Authors: Gian Bordin
Back on the road with his purchase, he retraced his steps. A creek rushed
from the copse of oak hiding the entrance to the glen. At the edge of the
wood he reined his horse.
Six stone cottages hugged the bottom of the steep slope rising from the
glen, their reed-covered roofs under a carpet of moss and grass, their outside
walls in bad need of a coat of lime. Seen from the hill above, they would
look like little dirt mounds. In front and beyond the cottages, several narrow
fields stretched for two hundred feet or so, stony dark brown earth freshly
ploughed. Enough for roughly 50 bushels of grains and oats, he figured. That
would feed about 25 people. Was Dougal’s group so small or did they need
to buy grains to make up the shortfall?
A dozen Highland black cattle grazed in a stone-enclosed paddock just
above the fields, full udders revealed under their shaggy coats. Farther up
were goats and sheep, a few ponies, and more black cattle—no more than
four score animals in all.
Two women knelt on flat rocks at the gurgling creek, washing clothes in
a small pool. Each wore a single petticoat folded up and tucked into the
girdle, exposing their white thighs. Four small children played by the creek.
No men were in sight.
Suddenly, a dog barked, instantly joined by a second. When the women
spotted the intruder they got up quickly and dropped the hem of their
petticoats. Andrew recognized one as Mary MacGregor. She rushed back to
the cottages, picking up the little boy clutching to her skirt.
A man emerged from the largest cottage, almost doubling over to get
through the low opening. When he rose to his full height, he exuded a picture
of raw strength. He wore full Highland garb, a dirk stuck in his belt, a heavy
broad sword dangling on his right side. Dougal MacGregor—he must be left-handed, was Andrew’s fleeting thought. He guessed the man to be in his late
forties. By then several other people, men, women, and children stood under
the doorways of the other cottages, apprehensive and curious to know the
reason for the disturbance.
Andrew kicked his mare lightly, and she resumed her steady gait.
The man remained motionless outside. Behind him, a young girl studied
the visitor with an inquisitive frown. The same full red curly hair as ‘his
Helen’, the same facial features, just less bold, more vulnerable. After a
moment’s hesitation, she ran to meet her mother, taking the little boy off her.
Andrew dismounted some thirty feet in front of the group, the trout in his
hand. Mary MacGregor’s eyes widened briefly in recognition, and for an
instant he faltered in his steps under her searching gaze.
"This is a nice spring day, Mr. MacGregor." He chose to address him in
Gaelic and use his real name.
Dougal MacGregor did not return the greeting right away, but scrutinized
the young man thoughtfully. Then he said in a not unfriendly tone: "And
what brings a Campbell lad onto my land?"
"Indeed, I am a Campbell, although it’s not my fault, sir," Andrew replied
with a chuckle. "Andrew Campbell is my given name. I’m Mr. Graham’s
new assistant, as he is much hindered by his gout nowadays."
"Came here to collect the rent?" A sharp edge had crept into his voice.
"In fact, Mr. Graham gave no such instructions. He wants me to reconnoiter the earl’s lands and make myself known to his tacksmen."
"I haven’t seen you before. You don’t come from around here?"
"No, sir. Inveraray is where I was born."
He always loathed to admit that he had grown up in the duke’s castle. It
invariably caused raised eyebrows. Again he felt Mary MacGregor’s curious
gaze on him. Blushing, he turned to her: "Mrs. MacGregor, I rode along the
loch and couldn’t resist bargaining for these trout. They’ve been caught this
very morning. But I now realize that they’ll spoil before I get back to
Finlarig. May I offer them for your victuals?"
As she took the fish, a first smile crossed her stern face, giving a hint of
her former beauty. "This is mighty kind of you. They’ll make a fine dinner.
Will you join us?"
"Thank you, Mrs. MacGregor, with pleasure." Her eyes, the soft blue of
forget-me-nots, reminded him of ‘his Helen’. Where was she?
"Yes, woman, you take the words out of my mouth," said her husband
somewhat patronizingly. "Come into my house, young man! I will not hold
it against you that you are a Campbell."
"I may be a Campbell by name, but I’m a Highlander first, sir."
Dougal raised his eyebrows. "And how’s that?"
"Aye, we Highlanders need to stick together and bury our quarrels, or else
we will just be swallowed up piecemeal by the English and their lowland
"Well said, lad, well said, but then blood runs thicker than water. There
have been grave injustices done to us."
"I wish I could undo some, but that was before my time, sir."
A low fire crackled in the stone hearth under the wooden flue built against
the partition which divided the house into two rooms, but left the roof space
open, thereby offering heat to both parts. A young woman stirred the pot over
the fire. Richly smelling wafts were rising slowly. She turned to face them.
Andrew nodded in greetings and smiled. Her surprise quickly changed into
an air of annoyance, and she walked swiftly past them to the door.
"Helen, lass, fetch cups for master Andrew here and me! He is Mr.
Graham’s new apprentice."
Andrew’s heartbeat quickened briefly. Her name was Helen. How
marvelous! It fitted her so well. He was rudely brought back when he heard
her curt answer: "I know. That’s hardly a recommendation."
