1869, Strontian, Scotland.
Strontian, a village on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, north west Scotland, is inhabited by mining folk and crofters eking out a living from the unforgiving land, and turning a blind eye to the smugglers who plague the coast.
A bag of bones is pulled out of the water;
The assistant to Gustav Wengler - eccentric owner of the lead mines - is brutally murdered.
What is the connection?
And what do either have to do with the sundial in Ockle churchyard and the collection of monuments on Wengler’s island known locally as the White Cathedral?
Sholto McKay and Brogar Finn of the Pan-European Mining Company - in pursuit of a potentially valuable mineral from the Strontian mines - arrive and begin their own investigations, unaware that their discoveries will tear more than one life apart.
The cribble rasped with the rough rub of corn being passed over it, the separated flour tappering out through the mesh and against the sides of the funnel before falling with a soft ploof into the bowl below. Simmy looked at the meagre results of her labour with dispassion, elbows sore from going at it for too long, neck cricking as she tried to stop the dust from her eyes, blinking at the grit that had nonetheless gathered in their corners, caught at the back of her throat and mouth. She looked up and away towards the stream that wound down to the loch, and back along the narrow track that led up to the village, at the tops of the lime-and-holly hedge that ran from the village to the lych-gate of the chapel on the small knoll above. She was thinking of the rough wooden box deposited in it earlier that morning, just past dawn, and of the man it held within who had been stowed in a sack in the village ice-house for the past while, until today. At least they supposed it to be a man, going on what was left of him: the large boots and bones dragged out of the creek near the laundry pool a few weeks back. There’d not been a flake of flesh nor hair upon him, and only a few tangles of cloth wrapped about those dark, peat-stained bones; nothing to tell who he was or where he’d come from nor how long he’d been in the water, although that he’d been in the water a long time was not in doubt. All they knew of this person was that Simmy’s brother’s fishing gear had caught on some of the burlap the man had maybe employed as a cloak, and brought him in. They’d assumed, given where he’d been found, that he’d possibly got himself snarled in a trawl-net, illegally going after the salmon and sea-trout that were so abundant in the sea loch at certain times of the year – fine to fish in the sea but not the sea loch which was in the purview of the estate; either that or they were the remnants of one of those outside men who used this coast as their own, who never considered the likes of Simmy and Harald, who brought in Christ knew what from the Continent to sell on in Glasgow despite the excise men sweeping through their village every now and then, disrupting everything, stamping their horses through grass and paddock, eating their food, drinking their drink, or what little of either the villagers had to spare. This last seemed most likely, since no one had come looking for him, not in all the time he must have been lodged down there below the water, caught up in the bottom reeds or stuck beneath a sunken tree-bole, or however he’d been kept down before Simmy’s brother Harald had brought him up.
Simmy thought of her brother now and where he might be. She straightened her back from cribble and quern and scanned the yard for him, the surrounding fields that marked out their croft, but couldn’t see him anywhere. She put her hand to the pocket of her smock and felt the small lump of her folded handkerchief and the other thing her brother had found when he’d brought that long dead man in. He’d kept it hidden from everyone these past few weeks, confessing it only to Simmy that very morning. He’d been acting a bit odd these last few days had Harald, no doubt from keeping such a secret, which was something he’d never been good at, and at last he’d blurted it out.
‘Everything was such a tangle,’ he stuttered. ‘I didn’t even see it at first, what with all the mud and that. And ayething was pretty much black.’
He sniffed, rubbed his nose against his sleeve, eventually producing the tiny glimpse of gold from out his pocket, laying it down neat and round on the grass between them. ‘It was all caught up in yon bits of net by its chain,’ he’d gone on, trying to argue his corner. ‘Stuck in all that muck I left on the bank after I picked out the bones. Didn’t find it till ages after…’
Simmy had only seen proper gold once before, when the bishop came to mark the last New Year gone, the whole congregation kneeling after service, kissing his ring as he blessed them one by one. But she knew what it was the moment Harald unscrewed the ring from a corner of his handkerchief, releasing the perfect circle of it back out into the world. Simmy looked closely at it, noting how small it was, thinking probably it had once belonged to a woman or maybe a child, which perhaps explained why it was on a chain, though a cheap one, slimy-linked, that must have once hung about the dead man’s neck.
Simmy turned back towards her brother and slapped him sharply across the face, no matter that he was already far taller and brawnier than she would ever be, and quite a few years older. ‘You’ve kept it all this time and said nothing?’ she demanded of him, and he smarted at the slap, flexed his jaw, face fixed with the look of defiance that had always marked his days, and would probably shorten them.
‘I was jus’ gonna give it to Aileen,’ he countered. ‘On her feast day, so’s, well, you know. Just in case.’
Simmy sighed and understood. Aileen was their cousin, though she looked more like Harald than the rest of the family put together. Ever since old Bob Farrow had finally kicked the bucket a decade past and Aileen’s family had moved in from the next glen over and taken over his place in the glass-working shed, if not the glass-working itself, Aileen and Harald had spent most of their free time together. Always him and Aileen and nobody else, as if they lived and breathed a different kind of air to the rest of them, talking quietly for hours upon hours about who knew what, spending every moment not working in the fields or on the croft or animals, in a compact kind of kinship that excluded everyone else. The two of them reminded Simmy of the warblers that ran tittle-tattling amongst the reeds, loud as fishwives until you closed on them, when suddenly they went silent and disappeared.
Aileen’s birth-date was the 13th of December, feast day of Saint Lucy, the Light-Giver of Syracuse, who’d nonetheless seen fit to give Aileen none of her advantages, for Aileen came out of the womb with eyes like a boiled fish. She looked pretty enough when she was sleeping, though not at any other time, except to Harald. And because of this, and because she understood, Simmy lowered her slap-tingled fingers from Harald’s face and looped them instead beneath the chain that held the ring. It broke immediately, falling straightaway to the ground in pieces. The ring, though, was shiny, as if it had just been forged, polished into perfection from the several weeks bumping about deep inside her brother’s pocket. She picked it up. Its inner surface was rough, felt grooved, probably damaged, and on the upper surface were squiggles, some miniscule words she couldn’t understand but had the feeling she’d seen something like them before. The huge, stone-blocked sundial in the corner of the churchyard came to mind and how in summer she lay upon its surface gazing up at the clouds and sky, the metal warm beneath her body like a second sun radiating out its heat; she went there in winter too, brushing the snow from off of its wide-brimmed face, releasing the gnomon that was shaped like a sail standing proud from its centre. And she wondered now if Aileen and her brother did the same, lying side by side, dreaming of better days when they were free to be properly together, namely when Simmy and Harald’s da died – which surely couldn’t be long now. He was no longer as strong in his arms or as free with his fists as he used to be, had developed a choke in his chest this last winter, a crusting over of his breath that failed a little more every time the wind blew cold and hard.