Book review: Ardnish - A Novel, by Angus MacDonald

The experiences of Highland soldiers in the Second Boer War form the backbone of Angus MacDonald’s evocative saga, writes Joyce McMillan
Ardnish - A NovelArdnish - A Novel
Ardnish - A Novel

As one born in the 1950s, I am old enough to remember the way the men of my father’s generation talked about their experiences of soldiering during the Second World War. Some of them had known the full horror of violent conflict or imprisonment, and rarely spoke of it; others had spent a relatively quiet war manning desks and supply-stations from Singapore to Salford.

What they had in common, though, was their fascination with the physical detail of the experience; the weapons, the kit, the logistics, the food, the weather, the places they saw, the local people they met. It was as if the shock of being sent, at the age of 18 or 19, into a completely new environment full of unfamiliar objects and people, had been enough to imprint these details on their minds for life; and to compel them to revisit them, whenever they encountered someone who had lived through the same.Angus MacDonald’s new novel Ardnish – the first and third in his Ardnish trilogy – is a story told very much in this tone. The book is officially described as the first in the trilogy, perhaps because it reaches furthest back into history; but the other two – Ardnish Was Home (2016), and We Fought For Ardnish (2018) – have already been published, and have fully introduced MacDonald’s readers to the Gillies, a west Highland crofting family of great pipers, whose story, from around 1900 to 1950, the trilogy aims to tell.

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This latest novel begins in 1944, with old Donald John Gillies, now in his eighties, on his deathbed in Ardnish; but it soon carries us back through the old man’s memories to 1900, when Donald John, already in his forties – and driven to despair in Ardnish by a combination of grinding poverty, and his wife Morag’s disappointed bitterness – takes the king’s shilling and returns to soldiering with the Lovat Scouts, in the Boer War in South Africa.

What follows is an unusual and sometimes uncomfortable hybrid of a book; part lament for the crofting way of life and the mighty cultural inheritance it carried, part military history of the role of the Highland regiments in the Boer War, and part romantic novel, in which Donald John’s growing passion for a young Boer widow he escorts to one of Britain’s notorious South African concentration camps leaves him with a lifetime of guilt that he must expiate, before his imminent death.

In truth, though, the love story makes no appearance until more than half way through the action; and the novel’s real centre of gravity always seems to lie in its breathless and immensely detailed account the Lovat Scouts’ role in the South African campaign, which carries on with scarcely a tonal variation through the intertwined narratives of Donald John and his officer friend Captain Willie MacDonald. Also interwoven into the narrative is another set of tales, comic and adventurous, based on the history of Ardnish and its people; so that sometimes, the book seems about to collapse under the weight of its author’s knowledge and research, or begins to feel less like a novel, and more like what we might hear if we eavesdropped on a group of old Highland men telling fireside stories, far into the night.

In the end, Donald John’s deathbed scene dissolves into pure sentimental fantasy. Yet still, there is something admirable about a book that seeks to tell the story of a good man’s life, lived across two worlds now gone; and that does so with so much energy, knowledge, and love for the men of that time and place, whose memory MacDonald strives to keep alive.

Ardnish: A Novel, by Angus MacDonald, Birlinn, 256pp, £8.99

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