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Heather SongA Novel
By Phillips, Michael
FaithWordsCopyright © 2011 Phillips, Michael
All right reserved.
Could I but sojourn with thee only
In some green glen, secure and lonely,
Then neither glory, fame, nor treasure,
Could ever bring me half such pleasure.
—“My Pretty Mary”
There was a time in my life when a dream of mine almost died.
I was forty years old and alone in the world. I had been married but was widowed six years before. My mother was dead, and though my father was still living, we weren’t close. I had no children, no brothers, no sisters, and sad to say, not even any close friends. Life had begun to progress as a gray drudgery of year following year.
Turning forty woke me out of my lethargy. I realized I didn’t want the rest of my life to just drift by without ever doing anything…having an adventure.
That’s when I remembered my dream.
It wasn’t anything spectacular, not something anyone couldn’t have done. It was just to take a summer trip to Scotland. I wanted to travel and see places I had never been. I wanted to play my harp on a high mountain or maybe on a cliff overlooking the sea. So before I suddenly realized I was fifty, I decided to do something about it.
Music in general, and especially the music of the harp, was one of the most important ingredients to the dream. It was the music of the Celtic countries that had through the years gotten under my skin, creating a longing that I wanted to fulfill. I had a vague sense that I possessed Celtic blood. Maybe that’s why I liked the music. Something about the melancholy nature of Celtic harmony probes the soul in a way other music cannot. The melodies and themes of its folk songs and ballads draw you in. At that phase of my life, the haunting melancholy of Celtic music resonated with a loneliness that was stirring inside me. It is music you feel, not just hear. You want to be there.
I’d always thought that one of the reasons music gets so deep into the human consciousness is that people are “tuned” in different ways like musical instruments. Some have talkative, frilly personalities like a flute. Others are natural leaders like a trumpet. Others are full and complex like a viola or cello.
I also thought that all men and women possessed an innate personality that was tuned in either a major or a minor key. Not that some were always happy and others always sad. Some of the world’s most triumphant and joyous music is composed in minor keys. But an inherent difference exists between the sound and the texture of the two that I think is replicated in people as well.
My personality was one that vibrated to the rhythms of life in minor keys. Celtic music stimulated the melancholy harmonies of those chords. Its melodies resonated within me in ways I could not explain. And I wanted to allow that inner resonance to take place where the music originated.
That’s how my adventure in Scotland began.
I packed my small harp as one of my two allowable bags and flew from my home in Alberta, Canada, to London, took the train north to Inverness, and there rented a car and drove around, staying in B and Bs and getting to know Scotland. My name is Angel Marie. But because I play the harp, and to avoid the inevitable jokes about harps and angels and heaven, I have always gone by just the Marie.
After a week, I realized I wasn’t getting to know Scotland. I was learning a few isolated facts about its colorful history. But I was getting to know only tourist stops where busloads of people stopped to buy souvenirs. That wasn’t what I’d had in mind. I didn’t want to be a “tourist,” I wanted to connect in a deeper way with places and people. I wanted to feel the reality of Scotland.
Therefore, purely at random, while driving through a quaint little seacoast village, knowing not a soul but liking the look of the place, I booked a bed-and-breakfast and decided to stay for a week, maybe if I liked it even two. The name of the village was Port Scarnose. It was situated on the most gorgeous headland overlooking the Moray Firth of the North Sea, where I had heard that if you were lucky, you might see dolphins swimming in the temperate waters of the Gulf Stream.
That’s where my Scottish adventure began. It turned out to be more of an adventure than I imagined would ever happen to me!
While playing my Celtic harp a few days later on an overlook above the sea, a voice startled me. I was surprised to see a red-haired man appearing from amid the shrubbery, raving about my beautiful music. I quickly learned that he was the energetic curate of the local parish church—Iain Barclay. We talked and hit it off, and a friendship developed. He invited me to play my harp for his church, which I did.
It may not seem like such a big thing to meet a minister and then accept an invitation to play for his church. But it was a big deal to me. I didn’t consider myself a religious person, a “Christian,” if you like. I had once been active in church but had drifted away after the death of my husband, and I gradually quit believing much of anything. I wouldn’t have called myself antagonistic to spiritual things, but I wasn’t really interested either.
The trouble was, I liked Iain Barclay. He wasn’t pushy or religious, he was accepting and gracious…and fun. But I have to admit it seemed a bit strange the first time we had dinner to realize I was having a date with a minister!
But I liked him. There it was. I couldn’t help it.
Out on the same path I also met the most enchanting little redheaded girl walking along the path above the sea. Immediately I fell in love with her and she fell in love with my harp. Even as I let her strum a few notes, I could tell she had the gift of music inside her. She was a little odd, in both mannerisms and speech, and it crossed my mind whether she might have savant tendencies. Her name was Gwendolyn. The woman with her, whom I took for her mother, was in fact her aunt and legal guardian.
After running into her a second time, I made inquiries about where she lived and offered to begin teaching her to play the harp. Gwendolyn’s aunt Olivia was cool and distant and did not warm to my involvement. But she agreed to let me bring my harp to their house so that Gwendolyn could learn to play.
I was enthralled. The music Gwendolyn made was ethereal and otherworldly, like nothing I had ever heard in all my years of teaching harp. It wasn’t long before the idea came to me that I should record her playing.
Unknown to me at the time, the church where I had played happened to sit across a high stone wall from the estate and castle of the local duke, enigmatic recluse Alasdair Reidhaven. The duke had overheard my playing in the churchyard one day from over the wall and was mesmerized. As a result, I received a written invitation to play at the castle. When I arrived at the castle, however, the duke never showed himself. I played for an hour in solitude, wondering what was going on. I would later learn that the duke was listening to me from behind a room divider.
I wasn’t as alone as I thought!
From both my experience at the castle and negative talk around the village, I couldn’t help forming an “attitude” toward the duke, building up an image of him in my mind as heartless and rude.
Meanwhile, more local relationships developed as my stay in Port Scarnose lengthened—particularly with an eccentric sheepherder and “crofter” by the name of Ranald Bain who lived on the slope of a nearby mountain. Ranald was a fiddler as well as a shepherd. After several more visits, we began making music together and had the greatest time! Ranald’s wife, Margaret—he always called her “Maggie”—had been dead six years, the same as my husband, and though he didn’t talk about it, there seemed to be something mysterious about her death. They had lost their only daughter, Winny, many years before, when she was still in her teens. Her death, too, was a mystery no one talked about.
Out of the blue, another invitation to the castle appeared—this time to dinner! In spite of my attitude about the duke, whom I still had never seen, I accepted. What I was not prepared for was to find him shy, awkward, apologetic for what had taken place earlier, and, though a little peculiar, altogether likable.
I was especially not prepared, after seeing Curate Barclay several more times and realizing that something was beginning to click between us, for Duke Reidhaven to appear at the door of my cottage in person. According to everyone I’d talked to, he never showed himself in the village.
Now there he was, standing in front of me, inviting me out for a walk!
The duke, no less! Had my simple three-week vacation to Scotland turned into an adventure or what?
But actually the walk was nice. I liked the duke, too. He began to loosen up and told me stories of his boyhood. That’s when I first learned that he and Iain Barclay had been childhood best friends. They hadn’t spoken in years, however. Something serious had come between them. I had no idea what.
By this time I had developed several friendships. Because of Gwendolyn’s harp playing I felt a sense of purpose in what I was doing, and I decided to stay for a while longer.
I couldn’t go home yet.
My decision obviously also had to do with the two men I was seeing regularly, though I’m not sure I was able to admit it to myself right then. But whatever I was ready to admit or not admit, I postponed my return flight to Canada, left the bed-and-breakfast, and rented a self-catering cottage in the village.
How long I would stay, I had no idea.
My life now began to get complicated. My long talks with Iain Barclay about spiritual things were penetrating deep into my heart. I began to think about God in new and liberating ways. This could not help deepening the bond I felt with Iain. At the same time I was seeing more and more of the duke.
Though I didn’t fully recognize what was happening at first, eventually it began to dawn on me. That’s when I knew I had a problem—I was involved with two men.
An even bigger shock awaited me. I learned that Gwendolyn was the duke’s daughter, raised after his young wife’s death by the duke’s sister, Olivia Urquhart. Here, too, something strange was going on. The duke never saw his dear little daughter. When I asked about it, Olivia gave me plausible enough reasons. She said the duke was dangerous, that she was protecting Gwendolyn from him. She told dreadful stories about the duke, insinuating that he may have even killed his own wife.
