Review – King Hereafter

I don’t know why I never read any of Dorothy Dunnett’s books. I was aware of her as an author – I had noticed a set of books set in 15th century Italy, but it was not a period that interested me. It was only once I started to write myself, and take notice of what other authors thought, that I realised that many writers of historical fiction revered her. I wanted to find out why.

Two years ago I bought a copy of King Hereafter. I started reading and knew that this was something special. It is a long book, over 700 pages, and I was busy. I wanted time to savour it, so I put it to one side. Recently I came back to it and last night I got to the end. I am still held in its spell and want to get down my thoughts while they are fresh.

For those who have never read it, this is the story of Macbeth, but not Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is the real man, Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, who might have become King of Scotland, if Scotland had existed at that time. Because of him, it nearly did. It is the story of one man’s life, but also the story of a whole world.

The Macbeth we think we know is set in Scotland, a country north of England. This book opens out to reveal the whole world; of the interconnections between countries when borders were fluid, of families connected by blood and marriage, where who you married was sometimes more important than who your father was and cousins could be friends or enemies depending on circumstances.

Thorfinn is sent to England, to the court of King Canute and his wife Emma, who controls events like a spider in a web. He meets Earl Leofric of Mercia, and his wife Godiva (who had ever considered that Macbeth probably met Lady Godiva?). Thorfinn is an heir to Orkney, he must fight for his share. Later, he gains Alba, by battle and keeps it by marriage to the widow of the previous king. It becomes a great love story.

Movement is central to the story. The action moves, with Thorfinn, not just across Scotland and the isles, but to Norway and Denmark. There is a long journey to Rome to meet the Pope. Always Thorfinn, plans, makes alliances. It is only towards the end of this trip that you realise that one reason for the journey is to bind together the young men who will be the leaders of the future, the heir of his ideas, if not his body.

The book is about religion. Not just the conflict between Christian and Pagan, but the different branches of the church. It is important that the bishop that controls your priests, is consecrated by the right person, for whichever king controls him has power over you, and your country.

I was astounded by the authors breadth of knowledge, how could she know so much about the period. I had occasion to look up some fact (I think it was the date the “historical” Macbeth died.) and found that there are little known facts about his life. In fact, the merging of the characters Torfinn of Orkney and Macbeth the king is only speculation. But the world she has created, is so real that you believe it happened as she tells it, or if it didn’t, it should have. It explains so well the state of the world in the mid-eleventh century, the rise of Harold Godwinson in England, the battles of William for possession of Normandy, the arrival of that other Harold from the east, to take over the throne of Norway. Men who would meet a few years later, in 1066, to decide the direction history would take.

But enough of history. If all the characters were fantasy, it would still be worth reading, so beautifully is it written. There are great set pieces; The firing of the hall at Ophir where Thorfinn and his wife nearly die and the storm, again on Orkney which acts as the trigger for the final downfall.

And the battle which ends at Dunsinane, four chapters, sixty odd pages of frantic action, fighting, riding across the landscape of Scotland, moments, only moments, of rest. The plot twists, from success to failure and back, as allegiances change or fade away, there is bluff and double bluff, treachery on every side. But still, there is time for beauty. From page 616, but I could have picked an example from almost any page. Siward waits outside Dunsinane:

Above, the sky hung, changing colour like fine China silk, with homing birds on its surface like powder. Here, emptied by space of all texture, men’s voices spoke and called and were thrown back from hill to hill, as every channel glinted with spears and with acorn helmets of dulled steel or leather and shields like shells on a necklace. Behind, when he twisted round, he saw that the black smoke obscuring the sun had been joined by another burst, this time of pure flame, rising over the river. He said, “It looks as if Perth has gone…”

It then continues, for a page with practical discussion on when to attack. The section ends:

Ligulf was smiling. The black moustaches opened like pincers. “No indeed,” Ligulf said. “So what were you thinking of?
And smiled all the time that he listened, so that Siward thought the moustache-ends would be hooked on his ears.

I could quote much more, but I haven’t the time, or space.

I was dreading the end. I knew there would be death. The death of a man I had come to love. A man who had started with nothing, achieved so much with his strength and intelligence and lost it through forces he was unable to control. I delayed the last few pages, until I was alone. I knew I would cry, I am close to tears now.

The ending was heartrending, but magnificent, the only way it could end. A man must die but his memory lives on.

A quote from near the end, Thorfinn and his stepson Lulach, who sees things.

“What am I thinking? I was wondering,” said Thorfinn slowly, “what story the river will carry of me?”
Lulach smiled his sweet smile, and his swan-white hair shone in the sunshine. “So many stories,” he said, “that a thousand years from today, every name from this world will have faded save those of yourself and your lady. That is immortality.”

