As any visitor to Scotland can testify, this is a country whose turbulent and complex history is very obviously on view wherever you look. Centuries of conflict and warfare have left their mark in the shape of a profusion of castles throughout the land. And even some of the most remote areas display their history through the absence of once thriving populations cleared in the cause of so-called agricultural improvement. But in some ways the most distinct strand of Scotland's history, and the one that has left the most indelible mark on our countryside, our villages, our towns and the character of our people, arose from the Reformation of 1560. In Scotland the trappings of the Roman Catholic church were swept away with a fundamentalist fervour that was unmatched south of the border, and replaced with a form of Presbyterian Protestantism that would, eighty years later, plunge the whole of the British Isles into two decades of warfare and lose a king his head.
Comprehending the world that produced Scotland's explosive Reformation is never easy. History books can describe what happened, and try to explain why, but it requires a different approach to really get to grips with the way the people of the day saw the world, and truly understand why they took the decisions they did: decisions that in many cases still resonate today.
"The First Blast of the Trumpet" by Marie Macpherson is a magnificent book that goes a very long way towards plugging that gap in our understanding. It is the first in a trilogy that will deal with the life of John Knox, the man who stood at the heart of the Reformation in Scotland, and who was arguably one of the most significant people in Scottish history. The book can be categorised as historical fiction, but it stands at one end of the spectrum usually covered by that genre. The incredible depth of research undertaken by the author in order to bring her characters to life is obvious, and most of the characters were real people who emerge from the page in an utterly convincing way.
This book covers the years 1511 to 1548, and takes as its central character Elisabeth Hepburn, who becomes Prioress of St Mary's Abbey in Haddington, and, by chance, godmother to the infant John Knox. What is particularly impressive is the way events many readers will know well, such as the Battle of Flodden, are seen through contemporary eyes, and the way characters such as the young John Knox and the young (later to be Cardinal) David Beaton are turned into people we can empathise with and begin to understand. This is essential reading for anyone with an interest in this period of Scotland's history, and for anyone who wants to know just how good historical fiction can be.