Brusquely, as if to emphasize her displeasure, she placed two cups on the
wooden table and hurried out. Dougal MacGregor’s gaze followed her.
"What’s got into her?" he muttered and then shouted after her: "And where’s
There was no answer, nor did she come back. Andrew reached for his
pouch and pulled out the bottle of claret. "Mr. MacGregor, I brought some
claret along. May I share it with you?"
With a laugh the older man took the bottle and exclaimed: "Have you
Andrew blushed, but recovered quickly. "Why, sir? Have you a daughter
to give away?"
"Not yet, lad, not yet." Nodding after Helen, he muttered: "She will be a
hard nut to crack."
He gripped the partially removed cork with his teeth, pulled it out, and
poured half a cup for each. Raising it toward Andrew, he exclaimed in
English: "To your health, master Andrew!" He let the wine linger on his
palate and, switching back to Gaelic, he added: "Not bad, … not bad at all.
I just emptied my last bottle the other day."
The conversation turned to the weather, to the prospects for the coming
season and the likely prices of the cattle at the Crieff drover market. Dougal
expected to get just enough from the sale to make up his arrears in rent,
purchase additional oats for the winter, and buy other essentials, including
a few bottles of claret.
While they talked, Mary MacGregor baked the trout, occasionally asking
a question. Twice, she tried to change the conversation, probing into
Andrew’s background. His answers remained evasive, giving away little,
except that before joining Mr. Graham he had spent four years at the
university in Edinburgh.
Helen only briefly returned to the room, helping her mother serve the
food. She ignored him completely, as if he wasn’t there. But he did not mind.
In fact, it gave him greater leisure to observe her, to imprint her face into his
memory. It was her pronounced cheek bones, the high forehead, the big eyes,
and the strong chin that imparted to her face such strength, such a bold cut.
She was slender, but looked strong. Her bosom proudly swelled under her
After dining on one of the trout, the talk turned to the clouds of the
political storm gathering in the country, but particularly in the Highlands,
threatening another rising of the Jacobites in support of Charles Edward
Stuart’s quest to regain the crown of Scotland he considered rightfully his.
Dougal MacGregor expounded his theory that, if such a rising occurred,
surely this time most of the Highland clans, except for the Campbells, would
unite to get rid of the English and help restore Scotland as a free nation once
and for all. Only when he finished did he seem to remember that his visitor
was a Campbell, and he added with a chuckle: "Yes, master Andrew, we
may end up on opposite sides. But right now, let’s enjoy that excellent claret
* * *
Helen pricked her ears when she heard an unfamiliar voice. Visitors to their
clachan still were a novelty—a welcome diversion from the daily drudgery.
She quickly brushed down her jacket and petticoat, intent on going outside
to still her curiosity, and stirred the broth once more. By then she heard her
father enter the cottage, followed by another person. Turning, she recognized
the factor’s new helper. In her initial surprise, she almost answered his smile.
Annoyed that her face had betrayed her, she stormed out of the cottage, only
to be called back to do her father’s bidding.
Why was he here? Had he come to see her? Again she felt those eyes
searching hers, almost begging. She was not going to give him the satisfaction of staying. No, she would rather finish the washing her mother had
started. But her thoughts remained with the young man. She suddenly
regretted that she had not stayed to listen to their talk. It would have been
worth it; fed her craving for news and knowledge for days to come.
After finishing her chores at the river, she lingered around outside the
cottage. Only her father’s booming voice carried to her, while the young
man’s was nothing more than an undistinguishable murmur. She purposely
ignored him while helping her mother serve the two men, and left quickly,
taking portions of trout to her siblings, wondering if he had brought the fish.
What did he want? Had he really come to see her? No, it must have been on
factor’s business. Hadn’t the old man asked her mother if she had something
When she heard the two men get up from the table, she quickly busied
herself with her little brother. She only stole a glance at him as he rode away.
At the copse of oak he looked back and waived. Her pulse quickened. She
kept herself from responding and slowly turned away. Maybe he had really
come to see her, but she reminded herself that he was only a Campbell of
Some four weeks later, Andrew returned from another of his visits to the
earl’s tenants, up Glen Dochart’s way. As he dismounted in the yard of the
castle, a familiar voice startled him.
"Look who’s here! … Andrew!"
He turned and faced the condescending grin of Francis McNabb.
"Hello, Francis. Taking a break from university? I thought you had at least
another year to go."
"No, I quit. It was too boring. I don’t understand how you could slave over
books day and night, reading all that gibberish. You know me. I needed a
drink from time to time, … and a woman."
It’s more likely they kicked you out—flunking every seminar in your
second year—all talk, no brain,
mused Andrew’s silently, but his face
"I expected you back in Inveraray. What are you doing here?"
"I’m Mr. Graham’s assistant. You know his gout troubles him quite
"Ah, that old miser. It’s high time he croaks. You lodge in the castle?"
"Well, we might see you around then."
With mixed feelings, Andrew watched him disappear. Then he called the
stable hand: "Hey, Jamie, take care of my horse, will you? She needs a good
rubbing down. I rode her quite hard."