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Ringan Gilhaize by John Galt

Or, The Covenanters.

Edited by Patricia J Wilson. Scottish Academic Press, 1984, 375 p (including 33p Notes on the Text and 10 p Glossary) plus xii p Introduction ii p Notes, ii p Acknowledgements and iii p Note on the Text. Originally published in 1823.

Ringan Gilhaize cover

Compared to the lost cause of the Jacobites, endlessly retrodden by Scottish (and other) writers, the rise and defence of Calvinism in Scotland has been relatively neglected in the Scottish tradition. James Hogg’s The Brownie of Bodsbeckis an exception, as is Scott’s Old Mortality whose unsympathetic treatment of the Covenanting cause impelled Galt to write this riposte, and much more recently James Robertson gave us The Fanatic. The relevant events are seen through the eyes of the Gilhaize family but only in so far as any of its members were directly involved in them. The book is narrated by the titular Ringan Gilhaize and its first section tells of his grandfather’s activities during the Scottish Reformation, which in later life he endlessly recounted to the family round the fireside, and features his encounters with, among others, John Knox and James Stuart (the illegitimate half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots and whom on taking up the throne on her return from France she made Earl of Moray. A confirmed reformer, after Mary’s exile to England he became Regent of Scotland.) This time period was when the groundwork for the stern Calvinistic bent of Scottish Presbyterianism was laid and the text contains many examples of invective against prelacy, papistical idolaters and the Whore of Babylon.

The latter two sections deal with Ringan’s own life and times when, first Charles I and later his son Charles II, tried to reintroduce elements of episcopacy into Scottish religious observance. This led in the former’s time to the signing of the National Covenant and a few years later the Solemn League and Covenant, which latter was essentially an anti-royal but certainly anti-Catholic agreement between Scottish Protestants and the English Parliament for Presbyterianiam to become the established religion south of the border. (These two Covenants are sometimes rolled into one in people’s minds but it was from them that the Covenanters – in that word’s pronunciation the emphasis is placed on the third syllable – gained their name.) The Covenanter’s insistence on the view that no king could interfere between a man’s conscience and God and that rebellion against any king who attempted to do so was justified, effectively made the Covenanters heirs to the Declaration of Arbroath and holders of the Scottish conscience.

The text of “Gilhaize’s” account is mainly in English larded with Scots words and forms of speech but has that wordiness that is characteristic of novels of its time and of course is reflecting the language of between two and three hundred years earlier than when Galt was writing. The dialogue, moreover, tends to be in very broad Scots indeed.

The novel is in part a history lesson since “Gilhaize” has to provide the background to the events he himself took part in. He therefore mentions the protests in St Giles Cathedral against the prayers in Charles I’s new Prayer Book as supposedly started by Janet (aka Jenny) Geddes (though her name does not appear in contemporary accounts,) a defiance of authority which led to open rebellion and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. (For a long time these were known as the English Civil War despite the fact that they were precipitated by the necessity for Charles I to recall the English Parliament to provide money to suppress his Scottish religious rebels.)

After the Restoration of the Stuarts, fierce resentment resulted from Charles II’s apostasy in the matter of the Covenant which he had signed essentially in bad faith in what would now probably be called an act of real politique to bring the Scots Parliament onto his side in his war against Cromwell – a hopeless endeavour given the outcome of the Battle of Worcester. To the Covenanters signing was a sacred and binding act. Reneging on that could not be forgiven.

Galt’s focus on the affairs of one family allows him to illustrate the build up of both the petty and the major injustices of the anti-Covenanter legislation as well as Covenanters’ hatred of the favourite General of both the latter Stuart kings, James Graham of Claverhouse, whom the Covenanters dubbed “Bloody Clavers” for his enthusiastic prosecution of the sequestrations, fines, imprisonments and hangings which feed into the slow descent by Ringan into a haze of self-righteousness and moral zeal. A minor drawback of this is that most of the battles mentioned in the book take place off-stage since neither his grandfather nor Ringan himself were present at them. (Exceptions are Drumclog, Rullion Green in the Pentlands, and Killiecrankie, in all of which Ringan took part.)

The final vindication of the Covenanting resistance was the outcome of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 – here Galt has Gilhaize believe in the false propaganda that a man child was palmed off on the nation as the lawful son of James VII (and II,) known to Covenanters as “the Tyrant,” and his papistical wife – which secured the Protestant ascendancy in the form of William and Mary.

