THE FAIRY CUP OF DUN ACAINN
It was a cold February day with freezing rain turning to sleet when Hamish McDavitt walked down Victoria Street—past Ron’s Old Town bookshop with its display of Shepherd and Swarbreck prints of old Edinburgh and Mellis’s cheese shop with its pungent aromas—to meet his friend, Inspector Nigel Stonelaw of the Edinburgh and Lothians Police, in the Bow Bar.
The Bow Bar was a fine old Edinburgh establishment, its walls covered in old mirrors and advertisements—Melvin & Co Pale Ale; Studio Cigarettes; Sheriff’s Jamaica Rum; Thomson and Porteous Half Dark Nailrod.
Today, Hamish found Stonelaw unusually ruffled. After purchasing a couple of malt whiskies, McDavitt asked him if he was having any difficulties at work.
‘Well… ’ Stonelaw started, frowning a little. ‘It’’s a rum case, Hamish. And I don’t mind admitting it has left me looking a right fool, and all over something that rightfully should have nothing to do with us at all. Have you heard of the Fairy Cup of Dun Acainn?’
Hamish thought for a moment. ‘It sounds familiar—but you had better explain.’
‘It’s a quaich, a two handled drinking cup, but a very special one indeed. Here, maybe this will explain.’ He handed McDavitt a cutting from the Scots Magazine.
‘The Fairy Cup of Dun Acainn,’ McDavitt read, ‘has a very curious history indeed. Its story is first recounted in Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth, and it is a story that bears some remarkable resemblances to other stories of fairy enchantment, including the fabulous tale of Thomas the Rhymer.’ Hamish paused to scan some illustrations: prints from an illustrated edition of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books and an old plate of Thomas of Ercildoune seated under the enchanted eildon tree. He continued reading: ‘The story goes that, many years ago, Aonghas MacFhionghuin, the family piper of the McKinnon family, became insanely jealous of Dòmhnall Ban Mhic Criomain, the hereditary piper of the MacLeods of Skye, whose skill at the pibroch was reputedly due to a enchanted chanter given to him by the queen of the fairies. Aonghas became so weary of his own limited skills that one day he went into a rage and shouted to the fairies to take his life away, as he was not worthy of an instrument that he could control so poorly. Now, the fairy sibh happened to be passing that day and the Fairy Queen took pity on him and brought him into the Otherworld. And there the best fairy pipers taught Aonghas how to play the pipes. For seven years he learned, and for another seven he practised, and for a final seven he was allowed to play the pipes for the Fairy Queen alone who was well satisfied with him. And at the end of the final seven years, the Fairy Queen said ‘Aonghas, you have served me well, and now you can return to the world of men.’ But before he departed, she presented him with an enchanted quaich, promising him that, if ever he himself, or any other McKinnon, felt that they had lost their talent for the great music, they should drink from the Fairy Cup and it would be restored. The quaich, known as the Fairy Cup of Dun Acainn after the McKinnon stronghold on Skye, has remained in the family for generations and is now in the possession of the brothers Hector and Alastair McKinnon, who have vowed to restore the McKinnon ancestral home to its original glory.’
McDavitt looked up his reading and restored his little folding reading glasses to their case. ‘I take it, then, Nigel, that something has happened to the fabled cup?’
Stonelaw nodded glumly. ‘Well, let me tell you the whole sorry tale. Apparently, some weeks ago the McKinnons received a couple of anonymous letters suggesting that someone was intending to steal the Cup. Subsequently, they took precautions. They increased the insurance, they installed new security devices and, most tellingly of all, they employed a security adviser, Fraser McLean, a retired detective sergeant from the Highlands and Islands Constabulary, to take charge of security at the castle. But the McKinnons, apparently, are. acquainted with Chief Superintendent Ord, my immediate superior. He promised to send his best officer to give the place the once over.’
McDavitt chuckled. ‘I presume that that was yourself?’
‘Well, yes. And not unsurprising considering the successful apprehension of the Scotland Yard heroin traffickers—and, besides, Inspector Rubrik was otherwise engaged.’
McDavitt knew that Stonelaw sometimes had a good conceit of himself and had probably failed to remember the part that Hamish himself had played in the Scotland Yard case.
‘So you took a little trip to the ancestral home of the no. McKinnons, off the coast of Skye.’
‘Yes, and a right stormy day it was. The rain was raining that horizontal way that it does sometimes in Scotland. We drove up through Glencoe where the mountains seem to be ready to topple right over you, then up through the Great Glen where the rain turned to sleet and then snow, and over the bridge at Kyle to where the castle stood on a small island just off the coast. When we got to the jetty we were very reluctant to go over to the castle at all in the little motor launch they provided. But we were assured it was safe. It’s not an experience I would like to repeat, you know, the sea as black with whipped up little peaks of foam and the boat pitched back and forward and rolled from side to side.’
Hamish nodded, ‘I know what you mean. Although my ancestors were seafarers themselves, I’m wary of the sea.’
‘Yes,’ said Stonelaw I remember you told me what Dr Johnson said—that being in a boat is like being in jail with the additional risk of drowning!
