Chapter Two : Noblesse Oblige

noblesse oblige titled

Skye – the present returns

The character and circumstance of Lord MacDonald of Skye, shewing his domestic life & responsibilities and the onerous task he undertakes

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That amber charm did me oppress but now releas’d by water’s grace will I My Lady’s guilt atone! Fly blithe spirit, seek one that I may bless… and so to wind and stone at last regress

Lord MacDonald leant back against the worn upholstery of his carriage and wished he were still at home.

The air was foul, an evil mix of polish, mildew, and lavender: the last a gift from his wife as he was leaving. His head throbbed, miserably and despite the rain, he felt obliged to lower the droplight for some air and reached forward for the droplight. As he did so he discovered they had slowed somewhat, apparently for two men standing on the highway. These they passed and for the briefest moment he found himself face to face with a young man with his face covered by a scarf, like some ruffian of old.

The moment was fleeting but he had the strong impression he had seen the man before. The thought passed in a moment and as the carriage resumed its proper speed he closed the window to prevent the ingress of rain.

An hour earlier, his entire household had gathered beneath an awning in the courtyard to see him away, Finlay McNeil, his groom had opened the chariot’s door, and his wife, Clara, who, MacDonald noted was not properly attired for the weather, suddenly stepped forward as though to board. Fearing a scene, for his wife had only reluctantly accepted her journeying with him was out of question, he nearly ordered Finlay to close the door in his wife’s face, when Clara halted, recoiling sharply, and clasped one hand over her nose, and the other across their unborn child.

‘But my dear, it smells appalling! Emily,’ she turned to her maid. ‘Kitchen garden, quickly now, lavender, a good clutch.’

‘Yes m’lady.’

‘Clara, I cannot delay,’ he protested.

‘Oh Pish! Darling, what does a few minutes matter? Two days with that foul smell and you will be ill. Don’t you agree, McNeil?’

The groom, plainly startled, coughed slightly before speaking. ‘I canna speak for the laird, m’leddie,’ the man said in broad Scots, ‘but a wudna find it ’greeable mysel.’

‘Thank you: you see my dear; even the servants think it too bad.’

‘Very well. I suspect it was not properly aired. Matters have been rushed.’

He stepped back under the awning. He might insist on leaving, without his wife’s gift, but it would leave a sour taste and he must concede the smell inside the carriage was not pleasant.

‘Leave the door, McNeil, a little air inside it will help.’

No sun shone through the cloud and the courtyard had a heavy, gloomy look, not improved by the naturally dark stone. An irregular quadrangle, its longest side accommodated the main part of the house, with the servants’ quarters, built a hundred years later and in plainer style, at right angle to it. The shortest side consisted of the gatehouse with a modest coach house and stables alongside, while a wall overlooking the sea bound the fourth and least regular side of the courtyard. Repeated rock falls from the cliffs below gave the wall a sway-backed appearance and the same depredation increasingly threatened the stables. Apart from a creeper covering part of the coach house, the courtyard was devoid of vegetation, the gardens, some weeks off their best, lying to the rear of the house away from the sea.[1]

Outside the coach house, a large drag, painted in a deep shade of maroon, stood waiting. Its passengers were Lord MacDonald’s footman and his spaewife who were accompanying him to Winchester. Finlay McNeil would join them once he had seen his master aboard the black chariot. The drag, drawn by a pair horse, was carrying the bulk of the baggage.

‘Clara, we must return inside. You may catch a chill,’ MacDonald said.

‘I have a fire to return to, and Doctor Ramsey assures me fresh air is restorative.’

The air was decidedly too fresh and MacDonald glanced sympathetically at his coachman. John Duff had a miserable day ahead; likewise the man’s son, Iain, who had charge of the drag.

The maid returned, hair flying loose.

‘Emily, my dear, where is your bonnet?’ Clara asked.

‘Wind did took it m’lady an’ aw’d nae time to be at the running after. Aw’ve the lavender ye was wantin’.’

Emily gathered her hair and as she handed Clara the lavender he noticed the girl glance coyly toward his coachman’s son. It was an open secret at Duntulm that Emily and Iain Duff were walking out together and he wondered how much, if any effort she had made to retrieve the bonnet.

Clara gathered the stems and produced from some pocket or recess that women always seem to have at hand, a pink ribbon to yoke them together.

‘Thank you,’ he said and cautiously sniffed the little posy. It was cloyingly sweet, but preferable to the smell of his carriage.

‘And this is for you as well,’ Clara thrust a book in her husband’s hand. ‘You really must have something agreeable to read. No, you must not protest.’

He stared at the thing in his hand. ‘I have the Times,’ he said, ‘which I have barely glanced at since yesterday, and a mining report to study.’ His wife’s eyes narrowed dangerously. ‘But I will certainly consider,’ he glanced at the novel’s spine, ‘Edwin and Morcar, Tam MacGregor,[2] I believe I have not read it.’

So saying, he dropped the book on the carriage seat, quite intending to leave it there, having never read, or considered reading, anything by MacGregor, Copperfield, or Hannay[3], or any other manufacturer of popular prose.

‘I shall pray for you; you will take all care?’

Her voice was plaintive; he knew her request was part question, but chiefly a requirement laid on him. Clara had, in his opinion, elaborated the dangers of his journey and particular purpose.

He leant forward and kissed his wife decorously on the cheek.

‘Mind you do not overtire yourself, my dear,’ he said. ‘Pray for me, as you wish, but do so from the comfort of the fire.’

Clara preferred the chapel – she thought prayers offered in it had more value than those committed at the bedside – but he thought it wholly too damp and chill for one in her delicate condition.

‘Hurry home soon as you may and I shall weary myself still less,’ she said.

He refrained from sighing, but reminded her to heed the advice of Doctor Ramsey.

‘He would wrap me in wool and never let me leave the fireside,’ Clara protested.

‘He is man after my own heart,’ he said. ‘Well, my dear, now will you let me go?’

Her hand squeezed the soft flesh above his elbow and he felt her lips brush his ear. ‘If you must. If you truly must.’

‘Truly, I must,’ he rested a foot on the carriage step.

‘Then God speed your return my darling.’

He thought to kiss her properly, but determined he must continue he climbed into the chariot. Finlay McNeil swung the door behind him. As he sat, Clara stepped up to the window, ignoring the swirling rain, and gave him the sweetest of smiles before freeing a hand from its glove and inscribing a heart, a little smaller than a goose egg, upon the window.

Impulsively, a sudden, uncharacteristic rapture thrilling through him, Kelso MacDonald touched his hand to its centre.

At the same moment, she stepped back from the carriage and lowering her head a fraction, gazed solemnly at him from beneath the pale arches of her brows. Her hair foamed from beneath her bonnet and fell about her cheeks, and he took in her blue eyes and bright smile; the fall of hair to her shoulders, bare beneath a white shawl that framed her décolletage, and, below again, his eyes reached the fullness of her belly where his child lay.

The carriage swayed. John Duff had readied himself. Lifting a hand in goodbye, Lord MacDonald glanced in turn at all those gathered to see him off. Emily’s dress had trailed in the earth but someone had found her a fresh bonnet. Next to her stood his gillie, Donal MacHeath, then Peigi MacNiesh, his housekeeper and next her James McMurray the doorkeeper. On the far side of Clara, Mrs Neave, his cook, waited with Niamh and Kirsty, the kitchen maids. The cook was not returning his gaze but looking at the drag for her husband was Gillanders Neave, the footman accompanying him to Winchester. Others sheltering in the porch were Fergas McCoy his butler, beside him a stableman, then a tacksman, and Keith Gillespie his secretary.

