First off, a quick review:
The Beast on the Broch appealed to me as soon as I heard it would form part of the Cranachan Yesteryear list. What’s not to like: Pictish times (good!), a mythical beast (good!). Monks and Vikings and battles and chases, a bit of intrigue (goooood!). Yes – please, I’d like to review it, I said.
My son is now eleven. It seemed a good opportunity to take a break from Alex Rider and to read something together again instead of leaving him to his own devices with the Evil Emperor Penguin or whatever.
From the beginning, he was hooked. And so was I: outraged at the Dalriadans’ cheek, terrified and fascinated with Talorca’s discovery of the Beast, on the edge of my seat as events unfold, ever more dramatic, with the stakes climbing higher and higher with every chapter. Fulton does not shy away from the gruesomeness of life (and death) in Pictland, but neither does he stop there – modern readers will be able to sympathise with the wronged heroine when she confronts bullies, is at odds with her mother and defies authority to take things into her own hands, for good or for ill.
The strength of The Beast on the Broch, for me, lies in the simple way that it resurrects a world about which we know little, and yet renders it completely plausible. As a devotee of Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, it’s what I long for in a book – to be taken to a world which fascinates me by being different, while also holding up a mirror to my reality. Enough difference to divert, enough plausibility to identify – and ultimately to care. It’s a fine line.
John Fulton doesn’t just find the balance on this tightrope.
He dances on it.
What we did next: The Pictish Trail
Inspired by our reading of Talorca’s tale, we decided to do a day trip up the coast and check out the Pictish Trail north of Inverness. Of course we wouldn’t be able to fit it all in, but both of us were intrigued by the mysterious depictions of the Beast.
The Tarbat peninsula was our natural starting place. Not only is the book set there, but it also is home to the excellent Tarbat Discovery Centre, an excellent introduction to the history of the area, housed in a converted church which was built on the ruins of the very monastery which features in The Beast on the Broch. There was no shortage of Pictish objects and artefacts which allowed us to picture Talorca’s life in more detail. The excavated areas, when combined with the tale that had already been placed in our imaginations through the book, made it easy to picture the village, and for those who may need a little help, the interactive programmes upstairs, including a computer 3D tour of a Pictish village, went a long way. It is to my shame that we spent as long in the gift shop as in the main display area. It isn’t huge but stocked such unusual jewellery and stationary, plus an incredibly tempting range of pictish-inspired pottery.
It began to rain and we still had a few chapters of the book to finish, so we sat in the car and read, while looking out over the same choppy sea that Talorca must have navigated to stake her nets.
The author’s note in The Beast on the Broch made it clear that John Fulton grew up in the lighthouse. It would have been a waste not to check it out, we decided, and drove a few minutes to Tarbat Head. What a dramatic location, causing a wave of genuine childhood envy in me.
It had stopped raining, but the wind made this mother of a nervous disposition reluctant to do any kind of clifftop walk. Instead, we headed down into a sheltered cove and unpacked out kindling and sausages. Let me tell you, there is absolutely nothing like the mixture of sea air, fresh cooked sausages on buttered rolls and sunshine battling its way through dark clouds. Close your eyes, and it’s what the Picts might have heard in this very place: rolling waves and crackling fire.
We drove on to the Shandwick Stone, our final stop of the day, if you don’t count a bit of seal-spotting at the Storehouse of Foulis on the way back.
Shandwick Stone is odd, like a wee bus shelter on the top of a small hillock overlooking the sea. Encased in a glass box to prevent further wear and tear, the Beast, carved into the huge upright stone jumped out at us as soon as we were able to decipher the faded chiselled lines.
And I understood. Fascinating as ordinary Pictish life may be, we humans are hardwired for mystery, aren’t we? Throw in something we can’t explain, and that’s what we’ll remember, ponder, agonise over, replay in our minds. Boars and people and cows don’t fire up the imagination like a Beast.