Stonelaw continued: ‘The castle itself was a little dark and austere, with a good part of it still in scaffolding, but the grand hall itself was welcoming if a little draughty, with a great roaring log fire and a good brandy from a crystal decanter. The brothers McKinnon seemed decent enough sorts. Ord had told me a little about them. Alastair, the younger, had trained as an accountant. He was a projects man, behind the planning of the resurrected Castle Moil. A stickler for detail almost to the point of pedantry. He seemed seriously concerned about the preservation of the Fairy Cup. Hector was a more jovial sort. He was much more involved in the community, raising petitions against the proposed wind farms, taking part in the Camanachd Club, community drama and all that sort of stuff.
‘They both apologised for what might have been perceived as a lack of hospitality, but Hector explained that building work had been suspended because of the poor weather and that the building was only occupied by themselves, a housekeeper, and Fraser McLean, who was currently inspecting the perimeter for any security lapses. Then Hector took my detective constable and the boatsman down to the kitchens to arrange some lunch and to dry off our overcoats. Meanwhile, Alastair took me up to the library to see the Fairy Cup.
‘The Cup was kept in a display case against one wall of the library, surrounded by book shelves with a variety of volumes, mostly on clan and family history, but with some dog-eared old Penguins and Pelicans as well. The case was made of solid oak and reinforced glass and protected by double locks and an alarm. I can’t say that the Cup itself impressed me enormously. It was a large piece of slightly misshapen and tarnished beaten silver with bulky horn handles encrusted with uneven and quite gaudy gemstones.
‘Anyway, while Alastair McKinnon was explaining some of the history of the Cup and the clan McKinnon, the door swung open and Fraser McLean entered. He was dressed in a Barbour jacket, green Wellington boots and a tartan tammy. He was dripping from the wet and carrying a clipboard covered with polythene. A broad-shouldered type with a ruddy face and a full head of hair, moustache and sideburns that were partly ginger but turning grey. He coughed and wheezed a little and had to take a breath from a puffer to settle himself.
‘We made our introductions and McLean apologised for his delayed appearance. He had, he said, just wanted to do a final check on the entrances before we came in order to avoid any discrepancies. Alastair McKinnon left us to have our talk and we settled into two large leather armchairs by the bay windows overlooking the peaks and troughs of the stormy sea, I must say, I took to Fraser McLean at once—a bluff straightforward man respectful of his position and keen to do his job thoroughly and well. We went over the security arrangements and I have to say he seemed to have thought of more or less everything, but still he was keen to solicit my advice and took numerous notes on the margins of his clipboard.
‘After a while, Hector McKinnon came into the library. He seemed delighted to see that McLean and I were getting on so well. Some lunch had been prepared for us but first he wanted to let me have a closer look at the Cup itself. He beckoned to McLean, who took a bulky set of keys from his pocket and opened the cabinet. He also took out a bottle of malt and poured a little into the cup and sipped it. ‘Please examine the cup’, he said, handing it to me. I held the Fairy Cup in my hand for a moment. It seemed lighter than I had expected and the gems glowed in a peculiar way. ‘I would personally be delighted to serve you a dram from the Cup, Inspector, but tradition has it that if aught but a McKinnon sups from the Fairy Cup he will be spirited away to Tir-nan-Og, the land of dreams, and never return.’ He took another sip and held out the Cup. ‘ …But, of course, I thought better of it, drink and duty never mix.
‘Hector and I went down to lunch and left McLean to lock away the Cup and complete his notes. We had venison and blackcurrant jelly sandwiches with mugs of hot milky tea and were generally quite relaxed when Hector remembered McLean. ‘He can be a bit fastidious, you know. I’ll go and fetch him.’
‘But merely a minute or so later, we heard a cry from the direction of the library and, to cut a long story short, when we arrived the Fairy Cup was gone and so was McLean. Alastair shook his head in disbelief and then turned to his brother: ‘I told you so, I told you so… ’
‘It turned out, in fact, that the McLeans were the old clan rivals of the McKinnons. Alastair had wanted to thwart Fraser McLean’s appointment for that reason, but Hector had poo- pooed the idea, calling it old-fashioned nonsense.
‘However, whatever the cause, the fact is that when the police arrived from Portree, then reinforcements from Inverness, Fraser McLean was not to be found and neither was the Cup. We checked everything, My own detective constable was in the kitchen overlooking the jetty all the time of our visit and the motor launch had not been used. It was impossible that anyone could have swum to the shore and survived in the conditions. There was no other way off the island. Amazingly, Fraser McLean had vanished into thin air, perhaps as the fairies had predicted! And when we checked his references, unfortunately, we found it wasn’t the real sergeant McLean at all, who had retired to raise long-haired, black-faced sheep on Barra, but an impostor.’
‘And that’s it, Hamish, You can imagine our colleagues from the Highlands and Islands Constabulary had a bloody good laugh at our expense. A precious antique spirited away under our very noses. I don’t know when I’ll stop having nightmares about the whole thing.’
McDavitt laughed. ‘Don’t despair, Nigel, maybe we can rescue you from these troubled nights.’ He took a long sip of his whisky.
