The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

Fictionalised history…

😐 😐

Kirstie Haldane has returned to her childhood home at Gleneagles to visit her family, bringing with her her new husband, Black William Macintosh of Borlum. Although Black William didn’t come “out” for the Young Pretender two years earlier in the uprising of 1745, his Jacobite sympathies are well documented – indeed, he spent several years exiled in America following the failed uprising of 1715. Most of the Haldanes are Whigs, so there is bound to be some political tension among the company, although all sides have now finally accepted that the Jacobite cause is lost, and all are agreed it’s time to begin healing the wounds. However, the government is still hunting rebels from the ’45, and when one such rebel turns up at the house seeking refuge, Kirstie’s young cousins hide him in the attic.

Oh, dear, I wish I was going to be saying how wonderful this book is, but I fear I’m not. I gave up just over halfway through because it was becoming a struggle to pick it up and read even a few pages each day. It has its good points, but it fails in the major criterion of what makes a good novel – it has no plot to speak of, certainly not one that builds any suspense or tension, or makes the reader care about the outcome. At the point I abandoned it, the only questions to be resolved were, firstly, will the young Jacobite be caught? I don’t care because he has been given no personality or involvement in the story. He has merely been stuck in the attic and left there. Secondly, will Kirstie discover that William once went through a form of marriage with a Native American woman during his exile? I don’t care, because I know enough about Kirstie to know she’ll easily forgive him, so what does it matter whether she finds out or not? And lastly, will young cousin Catherine and young cousin James, casting lingering glances at each other over the dinner table, get it together in the end? I expect so.

Book 67 of 90

However, as I said, it has strong points in its favour too, which is why I stuck with it for as long as I did. Mitchison is a descendent of the Haldanes of Gleneagles, and really this is more a fictionalised history of her family than a novel, hence, presumably, the lack of a strong plot. Many of the characters are real people, and the family is prominent enough that there would be documentary evidence of much of their lives, so I presume most of the background facts are true, such as allegiances during the rebellions, and the work that Mungo, the current head of the family, was doing to improve the estate. Kirstie and Black William are apparently inventions, however, although they have been given the names of people who appear on the real family tree, but about whom nothing much is known. Talking of the family tree, it covers four full pages and I never truly got to grips with how the innumerable cousins who appear were connected to each other.

Mitchison has clearly researched the period thoroughly and well, and gives a very credible account of the lives of the minor Scottish aristocracy of the time. She has her characters discuss all kinds of political and cultural changes that were taking place at this time – the land improvements that would soon become the basis of the Highland Clearances, the ongoing debate over the benefits or otherwise of the still new political Union with England, the repression of the Highland clans following the failed uprisings, the appalling conditions of the new class of industrial workers, the ongoing blight of serfdom in the mining industries, the still lingering superstitions around witchcraft, the impact of Enlightenment thinking on life in Edinburgh, and so on. She also gives very detailed descriptions of the everyday things of life – the food people ate, how they dressed, the kind of religious practices that would have been observed in Haldane’s Whig household and how they would differ from those held in Black William’s episcopalian home.

Naomi Mitchison

At first, I found this all quite interesting, although I did wonder how much of it would be comprehensible to anyone without a reasonable understanding of this period already – for instance, when she has her characters bicker over the relative merits of short leases and long leases in farming. But it soon palled, as Mitchison repeats and repeats – I lost count of how often she had her characters discuss the benefits of tree-planting, for example.

So I have mixed feelings about it. I rather wish she had simply done what she clearly wanted to do: that is, tell a straight history of her family at this period of time – the post-Jacobite era. In that way, she could have structured the discussions better and avoided the rambling and repetitive nature of them. I felt she did create a great picture of how they would have all lived, but the plot, such as it was, added nothing. Her use of language is great, though – standard English, as would indeed mostly have been spoken by this class at that time, but with plenty of Scottish flavour and rhythm to give it an authentic feel. But in the end, it’s too unstructured and messy to be a history, and yet doesn’t have a strong enough story to stand up to the weight of historical detail.

