Covenanter fiction is its own subgenre of the Scottish historical novel, starting with the famous three-way argument between Walter Scott (Old Mortality), James Hogg (The Brownie of Bodsbeck), and John Galt (Ringan Gilhaize). The Covenanters, who have their heated partisans and equally heated detractors, open up narrative space to address everything from religious psychology to violence to national identity to modernity (or the lack thereof). Harry Tait's The Ballad of Sawney Bain (1990), which might seem to promise cannibalism, actually produces Covenanters; if you came for the cannibalism, you're likely to be sorely disappointed. Although the novel is loosely based on the influential Sawney Bean legend--a tale whose illustrious descendants include the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and others of that ilk--it says relatively little about what Sawney Bain, his wife Agnes, and their various and sundry brood were getting up to in their cave, leaving most of it to the imagination of our "civilized" viewpoint character, known simply as "the minister," a Presbyterian clergyman newly returned to Scotland from his life abroad in Holland at the very end of the seventeenth century. Initially as secure in his proto-Enlightenment gentility as he is in his King's English, which marks his otherness in a narrative where virtually everyone else speaks and/or writes in Scots, the minister becomes increasingly obsessed with finding out the truth of what went on in the cave, until the quest leaves him at the end with little more than dubious sanity.
The minister is only one voice amongst several. There are the narratives of Mathius Pringle, an earlier Presbyterian clergyman and avid witch-hunter; the Black Book of Sawney's wife Agnes, which forms the bulk of the novel; the occasional testimony of the Bains' apparently sole surviving child; and various oral narratives, folk and otherwise, about the Civil War period, the Bains, and the Bains' mentor, the purported warlock Steven Malecky. In other words, as you might expect, the novel foregrounds problems of interpretation, conflicting evidence, and point-of-view, especially in the context of an overarching Christian "plot" in which all events are part of God's divine providence (if only one can figure out how to see them in that light...). Now, historiographic metafiction, as Linda Hutcheon famously dubbed such self-reflexive meditations on the nature of historical truth, can be an awfully arid business unless the project has a greater point than deconstructing history's grand metanarrative. By the end of the minister's quest, he has failed to resolve much of anything; indeed, the obstinate silence with which Sawney Bain greets his interrogation at the very beginning foreshadows the rest of the plot, which frequently consists of characters ignoring, evading, or resisting his questions. In a moment of frustration, the minister thinks to himself that " [t]he peasant memory [...] is like the peasant mind, a childish thing, unguided it drifts helplessly in a tale composed of superstition and blood, passion, hardship, and despair" (265). This contemptuous observation, built out of his moderate cosmopolitanism and staunch Presbyterianism, quite obviously casts him as the objective adult in this affair, even as it also hits on the consistently nightmarish aspects of seventeenth-century Scottish history (famine, ongoing bloodshed) that shape his parishioners in the present. At the same time, "childish" fails to register the extent to which the locals consciously seek to undermine his quest.
