Keith Aitchison lives in Inverness and worked at the Crofter's Commission. His father was from Fort Augustus and as a boy, Keith would visit his grandfather in the village. While there, his great aunt told him the basis of the following story. In the aftermath of Culloden, Glenmoriston suffered severely. After the battle, more than 60 men from the Glen were persuaded to surrender on the promise that they would be given a pardon. Instead they found themselves transported to Barbados as slaves and the great majority died en route or on the plantations. Very few ever found their way home and this is the story of one of them. The bones of the tale are recounted in the book "Urquhart and Glenmoriston" and at one time it was well known in and around the Glen.
Keith, however, may be the last to have had it passed it down to him orally. Here, he has fleshed out the tale into something more fictional but of fine literary merit. Many of the characters are those he heard about as a boy (Dòmhnall, Màiri and Mr. Grant the minister). Dòmhnall actually followed the military road over the hill from Fort Augustus to Glenmoriston and Keith thinks he remembers the spot where Dòmhnall spent the night there being pointed out to him. And the loser in love did indeed leave to join the army. The scene of much of the action, Innse, is located across the river from Aonach, and the ruins of the houses remain.
AT THE HOUSE OF INNSE
A TRUE TALE OF GLEN MORISTON
Told here by Keith Aitchison
This is not my usual sort of effort, but I thought it time, for I do not know how many others remember this true story well, if at all, and it should not be lost. Homer would have loved it, Scott and Stevenson could have built great fictions upon it.
These events occurred in Glen Moriston in the aftermath of the 1745-46 rebellion. Told through the generations since, this tale has, so far as I know, never been written down in its entirety, though there is brief mention in “Urquhart and Glen Moriston: olden times in a Highland Parish” by William MacKay, first published in 1893 and long out of print. Indeed, I have only ever seen two copies of this remarkable collection of history and legend, and though a third was put up for sale some twenty-odd years ago the price was beyond my reach. But since starting this story I have found the book is now copied on the internet and so the precis given by MacKay in Chapter XV is at last more widely accessible, including certain Gaelic verses, for which I am very grateful and have adopted complete.
This particular tale has also been overshadowed by more famous contemporary stories from Glen Moriston, such as the Seven Men, and Roderick MacKenzie, but though lacking their heroics, that told in the following pages speaks of much the Gael held dear: devotion to the land, family, music and poetry, loyalty, courtesy, courage, even a sometimes earthy sense of humour. And while speaking from an age now gone, still it offers themes which continue to fill our song and story: persistence of hope, the nature of love and the price these can exact.
Writing a story is not the same as telling, though rhythm, metre and original language style have been retained here as much as possible. Further, the oral tradition allowed the seanchaidh to react to his audience, give more detail here, less there, add diversion, hurry to the climax, answer questions. The written tale cannot so respond to an audience and I have therefore made judgements on certain detail as well as social and cultural elements for which explanation would be essential to today’s understanding but would seriously impede narrative.
If you do follow up by googling MacKay’s excellent work you’ll quickly spot one difference between the version he briefly recorded and that given here. This change is, I think, in the nature of the oral tradition of story-telling to different companies of people through successive generations.
A final confession – although not in the tale I remember, a nod is made in the direction of the well-known account of Duncan Campbell of Inverawe, a captain of An Freiceadan Dubh – The Black Watch.
I tell myself this is in the tradition of the seanchaidhean who told this story and kept it alive for those who came after.
AT THE HOUSE OF INNSE
North America: July 1758
It is nearly time. Silent in the dark forest we wait on the old general’s word to draw up in fighting order and go forward against the French.
There is rumour Captain Caimbeul has foreseen his death in this place…he stands a little apart at the edge of the trees, looking here and there as if to learn which patch of dusty earth will claim him. If he falls, he will not lack for company, for the French patiently await us behind ramparts and dense abbatis which we…we are to attack in full day over open ground cleared of any cover from their fire.
“Ticonderoga” the Indians call this knuckle of land at the edge of a great water. Strange coincidence in the sound, something of our own native tongue about it… the first part could mean “House of the Dog” though the second makes no sense to us. But today, here, what does?
Perhaps it is the imminence of battle that it seems suddenly so strange we may leave our bones in this alien ground, so far from home in a country for which we feel nothing. To my right is Ailean MacGriogair of Dunkeld, who joined our ranks from poverty, has come to fight here as preferable to starving. To my left is Seamus MacRaibeart of Atholl, who laughs that he enlisted to see the world, has enjoyed sufficient endless forest and would greatly welcome duty in India, should it please His Majesty to release him, for in India, he has heard, there are great temples and palaces and diamonds and a white man in the Company coat is near a king himself.
And me? Why am I here? I have given no direct reply. Not that I am ashamed, you understand, it is not owing to unpaid debt or some wrongful act.
But I begin to think that if ever I am to make answer, it must be now.
Scotland: September 1753
Domhnall had skirted Fort Augustus itself, made his way along the low cottages which hung back from the grey walls of the fortress as sheep keep careful distance from a watching dog. Out of the shrinking light of evening a platoon of soldiers came tramping towards him from the river, boots crunching rhythmically on the military road’s gravel; his heart stammered quick fear at those red coats and slung muskets, but eager for their quarters and the evening’s meal they passed him with no more than a glance.
And why should Domhnall take their interest? At any sight he was nothing remarkable and these days there was nothing here for a soldier but the fort’s routine: no alarms, no threats, no enemy with long swords and heathen war cry to rouse the garrison from endlessly slow days of fatigue duties and uneventful patrols. A grimy, travel-worn man walking the road with a rolled blanket across his shoulder and tears in the sleeve and skirt of his coat was surely nothing but another near vagabond in a country filled with them.
Still, he waited in the village only long enough to buy a couple of bannocks at an open door from a woman who looked at him curiously.
“Your speech has some words of a local colour,” she said, “but I do not know you, do I?”