He could not make out all their faces for rain on the glass blurred the view, but all save his wife on whose unborn child it would call ill luck, wore a black sash in honour of Prince William.

Returning his gaze to Clara, Lord MacDonald tapped the doorframe with his cane, signalling the coachman.

The carriage lurched, its wheels juddering on the wet gravel, and turned to exit through the gatehouse. He had a last glimpse through the arch of his wife and servants but then the drag, following close behind, blocked the view.

Leaning back against the seat he settled his hands upon the silver top of his cane and puffed out his cheeks. He did not like goodbyes, nor did he much enjoy journeys. Thinking it would be his last sight of home for some time, he stared out at the pine and birch trees overarching the road.

Among them clumps of Indian rhododendrons were swathed with white and pink buds[4] and abruptly, having forgotten such simple pleasures in the last few days, he realised he would miss their flowering.

‘Damn you William,’ he cursed under his breath and was at once ashamed of speaking ill of his nephew and of the dead. ‘Damn,’ Lord MacDonald paused and glanced from the window to the copy of the Times and this time spoke aloud: ‘Damn whoever spilt your blood, for I will know their name.’

He only a moment ago closed the window and comported himself again upon the seat, when the carriage swerved and slowed to a near halt. A man had hailed them and glancing out, MacDonald found beside them a cart laden with seaware. One William MacLean stood upon it and he supposed it was this man had hailed them. MacDonald lowered the window.

‘MacDonald, sir,’ MacLean addressed him the way all Gaels addressed their clan chief, ‘washed out footings o’ the bridge, the spate has.’

‘How badly?’ he asked. ‘Will it bear us and the drag?’

This had now drawn up behind them.

‘I canna say, sir. Yersel, ay, like it will, but that,’ the man glanced at the heavier carriage. ‘I canna say.’

Would not say; the man did not want to be responsible for disaster. MacDonald sighed and called for his coachman. It was possible to return to Duntulm[5] and make for Portree via Uig and Loch Snizort, but not if he intended to be at his cousin’s by nightfall.

Duff climbed down from his perch and came to the window.

‘We’ll be there, sir. See how the bridge stands. If needs be we can lighten oursels. As ye say, we canna make Dornie by way o’ Uig, no’ by the night.’

‘Very well; it is to be expected in this,’ he glanced at the sky. ‘MacLean, if you would show Mr Duff the situation.’

‘Sir, ye could cry on Eolhwynne,’ Duff said.[6]

‘Indeed, have her to assist you. Only have us across the bridge in one piece. If need be, I shall dismount, and those in the drag must do likewise. Go to it.’

Lord MacDonald retreated to his seat and raised the window glass, cursing the weather whose vicissitudes tore up so much of the country with gale and rain. To add expenditure to delay, this was a mere district road[7] and its upkeep fell upon the estate’s purse.

Mulling on this, he took out his pipe and tobacco while keeping an eye and ear on the scene outside, first overhearing Duff speaking to Eolhwynne and then seeing them walk with Mr MacLean toward the stricken bridge. The woman had wrapped a dark red cloak about her against the rain, but left herself bareheaded. One hand she had clamped to her hair to prevent the wind blowing it while the other held the pouch with her runestones. His instinct was to trust the pragmatic Mr Duff rather than magick and he hoped the woman was not long in satisfying whatever gods or spirits guarded their way, or at least no longer than it took Duff to appraise the state of the bridge.

Meantime, the MacLeans had not let this interruption hold them back from unloading their cart. The eldest son, MacDonald recalled, had drowned last autumn – the funeral was the last occasion he had made use of the chariot – and he was surprised to see the boy’s mother still wore mourning blacks. In the absence of their father, a pair of brothers, themselves nearly men, stood in the back of the cart and busily pitched the sodden seaware into the drying-yard while their crow-garbed mother held the horse’s bridle, though he thought the skinny beast more likely to drop dead from fatigue than upset the cart behind it. Several seconds of vague interest suddenly sparked the realisation that the unfortunate animal had once dwelt in his own stable at Duntulm and most probably had hauled the very carriage in which he now sat.

About this scene, and in between his own carriage and the drag, a young boy and girl, both barefooted, raced about with shrieks and grimaces and generally made themselves a nuisance.

After ten minutes of this diverting scene and with his pipe well alight, MacDonald saw Duff and Eolhwynne return with Mr MacLean. Duff and MacLean looked no different, but Eolhwynne’s wet skirts suggested she had been dabbling in the stream. Duff approached and he lowered the window.

‘How is it?’

‘Well enough, sir, but best ye got yersel down for the while. I’ll take the horse over w’ yer car, then give lad a hand wi’ drag. Eolhwynne agrees it’s the best we can do.’

The woman had joined Duff at the window. Rain flecked her hair but despite the inclement conditions, the woman seemed in her element and her cheeks had a rosy glow.

‘What say you?’ MacDonald expected to hear little of use but he should be considerate.

‘The river is very forceful, my lord. I cannot tell what damage it has done.’

‘But we are safe?’ he pushed.

‘I believe so, though I believe the bridge will not stand much longer.’

Repairs and a bill: at least it would provide work for some. He gritted his teeth and taking his coat with him, stepped down onto the road. The ridge was black against the sky but seemed to offer no protection from wind or rain. Everything ran with water and he felt the damp reach in through his layers of clothing, like prying fingers. Duff led the horse and carriage across the bridge without alarm and seeing them safely crossed instantly followed and retook his seat. Presently, with the drag also safely across, the journey recommenced and taking out his watch he calculated they had lost perhaps forty minutes of the day.

MacLean’s industry was admirable, he considered once he had settled again, but kelp was better on the land than burnt for ash. What might it fetch? Two and one half crowns a ton, a pittance, he reckoned, and settling into a familiar line of thought, he recalled his Grandfather, glass in hand and back to the fire, one hand slicing the air like a rapier as he berated Buonoparte’s evil ways.

The fire was in the Edenborough town house, bought on the proceeds from kelp, for as was the fashion of those times, Grandfather had hired a tacksman to run the estate, and only visited Duntulm in the season for grouse shoots and deer stalking with his expensive, city friends. While they sported in the hills, men laboured on the rocky shore to cut the best of the weed, launching their little boats even in appalling weather. Grandfather and his tacksmen brought settlers to the island and encouraged early marriage to bring big families, eager for more men to cut the kelp and greater profit on the scaleyard at Portree. Ricks piled high all summer and as the skies yellowed with smoke, the MacDonalds departed for Edenborough without a backward glance at autumn and the coming winter.

For him, that was always a time of sadness, for Arthur’s Seat seemed poor exchange for the wonders of the Quiraing. Both his grandfather and his father had blamed his melancholy and love of wild places on too much poetry. Maud, his elder sister, had understood, but then Maud seemed to understand everyone, that was her gift.

