Sunday, 29 June 2014

Penguin no. 1011: The Story of Ragged Robyn
by Oliver Onions

To-day, at this distance of time, we see these things as behind some thick horn pane, tallow-smoked and cloudy and intercepting as much light as it lets through. We read of waylayings and hamesuckens, or cruel threats and implacable redemptions, and wonder if it was not better to have lived under the Danelaw outright than to suffer 'a protection' that no longer protected anybody. Little is known of Peg Fyfe and her Holderness crew, and of young Robyn still less. It is not even certain that that was his name, so do the harmless names perish and the infamous ones survive. But here follows his story, pieced together from such fragments as remain. 

I have thought about this all week, and I cannot see a way to discuss this book that wouldn't take something from the enjoyment of a prospective reader. I had the good fortune to read it while knowing nothing about it, choosing it solely because it was written by the author of Widdershins, and I found it enchanting but shocking, though perhaps only because I read it unforewarned. And so I strongly recommend both reading it and reading nothing about it beforehand, this blog post included.

The story begins with Robyn Skyrme as a thirteen year old boy, uneasily walking home along a sea-wall, and sometimes atop it, all the way from the Saltings to Unthank, a small village in East Yorkshire. He carries upon his back a heavy pack which impedes his progress, and in his pocket a replica pistol which he has manufactured from a holly-root. This latter abets his courage, even though the protection it provides is illusory.

The story is set in the fens of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire during the 17th Century, and it is portrayed as a lawless region, remote and lonely, and certainly no place for a thirteen year old boy travelling on his own. The contents of Robyn's pack have come from a ship which offloads when the creeks and tides are favourable, and although he describes them as medicines, he knows that it is alcohol he carries, so the reader must presume poor Robyn is being used as a courier in the smuggling trade. As the light begins to fade, and Robyn's courage along with it, he is tempted by his cargo, and having some notion of Dutch courage, he samples the contents of his pack.

And this is his undoing. Emboldened by the alcohol, he begins to sing loudly, alerting everyone around of his presence, until he is grabbed and blindfolded by a gang of villains, and feels a knife pierce the skin of his neck. The warning they give him is unambiguous: on the following evening he is to return to this same spot bringing with him four of Unthank's best horses, equipped with halters and feed, and he is to tell no one of his actions. They tell him that the Queen of Holderness will have her revenge should he act otherwise, and she will not desist, whether it takes her seven year or longer.

Robyn had been aware that outlaws from Holderness were in the area, as he had been told by Watty, a fenman whose appearance as he approached, striding high and quick upon his stilts, had alone been enough to terrify a young boy still a few miles from home. He had advised Robyn to warn his folk to prime their pistols, fasten their doors, bring in their cattle, and set someone to watch in the stables, and so Robyn was forewarned of the danger into which he soon stumbled.

The story turns upon the bandits' message and its accompanying prediction. Poor young Robyn was faced with a problem which admitted no solution, torn between his fear of the foretold vengeance and his loyalty to his family. He decides to tell his tale to his horse Starlight, aware of John Skyrme's presence in the stable, and so the village of Unthank was alerted to the danger they faced and were prepared the following evening when the bandits returned. But Robyn is left to live with the consequences of his decision, and the story tells of his life between threat and retribution.

As implied by the passage quoted above, this is an historical tale, with Oliver Onions taking as his starting point the tale of Peg Fyfe who was hanged in the 1660s for a gory crime she had perpetrated upon a local resident; here he imagines the tale of her victim, and the torments he must endure, both real and imagined. It is a terrible story, but with its dreamlike quality and its sinister beginning and ending, the way it is told is captivating.

First published 1945. Published in Penguin Books 1954.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 222: Widdershins


  1. Oliver Onions' reputation persists at least through his ghost stories. Wordsworth Editions recent published a collected ghost story volume under the title The Dead of Night, which of course has the highest recommendation. Sometimes there is a real undercurrent of sadism in the late Victorian and Edwardian authors.

  2. Thank you again. I read this as a teenager, long ago. My own brief review I read from my diary is: "A surprisingly moving ending".



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