“You would not know me. I am a stranger here, I have come very far. ”
And told himself that he had spoken some truth, had not lied too deep. Then across the ford of Oich, water to the knees and hard cold, boots tied around his neck and bouncing at his chest.
He had come from the ship at Glasgow in wet and in dry, hungry most days, sleeping in woods and behind dykes, walking fast while careful and cautious to avoid what notice he could, for insignificant though he was, there might still be word out, word which had followed across the ocean and might even now be whispering sly and unsleeping up the road behind him.
Though tired, Domhnall could have gone on over the high curving ridge and down into Gleann Moireasdan itself, but night would be there first, and while he could easily travel the road beneath a clear moon, no-one would be awake by the hour he arrived. More, he wished the first sight of him to be other than unwashed with the dirt of days upon the road graining his face, so at a burn above the tight turns of the military road he drank where the water ran quick and clear, then followed a thin deer track uphill into a hollow and made his bed among the heather’s drying purple flowers, breathing in the last of their honeyed fragrance, living memory of times lost, wriggled his back tight against the slope, drew up his legs beneath the blanket, ate the first bannock and part of the second, gazed up at the half-moon as night brought it silver from the day’s hiding.
Tomorrow. After all this time, tomorrow and Mairi, Domhnall’s own Mairi would rest her head upon his shoulder and know he had not ceased to love her through all the years apart.
He shivered a little as the air cooled, rubbed at a hurt in his calf muscle, heard an owl in the distance below the hill as it hunted among trees and scrub. Pillowed his head on the ground and hoped for good dreams.
In Gleann Moireasdan, at the house of Innse with hours still to dawn, Mairi watched the faint moonlight on the far wall, which seemed not to move, but when she again opened her eyes after another futile hunt for sleep, the weak white light had crossed a little space, moved on like the years themselves, the years she had waited and waited as hope, that false friend, edged away and left her lonely.
She watched the long, angular face slowly appear. As a very small child, Mairi half-believed a man might live in that piece of rough-cut stone, hiding from day, awakening at night to the moon’s caress on curves and planes of jaw, broad and bent nose, a single drooping eye, a hank of hair falling untidily across the forehead. Although knowing it foolishness, in her first woman’s years she had allowed herself the fantasy that, a little ugly though he was, her old Moon friend was the image of the man she would meet, love and marry, set there in the wall to watch over her in the night. Then Mairi had met Domhnall MacFhearchair, who was made quite unlike.
As moonlight slid past, the stone face sank again into darkness, and all too soon the rooster called his challenge clear across the great meadow to the river’s rushing tumble, announcing the day, Mairi’s wedding day.
Some miles along the river, Alasdair gave a groan. He had spent a very late night with his younger brother Calum and bachelor friends, soaking enough whisky to make them all three times merry. Strewn around the floor like so many abandoned packman’s bundles, the friends snored and grunted abominably; Alasdair’s head hurt, his stomach was worse. He pushed himself up from his bedding and stepped carefully over his sleeping brother to the door, went out into the chill night, made himself vomit till tears ran past his mouth and dripped from his chin and he swore never to allow himself to drink so deep again, though even mouthing the words he knew that was an oath he would likely fail to keep all his days.
But today there would be another oath, and that he would keep. Today was his wedding day. Alasdair had loved Mairi from youth, lost her to another’s fine speeches and pleasing face, but then, all unlooked for, Fate had come with steel and gunpowder to birth a second chance.
He had been careful, no repeat of that clumsy boy helplessly blurting out his feelings, no avalanche of sorrow burying the world when his love was not returned; no, through these last years while Mairi still held to a tortured hope which all others had abandoned, he had won her by simply being himself, the reliable, comforting friend, always there when help was needed with the cattle or buildings, ditching and peats, then a tentative edging towards courtship with little gifts of wild flowers and sweet cakes, longer looks and pensive silences, and at the last, his own carefully prepared but true, heartfelt words:
“Whatever happened, Domhnall was a fortunate man. He had your love, Mairi. Had he been given the choice of losing his life or your love, he would have clung to your love, and had the better of the bargain.”
And falling silent, those words forever between them to grow or to die, seeing her face solemn and unsurprised, Alasdair had known that Mairi understood he too loved her, still loved her.
Dawn had come, the sky showing a first fine wash of blue pale as a robin’s egg. Spirits climbing to meet that first light, the ache in his temples falling away like a spring tide, Alasdair opened the house door wide, laughed and shouted everyone awake, met groans and complaints, calls for silence, a cup of water and another hour’s sleep for pity’s sake!
Cold as winter, the hillside was hidden, the air bleakly opaque. Blanket, hair and face wet as had he slept beneath a shower of rain, Domhnall struggled out of fitful sleep and that brutal dream of the overseer’s club beating down on him, came quick to his feet, peered and listened. Nothing to see beyond the heather pocked with cobwebs fine as snowy lace and all dissolving into mist a few steps beyond his outstretched hand; nothing to hear beyond the thin, trickling run of the burn below.
His jaw ached fierce and sharp; he gingerly touched the slight depression where the bone had cracked like breaking sugar cane, moved a fingertip gently around the crooked scar and allowed the tip of his tongue to explore the gap whose tooth had shattered. No swelling, bleeding or splinter working free of the gum; slowly the pain receded, became manageable.
He stamped his feet, beat his arms to urge some chill from his body, then took the road uphill, eating the last piece of bannock as he walked and shivered, regretting he had not left more for the morning. The invisible way curved and straightened into hidden air, bent and ran true again in a long, shallow climb to the ridge, every step dank and empty but for himself and once the shadow, spring and swerve of a surprised hare hurrying into the deep heather.
The air lightened; Domhnall glanced around to see the sun rising paler than last night’s moon, quickened his pace until the road was suddenly out on the clear hill beneath a fine sky. He threw the blanket over a stone, faced the sun and closed his eyes, stretched out his arms in the first touch of morning warmth.
