The Crown in the Heather by N Gemini Sasson
Review by Mark
This novel is a fictional retelling of the story of Robert the Bruce (b.1274 – d.1329)
It is 1306. The novel opens at the end of the story. Robert the Bruce and James Douglas trudge wearily away with their followers to escape Longshanks’ – Edward I of England – decree that they are traitors. By the close of the book Robert is struggling to hold off John of Lorne who has come to Balquidder "to cut my beating heart from my chest and avenge the death of Red Comyn." – a murder committed by Robert at Dumfries.
In the pages that rustle between we are taken back to 1290 where a sixteen year old Robert the Bruce is come with his grandfather to Lochmaben to understand both his lineage and the crown of Scotland that is dangled before his family. An opportunity come after the death in 1286 of Alexander III of Scotland without issue. Whilst John Balliol is acclaimed King at Perth – a puppet King Edward Longshanks confirms in 1292 – Robert indulges in his first love, Isabella who dies in childbirth giving him his daughter Marjorie. We are treated to the contemptuous power of the English with the sacking of Berwick through the eyes of James Douglas and his father’s obeisance before the cruel King of England. We meet the infamous William Wallace, "gruff, golden maned…the very giant tales had portrayed him to be: the tallest man I had ever seen…they said he could hew a man in half with…one flail of his sword."
It is a time to see the quick youth of Robert and James as they yearn to join their fathers, to be at war with the English, to prove themselves leaders of men. Six years later in 1296 Balliol is deposed by Longshanks who attempts to annex Scotland into this English territories. A year later Robert is desperate to join Sir Alexander Lindsay, Bishop Wishart, James Stewart, Wallace and William Douglas as they plan their rebellions. His aims are high, his diplomacy poor, his enthusiasm laid bare: "’If we are to shed our suffering, Scotland needs a strong King.’ Wallace cocked his head and grinned. ‘And who would that ‘strong’ king be, Robert?…There are too many Scots, even here, who trade sides whenever the wind shifts." It is this astute observation by Wallace that is one of the themes of this novel. Robert himself pledges false allegiance to Longshanks for a good part of the narration. The interplay of shifting loyalties dominates the politics of the novel’s action and gives explanation to the fractured nature of the Scottish rebellion. ‘Divide and Conquer’. A lesson played well by the King of England throughout.
We have a theme of loss and parting. The casual nature of relationships is graphically displayed in the anxious, for-all-to-see couplings given to us periodically by the author and by the at-times eloquence of love and loss. Robert’s realisation that "one day, in a strange place, I would happen upon a young lady of exceeding beauty with ringlets of gold that cascaded down her back and not know it was my own daughter" slides achingly into the reader’s perception, humanising characters that have only come to us through dry and dusty history books or media such as "Braveheart". Against this we are drawn a complex picture of Robert the Bruce. A consummate politician, yet with his "grandfather’s vices and not a whit of his virtues.", he is a man born to lead. Charismatic and purposeful he leads many to declare: "Wherever you go, I and the whole world with follow."
By 1298 rebellion is in full cry. Inverness, Aberdeen and Dundee have fallen; Wallace has taken Stirling the previous September facing "the English…he did not parley. He refused their offer to yield telling them he was there to do battle and free Scotland." Even as Robert is acknowledging Wallace as the Guardian of Scotland he falls in love once more; Elizabeth de Burgh’s hand enables him to go to Longshanks and become his man. He cajoles Edward I by telling him "Your grace, I am neither mad not desperate. I am determined. And I do not court kings – I court peace and progress…as well as my hereditary rights. Scotland will not return to the shameful days of a Balliol as king." Under the constant chafe of his disloyal allegiance his only golden lining is the love he bears Elizabeth. In the background the petulant, seething son of Longshanks is shown as prey to his desires…a portrayal that will inevitably justify the failure of his tenure as Edward II.
We are moved on to 1306. Whilst under oath to Longshanks Robert has brought his family together so that all the Bruces be united to be acclaimed rightful heirs to Scotland; James Douglas is being schooled in Paris and William Wallace is about to be caught and executed. Yet, as we all know to this day, it was an execution that only served to make great "the memory of Wallace from Scottish hearts." It is now that Robert can make his own bid to become King. He and Red Comyn fall out, the former accusing the latter of betraying him to Edward I. The author treats us to a confrontation and murder that echoes that of Thomas a Beckett in its grandiloquence. Robert’s dismay at what he has done: "I only meant to stop him, Nigel. I did not mean to harm him. Believe me, please." has the same despairing cry as Lady Macbeth’s "Come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone.", his "blood-wet fingers" as incriminating as the latter’s unscrubbable "spot".
A fleeing Robert, full of remorse, self-doubt and recriminations meets with Bishop Wishart who convinces Robert to finally take up his destiny to be King of Scotland. New allegiances are forged within the last part of the novel following James Douglas as he brings news of Robert’s impending coronation until we arrive at Scone on March 25th to witness the crowning. As James himself cuts through the whisper of rumour and conjecture that leech into the oaths given by the kneeling nobles observing that "I, for one, believe the Almighty put Robert the Bruce here for good reason: to teach us the cost of freedom and to humble the bloody English." From Scone Robert moves to swell his army, his nephew Randolph bringing news of the English Earl of Pembroke’s advancement with 6000 men to fight. At Methven battle is joined with a skirmish in the Almond Wood that leaves Robert chastened and bloodied. A country away the future Edward II faces his father and is humiliated, his lover Piers Gaveston banished. Yet it steels him to: "defeat the Bruce on the battlefield…or die in the trying. Until then: Edward of Caernarvon, Prince of Wales; master of nothing."
The author’s style drifts along at times. We are treated to melodic prose and scene portraits such as "quaffing ale and making merry. Their laughter tinkled like fairies’ talk in a distant glen." or "the peaked rooflines of Rothesay crowded against a deepening blue sky. Inland, snow-topped domes contrasted with vermillion hues of a sinking sun." In contrast the conversations between characters is forthright, clipped when it needs plain-speaking. Between men of power we hear a more formal prose, a structure of speech that reflects the political importance. Philosophy and ingratiation form the undertones of such words: "Then I ask your grace, that you have faith in me. Not as a deity, but as a man who pursues a purpose which serves not himself but a country filled with people. People who serve God and have a faith in Him." Soliloquies abound in the novel. We are not just told the actions of the characters, but how they think, what motivates and de-motivates them. Prince Edward’s self-pathos that "I would rather have been born on the dirt floor of a peasant’s cottage, than swaddled in the silken sheets of royalty. I would rather rise with the sun every morn and feel its gilded rays caress my neck like a starved lover, than waste the night away with nobles." is the lamentation that besets every caged person, be they prince or pauper.
This novel snared me. The history of Robert the Bruce is not one I am overly familiar with. Other than the ghastly "Braveheart", a youthful schooling of Stirling (1297) and Bannockburn (1314), and Magnus Magnusson’s "Scotland: the Story of a Nation" – worth a read, my knowledge is limited. This novel has entranced me somewhat. I have found the prose style to be flexible so that I feel empathy with the characters at worst, sympathy at best. A lack of solidity permeates the novel – accurately so, given we are in a period of interregnum, of war and all the pain it brings. Romance and love are stolen moments scattered throughout, made more heartfelt by the briefness of contact between all. Dominating the novel is the character of Robert the Bruce. He is charismatic, a leader of men, yet a fallible human. Capable of great love, he commits great evil in an attempt to fulfil his grandfather’s wish for the Bruce family.
This book is worth carefully reading. There are passages to savour within.
What did you think about The Crown in the Heather?
Submit your own reader review and award the book the rating you think it deserves.