(first published in Dodging the Rain June 1, 2018)

CastlebayCottage ,Shore Rd
Thousand Islands Bay
North Island
New Zealand
December 15th, 2016

The Librarian
School of Scottish Studies
University of Edinburgh.

Dear Sir/Madam,
I would be most grateful if you would accept the gift of the enclosed manuscript.
Yours faithfully,
Captain Alan Padraig MacNeil (retired)


Summer vacation, Isle of Barra, 1954.

‘… Càc a’choin! Another empty creel, Alan. Ach, time we were heading back anyhow. Best that you are coming into the wheelhouse with me, it’s getting a bitty choppy.’

Heading back to Castlebay, after lifting the last of the creels – that was always my favourite part of the trip. That was when Uncle Ruairidh, Ruairidh Mòr oil-skinned colossus, would tell his sea stories. Coaxing him was part of the game: he would feign reluctance, claiming he couldn’t tell a story properly in English, protesting that I’d heard all his stories a thousand-million times, that the wild geese could tell me a better story. At length, the clamoured-for narrative would begin: maybe the story of the storm that beached the great whale, in testimony of which the whale-bone stool stood in Ruairidh Mòr’s croft-house; maybe that of the storm that wrecked the Norwegian tramp-steamer and brought a dozen dripping, silent, blond giants in to warm themselves at Katie Ann’s fire, scaring that old lady half out of her remaining wits; and most marvellous of all, perhaps the story of the storm that stranded my great-uncle, Padraig Neill, on ‘the Last Isle,’ when he was just nineteen years old. This is my poor re-telling of Ruaridh Mòr’s luminous tale of the stranding…

The Barra boats were all fishing off Berneray when that storm broke with sudden violence — the very same storm that capsized the Isle of Pabbay boat and drowned the only five able-bodied men left on that small, green, holy island. The storms thereabouts can be as loud as cannon-fire and fierce enough to deposit small fish at the top of the cliffs, a mocking offering to the fishermen in their fragile open boats. My great-uncle, Padraig Neill, was in a boat with three other Barra men, helpless in the blast and fury of the storm. After one enormous wave broke over them, he was alone in the boat. He guessed the boat was being driven towards the 700-foot cliff of Builacraig on the west coast of the Isle of Mingulay. He expected, any moment, to be dashed against the foot of Builacraig, but instead, the great sea-stack of Gunamul suddenly loomed over the boat.

Now, Gunamul is that rare thing, a sea-stack that is also a sea-arch. The arch is narrow, yet passable by a small boat. But it’s passable only in very favourable conditions, rare enough in the seas around Mingulay, where there is nearly always a heavy swell. Strange chance: the tiny boat was lifted up, as if to be dashed on Gunamul, but instead was carried straight through that tower of rock. Padraig Neill, in his disordered mind, could not understand what had happened – it was only subsequently that he reasoned that the storm must have borne him through the sea-arch, like a bullet through a gun barrel.

Soon after, exhausted, deafened and disorientated, he apparently lost consciousness. At any rate, he had no memory of the rest of the storm, nor of how long he must have drifted before the storm blew itself out. His next memory was of lying face-upwards in the boat, his left wrist still roped for safety to a brass rowlock. There was still a swell; the seas were slopping into the swamped boat. He was chilled, very thirsty, bruised and bloodied. It was dark, but he could tell he was close to land, not by the sound of the breaking of the waves (he was still deaf from the storm), but by the dark mass of hills on his right hand. He began to bail out the boat, but the effort was beyond his strength. Now there was moon enough to see the waves breaking in a regular line, not on cliffs or rocks, but on a beach. He loosed the rope that held him to the rowlock, kicked off his sea-boots, and swam for the shore. He could only swim a short distance before he had to desist and float upon his back. With a last effort, he rolled over to swim again and was surprised to find himself in shallow water. He crawled up the beach to the high-tide mark.

Sometime later, Padraig Neill awoke to feel the hot sun on his back. He rolled over in the sand to see a young woman kneeling beside him. When Padraig told the tale, a thing he did only rarely and privately, he said that he thought at first that he had died and he was now in Paradise. But then his reason told him that, in Paradise, he would surely be freed from his thirst, cuts and bruises. The woman silently offered him a blue-edged, white enamel cup of water. He drank and asked no questions. It was the best water that he had ever tasted. It was the best drink he had ever tasted: better even than the whisky from the famous still at Clachtol on the mainland. He looked again at the woman and saw that she was very beautiful – brown-eyed and white-skinned, clad in a simple grey dress.

‘Was she a seal woman, Uncle Ruairidh?’ I had asked.

‘Perhaps, who is knowing?’ Ruairidh Mòr had replied, ‘Your great-uncle never said. I’m thinking that he never knew.’

The woman spoke with a smile in her voice. She said to Padraig Neill: ‘You are a fisherman. My father was a fisherman. You are welcome on this island’. She helped him to his feet and they walked off the beach onto the sweet machair turf, grazed short by nearby sheep with their leggy lambs. At the far edge of the machair ground was a spring-fed pool with a cabin beside it. Here, the woman bathed Padraig Neill’s wounds and fed him crowdie cheese and bannocks.

As he ate, Padraig stared alternately at the woman and out of the open cabin door, across the short stretch of machair grassland and out to sea. He saw no familiar landmarks, not the high cliffs of the Isle of Mingulay, nor the Berneray lighthouse, nor the dazzling white beaches of his native Barra. But this caused him no uneasiness as he listened to the woman with the smile in her voice. She told him that his boat had been carried away on the ebb-tide, but her half-brother, Lachlan Luspardan, was searching for it. Padraig simply listened to the smile in her voice and looked long into her shining brown eyes. Never had he been so content. And then he slept.

When he awoke the woman was gone. For the first time on that strange shore, thoughts of Barra assailed him. He thought of his mother waiting in vain at the harbour for his boat to return out of the storm. He thought of the widows of his lost companions, with no knowledge of what had become of their husbands. He realised he must go home, if only briefly, before he could return to the beautiful woman with the smile in her voice and to the fortunate shore where she lived. Then he saw the woman making her way towards him across the machair, her grey dress swaying about her as she walked. A step behind her was another figure, dwarfish, with an ungainly shuffle.

‘Greetings fisherman,’ she said simply. ‘This is my brother, Lachlan.’ The dwarf remained silent, hands on hips. ‘Lachlan has not found your boat. I’m afraid the tide and the currents have borne it away from our island.’

‘But I must go home,’ blurted Padraig. ‘I mean, I must put my mother’s mind at rest and tell the village what has happened. And then…’ He paused and blushed. ‘I would wish… if I may… if you would allow… to return here to you. I cannot…’ And then he could say no more.

The woman nodded. ‘Of course, you must see your mother. Lachlan here will take you in his boat. And if you wish it,’ she smiled, ‘you may return to us here on the Last Isle.’

‘How shall I find you?’ said Padraig. ‘I’ve never heard of the Last Isle. Does it lie far from Barra?’

