The 39 Step-We-Gaylee’s

27 01 2010

Further to a earlier blog about Stornoway’s old Victorian Pier and the way it featured in John Buchan’s  ‘The 39 Step We Gay-lees’, we are pleased to announce that after extensive negotiations with a librarian in the town library (she’s not going to press charges for ripping the pages out of the book) we can exclusively reproduce a section from the original Buchan manuscript. But first to give you some background.

In pre First World War Stornoway, Richard Hamnaway is a well-known adventurer engaged by the British Government to prevent valuable tweed patterns being smuggled out of the country by a foreign power. He has gained intelligence that an agent from this unnamed country is preparing to hand over a large sum of money to a double agent who is working undercover in Sticky’s Mill. Can Hamnaway stop the loss of the tweed patterns and thus prevent the slide into global warfare?

The extract goes like so:

“I stood under the canvas awning of a small wooden fish stall, close towards the end of Stornoway’s ornate Victorian pier. This crude shelter afforded me little warmth in the January night, so I lit my trusty pipe (which I had purchased last year from Stevenson’s Tobacconists on Point Street) in a vain attempt to instill some home comforts to my lonely vigil. I cupped the bowl of the pipe with my gloved hands, partly to conceal my presence less the faint glow of tobacco should give away my position, but equally to warm my bones on this damp Hebridean night. My sturdy Harris Tweed jacket, which had served me so well on cold Savannah nights, stood up well to the persistent drizzle, but had started to smell like a wet gun-dogs arse after a days grouse bashing on the Uig moors. I began to hope that my vigil would not last for much longer.

From the end of the pier I could watch over much of the town should trouble arise, but more importantly I could watch for the arrival of Count Haggasnikov from the obscurity of the awning. If Smithers, god rest his poor soul, had been correct, the Russian agent would be setting foot on the pier at any time. From where I stood I hoped to discover who his contact would be. Would it be the Reverend Deuteronomy MacLeod? Would his hollowed out bible with the revolver be his undoing? But what on the tall mysterious Elder? Why would he have shown such interest in the contents of Lady Mathesons hamper? If it were the Elder, why would he risk everything to exchange the forged tweed patterns with the Russian Tsarist? All these questions would soon be answered I surmised, as I puffed gently on my old twist. But if only the rain would stop.

My mental perambulations were soon curtailed by the sound of the Plasterfield omnibus passing along South Beach. I watched as the bus slowed down and stopped outside Burton’s Tailorshop. A lone figure alighted from the omnibus and quickly merged into the shadow of the Town Hall. The omnibus moved on with the sound of laboured gears and disappeared along Castle Street.

The stillness returned to the harbour. A few seagulls squabbled in the distance, but apart from that all I could hear was my Woolworth’s fob watch ticking in time with my heartbeat. Suddenly, the watchful silence was displaced by the unmistakable sound of a Gaelic song. A lone voice was giving what could only be described as a drunken rendition of ‘Tha Mi Sgith’, a song popular amongst the natives of these isles. I saw the singer stagger along South Beach, taking his time and apparently with not a care in the world.

A raised voice came from an upper floor window, somewhere along the street.

‘Shut the fleek up you bleigard!’ yelled an unsettled householder from within the darkness, ‘I’m trying to get some fleeking sleep!’

I made out the drunk curse once or twice, but continue with his nocturnal serenade as he stumbled over the cobbles towards the Town Hall. The figure in the Town Hall shadows barely moved, obviously trying to remain discrete. The drunk stopped in his tracks and paused swaying for a second or two before making for the wall of the Town Hall. Although he had his back to me I could tell he was answering a call of nature, presumably all over the main door of the Town Hall.

A muffled shout went up from the shadows and I heard a foreign voice cry out ‘You manky ceard-ski, you’re pissing all over my boots!’

It was Count Haggasnikov! The drunk had inadvertently disturbed the Russian’s vigil with a well aimed shot of bodily fluids. The Count moved out of the shadows and into the gaslight. As he lifted his left foot in disgust and shook it from side to side, another figure made a move from behind a pile of herring barrels on the harbour front.

This person was cloaked and wearing a wide-brimmed hat which obscured the face. However, my practiced eye told me right away that this new protagonist was a woman. Could it be the spurned bride? Or was it Lady Matheson herself? Before I could deduce who it was or what their motives might be, a single shot broke the silence of the harbour front.

I caught sight of a puff of gun smoke coming from behind a bale of wool opposite the Town Hall. Someone had discharged a revolver and that someone was now giving chase to the Count and the unknown female. I could see the Count running towards the pier, hampered now by a limp in his left leg. Whether this was due to a gunshot wound or the wetness of his urine soaked boot I could not say. Yet another shot rang out, this time from the Town Hall clock itself. To my practised ear it sounded unmistakably like a 12 bore hunting rifle. That could mean one thing and one thing alone, it was Professor MacLennan, the big game hunter from Maravig, only this time the mad man was hunting human prey instead of tigers in the Punjab or deer on the Pairc.

I watched as the now confused drunk stood bewildered, not knowing where to look, nor to run. A second shot issued from the Town Hall clock, the sound ricocheting round the buildings. In reply came the unmistakable report of a Gatling Gun, spluttering death from its barrel into the damp night. Someone somewhere was covering the Counts retreat, perhaps from the back of that fish-lorry parked outside the Bank? Sure enough, an Ossian’s lorry was stationed beside the Fishmart and was now peppering the Town Hall clock with bullets. These bullets must have found a target in the clock tower’s bell, as the strains of ‘Lovely Stornoway’ chimed into the damp night.

Now, I’m known widely as a chap of great caution but my inquisitive nature was now getting the better part of me. I peered out from my shelter to try to gauge where the various sounds of gunfire were coming from. As I did, a sharp pain briefly assailed my senses and my more importantly my forehead. Instinct took control and I ducked behind the wood, dropping my trusty pipe as I did so. I crawled over to the cast iron railings and took cover behind one of the ornate balustrades of the pier, as around me the shooting match gained momentum. My own revolver was soon in my hand, ready to defend the Empire and the Harris Tweed industry from whosoever was behind the counterfeit tweed pattern ring.”