Hair brushed, and brushed again, Mairi still sat before the tarnished mirror and studied her face. Despite the years slipping away age had not yet touched her: no crows’ feet at eyes, deepening lines upon the forehead or wrinkles carving around the mouth.
She was still young, for a space at least. Still time for husband and children, life fulfilled, no longer delayed and waiting for the impossible to come true with Domhnall walking jauntily along the track as he kept his promise to return to her.
Mairi turned from the glass, dropped her head and after a little reached in the drawer for the little package of white linen wedged in a rear corner, gently unwrapped the cloth from the halved and heavy silver coin, on one side part of the kingdom’s coat of arms, upon the other the old king’s worn profile staring forward from the shining edge sawn by Domhnall’s dirk.
“This is half my fortune” Domhnall had placed one silver piece in her hand and tucked the other in his pouch. “When this is done and I come back, these two halves will be brought together again, and forever, and so shall our lives.”
They were in a crowd gathered below the path across the hills to Inverness and here and there Mairi could hear women arguing and pleading with their men, their husbands and fathers, sons and brothers, begging them not to trust, not to go. The fear was contagious, worked on Mairi with foreboding that not pardon but something terrible waited beyond the hills.
“Don’t go, please,”
“If we do not go, they will come here and burn and kill. If we surrender our arms and swear allegiance, we will be pardoned and the people will be spared – we have assurance for it.”
“You must come back!” Mairi gripped his arm. “Promise me! Promise you’ll come back! Your word on it!”
“My word on it, I will come back to you.”
Domhnall had spoken easily, lightly, as a man does who cannot know that keeping his word will face him with terrors, may cost his life.
Movement rippled through the crowd as men made their farewells and formed into column. Domhnall had gently touched her cheek and gone off with the others, long gun balanced on his shoulder, kilt swaying with his stride, turning once to wave farewell.
They did not return. Transported for life, forbidden to return on pain of death, they were sold to the slavemasters of Barbados.
Ministear Grannd gave sermons on the prodigal son, who was lost but yet returned, on the Tribes of Israel wandering in the desert, on the Jewish people exiled to Babylon but ever keeping faith that they would see Judea once more, a faith which was rewarded. Another time he closed his Bible to speak of an ancient Greek hero, the cleverest man in all that country, gone to war and lost to storm and shipwreck for long years of waiting by his wife and son, but who did finally and triumphantly come home.
And so he helped some bear their loss a little more easily, but as the years came and went with no more news, hopes of a pardon shrank, dwindled.
Despair rooted and grew beyond any Ministear’s reach, an unyielding companion, dull and deadening by day, relentlessly tormenting through long nights. Defiantly, some continued to hope, treasured fond memories as last bright flowers choking in a garden of weeds.
Four years had passed when, hands and voice shaking, Ministear Grannd read to his congregation a letter from a merchant of Glasgow whose ship had called at Barbados. Of the eighty-one men on that last march to Inverness, only nineteen remained alive in the canefields’ foetid heat. Mairi saw him shed his own tears that day.
The last of hope dwindled to a taunting ghost. Then Alasdair had come to Innse, not dressed for work but wearing fine new Lowland clothes, bonnet held tight at his side in a determined clasp. No more the boy Mairi had once refused but a man, her good friend and helper with the farm and cattle. A man to whom she owed much, a tall man with a broad, strong face just this side of handsome come to ask for her hand.
“But I do not love you,” she had said frankly. “You know this, you’ve known it for years.”
“I do not ask the impossible, but I can hope you may love me, one day.”
“And when more years pass, and I do not?”
“The years pass whatever we do, but we are here, now, and we still have time to seize a piece of happiness, make a life which will content us both.”
Mairi had looked away, out at the southern sky.
“I wish you may know joy again, there’s nothing I would not do for that,” summoning all daring, Alasdair put his hand on hers and she did not pull away. “Mairi, I do not have Domhnall MacFhearchair’s gift with words to say this well, but if I could change places, if it could be me who went off in that hopeless rebellion, if I were granted the wish to lie in Domhnall’s place now, and he be seated in mine, then, he would be here and I…I would be gone.”
Slowly, almost reluctantly, Mairi smiled, shook her head. Alasdair pressed her hand.
“But it’s Domhnall that is gone, Mairi. Gone, lost with the others. If he could speak, what would he say? He would not want you to spend your life in grief. If his shade was watching, Domhnall would give us his blessing, for above all else he would wish you might find at least a little joy to take you through life without him.”
Mairi came quietly past her waking mother and out into the rich meadow beneath the first morning sun, careless of the dew-hung grass soaking her skirts. She entered the wood, hazels heavy with velvet green nuts, rowans bowed in clouds of scarlet berries, passed on to the huge, curving branches of that king of trees, a great Scots pine beneath which Domhnall had kissed her gently and asked her to marry him. Lifting her head, Mairi looked into the sky.
“Domhnall. Though you were lost, still I loved you. Though I loved you, I am to marry Alasdair MacMurchadh, today. My father is gone, my mother near crippled in her legs and the land and cattle are too much for a woman alone. Without Alasdair working with us from the goodness of his heart, we would have lost everything, be begging on the road.
“You would remember him as a boy, but he is a man now, and a good man. He is tall, and his face is broad and fair, not like yours, lean and dark, more the poet you were than the warrior you became. I think he will be kind.
“And remember, I told you I wanted children? I need that fulfilment in my life… more now than before…understand me, forgive me.”
She knelt at the foot of the tree, scraped at pebbles and soil where a sprawling root gripped the ground. Unwrapping the little package of white linen, she gazed at the old king’s profile one last time.
“Domhnall, so many times I thought of using this, your parting gift. We were so hungry, our food taken or burned; so hard, all the cattle taken, the price of a single cow three times what it was before. Alasdair went all the way up into Caithness to fetch us a few a bit cheaper. Only a few, and it will be years more before we have a good herd and a decent living again.
