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The Last Bear, Mandy Haggith’s debut novel, is set 1000 years ago in the remote northwest Highlands of Scotland and tells the story of the death of the last remaining bear to live in the wild in Scotland.
The bear in question is female and wanders through the forest in vain search of a mate. Brigid is the last shaman of a pagan tribe who has been banished from her village under pressure from the new priest who defends the expansion of Christianity. However, the old pagan beliefs and rituals have not been eliminated completely and many still cling to them especially in times of difficulty. Despite her exclusion, Brigid, with her knowledge of the forest and healing plants, is often called upon to cure and care for the sick and suffering on occasions when the medicine of the new religion fails. Bjorn, the headman of the tribe, has converted to Christianity but, in his heart, remains a believer in the old ways. Margaret is his young wife, a devout Christian, the sister of James, the priest.
With subtlety, Mandy Haggith has captured a society in the midst of turbulent change. Between the old pagan ways which meant living in harmony with nature, submitting to its moods and vagaries using sacrifices, belief in magic and an acceptance of what cannot be changed; and the new religion which teaches man to dominate nature and control it, to consider himself superior to it; a community is divided.
Among the well-drawn cast of characters there is some interesting shading of right and wrong on both sides even though it is very clear which side the author is on. Bjorn, respected and esteemed leader of his people, torn between his deep-rooted belief in paganism and his inability to resist the inexorable rise of Christianity makes an error of judgement which leads to disastrous and fatal consequences for his village.
Just as the bear is doomed in any case because it can’t reproduce so too are the pagan ways as man’s nature urges him to exert his power over his surroundings. But the bear does not die a natural death and its killing is part of a chain of events whose origins lie in the inability of the two cultures to co-inhabit.
If I have any criticisms, and they are minor ones, it is that the ‘political’ message clouded slightly my affinity with some characters. Brigid bears the brunt of this. The weight of her symbolism of the passing of an age made it more difficult for her to be as rounded a character as Bjorn, for example. Also I imagined life at this time in the austere Northern Scottish winter to be harsh and onerous but a picture of hardship and deprivation is not painted. But these are not serious flaws for me and didn’t diminish my enjoyment of this novel.
The prose is elegant and evocative with strong descriptive passages of the Scottish landscape, especially of the forests. I was not surprised to learn that the writer is also a poet.
‘Time clotted. One long moment straggled across the glen, and in that moment the sleet began to soak into wool, a chill rose up out of the wet ground and dusk seeped into the minds of the gathered men. A horse stamped and clammy clouds of breath hung in the air, sleet grizzling through them.’
Two Ravens Press (29 Feb 2008), 256 pages, ISBN-10: 1906120161
For our interview with Two Ravens Press, click here.
The Rest of Scottish Literature Week: