The third story in the Robert Fraser Trilogy - from The Stickit Minister's Wooing - first published 1900
Critical review of The Stickit Minister Wins Through
We have to be happy with the title as the story thus far has been unremittingly hopeless. It is hard, indeed to see in what way Robert Fraser may ‘win’ given the situation he finds himself in. Alec is in a state of confusion. There is a delay of some time while the religious observance of ‘taking the buik’ is concluded. Robert has put his faith in his brother and so keeps his faith in God. We might simply see this as a couple of hours wasted. Alec is moved by Robert’s faith but there is some indication that he does not share it. Each to his own. Once more Crockett shows that nothing is simple.
A knock on the door forces action. Henry’s inaction is about to result in Robert’s hastened death. And yet the consequence brings about a conclusion which, in perverse way might be seen as, if not a happy ending, then a fitting one. Robert dies in the arms of his beloved. But is this enough to lift a sense of waste, loss and anger? For me, no. For Alec I suspect no. For Crockett… we can only speculate. But I do think it shows him offering less a homily, more a chance to interrogate our own perceptions.
In this story there is clear religious imagery and symbolism. Light and darkness are used figuratively. Weather is employed both to give realism and metaphor. Crockett is well aware of his writer’s toolbox. He gives us jeopardy and suspense and pain and emotional engagement. And finally, even within the resolution, he offers us a choice. Perhaps the suggestion is that God works in mysterious ways. Perhaps it is simply that we should make the most of our lives while we have them and not try to be ‘our brother’s keeper’ or protect those we love by distancing ourselves from them.
Henry finally does something good with his life – a small pay back to his brother. Robert and Jessie have a final moment of union. The ending of this story (and of the trilogy) is, I suggest, immensely complex and profound. Alec tells it:
His brother and I went toward him with a quick apprehension. But the Stickit Minister turned from us both to the woman, who took two swift steps towards him with her arms outstretched, and such a yearning of love on her face as I never saw before or since. The sullen lout by the fire drowsed on unheeding.
‘Jessie!’ cried the Stickit Minister, and with that fell into her arms. She held him there a long moment as it had been jealously, her head bent down upon his. Then she delivered him up to me slowly and reluctantly.
Henry Fraser put his hand on his heart and gave a great sob.
‘My brother is dead!’ he said.
But Jessie Loudon did not utter a word.
Robert goes to the woman he loves. She ‘delivers’ him up to his brother. His brother finally understands what he has lost.
What of Jessie’s speechlessness? We can read it as pain beyond endurance, or an inability to understand. There is no resolution – perhaps Crockett wants us to understand that love between a woman and a man is of such a unique and complex nature that we can only speculate and should not judge.
And what of Alec? He is left to recount the story. His grief is still palpable. His love is clear and his sense of loss is not resolved. As narrator he is every bit as central to the story as the others. His perspective is every bit as valuable. And he is, at least to some extent, Crockett’s mouthpiece, so we may speculate (which is all we can do of course) on his perspective.
Crockett may have received some sense of closure in his own grief from writing these stories. He may have been repaying a debt to a loved relative. To suggest that these works are melodramatic is to undermine his integrity as a writer. Any close study reveals they are far from trivial and much more than simply pandaring to the tastes of a market for sentiment or melodrama. They show depth, guts and bravery on the part of the writer, whose perspective waxes and wanes as he moves in and out of the characters, real and imaginary, who populate the story.
In these three, slender, stories, we find a depth and power of writing which should alert us to Crockett’s skill. All it takes is open eyes and an appreciation of authorial intent. You don’t even need to be religious. Just believe in the author as he believes in his characters and you are half way there to an appreciation of a unique voice that has been overlooked for far too long. Surely 125 years is long enough for us to gain a new, cleaner and more healthy perspective on Crockett’s writing.
Available to read online at McStorytellers HERE from March 22nd 2018
Review of the title story from the collection 'The Stickit Minister's Wooing' - (2nd in the Robert Fraser Trilogy) first published 1900
Critical review of The Stickit Minister’s Wooing.
As in the first story, weather is used to set the scene in this sequel. Crockett refers back to his own published work (and a historic ‘event’) the Sixteen Drifty Days in a way that reminds us of his skill in cross-referencing his own work and indeed in his skill at showing multiple (and unusual) perspectives in his writing.
