I’d never heard of The Cone Gatherers until I joined Paul Cuddihy on his Read All About It podcast and heard it’s one of his favourite books by a Scottish author.
This novella seems to be a something of a classic in Scottish fiction, selected as one of the set texts for the English course in the Scottish Higher exams. I’m rather envious of those students who get to delve into a book so rich in symbolism and theme. But I’m also sympathetic because the imagery and allusions are complex and this is an intense, very dark and troubling tale.
The Cone Gatherers is set in the Scottish Highlands during World War II. Brothers Neil and Calum have been drafted into the estate of the wealthy Runcie-Campbell family to work as foresters, collecting cones before they are chopped down to support the war effort. Most of the fit and able men are off fighting the war, leaving Ardmore in the hands of Lady Runcie-Campbell and her malevolent gamekeeper, John Duror.
He detests the two brothers, but particularly the hunchback Calum, a sensitive soul with a compassion for all living creatures. His deformed body is an impediment on the ground but in the trees he’s agile and fearless. His older brother Neil is his guardian, devoting his life to protecting Calum from insults and abuse.
Source of hatred
The Cone Gatherers follows the course of Duror’s increasing antipathy towards these two outsiders. Initially the origin of his hatred seems to be an incident when he saw Calum release a rabbit caught in a trap on the estate. But as Jenkins delves deeper into the character of the gamekeeper, we see a man whose rage and anger has a deeper psychological origin.
Duror is horrified and appalled by Calum’s stunted body that so resembles a monkey “shuffling along, his hands close to the ground, his head without a neck … his shoulders humped so grotesquely’.”
The gamekeeper has long had an aversion to anything imperfect or deformed. He’s even pretended to love his wife who has been confined to bed, with an unspecified illness, for most of their marriage. The sight of this fat, needy woman is a daily reminder of how wretched his life has become.
He’s managed to keep his detestation in check for years, but something he sees in the mild Calum triggers a release of all that pent up emotion. He directs the full force of his fury on the forester. As the story progressive we witness Duror evolve from a rough-mannered bully into an irrational, malevolent figure determined to destroy the cone gatherer.
Hidden among the spruces … stood Duror the gamekeeper, in an icy sweat of hatred, with his gun aimed all the time at the feeble-minded hunchback grovelling over the rabbit. To pull the trigger, requiring far less force than to break a rabbit’s neck, and then to hear simultaneously the clean report of the gun and the last obscene squeal of the killed dwarf would have been for him, he thought, release too, from the noose of disgust and despair drawn, these past few days, so much tighter.
He drips so much poison about Calum into the ears of Lady Runcie-Campbell that she comes to see the gatherer as an evil twisted creature not worthy of being regarded as a human. She wants him off her land so he can’t taint her son and heir. So much for her professed Christian values!
Not surprisingly in a novel which pits good against evil, The Cone Gatherers is permeated with Christian imagery and allusions. It’s clear the forest is meant to be a Garden of Eden, a paradise treated with respect by Calum and Neil but corrupted by Duror’s foul hatred and Lady Runcie-Campbell’s callousness. Yet it would be overly simplistic to equate Duror with the devil and Calum with a sacrificial Christ-like figure — both men’s characters are way more complex than that.
Duror is not the only source of evil in this novel. The tragedy that is played out in the woods is set in the context of the monstrous violence and loss of life from war. World War 2 is subtly introduced with minor references initially— in the first scene for example the brothers notice a destroyer sailing out from the loch and camouflaged planes crossing the sky above their heads. Later we hear the local doctor complaining about rationing and there’s a news broadcast on the radio in Duror’s home which mentions a siege at Stalingrad.
Unfortunately that subtlety doesn’t last. More explicit references appear once we get into the meat of the narrative including one in which we learn of Duror’s attitude to the Nazi atrocities :
He had read that the Germans were putting idiots and cripples to death in gas chambers. Outwardly, as everybody expected, he condemned such barbarity; inwardly, thinking of idiocy and crippledness not as abstractions but as embodied in the crouchbacked cone-gatherer, he had profoundly approved.
I do wish Jenkins had refrained from making such an obvious connection between Calum and the victims of genocide. I would have preferred to draw my own parallels.
This is a minor flaw in the context of what otherwise is a fascinating novel about attitudes to outsiders, class divisions and nature. The ending isn’t really in doubt. From Duror’s first encounter with the brothers there is a sense of inevitability about Calum’s fate. Jenkins maintains an air of suspense however about the fate of the other major characters. Will they emerge from this tragedy in a spirit of redemption or has Duror’s evil nature tainted them all?
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins : Footnotes
Robin Jenkins was born in Flemington near Cambuslang, Scotland. He taught English in Scotland before British Council teaching posts in Kabul and Barcelona. He also spent four years at the Gaya School in Sabah, Borneo.
During World War Two, he was a conscientious objector and worked in forestry. He himself wrote that he did ‘once gather cones, in an autumnal wood, in wartime’ and that, in his writing, he explores ‘the virtues and vices’ of people as well as good and evil itself.
He published thirty novels, the most celebrated being The Cone Gatherers, and two collections of short stories.
Jenkins was awarded the OBE in 1999 and in 2003 received the Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun prize from the Saltire Society for his lifetime achievement. Robin Jenkins died in 2005, aged 92; his novel The Pearl-fishers was published posthumously in 2007.
The Cone Gatherers was the third book I read from my #20booksofsummer2022 list. I’m counting it as book 11 in my #22in22 personal project where I am trying to read 22 books from my TBR that I acquired before 2022.