"Ane Compact of Villany: The History of Argyll's Outlawed Gang" by Lindsay Campbell is the fascinating story of a turbulent time in Argyll's history. From the 1680s to the 1700s a gang of early Jacobite "stouthrieves" - thieves, housebreakers and highwaymen - inflicted a reign of robbery, violence and intimidation across a broad swathe of upland Argyll and beyond.
This excellent little book sets their activities in context in a way that draws the reader into an age and a place that seems far removed from the Argyll of today. We read about the wider turbulence of the time, and the social background of those who found that their only option in life was to live outside the law. What is particularly fascinating is the way the edges of the story blur into the unknown, and unknowable. The author's obviously extensive research has shown clearly the limits of what was set down on paper at the time, or recorded later, and the result is in many ways a tale of shadowy figures who pass into and out of focus as they move from the spotlight of recorded history into the darkness of probability and supposition.
As well as the outlaws who are the central focus of the book, we also read about the people, often neighbours, who they preyed upon, and we also read how the dogged determination of one man, inspired by a widow's plight, brought the gang to justice. That's not a spoiler: the cover of the book reveals what is obvious to the reader throughout, that the activities of the gang are not sustainable and sooner or later they are going to come unstuck.
Every chapter concludes with a list of sources, and these lists help confirm the breadth and depth of the author's search for background and evidence. There is within the book the very occasional instance of sources coming up with apparently contradictory information, but these don't get in the way of the reader's enjoyment. We read on page 20 that there is was a church in Inveraray for the English congregation; on page 21 that there were only ten men in the whole parish who spoke English; and on page 23 that the fifteen men of a jury tended to be drawn from the few who could speak both Gaelic and English in the area. But in the end it didn't really matter what language justice spoke, it succeeded in bringing an end to the activities of the central characters.