I ran so fast that the air I breathed had snow on it, in it, and so I had snow in my mouth and lungs. I thought of my mare. How fast she would have carried me. How white she would have been in the falling white.
So I ran from the water and I ran through the hills. I ran through fields and over ice, and I ran, and ran, and I did not know the way to Inverlochy – or my head did not – but my heart knew, my second sight said north and this way, and turn left at this drifting. And so after some long, long, white hours of running, I came down through snowy trees to see the fort before me. It was such a good sight. It was the best sight, and it made me hopeful, and I slowed. I thought, I am here. I have made it. All will be well from this moment on.
Except this was the eve of 13 February 1692 and the Campbells, in the name of William of Orange, were about to massacre the MacDonalds at Glencoe. 320 years ago and the wounds have yet to heal. In certain areas of the Highlands, the Campbells are still unwelcome.
Corrag’s flight to the fort at Inverlochy is in vain. Following the massacre she is captured, imprisoned and sentenced to burn as a witch. This is her predicament at the beginning of the novel. She is to be escorted to the site of her execution by John Leslie, a man who despises her. During the journey Corrag tells her story.
It is a tale of her time, one in which intelligent, independent women who made their living as herbalists were feared and more often than not executed as witches. Corrag’s grandmother and mother had met that fate. Corrag, herself, accepts the label. When only 16, she must flee from the men who came to hang her mother. She fled north and west from Northumberland, eventually settling in the hills of Glencoe, where she is tolerated by the MacDonalds and left in relative peace. It was a hard life though Corrag never complains. At one with her solitary existence, she is content to observe and learn from nature. That together with her love for Alasdair, the son of the clan chief, make up all the magic in her soul. Her story is lengthy for Corrag has a way with words. She delights in the tiny parts of life, we mostly do not see, for hurrying – a bee in a bloom, the sound a fish makes with its mouth. Her tale, therefore, transports both her escort and the reader into the world and heart of a woman living on her own, travelling through dangerous political terrain in the late 17th century.
Her heart is pure, her voice is captivating, transforming. Passionate and true. Caroline Guthrie’s performance in the earthy Northumbrian accent on the unabridged audio is stunning. I did find the choice of keeping a female narrator to read John Leslie’s letters to his wife curious and quite confusing at first. This probably explains why I didn’t pick up the nuances of John Leslie’s narrative or the full extent of his change of heart.
Of course, it would have helped if I’d been more conversant with Jacobite history and realised that John Leslie was a real person. Corrag, too, it transpires. But I doubt whether the real Corrag was as sympathetic as Fletcher’s creation.
Corrag is now available in paperback with a misleading and annoying title change designed to appeal to the masses. Don’t let it or the awful cover put you off.