The war with Buonoparte over, peace brought imports of Spanish barilla and the beginning of the end for the kelp. Superior to kelp-ash and a fraction the price, overnight, or so it seemed, the kelp market collapsed from twenty crowns to barely five. A tariff on barilla helped kelp survive another decade, but the soap and glass manufactories who were its chief customers, forced repeal and the price halved again. Except for a few holdfasts like the MacLeans, kelp was finished and thus had a celebrated victory led to famine, penury, and hopelessness. A ship-owner now rented the Edenborough town house and Grandfather’s grouse had long ago filled the crofter’s cook-pots. Only the deer remain, still wandering the lonely hills.[8]

Grandfather, for all his faults, had at least been jolly company, at least until his final chair-bound years. Duntulm was a glum place nowadays and he wondered how Clara bore it. At least he would be meeting Georgie at Inverness. Sometimes he regretted persuading George that Aberdeen was the best Catholic University in Scotland.

The thought of his son brought to mind the boy’s face. Those deep brown eyes and a habit of compressing his mouth into a moue during rare moments of seriousness, George took from Arabella, his first wife. Since her death, he had been ten years alone at Duntulm, a grave mistake, he now saw, for solitude had not suited him half so well as he thought and was cruel on the boy. Thank God for Clara, and he had to thank God for he could see no quality in himself that had won him her favour, for this last year, even when loneliness seemed an unbreakable habit, her sweet nature and unguarded affections had lifted his spirits.[9] All the more bitter then, that this foul business in Winchester dragged him away at such a time.

He had been inattentive and allowed his pipe to go out. Relighting it, Lord MacDonald sat back and pulled his coat about him for warmth. Shuffling through the Times and the surveyor’s report, he picked up the novel and damned if he was going to be constrained by MacGregor’s contrivances, opened a page at random and began reading.

He had inherited the estate and title in 1838, the year Georgie was born and five years after the death of his own father who fell in the Dutch wars. Peace had come, but Grandfather, distrustful of politics, urged him to clear land for sheep. Sheep, the old man calculated would profit the estate twice what it would receive through rent, should parliament rescind the duty on barilla.

Of course, Grandfather was not the only laird to see the future in sheep and thousands of evicted tenants had taken to emigrant ships for Labrador or Quebecque. Nevertheless, the old man put few of his plans into effect: ‘Change,’ he had said, ‘is for the young, not the old and decrepit.’ Instead, he pointed to deficiencies at Duntulm: the roof of the Great Hall and the inadequacy of the kitchens and their distance from the dining room, leading food to arrive cold at the table. All these, Grandfather said, would benefit from the profit from sheep, though why they had not benefited from kelp the old man never made clear.

Twenty years after Grandfather’s death, there were no more sheep than the uplands could support and none of his tenants had lost their lands. The sag in the Great Hall’s roof remained, but the old morning room now served as family dining room and, with a hoist to the kitchens below, Lord MacDonald now enjoyed his dinners hot. He was content with his stewardship of the estate.

They stopped again to water the horses at Lealt Bridge, and a little over one hour following that, arrived at the Royal Hotel, Portree where a young man approached his carriage.

MacDonald recognised the lad: it was Murdo Dixon’s runner.

‘MacDonald, sir, Mr Dixon was askin’ if ye had time t’see him afore ye go.’

‘I do, but not much,’ Lord MacDonald replied. ‘He is at the house?’

‘That he is, sir. Shall I run fetch him?’

‘Indeed. But quick, I do not expect to be above an hour.’

There would be such matters, Lord MacDonald thought. There always were. He watched the lad leave; he was fleet footed and should take five minutes to get to Portree House. Murdo Dixon would need rather more to return. He trusted there was no delay. Meantime, John Duff and Finlay McNeil had the horse out of the shafts and a stable boy stood by with a decent looking post-horse.[10]

‘John, where is Eolhwynne?’

‘Inby, sir,’ Duff said. ‘They’d a room for her.’[11]

‘Good. I expect to be a while with Dixon. You have time for a dram. God knows you must need it today.’ The man’s coat was dark with rain. ‘You too, McNeil. My account, naturally.’

‘Gracious o’ ye, sir,’ Duff said. ‘An’ the laddie?’

MacDonald smiled. ‘I leave that to your conscience. He’s your son.’

‘If I warrants it, so dis he. I’ll look out for him.’

Splashing back to the hotel entrance Lord MacDonald let himself in, finding the snug empty and its fire lit. Gillanders took away his hat and coat for drying and McNair, the hotel’s license-keeper, came to see him.

‘Greetings your lordship, a whisky is it?’

‘Thank you, yes.’

He sat in a wingback chair and leant toward the fire. From the saloon, he could hear Gaelic, Anglish, German and possibly Norwegian or Danish. In bad weather ships often refuged at Portree.

McNair brought a whisky and jug of warm water across to his table.

‘You have a crowd in this morning.’

‘Blow-ins,’ McNair said, ‘we’re thranged the day; three boats storm-sted. Got one from Bergen, a Hansard.[12] They were after a slate for the officers but I telled they, “Silver, or go dry”,’ the innkeeper tapped the bar-top for emphasis. ‘What do they take me for? Weather clears,’ he pointed a finger skywards, ‘they’ll be skivin’ off wi’out a thought.’

‘That flag on a ship brings out the worst in men,’ he agreed.

The flag was the red and white of the Hanseatic Company. Hansard was the common name for them, though ‘Jews of the Sea’ was also popular, and reflected their business practices. Feeling the welcome heat of the spirit slide into his chest, Lord MacDonald glanced at his watch, finding the time a quarter after ten and stretched out his legs toward the fire. Circulation returned to his feet.

Murdoch Dixon arrived some twenty minutes later, leather bag in one hand and walking cane in the other. Setting the bag on the table and his cane against the chair, Dixon shook his hand and sat opposite him.

‘You were delayed?’ Dixon said.

‘Both leaving Duntulm and again at Brogaig,’ MacDonald said.

Dixon adjusted his spectacles and opening a notebook.

‘At Brogaig,’ MacDonald continued, ‘have the road inspector look at the bridge.’

‘Repairs?’ Dixon asked.

‘Most likely, agree to whatever he decides. We are obliged to maintain the road and cannot argue against him. Now to business: I shall be away at least three weeks. Confidentially, the funeral is set for the twelfth but it has not been made public yet.’

Dixon scribbled away and nodded to show he was attentive.

‘How soon I can return after that date I am uncertain,’ he concluded.

The factor looked up. ‘I did not think you would delay returning. What of Clara?’

‘I appreciate your concern,’ Lord MacDonald sighed, ‘and I have not forgotten her condition, quite the contrary, in idle moments I think of nothing else, but I find William’s death troubling, don’t you agree?’

However informally Lord MacDonald might speak to them, relations with almost all his people was one of master and servant. The exception was Murdoch Dixon, both his factor and a man he regarded as a friend.

‘It does seem unnatural,’ Dixon said, ‘healthy young men rarely drop dead without reason.’

‘You understand, then?’

‘I do.’ Dixon paused. ‘There will be an official investigation,’ he said in mollifying tone.

‘Which will reveal what is ‘officially’ acceptable,’ Lord MacDonald said dismissively. ‘I learned enough about the Royal Court from Maud when she was with us. A Royal House always protects itself, even from its sons, or should I say especially from its sons, since they are the most likely to bring it disrepute.’[13]

Dixon did not argue, though did not appear wholly convinced.

