Turn of the Tide by Margaret Skea
The story is set in Scotland during the final years of the sixteenth century. Like Romeo and Juliet, it portrays the feud between two noble families whose names, by coincidence, begin with the same letters of the alphabet as Shakespeare’s warring Veronese. Instead of the Montagues and Capulets, we have the Montgomeries and Cunninghames. However, the similarity with Shakespeare ends there. Turn of the Tide is not a love story in the conventional sense, though love and sex feature as in any good work of historical fiction.
The Montgomeries and Cunninghames were real families who vied with one another for the ear of King James VI (later James I of Great Britain). In an age and society when the demands of family outrank the bonds of friendship, the earls of Eglintoun and Glencairn, patriarchs (respectively) of the warring factions, are quite willing to go to despicable and bloody lengths to achieve their ends. Here, the word of the head of the clan is law and only a very brave – and maybe foolhardy – man will challenge it.
The novel begins with the senseless massacre of a party of the Montgomerie faction which leads on to King James’s attempt to resolve the feud. Round these events, Margaret Skea spins a tale of familial love and hatred, of lust, revenge, betrayal and tragedy.
The chief protagonists are Munro, a minor laird owing fealty to the Cunninghames, and his wife Kate, and Hugh Montgomerie, a cousin of Eglintoun, and his wife Elizabeth, whose mother is a Cunninghame. Munro is sickened by his part in the massacre, and returns home to face Kate’s cold disapproval. When the king calls a halt to the bloodshed and makes the two earls swear to end it, Munro and Hugh form an unlikely friendship which threatens rather than cements the fragile peace.
King James decides to sail to Norway to bring home his bride, Princess Anne of Denmark, and chooses the Montgomeries to accompany him, to the resentment of the Cunninghame clan. His arrival in Edinburgh to the riotous welcome of his subjects then becomes the occasion for a reunion between Munro, Hugh and their respective families. However, during the pageant, the peace is threatened when the rivals are thrown together as members of the king’s retinue. A subsequent encounter between Hugh and an unpleasant, boastful relative of the Cunninghames, Patrick Maxwell, is broken up by Munro before it can lead to another bout of internecine bloodletting.
However, the Munro family, because of its friendship with the Montgomeries, has already fallen foul of William Cunninghame, heir to the Glencairn earldom. And when Sybilla, Munro’s sister-in-law-to-be, spurns William’s unwelcome advances, the scene is set for an exciting and far from happy climax on the treacherous sands of the Solway.
The author, with some historical justification, casts William as the villain of her story. She paints Hugh more attractively as a peace-loving aristocrat, though he is quickly driven to anger when Elizabeth is insulted. Munro, who more than any is the real “hero” of the novel, is Margaret Skea’s own creation. As readers, we want William to get his come-uppance, but unfortunately that is not how history works, and in a novelistic sense we are left with question marks. Like Dumas’ Monte Cristo, the ending of Turn of the Tide might well have featured the epilogue “Wait and Hope“.
Turn of the Tide, though billed as genre fiction, is literary in style and tone. The family lives of the main characters, with their ups and downs, are described in fond detail. Some of the most enjoyable episodes in the book concern the everyday events of farming an estate, coping with children and their whims, and dealing with family tragedy. Margaret Skea’s handling of two events in particular drew my attention, the colourful portrayal of a momentous occasion in Old Edinburgh, the street scenes and the pageant attending King James’s arrival in Edinburgh, and also the atmospheric and joyous celebration of winter at a frost fair on the frozen River Clyde.
The language of the novel is unusual. Margaret Skea recreates the lowland Scotland of Stuart times, in part, by an extensive use of Old Scots. For the most part, this does not create a problem, because the context gives the clue to the meaning, but it does slow down reading. Although my early life was spent in Scotland, I had to turn frequently to the glossary for a translation. The odd unfamiliar word or turn of phrase does not really detract from such a well-written story, yet I cannot help feeling that the action would have moved forward more speedily if the author had confined her use of the Scots language to dialogue and left it out of narrative passages.
I read Turn of the Tide on my Kindle and noted, as I have done in several other cases, some mistakes of syntax, grammar and punctuation. My suspicion (as I have already discovered in works seen in both printed and electronic form) is that these are not the fault of the writer but of sloppy conversions. Publishers really must take care that their e-books are up to the same standard as the more traditional versions.
I discovered Turn of the Tide through my contacts on the professional network Linked-in. The subject matter, the places and the names have some special associations for me. One set of my maternal great-grandparents were married in Kilmaurs, Ayrshire, where the Earls of Glencairn had their seat. And, though any direct blood connection is probably spurious, Euphemie Montgomerie, daughter of a later Earl of Eglintoun, married into the Lockhart family of Carnwath, Lanarkshire.
I enjoyed reading the book very much. While all the world knows the tragedy of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Great Britain at least celebrates the later Gunpowder Plot with gusto, writers generally seem to pass over the early years of James Stuart’s reign in Scotland, before his accession to the English throne. And that is a pity.