‘Not far, no. But still, it is not easily found. You must pass through the Great Arch and then sail westward. But I will give you a chart. You will be very welcome, should you choose to return.’ At this, the dwarf turned abruptly on his heel, and shuffled quickly away. Padraig saw that he was making for a skiff that was anchored off-shore at the far end of the bay. Padraig and the woman were left alone at the cabin: Padraig never said what they spoke of, but the woman handed Padraig a rolled parchment that she said would serve for a chart. At length, they followed Lachlan Luspardan down to the skiff, which was now ready to depart and Padraig waded through the surf to clamber aboard. As the dwarf weighed anchor, Padraig turned to the shore: the woman stood still and grave at the water’s edge, and remained there as the vessel drew away and she dwindled to a distant speck, seen intermittently between the heaving waves.

Padraig observed that the dwarf was a skilful sailor and used to handling the skiff. But he was unresponsive to Padraig’s eager questions, answering reluctantly in few words and in a strange, high-pitched, hoarse voice. After half an hour or so, the dwarf pulled a corked bottle and a satchel of bannocks from a locker, and offered them to Padraig. The liquid within the bottle surprised Padraig: it was not the spring water he’d drunk earlier with so much relish, but a thick, sweet, opaque liquid. Some minutes later, he began to feel drowsy – whether from the strange liquid, or simply from the continuing after-effects of his previous ordeal, he could not say. The dwarf indicated that he could curl up in the bows of the skiff and he did so, falling asleep almost immediately.

He awoke sometime later among some sheep-skins the dwarf must have drawn over him. It was dusk and the dwarf was making use of the evening wind to sail close into a deserted beach that Padraig immediately recognised as a beach close to his Barra home. The dwarf smiled and bobbed his head: ‘Yes fisherman, it is time for us to part company. Show me my sister’s chart, that I may guide you back to us’.

Padraig automatically rose to hand over the rolled parchment. At the same time as he took the parchment, the dwarf deftly and fiercely shoved Padraig overboard. By the time Padraig had surfaced and recovered his wits, the wind had carried the skiff well out of reach and the dwarf had already changed tack, away from the shore. Padraig struck out for the skiff, but quickly realised the effort was futile. As he trod water, he watched the dwarf cackle and shred the parchment into fragments.

Padraig could do nothing but turn about and swim for the beach. Though afterwards he often sought for the Last Isle, once even taking a rowing boat through the narrow Gunamul sea-arch on a rare day of absolute calm, he never found the isle nor the woman ever again. He died while still in his twenties – a drowning – his body was never found.

All through my childhood and adolescence, the strange tale of Great-Uncle Padraig Neill’s stranding stayed with me like an old song: a tale of longing and loss, sweetness and sadness, a world glimpsed and then forever beyond reach.

Some forty years passed by: Ruairidh Mòr was crippled with arthritis; his boat was sold; I was away in the Philippines; and Padraig Neill’s tale was starting to fade along with all my other Barra memories. Then I chanced to come upon a similar story (‘Le Grand Meaulnes’) written by a young Frenchman, Alain-Fournier, who had gone on to die in the slaughter of the First World War. As I read on, that old tale of my uncle’s came surging back to me like a high tide among the rock pools. That story was like a scene glimpsed through the wrong end of a telescope: a tiny, bright, treasured fragment of a world I’ve long lost. Now it’s a taken-for-granted part of me, like my left-handedness or my long stride.

I’ve no nephew to pass this manuscript onto. I hope the University’s School of Scottish Studies will be able to find a place for it in their oral history archive. The whale-bone stool is going to the Barra Heritage and Cultural Centre.

The Poet’s Revenge

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue 8, May 2018)

It was one of those online poetry magazines where they invite readers to comment on the poems. Dorothy shows me them from time to time. One evening, she said to me, ‘This poem here reminds me of the poem you wrote to me, back when we got engaged.’ She passed over her iPad and went out the room. I put down The Yorkshire Post and studied the poem. To be honest, I couldn’t make much of it.

Dorothy came back in and leaned over the couch, looking over my shoulder. I muttered, ‘What does “lambent” mean?’ She ignored my question and passed over an old-fashioned Valentine Card. I recognised my handwriting from forty years ago: I didn’t know that she’d kept the card all this time.

Reading the poem I’d written again, after all those years, I couldn’t help feeling that it wasn’t too bad. I was pretty certain, anyway, that it was a sight better than the ‘lambent moonlight’ rubbish on the iPad. I said as much to Dorothy.

‘Not too bad?? I think it’s absolutely wonderful, Clive. Why not email it to the magazine and see if they’ll publish it? There’s just a ten dollar reading fee to pay – what’s ten dollars these days? Still a bit less than ten quid, anyway.’

Her eyes were shining – I let myself be persuaded.

We sent it off, and at first, I used to feel a sugar-rush of excitement each time I opened up my email. But after a couple of months, still not hearing anything, I forgot all about it. And Dorothy apparently stopped looking at their website.

Then one winter evening, I opened up my laptop to renew my season ticket for the footie [if they can hang onto the lad McHardie, in midfield, and buy a half-decent goalie, I’ve a feeling they could be promotion candidates next time]. As I say, I opened up my laptop and there was an email from ‘The Editorial Team.’ They would be delighted to publish my poem in their next issue, which would ‘go live’ at the beginning of next month. Bloody ‘Ell: I’m a poet.

I showed the email to Dorothy, attempting a casualness I didn’t feel and couldn’t maintain. We ended up opening the bottle of champagne that my brother brought round last Christmas, and Dorothy printed off a copy of the poem to send to her sister in Canada.

Come the first of the month, I rushed home from work and Dorothy met me at the door, her iPad in her hand. My plan had been for the poet to take his muse out for a meal, but we ended up ordering a take-away – The Golden Dragon in Sadlergate does a wonderful vegetable fried rice that’s a meal in itself. We had a lovely, cosy evening: Dorothy persuaded me to recite the poem and then had a little cry.

The trouble came two days later. Dorothy was noticeably quiet all evening. I finally got it out of her after we’d gone to bed: she showed me on her iPad the comments that had been posted on the website about my poem. One comment was an innocuous ‘Well done.’ The other comment was… well, a slow-acting poison.

It seemed that the ‘sentiment’ of my poem was ‘mawkish;’ ‘scansion’ indicated ‘an irregular metre;’ the line ‘All that’s best of dark and light’ had been ‘pinched from Lord Byron;’ etc., etc. The dribble of bile came to a close with the remark that ‘the poet certainly displays a unique approach. One is reminded of Chesterton’s bon mot that if we cannot have goodness, let us at least have rich badness.’

Dorothy, bless her, pointed out that Byron’s line had been ‘dark and bright,’ not ‘dark and light.’ But she was still troubled. As for me, I never slept all that long night.

The strange thing was that the name of the bastard commentator, Colman Thaxted, was vaguely familiar. Couldn’t place it though. In the early morning, with Dorothy breathing quietly and regularly, I crept out of bed and fired up the laptop in the spare room. Google only offered one Colman Thaxted – then it came back to me…

The Methodist Chapel Youth Club in the early 1970’s. Colman Thaxted had been the chairman of the club committee, an unassailable position as he was the nephew of the Methodist Minister, Drippy Drinkwater. Thaxted had been a year older than me and determined to steal my Dorothy away from me. He’d been one of several rival suitors, though not perhaps the most dangerous (that was Andy McKillop, who claimed to be getting his own band together). Thaxted’s idea of a trump card was to make Dorothy secretary of the club committee and keep calling round to her house to ‘discuss club business.’

