The New Road by Neil Munro

Highland adventure…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Æneas Macmaster is the son of a man who turned out for the Jacobites in 1715 and was killed. Now in 1733, Æneas is tutor to the nephew of the powerful Campbell of Argyll and to Margaret, the daughter of Alexander Duncanson, who is now laird of Æneas’ father’s estate of Drimdorran. When Æneas covers up for an escapade of Margaret’s he is dismissed by the furious Drimdorran, and his uncle, a merchant, sends him north on General Wade’s New Road to forge trade links with the Highland clans. Ninian Campbell, the agent of Campbell of Argyll, is also heading north, so the two men decide to travel together. Gradually they will discover that there is a mystery surrounding the circumstances of the death of Æneas’ father, and they will have many adventures as they set about finding the truth…

This was an odd one for me, in that I started out really struggling with it and gradually grew to love it. I found the first section quite confusing, despite having a reasonable familiarity with this period of Scottish history. The language, especially the dialogue, has a healthy sprinkling of archaic Scots plus occasional Gaelic words. It takes a while for the story to emerge – at first there’s a lot of Ninian and Æneas rambling around the countryside, seemingly aimlessly. There’s also the issue of all the characters having several different names – for instance, Campbell of Argyll is also called Inveraray, Duncanson is interchangeably known by the name of his estate, Drimdorran, and Ninian is a Macgregor of the clan Campbell, and so on. But once my “ear” got tuned into the language and I worked out who all the characters were and how they were connected, it became a much easier and therefore more enjoyable read. In fact, I admired and loved the language more and more as it went on – it’s wonderfully done with beautiful rhythm, and feels completely authentic to both time and place.

Not life, nor living dangers in these glooms compelled him to stand still a moment, half-inclined to turn, but something very old and rediscovered in himself; forgotten dreads of boyhood in wild winter wastes of midnight, and his people breaking from some thicket under moon to see before them spread unfriendly straths and hear the wind in perished heather. The mist it was they cherished – not the moon who made their progress visible; too often had she brought calamity to old Clan Alpine trailing through the snow, a broken and a hunted band, with children whimpering.

First published in 1914, Munro is clearly setting out to drag some realism back into the narrative of the Jacobite era, in contrast to the gradual romanticisation that took place during the 19th century both of the risings and of Highland society in general. The whole Jacobite thing has tended to be co-opted by all of Scotland now as a heroic part of our long struggle against England, but this was never the case. In fact, most lowland Scots and even some of the Highland clans were on the other side, against the deposed Stuarts. The Campbells have become the legendary villains as the clan that took the lead against the Jacobites, and later in playing a major role in “pacifying” the Highlands on behalf of the government. But Munro shows the other side, with the Campbells as the bringers of civilisation and the Jacobite Highland chiefs as little more than lawless bandits. The New Road, built by the military under General Wade, was one of the main tools of pacification, allowing faster military response to possible future rebellions, but also opening the Highlands up to the more peaceful world of trade and commerce that had become the norm in the rest of the country. So a hated symbol of oppression if you were pro-Jacobite, or a welcome modernisation if you weren’t.

John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll and Greenwich
by William Aikman

….He drew Grey Colin with a flourish from the scabbard, and the clotted blood of him that he had struck was on it: with a Gaelic utterance he laid it lightly on the young man’s head. The flesh of Æneas grewed; he retched at such an accolade.
….“What, man! are ye sick?” asked Ninian.
….“Yes!” said he, “I’m sick!” and broke into a furious condemnation of this wretched country.
….“What in Heaven’s name did ye expect?” asked Ninian. “Dancing?”
….“Everything’s destroyed for me!” cried out the lad. “The stories have been lies, and we have aye been beasts, and cloak it up in poetry.”
….“We are what God has made us!” said his friend. “And we must make the best of it.”

