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The Last Witch of Scotland by Philip Paris

A Review by Cynthia Rogerson

The Last Witch of Scotland
by Philip Paris
Black & White (2023) £14.99

Reading historical fiction is, I suspect, the way many of us learn about history.  This has its pitfalls of course, for a novelist is not under contract to be factual – and yet we readers trust good writers to stick to the essential truth about the past.  Paris is one of these dependable writers. His research has been meticulous, and while there is not much known about the last witch in Scotland, he is loyal to those few facts. He’s also a stickler for authenticity about everything else, including customs of funerals, how ale is made, and what women in the highlands wore.  This results in a fictional story that is convincing and possible - and often enough, plausible.

Set in Loth and Dornoch in the early 18th century, the story follows the fortunes of Janet Horne and her sixteen year old daughter Aila.  For most of the book, they live on a croft and eke out a wholesome life, brewing ale and tending their cow and crops. They are God-fearing and law abiding, but bad things begin to happen to them when Reverend MacNeil moves into the parish. Luckily they’ve made friends with a troupe of entertainers, about whom I will only say this: I hope a novel is written just for them.  

Paris avoids pandering to the stereotypes of evil doers and angelic victims, which is impressive in a mainstream work. The cruel minister is not portrayed sympathetically, yet neither is he a cartoon of wickedness.  He is so perceptively described, I had a brief insight into his genuine fear of the devil and therefore witches. It’s easy for us to deride and dismiss superstitious people in the distant past, especially when their actions caused grief - but perhaps that’s over-simplistic. No doubt we’re all complicit in some contemporary event which will one day be viewed with equal derision.  Paris’s book gives rise to reflections like these, which is a mark of a literary tome.

As the author freely admits at his readings, it’s a bit like a Titanic story. The suspense cannot arise from a unknown ending, for its stated at the start.  Paris injects tension in other ways. He alternates between first and third person narratives, so the reader is zooming in and out of perspectives.  He creates dynamic relationships between the characters, with motives not always revealed and secret pasts. I read the book rapidly because I wanted to know what would happen to (and between) the characters.  They are each looking for something, and I wanted to know if they’d ever get it.  

It cannot be denied that the subject, the persecution and execution of witches, is terrifying and disturbing.  And yet for the most part this extraordinary book is a gentle page turner, with humour and old fashioned romance.  It’s a rollicking good read, and for local readers, it has the added thrill of a familiar landscape.  Paris’s best yet.

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