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
Published in 1895 by Bliss, Sands and Foster, it is a collection of work that the author states are ‘tales chiefly of Galloway gathered from the years 1889 to 1895’ – that is, it is primarily a compilation of serialised work from before he was famous.The book is dedicated to George Milner of Manchester (Crockett’s father in law) with the words ‘a man most Generous, Brave, True, to whom, because he freely gave me that of his which I most desired – I having Nothing worthier to give, Give This.’ Crockett had early harboured the desire to be a poet (something R.L.Stevenson finally convinced him to abandon) but he manages to include poems, both his own and others (notably Andrew Lang and Milner himself) woven into ‘Bog Myrtle’ which is laid out as five ‘Books’ (a Romantic poetic form!) being ‘Adventures,’ Intimacies,’ ‘Histories,’ ‘Idylls’ and ‘Tales of the Kirk.’ A reader taking these headings too literally would be confused however, since they really serve as an ironic ‘take’ on the headings as often as not. Any writer will know how difficult it is to ‘construct’ a collection out of a body of work and it can be hard for the reader to work out why it has been done this, that or a certain way. That can be the case with ‘Bog Myrtle.’ However, I suggest that to enjoy the collection in the way it is intended, one has to set aside the modern critical penchant for ‘understanding’ why it has been presented in the way it is, and simply dip in and out of it enjoying each story or part as one goes. It works best, perhaps, viewed as something of a collage of twenty nine stories plus an excellent epilogue which shows Crockett’s natural descriptive powers at their finest as he takes us through ‘A Galloway Night’ in the company of the flora and fauna. It’s worth reading for the Preface alone, where Crockett seeks to explain what he is doing - offering a poignant and moving exposition of the writing process. ‘Bog Myrtle and Peat’ offers an introduction to the ‘types’ of Crockett’s longer fiction. Prepare for the unexpected and lose yourself in it. I believe that’s the way to approach and to enjoy this book.
VOLUME 15 OF THE GALLOWAY COLLECTION. BUY THE BOOK ONLINE HERE