‘O Caledonia’ by Elspeth Barker – A Gothic Parody, The Life and Untimely Death of a Girl from Scotland


‘O Caledonia’ by Elspeth Barker    (1991) – 224 pages


We find out the ultimate fate of our young heroine Janet in the very first paragraph of  ‘O Caledonia’ :

Here it was that Janet was found, oddly attired in her mother’s black lace evening dress, twisted and slumped in bloody, murderous death.’

Janet is 16 years old at the time of her gruesome death.

What genre is ‘O Caledonia’? It is a humorous Gothic in the same vein as ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ but with completely different predicaments. It is also a parody of the British family novel. ‘O Caledonia’ is a brilliant tongue-in-cheek performance.

Many children take to their roles in their family like a fish takes to water; in other words they get along swimmingly. Then there are the rest of us. Once in awhile there is a star-crossed child who is looked on askance and with disapproval just for being who she or he is. Janet is one of those unfortunates.

Of the five children of Hector and Vera, Janet is the oldest. Soon the baby boy Francis and her little sisters Rhona, Lulu, and Caro follow in somewhat rapid succession.

The scent of baby powder pervaded the house, visitors came with flowers, tender little white garments were constantly airing over the nursery fireguard and an exuberance of nappies billowed in the sea breeze.”

As the little children play, we hear an old nursery rhyme:

Hink, minx,

The old witch winks,

The fat begins to fry;

There’s no one at home,

But Jumping Joan,

Father, mother, and I.

Even at the age of four, Janet is called upon to watch her younger siblings, but she is negligent in that task.

Once again it was spanking and disgrace and a distant overheard muttering of “…simply can’t be trusted”, “We should have known better”, “After what she did before”, “Keep her away from the little ones”.

At a young age, Janet is met with the disapproval of her parents. She had learned to cope, even to survive by deviousness, by reading, and, as always, by day-dreaming.”

When Janet is about 10, the family moves to the highlands in far northern Scotland to a castle called Auchnasaugh where the weather is harsh and the church doctrine is even harsher. “Be ye ashamed, for ye were born in sin.” At her school, Janet discovers that there were one or two other girls who were nearly unpopular as she was. Janet goes on “fungus forays” in search of mushrooms with the tipsy eccentric old woman Lila who the rest of the family detests and stays away from.

It was a rigorous life, but for Janet it was softened by the landscape, by reading, and by animals whom she found it possible to love without qualification. People seemed to her flawed and cruel.”

The author of ‘O Caledonia’, Elspeth Barker, died recently at the age of 81. ‘O Caledonia’ is the only novel she ever wrote. I wish more writers would consider this. Instead of inundating us with novel after novel and story collection after story collection, leave us with just one superior novel or story. OK?

‘O Caledonia’ lacks the mind-numbing and soul-smashing sincerity of much of what passes for writing today. It is all the better for it.


Grade:    A




4 responses to this post.

  1. I am so keen to read this one, sounds excellent. I love the last line of your review 🙂

    Liked by 1 person


  2. I have recently acquired this on the strength of Jacqui’s review. I love the sound of it.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi heavenali,
      I actually liked ‘O Caledonia’ better than ‘Cold Comfort Farm’. ‘O Caledonia’ seems to be having a major revival now. During its first publishing, it was longlisted for the Booker.



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