44 Scotland Street - A significant spurtle

12th Apr 2017

Abbotsford is delighted to be featured in one of the latest chapters of 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith. We are delighted to share the chapter ahead of the publication of the latest book in the long-running series at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer. 44 Scotland Street is an episodic novel by Alexander McCall Smith, the author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and you can find out more about the books on his website or follow along with new chapters published every day in The Scotsman.

In chapter 34 of volume 12 of 44 Scotland Street, child prodigy and resident of 44 Scotland Street Bertie and his friend Ranald make an incredible discovery during a visit to a Scottish attraction that fires up their imagination, Abbotsford.

It was Bertie who saw it first, sticking up out of the ground, half-hidden by the trailing sprig of bramble. Gingerly, avoiding the thorns, he pulled back the bramble, while Ranald Braveheart Macpherson peered at the half-exposed piece of blackened stump.

“What is it, Ranald?” asked Bertie. “Do you think it’s a bone?”

“Could be,” answered Ranald. “Maybe it’s an arm – or a bit of an arm.” He gestured to his forearm. “This bit here, see. Maybe the fingers have come off.”

Bertie bent the bramble upon itself so that they could both get an uninterrupted view. “I think I should dig it out, Ranald,” he said. “Then we can find the rest of the body.”

“What about germs?” asked Ranald. “There could be tons of germs around here, Bertie.”

Bertie considered this. “I think all the flesh has gone, Ranald,” he said. “Once all the flesh drops off …”

“Or is eaten by worms,” interjected Ranald. “Most of it gets eaten by worms, Bertie. That’s what happens, you know.”

“I know,” said Bertie. “But I think this is a really old arm, Ranald. I think this goes way, way back and there’ll be no germs or anything left.” He paused. “But if you like, I’ll start pulling it out, and if anything happens to me you can run and get help.”

“You’re very brave, Bertie,” said Ranald. “Tofu says that you’re scared of things, but I don’t think that’s true.”

“Tofu’s a well-known liar,” said Bertie.

“You can say that again,” said Ranald. “His pants will catch fire one day, Bertie. All those lies he’s told will catch up with him. And, boy, is God going to punish him when he eventually gets hold of him.”

Bertie had now moved forward and was crouching alongside the strange object. Reaching into his pocket for a handkerchief, he wrapped this around the top of the protrusion and gave it a gentle tug. The earth in which it was buried was dry and loose, and it did not take long for the thing to become free, bringing with it a small clump of attached soil. Bertie brushed this off with his free hand, while holding the top of the object with the handkerchief.

“I think it’s wood,” he said. “I don’t think it’s bone.” He brushed more soil away. “No, Ranald, this is a bit of wood – it’s not an arm, or anything like that.”

Ranald Braveheart Macpherson looked disappointed. “It’s a pity it’s not a body,” he said. “It would have been really exciting to have found a body, Bertie. We could have taken it to school to show people.”

Bertie did not reply. He did not think it likely that his mother would allow him to keep a body in the flat; there were so many restrictions in his life, and that was just one more of them.

“It’s a piece of carved wood, Ranald,” he said. “It’s a stick – maybe a baton. Look at this.”

Bertie pointed to a small round bobble at the top of the stick. As he polished it with his handkerchief, the shape became more recognisable. “That’s a thistle, Ranald. You see that bit there – that’s the smooth bit at the top of a thistle.”

Ranald had spotted something. “And down there, Bertie,” he said. “There’s some writing.”

Bertie looked at the small carved letters pointed out by Ranald. Peering more closely, he read out M R.

“Mr somebody?” asked Ranald. “Could that be the name of somebody who owned this?”

Bertie looked doubtful. “If it was Mr there would another name.” He examined the stick again. “But there isn’t.”

Ranald wondered whether it was a ceremonial wand of some sort. Bertie considered this and was about to answer when Ranald’s father appeared and asked them what they were doing. Proudly, the boys showed them their find. “We thought it was a bone,” said Ranald to his father. “But it’s really a sort of … sort of …”

“That looks rather like a spurtle,” said Ranald’s father. “You know what a spurtle is, don’t you?”

Bertie did. “It’s something you stir your porridge with, Mr Macpherson.”

“Precisely, Bertie. And should we go and show that to somebody in the house? Just to see whether they can throw any light on it?’

The two boys followed Ranald’s father back into the house, Ishbel having tidied up the picnic things and taken them back to the car. In response to Ranald’s father’s request to speak to somebody about a find, one of the custodians said that James Holloway, Chairman of the Trust, was in the house and they could speak to him.

James arrived and examined the spurtle carefully. “Where did you find it?” he asked.

Bertie explained, and James listened attentively. Then, addressing the two boys, he said, “This is a very important find. These initials here – M R – stand for Maria Regina, and this, boys, could well be nothing less than the lost spurtle of Mary, Queen of Scots!”

Bertie drew in his breath. “You mean …?”

“Exactly that, Bertie,” said James. “The place where you found it is the spot where Sir Walter Scott used to like to have picnics. He possessed Mary’s spurtle, but it went missing. He must have used it on a picnic and then dropped it by mistake.”

“The spurtle was not heard of after that,” continued James. “But then, in 1975, there was an article about it by Professor Sandy Fenton, published in the Scots Magazine. That raised interest in the subject, but nobody knew of its whereabouts – until, quite possibly, now.”

Ranald’s father was visibly pleased. “This is quite wonderful,” he said. “You boys have made a great discovery.”

“We shall, of course, evaluate it further,” said James solemnly. “But in the meantime, a small reward is payable to both of you.”

James reached into his pocket and took out a one-pound coin for each of the boys.

“Thank you very much, Mr Holloway,” said Bertie, pocketing his reward.

Ranald echoed the thanks.

“Who would have thought it?” said Ranald’s father. He glanced sideways at James, who smiled. Ranald’s father understood. He knew that the world was a place of wonder and excitement for seven-year-old boys – as it was for the rest of us, if we are willing to open our hearts to things beyond the things we see – and if that sense of wonder could be enhanced and made to last just a little bit longer, then why not? The world was a vale of tears – who could doubt that? – but there were moments when the tears might momentarily be wiped away.

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