26 January 2021
Coronach author Kimberley Reeman talks to History Scotland about her historical novel, followed by an exclusive extract from this epic tale, set in the turbulent years following the '45.
At what stage in life did you first become aware of the Jacobite period and the turbulence of those years?
The first mayor of Toronto, where I was born, was a firebrand journalist and political agitator named William Lyon Mackenzie. In 1837 he led an abortive rebellion against the government of Upper Canada. When I was little, my grandfather used to tell me stories about “Mackenzie and the hanging tree”, and these so fascinated me that when, aged twelve, I found a biography of Mackenzie in the school library, I practically read it to pieces. It contained the intriguing sentence: “Both Mackenzie’s grandfathers were Highlanders, and both had been ‘out’ in the ʼ45.” I went straight to my parents’ encyclopedias to find out what the ʼ45 was, and my young writer’s mind was never the same. And the more I read, the more powerfully it spoke to me: its origins, its consequences, its inevitability, its setting within the context of the 18th century. It became my life.
Could you tell us more about how you work as a writer? Do your characters and settings arrive fully or partially formed in your mind or does this happen as you begin to write?
It is my gift to see the past and my vocation to take you, the reader, by the hand and lead you into it. To allow you to experience it, not as costume drama or fantasy but as the substance of your very life. And, in that reality, to see through the eyes of my people. The soldiers, the rebels, the civilians, the victims, the survivors of war and terror. The characters walk into my mind, and it is my job to peel back the layers of each personality and discover their pasts, their memories, their loves, their fears. I call this ‘method writing’. And as I discover, so they lead me deeper into their world. I see what they see, I experience what they feel, I hear their voices, I see the play of light and shadow on their faces. I watch it like a film and direct with care, but I never control them. And, yes, sometimes they shock me. But war and its consequences are shocking. And, like a war correspondent, I bear witness to its truths.
If you could meet one of your characters in real life, who would it be and why?
Lieutenant-Colonel the Honourable Aeneas Bancroft, based on the real colonel of the 4th Regiment of Foot, Robert Rich, whose right hand was severed from his wrist by a Highland broadsword at the battle of Culloden. Bancroft is homosexual in a time when homosexuality in the British armed forces is a crime punishable by death; he has become addicted to opium; and his love for his profoundly psychologically disturbed second-in-command becomes one of Coronach’s great tragedies. Bancroft haunts me: his passion, his yearning, his courage, his vulnerability. I feel the deepest compassion for him.
How important was it to you to have strong female characters in the narrative?
It never occurred to me that they would not be strong. Margaret, who speaks through me and whose memoir Coronach comprises, is a survivor, a child of war and rebellion, an eye-witness to history. Daughter, lover, companion, friend, surrounded by very dangerous men in a very dangerous age: you were strong, or you became a victim. Very little has changed for women.
What advice would you give to someone who would like to try writing historical fiction?
Learn your craft. Know your subject. Find your voice. Speak your truths - the truths of history and the truths of life - and let no one and nothing dissuade you from standing by them. Learn the rhythms of your characters’ speech: listen to them. And write, revise, rewrite, perfect. Because you are a wordsmith and an historian and a storyteller, and it is not just a hobby. It is the very essence of who you are.
Extract from Coronach
The Culloden battalions were recalled to Flanders, where they were once more engaged in bitter conflict with the French.
The Highlands were divided into four military districts, garrisoned, and harried by patrols of dragoons who routed out fugitives and rumours of spies with sullen determination. They came and went, staying in shielings and bothies, sometimes dirked or shot, mostly shooting, raping and hanging where they pleased.
There was talk of another rising. There was little food and less kindling in any of the ravaged glens, but the agents did exist, and where they eluded their pursuers they carried rumour enough to fire men’s imaginations. French spies in the Fraser country were bearing letters from the Prince; French gold lay hidden at Loch Arkaig to finance another revolt; rebellion would come in the Isles with the spring. Perhaps some of it was true - most of it was lies, the beginning of legend.
They fed on it for a time. The first yearning ballads sprang up about the Prince, cherishing their vision of his return. The men who had crept home buried their broadswords in the thatches and peat hags, and waited.
They had been stripped of their dreams, their hopes. By late summer of the year after the rebellion, they were stripped of their very clothes.
.... And it is further enacted. That from and after the 1st of August 1747 no man or boy within Scotland other than such as shall be employed as officers and soldiers in the King’s forces, shall on any pretense whatsoever, wear or put on the cloathes commonly called highland cloathes, that is to say, the plaid, philabeg or little kilt, trowse, shoulder-belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the highland garb; and that no tartan or party-coloured plaids or stuff shall be used for great-coats, or for upper coats; and if any such persons shall, after said 1st of August, wear or put on the aforesaid garments or any part of them, every such person so offending, being convicted thereof by the mouth of one or more witnesses, before any court of justiciary, or any one or more Justices of the Peace for the shire or stewartry, or judge ordinary of the place where such offence shall be committed, shall suffer imprisonment without bail, during six months and no longer; and being convicted of a second offence, before the court of justiciary, or at the circuits, shall be liable to be transported to any of His Majesty’s plantations beyond the sea, for seven years.
