Before Crockett, the Covenanters had been written about in fiction both by Walter Scott (Old Mortality, 1816) and John Galt (Ringan Gilhaize) but ‘Men of the Moss Hags’ is the first novel to actually take the Covenanters’ perspective. As such it presents the underdogs view of history and is all the more interesting for that. It certainly taught me more about Covenanting, and in a much more palatable way, than all the history I have read on the subject.
Being Crockett, his heroes are ordinary men, who find themselves foregrounding big historic events. ‘Men of the Moss Hags’ is the first part of a two part story, with ‘Lochinvar’ (Galloway Collection Volume 4) being published a couple of years later in 1897.
‘Men of the Moss Hags’ was first published serially in 'Good Words' Magazine and the serial form is very much in evidence with a fast paced narrative throughout. The story is of the fictional William Gordon of Earlstoun and told in a first person narrative style. William Gordon, like Patrick Heron in ‘The Raiders’ (Vol 7) is subject to Crockett’s ironic style. He is lame and by his own admission a nonentity with the ladies, in stark contrast to his more flamboyant (and Jacobite) cousin Wat (who is the hero in the sequel ‘Lochinvar.’)
The novel shows the cousins as chalk and cheese, and thus sets up both sides of the Whig and Jacobite story which ‘The Killing Times’ of the Covenanters centres round. The setting of the 1670s and ‘80s takes us right into the centre of one of the most bloody (and confusing) periods of Scottish history. But Crockett allows us to focus on the characters and we learn history almost by osmosis. We are introduced to central characters such as Claverhouse, Cameron, Peden the Prophet and of course the opposing ‘monarchs’ Charles II and William of Orange through the eyes of Will, Wat and the ‘ordinary’ men and women of Galloway. There are a couple of chapters focussing on the Wigtown Martyrs which offer a moving and interesting view of this historic event where two local women were drowned for refusing to renounce their faith.
Covenanting was a period Crockett returned to several times in his career with ‘The Standard Bearer’ (Vol 5) and ‘The Cherry Ribband’ (Vol 6) as well as ‘Silver Sand’ (Vol 9) and ‘Mad Sir Uchtred of the Hills (Vol 30) all set in this most adventurous of times. Themes of loyalty and honour, of the divided nature of family and country are central to ‘Men of the Moss Hags’ and there are also many interesting snippets of information about the Scots legal system.
Crockett’s skill of natural description is also very evident in this novel . He describes Galloway as ‘a wide, wild place where the raw edges of creation have not been rubbed down’, which is as good a description of Galloway as I’ve read anywhere.
Set in Galloway the novel also travels to Edinburgh and Holland. And it is not just about fighting, though there is fighting aplenty and if you like Musketeer type fiction you will love this, there is also a cracking love story. This is historical adventure romance at its very best.
VOLUME 3 OF THE GALLOWAY COLLECTION. BUY THE BOOK ONLINE HERE
‘Mad Sir Uchtred of the Hills’ is short and shocking. Originally serialised in a popular magazine in 3 episodes, the thirteen chapters offer a Gothic style story set in Covenanting Times. This in itself is intriguing. The basic story is of Sir Uchtred who is cursed by a Covenanting Minister (Alexander Renfield.) We are swiftly taken into a world of allegory and symbolism (though you can ignore all this and simply read the fast paced and gruesome story) The curse is that of King Nebuchadnezzar - which sees him cast out as a beast on the hills. Crockett’s great strength in writing was his power of natural description and ‘Mad Sir Uchtred’ opens our eyes to this in an immediate fashion but the heavily laden symbolism of the popinjay and the wounded white mountain hare ensure that, for those who want to read a little deeper than the blood and guts and madness, there is much food for thought.
In Crockett’s day there was a furore about his title character’s name. And charges of plagarism. For the T.Fisher Unwin edition he offers an ‘advertisement’ which points out that the character is not based on the ‘real’ William McDowall of Garthland. It is fiction not fact. The contemporary dispute illustrates something that was to dog Crockett all his career – arguments over the nature of ‘historical fiction.’ It was a relatively new thing in the 1890’s and Crockett could certainly be credited with an involvement in the emerging ‘genre’ of historical fiction. Thus reading Crockett is of great interest both to those who like historical fiction and those who are interested in the development of historical fiction. Certainly the story has that nightmare, chaotic quality one would expect from such a work. There are shades perhaps of Coleridge’s ‘dream’ poem Kubla Khan – but in prose form. While not thoroughly typical of Crockett’s historical or adventure writing, it is a good place to start an exploration of the writer – if you like to be gripped and hurled along a story from beginning to end.
VOLUME 30 OF THE GALLOWAY COLLECTION. BUY THE BOOK ONLINE HERE
THE COMPLETE CROCKETT
1886 Dulce Cor