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?”
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.
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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.
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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.