BOOK I: THE SONSIE QUINE (St Andrews, 1574–1578)
Prologue: The Doo-Cot
We had become near-accustomed to the farting thud of small cannon, the prattle of musketry, the yelled orders and clashed steel, all swirling about our city’s tenements. Then followed the clatter as a sortie of Queen’s Men from the Castle swept through the barricades, down the High Street to confront the King’s Men.
At the first explosions, my father would sigh, go down the winding stair to bar the entrance to our close, then latch-key our nail-studded door. He would return to our refuge, solemnly count our heads, place the key on his work table, then go back to writing inventories and bills of sale.
Mon Dieu! my mother might mutter, not breaking off from sorting haberdashery pledges.
That work room was most the solid and siccar place in our house, its hidden heart. My father in a rare flight of fancy cried it The Doo-Cot. Not that we kept doves in it, but rather scrolls of contracts, receipts and undertakings. These roosted within the wooden cubbyholes that lined three walls of the room, from knee-height to ceiling.
My father made them himself from ornate panelling ripped from Blackfriars following one of Preacher Knox’s inspirational sermons on Christ cleansing the Temple. Most of the ornamentation had been prised or slashed off the panels, but the occasional serpent, Tree of Life, sheaf of corn and mild ox remained, to my delight as a bairn.
They became part of his filing system. You’ll find the Mar papers lying down next tae the Lamb, or, with relish, The Archbishop’s accounts are to the richt o the Gates o Hell.
Fragrant with ink, parchment and sealing wax, steeped in peat smoke in winter months, the Doo-Cot was my favoured place in our home. My mother cried it the Counting House. How their marriage, as the Reform gripped and even the most cautious had to take sides, is laid bare in that divergence!
For months now the Queen’s Men had held Embra Castle and the surrounding tenements of the upper part of the town, including our Anchor Close. The King’s Men, led by the Earl of Morton, held the Canongait, Holyrude and Leith. Our Queen Mary had fled, but might return with a French army. Her son and heir Jamie Saxt, said to be a poorly made bairn, was held ‘under protection’ in Stirling Castle, and who kenned what he wanted?
So the Lang Siege ground on with parleys, shootings, cannon thuds and clatter of hooves. When it was quiet, we nipped out for food with the rest of the populace. Otherwise we shut ourselves in the house, retreated to the Doo-Cot and waited it out.
One dreich May morning, our lives changed. Unknown to us, Drury’s English troops – our gallant allies in the Reform (my father), or heretical enemies of the True Church (my mother) – had drawn a score of big cannon through the night up towards the Castle.
When the familiar skirmishing started, we shut ourselves in the Doo-Cot. Around midday came a much louder BOOM, then a deep thud felt in the gut. Dust and paint showered from the ceiling. The scrolls and papers shivered in their nests. Silence, and a cold draught coming up the winding stairs and under the Doo-Cot door. My father hesitated, picked up the latch key.
I’d best hae a look, he said, and was gone. Our close door had been blown off its hinges. As my father stood baffled, someone fired from the mouth of the courtyard. Upstairs, we heard the bang and a cut-off cry. We found him collapsed in our doorway. Mother and my big sister Clemmie dragged him within, the cook and I struggled to bar our door.
He died on our entry slabs, looking puzzled as shooting and shouting and Drury’s big cannon started up outside. The smell of warm blood and stone dust burns in my nostrils yet, and sudden bangs still render me an affrichted boy.
My mother believed the Reformists had killed him. Neighbours said it was one of the Queen’s Men, during a counter-attack. Some claimed it was English forces. I knew only that my father was dead from the religious wars. The stain on the entry slab took weeks to scrub away. I still saw it in my mind’s eye, each time I left or entered our house.
When Drury’s troops poisoned the well, took the Forewarks defences and brought the big cannon closer, after twelve days of house-shaking bombardment the Queen’s Men surrendered the Castle and the Lang Siege was over. Their lives were guaranteed by the English leaders. But they were soon handed over to the King’s Men, and Kirkcaldy of Grange and his brother James were sentenced to be hanged at the Merkit Cross, just as Preacher Knox had prophesied.
My mother sobbed in the Counting House, not so much for the men as the death of her hopes. Grave-faced, our neighbours went out to witness the hanging. I followed on but lost them in the crowd. A man with burning eyes hoisted me high. Ye maun see this, laddie! Against my wishes, I saw them, fleetingly, from the back of the crowd, those blood-engorged faces turned golden masks as they spun towards the sun.
That marked the end of that phase of our uncivil war. Soon after, my elder sister Clemmie grew a sickness within her gut. I closeted myself in the Doo-Cot while her howl and retching diminished to cough and whimper, then a silence that echoed long through the house. Those were hard times. They weakened and hardened us, as such times do. Our front door never closed rightly again.
Tomorrow: A Student Departs