“But this was all I had left of you, so I kept it safe and secret even when the need was great. Domhnall, now I give you back your gift…and you…let me go, my dear, my love, let me go at last.”
She kissed the halved coin, folded it in the white linen once more and buried it in the stony earth. Wept silently a while and then, drying her tears, vowed there would be no more.
On the broad ridge, Domhnall finally had sight of the lower summits above Gleann Moireasdan and would soon see beyond them the jagged spearhead of Sgurr Nan Conbhairean rising to guard Ceannacroc, Aonach, and Innse Mhor.
“Home,” he heard his voice tremble, wiped his eyes. “My thanks to God, for I live and am come home.”
He halted where a broad burn pooled slow and peaceful through a broad declivity, watched with sudden delight as a pair of young stags lazing on a bank of sweet grass sharply lifted their heads, leapt up and ran from him, white scuts bobbing, pausing on the skyline to look briefly back before racing on over the crest.
When he had beaten dust from breeches and coat as best he could, Domhnall stripped and washed head to foot with gasps at the cold water, dried himself with the blanket and dressed hurriedly, combed his hair neat as fingertips could manage and as the pool stilled again, stared critically at his reflection.
Never burly, now he was truly thinned to a long streak of bone and stringy muscle, features altered, gaunt where they had once been slender, cheek bones salient as savage bruising upon a hollowed face, hair chopped rather than cut, a week’s thickness of beard dark and streaked a little grey on cheeks and jaw: altogether, the image of an ageing vagrant.
He glanced towards the sun. Still early morning and Domhnall was tired, weary as that old man he could almost see in the pool beneath. He should rest a space, be stronger when he arrived, readier for that moment when Mairi would realise he had returned to her. The sun made him drowsy.
An hour of pleading and cajoling finally brought Alasdair’s brother and friends in order on the track wearing what had passed for best clothes since the outlawing of Highland dress and tartan. They carried various loads of beef, venison, mutton, a surprising amount of surviving whisky and walked mainly at oxen pace with few words and many groans.
“So this is finally the day,” Calum shook his head. “By God, but you’re the patient one.”
“Mairi is worth every hour of the wait.”
“So she is, though she does not seem to like me overmuch.”
“You can be too wild for comfort. Hotheaded, always in some bother. Drinking, fighting, running after women.”
“And with so few unmarried men in the glen, is that running not a kindness? But I never attempted Mairi, knowing your heart was set full on her. Ah, she was the young beauty of the glen that day years back when you came home with her refusal in your ears and you wild to leave and join King George’s wars, have yourself put out of your misery by a kindly Frenchie.”
“Mother screamed and father swore he wished he had never taught me swordplay or told me tales of heroes, threatened to tie me to my bed.”
“As well he did, or you might have been wearing a red coat and taking potshots at our neighbours – perhaps putting them on ship for Barbados.”
“Let us speak of something else.”
“You feel pity for them? For him? They went to their destruction twice fools. But if they had not, we would not now be taking this pleasant stroll to Innse Mhor. And on seeing Mairi with Domhnall MacFhearchair, no matter how courteously you greeted them, you would still howl silently in head and heart.”
“A high price for one man’s happiness.”
“None was your doing.”
“Brother,” Calum caught Alasdair’s arm. “Here and there I am called ‘reckless’, ‘rascal’ even ’rogue’ but there is little I would not bear that I might see you happy.”
Domhnall woke, stupefied from sleeping in the sun’s warmth, heard the gentle rolling of the burn a little beyond his outflung hand, saw three buzzards circling so low he could have counted the feathers upon each spread wing until they saw him stir and quickly retreated into the blue sky with sharp cries of alarm and disappointment.
“You will have to wait on me a while longer,” Domhnall told them. “I have not come through war and slavery and the killing fever to fail now.”
But he thought uneasily of what he had dreamed beneath the morning sun: that his name was called and he had seen a woman’s shape on the far side of a great distance and thought her Mairi, but no matter how long and desperately he struggled, could not reach closer to her through deep sloughs of moss and bog.
Although no more superstitious than the next man, still the dream was vivid, unsettled him.
Domhnall knelt and splashed water on his face, stood again, threw the blanket across his shoulder, crossed the burn and began the last of his long journey to the house of Innse, to Mairi’s side.
Outside, tending the growing cooking-fires, her mother called that she could see them! Mairi lifted her head from the wedding feast preparations and went out, a pair of hens scattering from the doorway, looked east along the glen, saw figures approaching along the track, still no more than specks.
“Well, later than arranged,” her mother was narrowly poised between censure and relief, “but there’s your Alasdair with that brother of his and some better friends to help put everything straight for the day. Though they’ll have sore heads as men always do before a wedding, daft creatures.”
“Perhaps it is another party coming.”
“Who else could it be? It’s but mid-morning and the Ministear and the rest will be here for noon, so who else would come this early?”
“Mairi,” her mother looked at her closely, spoke earnestly. “You marry today. All these years I have seen you staring for long minutes down the track and the river and the road. I knew you still hoped, and that it brought you nothing but hurt, and I grieved for you and for Domhnall McFhearchair. But Mairi, the past is done, Domhnall is gone, God rest him, and there is nothing else now but you and Alasdair MacMurchadh. It is your chance to live again.”
Silence, or rather, not silence, more a stillness amid the nervous clucking of hens apprehensive of their fate, the crackle and spit of cooking-fires, the music of the river below the wide meadow. When Mairi finally spoke, her words came quiet as the first, deceivingly light touch of the warm south wind which carries Spring in its breath.
She tightened her mouth, spoke again, and stronger.
Domhnall was on the last hill-stretch of the road as it descended through a copse of scrubby birch whose curtains of leaves allowed passing glimpses of the glen’s green and yellowing fields rolling down to the alder-shaded river. He stopped abruptly, instinctively on hearing the muted thud of hooves, for a horse could mean redcoat soldiers and in trees it is movement which gives away a watching man, a hiding man, a wanted man.