I was mentally reliving his under-hand campaign, when Dorothy touched my shoulder: she’d woken and traced me to the spare room. She confessed that she’d recognised the name at once, but told me that Thaxted had never been a real contender: I was a better dancer AND I’d managed to get tickets to The Stones 1973 tour (Kings Hall, Manchester – September 12th, 1973). She said we were already a done deal by Valentine’s Day 1974, but my card had served as a lasting confirmation.

It was Sunday, so we went back to bed.

The next day, in my lunch hour, I popped into the chemist’s and bought a well-known brand of medicinal anti-acid tablets. I’d traced Thaxted to the School of Cross-Media Studies in a university in the West Midlands. Anonymously, I posted him one of the tablets, with the suggestion: ‘Suck on this.’

The Redeeming Flood

Michael Bloor

(first pubished in Scribble, Issue No.77, Spring 2018, pp. 67-69)

I found the battered and scratched figure in the hospital bed to be surprisingly cheerful. Jim Shardlow, our village GP, is in his sixties and I’d expected his near-death experience (cracked rib, large gash on his hip, multiple bruises and scratches, blood loss and exposure) to have produced an altogether frailer and more subdued patient. I put Jim’s jollity down to the painkillers, but I turned out to be quite wrong.

As the Minister in Strathgaudie (a combined charge with Newparks and Kilblair) for the last thirty years, hospital visiting is a familiar part of my job. I observed all the hospital-visitor conventions: how was he feeling? (‘starving’ – I passed him the custard pie I’d brought as part of my tea); did he need anything? (‘could I feed his cat?’ – already attended to). And then I waited impatiently for his story. Eventually, Jim brushed a couple of pie crumbs out of his grey beard, smiled and said, ‘I suppose you want to know how it happened…

He paused and then continued. ‘I reckon Sally must’ve been crossing the Mill Burn footbridge to meet her wee Nickie off the school bus: it was that time of day. I was between patients and I heard her scream. I looked out the surgery window in time to see that that the footbridge was down and there was a head in the water.’

I nodded, ‘Yep, one of the bridge stanchions has gone. Remember the flash flood back in 1997? Both stanchions were swept away then. The burn’s still running high. But what happened to you?’

‘I knew I had to be quick. I grabbed an old tow rope as I went out the back porch. I ran as fast as I could. I was hoping she’d manage to cling onto to something, otherwise I’d never be able to catch her up. I soon spotted her: she was tangled up in some semi-submerged gorse bushes on the far bank. But there was no point in throwing her the tow rope: she wasn’t moving – she was unconscious. I had to go in after her.’

I shook my head at Jim. He and I are roughly the same age. He’s reasonably fit, but in your sixties, you may be still have the will, but you lack the stamina. And unless you’ve actually witnessed a flash flood in the Highlands, it’s difficult to imagine how furious those flood waters can be: I’ve seen the Mill Burn rise a good three feet in as many seconds, and I’ve seen boulders and whole trees borne along like pebbles and twigs.

Jim smiled and shook his head in return. ‘I didn’t have much time. Unconscious as she was, she’d quickly drown. I tied one end of the tow rope to an alder tree and stepped into the burn, with the rope-end wrapped around my fist. I thought I was prepared for the force of the current, but I wasn’t. I was immediately knocked off my feet. I reckon that’s when I got the cracked rib and the gashed hip – banging against submerged rocks. But I hung onto that rope-end: I hung on as if it was Jacob’s Ladder. I lost my footing again. More than once, I think. The cracked rib was shrieking at me, but I finally made it into the flooded gorse thicket. That was a bad moment, cos I was still a few yards away from Sally and the tow rope would stretch no further.

‘I had to abandon the rope and force my way through the gorse. I got to her somehow and freed her from the gorse tangles. She wasn’t breathing. So I picked her up…’

‘You picked her up, though you had a cracked rib??’

‘I suppose the adrenaline helped. I hoisted her onto my good shoulder – she’s only a wee thing – and struggled through the remaining bushes onto higher ground. I got her breathing again and headed up the glen to Wester Strathgaudie to raise the alarm. I found Charlie Smith in his lambing shed – afraid I must’ve given him quite a fright – I told him what had happened… and passed out. I came to again in the air ambulance, alongside Sally.’

For Jim, this was quite a lengthy tale. He’s courteous to all, and a caring, conscientious GP, but he’s reserved. Of course, the local doctor can’t be seen whooping it up in the public bar at the Gordon Arms Hotel, but Jim’s reserve is more than professional self-restraint. Annie Forbes, who drives the school bus and always gives a plastic bag of romantic novels for the Kirk ‘bring-and-buy’ sale, claims he has a ‘secret sorrow.’ My brother-in-law, Angus MacQuarrie, a surgeon at the children’s hospital, told me that Jim’s a first-rate doctor, implying that he’s rather wasted on us good folks in Strathgaudie. Even to me, Jim’s been a bit an enigma: nearly every Monday night for more than twenty years, we’ve played each other at chess in either his house or mine, and we’ve slipped gradually into one of those comfortable male friendships where we talk less and less as time goes by.

But I didn’t want to lapse into a comfortable silence in the ward just then. ‘You’re a hardy soul, Jim, as well as a brave one. Many a younger and fitter man might have hesitated before plunging into that burn.’

‘It’s true: I didn’t hesitate, Sandy. But that wasn’t because I’m brave… it was because I was grateful. Grateful that, after more than forty years I’d been given a second chance…’

He paused, seeing the puzzlement on my face, squinted up at the ceiling and recited some lines of a poem about the moment when the poet realises that life no longer offers a smorgasbord of possibilities, and gates onto rose gardens have just slammed shut. ‘That happened to me, forty-odd years ago. But down at the Mill Burn yesterday, I got a reprieve. It’s an old, dark story, Sandy. But I think I’ve maybe now earned the right to tell it.

‘I was a medical student at Cambridge. It was a wonderful time to be young. “Sergeant Pepper” could be heard through every open window and the beer was cheap, but it was the girls who were intoxicating. On a warm April night, after two days of heavy rain, I’d been in love with Jenny Sangster for the previous two hours. We smuggled a bottle of cheap wine out of the party and headed across the river. I don’t think we were consciously making for my room: we were innocents, just wanting to be together under the warm night sky. On the bridge, I was reciting Byron to Jenny and the shrouded moon. Jenny scrambled up onto the parapet, spread her arms out wide, threw back her head and shouted, “I walk in beauty, like the night!” So lovely she looked: her dark, tumbled tresses, her short, vivid, red dress, and her suede boots…

‘The parapet was still wet from the recent rain. She slipped backwards and fell. It was thought afterwards that she must have hit her head on the bridge stonework as she fell, because she never made a sound. I rushed to the parapet. I shouted her name. There was very little light. Perhaps she had been carried under the bridge? There was a swift current in the river that night. I rushed to the opposite parapet and shouted her name again: no sign.

