Dickson McCunn (his surname means son of a dog) has just retired having sold his very successful grocery business and decides (his wife being away at a spa hotel) to go on a ramble through the Scottish countryside. Despite his bourgeois profession he is a romantic at heart. Meeting up with a younger man, a poet who scorns romance, they embark on an expedition to take a look at a rather dishevelled stately home and discover a Russian Princess who has been locked up by villains with Bolshevik leanings who want to steal her jewels. Coincidentally, she is the Russian Princess that the poet fell in love with when he was being nursed back to health in Italy after being wounded on the front. Also by coincidence, a self-organised scout troupe made up of a Glaswegian boy gang called the Gorbals Die-Hards happen to be camping on the moor. So grocer Dickson and his boy band resolve to rescue the princess in distress.
The adventure that follows becomes even more incredible as the characters move back and forth across the moor. After springing the Princess from her perilous situation she then goes back there to do battle with the forces of evil, now reinforced from the sea.
So the plot is bizarre but what makes the book great is the wonderful descriptions of the Scottish countryside; the brilliant vernacular in which most of the characters speak (though some are speaking broader Glaswegian than others); the brilliant counterpointing of the heroic and the humdrum, the romantic and the practical, the poet and the grocer; the regular injection of humour when the book threatens to slide into farce; and the fabulous characters of Dickson, all the Die-Hards, and 'Aunt Phemie'. Even the rather silly and irrelevant poet has a trajectory to fulfil. The only poor characters are the villains who, apart from the slightly scary but farcically stupid innkeeper, are non-entities.
It is a fairy tale saddled with a silly plot but in the hands of a master storyteller like Buchan, it comes to life. April 2015; 211 pages
Books by John Buchan reviewed in this blog:
- My very favourite: a historical novel set in Scotland which proved that Buchan really could write: Witch Wood
- Weird plot, terribly un-PC but with some wonderful characters, a laugh aloud speech, and a real feel for the joys of hunting: John Macnab
- Well written but with the most ridiculously bonkers plot and some horrible classism, racism and anti-semitism: The Three Hostages
- A wonderful description of the Scottish countryside and some fantastic characters and some brilliant counterpointing: Huntingtower
- Greenmantle: another bonkers plot with weak characters set during the First World War