4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
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On a December night in 1903, Tam Docherty lifts his new-born son and declares that this one will never go down the pits – this child Conn, his youngest, will work with his brains, rise out of the poverty of his heritage. The book covers the next twenty years or so, telling the story of Conn and his family, and most of all of Tam himself, a man who may be “only five foot fower. But when yer hert goes fae yer heid tae yer taes, that's a lot o' hert.”

Tam is a miner in the fictional town of Graithnock in Ayrshire. He's a hard man but a good-hearted one, with a fierce belief that the working man deserves better from his masters – a belief that he passes on to his sons, though each comes to interpret it in different ways. In some ways this is quite an intimate novel, concentrating on Tam's family and the small community he is part of, but through them it's a fairly political look at the lot of those at the bottom of the ladder in the early part of the twentieth century, a time when the old traditions are about to be challenged, first by the horrors of WW1 and then, following close on its heels, by the new political ideas that will sweep through Europe between the wars. Graithnock may be a small place, remote from the centre of power, but these influences will be felt even there.

McIlvanney writes beautifully, both in English and Scots, with as keen an ear for speech patterns and banter as for dialect. All the speech in the book is in dialect and since it's largely the dialect I grew up with it's hard for me to know for sure whether it would cause problems for non-Scots to read, but I don't think so. Other than speech, the book is in standard English. The characterisation throughout is superb, from Tam himself right down to the people who make only a brief incidental appearance. McIlvanney has the ability to get to the heart of a character in a few sentences, often using powerful metaphors to paint vivid portraits. The book is emotional but never mawkish – these are real people and the things that happen to them are real too, never exaggerated for effect.

Although the female characters are strong and well drawn, fundamentally the book concentrates on maleness, in a community where physical strength is of vital importance for economic survival. The men forge strong bonds as they work in the dangerous conditions down the mine and at night gather together on street corners, where they tell each other again and again the same stories that give them their sense of communal identity. McIlvanney shows effectively and movingly how, when physical strength begins to fade, the men are somehow diminished, giving way to the new generation in the first flush of their power, with all the rivalry this causes between fathers and sons. And as men reach the point where they can no longer go down the mine, they become dependent on their children to keep them out of the poorhouse.

The book covers the period of WW1 and McIlvanney takes us there with one of Tam's sons. Again, where other authors might become self-indulgent with descriptions of the horrors, McIlvanney practices admirable restraint, using brief episodes to illustrate the wider picture – an approach that I found as effective as many of the books that have wallowed too luxuriously in the blood and the mud. His perspective is more to look at the after-effects of the war on those who lived through it or lost someone to it, both in terms of emotional impact and on how it fed into the politics of the post-war society.

It's strange how sometimes it depends on when we read a book as to how it affects us. While I think this is an excellent book, I found its impact on me somewhat lessened by having so recently read The Grapes of Wrath. Docherty was, for me, the easier and more enjoyable read, but I found I was drawing comparisons all the way through; the major themes - of exploited workers and the strength that comes through the bonds of male physicality, of women as the nurturing backbone who hold families together, of the despair that drives men towards more extreme political systems - are at the heart of both books. Different societies but with similar issues and both showing man's fundamental struggle for survival in an unfair and unjust world. And though I would say Docherty is by far the better structured of the two, and mercifully much briefer, I must give the award for emotional power to Steinbeck, even though I object to the manipulation he used to achieve it. And, though McIlvanney's writing maintains a much more consistently high standard throughout, he never quite reaches the sublimity of some of the passages in The Grapes of Wrath. I suspect I would have found Docherty both more powerful and more emotional if I could have avoided the comparison. Definitely still a great novel, though, and one that I highly recommend.
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on 21 March 2015
It's rare for a book to reduce me to tears. Even rarer when it does so several times and leaves me with a lump in my throat and in need of space to cogitate before beginning another book. I came to William McIlvanney via Laidlaw, which is also rich in philosophies. This is marvellous.
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on 6 January 2016
A very meaty, earthy read. A familiar feeling all the way through, of the way things were for those folk who were part of industrial Scotland in the 20th century. It reminded me so much of the Scottish thoughts of family loyalties, friendships, neighbourhoods and working relationships. McIlvanney has always been in my life, from TV work and interviews to his writing in our national newspapers and I always respected his writings and philosophical thinking. However it was only when he recently passed away that I realised that I had a serious gap in my modern Scottish literature by never having read his novels. Since completing the read in quite a short space of time I realise how much I have missed.
It is not an easy read, so do not expect it to be, as it includes both the Scottish dialect which intermingles effortlessly with English in the same way as Burns poetry does. But the depth of his language and vocabulary both in the Scots tongue and the English prose makes it an unforgettable, warm and insightful read for me and one I will return to again.