Two hundred year-old fiction is problematic for the modern reader at any time – patterns of language have changed, writers no longer need to pad out stories to reach a required word count, sentences tend to be less laboriously constructed – but the remoteness here is compounded by the dense nature of the history, the numbers of historical figures, the intensity of the religious discourse. Throughout, the book rings with Biblical imagery and allusions.

Though in their particulars its concerns have now passed into history in Scotland (except for their remnants being attached to a certain football rivalry) Ringan Gilhaize, as an examination of the mindset of the religious zealot, the firm believer in a higher calling, is salutary, and still has resonance for the present day. I’m glad I read it even if the prose does not always flow as smoothly as I might have wished.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “worthy the attention” (worthy of the attention, or, worth the attention.) Otherwise: “the Earl of Angus’ house” (Angus’s,) St Giles’ kirkyard (St Giles’s,) her Highness’ presence (Highness’s.) “When she heard the voice or anyone talking in the street” (the voice of anyone talking,) juncutre (juncture,) a capital letter in the middle of a sentence (this may have been to signify a spoken phrase immediately after it; but that was followed by an opening quotation mark to signal the speech’s continuation,) thougt (thought.) In the Notes; divive (divine.)

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times – Lewis Grassic Gibbon

This will be my final entry for Judith’s meme now collated by Katrina.

This one concentrates on Scotland’s best writer of the twentieth century; J Leslie Mitchell, better known as Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

Boks by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Here you’ll find his classic A Scots Quair, whose first instalment, Sunset Song, is the best Scottish novel of the past 150 years plus.

Also present are his two Science Fiction novels Three Go Back and Gay Hunter, his historical novel Spartacus, two other novels, two collections of shorter stories and a history book, Nine Against the Unknown, recounting the voyages of various explorers.

Another collection of his shorter fiction Smeddum is on my tbr pile as is A Scots Hairst, which contains non-fiction pieces.

Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett

Vintage, 1997, 436 p, plus i p Foreword by the Author, ip Contents, iv p list of Characters, ii p map of France.

 Queens’ Play cover

This is the second in the author’s “legendary” (according to the cover) Lymond Chronicles, of which I read the first, The Game of Kings, in 2017. In this instalment our hero is engaged by Mary of Guise to travel incognito to the court of Henri II of France – where her seven-year-old daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, is being brought up and educated to be a wife for the Dauphin (and hence to unite the crowns of France, Scotland – and, in the fullness of time Ireland) – in order to keep her informed of any intrigue she might otherwise miss. Lymond travels disguised as Thady Boy Ballagh, ollave (a kind of high-grade factotum of learning, “professor, singer, poet, all in the one”) to Irishman, Phelim O’LiamRoe, Prince of Barrow and lord of the Slieve Bloom.

From the outset things do not go smoothly, the ship they are sailing in is rammed – apparently by accident but in reality not so – just before landfall. Someone has mistaken O’LiamRoe for Lymond and trying to kill him. O’LiamRoe’s first meeting with Henri is also blighted by him being given the misinformation he is actually to meet a look-alike.

As Thady Boy, Lymond makes his impression on the court; not least in a roof-running race similar to parkour (but obviously centuries before that became a well-known thing.) There is as much of the said intrigue – not to mention skulduggery – as you could wish, with numerous attempts on the young Queen Mary’s life thwarted in various ways. Lymond’s clever-dickery is not quite as to the fore as in The Game of Kings but Dunnett’s fondness for unusual words – habromaniac, hispid, branle, cangs, gregale – is again in evidence.

It’s all readable enough but at times a little too convoluted.

Pedant’s corner:- focussed (focused,) hiccough (several times. That spelling is a misattribution; the word is spelled hiccup,) Callimachus’ (Callimachus’s,) unfocussed (x 3, unfocused,) O’Li mRoe (O’LiamRoe,) StAndre (St André,) span (spun, used later,) “hearking back” (harking,) a comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, Empedocles’ (Empedocles’s,) paradisaical, (paradisiacal?) serendade (serenade?) sunk (sank,) “that closed the back of this throat” (of his throat,) appalls (appals,) shrunk (shrank,) “‘Thinking death the only division. I could not imagine …. ever so insulting you’” (no full stop after division.) “She studdied him” (studied,) “knees akimbo” (it is very difficult indeed to rest a leg upon its own hip, never mind both of them. Okay, I know people use it to mean limbs splayed out but bent inward,) “black cloth of gold” (if it’s cloth of gold it can’t be black,) “no on touched him” (no one, better still, no-one.)

