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  John Burke

  © John Burke 1998

  John Burke has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

  First published in 1998 by Robert Hale Limited.

  This edition published in 2018 by Endeavour Media Ltd.

  Table of Contents

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter One

  ‘I could murder that woman.’

  The threat was uttered often enough, usually without serious intent. One man in Kilstane maybe muttered those words over and over again to himself; but never with the conviction that he could put them into practice.

  It was left to one of his colleagues to say them out loud. The Convenor, his silver hair adding lustre to the halo of the borough coat-of-arms in silver and gold on the back of his chair, had intoned the usual formal, low-key opening though he knew there was trouble ahead.

  ‘First item on the agenda: apologies for absence. Has the Secretary any such to report?’

  Archie Ferguson had to indulge in his inevitable routine of shuffling papers and clicking his tongue over one page after another. Long practice as a solicitor had made him reluctant ever to commit himself until every possible caveat had been inspected from every angle. The Convenor, Dr Alastair Hamilton, gazed wearily on that bowed head, with its thin grey hairs sleeked wispily back and flecks of dandruff falling to the man’s hunched shoulders. He observed that as well as fidgeting with his hands, Ferguson was shifting to and fro on his chair. Evidently he had not yet conquered those piles of his.

  At last the Secretary allowed himself a sibilant breath of fulfilment and laid a letter on top of the heap. ‘Mr Gilchrist regrets that a family illness makes it impossible for him to attend this evening.’

  ‘That’d be his brother in Peebles,’ said Ian MacKenzie.

  Heads nodded. ‘He’s hung on for a long time.’

  ‘A relief for everyone when he goes.’

  ‘Everyone except the owner of the local off-licence.’

  Dr Hamilton was not minded to condone such distasteful slurs. He hurried on, anxious to get the worst bit over and done with. ‘I understand that before we proceed to programme details, the Secretary has an urgent appeal for us to consider.’

  Ferguson looked even more twitchy and apprehensive than usual. Knowing what was in the protestation, he knew what sort of reaction it was bound to provoke.

  ‘The . . . ah . . . the request, Mr Convenor, comes from the Pictish Guild. It asks that choice of the Bareback Lass should by right be made by the ladies of the Guild rather than by men of the Common Riding Committee here assembled. It desires –’

  ‘She desires,’ someone muttered.

  ‘The Guild desires,’ Ferguson went unhappily on, ‘that their demand shall be put to this meeting and later to a public referendum.’

  ‘Demand?’ echoed Jamie Brown. ‘That’s rich.’

  ‘Bloody Mrs Craig again. I could murder that woman.’

  ‘No, Mr MacKenzie. Not Mrs Craig any more. Mrs Ferguson this last nine months,’ said the Convenor with heavy emphasis.

  ‘Och, Archie. I was forgetting. Sorry, I wasnae meaning –’

  ‘It’s all right,’ said Ferguson in his reedy voice. ‘We’re all entitled to our own opinions.’ It was difficult to tell whether he was implicitly defending his wife and his own view of her, or politely deferring to those who considered her on the same level as a poisonous fungus, but noisy with it.

  With clinical detachment Dr Hamilton wondered whether this improbable marriage had ever been consummated. He knew from his professional treatment of the first Mrs Ferguson that theirs hadn’t been; and could hardly imagine poor, shrinking little Archie achieving it with the dread Hannah.

  ‘Aye, well.’ MacKenzie brooded for a minute. ‘And what gives these . . . women . . . the right to suppose they have any rights in this matter?’

  Now they were all trying not to look at Archie. The words he had so wretchedly uttered had been forced on him, and he got no more pleasure out of them than the rest of those present.

  ‘The ladies of the Pictish Guild,’ he recited, ‘maintain that as the Pictish royal inheritance in these ancient kingdoms was always in the matrilinear line, present maintainers of the cause ought to be empowered to choose the symbolic maiden in the annual riding of the bounds.’

