Corrag by Susan Fletcher

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Corrag by Susan Fletcher

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A retelling of the Glencoe massacre and so much more... a sociological study of the time, a geographical study of the area, a reflection of our current pre-occupations, but mostly just a beautifully written tale.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: March 2010
Publisher: Fourth Estate
ISBN: 978-0007321599

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A small and dirty woman sits in a prison cell. With her bare feet and her matted hair and her damp, filthy clothes, she doesn't wonder at the word witch. She has been called it all her life. Her mother called her witch before she named her. Her given name Corrag – was a corruption: for Cora (her mother) and Hag (which she'd get as used to as Cora had).

She sits through the snow of the winter, knowing that the sound she hears outside is the dragging of the logs for her pyre.

She was told, though, that a man would come. So she waits for him.

Charles Leslie, an Irish preacher, is riding to the Highlands to see what he can do to further the Jacobite cause. Though not part of his original plan, he has heard tales of murder and treachery in the Highlands, and thinking he can use it as fodder for his pamphleteering, he is riding to discover the truth. He is riding to learn of the truth of Glencoe.

Glencoe. There's a name that echoes down the ages. For those who have travelled anywhere at all in Scotland or know even the rudiments of British history 'north of the border', the name Glencoe is steeped in myth and legend – just as it is steeped in proper historic treachery and blood.

From the myths we get Fingal, Celtic hero and leader of the Gaelic warriors, the Feinn. His name lives on in place names like Sgor nam Fiannaidh (rock of Feinn). His son, the poet Ossian, lives on in the small lake on Rannoch Moor.

From these mists of time ownership of the glen passed down into the MacDougall clan who ruled the area until the early 1300s when allying with Balliol against Robert the Bruce caught them on the losing side. Bruce gifted the glen to Angus Og, clan chief of the MacDonalds. From him it passed to Iain Fraoch founder of MacIain Abrach of Glencoe.

MacIains were independent in their territory, but at heart they were still MacDonalds. As such they continued the traditional rivalry with the neighbouring Campbells. For rivalry, read: reiving, and thieving, raiding and robbing, killing and burning. It was a hard-lived, hard-fought life. And they were harsh lands and hard times so we should maybe not judge by modern morals.

Of those times tales are told. Many are true and, no doubt, many are not. The dissonance and distrust is known, recorded, undisputed. It continued through the centuries and into the written history of the Sassenachs with the removal of James VII & II and the arrival of William of Orange to the throne of Scotland and England. Many were the causes of the Jacobite rebellion, too many to speak of here, but the allegiances were clear. The Campbells were for Orange and Protestantism; the MacDonalds (and with them the MacIains) stayed true to the Stuarts and Catholicism.

In 1691 William sought peace with the Highlanders and offered a pardon to all who had fought against him if they would now sign the oath of allegiance by 1st January 1692. The alternative was the death warrant.

The MacIain of Glencoe was reluctant to sign, but sign he did. Six days late.

What was six days to a Highlander? Consider the distance, consider the weather. What mattered a mere six days?

It mattered to those in the south, those with grudges born and axes to grind. It was a legitimate excuse to rid the Highlands for ever of that that thieving reiving papist clan. And who better to give the job to than a force, an English force, composed primarily of loyal Campbell men.

The soldiers arrived in harsh February weather and received the traditional hospitality of which the MacIains were proud. Shelter, food, and drink. A hundred and thirty soldiers entertained for nearly two weeks at the expense of the Chief and his clan.

On the morning of the 12th day, the orders arrived to slaughter every MacIain and MacDonald under the age of seventy. Man, woman and child.

In fact only about forty died in the slaughter, though many more died in the escape over the hills. Enough survived for the tale to be told, as it is still told. This is the blood memory of Glencoe. This act of treachery. The murderous return for hospitality.

This is recorded history and I give nothing away by telling it.

This is also the starting point – and the end point – for Susan Fletcher's third novel: the massacre at Glencoe.

Her focus for the tale, however, is not the MacIain nor the Campbell soldiers. Instead she takes another myth. The myth of an old woman, who had lived through it all, and sought to protect the people of Glencoe. A woman who may, or may not, have been a witch.

It is Corrag's tale we are called to listen to.

Leslie, also a real historical character, comes to Corrag's prison cell and in return for hearing the truth of the Glen he agrees to hear her life story.

Fletcher gives this to us in Corrag's own words – rich with the voice of one born to tell tales at the fire. Garrulous in the way of a confident one, with someone finally willing to listen. It is beautifully told. Laden with the knowledge of the places and the people – not just of the Highlands, but those encountered en route there from near Hexham where she was born. Sparse in the harshness of the life lived. Utterly captivating.

Struggling to find a criticism the only one I can find is that we're told Corrag's voice is shrill and high, as one might expect of her stature. I can't hear that in the words from the page. I hear calm, quiet, subdued. Above all, I hear honesty from one who knows her place in the world, and understands it, and in all its wrongness simply accepts it.

Leslie's voice ends each instalment. After sitting through an afternoon of Corrag, he retires to write to his beloved wife back in Ireland. Through his letters we witness a change of heart, but the author's purpose is probably a more mundane one of allowing herself a technique to analyse what has been said. To make the points buried in the story more blatant.

It isn't necessary, but neither does it detract from the telling, and of course there is a final purpose to it.

As with her first novel (Eve Green), Fletcher displays her undoubted gift for lyric prose. For those of us who walk for the beauty in the rocks and waters and undisturbed places, Fletcher is kindred spirit. Her characters know about belonging to a place. I was always for places Corrag tells us again and again. In our post-industrial world, places are becoming important again and Fletcher shows us why this right and important.

She is not detached from the reality of our own lives though. The backdrop to the story is religion. The Jacobite rebellion was partly about government and freedom. It was also about religion. Catholicism versus Protestantism – a schism that still continues to raise its head, although less violently these days (for a time) in the Celtic lands. But also she speaks of the religious and the irreligious. Corrag favours no king, and no god. This resonates even more strongly today. If any clear messages come across, it is that morality and religion have no direct correlation, and we should not condemn before we understand.

It isn't a book to be read for message though. If you don't know the story of Glencoe it is one to be read for history (though do heed the author's warning that it is a fiction, a novel, that should be read as such). Mostly it is one to be read for beautiful writing about beautiful places.

I'm sure that I loved Rannoch and Coe as much as Corrag did is entirely coincidental. For more murderous tales from 17th century Scotland try The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona Maclean.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Booklists.jpg Corrag by Susan Fletcher is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2010.

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