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 a pirated edition in the United States, A Galloway Herd was turned down by T.Fisher Unwin in 1894. It was originally serialised in The Christian Leader Magazine in 1891-2 and as such marks Crockett’s first serial fiction. Some of the chapters were later integrated into Bog Myrtle and Peat (1895). It was never revised for novelisation and thus the loose episodic style is somewhat .uneven. However, it is well worth the read. 'A Galloway Herd' also introduces us to the fictional setting of Drumquhat, which is to become familiar in many of Crockett’s later novels. The pastoral setting is realistic but elevated through the eyes of Wattie to become an adventure which ranges even into revolutionary France at the time of the Paris Commune. This gives us the first taste of one of Crockett’s strongest literary skills, placing the ‘ordinary’ characters in the foreground while ‘history’ runs along in the background. ‘A Galloway Herd’ shows us the romantic power of the book as clearly as it shows us the domestic power of women and the stigma of illegitimacy. The minister in the story wants Wattie to become a ‘shepherd’ for Jesus, but Wattie, and Crockett were destined to be Galloway Herds of quite a different kind. The later novel Kit Kennedy (1899) covers much of the same ground but with more mature writerly skill, however this is a very interesting story in its own right. The central character is Wattie Anderson and his story is told initially from the first person dialect voice of Saunders McQuhirr, later to become one of Crockett’s strongest and best loved characters, and a fairly loosely disguised version of his own grandfather. The story shifts into the third person as it develops into Wattie’s romantic view of his life – because for all the third person narrative, we feel like this is a boy, telling us his own story. The adventures and events that happen to Wattie could all be explained away from an adult perspective, but from the child’s view they are heightened, romanticised and offer an insight into both the world of a boy with a vivid imagination, and the melodramatic style itself.
VOLUME 16 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
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
‘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 Play Actress’ was originally published in serial form under the title ‘The Great Preacher’ in 1894 and then as a novella in the Antonym Series by T.Fisher Unwin. The ‘Great’ Preacher of the original title is rural minister Gilbert Rutherford. At the end of a Sunday service a woman dressed in black brings him a grand-daughter (Ailie) he never knew existed. This is the child of his now deceased son. Bessie (the child’s aunt) has taken Ailie from her dissolute mother,, who lives in London and moves in theatrical circles, (it was the dead son’s dying wish) and brought her to be reared by his father. This unexpected event presents Gilbert with all sorts of emotional and practical challenges. He does not shirk his duty but he also determines to challenge his prejudices and, once Ailie is set up happily in Galloway, he travels to London to find out what is behind this ‘story’ and deal with the family issues. Rutherford is drawn into what he has always believed is the immoral world of the theatre and finds himself both facing the reality of urban poverty, and challenging his views of ‘goodness.’
The obvious biblical analogy is that of the prodigal son (daughter or even grand-daughter in this case) but it is a contemporary story which travels between the rural world of Galloway and the urban poverty of London. While Crockett is known as a ‘romancer’ rather than a realist, he did not shy away from contemporary social issues in his work. What Crockett describes is an urban reality we might recognise from a Dickens novel. He developed this story theme several times in his later work, most notably in ‘The Moss Troopers’ where he considers the ‘evils’ of London and in ‘Sandy’s Love’ where he delves into ‘the theatre’ and London life once again.
Crockett’s friend and contemporary J.M.Barrie enjoyed ‘The Play Actress’ so much that he wanted to adapt it for the stage and he took it on honeymoon with him in 1894. There is no record that it ever actually became a stage play.
Crockett wrote of The Play Actress, ‘A great deal of nonsense is spoken in England about the Scotch Sabbath. I enjoyed my Sabbaths immensely. It is true that I was born to it. We used to drive over to the Cameronian Kirk at Castle Douglas (that 'Kirk on the Hill,' of which I have written in my little book, ‘The Play Actress’-a book written to amuse myself, whilst I was writing ‘The Raiders’).
VOLUME 30 OF THE GALLOWAY COLLECTION. BUY THE BOOK AT UNCO HERE
LINK TO PLAYACTRESS125 HERE
The Raiders was first published on 20th March 1894 and was Crockett’s first novel. It is the story of a bonnet laird, Patrick Heron and his adventures in Galloway in the early 18th century. His home, Isle Rathan (a fictionalised Heston Island) is central to the action and offers adventure, intrigue and not a little love-making. In ‘The Raiders,’ Crockett takes the best of Stevenson in plot and the best of John Galt in narrative style and throws in his own unique powers of natural description, to provide us with a compelling story. The landscape of Galloway, from coast into the hills is every bit as much a star of the novel as the hero, or indeed the feisty heroine May Maxwell.
Published by T.Fisher Unwin, the novel was a runaway success and enabled Crockett to give up the ministry and pursue a full time career as a writer. It is, however, the only one of his novels not serialised before publication. ‘The Raiders’ is the first part of a loose trilogy. Its sequel ‘The Dark o’ the Moon’ (1902) takes the story on a generation, focussing on Patrick’s son Maxwell and the gypsy Hector Faa. Silver Sand (aka John Faa the ‘King of the Gypsies’) also features in both stories and is central to the final part of the trilogy, which is in the form of a prequel; ‘Silver Sand’(1914) tells the story of Silver Sand and Patrick’s father John Heron as young men.
VOLUME 7 IN THE GALLOWAY COLLECTION. BUY THE BOOK AT UNCO
SITE LINK TO RAIDERS125 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