A Kind of Grief PROLOGUE
She’d first visited the house up the isolated glen in Sutherland when she was a child. Then, in March more than two and a half years ago, she came back to decide what to do with the place she’d inherited from her grandmother. March was still winter in these parts—with snow on the hills, and the burns and rivers veins of roiling liquid peat, it was beyond dreary, it was dreich.
She smiles to herself as she pronounces the Scottish word, “dreich,” with a rolled “r” and a strong “ch” at the end. None of my southern colleagues could ever say that sound; “k” was how they pronounced it when they attempted a Scottish accent.
She remembers stumbling the last mile into an Atlantic wind funneled by the steep sides of the glen, towards the farmhouse now invisible in the thick mist, a mist that became fine rain, penetrating her coat and hat, through to her woolen jumper and slacks. I almost turned back, the track so deep in mud. And with so many potholes I didn’t dare risk the car. The aftermath of the visit had been a horrid sneezing coughing sniveling cold that took weeks to shake.
At first she’d thought the house had remained unchanged since the last time she’d come up this glen, as a twelve-year-old about to be sent to boarding school.
Close up, not so. The neglect was clear. Windows, two either side of the door, and the dormer windows set in the iridescent grey-blue Ballahulish-slate roof, hadn’t been painted since who-knew-when. The door also. Instead of its former cheery blue, it was now blistered and streaked and bleached out by gales and hoar frost and hailstones. Both chimneys were jackdaw’s nests of vegetation. Weeds and wildflowers sprouted from the gutters.
Then a shaft of sun breaking over the hills, over the trees, over the heather, the mist lifting, spotlighted the house.
That sunbeam changed my mind. She smiles at the recollection. And dreams, dreams of comfort and safety in the house in the glen where the buildings nestled into a fold in the faultline, those dreams sustained me in the bleakest of times, times of danger, of fear, of a relentless low-level dread of being discovered.
That day, D-day—decision day—when the sun persuaded me to reconsider, in the near distance, a skylark rose from the heather. I can hear it as if it were yesterday. Singing its heart out, that tiny bird is my talisman, my link to those long-ago long summer days when true night was a scant three hours of deep twilight.
The winter nights— they last till mid-morning, returning in the early afternoon, but they’re enchanting nonetheless. Fires blazing, scones baking, curled up in the window seat reading Kidnapped, I can live that life again.
She hugs herself. Then the cloud returns and covers the sun. She smiles as she remembers her initial reaction to the move back to her ancestral land. What are you thinking of? Are you insane?
Four months later, the renovations began. Three months after that, in the beginnings of a long winter, I moved in.
It was a mad decision, she reminds herself, but happy mad.
A Kind of Grief CHAPTER 1
Joanne Ross remembered the morning she’d first encountered the name Alice Ramsay. As she’d unwrapped a halved cabbage she’d bought at the market, the veins and cells and hollows had thrown up an image of a brain, making her shudder, making her hand stray to the scar above her left ear. But she’d snatched it away. Leave it alone. It’s still healing.
She’d been terrified she would never recover, never be herself again. But in increasingly frequent optimistic moments, she’d decided it was no bad thing to have lost part of her old self.
That same day—four days after she’d posted the manuscript—she’d started a vigil for the postman. In the idle waiting moments, she’d smoothed out the crumpled newspaper the cabbage had been wrapped in.
“Woman Accused of Witchcraft.”
The headline was large, the article a quarter of a page of the newspaper that covered Sutherland and Caithness in the far north of Scotland. It was a newspaper she had never come across before. Then again, why would she? The northernmost counties consisted of a strip of small towns on the eastern side and inhospitable mountains and glens and peat bogs stretching westwards and northwards, with only two major roads connecting them to the south. News from there was scant and uninteresting—unless you were of the Scottish diaspora researching the ancestors.
Joanne scanned the first few lines. She didn’t recognize the name of the accused woman. Probably a poor old soul who makes home potions, has a black cat, and has crossed some local worthies, therefore is branded a witch, Joanne was thinking. Heaven help anyone who is different in these parts. She knew this from bitter experience. Although newly remarried, she understood that the stain of being a divorced woman could never be eradicated. Plus, she wore trousers.
The cabbage, balanced on the rounded side of the table, fell splat to the floor. Joanne jumped. The chair legs screeched on stone. Some witch has cursed the cabbage. Then she laughed at herself. But the fright had shaken her. And reminded her that even now, superstition was all too common in the Highlands of Scotland.