While in the first of the Robert Fraser trilogy, Crockett retains a distances himself as narrator, telling the story mainly from the third person, though he relatively quickly resorts to dialogue and lets the characters reveal themselves thus, in this story he shifts perspective from the start. The ‘familiar’ story of Robert Fraser is now told in the first person by Alec McQuhirr, son of Saunders, and one of Crockett’s familiar fictional alter egos.
As such it becomes Alec’s story as much as Fraser’s. There is a touch of personal reminiscence about it, as Crockett, in Alec’s form, describes the reality of coming back from college to discover a man he respects at death’s door.
The gift of Tennyson’s poetry is a key to hidden depths.
‘For I loved Robert Fraser, and I will not deny that my heart beat with expectation as I went up the little loaning with the rough stone dyke upon either side — aye, as if it had been the way to Nether Neuk, and I going to see my sweetheart.’
We see the poignancy of familial love, suggesting that Crockett still mourns the loss of his cousin (the template for Fraser) and wishes to honour his memory. Crockett fictionalises throughout and we cannot assume that the ‘real’ Robert had a lover whom he lost – but the emotion is honest even when the story is fictive. Certainly Crockett is keener to show the humanity of the man – it’s a love story more than a didactic one.
The description of the dying man is well observed. From the smile they exchange, both knowing they lie and the ‘veins blue and convex upon the shrunk wrist’ Crockett draws us into the reality of an experience which is familiar to many.
At such a time smiles, and gifts, take place of words. There are no honest words to be spoken. Alec offers a volume of Tennyson. We can imagine him (and Crockett) purchasing the book and feel the anticipation of when he would give it.
‘I had cut it to save him trouble, and written his name on the blank page before the title.’ The depth is in the detail and as readers we are drawn into a whole world of hope and memory which surely touches us personally – booklovers especially will not fail to be moved by the words:
‘I shall never forget the way he looked at it. He opened it as a woman unfolds a new and costly garment, with a lingering caress of the wasted finger-tips through which I could almost see the white of the paper, and a slow soft intake of the breath, like a lover's sigh.’
Alec understands the power of a gift – and the uselessness of the giving. A sense of hopelessness pervades but it is the living man rather than the dying who is the most hopeless. It is Crockett’s skill of imagery which moves the reader most. It is not a dissection such as a medical man would offer, but a poem in prose imagery – in which no word or phrase is wasted. The words work to explore the ideas (and the reality) behind them in a powerful way. That they touch our emotional response is both intended and inevitable. If we reduce this to melodrama it is ourselves we diminish, not Crockett or his characters.
Fraser reveals, in much greater detail than the original story, the act and consequences of his covenanted pact with his Maker. We cannot help but think that while he may have acted with the best of motives, he made wrong choices – certainly in the case of Jessie Louden. He sought to spare her pain later on, but this was not in his gift. Her lack of understanding of his action resulted in them both paying a painful (and unnecessary) price. But his own understanding may have been flawed. He tells Alec that:
‘though the lassie's heart was set on me, it was as a bairn's heart is set, not like the heart of a woman.’
It is hard for the reader to judge the truth of this and Crockett does not come down on one side or the other (at least not yet) but simply explores the consequence of the action.
We might consider whether perhaps Fraser should not have lost faith in life when he discovered his ailment. It is the loss of faith in life rather than a loss of faith in God which I find particularly interesting in this story. Those of a religious bent may read it differently. I simply point out that a religious belief is neither a pre-requisite nor a particular benefit when reading Crockett’s work.
The story then progresses to the other, closer love. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper’ was the obvious text for ‘The Stickit Minister’ story, and we are forced even more in this story to conclude that the answer is no. Henry is clearly not worth the bother. As if a dying man is not enough to deal with, Crockett twists the knife by showing us that Fraser has given his all to a man who now will not even help the woman he loved by visiting her when her children are sick.
Initially Alec (and the reader) are unaware of this, simply seeing Henry as a wastrel. But the full enormity of his betrayal in response to his brother’s love is revealed in the course of the story. We might well suggest that Robert Fraser is a man who loves ‘not wisely but too well.’
The title suggests that this is a love story. It is clearly also a story of unrequited love. The love story of Robert and Jessie, while perhaps in the background, is the central concern. Unrequited love is quite a big enough topic for any story. Crockett adds more in order to give us more depth and a variety of perspectives from which to address the issue of love. The love of a man for his brother and the love of one man for a kinsman are shown in parallel – as much as Robert cannot ‘help’ Henry to live a good life, nor can Alec help Robert to stay alive – never mind to live in hope.
