William Douglas? James Douglas? Laurence MacKim? Who will provide the love for which Margaret Douglas craves? Crockett’s three very different men are psychologically convincing from the outset. Margaret, Crockett’s narrator, provides a mature woman’s irreverent view of love and life. She begins as a teenage princess who, much to her chagrin, is “dispatched like a bale of goods” to a French convent. She finishes title-less but as connubially content as her best friend, whose marital relationship Crockett uses to emphasise the inadequacies of Margaret’s first and second marriages.
“Maid Margaret” has those cinematic-like scenes typical of Crockett at his best: on a wild night in “the deep middle” of a Scottish winter, an unexpected rider appears at the walls of Thrieve Castle seeking vengeance; father and son fight each other to near-death, two-handed sword against Lochaber axe; an unchristened baby, the last in the line of Black Douglases, is baptised at night in Balmaghie kirkyard. Each fully engages the reader but it is Margaret’s personal drama that is most moving. Crockett’s novel of Galloway’s “fair maid” transcends time and place (mid-15th century Scotland). Historical romance is transmuted into a classic tale of what becomes a woman’s double search for identity and love that has contemporary resonance.
Review by Stewart Robertson
Note that Maid Margaret is the sequel to The Black Douglas.
“an exceptional guide for exploration of the neglected author who is its subject”.
This new edition of Dr. Donaldson’s literary biography, first published in 1989, is still the only substantive work of its kind on S.R. Crockett. By what criteria is an example of such a genre best judged? Most importantly, any literary biography should illuminate the life and work of its subject. Donaldson achieves this despite her literary biography’s several weaknesses.
Donaldson deals successfully with a variety of important issues concerning Crockett. Donaldson explains why Crockett gave up his Free-Church ministry. She details his literary beliefs and his success and waning popularity as a writer. Most notably, she lays to rest the notion of Crockett as a “Kailyard” author.
Dr. Donaldson’s is a scholarly work with neigh-on 30 pages of “Notes”. No one should be put off by this. Donaldson’s style is highly accessible. Her use of short sentences is particularly powerful: “This was the end of his Galloway boyhood”; “Crockett knew his trains”; “To this [his literary credo] he remained faithful”, and so on.
Donaldson never resorts to mere opinion. Her judgments are invariably evidenced by textual evidence. Her close analysis of what Crockett wrote and what critics wrote about Crockett is invariably enlightening. Not all would always agree with her (!) but, for instance, she makes a persuasive case for “The Grey Man” as the “best-written of all Crockett’s books”.
There are weaknesses. Crockett’s fictional output is prodigious and Donaldson is inclined to skip over Crockett’s later work. Where her coverage is comprehensive too much is plot summary. For example, Donaldson gives almost 20 pages to the plot of “The Raiders” despite describing it as having “elementary simplicity”. Summary can have merit. Intending readers can decide whether or not to read the novel in question. A major disadvantage to Donaldson’s “life and work” is that the summaries sometimes overshadow her critical judgments of Crockett’s literary work and her account of his non-literary life.
Donaldson is best when doesn’t pull her critical punches. For instance, writing about “Cleg Kelly”: “After this, Crockett’s imagination goes wild, as it often did when he was left to devise his own plot…” Or “Unfortunately, by his spendthrift extravagance of event and character, Crockett in the ‘Men of the Moss Hags’ used up the best of his genuine Covenanting material; he had to fall back on his own imagination for the rest.”
Donaldson is adept at the pithy comment. For instance, of “The Lilac Sunbonnet”: “The love-story runs its course, with hesitations and misunderstandings like all such”. There is a lovely comment at the end of her chapter on “Cleg Kelly” “It is all too much”, Donaldson writes, “The reader is stunned to laughter at the wild inconsequence of it all…” My particular favourite is Donaldson’s summation of Crockett as a writer: “Over-estimated when he began to write, he has suffered since from continuous under-estimation”.
Unsurprisingly, Donaldson’s stance is that of a literary critic. To an extent this blinkers her judgement of Crockett who, on his own repeated admission, wasn’t writing “novels of purpose” but serial fiction for the popular market. Hence Donaldson’s criticism of the likes of “Ione March” (“It meanders rather than progresses from one episode to another, sometimes hiccupping badly in transition”) is unfair. Crockett isn’t writing to a three-decker novel structure but meeting the “spec” of serialisation with its different style and narrative requirements.
