Mungo and the lost clans of the Darien jungle

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Chapter 1 - July 12, 1698, the Port of Leith

Sunshine and heat are rare occurrences in Scotland. This was a particularly warm summer’s day and the noon sun belted down on the assorted mass of human and animal life swarming on the quayside. It was hard to make oneself heard over the cacophony of bleating sheep, oinking pigs, clucking chickens and shouting people. Captain Stewart gazed down at the seething crowd below him from the deck of his ship, the Iona and scratched at his itchy crotch beneath his sporran.

“Damn these kilts, your balls either freeze in winter or swelter in summer,” he muttered to himself.

“Hellish hot eh, Hamish?” he yelled to his first mate standing beside him. Hamish nodded in agreement and watched sourly as the 1,200 noisy settlers below slowly made their way with their few belongings and assorted animals to the three ships lying in wait at the dock. As well as the Iona, two other ships, the Oban and Hebrides, had been built especially for this expedition and to make Scotland’s dream of settling a new land a reality. Two smaller support ships; the Puffin and Lapwing, loaded with water and supplies were already out in the Firth of Forth waiting for the other three ships to join them. Captain Stewart had hoped that they would have all his ship’s complement safely on board by now in order to take advantage of the afternoon tide, but it was going to be a close call.

The process of loading was taking much longer than expected, primarily because the stifling heat seemed to have sapped the energy of the settlers who were lugging their worldly goods and posessions painstakingly slowly towards the dock. The several pigs and sheep that slipped as they were being herded up the narrow wooden gangplanks, plummeting into the pea-green salty water below them, further complicated matters. The crew had had to deploy a number of small dinghies that were to serve as lifeboats in order to rescue the floundering soggy animals. Not an auspicious start, thought the Captain grimly.

The uncommonly hot sun also had the effect of making the crowded and bustling port of Leith an even smellier place than usual. The stench of rotting fish that emanated from the rubbish tip at the far end of the harbour assaulted Stewart’s senses. The pungent smells and noise were overpowering and he silently prayed that no more accidents would happen so they could be on their way as soon as possible. He was on the point of going below to see how his hands were getting on with stowing the ship’s stores when a commotion on the quayside caught his eye. A procession of three black horse drawn carriages was scything a path through the tartan mob towards the Oban.

“Tell me Hamish, is that no’ Rifkind, arriving over there at the Oban?”

“Aye skipper, it looks like his coat of arms on the lead carriage,” Hamish replied, while surreptitiously readjusting his own sweaty kilt. The two men watched with interest as the coaches came to a halt beside their sister ship and a footman from the lead carriage was dispatched to the foot of the gangplank to speak to the harassed able-bodied seaman in charge of the passenger manifest. A few moments conversation followed and then the footman returned to his carriage, spoke briefly to his employer inside, then sprang back up to his post and conversed with the driver. Seconds later the whole procession was making a beeline straight towards them.

“Och shite!” Stewart suddenly exploded. “Dinnae tell me that pompous arse is going tae be on ma boat! Hells bells, I’m sure his name wusnae on the list of passengers.”

The two men looked on in dismay as the carriages pulled up to the main gangplank and they saw a small portly figure emerge from the lead coach. He was dressed in a pair of large purple sateen pantaloons topped with a purple and yellow doublet, these colours being all the rage in London’s high society at the moment. A large purple velvet hat trimmed with a spectacularly long peacock feather completed the ensemble. Looking around, the little man dabbed foppishly at some dust on his sleeve and then began to issue instructions, pointing his pudgy fingers in all directions. An army of porters shot into action and began to unload a positive mountain of cases and luggage onto the dock.

The Captain and Hamish watched in morbid fascination at the growing pile, their interest turning rapidly to disbelief as they saw an enormous box-like object being extracted by six men from the last carriage and negotiated awkwardly towards the gangplank.

“God’s blood Hamish, what in the name of the wee man is that?” the Captain asked his equally bemused First Mate.

“I cannae tell Cap’n, but it’s big and hellish heavy by the looks of it.” A flock of at least ten porters were now standing around the mysterious object and looking dubiously at the gangplank up which they were being exhorted to maneuver it by the suited gentleman.

“What does the daft bugger think he’s up tae? He’s no bringing that monstrosity on tae ma ship. I dinnae care what it is or who he thinks he is!” the Captain announced with determination as he left his First Mate and began to make his way down the deck towards the top of the gangplank.

He cut a fine figure as he strode purposefully, albeit with an intermittent grope beneath his sporran, towards the assembled group below. His bushy red beard stuck out proudly before him and it was clear from his flushed ruddy cheeks and the spark in his eyes that a confrontation might well be in the offing. He was a large man and he towered over the officious little fellow beneath him. However, though Stewart was tall, Rifkind had the benefit of girth behind him and he was not an easily intimidated man.

“Ah, Stewart. Good day to thee. My word, isn’t it unseasonably warm? Falling a little behind on the loading are we not? At this rate, it’ll take us a week to get out of the Firth. I trust we shall make good speed once we get out to open sea, although I must warn thee that I shall be most displeased if we roll excessively. I am averse to extremes of any kind. A nice steady passage, that’s what we want.”

“Ye’r getting on the wrong ship.” The Captain cut straight to the point.

“Prithee, did not Lyndsey inform thee? Marry Captain, there hath been a change of plan. As thou knowest, the Earl of Comfrey was fully intending to travel on the Iona but only a few days ago his son was successful in securing a commission with Lieutenant Dalgleish on the Oban. The Earl led me to believe that he would be most grateful if it could be arranged that they might undertake the journey together. Of course I was only too happy to oblige and so here I am in the company of thy good self and I can only hope that I will not regret my generous and selfless gesture.”

