The Steam Broomstick

Hamish Magill inhaled through his nostrils to smell the salt as he emerged from his byre-house, then turned resolutely to face the North Sea, and exhaled in relief. The muscles of his abdomen told him how much he had dreaded seeing Janet Drury standing between him and the rising sun, with her arms outstretched, casting a cross-shaped shadow upon his house and the lives within. He surveyed the dark expanse of sea below, the darker canopy of clouds above, and the blinding light bursting in-between, underscoring the clouds with streaks of yellow, and sending a corridor of rippling gold expanding across the waves towards him. He tried to relax his knotted muscles, telling himself he could expel Janet Drury from his mind and turn its attention to the work of the day.

He walked down the gentle slope, past thatched coops and wicker pens to the edge of the fields, where heather dropped away to the dunes and the beach beyond. He urinated into a saltbush then tucked his green calico smock into his dirty canvas trousers, buckled up his leather belt, and bent down to tie twisted wisps of straw around his ankles so his trousers wouldn’t drag below his rawhide shoes. He straightened his broad back, enjoying the whispers of a sea breeze on his weathered face, watching flocks of seagulls circling and diving, and the sail of an invisible fishing boat heading towards them. He walked to where a long strip of kelp hung from the dead branch of a gnarled birch tree, and squeezed the seaweed between his muscular fingers and callused palm.

The sun cleared the horizon and rose in the blue towards the grey clouds, tingeing them violet and purple, sparkling the sea, and coloring the earth: the strips of crop and thatched roofs yellow, the ploughed strips and lane-ways brown, weed-covered strips and the meadow green, and it flushed the sandstone Cathedral orange. From its high point on the road that ran across the Western boundary of the Dornoch Fields, the Cathedral watched over the scene as it had every morning for four hundred years of Scottish history. From any of the cultivated strips spread across the Dornoch Fields, or any of the byre-houses scattered amongst them, a cotter could raise his head and be reminded of the Cathedral’s abiding presence.

Mrs Leone Magill, Hamish’s very pregnant wife, looked up with an apprehensive half-smile as he swung open the wicker door on its leather hinges, allowing the smoke an easy exit. He didn’t speak, so she asked: “Is it going to rain?”
“Maybe; But the gulls are fishing and the kelp tells me we won’t get enough to stop the plough” replied Hamish, “if the old laggards turn up on time we’ll get the Badger’s Tail Strip done today.” Hamish was the youngest member of a ploughing cooperative of five partners who operated a heavy wooden plough pulled by eight oxen. His wife stirred a large black pot hanging over the fire, then ladled porridge into two wooden bowls and handed one to Hamish. Another questioning half-smile told him it wasn’t the weather she was apprehensive about.
“She wasn’t there. She hasn’t been back since that performance at the Cathedral on Lughnasa day. Maybe she screamed all her fury out – the devil take her.”

Janet Drury had grown up expecting to become Mrs Janet Magill, and he had grown up expecting her to be his wife. In the autumn of 1627. it was announced from the pulpit that they were to marry on the first of May 1628. Then the drover’s daughter came to town.


When Hamish’s growls didn’t scare Janet away he threw clods of earth or dried cowpats at her. On Lughnasa morning the cowpat was only half dried, and it hit Janet full in the face. But instead of wiping it off she wore the dung to the Cathedral. As the congregation emerged she confronted Hamish, and before he could recoil she kissed him on the mouth, leaving cow dung on his lips. Then she announced to the bemused parishioners that Leone’s child would be a monster child of the devil. The evil one, she explained, had possessed Hamish to impregnate Leone. Between shrieks that were neither laughs nor screams but a combination of the two, she declared that Hamish had married her when they were children, and had consummated their marriage that very morning – with a cowpat.

When they finished ploughing the Badgers Tail strip, the plough partners sat with their backs to the descending sun and shared a tankard of ale as their shadows stretched out across the fields towards the North Sea, and their wives prepared their evening meals. Leone Magill cooked a large pot of barley pottage flavoured with herbs, which was followed by bread and cheese. Then they went to bed thanking God for their full stomachs.


The meals consumed by most of King Charles’s subjects that evening were similar to the fare enjoyed by Hamish and Leone Magill, with some adding fish or meat to their diet. Working families went to bed soon after they had eaten because they had to rise early to start work at first light – and besides, there was nothing to do out of bed – even if they could read it was difficult by firelight and candles were expensive. In the Manor Houses of Lords and the castles of aristocrats, however, sumptuous multi-course meals were consumed by candlelight, then books were read, cards or musical instruments were played, and many goblets were drained. And 700 miles to the south of Dornoch in a Portsmouth inn at the bottom of the British island, a finely dressed gentleman sat down to enjoy a steak and kidney pie.

12 thoughts on “The Steam Broomstick

  1. Nicole L Ochoa says:

    I believe we are reading about Hamich who was supposed to marry Janet, who sounds maybe like a witch, but ended up marrying another. The story sounds intriguing but I think it may be getting lost in the flowery descriptions of the town. One of my critiques told me to mix my show & tell portions together. What I try to do is have a sentence or two tell what is going on and then show why that things is important with a thought or action by the protagonists. I could really feel like I was in the setting, so nice decription maybe just space it out a bit.

  2. Bjorn Schievers says:

    I almost feel like I’m reading a painting, I agree with Nicole that the description is very flowery. This is great for the atmosphere, I’d give you an A+++ for that! I was there, in the story. Everything flows nicely too.

