There is a world of difference between an historical adventure and a real historical novel which illuminates the past, giving the reader the sight, sound and feel of the events which came before us and shaped our history. The Witching Hour is one such book, taking the complicated history of the practice of religion in Scotland in the seventeenth century when Charles II’s decision to appoint Bishops to rule the Church in Scotland gave rise to the movement called ‘The Covenanters’. The movement was based in South West Scotland, and this story begins on the Isle of Bute where Maggie escapes from being strangled and her body burned for witchcraft along with her bitter and cantankerous grandmother, and finds a home with Uncle Blair, her father’s brother, on the mainland. Uncle Blair and his family welcome Maggie after she has had the courage to tell them the truth, and when Alexander Radcliffe, the preacher, comes to the house she is spellbound by his words, and is instrumental in helping him hide when the location of his secret outdoor service is betrayed to the British Army. But her Uncle is arrested and Maggie travels with Tam, a friend from her past, to Edinburgh and then on to the Castle at Dunnattor, to find and hopefully rescue him. This is achieved, but at a cost to her conscience, and knowing that Uncle Blair would be unable to live with her decision, she does not return with him, but flees home to Bute.
There is much of the power of religion and faith in this book which in this secular age may be difficult to understand, but the strength of the belief of the Covenanters that they should be able to worship in their own way, shines through and gives the book much depth and credibility, so that the reader can see that this is how it was for these people in the seventeenth century. The sequence of events unfolding for the reader keeps the pages turning, following Maggie, barefoot, often very dirty and hungry, living with the Blair family in their well ordered household, unflinchingly accepting what they believe God has sent them. There is kindness from Andrew Lithgow who helps Maggie escape; from Tam, dirty and drunk a lot of the time, who travels with her to find Uncle Blair; and from the British soldier Neil Sharpus who saves Uncle Blair from having to give the oath of allegiance which he would most certainly not have given. Men of conscience are hard to find in the 21st century and it is to Elizabeth Laird’s credit that Uncle Blair is the dominant character in this book, ready to give his life for his belief in the freedom to worship as he chooses. We readers are privileged to have been beside him on his journey.