Mexica by Norman Spinrad

Abacus, 2006, 510 p.

Mexica cover

Spinrad is no stranger to readers of Science Fiction, coming to prominence around the time of the New Wave with works such as Bug Jack Barron and The Iron Dream (an Altered History SF novel whose author was supposedly Adolf Hitler.) In the early part of this century, though, he took a turn into historical fiction with The Druid King, about Julius Caesar’s adversary Vercingetorix the Gaul. Mexica is his take on conquistador Hernán Cortés (in the text always referred to as Hernando Cortes) one of History’s supreme adventurers – or villains, depending on your viewpoint.

Our narrator is Cortés’s companion, and unwilling advisor, Avram ibn Ezra (an Arabised form of the Jewish Ben Ezra,) who was baptised Alvaro Escribiente de Granada since being a Jew in the newly united Christian Spain under the scrutiny of the Inquisition was not a healthy prospect. This choice allows the narrative to distance itself both from the brutal Christianity of the Spanish invaders and from the sanguinary religious practices of the indigenous Mexica and their vassals. (Only once or twice is the word Aztec mentioned. This apparently was an insulting term deriving from the bumpkinish highlands down from which the Mexica came to replace their predecessors, the Toltecs, whom the Mexica still revered, after that earlier people had vanished into the east.)

It is arguably a necessary choice, as religion mattered. For how else can a few hundred men bring down a mighty empire? In this telling the Mexica – or at least their emperor Montezuma – were undone by their beliefs. The Toltec god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, was prophesied to come back from the east with a light skin whereupon the fifth world (that of the Mexica) would end and the sixth begin. On hearing of the arrival of the Spaniards Montezuma awaits a sign from his god of war, Huitzilopochtli, as to their true nature, and receives none. A native woman, Malinal (known to present day Mexicans as Malinche but here dubbed Marina by the Spaniards as it’s easier for them to pronounce,) a princess of one the Mexica’s vassal states, sold into slavery when they were defeated, takes up with Cortés and, aided by Alvaro, becomes his translator. She it is who nudges Cortés (despite his own religious qualms) into affecting the appearance, and, in native eyes, substance, of Quetzalcoatl. The prospect of not having to pay blood tribute to the Mexica in the form of the hearts of their young men also leans on the Mexican vassals whom Cortés enlists as allies, vassals all but mystified at the thought of a god who gives his flesh and blood to be eaten by his worshippers rather than requiring their own of his believers.

It was still a very long shot, emphasised when after a couple of military victories against allies of the Mexica on the journey to the central high plateau, Alvaro briefly views through the clouds the magnificence of the Mexica capital Tenochtitlan, from the mountain pass above. The city was built on a series of lakes and joined to the surrounding land by four causeways. An impregnable fortress it would seem.

Later, after falling in love with the place, Alvaro wonders, “How could the civilization that had built Tenochtitlan rip out human hearts on such a bloody altar?” but also, “How could the civilization of the Prince of Peace who commanded men to love their neighbours as themselves burn human beings at the stake in his name? How could those who worshipped an Allah who was styled the Beneficent and Merciful behead the infidels who would not bow down to him?”

Whle the central figure here is always Cortés, the most sympathetic and tragic is Montezuma, who is entrapped and imprisoned by Cortés and thus in conversations with Alvaro vouchsafes to the reader his philosophy. Here is a man who, in trying to do the best by his gods as he sees them, loses not only his empire, his people and his city, but also his life. That those gods were horrific taskmasters and not worthy of any such soul-searching or devotion does not diminish this. Religious beliefs make people do strange and bewildering things. From his religious perspective Alvaro sees, “This is the crime for which I have no name. Having conquered their lands, now we were conquering their spirit.”

Mostly a self-serving – not to mention greedy – hypocrite and casuist there are contradictions too in Cortés’s behaviour, illustrated when he gives full military honours to the dead Montezuma and Alvaro tells us, “There were so many reasons for me to hate Hernando Cortes…. But … there were moments …., when no matter how I tried, I found it impossible not to love the bastard.”

