Driving the A77 will never be the same…
Driving the A77 will never be the same after reading “The Grey Man” … through Maypole and past Culzean Castle, to Girvan and, finally, Ballantrae with wonderful views of Ailsa Craig almost the whole way…
No longer will the town of Maypole be a traffic bottle-neck but where Marjorie Kennedy cradled her dead true-love, traitorously killed at the direction of her father-in-law.
Typically of Crockett, his magnificent realisation of atmosphere and scene is achieved largely through carefully chosen detail. Marjorie leaps from her horse. The snowflakes blow “in upon her unbound hair”. She “very gently” takes “a fine silken scarf, soft and white” and kneels “low down upon her knees, clasping hands and holding the last fold of the napkin ere she covered his face from sight”.
There is a smack of Shakespearean tragedy about the death of Gilbert Kennedy of Bargany, a sense that something fine has passed and that the world is a poorer place. Marjorie smooths the cloth on his face “with mighty love in the caressing of her finger tips”. “Good-night, dear love”, she says, “lifting it for the last time and kissing his brow”. “It is sweet, even thus in death, to tell thee that I love thee!’ Bargany’s opponents – a sept of the same Kennedy clan – lift their cross spears and, “setting them again on the shoulders of men”, carry him away.
Crockett, as appropriate to the occasion, is also a great comic writer. No longer will Culzean Castle be a Scottish National Trust property but where Launcelot Kennedy (the novel’s narrator) climbs a rope ladder to his bedroom in the White Tower after a gaudy night at Maypole fair. To young Launce’s considerable irritation, hauling up the ladder, he finds his purchases at the fair – cakes and comfits, sweetmeats, bottles of Canary wine and personal gewgaws – are no longer attached (and he falls back, hitting his head on one of the beams in his bedchamber’s ceiling). Nell, Marjorie’s younger sister, has snaffled the food items and threatens to smash Launce’s broad-bellied bottles of wine on the reef 200 feet below. Crockett cleverly develops the Launcelot/Nell relationship in counterpoint to Gilbert/Marjorie’s love, brilliantly capturing the frisson between the former through sparkling repartee.
With Launcelot, Crockett creates the ideal narrator. He is a sensitive and discerning first-hand observer and, as it suits the author, a frequent participant in the novel’s action. Most importantly, what Launce sees and experiences impacts on his character. The result is a convincingly rounded portrait of an initially self-centred and callow teenager who becomes a mature young adult in the course of the novel. Critical to Launce’s development is the near-to-certain death situation he faces protecting Nell and Marjorie in the cave of Sawny Bean (the Ayrshire cannibal) between Girvan and Ballantrae. Launce realises that he loves Nell but that he will, in all probability, have to kill her! The cave scene is typically Crockett and superbly done, cinematic-like in its visual imagery and use of suspense, with Crockett focusing on the actions of individual members of the vast crowd present.
John Mure of Auchendrayne, the grey-cloaked “man” of the novel’s title, is one of Crockett most dastardly villains, a classic manipulator of situations and weaker characters (in particular his son, James). “The Grey Man” has one of Crockett’s wonderful tone-setting opening chapters. Against “the noble tower of Ardstinchar flaming to the skies” the Barclay Kennedys swear an oath of vengeance against the Cassills Kennedys. Launce’s father, returning home from a funeral in Ballantrae, with Launce (then a boy), identifiers all the members of the Barclay party except for the mysterious cloaked man we later learn is John Mure. The latter emerges from the darkness and throws a bloody Bible into the flames. The sense of calamitous revenge and impending tragedy is palpable.
Crockett’s handling of Mure is completely different from the way he develops Launcelot but equally effective. Crockett gradually weaves his villain into the narrative, on each occasion bringing him increasingly into the limelight yet deliberately never developing his character or motivation. This makes the devilish John Mure as convincing and frightening a portrayal of evil incarnate as can be found in literature. In a chapter that is full of irony, Launce and his friend, the Dominie of Maypole, accompany Nell to visit Marjorie at Auchendrayne. They find JohnMure expounding on a Biblical text to his servants and warning those who refuse “the right gospel way”. The Dominie asks Mure straight-out: “Do ye believe what ye read?” To this, Mure replies, “Whatever is a means to an end, that I believe in…” Significantly, the chapter is entitled “The Devil is a Gentleman.” Crockett deliberately promotes Mure’s lack of common humanity. When Mure finally has Launce at his mercy, Crockett has him fiercely rejecting the possibility of fighting Launce man-to-man: “…who said I was a man? Do I act as other men? Is my knowledge like that of other men? Do I company with other men?”
In “ her “The Life and Work of Samuel Rutherford Crockett, Dr. Islay Murray Donaldson maintains that “The Grey Man” is “a more assured and better written book than any which Crockett had written before or was to write after it”. This is debatable but “The Grey Man” is one of Crockett’s best novels. As Donaldson admits, it has flaws. Coincidence is unforgettably rife, notably when Launce, the Dominie and Nell, returning by boat from Aisla Craig, just happen to be in the right place at the right time to rescue a bound and gagged Marjorie when she is thrown off the mainland cliff by the Mures, father and son…. But who would not be willing to suspend their disbelief given the inventiveness of Crockett’s narrative, the pace of the novel and the brilliance of Crockett’s writing?
Through Maypole and past Culzean Castle, to Girvan and, finally, Ballantrae with wonderful views of Ailsa Craig almost the whole way… driving the A77 will never be the same…
Post script: Do be careful, on a dark night, if stopping in the layby at the headland some 11 miles southwest of Girvan (below which is Bennane Cave, the erstwhile dwelling of Sawny Bean)… Always have a set of bagpipes to hand such as was carried by the Dominie of Maypole in “The Grey Man”.
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