If like me you’re waiting to read the next book in the Outlander series until you’ve watched the next season on TV, here are some more Highland adventure stories to keep you going in the meantime.
The Outlander series of books and the TV series which it has spawned have proven a massive international success, garnering millions of ardent readers and viewers around the world in its wake. The crux of the story is that its central character Claire falls in love with an 18th century Highlander, Jamie Fraser. And it would be fair to say that many of the Outlander fans can’t help falling for this dashing Highland hero too.
And in its portrayal of the character of Jamie Fraser, Outlander follows in the tradition of a line of literary takes on the fearless, brave and honourable Highlander. A tradition that goes back a couple of hundred years, once the clan system they portray had been well and truly uprooted by the British Government after the failure of the Jacobite Uprising in 1746.
This failed Uprising not only witnessed the final nail in the coffin of the Jacobite cause but it also saw the destruction of the Gaels’ way of life, thereby putting an end to the fear of marauding Highlanders coming across the Highland Line (the notional border which separates the Lowlands from the Highlands in Scotland). Once Highlanders were no longer a threat, it didn’t take that long for them to become romanticised instead.
Sir Walter Scott kicked off a great interest in this period with his novel Waverley, in which he relates the story of Edward Waverley, an English soldier who ends up fighting for the Jacobite cause. The novel was immensely popular in its day but it’s one I’ve been unable to work my way through with any success.
However, there are some other novels of that ilk which I have enjoyed. And if you like buying into the brave and fearless highlander as hero shtick, you might do too!
The Flight of the Heron – D.K. Broster (Part 1 of a Trilogy)
The hero of The Flight of the Heron, Ewen Cameron, was my first literary crush. Like many other literary Highlander heroes, Ewen is unusually tall, handsome, brave, a bonny fighter and most important of all, a man of honour.
Set around the time of the 1745 Uprising, the cornerstone of the novel is the unlikely friendship between Ewen Cameron and an English officer, Keith Windham. Their meetings are presaged by Ewen’s foster-father Angus MacMartin, blessed with second-sight. He foretells that Ewen will meet someone who will be the “occasion of a great service and a bitter grief”, and their initial meeting will be brought about by a heron.
In an attempt to thwart this fate, Ewen’s devoted foster-brother Lachlan MacMartin kills the heron nesting in their midst. Needless to say, fate won’t be thwarted and the two men meet, first with Ewen as gallant and charming victor and lastly with Windham trying to save Ewen from death and the worst excesses of cruelty and vindictiveness as a prisoner of the British.
Broster gives an insight into the cruelty and summary executions carried out in the aftermath of Culloden, but writing in the 1930s, the descriptions are possibly less explicit than a modern author would aim for today. It’s also interesting to note that in the novel the main perpetrators of the violence directed towards the Jacobites all seem to be Scottish; whereas those who help Ewen escape certain death are Windham and a couple of Yorkshiremen fortuitously passing by from cattle-trading in the Highlands.
There is though one haunting image when Windham comes across a half-naked woman and her child, frozen to death on the mountainside, who had undoubtedly been forced to flee into the mountains by the Redcoats with her only options being either to starve or freeze to death.
The novel also gives you a sense of what the Jacobites were ready to risk for the Prince. Ewen has a happy life at his beloved Loch Eagle and is about to marry the love of his life, Alison Grant. (This being the 1930s the love story is all very chaste). However, he has no hesitation to follow his beloved clan chief, Lochiel and hazard it all for the Jacobite cause.
However, the main relationship in question is the growing friendship between Keith Windham and Ewen Cameron. If there is any undercurrent of homo-eroticism then it’s not made explicit. Instead Broster depicts how these two supposed enemies learn to respect and become close friends despite being on opposing sides.
The Flight of the Heron is also a great adventure story and it’s surprising that it hasn’t been turned into a film or TV series more often.
The Gleam in the North – D.K. Broster (Part 2)
As with The Flight of the Heron, The Gleam in the North is a fantastic adventure story with great set pieces. Ewen is now a happily married man and father to two small boys. He has also apparently made his peace with the English. But with the arrival of his impulsive brother-in-law Hector Grant from France this is all about to change. Especially when Ewen hears that Lochiel’s brother, Dr Archibald Cameron is back in Scotland in the hope of fermenting another Uprising. Still under attainder, if Dr Cameron is caught he may well face death at Tyburn as a traitor.
