Hunger, disease, avarice and envy breed superstition and fear, justifying the sacrifice of souls society deems culpable for what men cannot explain. In a particularly heinous era of torture and scapegoating, the massacre of the MacDonald clan in Glencoe, Scotland, in the 17th century, while no doubt tied to the conflict between William of Orange and James Stuart for the English throne, is an opportunity to accuse those who are different from their peers. Condemnation to death for the disappearance of a cow, barren hens or the coveting of another man’s wife, meanness is sufficient for the finger that points, pitch rising with each added voice chanting “witch, witch.”
Fleeing England after her mother, Cora, is hung as a witch, Corrag travels for a year, finally reaching a quiet glen in the Scottish highlands where she is at least free of the prying eyes of gossiping women. A healer like her mother, Corrag is called to minister to the warlike MacDonalds, her heart captured by one who belongs to another. Witness to the massacre, Corrag is not surprised at the fevered excitement turned her way: “Folks need a foe and they have their foe already, see?” Her only visitor while awaiting her burning at the stake is Rev. Charles Leslie, an Irish propagandist and Jacobite with a secret agenda who interviews her mere days before the execution.
Leslie strides into the dank cell armed with his faith and political convictions, prepared to fend off the devil’s tricks from a depraved female, her wrists in iron lest she blur the wits of the godly men who imprison her. This tragic drama in 17th-century Scotland is no anomaly, only one more outrage in a span of three hundred years that claims the torture and deaths of over 100,000 women, most of them old, eccentric, healers sought by village women, made pariah by the word “witch.” Convenient, these outcasts, when political machinations require a distraction for superstitious villagers who believe the devil can be purged from their souls with the striking of flame to tinder.
While the Rev. Charles Leslie seeks to advance his own Jacobite cause, the repulsion of his first visit recedes with Corrag’s unfolding story, a Scheherazade with no hope of reprieve but a chance to pass on her truth, riddled as it is with the arcane knowledge of those who exist on the margins of society, witches or prophets, a netherworld between a punishing God of Sunday sermons and those who embrace nature’s bounty and healing arts. The righteous Leslie is transformed by the tiny hag he so fears, her tale penetrating through the armor of his superiority and singleness of purpose: “Witch. It has always tried to kill me, this word. This life of mine.”
In a landscape suffused with violence and war, the ministrations of a tiny woman with healing hands and a gentle heart cannot be diminished or made a pawn of devious politicians. Fletcher celebrates the triumph of her character over the bloody deeds of men, a frail creature who whispers her story to a man overcome with shame for his thoughtless judgment. Basking in the generous bounty of a natural environment, Corrag belongs not to the burning stakes of madmen but to the quiet highland glade where she has found refuge from a cruel world. Fletcher’s writing is nothing short of magical.