A man of incoherent transactions: In search of the world’s worst author

Cait Findlay 31 March 2017

“Of the different remarkable curiosity flowing from the excellencies of the cataract at Edinample, which partly perspicuously to the view of the beholders; its finitude confined between high wild rocks of asperity aspect, similar to a tract of solitude or savageness; its force emphatically overflowing three divisions; but, in the season of water dropping from the clouds…”

By the time one reaches the end of the first sentence – which, incidentally, is about a page long – you know this book is something special. In keeping with the majesty of the title – "Striking and Picturesque Delineations of the Grand, Beautiful, Wonderful, and Interesting Scenery Around Loch-Earn” – this little book is rather glorious in its incomprehensibility.

The circumstances that gave rise to such writing are shadowy. The accepted story is that the author, a gamekeeper in the Southern Highlands named Angus McDiarmid, took it upon himself to write a guidebook to his local area. However, he was a native Gaelic speaker, with an appreciably tenuous grasp on English. Yet with little more than a dictionary, confidence and a sense of purpose, he nevertheless set to work.

In 1815 the book was published, and ever since it has been startling readers. One of its most memorable phrases, the description of robbers as ‘men of incoherent transactions’, managed to seep into the works of Poet Laureate Robert Southey; in addition, Vladimir Nabokov, no stranger to writing in foreign languages, described it in his novel Pale Fire as a precursor to the free narratives of James Joyce. Most likely they were being a bit tongue-in-cheek, but Nabokov does have a fair point. 

There are two key arresting features of the Delineations. One of them is McDiarmid’s clear enthusiasm for using new words, despite never quite managing to use them properly. In the extract quoted above, he uses ‘remarkable’ for ‘remarkably’, ‘curiosity’ for ‘curiosities’, ‘asperity aspect’ for ‘wild appearance’. As has previously been noted, it seems almost as if he is getting the dictionary and picking the first relevant word, without caring much about the part of speech.

There is a certain bewildering beauty in this. Reading his work is a slightly unnerving experience – there is an underlying feeling that what you’re reading should be sensible English, and there are some sections of relative lucidity, but much of it is simply impossible to understand. Indeed, just enough is comprehensible to make the gist clear, but not much else. Were it any more idiosyncratic, or any less, I feel that much of the charm would be lost.

The other integral feature is his sentence structure, or rather the lack of it. It is perhaps slightly subtler, but I would argue about as important. Even if the English were word-perfect, the book would still be well out of the ordinary. Sometimes his sentences run to absurd lengths, a page or more in some cases. Other times they can be alarmingly blunt. Taking the work as a whole, it develops a truly strange cadence.

Taking these aspects together, it is understandable why this book is referred to as one of the worst of all time. To be sure, McDiarmid was at best incompetent. Yet, to reflect once again on Nabokov’s comment, what he managed unintentionally was ultimately sought by later authors, Joyce in particular, who knew exactly what they were doing. As it were, he was a modernist before it was cool. When one looks into Ulysses and sees chapter-long incoherent sentences and chaotic neologisms, one can almost see McDiarmid’s style writ large. So was he a laughable simpleton? Or was he an accidental genius?