My mother groan’d! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I
Glen of Loch Trool
"Breathe not a word of my visit, Jean. Not to a soul." The midwife merely
nodded, opening the bothy door wider to receive her unexpected guest.
Rowena McKie brushed past her into the cottage, then eased her ungainly body
onto a rough bench. Her skirt caught on the splintery wood, and she snatched
it free with an impatient yank. Another ragged seam for Ivy’s busy needle
and thread to mend. "Tell me the babe’s coming soon, Jean. Mr. McKie can’t sleep
at night for worrying."
Carrying her husband’s heir through the long days of a Lowland summer had
ground Rowena down like corn at McCracken’s mill. Her feet were swollen, her
knees ached, and even fresh meadowsweet could not ease the burning in her
stomach. Rowena pressed her damp palms against the unfinished oak and took the
deepest breath she could. She’d come to the midwife for answers and had no
intention of leaving without them.
"Now, now." The older woman leaned over and squeezed Rowena’s shoulder, her
touch as gentle as her words. "Nothin’ mair than nerves. Yer first time
and all." Jean’s eyes were wreathed in wrinkles and blue as forget-me-nots. Her
dress was made of striped drugget, the too-snug bodice made for a younger woman.
Beneath the ragged hem poked her bare feet, browned by the sun, the nails grass
stained but neatly trimmed. "Ye were right to come knockin’ on my door. What
would folks in the glen be sayin’ if I didn’t tend to Mr. McKie’s firstborn? Yer
time is still a month off, but when it comes—"
"A month?" Rowena’s eyes widened. "Are you daft, woman? I’ll not last a week
like this! Can’t you see how the child moves within me?" To prove her claim she
arched her back, inviting the midwife’s inspection. "Look for yourself. Like a
wild goat kicking his heels to one side, then the other."
"Mair than one wee goat." Jean smoothed her hands across the fabric of
Rowena’s dress, measuring the shape of her distended figure with a practiced
eye. "Twa, I’d say."
Rowena’s mouth dropped open. "Twins?"
The midwife nodded thoughtfully. "Boys, I’ll wager."
Speechless, Rowena stared down at her belly. Her husband, Alec, had pleaded
with the Almighty to bless her barren womb with a son. But two at once? Another
kettle of fish, that. She rubbed her aching sides, feeling the child—children,
if the midwife was right—moving beneath the gentle pressure of her hands. The
walls of Glentrool were built with a large family in mind. Would her aging body
be so accommodating?
A swift kick in her abdomen seemed an uncanny answer. "Speak the truth, Jean.
This constant commotion, the sharp pains in my ribs. Surely this can’t be the
usual way of things, even with twins?"
The midwife chewed on her lip, continuing to press and prod Rowena’s middle.
"Twa bairns are always harder on the mither. But I fear somethin’
is amiss." A note of compassion crept into the older woman’s voice. "How auld
are ye, Mistress McKie?"
"Too old to be having my first, if that’s what you mean." The worst of her
many worries had come home to roost. "I’ll be thirty-eight come November."
Jean made a st-st sound against her teeth. "If I weren’t so certain
this was the Lord’s doin’, I’d be gatherin’ stanes for yer burial cairn.
But seein’ how the Almighty has placed his hand upon yer womb, I’ll be usin’
these instead." She reached into the money pouch tied at her waist and unfolded
her fingers to reveal two silver coins in her palm. "All ready to tuck into
their fists. Ye know the custom?"
Rowena nodded, relieved to hear the woman’s confident tone. Jean was a woman
who feared the Almighty, not a common wutch. The silver pieces cast no
spell; they were meant for good luck and the blessing of wealth. It seemed Jean
expected the children to live. And so, please God, would she.
Rowena rose unsteadily to her feet, hoping the change in position might offer
some relief. Instead it yielded another vicious kick from her hidden offspring
and a jolt of pain at the base of her spine. Jean’s passing comment crept into
her bones like a damp mist, chilling her. "You said something is amiss?"
The midwife nodded slowly. "They’re twins…but not the same. Verra
different lads. One stronger than the other. By and by, the older will serve
Rowena’s mouth went dry. Twins but not twins. A bad omen after all.
She would see them baptized by the parish minister at the earliest possible
hour. But the older serving the younger? That was not the Scottish way of
things. Staring hard at the woman’s unblinking blue gaze, Rowena searched her
lined face for assurance. "Is this a word from the Almighty?"
