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Late 17th century Scotland – a time of uneasy peace, of treasonable plots, of religious division and of superstition and witch-hunts. Grissell Hay, foreseeing her own death, leaves a letter for her old friend, lawyer John MacKenzie, seeking his protection for her daughters whom she fears may also be in danger. With his clerk, Davie Scougall, MacKenzie hurries to the village of Lammersheugh, but is it already too late? Euphame, Grissell’s eldest child, has been accused of witchcraft and, if found guilty, will be burned.
It is clear that Douglas Watt knows this period of history very well, as indeed he should, since he has a PhD in Scottish History and is also the author of The Price of Scotland which won the Hume Brown Senior Prize in Scottish History in 2008. He uses his two main protagonists to demonstrate the religious and political divides in society at that time. Scougall, a lowland Scot, is a Presbyterian protestant and a whole-hearted believer in the evils and power of witchcraft. He is concerned that the crown is held by the Catholic Stuart king, James VII (II of England), and, although a law-abiding man, has some sympathy with those who plot to replace James with the Protestant William of Orange. MacKenzie, on the other hand, is a rationalist – a precursor of the Scottish Enlightenment. With a highland background and from the Episcopalian tradition, he has come to believe that the superstitions peddled by both sides of the religious divide are the true evils in society, holding the people of Scotland back from advancing socially and intellectually.
However, Watt manages to get all this historical background over with a light touch. The book is well written, well plotted and the main characters engage our sympathies from the outset. The murder and detection elements are woven well into the historical aspects of the book. The descriptions of how witches were identified and dealt with are both fascinating and horrifying. A couple of chapters are written in Scots dialect but not broadly enough to cause problems for a non-Scottish reader to understand. Overall, a very enjoyable and interesting read. I will now be backtracking to read the first in the series Death of a Chief and look forward to meeting MacKenzie and Scougall again in the future.
NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.