None of these tales squared with what the duke told me, nor with the character of Alasdair Reidhaven as I was getting to know him. Someone wasn’t telling the truth.
The longer I was in Port Scarnose, the more intertwined became the relationships in which I had become entangled. Complexities hinted at murders, madness, jealousies, and hatreds from the past.
What was I in the middle of? I felt like I’d landed in the middle of a Gothic novel.
I also gradually learned that Gwendolyn was seriously ill, with only a few years to live. It was a shocking thing to find out, but I determined to do all I could to make her life as rich as possible. I hoped my harp would bring her solace and peace.
Gwendolyn’s illness, the events surrounding her birth, the death of the duke’s wife…all of it deepened my questions about the mysterious Reidhaven family. Somehow Olivia seemed to hold the key to everything. Bad blood obviously existed between her and all three of the principal men who had become my good friends—Ranald Bain, Olivia’s brother, Alasdair, the duke, and Iain Barclay, the curate. In spite of much I did not understand, however, the music of my harp seemed to be exercising a healing influence in the lives of the people who heard it. For that I was grateful.
Though I still did not know what was at the root of all the mysteries, Iain Barclay and I went one day to the Urquhart home and insisted that Olivia allow us to take Gwendolyn to see her father. In silent fury—and uncharacteristically…I couldn’t figure out why she gave in so quickly—she reluctantly consented.
The reconciliation between father and daughter was one of the most wonderful things I have ever witnessed. Gwendolyn was clearly frightened as she and I approached the castle hand in hand. Despite my reassurances, she could not escape her thoughts of the terrible things her aunt had told her about Alasdair, the duke.
“You don’t think I am mean, do you?” I asked her.
“Oh, no, Marie!” replied Gwendolyn. “You are the nicest person in the whole world.”
“You can trust me, can’t you?”
“Well, I know your father, Gwendolyn. He is not so very different from me. I know that he loves you very much. He wants you to know him just like I know him,” I said. “So I have come to take you to him, so that you can know him just like I know him. Can you trust me, Gwendolyn?”
“I will try, Marie.”
“Then trust me that your father loves you, too.”
We stopped in front of the great oak door. I looked down at her and gave her a smile of reassurance.
“Would you like to ring the bell or use the knocker?” I said.
She stretched up on her toes and turned the bell-knob. Then we waited.
After several minutes we heard heavy steps approaching. When Alasdair appeared, the look of joy on his face was such that no one could possibly be afraid.
It was the expression of a father’s boundless love.
When his gaze settled on the red-haired girl beside me, his eyes were misty. He stooped down and smiled.
“This is your father, dear,” I said.
“Hello, Gwendolyn,” said Alasdair in a soft, husky voice.
“How do you know my name, sir?” said Gwendolyn timidly.
“Because I am your father,” replied Alasdair, smiling and blinking back tears. “I have known you all your life, though I have not seen you for many years. You do not remember, but you have been here before.”
“In this castle?”
“You were born here.”
“Would you like to see where?”
“I think I would.”
As I left father and daughter alone, I was crying my eyes out in happiness.
I saw neither of them for over half an hour. I was sitting on a bench in the garden and heard a happy shout followed by footsteps. I looked up to see Gwendolyn running in her awkward gait toward me, followed by Alasdair hurrying to keep up.
In Gwendolyn’s eyes was a look of radiance such as I had not seen on her face before. She ran straight into my arms.
“Daddy is nothing like what Mummy said,” she said excitedly. “He is as nice as you, Marie. I sat in his lap and he told me stories. He told me about my real mother. I think my real mummy must have been nice. I saw her picture.”
The joyous reunion was the beginning of happy times for father and daughter. I had never seen Gwendolyn so full of life. Meanwhile, Olivia was furious at being coerced into allowing Gwendolyn to visit her father, and she took no joy in the blossoming relationship between Alasdair and his daughter. By this point I think she hated me, and my music, too, for my part in bringing Gwendolyn and Alasdair back together.
Sadly, the reunion came too late. Almost immediately Gwendolyn took a turn for the worse. It soon became obvious that she was dying. As the day she first saw Alasdair was one of the happiest days of my life, the last day of her life, as Alasdair and I sat at her bedside, was surely the most heartbreaking.
“Will you play for me on the angel harp?” Gwendolyn asked me. Her voice was so soft I could barely hear it.
“Of course, sweetheart,” I replied.
I began the song that had been inspired by the first sounds to come out of her playing on my harp, which I called “Gwendolyn’s Song.” Though I played softly, the sound seemed to fill the room. The moment Gwendolyn heard the familiar melody, she leaned her head back on the pillow, a smile of peace on her lips.
“One of the angels told me she heard you when you were playing once in the church,” she said. “She said she wants me to play for her, too.”
Gradually the tiniest sound came from the bed. My fingers stilled and I listened. Gwendolyn was gazing up out of the pillow into Alasdair’s face. She was singing.
“A baby came to Mummy and Daddy. I had just begun to be…”
She stopped to take a breath. Her voice was faint.
“Mummy and Daddy,” she tried to go on. “Mummy and Daddy…loved baby. That baby…was me.”
The tiny voice fell silent.
I stood and went to Alasdair’s side. As I glanced down upon the bed, Gwendolyn’s eyes were closed. The light had faded from her face, though the remnant of a smile lingered on her lips.
She had taken her music to share it with the angels.
They say death brings healing and renewal, if only you know where to look for it. Though the whole community mourned Gwendolyn’s passing, no one could deny the new life everyone felt as a result of the reconciliation between Alasdair Reidhaven and Iain Barclay that took place during Gwendolyn’s final days.
With Gwendolyn gone, I suddenly had to face reality. Whether I had been completely clueless all this time, or whether it was a slow-dawning realization that only now became obvious, it was at Gwendolyn’s funeral that a shocking truth finally broke over me:
I was in love with two men!
The worst of it was that these same two men had already been separated by their love for a woman years before—Fiona, Gwendolyn’s mother. Now that they were finally reconciled and their friendship restored, I could not let such a thing happen again. I cared too much about both of them to run the risk of allowing either relationship to go further.
I had no choice but to bring my adventure in Scotland to an end.
The good-byes were poignant. I had the sense that either man might propose to me if I gave them the chance. My heart was especially torn as I saw Alasdair for the last time. I just couldn’t find the words to tell him. While I was stalling, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small oblong black box.
“This necklace belonged to my mother,” he said. “I was saving it for Gwendolyn, hoping that…Well, she will not be able to wear it now, and…I would like you to have it, Marie.”
Alasdair opened the box, then reached out and set it across the table in front of me. It must have contained twenty or more diamonds!
“I…Alasdair, it’s…I’ve never seen anything so lovely,” I said, fumbling for words. “It’s so kind…I mean, but…I can’t accept a family heirloom.”
Alasdair looked away. The open box with the necklace sparkling on a black velvet bed sat on the table between us.
“It’s Iain, isn’t it?” he said after a minute.
The words jolted me.
“I’ve seen it all along,” he continued, smiling a little sadly. “I knew you loved him. And I…You need have no worry about me. He is a fine man…You could not do better. Even so…even if you wear it as Iain’s wife…I would like you to have this necklace…as a reminder of…of happy times…times you once spent with a man who cared for you very much, and—”
He drew in a deep breath and smiled again. “And to remember Gwendolyn,” he added.
“It is not because of Iain,” I said softly.
“What, then? Please…,” implored Alasdair. “Say you will accept the necklace, as a token of my—”
“Oh, Alasdair,” I said, at last bursting into tears. “I am leaving tomorrow!”
I was crying in earnest now. I couldn’t look at him.
For a moment all was silence.
Then I heard his chair slide across the floor. He got up and his footsteps came around the table to where I sat. I stood, and the next moment I was swallowed in his embrace.
“I knew this day would come,” he said. “It had to eventually.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner,” I said through my tears.
“I know you were thinking of me,” he said. “I tried to pretend there would not have to be a day of farewell. Inside I knew I was just fooling myself. This will be the most painful parting of my life. But you needn’t worry. Things are different now. I am a changed man. I have known you and loved you and I will never forget you. And,” he added, “if you can…I hope you won’t forget me either.”