In fact, Æneas and Ninian spend very little time on the New Road, choosing to travel across country instead on their journey to Inverness. This allows Munro to give some great descriptions of the landscapes and of the way of life of the inhabitants at this moment just before great social change arrived. Once away from the relatively law-abiding environs of Campbell country the two men have a series of increasingly dangerous and exciting adventures, and these are great fun. It’s all a bit reminiscent of Kidnapped, I suspect intentionally, but while Stevenson’s clansmen are dirt-poor and scrabbling for existence, Munro’s are wild and lawless – I have no idea which is the more accurate depiction but I enjoyed Munro’s considerably more. There’s a lot of humour in it as well as drama and thrills and, while Æneas is the romantic lead, Ninian emerges as the real hero – crafty and practical, with a deep knowledge of the land and its people and politics. His investigation technique is entertaining as he uses a kind of sly, cunning guile to divine the truth behind local legends and tales.

….They were among a concourse of the hills, whose scarps were glistening in a sun that gave the air at noon a blandness, though some snow was on the bens. The river linked through crags and roared at linns; all rusty-red and gold the breckans burned about them; still came like incense from the gale-sprig perfume. They sat, those two young people, by the fire, demure and blate at first, to find themselves alone. From where they sat they could perceive down to the south the wrecks of Comyn fortresses; the Road still red and new was like a raw wound on the heather, ugly to the gaze, although it took them home. Apart from it, and higher on the slope, a drove-track ran, bright green, with here and there on it bleached stones worn by the feet of by-past generations. They saw them both – the Old Road and the New – twine far down through the valley into Badenoch, and melt into the vapours of the noon. And something in the prospect brought the tears to Janet’s eyes.
….“For why should I be sad?” she asked him suddenly, “to see that old track of the people and the herd, and this new highway boasting—boasting——?”

Book 57 of 90

I’m not going to pretend this one’s for everyone. A basic understanding of the historical setting (at least as much as I’ve given above) is essential, I think, and, although the main body of the text is standard English overlaid with Scots rhythms and is wonderfully done, I found some of the language quite demanding despite being an archaic Scot myself. But if it takes your fancy, then I highly recommend it. It’s a great combination of being half-nostalgic for the loss of those wild days but also clear-sighted about the culture of greed and lawlessness that lay beneath the later romanticisation of the Highland clan chiefs. And after a slow and rather tricky start, it becomes a fast-paced and exciting adventure story, complete with deadly peril and a touch of romance. Truly deserving of its reputation as a great Scottish classic!

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30 thoughts on “The New Road by Neil Munro

  1. I can see how you’d grow to really like this one, FictionFan. I’m not as familiar with the era as I ought to be, but I can certainly see how the history part would appeal. And the language part really fascinates me. No expert in archaic Scots, but I do like the different rhythms of different languages, and it sounds like something one could pick up on… Something more to savour, though, than to go through at top speed?

    • I thought the rhythms in his descriptive prose were particularly Scottish-sounding – I found myself reading some of them aloud. Some of the vocabulary was unfamiliar to me and sadly I don’t know any Gaelic, but once I got into the flow I could guess at the meaning from the context. Definitely a slower read, though – mind you, I always read classics slowly, and in short bursts. I find I absorb them better that way. This needed perseverance at the beginning but became a real pleasure in the end… 😀

  2. I remember struggling at first to read Ivanhoe until I got used to the language. Then i really enjoyed it! The excerpts you included from this book are really engaging, though I know I would wonder about the meaning of certain words (like blate) and the pronunciation of others (like Æneas).

    • It always takes me a while to get tuned in to any kind of dialect in reading, even Scots, but once I get into it I begin to wonder what it was that I was finding hard about it! Funnily enough, Æneas seemed fairly normal to me – I think when I was a kid it was still a used name among older Scottish men, though it’s been completely out of fashion for decades now. Blate means nothing to me so I had to guess it from the context, and there were lots of words like that…

  3. I love the sound of this one. I’m trying not to add so many books to the wish list this year but here I am still in the first week and I really can’t let this book pass me by… 🤦‍♀️

    • I’ve found a few gems in the Scottish section of my Classics Club list happily, and this is definitely one of them even though it took me a while before I began to appreciate it. Haha – I’m trying really hard too, so I’m not telling how many books I’ve added in the last week… 😀

  4. I think I’d struggle with this one, but it sounds as if you enjoyed it. Besides the dialect and language, there’s that pesky historical aspect that I suppose I’d find myself completely overwhelmed by. Oh, well, not every book is intended for every reader, right?!