  ‘Och, the only thing this lot have in common with the Picts is the way they paint themselves more than is decent.’

  ‘We’d no be wanting the sort of stramash they had over the women riders in Hawick.’

  ‘Nae, God forbid. Here we’ve always had a sound enough tradition of the men appointing the Lass. Women are allowed in certain Ride-outs according to old custom. What more do they want? That’s been good enough for centuries.’

  Heads nodded. ‘The Lass is a powerful enough symbol.’

  There was no long debate. It was agreed, with Archie Ferguson being allowed to abstain, that as Secretary he should send on the Committee’s behalf a brief letter informing the ladies of the Pictish Guild that no amendment to the long-established policy could legally or procedurally be entertained.

  Their story began with a young man chasing a girl across the mosses on horseback with the intention of raping and murdering her. It had all taken place some four centuries ago, but was still alive in the minds of the townsfolk. Their representatives were meeting this early May, as they had met each year, to confirm details of the re-enactment of the girl’s bareback ride, her salvation by a gallant lover, and the death of the English pursuer. This year its basic simplicity was tainted by recriminations about things in the recent past which had nothing to do with things in the distant past or the near future.

  As tradition demanded, the meeting was being held in the panelled room on the first floor of the ancient Tolbooth. This had later been expanded to take in the Sheriff Court and the Council Chamber, stared down on by portraits of bland rogues who had prospered during their services to the community. In their turn, the tall windows of the chamber looked down on the marketplace, one of the few in the region not graced by a statue of Sir Walter Scott or a warlike horseman. Instead there was Kilstane’s unique historic commemoration: a young woman riding a horse bareback, her long hair streaming in the wind.

  It was their primary task to nominate her modern incarnation, then draw up details of what would happen six weeks from now. But after dismissing the insolent demands of Mrs Ferguson’s clique, they sank into bickering over something which had happened three months ago.

  ‘If we get things as wrong with the Riding as we did with the Supper, we’ll be a laughing stock.’ Ian MacKenzie’s veined cheeks and bulbous nose reddened ominously.

  Dr Hamilton recalled the medication he had prescribed for MacKenzie’s blood pressure and wondered whether his successor in the practice had considered increasing the dose.

  ‘We’d certainly be a laughing stock,’ said Professor Makepeace with a lofty certainty which never failed to add extra rainbow tinges to MacKenzie’s countenance, ‘if we continued to perpetrate historical errors. Let’s be sure this time that we build on verifiable fact rather than romantic legend.’

  ‘One of the facts,’ growled MacKenzie, ‘was that the English
got a damn fine thrashing – and not for the first time.’

  Professor Makepeace smiled tolerantly. He had square features, with a wide brow and a jaw which might have been chiselled out of granite with three precise cuts, one horizonal and two vertical. His eyes had an occasional sparkle like quartz embedded in rock, but the most tolerant of his smiles was never less than disdainful. A retired history professor from south of the Border, Edwin Makepeace ought to have considered himself honoured by the invitation to propose the toast to The Immortal Memory at this past January’s Burns Supper. Instead, with quiet academic glee he had ruined the evening by revealing that documents recently discovered suggested that Burns, for all his snide remarks about Scotland being sold for England’s gold, had in fact longed to be lionised in London society and acquire some of that gold for himself. He would ditch Jean Armour yet again, quit Dumfries with a young Englishwoman who had taken his fancy, and set up in surroundings worthy of him in London. Then he seduced the daughter of a London publisher who had aimed to take him under his wing, and was ditched by all of them; after which he became loudly patriotic again.

  Shock waves of that outrageous evening were still rumbling on.

  ‘And this evening,’ said Makepeace, ‘I trust we can approach the subject of the Riding and the Bareback Lass with the same objectivity.’

  Ian MacKenzie snorted. ‘The Lass was real enough. She rode to warn the town. There can be nae doubt on that. And,’ he added with relish, ‘the English rogue who came after her wasnae invited, and didnae ride home again. Just as it should be.’

