M.C. Beaton

A Highland Christmas

Hamish Macbeth #16

1999, EN

? A Highland Christmas ?


More and more people each year are going abroad for Christmas. To celebrate the season of goodwill towards men, British Airways slams an extra one hundred and four pounds on each air ticket. But the airports are still jammed.

For so many people are fleeing Christmas.

Fed up with the fact that commercial Christmas starts in October. Fed up with carols. Dreading the arrival of Christmas cards from people they have forgotten to send a card to. Unable to bear yet another family get-together with Auntie Mary puking up in the corner after sampling too much of the punch. You see at the airports the triumphant glitter in the eyes of people who are leaving it all behind, including the hundredth rerun of Miracle on 34th Street.

But in Lochdubh, in Sutherland, in the very far north of Scotland, there is nothing to flee from. Christmas, thought Hamish Macbeth gloomily, as he walked along the waterfront, his shoulders hunched against a tearing wind, was not coming to Lochdubh this year any more than it had come the previous years.

There was a strong Calvinist element in Lochdubh which frowned on Christmas. Christmas had nothing to do with the birth of Christ, they said, but was really the old Roman Saturnalia which the early Christians had taken over. And as for Santa Claus – forget it.

So there were no Christmas lights, no tree, nothing to sparkle in the dark winter.

P.C. Hamish Macbeth was feeling particularly sour, for his family had taken off for Florida for a winter vacation. His mother had won a family holiday for thinking up a slogan for a new soap powder – “Whiter Than The Mountain Snow” – and Hamish could not go with them. Sergeant Macgregor over at Cnothan was ill in hospital with a grumbling appendix and Hamish had been instructed to take over the sergeant’s beat as well as do his own.

Hamish’s family were unusual in that they had always celebrated Christmas – tree, turkey, presents and all. In parts of the Highlands, like Lochdubh, the old spirit of John Knox still wandered, blasting anyone with hell-fire should they dare to celebrate this heathen festival.

Hamish had often pointed out that none other than Luther was credited with the idea of the Christmas tree, having been struck by the sight of stars shining through the branches of an evergreen. But to no avail. Lochdubh lay silent and dark beside the black waters of the loch.

He turned back towards the police station. The wind was becoming even more ferocious. The wind of Sutherland can sound frightening as it moves up from ordinary tumult to a high-pitched screech and then a deep booming roar.

Hamish decided to settle down with a glass of whisky in front of the television. He was just reaching up for the whisky bottle in one of the kitchen cupboards when he realized he had not checked the answering machine. He went through to the police office. There was one message, and it was Mrs. Gallagher saying she wanted him to call on her immediately as she wished to report a burglary.

Hamish groaned.“ This is all I need,” he said to the dingy, uncaring walls of the police office. He loathed Mrs. Gallagher. She was a tough, wiry old lady who ran her small croft single-handed. She lived out on the Cnothan road and was generally detested. She was described as crabbit, meaning ‘sourpuss.’ Mrs. Gallagher never had a good word to say for anybody. She had a genius for sniffing out the vulnerable points in anyone’s character and going in for the kill.

In the far north of Scotland in winter, there are only a few hours of daylight. Hamish glanced at his watch. “Three o’clock and black as hell already,” he muttered.

The wind cut like a knife as he climbed into the police Land Rover. As he held the wheel tightly against the buffeting of the wind and drove along the curving road out of the village, he realized that he had never questioned Mrs. Gallagher’s bitterness. It had simply been one of those unpleasant facts of his existence since he had started policing in Lochdubh.

At last he bumped up the rutted track leading to the low croft house where Mrs. Gallagher lived. Bending his head against the ferocity of the wind, he rapped at the door. He waited as he heard her fumbling with locks and bolts. What was she afraid of? Most crofters didn’t bother locking their doors.

Then he saw the gleam of an eye through the door, which she opened on a chain. She had always had all those locks. How on earth could anyone manage to get in and burgle her?

“Police,” he said.

The chain dropped and the door opened wide. “Come ben,” she said curtly.

He ducked his head and followed her in.

As in most croft houses, the kitchen was used as a living room with the parlour being kept for “best.” That meant the parlour was usually only used for weddings and funerals. Mrs. Gallagher’s kitchen was cosy and cheerful, belying the permanently sour expression on her face. She had a mass of thick crinkly pepper-and-salt hair. The skin of her face was like old leather, beaten into a permanent tan by working outdoors. Her eyes were that peculiar light grey, almost silver, you still see in the Highlands. Emotions flitted over the surface of such eyes like cloud shadows on the sea and yet rarely gave anything away.

“What’s been taken?” asked Hamish.

“Sit down and stop looming over me,” she snapped. Hamish obediently sat down. “My cat, Smoky’s been stolen.” Hamish had started to tug out his notebook, then left it alone.

“How long’s the cat been gone?”

“Twenty-four hours.”

“Look here, Mrs. Gallagher, it’s probably strayed, gone wild or been killed by the fox.” Like “the devil,” it was always “the fox” in the Highlands of Scotland, where crofters had no sentimentality about an animal they damned as the worst piece of vermin in the countryside.

“Havers!” said Mrs. Gallagher. “If I say it is stolen, then it is stolen and it is your duty to get it back.”

“I’ll have a look around for it,” said Hamish, struggling to rise out of the low chair on which he was sitting. “Is there any sign of a break-in? Any doors, locks or windows been tampered with?”

“Not a sign. But they could be too cunning for the likes of you. I want you to get a SOCO team out here,” said Mrs. Gallagher. Hamish, who watched police soaps as well, knew she meant a Scene of Crime Operatives team. “Smoky was here with me. He didn’t go out.”

“Did you go out yourself?”

“Yes, I went to feed the sheep.”

“And wouldn’t Smoky nip out after you?”

“No, Smoky never goes out until dinnertime.” Hamish interpreted “dinnertime” to mean midday. In most houses in and around Lochdubh, dinner was still in the middle of the day and high tea, that is, one course followed by bread and scones and cakes and washed down with tea, in the early evening.

“I cannot order a forensic team frae Strathbane for a missing cat,” said Hamish. “Anyway, they chust wouldn’t come.”

“Your trouble,” said Mrs. Gallagher, “is that you are lazy. That is why you are still unmarried. You are too damn lazy to get off your scrawny backside to even court a lassie.”

Hamish stood up and looked down at her. “I will look around outside for your cat and post a notice at the

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