Knowing this Scottish historical novel by Margaret Skea had battled through the scrutiny of Authonomy authors and the Alan Titchmarsh People’s Novelist Competition, I was really keen to read it, but at first I was uncertain. The writing was polished and clearly backed up by detailed research but could I be gripped by this tale of warring 16th century lairds? More importantly (wine with supper not always conducive to concentration!) could I remember which side they were all on? The dialogue also has a formality that feels authentic and distinctive but is occasionally a little hard to untangle. And so for a while I found myself making little critical notes as I went along, wondering if I would stick with it. But its appeal gradually crept up on me and by the end I loved it to bits.
Following a horrific massacre, the young King James of Scotland asks that two warring factions of Scottish gentry – Cunnighames and Montgomeries – should end their long-running feud. By now the reader has already been introduced to sympathetic (and not so sympathetic) characters on each side and understands the truce will be fragile to say the least. The jockeying for position at court is fascinating, and there are great set pieces like the hunt arranged for the king by one faction in which the others are equally desperate to make the right impression. This is very the human side of history in which political affiliations turn on how much the king likes the gift of a poem or a favoured jewel and have huge consequences not just for the lairds but also for the women at home. It’s clear that the author has detailed knowledge of and empathy with them, particularly Kate Munro, whose husband owes allegiance to the Cunninghame clan but is gradually drawn into friendship with the Montgomeries. Munro frames the book, in at the initial kill and centre stage in the brilliant climax, all the more shocking as the conclusion of an otherwise measured tale.
The depth of research shines out in the details of costume, cookery, agriculture, childcare and the role of women, all of it throwing light on what has always been a murky and ill-understood period in my own mind and bringing the characters and their lives to shimmering life. This is a fascinating and engaging read with great visual effect. Bring on the sequel!
E-book and paperback from Capercaillie Books (whose picture can’t be copied – understandable but irritating!)