I do not just cry for the death of a man. I cry because I now know that this is the sort of book I want to write – and I know I never shall.

A book like this takes great talent and a lifetime of writing. It is too late for me. If I had read this earlier, would I have started writing earlier, or is it only now that I know a little about writing that I can appreciate it?

Who know? I’ll just have to try my best – it’s all anyone can do.


A tour of Orkney and Shetland – Part 1

You may have noticed that I haven’t blogged for a while. I have been away, on holiday. I did no writing whatsoever, and I was in an Anglo-Saxon free zone. Plenty of Vikings, but the Anglo-Saxons didn’t get that far north – not to settle anyway. Perhaps they visited, perhaps they were taken there. Can I use this in a future book? An interesting thought.

To return to the present. I have been on “An Archaeologist’s View of Orkney and Shetland” It was a coach tour run by Brightwater Holidays. It was a holiday I had looked at several times before, but rejected because of the number of ferry trips. My other half is not keen on ships, but this time he made an exception. Perhaps my wistful remarks had sunk in (not exactly the right word?), perhaps it was the proximity of a special anniversary, but he agreed we could go. Luckily all crossings were calm.

The holiday was only six days, so we added three nights in Yorkshire at the end “to recover”. We didn’t fancy the long drive home – Yorkshire was quite far enough, but you can read about that later.

Brightwater Holidays offer a selection of departure points, so we decided to drive to Edinburgh. We spent the night in a hotel near the airport and were picked up by the coach at 9.15 the following morning. There were only six of us to start with, including our guide Alan Braby. He was not “as advertised” but had stepped in at the last minute, because the original guide was unavailable. He did an excellent job, apart from a slight difficulty in telling left from right, usually at the end of a busy day. But we got used to it. I’d rather have an archaeologist who does a bit of guiding than a guide who knows a bit of archaeology. Driving the bus was John, from Glasgow. He was responsible for much of the organisation and was capable of taking a full size coach to places I never thought it could go.

The first stop (a comfort break at a garden centre near Perth) provided some unplanned history. There was a view from the car park of an ancient building. The signs said Huntingtower Castle. The name was familiar. It was the site of  the Gowrie Conspiracy of 1600. An attempt on the life of King James VI of Scots, soon to be James I of England. I had read a book about it a while ago. Blood of Kings by J D Davies. The author writes books on naval history and also historical fiction set in the 17th century (the latest book in the Quinton Journals, a prequel, includes this bloody event in Scottish history).

The coach continued to Aberdeen, where we picked up more passengers and the airport, where the last of our group joined us. The tour proper had started.

We drove out of the city to visit the Loanhead of Daviot Stone Circle, near Inverurie. This is a recumbent stone circle. Was this a circle of fallen stones? No. This type of ancient monument is found only in this area of Aberdeenshire (and Ireland) and features a large stone lying on its side supported by two flanking stones. It was built about 5,000 years ago and aligns to positions of the moon. It is a pity that the main alignment south-west to Mither Tap and the summer moon, is obscured by trees. We spent a lot of time spotting alignments in the surrounding landscape and someone noticed another recumbent stone circle opposite.

Loanhead of Daviot Stone Circle

1500 years later, a cremation circle was built beside it and later still a large cairn was built in the centre of the circle. It would have been taller than the stones, but most of the rocks have been reused, probably to build walls and houses in the vicinity. All this was done by the local people, farmers of the surrounding land, probably ancestors of the modern inhabitants. A wonderful demonstration of continuity; something we were to discover time and again on this trip.

Stone Circle, showing remains of the cairn in the centre.

Members of the group search for cup marks on the supporters of the recumbent stone

The distinctive shape of Mither Tap (view through the coach window)

We then drove closer to Mither Tap to the Maiden Stone, a slab of granite, over 3m tall . The maiden who gives it its name was a local girl who made a wager with the devil, and lost. In fact it is about 1200 years old, and Pictish. On one side is a Christian cross, on the other, mysterious Pictish symbols. It is very worn and it was difficult to make out the carvings, although by this time the sun had appeared. There is a mirror and a comb, but what is the animal above them? There are suggestions that is an elephant, but I think I’ll go with the dolphin theory.

Maiden Stone. Pictish images difficult to see.

Maiden Stone. Christian symbols on reverse











Display board, showing details of Maiden Stone.

An interesting start to the holiday. We returned to Aberdeen, to board the ferry which sailed at 7pm. We watched the departure, before having dinner on board. As this was the first meal since we had stopped at the garden centre, I was starting to wish I had had eaten something then, instead out spying out interesting old castles!

Leaving Aberdeen.

Then it was to bed in our cabins. Next day we would arrive in Shetland.