Book review: Corrag by Susan Fletcher
An intriguing, well researched mix of fact and fiction
The Scottish Highlands provide the backdrop for this compelling historical novel, as Jennifer Ryan discovers
Fourth Estate, £12.99stg
Fletcher's haunting third novel is inspired by the infamous 1692 Massacre of Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands.
Narrated in turns by the protagonist Corrag -- based on the legend of a white witch of the same name -- and Irishman Charles Leslie, the story begins in the former's murky prison cell as she awaits her death.
Leslie, a staunch Jacobite, has travelled to Scotland to gather incriminating evidence against the Protestant King William in an effort to reinstate Catholic James. Rumours of a callous attack led by the king's soldiers on the natives of Glencoe, a remote Scottish village, are rife.
The imprisoned Corrag, an apparent survivor, is Leslie's biggest hope of documenting the event. Unfortunately Corrag is not the most reputable source; reviled by the locals she is taunted and feared in equal measure. Accused of witchcraft she must spend her last days listening to men gather the wood on which she will burn. Through a series of letters addressed to his wife, Jane, we see an initially disdainful Leslie gradually accept and even admire Corrag as she recounts her life story, and eventually the events at Glencoe.
Fletcher is at pains to capture Leslie's struggle with his Christian conscience as he befriends Corrag. He cannot ignore her humane warmth and affection for the MacDonald clan of Glencoe, and constantly struggles to reconcile the emotionally intelligent young woman before him with the derogative "witch" label.
Warned by her mother, a witch and prostitute, about the pitfalls of love, Corrag has spent years alone living off the land, trekking through Northern England into Scotland. Following in her mother's footsteps she earned a meagre living by providing herbal remedies for the people of the various towns she passed through.
She travels through the woodlands, marshes and valleys of Scotland until finally finding a home in a sheltered valley outside Glencoe. So thoroughly has Fletcher evoked the haunting landscape that it becomes difficult to separate this oddly ethereal character from the natural environment she thrives in.
By the time Corrag's narration has reached the MacDonald clan at Glencoe the reader, like Leslie, has come to admire her spirit in a society ruled by fear and religion.
She recounts how after tending to their injured chief, MacIain, and proving herself as a skilled natural healer she becomes part of the MacDonald community. With patience and tenderness Alastair, the chief's son, educates Corrag on the history and customs of the Highlanders.
Fletcher's delight in detailing the nuances of the Gaelic language, the local names for mountain ranges and lakes, past times and rituals is obvious. Her passion for the location and her knowledge of the clan add genuine warmth to her prose, making the story compelling as well as convincing.
Unfortunately, as is evident in Leslie's letters and with the benefit of Corrag's hindsight, a dangerous political storm was brewing.
Drawing on historical fact, Fletcher retells how MacIain's late signing of an oath pledging allegiance to King William led to a massacre. Under the guise of seeking shelter from the extreme weather government troops arrived in Glencoe and basked in the MacDonald hospitality only to ambush and systematically slaughter their hosts.
A heartbroken Corrag does what she can to help, but the novel remains true to the history and sees many brutally slain, a fact that is not lost on Leslie as he carefully records Corrag's account of the actions of the soldiers.
Mixing fact and fiction is a tricky skill to master. Fletcher, however, manages to strike the right balance and in her powerful prose has created a highly original and enthralling tale that celebrates human perseverance.