Before the story gathers momentum with the landing in Central America the reflective nature of Alvaro’s account can be a little tedious. The text is liberally larded with the word ‘thereof’ and vocative asides to “dear reader”, a tendency which drops out when the action sets in only to reappear many pages later. ‘Alvaro’’s intent in setting this down is to expose and expiate his guilt at the part he played in the downfall of the Mexica and the beautiful city they constructed. But in the end he rationalises that, “..it could not have been prevented. Even if Columbus had never set sail it could not have been prevented, for Europe had the ships, and sooner or later someone would have discovered this New World.” The fulfilment of Montezuma’s omen was inevitable. “For this new world held treasure and unbounded virgin land unknown in the tired old one, and Europe had the greed to covet and the means to sieze it.” The greatest devastator of the Mexica though, would be what Alvaro names as the small pox, a weapon more deadly to the natives than either cannon or arquebus. The Mexica live on, however, in the adaptation of their name to that of the modern day country sitting on their lands, a process which had begun even in Cortés’s time.

Alvaro’s profoundest thoughts are however inspired by the much older civilisation that built the huge pyramids at Teotihuacan, whose people were forgotten even by the Mexica. “This was not a New World. This was a world old beyond imagining…. Five worlds come and gone … And now the breaking of the fifth and the coming of the sixth.” He consoles himself with the thought that in the end great events do not matter; civilisations amd conquerors may come and go but, “It is in the small things that life comes closest to eternity.”

Pedant’s corner:- Cortes’ (innumerable instances, Cortes’s,) sprung (sprang,) “to the point where no one dare approach him” (the narrative is in past tense so, ‘no one dared’ – and ‘no one’ ought to be ‘no-one’,) maws (mouths was the intended meaning, not stomachs,) imposter (I prefer impostor,) “but more than not wearing only simple cotton shifts” (more often than not is a more usual construction,) “in a foreign land as Britain might be to a Spaniard” (there was no Britain as a foreign ‘land’ (in a political sense) in the time of Cortes – only the geographical island.)

Reading Scotland 2019

This was my Scottish reading (including a Scottish setting) in 2019.

Those in bold were in that list of 100 best Scottish Books.

15 by women, 15 by men, one non-fiction,* two with fantastical elements.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
A Concussed History of Scotland by Frank Kuppner
Romanno Bridge by Andrew Greig
Winter by Ali Smith
Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley
The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher
Tunes of Glory by James Kennaway
Hy Brasil by Margaret Elphinstone
Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle
The Land the Ravens Found by Naomi Mitchison
The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark
Independence by Alasdair Gray*
The Lantern Bearers by Ronald Frame
Gone Are the Leaves by Anne Donovan
Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill
A Pass in the Grampians by Nan Shepherd
Brond by Frederic Lindsay
The Bullet Trick by Louise Welsh
The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams
Its Colours They Are Fine by Alan Spence
Reality, Reality by Jackie Kay
Salem Chapel by Mrs Oliphant
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
Spring by Ali Smith
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner
Jelly Roll by Luke Sutherland
The Citadel by A J Cronin

Memoirs of a Spacewoman by Naomi Mitchison
Where the Bodies Are Buried by Christopher Brookmyre

The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison

Virago, 1983, 710 p. First published 1931.

he Corn King and the Spring Queen cover

This book has been described as “the best historical novel of the twentieth century.” Perhaps informed by James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, as an attempt to inhabit the mindset pertaining to an ancient belief system it is certainly admirable. Yet while readable, and a must for Mitchison completists, it is, however, not without its flaws, which are indeed acknowledged by the author’s afterword to this edition, published more than fifty years after its original appearance.

We start in the Black Sea area in the settlement of Marob where the young Erif Der is a practitioner of magic (she calls herself a witch) but this is actually a relative commonplace in the community. Erif’s father, Harn Der, wants her to marry Marob’s Corn King, Tarrik (who is part Greek and also has the name Charmantides) in order to nullify Tarrik’s powers with her own and so allow Tarrik to be replaced. Tarrik has fallen under the influence of the Stoic, Sphaeros, and her enchantments are not enough. The fertility rituals are depicted comprehensively (and later contrasted with those of Egypt) their importance to the community’s functioning emphasised. Eventually Erif falls in love with Tarrik, but under Sphaeros’s influence he decides to take a trip to Greece to where she accompanies him. This entails a change of viewpoint as in Section Two we engage with the inhabitants of Sparta before the arrival of the barbarians from Marob.

The first six sections alternate between Marob and Greece thereafter we remain following the fortunes of Spartan King Kleomenes, even into exile in Egypt, until the final epilogue chapter, set in Marob but still concerned with Kleomenes as it rounds off the tale of his legacy. The Greek and Egyptian sections make up well over half the book and so make the title a little misleading. The book at times reads as more of a history of Kleomenes than of the lives of Erif Der or Tarrik.

