Apart from providing useful activity for MacGregor’s hero, (he would have objected to the term applied to Bheathain, but I use it as shorthand for the principal character) the lost lamb is a metaphor for Bheathain’s own circumstances, as revealed in an authorial intrusion:
Only an amber touchpiece around his neck, his tobacco and tinderbox, along with the strand of hemp and the iron for the tackits in the soles of his worn-out shoes, came from off-island.
And half of himself, though he did not know it.
Thus, we know what Bheathain does not: he is not wholly a native of the Isle of Skye. What his true origin might be is hinted at in the scene with Tammas M’Neis, but the key point is Bheathain is not who he supposes himself to be.
‘Orphaned Heroes’ appear in many mythologies from the Greek, Theseus, to Romulus and Remus of Rome, and in the Hebrew account of Moses. Often, the Orphaned Hero is not truly orphaned but is lost or abandoned or disinherited or banished by his or (rarely) her parents.In Celtic myth Arthur of the Britons is sired by Uther Pendragon on Igraine, the widow of King Mark of Cornwall, their liaison having been arranged by Merlin. As part of Merlin’s bargain with Uther, the newborn Arthur is taken away – any man who has been embroiled in a child-custody battle would note that Igraine is remarkably compliant in this! – and raised in ignorance of his birthright. Years pass: Uther grows old and Arthur grows into a young man. Then, all changes: Uther dies and soon after Arthur enters Camelot and proves his inheritance by drawing the sword from the stone and is then revealed by Merlin as the son of Uther.
Arthur is the orphaned hero with a happy ending. Much less happy is the tale of Oedipus, son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. Learning of a prophecy that his son will grow up to kill him, Laius tied the newborn Oedipus hand and foot and abandoned him on a mountainside to die. There he is discovered by shepherds and is eventually adopted by King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth. However, Oedipus’ fate cannot be thwarted. Learning of the prophecy and fearing he is to kill his ‘father’, King Polybus, Oedipus leaves Corinth and, naturally, makes for Thebes. There his fate and that of King Laius is sealed and to compound matters Oedipus then marries his widowed mother.I should like to thank Hugo Ouellet of L’Académie de les Contes des Fées en Français for bringing to my attention what may be the strangest variant of the orphaned hero motif: the medieval French tale, Knight of the Swan, later adapted for the opera ‘Lohengrin’ by the celebrated German composer Richard Wagner. In Knight of the Swan a lord discovers a swan maiden or fairy in an enchanted forest and marries her. She bears him six sons and a daughter, each born with a golden chain about their neck, but her wicked mother-in-law steals the children away and replaces them with dogs. The lord blames his wife for their disappearance and punishes her, at which point the boys’ chains fall away and they are transformed into swans. Eventually, their sister, who alone retained human form, exposes the wicked mother-in-law and the swan maiden is redeemed and the boys return to human form, save one whose chain was melted down. Trapped in swan-form, he draws the boat of the Swan Knight tasked with rescuing damsels in distress.Lying in that mysterious zone between myth and fiction are fairy tales where the orphaned, abandoned, and lost, appear more frequently than their parented fellows (!) perhaps reflecting a time when plague, famine and violent death were commonplace. Among the famous names are Cinderella, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, and Snow White, each respectively orphaned, stolen, abandoned, and sentenced to death by a wicked step-mother. Unlike my ex-wife, I did not remarry after divorce so never inflicted a step-mother on my only son, but I think it unfortunate that fairy tales utterly ignore step-fathers who are surely just as numerous and potentially malevolent.By MacGregor’s time the orphaned hero was a commonplace in fiction from romantic poetry like ‘Little Orphan Nell’ by Gilbert Worthy to the penny dreadfuls sold at the newsstands on city railway stations. Among the latter is one of your editor’s favourites, Caroline Ramsden’s Miss Wetherby Expects, where the young and beautiful Jane Wetherby grows up believing her parents are the Reverend and Mrs Wetherby of the rectory in the Suffolk village of Little Grebe, only to discover on her twenty-first that Mrs Wetherby is in fact her nurse and her real mother, Ophelia, the Reverend’s first wife, is locked up in the belfry where she has been confined ever since the birth of the bastard consequence of her affair with Spurge, the under-gardener. The child, named Peter Anmery and having escaped Owen Grubb’s brutal orphanage, is now apprenticed to the pharmacist in Great Grebe where Jane buys her father’s indigestion powders. On meeting, Peter and Jane are instantly smitten, believing each is the other’s soul-mate and wholly unaware that they are half-siblings. A secret courtship follows until Peter promises to call on Jane’s father to ask her hand in marriage. At the novel’s climax, Spurge, still in love with Ophelia and returned from deportation to the Antipodes where he has made his fortune in sheep farming, discovers Ophelia’s fate and returns to Little Grebe to rescue her. Alas, Ophelia has been driven insane by the ringing of the church bells and attacks him, overturning a lantern and setting fire to the belfry at the very moment Peter, who is of course unaware that he is the son of Spurge and Ophelia, calls on the rectory. Hearing the cries from the church tower, he braves the flames to rescue Spurge but on attempting to save Ophelia she clasps him to her breast as the belfry floor gives way. Ophelia is killed instantly while Peter Anmary lives long enough to learn that Spurge is his father and Ophelia his mother and his beloved Jane his half-sister before perishing from the effects of the fall and, one always imagines, excessive plot revelations.Spurge then confronts the Reverend Wetherby who confesses all. Jane is distraught at their deception and at the death of her beloved Peter and makes a great speech that so impresses Spurge he offers up the fortune he had intended to share with Ophelia and his son. Freed of her deceiving father and step-mother, Jane endows the Little Grebe School for Lost Children and opens a Haberdashers shop for her own employment.
Miss Wetherby Expects always has me laughing uproariously at all the wrong moments and you will be relieved to know that MacGregor’s plot bears no resemblance to it, though I trust it demonstrates that his readers would have been familiar with the motif of the orphaned hero.