‘In any event,’ he continued, ‘William was half MacDonald, and as clan chief I have the right to know how he died. You have sent notice to the shipping company at Inverness?’

‘For an additional cabin, yes,’ Dixon was clearly anxious for a change of subject, ‘with the mail-packet storm-bound, I hired a post-boy. He assures me he handed it to the mailcoach at Loch Alsh. You could confirm by post-horse when you reach Invermoriston, they make regular passage through the glen.’

MacDonald nodded. ‘Well, what have you for me?’

Dixon took a sheaf of letters from the bag. ‘These are received yesterday and this morning. Condolences, in the main, though this one is a little unusual. Robert Lockhart extends his sympathy.’ Dixon showed it him. The letter had a drawing attached. ‘He proposes a memorial for the Prince.’

He did not understand.

‘You recall Lockhart has part share in the Cill Chriosd Quarry,’ Dixon said.

‘Good God. The boy’s not even cold,’ he took the letter from Dixon. ‘What are these numbers?’

‘Dimensions and costs, I haven’t studied it carefully.’

‘There is a Hansard ship weather bound here. Lockhart would do well with them, I fancy,’ MacDonald said.

Dixon gathered the letters together and handed them over the table. There must be thirty in number, he thought, and each must have a reply.

‘Any other matters?’ he asked.

‘Yes, from the Emigration Society[14],’ Dixon said, ‘I need your authorisation to release the monies.’ The factor handed him a letter with several pages attached.

Settling himself, Lord MacDonald glanced down the names, then, bitten by guilt, read more slowly. Some names could put a face to, others he recalled the land they rented; a few, to his shame, he could not place at all. Each crofter had required permission to vacate the land and in exchange received ten crown five shilling, as agreed between the estate and the Society, plus cost of passage at steerage rate, for the man and his dependants.

He paid closest attention to the ship’s particulars, provided in a short paragraph at the foot of the document:  “The Hector” he read, “of the Blue Star Company, Liverpool: three-masted brig with auxiliary engines: Master Joseph Baiting, Mate Uriah Copper. Crew of forty-five, all temperate and reliable men.”

The Hector would vittle at Portree and leave on the 14th for Arcadia[15] and Quebecque.

‘Next Thursday,’ he mused. ‘Is she a good ship?’

MacDonald trusted Dixon to have done his work. He had no truck with ships of ill repute or anything that smacked of un-seaworthy.

‘Three crossings,’ Dixon said, ‘a few losses in steerage, but no contagions. I should not put faith in temperate, though.’

‘Perhaps not. Call on her captain, won’t you. See he runs a good ship. Your pen, please.’

There were always losses, Lord MacDonald reflected. Reluctant to leave the land they had known all their lives; many were half-starved even before the rigours of the passage. He knew his grandfather would have dismissed the sentiment, but he felt the MacDonalds had failed these wretches.

He signed the papers and returned them to Dixon.

‘That’s it, then?’

‘Apart from my personal condolences, sir, though if you delay in Winchester, you might persuade Lord Egan to reintroduce tax on Spanish barilla.’

He smiled. ‘I will try, though doubt he will be swayed.’

The snug door opened and John Duff entered.

‘Well?’ Lord MacDonald asked.

‘We can go when yer ready, milord.’

‘Thank you John. Inform McNair, he has care of my hat and coat.’

Duff left and Murdoch Dixon removed his spectacles and closed the leather bag. The man looked as though he had bitten an apple and found it sour.

Lord MacDonald sympathised and as both men stood, he took Dixon’s hand.

‘Thank you, Murdoch. Thank you indeed. Not a word of my concerns regarding William.’

‘Clara knows of your intentions?’ Dixon asked.

‘She does,’ he admitted.

‘I had wondered why Eolhwynne’s travelling with you,’ Dixon said. ‘I imagine she might prove useful at Winchester.’

‘You believe so?’ Lord MacDonald asked. ‘Spaeing is a mystery to me, always has been. Ethelfeyrda I might have trusted, but Eolhwynne is damnably young. Frankly, I would she had remained at Duntulm, but Clara insisted I take her. That was the price for taking her into my confidence.’

McNair joined them, with his hat and coat dried and cleaned as promised.

‘Make the most of your blow-ins, McNair. I must be off.’

The man helped him into the coat.

‘It was a good day for hostellers when Hansards gave up temperance,’[16] McNair said. ‘God speed an’ preserve ye, sir.’

Murdoch Dixon came with him to the roadside. The rain had increased and Finlay McNeil stood ready to open the carriage door with a cape over his head and shoulders.

‘If He wished me speed, Murdoch, He would have sent fairer weather. Goodbye friend and take care of my people. I do not care for this business at Winchester, not at all. One final thought, that emigrant list, how many were employed at Cill Chriosd?’

‘Two or three,’ Murdoch said, ‘I can confirm and write you at Winchester.’

‘Do that, and tell Lockhart I am considering his offer, with conditions.’

And with that he nodded for McNeil to open the door and leapt aboard.

William of Normandy’s fleet lay in ruins; destroyed by storm before reaching Angaland’s shore. Now steeped in blood, the brothers Edwin and Morcar, earls of Mercia and Northumberland, sought to overthrow the power of Wessex and plotted the death of Harold Godwinsson….[17] An hour into the novel, he found MacGregor had the curious ability to bring the past to vigorous life and tell it as though truths, other than the historical, might prevail.[18]

Despite the author’s skill, the whisky and the regular motion of the carriage proved stronger, and closing the book, Lord MacDonald leant against the cushions and closed his eyes.

The inn at Broadford arrived quickly. As at the Royal, he found a fire lit and his rightful dram quickly offered. Food was simple fare, but agreeable: mutton broth followed by cold venison with juniper sauce and potato mashed with butter. Several glasses of port washed it down. Except to serve the food, the hosteller said little and no one disturbed him. Immediately on retaking his seat Lord MacDonald fell into a profound slumber, and remained thus until woken by an unpleasant jarring motion. Seeing they were arrived at Kyleakin, the violent shaking arising from the granite setts laid in the quayside, Lord MacDonald opened his pocket-glass and smoothed his hair down and straightened his collar before the carriage drew up at the Kyle Inn: Kyleakin’s only hostelry of note.

Once halted, John Duff opened the door for him.

‘Cobbles are wet, sir. Ye be carefu’ noo.’

His vantage in the carriage doorway gave Lord MacDonald an unusual view of his head coachman: the dome of a tweed hat above a foreshortened face that seemed all brow and cheekbones. He thought it an honest face, save for the luxuriant moustache and beard concealing the man’s mouth and jaw. Collecting his hat and cane from the seat, he exited backward.

Once upon the road he glanced round to see the drag arriving and noted the rain had ceased and streaks of blue broke up the cloud.

‘The ferry?’ he asked.

‘Nar ready for us,’ Duff answered.

 Lord MacDonald saw his footman descend from the drag.

‘Gill, get down to the ferry and see all is in order.’

‘Ay sir.’

The wind was damnably cold. Wanting exercise to restore his limbs, Lord MacDonald walked along the edge of the sea wall and looked down into the harbour. Fishing luggers lined the quay wall, waiting out the bad weather, each with a few miserable gulls standing watch. Farther off, where the beach met the surf, he saw Calum MacAuley’s ferryboat wallowing in the shallows with the man’s son, Alasdair installing a temporary deck for the carriage.