  Dr Hamilton knew not only that MacKenzie’s liver was in a bad way but that in spite of his rantings his liverishness was in no way that of a fervent Scottish Nationalist. A large proportion of the Kilstane population was English; and many resident Scots had been to schools where their accent had been eradicated, or they had made their own effort to keep it flat and neutral. Among his cronies MacKenzie sneered both at incomers and seasonal trippers; but as a grocer offering tins of shortbread with the face of Bonnie Prince Charlie simpering from the lid, canned haggis, and his Special Kilstane Blend of Scotch whiskies, he was in no hurry to throw up trade barriers between the two nations. Until the arrival of Professor Makepeace, MacKenzie had been the doyen of local lecturers on the subject of Robert Burns. He was capable of speaking for hours on end whenever there was no chairman with the courage to shut him up. It had taken the chill tones of Makepeace to expose the patriotic grocer’s steadfast indifference to the fact that Burns had detested authority, refused to stand for the National Anthem, and at one stage used his position as a Customs officer to help shipments of guns and ammunition to the French.

  The Convenor cleared his throat to bring the meeting to a grudging semblance of order. ‘Perhaps, before we get down to the minutiae of the evening, we might consider how to incorporate some testimony to our late member and benefactor Sebastian Cameron.’ It was a good way of sobering them up. Nobody would dare utter any criticism of the deceased.

  MacKenzie was the first to agree. ‘He’ll take some replacing.’

  ‘His generous donations to the town,’ Hamilton said reverently, ‘and especially to this Committee, were unique.’

  ‘The man himself was unique.’ For once there was no trace of sarcasm in Makepeace’s voice.

  ‘Perhaps it is time,’ Hamilton went on, ‘to consider introducing some fitting commemorative feature into the Riding programme. Or possibly the endowment of a research room in the public library. Mr Ferguson, I believe you’ll have a hand in cataloguing the papers and the local material still in his bookshop.’

  Archie Ferguson resumed the shuffling of notes before him. ‘It will all take time. I’d no be wishing to skimp it. I shall report further when I’ve been able to assess the task properly.’

  ‘Perhaps we may each of us consider what would be most appropriate. We can then bring the matter up again at final programming stage.’ The Convenor allowed a respectful silence of thirty seconds, then said: ‘And now the Treasurer’s report. Mr Brown, please?’

  Alastair Hamilton had been elected Convenor because of his stiff-backed, humourless honesty. He was proud of it. A pillar of the local Church of Scotland, Chairman of the Governors of three old people’s homes, he had been the most trusted family doctor until new Trusts and Boards and bureaucrats moved in. When his junior partners had computers thrust upon their desks and he found that they actually enjoyed the things, he retired and allowed himself to be co-opted on to a number of local good causes. He was too scrupulous ever to show personal disapproval of anyone whose company he had to share; but occasionally there was the faintest twitch of distaste when he had to utter the Treasurer’s name.

  Jamie Brown was mistrusted by almost everybody in the town, yet was on a wide range of committees. He had the busy-busy energy to get things done and make himself indispensable. There were rumours of his having been involved in a long saga of near-criminal activities: a shady partnership in a chain of garages on Tayside, and a brief period as a PR ‘consultant’. He told a dozen different stories about his reasons for quitting Dundee, all reflecting credit on himself. If only Kilstane Council had not been abolished with the coming of the new unitary authority, he would sooner or later have found his way on to it, and his portrait would have been duly added to those already darkening the walls of the chamber. Now he came and went at odd hours of the day and evening as an insurance salesman.

  The balance sheets had been neatly prepared. A copy lay in front of each committee member. Brown rattled off various figures and comments. The columns looked convincing, the totals tallied, and Brown’s delivery was confident and compelling. Everyone in the room would have been happy to find a discrepancy, but there seemed to be none.

