A historical saga about a beautiful young woman who has a child out of wedlock, an event that affects her proud Scottish family for generations to come. 1982.
Weighing in at over 550 pages, this is a Scottish-set, multi-generational saga that deserves to be classed among the best. I was hooked from the start, so I’ll just jump right into the story.
Kilcaraig opens with a young doctor who’s newly arrived at a small Scottish town by the sea. He’s substituting for a few weeks for the respected, local doctor, and so far he’s totally charmed by this little community. He’s even thinking of writing a novel and setting it here.
He’s also eager to meet a local beauty of some renown, Catriona, who’s returning from a trip abroad. The doctor encounters Catriona’s sister on the road, and suddenly he has an “in” with this important landowning family. The young doctor is summoned to help Catriona, who’s not been feeling well. As it turns out (and I’m not giving much away, I swear), Catriona had an affair while she was abroad, and now she’s with child. The father of the child is a Roman Catholic, so she is barred from marrying him. The young doctor, fairly enamored with Catriona by this point, agrees to help her in whatever way he can.
It’s a rough birth, and the plan is complicated when Catriona does not make it through. Her daughter, though, survives. Everyone, including the young doctor, is grief-stricken—though only a select few know the full circumstances of her death.
We next see Catriona’s daughter Grania (meaning “ugly,” her mother’s last words upon seeing the bruised newborn) in 1924, when she’s an imp of a pre-teen. Grania is raised in Scotland in the family’s ancient castle, though of course the official story is that she’s Catriona’s brother’s daughter.
As a pre-teen, Grania meets Robert Dutton for the first time. He may be an adult man, and Grania well underage, but we sense nonetheless that these two will share a story, at least for a while. Why? Robert Dutton wants to buy Kilcaraig castle. We know that the family loves their ancient home, but it’s what you’d call a “fixer upper”:
As he ate venison, liberally drenched in rowan jelly, on a plate which he recognized as Sevres, he tried to ignore the brass pot near the window into which the rain dripped with a monotonous plink-plonk. The paper was peeling off the wall on his left, and he noticed that at one time it had been kept in place with nails, for a few rusty heads remained in the stained plaster.
A dog began to scratch itself vigorously at his feet.
“Mr Dutton, if you pick up any fleas, wait until they’re gorged, then catch them with a piece of soap.” Grania smiled at him delightfully.
“Pay no attention. Our dogs have no fleas. I expect it’s a tick,” Marian said.
He was left to puzzle over this sinister remark, afraid to ask questions in case the explanation proved to be too revolting to contemplate. These people were the oddest mixture of elegance and barbarism that he had ever come across.
This scene puts me in mind of many other novels involving eccentric old families, decaying old houses—and dwindling old incomes. It’s a formula of the early 20th century that we’re quite familiar with.
But this particular new-money industrialist is determined to get his hands on the castle. Grania loves the castle fiercely, and she sees that even though the family will financially pull through this time, bankruptcy is inevitable. The next time she meets Robert Dutton, Grania is prepared to use him to find a solution.
Kilcaraig, just like life itself, is really a series of decisions made by the characters, and each of these decisions have far-reaching consequences. We see this through multiple generations of a single family, as the times shift from the early 20th century, to the booming 1920s, to the horrors of the Blitz in the ’40s, ending with the altogether different times of the 1960s and ’70s.
I especially enjoyed the fluidity and freshness with which Carothers shifts from one main character to the next. Uniquely, for this genre, the main character was not always female, either! We end up with a very nicely rounded story, thoroughly diverse in its scope. Kilcaraig even manages to resolve, after 550 pages, with a sense that everything has been brought together at last.
If you’re a fan of family sagas and a Scottish setting, I recommend Kilcaraig wholeheartedly. Also, the second half of the novel spends quite a lot of time with opera music, so if you’re an opera fan, this book will not just speak to you—it will sing!