Sisters of Bruce is a hefty novel, giving novel gives voice to the five sisters of Robert the Bruce, highlighting the challenges they faced as sisters of Scotland’s great hero.
It is certainly refreshing to hear the female voice within history’s discourse of wars and battles that is so often dominated by men.
The story begins with Isa, the eldest sister who is to be married off to the King of Norway. We follow her meandering memories of an idyllic childhood, holidaying on their estates in Essex and across Scotland.
When she sets sail across the treacherous sea to Norway it is not just her childhood which is brought to an abrupt halt, but the childhood of all her young siblings as Scotland embarks upon the tumultuous Wars of the Independence.
What follows is a series of letters between Isa and her closest sister Kirsty, married to Garnait of Mar and sent to live in the north-eastern castle of Kildrummy.
Through their correspondence the stories fi lter through of their brother Robert and William Wallace’s rebellions, and we are given the feminine secondhand experience of their political strategies, battle movements and throughout it all the brave tenacity of the sisters. The epistolary form of the writing enables Harvey to explore the personal experiences and worries of the sisters amidst the hardships and perils of war.
Once Robert has been crowned King of Scotland the sisters are constantly shuttled around by their kinsmen, as they are felt to be open targets for ransom or as trophies. Edward I’s revenge is strong and harsh upon all those affiliated with Robert.
While Kirsty is incarcerated in an English nunnery alone without her children, the most brutal sentence is for Mary Bruce, who is kept in a cage hanging from the walls of Roxburgh Castle and must submit to the afternoon ritual of rotten egg peltings.
The youngest sisters, Margaret and Mathilda, are hidden away from 1306 to 1314 in a house in Orkney that acts as a safe haven and allows the potential for a swift escape from Scotland. When Isa is made a widow at the age of 24 years old she is able to command enough influence to send soldiers over from Norway to help her family.
The story is underpinned by the sisters’ separation, as we learn, and empathise with, childhoods cut short, freezing winters, motherhood and the fragile uncertainty of the whereabouts and welfare of their siblings and friends. Harvey’s reimagining of events is colourful and vivid.
She indulges in some lengthy and romanticised descriptions of banquets, treacherous journeys and rugged landscapes which evoke the often bleak and cold climate of medieval Scotland.
However the writing can often seem a tad too sensational and melodramatic while the characterisation can at times lean towards the two-dimensional; King Edward is cast as demonic and maliciously evil with a ‘reptilian glint’ in his eye.
The book is in need of some thorough editing but the writing is entertaining and never dull. This is worth a read purely for the overlooked and marginalised, female perspective of this legendary era in Scottish history.
Sisters of Bruce, by JM Harvey, published by Matador, £12.99.