‘Now, I only have one little question. Answer it in as simple a way as you can: the two brothers, Hector and Alastair, are they similar in appearance?’
‘They are both balding and slim, and they dress similarly in tartan trews and a short-cut jacket. But otherwise they are quite distinct. Hector is slightly taller, wears horn-rimmed spectacles with bottle-bottom lens and talks in a quite high- pitched excitable sort of way while Alastair is a slower, more deliberate type.’
‘Excellent. Well, I think I can resolve this problem for you.’
Hamish smiled. ‘It’s really quite a simple little conundrum, Nigel. Let me take a minute to explain. Now, here for example, are the two malt whiskies we bought a moment ago-Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie. Both popular but perfectly adequate Speyside malts, quite similar in tone and texture. Please take a sniff and a slow sip of both.’
Stonelaw nosed the malts as he had been shown by McDavitt, and sipped both, taking a moment to feel the taste saturate his tongue.
McDavitt continued, ‘The Glenfiddich is slightly fruity and dry, with a finish of slightly overripe bananas. The Glenmorangie, on the other hand, is similar, but a little more exotic, reminiscent of apricots or dates, perhaps stewed in a mild curry sauce, with an overtone of citrus fruits’ Hamish took a sip himself. ‘That’s why, if you come across a sassenach who doesn’t know how to pronounce Glenmorangie, you tell them that it’s ‘orangey’.’
‘Yes,’ said Stonelaw, ‘I think I see what you mean, now that you explain it that way’
‘We can all learn the art of taste and subtle discrimination, but it doesn’t come naturally. In fact, life throws so many tastes and experiences at us that it is all to easy to lump them together with misconceptions.
‘For example, take a sister drink to whisky, vodka. I don’t care for it myself, but if you go the Polish club in Drummond Place you will find my friend Marek, who is a great connoisseur of its different varieties. And yet, let me surprise you. Although we all know the difference between whisky and vodka—one is amber, the other clear, one served at room temperature, the other chilled, etcetera—in different conditions our discrimination is limited!
‘Take a dozen people, blindfold them and, without any further information, give them a little whisky and vodka in a plastic container and you will find that less than fifty percent of them will tell the difference!’
Stonelaw had followed this discourse carefully but was now a little perplexed. ‘That’s all very well, Hamish, but what has it to do with the McKinnon case?’
‘Well, it too was a matter of discrimination. I asked you if the McKinnon brothers were similar and you told me what I wanted to know, but it was the opposite of what you thought you had told me! You concluded that they were quite different, but what you told me was that they were very similar. Slim, bald—making it easier to wear a wig, by the way—dressed in more or less identical clothes. On the other hand, the differences—thick spectacles, a squeaky voice, a little more height (with the aid of heels) could all be assumed quite easily by a skilled performer.
‘Only at your entrance and departure did you see the McKinnon brothers together. Otherwise, I suspect that Alastair managed to play both the parts of his brother and himself. Hector, with his experience of amateur dramatics, took on the slightly tougher role, that of Fraser McLean, with the wig and facial hair, the asthmatic wheeze to disguise his own distinctive voice and the padded Barbour jacket to bulk out his own slight frame. Hector must have been delighted that you took to him so readily. It was easy for McLean to disappear as he never existed in the first place!’
Stonelaw’s jaw dropped as he contemplated Hamish’s revelation. ‘Good God, Hamish, now that I think about it I’m sure that you’re right. There was something not quite right about McLean—and we never noticed!’
‘Don’t concern yourself. We often fail to notice what is in front of our nose, wasn’t it the good Dr Doyle who coined the phrase: ‘there are many things that are obvious that are never, by any chance, observed.’’
‘But what has happened to the Fairy Cup?’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that. The McKinnons will have it in safe keeping. Apart from the curse, they couldn’t bear to part with it. After all, they have owned it for five hundred years.’ He paused and took on a slightly more serious tone. ‘On the other hand, they probably thought that the insurance money would go a long way to realising their dream of resurrecting Castle Moil.’
‘They won’t be doing much of that now when the Fraud Squad catches up with them!’
Stonelaw was quite splenetic, and Hamish put a calming hand on his shoulder. ‘Well, Nigel, perhaps we shouldn’t be so hasty. It was a very ingenious plot and impressively carried out. Hector carried off his part wonderfully and fooled you completely. And, of course, that nonsense about Tir nan Og, a delightful touch!’
The Inspector’s brows were furrowed, and a dark complexion came over his face.
‘Ahem… Well, of course, there’s no real need to mention all that. Here’s what I suggest: why don’t you have a quiet word with them, over a wee dram? Suppose the cup were to suddenly reappear, perhaps washed ashore with the remains of an old Barbour jacket. The insurers would be mollified, your own reputation restored, and the resulting media coverage itself might raise a pretty penny for the restoration of the castle.
‘Besides, it would be good to see the Fairy Cup of Dun Acainn restored to its rightful place. One of these days I might have a sip of uisque beatha, the elixir of life, from it myself. But meantime, I’ll content myself to sit here and have another dram.’
(from Simpson Grears, The Foot of the Walk Murders (Rymour Books, 2020)
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