The sun was doing all-out full time work over the stretch of coast between Rosehearty and Pennan in 1687. The sun didn’t know the date, but the little boy who felt its warmth on his back knew he was nine years old and, unlike the village boys, was still sometimes allowed to go to the beach and play.
Alexander Forbes, Master of Pitsligo, was searching in the rock pools for crabs. Alone. He used to do this in the cheerful company of other boys till they turned old enough to work with their fathers on their boats. They now wore breeches like a mini version of their fathers’ instead of the flaxen smock-like garment Alexander was still wearing. They didn’t even return his wave in the passing any more. Just swaggered by with a sense of self-importance. His mother had been talking to him about a “breeching ceremony” she would be organizing for him soon. As long as it did not take away too much of his free time, he didn’t mind the idea of a change of clothes. As long as he could still jump from rock to rock and ride his pony. He watched the other boys longingly, wondering what it would be like to go to sea with them. But he knew that being the Master of Pitsligo meant that a different future was planned for him in the big world. For now he had to content himself with the little world the outgoing tide had left behind it: waving sea anenomes, starfish and best of all, crabs of all sizes and colours. He just squatted down to watch and carefully replaced any creatures he picked up to have a closer look, did not even disturb the rocks, mindful of his tutor’s explanation during a walk on the beach once: “Ye see, Master Alexander, this is theirworld, and we are only guests visiting them. So we should not intrude on them. Just the way your father treats the village folk with great courtesy when he visits them. He doesn’t interfere with their ways.”
“And my grandfather gave them the harbour to work from, didn’t he?”
“Aye, that he did. A kind man, he was.”
Alexander knew this already, but he never became tired of hearing stories about his forebears’ feats. When he was older, he found out that the benefactor expected to be paid back generously: a fifth of the profit of all catches. A lucrative deal. But that was the way of things.
For now Alexander had the sea creatures for company. One of the sea anenomes swelled itself up, and its tentacles skilfully guided a passing shrimp into its gaping mouth. Whole. What would the community of shrimps get in return, the boy was wondering as he heard the coachman’s booming voice in the distance: “Young maister, get yersel’ ower here. It’s time for yer lessons. Ye’re late again!”
Reluctantly, Alexander left the sea anenome’s dining table and ran towards the coach sent to fetch him home to Pitsligo Castle, only a short distance inland. The coach turned into the castle yard, and the smell of the peat burning in the hall fireplace filled Alexander’s nostrils. Out he jumped and ran to the kitchen, where Maggie, the cook, was stirring a large cauldron of strong-smelling fish soup. She beamed at him fondly through the steam and burst out into loud laughter when he half-sang, “I think, I think, I smell a stink, and it’s comin’ fae the Y-O-U!” Her reply made him laugh too, “Ach tae hell, I says to mysel’, it’s just the smell!” She knew what he had come for. Being on the beach always made him hungry, so his first stop at home was always her kitchen, where she had warm oatcakes (she called it “breid”) with dripping butter in plentiful supply. Licking the butter off his fingers, he made his way towards his desk where Mr Leddingham taught him Greek and Latin.
“Fit wye do we have to learn inside on a bonny day like this, sir?”
“Oh my, Master Alexander, it’s English I’ll have to be teaching you as well as Latin! It’s time you were refraining from using the coarse language of the village boys. It’s whydo we have to.”
“Well, why do we have to?” Alexander insisted.
“You have to learn as quickly as you can and take over responsibility as your father’s heir. One day youwill be Lord Pitsligo.”
Alexander sighed and settled down to the translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, phrase by painful phrase. Once he made his way through the undergrowth of the linguistic jungle, he found he liked the stories that highlighted the bravery of the Roman proconsul, telling about how Caesar himself was able to rally his men when they were slacking. He once even took a shield from one of the soldiers at the rear, so that he could charge to the front of the battle and show a good example. Alexander dreamt of becoming a man of action and a glowing leader of men himself. Although he managed to fulfil this dream in later life, glorification of war and military never became his thing. His humanitarian grounding was founded in his sturdy upbringing in and around Pitsligo Castle and the village of Rosehearty.