I burst into sobs as I pulled back and gazed deeply into his eyes.
“Oh, Alasdair!” I said. “How could you even think I would forget you! Some of the most wonderful memories of my life will be of this place.”
I embraced him again, tight and long, then stepped back. I took his arm and we walked downstairs and outside without another word.
I left to return to Canada the next day.
Beginning of Auld Lang Syne
Farewell to the bluebells, and welcome the new bells,
The bridal bells, pealing o’er the valley and hill;
Sweet bells that betoken love’s link never broken,
Though time bring the cloud and the chill.
—J. S. Skinner, “The Cloud and the Chill”
After a few lonely months in Calgary trying to resume my former life, I realized it was no use.
Love never just goes away. It has to be done something with, brought to a resolution. Many people, of course, interpret this need wrongly by thinking of it in physical terms. Nothing could have been further from my mind. Nevertheless, I knew the uncertainty of the situation had to be “resolved” and brought to completion—emotionally, personally, spiritually.
Even though I had done so to protect the two men from pain, I could not “run away” from the love, or loves, in my heart.
I had to face my destiny, whatever it was. I had to return to Scotland. I had to decide where my deepest love truly was.
I made plans without telling a soul. Even as I arrived by bus in Port Scarnose, I still wasn’t absolutely sure what my decision would be…or whether either man would even want me. But I had to find out.
Whom did I really love?
After several long, prayerful walks, at last my soul-searching came to an end. I knew my decision. Immediately I set out on a long walk that took me on a familiar route out of town.
When I reached my destination and saw the huge door in front of me, I paused, drew in a deep breath of final resolve, then reached out my hand and lifted the knocker.
A minute later footsteps came from inside. Slowly the door opened.
“Hello, Alicia,” I said to the duke’s housekeeper. “Would you please tell Mr. Reidhaven that he has a visitor who has come to inquire about a certain diamond necklace?”
When Alasdair saw me a minute later, his face went pale.
The look of joy flooding his eyes was so childlike it took my breath away.
“Marie!” he said in wonder, almost as if I were a specter from his imagination.
At the sound of his voice, all my fears vanished and I hurried toward him. He received me with open arms. We stood for what seemed like forever.
“I think perhaps I am now ready,” I whispered at last. “That is, if you still want me to…to wear the diamond necklace you wanted to give me.”
“Oh, Marie!” he said. “There is nothing I want more. But what about…I mean, have you seen—”
“Alasdair,” I said, stopping him before he could say it. “I have seen no one else. I came back…to you.”
It was agony to walk up to Iain’s door later that same day. But he had to hear it from me.
The moment he saw me standing on his porch, his eyes swam, but he did not allow whatever he might be feeling to spill over. He saw the expression on my face, and I knew he knew.
I told him that I had come from the castle, where Alasdair had proposed to me and that I had accepted him.
Only then did Iain approach and hug me warmly, as a brother now, and congratulated us both. I knew his words were utterly genuine, and I knew all over again why I had loved him.
The day after my visit, Iain called on Alasdair to personally congratulate him and to offer his services, if Alasdair and I so desired, for the ceremony. He was sincerely and honestly happy for us—I think for Alasdair most of all. The whole thing fit no Hollywood script where men compete for a woman’s affections. Iain loved Alasdair in the full sense of brother loving brother. Alasdair’s happiness meant more to him than his own.
Alasdair and I were married in the gardens of Castle Buchan the following spring, just as the rosebuds were starting to come on. Tulips were in profusion, and rhododendrons. The earth was everywhere alive and bursting forth with the renewal of spring.
Iain performed the ceremony. Everyone within Deskmill Parish was invited to the wedding, and indeed, so many came that the grounds were overflowing. Ranald Bain, in the full Highland costume of his clan, added the haunting strains of ballad after ballad to the afternoon from the annals of Scottish legend and lore.
Midway through the afternoon, Alasdair made a speech and toasted the good health of his friends one and all, culminating in inviting the entire community to the harbor that evening to send him and his bride on the newly christened yacht Gwendolyn off into the gloaming on the tide.
Several hundred people or more accepted the invitation and came to see us off.
As the Gwendolyn slowly slipped out of the harbor, Alasdair and I stood on the deck returning the waves and shouts of the townspeople. From somewhere in their midst a bagpipe was playing.
As we cleared the thick cement harbor walls, slowly a familiar tune began to blend in with the pipes. The high, clear tone came unmistakably from Ranald Bain’s violin—the fiddle and the pipes intermingling with the mysterious harmony one hears only in Scotland.
Within seconds, hundreds of voices joined in unison. The words of the Scottish anthem of memories and hopes drifted across the evening waters toward us:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And ne’er brought to mind.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
In days of auld lang syne.
Alasdair looked at me, smiled, and stretched his arm around me. We stood at the rail, gazing back at the harbor and crowd, as both slowly faded into the distance.
Over and over the strains repeated themselves, the sounds growing ever fainter…
…auld acquaintance…to mind…forgot…in days of auld lang syne…
…days of auld lang syne…
…auld lang syne…
—until we could hear them no longer.
Gradually Ranald’s violin also faded from hearing.
Finally only the skirl of the pipes remained, and that for but another few moments. At last the pipes, too, were gone, and we were left alone.
Still we stood, gazing back over the Gwendolyn’s wake, until land and sea and sky faded into a purply haze behind us, and we were left surrounded by the reds and oranges of a slowly dying gloaming sunset over the widening Moray Firth of the North Sea.
The Vast Sea of God’s Fatherhood
The wind is fair, the day is fine, and swiftly, swiftly runs the time;
The boat is floating on the tide that wafts me off from Fiunary.
We must up and be away! We must up and be away!
We must up and be away! Farewell, farewell to Fiunary.
—Norman MacLeod, “Farewell to Fiunary”
Alasdair and I planned a voyage of about a month, perhaps six weeks, for our honeymoon—to Malta, Crete, Italy, and the Greek Islands. For someone who had never been anywhere—except to Scotland, of course!—I was so excited.
Talk about an adventure. Maybe my adventure was still just beginning.
Alasdair only laughed at my girlish enthusiasm. I was now forty-one, but I felt eighteen.
“You can go anywhere you like, my dear,” he said. “I will take you anywhere in the world it is your heart’s desire to see.”
“Really—do you mean it, Alasdair?”
Again he laughed.
“Of course,” he said. “Marie, you are a duchess now. You can do whatever you like.”
“Me? I’m no duchess!”
“You certainly are. What did you think you would be, marrying a duke?”
“But the agreement…I thought—”
“I don’t want to hear any more about that silly prenup of yours! Against my better judgment, I went along because you were so insistent that I was afraid you wouldn’t marry me otherwise. But I managed to sneak in a few private discussions with my solicitors when you weren’t around.”
“Alasdair, you didn’t…not really?”
“I did indeed.”
“But you didn’t change it?”
“Only in one or two points. I made absolutely certain that as long as I am the duke, you will be the duchess. I know you didn’t care about the title, but I did. It’s done and legal and there’s nothing you can do to undo it. So eat cake, my dear—you are the Duchess of Buchan.”
“Oh, Alasdair,” I sighed. “You are so good to me! But you do understand, don’t you—we don’t have aristocracy in Canada. It’s hard for me to get used to. I am just so fearful of people misunderstanding my motives. That’s the only reason I insisted on the agreement. I wanted no doubt in anyone’s mind that I was marrying you because I loved you—nothing more. Not even your suspicious sister can spin that into some nefarious design.”
“Don’t be too sure.” Alasdair smiled wryly. “Olivia is a clever woman. We will doubtless have to contend with her wiles for the rest of our lives. There is no telling what mischief she might yet concoct. In any event, you are the Duchess of Buchan and I hope you can get used to it, because from here on people will treat you differently. They will bow and curtsy and call you my lady or Your Grace.”
“I’m not sure I can take all that.”
“It is expected. Besides, with someone who has as many names as you, what’s one more?”
“I still haven’t decided whether to be angry with you or not for keeping your Angel from me for so long.”
“I explained all that.” I laughed. “And what about you? You didn’t exactly come clean with your whole name either.”
“But I had good reason. I wasn’t keeping a beautiful name like Angel under wraps. The British aristocracy and their long names…Alasdair Timothy Fotheringay Reidhaven—goodness! With a name like Fotheringay stuck in there, who wouldn’t try to keep it a secret?!”
