If you’re interested in detailed historical fiction about Scotland, this is a great book. The Spider and the Stone tells the story of the years between 1296 and 1330, known as the Scottish Wars for Independence. You’ve heard of William Wallace if you’ve seen the movie Braveheart, although there were a number of historical inaccuracies in that movie. This novel takes place during Wallace’s older years, and most of the characters are historical, including the two main characters: Robert Bruce and James Douglas.
James Douglas was known as Good Sir James by the Scots, and The Black Douglas by the English. He was a fierce fighter who led the Scots to victory at Bannockburn. In 1287, Scotland’s King Alexander dies without an heir, which throws Scotland into years of fighting among the clans to determine the next king. England’s Edward I (known as “Longshanks”) takes advantage of the confusion.
The Scottish wars are the main story here, but there’s another one as well: Douglas’ love for Belle MacDuff.
Most of the events of this book are factual, although the love story is imagined (but possible). Isabelle MacDuff was a true historical figure who suffered greatly in her defense of Scotland. She plays a pivotal role in the Scottish wars because the Scots have a tradition that only a MacDuff can crown a Scottish king. This makes every MacDuff a political pawn of sorts, but for women it means they can be sold in marriage to whoever wants the power to determine the next king.
Be warned, this is not a romantic love story. Women are forced to marry men they despise, they are kidnapped and treated like pawns, and they are used for childbearing and little else. And yet they survive.
I appreciated that this book has two really strong female characters, and a number of other women throughout who fight for their beliefs and their families. Belle MacDuff is incredibly brave in this book, and she’s matched by Queen Isabella, a young French woman who marries Edward II. In the book she’s able to covertly support the Scots even while her husband the King makes every attempt to destroy them.
This book was fascinating in that you really got a sense of the strategies the Scots used to fight the English, and the tyranny and degradation the English imposed on them. For example, the English steal one of Scotland’s most important relics, its Stone of Destiny. They not only hide it away (it sits under the English king’s throne), they damage it just to taunt the Scots.
But Craney’s portrayal of the Scots isn’t exactly rosy. Much is made of the many Clan rivalries and the Scots’ general inability to stay united against the English. In fact the English repeatedly use this rivalry to their gain.
Interestingly, we’re in the midst of a fascinating debate about Scottish independence. Next week, on September 18, the Scots will vote in a historic referendum on independence from Great Britain, a union they have been part of since 1707. At first it looked like independence didn’t stand much of a chance, but now its neck in neck. In a lot of ways this vote comes down to pride versus practicality. Scotland has much to gain economically by remaining part of the U.K., and there are risks to all of the countries in the UK if they separate. But most of the press coverage seems to ignore the bloody history between England and Scotland. Scotland never asked to be part of a union and was never an equal partner, although it has received more in benefits in this century.
Reading this book reminds me that there will always be hatred between the English and the Scots.
If you want a really detailed look at a few of Scotland’s legends, this is a great book. I will say it was a bit long for me, and more detailed in religious conflict and military strategy than I could follow (my husband would love it) but it also brought a real humanity to these historical characters, especially Jamie and Belle. I may not remember every battle or every castle described in this book, but I will remember the sacrifices these men and women made to fight for their country.
Scotland is a gorgeous country full of history and tradition. The husband and I have always talked about returning, and between Outlander and this book, I can’t stay away much longer. So we’ll see what happens on the 18th, and go from there.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the author in exchange for an honest review. You can learn more about Glen Craney here.