Beyond the weave of leaf and branch a dull brown cob passed below, heading west, the rider dressed in sober black from boots to tricorne hat pulled hard down over the fraying curls of a grey wig; his face was lowered, seeming intent on his journey, no interest in anything but crossing safely that last hundred yards of rutted broken path before the easier going of the military way.
Not only movement may give away a man. A flock of chaffinches came to the birch trees to find Domnhall rigid as a hunter watching his prey, scattered away with loud complaint which sounded to him loud as a peal of bells, but the rider passed on without turning his head, only lifting his eyes as he came to the gravel surface of the road and brought the cob into a trot.
Something familiar about him poked at memory, something good, perhaps in an unknown way also a little ominous, but the face stayed hidden below the tricorne’s wing and Domhnall remained quiet and still until cob and rider were out of sight around the curve of the hill.
He looked across the river to the dun heather roofs and weathered stone walls of Balintombuie township, thought of his cousin Peadair MacCailean and friend Domnhall MacPadruig who had come from there to die of fever on the plantation, bowed his head and made brief prayer for the repose of their souls.
When he lifted his eyes again, he was struck with the thought…something odd about the township, something he would not expect: not a single feather of smoke visible from any roof, every hearth cold or smoored in clear sign that the cottages were empty of people.
And as if that had released his memory, he suddenly knew the rider: Ministear Grannd. A Ministear riding, many miles from his church… to christen a child, comfort the sick? Or…conduct a wedding? A wedding to which all of Balintombuie had gone? A wedding in a township further along the glen, beneath the peaks of Sgurr nan Conbhairean? At Ceannacroc, perhaps?
Domhnall waited no longer.
Mairi came across the meadow, still in her working clothes, hair tied back, face shining with the morning’s long effort; Alasdair watched her walk towards him, thought her beautiful as always and suddenly could not believe that this was the day and so nearly the hour when she would at last, at long last, be his. His alone and for ever! The thought awed, had him slow and stand stock-still, tongue-tied as Mairi smiled and waited a little for him to speak.
“If you wish to be married today, there’s plenty to be done” she said at last.
“At least it is a good day,” Alasdair managed, blushing, conscious of his friends silently laughing at his discomposure. “You’ll want the feast out on the grass, not in the barn?”
“With boards on timber for benches, and the table and chairs out of the house, blankets to roll out for children - and the fires are near ready for the meats, oh look,” Mairi paused, pointed behind him, along the track to where another group had appeared. “And quickly – there’s people already coming and I have not even laid out my dress!”
“We’ll get it all done,” and Alasdair knew he should offer more, gallant words which she would want, expect from him on this of all days, heard the shyness sudden in his voice. “You are very beautiful.”
“No, I am only a poor housemaid until changed into my wedding-gown,” which came almost as reproof, and wrongly, for Mairi warmed to that awkwardness which told her yet again how Alasdair was without subterfuge, open and straightforward in all he said and did, who had saved her from losing the farm, and now would keep her from a life alone.
Perhaps - and this thought came tentative, almost resisting - perhaps there was a beginning of love in her after all?
“Come now, my almost-husband,” Mairi stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, tucked an arm affectionately through his. “Despite what bachelors may groan, you’re not here for a wake.”
Domhnall walked fast along the road towards the inn at Aonach and the deep crossing of the river. Rounding the curve he could make out the rider near a good mile ahead and beyond that, perhaps three times as far beneath the flank of the hills, rising columns of smoke above the long meadows of Innse Mhor. He did not pause to think what it might mean, or whether he should run, he simply found himself running.
The blanket tumbled from his shoulder; he did not pause.
When Mairi was finally in the dress which had once been a light green and yellow tartan and now after many boilings and mixings of elder and blaeberry was quite successfully dyed a light blue, her best friend and bridesmaid Seonaid began carefully pleating and pinning her hair. Mairi’s mother watched, offered advice for the most part and only occasionally pushed Seonaid’s hands out of the way to do the job herself. Through it all Mairi sat and endured with what patience she had as the noise outside grew with the arrival of more people from along the glen and the smell of roasting meats filled the last hour till midday.
“Now,” her mother said, and stepped back to lean upon her stick. “The hair is as good as we can arrange, very pretty in that fashion, shows off your fine bones and neck very well…is there anything else?”
“No thank you, I’m ready now.”
“And you are ready to be a wife, in the house, in the bed?”
“You know what to expect? How it is managed between a man and a woman?”
In the scrap of mirror, Mairi could see Seonaid’s face creasing in mirth, struggled to keep her own out of her voice.
“There is no great mystery, I have seen the bull go to the cow often enough.”
“There is a difference - ”
“- I should hope there’s more than one!” Seonaid burst out a laugh which was more a nervous screech and held her face in both hands in a vain effort to clamp her jaws tight closed over her laughter.
Mairi’s mother turned to look hard at Seonaid, who could not hold an army of giggles any longer and let them loose in a long, rolling shriek.
“God help us, the girl’s hysterical!” Mairi’s mother scolded.
And succeeded, just, in maintaining an expression of stern reproof upon her own face as Mairi too surrendered to mirth.
A degree of order restored in the house, Mairi came out into the air as Ministear Grannd spoke with Calum, who as best man to his brother and for want of men at the house of Innse had appointed himself master of ceremony and feast and must therefore hear the Ministear’s strictures for the day.
“Set out a small table and cover it with this,” Ministear Grannd took a roll of plain white cloth from his saddlebag. “With two chairs before - and another to one side for the old lady. Do not let any person profane the table by eating or drinking – they may have it after I am done.”
“Of course, Ministear.”
“And on the subject of the profane,” Ministear Grannd paused and looked weightily at Calum to ensure his point was taken, “are you clear: no more than one measure of whisky for any man until Alasdair and Mairi are man and wife.”
