‘The Woman Clothed with the Sun’, by Stuart Campbell

Rymour, publishers of this gem of a novel, were founded in 2020 by Ian Spring and Ruby McCann. They are fast becoming one to watch in terms of their expanding number of debut novelists and  focus on titles of Scottish interest. Stuart Campbell is a seasoned professional across a number of disciplines and this daring and provocative fictional account of Elspeth Buchan and the Buchanites captures the imagination in its depiction of a scandalous leader whose transgressive behaviour, which she encouraged in her followers, caused uproar in eighteenth-century Scotland. The title of the novel more commonly refers to one of the women of the Apocalypse, which is fitting given the social perception of Buchan and her activities. 

Campbell begins at the end, with the first nail being hammered into Elspeth’s coffin as the narrator recounts the eccentricities of Andrew Innes, the final survivor of her sect, who insisted he be buried above Elspeth in her coffin so she could take him with her as she ascended. The reader is then taken back to Elspeth’s birth and childhood as a cowherd and her father’s decision to remove her from the family home when she claims to witness visions and ostensibly cures cattle of their ailments. The subsequent informal education she receives through a relative is followed by Elspeth being entered into service until the family emigrate to the West Indies.  After she escapes, the novel moves into her sexual encounters with different men in her life, the first being two brothers with whom she engages in lustful and frenzied relationships simultaneously before leaving them in her wake in favour of travelling. Her depiction is often one of the woman empowered – a belief she instilled in her followers, who were encouraged to ‘throw off the shackles of marriage, share their goods and their partners’.

The male pursuit of Elspeth is all too often futile, and Campbell’s astute depiction of the perils of a partner assuming her submissiveness or passiveness is genuinely a pleasure to read as it captures both the remarkable atmosphere created by his protagonist and the fear she instilled in the great and the good of Scotland. Her fixation on a married preacher and her intense relationship with a young potter in Glasgow which led to marriage characterise her depiction as an outlandish figure whose determination to challenge the social mores and power of the Church outweighed the consequences she faced. 

Focusing on Hugh White, the Irvine minister who became Buchan’s devoted disciple, the closing chapters of this novel are executed with panache. On a ship bound for America, where the wealthy are known for being parted from their means either through violence or skullduggery, White and James Innes are taking passage and planning business ventures. Entertainment opportunities on a long passage leads to boredom and temptation, whereby White finds himself in a card game. The conclusion is White’s loss, which costs him his clothes, his gold watch and, ultimately, his life.  

Campbell has a superlative ear for language and the reader is all too frequently transported to eighteenth-century Scotland by his appreciation for the environment and the recounting of speeches and the detailed eye for events. The treatment of the Buchanites indicates the extent to which they were hounded and cast out from the individual communities they found themselves near. In one notable moment, it is proposed that the material possessions of those in the sect should be divided and the rejection is swift and brutal. There is a visceral and violent undertone to the novel, which places as much emphasis on the landscape as it does on the characters that inform it. The all-consuming fire and physical passion brought by Elspeth when taking a lover – as well as the scenes in which her sexual and spiritual appetites intermingle – make for exhilarating etertainment, with the reader left immersed in the sounds and the images of the coupling. 

The notable Robert Burns appears in the novel as well, fully engaged in the licentiousness and debauchery that characterised this period, which adds a critical element of verisimilitude to an already meticulously researched and executed piece of fiction. Campbell has written numerous novels and I fully intend to seek out those which I’ve not yet read on this evidence. The Woman Clothed with the Sun is not an easy read and I defy anyone to complete it without having their imagination tested, or wincing occasionally, but that remains the prerogative of fiction that is presented in order to challenge and provoke. Like Elspeth, you’re encouraged – commanded – to heave off the mind’s shackles and throw yourself into this novel. The compelling style that Campbell has cultivated and honed makes for a smooth and engaging read, and I am keen to see what publication will come next from Rymour.  

The Woman Clothed with the Sun is published by Rymour

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