Standing Stones is a terrible story. Historical fiction helps us see how people lived in long ago, faraway places, but Beth Camp’s brilliantly drawn images trick me into feeling they’re memories of places I’ve actually visited but couldn’t have, because they no longer exist. Her characters are so authentic, I can hardly believe she made them up. This is terrible, because I love them too much; their pain becomes my pain. My husband doesn’t get it. It’s not “just a book,” because real people have suffered exactly the sort of oppression and injustice that Mac, all the McDonnells and their neighbors suffer in Standing Stones.
A young woman with blistered hands pushes a wheelbarrow full of fish across the sand in the opening scene. We smell the dried cod and feel the damp, salty breeze. Moira and her youngest brother, Jamie, do the drudge work while Mac, Dougall and Colin take to the sea, coming home with fish and stories of peril. Shipwrecks, storms and death are just a way of life; their father is a casualty of the sea, their mother too has died. Mac holds the family and a whole community together, commanding loyalty and obedience, earning love and respect from all who know him. With spare and poetic prose, Camp introduces each character and sets the scene. Along the beach, fishermen’s shanties line the cove. High on a promontory, the laird’s house overlooks the town and the sea. The sixth Earl of Selkirk has died, and the new laird arrives by boat with his wife and servant. Moira’s tall, strong brothers wade into the water to carry the newcomers to shore. Sweaty and gritty and hard at work, Moira can’t shake the image of the lady in a gray traveling suit, wearing a veiled hat and holding a pink handkerchief to her nose. Nor can we.
Lady Alice turns out to be a much more sympathetic character than expected, but Lord Gordon imposes “improvements” and demands higher rents of the working poor, thinking only of his own profits. Foulksey Island may be a fictional place, but the brutal Clearances of 19th Scotland are not. This dark period of history concerns a country so small, a people so few in number, it wasn’t even mentioned in my high school and college textbooks. It’s one thing to hear that a rising population put pressure on land and jobs, the Agricultural and Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century brought change to Europe, and aristocratic landowners imposed Clearances, expelling people from their ancestral homes to make way for more profitable sheep farming. A textbook account of the large-scale forced migration to North America, Australia and New Zealand doesn’t cost us any sleep at night. Novelists like Beth Camp, however, get us deeply involved in the personal lives of the displaced people of history.
I wanted this book to close at a happy time, with Moira meeting Dylan at a dance, Dougall and Cat falling in love, Mac wooing Deirdre, Lady Alice taking an interest in young Jamie’s education, and Colin joining the men at sea. No such luck. Lord Gordon expels old Granny Connor from her home and burns it to the ground. Other homes are evacuated and burned. Mac leads a protest, which turns violent, and he is arrested. By novel’s end, everyone is separated from one another, but hope is in sight. A sequel, Years of Stone, is coming out soon. After that, Rivers of Stone will follow the McDonnells to their new home in the Pacific Northwest. Like the real-life people who inspired this epic saga, the McDonnells and their loved ones are survivors, regardless of the injustice and hardships they face. We know they’re capable of transforming themselves and their world, and we’re counting on Beth Camp to deliver the news of their triumph, no matter how many books it takes to get there.
Standing Stones caused me to search online for more information. The aftermath of the Clearances was profound and far-reaching. Before the Clearances, most Highland families lived in townships of perhaps a hundred or so people. Homes made of clay and wattle, or thickly cut turf. Roofs were thatched in heather, broom, bracken, straw or rushes. Forcibly abandoned and burned, these structures quickly reverted to nature. Not just the people disappeared. The settlement pattern, the homes of the people for a thousand years or more, were erased, and few are the remnants. Occasional stone-built houses for the shepherds may stand today, but they too are now abandoned.
The lack of legal protection for tenants reminds me how much we Americans take for granted. Scotland’s government not only did nothing for the people; they funded roads and bridges to assist the new sheep-based agriculture and trade.
The settlement pattern, the homes of the people for a thousand years or more, has virtually vanished from Scotland’s landscape today. Even the sheep, which replaced the people, are mostly gone. The irony? Those sheep were supposed to be an economic miracle, providing meat for the growing cities of the south and wool to the factories, but by the last quarter of the 19th century, sheep were undercut by imports from Australia and New Zealand. The people who were cleared from Scotland provided cheaper goods, often at higher quality, than those of the landowners who’d displaced them.
The standing stones of the title are real, testaments to the inventiveness and skill of a long-ago Neolithic people. We know far less about them than we do about the evicted fishermen and crofters, but who knows, maybe Beth Camp–or an author equal to her–will bring them to life in a new historical novel.