  The Convenor was glad to press on. ‘As you are all aware, this year’s Common Riding will be more complicated because of adjustments imposed by the Cadastral Reconciliation Commission.’

  ‘Who are far from reconciliatory,’ said Makepeace.

  The Secretary began unrolling a large plan and spreading it out on the table, fighting with corners which persisted in curling up. MacKenzie leaned over impatiently, and the nearest edge flicked him across the chin.

  ‘That will never do.’ He was squinting at the map upside down. ‘That line along the ditch there – those are ancient rights, they can’t take those away.’

  Dr Hamilton shook his head. ‘The official report says that the actual Common area has been maintained, but that excisions have been necessary along some ill-defined stretches.’

  ‘Bloody quangoes.’ MacKenzie was proud of having acquired this up-to-date word. ‘We know in our bones where the truth is.’

  ‘The mind is more reliable than bones. Wouldn’t you agree, Dr Hamilton?’ Professor Makepeace had more than once made it clear that in his view their so-called traditions meant things vaguely remembered from hearsay or built up to suit their own prejudices. ‘Boundaries need to be recorded and confirmed,’ he pronounced, ‘not just ridden over in a daydream.’

  ‘In the old days, incomers trying to push their way on to our land got killed. We knew fine where our land started and where it finished. And still do.’

  ‘Unfortunately both the District Surveyor and the Scottish Office –’

  ‘Ignorant jacks-in-office.’ It was the first time Rab Duncan had spoken this evening. He rarely expressed an opinion of his own, but this one was brisk enough. ‘Should finish the Ride-out on their steps and drag ’em out to the pillory.’

  The Convenor did a mental roll-call. A handful of blinkered diehards, one self-righteous sceptic, a probable con-man, a henpecked fusspot, and three conformists who lived only for committee work and Rotary lunches. One could only pray that the sum of their differences would somehow add up.

  He was relieved when three solemn strokes on the door of the chamber announced the arrival of the Provost.


  Formal announcement of the forthcoming ritual must, by custom, be read ou
t at this meeting by the Kilstane Provost. They stopped bickering and sat to attention while he fingered his gold chain of office and outlined their duties.

  ‘Townsmen of the Riding Committee. I speak to you again at a time of year when we are all brought together as a community. A community steeped in history and a mutual love for that history.’ Provost Ritchie enunciated every sonorous phrase without any hint that they might dislike and sometimes hate one another. He then unrolled the fragile scroll and demonstrated that, although it was customary to bring it here, he knew all the edicts off by heart. ‘I do command you in the name of the burgesses of this borough that to safeguard the liberties of the Commonty you shall marshal a Riding of the Marches to ensure that no trespass has occurred upon any part of our loyalties this last twelvemonth gone . . .’

  Ian MacKenzie made a rumbling noise deep in his throat which might have been a preliminary to asking what use it was to issue proclamations like this when the powers-that-be were threatening to ride roughshod over all those loyalties; but the threatened eruption subsided into a deeper grunt. The stony surface of Professor Makepeace’s face cracked into a few sceptical fissures, but he too refrained from interrupting the proclamation. Two of their colleagues breathed sighs of relief, not so much because they deplored the impertinence of an interruption as that they were calculating when they might count on getting into the back bar of the Tam o’ Shanter next door.

  ‘And,’ concluded the Provost, ‘I lay upon you the task of choosing the Bareback Lass who shall start and complete the Ride-outs. And that you shall lay upon her the choice of her Callant. And that in your most solemn verdict they shall each be of unblemished repute, and unsullied, as the flag that they buss is and ever has been unsullied, and she shall ride in virgin purity as befits the bearer of the sacred emblem of this borough.’

  They all rose to their feet as the Provost replaced the scroll in its leather tube, tucked it under his arm, and left.

  ‘So it has been enjoined upon us by the Provost to choose the Lass,’ said the Convenor. ‘Shall we consider our candidates?’

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