Copyright © J.P. Bowie 2018. All Rights Reserved, Totally Entwined Group Limited, T/A Pride Publishing.
“Jamie, Jamie MacDonald!”
The woman’s voice echoed up through the narrow glen to the top of the crag where the young man stood staring out over the valley below. A gray mist was gathering around him while below a solitary stag turned its head at the sound of the woman’s cry then bounded away to be lost among the tall pine trees. Overhead, the darkening sky was heavy with clouds, blotting out what little sunshine was left in the day. A stiff wind was picking up in the mountains, bringing the first cold drops of rain.
His mother sighed as she saw his broad shoulders slump with despair from yet another long and empty vigil atop the rock. He turned and leaped like an agile cat down the cragside, finding sure footing amid the bracken and heather that covered the slope.
“Aye, Mathair, I hear ye,” he shouted as he ran.
“Come away home, Jamie.”
His mother stood at the foot of the hill, her hands worrying the rough fabric of her skirt. A young woman, not yet five and forty, she felt the marks that the years of hardship and tension the people of the Highlands had endured under English tyranny had left upon her. She knew her fine-boned face was lined and pinched with worry and heartbreak, her once luxuriant red hair run through with gray and her formerly strong and supple body now a shadow, due to the many times she had starved herself to ensure her family did not go unfed. Only her eyes, still a brilliant blue, gave evidence of the resilience she kept within herself.
“I dinna’ like you being out there so lang, Jamie. There’s no telling when some traitor might just happen nearby.”
Jamie put his arm around her shoulders and they walked back to the croft they now called home. “I wish one of those traitors would come by, mo mathair,” he said with a quiet vehemence. “I’d like as put my dirk to his throat and listen to him squeal with fear as he pissed his way into hell.”
Megan looked up sharply at her son but did not utter the rebuke that almost tripped on her tongue. She understood his hatred for the clan that had betrayed them to the English and that had fought with the enemy against their own countrymen. The darkness that had fallen over Scotland after the massacre at Culloden, and the subsequent humiliation of the Scots by their Sassenach conquerors, was due in large part to the treachery of the rogue clan. The few survivors of the Scottish army that had fought for Prince Charles had either been executed or were in hiding. As for their hero, the prince…well, he was long gone. Skulked away in the dead of night, dressed as a woman, so they said, leaving his followers to suffer the consequences of his arrogance and ambition.
Megan shuddered as she thought of her husband and two sons lost in that conflict. Their bodies had never been found, giving Jamie the hope that one day they would come home.
‘Perhaps they’re still in hiding,’ he had told his mother so many times, but she had given up all hope of her seeing her man and her boys again. No, life was never that kind. Jamie sighed. “I think I need not go to the crag again. It’s been too long. Were they alive, they would have found their way back ere now.”
Sadly, his mother agreed. “Aye. So now, will you agree to leave this place with me and find our way to the New World?” She held her son’s hands and gazed into his intense blue eyes. “You must come with me, Jamie. ’Twill do you no good to bide here alone. There’s a life waiting for us in the Colonies. Your uncle William will give us shelter when we get there. He said as much afore he left.”
“Uncle William?” Jamie’s frown shadowed his handsome face as he uttered the name with distaste. “A man whose word couldna’ be trusted when he was here among us? I would not gamble our lives on such a man.”
“He was afraid for his family, Jamie, that’s all. Y’canna’ blame a man for wanting to protect his own.”
“My faither wanted to protect his own.” Jamie’s voice rose in anger. “But he didna’ run away in the dead of night. No, he stood with my brothers like men against the English scum.”
“And died doing it!” Megan cried with a fierceness that quieted her son. “And now, look at us, hiding like thieves, afraid of the sound of a horse’s hoof nearby. Afraid that the next stranger to come upon us might be the one to betray us. What kind of life is that?”
“Hush, Mathair.” Jamie took her in his arms and held her against him. “A’right, we’ll leave this place that never was ours. I’ll come with you to the Colonies, but I’ll not throw myself upon my uncle’s mercy. God forbid that we should sink that low.”
“Jamie, Jamie,” his mother whispered against his chest. “Dinna’ be sae harsh, my boy.” He bowed his head to her and she gently pushed back the red-gold curls that fell on his brow. “You’re all I have now, Jamie. I want you to live the life you deserve. Away from a’ this death and desolation. I’m weary o’ it, Jamie…dead weary. It’s gone on for so long.”