Some resisted. Some fled into the hills rather than surrender their arms or their dress, or the right to wear them. Some openly defied the laws and were imprisoned, transported, or shot. In Glen Sian they were mostly broken and sullen: MacNeil was sick and often drunk and Lachlan had disappeared, and the flame of rebellion had flickered out among them; those who had fought retired to the crofts and drank the raw spirit from illegal stills and surrendered themselves to their memories, to the shadows of what they had been.
Ewen Stirling heard them one night singing Jacobite songs forbidden now by law, with the recklessness of men who had nothing left to lose. Slowly and mournfully, voices in the dark.
Who will play the silver whistle
when my King’s son to sea is going?
All Scotland prepare, prepare his coming....
I will be dancing, I will be singing,
and I will play the silver whistle....
By autumn of 1747 many of them had rendered up their weapons and were forced to take the oath of disarmament. The more ingenious submitted pistols that appeared not to have been fired since the first rising thirty-two years before, keeping their newer, brighter swords hidden. Murdoch Scott took the oath like the others, swearing in the Irish tongue with his hand resting on the iron of an old knife which he later surrendered:
.... As I shall answer to God at the great day of judgment, I have not, nor shall have in my possession any gun, sword, pistol or arm whatsoever, and never use tartan, plaid or any part of the highland garb: and if I do so may I be cursed in my undertakings, family and property, may I be killed in battle as a coward, and lie without burial in a strange land, far from the graves of my forefathers and kindred; may all this come across me if I break my oath.
Then, like the others, he tossed a brace of rusted wheellocks onto the table, so clearly useless that it seemed unlikely his oath could be taken seriously. It was indeed a token submission: within a month he was openly carrying his steel pistols across his saddle again as he made his rounds of Glen Sian.
His rent rolls had decreased. From every glen the homeless were on the roads. Women went to the garrisons at Fort Augustus and Fort William, prostituting themselves for heels of bread; they were driven away by the provost guard and drifted on to Inverness, or to the squalid slums of Edinburgh or Glasgow. Young men went as labourers to the Lowlands, but it was brutal living: their speech was not understood, their clothing outlawed, and the pitiful rags they wore in place of the Highland dress were mocked: they were rebels and savages. They endured the abuse and lived in misery, or they died of unknown diseases in the filthy, overcrowded towns, or they returned, not often, to the Highlands where no future awaited them.
There was no other rising. The chiefs were away, dead, or in hiding, and those who said the Prince would come again said it less often and with less conviction. But the rumours lingered, disquieting an already anxious Parliament, and as an alien and a suspected Jacobite Ewen Stirling was required to lodge bail of a sum that staggered him, against his own future loyalty to the Hanoverian. He paid it and was beggared: if his fortunes had been depleted before, they were entirely ruined now.
Before the end of the year another legislation had been nailed to the door of the kirk in Glen Mor. He read it and found he had lost his right of hereditary jurisdiction: what legal privileges, what power to try and condemn his own people he had possessed before the rebellion had been stripped from him by a jealous government. He had become nothing more than a petty landowner, with a title that was meaningless in England.
The loyal chiefs were paid compensation in cash for the forfeit of their hereditary powers: the great Campbell, Argyll, received twenty thousand pounds. And so it went, down the roster of Protestant Whiggish peers and the heads of clans who had fought for King George or kept their disaffection well hidden. Attainted rebels, exiled lairds and suspected Jacobites were not compensated. For the loss of his rights and his cattle, the forfeit of much personal freedom, and the theft or vandalism of many of his possessions, Ewen Stirling received nothing at all, nor ever would.
In the summer of 1748 Inglis MacNeil was arrested, and taken to the garrison at Fort Augustus. Ewen followed him, and by oaths and promises and humiliating bribery secured his release. MacNeil came home a bitter man, cheated of the death he had craved.
So it ended, the lost cause, as a song sung in darkness, as a shred of tartan cloth, as a sword rusting in the peat hags awaiting a call that never came, as a sad tale told.
© Highseas Authors Limited
About the author
Kimberley Jordan Reeman was born in Toronto, and worked in Canadian radio and publishing before marrying the author Douglas Reeman (Alexander Kent) in 1985. She was his editor, muse and literary partner until his death in 2017, while pursuing her own career as a novelist. She lives in Surrey, England.
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Read Kimberley's Valentine's poem series at Linkedin.