“So we were both holding out on each other. That makes us even.”
“But no more secrets between us,” Alasdair said, laughing. “I still contend that your list has a more aristocratic ring to it than mine…Angel Dawn Marie Buchan Lorcini Reidhaven of Buchan…Duchess of Buchan. You could compete with a king or queen with all that!”
“It is truly amazing,” I said, “the Buchan as much as the duchess. Now I am a Buchan twice.”
“Don’t think that fact has escaped me!” rejoined Alasdair. “It’s one of the reasons I knew we were meant for each other. The double Buchan has a ring to it, don’t you think, and qualifies you for the ‘duchess’ all the more—with two Buchan names, you surely have a full complement of Scots blood in your veins. They call the Brodies Brodie of Brodie. We shall call you Buchan of Buchan!”
“But doesn’t the fact that I’m Canadian prevent my really being the duchess? It is just an honorary title, isn’t it?”
“I am having that all looked into by my people in Edinburgh. And to be certain of your legal standing…papers will be awaiting us when we reach home with which to file your application for joint citizenship.”
“Can I really do that?”
“Being married to a UK citizen, and a duke besides, with all the legal firepower I will bring to the case—absolutely. You will have a UK passport with full citizenship within the year. No, my dear, your standing will be anything but honorary. You are, as I believe they say in the States, the real deal.”
“Will this fairy-tale dream that I landed into the middle of never cease?”
“Not if I can help it.”
The first several days at sea were magical. I had never experienced anything like it. And on my honeymoon, no less.
We were alone on the yacht. Alasdair knew every inch of her, knew what to do, and was as skilled a captain as I could have hoped for. When darkness came each night we weighed anchor and put the Gwendolyn to sleep for the night. Captain Travis flew on ahead to Lisbon, where he met us. After that he took command.
Alasdair was a little quiet when we passed the place off Spain where Gwendolyn had taken ill. But the next afternoon, with Gibraltar looming like a sentinel of history over us, we passed into the Mediterranean and the magic, if anything, increased. We put to shore at Morocco, Barcelona, and Marseilles, then set a course for Sicily and Malta.
Alasdair got sick as we sailed down the west coast of Italy. Remembering what had happened to Gwendolyn, I was concerned. I wondered if we should put in somewhere, or even return home. But Alasdair wouldn’t hear of it.
“I have never been seasick a day in my life,” he said. “It’s just a flu bug, or food poisoning from that fish market in Marseilles. I’ll be fine in a day or two.”
He was right. He recovered, though it took three days and I confess I was more than a little worried. I didn’t like the pale look on his face. I was glad Captain Travis was at the helm with Alasdair free to rest. By the time we reached Crete, he was himself again.
The Greek Islands were fabulous. It was so warm, the water so clear and blue, the coastline and rocks so white—completely unlike Scotland. We swam off the Gwendolyn almost daily, and put in at dozens of little towns and villages, where we walked the streets and marketplaces and hiked in the hills and toured old ruins and churches and monasteries and obscure family wineries. I must have taken five thousand pictures! Everything was lovely, different, old, historic, picturesque. Europeans have no idea what it is like for an American, whether from the US or Canada, to find oneself in the midst of such antiquity. If Britain’s sites are old, some of the places we saw in Greece and Rome were thousands of years old. It was more than I could comprehend.
We rounded Buchan Ness and Rattray Head in early July, then passed Fraserburgh and headed again into the dolphin-filled Moray Firth for home. We had been gone almost two months—seven weeks, to be exact. You’d think such a long time at sea would be tiring. But the trip was so leisurely, and the yacht so roomy and cozy and with every comfort imaginable, that it was positively relaxing and restful. Not only did I see more historic sites than I ever dreamed I would see, I read a half-dozen books besides.
I can still hardly believe I was calling a village in northeast Scotland my home.
Both Alasdair and I were quiet most of the day, reflecting on the voyage and what lay ahead for us. As I stood on the bow of the Gwendolyn, drinking in the tangy warm salt air, a delicious occasional light spray reaching my face, Iain’s words from my first visit to Port Scarnose returned to me:
“I view God in the way that Jesus spoke of him,” I could hear his voice saying like it was yesterday, “as a good Father waiting with open arms to receive us back home.”
“Thank you, Lord,” I whispered quietly, “that you are indeed a God to call Father, and that you are helping me grow as your daughter.”
I heard Alasdair’s steps behind me. He came up and stood beside me.
“I can tell even from behind that you are lost in thought,” he said.
“The ocean is like that,” I said. “From the first day I came to Port Scarnose, the sea got inside me.”
“I was thinking of something Iain once said, about the goodness of God’s Fatherhood. That’s what the sea always makes me think of now—the vastness of God’s love waiting to fill all men.”
“Waiting…?” repeated Alasdair with a questioning expression. “Waiting for what?”
“For them to be ready to receive it.”
Shock in the Pulpit
Once o’er the wide moor wending, or round the green hill bending,
Gay words and wild notes blending, spread far my good cheer,
For then my heart, light leaping, in waking, in sleeping,
Had no dubh ciar-dubh keeping, its joys far from here.
—“The Dark, Black-haired Youth”
It was hard to get used to the idea that I was a duchess. Alasdair had long since ceased to be a duke to me. He was just who he was, Alasdair Reidhaven.
But as much of it as had been thrown out with the march of modern times, the people of Britain still valued their traditional past. In that sense, I suppose Canada and the United States were more alike as a united “America” than Canada was with Britain, despite its long association with the British Commonwealth. The idea of “aristocracy” was still a foreign concept to me. In my mind, people were people. But there remained in Scotland a consciousness of kings, queen, dukes, earls, lairds, titles, and royalty. I would be listed in the book of peers. Even if this truly were my ancestral home, I still wasn’t sure I would get used to it.
Wherever I went now, women smiled and nodded and sometimes curtsied, men paused and tipped their hats. Along with this, of course, was the natural politeness of the British. Perhaps the gracious treatment I received was simply because the villagers were being nice. But I had the feeling it also stemmed from the fact that I had married a duke…their duke.
I would never be anonymous again. I may have been an “incomer,” but I was now their duchess, too.
After my spiritual “awakening,” I could not help but be interested and attuned to Alasdair’s spiritual outlook as well. We had talked about our perspectives, ways we had changed, ways we were still changing. But we had not explored it in great depth. I knew he was thinking about things in new ways. For now, that was enough. Alasdair had come awake, in a different way perhaps, but even more dramatically than I had. Iain once told me that God and ministers were in the business of waking people up. Thanks to him—and God!—Alasdair and I were not only together, we were awake…personally, relationally, emotionally…yes, and spiritually.
Yet I knew Alasdair might never relate to God in the same personal way I had learned to. After knowing Iain Barclay, however, I had learned to value the individual journey of growth and development and faith that is bound up in each man’s and each woman’s personal life story. I could not expect anyone else’s journey to be like mine, nor for mine to be like theirs…not even Alasdair’s.
As long as he was awake, God himself would lead him on that journey, without my interfering or trying to nudge it along.
The subject had come up in preparation for signing the marriage license.
“When they ask about religion on the license application,” I said to Alasdair, “what will you say?”
“Church of Scotland, of course,” he replied.
“I wasn’t certain whether you would identify yourself with a specific affiliation.”
“I was baptized as a child,” said Alasdair. “That’s as near as half the people inside church get to God in their lives, and I suppose as close as I ever got to him until I heard the angel harp.”
I smiled. I was still amazed at the impact my harp had had, not only in Alasdair’s life but in Gwendolyn’s life and other people’s lives, too.
“But I just could never take everything about the church as seriously as Iain does,” Alasdair went on. “And you, too, for that matter,” he added.
“But you…you believe in God?”
“Of course. But I can’t go along with all the theology and doctrine the church teaches. It’s one of the reasons I have trouble with the church—the teaching is so complicated, I hardly know what to make of it. But do I believe in him, yes. What about you—how will you answer the question on the license form—Church of Scotland, or your church from Canada?”
“I wasn’t part of a church in Canada before I came here.”
“What church will you list, then?”
“None,” I answered. “I will just say that I am a Christian.”
