Part One: The Witches of Dornoch
Chapter One: William Laud
Hamish Magill inhaled through his nostrils to smell the salt as he emerged from his byre-house then turned resolutely to face the 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 upon the life of his child in his young wife’s womb. He surveyed a dark expanse of sea and a dark canopy of clouds and in between a burst of light that underscored the clouds with streaks of yellow and sent a corridor of rippling gold expanding across the waves towards him. He tried to relax his knotted muscles and turn his mind to the work of the day that was awakening behind him.
Hamish Magill’s location, near the northeastern corner of the Dornoch fields, was the envy of his fellow cotters because of its proximity to the meadow to the north and the beach to the east, an advantage that outweighed the disadvantage of being furthest from the creek to the south of the fields and the Cathedral to the west. This house of worship on the high point of the road that ran along the top of the fields wasn’t supposed to be called a cathedral, there weren’t supposed to be any cathedrals left in Scotland, not since the protestant reformers had declared them heretical idols of the Antichrist Pope. But even after its ornate interior had been burnt and its stained glass windows smashed, to make it austere enough for Presbyterian worship, its parishioners kept right on calling it their Cathedral.
The Cathedral had been the focal point of the town and parish of Dornoch for centuries, surviving clan wars, Viking raids, English invasions and the ravages of the elements, as immutable as its highland backdrop, as watchful as an eternal godfather. From any point on any of the cultivated strips spread across the Dornoch fields, or from any doorway of any of the byre-houses scattered amongst them, or from anywhere on any of the lanes between them, any cotter who lifted his head from his toil and glanced westward would be reminded of the Cathedral’s abiding presence.
Hamish walked down a gentle slope, past thatched coups and wicker pens, to the edge of the fields where heather dropped away to dunes and the beach beyond. He urinated into a heather bush then tucked his smock into his coarse linen 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 a playful sea breeze on his weathered face then walked to where a long strip of kelp hung from the dead branch of a gnarled birch tree. He squeezed the kelp between strong fingers and callused palm; it was not hard and dry, it was soft and moist – but not too soft and moist. The sun was rising towards clouds of yellow and orange and dark grey, hanging overhead like a benediction – and a threat. The glow was coloring the strips of crop and the thatched roofs yellow, the recently ploughed strips and the lane-ways brown, the weed-covered strips and the meadow green, and up on the Dornoch Road it flushed the sandstone Cathedral orange. Plumes of smoke rose from the byre-houses and twisted away and their residents started to emerge: men, women, children, cats, dogs, chickens, pigs and cows.
Hamish’s very pregnant wife looked up with an apprehensive half-smile as he swung open the wicker door on its leather hinges allowing a fold of smoke a hasty exit. Since he didn’t say anything, she asked: “Is it going to rain?”
“Maybe, but the kelp tells me it won’t be enough to stop the plow” replied Hamish, “if the old laggards turn up on time we’ll get the Badger’s Tail strip finished today.” Hamish was the youngest member of a plowing cooperative of five partners who operated a heavy wooden plow pulled by eight oxen.
“That’s good” said his wife as she stirred a large black pot hanging over the fire. She ladled porridge into two wooden bowls and handed one to Hamish with another questioning half-smile that told him it wasn’t the weather she was apprehensive about.
“She wasn’t there” was his answer to her unspoken question. “The Janet is no where to be seen.” As he poured some warm cow’s milk onto his porridge he added: “Her scorned fury might be all screamed out, or she might have found someone else to curse – the devil take her.”
Janet Drury had grown up expecting to marry Hamish Magill, and he had expected to marry her, and everyone in Dornoch had expected the two to marry. But Hamish was raised in a puritanically pious household. He resisted his adolescent impulses, never missed a service or prayer meeting, and honored his father and mother – and when they succumbed to influenza he nursed them through a terrible winter epidemic, with the help of some potions from Janet. By the spring of 1628 Hamish and Janet were both orphans and the population of Dornoch had been decimated. The childhood sweethearts now had every reason to marry without delay. Hamish had muscled up into the most impressive breadwinning physique, without sustaining any disabling injuries; Janet had blossomed into the most impressive childbearing figure, with her virginity intact; and the Laird of Dornoch had not only endorsed Hamish’s inheritance of his father’s bond-holdings and grazing rights but had decreed that since Janet had no brothers, her father’s rights would pass to her, provided she marry a man who could make good use of them – a man like Hamish. The match was ordained – until the drover’s daughter came to town.
12 thoughts on “The Steam Broomstick”
A screenwriter once gave me a piece of advice that I have found true of every piece I have read, “throw out the first page, it’s after that the story usually begins.”