"Tis that, aye." Jean’s gray head bobbed slowly up and down. "Time will prove
"I’ve little doubt of that." For the moment she would let the subject rest.
Jean Wilson was the finest howdie in Galloway. Rowena knew she would be
in good hands when the time came. "I’d best be home before Mr. McKie discovers
I’m gone and frets himself sick. I slipped out the door without telling him
where I was going." She shrugged slightly, knowing Jean would understand.
"He’s fash enough these days, watching my belly grow." Rowena moved
toward the door, gathering her light plaid about her shoulders. Summer or not,
the evening winds blew a stout breeze across Loch Trool. "Don’t stray far, Jean.
I’ll be sending my maidservant Ivy Findlay round soon enough. You’ll be here
when she calls?"
"I’ve not missed a birthin’ in the glen all these years, Mistress McKie."
"Aye. By God’s mercy, mine will not be the first."
Bidding her farewell, Rowena left the thatch-roofed cottage behind and picked
her way along the winding path toward home. Awkward as she was of late, riding
on horseback was impossible and a carriage out of the question, with no proper
road and bogs at every turn.
Rowena slowed her steps, more exhausted than she could ever remember. And no
wonder. Twins! All well and good for Alec, nearing sixty, to pray for an
heir. He didn’t have the burden of carrying the babes. "Nor the challenge of
bearing them," she announced to a wheatear that flew over her shoulder, its
black-and-white tail flirting like a lass’s fan.
She tilted her head back, taking in the steep slopes rising all around, so
different from the rolling hills of east Galloway where she’d spent her
girlhood. Mulldonach loomed on the right, where Robert the Bruce had claimed his
first victory against the English troops by rolling great boulders down the
steep slopes and crushing the army. Ahead rose Buchan Hill, once the hunting
ground of Comyn, Earl of Buchan, now covered with McKie flocks. Rough and craggy
at the top, the mountains gave way to slender stretches of grass and sparse,
piney woods along the meandering loch.
At the heart of the glen stood the granite walls of Glentrool, the only
laird’s house for miles and her home for the last twenty years. Guests marveled
at the imposing tower house with its round turrets and soaring chimneys that
stood in the shadow of the Fell of Eschoncan. When asked how it had been
constructed in so remote a setting, Alec borrowed a tale from the Bruce and
insisted, "The stanes rolled doon the mountain, and the hoose
When Archibald McKie, Alec’s father, bartered a bride for his son from the
distant parish of Newabbey, Glentrool had welcomed her with pine-scented arms.
Bartered was not quite the way of it, Rowena reminded herself with a
chuckle, but it was not far from the truth. Her brother, Lachlan, had urged her
to marry Alec, and she’d agreed sight unseen. It was not merely the vast McKie
lands that had appealed to Lachlan’s greedy nature. The fine gold bracelets
McKie’s manservant had slipped around her wrists were enticement as well. "A
bonny bride is soon decorated," young Lachlan had whispered in her ear,
pocketing the silver McKie’s man had pressed into his own hands. "Haste to his
side, lass, and let him see what his coin has purchased."
Rowena and Alec were married a fortnight later with their parents’ ardent
How young she’d been! Eighteen, green as Galloway grass in May. What had she
known of marriage, of life in the lonely glen, far from village and friend?
She’d learned to care for her older, steady-tempered husband, even to love him
as the years passed. Respect had not come so easily. Alec gave in too readily to
her wishes. He was more wind-bent willow than stalwart oak, good man though he
was. Rowena shook her head, thinking of all the times her headstrong nature had
overwhelmed his passive one. "Such a heidie lass I’ve brought under my
roof!" he would say, then pinch her cheek a bit harder than necessary. Willful
she might be, but before summer’s end she would present him with not one heir,
but two. It was a secret too good to keep, yet too dangerous to tell until the
babes were safely tucked in her arms and away from the fairies’ grasp.
"Och!" Rowena yanked her skirts clear of a prickly blackthorn bush,
imagining the seasons to come with two strong-willed young sons. Who would help
her raise them when their father grew too old and weak to be of any use? Her
parents were gone. And her brother lived in distant Newabbey, separated from her
by mountains and moors.
"I’ll be needing your help, Lord," she whispered, stepping gingerly along the
mossy banks. "If I’m to raise my sons worthy of their father’s blessing, I canna
do it alone."