‘I was a poor swimmer in those days, really more of a floater. I scrambled down to the river bank and ran up and down it, calling her name. What shameful futility! I knew then that the right thing to do, the only thing to do, was to jump in the river myself: to put myself at risk. But I didn’t. I didn’t. I didn’t.’

By this point in his story, there was a sob in Jim’s throat. My occupational instincts kicked in and I started to murmur words of comfort and condolence. Jim cut me short: ‘No, no, Sandy. Please: those kindnesses lacerate me. They lacerated me then. At the inquest, the consideration that Jenny’s parents showed towards me was almost unbearable…

‘Afterwards, I knew what I had to do. I would find a small world where I could live quietly and acquit myself as well as I was able. That’s what I’ve tried to do, these past years in Strathgaudie. Believe me, Sandy, I have never looked for… redemption. But redemption found me! Not everyone gets a second chance, but I was blest. Of course, I never hesitated when I got that second chance. A cracked rib, a little spilt blood and some scratches – they were a very small price to pay.’

When I left the ward, Jim was wearing an unfamiliar broad smile. I no longer put his mood down to the medication. As I drove back home, I reflected that Annie, the school bus driver, had been right about Jim after all.



(first published March 24, 2018 in Dodging the Rain)

In 1050, Macbeth went on a pilgrimage to Rome, the only Scottish king ever to do so. The chronicler, Marianus, wrote that Macbeth gave money to the poor of Rome ‘as if it were seed.’ Pope St. Leo IX was one of the great reforming popes, campaigning against the sale of ecclesiastical offices and against married priests. But Leo IX also appears in popular history as a tragic figure, his letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople having brought about ‘The Great Schism’ between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Leo IX was a German speaker and Macbeth (Mac Bethad mac Findlaich) was a native Gaelic speaker, so it is possible that they conversed with the help of a monk from one of the Scottish monasteries that brought the Gospels into Germany.

‘… Indeed, Your Holiness, it has been an arduous journey. But with my entry at last into Rome, my dirty soul has felt a little cleaner.’

‘Have you found it so, Mac Bethad mac Findlaich? In my own case, I have found many times that re-entering the city, being once more among the ruins of barbarous paganism, engenders in me a sense of futility, of the transience of earthly kingship. The ancient emperors of the known world built here, piling carved stone on carved stone in salute to their pagan Gods. Great artists swarmed to Rome to celebrate the might of its rulers. Yet all that has endured is… rubble.’

‘I understand. My long journey to Rome has impressed upon me that Scotland is only a small country on the cold shoulder of the world, but Brother Colm here may have told you that we too have our ruins: great circles of upended stones, so huge that our legends tell us they must have been fashioned by giants. They too are deserted now – roosts for the hoodie crow. Yet it has seemed to me that those who dwelt there – men, or giants, or evil trows – are to be pitied, having had no knowledge of Our Saviour. To look upon those ruins among the heather lifts my heart, because I know Christians are right and those old pagans were wrong.’

‘That is so. Your heart told you true. But Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world. Because of Adam’s sin, we who rule in this world can only rule in error, as the pagans ruled in error. Is that not what has dirtied your soul, Mac Bethad mac Findlaich?’

‘Perhaps so, Your Holiness. But a man can only plough a field as he finds it, likewise with a ruler and a kingdom. I burned my cousin, Gille Coemgain, and his retainers in his hall, but justice demanded his death for his slaughter of my father. Thereafter, for peace and unity, I took to wife Gruoch, my cousin’s widow, and I have named Lulach, my stepson, as my heir. Duncan, the usurper, fell in battle at Pitgaveny and it was well that I had the victory, because Duncan was a young and foolish ruler. Like many a king, I have stepped in blood to reach the throne, but I have tried long and hard to rule wisely and well.’

‘I begin to understand why you have felt impelled to make this pilgrimage, Mac Bethan mac Findlaich. But you speak well when you qualify your rule as an attempt at wisdom. It may be some consolation to you to know that I, your holy father, have laboured long and hard to rule God’s Church wisely and well… And yet, and yet… I have travelled Christendom, I have cast down bishops who have bought their sees, I have cast out priests who flaunt their concubines… But for all my little victories over the sins of simony and clerical incontinence, I can only wonder if I have always ruled wisely and well. This matter of the appointment of Humbert as Archbishop of Sicily, for example: inadvertently, I seem to have angered Patriarch Michael Cærularius in Constantinople… Hmm, I see from your face, and that of Brother Colm, that I am wandering along paths that are strange to you — my apologies.’

‘Please, Your Holiness, I am honoured by your confidences. And I understand the lesson you would teach: that all rulers – secular and ecclesiastic – must strive for righteousness, but in this life they can never know whether they succeed. They will only know when they stand before your Apostolic Predecessor, St Peter.

‘That is so: Heaven shall be our judge. But I also wonder about the judgement of posterity. I am told that, among your people you are known as “the red king”. Take care that posterity names you thus for the colour of your hair, rather than the blood of your enemies. Go in peace with my blessing, Mac Bethan mac Findlaich.’

The Visionary Librarian

By Michael Bloor

(first published Feb 6th 2018, in The Copperfield Review)

January 1st, 1781

I do not fully know my reasons for setting down this record of past events. I have studied the works my great contemporary, David Hume, and I therefore no longer cleave to the kirk and to the faith of my fathers. Yet the purging of what others call my soul, penitence, and the striving for a moral life, they all remain a habit with me. Furthermore, I have a strong presentiment that I shall not live out this winter. These days of bitter chill may be my last opportunity to reveal my hidden crime and to state my case, not to the Maker in whom I no longer believe, but perhaps to my better self – the self who always seeks but never finds, who can carefully shape a principle but cannot always live by it. If others should find this manuscript after I am dust, may they read it and know that even a puir body can try to do his duty.

I have taught the school in the parish of Inverallan for thirty seven years and I trust I have discharged that duty honourably, though no Inverallan weaver’s or ploughman’s bairn has joined the ranks of David Hume, Adam Smith, William Robertson, and William Fergusson – the Philosopher-Kings of Scotland and all Europe. However, the Inverallan dominie has a further duty yet – a duty greater, I believe, than that of schooling the Inverallan bairns – I refer to my duty as Keeper of the Books. A hundred years since, the Inverallan laird bequeathed his library of two hundred volumes (together with a respectable sum for their upkeep) as a free library to all men and women who wished to borrow them. When the old minister, Mr MacKellar, informed me of my appointment and showed me the library that was to be in my charge, I could conceive of no duty under the sun that could be more pleasurable. I was not to ken then the rue that would come to me.

In the early years of my charge, Inverallan and the surrounding parishes were in a sorry state. The laird had declared for Prince Charles Stuart, and when the laird is for a cause then the tenants have little choice but to follow. Two score of men had marched off with the laird, my elder brother Alexander among them. Only three lads limped home. At first, we had good news of Alexander. It seemed that he had distinguished himself in the field at Preston Pans and, when the laird fell ill and was left behind in Edinburgh, Alexander took charge of the laird’s men on the march into England. On the retreat from Derby, Alexander was detailed to be part of the garrison the Prince left in Carlisle. After that we heard nothing. Cumberland’s army marched through our parish on their way to Culloden: they fired the laird’s castle and drove off all our cattle and our remaining horses.