Next day, the headline and the cabbage still haunting her, she went to the library and took out two books. One was a history of witches and witch trials, the other a more general book on Scottish lore, The Silver Bough.
“I liked thon story o’ yours in the magazine,” the middle-aged woman with the unlikely marmalade hair color said as she checked out the library books. “I’d love to marry a man wi’ a castle—as long as it has heating.”
“Thank you.” Joanne smiled, but her cheeks were burning in embarrassment.
And as she walked down Castle Wynd, past the Highland Gazette offices where her editor husband was putting together that week’s edition, Joanne Ross—now McAllister, but as yet the married name hadn’t stuck—dreamed of writing a book.
One book was enough; becoming a writer was too lofty an ambition.
She gave herself little credit for the acceptance of six short stories in the Scottish romance genre by a well-known ladies’ magazine. But one book—that she felt she could do. Witchcraft was intriguing, and history was her passion, and it was a topic that would rile the locals, this being a town of many churches.
But the oft-felt ghost of her father whispered, Who do you think you are? You’ll never amount to anything.
She shivered. Shaking her thick chestnut hair, she pulled a headscarf with a print of Paris landmarks from her bag and tied it under her chin. Autumn in Scotland was capricious—one minute southern sunshine, the next Arctic winds. But she knew it wasn’t the cold making her shiver. Grow up, she told herself. There’s no such thing as ghosts and witches.
“McAllister,” she said to her husband, “there’s a woman in Sutherland accused of being a witch. Would a story like that be right for the Gazette?”
They were at the kitchen table, and as usual, he was reading the morning newspapers. “Absolutely. Nothing sells newspapers like a bit of controversy. But I’ll let you deal with the letters to the editor from the Holy Jo brigade, as I’d throw them in the bin.” He smiled at her.
She smiled back but had an uncomfortable thought that her new husband would be enthusiastic about almost everything she suggested.
“Witches,” said Annie, “Great. I love stories about real witches.”
“Don’t know about real,” Joanne replied to her elder daughter. “When people call a woman a witch, it’s . . .”
Here she stopped; to explain the viciousness of small-town gossip to a twelve-year-old was not appropriate. But she had an idea that her daughter already knew that. Having a father who had deserted them and a twice-married working mother, the girl had overheard more than enough from the fishwives of the town.
“I’ll follow it up,” Joanne said. Then, seeing the time on the gold watch McAllister had bought her as a wedding gift, she started the usual morning shepherding-children-out-the door-to-school routine.
When she had the house to herself, she started making notes. Her handwriting had suffered after years as a typist, and the scrawl in her notepad offended her. But later, sitting back, rereading the opening sentences, the jottings of notes, she felt a tug of real interest in the idea. And it had been many months since she had been interested in much.
Yes, she thought, McAllister was right. Witches were an antiquated notion in the soon-to-be-1960s. Might make an amusing short story, though.
The Sutherland newspaper had been five days out of date when she’d read it, but she knew that for the locals, the story would still be fresh. Probably even less happened up there than down here. She telephoned and asked for the chief reporter.
“Sutherland Courier.” It was a male voice. Young. “Yes, I covered the trial. I’m Calum Mackenzie, senior reporter.” He didn’t say he was the one and only full-time reporter, but having worked on the local newspaper, Joanne assumed this.
She explained. He listened.
“Oh, aye, the trial made a big commotion up here. Went on for two days, and everyone was talking about it.”
“My idea is to do a longer piece—the background, the trial, the verdict, belief in witchcraft in the twentieth century . . . you know.”
Eager for a chance at the bigger time, Calum replied, “I think I can see where you’re coming from, and I don’t think there’ll be a problem. Of course, I’ll have to ask my editor first. Give me your number. Right, Joanne Ross, Highland Gazette. Thanks. Be in touch.”
When, two days later, Joanne received newspaper clippings covering the trial and a summary from Calum Mackenzie, she called again, asked a few more questions, and asked if he would mind if she used his report.
“We can share a byline,” she said.
Calum was delighted. “You should come up and visit,” he said, as they wound down the conversation. “Maybe meet Miss Alice Ramsay. Even though she’s older—she’s my mother’s age—she’s an interesting woman. Different. And she’s an artist.”
Joanne heard the implication that older women were not often interesting and smiled. She also heard the emphasis on artist, as though being an artist indicated louche behavior and made it more likely that Alice was up to no good.
“I don’t know the far northeast coast of Scotland,” Joanne replied, “but in the summer, I went camping in Portmahomack and couldn’t miss the monument above Golspie.”
“The statue to the Duke. The Big Mannie, us locals call it, him up there lording it above us all for dozens o’ miles around.”
