About to be married to the Chieftain’s son, Artair, Iseabail is sent to be the companion to a rich man’s daughter, after the arrival of a man in a boat to her home on St. Kilda. He promised a winter’s worth of supplies for her going, and she was told that she would be married on her return if that was within a year. After a journey with a mysterious man and a monkey in a small boat, and a long cart ride, she arrives at the house which is to be her home. This is a house where people bathe a lot, unusual at that time, and where the local water is thought to have healing properties. Maria, her charge, is a feisty seven-year old, seeming unwell and very spoiled. When her father arrives the plot slowly reveals he is searching for a cure for the plague which killed his wife, but the reason for Iseabail’s presence there is unclear. He has brought a unicorn with him and retreats to the tower where he undertakes his experiments. Gradually the story builds to its horrific climax.
Set in the latter half of the sixteenth century, this is a story in the Frankenstein tradition. The first thing that strikes the reader is the unusual use of language, for example on page 2 ‘the stranger, dressed in a pale flotilla of clothes’, and ‘a barren glut of rocks’. On page 70 ‘peacocks which stood out drastically against the snow’. Later, on page 206, ‘snuck’ is used and also the priest says ‘Jesus wept’: not a phrase a priest would ever use. The story is set in the latter half of the sixteenth century but there is a lack of period feel. The setting is the borderlands of Scotland but there is little sense of place, and no menace within the house, which is almost a world of its own as the locals will not approach it. Iseabail, although from a remote Scottish island, seems to have a wide knowledge of the world. Her father had taught her to read and write, which is one of the reasons she was chosen for this mission, but surely not been able to give her such learning? The reader also has to question why her family and tribe let her go so easily to a complete stranger arriving from over the sea?
This is basically a horror story and the ending is truly nasty, but for this reader there were too many questions raised along the way. These, combined with the strange use of language, and the lack of historical feel and sense of menace in the place, the latter being crucial for a story in this genre, made for an unsatisfactory read.