Jamie MacGillivray: The Renegade’s Journey

Written by John Sayles
Review by Helen Johnson

Scotland, 1746, and Jamie MacGillivray, shivering in the rain, brings a message from France to Lord Lovat, the Auld Fox, his Hogarth portrait vividly animated by the author. Jamie, of Clan Chattan, escapes death at the Battle of Culloden. He shelters with crofter Jenny Ferguson but is captured by the English. Hence, we are thrown into the complex and brutal politics of the 18th century. Jamie becomes far-travelled: first taken to Inverness, then to Edinburgh, London, Maryland, and onward. Jenny too is captured by the English, her punishment long on revenge and short on truth.

This is a book that rewards the reader for perseverance. We are shown everything, either richly imagined, meticulously researched, or probably both. Vast numbers of characters come and go, some of them known historical figures, others fictitious. We are mainly with Jamie, or Jenny, but from time to time, the author flits to other people, other places.

Much of the dialogue is written in a rich Scottish brogue, or in French. It took me a while to “get my ear in” to follow the Scots dialect, intended to illustrate the language of the Scots. That, and French, the language of their allies, reflects the truly multicultural world that Jamie inhabits.

Reflecting reality is a strength of this book. But reality is complicated, and, in the context of 18th-century English expansion, extremely bloody. Squeamish readers might find this reality a step too far. I felt that Jenny’s story, while interesting to read, could have been cut from the book without losing its main thrust. It would be a spoiler to reveal the ending, but I thought it was a poignant twist. After living with Jamie for over seven hundred pages, I was sad to part with him.