Alec’s description of Henry is clear and uncompromising. We see a man gone to bad. Alec has not seen him in some time and Crockett uses both plain and figurative language to deliver his verdict:
‘A handsome young man he was then, with a short, supercilious upper lip, and crisply curling hair of a fair colour disposed in masses about his brow.
He entered, and at the first glimpse of him I stood astonished. His pale student's face had grown red and a trifle mottled. The lids of his blue eyes (the blue of his brother's) were injected. His mouth was loose and restless under a heavy moustache, and when he began to speak his voice came from him thick and throaty.’
He is everything that Robert is not, and a clearer example of why ‘common men’ are worth more to Crockett than those of status is evidenced in this description and the following exploration of Henry’s character and behaviour.
Alec cannot bear the exchange and Crockett plays us as he takes the young man out with a deliberate and delicate digression on ‘young love’. And brings us back to the central issue with the arrival of a woman who we do not then know to be Jessie. Her love for her children has brought her back to Robert’s door, in her desperation for Henry, the doctor, to help them. Somehow we already know (even though we do not know who she is) that Henry will not help. Crockett winds us up to the big reveal when we discover that Henry is not just an ordinary ‘bad’ man but in a symbolic sense, when he should pay his brother back, he will not do so. Thus we see morality in the extreme hidden in the small minutiae of domestic social detail. This is clever and powerful writing.
Alec does what he can, and Robert begs his brother to intervene. Henry finally accedes and Robert (not for the first time) trusts him. We guess that this will not end well. We do not yet know the full impact of the situation but as Henry departs Robert reveals it:
‘Robert, why are you so troubled about this woman's bairns?’ I asked.
He did not answer for a while, lying fallen in upon himself in his great armchair of worn horsehair, as if the strain had been too great for his weak body. When he did reply it was in a curiously far-away voice like a man speaking in a dream.
‘They are Jessie Loudon's bairns,’ he said, ‘and a’ the comfort she has in life!’
Crockett ends the story (or this part of it) with Robert’s explanation to Alec of his failed relationship with Jessie and gives a clear picture of the pain he has endured ever since. We are forced to conclude that whereas he cares nothing of being termed ‘stickit’ or a loser, Jessie’s actions have broken him. Giving up on life and love happened together and the consequences have been immense. The story is left on this cliff-hanger as there is a final part to come.
Story available to read online at McStorytellers HERE from March 21st 2018
To commemorate the 125th anniversary of the first publication of Crockett's bestselling collection 'The Stickit Minister and other common men' this is the first of three critical reviews. This review covers the title story 'The Stickit Minister' which is the first of a trilogy of stories about Robert Fraser.
Critical review of The Stickit Minister
The title story of Crockett’s collection opens with a wonderfully evocative pastoral view. Perhaps rural rather than pastoral. The ‘bask blowy day’ and ‘snell’ weather takes us instantly into 19th century rural Scotland as easily as a Van Gogh landscape takes us into the 19th century rural France.
Cairn Edward is a fictionalised version of Castle Douglas, a small market town in South West Scotland. Crockett grew up in this environment and his writing offers a realistic picture of the landscape and the people.
The third person narrator introduces us to the title character, Robert Fraser and to Saunders McQuhirr. These are both drawn from life: Crockett’s second cousin Robert is the template for the ‘stickit minister’ and his grandfather William is the template for Saunders.
Robert Fraser is about to impart a secret. Saunders is reticent to hear. Fraser explains how a trip to the doctor led him to make a choice, which we might interpret as a sacrifice. It is a choice based on a realistic understanding of his prospects, in both financial and practical terms. He takes what he sees as the only sensible course of action. The blow which has fallen on him is not one he wants to impact on either his brother or his beloved. His decision will have a detrimental impact on them both all the same.
late one night I saw my way clear to what I should do. Harry must go, I must stay. I must come home to the farm, and be my own ‘man’, then I could send Harry to the college to be a doctor, for he had no call to the ministry as once I thought I had. More than that, it was laid on me to tell Jessie Loudon that Robert Fraser was no better than a machine set to go five year.
