Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt

Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt is the second book of his that I’ve read. The first one Death of a Chief I read 5 years ago! Both books are set in late 17th century Scotland (1686 and 1687) and feature a Gaelic speaking, Edinburgh lawyer John MacKenzie and his clerk Davie Scougall. I like the way Douglas Watt incorporates the historical background into the narrative without detracting from the story.

In Testament of a Witch MacKenzie investigates the death of Grissell Hay, Lady Lammersheugh accused of witchcraft in a village overwhelmed by superstition, resentment and puritanical religion. Then the same accusations are made against the Euphame, Grissell’s daughter.  I wasn’t too keen on the horrifying and explicit descriptions of how the witch hunter identified and dealt with women accused of being witches, which involved torture and sleep deprivation, but apart from that I enjoyed this book.

I liked the interaction between Mackenzie, a Highlander and Scougall, a Lowland Scot. Scougall is convinced of the reality of witchcraft, whereas Mackenzie has ‘grave doubts about the crime of witchcraft‘, believing ‘it is nothing more than superstition‘. The religious fervour and political unrest are clearly demonstrated in this book, setting the frenzied persecution of those suspected of witchcraft in context. Watts’ Historical Note on The Scottish Witch-hunt at the end of the book gives the background, when Scottish society was in a state of flux.

Change caused anxiety and fear, unleashing frenzies of witch-hunting . … It has been estimated that the Scottish witch-hunt was ten times more deadly than the English one in terms of executions per head of population. Probably more than a thousand men and women were executed for witchcraft in Scotland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The witch-hunt could not have occurred without a widespread belief in magic, charming and divination, and the acceptance of Satan as a real presence in the life of the people.

Witch-hunting declined when the revolutionary zeal of the Scottish Reformation ran out of steam in the late seventeenth century. Scotland began to turn its back on persecution and look towards the more tolerant and commercial age of the Enlightenment.

Testament of a Witch is well-researched and although it gets off to a slow start and I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Death of a Chief, I was immersed into the fascinating and terifying world of the witch-hunt in 17th century Scotland as I was reading. It’s a book that qualifies both for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge and this year’s R.I.P. Challenge, as well as the Historical Fiction Challenge and the My Kind of Mystery Challenge.

Douglas Watt is a Scottish historian, poet and novelist, who lives in Linlithgow. He has a PhD in Scottish History from Edinburgh University and is the author of The Price of Scotland, a history of Scotland’s Darien Disaster, which won the Hume Brown Senior Prize in Scottish History in 2008. 

Crime Fiction Alphabet:Death of a Chief by Douglas Watt

Letter DThis week’s letter in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet is D:

Douglas Watt is a historian, poet and novelist. Death of a Chief is his first novel.

From the back cover:

The year is 1686. Sir Lachlan MacLean, chief of a proud but poverty-stricken Highland clan, has met with a macabre death in his Edinburgh lodgings. With a history of bad debts, family quarrels, and some very shady associates, Sir Lachlan had many enemies. But while motives are not hard to find, evidence is another thing entirely. It falls to lawyer John MacKenzie and his scribe Davie Scougall to investigate the mystery surrounding the death of the chief, but among the endless possibilities, can Reason prevail in a time of witchcraft, superstition and religious turmoil?

Death of a Chief is set in pre-Enlightenment Scotland – a long time before police detectives existed.

I seem to be reading a lot of crime fiction set in Edinburgh recently with Ian Rankin’s Rebus series, but Death of a Chief is set in a different period and at times, it seemed, a different place!  One location that puzzled me was the Nor’ Loch below Castle Rock, where a second body is found – that of James Jossie, the apothecary – I just couldn’t picture a loch actually within the city. I found the answer in Wikipedia  – this area is now occupied by Princes Street Gardens, between the Royal Mile and Princes Street. How different it was before it was drained in 1759, with its muddy shoreline, and its dark dank water in the shade of the black mass of the Castle Rock!

Although I know very little about 17th century Scotland it seemed to me that this book brought that time and place to life well.The differences between the Highlanders and Scots Lowlanders are highlighted. Scougall a devout Presbyterian Lowlander has been brought up believing the Highlands to be a barbaric place ‘roamed by bands of murderers and in the grip of Popery’. The difficulties of  language also confront Scougall – he can’t speak Gaelic. As MacKenzie and Scougall travel into the Highlands to attend Sir Lachlan’s funeral and search for Campbell of Glenbeg, a notorious drunkard and gambler and a suspect for the murders, it seems that Scougall’s fears are justified when they are attacked by a group of “caterans”, men without a clan who were hired to kill them.

Although the locations are well described and MacKenzie (based on a real historical figure) and Scougall are well drawn some of the other characters are a bit sketchy and I had a little difficulty identifying them as I read. I had to backtrack to remind myself who they were. But I liked Watt’s style of writing. I enjoyed the book’s historical background and  the way he portrayed the political and religious conflict. The tension is well paced and the mystery is intriguing. I just had to keep turning the pages to find who was the culprit and I didn’t work it out until just before the denoument.