* * * * *
Rowena was anything but alone when her time came. Half a dozen women gathered
about her birthing room to witness the birth of the McKie heir. Rowena vaguely
recognized their faces through the pain that hung over her like a shroud, yet
she could not think of a single one of their names. Was that McTaggart’s widow
in the stiff gray bonnet? Or one of the McMillans from Glenhead? Every one of
her neighbors would later insist that she was present at the birth. Rowena heard
the women murmuring, felt their eyes on her. For the moment they offered more
gossip than comfort.
She sat propped up in the midst of the enormous bed she shared with Alec, its
heavy curtains drawn tightly back. The autumn sun streamed through the casement
window and across her pillow, warming the room. In the hearth a fire blazed, to
be used for boiling water as needed and for staving off the chill the evening
air would bring. For now the heat only added to Rowena’s misery. "Jean," she
whispered, her mouth parched, her breath coming in gasps. "Thirsty."
The midwife dipped her finger in a cup of cool water and ran it along
Rowena’s lips to moisten them. "I canna gie ye anythin’ to drink,
Mistress McKie. Later, I promise, ye can have yer fill." Jean put the cup aside,
then leaned over her, almost singing in a voice low and rhythmic:
"Breathe now. There ye go. And again. That’s the way." Jean smoothed Rowena’s
hair back from her brow and adjusted her pillow, then reached for a blue thread
of spun wool stretched out on the bedside table. "Gie me yer ring finger,
She obliged, lifting her hand from the sheets bunched around her in a futile
attempt at modesty. As instructed, she breathed as deeply as she could while
Jean’s nimble fingers wound the blue thread around her finger, above her thick
silver wedding band.
"Keep her safe from the fever, Almighty God," Jean intoned, tying the string
in a neat bow, then squeezing Rowena’s fingers against the knot. "‘Twas your
mither’s and yer granmithers thread before that, aye?"
Rowena nodded. Both her foremothers had bravely survived their labor without
succumbing to childbed fever—spared, it was thought, by the common blue thread.
Rubbing her thumb over the worn wool, Rowena prayed it would bring her good
fortune as well. So little about birthing was within a woman’s control. Jean had
placed the family Bible under her pillow, as custom dictated, and an old nail
under her bed for safe measure, lest a changeling be substituted for the healthy
babe. God alone knew how the day would end.
The midwife eyed the women gossiping across the room, then leaned closer and
whispered in Rowena’s ear, "Come midnight we’ll see the lads born." The two
women had not breathed a word of their expectations to anyone, not even to Alec
McKie. What, and bring ill luck knocking at the door? No, indeed.
Rowena studied Jean’s face, hungry for more news. "Before midnight? Wednesday
then?" The month, the day, the hour—every detail of the birth had a meaning. "Or
will it be Thursday?"
"Hush now." Jean reached down and pressed two gnarled fingers to her lips.
"The Lord knows, Mistress McKie. Trust
Before the hour ended, trust in God was all Rowena had left. Excruciating
pain cleft her in two as the twins fought over who would appear first. Day
dragged into evening. Eyes bleary, arms drooping at her side like broken wings,
Rowena staggered around the room until she could walk no more. Drained of
strength, she crouched in the bed, hands clutching her knees, and begged the
heavens for mercy. At the end she could do naught but push when Jean demanded
it, then fall back in an exhausted stupor, only to push again a moment
In desperation, the neighborhood women circled her bed, holding aloft their
cherished family Bibles, pleading for the Almighty’s enemies to be hurled into
the Red Sea. "Help me," Rowena pleaded again and again. It was taking too long;
it was all taking much too long.
The starless sky was black as pitch and every candle lit when the midwife
finally shouted with glee, "I see a tuft of bricht red hair!" A cheer
rang about the room, then busy hands hastened to their duties. Everything moved
at a faster clip. Drenched in tears and sweat, Rowena made a final effort to end
her agony. One floor below, the workings of an ancient clock began to grind
loudly, preparing to strike the hour.
A cry split the air first.
"He’s here! Yer son is born!" crowed Jean.
One. Two. Three.
Rowena sank into the bed, barely conscious as the distant chimes rang.
Four. Five. Six.
She could hear the babe whimpering as Jean called out, "Och! There’s a second
child, there is! Hanging on to his brother’s heel for dear life."
Rowena felt the urge to push again.
