The first book of historical fiction that I clearly remember reading was The Flight of the Heron by D.K. Broster. My father gave me a copy for my twelfth birthday. It was a book he had read years before and loved. And he re-read it once I had finished.
The story begins in Scotland in the summer of 1745 around the time of arrival in Scotland of Charles Edward Stuart to claim the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland. It follows the lives of two men: Ewen Cameron of Ardroy, a highland chieftain of a cadet branch of clan Cameron, and Keith Windham, an officer in the Royal Scots regiment. Ewen’s foster father, a seer, has foreseen that a ‘heron by the waterside’ will bring Ewen to a man whose destiny is bound up with his. They will meet five times and ‘He will do you a great service, yet he will cause you bitter grief’. After this fateful first meeting, the novel follows both men through the course of Charles Edward Stuart’s campaign and its tragic aftermath. While battles are not described in detail, there are incidents throughout that clearly illustrate the devastating consequences for the men, women and children of the highlands—brutality, repression, starvation, dispossession and despair. But, ultimately, this is a novel of honour and loyalty. Each man is honourable and deeply loyal to king and country and in Ewen’s case also to family and clan. Both honour their word once given and through the twists of the story come to have a sense of responsibility for the other despite their other loyalties. It is the story of a friendship that could have been but for the times.
This is my favourite type of historical fiction, fictional characters at centre stage moving within an authentically described historical environment while historical characters play their known parts at the edges. Descriptions of the Scottish countryside are breathtaking, catching both the beauty and the majesty of the scenery. The Flight of the Heron was published in 1925 so is now almost one hundred years old and, in many ways, it is a book of its time. The language is formal and properly punctuated. There are smatterings of Gaelic, some untranslated, and the speech of characters with accents are rendered phonetically, and while this slows reading down, it is understandable (nothing like Joseph in Wuthering Heights). This is not a book to be rushed through, it is a story to be savoured. It says something that a book can enthrall a starry-eyed girl of twelve and a man of around forty belonging to that generation who experienced both the struggles of economic depression and war. And re-reading, all these decades on, The Flight of the Heron still holds its special place for me.
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