“Very clear Ministear,” having already had two good drams, Calum turned his head a little away so as not to breathe in Ministear Grannd’s direction.
“And when the ceremony is over, do not let drunkenness take charge. Enough for raising spirits to meet the joy of the occasion is allowed, but must not be abused as mere preliminary for any lower behaviours,” Ministear Grannd concluded, more as a matter of form than in any real hope of general sobriety, turned and raised his hat, the old grey wig shifting a little on his head. “But here is the beautiful bride herself. Good day, Mairi NicDonchadh, a delight to see you looking so lovely.”
“You are very kind, Ministear” she gave a small curtsey. “And perhaps a little too kind.”
“Too much modesty! A man in Orders tells only the truth! But it is near enough noon and we do not want to keep these good people waiting - though I would speak with yourself and Alasdair MacMurchadh first.”
Mairi looked and called to Alasdair and, as she signalled to him across the crowd, saw beyond him and a good way off on the far side of the river that someone was on the road, coming out of the east, no more than a prickle of dark in the bright sunlight. She paused, attention fixed on the distant figure.
“Something interesting?” Ministear Grannd peered beneath his hand. “My sight is not so good these days.”
“Nothing,” Mairi said after a moment and looked away. “Only an old habit I will be breaking.”
Domhnall slowed at the river crossing to catch his breath, could finally see clear the house of Innse above its great sloping meadow, people gathering before it, furnishings set out on the grass, great plumes of smoke rising from cooking-fires. His head dropped, fear shook him remorselessly as Barbados fever; he tightened his fists, fought it down, lifted his eyes once more.
Years since Domhnall had made a poem; the words came to him from the very edge where hope and despair meet to wage their endless war:
“Tha smuid mhor dhe Tigh-na-h-Innse,
Thair leam fhein gu smuid bains’i.
Tha mo dhuil an Righ na Firinn
Gur h-ann damsh’ tha broth na bainnse!”
(“Great is the smoke from the house of Innse,
A wedding-smoke it appears to me.
My trust is in the King of Truth
That the marriage is prepared for me!”)
He plunged into the river, pushed through the grasping water to the other bank, began to run uphill across the broad meadow towards the smoke, those crowding people and the house of Innse above.
“Now this is hard work!” Out of Ministear Grannd’s view for a space, Calum drank down another whisky and looked irritably at the crowd collected around the meats. “When I agreed to stand for my brother I did not think I would be responsible for keeping a good half of the glen in order. A man could not tell it is six or seven years since we starved.”
He put down the empty cup with regret and turned to supervising the cooking and carving, enjoined order in the press around the fires, suggested some might show patience and try the eggs, fine barley-cakes and bannocks, gingerbreads and fruits brought by guests from all through the glen, but he was much ignored, the aromas of roasting beef, hens and mutton producing far better arguments than his own.
Shaking his head, Calum jostled his way to the edge of the crowd and took deep breaths of exasperated resignation. And saw, in ragged, wet-darkened clothes, a thin and sallow stranger with untidy hair and thickening beard breathing hard and looking wildly around the company, pausing his gaze as someone caught his eye, watching a moment, looking away and further as if like any beggar he searched in faces for a glimmer of generosity.
“By God,” Calum muttered from his sour mood. “Am I now in charge of the half-mad strays of the world as well?”
But still, he knew the duties of a host and stepped into the stranger’s path with welcome firm upon his face.
“Greetings, friend! You come on an auspicious day, the wedding of my brother Alasdair MacMurchadh to Mairi NicDonchadh.”
The stranger’s restless gaze stopped on Calum, he trembled a moment, his mouth worked before he spoke.
“The wedding, …is it…is it over? Are they married?”
“No, there is a little time yet before the ceremony, they are in the house speaking with the Ministear.”
The stranger closed his eyes, sighed, visibly relaxed. A pathetic figure, Calum thought, clearly desperate to eat, be dry and warm once more.
“You are not too late for the food, and there is plenty, the glen has done its best for our loving couple,” Calum assured him sympathetically. “A good bit whisky too. You might take some meat and a dram now, before the ceremony? And warm yourself at one of the fires.”
“Do you in this glen still observe the custom of the wedding-day?”
“That it brings luck to the marriage should the bride give the traveller a dram with her own hand before the ceremony begins.”
“To tell truth, many of the old customs are following tartan and kilt into the tomb,” Calum waved a hand around the gathering. “See, we dare not wear a scrap of plaid so close to the redcoat soldiers, or play the pipes, though we will still have the tunes and song, a fiddle or two.”
“It would be a shame on us, to let our ways go with no effort at keeping them alive. Today the great music shrinks away in fear – tomorrow the language itself?”
A little surprised at such forwardness, Calum considered him with rather more care. The man spoke well; his eyes were quite level, not shirking Calum’s inquiring gaze. Not a mere cowering beggar then, but opinionated in a way even the half-mad would keep hidden to secure their alms. And his voice had a hint of the sounds of the glen.
“Do I know you – you have not given me your name.”
“Nor have you given me yours – but as is custom, I will give mine to the bride as I raise the cup to her.”
“I do not recall such a custom.”
“Perhaps it has been allowed to perish?”
Calum heard that hint of disdain, stood silent a handful of moments, no longer sure of himself, debating whether his duties today would allow calling the friends to throw this irritating man back in the river. On the whole, he rather thought not. The stranger tired of waiting, looked past Calum once more.
“I will go myself and ask the bride for the traveller’s dram.”
This brought Calum’s uncertainty to abrupt close: he could too easily imagine Ministear Grannd’s frowning question as to why Calum had allowed the pre-marriage talk with bride and groom to be interrupted by an unshaven wretch with argumentative opinions? On the other hand, the stranger seemed determined, persistent to the point of spoiling the day.
