The Laird of Balwearie

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories, 20th October 2022)

I was visiting Fraser, an old friend, in Fife. It was one of those fine, dry, crisp, cold days that you often find in Scotland in February and we took a walk out into the countryside. Fraser pointed out a ruined tower in the middle distance, Balwearie Tower. The name was familiar, like a fragment of an old song: ‘Balwearie Tower? The home of Michael Scott, the Mage?’

‘The very same: medieval astrologer, mathematician and alchemist, wandering Scottish scholar and philosopher-in-residence at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. How have you, a mere English settler, come across him?’

‘I don’t know much about him, though I once read a short story about him. I remember the countryside were in awe of him and believed that he had no need of servants, because he had a satanic familiar that he could summon to do his bidding. Bits of the story are still quite vivid, though I read it thirty years ago.’

The story was vivid because of the strange circumstances under which I read it. I told Fraser about those circumstances as we continued our walk. It’s always been my habit to carry a book to appointments, to read while I wait. In this case, it was an old Victorian collection of Scottish short stories that I’d taken to an out-patient appointment at a hospital Oncology Department…

Fraser interrupted me: ‘Oncology?’

‘Yeah, that’s a story in itself…’

#

I was lying in bed one Sunday morning, idly rubbing my upper body, when I felt fatty lumps on my chest. I knew they’d been there for a while, and I knew my dad had fatty lumps on his chest too. But I thought that the responsible thing was to get them checked out, so I made an appointment with the GP. He was pretty sure that they were just fatty lumps – “lipoma.” But he said that the sensible thing to do would be to get ’em checked out by an oncologist. He’d refer me to the hospital – I’d get an appointment in six weeks or so…

Those six weeks passed, with just an occasional feeling of anxiety. No appointment. Seven weeks, eight weeks. I phoned the GP surgery: my GP said he’d chase  it up. When he called back, he said the hospital had no record of the referral. He’d now made a new referral, but of course I’d have to wait a further six weeks…

I told myself it was just a routine check-up and the lumps were just that – fatty lumps. I knew a little bit about male breast cancer. I had just enough knowledge to be rather unsettled about the prospect of a fourteen-week wait for a hospital appointment: male breast cancer, although rarer than female breast cancer, spreads more rapidly to other parts of the body – early diagnosis is critical. Over the following weeks, I repeated my mantra about the routine check-up, I confided in no-one, I busied myself at work and at home. But the long watches of the night stretched out longer than regret, the calendar became my enemy, and fumbling self-examinations were a shameful daily occurrence. When, at last, the morning of the out-patient appointment came around, I had no appetite for breakfast.

It was in one of the old Scottish Emergency Wartime Hospitals left over from World War II, replaced now. Back then, it was a collection of time-worn wooden huts set down in the Scottish countryside, away from the once-threatened Luftwaffe bombings. The waiting room was crowded as a lifeboat: all seats taken and a couple of latecomers standing. Everyone was wet from the driving rain and there was a crapulous, miserable, fuggy atmosphere. It was soon plain that we’d all been given the same nine o’clock appointment.

Nevertheless, I had my book, a consolation and a distraction…

#

November 21st, 1289. Four Dunure fishermen, Andra Bain, Davie Laing and Davie’s two hulking sons, stood uncomfortably in a corner of the great kitchen in Culzean Castle, trying and failing to keep out of the way of the exasperated cook and kitchen maid. They had received a summons from Sir Thomas Kennedy the previous evening to attend his pleasure on the morrow. They were to convey his visitor from the cliff-top castle northwards, along the coast to Dunure. They had duly arrived six hours ago, but still Sir Thomas’s guest was not ready to depart. Sailing down to Culzean that morning, Andra and Davie had previously read the signs: a storm was on the way and the wind was from the north – thanks to the delay, their sail would be useless. Left to themselves, they would never have put to sea under such circumstances, but they dared not refuse a command from their laird.

Andra could hear the wind whooping in the kitchen chimney. An independent-minded man and a skilled and respected fisherman, this waiting on the whim of a stranger chafed his pride. As he shuffled aside to allow the cook to open the great bread oven, Andra enquired, ‘Mistress, wit way is the laird’s guest sae tardy? Is he an auld body?’

Humph. He’s nay seen sae mony years that thou hast, I judge. But he’s a man o’ strange powers and accustomed tae ca’ his time his own tae spend.’

Strange powers, Mistress?’

Aye, strange powers. Have thee nae heard o’ Michael Scott o’ Balwearie Tower?’ Andra and Davie exchanged startled looks. The cook continued: ‘Aye, it’s him, the warlock.’ She shuddered, ‘They say he has a devilish familiar that he keeps busy by commanding it to weave a rope out of sea sand.’

