Nothing Left To Fear From Hell by Alan Warner
Published by Polygon

CHARLES Edward Stuart is having something of a moment. Further to Flora Fraser’s biography of Flora Macdonald here comes a complementary fictionalisation of the Young Pretender’s escape to France after the Rout at Culloden.

Fresh from his triumphant Kitchenly 434, Alan Warner takes on the challenge of historical fiction and tries to tease out the haptic actuality of the chase, the infernal texture of what it must have been like to be on the run in the Hebrides.

You have been there on holiday, no doubt, you have stayed in warm rooms or a cosy tent with a snug sleeping bag. Warner immediately dispels such comforts. Here be treeless wastes “unhinged of purpose”, the muck and smells of bogland, broken kips in sodden bothies, repeated dousings. Night upon dark night out on the open up against the midges with your bowels in an uproar. Hell, indeed.

Warner puts you through Charlie’s physical inconveniences; you’re left admiring the guy even if he was, in the author’s words, a brigand, a bit of a chancer.

Warner masticates on language joyously like it were a salty slab of Highland toffee. He appeals to the ear from the get-go as with the “rising and dipping oars sounding like the slap of linen shirts on riverside stones” – this taken from his very first paragraph.

We hear the rowers pray in Gaelic: “An ululation to accompany the trickles of water down the inner sides of their hull.”

Then there are his poetic visions: he makes us see “black rocks capped with scalps of wet kelp”, a face “as midden black as the bog puddles”, and midges, again and again, midges “manifested in bouncing puffs”. Gulls too – “curiously silent like possible informers”.

It’s easy to imagine Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott grinning in admiration at these lines.

The geography of South Uist is captured with precision: “That seemingly horizontal land was a maze of small black baths reflecting the sky.”

But geography isn’t the Pretender’s top subject – he seems unaware that St Kilda and Orkney are part of his putative kingdom.

Charlie himself is not so bonnie here; there’s less of thon poncified apple-cheeked buffoon with the bouffant as painted by Allan Ramsay. Outdoor living means the Pretender is now as “smoked as a kipper”.

Charming and sensitive at times, the chevalier is also irascible and belligerent, boozy and crude, jocular and caring, a war-weary survivor marinading in brandy, half in love with the smell of peat and brine in the morning. We hear him irritably mumbling to himself in Italian, a daffy Joe Pesci figure denying he’s here just to amuse you.

He is angry at Lord Murray and his collaborators but cannot even hit a whale with his gun.

Warner brilliantly describes Charles, in his guise as Betty Burke, looking like “a pintle-seeking-tumble-me-now-pox-trembler in a godless port city, rank with sin”. This reviewer thought a pintle was a bolt on which a rudder turns but is now properly enlightened courtesy of the Urban Dictionary.

The Flora depicted here is coy, tentatively flirtatious, prophetically aware of the male gaze and its propensities. Her camp conversation with the Prince as she fits him with stockings is pure Carry On Up the Minch. This though is a brief scene of comedy amidst all the skulking.

Warner then gives us Goyaesque scenes of devastation as mutilated beasts litter the landscape. The farm animals and dwellings are “exterminated to punish and crush the culture of these peoples”.

The escape is as darkly purgatorial as Beckett’s How It Is, an influence acknowledged by Warner.

So why the upsurge in interest in Charlie? Is it to do with disappointment in Scotland’s current lot and the dismissal of our majority vote to Remain? Subversion from within and without? Another own goal in a defeat snatched from the jaws of victory?

Maybe it’s because we are now primed to recognise pretence on planet Boris.

Warner wonders if we can be as culpable as the Prince in bringing on mayhem and has Cluny Macpherson say: “We can only beat ourselves – by losing who we are.” This seems the key message of this brilliantly chewy recreation, the latest edition in the excellent series of Darkland Tales from Polygon reimagining the nation’s stories.