The Betrayal of Maggie Blair

The Betrayal of Maggie Blair

3.8 11
by Elizabeth Laird

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In seventeenth-century Scotland, saying the wrong thing can lead to banishment—or worse. Accused of being a witch, sixteen-year-old Maggie Blair is sentenced to be hanged. She escapes, but instead of finding shelter with her principled, patriotic uncle, she brings disaster to his door. 

Betrayed by one of her own accusers, Maggie must try to save her

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In seventeenth-century Scotland, saying the wrong thing can lead to banishment—or worse. Accused of being a witch, sixteen-year-old Maggie Blair is sentenced to be hanged. She escapes, but instead of finding shelter with her principled, patriotic uncle, she brings disaster to his door. 

Betrayed by one of her own accusers, Maggie must try to save her uncle and his family from the king’s men, even if she has to risk her own life in the process.

Originally published in the UK, this book has a powerful blend of heart-stopping action and thought-provoking themes.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The political and religious turbulence of late 17th-century Scotland provides the setting for the hard, somber story of 16-year-old Maggie Blair, orphaned as a toddler and raised by her angry, impious grandmother on the Isle of Bute. Denounced as a witch by an avaricious neighbor and his opportunistic mistress, Maggie's grandmother is hanged, but Maggie escapes across the channel to the village of Kilmacolm, where her father's brother takes her in. That is not the end of her trouble, however, as echoes of the Monmouth Rebellion and the ideological martyrdom of the Covenanters engulf the family that has given her refuge. A five-time nominee for the Carnegie Medal, Laird (The Garbage King) writes assuredly, and Maggie's voice is honest and intrepid, despite the terrors surrounding her. Maggie never fails to recognize the few kindnesses she is shown or to forgive weakness when the intention is good, treasuring her drunken old friend Tam to the very end. Maggie's is not a story of hope—rather, Laird celebrates courage, survival, and the spark of independence that carries Maggie through. Ages 12–up. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"This is a beautifully crafted novel to be savored for its symbolic language, historical atmosphere, and vivid characters."—School Library Journal, starred review
"Laird celebrates courage, survival, and the spark of independence that carries Maggie through."—Publishers Weekly
"Fine and effortless prose, creating instantly gripping characters and setting ."—Kirkus Reviews
Children's Literature - Amanda MacGregor
Set in seventeenth-century Scotland, sixteen-year-old Maggie Blair is being raised by her grandmother, who is widely perceived as the town witch. Her grandmother, also the local midwife, delivers a baby and predicts it will not live. When it dies, the family claims Maggie's grandmother put a curse on the baby. Maggie and her grandmother are arrested for witchcraft, charged with creating incidents that can all be blamed on natural events. Before they are to be hanged and burned, Maggie is rescued and goes on the run, posing as a boy. As she journeys to her family on the mainland, she repeatedly encounters Annie, a young woman from home whose lies landed Maggie and her grandmother in jail. But because Tam, Maggie's one real friend, believes Annie has changed, Maggie tries to forget Annie's betrayal. Now, safe with family, Maggie finds herself wrapped up in the struggle between the Covenanters, or those who think the right to rule goes to God, and those who are loyal to the King. Once persecuted for consorting with the devil, now Maggie must worry about keeping her religious betrayal of the King a secret, rise to defend her uncle, and deal with Annie's continued duplicity. This long and ponderous story is not a quick read; however, Maggie's experience during an unstable time in Scotland's history is interesting. Though the setting and time period are not common, Maggie's struggle to sort out right from wrong, to learn who to trust, and to ultimately decide her own path is one that readers will relate to. An afterword, which explains more about the Covenanters, would be better placed at the beginning of the book, to help readers understand the world Maggie finds herself in once she arrives at her family's home on the mainland. Reviewer: Amanda MacGregor