We arrived back in Port Scarnose late on Thursday afternoon. Friday we rested at the castle and I began the process of “moving in.” Most of my things that had been shipped across the Atlantic were still in boxes. Some of the crates from Canada had arrived during our honeymoon voyage on the Gwendolyn. I was still anxiously awaiting the arrival of my harps.
It would take me months to sort through everything. But I was in no hurry.
Most people would find themselves thinking, Hmm, where will I find room to put everything?
But not me.
I now lived in a castle!
Mostly I was dying to go out, to walk the streets and headlands and see people. Yet I knew everything was different now. I couldn’t just go where I liked, or do what I wanted, without thinking of the consequences.
I wasn’t sure I liked that. Actually, I didn’t like it—knowing that for the rest of my life I would be a center of attention, that people would be looking at me. But that was one of the price tags associated with being Mrs. Alasdair Reidhaven…the Duchess of Buchan.
I remained “home” at the castle all day on the Saturday after our arrival. I thought that the church service on the following morning would be the best time for us to make an “appearance” again after our return, and to greet the many people I was dying to see.
Alasdair agreed to accompany me, even though I wouldn’t be playing my harp for the service.
“I can’t promise to go every Sunday,” he said with a smile. “But I’m not opposed to a little spiritual food now and then from Reddy. I have to admit, he has a way of putting things that cuts sufficiently across the grain as to appeal to the nonconformist in me.”
“I don’t think anyone would accuse either you or Iain of being conformist!” I laughed.
Alicia had piled dozens of cards and letters and gifts high on a table as they had poured in during our absence. She said that Olivia had been to the castle a couple of times, but, not surprisingly, there was nothing from her.
Sunday morning came. We made the two-mile drive around to the church parking lot, which sat only some two hundred yards from our front door. I couldn’t wait till the gate was completed through the stone wall as Alasdair had planned. Then we would be able to walk through and be in the churchyard in two minutes.
We arrived about ten minutes before the start of the service and had a little time to visit and be seen by those making their way down the lane and clustered about the church door.
Everything was so changed. The first service I attended here, without my harp, I’d snuck in through the back, hoping to be seen by no one. I had also crept out before the end so I wouldn’t be seen by Iain.
Now as we walked through the door, I was seen by everyone!
Greetings and smiles and nods and a tumult of whispering spread from one wall of the church to the other as we made our way inside.
I would much have preferred to sit in the pews along with everyone else, but Alasdair convinced me that it was best for us to sit together up in the “duke’s box.” People expected it, he said.
We climbed the creaky stairs as the organ played its final Introductory, and sat down to await Iain’s appearance. By the time the service started, the hubbub from our presence was settling down.
This time, unlike the previous occasion when Alasdair had unexpectedly appeared, I knew that Iain would look up at us from the pulpit and smile. If I knew him, he would also probably mention our presence and greet us formally on behalf of the church.
So long an enigma, Alasdair was now part of the community.
I heard the door of Iain’s office open. The beadle appeared carrying the Bible, but as she mounted the steps, she was not followed by Iain.
Another minister walked up into the pulpit in his place!
His greetings and few words and introduction of the opening hymn passed like a blur. Alasdair and I glanced at each other with questioning expressions.
Was Iain sick, or on holiday? Neither of us knew. No one had mentioned that he would not be present.
At last came the minister’s announcements.
“Good morning again, my friends,” the minister began. “It continues to be a great pleasure and privilege to become gradually more intimately acquainted with your community and its lovely villages and people. I see the duke and the duchess have returned and are with us this morning—welcome back to you both!”
He glanced toward us with a smile, which we returned as heads throughout the church turned up in our direction. But we were bewildered.
“I look forward to meeting you both personally and getting to know you,” the minister went on, “and hopefully of finding ways I can be of service to you in any way possible.”
We smiled back and nodded appreciatively. But speaking for myself, I wasn’t paying much attention to his words.
“And to the rest of you,” the minister went on, turning back toward the congregation and glancing in the direction of each of the four alcoves of pews, “I repeat that same desire. I look forward to meeting each one of you personally, though it may take some time. As new minister of the Deskmill Parish, it is my commitment to each one of you to—”
I heard nothing more. My head was spinning.
The new minister!
Where was Iain Barclay?
Departure of a Friend
I may not hide it—my heart’s devotion
Is not a season’s brief emotion;
Thy love in childhood began to seize me,
And ne’er shall fade until death release me.
—Dr. MacLachlan, “O My Boatman”
I can’t give an accurate report of what the sermon was like that first Sunday after Alasdair and I returned from our honeymoon. I sat in a stupor, hearing scarcely a word of what the minister, a forty-seven-year-old newly arrived from Edinburgh, Rev. Charles Gillihan, had to contribute to the spiritual well-being of the flock of Deskmill Parish. It might have been a great sermon; it might have been a better sermon than Iain ever preached. But I was too distracted to have any idea what he was talking about.
Whatever there might once have been between us, and in spite of the fact that I was now Alasdair’s wife, Iain Barclay was one of my closest friends. And Alasdair’s.
It would have been unseemly to begin a barrage of questions the instant the service was over. We smiled as we shook Reverend Gillihan’s hand and introduced ourselves. Alasdair complimented him on his “fine sermon.” Then we made our way outside where clusters of people waited to greet us as if we were royalty. Mrs. Gauld and so many other acquaintances from the village hugged me and cried and shook Alasdair’s hand. It was a wonderful reunion. I was pleased all over again at how the community so thoroughly took us into their hearts.
It must have been well after noon before the enthusiastic Sunday crowd had dissipated and the two of us walked back to the BMW. We got in, closed the doors, glanced over at each other with stunned expressions, then both said at once: “What happened to Ian?!”
Shaking his head in bewilderment, Alasdair reached for the key to start the car. Then, glancing out the side window, he hesitated.
“Just a minute,” he said. “I’ll have a word with Leslie.”
He got back out of the car and walked toward Leslie Mair, an elder in the church who was usually one of the last to leave and was now walking toward his own car. I didn’t know him well, though we had met. All I knew was that he, too, had grown up knowing Iain and Alasdair and was now one of the leaders in the church and community. The two men shook hands again, and I lowered my window to listen.
“Leslie, my friend,” said Alasdair, “if anyone can tell us, it is you…Where is Reddy—on holiday or a sabbatical or what?”
Mr. Mair stared back at Alasdair, seemingly puzzled by his question.
“What div ye mean, Duke?” he said after a moment.
“Please, Leslie—just Alasdair, if you don’t mind. We’ve been through enough together, even though it’s been a few years, to dispense with the Duke. And what I mean is, where is Iain Barclay? When will he be back?”
“Yes, man!” Alasdair laughed. “How many ways must I ask it? Where is Iain? How long will he be gone…and when will he be back in his pulpit?”
“The lad’s nae comin’ back, Alasdair,” replied Mair. “I thocht ye kennt.”
“Reddy handed in his resignation till us the day ye sailed—”
As I listened, I felt myself going faint a moment.
“—We a’ thocht ye an’ the lass kennt as weel.”
Alasdair stood motionless staring into Leslie Mair’s face. I sat in the car staring at the two of them in greater shock than during the service.
“His…resignation?” repeated Alasdair after several seconds.
“Aye,” Mair said, nodding. “Like I said, I thocht ye kennt. The way Reddy spoke till us—”
“Us,” interrupted Alasdair. “Who, exactly?”
“The elders o’ the kirk.”
“When was this?”
“He notified us o’ a special meetin’, the day afore yer weddin’ it was, told us a’ tae be at the kirk in twa days at six that evenin’. Wadna tak lang, he said. An’ it didna—ten minutes, ’twas a’. He told us he had reached a lang an’ prayerful decision, an’ that was tae resign from Deskmill Parish, effective in a fortnight, after ane mair service. He had prepared a formal letter, he said, which he then handed till ilka ane o’ us. He said it had already gane tae the session an’ ’twas sealed an’ dune.”
By this time Alasdair was shaking his head, incredulous.
“Did he say why?” he asked.
“Nae that I cud make muckle o’,” replied Mr. Mair, “only that he had been considerin’ a change for a lang time an’ ’twas for the good o’ the parish an’ its folks—”
When I heard those words I began to cry. In my heart, I knew why Iain had left. He had done it for us—for Alasdair and me.
