Chapter One : The Lost Lamb

the lost lamb titled

Hills above Staffin Bay, Skye – several days later

The narrative of Beathan Somerled shall be the weft of our tale, binding all strands together 

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The one who bears me is cursed for another’s sin

Beathan glanced down the brae and shook his head, scattering the pearls of wet clinging to the lip of his bonnet. The burn was in spate, overfilling its banks. Bare rock dripped with wet, the scree, overburdened, scarce held its weight upon the slope, and the peat was butter-soft and the tussocks of grass slippery as a trap full of eels.

It be a good ways doon, he thought.

As he leant against the wind, stooped forward to eye the land he must foot without precipitous flight and a pitching into turbulent waters, his attention wandered to his pipe. The bowl was snugged in the warmth of his waistcoat pocket but the stem, angling out, prodded urgently the lowest rib of his heartside. Wind and rain occupied the air and he wanted only a dry stand and a smoke in the old sheep beild, but alas, the wee lamb wanted fetching out before it caught chill or drowned in the milk-white waters.

A plaid covered Beathan’s shoulders and, beneath a russet-coloured coat, his waistcoat and breeches were of a coarse brown cloth. The coat had lost most of its buttons but a strand of hemp, plucked from old rope, held out the wind. Sedge, plaited and tied about his shins were his gaiters, but the lower half of his breeches were wet-through and the chill went through to the marrow of his legs. As he stood and gazed down the brae, he raised a hand and without thinking on it straightened the scarf that covered the lower part of his face.

His clothes linked him to the ground beneath his feet. Wool, woven by design and skill kept him dry not half as well as it had the sheep upon whose backs it grew. Orange scurf scraped from rocks made dye for his coat and the black of his bonnet came from oak apple. Other mosses and lichens made the yellows, greens, and purples of his plaid.

Only an amber touch-piece 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.

Blue-eyed and yellow-haired, he was taller than most on the island and, from what could be seen of his face, might even pass for handsome. But his appearance begged a question for most of his face, that is everything below the bridge of his nose, was concealed by a rain-soaked scrap of red cloth tied in outlaw manner, behind his neck. This, even as it tainted his air at every breath, he seemed to scarce notice, for, having worn it all his life, he was no more aware of it than we are aware of our skin as it stretches upon our limbs. It covers My Lady’s cursemark: that blood red stain upon his cheek, the so-called the Devil’s Hand and when the cloth slips from his face, as it often does, he tugs it into place with automatic hand.

What occurred to him as he considered his path? That a sheep never means to die but only tests a man’s resolve to save it, that certainly. That if he is to save it, he must do it soon for the day was dying. That like the day, the lamb, if left where it was, would be dead in a few hours. Yes, he thought all of those. Did it also come into his mind that none would be the wiser if he walked away: that he might leave the beast to drown or die of cold or want of its mother’s milk at no cost to himself? It would be unreasonable to say it did not reckon in his thoughts at all for even in his innocent wish for a smoke of his pipe there was the desire for something other, an easier if scarce easeful life. But did he consider it in all seriousness and weigh the consequences of one act against another? Did his acorn of doubt leaf into open discontent against his lot? No, not then, not ever, for one thought rose above them like the tallest tree in the wood

Here am be, an’ this be am, is near to what he thought. Here he was and this is what he did, and in this instance, as so often for a shepherd, there was no other to act in his stead. Spying a slab of rock beside the torrent, he kissed his amber touch-piece for luck and seizing a clump of heather overhanging the lip of crumbling peat he swung his leg onto the slope.

At once, the loose rock failed under his feet and as his weight fell on the heather, the roots of it strained and broke like harp strings, leaving him with only a handful of useless greenery. ‘A Mhuire! O damnadh!’[1] The ground had seized him by the ankles, so it seemed, and he flailed his legs, as though he were treading water – which he had never done – or as a winemaker treading grapes – which naturally, he had also not done – but any familiar with either motion might see the resemblance. For Beathan, his motion most resembled that of a man finding himself on treacherous ground and trying his damnedest to escape from it: in other words, it resembled most to Beathan that which it was.

As happened, this moment of crisis did not last, for as he gained the lower part of the slope so the material beneath his feet changed and his feet did indeed slide upon, rather than through the scree and he arrived at the foot of the slope in better order than he began. Here, he swung himself onto the large rock he had marked for this purpose before the treacherous mass of smaller stones and gravel could carry him into the torrent.

He began to laugh, as if filled with a bubble of joy. Men often do this when released from peril, real or supposed, though we shall not assume they have taken pleasure from their adventure for their laughter is only the sneeze that follows the itch: a release from the displeasurable and alarming, and perhaps a laugh at one’s own expense.

Daft, but alive, Beathan thought, and as he stretched his limbs in turn he found no ill effects from his tumble and considered that as sheep test the resolve of man to save them, so men test the resolve of their God. He had broken nothing, not even his dignity, which was not precious to him at all, and gained no aches, but as he laughed and gazed around him, he over-looked one small matter and it was this: his precious amber touch-piece hung by six strands of human hair and of these two broke as he thrust it back beneath his shirt and a third unravelled as he flung himself upon the rock. Now only three strands hold it around his neck.

The roar of water assailed him for the rushing burn had gathered all the noise of the rain in one place and each drop added its voice to the tumult. A man could not hear himself shout let alone think amid the noise and here where none would see him, Beathan lifted his face to the sky and hauled the scrap of red cloth away to show his face.

The mark on his cheek did not resemble a hand, Devil’s or otherwise. It was more the mark a violent hand had wrought. Wherever he looked, it seemed to follow his gaze, and that was why folks feared it. It was good to feel the wind on his face and not breathe through the sodden cloth of his scarf but this lasted only a moment for a curious sense that he was not alone did then come over him. He had never felt this before, not in any of the secret places where a man might stand unwatched and unseen but it compelled him smartly to retie the scarf across his face. He did not want any seeing him without it and mayhap even a lamb might take averse to his mark for he half believed what people told him, that his mark truly gave him power to curse a man or beast. The scarf secure, his mark concealed, he trod downstream toward the stranded beast as the clouds closed over, leaving him shadowless once more.

The lamb, when he found it, lay trapped between the brae and the torrent. Marks in the slope showed where it had tried and failed to clamber up and the sight of him made it try again but its wee legs could not scramble fast enough and it tumbled onto its back-ends.

Na dèan sin,’ Beathan murmured, ‘na leòin thu fhéin.’[2]

This was where he might fail. The beast would rather the water’s embrace than his. He had to get downstream of it if he was to save it from itself.

A scramble up, taking him above and past the lamb, then a slide on his backside brought him round. He had chanced his luck and one foot had dipped in the water. He shook the wet from it and strode off. The lamb was still expecting him upstream and he was almost upon it, when the tackits in his soles grated on a rock. Startled, the beast leapt for the water, but diving full-length, he plunged a hand through the water and gripped hold of the fleece.

Agony stabbed through his hand; his thumb had opened on a shard of stone. Beathan stumbled, near falling in the water and the scarf unravelled and slid beneath his chin. Rolling clear he dragged the lamb from the stream and sat up. The lamb was a sodden rag, but a thumb pushed down its throat cleared the tongue and a good shake sparked it back to life whereupon it sneezed, spraying him with drool.

Fàilte! Fàilte. Glè mhath, glè mhath,’ he said with weary humour, for it was not so very good: the lamb was a male, a deal less valuable than a female.

Coma leat;’ the dumb beast could not be blamed for what it was.