But he was to be spared this dilemma. The stranger’s eyes widened; he drew a quick breath on seeing the bridegroom and Ministear Grannd walking to the makeshift communion table, Mairi’s mother on Alasdair’s arm. Behind them, Mairi and Seonaid waited in the doorway, watching as the guests began to come into order for the ceremony.
“Come now,” Calum wheedled. “It is really too late for the old custom - will you not have a quick dram and some food?”
The stranger did not answer, started forward. Calum clutched at his coat, but his reach unbalanced him and he was easily thrown off; the stranger walked quickly to where Mairi stood.
She had seen the brief scuffle, waited warily as he stopped some feet away to make a respectful, courtly bow which seemed faintly ridiculous given his ragged and unshaven appearance. The stranger raised his head again, looked straight at Mairi, stared intently as if he waited on some signal, finally spoke, though with none of that assurance which had so nettled Calum.
“I request the traveller’s dram,” he paused and swallowed, “the dram at the bride’s hand to bring good fortune to her marriage.”
“I have already told him it is too late,” Calum interjected, and tapped his head to indicate the man was not in his right mind.
Mairi ignored him. If the stranger appeared out of place, even a little odd among the people in their good clothes, neither did he suggest harm. And something else about him, something…but though she had once sought Domhnall in every passing traveller, that time was done. What Mairi did see was that this man had suffered, the sign of it worn deep in a dark, half-starved face which called to the kindness in her.
“Calum, you must go and stand with your brother before I can follow.” She waited until Calum turned unwillingly away, then spoke to Seonaid. “Would you be kind and fill the old quaich with a good measure for our guest.”
“My thanks,” the stranger gave another, smaller bow.
“You have come far?”
“It has seemed a very long way, through very many different places – but I do not think I have been anywhere that women so outnumber men.”
“Many men were taken after the rebellion, are lost to us.”
“I am sorry. Were any dear to you?”
“That is very hard. I am sorry. Is there no hope he will return? No hope at all?”
“Hope?” Sadness and regret were in Mairi’s voice. “Hope came as comfort, stayed as sickness.”
She caught herself before saying more, surprised and uncomfortable at being more open with this stranger than even with her mother, or Seonaid. Or Alasdair. Once more, she looked at the weary, dark face whose gaze steadily met her own. Something, something – no, she would not, she must not seek for him in this unknown man, resolutely fastened her eyes on Alasdair, saw him glancing back at her with his warmest smile.
But even with that reassurance, Mairi was relieved when Seonaid returned and she could end this awkward silence by offering the stranger the dark wooden bowl encircled by its worn motif of woven love knots.
“Our quaich is very old, kept for a toast with honoured guests. My father said our kin brought this with them when they first came to the glen, longer ago than even our oldest tales remember. You are welcome in our house. Enjoy the wedding and the feast.”
The stranger took the quaich, turned as if he would first salute the ceremony, then paused, turned again to Mairi, spoke with a hint of diffidence.
“It does not seem courteous that I touch my mouth to this before yours – will you not take a sip from it first, wish that my journey may end happily?”
“We must be quick,” Mairi was conscious of Ministear Grannd looking past the stilled gathering towards her, beckoning towards the communion table.
She took and raised the quaich.
“May your journey be a good one beneath sun and moon, may you find what you seek.”
Whisky lay amber in the old browned bowl, and at the bottom, something else, something which had not been there only seconds before, should not be there now.
A demi-lune of silver. Mairi plucked it from the quaich, held one half of a round and heavy coin showing part of the kingdom’s coat of arms wetly glistening in the sunlight.
Confused and suddenly fearful, she swayed, steadied, stared.
“But this is mine! How? Why put it there?”
“No. Please,” the words came urgent, low and pleading. “Look again, Mairi, turn it over, look again. Please.”
And she did, and saw that this half-coin gave not the face, but the back of the old king’s head, his curling hair bound in a laurel wreath and tied with a ribbon at the nape of the neck.
The quaich fell to the ground and rolled; whisky splashed her dress, the earth rose and sank in waves beneath her feet as Mairi shuddered and gasped. The stranger stepped close and caught her arms and held her. His voice shook.
“Mairi, Mairi my love, do you not know me? Have I not kept my word to come back to you?”
Dazed, confused, Mairi slowly focussed, looked at last behind the dishevelled clothing, the anxious gaze, looked into the thin dark features marked by hardship and suffering, slowly saw that one remembered face lost beyond all hope.
“Domhnall?” The question was quiet, then she cried so loud in joy and fright that the name carried across the gathering to every ear: “Domhnall!”
Ministear Grannd drew them quickly into the house through a rising chaos of shouts, questions and conjecture: Mairi, Domhnall, Alasdair, Calum, and Mairi’s mother hobbling quickly on her stick and Seonaid’s arm.
To begin with, an unyielding silence among them, Mairi white-faced in shock, clutching the half-coin so tight that the cut edge bit her fingers though she barely noticed the pain, stared wildly at Domhnall as if poised between hugging or running from him; at Alasdair as if begging for something she did not herself know or understand.
“Let us try to talk sensibly,” Ministear Grannd urged. “This is a matter unheard of, may God guide and help us be patient with one another.”
“Mairi is mine and I am hers,” Domhnall said quickly, looked around at all in the bare room, spoke gently to Mairi, appeal in his voice. “We know that, you and I, found it together when our world was young and we could dream.”
And without waiting to find if Mairi would reply, or could yet reply, Calum was instantly fierce and accusing as were Domhnall on trial.
“You come here, hiding your name like some thief or spy when all is set, all done but for the Ministear’s words! Well, you are too late by years - Mairi is betrothed to Alasdair and no man can change that!”
“There is an earlier betrothal,” Domhnall was defiant, softened his tone to address Alasdair directly. “I am sorry for you, but you must step back.”
“I will not, I cannot,” Alasdair shook his head vigorously as a man struggling through a waking nightmare, became still, met Domhnall’s gaze. “And I am sorry for you.”
Silence again, as outside the noise of confusion grew and hardened into the first shouts of argument as cousins and others took sides.
