Image by Paul Edney from Pixabay
A world-weary Reverend who fears they’ve lost their faith takes a six-month sabbatical in a lonely cottage in the remote Scottish Highlands. What could possibly go wrong?
Title: The Raven and the Hart
Genre: Magical Realism/Speculative
Language: British English
Synopsis: Rev. Jennifer Cant approaches retirement without faith or purpose, fearing a wasted life. An encounter with myth in a remote part of Scotland, and the hidden relic she finds there, brings danger and a desperate need to rescue her lover. Her rediscovery of herself resolves the danger and unlocks love.
I pulled onto the grass verge and turned the engine off, tired of suicidal tourists in campervans. They’d tailgated me all the way from Inverness, in blind pursuit of that mythic, shortbread-tin Scotland where the winters are mild and the rain is soft. But myths are slippery as wet tarmac, and the landscape up here is harsh.
Another hour or two driving and I’d get to the cottage. North of Ullapool the peat is a fragile skin stretched taught over old bone and sinew. It’s all a long way from my suburban parish and my flock.
As flocks go, St. Joseph’s aren’t bad. They’re the usual mixture of the committed and the conformist, mostly ageing, desperate for reassurance in the face of mortality. They don’t bother me much, except for the usual hatching, matching and despatching. I even like some of them, especially Miss Boards, Betty to people she likes, with her potent home-grown weed and surprisingly famous ageing rock star friends.
I barely noticed my faith disappear. The toll was cumulative, the little daily failures, the constant feeling that I was wasting my time, the endless meetings and petty feuds amongst the clergy. Venny was right to warn me all those years ago, and I lost her too.
I’d planned this trip for months but kept putting it off. Did duty stop me? A feeling of obligation to people who relied on me for succour and comfort? Maybe, but mostly it was fear of what I might find out about myself. In the parish magazine, I said it was a sabbatical after the cancer scare, but I was pretty certain it was permanent when the collar from the tunnel neck of my clerical shirt hit the back of the wardrobe.
The only person I told the truth to was Betty; she said I was like a band going to the country to get their heads together but without the acid and the groupies, my chance to find my identity again and make my peace with myself before it was too late, in case the next scare wasn’t a false alarm. She was right. I wanted my name back, to not have it prefaced by ‘Reverend’ and all the baggage that brings.
Mrs. MacKay’s cottage was rented for six months. The first thing I did when I got there, tired, shoulders tight, was flop on a sofa and gaze out the picture window at the squally dressage of white horses on Loch Eriboll. Later, I breathed the sharp, clean air, and paddled up in freezing water, my ankles too cold and sore to be numb. I had the best night’s sleep I’d had in years, but Highland air can’t cure everything: my greying hair and the lines around my eyes and mouth were still there in the morning. When I was about ten and Mam nearly forty, she said life is short, and I thought that was a ridiculous thing to say. I don’t think so now; who wants to live to be hundred? Anyone who’s ninety-nine.
I made a pot of tea with two teabags, one Scottish Breakfast, one Earl Grey, polished my glasses, and looked over the sea loch, from the small patio outside the back door. The susurrating water on sand and shingle and the crash of distant breakers, were interrupted by an unseen cockerel, the cries of gulls. Black darts of cormorants and shags skimmed the lace crests in the bay.
I shivered, and Granny said in my ear, clear as you like, someone just walked ower your grave.
I did nothing at all except nap that first day, but set off into wild country the next morning. The old road from Hope was rudimentary, rutted and cracked. Weeds, fingers of wilderness, reached up to grasp my boot tread through crumbling tarmac. I reckoned three and a half hours walking should see me to Dun Dornaigil; I wasn’t in any hurry. I’d been there once before and never forgotten it, or the rough beauty of the road I was on. I can’t remember why we were even there. Uncle Greg used to come up to Sutherland a lot, drive overnight in his estate car, sleeping bag in the back, and drive home a couple of days later with a freezer bag full of sea trout.