We might read this as a loss of faith, or simple pragmatism. Either way, the choice made, Fraser gets on with his lot. Because he kept his reasons secret, he has been vilified by the aspirational society around him, becoming the butt of their jokes and labelled a ‘stickit’ minister. This is not strictly accurate in any sense, given that a ‘stickit’ minister was actually one who could not get a ‘living’ and in fact Fraser never completed his training. He is more a ‘stickit’ man than a ‘stickit’ minister and even then, he is only ‘stickit’ in the eyes of those who do not know the truth. Basically, he is seen as a failure and he lives with that slander in order (as he sees it) to give his brother and his beloved better chances in an uncertain world.
Crockett shows that Fraser’s decision, while worthy of the man, backfires on him. His brother, though a combination of lack of understanding and lack of character, fails to appreciate the sacrifice and remains demanding; while his beloved marries on the rebound. Neither brother nor beloved understands why Fraser has acted as he has. Thus neither is in a position to make good choices, and so it is perhaps inevitable that his sacrifice will, to some degree, be unsuccessful in outcome.
But Crockett is eager to show the goodness of the man.
‘it was laid on me to be my brother's keeper.’ says Fraser. And he has tried to live up to his responsibilities. His illness no doubt were a main part of why he failed in his farming endeavours, but we cannot help but see Henry as ungrateful at the least. While we see Henry thus, Robert refuses to blame his brother. Crockett, though, leaves us in no doubt as to which man is the ‘greater.’ Thus he reveals that the ‘common man’ has more worth than the Doctor – a position reminiscent of Burns. It offered, and still offers, a challenge to those in the professions, those with aspirational leanings. The story can be read from multiple perspectives (a fact Crockett was doubtless well aware of) but it is surely hard for anyone to side with Henry rather than Robert.
Robert has been unsuccessful both in his farming and in his struggle for life. As he reveals to Saunders that he is about to lose his tenancy, Saunders responds with reasonable and passionate indignation. Fraser delivers the killer blow, making it clear to Saunders that he is dying and such things are no longer of any importance to him. The underplaying of the word ‘flit’ for death, far from being melodramatic, shows a poignant use of language. This is a tour de force of short story writing for its depth and skill and has plenty to reveal to modern readers and writers.
Read the story for yourself online HERE at McStorytellers
Galloway Raiders members can download a 60 page PDF document with much more about The Stickit Minister FREE HERE. (If you're not a member, it's free to join. So why not JOIN HERE.
Samuel Rutherford Crockett. I’m not going to go on about how he was once one of Scotland’s bestselling and best known authors. Or how he has been much neglected and often maligned by successive generations of literati. Or how both his reputation and his work have been revived in recent years through the singlehanded efforts of playwright, author, publisher and good friend of mine Cally Phillips. Instead of all that, I want to go on about the book I’ve just finished reading.
Now, ever since that aforementioned revival by Cally through the estimable Galloway Raiders, I’ve read many of the great man’s novels. I’ve also enjoyed every one of them, but none more so than Strong Mac. So, first of all, how do I categorise the book? Well, it’s a romance, for sure – a love story runs through the heart of it. But it’s more than that, so much more. There’s treachery and murder most foul and torture and fighting – at one point, we’re even plunged into the midst of Wellington’s Peninsular War. But there are also scenes of high comedy, including the laugh-out-loud proceedings at a murder trial. And, of course, since it’s a love story, there are many moments of quiet tenderness.
In short, therefore, the book has everything – adventure, mystery, humour, romance. But what makes it stand out for me, what turns it into a Scots classic to compare with anything produced by Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott are the following three qualities.
First, there’s Crockett’s characterisation. From the adorable Adora Gracie, the novel’s heroine, through to the multitude of bit-part players – the taciturn blacksmith, for example – the characters are so finely drawn you feel you’d know them if you met them in the street. But, believe me, there are some of them you wouldn’t want to bump into!
Then there are the landscapes. Crockett can’t help himself. With every new scene, he’s compelled to paint the landscape, sometimes in the minutest detail. His paintings are so accurate, so alive, that you’re transported there with the characters. You can see that tiny icicle sparkling in the winter sun. You can witness the colours unfolding and hear the sounds building across that vast, empty moor as it awakens to a new spring morning.
Last, but not least, is the dialogue. Crockett has all his characters speaking in their native Scots tongue, not in the Queen’s English and certainly not in in some half-arsed English/vernacular hybrid. Now, I realise that whole theses have been written by the literati on the use of “dialect” in novels. But listen to the rhythm of Crockett’s dialogue, feel the sharpness of it, laugh at the wryness of it, and you’re bound to support the full-dialect side of the argument.
