A Witness to Conflict
One of seven finalists for the Elgin short story competition to help increase awareness of the city and it’s history.
(Link to website soon)
“Come wake up boy! We must prepare for a new guest …”
I am familiar with such words, though the hour and the urgency are, I admit, a little unusual. I have trouble waking; sleep was not forthcoming for a long time. My legs, weak and thin from lack of food and care as a babe, ache in the night, and I rub them hard to keep the pain at bay. If the mistress is aware of it, she may feel kindly towards me, and give me a wee dram of whiskey; but last night, she was busy with customers, to offer me any solace.
During my administrations, I became aware of hushed voices from somewhere near-by. I could not fathom the owners of the sounds that troubled my slumber, but I would bet my life, one of them was my new master, Donald Anderson. Nothing went on in his establishment, without his knowing of it. This in itself is not unusual. I hear many whispered conversations of late, and I don’t have time to care for such things; but this was different. These voices had an air of urgency and of secrecy, that caught my attention, and I instinctively moved my ear to my door. The intensity of the exchange got the better of my curiosity, and I eased the door open to peer into the darkness, but whoever had been there had gone, and I returned to my small bed to continue my rubbing and await sleep; it was after all, none of my business.
I cannot, and will not, ever complain of my situation I find myself in. My life before I came here was cruel and hard, with no education besides those of the streets; which constituted, hit or be hit, steal or starve, fight, or die. Being within these walls of Thunderton House, in Elgin, now a tavern of high esteem, it had once housed the king on his visits to the city; that meant, that I, a mere waif, slept within the walls of a palace. My feet walk, where once Earls and Lords made their plans, and made history, within Elgin’s fine city. Here I am receiving an education, meals and care, and it is far better for me than alone, beaten, cold or dead in the street and I will be eternally grateful, should it last my lifetime.
My journey began up in the Highlands. I barely remember my father, he was rarely home, and of my mother; I can only recall the stench of vomit and alcohol. Gentleness was not forthcoming, and I grew into a cowering wreck, hiding from the regular blows that never needed a reason. Whilst still young, I woke one morn to find myself alone. Of my parents, there was no sign. I now believe that my father found work in the Lowlands, working on the lands of some English Lord; my mother went with him, and I became nothing more than a burden. I helped myself to the meagre pickings left to me: I doubt they expected me to survive. I lived on stale bread and milk that increasingly made me sick, until it was all gone and I ventured out into the countryside alone, following the scent of the sea to the nearest town.
There were boys such as I. Older ones either claimed you or beat you. Forming gangs to steal food to survive; or begging for work, in the hope it came with a meal included; some did, others paid a pittance for an aching back and weary limbs, and what food could be bought, was gone in minutes. Life was harsh, but I knew nothing else. Scotland was in my blood, as was the hatred towards the English. We’d hear talk of war, among the men in the inns; of battles won and battles lost. We’d listen outside the windows to the singing and rowdy banter, and we’d curl up together for warmth under anything we could find, and dream of heroes’ and legends of old.
In my ninth year, an elderly gentleman; a Mr Andrew Macgregor, a trader of unusual cures found me starving beside the road, and saved me. He bade me to go with him to the city of Elgin. I had heard of it, but never ventured so far south. I had nothing to lose, save my life. In return for food, I cared for his horse, that he’d named, ‘Charlie’. Whenever he spoke of him, he would wink at me and smile, and I found the courage to ask about the reason behind the name. Macgregor grinned, looked around us to be sure that we were alone, and whispered, “For the prince, ye ken? Prince Charles will unite the clans, and heal this land of the English aye? And so I named my horse, Charlie, as he pulls my cart, bringing the cures people need to heal, as I’m sure our prince will, in due course …”
Whilst we travelled, stopping along the way in villages and hamlets to sell his wares, Macgregor told me all that he knew about the prince, and his father, James who was the rightful king, but now had to make his home on foreign soil. He spoke of the clans, and how it might be if they stopped arguing amongst themselves, and united against the English usurper. He told me stories of the Scottish hero, William Wallace and the king, Robert the Bruce and of Rob Roy Macgregor a distant relative. I listened with wide eyes and a growing urge to see Scotland defeat the English and send them home. My mind formed pictures of Scottish men, uniting against the evil that spread, and they would strike it down with full vengeance and the English would retreat, cowering under the strength of Scotland.