He was privileged in many ways, even more so than other sons of the gentry, although he didn’t know it. He just took the secure sunny extended childhood for granted. He didn’t know that his father had talked to his mother about his breeching ceremony as soon as he turned seven.
“But he’s so small for his age and he has a bad chest. Let’s give him another year or two before turning him into a man with a velvet coat and knee breeches. See how he loves playing outside. I am sure the clean fresh air is good for his weak constitution.”
“But my dear, we must take care not to mollycoddle the lad,” his father protested. Lady Pitsligo employed her most effective wifely charms, which always persuaded her husband to adopt her ideas.
“He’s our one and only child, and I can’t give him up yet to manhood. He is the darling of my heart, like his father.”
This last was accompanied by her laying her hand on her husband’s forearm and fixing him with her tenderest look. Like all the Forbes men before him and after him, Alexander senior could not resist a pretty woman’s pleas.
“Well, we’ll give him a year or so, but then I’lltake over his upbringing.”
So with the approval of both his parents, Alexander’s childhood was left to develop freely to some extent. When he wasn’t studying with Mr Leddingham, he had the freedom of the castle grounds and the beach which he could walk or run to in less than an hour. Or if he rode on Miss McGill, his pony, he could get there even faster. The slow way there appealed to him more as there were things to find on the way, butterflies on the banks of nettles, stones of all shapes and sizes; he might meet a chapman on his way to ply his wares, or the fishwife making her way inland with her creel of herring to sell. These people were the newscarriers of the area, so they usually stopped him and asked, “What’s the news about yer faither, young Maister?” In time, he realized that they did not really want to hear about his hunting success or what he had had for dinner. They wanted to find out about what was going on in Parliament Hall in Edinburgh, where his father took part in the decision-making of the Scottish government, the sole authority for their country. The Union of the Crowns was still just a black cloud that loomed in the future.
Alexander felt secure in the love of his mother and father, who had plenty of it to lavish on him. No unpleasant surprises were sprung on him, new stages of his development and necessary training were carefully explained to him, so he could digest them and feel proud of them. Like the time when Miss McGill was pronounced no longer to be his fitting steed.
“Now that you’re older, I’ll be getting you a gelding that will be able to take you longer distances. Then in a year or two you can accompany me to Edinburgh, so you can observe what is going on the Parliament.”
Now that was a prospect to look forward to! Edinburgh! A real big city, bigger than Aberdeen. Near Leith, maybe he would get to see the tall ships there. But his still young heart saddened at one thing: Miss McGill. What was going to happen to her? Like himself, she was alone, no other little ponies around.
“Don’t worry, you are getting heavier and she’s getting on in years, she’ll be glad of a more restful time,” his father explained.
Next day when he jumped downstairs two steps at a time to get his treat from Maggie, he stopped in his tracks when he saw a familiar small figure kneading a large lump of dough. She was wearing a long apron wrapped round her twice and a mutch that held her red-blond hair back from her freckled face. Her face breaking into a grin, she greeted him with
“Aye it’s yersel’, Sandy!”
Hearing the familiar greeting, he ran towards her, grabbed her by the waist and whirled her round till Maggie shouted, flapping her dish towel at them.
“Now look here, the both of you. In the first place, ye limmer, that’s no way to speak to Maister Pitsligo, and you, ye young blackguard, look what you’ve made her do… the dough has landed in the sawdust. I’ve a good mind to clip yer ear, young Maister Pitsligo.”
Alexander, keeping at a safe distance from the whirling dish towel, explained,
“But that’s Lizzie, my old friend, Beldie’s Robbie’s sister, and we’ve known each other from the time we were verysmall!”
“Well, now she’s the kitchie deem, and you tak’ yer fingers off her!”
The ‘kitchie deem’, head bowed, but peeping at Alexander from under her eyelashes, said, “I’m awful sorry, I’ll try to clean it.”
“You will not, that will make more of a sottar. We’ll throw it in the back of the fire and make new dough. Now get started again. And you take yer breid and let us get on with our work here.”
Sighing at the complications of dealing with women, Alex did as he was told. But before turning his attention to his studies, his heart soared with a good idea for giving Miss McGill another human rider. When he had his gelding, he could offer Lizzie the use of his pony. And they could ride out together when she didn’t have to be the kitchie deem.