Arse cold in the wet gravel, he trapped the lamb between his knees and patiently retied the scarf about his face.

Coma leat.

He stood and brushed the wet stones from his backside. The lamb was soaked and blared pitifully as he did his best to squeeze the wet from its fleece before settling it under his jacket. Once buttoned against his breast, the beast seemed accepting of its lot and lay quiet with its chin rested upon the lapel.

Up-getting proved easier than down for he could now see what lay under hand and feet and he quickly met with the open, heather-clad slope and the full force once more of the wind and rain.

The flock huddled round the shelter, save one that stood a distance from the rest. The beast was staring at him.

Bu chòir dhuit gu bhail tabhairt,’ Beathan said. ‘Rach a’ do mathair.’

He let the lamb down and the instant it felt the ground it scrambled from his hand and raced away to its mother to suckle The ewe turned to sniff its infant, satisfying herself it was her own, then resumed a gaze of utter indifference.

There is no thanks to be had, he thought, not from a dumb creature. In another week, if the weather dried up, he’d bring the flock down to the fold for sorting. Near all the males needed nipping so they stayed longer at the tit.[3] The longer at the tit, the bigger they grew and the better price they fetched at summer’s end. Had this one a maukin stead of a wand it would give lambs and milk each twelvemonth and a fleece for spinning.

Ach, is comna dhomhsa còc,’ Beathan said[4] and he turned away, glad to have his back to the wind, and sucked the grit off his bloodied thumb. Half of himself was wet through and he could feel the cold seeping into his flesh, numbing his fingers and fumbling his grip. He would be chilled by the time he got home but it would not have sat right with him had he let the lamb be. The Bay of Staves[5] lay below him, a scooped hollow in the shore protected by a small island. The road to the King’s Port ran like a crooked arm about the bay and the township of Castlebay[6] nestled in the crook. From above, each croft seemed to lie in a little hollow, like a limpet on a rock. Few had windows and none a pane of glass. Stout wooden doors kept out the weather. This was home. Beyond the houses, narrow plots of land, rigs, dropped to the shore and here lay a row of skiffs, their upturned hulls like mussel shells in a midden. The storm had torn up the kelp grounds offshore and the ebb tide stranded it along the beach.

There was no sign of life at the shepherd’s croft Beathan shared with his Granda, old Magnus MacDonald, but that meant nothing. Beathan trusted the old man would be home and tea would be brewing and tatties cleaned ready for the pot and blackbread and honey and a bowl of buttermilk. Rain darkened the sea beyond the bay and eastwards the sky was falling down. Soon the sheep would settle for the night. While light remained he took a look at himself, finding the seat of his breeches wet through and his waistcoat soaked where the lamb pressed against it.

Granda will no be pleased, Beathan thought as he straightened his scarf, then feeling something amiss, he felt under his shirt for the bead of amber. It wasn’t there. He pulled his shirt from his breeks but nothing fell to the ground. He ripped the gaiters from his knees and shook his legs.

C’aite, mo omer cneap!’ He stared at the ground and cursed the fading light. Flakes of gravel, black peat, crushed grass, heather: nothing of the small brown bead that had hung about his neck. He tore his bonnet off and wrung it in his fists. ‘Mo chreach!

A thought and Beathan was standing on the slope above the burn, recalling the moment he leapt for the lamb: then perhaps he lost it. But the bead was too small, the ground too big and if the water had it, it was truly lost. Sense won and he did not leap down the brae but turned and gazed down the course of the burn, to its joining with the river and its unwinding in the bay.

S’ fhalbh.’

The touch-piece had hung around his neck long as he could recall and it was hard to imagine it gone. Each few years as he grew a body had called by with a newly plaited cord of hair for to hang it about his neck. Last time it was the laird’s spaer, Ethelfeyrda.[7] It was no long after Da drowned himself in the bay (he had drowned himself in drink long before). He had been twelve, neither child nor man. Ethelfeyrda made the cord from her own hair, so she said, and he believed her for it was the same copper-red. The woman’s face, her blue eyes and red hair was one of many memories that flooded on him: they were footprints leading to this moment and each was shaded now, made sorrowful, and as he thought of them, he thought of other things lost and a lump formed in his throat. It was not only something that had hung about his neck it was as much a part of him as his hand or his voice. It bore a mark, like a bird’s foot, and he bent to pick up a stone, scratched the rune mark on it, and slid it in his pocket.

Is mithich a bhi falbh.’ He tore his eyes away from the waters. The rain seemed harder now and the sky unnaturally dark, as though its colour came from his thoughts and not from the lowering of the sun and perhaps it was because of this gloom that a speck of pale colour showed high on the crags and as it moved clear of the mists and swirling cloud Beathan saw a solitary white stag. The beast stopped, as though it knew it had been seen, then vanished beneath a swirl of mist.

Ochoin,’ he whispered. It was a bad end to the day. Strange things on the hills always had bad outcomes.

Ni Math ’g orm teasraiginn,’ he prayed, but heard no answer other than the cold breath of wind. The lamb had soaked his waistcoat and the damp sucked the cold onto his skin. Tonight, he decided, he would go down the white house[8] for a drop of whisky and company and he would ask after an touchstone. He had thought little enough of it, no more than he had thought of the tongue in his head, but now he seemed to be thinking of nothing else and digging a hand into his pocket, he fidgeted with the rune stone he made and wondered what Ethelfeyrda might make of it. No much, he reckoned. He had not one grain of magick in his blood and he sensed a rune mark needed more than a scratch. But still, if he got to meet her again it would not be so bad. She had not been afraid of him; she had looked him in the eye.

The Staffin Inn had a warm, welcoming reek of wet plaid, pipe smoke, and bodies, mixed with the rankness of spilt ale and whisky. A peat-low flickered in the hearth, a rare feature in these parts with a breast of mortared and limewashed stone, and candles scattered across the room splashed the walls with pools of buttery brightness.

That evening someone had brought a newssheet in. The wind entered alongside him and flew up the pages. Eyes, dark under downdrawn brows, glanced toward the door.

Beannachd a tha thu,’ Beathan said to all and none as he shook the wet off his oiler and shoved the door against the wind.

Hands smoothed the wind-ruffled pages and the patter of talk lulled a moment, like a beat missed on the pipes. Replies were long-fingers tapped to foreheads and necks twitched like a ram sizing up a rival. A few even unclamped a pipe stem to murmur Fàilte,[9]’ in answer.

The paper would be from Glasgow or Fort James, Beathan reckoned, and something in it had all their eyes this evening. A man took the pipe from his mouth jabbed the stem toward the page. Another followed a line with his finger. Neither quite brought himself to touch the sheet.

Beathan stepped into the room and saw Magnus in the corner. So this was where the old sod had gotten to. He had gone out after tea, muttering about some ‘business,’ and vanished into the night.

The mood was quieter than usual and none were scratching at a fiddle or tweeting on a pipe. Only the rhythmic clatter of Flora MacInnes’s spinning wheel accompanied the murmur of voices. Busy as always at her threads, Flora was the only woman on the premises.[10]

‘Be givin’ me a whisky,’ Beathan spilled a handful of coins in front of MacInnes, ‘thoir dhuinn dram.’

‘Is more than enough a’givin’ me,’ MacInnes answered him in the Gaelic tongue as he took up the whisky jug.

‘A’havin’ I more than one the night,’ Beathan replied in the same. ‘Cold an’ wet I am.’