Jamie held his mother’s slight frame in his arms and breathed out a heavy sigh. She was right, of course. There was nothing for them here anymore. The hovel they had lived in for the past few months was a far cry from the comfortable farmhouse he had been brought up in—he and his brothers, Duncan and Angus. Once they had played and roughhoused in the acres of verdure that surrounded their home, chasing the sheep and cows, running with their dogs, riding their horses across the heathered moors, unaware of the machinations of scheming kings and governments.
Long ago, Jamie’s grandfather had come from his home on the Western Isles to trade in the forests of Glen More. There he had met the lass of his dreams and, after wedding her, had laid claim to the land that sustained him and his family for many years, where Jamie’s father, Fergus MacDonald, had been born and raised and where he in turn had raised his own sons. Now Fergus and two of his sons lay dead, in a place where Jamie could not reach them, where the wind and rain had laid bare their bones and where they had been denied a Christian burial, though to Jamie’s mind that was the least of the tragedy. God and Christ were a long way from Scotland these days, it seemed.
He urged his mother on toward the croft that lay before them, a poor, ramshackle pile of stone and timber, but shelter at least from the chill rain that had begun to fall on them. Inside, a smoky peat fire gave a little warmth and the smell of the mutton his mother had cooked in a pot over the fire made Jamie’s mouth water with anticipation. Yes, he was hungry and the few scraps of meat would do little to satisfy that hunger, but it was all they had and would have to suffice. Once, their table had been laden with fish, chicken and venison, but that had been in the days when Scotsmen were free. Before their loyalty to a pretender prince had caused them to leave their homes and fight a bloody war that had left the country in ruins and many a family slaughtered.
Jamie held a bitter resentment for the events that had led his country to this intolerable state. He had listened to the tales of the dashing and handsome Prince Charles who was to come over the seas to become the rightful king of Britain and who would send the Hanoverian King George back to Germany where he belonged. To most Scots, the Stuart dynasty was the stuff of legends and many had fought by the side of Prince Charles’s father—the ‘Old Pretender’.
Jamie and his brothers had listened to the tales of how, one day, the rightful king would once again rule Britain. Both at school and at home, they’d been told of the miserable lengths the English parliament had gone to replace the Stuarts with foreign kings and queens, some who could not even speak English. Jamie had listened to these tales with wide eyes and longed for the day when he could fight for the ‘Bonny Prince’, but the reality of it had been a sad awakening for the Scots.
Too late, they’d realized that the man they had held in such high esteem was nothing more than an arrogant, self-infatuated fop who knew nothing of commanding an army and even less of ingratiating himself to his people. His foreign manners soon alienated him from his officers, and his troops, hoping for a king they could love and admire, had been shocked and dismayed at the Prince’s total lack of leadership. Jamie remembered his brother Duncan telling him how deeply disappointed he was in the Prince.
‘I expected no less than William Wallace from all we’d been told of him,’ he’d said with disgust the last time they had all been together. ‘But here was this mincing dandy…a spailpean I would have kicked on the backside for his airs, had I not been told, to my amazement, that he was the Prince.’
Nevertheless, those loyal to his cause had followed Charles to the end, and now they were scattered to the winds, the young and the brave who would fight no more, their widows and fatherless children left to mourn them and fend for themselves the best they could.
Thinking of this, Jamie stabbed viciously at his meat as though it was an Englishman’s hide. Damn them, he thought. What right have the Sassenachs to lay waste to this proud and wild land? One day, he vowed, one day I will avenge my father and brothers. Be it with the head of a Campbell traitor or an English soldier—either will suffice.
“I thought it best we make our way to Greenock,” his mother said, interrupting his wild thoughts. “There, we can await a sailing to the Colonies.”
Jamie nodded. Greenock was the nearest port that had regular sailings to the New World. It would be a difficult journey, and he worried that it would tax his mother’s frailty even more. But she was determined to take this chance at a better life for them, and he knew better than to try to dissuade her now. She rose stiffly and went to the wooden chest that stood by the peat fire. Opening it, she withdrew a small bag that she placed on the table in front of Jamie.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“All that we have in the world. Enough to secure us both a passage to the Americas.”
Jamie stared at the bag in amazement. “But where did this come from?”
“Your father left it with me afore he and your brothers went to fight for the Prince. ‘For any unforeseen occurrence’, he said.” Her lips trembled with grief. “I never thought I would have to use it. Only perhaps to celebrate their return…” She broke off and bowed her head to hide her tears.
“Oh, my mother, dinna’ greet so.” He took her hand in his. “It breaks my heart to see you so stricken.”
“Can we leave on the morrow then, Jamie?”
“Aye, Mathair.” Jamie sighed with resignation. “The morrow it is. There’s little or nothing to keep us here now.”
