Friday, July 24, 2015

Stone of Destiny

I must confess that, even though my heritage is 100% Scots, my interest in history has rarely extended to the land of my ancestors. Except for Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, most of which take place outside Scotland, Marie Macpherson’s evocative The First Blast of the Trumpet (about John Knox), and the occasional Highland romance of a misspent youth, I rarely even read fiction set in Scotland.

This response grows out of a sense, true or false, that Scottish history stops being depressing right around the time when the Stuarts take the English crown in 1603. The thirteenth century, when the clans couldn’t stop bickering long enough to keep William Wallace from a grisly execution or even agree on a king, was a particularly dark time. Yet when Glen Craney wrote to me to propose a New Books in Historical Fiction interview about his novel The Spider and the Stone—based on the life of James Douglas, the man whose steadfast support for Robert the Bruce secured Scotland’s independence for a few more centuries—I decided I really should read the book. I had, after all, grown up on stories of the Bruce and the spider in the cave, as well as tales of Edward I’s confiscation of Scotland’s coronation stone and its attempted recovery in 1950.

And I’m glad I did—read the book, that is. It’s a fun read and includes a twist that I won’t reveal about the Stone of Scone (pronounced Skoon, by the way) that fit wonderfully within the world of the story, as well as a collection of magnificently despicable characters operating on both sides of the border. And it made me think: is it possible that the history of thirteenth-century Scotland is badly taught at the elementary and high-school levels? Because the version I learned implied that the clans should have seen that the needs of the nation took precedence over the interests of their own lineages.

But where in Europe was that the case, even in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries? The Russian aristocratic clans fought, too, over precedence and privileges. The Russians did agree on the charismatic principle of the ruling dynasty, which existed apart and above the individual boyar clans. The turmoil in the early part of Ivan the Terrible’s (1530–84) reign—the subject of my Legends of the Five Directions novels—came about because the clans could not agree on the pecking order among themselves, since Ivan was too young to marry and establish said pecking order for them. But when the old dynasty died out in 1598 and a new one had to be chosen, Russia managed no better than Scotland. In both cases, the idea of “nation” meant little compared to the concept of lineage. Read in that light, Scottish history doesn’t seem so depressing after all.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Scotland, 1296: William Wallace is leading the resistance against the English while the clans fight one another as fiercely as they attack the invaders from the south. Two candidates in particular claim the throne: the Red Comyn and Bruce the Competitor. Neither can rule without support from Clan Macduff. But when Comyn secures the hand of Isabelle Macduff for his heir, his success appears assured. No matter that Isabelle prefers James Douglas, whose family supports Bruce. In 1296, a woman must accept her father’s choice of husband. Isabelle’s fate is sealed.

But Isabelle harbors an unfeminine ambition to see and touch the Stone of Scone, on which all of Scotland’s kings have been crowned. Even though the Stone lies in Westminster Abbey and Edward Longshanks controls half of Scotland, including the clan into which Isabelle has married against her will, she is determined to play a part in her country’s fractious politics. Her determination leads her along a long and tortuous path as the mercurial James, soon known as the Black Douglas, and the depressive Robert, grandson of Bruce the Competitor, struggle to overcome the divisions among the Scottish lords and rally support before the land of their birth falls completely under “proud Edward’s power.”

In The Spider and the Stone: A Novel of the Black Douglas (Brigid’s Fire Books, 2014), Glen Craney reveals the events that led up to and beyond the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Rich in historical detail and powerful personalities in conflict, this is a story that picks up where Braveheart ends and follows the drive to keep Scotland independent to its successful, if temporary, conclusion.

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