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A Fresh Take on the ’45

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Flemington by Violet Jacob was recommended to me by my grand­parents. Posthumously. When writing my biography of John Buchan, I came across a letter he wrote in 1911 to the author, soon after the book was published: ‘My wife and I are overcome with admiration for [Flemington] and we both agree that it is years since we read so satisfying a book. I think it the best Scots romance since The Master of Ballantrae. The art of it is outstanding.’

In the normal run of things I’m a sucker for a Jacobite tale, even if Bonnie Prince Charlie makes me weep with frustration, but I admit I was nervous before opening the book, since I found The Master of Ballantrae unendurably upsetting and bleak. I need not have worried. Flemington is a powerful, affecting drama, as you would expect of any ‘romance’ of the ’45, but it is not hopeless. And, although all the characters are flawed, in three of them there is something of distinction, even nobility.

The book begins with an account of juvenile naughtiness by the ‘hero’, Archie Flemington, through whose eyes we see much of the action. He is half-Scots, half-French, a mercurial being full of charm and mischief with a talent for painting, who is brought up by his adored but stern and manipulative grandmother, Christian Flemington, in a remote country house called Ardguys in Angus. We meet him next eighteen years later, in the summer of 1745, when he insinuates himself into the graces of a vain, boobyish, retired judge called Lord Balnillo, in an imposing house of the same name over­looking the South Esk estuary near Montrose.

We gradually learn that Archie Flemington is a government agent who has been told to spy on Balnillo’s much younger brother, a sol­dier of fortune called Captain James Logie and a known Jacobite. Archie’s job is to find out what James Logie is up to. He follows him discreetly at night, to the back streets and quays of Montrose, where

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Flemington by Violet Jacob was recommended to me by my grand­parents. Posthumously. When writing my biography of John Buchan, I came across a letter he wrote in 1911 to the author, soon after the book was published: ‘My wife and I are overcome with admiration for [Flemington] and we both agree that it is years since we read so satisfying a book. I think it the best Scots romance since The Master of Ballantrae. The art of it is outstanding.’