Beyond the harbour mouth, a beam of sunlight lit up the mountains but the sea remained the same unpleasant grey he had seen all day.

‘My Lord?’

He turned and saw Eolhwynne standing with her peregrine falcon.  A leather cap covered its eyes and the bird sat, absolutely still on the woman’s arm: a leather gauntlet protecting her from the talons. In addition to the gauntlet, the woman had replaced her red travelling cloak with a broad strap worn diagonally across the left shoulder. Of black leather and decorated with various designs, he had no idea of its function, except she always wore it when handling her peregrine.

‘I trust the journey has not been unpleasant,’ he said.

‘I do not look to my own comfort my Lord,’ she said. ‘I must be certain of your crossing.’

‘Is that necessary,’ Lord MacDonald asked, ‘look, there is our destination.’ He gestured to the huddle of grey houses across the strait.

‘I am advised there are dangerous currents, and the wind has changed. Can you not feel it, milord?’ Her eyes were dark and serious.

‘It’s got colder, I grant you,’ he said.

Eolhwynne removed cover from the bird and it looked around with quick jerky movements. As the wind ruffled the bird’s feathers, it occurred to him the woman must be cold. She had forsaken even a shawl, and her dress, of the same dark red as her cloak, seemed scant protection.

‘Your bird seems eager, and a little spaeing can do no harm,’ he said.

‘Thank you my lord. May I ask which our ship is?’

‘I should not call it a ship,’ he said, pointing at the ferry. ‘It is safer than it seems,’ he added, sensing the woman’s alarm. ‘Though more suited to cattle and sheep than—,’ he gestured toward the carriages. He had hoped to catch John Duff’s eye for a moment’s shared scepticism in matters magickal, but the coachman was busy and did not see him.

Eolhwynne’s expression had not changed, nor that of her bird, whose gaze was disconcerting.

‘Please continue. Act as you see fit.’

‘Thank you my lord.’ Eolhwynne curtsied and turned away. He watched as she slipped the tresses from her wrist and cast the falcon into the air. It seemed only to flick its wings to take it soaring into the air above the harbour.

Having long ago decided spaewifery and all matters drùidheachd were beyond him, Lord MacDonald turned away and sought escape from the wind.

Kyleakin only existed to serve those passing to and from the mainland and offered little to detain them, save a scrabble of houses and one decent inn.[19]

Plainly, Duff believed he would prefer to wait at the inn, but he had had his fill of such places today. One other building stood out from its neighbours, a small stone chapel with its door propped open with a lump of wood. Inside it followed the custom of the Free Kirk, with lime-washed walls and a central aisle paved in red tiles. ‘The path of faith is paved in blood’, he recalled.

To the sides of the aisle were the plain wooden tables and benches where the congregation sat and between them at the farther end a table with a white cloth and bearing a pair of iron candleholders. There was no altar, only a pulpit of raw oak and a wooden cross.

It was too austere for Catholic sensibilities, but God was present here, no less than He was in the Chapel of St Mary in Portree.

Collecting a Gaelic Society[20] prayer book, Lord MacDonald sat down at a bench but soon found himself struggling, for though he could speak and understand Gaelic well enough, he had little use for the written language and the disparity between pronunciation and spelling proved beyond him.

Presently a tall man entered from a side door. An unbuttoned coat revealed vestments and Lord MacDonald made to stand.

‘Please, there is no need,’ the churchman said.

‘You would be Father Dobie.’

Lord MacDonald did not know the man directly but knew of him. Father Dobie had not been on the island more than six months, and the Free Kirk itself was something of a newcomer. The man was certainly striking, with pale grey hair worn almost to the shoulder and piercing deep-set eyes. Lord MacDonald wondered if Father Dobie recalled his family were Catholic.

‘My condolences on your loss;’ Father Dobie’s tone was reassuring. ‘Though, if I may be candid,’ the Minister glanced at him, ‘a man soon tires of that phrase. He who tells it tells it once, he that hears it hears it many times.’

Leaning across the table, Father Dobie placed fresh candles in the holders.

‘I have not tired of it yet,’ Lord MacDonald said. ‘The simple matter is I did not know my nephew as well as I ought. Perhaps when I am at Winchester I shall feel more.’

The minister began sweeping the floor. ‘Your son is not travelling with you?’

‘I meet him at Inverness, he is a scholar there. You do not object to my waiting here. I saw the door open.’

Dobie smiled. ‘There are those who would object, Lord MacDonald, but God does not bar the door to His house, and nor shall I. However, that particular door is open because I have a less welcome guest,’ the man pointed to the roof where a pigeon squatted on one of the beams.

‘Leviticus, is it not?’ Lord MacDonald asked.

‘For childbirth, ‘deed so,’ Father Dobie laughed. ‘A pigeon unto the door of the tabernacle, unto the priest.[21] But this is no wild bird, but a messenger idling on its task.’

Lord MacDonald saw the canister on the bird’s leg. Like him, it had taken refuge here from the wind.

‘You keep a spaewife,’ Father Dobie said. The minister had stopped at the outer door.

‘I do. It is a family tradition,’ he said defensively. Many in the church were hostile to spaers and magick of all kind but to his pleasant surprise Father Dobie smiled agreeably.

‘You need not fear my wrath, Lord MacDonald, I have no quarrel with spaers any more than I have with the Church of Rome.’

‘I am relieved to hear it,’ Lord MacDonald said. ‘My family has employed spaers for near five-hundred years. I am not one to abandon tradition, though I doubt their usefulness. Eolhwynne is ensuring I have ‘safe’ passage.’

‘You’re a sceptic,’ Father Dobie returned his broom to the vestry, ‘perhaps I should have you leave after all,’ The man’s good humour took the menace from the words.

‘They are a curious breed, spaers that is,’ the man continued, ‘but we must accept that if it is God’s wisdom to deny to a few those gifts he naturally gives to the many; I refer to unfortunate deaf and blind among us, we should allow it is in his power to grant exceptional gifts to a rare few.’

An uncommon view, Lord MacDonald thought. At best, the Free Kirk and the Kirk of Scotland tolerated spaewives, while several of its ministers had denounced them as witches.[22]

Father Dobie glanced around the room, and apparently satisfied with his work, came over to shake his hand. The man’s grip was as reassuring as his gaze was.

‘I must leave you. May I wish you safe journey and if you would leave the door as you found it. Hopefully the bird will take the hint.’

‘I shall. And thank you.’

Father Dobie left by the side-door and in the silence Lord MacDonald found his eyes drawn up to the pigeon.

Some time later, not long surely, he thought, though time in a church moves differently to that without, Eolhwynne returned.

‘We have safe passage I trust?’

‘Fàidh saw dark cloud to the west,’ Eolhwynne said and closed the door behind her. ‘We must expect more rain.’

‘More rain,’ he said without interest, ‘well, it has not delayed us thus far.’ She had not re-hooded the peregrine and the bird’s gaze had fixed on him in a way he found quite disconcerting.

‘May I ask when you last made use of the ferry?’

‘What?’ he turned his attention back to the spaewife, ‘Oh, Christmas, I believe. Clara and I visited Sir David, the gentleman whom we are staying with this evening. I assure you, it is quite safe.’