“We must find a solution,” Ministear Grannd insisted, “or we will have feud more dreadful than any in our lifetimes. I greatly fear bloody fights may be made from this.”
Calum pictured steel whirling through the air, blades ringing one upon another, saw his brother: tall, well-fed, strong, at the peak of his powers. While Domhnall was smaller, thin, near-exhausted and though he had shown a moment’s force, what of broadsword, where strength and stamina over long minutes are equal partners with skill?
“Both are gentlemen,” Calum spoke gravely, as with the greatest reluctance. “And there are swords still in the glen.”
“No!” Mairi was horrified, her voice rushed to her once more. “No!”
“There will be no damned duel!” Ministear Grannd glared furiously at Calum. “Are you mad - what, a wedding with killing as foundation? The marriage would be blighted before it ever began!”
“The blight would be on marriage with this latecomer in his rags,” Calum pushed angrily in front of Domhnall, “a man condemned by setting foot in the country! If word was given to Fort Augustus he would be straight to the gallows!”
“A disgrace to even think such a thing!” Outraged, Mairi’s mother raised her stick as if she would strike Calum down. “One of those lost to grief and mourning has been restored to us! Living and dead, any betraying him would be forever cursed by God and man, and their family shamed!”
“And is returning on this day of all days not a curse? Is stealing another man’s bride for a broken promise not a disgrace? Is such a man not shamed when gone years and never a word heard from him?”
“I have kept my promise, and in the matter of years and silence, the choice was not mine,” answered Domhnall drily, though harsher words tugged at him. “You know well enough where I was and how I came there.”
“And there you should have stayed!” Calum’s voice thick with contempt, his look full of scorn, his next words cold and quiet. “Better you had died.”
Alasdair knew his brother well, his moods and ways. Sharp as a cutting wind seizing his breath, he saw this was no longer temper, if ever it had been, that regardless of any Ministear’s warnings or bride’s lament, Calum was set on provoking Domhnall, pushing him to the moment where a fight could not be avoided, a fight where Calum would kill if he could.
“No! Not that! We are better men than that!” Alasdair seized Calum’s arm, pulled him close as he might a frantic child needing calm and reassurance, whispered: “Calum, Calum, if it were tomorrow, or even an hour, none of this would matter. But I will not have bloodshed haunting Mairi’s life! So there is only one path to take here, and as my brother, I beg you travel it with me, no matter how it ends.”
He waited until Calum sighed assent, then turned to Mairi, took her hand. And though he smiled tenderly, his voice was heavy, speaking from a place he had never thought to know.
“Mairi, you know I would do all and anything for you. Remember, I once made a wish? Perhaps it has been granted, but you must say if that is true, you must decide who will share your life.”
“Decide? Choose between you and Domhnall? Oh God, oh no!” Mairi pulled her hand away.
“Mairi, I have seen you brave these past years, be brave again now, for all paths here bring bad ends except this: whoever you refuse, he gives up his claim, and so there will be no fight, no feud, no death and hatred following your marriage through every year.”
He faced Domhnall.
“Is that agreed between us? Whoever is not chosen gives up his claim?”
“It would be a hard thing to come so far and so long, yet lose all at the last.”
“It would be hard for me,” said Alasdair, and grimaced. “Do not doubt it.”
They looked levelly at each other, without anger or dislike, one to win all, one to lose all, and the longer they looked the more it seemed to both that in other days they would have been friends, that rebellion, war and the fall of an ancient kingly house would not have stood in their way, that to make them adversaries, Fate, in the greatest of ironies, must turn against them that oldest and most powerful of forces, love itself.
Domhnall slowly inclined his head.
“I do not doubt you, Alasdair MacMurchadh, and I agree, all roads here lead to bad endings, except one,” he turned to Mairi once more. “As I love you, will you take on this burden, will you decide?”
“Do such a thing?” Mairi looked desperately at every face, found sorrow there, but no other course, no escape. “Hurt one of the two men dearest to me in the world? Here? Now? You make me cruel!”
“No! Never! Fate is cruel, bringing us to this pass where only your mercy and courage will keep us from worse.” And now Domnhall took Mairi’s hands in his own, kissed each in turn. “But listen, listen, thought of you kept me in this world when it was easier to follow others into the grave. My life in your debt, I release you from your promise to me. Mairi, do what your heart tells you, here, this day, nothing less.”
Domhnall opened his hands, allowed hers to slip away, felt the clutch of fear that he might never again hold them, never hold Mairi in his arms, that the barrens of a life unloved would instead be his.
He looked Alasdair in the eyes, saw that same fear gazing back.
Neither spoke; there was no need, nor anything left to say.
Mairi went to the far corner and hid her face. Only that morning she had vowed she would not weep again, but weep Mairi did.
When tears were done, words were said. One heard his name, his heart rose as the springing hare, leaping stag, great-winged bird soaring. Another heard that name and anguish burst into his heart as the breaching river sweeps ruin through a tended field. For a little while, his head was turned away.
He who had lost all came first from the house and told the company that he willingly surrendered his claim and would have every guest cheer bride and groom and wish them well. When Mairi and her bridegroom followed into the sunlit afternoon, he led the applause.
And in the evening, as the moon’s pale light joined the fires’ red glow, report would say that bride and groom had looked for him among the dancing and merrymaking, to thank and tell him that he would always be first of their friends, but he had gone, nor was he ever seen in Gleann Moireasdan again.
North America: July 1758
May their love last all their years. May they know joy, be well and prosperous, have many fine children. May no harm come to any. Let pain surrender to something worth the having, something to set against the bitterness each of us has lived.
Mine, I think, is near its end: An Freiceadan Dubh is forming ranks, taut faces around me readying to enter the powder smoke and shot. I believe this the last time I go forward with them.
I am Alasdair MacMurchadh, once of Gleann Moireasdan, and I am here because I loved.