It was in February 1752, a time of want and bitter cold, that I had more news. In the late evening there was a tapping at my window, but the pane was so frosted over that I could not see out. I took up my lantern and opened the door. A tall figure, muffled in a cloak stood before me. There was a bright moon, but his face was shadowed by his hat.

‘They tell me our parents are both dead.’ It was Alexander. I dropped the lantern; we embraced.

I fed him some porridge and spirits and studied him as he ate and drank. To my surprise, he seemed hardly changed, for all his seven-year absence. Only his rich, travel-stained clothes spoke of a difference. He told me bits and pieces of his story: it seemed that in the ’45 several men had died at his hands; more recently, he been in France in the service of the Stuarts, but Scots were no longer welcome there; he had used the last of his money to pay the ‘freetraders’ (as our smugglers are commonly called) to land him near Kirkcaldy; he had travelled to Inverallan only by night, there being a price on his head. But rather than talk over-much about himself, he had the charming ability to draw out the talk of others:

‘Well, Jamie lad, you’re quite the scholar now. I see on the table that “Lock’s Works” is your present study eh?’

‘Philosophy is only one of the subjects to be found in The Free Library, Sandy. There are books on geography, history, theology, and mathematics, translations of Ovid and Virgil, maps, collections of sermons…’

‘Yon is a strange conceit, is it not? to make a pile of your books, some of them doubtless worth a year of our faither’s labour. And then offer them up to any passin’ ploughboy that has a fancy for them?’

‘Each ploughboy, as you put it, must sign for each volume that he borrows. But Sandy, I don’t think you’ve grasped the wonder of the thing. They come here from their fermtouns and weavers’ cottages, limbs stiff after a hard day’s labour, walking miles through the sleet and the glaur. They carry back with them Shakespeare’s Sonnets to read by the ill light of their cruisie lamps. And that is their taste of Rhenish wine and honey cakes, their bed of goose down, their transport to Samarkand. With a book in his chapped hand, every ploughboy is an equal of the Duke of Argyll and the Marquis of Breadalbane. This free library is a growing light in a dark world, Sandy.’

‘Pish, Jamie. Your ploughboy is a duke’s equal (mention not that damned Argyll to me) in the alehouse, wi’ a tankard in his hand and a maid on his knee. What need of books, when you’ve left the schoolroom?’

In my eagerness to convince Alexander, I fetched the Borrower’s Register to show him. As he turned the pages, he murmured: ‘Well, well, Andra Comrie borrows Abercrombie’s Sermons. I thought him dead on the field at Falkirk.’

Seizing on this sign of interest, I lent over his shoulder to point out one of old Peter Reid’s borrowings. Alexander frowned: ‘I never marked Auld Peter as a scholar, Jamie. Does he have a daughter or a granddaughter who would read to him?’

‘He died last Lammas, Sandy and he’d lived alone up at Loanhead these four years. It’s my guess that the old man sought and loved the nearness of books. Perhaps his was the delight of the adventurer who trembles at the threshold of the treasure chamber…’

Alexander snorted, but I persisted – a man who lives too much alone with his thoughts: ‘I fancy that old Peter’s pleasure in his borrowings is like my pleasure in this library. I am surrounded by more books than I can ever read, surrounded by more knowledge than I can ever glean, more wisdom than I can guess at. Surrounded thus, I’m not daunted, I tremble with pleasure.’

I paused, embarrassed. Alexander gave me a long look and spoke softly: ‘Jamie, I have need to borrow a pile of your books… Indefinitely.’ I stared. ‘There’s a bounty on my head. I know of a vessel at the Broomielaw in Glasgow that will carry me to a new life in the Carolinas. For a price. Your books are as good as ready currency.’

My elder brother faded before my eyes and a simulacrum took his place. The brawling spirited lad I had idolised, and run after, was vanished like snow off a dyke. I recalled my mother’s sorrowing judgement: that Alexander was like a cherry, sweet to taste but with a stone at his centre. Before me was the callous gallant who had left his parents to fret and go to their graves thinking him dead on a battlefield, who had fawned and intrigued for place and favour in foreign courts, and who had only returned briefly to his native Scotland to profit from, and ruin, his brother’s position of trust. Worst yet, he would pillage the free library – the library that is, and should remain, a hope and consolation in a wretched world.

Every schoolroom is a stage for the dominie to strut and strike a pose. It was now my turn to dissemble and fall in with Alexander’s plans. We made up his bed, despite his faint protestations (‘I’m an old campaigner, Jamie – the heather has oft times been bed enough for me’) and fixed that he would stay hidden with me the next day, departing in the dusk with his booty of sixteen books (more than he needed for his fare, I’ll warrant).

That next day, I watched him take the less-frequented moorland road. I marvelled at how he hardly bent his back, shouldering the coarse linen sack of books. When he was past the castle ruins, I grabbed my hat and walked over to the manse, to beg the loan of the minister’s mare (I was still a communicant in those days and a member of the kirk session). I then took the military road to Stirling. I had slow progress over the half-frozen snow and dawn was breaking when I reached Stirling Brig. Mares’ tails of mist were twisting over the River Forth, which Alexander had to cross to gain the Glasgow road. I had the Brig sentry call up the Sheriff’s Officer, an old pupil of mine, to whom (in confidence) I told my tale.

After resting the horse, I turned for home and only heard the end of the story a week later. Samuel Haldane, the Sheriff’s Officer, came by to return the linen bag of books. I sat him down at the fireside and poured him a glass. He told me that Alexander, as he’d surmised, had been too canny to try to cross the brig: Haldane had put a concealed watch on the upstream ford and his men had taken Alexander there by surprise. However, as the party were marching back to Stirling, Alexander had slashed at one man with a concealed dirk, broken away and ran for the river. Whether the pursuers’ musketry had been successful, or the cold of the river had overcome Alexander, Haldane was unable to say, but Alexander’s body was seen to be borne away by the current, down to the sea.

Haldane could see that his news had pierced me. He rose and laid a hand on my shoulder: ‘Mr Robertson, your brother Alexander was well-kent in all this countryside from Stirling to Crieff, even before The Rebellion. He was too wild a man for these New Times.’

Though Haldane’s words were some comfort to me, mine is nevertheless the sin of Cain. But I did not commit fratricide merely to repossess a bag of books. Rather, I would claim that I sinned for a great principle, the principle of free knowledge. I have served that principle (not always constantly, but as best I can) for thirty seven years. And, if I could still pray, I would pray that the light of Inverallan library would shine out across all Scotland and the whole wide world.

Mother and the Minister

By Michael Bloor

(first published Jan 28th, 2018 in THE DRABBLE)

Sixty years ago, it was still commonplace for ministers in rural Scotland to call on all their parishioners, welcome or not. Mother would seat him at the kitchen table and put the kettle on, while I listened at the door as they discussed father’s behavior. After one particularly disreputable episode, the visitor concluded:

“Weel mistress, you’re nay marrit. So my advice wud be just to put him richt oot the door.”

