I own that I am stubborn. I am an Edinburgh bourgoise, a widow, and I ken how to sit a horse. And – would my friends or would they not – I rode out of the city, resolved to visit my uncle in Inverness. Oh, no, I did not ride alone. My family’s man-of-law came too, having invented some business with my uncle he arranged to accompany me, though a widow and a bachelor side by side on the highway caused some clucking and clicking of tongues! Fifteen years my senior, well set-up, and stern of face, he was a formidable enough companion to make troublemakers think twice. He carried a pair of pistols in his satchel, and a gentleman’s sword by his saddle; to his mind, actually bearing it by his side would be too much of a swagger, too much of a provocation, and for all that he has a ferocious face he has a gentle heart. Such is Arthur Thomson, Writer to the Signet.
We had sent most of our baggage ahead of us by carter. Past Killiecrankie we lodged one night with the Murray’s factor, whom the man-of-law had known since school days, and thence on into the bare Highlands.
“You had best adopt your father’s name from here on, Mistress Campbell,” said the worthy wight, emphasising my married surname instead of calling me Miss Jean as he had done since I was young. “We’re a deal too far eastward to be kent as a distant cousin of McColinmore. Even though it is twenty years since the rebellion, his grace’s name is not well-liked in some parts. You’re a Fraser by birth, and would be better called so for the while. It is a harmless name.”
He can be so precise in his words, and I do well simply to acquiesce when he is in such a mind. Fraser I was, then. But speaking of Arthur Thomson’s mind, I don’t know what might have occupied it as we rode through the mountains. It had been many years since I had last been north to my uncle’s house, and on that occasion it had been by sea. Mr. Thomson’s visits had been a little more frequent, but as shadows began to lengthen his habitual frown deepened.
“I do not understand this!” he said, “I was sure we would have been at Newtonmore by now, and the road running downwards. But surely we still climb, and we are turned too far West, if I read the sun aright. And this road narrows to less than the highway it ought to be. Where could we have first misdirected ourselves?”
“Are we lost?” I enquired of him.
“Aye, I fear we are, Miss Jean, and I offer my sincere apology. I have been inattentive,” he said, shaking his head ruefully. “I have no doubt that we are miles out of our way, and that if we were to retrace our steps it might be a couple of hours into darkness before we even struck the right road, let alone came to the next inn that I know of.”
“It seems to me,” I said, addressing him almost as I would a young lad or a servant, to my slight shame, “that we ought to ride on. This road cannot lead nowhere, and if it leads somewhere, that might be to shelter. If not, I expect we may huddle well enough beneath a tree.”
He agreed readily enough, though frowned no less, and we went onward. Indeed it was fortuitous that we did, for around a bend and over a rise, after only half an hour’s riding, I saw – and he saw – a finger of smoke rising above the trees of a wooded mountain-slope; and when we shortly came to a clearing in those trees, we perceived that the smoke was indeed a token of shelter, as there stood a low, turf-roofed cottage, such as is often found in the Highlands. Although it was small and rustic, it appeared clean, and all about it was ordered and tidy – the kailyard, the stack of pine logs to the side, the flat stones that served as a path between the rough road and the door. Indeed, in the last gleam of sunlight from over the nearby ridge, it looked fair and pleasant.
“We shall keep a respectable distance,” said Arthur Thomson, “so as not to alarm the inhabitants.”
Without dismounting, he gave a loud but friendly halloo, followed haltingly by a greeting in the Erse tongue of the Highlands, of which I knew he had a few words. The door opened, and a young woman stepped out. She was attired simply, in a grey dress over which she had pulled a plaid of damson hue and drawn it over her head. That she was barefooted showed she was poor, but like her house and yard she was clean and proper. At first her frown on spying strangers was as deep as the man of law’s, but the latter found a smile from somewhere, doffed his tricorn with a sweep, and inclined his head to her, addressing her politely. She came towards us, spoke a sentence to Mr. Thomson, and then one to me.
“I do not have the Gaelic,” I said.
Mr. Thomson introduced us – I heard him say “Arthur Mac Omish” as he placed a hand on his chest, and “Sheena Fraser” when he indicated me – and said a few more words. When he mentioned our destination, which he said as “Inner Nish”, her frown returned, but it was more rueful than suspicious. She spoke then at length, pointing first up the road and shaking her head, then down along the way we had come and shaking her head. Mr. Thomson turned to me.