The woman’s gaze was intense under the black arch of her brows; something had troubled her, but he was intrigued more by the bird, particularly its eyes, which shone like polished jet and were quite spherical within a halo of vivid yellow, and for moment, he had the impression he was addressed by two individuals and not one. It unsettled him and his reaction was to take a step back and pick up the prayer book once more.

‘If that is all, you should rejoin Mr Neave and Mr McNeil,’ he said.

‘Sir, I must ask, you know of no losses from it? No—.’

‘Heavens no! Now stop troubling me with these things!’ His voice echoed off the walls and his cheeks flushed.

‘Now please,’ he tried to sound reasonable, ‘I have enough concerns without these fancies. I know the ferry to be reliable and that is an end of it.’

He returned the prayer book to its shelf.

‘I apologise,’ Eolhwynne’s voice had lost its insistence. ‘I understand. I only sought, Fàidh!

Air brushed his face and a sharp ringing noise troubled his ears. The peregrine had flown from the women’s wrist, after the pigeon in the roof. Alert to its peril, the bird scurried to a gap between the wall plate and the roof beams where the falcon could not pounce. Unable to dive and take its prey, the falcon landed on a crossbeam, its head bobbed as it stared at the pigeon. The traces about its legs dangled down and Eolhwynne leapt onto one of the tables to reach but the pigeon darted across the room with the peregrine following, leaving the woman holding out her arm and calling for her bird.

 ‘Fàidh. Come!’

The woman stood beneath the bird, holding her gauntleted hand up, tears streaked her face and her cheeks were scarlet, but the falcon had eyes only for the pigeon. The ringing came from a small bell attached to the falcon’s traces and each trace ended in a silver ring, about the size of a one-crown piece.[23] Apart from the bell, the bird’s flight was silent while the pigeon’s wingtips met with a sharp noise, like a pistol shot. The falcon had speed, but could not use it in a confined space, while the pigeon had agility. Repeatedly, the falcon closed on the bird, but each time could not turn swiftly enough to grasp it.

Eventually the falcon settled on the ledge of the west window. Its beak gaped and its tail twitched in agitation as it caught its breath.

‘Is there anything I might do?’

‘She will come,’ Eolhwynne said. ‘I trust her. She will come.’

He could not tell if she believed what she said. Footsteps sounded and Father Dobie entered from the vestry.

‘Faith, who cries for faith?’ the minister stared at he and Eolhwynne then saw the pigeon soil the communion cloth. ‘Wicked creature!’

‘Pray, Father, let it be,’ Lord MacDonald said.

Father Dobie’s face was a mix of anger and bewilderment.

‘It was ye,’ he said to Eolhwynne, ‘ye that asked for faith?’

‘No,’ Eolhwynne said, ‘Fàidh is my familiar,’[24] she pointed at the falcon.

‘Bless me!’ the minister said.

‘We have a battle on our hands,’ Lord MacDonald said.

‘I am truly sorry, I did not leash her,’ Eolhwynne said.

‘Father Dobie, this is Eolhwynne, my spaewife. Eolhwynne, Father Dobie.’ Lord MacDonald crossed the chapel and glanced into the vestry. ‘We must close this,’ he pushed the door to, ‘and open the outer door. Eolhwynne, if you would. I believe Fàidh will return only when she has won or lost her prize.’

Eolhwynne nodded but as she went to open the main door she suddenly recoiled, as though in agony.

‘It is the iron,’ Father Dobie murmured. ‘Child, leave it to me.’

Dobie pushed the door back against the wall as far as it would go, letting in wind and light.

Eolhwynne was rubbing her hand; he had forgotten spaewives could not bear the touch of iron.

‘Now we wait,’ MacDonald said. ‘I trust Father you are not a sporting man.’

They had tipped the odds in the peregrine’s favour. The pigeon, seeing the open door offered escape, fluttered across the room. The peregrine waited its chance. Eolhwynne’s gaze was fixed on the falcon.

They did not wait long. The pigeon dropped down from the roof, almost to the floor, then climbed as though about to land on a table. The peregrine swooped but at the last moment, the pigeon jinked and flew out the door. The falcon overshot and had to circle the room. Eolhwynne flung herself across the doorway, and for a moment, the bird appeared to hesitate, torn between instinct and training. Inevitably, to his mind, instinct prevailed. Eolhwynne did not move and as the bird swooped through the door one of the silver rings struck her across the face, drawing blood.

‘Quickly now!’ he ran to the door with Father Dobie following. Eolhwynne was outside on the quay wiping blood from her forehead. The pigeon flew up over the harbour but the falcon was plummeting after it. There was no escape and after a final, desperate turn, the pigeon stalled in the air and the falcon took it.

The peregrine circled, its prize limp in its talons.

‘Extraordinary,’ Father Dobie said.

Eolhwynne waited for the bird at the quayside. The wind caught the woman’s red dress, pressing the material against her waist and hip and she continually had to push her hair clear of her face. This time the peregrine came to her, landing on the quayside and instinctively spreading its wings to cover the pigeon. Eolhwynne knelt, took the bird onto her gauntlet, and looped the traces around her wrist.

‘She will be mortified,’ Father Dobie said.

Eolhwynne stood and walked away. Lord MacDonald called after her and the woman turned and wiped her eyes.

‘I must go. I am a disgrace. I apologise to you also, Father. Forgive me.’ The woman turned and hurried away.

‘She has nothing to apologise for,’ Father Dobie said. ‘She is young, much to learn still, that is all.’

‘Should you find any harm done, Murdoch Dixon in Portree will settle matters.’

‘That will not be necessary,’ Dobie said, ‘nor are apologies. But we should save the message it carried.’

Dobie picked up the pigeon and held it as MacDonald removed the roll of waxed paper.

‘It has a seal upon it,’ he said, ‘but I cannot make it out.’ He slipped a fingernail under the seal and unrolled the message. Father Dobie threw the pigeon into the harbour.

‘Your coachman comes for you,’ Father Dobie said.

The carriage was aboard the ferry.

‘He will tell me it is time to go,’ MacDonald said.

The paper was flimsy and he cupped his hand to shelter it from the wind.

‘German,’ he said. ‘“Attn. CNn. Goldenbusse, Weatherbound, Portree. Expect 2 days delay. Yrs. Ktn. Hausmann.” There is a Hansard weatherbound at Portree.’

‘Their bird didna get far,’ Father Dobie said.

‘No matter, we owe them no favours,’ he let the wind take the fragment of paper and shook Father Dobie’s hand. ‘Now I must go.

‘The lass intends well,’ Dobie said, ‘Doubtless, she will learn caution.’

‘Perhaps not. I will reassure her. Thank you.’

The Minister turned back to the kirk and as he left, he saw gulls fighting over the dead pigeon. With their gaping yellow beaks and wings spread in defiance, the gulf between the beauty of the birds in the air and their ugliness on the ground was striking.

‘MacAuley’s set for us, sir,’ Duff said. The coachman fell in beside him. ‘Yon Eolhwynne is tishied.’ It was both statement and enquiry.

‘Her falcon got loose in the kirk, chased a pigeon out,’ he said. ‘I don’t think she wants everyone to know.’

‘I fancy we a’ saw what become o’ the pigeon,’ Duff said

‘Where is she now?’

