Masters of gallantry and gore

Stevenson, Buchan, Flashman - Scottish writers perfected the swashbuckling yarn. Yet the form needs fact as well as fancy, argues Christopher Harvie
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The Rising Sun by Douglas Galbraith (Picador, £16.99, 520pp)

The Rising Sun by Douglas Galbraith (Picador, £16.99, 520pp)

Mr Anthony Lammas, whose long legs had been covering ground at the rate of five miles an hour, slackened his pace, for he felt the need of ordering a mind which for some hours had been dancing widdershins. For one thing the night had darkened, since the moon had set, and the coast track which he followed craved wary walking. But it was the clear dark of a northern April, when, though the details are blurred, the large masses of the landscape are apprehended."

The opening of John Buchan's The Free Fishers gives a clue to his longevity. Notice the way the language adjusts itself to the structure: loping along (long-legs-covering- ground), halting (craved-wary- walking) to peer and survey. This is very difficult, as a German friend found, to translate: a new language makes the pulse of the writing fall away.

Conflict between style and structure is one of the problems with Douglas Galbraith's The Rising Sun, a fictionalisation of Scotland's brave, doomed attempt to plant a colony on the Darien isthmus, south-east of Panama, in 1698-1700. Some £300,000 - nearly a quarter of the cash in circulation - was subscribed and 2,000 colonists set out. The cash evaporated in the rain and heat; England and Spain collaborated to throttle "Caledonia". Less than 300 returned, including William Paterson, founder of the Banks of England and Scotland. The ruined state would last only another seven years.

The historical novel - Scott, Galt, Hogg, Stevenson, Buchan, Allan Massie, Alasdair Gray and the incomparable George MacDonald Fraser - has been a prehensile Scottish genre: a substitute, perhaps, for that absent parliament. The main rule of the game, however, is that the core remains authentic. With Galbraith's narrator, Roderick Mackenzie, we're in trouble. Mackenzie is supposedly a naive youngster who becomes Secretary to the Company of Scotland. He sees from its flagship, The Rising Sun, the founding and horrible fall of New Edinburgh and later - as an anonymous revenant - the lynching of the colonists' ally Captain Green at Leith in 1705, and the Act of Union of 1707.

Yes, but... There was a real Roderick Mackenzie. He was a toughie who never left the British Isles on either of the two colonising expeditions (which Galbraith elides into one). He shanghaied Green (who never traded with Caledonia) on the Forth, and ran the Company to its end in 1707. The lengthy flashbacks in which Galbraith's hero describes the creation of the Company and his career don't just suggest a late 17th-century Adrian Mole; they shape expectations of a "history" which ultimately is not there.

It's in New Edinburgh - where hope is steamed and rained to bits, soldiers mutiny, grave after grave is dug - that Galbraith gets things moving, although without the triumphs (the brief victory over the Spanish at Toubacanti) and the ironies (the local parliament which, once set up, decided to get the hell out of the place). The settlement subsides into mud, blood and urine while Mackenzie relates to it like Private Pike to a Dad's Army squad made up of Private Frazers: "We're a' doomed, ah tell ye, doomed!"

Sex is as important to the swashbuckler as cutlasses. The Darien men's sole clothing - penis-sheaths, silver ones for chiefs - made conversation-pieces in Edinburgh salons. But Galbraith is leagues away from MacDonald Fraser's Spanish Main she-wolves. In Edinburgh, his hero lumbers taciturn Susanna (the real Mackenzie lived over the office with his family), paying her with food; post-Darien, her boss Widow Gilbert feeds him back to health. (Food is a plus in Galbraith: tables decked with quails in apricot sauce counterpoint blood, guts and maggots.) Only one woman from the expedition appears. As to the natives, the Reverend Mackay, believing them to be of Scots descent, cheerily (and very, very speedily) fathers brown babies before dropping dead on the job.

To apply Wodehouse's famous distinction, Mackenzie is more of a Scotchman with a grievance than a ray of sunshine. Yes, there have been dull narrators in thrilling books: notably Ephraim MacKellar in The Master of Ballantrae. But Stevenson livened things up by using the Chevalier Burke, the trader Mountain and the Master himself, and suggested the old boy had gone round the twist about two-thirds the way through. Galbraith is less merciful.

We're back to the old joust between RLS and Henry James about the novel. Should it be history or entertainment? Galbraith opts, in principle, for history. We learn only only what Mackenzie would have learned. But as Galbraith eschews his own historical training and largely ignores John Prebble's lively and well-researched book The Darien Disaster (1968), the result is RLS's "tushery": it's readable enough, but unsure of its genre. An adventure? But without dominant characters and nasty villains. A historical novel? But not on Scott's level, as the society and politics of the time are scarcely sketched. You need to read history to comprehend the plot, only to find out how far Galbraith has strayed from it.

Scott, RLS and Buchan placed their "neutral" heroes in the wings of the big scene, and then "brought on good things" - immense magnates, resilient plebeians and howling crazies. Steering by the seat of his cherry-picker pants, MacDonald Fraser's Flashman has rutted his way through the Empire, entertainingly and instructively, for 30 years. What marks all of these writers is an appreciation of real events. By ditching this, Galbraith surrenders the strength of the genre.

A recent session spent among John Buchan's papers showed that douce citizen writing his shockers, handling his earnings with an actuary's eye, and then going off to advise Stanley Baldwin. Things have changed.

The Rising Sun's blurb draws parallels between the plot and new-technology hysteria. Implausible: there isn't a lot about actual speculation in Galbraith's book, and the chances of a millionaire ending up crucified and disembowelled in Central America are remote. But something of Darien's mad language survives: "a Picador mega-lead to be launched at the Edinburgh Festival... massive press and radio coverage across the UK for this exhilarating debut...". And Galbraith's advance (£95,000, which is not huge in London publishing these days) exceeds the sum of the advances paid by Scottish publishers for all the books about home rule to appear since 1979.

* Christopher Harvie is professor of British Studies at Tübingen University