    When it comes to spacing things out more, I again agree with Nicole I’d space the description out a bit and cut some of it where possible. And I’d add some more action.

    The setting and time are crystal clear, so that’s another plus. I’m a Fleming, so I know the North Sea, but your guy lives in England. And the year is 1627.

    I think I’d open the story with this paragraph: “Janet Drury had grown up expecting to become Mrs Janet Magill, and he had grown up expecting her to be his wife. In the autumn of 1627. it was announced from the pulpit that they were to marry on the first of May 1628. Then the drover’s daughter came to town.” It raises a question and introduces the characters right away. The question itself will keep me intrigued enough to read through some of the description.

    • johnsonofdaw says:

      Thanks Bjorn for very acute observations. It’s so hard to read your work as others do – I didn’t realise how flowery I was so I’ve learnt I can spread it out a bit to get more action in. (I’m an Australian who’s never seen the North Sea, so I’m glad you didn’t tell me there’s no seagulls there or some such faux pas;-) Thanks for the suggestion re the opening, I take your reasoning – my other thought was to open with the assassination.

  3. Jen says:

    wow, the descriptions in the beginning are gorgeous. I love the cross shaped shadow. There is a hook (conflict with janet) in the first paragraph but it is lost for several following paragraphs with the descriptions. I would definitely keep the descriptions but I’d consider moving them a bit further into the story. As a reader I’d want a stronger hook/level of interest before getting to all of the descriptors, to keep me reading.

    I couldn’t tell if was supposed to be omitted but I really enjoyed the paragraph about Janet, the chapel and the cow pat. (especially that she kisses him with the cow dung still on her face). It did make me wonder why he would throw that at her if he really loves her. She definitely comes across as crazy, or mad with jealousy/hurt that he’s marrying a woman he doesn’t love, instead of her. I assumed they love each other b/c they each grew up thinking they’d marry, however that may not be the case.

    good luck!

    • johnsonofdaw says:

      Thank you Jen, I think I’ll be taking your advice re moving the descriptions. Your comments re the cow pat scene are particularly helpful – it’s hard for me to know how such comes across. I think I achieved what I wanted (but I’ll keep listening for contrary reactions). Yes, Janet was humiliated, betrayed and spurned, and hell hath …

  4. Maureen says:

    Yum….er…except the cow pat. I would love to read more! I hated the words were omitted (and 100% understood why) and enjoyed your scene setting. I agree with the previous comments above, but honestly, if I was reading this in book form, I wouldn’t have noticed that there was “too much” description. I suppose Leone is the drover’s daughter and somehow, this not particularly enticing man is the subject of their love triangle? It made my mind think about how rough people had it in the past, compared to now, which is a good thing for me.

    And then…boom! King Charles to give me a frame of reference for time period. 700 miles is extraordinary so I’d like to see where you go from here. Lots of questions, which again, is good–you want readers to be hungry for more!

    • John G. Dawson says:

      Thanks Maureen, your reaction was very encouraging. Yes, I do want to portray how “nasty, brutish and short” life was for most. Even the privileged few had a harder time of it than even the poor in our time. I’m trying to set the scene for an extraordinary period that changed everything.

  5. Alex Zaykov says:

    Hi John,
    A very interesting choice to present your novel beginning with some sections skipped. Is the appearance of the gentleman in the Portsmouth inn the end of first chapter?
    Like last year, while I went through your beginning I actually forgot I had to critique it. I was genuinely interested in the story and it feels somewhat like Ken Follet’s “The Pillars of the Earth”, but maybe the image of the cathedral played a role here. 🙂
    I agree with Bjorn that perhaps your stronger opening would be “Janet Drury had grown up expecting to become Mrs Janet Magill…”. This would so flawlessly provide a context and a hook for the first scene. The second point is about delivering the implied promise of conflict or tension between Hamish and Janet. The avoided confrontation in the very first paragraph would not be enough. Unfortunately, the retrospection of the, otherwise very interesting, conflict during Lughnasa also, in my opinion, falls short. You need a definitive event that would dramatically alter, solve or complicate this relationship according to your plans for it in the book. Because if you don’t deliver this in the first one or two chapters of the book then this is not your right opening scene.
    Going into a higher level of granularity, 🙂 I would use “thick” instead of “muscular” to describe Hamish’s fingers. In the third paragraph you use “strips” four times, which can probably be avoided – field, plot, land?
    I also fail to see the organic connection between the appearance of the gentleman in the inn and the intrigue between Hamish and Janet or the life of Dornoch Fields. There surely is one, but it needs to be very tangible to avoid the risk of making the whole first scene appear just as a setting or look too arbitrary before hopping into something more intriguing.
    I would love to read the whole first chapter and comment with the full picture in mind, if you think it would have a value-add for your work.
    Again, I wouldn’t bother thinking so much about an opening if it doesn’t look intriguing and promising.
    Regards, Alex

  6. johnsonofdaw says:

    Hi Alex, thanks for taking so much time on my piece and making so many good points. I switch from Dornoch to Portsmouth then have the main character in that chapter travel the 700 miles between them, to give an idea of a world so different to what we take for granted. The Follet comparison pleased me because although his setting is 500 years earlier than mine, not much changed for the folks during that half millennium. Your analysis is very thoughtful and I think I’ll be changing the opening around. Just to complicate matters I’ve also considered starting with the assassination (which was an historical event).

    If you are prepared to read my first chapter that would be terrific – and I’d be happy to read one of yours in return. If that’s a deal, email me at Cheers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s