Collins, 2012. ISBN 978-0-00-733789-7. 389 pages
Scotland, northern England and London in 1304-1307, The Lion At Bay is the
second in Robert Low’s series about the Scottish Wars of Independence, following
The Lion Wakes (reviewed here earlier).
Robert Bruce, Isabel MacDuff Countess of Buchan, William Wallace and Edward I
of England are important characters, and other historical figures including the
future Edward II of England, ‘Red John’ Comyn of Badenoch and James Douglas
also feature. The main characters, Sir Henry (Hal) Sientcler of Herdmanston,
the members of his household, and Bruce’s henchman, spy and fixer Roger
Kirkpatrick*, are fictional.
Wallace is back in Scotland
and resuming his fight against Edward I. Robert Bruce, whose secret ambition is
to gain the Scottish throne for himself, has temporarily submitted to Edward I
to further his feud with his arch-rivals, the Comyn family. Hal of Herdmanston
is in the Bruce retinue, sick at heart for the loss of his home and his love
Isabel MacDuff, who has reluctantly returned to her husband the Earl of Buchan.
Murder, treachery and betrayal abound, as various factions search for the Black
Rood of Scotland, stolen from Edward’s treasury in London. And when the Bruce-Comyn feud erupts
into violence, Scotland
is plunged yet again into war.
predecessor, The Lion At Bay is a gripping adventure novel with plenty of
violent action, political scheming and a mystery sub-plot. Although the
struggle that became known as the Wars of Independence has often been portrayed
in later ages as a nationalistic fight between Scotland and England, at the
time it was at least as much a Scottish civil war between powerful noble
factions, chiefly the Bruce family and the Comyn family. This political chaos,
with the Bruce-Comyn feud as apparently the only fixed point, provides a
turbulent backdrop to the novel. Only one major battle features in this
instalment, the battle of Methven (a disaster for Robert Bruce), but there is
no shortage of other violent action, ranging from a knightly joust a l’outrance to a street brawl in a
slaughterhouse, from siege to assassination and murder. The mystery sub-plot, a
quest to recover the Black Rood of Scotland – necessary for the proper
coronation of a King of Scots – and its fictional reliquary set with twelve
magnificent rubies, forms a unifying thread to hold the narrative together.
Bruce is no idealised hero in this portrayal. He is harsh, ruthless, deceitful
and capable of treachery and murder – occasionally with his own hand, more
often via the enigmatic Kirkpatrick. Hal of Herdmanston, a minor Lothian lord
who became a Bruce supporter almost by accident (recounted in The Lion Wakes)
is ambivalent towards Bruce, repelled by some of his actions but fighting for
him anyway.If I have any quibble with
this portrayal, it is that I am not entirely clear why men like Hal were
willing to fight and suffer for Bruce, especially in the days after the
disastrous battle of Methven when Bruce must have looked like a lost cause.
Perhaps because Bruce was the last man standing; perhaps because Edward I
(nicknamed in the novel ‘The Covetous King’) had earned himself the undying
hatred of a lot of Scots by then; perhaps because by this stage many were
concerned less with Bruce personally and more with the abstract ideals of
independence and a contract between people and king. The stirring words of the
Declaration of Arbroath make an appearance more than once in The Lion At Bay.
Many of the
characters introduced in The Lion Wakes reappear in The Lion At Bay, older now
and many growing weary of war. William Wallace has dwindled to an outlaw
leader, ‘a monstrous frightener of bairns’, as he wryly muses to himself. Hal
and Isabel are older, their love undiminished but thwarted by circumstances.
Their love affair has a terrible poignancy amidst the sweetness, especially for
a reader who knows Isabel’s eventual fate.Even the indestructible Kirkpatrick is not immune from age and injury.
Conversely, Dog Boy, who was a child in The Lion Wakes, has now grown into an
energetic and able young man and become a key member of Hal’s retinue (and I
was right about his parentage, which is confirmed in the character list).
is vivid, with a vein of black humour and a scattering of Scots words and phrases
to set the scene. Readers who find the Scots words problematic may like to
bookmark the glossary at the back of the book where many of them are explained.
A list of characters identifies those who are fictional and those who are
historical figures, and a short Author’s Note outlines some of the underlying
history and the fictional additions and alterations.
violent adventure full of action and intrigue, set against the turbulence of
the Scottish Wars of Independence in the early fourteenth century.
Kirkpatrick of Closeburn, he of the famous ‘Mak’ siccar’ line, is a historical
figure. The Roger Kirkpatrick in Robert Low’s series is a fictional kinsman and
namesake of the historical figure.
I'm a scientist with an interest in history, particularly the history of Britain in the 5th-10th centuries AD (i.e. between the departure of Rome and the Norman invasion).
I write scientific journal articles, for which I get paid, and historical and fantasy fiction, for which I don't. I'm a keen hillwalker, though I live in the flatlands of East Anglia.
I'm a devotee of BBC Radio 4, the network that justifies the license fee all by itself.
Carla Nayland is a pen name.