“If I understand this good woman rightly,” he said, “we are well out of our way. It is both a wrong road the way we have come and the way we are going, and we are a good thirty miles by a circuitous route from Newtonmore. I shall therefore ask her if there is an inn nearby where we can stay for the night. He turned and spoke to her again, and again she shook her head. But also she smiled and beckoned to us, pointing to her cottage. Mr. Thomson informed me that she had invited us to step inside, was obliged to by the custom of the country, and would esteem it an honour and a pleasure if we would accept the invitation.
“I have long thought the reputation of Highlanders as savages to be a false one,” I said.
“Do not even mention it as a negative!” said my companion. “Remember into whose house we are stepping.”
With many a “Hick-a-stye” she welcomed us into her house.* We tethered our horses to a pair of pine posts at one side of her yard, across which a third log had been stoutly nailed, and followed her into the cottage. Inside, a fire burned; it was not of peat, as one might have been led to expect in the Highlands, but of dried pine-logs. The air was aromatic with the scent of their burning. The fire gave some light, but there were also a couple of newly-lit candles. The illumination showed us a room bare of much ornament, but furnished with table and chairs, and with curtained alcoves along three of the walls. The only decoration seemed to be on the ledge over the fire, where a row of bridget-crosses had been placed.** The young woman took of her plaid, and folded it over one of the chairs which was already close to the fire, motioning me to sit there. She drew up two more chairs, and Mr. Thomson placed his own cloak over one and sat in it. I was surprised that he did not offer that chair to our hostess, but much later he explained that her hospitality obliged her to see to our comfort first. Now that she had doffed her plaid, I could see that her age was about four- or five-and-twenty, and that she was in truth very beautiful in face and figure. Neither poverty nor hard work seemed to have roughened her, except perhaps that there seemed to be a young man’s strength in her arms and a little roughness to her hands. Nevertheless she moved and sat with a natural grace and ease. Her hair was not the black of the Highlander, but a waterfall of deep red. Her eyes were green, heavy-lidded, and long-lashed. Her lips were full and red. Fashionable women of Edinburgh might perhaps win over her for style and elegance, but she had a beauty that would defeat them all. I found that I spent much time looking at her. She saw that I did, and she blushed, and I blushed, and perhaps we both pretended that it was the effect of the pine-log fire. This was new to me, this looking at a woman for her beauty, this inability to tear my gaze from her.
Her name, Mr. Thomson told me, was Catriona MacKenzie, although her pronunciation of the surname seemed strange to my ear, as though it were one thing in the Erse and another in the Scots. Her grandmother was from Donegal in Ireland, and had come over the sea, as a young bride, in a little galley. Her family here in Scotland were Mackenzies, and her husband, who was also surnamed Mackenzie, had joined the army, as had many young men in the years since the Rebellion. He had been away now for four years, to Jamaica she thought but had had no word of him in all that time. His work at home had been to cut timber from the pine woods and to make sharpened fence stakes. Of this work she did a little herself also, but mainly was able to keep body and soul together because she had some cows in a kinsman’s field in a nearby settlement. Her own yard yielded some vegetables, the forest fruit and mushrooms in their seasons, and she could barter for the rest of her necessities.
Having warmed us by the fire, she set about making our supper, which was to be eggs boiled in a little cauldron over the fire, and grey bread. She also rummaged in her store for a wooden bowl, and filled it with oats for our horses. I noticed that there were only two eggs a-boiling and realised that she was making no supper for herself.
“Lawyer Thomson,” I whispered urgently, when she was out of the room, “she is going without to feed us and our horses. You must offer her some payment.”
“She would refuse it,” he said, “and not only that, she would be deeply offended. These folk value hospitality highly, and honour even more highly. Tomorrow, before we leave, I might ask in a casual fashion whether we might do some favour for her at some time. She will most likely say no, but it would be a more acceptable to her pride than we should offer her our mean silver.”
