IT'S A SHAME for Ian R Mitchell that he has to join the likes of Michael J Fox and Richard E Grant, but since Mitchell is a "dinosaur class warrior" and "hard left Marxist" (not my words) and the chap from whom he is trying to differentiate himself is some sort of wacky right-winger (as discussed in TAC54), one sympathises.
Reviewing books for TAC has become something of a high-risk occupation recently. Chris Tyler's strawberry switchblade attack on Skye 360 was rebuffed bigtime by author Andrew Dempster, and TACs passim are filled with the rights to reply of "mathematician" (or is that "chemist"?) Richard Gilbert upon receiving the full measure of Gordon Smith's erudition.
Fortunately for pax Tacus, I am on relatively safe ground. I have reviewed both Gilbert and Dempster myself in the past with no irate replies. Furthermore, unlike the Tyler/Dempster collision, Mitchell is nowhere near my home turf. Being a humble physicist I have no historian's pedigree whatsoever - unless you count an inordinate knowledge of events between 1497 and 1499. Lastly, the Ed and I once met Mitchell and Pete Drummond on Doune Hill and jolly decent chaps they appeared. I can't quite see Mitchell with Dempster's ire. (Stop sooking up and get on with the hatchet job I pay you for - Ed.)
There is a parlour game played by those of my acquaintance: it involves choosing an era from the past when one would have liked to have lived. Inevitably I annoy people by stating that if we are playing a game based on a real-life time machine then I want to go to the future. I am willing to trade close-up analysis of Edwardian corsets for a peek at what computers will be like 200 years from now or what dark energy will turn out to mean. This astounds my chums. But to my mind the past is nasty, brutish and long and I am glad not to have lived in it. Ironic, then, that TAC has hit me with Mitchell's last two offerings, heavily laced as they are with history. Mitchell is of course the History Man. Not that he is some sort of inveterate shagger of undergraduates - although for all I know he might be - but that he loves the days gone by. Thus we come to his outing of an obscure character from Scottish history: Ewan MacPhee.
Some facts: MacPhee lived at Glenquoich on an island in Loch Quoich - since submerged by a hydro scheme. He was, according to Mitchell, "Scotland's last bandit". Obviously Mitchell has never bought a round of drinks in the Crinan Hotel, then.
As is his wont, Mitchell does more than just tell the bandit's story. He also weaves threads peripheral to the narrative - usually deriving from his own class-warrior and bothymongering background. More or less effortlessly, the tale includes clashes between MacPhee's regiment and the Stirlingshire miners, the Clearances, Free Church schisms, Sir Walter Scott and that perennial Mitchell favourite (well, it was ubiquitous in his last book), the Charter.
Likewise, Mitchell is aware that at least part of his readership will be hillwalkers. To please them he creates a character, the Scientist, who is a geologist surveying in Knoydart. Each chapter is written in the voice of a character whose path MacPhee has crossed: Bodach Caonich, the Officer, the Mother, the Chieftain, the Scientist, the Outlaw, the Laird, the Grazier, the Wife, the Minister and the Sheriff. (Soon to be filmed starring Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon.) This turns out to be an effective narrative device, as it allows Mitchell the use of different first-person styles including blank verse. It must have been a slight headache as well, for the author is forced to use what Just William would call "history talk". In JW's case this is neatly achieved by sprinkling the text with "gadzooks", "sirra" and "prithee", but Mitchell has to effect several changes of class, gender, education and so on. Rarely does the prose jar and a reasonable veracity (at least to this reader's sensibilities) is maintained. Perhaps the militant Scots linguist Billy Kay would demur, but as far as I know he doesn't read TAC. Doubtless he would call us "couthy screevers" if he did.
Sorry, I digress. Back to the Scientist. Mitchell has obviously made up vast amounts of his material and one has to imagine (in the absence of any other information) that this entire chapter is fiction, allowing him to include hillwalker-friendly stuff about Knoydart. MacPhee is enlisted by the geologist to cater to his bodily needs (food and drink, that is) and to supply local topological knowledge. Thus the Scientist shows MacPhee drawings such as "the declivity known as Sgurr na Ciche" and asks to be directed to other examples. For good measure Mitchell manages to make the geologist a Chartist sympathiser and several conversations are had on the subject of the people's representation. MacPhee, for all his devilish cunning in illicit distilling, ambush and stalking, is somewhat unschooled in notions of democracy and Mitchell's point is made.
The chapters are laid out in chronological order and the tale unfolds. The Grazier turns out to be the villain - having MacPhee arrested for grazing goats on his land. This chap is a kind of proto-capitalist - he claims not to agree completely with the Clearances but makes a handy profit from the results nevertheless.
In parallel with Rob Roy, Mitchell has a good laird and a bad laird. The Tim Roth analogue is Colonel Alexander Ranaldson MacDonnell of Glengarry, who conscripted MacPhee into the army and apparently died jumping out of a steamer that went aground. (Whilst being piloted by some antecedent of Captain George of the PS Waverley, perhaps.) MacPhee's character was apparently drawn upon by Sir Walter Scott when creating Fergus MacIvor in the other Waverley, and Mitchell has not missed this: he includes notional correspondence between Glengarry and some friend of Scott with the former denouncing MacPhee as "no Rob Roy". The John Hurt analogue is Englishman Edward Ellice, who buys Glengarry and looks favourably on MacPhee in the latter's twilight years. You can find namesakes on the web to this day, eg Edward Ellice Jr, Invergarry, Montchanin, Delaware, who married Rosa DuPont and is presently High Commissioner for Clan Donald, USA.
In fictional accounts of outlaws, precedents abound. Mitchell himself deals with the Rob Roy comparison and I have (I hope) done likewise with the Richmal Crompton Outlaws. But others remain - Jesse James, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, Robin Hood, the Naked Rambler.
Woody Guthrie wrote these lines:
Well, as through the world I've rambled, I've seen lots of funny men
Some rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen
As through this world you ramble, as through this world you roam
You'll never see an outlaw drive a family from its home.
If this was the last word on Pretty Boy Floyd, all would be rosy. There is, however, fairly hard evidence that one could have been a relatively humble bank clerk, "just doin' me job, guv'nor", and still have felt the business end of Pretty Boy's Colt revolver for mercenary reasons. In the same way, Mitchell includes cold-blooded allegations against MacPhee without really pinning down how likely they might have been. It might seem pedantic to demand this information when Mitchell has gone to lengths to explain that the book is a mixture of fact and invention, and indeed, it doesn't really matter whether MacPhee showed some geologist a volcanic plug or not. But since the tenor of the book invites sympathy for the outlaw, it might be interesting to know whether, as legendary one-TAC wonder Phil Stacey once said of his son, "if he was big enough, he would kill you for a Mars Bar". Big enough MacPhee certainly was.
In summary, Mitchell has created the usual excellent read, full of tangential historical interest and gentle humour. The hillwalker will delight in mention of Knoydart, the Inverarnan Inn and MacPhee's "low crouching gait" with which he allegedly out-Naismithed the Scientist. At one point I did almost laugh out loud when Mitchell has MacPhee invent the modern two-axe style of ice climbing using his indispensable dirks.
TAC 60 Index