Kind Kitty by Eric Linklater, 1935

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by Eric Linklater, 1935

Kynd Kittok, to give her name in its original form, was a mythical character who appeared in a short Scottish ballad of the fifteenth century. It told, in a genial and tolerant spirit, of a poor old woman who died of thirst when the drink ran out. To the amusement of God, she managed to get into heaven. There she spent seven years as the hen wife of Mary, but she found the company of the place uncongenial and the beer sour. She managed to escape to an alehouse outside the gates of heaven, where she felt more at home. There she remains, always ready to have a drink with the thirsty traveler.

The author of the poem is unknown, but it has been attributed, without evidence or support from its style, to one of the great Scottish poets of the period, William Dunbar. It was so attributed by Hugh MacDiarmid in his anthology The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry (1940). Eric Linklater also attributes the poem to Dunbar in the few lines he quotes at the beginning of his story "Kind Kitty." Dunbar was important to Linklater, who regarded him as a key figure in the Scottish literary tradition of which he himself was a part. He translated some of Dunbar's poems into modern English, and there is much affinity of feeling between the two men in their robust, Rabelaisian humor and in their delight in exuberant language.

"Kind Kitty," which was collected in God Likes Them Plain (1935), is one of the best-known and most highly regarded of Linklater's short stories. He transferred the action to the Edinburgh of the time he was writing, the 1930s, when the lot of the poor had little support from a welfare state. The ballad had given only the essentials of the story, but Linklater expanded it with circumstantial detail that gives life and blood to the characters and a substantial feel of place. His Kitty lives in Canongate, a part of town that was then an insalubrious slum. She keeps a few hens and lives on a pittance, most of which she spends on drink. To return the hospitality of a friend, she borrows against her pension to give a Hogmanay (New Year) party that "would put the Old Year to bed with joy and splendour." So it does, but a day or two later, with no money and no drink left, she succumbs to thirst like her fifteenth-century namesake. She abandons heaven for the more welcoming atmosphere of the inn outside the gates.

The theme gives Linklater an opportunity to do two things. First, he gives a memorable and sympathetic portrait of the old reprobate, so palpable that the reader can virtually smell her. Then he celebrates her conviviality, resilience, and generosity of spirit, which are a challenge to the qualities and standards of respectable society. The implication is that heaven, and therefore respectable society on earth, is full of people who are rather dull company and less kindly and warmhearted than reprobates who are kept out. It is a theme that has seemed to strike a particular chord in Edinburgh. A few years after Linklater's story, the Edinburgh poet Sydney Goodsir Smith based a long poem about the city, Kynd Kittock's Land, on the same legend. In this story and elsewhere Linklater made it clear that in his scale of values those of Kind Kitty had a high place.

—Paul H. Scott