Rating 4 stars
The Grey Man is an historical adventure novel set in South Ayrshire around the villages of Maybole, Girvan and Ballantrae and across the moorlands of Carrick and Kyle. Narrated by Launcelot Kennedy, it concerns the warring factions of the Kennedy clan, divided between the Earl of Cassillis and the Laird of Bargany, during the 17th century. Launcelot is of the clan that supports Cassillis.
I bought this book because we have holidayed a few times in the area, and I wanted to read a novel that revealed something about the history of the region. I couldn’t have chosen better. The place names were familiar to me, and it brought to life the buildings that are now in ruins, such as Ardstinchar Tower, Dunure Castle and Crossraguel Abbey, as well as adding to the history of places we have visited, like Culzean Castle.
The author, S R Crockett, was a contemporary of J M Barrie and friends with Robert Louis Stevenson. He published The Grey Man in 1896 and it is written in a lowland Scots style, which I found it difficult to tune my brain into. I must have re-read the first three pages four times to try to work my way into the story. There are some splendid archaic words as well. Contumeliously (sneeringly) was a favourite, and I also liked tulzie (skirmish, of which there are plenty) and douce (sober and sedate).
The opening scenes bring Launcelot, then a boy of ten, and his father John of Kirrieoch into enemy Bargany territory, as they must attend the funeral of John’s brother-in-law at Ballantrae. On the night of the funeral, Cassillis Kennedies attack the nearby Tower of Ardstinchar, which today is an inaccessible ruin on the hill overlooking Ballantrae. John and Launcelot escape from Ballantrae under cover of darkness, passing dangerously close to Ardstinchar. The sight of the ruined house causes the boy to question why Kennedy is fighting against Kennedy, and how the Cassillis Kennedies can be better than those from Bargany. He’s rewarded with a clout to the head from his father. It’s a fair question, though. Why do we feel the need to be so partisan, and why do we get behind extremes of opposition so wholeheartedly?
As soon as the Cassillis warriors leave Ardstinchar, a party of Bargany Kennedies, led by Gilbert the Laird of Bargany, enter the courtyard. To the surprise of John, Lord Ochiltree is with the party. Looking him up, I learned that Lord Stuart of Ochiltree was married to the daughter of Sir John Kennedy of Blairquhan Castle, a branch loyal to the Earl of Cassillis. No wonder John Kennedy is surprised.
Gilbert leads his men in taking an oath to defeat the Cassillis Kennedies, in which they all touch swords, an act that thrills young Launcelot. Gilbert and his brother Thomas, known as the Wolf of Drummurchie, swear on the bloodstained Bible of one of the slain men, and the father of another adds his voice to the oath.
Two more men appear. The first is the Abbot of Crossraguel, who has been imprisoned and tortured by the Earl of Cassillis at Dunure, and rescued by the Bargany Kennedies. The second is the mysterious Grey Man of the novel’s title, a man John Kennedy doesn’t recognise, and a man who doesn’t respect the Bible, throwing the bloodstained book the men have been swearing upon into the fire within the destroyed tower.
In a matter of seven pages, Crockett sets the scene of a clan at war with itself and a young boy who doesn’t understand why, hinting at his possible conflict of interest.
Eight years later, Launcelot is now the squire of Sir Thomas Kennedy, Laird of Culzean Castle. The Cassillis and Bargany Kennedies are still at war. Launcelot is an adventurous lad, leaving the castle by night to visit Maybole Fair. He has a crush on Sir Thomas’ eldest daughter Marjorie and a teasing friendship with her younger sister Helen. Helen, or Nell as those who love her call her, is the true star of the novel. Launce, as he is known, might think he’s the one making all the best moves, but Nell is the one whose intelligence and spirit directs him and the one who sees to the heart of the matter when Launce is busy posturing. I’m going to credit Crockett with more enlightenment than he allows his narrator to display. Launce has a very black and white view of things that are the preserve of men and things that belong to the domain of women, and is constantly surprised when Nell proves herself to be more than a match for him in wit and intelligence. Rather than turn Nell into a strident woman, Crockett has her quietly getting on with things while Launce peacocks about.
Much happens to Launce, including a street battle in Edinburgh against the Bargany Kennedies which sees him among the Cassillis men declared outlaws by King James VI. He’s also part of a Cassillis attempt at recovering a stolen chest of treasure from Laird Currie of Kelwood only to have it snatched away again, and he runs an errand as a herald for the Earl of Cassillis to deliver a message to Laird Crauford of Kerse which leads to Cassillis tethering a sow on Kerse lands and a battle between Craufords and Kennedies. I found the latter quite surreal. When I looked it up, I only found a couple of references to the event being one of the legends of the Carrick area (see this local history account and this entry on Google books), but no explanation for why tethering a sow might be an insult.