I intend to read more of his work in the future.
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on 6 January 2002
Having been made to read Docherty in school, I remember settling down to do homework, fully expecting to hate what I was about to read. McIlvanney does not write my "usual" choice of novel but with Docherty he has produced a sometimes depressing, sometimes uplifting encounter of one man's struggles with life. An underestimated novel, this is probably the less glamorous relative of Angela'a Ashes but one which is definitely worth a read if stories about bygone days are your bag.
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on 29 August 2013
Having recently discovered William McIlvanney through the new edition of the Laidlaw novels I bought Docherty. In the author's customary lucid prose It tracks the struggles of the Docherty family, from the fight to survive financially to religious and political rifts through the family and between generations. There is also a lot of shrewd observation of working class life before and including World War I in Scotland represented by a thinly veiled version of Kilmarnock. Riveting.
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on 18 April 2016
I read this when it first came out more years ago than I care to remember. It's as good as it was the first time. Because I was brought up near the area it's based in, I felt as if I knew the people he was writing about.
The Dochertys are the kind of family I grew up in and have the same survival tactics.
This book is excellent reading for homesick Scots.
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on 4 October 2014
Having recently re-read this exceptional novel after several years, it is still a wonderfully descriptive tale of a Scottish mining community of 100 years ago. The characters are strong and believable, the mood is both tragic and determined and the descriptive narrative takes the reader back to an era when survival depended on a strong sense of family and community relationships rangeing over different levels This is a classical Scottish novel of the highest quality, the publication of which was a milestone in social and historical fiction. Highly recommended on many fronts, not least of which is the creation of a sense of pride in how the human spirit can triumph over hardship, adversity and deprivation.
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on 19 January 2016
A book about a mining family, the Docherty's in the Scottish coalfields from the turn of the 20 century to the beginning of the 1930s.He writes with real knowledge and passion from his own experiences; he knows the miners lives inside out.The characters are very real,you learn to understand their lives,the limited options for them ,the work in the mines earlier in the century before nationalisation, near slavery. He is marvellous at characterisation,you begin to know them,feel their fears,their pain,their stoic attitude to their lot. He encapsulates the period around the first World War from the view point of the ordinary man.His writing of the conditions experienced by the oldest son serving in a Scottish regiment is vivid, real and speaks across the century. He should be better known, his writing stands with and indeed excels many a better known author of the time. He is an expert in writing dialect and expressing speech. A really good,thought provoking read.
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on 16 January 2014
You might read many academic articles and texts depicting Scottish working class life in the pre and post great war period. Alternatively; you can read 'Docherty'. I have little doubt intimacy with and understanding of working class community, conditions and the social glues of local solidarity will be much better understood by getting to know Tam Docherty. Put the academia away and read this book.
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on 13 July 2011
Almost a masterpiece and certainly McIlvanney's best book. 15 years since I read it and I look forward to reading it again on this holiday. Basically, working class deprivation accompanied by the uplifting human spirit. His brother is the Sunday Times sports writer and his son Professor of English at Otago, so the family all know how to write. William McIlvanney's books will wax and wain in popularity, but should be a must for all
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