“An’ that arrangements for a supply minister had already been made,” Mair went on, “a Reverend Gillihan fae Edinburgh—him ye heard this mornin’—wha was available for his replacement gien we liked him. He asked us tae say naethin’ till he could tell folks himsel’, which he did the naist Sunday, which, as he said, was his last. That was a’ there was tae it, Alasdair. Some folk cried an’ a few secretly praised the Lord that they were rid o’ the troublemaker wi’ his radical notions. But whate’er folks thought, the naist Sunday came the Reverend Gillihan. Nane saw Reddy again, nor ken whan he gaed awa’. He left wi’oot a word. An’ after twa weeks, the elders o’ the kirk met again, an’ there bein’ no serious objections tae the new minister, for folks seemed pleased enouch wi’ his friendly manner an’ his sermons an’ the like…we voted t’accept him as permanent.”
Alasdair still shook his head in disbelief.
“And where is he now?” asked Alasdair. “Has he accepted another church?”
“Reddy ye’re meanin’?”
“Nae a soul kens,” replied Mair. “He didna tell onybody his plans.”
Finally Alasdair drew in a deep sigh. He and Mr. Mair exchanged a few more words I couldn’t hear, then shook hands again before Alasdair walked slowly back to the car.
I drew in a quick couple of steadying breaths and hurriedly wiped my eyes. Though obviously we were both stunned, I couldn’t let Alasdair see how deeply the news had hit me. I was surprised at my reaction myself.
Alasdair walked around to the driver’s side. I kept looking out my open window as he climbed in, hoping I could avert his eyes for a moment or two.
“That’s a shock,” I said, trying to sound lighthearted.
“That is putting it mildly,” rejoined Alasdair, starting the car. “I can’t believe it…that he would leave without speaking to us.”
We were both silent a few seconds.
“I’m sure he was thinking of us,” I said after a moment as we pulled away from the parking lot.
“Maybe,” sighed Alasdair. “Still, it seems to me a strange way to do it.”
The next silence was longer. We were nearing the outlying houses of town when Alasdair spoke again.
“I will miss Reddy,” he said. His voice was low, thoughtful, sad. “He was my best friend, and—”
He glanced away and again sighed deeply.
“I was looking forward to trying to be a friend to him again,” he added in a voice that was softer yet and a little shaky. “After waiting so long, to have it so suddenly gone…I just wasn’t ready for this, Marie. It is a blow.”
I was glad for the open window and the gentle breeze against my hot eyes and cheeks as we drove. We were both pensive.
A huge chapter in our lives had suddenly been closed. The chapters titled “Iain Barclay” told very different parts of each of our life stories. Suddenly both had ended on the same day.
Instead of going back to the castle, Alasdair turned east on the A98 and we drove along the coast. It was a lovely day. The sea was a spectacular shade of blue. Neither of us spoke for a long while. Eventually we wound up in Banff, where we walked through the town, then had lunch at a small tearoom before returning to Port Scarnose about three.
The Duchess and the Laird
Oh summer days and heather bells
Come blooming owre yon high, high hills.
There’s yellow corn in a’ the fields,
And autumn brings the shearin’.
—“The Band o’ Shearers”
Having Iain gone simplified things, I suppose.
There had been no awkwardness leading up to the wedding. I am certain there wouldn’t have been any had he still been in Port Scarnose. But in some ways it probably made it easier for us to begin anew as husband and wife, as duke and duchess.
Alasdair missed Iain more than I would have expected. Of course we spoke of Iain, wondering when we would hear from him, hoping he would come for a visit. There were times Alasdair actually pined for his friend. To have regained the treasured friendship after so many years, then to lose it—it was hard for him. At the same time, however, as crestfallen as he was at first—for a couple of days I saw hints of his former moody nature that I had not seen once since our engagement—I think Alasdair may have been liberated in some ways by Iain’s departure as well. Without Iain’s shadow hanging over his past, he was able to be his own man, as the saying goes.
When I had come to Scotland a year before, the rift between Alasdair Reidhaven and Iain Barclay—childhood friends, rivals in love as young men, and in the eyes of the community adversaries who had not spoken to each other ever since—was known by everyone for miles around. It had long since ceased to be a matter of daily gossip, and though it was not put in such stark terms, most people more or less took one side or the other in the unspoken debate about who had caused what, who loved whom, and what were the real reasons behind the ill-fated first duchess Fiona Reidhaven’s death. Doubts, therefore, had circulated for years about Iain as well as about Alasdair. Yet Iain’s role as parish curate had slowly succeeded in raising him in the esteem of the community, while Alasdair’s Howard Hughes imitation at the castle had diminished his. Because of his sister Olivia’s subtle methods of swaying opinion, few recognized the true cause of Alasdair’s self-imposed exile.
But most people are influenced more by example and practice than by persuasion. Olivia had been so successful in poisoning the general outlook of the community against Alasdair only in the absence of the counterbalancing influence of his own example. The moment Alasdair became visible again, first with me, then with Gwendolyn, then beginning to stand up against Olivia and in his reconciliation with Iain, and finally in his more active and benevolent relations with the community as a whole, nearly everyone was eager to give him the benefit of the doubt. While many people thrive on believing the worst about their fellows, and enjoy nothing more than spreading low gossip, I think there are an equal number who are eager to find the good and believe in it.
As we began being more a part of the community, he became all the more beloved by the people. He went to church occasionally, maybe once every month or two. I didn’t mind going by myself, and he felt no stigma about not being regular. I think Reverend Gillihan wondered why I came alone. But for all the townspeople to see Alasdair even once a month was a blessing. He was so liberated, in fact, and so free in his newfound self-confidence, that to any potential criticism—such as his not going to church more often—he always replied with a laugh and, “Let them eat cake!”
When I went to church alone, I continued to sit up in the duke’s box, or the laird’s loft, instead of down in the regular pews. Actually, when Alasdair didn’t accompany me I asked Alicia and our cook, Jean Campbell, if they would like to go with me, which they often did. But then we split up when we entered the church, them to the pews, me up to the loft. I didn’t like it at first, afraid it would appear that I felt entitled to a more exalted position. But since Alasdair and I sat there when he joined me, I thought it might reflect badly on him if I behaved differently when I was alone. I tried my best to accustom myself to it.
We had not once seen Alasdair’s sister, Olivia, since our return, nor had she been in church. Everyone knew there was bad blood between them, so we didn’t want to be too forward in making inquiries. Eventually we learned that she and her husband, Max, had bought a house in Aberdeen, ostensibly to make his work on the offshore oil rigs more convenient. It was a relief to know she wouldn’t be in Port Scarnose spreading her subtle poison about Alasdair and me.
Alasdair had already begun some changes and renovations before the wedding; we now continued and expanded them. Together we set about personally visiting every tenant whose rent was directly payable to the estate to determine whether the rent was fair, and to learn whether there were hardships or grievances we should know about.
In many cases, rents were lowered. In some cases back payments were made to tenants to correct what Alasdair now considered excessive rent from past years. Alasdair also made available the purchase of property from the estate to those who might desire it, and set up favorable terms allowing them to do so.
Whatever grievances anyone might have had against him, or the estate, for any reason, Alasdair sought to learn the facts so as to remedy the matter justly. Though he still professed little overt religious belief, he reminded me of Zacchaeus, trying to make amends and restoration for his oversights and even sins of the past.
For all he was doing, whatever they might have once thought, the people revered him.
We also set about making improvements to the three villages that had once been in the feu of the former dukes of Buchan—Findectifeld, Port Scarnose, and Crannoch—refurbishing walking paths, dredging out and upgrading the three harbors, improving and making necessary repairs to churches and public buildings. Alasdair made money available to borrow at low interest to any who desired to make improvements to their own homes. Lanes and parks were spruced up, buildings cleaned, flowers and trees planted in public places.
We found more places to open the estate lands with gates and styles so that the villagers would be free to come and go in keeping with the right to roam and the public footpath system of Britain. The gate between the castle and the church was undertaken almost immediately. It was a “hands-on” project carried out by the men of the church and village, supervised by Alasdair and Leslie Mair, along with James Findlay and Alec Bruce, with Alicia Forbes and me supplying tea, ale, sandwiches, and scones throughout. Though Alasdair’s valet, Norvill Campbell, Jean’s husband, was a bit standoffish, Farquharson and Nicholls rolled up their sleeves with their boss and the men of the community and appeared to have a great time. Everyone had so much fun working together, and especially alongside the duke himself, whose hands were crusted with mortar and bruised by the occasional errant stone along with everyone else’s, that Alasdair determined to find more such projects to bring the people of the community together.