Our road was not lonely. Men from all clans were coming down the glens in two’s and three’s, sometimes in larger groups, who’d pass the time of day, and Mr Macgregor would sell a bottle or two of his whiskey, that he kept for ‘special clients’. We listened to the tales of battles and the recent skirmishes between the English and the Highlanders. The battle of Falkirk Muir, so recently won, and like all those who walked Scottish soil, we prayed for a Scottish victory in the battles to come. As we travelled, I became aware of a growing force, and I saw it on every man’s face that we met. Something was coming, though none spoke of it. We never ate alone, as the smell of our cooking, brought men from out of the brush, and into the warmth of our fireside. Mr Macgregor did not seem to mind, or if he did, he kept quiet about it. I asked him why one morning.
“Tis these men I feed, who’ll fight and I’d rather they met them with full bellies and fire in their hearts, than cold and empty – wouldn’t you?”
I nodded readily and was careful to give more meat to the next Highlander we met, who accepted it gratefully. Many were starving, and their tartan plaids hung on their skeletal forms, as they walked onward, never faltering, for their king. Yet the strength on each man’s face, never wavered. They’d speak of freedom, and honour, and I’d wish to be older, but when I spoke of my wishes, the men would laugh and rub my head in a good-natured manner, and tell me there would be other battles to win.
The city of Elgin bustled and jostled us as we moved slowly through its narrow openings. Buildings loomed on all sides and I sat in wonder at the sights, smells and noise that filtered into my brain. Never had I seen so many people in one place, shouting, calling, selling their wares; I was dumbfounded to be sure. Macgregor had already informed me of my purpose; he had a friend who owned a large inn, who was in need of help. I was to be that help in return for a bed, food and I’d learn a trade, if I so required. I readily agreed, though I cannot deny my sadness at not staying with Macgregor.
“Sadly, I cannot afford to keep you here with me, but you may be sure, Donald will care for you and teach you a trade. I have sent word of your arrival today.”
I fought back the tears. Never had I known such kindness and now it was ending. Mister Macgregor saw this and added, “I will call in from time to time and check up on you. It is a place of, shall we say, people of stature who sometimes require my services”. He went on to tell me of Thunderton House’s history and I felt unworthy of walking within such a place, but Macgregor reassured me.
“I am grateful sir for all you have done.” And I was, truly grateful, for had I not been near to death’s door at Golspie, with nothing but the sea, and birds that ate better than I. Now, I had a chance at work.
Following our rest, he walked me slowly through the streets of Elgin to a building of yellow stone. Its outer walls sat firmly next to the narrow street and I gazed up at the towering parapet and windows above. I had not seen anything so tall and it made me feel light headed; I said as much to Macgregor and he laughed at my innocence. “Change is coming my boy; this is only the beginning.”
With a quick glance around, he led the way into the dark rooms, lit only by candlelight and the roaring fire in the far room. A large man comes out to greet us. Macgregor takes him to one side and talks for a while in low whispers. I am left staring at a bearded man who watches me openly. A voluptuous woman sees me, and demands to know of my presence, before she is hushed by this giant of a man who introduces himself as Donald Anderson. The woman is introduced as his wife, Maggie, and she bids me follow her to the back where I might make myself comfortable. There was little time to bid Macgregor farewell, as she pushed me ahead of her to beyond the kitchens and scullery, to a small store cupboard with a narrow trundle bed beneath the shelves, and this was my new home.
