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Strathalmond
by Alex Aitken


A Scottish saga of the Lothians - a story for Scots [and all those of Scottish intent] wherever they may be. The first novel of the West Lothian shale field. The book is available for sale at Highland Publishing. Here is a couple of excerpts from the book kindly provided by the author.

What it's about.....

Set in the County of West Lothian in Scotland, against the background of a 15th Century mansion called "Strathalmond", Book 1 [1430 - 1460] tells of the Ingrams who built it and the Douglases who almost caused its destruction. Book 2 [1912 - 1972] is about Strathalmond Oil Company in the town of Myrestane, once the leading shale oil producer in the world. It tells of the Ingrams who ran it and the Douglases and others who worked for it, from the height of its glory to its sad demise.

Strathalmond is the story of two families in different eras; a story of love and war, bigotry and envy, tragedy and hope in their changing worlds.

Excerpt 1:   [February 1452]

It was in February that Ranald [Ingram] met his friend Will Douglas again. The Earl [Douglas] had come to Houstoun Castle with upwards of two hundred mounted soldiers, and he had been in residence there for a week before Ranald received an invitation to join him in a hunt. It was to take place at the castle a few days later.

"This will test your skill, my friend, with the horse and the spear", the invitation said, and Ranald could readily picture Will's mischievous grin.

Whatever the problems Will Douglas may have had with the king, they were never brought up by the earl in these occasional meetings with Ingram. The Douglas had always insulated their friendship from his other life, and only commented on that when Ranald questioned him.

The hunt began in the early dawn of a dark chilly morning at the edge of Drumshorling Moor, close to where Ranald and Marjorie had been accosted by William of Houstoun years earlier. Ranald rode up to join the Douglas who was standing in his saddle calling out directions to several teams, each consisting of a man and three dogs of the heavy mastiff breed. The teams were deploying themselves off in different directions as they were instructed.

These hounds were not for the stag, Ranald realised. They were too heavy and too slow. There was only one quarry for which they were suited.
"Good morning, Ranald Ingram," Will said cheerily. "You are ready to prove yourself I see."

Will looked with some admiration at Ranald's horse, a strong lean animal, as fine as his own. Summoning a retainer, Will reached down and took from him a long spear which he tossed to Ranald.

"You will need this, I think," tossing back the curls at his temple, "for Mr. Boar."

Ranald was taken aback. "We are hunting a wild boar?" he said.

"Not any boar," Will laughed. "This fellow has eluded me for close to a year, but I have finally sought him out. He's a big one, fifty inches at the shoulder, and about five hundred pounds of him. So I called for my friend Ingram to see to his dispatch." Will was enjoying the look on Ranald's face.

"We are not using the bow?" Ranald said, seeing that Will carried only a long spear, apart from the sword that was sheathed near his saddle.

"This is not a lady's hunt, my friend. Besides the bow is a useless weapon unless you want to kill our fine mastiffs that would be sure to get in the way. No Sir, the spear is the weapon of choice for this quarry."

Ranald had never hunted wild boar. He was a skilled rider and experienced in the deer hunt, but he knew the boar was by far the most dangerous of animals, and for that reason he had avoided it. Most hunters of boar would use the crossbow, even at the risk of injuring their hounds, to avoid coming into close quarters with the beast. But Ranald knew that Will Douglas was not most hunters. In this, as in everything he did, Will had to be the best. Ranald, in spite of his growing fear of the hunt, was glad to be included by his friend because it meant that Will had a high regard for his ability even though it was unproven.

As the hunting party set off, out of the Houstoun woods and onto the moor, Ranald felt a brief stab of conscience at the thought of what Marjorie and Thomas would think of this escapade.

Trotting side by side across the soft bog land along the edge of the forest, Will explained the hunt. The boar was a night forager, so if they did not find him in the early hours he would be back in his den, and the hunt would be abandoned. They had to approach him from downwind, for a boar could smell a man or a dog at a hundred paces. In front of him, spaced at intervals along the margin of the trees and then running off at a right angle across the moor, Ranald could see the teams of men and dogs that waited in position.

"These are the relays", Will said, pointing out the teams. "When the boar is roused we will chase him up and the first relay man will loose his mastiffs into the hunt. The boar will be driven ahead of us, and at each relay point, as we pass, another set of dogs will join the chase so that fresh dogs will always strengthen the pack. Clever, wouldn't you say?" Will smiled. "But we must ride hard to get to the boar and protect the dogs for he is a murderer of dogs."

As they passed two relays without incident, and Ranald was gathering courage as he thought about the brilliance of this strategy, a shout went up from Will Douglas.

The boar had surfaced. In the same instant, Ranald saw him rise from the long grass, a huge black ball that took off along the trees with alternate grunts and snorts. Three enormous mastiffs followed, leaping and barking in excitement.

