Book review: The Last Witch of Scotland, by Philip Paris

The tale of a mother and daughter put on trial for witchcraft in 18th century Scotland is expertly told by Philip Paris, writes Allan Massie

Witches are in fashion, but they are no longer viewed with fear or suspicion. They are treated with sympathy as innocent victims of superstition and male misogyny, and our former First Minister has modishly apologised to them on behalf of the Scottish People, as has the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, its ministers having been active in the persecution of supposed witches. Many were doubtless guilty of nothing , but others just as certainly believed they were acquainted with the Devil, worshipped him and cast spells on their neighbours. So the matter is more complicated than is now generally supposed. Investigating the reasons for the witch cult and the fear which provoked their persecution is still interesting, and no recent novel I have read comes close to matching John Buchan’s “Witch Wood”, the finest and most disturbing of his historical novels.

Philip Paris’s engaging and enjoyable novel doesn’t attempt to do so. Indeed though it is set in Scotland – Inverness, Edinburgh, Dornoch and the countryside in the third decade of the Eighteenth century – that is to say, on the verge of the Enlightenment,-it is not greatly interested in time and place, or at least does not illuminate either.

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Language is a problem for the historical novelist, all the more so the closer the writer comes to modern times, which is why one of the best historical novelists of the twentieth century, Alfred Duggan, set all his novels in times and often countries when or where English was not spoken. We have great novels set in eighteenth century Scotland, but there is no echo of them in Paris’s easy and conventional twenty-first century prose. This does at least make for easy , if not always convincing, reading.

Philip ParisPhilip Paris
Philip Paris

The novel begins on market day in Inverness where the young girl who tells the story tends a stall with her father and mother, the latter an intelligent woman who has travelled on the Continent as a lady’s maid and learned, among other things, to speak Italian. A nearby cottage goes on fire. Someone cries out that there is a baby there. Father and daughter hurry to the blaze. The father is killed rescuing the baby, the daughter badly burned herself. The shock and horror will disturb the mother’s mind. Over the years she develops symptoms of what we now recognize as dementia, though she has moment of intelligent clarity.

A few years later the fall in with a troupe of strolling players in Edinburgh, one of whom rescues the narrator from the unwelcome attentions of a lout. They travel north with the players. There is friendship and tenderness. The narrator becomes especially close to Jack, the author of the plays they stage. (Strolling players were themselves viewed with suspicion by the Kirk.) Them as their crof near Dornoch, Mother and Daughter are arrested and charges with witchcraft. The trial, such as it is, the dice being heavily loaded against the accused, is admirably done. There is tension, even if the outcome is assured. . The women’s defence is admirable, though their ability to speak well and the argument they offer belong to our time rather than the early eighteenth century. We know of course that the last witch” will suffer a cruel death; we assume that thee daughter as narrators, will escape. The question off course how this is achieved.

This is a well; constructed novel. The characters and the relations between them are finely presented and fully credible even if they smack more of our own times, experience and habit of thought than of the eighteenth century. This is unlikely to disturb readers caught up in the narrative and drama. There is indeed dramatic tension and this makes for a gripping and moving story which runs along fast and persuasively.

What is missing is intellectual tension. In the foreword – a historical note – Paris quotes the Biblical text: “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”, but he never quite enters or explores the minds of those whose belief in witches and witchcraft made them so fearful, cruel and, by our standards, so monstrously unjust. This is the one element missing from this otherwise accomplished and moving novel which deserves and will, I guess, attract an eager readership.