VOYA - Deborah L. Dubois
When her grandmother is accused of being a witch, sixteen-year-old Maggie is imprisoned as well. Maggie escapes and flees the Isle of Bute, taking shelter with her uncle and his family. Uncle Blair is a Covenanter who clings to his religion, defying the king who claims to be head of the church. Trouble follows Maggie when her accuser shows up at her uncle's farm, making up to the family and causing them to doubt Maggie's life story. With the help of Tam, who is like a grandfather to her, Maggie crosses Scotland to come to her uncle's aid when he is taken prisoner by the Black Cuffs—the king's men. Maggie perseveres through seemingly impossible situations and accomplishes her goal. Through her journey, Maggie learns about God, good and evil, and faith. She questions the faith that has her uncle putting his duty to God before his family's needs. She grows in confidence and strength as she tries to do what she understands to be good. The beginning is slow, but as Maggie's story takes hold, it will be hard to put down. This historical novel is based on ancestors of the author, as explained in the afterword. The character Hugh Blair, Maggie's uncle, is very close to the life of the real Hugh Blair. This could be used to supplement studies on seventeenth-century religious conflicts in Scotland. Reviewer: Deborah L. Dubois
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up—A fine historical novel about witchcraft, passion, and intolerance set in 17th-century Scotland. Maggie Blair, 16, narrowly escapes execution for witchcraft that claims her grandmother, an unpleasant old woman whom a local landowner accuses of sorcery at least in part to steal her land. Maggie flees the Isle of Bute with the help of a family friend and makes her way to the mainland to the home of her uncle, a religious dissenter, but intolerance dogs the teen's steps when her uncle is arrested by the King's men for sheltering a notorious Covenanter preacher. Her quest to rescue him from the King's prison provides the novel's principal action. Although the theme of witchcraft and Maggie's adventurous nature will be the initial draws for many, the book's consistent quality and rich detail will keep serious readers enthralled. A dominant theme is real versus apparent virtue and the other dualities that often spring from these: intolerance and humanity, treachery and loyalty. All of Laird's characters are fully fleshed out, especially Maggie, who is tough and independent at the end of the novel, having shaken off all of the varieties of hatefulness that burdened her throughout the story. This is a beautifully crafted novel to be savored for its symbolic language, historical atmosphere, and vivid characters.—Corinne Henning-Sachs, Walker Memorial Library, Westbrook, ME
Kirkus Reviews
Sixteen-year-old Maggie lives a poor life in 17th-century Scotland with her Granny, whose ill temper, foul mouth and skills at healing make her an easy target for the witch-hunting church.Escaping the mob, Maggie journeys to find her only other family. They turn out to be Covenanters, outlawed from practicing their religion, and when her Uncle Blair is jailed in far away Dunnottar Castle, it's Maggie who makes the dangerous journey to help him, proving both her place in her new family and her independence from them. Laird, a five-time nominee for the Carnegie Medal, bases her novel loosely on her own family's history, which may explain the occasional lack of focus in her narrative arc.However, she more than makes up for this with her fine and effortless prose, creating instantly gripping characters and setting and communicating the effect of the religious politics on the perspective of a young adult at that time.If Maggie sometimes seems oddly naïve for a person of such an age at that time, her point of view will resonate with teenagers today, as will her death-defying journey, her scrappiness and determination in the face of extreme poverty and little love.(Historical fiction. 11-16)

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.50(d)
840L (what's this?)
Age Range:
12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