Thus we offered her nothing, but I must confess that I did not eat my egg and bread with much relish. Retiring for the night consisted of our occupying the curtained alcoves. Behind each one was a bench, and the young woman busied herself with making them as comfortable as she could for us, once more depriving herself. I again had her plaid. Mr. Thomson made do with his cloak and satchel and was soon snoring behind his curtain. What she used I could not tell, but I lay there listening to the rustle of her clothing until all was quiet; and then, notwithstanding the hardness of the bench, I fell asleep.
I awoke in the morning with a little stiffness but feeling refreshed. I pulled back my curtain and looked out into the room. The ashes of last night’s fire were grey, but a little daylight came in through the door, which stood ajar. The curtain at Catriona MacKenzie’s alcove was pulled back, and all was neat and tidy on her bench. The curtain at Mr. Thomson’s alcove was still across, though his snores had abated. From outside came the trill of a chaffinch, and, I fancied, an answering snatch of song in a woman’s voice. I rose, pulled Catriona’s plaid around me, and walked as softly as I could across the room to the door. Outside, the morning sunlight was liquid. Apart from birdsong, and a stamp and a shuffle from our impatient horses when they caught sight of me, everything was still and quiet. Of the young woman nothing was to be seen. And then that snatch of song – a run of notes as liquid as the daylight was in a language only a little younger than the mountains and woods that contained it – that seemed to come from beyond the rough road. As I followed to where I thought it had come from – across the road, down a slope, through a stand of rowans – the sound of running water joined the subtle counterpoint to the morning’s silence. Once through the rowans, I came to a burn that ran from the hillside opposite to that on which the cottage stood. A rough dam had been made of stones, over which the water trickled in a little cascade. To this side of it, a pool had formed, and it was here that I found Catriona.
Where a rowan grew, bending like an old servant over the pool, she had left her grey dress, neatly folded. She stood thigh-deep in the pool, her back to me, naked, her red hair tumbling over her shoulders and down her back. Once more, as though enchanted, I could not take my gaze from her. She sang again that same line of Erse, then, bending and scooping handfuls of water, began to wash herself. First she splashed and rubbed her face, turning it up to the sky to do so – I could not see, but imagined her eyes shut as the water ran from her forehead to her chin. Next she cupped her hands, took up some more water, and appeared to drink. She did not drink, however, but rested her hands on her hips for a moment and spat a long stream of water into the air, laughing. It was not a coarse thing, it seemed a gesture from her nature, and to be of the nature that surrounded her, making her one with the burn that splashed from stone to stone. Then, with more handfuls of water, she washed her upper body. I could not see, but could imagine where she splashed the water, could imagine the shape of her breasts and the diamond-like drops of water clinging to them. Her next movement was a dipping forwards and down into the pool, so that her lower body was immersed, after about ten seconds of which dipping she stood again. A three-inch-wide fringe of her red hair was darkened with water, and little rivulets, silver in the early sunlight, ran down her hips.
Did I cry out? I do not know. I am certain that I drew in a sharp breath and brought a hand up to my mouth, but she could not have heard that above the music of the burn. Nevertheless she must have become aware of my presence, because she turned her head and looked at me over her left shoulder. She regarded me for what must have been a minute, and then seemed to come to a decision, for she turned around and faced me, first pushing her hair back with both hands, and then resting her arms by her side. There she stood, naked, familiar – because her body was, after all, the same as mine – yet strange, looking me frankly in the face, unashamed. What feelings or thoughts she was expressing by doing this I do not know. If it was simply to say “I am a woman, as you are,” then it scarcely needed saying. If it was to say that she felt in her belly the unfamiliar stone that sat in mine, and that the singing of the pulse in my ears was echoed in hers, I cannot say. There was no smile to guide me, only that frankness. She stood as a deer might in the moment before it decides to run.
I lowered my gaze from her eyes to her breasts, and as I did so I brought both of my hands up to my own, holding them for a moment through my garments. I do not know why, only that it was in obedience to a longing. Then I looked down to where a wedge of curls as dark as Bordeaux wine stood guard at her womanhood, and as I did so again I brought my own hands down and gave pressure through my skirts to where my own legs met. I did not know, at that moment, whether I wanted to take off all my clothes and join her in the pool, or become rooted like a rowan, by some magic, to this spot, so that I might watch her bathe every day. I loved. For the first time in my life, by more than convention, I loved. She and I were two halves of a thing broken, the halves of which had been sent to different corners of the world, and were now found again. No matter that we had been set in different places, repainted in different colours, given new names. No matter that we had no memory of being sundered. We were no longer two beings, but one joyous whole. I loved.