Those in fishing communities were a people apart. Fishing was an occupation of shared rewards and shared hazards: their small open boats would work in pairs, hauling in a common net; once beached on the shore, a fifth part of the catch would go to the sick and the widowed. But the hazards bred many superstitions, beliefs in charms and curses, good luck and ill luck. A warlock would be a chancy passenger in an open boat.

Before Andra could reply to the cook, the kitchen door burst open, the maid shrieked in alarm, and Sir Thomas’s chamberlain entered the room along with the north wind. He announced that the laird of Balwearie was now ready to depart.

Down at the shore, Davie’s two sons helped the passenger aboard. He was wrapped in a plaid and carried a bag of books. Andra glanced up at the louring sky and felt the first splatter of rain upon his face. He’d often seen worse weather in the Firth, but he’d never before had to row six sea-miles through it, against the wind and the tide. He spat on his hands and took up his oar beside Davie: troubles that couldn’t be avoided had to be bravely borne…

#

Shortly after ten o’clock, a smartly dressed middle-aged man entered the waiting-room hut, spoke briefly to the receptionist, and glanced at a paper on a clipboard. His bow-tie and his mannered drawl marked him out as the oncologist – I took an immediate dislike to him. Two minutes later, the first name was called by the nurse. Now that the consultation was imminent, further waiting became less bearable and I found myself resenting the patients called forth before me. With an effort of will, I returned to my book…

#

Once they’d left the comparative shelter of the castle bay, the wind and the waves grew much in strength. Indeed, so high were the waves that Andra noticed that when the boat pitched into the trough of a wave, they were fleetingly sheltered from the driving north rain by the height of the wave above the bows. And, facing westward, he could see the spume from the nearby waves caught in the beams of the sinking sun and creating dozens of transitory, truncated rainbows. A day of wonders, if he had only the leisure to ponder them, rather than his likely drowning. He took courage to shout an appeal to the passenger:

Master Mage, I prithee, may we return to Culzean, lest we founder?’

The passenger merely shook his head.

Two hours later, dead beat, freezing cold and nearing their destination at last, Andra peered landward in vain. He had hoped to glimpse a fairway guide – the white mark of waves breaking on the rocks of the Mulrhu headland, immediately to the north of their goal, namely the shingle beach at Dunure. But the dusk and the storm had obliterated the looked-for guide. Navigating the boat past the rocks and beaching it safely on Dunure beach would now depend on his kinfolk lighting a beacon-fire on the home shore. He said as much to his fellow oarsman, Davie Kennedy. Davie shook his head:

Andra, thou maun pray to thy name-sanct, forbye Sanct Nicholas and Sanct Christopher, that the storm slackens. As things stand, if we mak the shore, this storm’ll hurl us ’gainst the shingle and the boat’ll shatter and coup us o’er. We’ll be droonit in the under-tow. Had we a rope, that might save us: our kinfolk could haul the boat to safety through the breaking waves.’

Andra nodded and glared at their plaid-wrapped passenger seated beyond the other two rowers, Davie’s sons. Andra’s resentment of the man’s aloofness overcame his fear. He shouted above the blast: ‘Master Mage, grab the bailing bucket, lest we all droon!’

The old man spoke slowly in a resonant voice, ‘I am Michael Scott of Balwearie. I know the hour of my death and it is not now… Forbye, thy seamark is now restored.’

The rowers turned and peered through the spume to see the flare of the beacon-fire. Andra cheered: ‘My brother has lit it. He kenned the storm would likely delay our return.’

But they still lacked a rope. Andra shouted a last appeal to the Mage. The passenger sighed, muttered, and raised one arm aloft. Instantly, a coiled rope thudded into the bows. There was no time to ponder the rope’s arrival: Andra grabbed it and lashed the rope-end to the bows. The rowers, by luck or judgement, caught a strong in-rolling wave and Andra, with the last of his strength, hurled the coil shorewards; the waiting men on the shingle hauled them in. Three times, enormous waves broke over the boat before it was hauled clear. Davie’s two sons had each grabbed a rowlock with one hand and their passenger with the other, else he would surely have been swept away.

Safe on the shore with the others, Andra noticed that, strangely, the beacon-fire had dwindled away as fast as it must have flared up. He remembered the Mage’s rope; yet when he looked, it wasn’t there.

#

A few minutes after twelve, the nurse called my name. Truculent, as a defence against my mounting anxieties, I entered the over-heated consulting room. After a short history, including a family history of cancer, I was asked to remove my shirt. The doctor examined my chest for a long half-minute…

‘Well, nothing to worry about there. Lipoma: just fatty lumps.’

To my complete surprise, I found I wanted to hug him – my magician.

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