Mitchison’s characters display a matter of fact attitude to sex which might have been unusual in print ninety years ago, yet when Kleomenes refers to “nigger-boxers” – meaning black pugilists – the book’s origins in what are now distant times are apparent.

Phrases such as, “‘When things turn simple, women have to give up much more than men. Because they live in shadow, by mystery,’” show that feminism is by no means a late twentieth century invention. That the passage of time may provide a different perspective is illustrated by, “With time and questionings, rights became wrongs and wrongs rights.”

Notwithstanding the alien belief systems Mitchison’s characterisation is excellent, Erif’s brother Berris’s infatuation with the Greek girl Philylla a particular high point. These are recognisable human beings. It is the book’s structure that is off-kilter. There are in fact two stories here, though intertwined, Erif’s (Tarrik is off-stage for more than half the novel) and that of Kleomenes, who in his freeing of the helots comes across as a bit of a socialist before their time. Maybe they would have been better split into two separate volumes.

Pedant’s corner:- “By and bye” (numerous instances, it is – and always has been – by and by,) “the oddest thing about it were his bright brown eyes” (the oddest thing was his eyes,) disk-throwing (disc-throwing,) Sphaeros’ (Sphaeros’s,) span (x2, spun,) Agis’ (Agis’s,) Panteus’ (Panteus’s,) Lycurgus (elswhere Lycurgos,) sewed (sewn, as in the line above!) “none of them were very sure” (none of them was very sure,) “the Achæan League .. begin to be afraid of Sparta” (the league begins to be afraid,) waggons (I prefer wagons,) Plowing Eve, plow, plow-beam, plowed, plowing (yet plough-ox,) Disdallis’ (Disdallis’s,) “aren’t I?” (did the ancient Greeks actually use this ungrammatical formulation? Besides Mitchison is Scottish. “Amn’t I?” is more grammatical and the natural Scottish usage,) Agiatis’ (Agiatis’s,) Phoebis’ (Phoebis’s,) Apelles’ (Apelles’s,) “none of the traders know Plato from Pythagoras” (none of the traders knows,) slue himself round (slew,) Antigonos’ (Antigonos’s,) Kleomenes’ (Kleomenes’s,) “this intolerable burden o planning” (of planning, the “o” occurred at a line’s end. Make of that what you will,) Krateskleia (elsewhere Kratesikleia,) stronglier (usually expressed as “more strongly”,) Themisteas’ (Themisteas’s,) Berris’ (Berris’s.) “The party in Sparta that hated him and his revolution prepare to welcome..” (the party prepares,) Agathokles’ (Agathokles’s,) Sosibios’ (Sosibios’s,) a missing comma before the start of a piece of dialogue, Nikomedes’ (Nikomedes’s,) a missing start quote mark at the beginning of a piece of dialogue, “a whole sleeping part of her had awoke,” (awoken,) Neolaidas’ (Neolaidas’s,) “none of the crowd were in the least willing” (none was willing,) “like polished sards” (shards?)

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

Cassell, 1962, 541 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

The Game of Kings cover

This novel is set in the times of what the father of the historical novel Sir Walter Scott dubbed the “Rough Wooing” (a phrase Dunnett never uses in the book) which started when Henry VIII of England wished for a marriage between the infant Queen of Scots, Mary, and his son Edward (VI of England) in order to unite the two kingdoms and so prevent any military threat through England’s back door. The Scots, longtime allies of England’s perennial enemy France, were somewhat unwilling to oblige Henry in this regard, and so a series of wars and invasions began, which in the novel are being promulgated in Edward’s name by Lord Seymour, Duke of Somerset, England’s Lord Protector during Edward’s minority.

Our hero is Francis Crawford of Lymond, Master of Culter, a younger son at odds with his older brother, though his mother’s favourite. We find him newly returned to Scotland from enforced exile (not to mention a term as a galley slave,) the leader of a band of border outlaws, the states of both Scotland and England having a price on his head (in particular he is thought to have betrayed Scotland, as a result contributing to the disaster that was the Battle of Solway Moss five years in this story’s past,) as a young red-headed aristocratic lad called Will Scott of Kincurd, heir to Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, turns up wishing to join his band.