That night, the prospect of the journey ahead kept Jamie awake. As he tossed fitfully on his narrow bed, he thought of what they were about to leave behind. In all his one and twenty years, he had never supposed he would leave his homeland and sail to another world. He had heard tales of the Colonies, of the riches they promised and of the savage people who bravely fought for what they regarded as theirs. Who could blame them for that?
The Scots had fought to the bitter end to keep their country free of English dominion. Why then would the inhabitants of that faraway land not do the same when strangers came and settled there, cutting down forests and building towns as if they had some sovereign right? He imagined himself as one of them, preparing to defend his land and people against the foreign hordes. If only he had been allowed to go with his father and brothers to fight the English at Culloden—but his father had told him that someone had to stay and care for his mother. God forbid that she be left alone with no husband or son to protect her. His father had laid that burden upon him, and he had vowed to see it through no matter what occurred.
Then the raiding party had come. Four wild and ragged men whose affiliation could not be determined, though Jamie had been convinced they were from the traitor clan. They had come screaming like banshees out of nowhere and were in the farmhouse before Megan had had a chance to bar the door. Jamie had been in the byre when he’d heard her scream and had picked up his claymore, which was ever at hand, and had run like the wind to the house.
The sight of those filthy, tattered men manhandling his mother had driven Jamie to a fury. He’d killed one of the marauders before they even knew he was upon them. The remaining three had drawn their weapons and rushed him, thinking to murder him easily enough. But Jamie’s father and brothers had taught him well how to wield a sword, and when he’d skewered one of the traitors through the chest, the other two had fallen back in consternation. As Jamie had advanced upon them, his claymore slicing the air, they’d turned and run. When they’d seen that Jamie was not coming after them, one had shouted defiance from a safe distance.
“We’ll be back for revenge, never fear. There’s a hunnert mair of us in the hills. We’ll see how it goes then!”
Jamie had no doubt the cowards would return with reinforcements. There had been too many for him to defend his mother against, so they had filled the cart with provisions and blankets and left their home for the shepherd’s croft in which they now lived. They had traveled two days to reach this place and for a time had lived with the fear that the men might yet come upon them, but no one did. It was Jamie’s opinion that, finding he and his mother gone, they had taken what they wanted of the livestock and provisions then no doubt destroyed the farmhouse.
At least they were alive and Jamie knew his father would be proud of him for fighting to protect his mother. Now, his duty was to see her safe and sound to the New World and to the protection of her brother, William. Already he was making his own plans to move on after he had carried out his father’s wishes. He could not bide with his uncle, whom he detested, but he felt sure the man would be reasonable enough to care for his own sister. Then, I shall away to find my destiny, he thought as sleep finally overtook him. A New World, a new life awaited him.
* * * *
As the sun rose from behind the mountains and brightened a clear sky on the day of their departure, Jamie felt good weather was an omen they could take heart in. He loaded up the small cart with what few belongings his mother considered they might need and fastened Morag, their only remaining horse, between the shafts. Morag was old but still strong. Strong enough, he hoped, to carry them to safety. She had always been his favorite. As a boy, he had ridden her across the moors, trying to keep up with his older brothers on their faster steeds. Now, he stood stroking her muzzle and whispering words of encouragement in her ear.
“So, Morag girl, here we are, on another adventure. That you have to lower yourself to pull this sorry cairt again, no doubt is a bitter pill for you tae swallow. Dinna’ hold it against me, I beg you.” He kissed the animal’s cheek and Morag snorted, shaking her head. Jamie gave a wry chuckle. “Aye, I thought you just might.”
Because the Sassenachs—the English—had decreed that wearing a clansman’s tartan was now punishable by imprisonment, or worse, Jamie had taken to wearing the woolen trews his mother had made for him. It had angered him to give up wearing his kilt and plaid, but for his mother’s sake and safety, he had reluctantly agreed.
With care, he folded the length of woven cloth that bore the proud colors of the MacDonald tartan and placed it for safekeeping in a hemp bag. He helped his mother, wrapped in a plain-woven shawl, climb up on the cart, then without a backward glance, he led Morag forward out of the glen to the valley below. The road took them past their farm and Jamie’s heart lifted as he gazed down into the verdant valley below and saw that the house still stood.
“So the cowards left us our hame, Mother. Is there anything you want afore we leave?”
Megan shook her head. “No, Jamie, I canna’ bear to see what those devils might have done inside. It’s enough that I saved what little we had afore we left. Let’s be gone now and not look back.”