The Gleam in the North deals with treachery among the Jacobite ranks, Ewen Cameron proving his mettle against the English (let’s just say he’s a hard man to keep prisoner) and we also get to meet Keith Windham’s family. And for fans of Scottish history, we also enjoy a literary representation of Dr Cameron. A real historical figure, apparently many of Dr Cameron’s lines in the novel were taken from his actual statements. By all accounts, Dr Cameron was a well-respected individual and this comes across in the novel.
Also what comes across in the novel is the old-fashioned value of honour as well as the double dealing which plagued the Jacobite cause.
The Dark Mile – D.K. Broster (Part 3)
A major part of this novel is taken up with the impossible romance between Ewen Cameron’s cousin, Ian Stewart and Olivia Campbell. Needless to say a romance between these two historically inimical clans would not be regarded favourably by either side. A situation exacerbated when it turns out that Olivia’s father Campbell of the Cairns was in charge of the troops who mowed down Ian’s brother at Culloden.
However, it would seem love is in the air as Ewen’s brother-in-law, Hector Grant is enamoured with Ian’s sister, Jacqueline. Unfortunately for Hector, Ian is not enamoured with the idea or with Hector and makes no bones about it.
Meanwhile there is still the question of who exactly betrayed Dr Cameron and last but not least there is clearly unfinished business between Ewen Cameron and his repugnant neighbour, Finlay MacPhair of Glenshian.
The love story is all very sudden and probably a bit too romantic for modern tastes. Ian falls in love with Olivia almost immediately and without really even having said more than a few words to her. But that aside, The Dark Mile is another good adventure yarn with one of our heroes ending up locked in a deserted castle by a loch and Finlay MacPhair proving to be an unredeemable scoundrel.
The novel also examines the idea of collaboration: on the one hand someone collaborating with the Hanoverians out of sheer greed and someone betraying his own cause out of a sense of duty and the belief he is doing the right thing for his country. The latter’s collaboration ironically proving the more pernicious. Or is it? Because as in life, nothing is black and white. Dr Cameron, Lochiel and Ewen Cameron are honourable and loyal men but it is this very sense of honour and loyalty that led them to fight for a doomed cause which in turn destroyed the very roots of their own society. And it is perhaps this betrayal for seemingly honourable reasons which may stop another Uprising from bringing more havoc to the Highlands.
I finished the last of D.K. Broster’s trilogy wishing she’d written a fourth book. And there’s no bigger compliment you can give to an author than that!
Rob Roy – Sir Walter Scott
The title is a bit of a misnomer. It’s an age before Rob Roy makes a proper appearance, even longer before we get to Scotland and even longer before we end up in the Highlands. The actual protagonist of the novel is Frank Osbaldistone. (You can see why Scott opted for the much snazzier Rob Roy as the title).
Frank defies his father by refusing to join the family firm and is sent forthwith to Northumberland to stay with his uncouth uncle and cousins, whose main interests seem to consist solely of hunting and drinking. There he also meets Diana Vernon who, for my mind, is the most interesting character in the novel. If anything, she’s a proto-feminist heroine. She’s bold, frank and keenly intelligent. She is the only one who sees through the devious Rashleigh Osbaldistone, Frank’s youngest cousin and the baddie of the piece.
Removed from normal society and with only the rough-and-ready Osbaldistone men as company, Diane Vernon has had, what would sadly still be considered today by some, as a male education studying philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. Such an education “had encouraged Miss Vernon in setting at nought and despising the forms and ceremonial limits which are drawn round females in modern society”.
Diana is such a fascinating character, Scott seems to be suggesting that if women were given the same educational opportunities as men, they would then not be forced to acquire the usual affectations and so-called accomplishments society tends to oblige them to limit themselves to.
It’s true that there is a hell of a lot of scene-setting before the story really gets going. So much so, that once or twice I even checked to see whether I had downloaded the right book. However Scott writes in that witty way with phrasing so beloved of 19th century writers that it didn’t bother me that much.
The other issue is that the book contains conversations in Northumberland and Scottish dialect which were possibly incomprehensible to readers when the novel was published in 1817. At times, you just have to skim through it and hope you get the gist.
The novel is set around the 1715 Uprising, although the uprising itself remains steadfastly in the background. As for the Highlanders, this is definitely no overtly romanticised version of the Highland warrior. The novel makes clear how dangerous it was for British troops and lowlanders alike (presumably for the Highlanders there was little difference between the two) to cross the Highland Line.