We undertook an investigation of ancient public footpaths and had a map distributed so that everyone would know the routes of these former public byways. We encouraged all to make use of them again. Alasdair now viewed the estate property as a public trust, which, though legally it belonged to him, in a larger sense belonged to the entire community.
We also began a tradition of opening the castle for visitors on Sunday afternoons.
At first no one knew what to make of it. We posted a notice on the gate at the entrance to the grounds, and even asked Reverend Gillihan to announce the Sunday opening of the castle in church. But apparently everyone merely assumed this meant they could walk on the grounds, which we had already been encouraging for some time. Some people came and wandered about, but no one ventured near the door.
On the following Sunday, therefore, I asked Reverend Gillihan if I could make the announcement myself from the laird’s loft.
“Last week,” I began when the time came, “it was announced that the castle would be open on Sunday afternoons. My husband and I were apparently not completely clear about our intent. You are invited to our home…inside…into the castle, for tea and a light buffet. The duke and I will be there, and we would like to visit with you personally. Please come. It will mean a great deal to Alasdair and…I mean, to the duke and me. Our doors will be open, we will both be on hand, and tea will be hot…anytime between three and six this afternoon. We look forward to seeing you.”
I smiled and sat down as a general murmur of approval went round. And thus began a tradition every Sunday afternoon of what we would call an “open house” in Canada, which we held in either the Drawing Room, the library, or the Great Room. When the weather was particularly nice, we set tables and chairs about outside in the gardens.
Big crowds didn’t come. Sometimes there were twenty or thirty, on other days only five or ten. But the mix of individuals was always different. It not only gave us the chance to visit with them, but acquaintances were made and renewed among the people of the neighborhood as well. It may be that this was the most important benefit of our Sunday gatherings.
After so long in isolation, Alasdair wanted personally to know everyone in the community, and he wanted each and every one to have free and unfettered access to him. As he gradually made this desire known and as people realized he was sincere, they began taking him at his word. The Sunday gatherings at the castle, therefore, were not the only change. Both Alasdair and I often walked through the village, together and alone. Gradually people became less shy about approaching us and talking to us.
That this desire of Alasdair’s had been successfully conveyed was evidenced when we heard the door knocker echoing in our window from outside late one winter evening long after dark when we had been married about a year and a half. Neither Alicia nor Jean nor her husband—ostensibly our part-time “butler” and Alasdair’s valet, but either too deaf or unwilling to be much good for that purpose at night—heard it. The knocking continued, and eventually Alasdair rose himself to investigate.
At the door stood a poor pig farmer from up over the other side of the Hill of Maud.
“Beggin’ yer pardon, Duke,” he said, “but after what ye said the ither week aboot us comin’ till ye…I didna ken whaur else tae gae for help—”
“It is quite all right, Mr…. uh, Dingwall, isn’t it?”
“Go on, then—what can I do for you?”
“My wife’s at her time, ye see, sir, but I canna find the new doctor an’ old Dr. Mair, he’s awa’ the noo. The midwife’s there, but…pardon the request, sir, but noo wi’ Mrs. Urquhart gane, which dinna matter on account o’ my wife canna bide the woman, meanin’ nae disrespeck tae yer sister, sir. But as it was she wha helped wi’ sich things, an’ sae my Lettie wanted me see gien the duchess wud come till her. It would be a great comfort tae her, sir.”
When word spread of Mr. Dingwall’s visit to the castle, and my going to help his wife give birth, as it turned out, to twin sons, more and more people came to us for a variety of things.
I cannot say their requests were always convenient or pleasant to comply with. Having never been a mother, I did not fancy myself a midwife by any stretch of the imagination. But now many of the young women took it into their heads that their birthings, not to mention the lives of their children, would be blessed if I were present, a sentiment shared by their husbands in the respect of Alasdair and the offspring of their horses and cows.
Never had Alasdair and I been so busy attending births of man and beast!
Though fishing had once been the lifeblood of coastal Scotland, the region now tended to move more to the rhythms of the plantings and harvests of the farming life. The harvest was always an exciting time in the life of any agricultural community.
As the harvests of wheat and barley and oats got under way every August, followed by potatoes in September, Alasdair drove all about the area, standing at the side of one field or another and watching in fascination as great combines turned the stalks of huge fields of grain into chewed-up piles of straw in a single afternoon.
I was with him one day as one of the great machines lumbered toward us, then stopped to make the turn and begin the next row.
Alasdair waved to the man seated high on top, his face brown with dust. He turned off the engine and jumped down and walked over to greet us.
“How goes the harvest, Leith?” asked Alasdair.
“Weel enouch, Duke,” replied the man. “Gien the sun hauds, we’ll hae her all in afore the morn’s morn.”
“Do you have room for a passenger up there?” said Alasdair, pointing toward the combine. “I would dearly love to see how it works.”
“There’s aye room, but ’tis dirty wark for the likes o’ yersel’.”
“The likes of who—me?!” Alasdair laughed. “I can take the dust of the field as well as the next man!” he said, climbing up and leaping over the fence. “Come, Leith…give me a lesson in combine harvesting!”
Two minutes later, with Alasdair at his side, farmer Leith guided his combine into position to begin the next pass through the stalks of grain, then engaged the great paddle-wheel rollers and blades and away they went. What a sight—the rhythmic clatter and whirr of so many complex parts of the apparatus, the enormous paddles flattening and chewing grain beneath them like thousands of tiny impotent vanquished foes, dust spewing from beneath in all directions, straw pouring out behind in what appeared almost a liquid flow, speckles of silt and chaff floating up behind like a trailing cloud of tiny harvest angels.
The machine was alive!
When they slowly turned back toward me from the opposite side of the field some fifteen minutes later, they were moving jerkily and somewhat unevenly it appeared, even to my untrained eye. As they came closer I saw the reason why.
There was Alasdair at the controls!
Mr. Leith was giving him instructions as they went. Even from where I stood, I could see an expression of animation and pleasure on Alasdair’s face that took my breath away.
It was wonderful to see him so happy, and tears filled my eyes.
They stopped at the end of the row. Alasdair jumped down and ran over to me. He was dirty…and radiant!
“If you want to go, Marie,” he said, “go ahead and take the car. I am going to stay and help. Leith says that if I drive the John Deere over there with the wagons—”
He pointed across the field to a green tractor standing idle in front of two empty trailers.
“With a wagon moving beside him, he could make faster progress. His man isn’t with him today—sick or something…Actually, I didn’t quite understand it all! When Leith gets talking fast enough in his Doric, I can only follow about a fourth of it. And I grew up only four miles from where he did! In any event, he is shorthanded. Leith will bring me home later.”
I did not see Alasdair for hours. When he finally appeared at the castle sometime after nine o’clock that evening, exhausted but radiant, his face was nearly black with remnants of the dust of Mr. Leith’s field of barley.
The next day, midway through the morning, the telephone at the castle rang. Alicia came to the breakfast room where Alasdair and I sat with our tea.
“There is a Mr. Leith on the phone, Mr. Reidhaven,” she said. “I could scarcely understand him, but he asked to speak to you.”
Alasdair rose to answer it. He returned a few minutes later.
“Leith’s man is still away,” he said. “He fears rain tonight and cannot get the rest of his barley in alone. He asked if I might help him. He even offered to pay me!” he added, laughing.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“Go upstairs and change my clothes!” he replied. “I haven’t had so much fun in years. Don’t wait up for me. I know these farmers—if they have to, they’ll work straight into the night! The harvest must get in.”
The rain did come, but not before Mr. Leith’s harvest of barley was safely stored in his barn.
Word of the new “hired hand” at the Leith farm, who refused pay for his work, quickly spread. By the time that season’s harvests were all in and the fields plowed and planted with winter grasses, Alasdair had lent his assistance at another half-dozen farms between Fordyce, Berryhillock, and Drybridge.
Those were such happy times.
I could not imagine the people of a community loving their “laird” more than ours, and they truly took Alasdair into their hearts.
Six Harps for Castle Buchan
How sweet when dawn is around me gleaming beneath the rock to recline, and hear
The joyous moor-hen so hoarsely screaming, and gallant moor-cock soft croodling near!