But don’t just take my word for it. Go read this neglected Scots classic for yourself.
Review by Brendan Gisby
I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Black Douglas. Maid Margaret is described as the sequel to The Black Douglas, but I enjoyed it even more. The first reason is because it is a much more personal account of the turbulent times of fifteenth century Scotland, times that were dominated by the internecine war between the Douglas and Stewart Houses. The second and more important reason is because it is narrated by the Maid of Galloway herself – or by Crockett impersonating her. And what an impersonation!
After only a few pages, you’ll forget that this is a man writing as a woman. Across the lifetime of the Maid, from petulant teens to creaky dotage, you’ll experience her joys and pains and anguish. You’ll rejoice with her at love found and you’ll grieve with her at love lost. And throughout the whole of the narrative, you’ll find that Crockett does not fail in his task of being the Maid – not once. I believe he has achieved something in this book that none of his contemporaries, not even the sainted RLS, could have accomplished. He is an astonishing writer. And Maid Margaret is an astonishing book.
Review by Brendan Gisby
S.R. Crockett describes Raiderland as “a garrulous literary companion for Galloway lovers and Galloway travellers.” It was first published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1904 by which time Crockett had been a best seller for ten years.
The bare bones of Crockett's biography are fascinating. He was born in Balmaghie 1859, the illegitimate son of a dairy maid. For the first eight years of his life he was brought up by his maternal grandparents at their farm in Duchrae and was then educated in the small town of Castle Douglas. In 1876 he gained a Galloway Bursary to Edinburgh University where he began writing as a way of supporting himself as he studied. This seems to be an impressive educational trajectory and I rather wonder whether it could have been replicated in England at the same period? It's certainly a tribute to the moral and serious approach to life fostered by rural Scottish Presbyterianism. Crockett's grandparents were Cameronians - a section of the Scottish Covenanters who became a separate church after the religions settlement of 1690, refusing to take oaths of allegiance and continuing to object to the union between England and Scotland. Scottish religious dissent and factionalism forms a major part of Crockett's fiction – especially where it's aligned with political resistance to the age-old enemy, England. It may be that there is a current political message in the republication of Crockett's oeuvre at a time when the Union is again under scrutiny. Whether or not this is so, Raiderland offers a wonderful opportunity to glimpse dissent from the inside. After his time at Edinburgh Crockett spent the best part of ten years as a Free Church minister himself, resigning in 1895 to concentrate on his writing.
Much of the early part of Raiderland is autobiography through landscape. Crockett recreates his childhood self (“the Boy-who-Was”) in a somewhat Wordsworthian way, mentally revisiting the landscape of his childhood and using it to rekindle memories of “those bright days when the sun had not long risen and the feeling of morning was in the blood.”
Here's his introduction to his grandparents' Duchrae farmhouse: "The farm I know best is also the loveliest for situation. It lies nestled in green holm crofts. The purple moors ring it half round, north and south. To the eastward pine woods once stood ranked and ready like battalions clad in indigo and Lincoln green against the rising sun – that is until one fell year when the woodmen swarmed all over the slopes and the ring of axes was heard everywhere. The earliest scent I can remember is that of fresh pine chips, among which my mother laid me as she and her brothers gathered kindling among the yet unfallen giants.”
His first indoor memory is of lying in his cradle in the farmhouse kitchen aware of his grandmother “padding softly about in her list slippers (or houshens), baking farles of cake on the girdle, the round plate of iron described by Foissart. The doors and windows were open and without there spread that silence in comparison with which the hush of kirkyard is almost company – the silence of a Scottish farmyard in the first burst of harvest.”
There is no sense that Crockett suffered any stigma for his illegitimacy or that he was anything other than a loved and cherished (though lonely) child experiencing a particular rural mixture of freedom and discipline. Raiderland proves that his senses remained wide open to natural beauty throughout his life and his imagination ranged freely backwards and forwards in historical time. That small detail of the girdle being “as described by Foissart” is indicative of Crockett's awareness of the living history that surrounded him.