The Highlanders are depicted as dirt poor, violent and born thieves. Rob Roy himself is a cattle rustler and the head of a protection racket. Their thievery is best described after Rob’s wife Helen (a woman who makes Lady Macbeth seem a rank amateur) has taken on a company of British troops.
“At length he [Andrew Fairservice] attained firm and comparatively level ground—or rather, to speak more correctly, his foot slipping at the last point of descent, he fell on the earth at his full length, and was raised by the assistance of the Highlanders, who stood to receive him, and who, ere he gained his legs, stripped him not only of the whole contents of his pockets, but of periwig, hat, coat, doublet, stockings, and shoes, performing the feat with such admirable celerity, that, although he fell on his back a well-clothed and decent burgher-seeming serving-man, he arose a forked, uncased, bald-pated, beggarly-looking scarecrow.”
However, the novel acknowledges that Rob Roy MacGregor has his virtues with a keen sense of honour who always does right by Frank. He’s instrumental in helping Frank: and in the novel Scott seems to imply that Rob Roy had little choice in tuning to a life of crime, forced to live the life of a thief by the circumstances he found himself in.
After all, having MacGregor as your surname was a hanging offence at the time the novel is set, thanks to an edict issued way back in 1603 and which remained on the statutes until 1774. With this in mind, it is perhaps no wonder that Rob Roy is not over fond of the law.
Scott also seems to be asking for tolerance in the depiction of the relationship between the protestant Frank and the catholic Diana, in an age when “mixed marriages” as they were still called in my father’s day (and that was 1950s Scotland) were frowned upon.
In short, I enjoyed the novel but it definitely wasn’t the read I was expecting.
Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson
If you’re looking for romance then forget it. Kidnapped is a pure adventure yarn and a great one at that. (True, there is a romantic plotline in the sequel Catriona but Kidnapped is by far the more enjoyable book). Stevenson excels at moving the two main protagonists, David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart, from one adventure to another without it ever seeming contrived.
Set in 1751, several years after the 1745 Uprising, our recently orphaned hero David Balfour seeks out his estranged Uncle Ebenezer. To say his uncle isn’t over-pleased to see him is somewhat of an understatement. Not content with trying to kill him, his uncle then has David kidnapped and sold into slavery, bound on a ship to the Americas. Fortunately for David, it is here he meets Alan Breck Stewart who despite having a price on his head goes back and forth from Scotland to France with reckless abandon.
But besides being a great adventure story, we also get a sense of what life must have been like for the Highlanders after the uprising with references throughout the novel to the Dress Act (which made the wearing of Highland dress including the tartan or the kilt illegal), the Disarming Act and the constant presence of British troops. One of the most heartfelt descriptions is that of the emigrant ship and the departing Highlanders, left with little choice but to leave their homeland.
Alan, like most literary highlanders, is a skilled fighter, intensely loyal who would do anything for a friend, even staying with David for the best part of a month when David is too ill to move despite the constant danger of him being discovered by the British, and where his capture would mean certain death. But Alan is by no means perfect and his vanity both of himself and of being a Stewart is commented on throughout the narrative.
And it is precisely this loyalty and sense of honour which is the common thread that unites all three of the main Highlanders we encounter in Kidnapped. Besides Alan, we meet Rob Roy’s son Robin Oig. Like Alan, Robin is only too ready to fight at any given opportunity. And again like Alan, he is also willing to throw caution to the wind and risk capture to fulfil any perceived debt of honour. When Robin hears that a certain David Balfour is ill and laid up in MacPherson land, he wonders if this Balfour is the son of a man who tended his father, and if he is, he wants to return the service regardless of any danger he might put himself in as a result.
Likewise, the third main Highlander, Cluny MacPherson, is in hiding in an area tightly controlled by the British Army, safe in the knowledge that none of his clansmen will turn him in, irrelevant of any monetary award offered by the British government. It is via Cluny that David sees the old clan system at work.
“for though he was thus sequestered, and like the other landed gentlemen of Scotland, stripped by the late Act of Parliament of legal powers, he still exercised a patriarchal justice in his clan. Disputes were brought to him in his hiding-hole to be decided; and the men of his country, who would have snapped their fingers at the Court of Session, laid aside revenge and paid down money at the bare word of this forfeited and hunted outlaw. When he was angered, which was often enough, he gave his commands and breathed threats of punishment like any king; and his gillies trembled and crouched away from him like children before a hasty father. With each of them, as he entered, he ceremoniously shook hands, both parties touching their bonnets at the same time in a military manner. Altogether, I had a fair chance to see some of the inner workings of a Highland clan; and this with a proscribed, fugitive chief; his country conquered; the troops riding upon all sides in quest of him, sometimes within a mile of where he lay; and when the least of the ragged fellows whom he rated and threatened, could have made a fortune by betraying him.”
