22 – Wee Sir Gibbie of the Highlands

Published in 1990 as Introduction to  Wee Sir Gibbie of the Highlands, the Bethany House young reader’s edition of George MacDonald’s Sir Gibbie


          I first heard the name George MacDonald shortly after I had read and fallen in love with The Chronicles of Narnia. C.S. Lewis had immediately become my favorite author, and when someone told me that there were people who liked George MacDonald’s books even more–I could hardly believe it! Nothing could compare with Narnia, I thought.

            I was in for a surprise!

            “But who is George MacDonald?” I asked.

            “An old Scottish writer,” I found out.

            “How old?” I wondered.

            “Very old! He lived in the last century, from 1824 to 1905. He was a very famous author in the nineteenth century. He knew Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, was a close family friend, and MacDonald and his children even helped him when Carroll was writing Alice. MacDonald wrote over fifty books.”

            “Fifty books!” I was amazed. “Then why have I never heard of him?”

            “Because his books are so old and long that most people have lost interest in them through the years. Hardly any of them are still being published today; only a few of his fairy tales for children. Most people are just like you, they’ve never heard of him either. But do you want to know something even more astonishing?”

            “Yes … what?”

            “George MacDonald was C.S. Lewis’s favorite author.”

            “No kidding!” I said.

            “Lewis talks about MacDonald over and over in his books. He wrote one whole book about MacDonald. Lewis even called George MacDonald his `master.’ “

            “That is remarkable! You mean my favorite author, the man who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, looked up to this old Scotsman, George MacDonald, as even greater than himself?”

            “That’s right.”

            “I still can’t believe nobody today’s heard of MacDonald then. Why isn’t he as well known as C.S. Lewis? Why aren’t his books as popular as Narnia?” I asked.

            “Well, there is one other difficulty about MacDonald’s books I haven’t told you about.”

            “Which is?”

            “Besides being long, a lot of them are written in Scottish dialect.”

            “Dialect … what’s that?”

            “A particular language form used only in one region of a country. You probably didn’t know it, but there is a `Scots’ language, or `dialect,’ that is still used in certain regions of Scotland even today. But in MacDonald’s time, a hundred years ago, it was spoken there much more heavily.”

            “And his books were written in this Scots `dialect’?”

            “Not all of them, but some of them. And it makes those books very difficult for people to understand today. The Scots tongue, of course, is mostly English, but there are a lot of words and phrases from German and Norwegian and old Gaelic, too.”

            Well, I certainly had a lot to think about! And the first thing I wanted to do was find some books by this fellow George MacDonald, and read them for myself. I wanted to find out if his stories were as good as C.S. Lewis said!

            I immediately went to the library in our town. I found three books by George MacDonald and checked them out. The first was called The Princess and the Goblin. It was a fairy tale, and I liked it. It reminded me of Narnia. The second was At the Back of the North Wind. I liked it too. It was part fairy tale, part real. But it was the third book I found that day that changed me forever. It was no fairy tale at all, but the story of a little boy who lived in the mountains of Scotland a century ago. The title of that book was Sir Gibbie.

            The boy called Gibbie grabbed my imagination and my heart just as strongly as had all the Narnian boys and girls and animals and places. But the interesting thing about Gibbie was that he lived in no fairy tale world, but in a real place. So while I found myself falling in love with the story about Gibbie, I also found myself falling in love with the mountainous region of Scotland too, that part of north-central Scotland called “the Highlands.” Though it was a real country you could actually locate on a map, I found my imagination being drawn to Gibbie’s homeland just as much as it had to the land of Narnia.

            By now I wanted to read more books by George MacDonald. I began a search to find more of them, though it was difficult and took me a long, long time. And in the end, though I still loved Narnia, I discovered that I had a new favorite author! But I also discovered that what I had heard about the Scottish dialect was right. It was difficult to understand at first! Besides being more than four hundred pages long (with small type!), the original of Sir Gibbie had some very odd-looking passages, like these:

            “My certie! but ye’re no blate to craw sae lood i’ my hoose, an’ that’s a nearer fit nor perris! … Alloo me to tell ye, sir, ye’re the first `at ever daured threep my hoose was no a dacent ane … An’ what’s my chop but my hoose? Haith! my hoose wad be o’ fell sma’ consideration wantin’ the chop.”

          and: “Ye dinna ken her sae well as I dee, sir … She wad caw her horns intil a man-o-war ‘at angert her. An’ up yon’er ye cudna get a whack at her, for hurtin’ ane ‘a didna deserve ‘t. I s’ dee her no mischeef, I s’ warran’.”

             and:“Ken ‘im? I wad ken ‘im gien he had grown a gran’father. Ken ‘im, quo’ she! Wha ever kenned ‘im as I did, bairn ‘at he was, an’ wadna ken ‘im gien he war deid an’ an angel made o’ ‘im!–But well I wat, it’s little differ that wad mak!”

            But I loved Sir Gibbie so much that I wanted to share the story with everybody! And that’s why I decided to edit and shorten the original, and “translate” the Scottish dialect into more understandable English. Now through this new edition, entitled Wee Sir Gibbie of the Highlands, many more people of all ages will be able once again to read this captivating tale that was lost to the reading public for so long.

            I hope you enjoy Gibbie’s story! If you do, find some of George MacDonald’s other books to read. You may discover, as we all have in my family, that George MacDonald is becoming one of your good friends through his books.

Michael Phillips