    • Exactly! I know I’ve struggled with some American books because I haven’t known enough about the background to “get” them properly. This one is excellent, but if even I struggled a bit with the history and the language, then I’m guessing it would be a difficult read for people not familiar with the period. I’ll get you next time, maybe! 😀

  5. I’ve had a copy of this in the house for a while now so I’m definitely going to get around to it soon, as you enjoyed it so much.

    • I think you’ll enjoy it – the language is great once you get tuned into it and his descriptions of the landscape and way of life are excellent. Hope it works as well for you as it did for me! 😀

  6. Isn’t it wonderful when perseverance pays off?! 😀 And any book that allows me to use a fun alphabet option like Æ is a plus. 😂

    • I know! I’ve struggled though many books that never redeemed themselves, so it’s an added bonus when one does! Hahaha – great minds think alike – I was very taken with that Æ myself! 😂

  7. The excerpts seemed like a foreign language to me… Plus I’m out of sorts because I can’t figure out how to do AE the special way. I’m off to cheer myself up by going to a website to listen to how ÆNEAS is pronounced – the iPad just did that all by itself!!!

    • Haha – I wish my computer did it itself – it took me ages to find out how to do it! That’s interesting – I wasn’t sure when I was typing the excerpts how Scottish they would seem. Eye-KNEE-ass! (Which sounds a bit like a strange yoga exercise…)

        • Haha – I listened to a few on youtube myself and every one was different! And none of them pronounced it the way I do… 😂

          Are you being affected by the fires, Rose? I know Australia is huge and my sense of the geography is terrible, but it looks as if they’ve been getting gradually closer to you? I hope you’re all safe and not too badly affected.

          • Melbourne is quite safe from the bushfires although the air is hazy. People with respiratory issues have been struggling.
            Before coming to Melbourne I lived in an area which has been hit very hard by the fires, so know several families who have lost their homes and businesses. Watching the news has been very hard.
            While there has been loss of life, people this year in fire-affected areas have left early rather than staying to fight the fires, which has turned out to be the best choice in hindsight. Possessions can always be replaced…

            • I’m glad to hear you’re safe anyway, but I can imagine it’s very stressful hearing all the stories of what’s happening – it even is for us although we’re not affected. Yes, possessions can be replaced but to lose a family home and all your family memories – photos and letters and that vase that belonged to your grandma and so on – must be just so heartbreaking. And kinda watching it coming and not being able to stop it. I wish I could send you some of our endless Scottish rain… 🙂

  8. My only experience of Munro is Para Handy, which was a lot of fun from my recollection. I’m not sure if this is what I’m in the mood for right now, but I will keep it in mind for the future, and I’m glad it grew on you eventually.

    • I’m pretty sure I read some of the Para Handy stuff in the long distant past, but seem to remember I preferred the ancient TV series at the time. However I’d like to read more of Munro now, so I suspect they’ll make their way onto my TBR… 😀

  9. Hoo boy. This one sounds…challenging. But again, although I would never read it myself, the fact that you introduce me to these types of books, especially Scottish books, I really do appreciate! You are doing a great service to Scottish authors, past and present alike 🙂

    • Thank you – I try! 😀 It’s just a pity some of them are a bit harder to fully recommend because of the language. I understand why so many Scots authors chose to write in standard English – using Scots really reduces the available audience. But I’m glad some did!

  10. Kidnapped is exactly what I thought of when I started reading your review! This sounds really interesting though I’m not sure I would want to take it on.

    • I think it depends on how good you are at skipping unfamiliar words. I can do that so long as I catch the general sense, but this one would have been quite wearing if I’d felt the need to google every word I didn’t recognise. It is a great book, though… 😀

  11. I must have found a good deal because I bought this book after your first mention. Your review has confirmed this is a good buy for me. What I don’t know (and have forgotten) about the background history will be made up for by the pleasure of the language. I look forward to reading it.

    • I think you’ll enjoy this, Christine, and if you get lost in the history, feel free to ask – I’m no expert but I have a reasonable broad understanding of the period. The little summary I included in my review will probably be enough to make sense of it, I think… enjoy! 😀

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