‘In the drag sere, no’ certain she wants to come out.’

‘Lord MacDonald!’

It was Calum MacAuley calling him from beneath the harbour wall. ‘Mr Duff reckons ye’ll no’ wait on the drag.’

‘Agreed, Gill will ride up with you. I shall need him with me at Dornie. Finlay and Eolhwynne will remain with the drag. The carriage had been hauled over the boat’s transom and the planks removed. Wooden chocks and ropes around the axles made it secure.

‘I shall be with you presently Mr MacAuley.’

‘This bit o’ weather wilna wait on sir.’

‘I know,’ he said without thinking, ‘we are due more rain, or cloud at any rate.’

MacAuley nodded. ‘Yer spaer’s bird will ha’e seen it.’

He had Neave remove those items from the drag he would have immediate need of at Dornie, then spoke to Iain Duff, saying, ‘Your father is taking me directly on when we land. How many times have you driven the Dornie Road?’

‘Twicet sir, but I’ve ridden it wi’ ma father affen enough.’

‘Good. McNeil, ride up with him. It will be dark soon and two pairs of eyes are better than one.’

‘Ay sir.’

‘Milord, a rackon Eolhwynne cud put oop bird t’watch oot for us,’ Iain grinned.

‘I think not young man,’ the boy was jesting, ‘but you take care on the road.’

The trickiest assignation he left last. Having knocked on the door of the drag, he did not wait for reply before opening it. The falcon’s cage sat on the floor with a cloth over it. There was no sound from within, but something stirred inside a wicker basket.

‘I am truly sorry, Lord MacDonald,’ Eolhwynne leant forward into the light, her hand clasping a handkerchief. ‘Fàidh had been caged all day and I could not bear to restrain her so soon. It was foolish of me.’

‘These things happen,’ he said and smiled, in a manner he hoped reassuring. ‘The adventure has been the highlight of a miserable day. You have a fine bird.’

‘Thank you sir. I do not deserve your kindness.’

‘My cousin will make provision for you at Dornie. I am taking the boat with John Duff and Gillanders Neave. Mr McNeil will ride with Iain. I would have you travel with me, but,’ he indicated the basket and the bird cage, ‘I fear there would not be room.’

The woman wiped her eyes.

‘My Lord, I fear I must ask… rather I should say that I prefer not to travel by your carriage, if that is permissible.’

‘Very well,’ he frowned at the woman’s strange request, ‘then I shall see you at Dornie.’

Walking down to the boat he looked at the carriage roped across its deck. It was careworn and old-fashioned, but he could not, for the life of him see what had troubled the spaer.

Matters magickal were beyond him, but so, he had often found, were women.

Beyond the harbour, the swell took hold of the boat, pitching and rolling them unpleasantly. Sat in the bows exposed them to the worst of the motion and Lord MacDonald was glad of his coat to ward off the spray. Unconcerned, Neave was filling his pipe, his only distress the habit of the wind to pluck the baccy from his fingers. John Duff sat peaceably next to the footman. He also had lit a pipe.

Part of the starboard rail was new and the frames below it repaired.

‘Gill, that is recent, is it not?’

‘I spiered MacAuley on it,’ the footman said. ‘Thae’d a wee bash month last.’

‘Any losses?’ he asked.

Neave took out his pipe. ‘I’m no’ shuir whit yer gettin’ at sir.’

‘Loss of life,’ MacDonald explained.

‘Oh ay. Twa sheep thae lost, so MacAuley says.’

The carriage rested on planks roped across the thwarts, amidships. Ropes about the axles and frame made all secure, and MacAuley’s son, Alasdair, was checking the ropes. He went to speak to the boy.

‘It’s fast, sir,’ Alasdair said.

‘Glad to see it. You had a collision a month back. I saw the repair in the bows.’

The boy’s face darkened. ‘Ay, an’ me Da’s no’ let us lose mind o’ it. I was over keen to get us in. Muckle swell wus runnin’, but no excuse,’ the boy ducked behind the carriage out of his father’s sight. ‘Da’s taken vailye o’ the sheep out whit he gi’es us. It’s a muckle bit, sere an’ a was jist helpin’ oot the drovers. Thae was efter gettin’ tae Broadford by the nicht.’ The boy sighed.

‘Skye is full of sheep,’ MacDonald said, ‘too many I feel,’ he took the boy by the shoulder and led him away, ‘but tell me of the repair, it seems stout.’

‘Ye want tae ken aboot baitwright’n, sir?’

He would indulge the boy till he knew the true extend of the “wee bash.” Gillanders and John Duff shifted over to give space as he and Alasdair studied the repaired timber.

‘See, we doobled the ribs where thae’d broked an’ clinked it oop. I did that, see’n as I broke it like. It’s good work, bit no’ so strang as it was.’ [25]

‘No, I imagine not, thank you Alasdair, I’ll not delay you further.’

He returned to his seat in the bow.

‘Eolhwynne saw it wasna right,’ Neave said. ‘Alasdair’s gat they clinks overly thegither. Timber’s no’ as strang as it cud be.’

‘Does his father know?’

‘Oh ay,’ Neave said, ‘he kens it right enough. It’s like this sere,’ Neave leant closer and lowered his voice. ‘If the laddie gets all doon in the mouth over it he may get thinkin’ o’ leukin elsewhere’s. Alasdair’s a guid head on him an’ a ‘prentership doon south wud suit him, but if he gaes Calum has naebodie t’gi’e a hand wi’ ferry. That’s truth o’t sir.’

‘And Eolhwynne knew the repair was poor?’

‘Did she no’ tell ye, sir?’

‘She tried to. I did not take her concern seriously.’

‘Can I say awa’, sir?’ John Duff had leant around Neave. Duff rarely spoke his mind and he readily agreed.

‘The  Gift’s strang in that lass. I ken she’s no’ bin lang wi’ us an’ there’s times whan she’s like to be awa’ wi’ the fairies, but them as takket time tae lissen what she tells do hark tae it, if ye get ma meanin’.’

‘I do. I have been preoccupied of late.’ MacDonald glanced at the damaged timbers in the bow. ‘Away with the fairies? That is indeed what I thought of her. I shall take your advice John, and thank you. Thank you both.’

A bright shaft of sunlight broke through the cloud, sparkling the waters. Eolhwynne might have known of MacAuley’s accident, without needing recourse to magick. A servant at Duntulm overhearing it from a drover, perhaps; or she might see that the repair work was recent and imagine it the result of some mishap. But, it did not fit. If it had been some attempt to impress him, she had been curiously reticent and uncertain. The more likely case was she had found something that disturbed her and reported it to him hoping for clarification. Spaewifery was vague, uncertain, hedged with maybes and suppositions, all things he was uncomfortable with, but he knew enough not to dismiss it as smoke and mirrors. When making travel arrangements he had intended for Eolhwynne to remain at Duntulm, believing Clara would welcome the girl’s company in his absence, particularly in her condition. Instead, throwing his plans into disarray, Clara had insisted he take the spaer with him. He was grateful now. The girl had something and he had been damnably unkind.

He is One who bruises on the inside: a man who wrestles with his conscious, seeing always in his mind’s eye the leaves of autumn undisturbed upon the path not taken, lichen upon the stone he did not turn, the running stream he did not ford. One failing (above all others) shall I call; an inclination to disbelieve those who tell him what he does not wish to hear and failure to close question those who tell him what he finds of comfort.

