I have had a weakness for stories set in Scotland ever since I read "We Meet Our Scottish Cousins" at age nine; since then I've read the good, the bad, and the awful. Highland Bride, set in the Highlands in 1424, ended up at about the midpoint of my personal spectrum.
Highland Bride begins from a historically unlikely starting point. When Madlin McKendrick's father and two brothers are ambushed and killed, she persuades her clan to accept her as the laird of the McKendricks.
Madlin's father and brothers were killed in the latest of a series of brutal attacks by the neighboring Fraser clan, attacks which the Frasers claim were made in response to unprovoked raids by the McKendricks.
Although her clan is begging her to lead them against the Frasers, Madlin has a more peaceful resolution to the conflict in mind. She will capture Ewan Fraser, third son of Sir Cameron Fraser, on his way home from the wars in France and force him to marry her, thus uniting the clans.
Before going to fight in France, Ewan shared James I's lengthy imprisonment in England. When Ewan presents himself at Stirling on his way home to the Fraser stronghold of Glendarach, James rewards him with the promise of an earldom, provided he marries the daughter of Toirlach McKendrick as quickly as possible.
Madlin and her clan ambush and kidnap Ewan before he reaches Glendarach, putting Ewan in the ironic position of being forced to do what he had planned to do voluntarily: marry Madlin. Furthermore, even though his capture and coercion make Ewan furious, he is attracted by the twenty-year-old Madlin's voluptuous figure and her mixture of courage and innocence.
Despite the unlikelihood of a woman laird, Janet Bieber has created a believable heroine in Madlin McKendrick in two ways. First, Bieber addresses the unique role Madlin plays in a straightforward manner. Her characters worry about it and must rationalize it for themselves…and for us. Secondly, Madlin is an authentically medieval character which adds to her believability. Her religion is shown to be an important part of her daily life, and she suffers whenever events force her to violate its tenets.
Ewan is also believable, if somewhat less attractive. He came across as something of a snake oil salesman -- a bit too glib for my tastes. My belief in Madlin's naiveté was reinforced when she fell for some of Ewan' s lines.
Bieber writes a competent prose -- she even handles dialect skillfully -- and the historical detail is reliable. The historical attitudes are more suspect.
I doubt very much that a girl would have been allowed to train with the sword and the bow and arrow as Madlin was. It seems even more unlikely that Madlin would ever be the clan's best marksman, given the superiority of male upper body strength. Both Ewan and Madlin exhibited attitudes and views that seem unlikely in 15th century Scotland, particularly in their condemnation of cattle raids.
These are minor lapses, easily overlooked in a page-turner novel. Unfortunately, despite its strengths, this wasn't a page-turner. Even though there are two major conflicts within the story -- Madlin and Ewan's sword's point wedding and the causes of the McKendrick-Fraser feud -- the drama inherent in these situations is allowed to trickle away in a series of small crises. You won't be kept awake wondering how a conflict will be resolved because the conflicts are always cleared up within a chapter or two.
My final conclusion? If you love stories set in Scotland, save this book for sometime when you know you'll be interrupted frequently. You'll be able to put it down and pick it up again easily. But if you want to be swept away, choose another book.
--Nancy J. Silberstein