Monday, May 6, 2013

John Buchan's Witch Wood

John Buchan was much more than just a writer of spy stories. He wrote in various genres including horror but he regarded his most important work as being his historical fiction. And within that genre he considered his 1927 novel Witch Wood to be his best book.

The setting is Scotland in the 1640s. The Civil War is raging in England and there had already been considerable strife between the King and the Scottish Church, the Kirk. Men were torn between conflicting loyalties, and this was particularly painful since all these loyalties were taken very seriously. The Kirk was determined to impose the Presbyterian system of church government not only on the whole of Scotland, but on England as well.

The National Covenant in 1638 rejected papacy and anything that resembled it and was followed by the Solemn League and Covenant in 1643. The Covenanters were effectively in control of government in Scotland. The Kirk was not merely a very militant church but also espoused a rather severe form of Calvinism. Anyone who was not an enthusiastic supporter of the Covenant was assumed to be not merely misguided but a dangerous enemy of both the Kirk and the state.

In this troubled environment the young and newly ordained Reverend David Semphill arrives in the village of Woodilee to begin his duties as minister of the parish. David is a zealous supporter of the Covenant and a sincere Presbyterian.

The parish of Woodilee has a reputation for being exceptionally strong in its support for the Covenant but all is not as it seems to be. David makes the horrific discovery that witchcraft is alive and well in his parish and that many of its chief citizens belong to a coven that meets in the nearby wood.

The wood itself is almost a character in the novel. This is not just a small wood but part of a vast primeval forest. David regards the wood with fear and loathing. It seems to represent a dark and mysterious force. He is however strangely drawn to it as well.

David believes that his duty is clear. He knows the identity of some of those involved in the rites in the wood and he has what he considers to be fairly strong evidence. He is amazed and dismayed when the Presbytery not only rejects his evidence but does so in a manner that suggests that David is the one at fault.

A further complication arises for David when he meets Katrine Yester. She is the niece of the local laird, and David is immediately fascinated by her. Of course a young minister of the Kirk could not possibly hope for marriage with a lady so far above his station, but David’s heart overrules his reason where Katrine is concerned. At first sight he thinks she is a denizen of the realm of faerie. Throughout the book the wood is linked both with witchcraft and with faerie.

David had earlier encountered three soldiers, soldiers who turned out to be followers of the Earl of Montrose. Montrose attempted to raise the Highlands for the King, an attempt that was initially crowned with considerable success. What David doesn’t realise is that one of the men is Montrose himself. The Kirk regards Montrose as the Antichrist and this meeting will have fateful consequences for the Rev Semphill. After Montrose’s defeat David gives shelter to one of Montrose’s lieutenants, thereby exposing himself to the charge of aiding and abetting a dangerous enemy of the Kirk.

While David still hopes to extirpate witchcraft in Woodilee he finds himself facing grave charges and the possibility of excommunication. Then plague arrives in Woodilee. David’s efforts to combat the plague are misunderstood and expose him to further criticism and further charges. David remains in his heart a loyal Presbyterian but he finds it increasingly difficult to reconcile his loyalty to the Kirk with the demands of common humanity.

Of course the idea of portraying religious hypocrisy as a greater evil than witchcraft has become a commonplace today, in fact it’s become a rather tedious cliché. Happily Buchan is not content with such platitudes and his novel is much more complex and more ambiguous. His hero never wavers in his belief that witchcraft is an evil that must be rooted out.

He also doesn’t make the serious but all too common mistake of making his hero hold anachronistic modern views. David Semphill is a man of his time. He is torn between the dictates of his own conscience and the requirement to submit to lawful authority but to Semphill it is a real dilemma - he does not reject (as a 20th century man would be almost certain to) the idea of submission to authority. He simply thinks the Kirk has got the balance wrong. He believes they put too much emphasis on obedience but that does mean that he believes in complete freedom. He wants authority to be less severe and less obsessed with minutiae but he certainly does not reject the necessity for some authority.

Today we are used to the idea that there is something praiseworthy about being non-judgmental. David Semphill would certainly not agree. He is very judgmental and he believes in absolute right and wrong and he never doubts that witchcraft is evil. He believes that judgments should be tempered by mercy and should not be rushed into, but he would never accept the notion that judgments should not be made.

The leader of the coven in Woodilee is a man who takes the Calvinist notion of predestination very seriously indeed. He believes that since he is one of the Elect and therefore guaranteed of salvation he can sin as much as he pleases. This perversion of Calvinist doctrine was seen at the time as being one of the chief dangers of the doctrine as a whole. Again Buchan is struggling with real religious dilemmas of the period.

Buchan’s reputation as a writer of thrillers would lead the reader to expect Witch Wood to be an adventure story but it is actually a very serious work of historical fiction that deals with complex religious and moral questions. It’s entertaining (Buchan could never be dull) but it’s also thought-provoking and intelligent. Buchan’s knowledge of 17th century history was profound (he wrote important biographies of several key historical figures of the period including Montrose). Witch Wood deserves to be regarded as a major work by a great writer.


  1. I think submission to Kirk would still have been the accepted norm for Scots Presbyterians in 1927. Being theologically and morally judgmental would have been quite normal in 1927 too.

  2. Had Buchan read James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner-set in the late seventeenth centuryand the classic study of Calvinist extremism? Buchan was well- and widely-read, but Hogg was better known as a poet in Buchan's time, so he may not have.