My mother pondered this a moment, “Aye, minister, I’ll do as ye say. Can I ask a favour though? Would ye collect his pay packet for me every Saturday?”


Michael Bloor

( first published January 27, 2018 Every Day Fiction )

Several journalists came to interview me after the confrontation with the terrorist in Edinburgh. None of the reports were very clear and some were wildly inaccurate: a young woman from The Sun newspaper, called Serena, said she wanted to compile a profile of “The Royal Mile Hero who thwarted the terrorist attack” and subsequently wrote that I was “a bigger nutter than the Jihadist.” I read all the reports — a melancholy duty — and decided that really the only way to put the record straight was to set down the story myself. So here it is…

It was the first Friday in April. Nearly every Friday since I retired, I catch the train into Edinburgh and spend the day on research in the National Library of Scotland. I’m planning a monograph on Emanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth century Swedish scientist and mystic. I imagine that it was my unguarded maunderings about Swedenborg that led Serena of The Sun to describe me as a ‘nutter’.

Serena: “So this Swedeburger wrote books about visiting Heaven and the moon, and the people he met there?”

“Swedenborg was his name. Yes, for example when he visited Heaven, he described his conversations with the deceased Queen of Sweden, whom he knew from his court connections.”

Serena: “Right. Okay. And have you got a publisher lined up for this book of yours on this Swedenborg guy??”

“Well, not yet, no.”

Serena: “Mmm.”

To be absolutely clear to all readers of The Sun, my interest in Swedenborg is not primarily about his travels in Outer Space, or wherever, but as a visionary and a seer. And, for the record, he was an accomplished mathematician and metallurgist who oversaw the Swedish mines on behalf of the Swedish crown; he had strange gifts — he accurately described to some dinner guests a disastrous Stockholm fire that was occurring while they dined nearly three hundred miles away in Gothenburg; he was beloved by William Blake and Jorge Borges and Carl Jung; and his religious writings inspired the founding of the Swedenborgian Church, an institution that still exists today.

But it was a quite different set of Swedenborg writings that proved important on that particular Friday: he kept a journal of his dreams in 1743-44 — the oldest continuous series of descriptions of dreams in any language.* It’s become my habit every Friday lunchtime to have a read of Swedenborg’s dream journal for the following day. The entry for the night of April 2nd-3rd reads as follows:

[It seems there] was a beggar, that cried out that he would have bacon; they wished to give him something else, but he continually cried out, “Bacon!” Wakened. [Swedenborg, 1989, p.15]

A peculiar entry, but not uniquely peculiar in Swedenborg’s dream journal entries. I pondered it as I took my lunch into Greyfriars Kirkyard. [Memo to the editor of The Sun: Greyfriars Kirkyard is not in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile]. Edinburgh is saturated with tours — ghost tours, literary tours, pub tours, even literary pub tours — and the Kirkyard is a popular tour stop. A Chinese tour was just leaving and an American tour had just entered. I watched the group, about a dozen strong, as they flowed and coalesced around their kilted tour-leader. They were standing just in front of me. There are many tales that could be told about the Kirkyard’s mouldering inhabitants, but only one tale is ever told on these Kirkyard tours: the story of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog that came every night for thirteen years to sleep on his master’s grave. It’s an affecting tale, heard the first time, but repetition has hardened my heart. So I set about unwrapping my lunch, a small pork pie, still thinking about Swedenborg. Then everything happened very fast…

A small, bearded man carrying a large golf bag came quickly between me and the tourist group. With his back to me, he opened the golf bag and pulled out a sword (I think it was what is known as a samurai sword). He raised the sword above his head and shouted “Allahu Akbar”. I was the first to react: the tourists all had their backs to him, while I had seen the sword emerge from the golf bag. I roared out the first word of warning that came into my head:

“Bacon! Bacon! BACON!!”

The swordsman swung round. I could see the surprise on his face. I had leapt up from my seat, but was still holding the pork pie. I think it was the pork pie that saved me: with his sword still held high, he stared at the pie, as if he momentarily thought it might be some kind of weapon, rather than yet another pork product. This gave me the chance to grab his sword arm with my other hand. We grappled only for a second or so before a burly gentleman from Denver, Colorado (he asked me not to mention his name — we’ve been in email contact) crashed into the swordsman from behind and wrestled him to the ground.

That was it, really. Except that, if I were mystically inclined (which I’m not), I’d be thinking that Swedenborg’s dream was more prescient than peculiar. And, for the present at least, I seem to have lost completely my appetite for pork pies, bacon, ham, sausages and pork chops.

*Swedenborg, E. (1989) Swedenborg’s Journal of Dreams, 1743-1744. Stockholm: Swedenborg Scientific Association.

Delayed Shock

Michael Bloor

(first pubished in Platform for Prose, 21/01/2018)

When I was a small child in the 1950s, the passion you conceived for another child was utterly secret: you contemplated the loved one from afar; you never spoke of love even to yourself; silent blushes were your only communication. My junior school, a grim Victorian warehouse for children, had separate brick-walled playgrounds for boys and girls, so I would only see Jenny White (the loved one) in the classroom. I might have contrived to see her at the end of the school day, walking home, but it was a point of honour for the boys to go home via the canal towpath (with its accompanying hazards), while the girls dutifully walked down the road. There was no pain in this segregation, no yearning for completion – had we been brought together (and, strange chance, had my affection been reciprocated), we would have found no words to bridge our separate worlds. In old age, this childish passion becomes a cherished memory, a bright star in our evening sky – shining because it was and is The Secret, shining only for ourselves.

Childhood friendships acquire a similar warm patina. So when Alan got in touch through the wonders of the internet, after an absence of nearly sixty years, I was delighted. We corresponded via email for some months and eventually decided to meet up. Both being exiles from our home town, it was natural for us to arrange to meet up there and explore together our childhood haunts.

I wondered out loud when the building had ceased to be a school.

Alan shook his head, ‘Difficult to say, Martin, but I reckon it’s not been empty all that long – not much vandalism.’

We stared across the playground, heads pressed against the (unchanged) iron gates, to the dilapidated seventies-vintage replacement for the original brick toilet block. We laughed about how cold and smelly the old brick toilets had been. Still staring through the locked gates, I was telling Alan that my mum (who’d gone to the same school in the 1920s) had once told me that she and her sister had thought that those school toilets were a big improvement on the toilets her family had shared with other households when she was a child.

Alan: ‘No kidding. Hard to envisage those school toilets being a big improvement on anything at all. Remember that monster turd that lingered in one of the toilets for weeks? Wouldn’t flush away, stickin’ out of the pan. Somebody christened it Dreadnought…’ We both sniggered, ten year-olds once more.

Then I noticed something was missing: ‘Look at that: they’ve knocked down the wall between the boys’ playground and the girls’ playground.’

‘So they have! Odd, that segregation. Though I don’t recollect that it seemed odd at the time, do you?’

‘No, not at the time. Girls were not to be mixed with – they were to be worshipped from afar.’