Seven. Eight. Nine.
Jean’s voice rang out, louder than the chimes. "One mair push, Mistress
McKie, and ye’!l have twa bairns lyin’ in yer arms."
Ten. Eleven. Twelve.
The whole gathering held its breath until another lusty cry rang out in the
crowded bedroom. The clock was silent now, but all else was in an uproar.
"Twa sons, they are! Twins!"
Rowena fell back on her pillow in a faint, while all around the room merry
bedlam reigned. Amid the clamor Jean made short work of the cords with a sharp
knife, then fed each child a wee spoonful of salt to chase away the fairies and
gave them a quick dunking in cool water from the loch to make them strong and
healthy. Dazed, Rowena could do nothing but watch as every precaution was taken.
A candle fashioned from the root of a fir tree, cut into thin splinters and
seeping with turpentine, was carried around her bed three times. Rowan twigs
were tossed on the fire. Prayers were said by each woman in turn before passing
a dish of oatmeal and water and supping three spoonfuls. With two fragile lives
hanging in the balance, this was no time to put aside the old
Jean left the others to their business and tended to Rowena’s needs, clucking
and fussing as she helped her sit up. She propped a bolster behind her, then
firmly pressed a shivering, squalling infant into the crook of each arm, their
wet bodies tightly wrapped in newly woven linen. "Nothin’ alike, yer lads," Jean
murmured, leaning closer as she pushed aside the soiled sheets. "See how the red
one wears a hairy cloak, and the other has naught but a bit o’ goose down on his
Rowena could not take her eyes off their tiny faces, pinched and wrinkled,
their hungry cries piercing her soul. My sons, she whispered, brushing a light
kiss on each head, fighting tears. Afraid to speak the names she’d chosen for
them until the lads were baptized, she pressed her cheek to their damp heads and
in her heart lifted them to heaven in prayer: Evan Alexander McKie, the
one with a full head of red hair and a lusty cry. James Lachlan McKie,
his downy-capped younger brother. "May I love them both the same," she said
"‘Twill be a challenge, different as they are," Jean agreed, patting her arm.
"Not even born on the same day, these twa. But both McKies, no mistakin’
Rowena pulled her attention away from her sons long enough to meet the
midwife’s sympathetic gaze. "What do you mean they weren’t born on the same
Jean glanced behind her, then crouched down until they were eye to eye. "Did
ye notice the clock chimin’?"
"Aye, but..." Rowena’s limbs suddenly began to shake uncontrollably.
"Not to worry. To be expected, this chill of yours. ‘Twill pass soon enough."
Ever efficient, Jean tucked woolen blankets around Rowena’s legs and shoulders,
then lifted a cup of tepid tea to her lips. "Now then, about the time of birth.
This red and birsie son of yers was born when Wednesday was on the wane.
But this smooth one came after all twelve chimes ushered in Thursday. D’ye see
how it is?"
Rowena stared down at their damp heads. "Wednesday’s child is full of woe,"
she whispered, a rhyme spoken by every Scottish mother from time out of
Jean nodded, her jovial expression growing more serious. "Aye, so it is. And
‘Thursday’s child has far tae go."
"Oh, but not yet, wee one." Rowena swallowed hard, horrified at the mere
thought of the younger, smaller twin being taken from her side. Jamie.
The look of his sweet, brown-tufted head had already stolen her heart.
"Please, not yet."
"Have no fear. Both will live." Jean’s voice was low but firm. "The second
one, born past midnight, will have the power to see the Spirit o’ God abroad in
the land. He’s gifted, that one. Remember what I told ye the month last? ‘The
older will serve the younger.’ See that ye don’t forget when the time
"When might that be?" Rowena’s shivering continued as she drew her babies
closer still. "How will I know?"
Jean shrugged, not unkindly. "We niver know when or where, Mistress
McKie. Like any mither, ye must stand at the ready. Almighty God will show ye
what’s tae be done." Jean squeezed her shoulder with frank affection, then
gently touched each infant’s head. "And now, mistress, what else may I do for ye
A fresh spate of tears rolled down Rowena’s face and over her trembling lips.
"Tell Mr. McKie..." She choked on her words, clutching her babies tight against
her swollen breasts. "Tell him his prayers have been answered. God has seen fit
to make him a father."
Thorn in My Heart by Liz Curtis Higgs, copyright
2003. Used by permission. All rights reserved.