Highland Crown

Royal Highlander Series: Book 1

Special Excerpt

 

Prologue

Abbotsford, the Scottish Borders

September 1832

Some say I’m a hero. Some call me a traitor.

My time grows short now. I feel nothing in my right side. My hand lies inert on the bedclothes. The apoplexy has robbed me of any useful employment. I tried, but I cannot hold a pen. Not that it matters. Those exertions are behind me now.

Some will say that I, Sir Walter Scott—author of Waverley and Rob Roy and Red Gauntlet—invented the new Scotland. That I was the unfailing champion of the noble traditions of the past. That I revealed the Scottish identity that all now wear with tartan-emblazoned pride.

What they say is a lie.

My family has brought down my bed and propped me up before the open window of my dining room. In the meadow outside, the yellow of the rock-rose, the scarlet of the campion flower, the pure white of the ox-eyed daisies nearly blind me with their reckless brilliance. The water scratches over the pebbled shore of the Tweed at the end of the field, but instead, I hear the haunting voices of hungry, homeless Highlanders, dying by the thousands.

How many have died as the ancient hills continue to be cleared of their tenant farmers in the name of progress? Pushed from their homes, driven to the sea, to the cold, hard streets of our cities, to lands far away . . . if they could survive the journey. All to make way for a few more sheep. All in the quest of a few more shillings.

I did what I believed at the time was right for Scotland. I convinced myself I could not let my country descend into the lawless chaos of bloody revolution, the throat of civility ripped out by the mob. It happened in France. The guillotine’s dread machinery flew out of control, splashing far too much innocent blood into the streets in its ravaging thirst for the guilty. And the cobbled lanes of Paris were not yet dry when a new terror arose in the form of their arrogant tyrant Napoleon. I told myself I could not let that happen here. Not here. Not in my homeland.

But now I see the truth clearly, and the bitter gall of that knowledge rises into my throat. I spent a lifetime creating an image of Scotland that I knew was not real. I closed my eyes to the suffering and the deaths of my own people, and instead told stories depicting the grandeur of an imagined Highland past. And as I worked, I held my tongue about the bloody decimation of the clans and their way of life. Men I dined with daily were profiting from the killing, and I said nothing. Worse, I, too, made money from it with my romantic tales.

Many are those who see me clearly. To them, I am Walter Scott—turncoat, bootlicking lackey of the British Crown. They say I sold the independence of Scotland for a shabby box of tawdry and meaningless honors. They say that because of me, the Scottish people will never be free again. That I betrayed them for a wee bit of fleeting fame and the price of a few books.

Now, after all these years, I find myself forced to agree. And that is all the more difficult to bear because I lie here with Death stalking the shadows of Abbotsford.

He’s been dogging my faltering steps for some time now.

This fever struck me as we returned from our travels. Rome and Naples, Florence and Venice. Those places had offered no relief. Death was coming for me. London was covered in yellow fog when we arrived, but the rest is a blur. They tell me I lay close to death for weeks. I don’t recall. And then the final journey home. The steady rumbling rhythm of a steamboat remains in my mind, but I remember very little of that. I only know that I am home now.

Two of my hunters have been turned out into the meadow. Fine mounts. The golden sun glistens on their powerful shoulders as they begin to graze. I wish I could be as content, but life has buffeted me about, and the choices I’ve made give me no respite. Nor should they.

My mind returns again and again to the upheaval of 1820, to the “‘Rising.”’

We called those men and women radicals, when all they wanted were the rights and freedoms of citizens. In the name of equality and fraternity, they cried out for representation. They demanded the vote. Some called for an end to what they saw as the iron fist of Crown rule. They wanted to sever our northern kingdom from England and restore the ancient parliament of Scotland. In my lifetime, those men and women were the last chance for Scotland’s independence, and I blinded myself to their cause. And when Westminster made it treason to assemble and protest, they willingly gave their lives. The heroic blood of the Bruce and the Wallace flowed in their veins. I see that now. Too late.

That same year, that same month, as the blood flowed, I returned to Scotland from Westminster bearing my new title. Even now, I feel the weight of the king’s sword on my shoulders. But as I reveled proudly in my accomplishments, the cities across the land were tinderboxes, threatening to explode in a wild conflagration of civil war. The weavers and the other tradesmen in Glasgow and Edinburgh had just brought the country’s affairs to a halt with their strikes. Some of the reformers had courageously marched on the ironworks at Carron to seize weapons.

Scotland teetered on the brink of anarchy. I was afraid. So I took the well-worn path of weak men.

I feel the fever’s heat coming on again. The colors outside my window grow more brilliant. I hear the sound of voices singing an old Scots ballad. Or is it thunder?

My single moment of courage came when I saved a woman who would help change the course of history.

Isabella Murray Drummond. A marvel of this modern age. A doctor, no less, who’d studied at the university in Wurzburg, where her eminent father held a professor’s chair. When he passed away, she married an Edinburgh physician who’d gone to further his studies under the tutelage of her father. He was a widower with a growing daughter. She was a single woman left with a younger sister and a small inheritance. It was a marriage of convenience.

Isabella, who had the loveliness of Venus and the bearing of a queen,. She saved me from losing my leg—lame since my childhood—after the carriage accident in Cowgate. Carried to her husband’s house, I was fortunate he was not at home, for she was the very angel of mercy I needed at that moment, and her skill as a physician saved my life.

Some will always think me a traitor. I know now that I have helped in giving away Scotland’s chance for independence . . . perhaps forever . . . in return for a peace that was profitable for a few. But if I have one thing in my life that I’ll never regret, it was my action on that woman’s behalf when the time came.

The news spread across the city. Isabella Drummond’s husband was dead, and she was in hiding with her sister and her stepdaughter. The government had declared her an enemy of the Crown, placed a bounty upon her head. Her husband’s rebellious allies wanted her, as well, believing she’d inform on them.

I succeeded in helping the women escape from the city, far to the north where they would board a ship bound for Canada. She would was to join all those Highlanders who were journeying to a new life. But she would never board any ship. She would never reach the shores of that far-off place.

It was there on the rugged coast of the Highlands that she disappeared . . . and lived a truer adventure than ever flowed from my pen.

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