Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 29, 2022

Scapegallows, by Carol Birch

Scapegallows is run-of-the-mill historical fiction, competently written but at 448 pages, it’s far too long for itself.  It had been on the TBR for too long, and I needed to make space on the AB shelf after chancing on Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga, on the book swap table at U3A. (I’ve read and liked Atxaga before.)

Birch probably made her way onto Australia booksellers’ shelves when Turn Again Home was longlisted for the 2003 Booker, and Jamrach’s Menagerie was longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize and shortlisted for the 2011 Booker.  Scapegallows may have made it here because Colonial Australia features in its plot. It’s the fictionalised story of the real-life Margaret Catchpole, a horse thief.  She was sentenced to hang twice but reprieved and was transported to Australia in 1801, for escaping from gaol.  In Australia she became a respected midwife and her letters home are a valuable historical source as eyewitness accounts of early years in the colony. The Australian aspects of her story might have an ‘exotic’ appeal to British readers, but most of the novel is Catchpole’s long-winded back story in England.

The Australian sections are problematic.  The content seems to have been drawn from Catchpole’s letters home, and not from any familiarity with Australian history.  Any competent Australian historical novelist would have a more nuanced view of Indigenous dispossession than to drop in an ‘orphaned’ Aboriginal boy as a character, his backstory economically disposed of in one paragraph:

‘Tell you, Bill,’ says I, ‘we’re in for a storm, you mark my words.’
‘Not till tonight, Auntie.’
Thinks he knows.  Mrs Palmer says it’s in his blood to sense the weather and she put it in his head that he do, but he is not always right, no.  He never came up with the dreaming like the wild ones, not him.  He was a baby when his poor mamma came in alone from somewhere further out, fourteen years old and all bashed up, to try and be a settler and get her certificate.  She died and they put him in the Native Institute, where I got him.  He’s Bible-raised, a good boy, so they told me, and they were right.’ (p.4)

I have no idea what is meant by ‘get her certificate’.  This first chapter is dated 1817.  There was a ‘Certificate of Exemption’ which gave Aboriginal people certain rights if they met certain criteria, but that wasn’t legislated until decades later: 1897 in Queensland and in the 20th century in the other states which introduced it. (It appears not to have been introduced in Victoria or Tasmania.) The Native Institute was a precursor to policies of child removal for the purposes of ‘education’, i.e. the Stolen Generations, and anyone who knows anything about Australia’s Black History knows that children in these institutions were routinely told that their parents were dead, when they were not. A scrappy summary like this shows what a minefield Australian colonial history can be for the unwary author of historical fiction.

Depicting some transportee’s fears of cannibalism is disrespectful and completely unnecessary and any competent Australian editor would probably have insisted on its removal.  It’s one thing to depict characters being afraid that their ship will fall over the edge because an author can make a reasonable assumption that her readers will recognise it as ignorant fears.  But an international readership can not be assumed to know about a contested aspect of pre-contact Australian history. Including these fears as historically authentic without repudiating them either in the narrative or in an Afterword is naïve at best.


Reasonably faithful to the historical record as listed at her Wikipedia entry  the novel depicts Catchpole in love with a career criminal and pads out the bare bones of the story with anecdotes about her adventurous nature and her occasional misgivings. (Which are not about the morality of his crimes, but more about the risk of him being caught).  Though sympathetic to the smuggling  trade, her family was respectable, and Catchpole had a good employment record as a servant, and had learned to read and write.  Her crime was not from the widespread but untrue ‘family history’ narrative about convict ancestors who stole ‘just a hanky’ or ‘bread to feed the starving children.’ (See my post where historian Janet McCalman disposes of this false narrative in Vandemonians.) Birch romanticises the theft of the horse as a means of raising bail for her lover Will Laud, but horse theft was a very serious crime and judges had no discretion but to sentence the perpetrator to death.  Since the novel is written from Catchpole’s PoV, there is a lot about her regrets about her stupidity and her remorse for betraying a generous employer, and she also has proto-feminist ideas about the life she could have had if she were a man.

It might seem that I’m not much impressed with Carol Birch as an author, but I haven’t read the prize-winning novels.  The opening segment in this one, where Catchpole is clinging to a roof in the Hawkesbury River floods, is exceptionally well-written, and if the ensuing narrative set in England had been pruned by half, I’d have felt more forgiving about the flaws in Scapegallows.  

Author: Carol Birch
Title: Scapegallows
Publisher: Little, Brown UK, 2008
ISBN: 9781844083916, pbk., 448 pages
Source: Personal library


  1. That’s disappointing Lisa, but I hope & believe that HF has come a long way since 2008 when this was published. Sensitivity to local issues is much more on the radar than it used to be.

