The title page of Lady of the Glen describes the book as "a novel of 17th century Scotland and the Massacre of Glencoe," which ought to be sufficient warning that it is not a light-hearted read. But for those who appreciate a rich historical with a pair of well-matched but star-crossed lovers it could be a very rewarding one.
Catriona Campbell is only 10 years old when she first meets Alasdair Og MacDonald. Though the two clans are sworn enemies, Dair's father, the laird of Glencoe, has come to Cat's father, the laird of Glenlyon, seeking a temporary truce. "Boy-faced," motherless Cat is used to the brutal teasing of her three older brothers, and when young Dair is kind to her she falls in love with him with the pure adoration of a young girl.
But the enmity between Campbells and MacDonalds has a long, bitter history, and Cat knows she can never do more than dream of her "bonnie prince" with "silver in his hair and white teeth a'gleaming." As the years pass, Cat finds more reasons to hate MacDonalds and manages to temporarily convince herself that Dair is no
better than the other members of his thieving, murderous clan. But as Cat matures, it once again becomes obvious that Dair is the only man for her.
Meanwhile, both Campbells and MacDonalds are caught up in a convoluted political web. William and Mary reign in England, but the clans are loyal to King James II, self-exiled king of England who now lives in France. The devious Grey John Campbell, Earl of Breadalbane, seeks to further his power by aligning himself with William. But to the clans he presents himself as a loyal Jacobite who acts in their best interest. His maneuvering eventually engulfs Cat's drunken father, who has gambled away his
fortune and must obey Breadalbane's wishes to avoid prison and total ruin. And what Breadalbane wishes is the complete destruction of the MacDonald clan.
Over the next ten years, Cat and Dair meet several memorable times. When Cat has the chance to repay Dair's kindness in the most dramatic way possible, Dair finally realizes his own deep feelings for the daughter of his enemy. By the time they can declare their love for each other, the stage has been set for a brutal massacre that will yield few survivors. Will Cat and Dair endure?
I must admit with some embarrassment that I fell in love with Dair from the moment I saw his face on the front cover of the book (it's not your typical beefcake model cover, really!), and the feelings grew as I read the novel. I admired his respect for his older brother and father, his humanity and kindness in the face of other men's savagery and brutality, his fierceness in battle and his decency toward Cat. Sigh. He's Jamie Fraser of Outlander with a more thoughtful and sometimes wry attitude.
Cat is a wonderfully outspoken heroine. As her father comes to realize, too late, "she was not what all men would clamor after, being overbold in features and in coloring - and her propensity for opinion - but for a man who loved the blood and bones of Scotland, whose spirit answered her history and the ballads of the bards, Catriona Campbell was as much bred up of legend as any man might be." Although she and
Dair are not physically together for much of the book, the scene in which they finally are free to express their love is extraordinarily satisfying and well worth the wait. Roberson details the numerous atrocities committed by both Campbell and MacDonald against each other so well that the reader fully understands what Dair and Cat are risking to be together.
This book isn't for everyone. A great deal of the story depicts the fascinating historical characters that played a part in the massacre and some readers may wish the romance had more pages devoted to it. For much of the novel, Dair has a mistress, the twin sister of his best friend. He realizes he doesn't love her, and tries to break off with her, before he recognizes his feelings for Cat, but he certainly is no chaste hero (he's sequentially monogamous, at least). There were portions of Lady of the Glen leading up to the massacre that I could barely bring myself to read, because I felt such a strong sense of dread for the characters I cared about so deeply. The last 100 pages feature some pretty horrific scenes of senseless death and destruction.
The ugliness of the clan wars and the massacre only highlight the beauty of the love story. This rich tapestry of politics, romance, savagery and unexpected kindness is one of the most powerful novels I've read this year and one I won't soon forget.