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The Wedding at Bennibister

Alastair Macleod

The Wedding at Bennibister

Donald Glue and Colin Tulloch are mentioned in this novella with their express permission. disclaimer; apart from them, the story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred.

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The Wedding



This novella is sequel to Bennibister. In that story set in the Orkney Islands, a man searching for his emotional self finds it only to have it plucked from him. A son remains as evidence of that passion and another woman enters his life. Can she match the love that went before?



Sun, moon, stars, revolved above them so visibly in their big skies. It was as if a giant clock was moving round them, independently, tugging at their lives.

And the power of the weather and the sea could not be denied; the tides of life, as well as of the ocean, brought a sense of wonder"


The tidal clock had moved on relentlessly at Bennibister. Magnus was now a sturdy boy of four with a shock of blonde hair.

He was standing in an Orkney field with his step mum. In one hand she held a light shovel, in the other she carried a plastic bucket; she was lifting horse dung from the grass.


He had never known his birth mother; she had died giving life to him. Isobel in every other aspect was now his mother. She had nurtured him and cared for him along with her own daughter Helga and her son Erland.


Magnus carried a small stick in his hand. He was wearing an all in one blue outdoor suit with small black wellies and a woolly hat. Isobel looked up from her task to watch him whacking his stick at a dead thistle.

It was cold today. Now the horses were in she could get on with this task.


The sky was a bright blue, the sea calm in the Flow.

She looked beyond Magnus towards a big red tanker swinging at anchor. At night it would be lit up by its deck lights like a Christmas tree. Then you could more distinctly hear the low rumble of its generator.

And there would be Northern Lights tonight and stars.

She could also hear the burn, high from the recent rain, gurgling and rippling, racing to the sea, the dark peaty water like whisky from an overturned vat.

Big flocks of waders flighted over, wheeling and turning - they were waiting for the tide to turn so they could feed on the ebb.


She saw Magnus lift his eyes skyward to the birds. As if in response, the birds turned in unison, flashing their light underwings.

The bucket was full. She called to Magnus.

The days were short in November; it would be dark by four.

Hand in hand they headed back to the house.


Bennibister; just now it looked a little grey, but the sunlight glinted on the windows. She could hear Chloe operating the log splitter for the wood burner. Magnus’s grandfather had brought a pickup full of logs across from Caithness to see them through the winter.

She recalled how bleak she and Charles had been after the death of Elspeth. Then two years later Charles had unexpectantly asked her to marry him.


Why had she been so surprised? She had been looking after Magnus, his child with Elspeth, and her own children, Helga and Erland, as well as living at and managing the Bennibister stables. In all but name she was mistress of the house.

When they had very first met, before Elspeth, Charles had even then been struck by Isobel’s beauty. A rounded finely featured nordic face framed by shoulder length blonde hair, a confident manner and a firm figure. All of this remained.

She hadn’t said yes straightaway. She had her own losses, but she had grown close to Charles and she loved Bennibister.


It wasn’t the first flush love, the kind that makes you giddy.

Together, the children, Charles, the horses, Bennibister all created a warm cosy feeling in her.

When Charles had suggested a traditional Orkney wedding, to begin with, she had protested. Was it some old fashioned guilt at having lived together for two years? Maybe.


Everyone else round her was enthusiastic for a wedding. Not an overblown affair, she insisted, just the local hall, some food, a dance.

A blackbird flew up to the wall by the gate. Magnus tugged forward, then it flew off into the bare shrubs of the walled garden.


Her feet crunched the pebbled drive to the house.

Magnus stooped and picked one up, throwing it, then another. Here they had all stood for the photos. It had been early summer.


Not being church goers they had opted to be married in the walled garden. It was risky. Orkney weather was so unpredictable. But the church held bad memories for both; Isobel for the funeral of her late husband, and Charles for the funeral of Elspeth. It was also a bare, cold, uninviting building.


Spring flowers and the flight of birds was what she wanted.

By the day of the wedding, daffodils were blooming in great clumps along the drive to the house and the flower beds in the walled garden were full of them. As a precaution Charles had ordered a large white tent to be set up in case of rain, but the weather held.


Isobel wore her hair up with a yellow dress of textured wave fabric, tubed in the new vintage style, Charles a light grey single breasted suit.

Erland insisted on a kilt in the Orkney tartan; Helga wanted pale yellow to match her mum, the dress high waisted, well above the knee, her hair cut with a razor sharp fringe. Many younger male guests wore kilts; it was the fashion now. Strong calves and tight fitting jackets brought admiring looks. Chloe wore a bright red trouser suit that clung to her like her motorcycling clothes. Vikki her sister was more demure. Now the wife of Robbie Dearness, she was full five months pregnant.


Old Harrold, still not married to his bidey in, was dressed in his one black suit that did him for weddings, funerals and christenings. Each time he wore it he discovered “position tickets” for burials, and order of service cards in the pockets.


Elspeth’s dad stood by Magnus, his grandson, and Isobel’s parents, overjoyed at this positive event of a wedding, headed a family group of cousins, nephews and neighbouring farmers.


Charles had not expected his son by his first marriage to appear but he did, with his own new wife. Having recently left the navy he was now in shipping management. Charles’s daughter couldn’t make it.

As a break with tradition the actual service was provided by a celebrant of the Scottish humanists, a woman , who talked not of God , but of life, children, horses, the land, the future, and of love.


At the top of the garden, under an arch, the couples were hand fasted with ribbon, in a bower of willow decorated with flowers.

At the signal Charles slipped a single gold band onto Isobel’s finger.

Then the sound of the fiddle rang out as the Yarpha fiddlers, a group of young lasses of the parish, struck up a tune on their fiddles. The sound was joyous, the ringing strings echoed by the cries of lapwings wheeling in the fields.


