About the Book
Set in Scotland in 1745, during the Jacobite Rebellion, this dark story of loyalty and betrayal on the road to Culloden Moor recounts the adventures of Francis Birkenshaw.
The Jacobite cause means nothing to him until a chance meeting with the beautiful Margaret Murray presents an opportunity for profit and adventure.
The fateful encounter marks the beginning of Francis’s involvement with John Murray of Broughton, an infamous traitor and turncoat.
Format: Paperback, ebook (224 pp.) Publisher: Polygon
Published: 25 August 2012  Genre: Historical Fiction
Find A Lost Lady of Old Years on Goodreads
A Lost Lady of Old Years is the fifth book in my Buchan of the Month reading project. You can find out more about the project plus my reading list for 2018 here. It is one of the few books by John Buchan I’ve not read before. I’m going to preface this review by stating that, in my opinion, A Lost Lady of Old Years is not the best book John Buchan ever wrote although, to be fair, it was published early in his writing career. You can read a spoiler-free introduction to the book here.
Buchan paints a picture of a young man, Francis Birkenshaw, the son of a good family, who nevertheless finds himself unsure of his place in the world. He falls prey to the lure of alcohol, women and the odd spot of fisticuffs in the local taverns. His desire for adventure brings him close to the borders of criminality resulting in him having to make a speedy escape from his hometown, leaving behind the staid career that had been mapped out for him.
He decides to travel to France but events intervene, notably his meeting with the beautiful and virtuous Margaret Murray, wife of John Murray of Broughton, an influential supported of ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie. Entrusted with an important task by Mrs Murray, he has a kind of epiphany inspired by her honour and virtue and begins to seek a different path in life. Carrying out the task he has been entrusted with and what follows bring him in close proximity to influential people and dramatic events in Scottish history, such as the Battle of Culloden.
In the book’s dialogue, Buchan seeks to reproduce the Scottish mode of speech, including local dialect words (‘kenspeckle’, ‘camsteery’ or ‘clanjamphray’ anyone?) with a bit of Gaelic thrown in for good measure. This takes some getting used to and might prove problematic for some readers. I think it would also help to have some prior knowledge of the history of that period, particularly the Jacobite Rebellion. Mine was only sketchy so I did have to do some research after reading the book to check how close the story sticks to historical fact. (As far as the main characters go – John Murray of Broughton, Lord Lovat, etc – the answer is pretty close, although Francis Birkenshaw is an entirely fictional character.)
In A Lost Lady of Old Years, Buchan explores themes that he would revisit in later books such as The Half-Hearted (next month’s Buchan of the Month), Mr. Standfast and Sick Heart River. These themes of self-sacrifice, duty and courage we can perhaps trace back to his upbringing and the text that was so influential throughout his life, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. At the end of the book, both Francis and Margaret face a difficult moral choice between following their hearts or their consciences. Choice made, Margaret reflects, ‘After the colours the sober grey, for you as well as me, Francis.’ Buchan would later revisit this period of history in his novel, Midwinter.
In three words: Dramatic, romantic, historical
Try something similar…Midwinter by John Buchan
About the Author
John Buchan (1875 – 1940) was an author, poet, lawyer, publisher, journalist, war correspondent, Member of Parliament, University Chancellor, keen angler and family man. He was ennobled and, as Lord Tweedsmuir, became Governor-General of Canada. In this role, he signed Canada’s entry into the Second World War. Nowadays he is probably best known – maybe only known – as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps. However, in his lifetime he published over 100 books: fiction, poetry, short stories, biographies, memoirs and history.
You can find out more about John Buchan, his life and literary output by visiting The John Buchan Society website.