Beathan watched the liquid fall into the cup. It was the colour of amber, true amber, not the brown nugget he had lost. The whisky smell caught in his throat, and he muffled a cough. He’d felt chill ever since his drenching in the burn and fetched out his pipe ready to fill it.

‘Be mindin’ ye cover yer face an’ keep the tongue o civility in yer head.’ MacInnes stopped the bottle and added water from a brown jug. ‘Awfy news we have, naidheachd dona, bad business,’ MacInnes pointed out the crowd of dour-faced men gathered round the newssheet.

Beathan doubted matters were bad as MacInnes made out but shrugged his agreement. Matters in newspapers had little to do with Skye, unless you counted report of deaths, births and weddings, or the price of cattle at market and by the time the presses had hold of the news and passed it back to folks it would be last week’s story on the island.

‘Was a’hearin’ The Castle[11] wasna in,’ Beathan said.

‘Be storm-sted at Little Fort[12],’ MacInnes said. ‘No riskin’ the Minch it is.’[13] The innkeeper set the cup down, drew eight penny-worth of coins and pushed the rest back.

‘Keep they for now. Sit ye doon an’ no troublin’ folk, else out ye be.’

Beathan took the cup and the handful of coins and with a backward glance at the newssheet, joined his granda and Thom MacNiesh. The two men were sat around a table made from the end of a barrel. A candle and a whisky jug shared it with them. Magnus MacDonald pushed a stool over and Beathan slid it under his backside.

‘I made ye good champ,’[14] Magnus MacDonald said, ‘but little good it has done ye. Ye look wore out.’

His grandfather, the only living relative Beathan knows of, had a narrow face with the brow climbing through a ploughfield of rucks and creases before flattening off to a smooth crown. Magnus, to Beathan’s knowledge, had rarely ventured beyond King’s Port and his face had the look of something that had lain long in one place.

Slàinte,’ Thom MacNiesh raised his cup.

Slàinte, tae ye Thomas,’ Beathan answered, ‘Granda, ye’re a sinfu’ decrepit old man, sae ye are, but in the morn I will be hale an’ bonny,’ and with this he downed the whisky, feeling the heat prickle his throat.

‘I, too, may risk yer tongue,’ Thom said, ‘but yer granda’s no’ wrong. Ye dinna look sae good. Did ye no bide over-long in the wet.’

‘Ye may be right in that,’ Beathan sighed, ‘but had a no’ the laird would have lost a lamb.’ He reached for the jug and hearing no protest refilled his cup. ‘Damned beast was a’jumpin’ in the burn and I got drenched a’fetchin’ it out. And,’ he paused for emphasis, ‘the worst of it is I lost that wee touchstone I had.’

‘That thing!’ Granda snorted. ‘Nonsense it is. Och!’ the old man bent forward and stared him in the face. ‘There’s naethin’ wrang wi’ ye, save what a bit of warm’ll mend.’

Beathan shrugged. The old man’s reaction was exactly what he expected; at least Thom MacNiesh showed more interest and Beathan said how he came to lose the stone.

‘Cord broke,’ he shrugged, ‘Alack; did I kiss it for luck a moment before.’ He slapped the table in frustration and MacNiesh warned him to be easy.

‘Aye, b’kennin’,’ Beathan said. ‘MacInnes told us folks are on edge the night. Besides,’ Beathan yawned, ‘be too stone-tired for makin’ aggravated like. But ye know Magnus, I’ve had that bit of amber about me for a good long whiles, long as I can recall. Be queer no’ feelin’ it where it use tae lie. I made this,’ he said, taking out the scrap of stone.

Thom MacNiesh glanced at it. Thom was a good five years younger than Magnus and his face was round and cherry-cheeked and he always had something to smile about. Before rheumatics got a hold of his legs, Thom MacNiesh had been the laird’s gamekeeper, but now he made pin money carving stags and eagles on bits of bog-pine[15] and driftwood for the tourers[16]. His sticks leant on the back of his chair and blackened scars nicked the man’s fingertips.

‘Ach,’ Thom shrugged and gave him the stone back. ‘Naught but a wee stone. Scartin’ runes isna for the likes o ye. Ye need a spaer, one wi’ kenning,’ Thom tapped his brow for emphasis.

‘It canna be troublin’ ye sae much as ye say,’ Granda interrupted, ‘ye said nothin’ of it at yer supper.’

‘Did I get no chance,’ Beathan protested, ‘Ye was hurryin’ out the door soon as I was in! C’ àit an robh sibh?

‘I’d tae gae up the Big House,’ Granda answered.

‘Castlehill?’[17] Beathan asked. ‘Ye been tae see the laird?’

‘Nae, wasna him did I see,’ Granda said and fixing him with an eye, added, ‘be it none o’ yer gnothach what my business be.’

‘News we have,’ Thomas indicated the Herald, ‘laird’s nephew be dead. Murdered sae he was, sae they tell.’

Granda hissed like a kettle. ‘Disna say he was murdered, just that he be dead. Is tha’ no enough wi’oot adventure tae it?’

‘Be havin’ it yer way,’ Thomas grumbled. ‘Ony road, he’s deid.’

‘Ach…’ Beathan struggled to undo the drawstring of his tobacco pouch, ‘is comna dhomhsa còc[18].’

‘Hush now,’ Thomas complained. ‘A good many hereabouts owe their lives tae that lad’s mother. Lady Maud, an’ well ye should ken, was at beggin her father, God rest his soul, tae grant poor relief in the famine.’

‘God rest his soul, indeed,’ Granda echoed.

‘It was sae,’ Beathan admitted. ‘I know she was good tae us.’

It was a quarter-century ago when the blight struck, before his time but his mama had talked of it often enough. She had taken him to see her sister’s grave at Long Dyke and shown him where, for want of aught else to eat, they had scarted limpets from the rocks. The sister died of hunger, a brother too he recalled.

He pocketed the bit of stone. Even if MacNiesh was right and he needed spaecraft, he was not minded to fling it away just yet.

The old gamekeeper smiled kindly, saying, ‘Ye should get yersel another bob o’ amber.’

‘Ay,’ Beathan agreed. ‘Ethelfeyrda, it was give it me. Be a’beggin’ her for another?’

Thom shook his head. ‘Ye got that afore Ethelfeyrda’s time. Besides, she be gan, ach tha è cho!’ Thom answered Granda’s surprise. ‘The Change came on her no lang afore Christmas an’ left she did.’

‘She be young still for the change,’ Magnus said.

‘That be the reckonin’ of many,’ Thom agreed. ‘Ethelfeyrda be young an’ dreachmhor yet, but the change come early on her an’ what be the use of a spaewife when her moonblood dries?’[19]

‘What use are they wi’,’ Magnus grumbled. ‘Sae, laird’s gan got hissel anither spaer?’

‘He has,’ Thom said, ‘though as she scarce says a word tae a soul ye wudna ken it.’

Beathan lit his pipe with the candle and listened to the two old men. Not all they said he grasped; a woman’s moonblood was something to do with making bairns but of spaewives, he knew a deal less, though ‘dreachmhor’ was a fair description of the flame-haired woman who gave him the cord for his touch-piece.

‘Reckonin’ Ethelfeyrda cuntbitten then?’ Granda asked.

‘Poxed! nae!’ Thom protested. ‘Early come the Change, be a’. Beathan,’ Thom got his attention, ‘was there a mark on tha’ touch-piece?’

Seadh,’ Beathan agreed, ‘a bird’s foot.’