Lymond is outrageously accomplished, a master swordsman and archer, who litters his speech with Latin epithets and quotations from both French and German, speaks Spanish, has a firm grasp of psychology and can outthink and outdrink anybody – the last being handy when you’re the leader of a band of outlaws. To put it another way, in the words of Chris Tarrant on Tiswas parodying Eamonn Andrews in This is Your Life, he is, “a right clever dick if ever there was one”. He is not unaware of this and neither is Dunnett as at one point she has him say, “‘Nothing arouses suspicion quicker than genuine, all round proficiency.’”

I confess it got a bit wearing in the earlier parts of the book when every mysterious “new” character turned out to be Lymond in some disguise or other (or, in one instance, as an amnesiac.) Whatever, incident is packed on incident, scrape on scrape, as the plot unfolds Lymond’s efforts to uncover the Englishman who might clear his name.

However, Dunnett has, while foregrounding the lives of Lymond and his family, also, almost quietly, ticking away in the background, provided a primer in the politics and strife of the time. This, indeed, is the sort of story nations need periodically to tell themselves so that they keep their histories alive.

And some things never change. An Englishman tells Lymond, “I don’t want to become part of the Holy Roman Empire, and it wouldn’t do Scotland any good either. You’re a threat to three million people out of all proportion to your size. You can’t expect us to leave you alone, to siphon up the dregs of Europe and inject them into our backside.” Substitute EU for Holy Roman Empire and fifty-five for three million and you’ve just about got the present day situation. As a rejoinder Lymond says, “‘You haven’t seen what your late king managed in the way of practical persuasion, with Somerset following ….. abbeys brought to the ground, villages annihilated by the hundred, a nobility decimated, a country brought to poverty which thirty years ago was graced above any other in Europe with the arts of living.” To the suggestions that French domination is inevitable if Mary marries the Dauphin and that the Auld Alliance had done Scotland little good, “‘Look at Flodden,’” Lymond replies, “‘France has too many commitments to spare enough troops to rule Scotland. Good lord, if England can’t do it, then France isn’t likely to.’”

On the subject of patriotism Lymond is scathing. It’s “‘a fine hothouse for maggots. It breeds intolerance; it forces a spindle-legged, spurious riot of colour ….. A man of only moderate powers enjoys the special sanction of purpose, the sense of ceremony, the echo of mysterious, lost and royal things; a trace of the broad, plain childish virtues of myth and legend and ballad…. He wants advancement – what simpler way is there? Patriotism. It’s an opulent word, a mighty key to a royal Cloud-Cuckoo-Land …… a vehicle for shedding boredom and exercising surplus power or surplus talents or surplus money; an immature ignorance which becomes the coin of barter in the markets of power.’” I am with the Lord Advocate, Henry Lauder, who says to Lymond, “‘Preserve us from the honest clod and the ambitious fanatic.’” There are too many of those, in any time.

Dunnett definitely aspires to fine writing. Lymond’s allusions are the least of it. “‘I wish to God,’ said Gideon with mild exasperation, ‘that you’d talk – just once – in prose like other people.’” Many chapter headings refer to obscure moves in chess and the text is littered not only with quotations and epithets but a good dose of uncommonly used or obsolete words (how about aposteme, or concamerate, or escharotic?) but actually not very many Scots ones. When she stops to take breath Dunnett is particularly adept in description of scenery or atmosphere but for me there was not quite enough of that and a bit too much of the swashbuckling derring-do about the project. But her characters are well drawn, the intrigue and politics intricately laid out. It’s a good read if a little over-wordy (but in that it’s not in the class of Sir Walter Scott, novelist.)

Throughout, though, I couldn’t shake off the feeling (and the dénouement only emphasised the thought) that however much Lymond appears to be Dunnett’s vehicle the tale is really that of Will Scott of Kincurd.

Pedant’s corner:- “dead right” (dead is here used in dialogue as an emphasiser to mean completely or absolutely. In the 1400s?) knit (knitted,) vocal chords (it’s cords; vocal cords.) “The progress of Sybilla though a market” (through a market,) “as Flaw Valleys’ near the border” (Flaw Valleys is a farm so, “as Flaw Valleys is near the border”,) “genetically speaking” (in dialogue in the fifteenth century? Imre Festetics was the first to use the term genetic, 300 years later,) Portugese (Portuguese,) peripetia (peripeteia?) Bowes’ (Bowes’s; apart from the one below other names ending in s are rendered …s’s elsewhere,) accolyte (the correct “acolyte” appeared later,) vivesection (vivisection,) Berick (Berwick,) Stokes’ (Stokes’s,) olefactory (olfactory,) insifflating (insufflating?) subsaltive (subsultive?) catachumen (catechumen.)

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