The Trials of Marjorie Crowe

C.S. Robertson

(Hodder & Stoughton, £20)

Marjorie Crowe is an old woman now. A herbalist, a follower of the old ways and a scholar of the history of witchcraft in Scotland, she is tolerated as a harmless eccentric by the people of Kilgoyne, which nestles between Loch Lomond and the Campsies.

Every morning and evening, timing herself to the second, she takes exactly the same walk around the town, a route so precise that she strides straight through the local pub rather than deviating from it by even a few metres.

But one morning she is stopped in her tracks by a sight she’s completely unprepared for: a teenage boy, Charlie McKee, hanging dead from the branches of what is known as the Witching Tree. Paralysed by shock, she retreats to her cottage, telling no one what she’s seen.

Later, when Charlie’s body is discovered, the townsfolk are furious with Marjorie for not raising the alarm at the time.

It’s as though Kilgoyne has slipped back centuries in the space of a day. The people she’s lived amongst for 25 years suddenly switch into persecution mode, denouncing Marjorie as a witch and accusing her of somehow causing the boy’s death.

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Reports that Charlie was seen alive in the street more than an hour after Marjorie’s vision are explained away as just another sign that she’s using supernatural means to lure the youth of Kilgoyne to their deaths.

The frenzy spreads on to the Internet too. Social media users across the world focus in on this tiny corner of Scotland and call for her to be burned as a witch.

Further disappearances fuel their anger, but the frightened and demoralised Marjorie isn’t about to let herself be taken by the mob. Under what little protection two sceptical but sympathetic police officers can provide, she resolves to clear her name by finding out what really happened to Charlie.

Two things in particular might lead to answers: crosses scratched into the bark of trees near where Charlie’s body was found and half-forgotten rumours of a secret sect that practised occult rituals at a geological formation called the Devil’s Pulpit 25 years earlier, just before a local girl went missing. But Marjorie’s enquiries continually clash with the police investigation, infuriating the locals even more and making herself look even guiltier.

The witch trials of the early 16th to mid-18th Centuries have been a recurring motif in recent Scottish fiction, but in the hands of C.S. Robertson (author of the acclaimed The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill) the subject still feels fresh and full of possibilities. There’s a tangible sense of dark and dangerous forces at work in this gripping novel, as well as an intriguing puzzle to unravel.

The mystery of Marjorie’s apparent premonition of a boy’s death – complete with ghostly hangman – and the striking imagery of an island littered with decapitated dolls’ heads, enshroud Kilgoyne and the surrounding countryside in an ominous supernatural atmosphere.

But the true horror lies in how little encouragement the townsfolk need to reclaim the superstitions of their ancestors and reach for their metaphorical witch-prickers.

A misunderstood woman doing her best to heal her own tragic wounds in the autumn of her life, Marjorie slips between the roles of suspect, consultant and sleuth.

The first-person narration means that, in order for the reader to keep up, Marjorie is often present in situations that you’d imagine real-life police would make more effort to exclude her from. But her headstrong, determined personality, and Robertson’s confidence in his story, allow for all the necessary suspension of disbelief.