The Douglas took off at a gallop, dropping his long spear into the horizontal position and Ranald followed suit.

Two more relays of dogs were released as the boar passed them, bearing down on the fleeing animal with savage energy. Before reaching the next relay, the boar turned to the right into the moor. Hardly had Will and Ranald changed direction, than he turned left again towards the trees.

By now all the dogs had been released, and they barked and squealed in headlong flight through the tufted grass, on every side of the galloping horses.

"He's drawing them into the wood!" Will shouted through the clamour of dogs and horses. "He's going to make a stand!"

Ranald's fear returned. Tales he had heard of the wild boar at bay flooded his mind. He gripped his spear more tightly and forced his horse slowly through the trees.

As he emerged into a small clearing, he saw a dozen or so mastiffs, big and muscular with frightening jaws, circling the boar that had turned to face them. It was heavy and squat, its red eyes flaming in the black hair of its great head, and wide, curling tusks circling up and down in a slow, threatening challenge.

"Now you have him, Ranald!" Will's voice came from behind.

As he spoke, one of the mastiffs, a large brindled male, yellow eyes blazing and a fearsome growl coming from the wide muzzle, leapt forward onto the boar, seeking its throat. The boar dropped its head low and the mastiff tried to sink its teeth into the hard cartilage between the shoulders. Ranald watched as the boar shook the dog loose, and, with a single sideways sweep of its long curved tusks, ripped the belly of the mastiff open, so that its intestines spilled out in a purple, green pool into the forest floor.

"Go now, Ingram! Spear him now!" Will's voice broke through the morning air like a battle cry, and Ranald levelled his spear and urged his mount forward with a vicious kick. At the same time the boar charged forward towards him.

The long metal point of the spear penetrated the boar half way down its curved hairy back, and drove in and through the soft tissue below. The boar raised its head in mid charge, its tremendous weight pushing the spear up and back at the rider. Ranald, still grasping the long hilt, was heaved over the high back of his saddle. The spear shaft broke and he crashed to the ground, winded by the impact. He looked up helplessly as the great boar trotted forward to within four feet of him, the broken spear protruding from its back.

Ranald was transfixed with terror. He felt the blood drain from his face as he lay, unable to move, hypnotised by the tiny red eyes. The razor sharp tusks slowly began their curious circular motion, then the boar charged. Ranald shut his eyes and put his hands over his face. He smelled the sickening musky odour.

Suddenly there was a loud cry, the pounding of hooves and a long swishing sound that ended in an ear-piercing squeal.

Will Douglas, standing high in the stirrups, brought down the great two-handed sword with such a force that the wide blade severed the boar's head from its body. Ranald grunted as the headless torso rammed against his chest, hot sticky blood gushing over his face and neck. He opened his eyes to see the boar's head on the ground beside his cheek, the small eyes twitching.

Later in the great hall of Houstoun Castle, Ranald still shivered spasmodically as he gulped the brandy.

"Have another drink," Will said, refilling the goblet. "You will be fine in a minute. Man, what a story to tell your grandchildren!" Will rose and went to the hearth where he lifted the boar's head by one tusk, holding it up.

"Take this back to Strathalmond, lest they don't believe you."

Warmed by the brandy, Ranald slowly recovered his composure. "You saved my life," he said, in a matter-of-fact tone, looking balefully at the great head. Will threw the boar's head back into the central hearth and bowed gracefully.

"I thank you, Sir, but you did all the work. All I did was cut off the devil's head. In any event, I think that you can fairly say that you were bloodied in your first boar hunt." He laughed and gave Ranald a friendly punch on the shoulder. Ranald smiled sheepishly.

"Have supper here, " Will said, "and then you can go home and forget all about it. Anyway, I want to hear what progress in the wine import business."

***

At supper Ranald and Will were joined by James Douglas, a younger brother of the Earl and the twin of Archibald, Earl of Moray. He was dressed in the black frock coat of a cleric. Winking at Ranald, Will introduced him as the next Bishop of Aberdeen.

"You didn't know that we had one of these in the family - a cleric - did you Ranald? James here is matriculated at the University of Cologne in the Faculty of Arts."

"I see," said Ranald. "He is the one with all the brains in the family."

Will let out a loud guffaw. "You see what I told you, James. Ranald Ingram is as great a wit as he is a boar hunter."

They all three now laughed, and Ranald felt a happy glow from being in the company of Douglases, particularly since Will had introduced him to James as Ranald Douglas. It was a feeling of comfort in being family. Ranald looked at his new found cousin with interest.

James Douglas was a shade taller than Will, and slimmer. He was finer of feature, with short black hair cropped close to his skull and narrow blue eyes that shone with mirth.

"But look you, Ranald," Will said, waggling his index finger. "Though he may be a priest, he is also a warrior. Ask your partner, Philip of Burgundy, the next time you see him, which Scottish knight put his Burgundian champion in the dust in the lists at Stirling not long since." He nodded slowly, glancing at James.

