Colin Macaulay’s novel is set in 1797, a time when the republican movement of The United Scotsmen were plotting with France and the Netherlands to free their fair country of English rule. The story centres around Aeneas Kerr, an enigmatic figure who charms his way into an old friend’s mansion and teams up with a dashing Prussian cavalry officer who is on the run and ripe for a revolution.
They are pursued by an entertaining duo in the shape of Messrs Collett and Tredwell, Officers of the King, one corpulent and world-weary, the other arrogant and impetuous. We learn that Kerr has his own close-knit ring of contacts, each instrumental in planning an uprising that will be driven home by a much-anticipated Dutch fleet in the Firth of Forth.
While the action focuses on Kerr’s careful yet daring plot, weaving together the lives of Scotsmen who would risk their necks for independence, there is still time for humanity in the shape of George Herbertson, a surgeon whose charity leads him to tend the disease-ridden inhabitants of Edinburgh’s squalid back streets; and for heartache, when Kerr encounters a lost love whom he should have married many years ago.
Macaulay paints a vivid picture of Edinburgh in the late 1700s: bustling with overseas trade, expanding with new-found wealth and populated by men with proud spirits and kind hearts. With Kerr we venture into dingy taverns, noisy steak houses and opulent drawing rooms, stroll down the fashionable Canongate and Princes’ Street, and pick our way through the sordid alleys of Leith. The pictures are so acute and boldly drawn that you imagine the author has trodden these streets in a former life.
Will Kerr put his passion for his country before the woman he loves? Will Herbertson’s open support of Liberty be his undoing? And will they pull off their outrageous plan to fire the beacon on Calton Hill and attack the fort of Leith, with only a handful of stout-hearted men to support them?
Excitement, intrigue, loyalty and honour are combined with a dash of unexpected humour to produce a story that is well told and thoroughly researched; the twist in the closing chapters is both poignant and surprising, perhaps most of all for the hapless Tredwell.
I found The Scottish Malcontent both an adventure and an education, opening my eyes to an episode in Scottish history that I confess I was unaware of. This is a reminder that, despite the failed Jacobite rebellions, good, honest men – and women – were still ready to die for the hope of independence, even when that hope was fading to a glimmer.
‘The Scottish Malcontent’ is available as a Kindle edition from Amazon, priced at £1.99.