It was thanks to such entrenched loyalty that enabled Bonnie Prince Charlie to flee through the Highlands for five months and evade capture despite the presence of government forces and a reward of £30,000 on his head. A sum that is by no means inconsequential over 270 years later but back then would have been a considerable fortune.
The other aspect of this seemingly simple novel is that it contrasts two very different sides of the Scottish identity. On the one hand you have Alan, the Highland fighter, loyal, romantic, hot-blooded and reckless, devoted to a doomed cause, and on the other hand you have David Balfour, the lowland gentleman, the law-abiding Presbyterian Whig. In theory, they are complete opposites but together they win out against adversity in the end.
Kidnapped may have been written as a boy’s adventure story but it is so much more.
Midwinter – John Buchan
Like Rob Roy the title is a bit of a misnomer. The character of Midwinter appears fleetingly in the novel and just like Rob Roy when Midwinter does make an appearance he invariably makes an entrance just in the nick of time and always proves most helpful to the protagonist.
The protagonist in question is a certain Jacobite undercover agent, Alastair Maclean who on his journeys also meets up with Samuel Johnson – yes the Samuel Johnson. However, although in Rob Roy we eventually make it to Scotland, in Midwinter the action is set entirely in England. So as with Rob Roy, you end up reading an entirely different novel from the one you expected.
The first few chapters of Midwinter had me enthralled and I couldn’t put it down. However, the novel soon starts to get a bit clunky. For starters, Alastair seems to be a rather inept spy. Not least because he seems very open about what he is up to with various people; this is surely rule no 1. of what not to do when working undercover. And for someone entrusted with undercover work, a soldier and an experienced man of the world, he also doesn’t seem to realise who the traitor is in his midst despite there being only one real possible suspect.
Throughout the novel Alastair keeps intending to head back up north and meet up with Bonnie Prince Charlie, a mission which becomes even more urgent once he inadvertently gets hold of some vital information that could change the future of the Uprising. However, he never seems to make it. And when given the simple choice of choosing between his heart and the cause, he chooses the former. Again surely rule no 2. of being a secret agent is not to be side-tracked by a romantic interest.
In fact, this decision on Alastair’s part is a lot less romantic than you might think, given that Claudia Norreys, the woman in question, is more childlike than womanlike, a slip of a girl, a hopeless romantic who worryingly seems to enslave both Alastair and Samuel Johnson with her childish charms, so much so that both Alastair and Samuel seem determined to keep her ignorant and in a childlike state whatever the cost.
So ignoring the clunkiness in parts and the abysmal depiction of Claudia, Midwinter may be worth a read if only to enjoy the intriguing first few chapters and for the depiction of the ineptness of the Jacobite intelligence service as yet another reason why the Jacobite Uprising failed so catastrophically.
An Edinburgh Reel – Iona McGregor
As with Kidnapped, An Edinburgh Reel is set in 1751 and seems to also have been written for young readers in mind. Admittedly, An Edinburgh Reel is no classic novel in the mould of Kidnapped but as a book to enjoy while commuting it’s ideal. In other words, it’s not the kind of novel you’d be tempted to miss your stop for.
The central character is Christine Murray, a fifteen year old Highland girl who has come to Edinburgh to meet up with her father, John Murray. Returning from exile in France, John Murray is embittered by the thought of the unknown man who betrayed him to the British and determined to seek him out. To be fair, it’s pretty obvious who the villain is as there really is, as with Midwinter, only one possible candidate.
The situation is exacerbated when Christine’s father becomes involved with a Jacobite plot. And just to complicate matters further, Christine is also experiencing the flush of first love with a neighbour, Jamie Lindsay. In fact, this part of the story is quite sweetly told.
The other interesting aspect of this novel is the depiction of 18th century Edinburgh. As I’m no expert in the subject myself I have no idea how accurate a picture it is but it definitely gives the impression of being one; and it would seem that living in 18th century Edinburgh was no picnic. There also seems to be an attempt to use 18th century dialogue but with the advantage over Rob Roy that this time it’s by far the more comprehensible.
So if you’re looking for an easy read with a Jacobite flavour than Edinburgh Reel might be for you!