‘Penny Plain’ by O Douglas is one of my most favourite books by the Scottish writer O. Douglas or Anna Buchan, set in the lowland town of Priorsford, in the Scottish Borders. It tells the story of a poor and struggling young family- the Jardins – motherless and fatherless -looked after by their very young older sister Jean. There are two younger brothers, one at Oxford, one at school and an adopted brother of sorts, called the Mhor, and they all live in a delightfully quirky cottage called ’The Rigs’ whose slightly elevated front room resembles the prow of a ship that looks up to the hills.
A lively young socialite comes to live next door, befriends the family and creates quite a stir in the sleepy town of Priorsford. I adore the book because of its cozy descriptions of family life and home. Jean is an endearing heroine. There is a special chapter devoted to Christmas in Priorsford and I’m going to speak about it now.
The youngest member of the family, the Mhor, looked forward to Christmas as soon as Halloween was over. Jock the schoolgoing brother had drawn out a Christmas timetable, enlisting the main events of the day, spread out intentionally over the entirety of the day, in order to escape the disappointment and irritability of Christmas days of past, where present giving and enjoyment was over in the morning.
The timetable consisted thus :-
10-12. Deliver small presents to various friends
1. Luncheon at the Jowetts
4. Tea at home and present giving
5-9. Devoted to supper and variety entertainment
The descriptions of the variety entertainments were my favourite consisting of a series of plays put up by the boys, with the disastrous result of nearly setting fire to the hastily put together stage, while lighting the funeral pyre during Anthony’s oratory over Caesar.
Most memorable is Mrs McCosh’s (the house help’s) exclamation over proceedings –
“Ye wee devil, said Mrs McCosh, “ye micht hev had us a burned where we sat, and it Christmas too!”