“Maybe I will come up someday. It’d be nice to explore a different part of the Highlands.”
He told her if she did visit, she should give him a call and he would show her around. Then he went back to writing a piece on the price of sheep at the local livestock auctions, and she went back to thinking about witches past—and perhaps present.
Next morning, Joanne was again waiting for the postman. Again at the kitchen table, she straightened out the newspaper cutting to reread the story.
She jotted down “To Do” notes:
Interview Calum Mackenzie of local paper.
Interview the woman Alice RAMSAY??? Check spelling.
Talk to someone re the trial. Local police? Procurator fiscal’s office?
The clock in the hallway chimed ten. No mail. Not for the first time, she wanted to smash that clock, knew she wouldn’t, knew she did not even have the courage to stop the pendulum; any explanation would seem ridiculous, especially to her elder daughter, whose constant “why?” exasperated her mother. Thank goodness for McAllister—he always has an answer.
She pushed her notebook across the table, opened the folder with two stories she was working on, glanced at the first page, and closed the folder. She thought of making another cup of tea. Didn’t. She thought of all the ironing. But didn’t move.
Maybe I should stick to light romance. But I want to impress him, show him I can do more.
She knew she was being unfair, attributing thoughts to her husband, who was always encouraging. But he was a journalist, a former war correspondent, respected in the publishing and newspaper industry. He was a reader of books with words even he occasionally had to look up in a dictionary. And although she would never acknowledge the thought, he intimidated her with his worldliness.
“You give people pleasure,” he’d said when, yet again, she’d made light of her own modest success.
She couldn’t accept that, longing instead to write serious, intellectual work; articles, essays, a short story—anything that he would admire and be proud of. But, she reminded herself, what filled her imagination and what came out of her fingertips did not often match.
“McAllister,” she said to her husband, “the woman I was telling you about . . .”
He looked up from his newspaper. The headline was once again about the upcoming general election. A Labour man, as was most of Scotland, McAllister feared the Tory Twits, as he called them, might win.
She saw the question in the raised eyebrow. “The woman in Sutherland they’re calling a witch?”
“I was thinking I might go up there, maybe interview her.”
“Great idea.” He loved stirring up controversy. “Take the car. Maybe ask someone to go with you . . .”
“I’m fine by myself.” That came out harsher than intended. She smiled. “I’ll set off early, and I promise I’ll look after your precious car.”
That was unfair. McAllister had no pride in cars. Or in much else in the way of possessions, except books and gramophone records.
“Mum, I could take a day off school and come with you,” Annie offered.
“Stop fussing. All of you.” Her eyes felt hot and she blinked away unshed tears. “Sorry. Maybe I’ll just see if I can interview her on the phone.”
“Can I have more custard?” Jean asked.
Seeing the anxiety in her younger daughter’s eyes, Joanne apologized. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap.”
Later that night, before going to bed and abandoning McAllister to his book and a jazz record she found too discordant a background for her reading, she again apologized.
“Sorry. It’s just I don’t like fuss.”
“I know. But it’s a long drive, and . . .” He was about to say I worry about you. Didn’t, appreciating it would upset her. Instead he told her the deeper truth. “I couldn’t bear anything to happen to you ever again.”
She hesitated. “Night night.”
A particularly tortured passage of free-form saxophone began.
Whereas her husband was a reluctant driver, Joanne was a natural. It was indeed a long drive, skirting around two firths, navigating through the twists and bends of the landscape, but the solitude, the warmth—like being snuggled up in a linen cupboard with clean washing—opened up thoughts and fancies and songs. A bonnie singer, she drew inspiration from the hills and rivers and the North Sea. On the three-hour drive, through song after song, mostly Scottish apart from an attempt at an aria from Don Giovanni, she sang loudly, and with no passenger to chide her, she would occasionally steer with one hand, making operatic gestures with the other.
After crossing the Dornoch Firth and into Sutherland at Bonar Bridge, the town was a short distance farther. Parking in the Cathedral Square as Calum Mackenzie had advised, she walked to the newspaper office, asked for him, and was offered a cup of tea by a young woman who looked like she should still be at school.
Joanne was about to say yes, when Calum arrived.
She was taken by his outdoors-in-all-weather tanned face, his smile, but taken aback at his short stature. Everything about Calum was miniature. She fancied he would fit into the school uniform of a twelve-year-old. His sandy-colored hair, in kinks no wind would ever ruffle, could have been set with a curling iron. But it was his eyes, kind and considerate eyes, that made her immediately like him and trust him.