The first shall be apparent soon enough, the second already is: Lady Clara was not so willing to see him leave as she appeared…

<<< Prologue the Second: Tree of Crows

©Tamburlaine Bryce MacGregor and Nevil Warbrook

[1] MacGregor visited Duntulm during his stay with Lord Macleod, however this description is almost wholly an invention, or at best a reconstruction, for the MacDonalds abandoned Duntulm in the 1700s and by MacGregor’s day the greater part of it had collapsed into the sea. Despite claiming to his publisher that he would depict reality, not dreams, MacGregor continued to indulge in elaboration when it suited him. Editor

[2] The first of MacGregor’s Saxon Trilogy published by Beresford & Lucas in October 1841. Kingmaker and Dragonships are the subsequent volumes. Editor

[3] James Copperfield has lately fallen from favour as his caricatured depiction of ethnic minorities is no longer acceptable, however Charles Hannay remains a fixture on school syllabuses and several of his works have been successfully adapted into feature films. Editor

[4] MacGregor’s stay on Skye was too late in the season for rhododendron flowering, however his journal records a conversation with Lord MacLeod that describes the gardens at Dunvegan with these exact words. Editor

[5] Lord MacDonald, like much of Scotland’s aristocracy, is predominantly an Anglish speaker. Thus, he would have been far less aware of the nuances of Gaelic than a natural speaker of the language and accordingly MacGregor has used the standard anglicised form of place names. Editor

[6] To ‘cry on’ someone is to ask them to perform a service. Editor

[7] As opposed to a parliamentary road which was built and maintained from the public purse. It seems that early in his stay at Dunvegan, MacGregor fixed on the landscape of Staffin Bay and the Quiraing as the principal setting for Beathan Somerled’s portion of the tale and thus has Lord MacDonald follow an unlikely route from Duntulm to Portree in order to bring the characters together. By this date the parliamentary road from Portree to Uig had extended along the western side of the Trotternish almost to the doorstep of Duntulm and would have afforded a faster, if longer route to Portree than that obtained via Staffin Bay which in reality was served only by a rough track quite unsuitable for carriages. Editor

[8] Lord MacLeod of Dunvegan is known to have been openly critical of the management of his estates during his father and grandfather’s tenure and it is likely MacGregor based much of this passage on MacLeod’s opinions. MacGregor’s journals show that he and Lady Helena greatly enjoyed their stay at Dunvegan, however, there was one subject upon which he and Lord Macleod agreed to differ: MacLeod was a firm supporter of the clearances which MacGregor regarded as inhumane and degrading. Editor

[9] The parallels between the fictional life MacGregor created for Lord MacDonald, and the recent tragic events of his own life cannot be overlooked. Certainly, MacGregor was very aware of them and writing in the autumn 1861 edition of the Edenborough Review, he was at pains to report that while he and Lord MacDonald had characteristics and experiences in common, the fictional character was the better man. Editor

[10] A horse kept for private hire at an inn or coaching station. Editor

[11] Respectable women rarely entered the public rooms of licensed premises and for the Laird’s spaewife to have done so would be highly inappropriate. In earlier times inns and hostelries often kept a room solely for the use of spaewives, but by MacGregor’s time the custom had largely died out. Editor

[12] Norway in 1858 remained a dependency of Denmark (it gained independence in 1923) and Bergen housed one of the four great kontore of the Hanseatic Company (the others being at St Petersburg, Bruges, and Winchester). The company’s dominance of the small Norwegian port led to Bergen being known as Little Germany. Editor

[13] MacGregor has borrowed Lord MacDonald’s maxim from Kristoffer Møller’s Tamburlaine the Dawntreader, first performed at the Kugleteater, Roskilde in 1632. MacGregor was happy to acknowledge that his plot for Acts of the Servant owed a good deal to the ‘Great Dane’. Editor

[14] Despite their benevolent sounding name, the Emigration Societies were hard-headed parliamentary bodies with a remit from Edenborough to reduce expenditure on Poor Relief in the so-called ‘congested’ areas by encouraging voluntary emigration and assisting landlords to forcibly clear their lands. Three such societies covered Highland Scotland with similar bodies appointed by the Anglian parliament operating in Eireland and parts of Gwalia. Editor

[15] Now the Canadien Province of Newfoundland. Editor

[16] Prior to 1630, Aldermen and Housemen of the Hanseatic League were required to abstain from alcohol and the company of women, thus obliging the more enterprising of them to acquire skills at deception, duplicity and opportunism naturally complementary to the League’s mercantile endeavours. Though the conditions of their station have become somewhat more liberal in the intervening years, that culture remains so inured in them that there are few sights more likely to encourage a man to despair of the Human Race than a Hansard ‘on the make.’ MacGregor

[17] King Harold II, 1066-1072, the last of the Saxon kings. His defeat at Lincoln in October 1072 by the Dane, Sweyn Hardarcnut, began six centuries of Danish rule in Angaland or Westermark, as it was then known. Editor

[18] Lord MacDonald’s appraisal is flattering. Edwin and Morcar is one of my earliest and least satisfactory works, whose inadequacies I am no longer prepared to defend or amend. No doubt, Lord MacDonald’s good opinion owes much to his not having read the superior works of Charles Hannay, Jeremiah Donkin, and Richard Wenderby. MacGregor

[19] According to his journal, MacGregor and Lady Helena passed through Kyleakin on October 23rd, two days after receiving news of his father’s final illness. Editor

[20] Formed in 1837, the Gaelic Society printed Bibles and other religious texts and distributed them freely throughout Highland Scotland to encourage retention of the ‘auld tongue’. It was dissolved in 1863 under pressure from parliament in Edenborough who regarded both it and Gaelic speaking in general as encouraging sedition. Editor

[21] Leviticus Ch. V. Editor

[22] MacGregor is drawing closely on the contemporary attitudes of 1860s Scotland and if anything understates kirk hostility to spaewives and their craft. The tradition of clan chiefs keeping a spaewife, together with certain spaewife practices, (particularly that of keeping familiars) was subject to no less than four separate parliamentary bills at Holyrood Palace during the 1850s and 60s. Each was an attempt to limit and control the practice of magick and each received near unanimous support from the Scottish Bishops sitting in the Upper House. The kirk’s particular hostility to familiars hinged on the belief that such unions were a form of intercourse between man (or rather woman since all spaers in Scotland and Angaland were female) and beast, and therefore on par with bestiality. Modern historians argue political more than spiritual concerns drove the kirk’s hostility to spaewives but while they failed in parliament, the kirk succeeded at the pulpit, and Lord MacNeil of Barra in 1889 became the last clan chief to appoint a spaer. In Father Dobie, MacGregor is showing us what he regarded as the very best of the Free Kirk, in stark contrast to the Bishop of Stirling whom he introduces in chapter ten. Editor

[23] The bell is to assist the falconer locate the bird after it has taken a kill or if it hides in rough vegetation. Editor

[24] The name is Gaelic and means ‘prophet’. Editor

[25] A doubled frame is one that has a short section of timber riveted, or ‘clinked’, alongside it to bridge an area of weakness. If carried out well it could be an effective, and efficient repair and the majority of wooden ships were treated thus at some point. Editor


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