The Steam Broomstick

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

  1. Pam Portland says:

    Hello – thanks for posting your bit of story to this site. I know this is a brave endeavor.

    As a reference, I stopped reading at, “…south of the fields and the Cathedral to the west.” This particular sentence (and perhaps the paragraph in general had I continued) seems disconnected form the initial one. This second paragraph almost stops the initial description as it to say, “Wait, before I go any farther, let me tell you exactly where this person is standing.” It feels removed from the previous paragraph.

    While I love the description in the initial paragraph, it lacks action. It mostly involves breathing and muscles tightening, but not much other movement and activity. And I am not sure if Janet IS his wife or a person other than his wife. Either way, perhaps if Janet was running towards, or stalking towards, or standing in defiance against Hamish, perhaps her presence would be of greater significance.

    I hope this provides a few kernels of thought as you continue to work on your novel. Good luck!

  2. CKB says:


    Why is Hamish dreading it? Does Janet stand there often? (the answer eventually being yes, but as a reader I’d like to have a clue to that sooner.) I was hooked in the fifth paragraph when he returns to his wife, which makes me question if you need all of the other intricate descriptions in-between.

    I like the way you write and describe in such detail, it really sets the scene, and with more than one sense, too. However, be careful you don’t stall the story in doing it.

    I’m very intrigued by Janet’s journey from childhood sweetheart to what I am assuming is a witch, and to know what happened between Hamish, Janet, and the drover’s daughter.

    Good work, and good luck!

  3. psutton2008 says:

    Hi – I found the beginning a little lacklustre, I had to read the first sentence twice to get the meaning. There is a lot of description without action in the first few paragraphs, I felt it needed a bit more of a grounding, I had no idea what time period it was set in – you mention cotters and the protestant reformers but that wasn’t enough to ground me. My history may be off but Viking raids seem too early for cathedrals. “The Janet”? “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.” That’s a bit convoluted – “Everyone espected Hamish and Janet to marry, including them”? I read the whole piece but it wasn’t until the paragraph starting “Janet Drury had grown up” that I started to get really interested…

  4. Anonymous says:

    I was interested in the history that is the background of this book, but it took a while before I learned what century it took place. Perhaps you are assuming that your readers are better informed than they might be… what is a cotter, for example?
    I also think that you might get started with the action a bit earlier. It’s mostly back story until he talks to his wife.
    Having said that, I would certainly read this book.

  5. John Dawson (@johnsonofdaw) says:

    Hmm – too much description not enough action. Good point about Vikings – the Cathedral was built in 1222 by which time Viking raids were finished – whew! that would have been a tad embarrassing on the first page! “The Janet” was on purpose because Janet meant witch at the time, but I should have realized no one would know that. Thanks.

  6. chickinwhite says:

    Hi there! I really like your writing, but there are a few points that might get in th eway:
    While I´m very much appreciating a vivid description, the path between spurring the readers imagination and overloading it is very small, sometimes.
    For example: the trick (if I may say so) of repeating may intensify the situation and stir emotion, if done deliberately. But if it´s used too often, it tends to get boring:
    ” 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…” or “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. ”
    Be careful with your descriptions. As much as I like vivid pictures while reading, you shouldn´t forget that some plot/action needs to take place…
    But, all in all? I like it!
    Thanks for sharing!

  7. raelenepurtill says:

    Hi John. Wow. While this excerpt was very atmospheric and descriptive, I don’t think the story started until the last paragraph!! ‘Janet Drury grew up expecting to marry Hamish…’ Up until then I was overwhelmed with the description, history and backstory and what seemed to be a couple of false starts and repetitions of information. It might even be Janet’s story, as things seem to be going well for Hamish. The lovely atmospheric passages can come in once we have more of a sense of what the story actually is. Keep it up. Raelene

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