The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Grey Man: A Novel (1896)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Grey Man: A Novel was written by S. R. Crockett. Crockett (1859-1914) was a Scottish minister who wrote a wide range of historical romances, most with a Scottish theme. The Grey Man is cracking great fun, a wonderful mix of Robert Louis Stevenson and Stanley J. Weyman.

The Grey Man is set in Scotland in the sixteenth century, when James VI was king but the country lairds quarreled as if they had no master. Launcelot Kennedy is one of the Kennedys of Kirrieoch, in the service of Sir Thomas Kennedy of Culzean, who is himself in the service of the Earl of Cassilli. Their enemies are the Kennedys of Bargany, and it is the feud between Cassilli and Bargany which occupies much of the book. Part of the problem is the theft of a chest of treasure which rightfully belongs to the Earl of Cassilli but which the Barganies have stolen. Part of the problem is a few murders of Cassilli men committed by the Barganies, especially by the vile Thomas Kennedy, the “Wolf of Drummurchie.” Part of the problem is the schemes of the Grey Man of the book’s title, who is eventually revealed to be a rival laird of Cassilli and Bargany; the Grey Man intends to make Cassilli, Bargany, and the lairds dance to his tune. And part of the problem is that the Kennedys, both Cassilli and Bargany, love fighting, love the feud, and love being led by true men–not the Earl of Cassilli, who is a good man-at-arms but something of a knave otherwise, but by Sir Thomas Kennedy and by Gilbert Kennedy, the Lord of Bargany.

Launcelot Kennedy—“Lance”—grows up in this feudal atmosphere. His first exposure to it is as a child, when he watches a Bargany tower sacked by the Earl of Cassilli, sees the Barganies swear vengeance, and then watches his father rescue a Bible from being burned. This earns Lance and his father the respect of Gilbert Kennedy and the hatred of the Grey Man, so-called because of his long grey cloak and grey slouch hat. Later, as an eighteen-year-old, Lance goes on a mission with the Earl of Cassilli and his allies to recover the stolen treasure chest. The mission fails due to the wiles of the Grey Man, but Lance distinguishes himself at arms. Lance fights in a losing battle in the streets of Edinburgh against the Barganies, with the Grey Man again being instrumental in the defeat of the Earl’s forces. Lance prevents the assassination of Sir Thomas Kennedy but later witnesses the death in battle of Gilbert Kennedy, a man Lance had come to respect and even love, enemy though he was. Lance fails to stop a second assassination attempt on Sir Thomas, and then enters directly into the Earl’s service. Lance goes in search of Sir Thomas’ killers, which eventually leads him to the cave of Sawney Beane. Lance escapes only through the most timely pibroch yet played on a pair of bagpipes. Eventually justice is done and the Grey Man is beheaded for his crimes, though not before wounds are taken, the uncanny is seen, and innocents are killed.

Meanwhile Lance is also learning about love. He is young and foolish and falls in love with Marjorie, Sir Thomas Kennedy’s daughter, and it is only after a long while, and with some heartbreak, that he discovers that she is in love with Gilbert of the Barganies. Unfortunately, Marjorie’s father intends to marry her off to James Mure, the son of John Mure, a laird and enemy of Sir Thomas. This will ally the Mures with Sir Thomas. James is a brute, but Marjorie is a good daughter and a good Kennedy and knows her duty and does it. This leaves Lance with Nell Kennedy, Marjorie’s daughter and someone who has for years delighted in mocking Lance. But Lance and Nell grow close over their adventures together, including a harrowing time spent in Sawney Beane’s cave, and the novel ends with their marriage.

Crockett has several of the virtues of Stevenson (see: Kidnapped) and Weyman (see: From the Memoirs of a Minister of France). Like Stevenson, Crockett was a Scottish patriot. Along with J.M. Barrie Crockett was one of the “Kailyard School” of Scottish writers who wrote sentimental, nostalgic, and unrealistically idealized stories about rural Scotland and the Scottish at the end of the nineteenth century. In The Grey Man Crockett duplicates Stevenson’s achievement in Kidnapped and celebrates the Scottish people and their culture and landscape. Crockett’s approach is more sentimental and less realistic than Stevenson’s; The Grey Man is very much a romance and an adventure novel, so the reader senses that Launcelot Kennedy is enjoying his life far more than David Balfour enjoyed his in Kidnapped. But Crockett makes as much use of the Scottish dialect as Stevenson did. As in Kidnapped the Gaelic words in The Grey Man are individually incomprehensible to modern readers, but in context they are understandable. Even those with a distaste for brogue will find it enjoyable here, since Crockett does a better job of contextualizing it here than Stevenson did in “Thrawn Janet.” Crockett also makes the Gaelic colorful and fun, so that a character who is not listening to reason is said to have “his daft coat on him that day.”1 The novel has a thick Scottish atmosphere, from its vocabulary to the phrasing of the narration to the history and culture and superstitions of the characters, and even if the historical backdrop is not well contextualized the reader still understands what’s going on and why.

What Crockett took from Weyman is the approach to the subject matter. Like Weyman, Crockett takes what is most enjoyable from older historical romance writers like Walter Scott (see: Ivanhoe) and Dumas père (see: The Three Musketeers) and leaves out what is not needed. Crockett includes a great deal of thrilling and adventurous incident while leaving out the torpid narrative and awkward, speechifying rhetoric common to many nineteenth century historical novelists. The storytelling style is old-fashioned, as is the narration, but neither is not ponderous, and in context even the use of the word “Lo!” does not jar. The content is wonderful, with sword fights, vendettas, a quest, and battles, and the characterization is efficient enough to make the reader care, just a little, about what happens to the characters.

Crockett was a minister, and some of his fiction is nakedly didactic and pro-Christianity, but Lance’s statements about Christianity and the Bible often seem more humorous and sardonic, along the lines of “I should have spent my Sunday afternoon learning my prayers than training to fight with my sword,” than anything else. The reader who does not know that Crockett was a minister will not be able to guess it on reading The Grey Man. The humor in the novel is not obtrusive, but it does appear sneakily, as in Lance’s statements about himself, especially when he is boasting about his experience with and knowledge of women. Crockett invites us to laugh at Lance, though in a gentle way. It is also striking how close The Grey Man is in many ways to modern fantasy fiction–or, rather, how much modern fantasy fiction, with its quest narratives and emphasis on combat, took from the historical romances of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Finally, Crockett makes use of the legend of the dreadful cannibal Sawney Beane. Sawney Beane was supposedly a Scottish robber who lived on the coast of Scotland in the early seventeenth century and raised his family to be cannibals, living in a cave in which their victims were cooked and eaten. Beane was supposedly cornered in his cave by armed men led by the King himself, and all the Beanes killed in the manner in which they killed their victims. This legend is just that: a legend. It is a myth, a lie made up by the pseudonymical “Captain Johnson” in 1724 and used by the English to defame the Scottish.2 

The Grey Man is splendid entertainment and highly recommended to readers of Yellow Nineties historical romances.

Recommended Edition

Print: S.R. Crockett, The Grey Man. Seattle: Amazon Createspace, 2015.



1 S.R. Crockett, The Grey Man (New York: Harper Brothers, 1897), 98.

2 Blaine Pardoe’s Sawney Bean: Dissecting the Legend of Scotland’s Infamous Cannibal Killer Family (Stroud, UK: Fonthill Media, 2015) is detailed enough but unconvincing in its conclusion that there may have been some reality behind the Sawney Beane myth.