But as Jamie urged Morag forward, he could not resist one backward glance at what had been his home for all his life and, with sadness, knew in his heart that he would never see it again.
* * * *
For the next several days, they encountered few straggling wayfarers, none of whom gave them more than a cursory glance. As planned, they avoided the towns and kept to the open countryside. These days in Scotland, strangers were regarded with deep suspicion, and not many friendly faces were to be seen.
The road they traveled took them through difficult terrain, yet they could not but wonder at the wild beauty that surrounded them. The ever-changing scenery took them through narrow glens, flanked on each side by craggy hillsides, through forests of tall pines and by the banks of swift-flowing rivers. Fortunately, those rivers held an abundance of salmon that Jamie had no difficulty catching for their supper.
He would have been more pleased had the good weather held, but a chill east wind laden with a soaking drizzle soon dogged their passage and slowed their progress. At night, he tried to find a sheltered copse or outcrop of rock under which he could pull the cart and make a bed for his mother. Then he would wrap himself in a rough wool blanket and lie near her, and they would talk of the future and the promise of the new life she felt only the Colonies could now bring. Jamie worried about the ragged cough his mother had developed during the last few days, but his concern was met with words of dismissal and a weary smile when he broached the subject with her.
For days they traveled in this fashion, until they reached the outskirts of Greenock. Jamie stared about him in dismay as they slowly rolled through the narrow and dirty streets that led to the harbor. He had not expected such poverty and squalor, but the years of wars with the English had taken a dreadful toll on the city’s economy, and recovery was still far off.
At the harbor, it was even worse. It seemed to Jamie that half the people in Scotland were there. Chaos reigned as would-be passengers fought with one another to obtain passage on the ship that was leaving the next day. Jamie found out from one of the irate men standing in line that there was a panic because of a rumor there would not be another sailing for several days or even weeks, due to inclement weather approaching across the Atlantic Ocean.
Jamie cursed under his breath at this news. What would they do in this godforsaken town if they could not find passage straight away? They had hardly money enough to pay for lodging for even one or two nights, never mind several days or weeks. Using his height and breadth of shoulder, he plunged ahead of the waiting travelers, ignoring their curses and cries of protest. He must get his mother and himself aboard the next vessel out. There could be no delay.
In moments, he faced a weasel-faced man at a makeshift desk. “I need passage for my mother and myself on the next ship that sails to the Colonies.”
“You have money?” Weasel-face held out a filthy hand.
“How much?” Jamie was still Scottish enough to be canny, despite his eagerness to secure their fares.
“Twenty pounds, for the two of ye.”
“Robber!” Jamie exclaimed. “Twenty pounds is more than a man earns in a year!”
Weasel-face gave him an evil look. “Next…” he hissed, turning away from Jamie.
“Wait!” Jamie pushed the man behind him back into his place as the man tried to elbow him out of the way. “Here’s your twenty pounds. I hope you choke on it.”
Weasel-face snickered and handed Jamie a rolled document that promised two places on the vessel, the Voyager, that was due to leave at first tide the following day. Clutching the precious document to his chest, Jamie pushed his way out of the throng.
His mother’s weary face lit up when she saw the documents he was carrying. “Oh, ye’ve done it, my dear lad,” she cried with relief.
Jamie put his arms around her and held her close. He was worried about her. Though she dismissed his concerns, he could tell she was not feeling well. He prayed that she would not worsen during the long journey ahead of them. But for the moment, at least, he could feel easy knowing that what she longed for was near at hand.
“Come, we need find ourselves lodging for the night. It promises to be a cold one from the feel of it, and you must rest and be warm before this long journey.”
“Aye,” his mother murmured. “I am weary. I’d not refuse a warm, soft bed, but best save what little we have left.”
“Bide here,” Jamie told her. “I’ll ask at that inn, yonder.” It was a poor excuse for an inn, he thought as he stepped inside—run-down and uninviting—but even this place would tax their reserves.
The innkeeper, stout and unkempt, wearing a stained shirt and apron, peered at him with suspicion. “Have ye siller?” he asked in a dour tone when Jamie told him he needed a room for his mother and himself.
“I can pay well enough, if you’re not a thief like the ship’s broker,” Jamie answered.
“Five groats each and I’ll take payment afore ye go up!”
Jamie sighed with frustration at the thought of his mother having to set foot in this filthy place. But he supposed it was better than another night in the open. She was not well and needed a good night’s sleep.
“Here,” he said, handing over the money. “We’ll take supper also, and I’ll need a place for my horse.”
After he had taken his mother up to their room and seen her settled, he stabled Morag then wandered over to a nearby smithy. The blacksmith, a tall, jovial-looking man with ruddy cheeks and a shock of red hair, gave him a nod as he approached.