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36 thoughts on “The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

  1. Tree planting? Lingering glances across the table? Someone hiding in the attic? Scandal? It sounds as if the author couldn’t decide on the genre. After reading a book on famous meals throughout history recently where the meal before the Battle at Culloden was documented, I do know that the Young Pretender is Bonnie Prince Charlie and think that a story about the political sympathies of real people during the time could be very interesting if the author had stuck with that.

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    • Haha, that hadn’t really struck me, but of course you’re right! How odd – I wonder if there actually were many Highlanders called William. It’s a popular name in our family, but then as Glaswegian protestants we’d most likely have been on the other side…

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  2. Oh, I’m sorry to hear that this one didn’t hold your interest, FictionFan. It sounds as though a lot could have been done with it as a look at history. If they’re not repeated ad nauseam, those details of life in a certain time can be fascinating. When they’re done really well, they can transport the reader. But I agree they’re not enough to sustain a book if it hasn’t got a good plot and strong characters. I don’t blame you for putting this aside.

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    • Yes, I couldn’t fault her research but the presentation just wasn’t there. It’s a pity, because in theory it’s a great way to teach a bit of history painlessly, but when the story gets lost amongst repetitive details, it’s hard to stay enthusiastic about it.

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  3. I’m all Jacobited out, so this wouldn’t have been for me anyway, but it sounds like a real mishmash. It might have worked if she had just written a family history, but it seems to be too all over the place to have worked as a novel. Too bad.

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    • Yes, I really do wish she’d gone the family history route. With her family being prominent enough to make research possible and yet not prominent enough to be at the forefront of events, it had the potential to give a really good picture of life at the time. But fictionalising it required a much stronger plot than the one she came up with, sadly.

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  4. Oh dear. Another disappointment … on a Friday, too. I’m sorry this one didn’t cut it for you, FF, but I don’t blame you for abandoning the effort midway through. I think you’re amazing for carrying on as long as you did! Thanks for reviewing this one so I won’t have to read it!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, I’m afraid a few of the Scottish classics have been disappointing – this could explain why none of us have ever heard of them! 😂 Ah well, at least I can say I’ve done my patriotic duty… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll be interested in how you get on with it. I thought her writing was excellent – it was the format of the book that didn’t work. So if The Corn King and the Spring Queen is a more standard style with a stronger plot, I still think she has the potential to be great – hope so!

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  5. I also have The Corn King and Spring Queen on my Classics Club list. Jack read this one a while ago and I think he thought much the same as you, I might not bother reading it.

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    • Yes, Jack’s is one of the only three reviews of it on Goodreads – that alone should have warned me that it’s not exactly popular! 😂 As I was just saying to Helen, though, I thought her writing was excellent, so if the style of The Corn King is more standard and she’s come up with a good plot, it could still have the potential to be great! Looking forward to hearing what you both think of it, before I dive in again though…

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  6. Hmmm…. well we have bull calves in our pasture and I assisted in planting some trees over the last winter, but I don’t recall that we had any discussions about the benefits of planting them. Maybe once, but not over and over. 😉

    I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this one.

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    • Haha, I could never quite get my head around why she had called it The Bull Calves – seemed to be some kind of nickname for the family, or something. Odd! And I’m pretty sure I now know as much about tree-planting in the eighteenth century as I’ll ever want to… 😉

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  7. Ok I’ll be honest: “when she has her characters bicker over the relative merits of short leases and long leases in farming”-this sounds incredibly boring! haha I don’t blame you for abandoning this one, arguments of types of land leases sound like a great reason to close a book for good

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    • Hahaha, funnily enough I’d recently read a proper history book that explained the importance of land leases in the Highland Clearances, so I knew what she was getting at, but I did wonder how many people would – even Scots! And even knowing why she was having the discussion didn’t make it interesting… 😉

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    • Yep, way too many! I suspect it’s partly because my usual enthusiasm still hasn’t fully returned, but it’s also just been a run of fairly disappointing books, sadly. Still, the only way is up! 😀

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