Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hunted and Harried: A Tale of the Covenanters by RM Ballantyne

In two and a half years of reviewing books for Vintage Novels, I've never reviewed an RM Ballantyne book.

The time has come to repair this shortcoming! Last summer I had the opportunity to read an RM Ballantyne book I'd never read before--Hunted and Harried.

It is, as the subtitle hints, a story of the Presbyterian Covenanters during the Killing Times in 1670s Scotland. Our story follows the fortunes of Will Wallace, a young dragoon who soon becomes disgusted by his orders to ferret out and put to death any folks suspected of "disloyalty"--
“Only two days ago I was ordered out with a party who pillaged the house of a farmer because he refused to take an oath of allegiance, which seems to have been purposely so worded as to make those who take it virtually bondslaves to the King, and which makes him master of the lives, properties, and consciences of his subjects—and all this done in the King’s name and by the King’s troops!”
But when young Wallace is finally forced to attack a fellow dragoon to defend a young girl they meet on the road, he knows that under the King's law his life is forfeit for aiding a Covenanter. Throwing in his lot with local patriarch Andrew Black, Wallace joins the Covenanter cause, is hunted across Scotland by his old comrades-at-arms, and even sees action at Bothwell Bridge and endures the ghastly imprisonment in the Greyfriars Kirkyard.

This book is a slice-of-history book with a lot of similarities to GA Henty novels. Ballantyne writes a corking yarn, full of battles and narrow escapes. While the story of the original characters and their adventures is fast-paced enough to keep your attention, it's the history which stays with you.

And because I have never read much about this time of history (unless you count Scott's Old Mortality, but that was years ago and I hardly remember it), I relished the chance of learning more. Ballantyne introduces us to real historical characters and takes frequent breaks from the storyline to describe, in terms equally as gripping, the awful tyranny wreaked upon the Scottish during this period. Ballantyne's first brief summary of the situation is heart-breaking:
Happily for the well-being of future generations, our covenanting forefathers stood their ground with Christian heroism, for both civil and religious liberty were involved in the struggle. Their so-called fanaticism consisted in a refusal to give up the worship of God after the manner dictated by conscience and practised by their forefathers; in declining to attend the ministry of the ignorant, and too often vicious, curates forced upon them; and in refusing to take the oath of allegiance just referred to by Will Wallace.

Conventicles, as they were called—or the gathering together of Christians in houses and barns, or on the hillsides, to worship God—were illegally pronounced illegal by the King and Council; and disobedience to the tyrannous law was punished with imprisonment, torture, confiscation of property, and death. To enforce these penalties the greater part of Scotland—especially the south and west—was overrun by troops, and treated as if it were a conquered country. The people—holding that in some matters it is incumbent to “obey God rather than man,” and that they were bound “not to forsake the assembling of themselves together”—resolved to set the intolerable law at defiance, and went armed to the hill-meetings.

They took up arms at first, however, chiefly, if not solely, to protect themselves from a licentious soldiery, who went about devastating the land, not scrupling to rob and insult helpless women and children, and to shed innocent blood. Our Scottish forefathers, believing—in common with the lower animals and lowest savages—that it was a duty to defend their females and little ones, naturally availed themselves of the best means of doing so.
Ballantyne goes on to describe the scenes of murder and despotism occurring across Scotland at this time, together with a discussion of the characters and conflicting aims of the Covenanters themselves. He provides much important background. His discussion of the assassination of Archbishop Sharp is very interesting, and his notes on the Covenants which gave the Scots dissenters their name is, I think, entirely fair:
There have been several Covenants in Scotland, the most important historically being the National Covenant of 1638, and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. It was to these that Quentin referred, and to these that he and the great majority of the Scottish people clung with intense, almost superstitious veneration; and well they might, for these Covenants—which some enthusiasts had signed with their blood—contained nearly all the principles which lend stability and dignity to a people—such as a determination to loyally stand by and “defend the King,” and “the liberties and laws of the kingdom,” to have before the eyes “the glory of God, the advancement of the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the honour and happiness of the King and his posterity, as well as the safety and peace of the people; to preserve the rights and privileges of Parliament, so that arbitrary and unlimited power should never be suffered to fall into the hands of rulers, and to vindicate and maintain the liberties of the subjects in all these things which concern their consciences, persons, and estates.” In short, it was a testimony for constitutional government in opposition to absolutism.
Ballantyne spares us no details in his depiction of the wrongs suffered during this period, and his indignation comes through clearly on the page. An old man shot at the door of his house; a description of the instruments and techniques of torture used on the dissenters, including one of our main characters; the execution by drowning of another character's fiancee (the fiancee was a real person, although I don't think the character was); and above all the unbelievable aftermath of the Battle of Bothwell Bridge, when hundreds of prisoners were kept in the Greyfriars Kirkyard for months without shelter. A number of reviewers suggest not providing this book to young children for this reason. But although that might be a good idea, I would like to say that I think this book is very important reading for anyone convinced of the justice of the old Covenanting cause. It happened to them; it will happen to us, sooner or later.

Hunted and Harried was, and I apologise for the alliteration, one of the most harrowing books I've read in a while. I expected adventure and history; I did not expect to care about it so deeply. Highly recommended.


Lady Bibliophile said...

Wow, I'm quite impressed. I must say, when I first saw Ballantyne's books released, I didn't get a strong urge to look them up. Who could surpass Henty? Or Douglas Bond, for that matter? But perhaps I should give him a try.

If you liked "Hunted and Harried", you would really enjoy Douglas Bond's Crown and Covenant series. They sound very similar to this book.

After being a strong fan of the Scottish Covenanters for years, I did gasp a bit when Josephine Tey wrote them off in "The Daughter of Time". She made the accounts of little congregations meeting out in the wild sound as if they were a myth, and said the persecution was blown out of all proportion. If anything, she was more sympathetic with the British dragoons. There were some Scots who committed murder and tried to overthrow the government, certainly, but I think the over-arching idea was truly freedom to worship Christ.

Suzannah said...

I've always meant to read the two Douglas Bond books we have, and they're both from the Crown and Covenant series.

Yes, lots of people write off the Covenanters. Even Sir Walter Scott and John Buchan a bit. I think something has probably happened to the Covenanters similar to what happened with the Puritans--they've been blackballed by history and people don't remember all the wonderful things they accomplished. RM Ballantyne's book is raw and almost angry for them--almost as though he's defending them against contemporary detractors as well as mourning over their wrongs.

Christina Baehr said...

Hey, have you read Buchan's "John Burnet of Barns"? I just got it out from the library.

Suzannah said...

Oh yes, I have read that, but it was a few years ago. I don't remember it awfully well, apart from one line that tickled me enough to draw a picture about. Will have to send it to you ;).


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