It has been my home this last few weeks and I am grateful for it. The Andersons are kind-hearted, so long as I do as is asked of me without question, and I keep my mouth shut. I have since learned that this establishment has had its fair share of people who have had need of its discretion and hiding places. Within days of my arrival, I was woken by Anderson, who told me to help with the luggage of a lady. I did not see her face in the starry light, her large hood kept her features hidden from prying eyes as my own, but her dress spoke loudly of her high status, and thus I carried her three heavy bags, and trunk, with care, and duly placed them in our largest room at the back of the inn.
I am not blind, or deaf. Something is amiss. The energy that I felt on my journey here has risen to greater heights as men slip into the tavern, to the back room, to meetings in hushed tones, and watchful eyes. I serve them wines imported from faraway lands, but none acknowledge my presence. I am unseen. Merely the shadow that pours the plum coloured ambrosia, brings their suppers and lights the candles as the darkness descends. I am the boy who cares for their horses and guards the carriage, if the driver needs to relieve himself, or drink his warm ale on cold nights. I am merely the click of a finger away. I am unobserved, yet vital.
“Come on boy – move quickly, he will be here shortly …” Anderson yanks me from my bed as I stirred too slowly for him. It is not yet dawn. March is still a cold month in the Highlands, and I ignore the familiar deep throbbing cold in my toes as Anderson turns away and I jump up and am running after him to await my first task.
I help with lighting the small fire to warm the chilled room and I take the dirty sheets away whilst one of the young maids prepares a clean bed. The master’s wife, Maggie, brings in a tray of their finest wine with goblets and another servant swiftly follows with fresh flowers, whilst another is carrying a tray of fresh bread, honey and a small bowl of broth. I am ordered down into the cellar to fetch more peat and wood, when the master meets me on the stairs, and takes the basket off me, ordering me to help outside with the horses, and to do so with not a word.
I rush outside and hold onto the reigns of the two horses pulling a black carriage. It is barely light and the sun not yet over the horizon as a man steps out, huddled in a thick cloak, he surveys the area, giving me a mere glance, before whispering to someone still within the carriage. I hear a cough; a hacking, thick, chesty cough, and expletives, before a thin, young man, steps out into the courtyard. His hat obscures his face from my view, and his cloak covers the majority of his clothing, but nothing can hide the look of one who has come from the upper classes. Both men stink of riches; of good brandy and wine, fine foods, and all the best that their money can buy. The younger of the two men glances up at the inn and grumbles something in a tongue I had heard many times, and knew it to be French.
Abruptly, the young man sneezes and says something else in his sing-song language; it was then, he saw me. His deep brown eyes penetrated mine, as he looked me over, and saw that I had no coat or shoes. I saw from the corner of my eye that the master had come outside to meet our new guest, but I could not look away from the gentleman before me. Even in this palest of light I can see that he is suffering. His face, colourless, except for rosy cheeks, hot from a fever, his lips full and chattering from the sudden coldness, and he wore a wig beneath his hat. He stepped closer and the shadow of a smile showed on his face. He was looking at my situation with such an odd look, that I felt naked under his scrutiny. It was obvious close up that he was in misery, yet, in that moment, he refused to acknowledge his illness. This young man had strength and courage, a man who knew what he wanted and made it so. I knew him then, to be a man who entered a room and all people within would recognise him for what he was. I shuddered at the realisation that I was looking at royalty.
He continued to stare and I wondered if I should bow to acknowledge him, though I was aware that many of our ‘guests’ came in disguise. Finally, I could stand it no longer. “Sir, can I help you sir …?”
He smiled broadly and looked around at my master, who bowed. “Si seulemont vous pouviez garcon. Vous etes forts.” He walked to Anderson and clapped him on the shoulder, and in a whisper he said, “Nous avons des homes forts pour gagner cette guerre, pour vous.”
Seeing my incomprehension, he bows slightly. “If only you could boy. You are strong, but we have strong men to win this war, for you.”
I bowed low. This seemed to please him and he smiled warmly. “Soon, you shall have your own country … and you shall be free.” And with a flick of a coin in my direction, he entered Thunderton House and the sounds of coughing and sneezing went with him.