There was a pause and Alan mused, ‘Mmm. I certainly used to worship Jenny White from afar.’

I turned away so quickly that I accidentally banged my nose quite hard on the iron gate.

The End of the Tribe

Michael Bloor

[first published in Dodging the Rain, January 18th, 2018]

Aneirin, son of Llewellyn, stood a respectful two paces behind his prince. Prince Owain looked out eastward over the fort’s ramparts, tracing the sinuous silver of the river as it meandered through the marshes and finally entered the great estuary. Aneirin, followed his glance and spoke:

‘No ships today, Prince.’

Both men knew that merchant ships no longer sailed up the river: pirates had destroyed all trade along the coast. The only ships that now appeared were the ships of the barbarians, ships bent on pillage or conquest. Another day without ships meant another day, not of peace, but of respite in the last fortress of the Manaw Gododdin, the last fortress of the tribe.

A distant clamour could be heard, growing steadily in intensity, a clamour that signalled the departure of the wild geese. The two men turned their eyes to the north. Already on the northern horizon, the geese were a creeping dark cloud, spreading southward til they overhung the fortress like a flung cloak. The noise grew in intensity til it drowned out all but shouted speech. Innumerable geese smeared the entire sky. The two men watched in silence as the cloud of geese slowly dwindled to a scatter of fluid skeins and, across the meres and marshes below them, the clamour shrank to a murmur.

‘An ill-omen, Aneirin. Even the geese are deserting us.’

Aneirin weighed the young prince in the balance and found him wanting: the sunken shoulders, the bitten nails, the whispy beard. Too many already had read defeat in Owain’s face and frame. Even Owain’s young queen had departed to her father’s stronghold of Alt Clut in Strathclyde. In the three years since Owain’s predecessor, his uncle, had been slain in the siege and massacre at Din Eidyn, Owain’s warriors and war chest had dwindled to a tithe of that previously held by his uncle. The Gododdin were slipping away in twos and threes and fours, slipping away to a vagabond life in the West.

The grizzled old warrior, almost as a reflex, sought to bolster the confidence of his lord:

‘I see no ill-omen, sire. I see a supplement to our meagre meat,’ (a skein of birds broke away and flew down to the summer meadow) ‘I shall send Meurig and Math down there at dusk with full quivers.’

But even as he spoke, he was silently reflecting on the fluctuating fortunes of fighting men. As a mere boy, Aneirin was War-Duke Arthur’s standard-bearer when the barbarians were routed at the fords of the River Glen, a victory that brought twenty years of peace and feasting. As a warrior in his pomp, he rode with the three hundred heroes from Din Eidyn to confront the barbarian army at Catraeth, and rode back to Din Eidyn almost alone. Almost alone, he had lived to tell the tale of the three hundred, but as the years passed and the defeats multiplied, he sometimes regretted that he too had not ended his life at Catraeth.

Aneirin’s reflections were cut short. He caught sight of a horseman approaching the East Gate. No, not a horseman after all, but a boy on a farm nag. Without waiting for Owain’s dismissal, Aneirin clattered briskly down to the ladder to the gate and was the first man to catch the nag’s bridle.

The boy seemed to recognise Aneirin and addressed him rather Owain, now descending the ladder:

‘Aneirin, son of Llewellyn, I have a message from my father, Howell of Clach na Manaw. He told me to tell you that five pirate vessels could be seen from the shore at Clach na Manaw, heading up the estuary. My father says our people will scatter the cattle on the hills and then hide themselves in the wood.’

As Aneirin turned away, the boy blurted out: ‘There is more Aneirin: just after I left the village, I looked back and I saw that the pirate ships had changed tack and were now heading straight for Clach na Manaw.’

Aneirin nodded: ‘Well done, boy. Take your horse to stables and get yourself some food from the kitchens.’

Owain came up and spoke quietly to Aneirin: ‘So that smoke we spotted on the eastern horizon awhile since…?’

‘Yes sire. Not charcoal burners in the wood of Clach na Manaw, but the village itself.’

Owain chewed his lip: ‘Five pirate ships adds up to a force of over a hundred men. Too strong a force for us to defeat in the open field. What will the pirates do, Aneirin? Will they march westward and invest the fort, marauding as they go?’

‘Perhaps, my Lord. They may drive our people before them, knowing that the extra mouths will soon exhaust our cellars.’

‘What should we do, Aneirin?’

‘Better a warrior’s death on the battlefield, than a slow death in a siege, my Lord. And a small cavalry force, with the element of surprise, could scatter a large force of foot-soldiers, as Arthur scattered them at the fords of the Gleni River.’

Owain sneered: ‘No more of your Arthur stories, I beg you, Aneirin. I cannot leave the fort unmanned. Take twenty men and horses and scatter the barbarians, if you can, before they scatter us.’

Aneirin paused and stared: was Owain aware that to take forty men might secure a victory, but that to pit a mere twenty men against a hundred was to condemn the twenty to death? Owain turned and walked away. Aneirin watched him go: the last prince of the Manaw Gododdin.

Three hours later, at twilight, Aneirin and his small troop rode into the village of Clach na Manaw. The pirates had already departed to their ships with their spoils – household goods, some domestic geese, the priest’s vestments and a gold cross. The smouldering ruins of the huts encircled the great Clach itself, the ancient Gathering Stone of the Manaw Gododdin – the symbol of the tribe. Aneirin dragged the decapitated goose from off the top of the stone, but did not wipe away the blood and shit with which the pirates had besmirched the stone.

Howell, the leading man of the village, stood beside the ruins of his own hut, watching Aneirin. Aneirin rode slowly over to him: ‘I am sorry for your trouble, Howell, son of Madoc. I’m afraid, the Prince does not have men enough to protect the whole coastline of Manaw.’

Howell ignored this gentle apology. He nodded towards the stone: ‘We shall not clean the stone. Let it remain bloodied to show the world that the story of the Manaw Gododdin is ended. When the boy returns with the horse, we shall follow the others into Strathclyde. The charity of strangers must serve us better than the protection of Prince Owain. What of you Aneirin, son of Llewellyn?’

Aneirin had not made up his mind until that moment: ‘I too shall go into the West, once I have taken a last leave of my Lord.’

‘Will you join the warriors at Alt Clut? Your fame will surely win you admittance.’

‘No, Howell. The head still sees the stroke, but the limbs creak with age. And you are wrong that the story of the Manaw Gododdin is ended. Rather, the story has not yet been told. I shall go into the West to tell the story of our greatest battle, the battle of the three hundred heroes at Catraeth.’

‘Our greatest battle? You were there, Aneirin. Surely, Catraeth was our greatest defeat?’

‘All tribes, in the final end, must face defeat, Howell, even the tribe of the Romans. The story of the ride to Catraeth is the story of the manner of a defeat. That is a story worth the telling.

