by Ailish Sinclair
‘Atunement. Living flesh, pulsing with the beat of life, touching stone that is also living and beating in another way. There is life within. And there is wisdom. And there is a throb of energy, gathered over time. And love. Yes, love.’
The Roman historian Tacitus wrote of a great battle, fought around 83 CE in northern Scotland. The combattants were the disciplined legions of the Roman general Agricola and the wild, disorganised tribes of Caledonia. Historians, unable to find clear archaeological evidence of the battle site, have long questioned Tacitus’ account. They point to the novelistic language, the obviously fictional speeches and to the improbable numbers of the dead. Some even question whether the battle – Mons Graupius – took place at all.
Sisters at the Edge of the World recreates the Scotland of this legendary battle in a novel of myth, magic and romance. The story’s heroine and narrator is Morragh, living with her adoptive sister Onnagh among the Taezali, one of the northern tribes. Onnagh has saved her from an abused childhood in another village and they have become close. Morragh is a seer, a sort of priestess of the tribe who leads their seasonal rituals in the stone circles. She never speaks but communicates by signs and by drawing pictures in the earth.
The novel begins at sunset before the winter solstice. Morragh gives herself willingly to a stranger whom, at first, she thinks of as a god. She finds her voice and sings. When later she realises he is a man, she is glad to be with his child. But he is Gaius – Morragh calls him Guy-us – a Roman, a Son of Mars and thus an enemy. She conceals her recovery of speech and practices the ritual as usual. But her relationship with the tribe begins to change. Her other friends misunderstand her condition, yet are curious.
‘This man does not fear the dark as Onnagh does…. A wave of energy passes through us and blows away into nothing. The rules of the past are gone now. Men will walk this way from this moment on.’
The seasons move on to the equinox, then to the summer solstice. Morragh’s three-month pregnancy is discovered – and her ability to speak. Onnagh is angry when she learns the truth.
Guy-us is captured as a Roman spy and is about to be tortured, when Morragh in defiance of her family loyalties frees him. She continues seeing him secretly. The arrival of the tribal chieftain, the Calgach, is announced. And when he makes an impassioned speech about raising the tribes in a war against Rome, Morragh supports him, though she foresees death and disaster.
‘I stand on the grass surrounded by the tents of the men of Rome ….. They at once intrigue and repel me. Intrigue, because this is what Guy-us must sleep in at night …. Repel, because these are objects of war – a conquest of blood and pain. Rape and butchery are [their] hallmarks.’
With conflict looming, for both Morragh herself and for the Taezali, we get a glimpse of the Roman preparations and their strength of numbers. Instead of victory, the Taezali are reliant on escape plans laid by Morragh and the mysterious Hill People. The question we have to ask is, what does the future hold for her, Guy-us and their expected child, both of them seeming traitors to their peoples? If they survive the battle, where will they go?
I confess difficulty getting into the story at first. The syntax in Sisters at the Edge of the World is quite different to what I am used to in, for example, the novels of Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory and Ken Follett.
However, Ailish Sinclair’s narrative works here and, once I got used to her style, I enjoyed the novel very much. The language allows Morragh to speak to us in a way that reflects the times and the society in which she lives. The way she expresses herself defines her personality. She is a woman of the earth, the stones and the seasons, and attuned to whichever god or goddess they represent. Morragh walks in a mystic and magical realm, but one which recaptures the wild simplicity and beliefs of the peoples of pagan Scotland.