The wren is bustling and briskly whistling, with mellow music and ceaseless strain,
The thrush is singing, the redbreast ringing its cheery notes in the glad refrain.
—Duncan Ban MacIntyre, “The Misty Dell”
When the crate with my things from Canada arrived, I was more concerned about my harps than anything. But they were well packed and arrived safely.
Now here they all were, with me in Scotland. I couldn’t wait to play the Queen for Alasdair in the Music Room where he had first heard me play my traveling harp, Journey. Once she was set up, she looked so regal in her new surroundings. Now she was a queen indeed, with a whole castle for her domain.
I was itching to hear them being used again. I had no interest in having a mere collection of harps. I wanted to hear them being played and practiced on and making music.
Gwendolyn, of course, had been a unique case. But there were surely others in the community with talent and aptitude. What was I going to do with myself as a duchess—sit around all day, go for walks, poke about in the garden, make flower arrangements?
That sounded pretty boring!
I had a hard time getting used to having a cook and a housekeeper and maids and a butler and a chaffeur. It seemed that I ought to cook Alasdair’s supper and make the beds and do the housework. That’s what wives did. But neither did I want to upset the routine of life at the castle, and the order of things Alasdair was comfortable with and had been accustomed to for so long. I was the newcomer, after all. If there were adjustments to be made, it was up to me to make them, not try to change everyone else. But I have to admit that I spent a great deal of time with Jean in the kitchen and helping Alicia with the daily chores of the castle. I needed to have things to do.
Alasdair had his business affairs to attend to, and I couldn’t be underfoot eight hours a day. I loved to read, and I could pass hours playing and practicing my harps. For a musician, the refining and expanding of one’s available repertoire of music is a never-ending and delightful process.
But was it enough? I had to have more than my own interests to occupy my time and fill my days. And after all was said and done…I was a teacher. I loved to teach others to play the harp as much as I loved to play myself. Actually, I think I was better at teaching. I was an okay harpist. I could hold my own in a symphony or playing for a wedding. But as a teacher I was often able to get a higher level out of my students than I could hope to attain myself. Three of my students had far surpassed my own level of ability and had gone on to study the harp at university. Though I enjoyed making music, and could sit for hours at a time with the Queen or Journey resting on my shoulder, the achievements of my students gave me even more pride and satisfaction.
Resuming teaching, however, was more complicated now than merely hanging out my shingle and passing out business cards that read “Harp Lessons Given,” or “Harp Music for Hire.” I was married to the Duke of Buchan, for heaven’s sake! I lived in a castle. To advertise myself—for either weddings or events, especially as an incomer to the region—would have been unseemly and presumptuous.
I spoke with Alasdair about it.
“What would you think about my giving harp lessons again?” I asked.
“I think it would be brilliant,” he replied.
“How should I go about it? You must admit, the situation is much different than in Canada. I can’t just anonymously set up a studio.”
“Anonymity is something you will never know again, my dear!” Alasdair laughed.
“That’s just it. Every move I make is scrutinized, and reflects on you besides. How do I go about it without seeming…I don’t know, forward and presumptuous?”
“Everyone loves you!”
“Nevertheless, you do see the problem? I want to be accessible, but even more than that, I want to make harp music more known and available…What better way than beginning to give lessons again? Just think how wonderful it would be for children from around the community to come to the castle once a week for a harp lesson! That is, if you agree. It is your castle, not mine!”
Alasdair smiled. “Of course, my dear. Anything to make you happy. After so long living in virtual isolation, I welcome the commotion. I have to admit, the sights and sounds of children in the castle would probably remind me of Gwendolyn and make me sad. But it would be a good sadness. I think it would be wonderful for you to give lessons here. Why don’t you just play during our Sunday open-house times and see what kind of interest it generates. Oh—I’ve an idea! You could play at the Deskmill Flower Show that’s coming up—in a couple of weeks, I think it is?”
“I can’t just show up and start playing!”
“Sure you can—why not?”
“It would be, you know…awkward. I’m not in charge of the thing. I know people have accepted me, but I am still a relative outsider. I can’t just barge in. It would be like gate-crashing someone else’s party.”
“These things are community events. Anyone and everyone is welcome. But tell you what, I will talk to Judith Johnston. I think she’s one of the organizers. Once she takes the thing in hand, it will be done.”
True to his word, Alasdair spoke with his friend, and two evenings later she was on the telephone asking to speak with me.
“I would not want to presume on your kindness, Mrs. Reidhaven,” said Mrs. Johnston, “but the duke told me you might be willing to bring your clarsach and play for our flower show. I had thought of you, but I didn’t know if you would want to play for such an occasion. And I’m afraid we would not be able to pay you more than a few quid—”
“Mrs. Johnston,” I said, “I would be delighted to play, and any thought of payment is out of the question. I wouldn’t take so much as one quid. How much is a quid again?”
“A pound,” she replied with a light laugh.
“In any case, if you would like me to, I would love to play. You must just tell me what time you want me there.”
“That is very kind of you. I know everyone will look forward to it.”
The people of Scotland are great for shows and festivals and all manner of community expositions. Just in our little corner of Moray, there were several craft fairs and numerous flower shows, for which the whole community turned out. The Portsoy Boat Festival drew visitors from everywhere throughout the north of Scotland.
As word spread that the duke’s new Canadian wife was willing and able to play her harp for local events, invitations began to pour in through the summer months—more than I could accept. Before long I was being invited to play for every wedding between Elgin and Fraserburgh!
What had I opened myself up to?!
I did play for the Portsoy Boat Festival, though the bagpipe band from Shetland mostly drowned me out. I’m not sure the harp can compete with bagpipes, accordions, and drums, even under the best of conditions! But at a crowded harbor with several thousand people coming and going, with fifty booths selling their wares…those best of conditions did not prevail. But it was fun. Most people, I think, had no clue who I was. As they came closer and watched, their fascination with the harp and its music was always wonderful to see. Some children just stood and stared, and two or three times I overheard mothers whisper, “That’s the duchess, dear.”
A few sheepishly came up and spoke to me. If a child seemed particularly intrigued, I asked if they would like to try the harp, and some did, to the delight of the onlookers. I often say that it is impossible to make a harp sound bad. Even a child randomly plucking the strings creates tones that hint at the magic. And the greatest magic of all takes place within them.
Meanwhile, another telephone call came to the castle from an unexpected quarter, which had the result of starting my teaching again, though much differently than I had anticipated.
The call did not come directly to me, but to our housekeeper, Alicia Forbes. She found me and explained that she had been talking with Adela Cruickshank. Adela asked her, she said, to ask me if I would be willing to let her begin with the harp again.
“She was afraid, you now being the duchess,” said Alicia, “that you would be too busy…or not want to because of how, she said, she had not been altogether gracious to you before, when Olivia began spreading tales about you and the duke.”
“Did Olivia spread tales about me?” I asked. “I thought her only gossip was about Alasdair and what had happened years ago and not being a good father to Gwendolyn.”
“That was always at root of it,” Alicia said, nodding. “But yes, in stirring up the old suspicions about the duke, she made certain you were cast in none too positive a light.”
Her words brought back all the trouble we’d had with Alasdair’s sister over Gwendolyn.
“I never believed that part of Olivia’s tales,” said Alicia, “because I’ve been with the duke all these years. But a few did, especially among some of us who were friends years ago. But if I believed what Olivia said, I would be crazy to live under the same roof with the duke and serve his meals and make his bed. But he was always kind to me, and I knew Olivia was just secretly angry that she wasn’t in the castle and duchess herself instead of him the duke.”
“Was she really jealous of his title?”
“Not just the title, but everything—his power and influence, his wealth. She hated him for it.”
“How do you know all that? I had no idea you and Olivia were close.”
“We aren’t…not anymore,” replied Alicia, hesitating a little as an uncertain expression crossed her features. “I used to know her well. I think she thought that I was betraying her by working for Alasdair. Those of us who were…Well, there were some of us to whom she confided things. We were all young and knew no better. But some of what she said was frightening.”
“It is no longer important,” replied Alicia, shaking her head. She obviously didn’t want to “go there,” as the saying is.
Excerpted from Heather Song by Phillips, Michael Copyright © 2011 by Phillips, Michael. Excerpted by permission.
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