Sassenachs like myself can sometimes feel a trifle uncomfortable north of Carlisle. Like the time, I took my German friends round Edinburgh castle pretending to be of Teutonic stock because the very Scottish guide, Rab (I jest not), was relishing a little too much his descriptions of what happened to the invading English army as the boiling oil was poured over the ramparts. So it is that, when a character in a novel by a Scottish author says “independence is a slogan, not an option” , I’d better believe that there’s a nationalistic subtext.
Andrew Greig’s latest novel can on one level be interpreted as a love letter to Bonnie Scotland. As his characters chase around the Borders, the Lochs and the West Coast in search of a missing historical artefact, Greig, the keen mountaineer, describes his country with an observant poetic eye. A couple of examples will suffice.
Grand it was to be driven at decent speed through the thawing Borders, snowdrops bending under dripping trees, flash of yellow from crocuses, breeze puniching blue holes through a sky that had been lowered like a dustbin lid over the country from months ….
And when they came upon yet another silent inland lochan, or scrambled the cliffs of The Oa with the western ocean loud below, or walked the Rhinns from Bruichladdich to Portnahaven through one afternoon of dark clouds, rain and brilliant glitter, Leo found himself murmuring inwardly “sweet as, sweet as”, until the words tailed off and there was no comparison left.
But I’m giving the wrong impression here. Greig hasn’t written a geography book, he’s written a thriller in which Scotland is a colourful backdrop. The missing artifact is nothing other than the Stone of Destiny, taken as spoils of war in 1296 by Edward I of England. The history of what happened next can be found here alongside the myth (fact?) that Edward actually confisicated a forged stone. In Romanno Bridge, the original stone has been hidden away in a secret place ever since, its location known only to the Moon Runners, the custodians of 3 rings, engraved with runes revealing the hiding place. A suicide in Rothiemurchus forest triggers the race to the stone. It’s a case of the 3 contemporary custodians finding the stone before the psychopath with a £20 million commission.
Ah yes, the psychopath. Really, really chilling descriptions of the terror he inflicts. Controlled cruelty always much more frightening than frenzied bloodlust.
On the opposite side of the emotional spectrum is a tender middle-aged romance between a chaste Free Presbyterian policeman and his Canadian girlfriend. Somewhere in the middle of the human ranges are romances of a more modern kind between other life-scarred individuals. Greig as tender and patient of his character’s foibles as he is of the rugged beauty of Scotland.
He looks at them and finally sees it is not that some people are incautious, stupid or simply unlucky, while the rest of us will be all right. None of us will be all right. Mountains, sunsets, good times, bad times, mates, children – nothing endures. Nothing. No exceptions.
Nihilism it isn’t. While the events of the novel trigger existential crises in some of those caught up in the maelstrom, the final message seems to be:
The old life has been kicked into touch, right? Best we can do is catch the new one and run with it.
As with the previous novels I read, Greig paints humanity in true flesh and blood tones. The suspense elements are also excellent – tension building slowly until the crisis point is reached. Historical and geographical backgrounds adding depth and pattern to the book. Romanno Bridge is a palette of colours that could easily clash with each other. But once the correct blend has been reached (and that’s not quite true in the first quarter), the pages keep turning seemingly of their own accord.