Ranald, well fortified with brandy, looked at James with appropriate awe.

The night drove on with merriment. Will had earlier sent a servant to Strathalmond to announce Ranald's intention to take supper at the castle, and Ranald launched into a discourse on the wine fleet that was now a reality.

Three ships plied already between Leith and Calais, unloading thousands of casks of Gascon wine and paying duties to the king on each one. Philip of Burgundy had made his connections with the English importers, and the wine left Scotland for the English market, loaded in shipments to York, Bristol and London, paying even more duties to King James. Plans were laid to increase the fleet to sixteen ships within the month.

"You see," Will exclaimed, looking to his brother, "the beneficiary of all this commerce is my friend James Stewart of Scotland."

Ranald suddenly thought how ironic it was that James Stewart was benefiting greatly from the wine trade that Will Douglas had been so instrumental in developing, especially now that the Douglas and the King were such declared enemies.

"Someone should tell the king how the Earl of Douglas contributed to his fortune," Ranald said.

"Indeed," replied Will, "and that someone will be myself when I visit him at Stirling Castle a week from now."

"You are going to see the king?" Ranald said with surprise.

Will grinned. "I have been summoned into the royal presence, my friend. But never fear, I have insisted on a guarantee of safe-conduct and it has been assured."

Ranald felt alarm as his mind darted back to another occasion when Douglases were summoned into the royal presence; the night of the Black Dinner. Will, guessing what Ranald was thinking, quickly interrupted.

"Don't concern yourself, man. The murdering Crichton will not be present, and, in any event, this Douglas is no careless boy with nothing at his back but his own arrogance."

At that the cleric spoke up. "There is nothing for Earl Douglas to fear, Ingram. Now that the Black Douglases have united with the Earls of Crawford and of Ross and could sign a pact tomorrow with Richard of York, I think that James Stewart will have a care how he entertains Will Douglas."

Will threw a scolding look at his brother. "Don't listen to our cleric, Ranald. I have no pact with the Yorkists. Not yet, at least. Richard of York is, at this moment, camped with his army at Dartford and facing the Duke of Somerset and his Lancastrians who have, I am told, an even larger force at Blackheath." He laughed.

"Now I think that, were my grandfather, Archibald "the Grim", here, he might advise that the Black Douglases wait to see the outcome of that stand-off before rushing into any pacts in England."

Ranald was beginning to feel uncomfortable with all this talk of pacts and armies. This was the other Earl of Douglas and not the one he knew. He was aware that the earl's brother had launched them into the present subject, and he was slightly surprised that a cleric, a student of the arts, could be so ready to talk of power struggles. But then, he was another Douglas.

Will, seeing his friend's obvious discomfort, changed the subject back to the hunt, and Ranald was relieved as the day's events were recounted again for the tenth time.

Excerpt 2:   [1922]

In the months that followed the O'sheas' visit to Tosh and Peg [Douglas], the talk was all of the merger. Rumours buzzed around the Work like bees, becoming ever more laden wherever they alighted. A whispered five per cent wage reduction in the mine became seven per cent by the time it reached the retorts, and ten per cent at the top of the bing. There were no official announcements of changes to work or conditions, but the men knew that something was in the air.

Barney ignored their growing concerns. He and Jeanie had never been so well off. He had become a capable drawer, putting his back into the grinding work and always keeping his mind on the rules, prompted by Tosh's periodic reminders. Jeanie had her fine little house, which she kept as clean as a whistle, and her holy pictures on the walls. He and Jeanie never missed Mass on Sunday, and after it they stood around the gates of the chapel, mingling with their countrymen and talking in the Irish. They could afford to send a pound or two home every month, and Barney always had the price of a few pints for a Saturday night. Occasionally Tosh would go with him for a drink, though not regularly, for Tosh took a certain curious pride in declaring that he was "not a drinking man".

Late in September, the notice board at the Work carried a brief announcement about the merger, and a newspaper cutting that referred to the British Government's investment in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company that had been set up to exploit British oil discoveries in Persia.

Tosh and Barney took a walk to the Myrestane Hotel. It was an old coaching inn, built before 1800, lying then on the Edinburgh-Glasgow Turnpike. Fifty years later, the advent of the railway link had snuffed out its original function in a few weeks. Now it was an informal, and frequently rowdy, meeting place for the men from the Work.

When they pushed their way up to the bar, the debate had already started. Wee Tammy Flynn, a cocky little man with a beak for a nose and a small head that bobbed up and down when he talked, was rattling on to George Crawford. They were both surface men. George worked on the retorts and Wee Tammy - well nobody in the work really knew what Wee Tammy did exactly. He moved about the Work like a little ghost, a long-handled brush in his hand, sometimes on the breaker where the shale was crushed for retorting, sometimes in the candle works, sometimes on the floor of the retorts.