“Got a horse that needs shoeing, have ye?” He grinned at Jamie. “I saw ye at auld Souter’s place. A fine nag ye have.”
“I’m fair happy to hear ye say that,” Jamie said, returning the man’s smile. “I need to sell her…but,” he added quickly, “it needs be to someone who will tend her well.”
The smith shook his head. “I’ve no need for the beast m’sel, but my brother Jack, he’s got himself a farm not far from town. Mayhap he might buy her.”
Jamie thought for a moment. He had known this was going to be a difficult thing for him to do, to part with Morag after all these years. Still, it had to be done and he could not just turn her loose. She’d be prey to anyone who fancied some horsemeat, and Jamie did not doubt there would be many such.
“My mother and me, we’re sailing tomorrow for the Colonies. I’d be happier in my mind if I’d settled Morag’s future before I left.”
“Morag, is it?” The blacksmith chuckled and extended his hand. “The name’s Robbie, by the by—and you are?”
“Jamie, Jamie MacDonald.”
“A MacDonald, eh? A Highlander. Did you fight for the Pretender, then? If so, I’d keep quiet aboot it. There’s still a lot of bad feeling for the Jacobites about here. Some folk think of them as traitors.”
Jamie bristled at Robbie’s words. “Traitors? Those who gave their lives to put a royal Stuart back on the throne?”
“Calm yoursel’, laddie!” Robbie gave him a grave look. “Keep that kind o’ talk to a whisper. I was a supporter of the Rebellion, but the man’s gone now, skulked off in the guise of a woman, so they told us. Hardly a princely act, would you say?”
“I’ll not deny my contempt for him,” Jamie replied. “But I’ll not hear of the men who fought for him debased so. My father and brothers died at Culloden.”
“I’m right sorry to hear that, Jamie, but like I said, keep a’ that to yoursel’ and not let it get about.” The smith pursed his lips as he thought. “I could take the nag and keep it till my brother comes to town next week.”
“But I need whatever I can get for her now,” Jamie said.
“I’ll settle with ye and have my brother recompense me.”
“But what if he does not want her?”
“Then I’ll find another buyer.”
“Not a butcher. Promise me that!”
“Nay, lad, not a butcher nor anyone else who would abuse her. But I’m sure Jack will want her.”
Jamie’s mother expressed her sadness when he told her of Morag’s new owner. “I’m sorry you have to part with her, son. When we get settled in the Colonies, I will get you as fine a beast as she is.”
Jamie smiled but did not say that he felt it would be a long time before such a thing could happen. “Thank you, mo mathair,” he murmured, kissing her brow. “You should try to sleep now.” She had eaten but little of the poorly prepared food the innkeeper had given them.
She appeared pale and bone-weary and her breath rasped in her chest. “Aye,” she sighed, lying back on the narrow cot. “The morrow is the start of our new life. I have such hopes for us, Jamie. For you, my darling boy.”
“Hush now,” Jamie whispered against her cheek. “Dinna’ tax yoursel’ wi’ fretful thoughts of what might be. Sleep, and regain your strength for the journey ahead.”
He knelt by her bed, holding her hand until she slept, when he rose and stood for a while, gazing out through the dirty glass of the tiny window. He could see the face of the full moon that shone on the harbor, bathing the murky waters with its silvery light. He wished he felt better with regard to what they were about to do. Within him there was no sense of excitement, no thrill to be setting out on a journey to a distant land. Instead, there was a sense of foreboding, of impending loss, and he shivered as the feeling settled on him like a cold embrace.
Turning away from the window, he knelt by the bed and gazed on his mother’s face. The lines of worry and anxiety etched there were now partly smoothed by sleep. He placed a gentle kiss on her brow. Her breathing was shallow but steady enough. Satisfied, he wrapped himself in his blanket, lay down on the floor by her bed and slept.
The first thing he noticed on awakening was the silence that filled the room. He sat up with a start and gripped his mother’s hand. It was ice cold.
“No,” he murmured then aloud— “No!” But as he gathered her in his arms, he knew the reality of her death, and it cleaved his heart in two. “Oh God,” he sobbed, his face against her breast. “Y’canna’ leave me, mo mathair. Ye canna’ leave me!”
He held her, keening like a child, rocking her in his arms, bidding her return to life. It took the sharp blowing of a horn from the harbor to bring him to his senses. The ship was about to leave. It was going to leave without them. It was not going to carry his mother to her new life. She had gone on ahead of it, impatient to be free.