I was the first one to see the dead whale lying on the sand at
Scalpsie Bay. It must have been washed up in the night. I could imagine it flopping out of the sea, thrashing its tail, and opening and shutting the cavern of its mouth. It was huge and shapeless,
a horrible dead thing, and it looked as if it would feel slimy if you dared to touch it. I crept up to it cautiously. There were monsters in the deep, I knew, and a great one, the Leviathan,
which the Lord had made to be the terror of fishermen. Was this one of them? Would it come to life and devour me?
 The sand was ridged into ripples by the outgoing tide,
which had left the usual orange lines of seaweed and bright white stripes of shells. The tide had also scooped out little pools around the dead beast’s sides, and crabs were already scuttling there, as curious as I was.
 It was a cold day in December. The sun had barely risen,
and I’d pulled my shawl tightly around my head and shoulders.
But it wasn’t only the chill of the wet sand beneath my bare feet that made me shiver. There was a strangeness in the air.
 Across the water I could already make out the Isle of
Arran, rearing up out of the sea, the tops of its mountains hidden as usual in a crown of clouds. I’d seen Arran a dozen times a day, every day of my life, each time I’d stepped out the door of my grandmother’s cottage. I knew it so well that
I hardly ever noticed it.
 But today as I looked up at the mountains from the dead whale in front of me, the island seemed to shift, and for a moment I thought it was moving toward me, creeping across the water. It was coming for me, wanting to swallow me up,
along with the beach and Granny’s cottage, Scalpsie Bay, and the whole of the Isle of Bute.
 And then beyond Arran, out there in the sea, a shaft of sunlight pierced through the clouds and laid a golden path across the gray water, tingeing the dead whale with brilliant light. The clouds were dazzled with glory, and I was struck with a terror so great that my legs stiffened and I couldn’t move.
 “It’s the Lord Jesus,” I whispered. “He’s coming now, to judge the living and the dead.”
 I waited, my hands clamped in a petrified clasp, expecting to see Christ walk down the sunbeam and across the water,
angels flying on gleaming wings around him. The minister had said there would be trumpets as the saved rose up in the air like flocks of giant birds to meet the Lord, but down here on the ground there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth as the damned were sucked into Hell by the Evil One.
 “Am I saved, Lord Jesus? Will you take me?” I cried out loud. “And Granny too?”
The clouds were moving farther apart, and the golden path was widening, making the white crests on the little waves sparkle like the clothes of the Seraphim.
 I was certain of it then. I wasn’t one of the Chosen to rise with Jesus in glory. I was one of the damned, and Granny was too.
 “No!” I shrieked. “Not yet! Give me another chance,
Lord Jesus!”
 And then I must have fallen down because the next thing
I remember was Granny saying, “She’s taken a fit, the silly wee thing. Pick her up, won’t you?”
 I was only half conscious again, but I knew it was Mr.
Macbean’s rough hands painfully holding my arms and the gruffvoice of Samuel Kirby complaining as he held my legs.
 “What are you doing, you dafties?” Granny shouted in the rough, angry voice I dreaded. “Letting her head fall back like that! Trying to break her neck, are you? Think she’s a sack of oatmeal?”
 Behind me, above the crunch of many feet following us up the beach toward our cottage, I could hear anxious murmurs.
 “The creature’s the size of a kirk! And the tail on it, did you see? It’ll stink when it rots. Infect the air for weeks, so it will.”
 And the sniping tongues were busy as usual.
 “Hark at Elspeth! Shouting like that. Evil old woman.
Why does she want to be so sharp? They should drop the girl and let the old body carry her home herself.”
 Then came the sound of our own door creaking back on its leather hinge, the smell of peat smoke, and the soft tail of
Sheba the cat brushing against my dangling hand.
 They dropped me down on the pile of straw in the corner 
that I used as a bed, and a moment later Granny had shooed them out of the cottage. I was quite back in my wits by then, and I started to sit up.
 “Stay there,” commanded Granny.
 She was standing over me, frowning as she stared at me.
Her mouth was pulled down hard at the corners, and the stiffblack hairs on her chin were quivering. They were sharp,
those bristles, but not as sharp as the bristles in her soul.
 “Now then, Maggie. What was all that for? Why did you faint? What did you see?”
 “Nothing, Granny. The whale . . .”