‘The elk rune,’ Granda said, ‘tae keep ‘im fae harm, or protect his Ma an’ Da fae that mark o’ his, canna recall now. Reckonin’ ye be needin’ laird’s new spaer,’ the old man grinned, his last remaining tooth buried in his bottom lip. ‘Be a glad sight she is nae doubt.’

Thom shook his head. ‘Right skinnymalink[20] she is, ye goat-old. Rather I,’ the man’s face was a cherish of smiles, ‘a woman wi’ some softness on her, eh Beathan? Pair o’ broillichean, an’ a big, fat bonn!’ The man cupped his hands on his chest. ‘If ye want I shall ask her for a touch-piece for ye. ’Se Eolhwynne[21] be name o’ the lass. MacKie, what d’ye want?’

The man Thom addressed was standing directly behind Beathan.

‘Ye have an ill-tongue, MacNiesh. Be showin’ yer respect the night.’

Beathan knew the voice; it had troubled his lugs many a Sabbath at kirk. Swivelling round brought the bent snotter and hard little eyes of Fearghus MacKie in view. MacKie was a quarryman from Littletown[22] and, more pertinently, precentor at Dike-Long Kirk whose task it was to read out each line of verse for the congregation to sing, and a keen upholder of other folk’s piety. MacKie owed his bent snotter to a bad-tempered cow some five years back and ever since that coming together of hoof and bone the man’s voice resembled the drones[23] on a set of pipes.

‘Kip oot o this, Somerled,’ MacKie bawled. ‘Be strivin’ wi MacNiesh, no ye.’

Ignoring MacKie, Beathan tugged at the corner of his scarf as if about to bare his mark at the bent-nosed man.

Na deanaibh sin,’ Granda warned.

Beathan ignored the warning. He was tired of being told what to do, tired of feeing cold and tired of feeling tired. His arm hurt and he’d lost something he’d had all his life. Ignoring his Granda he blew a cloud of pipe smoke into MacKie’s face.

MacKie jerked back, his eyes blinking from the smart and half-raised a fist before seeming to think twice and only wipe the back of it across his mouth.

‘A’goin’ ye tae the Devil! MacInnes! Ge’ rid of this buamastair.’[24]

MacInnes proved insistent on their leaving and as MacKie yammered on (it was Thomas he was most upset with) Beathan drained his cup and made certain Granda had the bottle off the table. As they were leaving he noticed that not one cup or bottle marred the clean white pages lying across them. The Glasgow Herald was not usually given this respect.

Thom, the last of them, shuffled through the door slap on his sticks and the door slammed behind them. Beathan reckoned it was the hurt in the legs of him made Thom MacNiesh such a bletherer. Beathan flung his oiler over himself and the wind caught and clapped at its tails.

‘The evenin’ wasna long as I’d hoped,’ Thom MacNiesh said.

‘It wasna,’ Granda agreed.

‘Ach well,’ Thom turned away: his home lay across the river in Dike-Long.[25]Slan leat tae ye,’ he cried cheerfully and disappeared into the night.

‘A’thumpin’ he’ll get some night,’ Magnus said once they were alone and tramping for the King’s Port Road and home.

Beathan knew the old man was talking of him as much as Tormod but did not answer back. The whisky had left a lingering warmth in his belly, but he doubted it would see him home. He kept his hands in his pockets and clenched them into fists, but despite this his left hand remained stubbornly numb.

‘Hope he recalls tae spier fer a bit o amber,’ Beathan murmured.

‘Savin’ tha’ lamb did cost ye,’ Magnus said. ‘Amber isna cheap. It was a ewe ye saved?’

Cha b’ ann,’ Beathan said wearily, ‘nae, jus’ a wee lost laddie.’

He walked, matching his pace to the old man. Some nights it was an effort to walk so slow, but not tonight. The wind swirled the oiler round him, as though wanting to tangle him in its folds, and rain blew out of the darkness.

The white stag showed itself moments after losing his touch-piece. He could not tell if it was an omen or just plain chance but kept his thoughts to himself. Magnus had no time for magick or the uncanny and now was not the time for talking of such things. Later perhaps, when he was sitting beside the fire with a stout door and an iron horseshoe to ward off the unholy.

Five days in the week Beathan watched over the laird’s sheep and on the sixth he tended a plot of ground on the slope above the King’s Port road. On this he grew barley, kale and potatoes. The ground there was naturally thin and insufficient, but digging in the sea wrack did much good to the land.

Tam MacNiesh, Thom’s youngest and not yet sixteen, worked alongside Beathan and together they raked and forked the wrack into creels[26] for the carrying off. The kelp lay heavily on the fork and half seemed to slip from the prongs before he had it lifted. The creels filled agonising slowly and his hands had chilled to lumps of cold gristle. It was hard work and Beathan felt it this morning. Bending to the slither, he plucked a strand of pink dulse, delicate as lace and curled it into his mouth. For a moment, the brine clinging to it sucked the spit from his mouth, then the dulse yielded its own juices to his tongue and he chewed slowly.

‘Ye’ve an appetite for it the morn,’ Tam said. ‘Care now, ye’ll be shitten afore the jakes.’

He did not answer the lad, being unwilling to lose the sweetness in his mouth by speaking. Dulse was a cleanser, a dose for the belly. Dried and take on a fast it rid a man of worms and other troubles. It was not worms he had, or nae worse than any other fellow, but he was weary this morning and wanted cleansing. He wanted rid.

Will MacLean’s ground lay alongside Beathan’s. No boundary stone marked the plots, but each man knew what was his. MacLean’s horse, a long-toothed hand-me-down from the laird’s stable, stood with head bowed and backside to the sea. Will and the two older boys emptied their creels in the cart and went straightaways back to raking. They were handy at it and only took the best of the kelp for they did not look to spread it on the land but to make ash from it. Fifteen years ago, at the height of Buonoparte’s blockade, kelp-ash fetched twenty Crowns a ton. Last twelvemonth the agent was paying two crown, eight schilling and Will MacLean was the last kelp-gatherer on the Bay of Staves. It needed a dozen tons of tangle or two-hundred and fifty creels on a man’s back, to make a ton of ash. It was hard work for Will and his boys, and worse since the MacLean’s eldest had drowned.

Mairead, dressed in mourning blacks, had an eye out for her two youngest, calling them back in a wind-piercing screech if they strayed too near the water. Tales of the Crimea filled the boy’s head[27] and he stalked the ebb for sea-jellies and noisily put them to the sword with a stick. The girl was twelvemonth older and ignoring the antics of her brother she gathered driftwood and stacked it beside the cart.

Once that boy had been him, save that he wore a scarf about his face and there only ever was his Ma and Da for company; no brothers or sisters to share the burden. Once a voice had always been raised to call him back from the wave’s lip, but no more. The rain made a sharp sound against the weed, like the patter of drumming fingers.

‘Be at tuireadh Mairead long time,’ Tam said.

Tha i,’ Beathan agreed.

‘Ye’d thought she’d laid off by now. Been a good while since Neil drowned.’

‘It be.’ Six months, Beathan thought. It must be six months now.

‘Why she be holdin’ tae blacks then?’ Tam asked.

Beathan paused; he wanted to keep his answers short, mindful of the returning tide, but it seemed to him any answer not disrespectful must need more than a few words.

‘Neil was the world tae her,’ he said. ‘Times there are when folk can only see what they’ve lost an’ no what they’ve got.’