As a literary critic, Donaldson makes the expected connections between Crockett and other Scottish authors, particularly Sir Walter Scott, R.L. Stevenson and Annie S. Swan. What comes as a shock is her illuminating comparison between his use of sexual symbolism in “The Lilac Sunbonnet” and DH Lawrence’s “The Rainbow”. She draws resemblances between “The Raiders” and Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” that are as surprising as they are revelatory. Other, much briefer, connections with other Crockett novels are equally intriguing, for example with Anthony Hope’s “The Prisoner of Zenda” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”.
Unfortunately, Donaldson’s information about much of Crockett's non-literary life intrigues but doesn’t satisfy the reader. For example, she comments how “Crockett writes about strong women”. Yet Donaldson has little to say about Crockett’s “gentle-born” (sic) English wife. Ruth remains the “shadowy background figure” that she appears in “Sweetheart Travelers”. Perhaps she was a “literary-widow” as much as a golfing widow. Donaldson lauds Crockett’s golfing prowess (Crockett is said to have beaten Tom Morris and to have been given six stokes by Willie Auchterlonie, in their time both winners of The Open Championship). Yet information about how Crockett became so proficient at golf is lacking.
This new edition of Donaldson “life and work” has a stunning cover. Here is Crockett, an immense figure in his blue-grey Inverness coat and cape clutching a copy of “The Lilac Sunbonnet” and gazing soulfully heaven-ward, as caricatured in an 1897 coloured lithograph in “Vanity Fair”.
The new edition includes a previously omitted chapter on Crockett’s writing for children. Fascinatingly, it is here that Donaldson is most successful at bringing together the literary and non-literary aspects of Crockett’s life in her analysis of how these “best sellers” of their time came to be written and how Crockett, with four children of his own, is unsentimental about Victorian childhood innocence.
Cally Phillips who has done so much to promote Crockett’s worth as a writer provides an illuminatingly lucid “Introduction” to the new edition. She rightly describes Donaldson’s literary biography as a “gateway”. Donaldson’s “The Life and Work of Samuel Rutherford Crockett” is an exceptional guide for exploration of the neglected author who is its subject.
Review by Stewart Robertson:
A cinematically descriptive novel of Scotland’s “killing time”…
“The Men of the Moss-Hags” is set in what its central character refers to as 17th century Scotland’s “Killing Time”.
Circumstances, rather than personal choice, engage William Gordon in the tangle of history. In the presence of the Privy Council of Scotland, he readily admits his presence at the Sanquhar Declaration , Ayrsmoss and the conventicle at Shalloch-on-Minnoch (and, in consequence, is sentenced to be beheaded rather than hung!)
Crockett’s set-piece descriptions are superbly cinematic, highly visual and with dramatic focus on an individual character. The Cameron Bothers riding into Sanquhar smacks of a Western shoot-out. At Ayrsmoss, as Richard Cameron raises his sword and his score of men charge the dragoons, the first lightning bolt shoots down “glittering into the moor like a forked silver arrow”. Claverhouse leads his troops against the assembled “Seven Thousand” at Shalloch-on-Minnoch only to dramatically pull up at the last burn, dismissingly snapping his fingers at the Covenanters on the other side. On Wigtown Sands, William’s final image before he is dragged off to prison in Edinburgh, is of the first salt wave touching Margaret Wilson’s lips as she movingly continues singing the twenty-fifth Psalm.
Crockett exploits William as narrator to significant advantage to the reader providing each event with the immediacy that brings history to life. William is an “unshowy” protagonist. Crockett uses Will’s cousin (the dashing Wat Gordon of Lochinvar) to accentuate his character in much the same way as Allan Breck does for David Balfour in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped”. William prefigures the archetypal 20th and 21st century refugee who, with others similarly displaced from home and heritage, are obliged to take to the hills and become “the men of the moss-hags”.
“The Men of the Moss-Hags” has a trio of strong women – William’s mother, sister-in-law and (eventual) wife – each of whom Crockett presents unromantically and realistically, salutary reminders of how the “Killing Time” affects more than the men forced to hide among the moss-hags.
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
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