The tourist season was over. Sadie would miss the visitors breezing into her house before touring the Highlands. In Rosehearty they only stopped for a day or two, but she didn’t mind. She enjoyed the quick turn-over of friendly strangers. They always appreciated her Scottish breakfast and wrote appreciative comments in her guest-book. “Job satisfaction,” she thought, smilingly remembering her relatives’ warnings when she moved to the north three years before. When she had the blue and white “B and B” sign painted to hang above her front door, they gloomily predicted that she was embarking on a project likely to end in disaster, “and away up there, where nobody knows you, and they don’t even speak English!” She would have her house cleared out in the night, or she would be murdered in her bed by criminals masquerading as tourists. Thankfully, none of that had happened.
It hadn’t been a bed of roses, with the cycle of washing and shopping, but it was a new way of life that fulfilled her in the summer months.
But now the long winter’s night was looming. The gulls would still mew, the foghorn would still blow its mournful message, and for the villagers she would still be the “incomer” nobody trusted.
Just about to draw her curtains, she noticed a figure moving in the shaft of light from the setting sun. Not a seaman’s rolling gait, a hesitant walk of an elderly man slightly bent, glancing over his shoulder. Not coming from the direction of the bus stop, where a stranger would normally come from. He was dressed in ragged worsted trousers and a baggy shirt that seemed too big. He was coughing as if he had severe bronchitis by the time he rang her door bell, leaning against the lintel, clutching his chest in pain.
“Good woman, would ye have a chamber for me? Only one night.”
“A room, you mean?”
She hesitated, thinking he didn’t look as if he would be able to pay her usual fee of £20.
“What the hell,” she thought to herself, “nobody else will be coming at this time of year.”
She invited him into her living-room, where a fire was burning in the grate. Settling in one of the armchairs, he held his hands out to the flames.
“You didn’t come on the bus then? Did you walk here?”
He replied wonderingly,
“Bust, did you say? I am not sure to what you are referring.”
“Oh, we have a right one here,” Sadie thought. “Maybe there’s going to be a problem with him.”
Yet she decided to get their communication on an even keel, remarking,
“You don’t sound as if you come from here.”
“Madam, by the sound of your twang, I’d say I come more from here than youdo. Glasgow, I would surmise, is where they rocked your cradle?”
He inclined his head politely, the twinkle in his very blue eyes reflecting the firelight.
“Spot on,” she said. “Springburn. So you know Glasgow?”
“I had an unfortunate stay in that city which I would rather forget,” he replied.
“Oh, that’s a conversation stopper. Maybe escaped from Barlinnie, better change the subject,” Sadie thought nervously.
She decided to make him feel at ease by telling him about herself.
“Well, sometimes I miss Glasgow. I came here three years ago after my husband died after only five years of marriage. Everything there reminded me of our happy times. I moved up to this village I remembered from my childhood. We came here on holiday every summer… all sunshine and sandcastles. But my move here turned out all wrong. Coming here for a short holiday as a child is one thing, but living permanently in this God-forsaken place is another. I always feel that the villagers are talking behind my back.”
Sadie hadn’t uttered so many sentences in a row for a long time.
Seeing that he was looking down sadly, she hastened to apologize for her criticism of his home area. Then she realized that his silence had nothing to do with what she had said; he was doubling over in pain.
He gasped, “Is there a chirurgeon in the village?”
Now it was Sadie’s turn to be mystified.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“I am in need of cupping-glasses,” he explained.
“Now thatI have heard of. You need a doctor.”
“I am beyond the help of any philosopher,” he told her.
“This is getting nowhere. Maybe you should just eat some of my good broth and lie down for a bit. I could call an ambulance, if you think you need emergency help.”
“Good woman, you are speaking to me in conundrums. But your broth idea is very welcome. Alexander Forbes of Pitsligo will always be grateful to you.”
“My pleasure, Mr Forbes.”
“Not Mr Forbes, just Forbes.”
“Oh, I thought Alexander was your first name.”
“So we’re not on first name terms,” Sadie thought wryly.
Stirring the broth, she wondered where she had heard that name before. New Pitsligo was a village inland, not far away. But she had never met anybody from there. No, wait, there was a castle near Rosehearty called Pitsligo Castle. Once her father had taken her to visit this gloomy ruin and told her the story of its owner, who had been a Jacobite leader. Might her visitor be a descendant of that family? Tracing his roots, like the American couple who turned up in the village last year? Yet unlike them he had no luggage, no fancy cameras hanging round his neck.
“Och well, it takes all kinds,” she said to herself, dismissing any further speculation.
By the time the soup was warmed up, the poor man was lying fast asleep on the carpet in front of the fire. She stoked up the fire so it would burn all night and covered him with a woollen blanket before going up to her own bed. She wondered if she should have wakened him to get him into a proper bed. But his peaceful features in sleep reassured her.