Tam fell quiet and though seemed to settle to his work, Beathan saw the boy was deep in thought. He thought it strange that Tam should look to him for knowledge of the world. There were only a few years between them but Tam saw or Beathan thought Tam saw, something greater. Beathan stood on the farther side of a threshold Tam had still afore him. Yet his own path to manhood had been so uncommon Beathan thought it little use to another. Tam he had seen hand in hand with Katie Grogan from Dike-Long but no lass, fair or otherwise, had slipped her hand in his, nor had any seemed to want to.

Tha mi reckonin’ the laird was same as Mairead,’ Tam said.

‘How ye be reckonin’ that?’ Beathan had to drag the question out of himself, preferring the sound of weed dropping in a creel.

‘The laird lost his wife, did he no, an at findin’ another he was a good whiles.’

Cha bhithinn eòlach,’ Beathan said: the affairs of the laird were his own and none else, to Beathan’s mind.

‘Bein’ all that time an’ now he gets himself a split-new wifie an’ like as no he forgets-’

‘Tam!,’ Beathan cut in, ‘he is no forgettin’ her, understand now.’

‘Be what?’

‘That he is no at losin’ mind of his first wife for marryin’ another. Thing like that never passes fae yer mind, no’ ever. An cluinn thu?’

‘Calm yer breeks!’ Tam protested. ‘Is right prickie ye be this morn.’

Beathan did not reply and Tam went back to raking the weed. Beathan knew that the boy’s mother was housekeeper at Castlehill and it was the boy’s fancy that, while Thomas was out gemmering, Peggy MacNiesh, then a mere swabber in the scullery, had caught the young laird’s eye, and that he, Tam, was the outcome of their illicit union. Beathan thought this was a wicked calumny on Peggy MacNiesh, but strangely it gave the boy a deal of pride, along with an uncalled for interest in the laird’s doings. Having teased away at Tam’s story, he reckoned it founded on nothing more than a passing likeness between the boy and the laird and a hankering for the finer things in life. To Beathan’s mind Tam and he could pass for brothers, were it not for the mark on his face.

His rake caught on a piece of wood tangled in the weed and he stooped to throw it aside. Wood would not do for burning, but was handy for making pegs for holding roof thatch or a dozen other tasks. Less welcome were the sea-jellies for even when dead, they had a wee sting if messed with.

Each time Beathan lifted weed into the creel he felt his eyes drawn to look for his missing touchstone. A dozen times, he had answered a false hope and picked up a likely looking stone, only to discard it. Now he had steeled himself not to heed the thought, knowing if he did there would be no end of it.

He had woken before creek o’ day and when Tam joined him, they had come down to the shore in the half-light, with the kirk bell at Dike-Long tolling six across the bay. Later, the sun rose behind Applecross and briefly lit up the mountains a bright, brassy yellow before cloud swallowed it.

His creel filled, he leant on his rake to watch Will MacLean’s cart creak along the high water line and turn toward the road. Mairead, walking behind her boys glanced back his way and jerked her head, though whether in greeting or goodbye he could not tell. He replied by dropping his bonnet for a moment. He knew, or thought he knew, what was in her glance, having seen it often enough from others: ‘Why did my son drown an’ no ye, ye cursed creature?’

Tam looked up. The lad was hopeful of a hand to fill his creel but Beathan ignored him.

The sea was claiming back what it had lost, sweeping up the beach. Twice or more Beathan saw Mairead’s boys standing close-headed and looking out across the bay behind their mother’s back. Few crofters had any love for the sea, preferring to scratch a living from the fields, but, call it blood or habit, the MacLeans, father and sons had a taste for fishing, always chasing the crab, herring, and ling. Since Neil drowned, their skiff had not left the strand and he fancied there would be a battle soon enough, for Mairead’s boys were more venturesome than wrack gathering would satisfy, and after much greeting, the skiff would wet its keel again and Mairead would fold away her weeds.

Tam stood up and drove his fork in the sand. Beathan glanced at the creel and saw the boy had not shirked.

Tiugainn,’ he said, ‘I’ll help ye wi’ it.’

Tam crouched with the broad strap across his chest. Beathan got a grip on the creel and jerked it up, taking the weight as Tam got to his feet.

‘Tea an’ a smoke by the ingle[28] when we’re done,’ he said.

‘Ay, sounds well by me,’ Tam murmured, ‘tea an’ a smoke.’

They followed MacLean’s cart tracks for a while, first along the smooth sand beneath the high-water mark, then away from the shore along a track packed with stones laboriously hauled off the beach. Water ran from the hills, filling the ditches, soaking into everything not iron or stone and spilling down to the sea and still the sky brought ever more grey cloud. To any not raised to it, it would be a dreech sight, but to Beathan it was just the way of the world. On Skye it rained, and when it wasn’t raining you expected rain. That the wee burn running beside the track had flooded out twice and he and Tam had water round their ankles was only to be expected. The sound of the rain hissing on the stones and pocking the kelp in his creel replaced the boom of the sea, but it was not a cold rain or cold wind and he felt his flesh grow clammy with warmth and once drew the scarf away from his face to let the air against his skin.

At a fork in the track, MacLean had gone south but Beathan turned along the right-hand fork past the crofts of Rory MacInnes, the MacPhersons and the McMurdos. No one was stirring but a trickle of peat smoke spilled from the half open doors. For a brief moment in the rainy silence, he and Tam seemed the only things crawling on the earth. MacInnes had planted oats and the green shoots showed bravely against the sodden black earth. Much more of this and they would yellow and rot and there was not a thing MacInnes might do about it. For his sake and for his own sake and the sake of the sheep and every damn beast not born to water, Beathan hoped for the weather to break.

The track climbed to a liggat[29] bordering the King’s Port road. Pushing the gate aside, Beathan squeezed through, Tam hard at his shoulder.

‘Beathan! Will ye look at that.’

A black carriage, trailed by a second vehicle sped toward them.

‘It is the laird,’ Tam said. ‘Goin’ he is some.’ The boy stared at the carriage. Beathan saw the black pennants fluttering on the roof and a black plume on the horse’s head.

C’aite, be goin’ he? And why speed for a buryin’?’ Beathan asked.

‘Be the car he uses for buryings,’ Tam agreed, ‘ach! Beathan, aff wi’ yer hat. He be off tae Winchester now!’

Beathan recalled last night at the inn. ‘No concern o’ mine,’ he had said. The words seemed mean-spirited and he regretted them now.

‘Be it was all the talk at the inn last night,’ he said.

‘My Da’ told us,’ Tam said. ‘B’reckonin’ of some he was murdered, though makin’ a boiream fae naethin’ is the pleasure of folk[30].’

Mud and grit sprayed from the wheels and horse’s hooves, and Beathan protected his face, expecting a buffeting.

‘Ach, look out!’ Tam cried, ‘He is stoppin’ for us, the laird is.’

It was true, or nearly so, for the coachman had reined back and brought his horse to a trot and then he seemed to fix Beathan in his eye and lift his whipstaff in greeting. In answer, Beathan raised a hand and as if his was his signal the coachman bestirred the horse once more and Beathan pressed himself back against the stones to let it pass. He stayed like this, secure if he did not move one inch as the horse and the carriage passed and as it did he spied through the carriage window the man sitting inside. This gentleman had leant to the window, perhaps to open it or inquire of the abrupt decrease in his progress, but whatever the cause, for a second the laird’s eyes met Beathan’s through the glass and though there wasn’t time to speak or even blink, it seemed to Beathan that the man looked into his very soul …

…The instant the carriage cleared him, the coachman flicked the reins and the carriage picked up speed. Beathan stared after it, his mind still thinking of the laird’s face caught behind the glass.