On the way to Kelwood he encounters Laird of Auchendrayne, who attempts to draw Launce to the Bargany cause and, when he refuses to turn coat, attempts to set an ambush that would finish Launce off. Then there’s an episode in which Launce shadows his master Sir Thomas Kennedy on a visit to a friend in Maybole and discovers an ambush which he thwarts in the manner of a Boy’s Own Adventure and a prank between two of Sir Thomas Kennedy’s young sons that uncovers a secret plot and leaves Launce badly wounded.
At the heart of each of these adventures is the Grey Man and his sidekick Sawny Bean, whom Crockett’s description makes seem like the wild shipwrecked man in the Monty Python titles, but sinister. To all intents, the Grey Man seems to be on the side of the Bargany Kennedies, but he is someone universally feared and behaves like a mercenary.
Gradually, Crockett reveals clues to the identity of the Grey Man, mainly through the conversations Launce has with Robert Bruce, who sits remote from the action, intervening periodically to move the story on. When Marjorie Kennedy is forced marry the son of the Laird of Auchendrayne, with the promise of peace being brokered between the warring Kennedy factions, Auchendrayne comes to the fore. As the story progresses, he is revealed to be an arch manipulator, saying one thing to Sir Thomas Kennedy and using knowledge gained from Kennedy’s trust in him to benefit the Bargany Kennedies in battle.
Where Auchendrayne manipulates, the Grey Man carries out his intended actions. I can’t bear injustice, it’s the thing that makes me angriest, and the way in which Auchendrayne and his cronies get away with actual murder made me really angry. The murder that Auchendrayne plots and the Grey Man orchestrates is a turning point in the book and it made me sad for those concerned. It gives Nell her opportunity to become the intelligent force and woman of action she is destined to be, however.
Things get worse before they get better, with a young boy abducted for telling the truth about the actions of Auchendrayne and Launce and his friend Dominie Mure, the Master of Maybole school, stranded on Ailsa Craig. It falls to Nell to rescue them, of course, when her sister Marjorie also goes missing, feared abducted because she has uncovered the secrets of Auchendrayne.
How did Launce and Dominie Mure end up stranded on Ailsa Craig? Because they left their boat in full view of the shore, asking for their enemies to capture and remove it. They learnt a lesson from Nell Kennedy on that. As is ever the case with the mildly chauvinistic Launce, he finds it hard to credit a woman with abilities he thinks of as exclusively masculine.
With more than a woman’s ordinary forethought in adventure, Nell had left her boat in a cove to the right of the landing-place. And indeed I, that somewhat prided myself upon my wisdom, had not taken as great precautions myself – which, among other things, was the cause of our present position on the Craig.
No shit, Sherlock.
The trio eventually escape Ailsa Craig and along the way rescue Marjorie before tipping up in a network of caverns beneath the headland south of Girvan and the Craig. Here sense is made of the local legend of people disappearing from the shore with nothing but blood trails and devilish footprints to show they were ever there. The caves belong to Sawny Bean, who is more than just a wild man, and contain horrific terrors.
Through the bizarre use of Dominie Mure’s bagpipes, the foursome narrowly escape with their lives. Their route back to Culzean, however, brings them back into contact with Auchendrayne and his relationship to the Grey Man is finally revealed. All seems about to be resolved until the King of Scotland enters into proceedings and almost scuppers the process of justice.
Perhaps because I’m living in the current era of lies, manipulation and brass necked arrogance, as the power hungry scrabble over each other to be the most egregious example of humanity it’s possible to be, but the thread running through this novel that affected me most was that of the corruption wrought by the lust for power. The Earl of Cassillis is no paragon, but he’s as nothing next to the real villain of the piece. Each thwarting of justice wrenched in my gut, the more strongly because of the injustice and lack of politicians being held to account that is playing out on a daily basis in the UK and elsewhere in the world. I know, from all the years I’ve spent studying western history, that those who seek power are typically in possession of a wonky moral compass. This novel reminded me that there is nothing new under the sun, no matter what veneer of civilisation we gloss over who we are as a species. The court scenes towards the end of the novel and the baying crowds outside, rabid with their misplaced loyalty whipped up by the factotums of Auchendrayne, put me in mind of the current populist political climate.
… when the tumult within was a little hushed, my Lord President rose to pronounce sentence. But he had scarce opened his mouth, when there came through the open windows the angry roaring of the mob without. For the news had already reached them, and Dunbar and others were busily employed stirring them up to make a tumult on behalf of the murderers.
Good does eventually prevail, and thank goodness for that. Now I need to maintain my hope that sense will prevail in the real world I exist in, for the good of 99% of us at least.
Despite the negatives I’ve just described, I enjoyed The Grey Man very much. It’s a ripping yarn that barrels along at a sometimes heady pace. Some of the conceits are hilarious, and I could sense Crockett winking as he penned them. It’s deliciously tongue in cheek in places, as well, especially the characterisation of Launce as someone with a level of self belief that only reveals his complete lack of insight. I’m really glad that I picked it up from the bookshop café Shoots and Leaves in Wigtown, and that I read the majority of it while on holiday in the places it describes.