The Galloway novels are set variously from the 15th century onwards and Crockett finds many of his characters within his native landscape. Sometimes he is explicit, linking the solitariness of his childhood to his development of imaginary people – who were often not imaginary at all but based on the adults around him, as in the following passage: “Chiefly I love the Crae Hill because from there you get the best view of the Duchrae, where for years a certain lonely child played and about which, in after years, so many poor imaginings have worked themselves out. Here lived and loved on Winsome Charteris – also a certain Maisie Lennox, with many and many another. By the fireside night after night sat the original of Silver Sand, relating stories with that shrewd and becoming twinkle in his eye which told of humour and experience as deep as a draw-well and wide as the brown-backed moors over which he had come.”
At other places in the book Crockett simply segues into a relevant passage from one or other of his novels, usually with the briefest of historical notes. He tramps the hills and gazes down into the lochs of both East and West Galloway and takes the reader with him, delightfully. All of this is accessible to the English reader with no prior knowledge of the area or of Crockett's fiction. There are occasional moments when one reaches for a glossary or when he delves a little too deep for the ignorant southerner. I admit that my eyes glazed over the c18th century diary of landowner William Cunninghame but I apologise for this as a sign of my own English weakness. Raiderland must be supremely rich for those with the relevant knowledge.
Review by Julia Jones
Don’t be fooled into thinking The Black Douglas is another historical romance of the kind churned out by contemporary Scottish writers. It couldn’t be further from that description. Yes, a romantic thread runs through the novel, but so also do political intrigue, bloody executions, terrifying witchcraft and paedocide most heinous. Set in fifteenth century Scotland, with a foray into the darkest corners of France, this is the Scottish version of “Game of Thrones”. Without the gratuitous sex, of course – it was written in the late nineteenth century, after all. But it does have its own larger-than-life villain who easily out-villains Ramsay Bolton!
And if all of that isn’t enough, there’s the writing – the beautiful descriptive writing of Samuel Rutherford Crockett, one of the best novelists ever produced by Scotland, but sadly much-neglected these days. I’m off now to read Maid Margaret, his sequel to this wonderful novel.
Review by Brendan Gisby
Literature, it seems, is as subject to the quirks of fashion as just about every other area of human activity. S.R. Crockett was a tremendously popular novelist back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; now, barely a hundred years later, he’s much less widely known.
The Black Douglas revolves around a cast of actual historical figures, including William Sixth Earl of Douglas (“The Black Douglas” of the title), and Gilles de Retz, the loopy French nobleman who fought alongside Joan of Arc before (allegedly) embarking on a life of occult rituals and murder most vile. The story unfolds against a backdrop of mediaeval Scotland (in particular, Crockett’s native Galloway) and France, and is frequently told through the eyes of the Earl’s sidekick and knight, Sholto MacKim.
And what a story it is, involving murder, blood-drinking, witchcraft and werewolves, no less. The Black Douglas was published in 1899, two years after Dracula first appeared, and I’d be surprised if it hadn’t been influenced by that novel to some extent. Many of the elements of Dracula are also present here: a sinister, intriguing nobleman who lives in a castle with such a blood-curdling reputation that very few people dare go there; the curious command that said nobleman has over animals, and in particular wolves; and the significance of human blood, particularly as a means of prolonging life. Indeed, anyone who has read Dracula may experience a strange sense of déjà vu when reading a particular passage in The Black Douglas, in which a woman whose child has been abducted hammers, screaming, at the castle door, pleading for his return: “Give me my boy, murderer! Restore me my son!” All that is missing is Stoker’s curious psychosexual take on his material – that, and the vampirism.
For de Retz is not actually a vampire, though his physical appearance brings Stoker’s Count to mind: “The upper lip was retracted, and a set of long white teeth gleamed like those of a wild beast.” Indeed, it may be that he’s simply a deluded madman, though Crockett himself suggests that there’s something genuinely supernatural underlying the story. De Retz is a curious, complex figure: unashamedly villainous, yet given to moments of charm, and even of tenderness. At times he seems to be driven by a desire for knowledge: “I have in secret pushed my researches beyond the very confines of knowledge . . . Evil and good alike shall be mine.” Despite worshipping a demon, and carrying out blood sacrifices in its honour, he is also strangely devout, to the extent of allowing a community of monks to live in his castle and spending hours at his devotions. Crockett describes him as a “good Catholic and ardent religionary.” (This, interestingly, is a feature of much Gothic fiction: a deep suspicion and dislike of Catholicism. More on this in my contribution posts for the Edinburgh Ebook Festival this summer. . .)
