‘Mad Sir Uchtred of the Hills’ is short and shocking. Originally serialised in a popular magazine in 3 episodes it offers, in its thirteen chapters, 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 plagiarism. For the T.Fisher Unwin edition he offers an ‘advertisement’ which points out that the character is not based on 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.
Crockett stated that he wrote ‘Mad Sir Uchtred’ complete in one sitting, on waking from a dream, and it certainly has that nightmare, chaotic quality one would expect. 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.
Reviewed by Cally Phillips
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