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
An instant bestseller when published (following serialisation) in 1894, ‘The Lilac Sunbonnet’ is an unashamed domestic romance. It has been sadly misunderstood latterly and is well worth more close inspection. It is important to appreciate the role of humour in the work. The narrator takes an ironic stance from the very beginning: ‘the young man was sufficient of a hero. And not too much.’ This view of the hero was to become stock in trade for Crockett. While in ‘The Raiders’ we see Patrick Heron as his own retrospective ironic narrator, in ‘The Lilac Sunbonnet,’ the narrator stands outside the story but the deftness of ironic touch is the same. Crockett asks us, from the very beginning, to invest an ironic interest in seeing the young man taught a good lesson in love.
Crockett writes of romance using a Romance style, offering a clever representation of the way young lovers behave. As such it explores emotion and the impossibility of using religion to control emotion. The prologue starts in media res, with an introduction to Ralph Peden as he meets Jess Kissock. This is not an irrelevancy to the main story, it is a vital part of an almost medieval interlacing pattern. This clever stylistic device allows the author to show parallels and patterns which reinforce his central notion that love is natural and God is love. Here Crockett has used the episodic form of serialised fiction and heightened it. And yet, he never loses the skill of the romancer. The story cracks along, drawing the reader with it. Crockett reveals the profound effect that even the most seemingly insignificant act by one character has on another, thus further illustrating the significance of love. The episodic patterning and interlacing of events builds to give the reader a deeper exploration of love than the basic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl plot structure might suggest. At each stage of the journey, love is explored from a range of perspectives. The main story may be carried by the hero and heroine, but the minor characters add colour, depth and imagination to it. Crockett shows that nature is at the heart of both religion and love. He uses imagery effectively, especially natural imagery and there is and underplayed but underlying sexual tension and passion revealed in the most ordinary of things. All in all, if you come to this novel with an open mind, you may be surprised by the strength and depth you discover within.
VOLUME 14 OF THE GALLOWAY COLLECTION. BUY THE BOOK ONLINE HERE
‘The Stickit Minister’ was first published in 1893. ‘The Stickit Minister and some Common men’ to give it its full title, was compiled out of the many stories Crockett wrote during the 1880s for the Glasgow Penny Weekly and The Christian Leader.
Crockett himself explained how it came about: I was writing editorials on theological subjects for religious periodicals, and one day the editor of The Christian Leader wrote to me and asked me to send him an editorial which was wanted at once. I had no time to write one, and I told him so, but at the same time I sent him one of the sketches which I had in my drawer, and asked him if he could use that instead. It was the story called A Day in the Life of the Reverend James Pitbye, which is in ‘The Stickit Minister.’ I didn't think that the editor would use it. However, he wrote me: 'Never send me anything else.' So I continued sending him these sketches, and they met with a great deal of appreciation, and were widely copied into the papers, especially in Canada and Australia. Almost all the tales in ‘The Stickit Minister,’ appeared in this way in The Christian Leader. I used to get as much as a guinea apiece for them. I did not think of republishing them in a collected form till I was strongly urged to do so by Doctor Nichol. So I submitted them to Unwin, and that is how ‘The Stickit Minister’ came to be. It was successful almost from the very first.'
Of the twenty four stories in ‘The Stickit Minister,’ ministers feature as central characters in the majority. The collection also introduces us to Saunders McQuhirr, a redoubtable character. He is a down to earth Cameronian elder, who is clearly drawn from Crockett’s own grandfather. The title story is told by Saunders McQuhirr and is the story of Robert Fraser who sacrifices his career for his brother. He remains ‘Stickit’ (which means that he was without a parish of his own) in order that his brother may forge a career in medicine. Saunders son Alec tells the same story from a different perspective in the 1900 collection ‘The Stickit Minister’s Wooing.’ We are also taken out of Galloway and get our first introduction to Edinburgh urchin Cleg Kelly, who got a novel of his own in 1896.
The collection offers a good introduction to Crockett’s narrative style, his ironic couthy humour (without which one can fail to understand stories such as ‘The Heather Lintie’) and his uncompromising stance on poverty as well as his use of ‘Scotch’ dialect in his work. It is a good book to dip in and out of and a great introduction to Crockett’s early writing.
Crockett dedicated ‘The Stickit Minister’ to R.L.Stevenson thus: Dedication to Robert Louis Stevenson of Scotland and Samoa I dedicate these stories of that Grey Galloway land where about the graves of the martyrs the waups are crying – his heart remembers how. And in response Stevenson wrote Crockett a poem.
The publisher, T.Fisher Unwin specialised in discovering new writing talent and published some of the most experimental writers of the period, H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy, Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, George Moore, and Ford Madox Ford. Like Crockett, they moved on to other publishers when they became famous. Unwin published six of Crockett’s early works, which are among his best known, perhaps because Unwin invested so much time, energy and marketing skill in promoting him as a new writer.
VOLUME 13 OF ‘THE GALLOWAY COLLECTION’ BUY THE BOOK AT UNCO
Stories in the collection:
1. The Stickit Minister
2. Accepted of the Beasts
3. Trials for License by the Presbytery of Pitscottie
4. The Heather Lintie
5. The Split in the Marrow Kirk
6. The Probationer
7. The Lammas Preaching
8. The Tragedy of Duncan Ducanson, Schoolmaster
9. Why David Oliphant remained a Presbyterian
10. The Three Maister Peter Slees, Ministers in the Parish of Couthy
11. The Courtship of Allan Fairely, or Earlswood
12. John Smith of Arkland prepares his sermon
13. A day in the life of Rev. James Pitbye,
14. The Glenkells Short leet
15. Boanerges Simpson's Encumbrance
16. A Knight-Errant of the Streets
17. The Progress of Cleg Kelly, Mission Worker
18. Ensamples to the Flock
19. The Siege of M'Lurg's Mill
20. The Minister of Scaur casts out with his Maker
21. John Black, Critic in Ordinary
22. The Candid Friend
23. A Midsummer Idyll
24. The Tutor of Curlywee