The Black Douglas also tells two love stories: the happy one between Sholto and the mischievous but ultimately sweet-natured Maud, and the altogether less happy one between William and Sybilla, the niece of Gilles de Retz, and an integral part of de Retz’s plan to ensnare William. There are traces of La Belle Dame Sans Merci in Crockett’s description of Sybilla. However, there’s also a robust streak of humour in the novel. During a tournament in which Sholto has performed well, a spectator (an armourer by trade) cries: “Well done, Sholto MacKim – well done, lad! . . . Ye shall hae a silken doublet for that! . . . At little mair than cost price!”
I suppose there is a sense in which it is unsurprising that The Black Douglas is less well-known these days. It’s not due to any lack of ability on the part of the author: Crockett was clearly a talented writer. It’s just that fare such as The Black Douglas is perhaps more morally earnest and melodramatic than is currently fashionable. The Black Douglas portrays a world of fair maidens, foul fiends, and unblemished heroes; but you shouldn’t let that put you off reading it. It struck me as being a little like the literary equivalent of a Pre-Raphaelite painting: a little sentimental, perhaps, but ultimately a colourful, adroit, and highly entertaining creation.
Review by Mari Biella
I’ve just finished reading “The Cherry Ribband”. Needless to say, it is my current favourite. It is set during The Killing Times of the late seventeenth century, when a deadly game of cat and mouse between the King’s Men and the Covenanters was played out across the hills and moors of South-West Scotland. While the story begins in Crockett’s beloved Galloway, much of the action takes place on the East Coast of Scotland, a territory that is certainly more familiar to this Edinburgh laddie.
To be honest, though, I’m never much bothered about the historical context and geographical settings of Crockett’s novels. It’s the writing that interests me. There are Crockett’s superb trademark descriptions of the landscape for a start. From blushing dawns over the moorland to velvety black forests at night, those descriptions never fail to move me.
Then there are the characters he brings to life. Heroes and heroines, of course. But of more interest to me are his secondary characters. In “The Cherry Ribband”, he presents us with an array of memorable players. There’s Rantin’ Rab Grier, scourge of the Covenanters. And there are the two East Coast fishermen: wily, scheming Prayerful Peter and his nephew, honest and laconic Long-bodied John. These are characters who will stay with me for a long time to come.
As will the Countess of Liddesdale, a loud, brash, courageous giant of a woman. And it’s her words that serve to illustrate a third and not less important reason why I love Crockett’s work – his masterly command of the Scots tongue. This outburst from the big lady almost had me in tears: “And what for then should I be afraid o’ wee Steevie Houston, daft or wise, guid or ill – me that could grip three Steevies in my left hand and shake them till their very banes played castanets!” So vivid. So Scottish. So perfect.
So there you have it. “The Cherry Ribband” is my current Crockett favourite. But I’m off now to peruse the great man’s catalogue for my next favourite!
Review by Brendan Gisby.
With over seventy published works, the reader new to Crockett is so spoiled for choice that it can be hard to know where to begin. I can recommend many start points, but the easiest entry point into Crockett’s Galloway fiction still remains The Raiders.
The modern reader should be aware that The Raiders is in fact the middle part of a trilogy in which the character John Faa, King of the Gypsies is ever present. The Raiders was Crockett’s ‘breakthrough bestseller’ in 1894. Its sequel The Dark o’ The Moon was published six years later in 1902. The prequel, Silver Sand, was published on the day Crockett died in April 1914. So while a reader today may still come to Crockett through The Raiders, the modern reader has options as to how to engage with the narrative beyond that afforded by original publication.
The Raiders is certainly a novel which grips the reader from the very opening sentence:
‘It was upon Rathan Head that I first heard their bridle-reins jingling clear.’
Straight away Crockett pulls us directly into the landscape:
‘This was now May, and the moon of May is the loveliest of the year, for with its brightness comes the scent of flower-buds, and of the young green leaves breaking from the quick and breathing earth.’
Set around the time of the Acts of Union, the purported hero of the story is the young ‘bonnet laird’ Patrick Heron. There are shades of David Balfour about him, but there are also hidden depths and other heroes in this story - not least John Faa, who is known as Silver Sand for reasons that become apparent in good time.
Throughout the three novels Crockett reveals a view of Scottish history unfamiliar to many. His stock in trade is fast paced historical adventure/romance. He tells his stories from the perspective of the underdog, the losers, the dispossessed and the ordinary Galloway folk. He also employs a device best known as ‘Scots humour’ and no one, character, narrator or author, is exempt from his biting, dry wit. Reading Crockett without embracing Scots humour is like reading Austen unaware she employs irony.