The minister's dismissiveness is one way of keeping himself grounded--something all the more necessary in this intensely peripatetic novel. In the present, the minister arrives in the Lowlands from Holland, travels to his new church in Trig, and then travels to the Highlands and back in search of Malecky. In the past, Sawney Bain travels to Germany and back in order to fight, returns to Trig, and then leaves to fight again, traversing both the Lowlands and Highlands as both soldier and refugee from Pringle's persecutions; so too do Malecky and Agnes. This rootlessness receives its stark counterpoint in the form of the Bains' cave, simultaneously the Bains' final destination and the object of the minister's quest. Significantly, for the minister, the cave initially isolates the abject "horror" (an important keyword) of the Bains and their actions, both temporally and spatially: "The mist was no more than a natural hazard and to master it some sensible care had to be taken. There were no other dangers. The dreadful pestilence of the cannibal clan was already a thing of the past, already a terrible secret, but still, he thought, days like these would surely have been counted as blessings by them" (41-42). If, for the minister, the world in general is fallen, it is nevertheless easily negotiated and, more importantly, not necessarily pregnant with demonic activity (witch-hunting is, by this point, mostly an anachronism). The cave, though, gathers within itself a host of unspeakable and unnatural evils, most importantly cannibalism and incest, which are all the more horrific because undergirded by a strange twist of Presbyterian theology. (The Bains are believers who train their children to read the Bible and know their catechism, something that makes them even more frightening to the minister.) It is both a uniquely evil space, unlike the rest of creation, and--at least, at first--something violently erased from the present, leaving only testimony and terrible memories. But for the Bains, the cave was a conscious attempt to reconstruct a Biblical Eden in the face of what they call "Chaos," the world of mutual destruction unleashed by the Civil Wars: "But o this cave He had made anither Eden," explains Sawney Bain to Agnes, "and it was His will that we should bide there and multiply till the appointed hour when He wad call us forth. And was not the proof o this the fact that neither death nor famine nor pestilence visited us, forbye we kent very weel that they raged mightily in Chaos" (407). The Bains, from their point of view, do not exit Christianity so much as they exist in its purified annex, a bounded location free from the anarchy of the fallen world (Chaos) in which God's providence manifests itself with absolute clarity. Indeed, incest and cannibalism (to the extent that they're real--the characters tend to be evasive on this point) simply literalize or reenact the Bible. Incest, of course, happens repeatedly in the Bible (Adam and Eve, Lot, Noah), and when it comes to eating of the body...well. In other words, the cave is terrifying not because it is absolutely not-Christian but because it is all too reminiscent of Christianity and its Holy Book, insufficiently Other to the world of Chaos where all things kill and are killed on a depressingly regular basis.
When the minister pushes beyond the cave to seek Steven Malecky, the man whom he blames for what happened there, he seeks the Devil--the better to exorcise the possibility that the cave is rooted in Presbyterianism itself. It must be Malecky, or something far worse: "I have prayed for guidance in this matter, and I must think it possible that I have been chosen to be God's instrument, and when I am finally faced with Malecky I will know as that instrument how to act. I cannot rationally think otherwise, for to do so would be to declare that God's kingdom is but an arbitrary place of chance, and men little more than beasts imperfectly elevated by some freak of nature, and containing in their midst unnatural monsters as a matter of course" (358). It would, that is, be Chaos. The minister thus doubles Sawney Bain, who goes through the novel seeking Christian certainty (and thereby makes himself vulnerable to anyone with an ounce of authority, as both Agnes and Malecky point out repeatedly); his faith promises to make sense of a world that is otherwise bloody and meaningless, but, as we have seen repeatedly, such sense-making is frequently just another method of justifying bloodshed. Thinking in terms of God's plot becomes just one more way of evading the sheer nightmarishness of human history. In that sense, the minister's figurative punishment near the end, as he takes a literal fall (off a horse) and finds himself fallen in more ways than one, is to realize that "the world that now remained was an arbitrary comedy, a cruel jest in a wilderness of lies" (446). The horrors of the book's final pages resides in this new reality, in which the minister finds himself veering between Christian faith and nihilistic terror. Unable to find Malecky, the minister is instead saddled with the ominous figure of Samuel Free Frae Sin Gilfinnan, a one-legged piper whose last name is strangely reminiscent of James Hogg's demonic Gil-Martin, and who has the strange habit of appearing without regard to the laws of physics. The minister's response to Gilfinnan, whose appearance is angelic one moment, demonic the next, registers the final breakdown of his belief in an all-explanatory providence (nothing does much to explain Gilfinnan). Gilfinnan's coming heralds something entirely different, the coming of a rebellion that is neither for "Kirk or King" or, for that matter "God in Heaven," but for the people's "ain cause" (464)--a new Scottish identity that resists all the old authority and promises to put a being authentically of the people in its place. The promise of this new revolution constitutes the novel's way out from the minister's fractured interpretation of this world and all its inhabitants. Whether it's a less bloody way out, though, is something about which the novel remains silent. The minister will not be part of that new Eden, whatever it is.