There was a rustling and a heavy step in the rowans behind me. I looked, and saw the honest face and upright figure of Arthur Thomson coming through the trees towards me.
“Ah, there you are, Miss Jean. Mistress Fraser, I should say. I woke to find you absent. I thought I heard singing and so I followed you here. That was not your voice, surely… ah! Here comes out hostess.”
I looked towards the pool again, but it was empty. From behind the single, bent rowan stepped Catriona MacKenzie in her grey dress. She and Mr. Thomson exchanged a morning greeting in Erse.
“I was just minding her shawl for her while she washed her face,” I explained to him. I handed the dark plaid, and she wrapped it round her shoulders, flinging back her hair. She looked into my eyes and said a few words to me. I blushed, even though they must have been innocent words, as Mr. Thomson surely overheard them.
“You are welcome,” I said in return.
In the cottage we breakfasted. Or rather I and Mr. Thomson did, for Catriona again ate nothing. We made ready to depart. When we had repacked our few belongings – Mr. Thomson strapping his sword to his horse’s saddle and slinging his satchel across his back – Catriona and he had a discussion between them. He told me that, according to her, to find our way back onto the right road, we should carry on in the direction in which we had been travelling. The clachan where her kinsmen lived, who kept her cattle, was about five miles on, and a further ten from there was a crossroad. The road to the right would lead us round again to Newtonmore, which we would reach easily by nightfall.
“We shall be a day late there,” said Mr. Thomson, “but that is no great matter. Meanwhile I shall make our hostess the best recompense I can – I shall offer that if we can be of any service to her in the future she only has to seek me out – that way we shall not have done anything so impolite as offering payment!”
From his horse, with another graceful sweep of his hat, he addressed her in her own tongue again. She smiled as she replied, and raised her hand in farewell.
At an impulse, I dismounted from my horse. I walked over to her, took hold of her hand, and looked into her beautiful face, searched it as though to make an indelible portrait in my mind. I spoke her name, nothing more.
“A’Shine Caim Béal,” she replied.
I remounted, and I and Mr. Thomson were on our way. I looked back once before we rounded the next bend. The yard in front of the cottage was empty. Only later, at our in by Newtonmore, did I realise that she had called me by my late husband’s name. Perhaps she could read in people and things more than was superficial, more than was spoken. Perhaps she had been a spirit of the burn and of the pool, and not a real woman. But her hand had been warm in mine.
At Inverness, when Mr. Thomson and my uncle had conducted their business, I asked the latter if he was acquainted with any gentlemen who required stout fence-posts of pine, and if he did, would he consider advising them to obtain a supply from Mistress MacKenzie of such-and-such. my uncle replied with a kindly laugh that he knew of several, but none that would send half way to Lochaber for a commodity that could be hewn from his own woodland. I asked Mr. Thomson if we could return via that once-wrong road, or send a carter that way to pick up some stakes for our use or for sale in our own parts. He of course had a score of good objections why we could not, and I had to admit to myself that my notions could scarcely be translated into practicable undertakings. What is more, he had agreed with my uncle to conduct some business on his behalf in Stonehaven and Perth, and had therefore arranged passage for us on a coastal vessel – from Perth we would journey by coach through the gentle glens of Fife to Queensferry, and thence home.
So the matter was out of my hands, and now I stand here on board a ship beating against the wind, having just passed Buchan Ness. The sea spray in my face reminds me of her – reminds me of you, Catriona MacKenzie, as though to touch any water is to touch the spirit of water and therefore to touch you – and of love, which although it has passed from the here-and-now will never pass from memory. I fancy that if I threw myself into the North Sea here, water would call to water, you would call me to you, and we would be one in the greatness of the waters of the world.
© 2014 Morgana Somerville
* “Hick-a-stye” – an Anglicised rendering of the Gaelic phrase ‘thig a-staigh’.
** ‘bridget-crosses’ – a ‘St Bridget’s Cross’ is a simple decoration made of straw, plaited into a cruciform or fylfot shape. It is more usually associated with Ireland than with Scotland.