Shakespeare Meets the Macbeths

By Michael Bloor

(first published in Copperfield Review, Oct 16th 2017)

In 1601, James VI of Scotland (soon to be crowned James I of England) summoned Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chancellor’s Men, to give performances of their plays in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In Aberdeen at least, the visit seems to have been highly successful: on October 9th, the registers of the Town Council show that the company were awarded ‘the svme of threttie tua merkis’ and Laurence Fletcher, a shareholder in the company, was elected an honorary burgess of the town. It is not known for certain whether Shakespeare was with the company, but as a shareholder and owner of the company’s stage properties, it seems quite likely that he travelled North with the rest.


Three days out from the Port of Leith, the Barbara Anne, rounded Girdleness: Aberdeen at last hove into view. Shakespeare, Fletcher and Burbage left the shelter of the forecastle to stand in the bows and study their destination. Burbage shivered: ‘What place is this that you have brought us to, Laurence? Ultima Thule? ‘Tis even colder than Edinburgh. A mean place too, it seems.’

Fletcher sighed: ‘Yours is a strange fancy, Dick – that, because I was born in Scotland, I am responsible for the Scottish weather. But Aberdeen is no mean city. Indeed, the merchants’ houses are very fine. I fancy we will find good lodgings in the Guestrow.’

‘Better than you found for us in Edinburgh, I trust. ‘Faith, I tired of having bowls of piss thrown over me every time I stepped into the street. What think you of Aberdeen, Will?’

Shakespeare smiled and shook his head: ‘Why, ‘tis a miracle to come upon humankind at all, after those dreary cliffs and miles of sodden, blasted heath that the good Barbara Anne did carry us safely past this morning. Yon stone church seems a symbol of deliverance, yon fisherman’s cottage – a haven of rest and peace.’

Burbage mimed being run through by a sword: ‘Must you always talk like one of your plays, Will? And pray don’t remind us once more that “All the world’s a stage, and all the people merely players.” There is no genius in repetition. Tell us instead what you crave most to find when we reach Laurence’s fabled lodgings in fine Guestrow.’

Fletcher was quicker off the mark: ‘I’ll tell you what I’m looking forward to in Aberdeen. A bowl of sheepsheid broth – the food of the gods. I travelled here as a child, with my father, and I’ve tasted no finer food since that visit than Mistress Mary’s sheepsheid broth.’

‘As ever, your stomach leads and you follow, Laurence.’ Shakespeare scratched his whispy head of hair: ‘If you seek a serious answer, Dick, I’m looking forward to hearing some new tales.’ He turned back to the forecastle: ‘Now I must see to our baggage. If there are no playhouses here, it’s all the more important that we have our costumes.’

Fletcher looked quizzically at Burbage: ‘New tales, new tales. Surely, Will has given us tales enough?’

‘Tales enough for our present purposes, Laurence. But when we return to London and the Globe, our fickle play-goers will not pay their pennies for tales they’ve heard a dozen times before.’

‘Aye, aye, as you say, there’s no genius in repetition. Will’s new hatchings put food on our table. I fancy he’s broody just now: he’s been studying Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland ever since we left Edinburgh.’

‘I also marked his studies, Laurence. I fancy our broody is hatching us a new history play: the world shall wonder anew at my mastery of character and emotions. But let’s give him a hand with the properties.’

Shortly afterwards, the company were following Laurence Fletcher’s lead towards Guestrow and their hoped-for lodgings. Shakespeare smiled as he caught sight of a couple of sheep’s heads on display at a flesher’s booth. But beyond the flesher’s booth was a bookseller’s. He immediately spotted a copy of Hector Boece’s Scotorum Historiae, so he gave over charge of the stage properties to Will Sly, also telling Will to reserve for him a clean bed at the lodgings.

The bookseller was quickly at Shakespeare’s elbow: ‘You are interested in Principal Boece’s volume, sir? I have more than one copy for sale, but the volume you have is the best preserved.’

‘Indeed sir? You style the author as Principal Boece, why so?’

‘Why so, sire? ‘Tis no mystery: the author was Principal of King’s College here. From your speech, I gather you are an Englishman: do you have an interest in our Scottish history? I also have a fine copy of Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia…’

‘Is that so, I should like to see it. ‘Tis true I have an interest in Scotland’s past. Who would have thought there was so much blood in it: I am both drawn and repelled.’

‘Then, you have done well to visit our town, sire. Much of that blood was spilt about here. There is the field of Red Harlaw, where Provost Davidson and most of the burgesses of the town were slain by Donald, Lord of the Isles, and his wicked Highlanders. And King Macbeth fell at the Peel of Lumphanan, a few miles west of here.’

‘Macbeth you say? Surely, he fell at Dunsinane?’

‘No sire. He was defeated at Dunsinane Hill, but he got away. It was three years later that he died in a battle at Lumphanan. It is said he fell in single combat there with MacDuff, the Earl of Fife.’

‘Say you so, bookseller?’ Shakespeare turned and sniffed the air about him, heavy with the smell of slaughter from the Flesher’s booth. ‘Yet, Dunsinane surely has a ring to it; Lumphanan is a lumpish name for the dooming of a King.’ He addressed the bookseller once more: ‘Tell me, good fellow – what manner of man was this Macbeth? What do the old tales tell of his character?’

‘Sire, he lived in hard times. Macbeth’s father was slain by Macbeth’s cousin. Macbeth trapped his cousin and his entourage in a building and burned them alive. He slew King Duncan in battle. Yet though he lived by the sword, he ruled well and gave thought to the Kingdom to come: he went on a pilgrimage to Rome and gave freely to the Church and to the poor.’

‘A pilgrimage to Rome?? No, no, neither my Queen, nor your King, would applaud that scene, I fancy.’

‘A scene, sire? I do not follow you.’

‘No matter. What of his Queen, bookseller? I have read in Holinshed that she burned with ambition to be Queen.’

‘Perhaps so, sire. Certes it is that Queen Gruoch lived in a world, and at a time, when the path to the throne was slippery with spilt blood. Her grandfather, Kenneth II, was murdered. Macbeth married her after he had burned to death her first husband, his cousin. King Duncan slew Gruoch’s cousin as a rival claimant. Regicide was no uncommon crime to her.’

‘Hmm. Most interesting, bookseller, most interesting. Now, Boece’s volume here – scuffed and foxed, as it is – would you take one of your Scottish half-merks?’

‘The foxing is slight, sire. And the price is two merks.’

‘I see. Good day to you, sire.’

Finding his way to Guestrow a little later, with some difficulty, he is hailed by Burbage: ‘Here is Wandering Will, with new tales to tell of this frowzy, freezing land of sheeps’ heids and grasping lodging-keepers. I know that distracted look of old: what hast thou learned, old friend?’

‘I have learned nothing for certain, but I have surely met with a queer old couple… Here, Will Sly, call you this bed “clean”?’ He continued to stare at the bed for some moments, and then muttered to himself: ‘But regicide is a tricksy tale for the teller. Unless, of course, that heinous and unnatural crime doth drive the slayer to madness and death – that would be a salutary tale indeed. Yet I cannot call her Gruoch – too ugly a name for a tragic Queen. So many problems…’

Fletcher was watching these mutterings with a smile: ‘Faith, Dick, I believe the old hen is laying us a new tale…’

‘Let him be, Laurence, would you have it that the tale be, from the womb, untimely ripped?’