In 1692, after the overthrow of James VII of Scotland and the installation of William and Mary on his throne, a child-sized woman, abused, malnourished and probably half-crazy, tells her story to a priest sent to convert the “barbarians” of the Scottish Highlands. The woman, Corrag, has fled England to escape the fate of her mother, Cora; like so many wild, strange women versed in herblore, Cora was deemed a witch by their intolerant community and hung. Riding “north and west” on a trusty gray mare, Corrag finds refuge and hospitality among the fierce, Jacobite MacDonald clan of Glencoe. Because their clan leader was late in signing a loyalty oath to the new king, some of them are slaughtered on a snowy winter night by the king’s soldiers, who, appallingly, were their guests. Enough of the MacDonald men, women and children flee to keep the clan going but Corrag, named as the one who warned them of the oncoming massacre, is imprisoned and condemned to burn.
The story is based on both fact (the MacDonald massacre) and legend (Corrag’s warning). The book’s chapters alternate, mostly, between Corrag’s narration and the priest’s letters to his beloved and longed for wife. We see Mr. Leslie’s transformation from a man who unthinkingly supports Corrag’s upcoming execution, since she’s a “witch” and there’s nothing more to be done about her, to a man who feels compassion for her and would like to save her if he can.
Corrag’s narrative is riveting. Fletcher describes her reverence for nature with astonishing beauty, whether Corrag is watching a sky full of stars, or gently picking spiders out of her hair, or befriending a stag who finally takes half an apple out of her hand. Her friendship with the mare who brings her from England to Scotland is vividly told, and heartbreaking—the reader will think of that brave mare long after she’s left the scene.
Fletcher’s characterizations of the people of Glencoe are no less moving. There’s the MacIain, the clan’s gruff leader, who Corrag first meets when she tends his headwound. There’s his son Alisdair, whom Corrag chastely and fiercely loves, and Alisdair’s lovely wife, whose baby Corrag helps deliver. One is tempted to describe Corrag as “fey”—tiny, blackhaired and strange, you can see her being played by somebody like Bjork. But she has a mighty heart, and Fletcher has written a novel worthy of her.