In The Raiders the young Patrick Heron finds himself less the hero and more the victim of a retrospective older self as narrator. He reflects: ‘It was with me the time of wild oat sowing, when the blood ran warm.’
While it is full of fast paced adventure and not a little romance, the enduring strength of Crockett’s writing is in the natural description. He gives the Galloway hills the kind of treatment that had tourists flocking to the area when the novels were first published. He is, indeed, credited with causing the first tourist boom in Galloway (we are still waiting for the second!)
The trilogy explores through generations. In The Raiders, Patrick’s story really begins with the death of his father who, as a young man, fought alongside John Faa in what was known as ‘The Killing Times.’ These experiences are the focus of the 1914 prequel Silver Sand.
My personal favourite of the three novels is The Dark o’ the Moon. It moves the action on a generation from The Raiders. The hapless hero is Patrick Heron and May Maxwell’s son Maxwell Heron, who inherits both his father’s adventurous spirit and his youthful gaucheness. In this Raiders sequel Crockett plays fast and loose with time (and some say with history) utilising as his central plot a little known historical event – the Galloway Levellers Rebellion – which occurred in 1724.
History aside, the opening scene is every bit as intriguing and descriptively powerful as its predecessor.
‘At the Sheil of the Dungeon of Buchan – a strange place half natural cavern, the rest a rickle of rude masonry plastered like a swallow’s nest on the face of the cliff among the wildest of southern hills – this story begins.’
The heroine of The Dark o’ the Moon, Joyce Faa, is as feisty as her predecessor in The Raiders, May Maxwell. Women don’t usually fare well in boys’ own adventure stories but Crockett’s heroines are invariably strong and sensible. They usually give the men a run for their money and they offer the voice of reason as well as providing love interest.
In The Dark o’ the Moon, the romance story of kidnap and smuggling segues well with the historic events of the 1724 Rebellion. The character of Silver Sand is somewhat upstaged by his wicked brother Hector Faa, known as Black Hector. Think of darker, more rounded versions of Stevenson’s Long John Silver and Barrie’s Captain Hook and you have Silver Sand and Hector Faa to a tee.
Yet while the villain very nearly steals the show in The Dark o’ The Moon, pride of place is once again reserved for the landscape. The breathless chase through the dark over the Dungeon Range of hills is a tour de force of which any writer would be proud.
Crockett is every bit as much a master of natural description as Hardy, and landscape is central to his writing. He creates a sense of place which is evocative and realistic – despite his habit of shifting locations to suit his fictional purposes. Crockett’s places are a blend of fact and fiction, and to visit them you have to use more than an Ordnance Survey map for your guide.
Crockett and his contemporary readers could never quite let the character of John Faa go and in Silver Sand we are taken back to his youth. It perhaps fitting that the man who was there at the beginning of Crockett’s own adventure in fiction should be there at the end. In Silver Sand Crockett once again serves up a heady mixture of history, romance and adventure – utilising and developing familiar and favourite genres while holding firm to his own unique style. He also uses the novel to question the nature of rule of law. This is explored in three versions: gypsy, ‘Gorgio’ (secular) and religious. In each case we see that power can have a corrupting influence over supposedly social and religious matters. Silver Sand, like many ordinary people, has little real interest in religious issues, indeed he states: ‘It is no great matter to me… whether bishop or presbytery wins out ahead – only we will not be ordered to believe this or that on the order of a King who does not believe anything.’
This reveals the core of a radical individualism that accurately reflects many of the Gallovidian folk past and present.
Despite their cracking pace and popular appeal, there is depth in Crockett’s writing. These are books you can read time and again, always finding another nugget of treasure. In each story, the main plot forms only a part of the whole. The episodic nature of the narrative allows for multiple narratives and equally satisfies those with a craving for history, adventure and/or romance in their fictional fare. Crockett challenges society and its hypocrisies head on while filling his pages with a landscape as romantic as it is bleak and uncompromising.
In his lifetime Crockett was a bestselling popular author. Today he may hold more of a niche appeal, but he still exerts a pull on those who yearn for times past, especially those who like their action fast paced, their history unorthodox and their heroes beyond romantic.
Review by Cally Phillips
All the texts are available in paperback (and ebook) format from www.unco.scot (The S.R.Crockett collection), as well as from Amazon and other book retailers.