Gradually the party all made their way down the garden into the marquee for nibbles and drinks, some, feeling a nip in the air, went into the house.


By three am the party then processed, headed by the fiddlers, then the bride and groom, then the family and followers, to walk the short distance to the hall, now set out for a meal with long trestle tables set lengthways, table clothed and decorated. Across the top of the hall, in front of the stage, three tables, also table clothed and set end to end, made one long board for the bride and groom and the bridal party.


Isobel as the bride, had no speech to make. She looked round the hall. She tried to suppress feelings of déjà vu; meeting her eyes was almost the exact same scene from her first wedding to Gary, then her second wedding to Hamish.

Gary was here, somewhere, with Chloe. Her feelings for him had died a long while back, they were entirely neutral now; the resentment had gone. What did she feel about him; pity? No, she felt for him as one might for a dog that has been re-homed. With Chloe he was in a better place; their energies matched.

But Hamish? The nerve was still raw there. Yet they had had so little time together for a deep bond to form that sometimes it reminded her of how she had felt after an affair with a boy in sixth form in Kirkwall Grammar School. A certain pain but one to treasure. Was that wrong?


Here she was; she knew a few tongues would wag. Number three. Would it last?

“Every bride feels like this,” her, mother had said, “It’s like being an Auk.”

Elspeth had exploded with laughter.

“Whit de ye mean mither?” she said lapsing into dialect.

“When a young Auk has fledged, and it’s ready to go to sea, it canna fly,” said her mother. “ I often thowt o them there on the Marwick cliffs peerin oer the edge thinkin aboot gaan, then waaking back, then peerin oer, then waakin back, then peerin oer, then eventually, the leap o faith. Marriage is like that, a leap o faith. And forby, yer no in the sam poseetion as the young Auk; you’ve louped over twice afore.” They both laughed; it eased the tension. But in truth it didn’t get any easier. It was always a “leap o faith.”


These thoughts in her mind, she turned to Charles, now her husband.

She was still conscious of his physical attraction; the medium build, the athletic body, agile now not from running and gym work, but from farm work and horse riding. His face, always well proportioned, was tanned from the outdoors, his attractive grey eyes beneath black eyebrows. He wore his hair a little longer these days; it was still dark and vigorous. Yet a man among men, handsome and successful, still certain of his own physical invulnerability.


In his time in Orkney he told her he had grown emotionally, got in touch with his true self, first through Elspeth and then through the horses. She might not have liked him before he had said; the man he was in London and the man he was when he first came here.

Was it Elspeth who had changed him? Did he still hold a torch for her? She felt a little resentful of the obvious passion there had been between those two. Can one feel jealous of the dead?

She chided herself,

“This was not skilful, suppress these thoughts. After all Elspeth wasn’t here.” Then her eye caught sight of Magnus. “Well yes, she was.”

Then glancing back over the throng she saw Gary with Chloe. She felt no presence of Hamish. She chided herself again. If Charles seemed unaffected by Gary’s actual presence why should she feel affected by Elspeth who could not be here? A little shiver ran down her back. She felt the acuteness of life when set against death.

Her reverie was broken when her own father got up to speak. As he talked she wondered, “What did he think of it all?” He had never criticised, not interfered, just been there, a solid rock. He was grey now but still alert, with eyes that were always kindly. Her brother spoke next. A few cheeky remarks of when they had been bairns; it was expected. Then finally the best man, old Harrold Inkster himself. Charles had wanted him as he had been the first to recognise Charles was serious about farming and the horses. It was old Harrold who had sold Charles the land they now possessed and it was Harrold who had taught Charles to plough after Elspeth had died.

As the old man got to his feet, serving lasses went round the tables giving out a single measure of whisky for the toast. Harrold turned a little towards his bidey in, Jean Heddle O’Wars, who sat at his elbow.

“The furst thing I want to say is thet ah hiv an announcement to mak.” There was a hush.

“Surely Jean Heddle isna pregnant?” said somebody at the back. There was a faint titter. Harold was 76 and Jean wisna far behind him.


“Yaas, ah hiv bin a confirmed batchelor for nigh on fifty year.” Jean was now doing calculations. “And whit did he mean “confirmed?”

“Onyway, the height o it is that Jean his finally said yes and we are to be marrit.” he paused.

“In case y’re wonderin it wisna me that couldna mak up me mind.” There was a laugh at the back. “Ah askit Jean thirty year ago. She said she would think it oer.” Again another laugh nearer the front.

“Wit finally clinched hid,” he said, “Wis the holiday in Tenerife.” More laughter now from the front.

“She realised wit a fine body ah hid when a coost off me drawers to go swimming naked in the sea.” Shrieks and gales of laughter reverberated round the hall.

“Noo wi mee track record, hoo am I ti gi advice to the young couple here beside us.

But in mee case it wisna that Jean wisna gettin physical attention. Ah never held back on that.”

Jean was nodding vigorously as more gales of laughter rocked the hall.

“She said it wis because that in all those thirty years ah niver once took off me Long Johns.” Folk were in stitches.

Harrold straightened himself up.

“My advice is this, marrit or no, the wimmen prefer ye in the buff.”

With that he sat down to an uproar of laughter and clapping. Jean had gone red and Isobel’s mother was covering her giggles behind her hand.

Then he jumped up again.

“Ah nearly forgot,” then he raised his glass and said, “be upstanding for the bride and groom.” The phrase repeated round the hall as all took up their whisky glass and drank the toast.


The hall erupted in a buzz of good natured laughter and talk as lasses strode out with the first course of lentil soup and oatcakes.

Each table had bottles of wine, water and orange juice. The guests fell to, buttering their oatcakes and pouring each other drinks.

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