“Mrs. Ross.” He held out his hand.
“It’s Mrs. McAllister, actually.” She shook his hand back.
“But I thought you were . . .” He was checking the small foyer for another woman.
“Sorry.” She knew she was blushing and hated it. “Yes, I’m Joanne Ross, but I’m also a McAllister, and . . .”
“You have a pen name. Me too. But mine’s a secret, and only for when I’m pretending I’m a real writer.”
She almost said, me too. “Maybe you are a real writer.”
“One day.” They were smiling at each other now, comfortable.
“Listen,” he said, “there’s a wee tea shop I go to—full of old ladies, usually—but it should be quiet now. Not that you’re an old lady . . .”
“Lead on, Mr. Mackenzie.”
“After you, Miss Ross.”
“Joanne. We’re colleagues, after all.”
That did it. Calum Mackenzie became devoted to Joanne Ross. He remained so for years, long after what he later thought of as “the old days,” when the so-called witch’s trial was consigned to distant memory. And history.
Over a pot of tea and cheese scones, then a second pot of tea, Calum told Joanne of the trial before the sheriff of Miss Alice Ramsay.
His account was confusing. He started in the middle part of the trial, reliving the most memorable moments of a witness the likes of whom Calum had never before encountered.
“Calling in thon art expert did Miss Ramsay no good at all. Many of the locals, the police, the procurator fiscal, and aye, the sheriff included, were none too pleased at being shown up for teuchters. Only Mrs. Ogilvie, the district nurse, enjoyed the professor’s testimony.”
He saw Joanne’s bewilderment and said, “Sorry, got it back to front, haven’t I?” He had, but his mother’s constant indignation at the not guilty verdict and her implication that Miss Ramsay had tricked the court were most fresh in his mind.
“You know how I wrote that Miss Ramsay was accused of giving thon poor woman”—his mother’s words again—“the herb tea that made her lose her baby?”
Joanne nodded, not interrupting but with encouraging nods and the occasional “aye.” Letting people tell the tale in their own way, listening to what they said rather than waiting for a pause to put in her opinion, was a talent Joanne had, a talent that made her a good journalist.
Calum continued, “Most of the case was about what the police found when they came to interview her at her house up the glen: skulls and animal skeletons, birds’ eggs—some still in their wee nests—loads of flowers and leaves hanging from the clothes pulley above the kitchen stove. For teas and herbal remedies, she told the court. And it was a tea—raspberry leaf, she said—that got her into trouble. It is an abort—”
Joanne saw him struggle with the word. Whether from embarrassment or because he did not know the correct pronunciation was not clear. “Abortifacient,” she said. After having read the word earlier, she’d looked it up in the dictionary.
“Aye, that. But Nurse Ogilvie testified the woman had previously lost two babies.”
“Then the art expert, he told the court about thon painter mannie Leonardo and some ancient called Culpepper or something like that. He brought art books to prove it. Aye, the professor really got up the noses of the folk there. I only caught a glimpse of Miss Ramsay’s drawings and pictures that they showed in court. I’ve seen a painting of hers, a nice big one, she donated to the local Old People’s Home. Right professional her work looks. Even the sheriff thought so.”
The town clock struck one. Calum knew his mother would have had his dinner on the table at twelve thirty, and it would take days to placate her, his being this late.
“Sorry, I have to go, but it’s all here in my report.”
“One final thing—a map to Miss Ramsay’s farm?”
“Not that she’ll see you,” he said as he tore a sheet from his reporter’s notebook. “And not that it’s really a farm anymore. Most of the land was sold to the Forestry Commission when her family gave up the big estate and the castle. Here. It’s easy. But the track has seen better days, so watch out for your sump.”
“I will, and thanks.”
“If you end up needing a tow, my father has the local garage. Here’s his number. Not that Miss Ramsay has a telephone, but there’s a phone box at the turnoff.” He stood, saying, “Tea’s on me—expenses.”
She knew he was trying to impress her, and accepted. “Thank you.”
Saying “Good luck with Miss Ramsay” and “Nice meeting you” and “Be in touch,” he almost ran out the door of the tea shop, taking a shortcut through the cathedral graveyard, knowing his mother would harp on about his lateness for the rest of the week. I was about to call the police was one of her catchphrases whenever her son was more than five minutes late for anything.
Joanne sat in the car studying Calum’s map, then drove to the main road and the few miles to the turnoff for Alice Ramsay’s home in the high glen. “I’m dying to meet this mysterious artist,” she said to herself, “even if she’s not a real witch.”