‘Beathan, look tae ye!’ Tam dragged him back to the wall as a pair-horse and drag thundered by,[31] spraying him with mud and grit.

O Mhuire! Thruaighe mi!’ Beathan leant back against the wall and wiped the filth from his face. He was stunned by the noise and motion of the rushing carriage and there was the strangest smell, half-sweet, and half-rank but it was gone in an instant, blown away on the wind.

‘That be neo-chumhanta,’ Tam said[32], ‘must be right cheerisome the laird is this morn.’

Shaking the mud off his coat, Beathan stepped out into the road. The laird’s carriage had gone and moments later, the drag followed it, turning east toward Staves[33] and King’s Port. The laird’s face had not seemed cheery to him, quite the opposite.

‘How ye reckon that, Tam?’ he asked.

‘He was near stoppin’ fer us, or near enough,’ Tam squeezed through the gate slap onto the road. ‘Ye think he recognised us as his ain?’

Beathan laughed. He felt as though some hitherto undetected weight had been suddenly lifted from him, leaving his feet light on the ground. He did not think Tam’s reasoning was up to much and besides, it was he the laird’s eye seemed to catch.

‘This Prince William, he was the laird’s nephew?’ Beathan said.

‘He was sae,’ Tam agreed, ‘son o’ Lady Maud, the laird’s sister.’

‘Then you’ll be mournin’ him yersel will ye no, seein’ as he be yer cousin!’

Beathan stepped clear as Tam threw a fist.

‘Quit yer mockery o’ me. I’ll be a’provin it someday sae I shall.’

Seadh,’[34] Beathan humoured him, ‘seadh, but I reckon was this scarf o’ mine caught the laird’s blinkers, eh?’ he tugged at the scarf, as though to pull it from his face.

Tam scuttled away from him, holding the fork like a soldier’s pike. ‘Let that alone; ’se leathamadan, a th’annad, sae ye are.[35] My ma holds wi magick an’ a that an’ I’ll no be chancin’ that mark o’ yers. Magnus MacDonald mae chance ’t but he be an auld bugger an’ I has my life afore me, sae I have.’

Beathan laughed and tucked the scarf in place. ‘A’gettin’ along now an’ we shall have these creels off our backs the sooner. Worn out sae ye be fae a this work.’

‘You dinna need worry over me,’ Tam hollered. ‘A-mach à seo! an’ ye need no’ think of followin’ too close now. Tam skipped across the road and down the track toward the field, always keeping yards ahead of Beathan.

‘An’ I be no weary,’ he carried on, ‘no’ a bit, but ye keep in mind I be just a lad still. I’m no sae big as ye.’

‘Sae ye are, wee Tam, an’ I be tellin’ Katie Grogan when next I see ye a’courtin’. “Ah but Katie, he be just a wee laddie,” eh?’

‘Ye wilna,’ Tam yelled, ‘be jealous ye are.’

Beathan crossed the road and sauntered after the boy. Katie had a sweet smile but he knew it would never be flung his way.

‘Ay,’ he murmured, ‘be jealous I am.’

Climbing toward the sheep beild, he sensed something was awry. He could not say what exactly, or where the feeling came from but it was the same feeling as when a fellow tells a crock of falsehoods or the sky cannot decide if it’s to blow foul or fair, but as he walked he could not keep his fingers still or fix his mind on any one thing.

Nearing the doorway of the sheep beild he thought he heard a noise inside and stepped quickly aside as three crows flew out. He watched them fly across the brae, calling out in protest before turning out of view. The crow is a cantankerous creature who takes no pleasure in the company of its own kind. Something had drawn them inside the shelter and Beathan lit a candle before entering. The stink of sheep piss and manure stuck in his throat. There were no chinks in the thatch or walls and the place was blacker than night. Flies buzzed but nothing else stirred as he stepped cautiously around, cupping the candle and holding it low, close to the ground, thus finding what had brought the crows attention. Picking up the forlorn little corpse, he carried it outside and up the slope, away from the beild. It was a female; a harder loss than a ram, but it was not the beast he’d saved from the burn the day before.

The morning’s rain had passed, leaving a pale, watery sun in its place. Light streamed across the hills, catching all the crags and darkening all the fissures and cracks. The heather swayed in the wind and shadows rippled across the pale green growth, like the waves breaking on the shore. Some days the land was as unknowable and changeable as the sea and a man might never knowingly stand on the same place twice. Clouds across the sky, the shaping of the wind on the heather, the colour of light, it would change the look of the land so much. Even the naked rock, immovable and resilient, altered in look from hour to hour as the sun passaged from east to west, becoming smooth, then deep-riven as the light took it, then glowing a dull pink in the evening light.

An hour he spent cutting the tops off heather and fitting out the beild with fresh bedding. His scarf kept the muck off his face. A candle glimmered in a niche, but he’d put it there more for company than the use of it. The doorway faced eastward, and no sun fell within. What light there was had a pale, bluish quality that changed slowly as clouds passed over. Once or twice he thought a shadow had fallen across the doorway, but each time he was mistaken and put it down to a passing cloud. Nevertheless, he wished he still had his touch-piece for there was something or someone haunting him.

There was nothing wrong with the roof timbers; a blessing as they would be trouble to replace. The thatch was not bad, either. Heather thatch lasted a good long time. The worry was the ropes holding the anchor stones. These were made of lengths of heather twisted together and a good few had fallen apart and without them a high wind might strip the roof bare overnight. Walking around the beild he found the anchor stones and piled them together, then worked out how much rope was needed and noted it on a scrap of paper he’d brought along.

‘It’ll do,’ he said and glanced about as if for confirmation. A few sheep had broken off grazing to watch him but it was not their eyes he felt upon him.

‘You!’ he shouted at the emptiness. ‘Whatever ye be, know that I know ye are a’watchin’’ us.’

The sheep tore at the grass. Lambs hunkered out of the wind or skipped like thistledown on the breeze. A dozen crows squabbled up on the brae. Nothing was out of itself or out of place. Beathan glanced toward the gully where he’d lost his touchstone and rubbed his chest where the touchstone had lain. Shading his eyes from the dazzling sky he searched among the rocks for the white stag, though he did not believe it was the stag watching him. This gaze was something else, something less friendly but he could not be staring at shadows all afternoon. Putting it out of mind, he saw to the strength of the roof beams and figured in his head all that needed doing and what was needed to see it well.

It was late in the afternoon when he left off. The sky had cleared but the wind turned chill and he looked forward to tea and a sit by the fire: reaching home he found the iron kettle cold beside the remains of the fire. There was no sign of his grandfather.

‘Magnus, are ye about?’ he called.

Silence welcomed his cries. Crouching by the hearth stone he reached in among the seemingly cold dead peats and with blunt senseless fingers broke one carefully apart to expose the bright pink glow beneath the cold and grey and breathed on it to excite the flame. Once it had caught, he laid it down on the stone and gathered the other peats against it until the air trembled with the heat of it and he warmed his fingers.

The kettle was dry and as he filled it in the darkening yard, he called out again for his grand father. Silence answered. The thought he might be making his own supper displeased him and with each step and motion, his body grew more resistant and his thoughts more sluggish, like water crusting over as it freezes. Only when he had the kettle on the swee[36] had he shuffled off his shoes and settled to do nothing but listen to the water boil.