What they did know was that Tammy was a part-time fiddler at dances, and a self-appointed union organiser.

"Ah tellt yez! Ah tellt yez!" Tammy was saying. "Yez should a' be in the union. Then the Ingrams will no' find it sae easy tae walk all over yez. But did yez listen? No! And noo yez are a' worried aboot yer jobs. But it's no' too late, George," now addressing his remarks to his one hopeful convert, "to join the union. Ah've got the papers right here in ma pocket."

George Crawford took a slow gulp of his pint of beer and turned his long sad face on Tammy. "Union, my arse Tammy," he said.

At that, a man standing further along the bar shouted over to Tammy.

"Tammy! What goes through the Work and through the Work, and never touches the work?"

Before Tammy could reply, the speaker shouted the answer. "Tammy Flynn's brush!" and the group nearest to him rocked with laughter.

Tammy, eyes shifting in his little head, ignored the joke made at his expense and concentrated on George Crawford as he tried a different tack.

" Ye're sayin' that because ye're controlled, George. And d'ye know what controls ye?" The men began to take an interest and Tammy paused to make his point to the gathering audience.

"Fear! That's what. Fear! The oldest weapon in the book."

Now Tammy had everyone's attention, and he forged on with his lecture.

"The managers ask ye if ye're a member o' the union, and ye're delighted tae tell 'im ye're not. They put a miner in places where the seam isnae regular, or there's bad clearment for shovellin', and he's too feared tae refuse." Tammy took a break for a mouthful of his pint, looking around his captive audience for support.

A voice from along the bar cut the long silence. "Whit the Hell dae you know aboot miners?"

The speaker, a broad, barrel-chested man, pushed through the crowd to face Wee Tammy. It was Mooney who worked on the bing, the one everybody called Shine Mooney. He was the hardest man in Myrestane, and he was a bit the worse for drink.

Shine Mooney was a time bomb waiting to explode, and alcohol was the fuse. He did what was recognized as the hardest job in the Work. He collected the hutches from the chain at the very top of the bing, where they arrived overflowing with the fiery refuse from the retorts. With rags round his hands and his head bent over the hot shale, he pushed their ton weight, still smoking and burning, to the very edge, heaving the box of the hutch upwards with his head against its hot steel, to deliver the contents over the side in a slide of fumes and smoke. He did this for eight hours at a time, six days a week, summer and winter, so that the rigid repetition of it burned into his nature and set there as hard as the steel he pushed.

Shine was a different kind of man, revered by some and avoided by most. Every man at the bar had seen him lift a fifty-six pound weight on each pinkie and clap them together above his head, eyeing onlookers with bold, challenging eyes. Some had seen him in a fight, pounding an unsuspecting adversary in a vicious, drunken rage. Now the bar cleared like magic around Shine and Wee Tammy Flynn.

"Ye know, Ah'm getting' sick o' listenin' tae you and yer bloody union," Shine growled, his eyes widening with a growing rage. "See you!" he went on, prodding a fat finger into Tammy's chest that rocked him back on his heels. "You're nothin' but an agitatin' wee bastard." Tammy's face went white and his head bobbed with involuntary jerks like a puppet on a string. The bar went quiet.

"Ah'm gonnae fix you once and for all, yah wee bastard that ye are. There'll be nae mair talk aboot unions when Ah'm done wi' ye."

As Shine advanced on him, Tammy staggered back until he was against the bar. He had nowhere to turn. The faces of the men around him turned away from his pleading eyes, trying to hide their own shame.

"Jist a minute, Sir!" Shine heard the low steady voice behind him just as he felt a huge hand clamp down on his shoulder. "There's nae need for that".

Shine turned his head to look up at the stern, towering shape of Tosh Douglas. In the seconds of total silence that followed, Wee Tammy sidled his way along the bar and into the crowd. Shine turned fully around, eyes blazing with anger.

Tosh's hand adjusted its grip and his calm, unflinching stare fixed on Shine's face. "You're done here, Shine," he said quietly. "Finish yer drink now and go hame tae yer wife."

Shine tried to shake loose from the hand that held him, but it merely tightened on his shoulder. He looked frantically around the bar but could catch no eye. The silence dragged on. Then it was broken by the scuffling of feet and low whispered voices, almost imperceptible at first, then growing, getting louder, a mix of relief and courage being resurrected.

Tosh released his hold, his stare still level and unblinking. After a long moment, Shine shrugged his shoulders and, with no word spoken, turned back to the bar.

"Give us anither drink!" he shouted to the barman. "Whit are ye waitin' fur? Christmas?"

The Myrestane Inn was back in business.

"Ah've got the papers in ma pocket, George," Wee Tammy shouted to George Crawford.

Now you've read these two excerpts buy the book at Highander Publishing!