After a restless sleep, she got up around seven o’clock to make his ‘potage’, which he had requested for breakfast, followed by a ‘quaich o’ wine’. She assumed that was porridge. But wine for breakfast? In a quaich? She didn’t have any wine in the house, let alone a quaich. She had only ever seen one in a museum. A pretty bowl with two handles, a symbol of trust between the giver and the receiver. ‘The cup of friendship’, she remembered. He could have a dram of her Aberlour in an ordinary tumbler if he was that desperate for booze in the morning.
Hearing no sound of him stirring, she peeped into the living-room. The blanket was neatly folded on the floor with two small objects lying on it. She found one was a rose-like shape made of complex knots of white ribbon. “A white cockade,” she whispered, picking up the little acorn next to it. Now where would that come from? In this wind-blasted corner of Scotland, there wasn’t an oak tree to be seen. Maybe he was leaving her a token of friendship like Peter Pan, after Wendy had offered him a kiss. He had held out his hand, so she gave him a thimble. In return, Peter had given her an acorn. Smiling at the recollection of her favourite childhood story, she chuckled, “Well, that auld yin is certainly no Peter Pan! More like Rip Van Winkle!”
Finding no sign of the man anywhere in the house, she felt a strange feeling of abandonment. She looked out, hoping to get a last glimpse of him. And there he was, striding out at a brisk rate towards the West Rocks.
The more she thought about the encounter, the more intrigued she became. A sick beggar speaking like an 18th century nobleman. She wished she knew more about the history of Pitsligo Castle. The village library might provide information.
Never having been in the library before, she expected an old-fashioned building with a dusty collection of books. She was pleasantly surprised to enter a large, bright arena with reading material for all ages and tastes, complete with online facilities and a colourful poster that said: “Welcome to our coffee morning!” A woman wearing a badge that identified her as Lorna approached her. She quickly had a badge pinned on her own chest that said ‘Sadie’.
“Badges are good networkers,” the librarian added cheerily, ushering Sadie to a vacant chair at a table where some people were enjoying sticky buns with their coffee, discussing their favourite reads of the month. She listened for a while until she heard, “And you, Sadie? What’s your reading tip for us?”
Sadie admitted that she hadn’t much time for reading until the winter started. She explained that she wanted to get information about Pitsligo Castle. A man of about her own age with ‘Andrew’ on his chest told her the name of the last owner before it was seized by Hannoverian troops: Lord Alexander Forbes of Pitsligo.
“He was a very colourful character, who didn’t let his chronic asthma stop him from supporting the Jacobite cause. He was one of the most important leaders in both rebellions.”
Lorna produced facsimiles of old documents referring to the “Fifteen” and “Forty-Five” rebellions. All heads came together to pore over these manuscripts. Suddenly Sadie felt welcome in this warm circle while her neighbours enthusiastically gave her more historical details. The oldest person present, Mrs Bruce, even broke into song: “My love was born in Aiberdeen, the bonniest lad that e’er was seen”… the others joining in the chorus, “O he’s a ranting roving blade! O he’s a brisk and bonnie lad! Betide what may, my heart is glad to see my lad wi’ his white cockade.”
Sadie clapped her hands in delight and placed her own white cockade on the table for the others to look at.
“Oh, you collect historical symbols, that’s interesting,” said Andrew.
“Well, I’m just starting,” Sadie said, smiling at her new acquaintances. Mrs Bruce, although she was a sweet singer, had a sharp tongue. She pronounced,
“Ye know, Sadie, I’ve always had the wrong impression about you! I always thought ye were a snobbish person that didna want to have nothin’ to do wi’ us folk. Ye never looked at us or said nothing. But ye’re a really nice woman.”
Lorna, embarrassed by this candidness, tried to deflect attention away from Mrs Bruce.
“Would you like to come and work here part time, Sadie? I could do with some help over the winter.”
“You mean at the coffee mornings?”
“No, on a regular basis. Headquarters are bound to approve, as there’s nobody else around here who’d have time.”
“I’d really like that,” Sadie beamed.
“But there are still some things I’d like to know about this Forbes character.
What happened to him in the end?”
She heard that the Jacobite leaders who weren’t killed became fugitives. Alexander Forbes, dressed as a beggar, escaped in time and hid in a cave in the West Rocks of Rosehearty.
Andrew added that because they were always in danger of being betrayed, the rebels had a system of secret symbols they used to reveal which side they were on to those “in the know”, such as thistles, sunflowers and acorns.
Sadie’s hand tightened round the little acorn in her pocket which radiated warmth, just as her smile did as she looked round the table.
“Meeting all you people is like a present to me!”
She knew that the gift of budding trust and the awareness that it was a two-way development had been given to her by her mysterious visitor. But she kept that as a precious secret just as she kept the little acorn in her pocket in the years to come.
Autumn might be here, but there was human warmth to look forward to for the winter.