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Book review: Columba’s Bones (Darkland Tales) by David Greig

24 November 2023

Something of the saga here, Fiona Hook finds

IN A brutal Viking raid, the monks are slaughtered, and Abbot Blathmac is torn apart on the steps of his Iona monastery for refusing to reveal the location of St Columba’s relics. One Viking, Grimur, finds himself left behind, hungover and swordless. He can’t swim, there are no boats, and he faces being skinned alive if he is caught on his journey back to his comrades in Shetland. And he wants to find the relics.

Two other people refuse to leave the island when the King sends his cousin to investigate. Young Brother Martin is desperate to expiate the shame of having hidden in the cesspit. The dumb Meadwife refuses to leave her bees. The trio develop an unlikely friendship, in which Grimur discovers that he prefers creation to destruction, and directs Martin towards a new purpose in life. Una, the Meadwife, recovers her voice and her name as she finds an unexpected love. Then, the Vikings return, and Grimur has to make a choice.

This is one of Darkland Tales, a series commissioned by the publisher from distinguished Scottish writers, reimagining stories from the country’s history. The playwright David Greig’s first novel, only 179 pages long, needs to be read slowly and savoured for the rhythm of its third-person prose, and its psychological insights. He explores the culture clash between Nordic Paganism and Celtic Christianity through the eyes of people who believe passionately in both: to Grimur, Christianity is just “weird”.

A long walk from Fife to Iona without phone or laptop gave the author a feel for the landscape, and there is a sense throughout that the island is a fourth character. There are echoes of the Norse sagas in the juxtaposition of humour and extreme violence, and, in the best saga tradition, the baddies meet a satisfying end.

Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.


Columba’s Bones (Darkland Tales)
David Greig
Birlinn £10
Church Times Bookshop £9

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