Even leaning to the fire chill air crawled over him like a spider. The day had been bleak, but no worse than yesterday and he’d not worked harder than the day before or the day before that, but he was weary to the bone. No going down the inn tonight; supper and bed would seem him. With the kettle boiled, he made tea and left it to steep by the fire and found a scrap of strength to make a supper of mutton bones and barley broth. The iron cookpot was a deal smaller than the kettle, and as he lowered the crook to bring it closer to the fire the hot chain swung back and burned his hand. Swearing he sucked on the reddened flesh.

He had grown up in this house. Every stone and every stick of furniture he had known all his life. Longer than it was wide, the sides of the room were bare stone and the ends planked with timber. The roof space was open, end-to-end and the peat reek drifted into every corner. Doors in the partition walls led to a small room where Magnus slept and an entranceway leading to the yard and the old byre. Beathan’s own bed was an alcove beside the door to Magnus’ room. A bit of sacking curtained it off from the living space. The fire burned in the centre of the room, its smoke escaping through the thatch as best it could and a chain hung down from the roof for holding kettle and cooking pots.[37] Decorations were few: a plain cross upon the wall, a china figure of Jesus on the dresser, and a pair of printer’s bills, stained dark with the smoke, advertising emigrant sailings. His grandfather had pinned them to the wall. Beathan supposed they brightened the place, or reminded a man there was worse luck at sea.

He drunk his tea with a splash of milk. It was well sitten, but the bitter taste was how he liked it. The broth heated through, he ate slowly and wonderingly for though each mouthful warmed his tongue and throat the heat failed inside him and he felt no benefit, as though his belly was a cold and bottomless hole and no amount of food would fill it. He thought of his Ma and how she had sickened and no amount of care and good eating did any good, and wondered, in a vague groping in the dark way, if he was sickening for something. Since he’d never known himself to sicken of anything the feeling had a curious novelty to it, for how might a man know something for the first time. The bowl wiped with a bit of bread and put back on the dresser he took out his mother’s Bible, thinking that if fire and food could not warm him, God’s Word might warm him as it had once warmed Mama. Pouring the last of the tea, he added a drop of milk and sat down to read in the candlelight. A black mark on the cover left dirt on his hand; the Bible had been mother’s comfort and drink had been his Da’s and one hungry night Da had ripped the Book from mother’s hands and flung it on the fire. Ignoring his blows and vile utterances, mother saved it before the pages burned, but not before the flames scorched the cover.

Presently Beathan reached in his pocket for the bit of stone he scratched with the rune. Thomas was right; it needed magick craft, not a scratch any fool might cut. He’d lost his touchstone, lost it in the burn saving the lamb and now he felt lost inside, as though something had broken away from him. Magnus said the bead was to protect him, but protect him from what: from falling sick, was this sickness from losing the bead?

How long he read he could not rightly tell for his reading became laboured, as though the words were knots and tangles that his fists could not break. Hearing a slam at the door, he called out, ‘Magnus, that ye?’ but he was met only by the wind at the door. He got his mawd and wrapped it around him. It was still damp but he didn’t care. The fire smouldered but gave no heat, though it seemed to warm the kettle well enough. He made tea again, but like his supper it only warmed the extremities of him and not his belly.

‘What’s wrong wi’ ye?’ he muttered and leant forward into the pool of candlelight. The holy words swam in the sickly yellow gloom. The morn was the Lord’s Day; he’d be hearing these words from Father Peabody at kirk. The Lord’s Day, the day of rest. He would not stir, save to haul his bones to chapel. Where in damnation was Magnus when he wanted him?

Fidgeting, he brought the book closer to his eyes, but it seemed to make no difference. It was as if something lay between him and the light, casting a shadow. Putting the book down, he rubbed his eyes. His cheek felt tender, as though he had caught the wind or sun and his hand came away bloodied.

Taking the candle to the dresser he stared into the mirror mounted between the shelves. His mark was bleeding, the blood seeping from the skin, like beads of sweat. The blood gathered and trickled down the crease beside his mouth and onto his lips. The taste was foul and he spat onto the floor. The light guttered and he could scarce see his own reflection. Wind hammered at the door, as though seeking entry. He could not sense how he came to be at the door and staring into the night. Rain spat from the darkness, wetting his face, wetting the blood dribbling from his mark. He could taste the blood in his mouth. Something had called him. He could not recall how he got from the chair by the fire to standing at the door and staring into the darkness, except something had wanted him here.

‘Magnus? Is it ye? Cò tha sin: who’s there?’

Came no answer but the moaning of the wind and the darts of rain splashing on his face. The night was black, over-clouded, neither moon or starlight penetrated the murk and no lights showed from any house. Nevertheless, something stirred. He caught a glimpse of paleness running across the hillside and recognised it: the white stag. It had come for him. He shivered, sensing now what it truly was.

‘Be savin’ us, Mhuire,’ he whimpered, ‘be savin’ us now.’

His voice could not have carried into the wind, but the creature halted, as though it heard him, then stepped carefully down through the rough ground. It leapt the dyke beside the road and he heard the soft crush of gravel and the rush of breath as it landed. The weight of its antlers briefly bowed its head to the road, then finding its feet it stood tall once more.

Its breathing was deep, and rhythmic, like the beating of a drum and he could smell it also: the musky stink of animal and hill-damp. It was no elemental thing, but seemed almost of ordinary flesh and blood and bone. Only its paleness marked it out of the ordinary, for despite the blackness, it seemed to walk in its own patch of moonlit, as though a different, and pleasanter night shone down upon it. His soul had come for him, so he believed; come to guide him to the far country where all go when this mortal toil is done.

Its antlers put him in mind of the mark scratched on his touch-piece and he fumbled in his pocket for the scrap of stone.

‘I have this,’ he said, thinking to show the beast he and it belonged together, no longer fearing death but simply wanting all in order.

It did not come to claim him, but held its distance, and as he stepped forward, it shied away, returning up the track toward the road.

The wind caught Beathan full, flapping his clothes around him like loosed sails about a mast. Rain beat against his face, washing the blood into his mouth and he near choked on the foul taste. He had the stone held out, like a penny for the giving-bowl at kirk, and stumbled after the white stag, tripping on stones and slipping in puddles and ruts. His shoes shipped water and his feet chilled, but he took no heed and did not stop until the beast settled on the Portree   Road and allowed him close.

It had not come to claim him but had some other purpose and he waited on it, even as it dipped its head and turned its antlers at him. He held his ground and tried not to shiver even as the rain coursed down his neck and waited for it to come to him in its own time and manner.

Then, it strained its neck forward, as though anxious to only let the least of it near him, and dipped its muzzle in his hand.

Warm breath; a sensation gentle as a mother’s kiss, then it turned away and leapt the dyke beside the road and turned toward the hills.

He did not move, except to follow its ghostly shape until he lost it in the darkness. He knew not to follow it, but folding his hand about the stone he returned home, falling twice in the darkness and each time barking his knuckles but not letting go the stone. The third time, he stayed fallen and crawled on his knees till he could close the door to his house and crawl, sodden and fully-clothed, beneath the blankets.

Dawn creeping beneath the doorway, Beathan woke to the sound of Magnus snoring in the back room. He was cold, despite the blankets over him, and he was wet. Soaked in his own sweat and maybe worse, for he thought he had soiled the bed. Cranking his mouth open, Beathan sucked at the air, his limbs, back, chest, and belly aching, as though he had been in battle.

‘God save us,’ he whispered and stared, terrified into the darkness.

