Murder and a meeting with the Lord Advocate

The second of four extracts from Douglas Watt’s latest historical crime novel, A Killing in Van Dieman’s Land, featuring investigative advocate John MacKenzie and his side-kick Davie Scougall, set in late 17th century Edinburgh.

Wednesday, 14th April 2021, 7:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 14th April 2021, 10:30 am
A Killing in Van Dieman's Land

Chapter 1: A Meeting with the Lord Advocate

‘Congratulations on becoming a grandfather’, said Dalrymple, looking up with a hint of a smile on his pale face. He sat behind a huge desk, on which two candles flickered, the only source of light in the dark, windowless chamber. Dressed entirely in black, his body seemed to meld with the surrounding darkness, accentuating his ghostly features and the whiteness of his wig.

Rosehaugh was Lord Advocate the last time MacKenzie had sat in this room. Rosehaugh was now gone – swept out by the revolution two years before, just as MacKenzie was swept out of the Court of Session. The world was indeed turned upside down, although some things remained the same. The Lord Advocate’s office was the same dismal, stuffy chamber. The same grim paintings covered the walls, depicting previous Advocates, just perceptible in the shadows. MacKenzie doubted Rosehaugh’s portrait hung among them yet. The revolution was still raw and its final outcome was perhaps uncertain.

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‘I’m twice blessed, my Lord’, MacKenzie replied. ‘My daughter is returned to me after her...’, he hesitated for a moment, searching for the right words to describe Elizabeth’s elopement with Ruairidh MacKenzie, ‘...adventure in the Highlands. And I have a grandson at the Hawthorns.’

‘I’m pleased to hear it.’ Dalrymple’s expression reverted to its usual stoniness. ‘Have you heard anything of your chief?’ he asked casually, rotating the quill in his right hand.

MacKenzie had to be careful with what he said. Dalrymple supported the revolution that had brought William to the throne. MacKenzie did not, but neither was he committed to the Jacobites who sought the restoration of James Stuart, the previous King. His chief Seaforth was, however, a devoted Jacobite.

‘Seaforth is with James in Ireland, my Lord’, said MacKenzie. ‘It’s common knowledge. I have no time for plots. I’m done with politics. I’m happy to tend my plants and play with my grandson in my garden. I fear the revolution is a... fait accompli.’

Dalrymple nodded in satisfaction and sat back, observing MacKenzie carefully. He returned his quill to the stand and said smugly, ‘James will never return as King of this country

or any other. King William will crush the fools who support him. Your clan must accept King William. Everyone will accept King William eventually. A few clans hold out, but I will bring them into the fold... soon.’

MacKenzie smiled ruefully. ‘I cannot say I’m happy with William as King. But what can I do about it? I’m too old to fight in the field. I’m content in my retirement at the Hawthorns.’

He remembered the letter that had arrived earlier from a client in the Highlands, delivered clandestinely by a MacKenzie clan agent, requesting advice on how to finance a son in exile and raise money to pay for muskets. Dalrymple would have loved to get his hands on the missive which was safely consigned to the flames of his fire.

‘Why have you asked me here, my Lord?’ MacKenzie asked. It was time to get down to business. Dalrymple never asked to see you for purely social reasons. ‘I spend little time in the city these days. I’m thinking of selling my apartments.’

Dalrymple rested his elbows on the desk and sighed. ‘Have a glass of wine, MacKenzie.’ Filling two glasses from a bottle, he passed one to MacKenzie and drank deeply from the other. ‘Let me explain myself. You were no doubt surprised to receive my summons this morning. We are not men who usually share the same interests. But these are unusual days. Political business consumes my time at the moment. The King, or rather his servant Portland, demands I keep him informed about Scottish policy, day and night.

‘The secretaries are lazy and unreliable. The King’s desire is to pacify Scotland and settle the church swiftly. Much business is required to achieve this end: commissioners persuaded to support the court, ministers cajoled, fanatics kept at bay. The new Crown Officer has been dismissed. He was even more useless than your dead friend Archibald Stirling. I’m too busy to concern myself with individual criminal cases.’

Dalrymple took another sip of wine, before raising his handkerchief to dab his thin, black lips. ‘I want your help,MacKenzie. There, I’ve said it. I don’t like asking any of your

clan – indeed, any Highlander – for help. I’ve no liking for the Highlands. It’s a barbarous wasteland and nursery of Popery!’

MacKenzie considered pointing out the fertility of land in Ross-shire and that only a tiny proportion of clans were Catholic, most being Protestant, but decided against it. Dalrymple was so full of Presbyterian prejudice it would make no difference.

Dalrymple continued gravely. ‘There’s been a killing in the city this very morning. There’s been a killing in Van Diemen’s Land. In a house in Cumming’s Court off the Lawnmarket. A merchant called Jacob Kerr has been murdered... brutally. Dr Lawtie will provide the anatomical details. Kerr was an elder in the Kirk who sat quietly on the Session. I’ve no time to examine the case myself, but it must be seen to be investigated to assuage the Presbyterians.’

He stopped again to drink some wine and then shook his head. ‘My enemies are circling like vultures, MacKenzie. It is jealousy of the Dalrymple family that drives them on. But mark my words. Presbytery will be re-established in Scotland. I will let nothing disrupt progress of the legislation through Parliament. I want Kerr’s case investigated quickly

and with little noise.’

Tomorrow: Tempted by murder