by Ethyl Smith
In this impressive first novel, Ethyl Smith creates a fast-paced story of catastrophic events in 1679 involving a group of villagers on the Scottish Borders who become embroiled in what became known as the “Killing Times”, caused by a devastating clash between the Scottish Presbyterian Church (traditionally ruled by its own elders) and the English Parliament, which asserted the right of the sovereign to establish bishops in Scotland.
Revealing in microcosm the resulting widespread troubles that erupted as a result, Changed Times – the first in a trilogy – opens when the Rev Lucas Brotherstone refuses to sign his acceptance of bishops and thereby his fealty to King Charles II (who, ironically, favoured religious tolerance and had earlier signed the Act of Covenant himself which guaranteed it, only to be forced back on his word, becoming a Catholic on his deathbed). Brotherstone is brutally evacuated from his rural parish of Lesmahagow and forced to go on the run.
From here, events unfold with an urgency reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, set in the time of the later Jacobite revolt. Despite the book’s fevered pace, we are left in no doubt about the psychology of oppression via the deeds and machinations of a cynical sheriff, a psychopathic army captain, an opportunistic puppet preacher and the susceptibility to corruption of members of a poorly paid army – but most of all, as always, through those who hold no power at all: the villagers themselves. Trapped inside the slipstream of escalating protest, their loyalty and consciences are tested to the limit with an intensity it is sometimes hard to imagine today.
First, they rebel by attending en masse the nearby “conventicle” of a historical figure, the rebel preacher Alexander Pedden, who offered impromptu, outlawed services out on the wild moor. Many such sites can be seen to this day, marked by modest memorials to murdered Covenanters. But it doesn’t stop with a single piece of disobedience. Retaliation out of all proportion to the acts it seeks to punish follow, ramping up the tension.
Food, on the other hand, regularly provides a respite when it evokes the cohesive simplicity of family life. It’s also a vehicle for destabilising hungry people: wily Lord Ross, seeking the acquiescence of an army captain, lures: “Noo hoo aboot a bit of supper and a sit by the fire? Just the twa o us? It’s wonderful whit can be discussed ower a guid meal. We micht even discover we’ve mair in common than we thocht.” Later, though, a food table becomes a mortuary slab. Nothing is quite as it first seems, adding complexity and depth to the story.
Farmer John Steel’s reckoning comes after being captured for another infringement, when: “Like Lucas Brotherstone before him, he began to realise that whatever he felt in the end it would make no difference.” The impotence of despair turns him. Reluctantly, he takes up arms.
We catch up with a fugitive Brotherstone in Holland living on Patrimonium Stratt, the street of lost souls. By then, his plan to deliver a lecture on the text: “Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth” feels all wrong to him.
Ethyl Smith brings history vividly to life in a novel bristling with energy, with her acute ear for the nuances of dialogue (in which what is cannily left unspoken is gratifyingly imagined by the reader). She has a gimlet eye for detail, illuminating home, courtroom, army barracks and battlefield. She seems to be implying that when the letter and the spirit are in conflict it’s bound to lead to trouble, leading to few winners here, with no one emerging entirely untarnished. Ending on a cliff-hanger, I sense the next volume might introduce some redemption. I hope so.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.