Dirks in the Details

Inspiration can come from anywhere: from visiting the toy towers of Bodiam Castle, to an overheard scrap of conversation. Setting is no different, in this regard, than character or plot.

Bodiam Castle

Bodiam Castle

An image has stuck with me from the novel Rob Roy, a detail thrust within a block of vivid description that helps imagine the world. While stopping at a public-house, our narrator, Frank Osbaldistone, comes across a group of Highlanders. Each man has his dirk stuck in the table before him, and woe to anyone who dare interrupt their private conversation. Within that detail lies menace and foreboding, custom and culture. It is not just a threat, it is their way of doing things, and this duality heightens the setting.

Here is the passage:

“The other mountaineer was a very tall, strong man, with a quantity of reddish hair, freckled face, high cheek-bones, and long chin—a sort of caricature of the national features of Scotland. The tartan which he wore differed from that of his companion, as it had much more scarlet in it, whereas the shades of black and dark-green predominated in the chequers of the other. The third, who sate at the same table, was in the Lowland dress,—a bold, stout-looking man, with a cast of military daring in his eye and manner, his riding-dress showily and profusely laced, and his cocked hat of formidable dimensions. His hanger and a pair of pistols lay on the table before him. Each of the Highlanders had their naked dirks stuck upright in the board beside him,—an emblem, I was afterwards informed, but surely a strange one, that their computation was not to be interrupted by any brawl. A mighty pewter measure, containing about an English quart of usquebaugh, a liquor nearly as strong as brandy, which the Highlanders distil from malt, and drink undiluted in excessive quantities, was placed before these worthies. A broken glass, with a wooden foot, served as a drinking cup to the whole party, and circulated with a rapidity, which, considering the potency of the liquor, seemed absolutely marvellous. These men spoke loudly and eagerly together, sometimes in Gaelic, at other times in English.”


Rob Roy’s Grave

When writing a scene for my short story “Aelfie of Glen Coe”, the image from Rob Roy popped into my head, and I knew my Highlanders would be introduced by the same little cultural detail. But in this context, the men use the custom to ward off the intrusion of a queen’s agent, a nefarious Reckoner, their blades drawn bare in silent warning.

“Scampering across the roadway, Aelfie pulled her cowl tight around her chestnut locks. She spied a steam carriage in the yard on the far side of the house, a monster of steel and wood, with copper tubes lashed in a lattice across its flank and a charred snout thrusting upward from its roof. A man in a gray suit shoveled coal into its rear hatch. Another lounged against a low fence, fiddling with a chronometer. His arms were sleeved in boiled leather plated in bronze. Aelfie found herself staring. She’d seen such things before, but always a curiosity overcame her to know more, to study every little knob and lever.

The man with the shovel glanced at her, and she hurried inside. The common room of the wayfarers’ house held a trio of long wooden tables. A fire warmed the air from a stone hearth, over which hung the cooking pot. Withered beams sagged so low Aelfie had to duck to clear the threshold. A pair of herdsmen huddled in a corner, highlanders by their brawn and scruff. Their tartan trews were red striped with black and yellow. They’d thrust a dirk into the table between them, an old custom requesting privacy.”

Aelfie of Glen Coe

Aelfie of Glen Coe

You can read Sir Walter Scot’s novel at Project Gutenberg, who’ve hosted all of his public domain works.

“Aelfie of Glen Coe” was published in Stories in the Aether from Nevermet Press, and while the publisher has since closed, a free version of the story is still available here.


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