In the normal run of things I’m a sucker for a Jacobite tale, even if Bonnie Prince Charlie makes me weep with frustration, but I admit I was nervous before opening the book, since I found The Master of Ballantrae unendurably upsetting and bleak. I need not have worried. Flemington is a powerful, affecting drama, as you would expect of any ‘romance’ of the ’45, but it is not hopeless. And, although all the characters are flawed, in three of them there is something of distinction, even nobility. The book begins with an account of juvenile naughtiness by the ‘hero’, Archie Flemington, through whose eyes we see much of the action. He is half-Scots, half-French, a mercurial being full of charm and mischief with a talent for painting, who is brought up by his adored but stern and manipulative grandmother, Christian Flemington, in a remote country house called Ardguys in Angus. We meet him next eighteen years later, in the summer of 1745, when he insinuates himself into the graces of a vain, boobyish, retired judge called Lord Balnillo, in an imposing house of the same name over­looking the South Esk estuary near Montrose. We gradually learn that Archie Flemington is a government agent who has been told to spy on Balnillo’s much younger brother, a sol­dier of fortune called Captain James Logie and a known Jacobite. Archie’s job is to find out what James Logie is up to. He follows him discreetly at night, to the back streets and quays of Montrose, where he discovers him plotting with another notorious Jacobite called Ferrier. The next morning, James meets Archie by chance on a hill­side near Balnillo. Archie reminds James powerfully of his dead wife, and, though normally a buttoned-up action man, he blurts out the story of her betrayal and death in the Netherlands. Believing Archie to be a Stuart sympathizer James promises to help him if he gets into difficulty, giving him the names of two safe houses and offering him money if he needs it. Archie feels such an affinity with James (one might almost say that he falls in love with him) that he vows never to betray him. Thus is the tragedy set in motion. Archie flees Balnillo and heads home to Ardguys, to tell his grand­mother of his decision not to go after James Logie. Christian Flemington is an extraordinary woman of haughty dignity and high intelligence, luminously described, who is eaten up with bitterness at the treatment that she and her son received in France from the mother of King James III (better known, in England at least, as ‘The Old Pretender’). She had brought up her grandson to hate the Jacobite cause as much as she does and had persuaded him to become an agent for King George II. As Violet Jacob puts it: ‘There was only one fitting place for him, and that was in the hollow of her hand.’ The reader is confronted with the customary slippery half-truths, treachery and brutality that disfigured both sides in that conflict: an uneven conflict, since one side still cleaved to a species of medieval feudalism, while the other was more forward-looking, if thoroughly unsympathetic. But, in this novel, the conflict is seen mainly from the Whig side, which is unusual and, I must say, refreshing. Moreover, the strongly Jacobite east coast of Scotland rarely gets a look in in this kind of fiction, perhaps because it’s not so picturesque as the Highlands. Archie’s refusal to hunt down James Logie and thus, in effect, shield a considerable ‘rebel’, causes his grandmother to revile him as a turncoat and cast him off, at least temporarily. Distraught, he devises a plan to go back to Montrose to warn the captain of the government sloop, the Venture – without implicating James – that the Jacobite forces, led by Logie and Ferrier, are going to attack. He witnesses that attack, but as luck would have it, comes across James on the island of Inchbrayock; the latter realizes with horror that Archie has betrayed him, and they fight. Archie is injured, but James is urgently called elsewhere before he can finish him off. In the end, Archie is denounced as a traitor by another well-drawn character, Skirlin’ Wattie, a crippled beggar and balladeer, who acts as a postman for government spies, and who overhears Archie speak of James and how he can trust him, when delirious with fever after his fight on Inchbrayock. But such are the shifting sands which everyone had to navigate in times of civil war, that we understand Wattie’s motivation perfectly. I won’t spoil it by describing the climax of the tale; suffice it to say that those who need most to know that Archie is essentially an honourable man are not left wondering. Violet Jacob very cleverly wove together fact and fiction. She was deeply attached to the Angus landscape, which she describes beauti­fully, having been brought up at the House of Dun (on which Balnillo is based) as a member of an ancient family called Kennedy-Erskine. The house now belongs to the National Trust for Scotland and may be visited. If you do not know the area around Brechin and Montrose, it is worth keeping a map by your side when reading the book. I suspect that Violet Jacob would still recognize the country­side a hundred years on; the most substantial change has been to Inchbrayock, just off the southern edge of the Esk estuary, which is no longer an island, the narrow channel having been filled in many years after the book was published. She describes actual events, in particular the capture of the Venture (in reality the Hazard), anchored off Montrose in November 1745. However, the battle of Culloden the following April is only reported, not described. All the principal characters are fictitious, although she includes a deadly cameo of the boorish, cruel ‘Butcher’ Cumberland, to whom Christian Flemington applies for mercy to save her grand­son. But Violet Jacob is the cleverest of historical novelists; steeped in the history, customs and language of Angus as she was, she created the atmosphere without bludgeoning the reader with detail, as lesser novelists are inclined to do. The writing is by turns poetic, highly visual (since the countryside is seen through the eyes of the artist, Archie) and sharply direct. There are flashes of dark humour, in particular in the descriptions of the romantic advances the ridiculous Balnillo makes to Christian Flemington. There are telling changes of pace: the scene when Archie stalks the Jacobite plotters through the wynds of Montrose is nerve-janglingly tense. The book also feels, in a strange way, rather modern or, perhaps more accurately, Violet’s preoccupations are sim­ply enduring ones. A hundred years ago, homoerotic feeling was not a subject discussed too openly, I imagine, since homosexual acts were considered both a sin and a crime; however, plenty of people had sympathy for the predicament of those drawn strongly to their own sex. Certainly, the attraction that Archie feels for James is too intense to be explained simply by the attractions of male friendship, and it shapes the rest of his life. Violet Jacob led a far from confined or sheltered life, particularly after her marriage to Arthur Jacob, a professional British soldier, who took her to India and Egypt, as well as to a number of garrison towns in England. As a young, as yet unmarried, woman my grandmother met her in Cairo one winter early in the last century. Years later, she wrote: ‘Violet had published a small book of poetry, which made her a little suspect to the military society in Cairo. But her charm and beauty and aptitude for getting on with people helped her to live down even poetry.’ Flemington was not Violet’s first novel – The Sheep-Stealers and The Interlopers are the best known of the others – but it sold the most, and has lasted. However, she never wrote another novel after Flemington. My grandmother explained why: ‘Violet had one son, whom she loved with all the depth of an imaginative and passionate nature. When he was killed in the 1914 war a spring in her broke. She never wrote a long book again, and turned to writing poems in the Scottish vernacular.’ That ‘vernacular’ was ‘the Doric’, the speech of Angus, already in retreat when she wrote Flemington, but capable of adding marvel­lously to the colour of it, and really not difficult for the modern reader to understand. Her best-known book of poems in the vernacu-lar is The Songs of Angus (with a preface by John Buchan), published in 1915. Hugh MacDiarmid, the high priest of the Scottish literary renaissance after the First World War, reckoned that she was ‘the most considerable of the contemporary vernacular poets’. She also wrote acutely observed short stories set in Angus, collected in Tales of My Own Country (1922), as well as a history of her forebears, The Lairds of Dun, in 1931. She died in 1946, at Kirriemuir, Angus (J. M. Barrie’s birthplace), where she went to live after she was widowed. The Jacobite ‘rebellion’ has always attracted the attention of nov­elists but, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson apart, there can be few writers who have ever matched Violet Jacob’s sure touch with plot, nor her lyrical descriptions, which she yet never allows to get in the way of the action. Tell it not in Gath, but I prefer her take on the Jacobite rebellion to either of theirs, if only because there is so little in Flemington about the infuriating Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 73 © Ursula Buchan 2022


About the contributor

Ursula Buchan writes non-fiction for pleasure rather than profit. You can hear her talking about garden writing on our podcast, Episode 9, ‘Well-Cultivated Words’.

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