 She shook her head impatiently.
 “Never mind the whale. While you were away, in the faint. Was there a vision?”
 “No. I just— everything was black. Before that I thought
I saw—”
 “What? What did you see? Do I have to pull it out of you?”
 “The sky looked strange, and there was the whale— it scared me
— and I thought that Jesus was coming. Down from the sky. I thought it was the Last Day.”
 She stared at me a moment longer. There wasn’t much light in the cottage, only a square of brightness that came through the open door and a faint glow from the peat burning in the middle of the room, but I could see her eyes glittering.
 “The whale’s an omen. It means no good. It didn’t speak to you?”
  “No! It was dead. I thought the Lord Jesus was coming,
that’s all.”
 “Hmph.” She turned away and pulled on the chain that hung from the rafter, holding the cauldron in place over the fire. “That’s nothing but kirk talk. You’re a disappointment to me, Maggie. Your mother had it, the gift of far-seeing,but you’ve nothing more in your head than what’s been put there by the minister. You’re your father all over again, stubborn and blind and selfish. My Mary gave you nothing of herself at all. If I hadn’t delivered you into this world with my own hands, I’d have thought you were changed at birth.”
 Granny knew where to plunge her dagger and twist it for good measure. There was no point in answering her. I bit my lip, stood up, and shook the straws offthe rough wool of my skirt.
 “Shall I milk Blackie now?”
 “After you’ve touched a dead whale? You’ll pass on the bad luck and dry her milk up for good. You’re more trouble than you’re worth, Maggie. Always were, always will be.”
 “I didn’t touch the whale. I only . . .”
 She raised a hand and I ducked.
 “Get away up the hill and cut a sack of peat. The stack’s low already, or had you been too full of yourself to notice?”
 Cutting peat and lugging it home was the hardest work of all, and usually I hated it, but today, in spite of the rain that was now sweeping in from the sea, I was glad to get out of the cottage and run away to the glen. I usually went the long way, up the firm path that went around and about before it reached the peat cuttings, but today I plunged straight on through the bog, trampling furiously through the mass of reeds and flags and the treacherous bright grass that hid the pools of water, not hearing the suck of the mud as I pulled my feet out, not feeling the wetness that seeped up the bottom of my gown, not even noticing the scratches from the prickly gorse as it tore at my arms.
 “An evil old woman. They were right down there. That’s what you are.” Away from Granny, I felt brave enough to answer back. “I am like my mam. I’ve her hair, and her eyes,
and her smile, so Tam says.”
 Most people called old Tam a rogue, a thief, a lying,
drunken rascal, living in his tumbledown shack like a pig in a sty. But he was none of those things to me. He’d known my mother, and I knew he’d never lie about her to me.
 I don’t remember my mother. She was Granny’s only child,
and she died of a fever when I was a very little girl. I just about remember my father. He was a big man, not given to talking much. He was a rover by nature, Tam said. He came to the Isle of Bute from the mainland to fetch the Laird of Keames’s cattle and drive them east across the hills to sell in Glasgow. He was only meant to stay in Bute for a week or two, while the cattle were rounded up for him, but he chanced on my mother as she walked down the lane to the field to milk Blackie one warm
June evening. The honeysuckle was in flower and the wild roses too, and it was all over with him at once, so Tam said.
  “Never a love like it, Maidie,” Tam told me. “Don’t you listen to your granny. A child born of love you are, given to love, made for love.”
 “Granny said the sea took my father,” I asked Tam once.
“What did she mean?”
 I’d imagined a great wave curling up the beach, twining around my father’s legs, and sucking him back into the depths.
 “An accident, Maidie. Nothing more.” Tam heaved a sigh.
“Your father was taking the cattle to the mainland up by Colintraive,
making them swim across the narrows there. He’d done it a dozen times before. The beasts weren’t easy— lively young
 steers they were— and one of them was thrashing about in the water as if a demon possessed it. Perhaps a demon did,
for the steer caught your father on the head with its horn, and it went right through his temple. He went down under the water, and when he was washed up a week later, there was a wound from his eyebrow to the line of his hair deep enough to put your hand inside.”

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