Book review: The Lion Rampant by Robert Low

Knight riders: the Battle of Bannockburn. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Knight riders: the Battle of Bannockburn. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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With The Lion Rampant and its vivid, imaginative and blood-curdling account of Bannockburn, Robert Low, one assumes, has concluded in splendid bravura style, his sequence of novels on the Wars of Independence.

The Lion Rampant by Robert Low

Harper Collins, 454pp, £18.99

He might, doubtless, go on, for recognition of Scotland as an independent kingdom was still some years distant, and, even after the Treaty of Northampton saw the English recognise Robert the Bruce as King of Scots, independence would again be threatened during the minority of his son, David II. Yet it is hard to think that anything following this stirring novel could fail to be an anti-climax, the heroic days being over.

Below the title on the cover the publishers declare: “a nation will fight for its freedom”. So indeed it will sometimes, but Robert Low is too honest a writer to pretend that the issue in the wars of Independence was clear-cut. He knows, and shows, that there was not only a war, which may be called national, against the English or, rather, the King of England’s attempt to dominate, even annex, Scotland, but also a civil war within Scotland. Bruce, on the paternal side a Norman baron, had murdered his chief rival, the Red Comyn, and the Comyns with their allies and dependents, were his bitter enemies. The Red Comyn’s son, the Lord of Badenoch, fought on the English side at Bannockburn and was killed there.

Robert Low is a scrupulously honest historian, and his political understanding makes Mel Gibson’s Braveheart look a feeble piece of tushery, but he is also a great romancer. He mingles real-life historical figures with his own imaginary creations, two of whom, his Lothian laird, Hal of Hardmonstane, and “Dog Boy”, an illegitimate half-brother and double of the Black Douglas, are the most sympathetic characters in the novel. He attributes to Hal a devotion of the Countess of Buchan (Isabel MacDuff) who crowned King Robert at Scone, and, captured by the English, was imprisoned in a cage hung from the walls of Berwick Castle. She is persecuted in the novel by a malignant and psychotic henchman of the Comyns. He is a splendidly nasty piece of work. Nevertheless Isobel’s musings, printed in italics, are the least satisfying things in the novel. No harm is done if you choose to skip them.

For this is terrific. It is hard to think that anyone can do violent action better than Low. He visualises everything, and doesn’t shrink from the utterly beastly and frightening hand-to-hand combat of mediaeval warfare. He revels in it. There can be few novels in which so many horrors are vigorously presented or in which so many swords or other weapons are thrust through open mouths or men are split from guts to gizzard. The fight scenes are not for readers of tender sensibilities. But then nor were the Middle Ages.

Bannockburn is the centrepiece of the novel. In reality there is much uncertainty about the actual course of the battle. As Low writes in his “Author’s Note”, “we actually know very little. Numbers, actual site and progression are all best guesses.” True enough, but in his fictional reconstruction of the battle, he has guessed exceedingly well. His knowledge is so deep, his imagination so rich, and his literary skill so considerable that you will be persuaded that this is how it was.

Yet, if Bannockburn is the heart of things, and the rendering of this real historical event is so convincing, the novel’s finest episode is purely imaginary. This tells of an expedition to Spain, the purpose of which is to secure some of the fabled treasure of the disgraced and disbanded Order of the Knights Templar to finance Bruce’s war. Low of course knows very well that the Templars attract fantasies as surely as bluebottles are drawn to rotting meat. Indeed, he says: “If you want proof that a writer has gone mad, see if he has become involved with the history of the Templars in Scotland. For my own part, I dismiss all of it.”

Nevertheless who can resist the idea of the Templars. So he has Hal and his comrades setting off for Spain, “using Templar money to buy Templar weapons from the beneficiaries of the fallen Order, the new Order of Alcantara.” Why? Because it offered the chance to write a terrific adventure. And why not?

“Romance,” Stevenson wrote, “is the poetry of circumstance, “ in which “we are lifted up, as by a breaking wave, and dashed we know not how into the future”. For all its historical basis – and the history is, as I say, good – The Lion Rampant is pure Romance, exhilarating, appalling, compelling; great stuff.