Northern Lights – Episode 04

After the meal the three lassies gathered the dishes, carrying them to an outer scullery to be washed.

“Sit by the fire wi’ Alec and warm yoursel’,” Maggie ordered.

They sat either side of the fire. The boy spoke first.

“Have ye heard they plan to build a lighthouse on the Inchcape shoal?”

Lilias stared at the fire.

“It’s been tried wi’ bells and beacons more times than I can count, all swept awa’ by the fiendish seas.

“Placing a light strong enough to stand upon that murderous rock is an impossible task.”

“Not if it’s built in stone.”

“Can stone float eleven mile across the sea and be raised night and day on a wicked, half-submerged shoal, wi’ only two working hours between tides?”

“Yes!” Alec cried. “There’s craft being built in Leith tae ship Aberdeen granite and Dundee sandstone to a workyard in Arbroath and ferry the finished blocks to teams of workers stationed on a ship near the rock.

“I’m apprenticed tae Mr Cuthbert, the blacksmith, and he says many smiths will be needed.”

“You’re tae be a blacksmith?” Lilias asked. “I thought you’d be at the fishing like your father.”

“No, Father wanted me to learn a trade. He said fishing’s a chancy living.”

As it had proved, his grandmother thought.

“Would ye dare venture on the Inchcape rock if smiths are called for?”

“Of course! You think the cowardly son shirks dangers faced by his father?”

Lilias smiled.

“Nay, laddie. I think your father would be proud.”

Her sudden sweet smile was gone almost before her grandson could blink.

“Are ye happy working in the smiddy?”

His face lit up.

“Aye. Mr Cuthbert’s a kind master, a fine millwright and toolmaker. Engineering interests me mair than shoeing horses, though.”

“But steady trade in horse shoon pays the rent, does it no’?”

“My father bought this house outright so my mother would have no rent to pay if anything happened to him. After Mother died Father willed the property tae me and my sisters. There will aye be a free roof over our heads.”

Walter Cargill had been a fisherman, aware he took his life in his hands every time he set sail.

“Your father was far-sighted,” Lilias owned.

“He was. He willed us the ship and all his savings.”

“It’s good ye had savings tae fall back upon, since the ship was a total loss.”

The boy’s cheeks reddened.

“There were debts to pay,” he admitted.

Demand for fish had soared because of food shortages brought about by the Napoleonic war. There was profit to be made at fish markets up and down the coast.

On the strength of this his father had ordered new sails, fishing nets and gear, and essential repairs were carried out on the vessel just before it set out on its last voyage.

When the ship was lost, it was inevitable a host of creditors came to the door demanding immediate payment of outstanding bills. Only a few coppers were left.

Lilias noted the droop of the lad’s shoulders. She nodded knowingly.

“The scavengers aye come chapping at the door when misfortune befalls a house.”

Too late, Alec realised he’d divulged family secrets. He hastened to repair the damage.

“Och, my father’s debts were soon settled and the slate wiped clean,” he assured Lilias. “Besides, I make a good living working for Mr Cuthbert, and my sisters are all in work.

“Maggie scrubs steps and stairs for rich folk and washes shop windows; Cathy Mary sews breeks and canvas sarks for fishermen and wee Amy’s employed by the sailmaker.

“We manage fine and dinna need help.”

“Aye, so Maggie said.”

Pointedly, Lilias leaned down to the coal scuttle and shovelled small coal and dross on to the dying embers, expertly banking the fire to keep its warm heart glowing overnight.

Lucy Crichton

Fiction Editor Lucy is always on the look-out for the very best short stories, poems and pocket novels. As well as sourcing enjoyable content, she enjoys working with our established contributors, encouraging new talent, and celebrating 155 years of 'Friend' fiction!