<<< Prologue the First: The Tower >>> Prologue the Second: Tree of Crows

©Tamburlaine Bryce MacGregor and Nevil Warbrook


[1] The ‘Mary’ (Mhuire) Beathan refers to is of course the Virgin Mary. Editor

[2]Gaelic is the natural language of a Skyeman, yet the reader need not fear your author expects knowledge of the Gaelic tongue to appreciate this work. On occasion when there is need for full comprehension of the dialogue the author shall present it in a form more conducive to ordinary understanding. At present, however, there is no such need, for Beathan is saying nothing of weight or consequence, merely words of advice addressed to himself, and pleadings and encouragements addressed to the lamb. Accordingly, your author allows Beathan to speak in his native language without translation. If the reader cares to regard the scene as a dumb show, or as the French call it, a “mime”, he or she will have understood all that is necessary for the purpose of the narrative. MacGregor

[3]We are lately prone to seeing in nature all that is good and proper and in ourselves all that is unfit and immoral, as though nature were the true work of God and we, having strayed from Eden, are irrevocably tainted. The fact that a male lamb left to its own devices and “intact”, that is to say with the “devices” it was born with, will surely attempt to mate with its mother even before she has weaned it of her milk will suggest to some that man corrupts all he touches (for it is incontestable that man has long interfered in the natural breeding of sheep) while suggesting to others that “perfect” nature should not guide us in all things. The canny farmer, washing on the one hand not to have the lamb breed with its mam – offspring thus made are invariably weak and sickly – while washing it to drink of mother’s milk for as long as possible so it may grow plump, nips, or castrates those males he does not intend to breed from. Whether lambs thus treated bleat at a higher pitch than their intact brethren, as do the Italian castrati, I leave for the musically minded to discover. MacGregor

[4] Ach, is comna dhomhsa còc: But it is no matter to me. Editor

[5] The Bay of Staves, or Staffin Bay as the cartographer writes it, takes its name from the basalt columns found in the cliffs thereabouts. The island of Staffa, lately made famous by Herr Mendelssohn, shares the same origin, both lexically and geologically. MacGregor

[6] Castlebay is my rendition of Brogaig. The castle element (Brog) surely refers to Dun Beag, an ancient hill fort some half-mile inland. MacGregor

[7] Spaer and spaewife are near synonyms and MacGregor uses them interchangeably. Formally they should only be employed by a woman between the menarche and the menopause whose natural ability with magick had been schooled at a recognised seminary or college. Informally, any woman practicing magick might describe herself so. In recent times, ‘mystic’ and ‘clairvoyant’ have superseded both terms. Editor

[8] Officially the Staffin Inn, its local name An Tigh Bàn or ‘the white house’ comes from it being the only lime-washed dwelling in the district. MacGregor

[9] The common Gaelic greeting among Highland folk. Editor

[10] Under Scottish law of the time, only premises with a room employed solely for the consumption of alcohol required a license from the magistrate. As an unlicensed hosteller, MacInnes must beware visits from the Excise Men and the Bailie, hence the noisy presence of his wife. Editor

[11] The Stirling Castle was the mail-packet serving Oban, Skye and the Inner Islands in the 1850s and 60s. MacGregor himself sailed on her during his visit to Skye in 1858. Editor

[12] A ship said to be storm-sted or weatherbound has taken shelter in a bay to wait out bad weather. Little Fort is better known as Dunvegan where you shall find the home of the Laird of MacLeod with whom MacGregor and Lady Helena spent a week during a cruise of the Hebrides in the autumn of 1858. Editor

[13] The Minch is the strait between Skye and the Outer Islands. It has an unenviable reputation. Editor

[14] Champ is a generic Scottish dish of mashed potatoes often combined with leftovers. Variations of it may be found all over The Isles and no doubt further abroad. Editor

[15] Remnants of an ancient pine forest now preserved in the peat. Editor

[16] The day-trippers and summer visitors who came to the island from Glasgow and wider afield. Although we think of tourism (as it was later known) as a modern phenomenon it was even in MacGregor’s time a significant part of Skye’s economy. Editor

[17] Duntulm, in the Gaelic means castle or fortress on a small hill. MacGregor

[18] is comna dhomhsa còc: No concern of mine. Editor

[19] Dreachmhor meaning fine-looking or handsome and applies to both men and women. Editor

[20] Tall and thin. Attributes which we now admire but which in former times were less well regarded. Editor

[21] In the Northern Tradition, a spaewife’s given name was formed from a combination of runes, usually two or occasionally three in number, which together conveyed something of the individual’s character or appearance. Thus, Thorwynna might describe a large and rather jolly woman, and Tyrbeithe, a woman slender as a birch tree but possessing physical strength or strength of character. Frequently an e or a was added to the name to lend a degree of femininity. The pronunciation of Eolhwynne may give the reader a little difficulty. Correctly, it is Aye-yol-h-win with equal stress on the first, second and fourth syllables, and ‘h’ being the merest of sighs. However, if four syllables seems excessive, the author offers ‘Ale-win’ as a more easily remembered alternative. MacGregor

[22] Clachan, meaning a small township or cluster of houses. When discriminating between one ‘Clachan’ and another (and there are several upon Skye) the name of the parish or nearest settlement is appended. MacGregor

[23] The three pipes held upright over the piper’s shoulder that provide accompaniment to the melody played on the chanter. Other comparisons might be a rusty gate swinging in the wind or the hee-haw of a donkey. Aficionados of the highland pipes may not agree. Editor

[24] Buamastair: a noisy fool or practical joker. Editor

[25] Garrafad or Garafadda, on the map – like so much of Gaelic orthography the spelling is not fixed – “Dike-long” or “Wall-long” is the literal translation. MacGregor

[26] Large wickerwork baskets carried on the back. Editor

[27] The Crimean War of 1854-7 when France, Austria, the Venetian Republic and the Kingdom of Sardinia, allied with the Ottoman Empire to narrowly defeat Russian expansionist ambitions in the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean. Although events of the war were closely followed in Scotland and Angaland and the sentiment of the people and government was anti-Russian, neither country took an active part in the conflict. Editor

[28] Fire, as in inglenook, the nook or niche where the fire is set. Editor

[29] A self-closing gate. Editor

[30] Boiream can refer simply to any form of news or surprising information but generally refers to rumour or speculation of an excitable and gossipy nature. Those among us who regard such matters as the prerequisite of the female of the species might draw comfort from its similarity with the Gaelic word for woman ‘boireannach’. However, as Gaelic offers boir, meaning elephant, boirche for both elk, buffalo and the thick edge of any item, and boireal meaning a joiner’s brace in similar juxtaposition the author suggests the similarity is one of coincidence not significance. MacGregor

[31] A drag was a large private carriage often used, as here, by a gentleman to convey his servants and baggage. Editor

[32] Neo-chumhanta: Unusual or surprising. The prefix, ‘neo’ acts like the Anglish prefix ‘un’ to reverse the meaning and is not related to the Greek for ‘new’. Editor

[33] The township of Staffin. MacGregor

[34] Seadh is most convenient word meaning yes, yea, just so, as you say, etc. It is equally to be employed in an encouraging manner, showing intense agreement of opinion with another or ironically to show a lack thereof. MacGregor

[35] ’Se leathamadan, a th’annad means you are a (literally) half-man, implying childish or child-like. MacGregor

[36] An iron ‘S’ shaped hook for holding a kettle or pot above an open fire. Editor

[37] A passage in MacGregor’s journal written during his time at Dunvegan clearly shows he took this description from life, but neither the location nor the name of the occupant of the hovel is recorded. A further note suggests Lord MacLeod thought MacGregor’s interest in the blackhouses and their occupants more than a little eccentric. Editor

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