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.