    I think I have Jamrach’s Menagerie on my TBR.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think you’re right, here in Australia. But I wonder how/if British writers of HF are negotiating an improved awareness of writing about their former colonies…I’m not aware of any examples…


      • They wouldn’t have a clue. I didn’t know how things had changed until I repatriated… and I’m Australian. A lot has altered in the 20 years I was away… things like Welcome to Country/Acknowledgment of Country, the use of Aboriginal place / Country names (ie Gadigal Country), the Change the Date campaign, recognition that massacres happened and that Australia has had war on its shores etc etc Still a LONG away to go, but the changes were very apparent to me when I first moved back and having Tim here for many months asking me questions about things (ie why do TV stations warn that names of deceased Aboriginals will feature in a program) really made me think about things. (By the same token he did not know what a sheep graziers warning was when he heard it mentioned in weather reports!!)


        • *chuckle* sheep grazier’s warnings… a whole new definition of culture shock, eh?


          • I was so shocked he didn’t know what it was. Ireland is full of sheep! Maybe the sheep there are just hardier ?!


            • Surely it’s because the Irish and the Poms have barns for their livestock so they’re not outside in all weather, like ours are? Plus, they are hardier, bred to withstand cold weather, whereas ours are bred to withstand both extreme heat and cold (but mainly to grow lots of fine quality wool or lamb chops, and too bad about the weather.)
              A sheep weather alert (thanks Prof Google) means that shearing should stop because sheep are vulnerable to hypothermia after shearing. Farmers are supposed to shed the sheep if they can (which of course they mostly can’t given the size of the flocks) and they should start extra feeding before the storm comes (because they’re supposed to be fed 40% more after shearing to reduce cold stress). Advice is also to “be prepared to relocate animals to a shed or land on higher ground with shelter in the event of very heavy rainfall and likely flooding” which is rather sickening to read ATM given the situation in NSW and Qld.
              See if you’re keen to know more!


  2. That was well found, Lisa and I’m glad you have pointed it out here. It’s frustrating that this sort of error still happens. I wonder how much responsibility is the author’s and how much the publishers? I presume both?


    • While I think that Australian publishers should be familiar with the Protocols for using First Nations Cultural and Intellectual Property in the Arts (2020), I don’t think we can reasonably expect overseas publishers to have explicit knowledge of our history and the histories of all the other countries that novelists might choose to bring into their fiction.
      But I think it is part of their responsibility to be alert to possible cultural, racial and ethnic sensitivities so that they can raise questions about them. For instance, I don’t know anything much about American Indians and how they were treated at First Contact, so if I were the editor (or agent) of a British author writing a similar sort of book about the time when the Brits were in America, I’d be getting anything involving those issues checked very carefully e.g. for errors of fact, nomenclature, stereotyping &c, by someone with expertise in the field.


  3. Well, you know how I feel about Hist.Fic. Well critiqued!


  4. Interesting post Lisa, and if the book had stuck to her life here (a local lass to me!) it might have been better. If you’re trying to write about a particular time and place it does seem to me that you need to get your facts right…


  5. What a shame this got so many things wrong. I admit that I abandoned Jamrach’s Menagerie… just couldn’t get into it at all but think I was put off by the hype because everyone was reading it at the time


    • I’d still like to read Turn Again Home. But not Jamrach’s Menagerie because, I gather from Goodreads, it’s about whaling, and after Moby Dick, I never want to read anything about whaling again…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Sorry Lisa but “run-of-the-mill historical fiction” doesn’t really thrill me and, it seems to me, that it’s always too long. That seems to be part of the appeal for traditional HF lovers? Long, involved books they can get lost in, which is no criticism at all, but just not my reading preference.

    I guess this has an Australian subject so it may have tempted my, but I am currently making space in my TBR shelves by moving some books onto Lifeline! I have given a lot of HF away recently that a couple of large publishers sent me in the early days of my blog on spec!

    Brona probably has a point about things changing in terms of awareness since 2008?


    • I think you’re right about expectations of length… but the point is that once the reader becomes aware of the length instead of getting lost in it, something has gone wrong. If you check my Chunksters category, they’re nearly all HF, but I never felt that Wolf Hall or Remote Sympathy were too long.
      I certainly hope that things have changed!


      • There are always exceptions but it seems to me that genre HF and Fantasy consistently tend to be long. Crime not so much. This is all anecdotal based on what I have observed from my genre reading friends.


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