My tent and sleeping bag were good for the single night I planned to be away. and I had enough food and water, plus a survival bag and extra food and clothing, for if the weather turned. It all seemed a good idea when I planned it in the vicarage all those miles away, an adventurous interlude in my conventional life, but my body complained about the weight of my gear almost as soon as I set off, and I’d forgotten how short the days are in winter. I was the perfect casualty, the perfect headline: English vicar lost in Highland winter.
In the parish, every once in a while, I’d kick back and let go with a single malt and Tales From Topographic Oceans or Bruckner’s Mass in D Minor and hope the phone wouldn’t ring; here I had the birds and the sounds of branches and grasses creaking and whispering in the morning air. Hooded crows, in their grubby Dominican habits and tunics, tilled the grass running down to the loch. Old birch woods rose to meet the slopes of Ben Hope. But my shoulders ached and I shifted the rucksack with a shrug, hunched tight, holding myself in and the world out.
Something moved ahead of me on the road, on the edge of sight. Another walker?
Please let it be an illusion. Let me be isolated, let me have this for myself.
Early accounts of this area say the woods were never the same after wolves were eradicated four hundred years ago, leaving deer and goats to overgraze the young shoots of new trees. A pair of deer, black-eyed, mocked me from the treeline before melting into the undergrowth.
I really like the voice of this piece – a kind of world-weary, reflective soul, someone you can well imagine needing a break from their demanding role as Vicar to a needy congregation. I like some of the phrasing, like “North of Ullapool the peat is a fragile skin stretched taught over old bone and sinew.” I live in the far south west of Ireland, and I know exactly what you mean; the further west you go here, the closer the rock is to the surface, giving the impression of the bones of the land barely clothed in thin soil.
What of the actual opening lines? You drop us right into the middle of a scene. She pulls over, tired of being pressured by campervans on her tail “all the way from Inverness”. I’m expecting the scene to continue. So what happens when she pulls over? Presumably there’s some kind of meeting, confrontation, communication, event? But there isn’t. She thinks about how much more of her journey lies ahead of her, and then she’s reflecting on her parishioners and the vocation she has left, temporarily, behind. Ok, all good. Then what happens as she’s sitting in the car in the lay-by? Nothing. Instead she thinks more about her loss of faith, and we learn that she’s been through some tough times with health issues. So then what happens in the car? Nothing. In fact, the next paragraph that isn’t pure reflection and backstory describes her flopping on a sofa in the cottage she has hired for six months and looking out of the window at the wind-whipped lake. She had already arrived. There’s a narrative disconnect here. The opening paragraph leads us to believe that we’re in the middle of an incident that will go on to develop into something of significance. Maybe one of the campervans pulls in her behind her, and parks uncomfortably close to the back of her car? Instead, we have quite a bit of backstory that I’m not entirely sure we need to know right now, before anything has happened, and the stopping by the side of the road is never mentioned again. It’s a fine detail that lets this otherwise strong opening down.
I wonder if a better place to start isn’t “I barely noticed my faith disappear”? I know, I know. I normally talk about starting in the middle of an action scene, or with dialogue, anything to get the agent hooked. But I think that line, that opens your fourth paragraph, is far more arresting and thought-provoking than what precedes it. I don’t know exactly what role her loss of faith and dissatisfaction with the way her life has transpired takes in the unfolding of the plot, but I’m guessing, from your brief synopsis, that it does play some part. There would be other occasions to fit in the lovely line about the thin peat, and the reflections about her congregation if you felt them still necessary. If you do start with the fourth paragraph, I think the piece reads much more cohesively. Try it, and see what you think.
After that, the narrative picks up pace and we’re soon off on the track up the hill to meet whatever she is going to find to start the story.
Submissions to agents contain quite a bit of luck, as I’ve mentioned many times before. This particular agent is a bit of a sucker for the Highlands and fantasy/mystery, having watched all of the Outlander series in the first wave of Covid-19 lockdown last year, so I would say yes, send me the rest of the manuscript and I’ll take a look. Some agents would baulk at the problems with the very first few paragraphs and worry that there would be similar problems later on in the narrative. Others would also love the Outlander series and have been looking for similar material, but, unfortunately for you, they’ve just sold two manuscripts that fit the bill to publishers in the last month, and they have no more openings. That’s how fickle the world of agents and publishers can be.
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