The Hill of the Red Fox

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The Hill of the Red Fox is a novel for older children, first published in 1955 by Allan Campbell McLean (1922 - 1989) and it's a cracking yarn which I thoroughly enjoyed reading, even though I am in my mid-forties.

A tale of adventure and espionage largely based in the Isle of Skye, one cannot help but initially compare it to John Buchan’s 39 Steps, though I am fully aware that the majority of the action in Buchan’s classic takes place in the Borders.

Nonetheless, there are similarities: the protagonist, Alasdair Cameron is innocently dragged into a conspiracy by a mysterious stranger who is subsequently murdered, and the true villains of the piece are revealed as being agents for a foreign power posing as country gentlemen, hell-bent on stealing British military secrets.

Having said that, although I am a huge fan of the 39 Steps, I concede that the plot of The Hill of the Red Fox is slightly more plausible. So sorry, Mr Buchan!

The book offers the reader more than simply a spy thriller, however. As Alasdair Cameron adjusts to life on the croft we are given an insight into the ways of the countryside, from domestic tasks such as sheep shearing and the cutting of peat, to illicit activities like poaching salmon and snaring rabbits.

The locals speak with a quaint mixture of Scots English and Gaelic - a handy glossary is included at the back for those unfamiliar with the ancient Celtic tongue – and we are introduced to some aspects of the culture of the Gaelteach.

There is a certain sense of nostalgia at work when reading the book in this day and age; perhaps we are witnessing a rural way of life which has largely vanished in the decades since the book’s publication, though obviously the crofting life has not entirely disappeared in the wilder parts of Scotland, just as Gaelic continues to survive against the odds.

Alasdair Cameron is no Richard Hannay either. Far from being a seasoned campaigner with a decent suntan, he is a twelve year old boy – nearly thirteen as he informs us on more than one occasion - with a vivid imagination. I assume that lads of around this age were the original target audience, for this is clearly a book in the ‘boys-own’ tradition as there are no female characters of any note for the lasses to identify with, with the exception of the young Mairi.

There is also a growing sense of male bonding between Alasdair and Duncan Mor, who becomes a father figure to him, which is a very important element of the novel. Indeed, part of the reason Alasdair – whose father died when he was two year’s old - has been sent north for the summer is because of his lack of masculine role models.

Although I have already commented upon the similarities of this book with the 39 Steps, I did note a certain comparison to the work of another Scottish author, namely Robert Louis Stevenson.

In a dramatic episode near the end, treacherous crofter Murdo Beaton attempts to send Alasdair to his doom by enticing him to cross a bridge which he knows to be a certain death trap. This has clear echoes of the scene involving Ebenezer Balfour, a staircase and the ‘House of Shaws’ in Kidnapped, though I would stop short of suggesting outright plagiarism.

I do wonder what today’s young ’uns would make of a book such as this. Maybe I’m being unduly pessimistic, but I suspect that the lack of references to contemporary electronic gadgetry such as computers, iphones and tablets that are so much a part of their everyday lives might alienate a fair few of them. Time moves so fast that The Hill of the Red Fox could almost be described as an historical novel or, at the very least, an archaic relic.

I’m not a parent or teacher, mind you, so I am not really much of a judge of what children enjoy reading these days – JK Rowling’s success, among others, over the past few years does demonstrate that kids do forgo the lure of Facebook, Twitter et al, in order to get stuck into a great story of a traditional nature. A good book is a good book after all.

For older children who love the great outdoors and like a fast-paced, old- fashioned romp I would highly recommend it.

[ Allan Campbell McLean at Wikipedia] Oscar Marzaroli at Textualities includes discussion of McLean