“What’s that?” the Captain asked, ignoring him completely and pointing with steely eyes to the wardrobe-sized box in front of them.

“Why that, my good Captain, is a harpsichord, a particularly fine musical instrument that I happen to play tolerably well,” replied Rifkind in the annoyingly nasal tone that he had developed from attending too many sessions at the royal court in London.

“Aye, and what exactly wud a ‘hurpsicod’ be doing trying tae make its way onboard ma ship?”

The already ball-like figure puffed himself up and to Hamish, watching from above, it looked as though he might float up into the air at any moment.

“It is, I repeat, a harpsichord, and I believe thou meanest the Company’s ship Captain, dost thou not? As the leading Scottish stockholder behind this venture I shouldn’t have to remind thee that this boat is more mine than thine, or anyone else’s for that matter.”

Stewart stifled an urge to knock the gloating toady to the floor. With a Herculean effort, he managed not to tell him exactly where he thought Rifkind could put his damn instrument.

“Aye, well we’re already very late and the tide’s going out fast,” he muttered, “we need tae be leavin’ within the next two hours or we’ll have tae hold fast till tomorra’.”

At this, Rifkind looked perturbed, sweat pouring down from underneath his periwig in rivulets on either side of his shiny jowls. He dabbed at his ample chins with a silk handkerchief.

“No, no, no, that simply will not do. The Edinburgh Guild of Pamphleteers will be turning up in force shortly to see us off and off we must go.”

The porcine-like figure clearly wanted a good public relations opportunity to have the fleet sail off bathed in sunshine. Scottish weather being as temperamental as it was it might well be pouring with rain the next day.

“No, it must be today, the Mayor has promised to come and the pipe band is on its way from Craigentinny, it will be here any moment to jolly things along.” He shook his flabby face from side to side, drops of sweat splattering in all directions as off a wet dog.

The Captain, in his frustration, exhaled loudly enough for Hamish to hear him above the chatter and clatter around them.

“Right then, so let’s get movin’ shall we. We’ve got tae get all this lot...,” he indicated to the throng of people now bottle necked behind them, ...onboard as well as thy ‘herpdiscord’.”

"Harpsichord," corrected Rifkind nasally and only a great amount of willpower stopped the big Captain from tumbling him over and rolling the barrel-like man into the Firth.

The Captain left Rifkind at the foot of the Iona and went to vent his fury on the latter’s staff who were still blocking access to the boat with their three carriages. He was far too occupied with getting them out of the way and pacifying a resentful crowd of sweaty settlers to pay any attention to the harpsichord’s ill-fated progress up the plank.

“It was like watchin’ somethin’ in a dream, skipper,” Hamish told the Captain later, “ye could see it aboot tae happen but couldnae dae a thing tae stop it.”

The struggling porters had painstakingly shifted the musical instrument nearly three quarters of the way up the slippery gangplank when a particularly heavy swell hit the Iona broadside on.

“Time seemed to stand still Skipper, an’ the box it just seemed tae hang in mid air. Then it went ower the side like a stone. Thank the Sweet Lord, the lads below saw what was happening. They’d just got another sheep back on shore and were rowing back tae get a pig when it happened. If they hadnae been looking up it would have been fatal. It went straight through the dinghy like a knife through haggis. The lads just managed tae jump clear in the nick of time.”

The Captain was a far from happy man. At Rifkind’s furious insistence, it had taken another half-hour to haul the box out of the ocean and up onto the deck where it now sat dripping. A complex system of rapidly arranged ropes and pulleys had stopped the infernal thing from sinking to the bottom of the bay which is where Stewart would have been more than happy to see it go. It had cost him valuable time, a lifeboat and nearly some of his crew and they hadn’t even set sail yet. Indeed there were still about a hundred or so colonists to get on board and he sent Hamish down to see if he could help speed things up.

While his Mate was just stepping off the gangplank, Chief Rabbie McGlaikit was in the process of starting to get his forty or so fellow clansmen, clanswomen and their assorted clanschildren and clansanimals up it. The pushing and shoving of another clan, who had arrived at the same time from the opposite side of the dock and who were also struggling to get on board, hindered matters. Rabbie noticed that whereas the members of his own group were for the most part tall, freckled and reddish-haired, these lowlanders were small, dark and swarthy. A few oaths rent the air as toes were stepped on and elbows shoved into ribs but it was going pretty well, all things considered, when things took a sudden turn for the worse. He felt his youngest daughter Annie pulling on the bottom of his kilt.

“Da, Da...” the wee five year old said, tugging away and trying for the life of her to get his attention.

“Och, not now poppet.”

“But Da...”

“I said not now, wean.”

“But Da, that man stole one of our cheuks!” she finally shouted at the top of her lungs in order to be heard above the incredible din.

“Wha’! Which man?” the chief roared, now giving Annie his full attention. What kind of a man would take advantage of all this pandemonium and stoop so low as to steal someone else’s chicken he thought to himself, his face turning a livid red. “You just point him out tae me poppet, which one was he then? I’ll sort him.”

Annie turned around, raised her hand and pointed her finger to a small weasely man, a member of the other clan, who was attempting to push his way through the throng and onto the gangplank. Chief Rabbie clenched his fists and charged through the crowd in hot pursuit.

“Hey, youse over there, stop by the love of God or ye’r bones will be feelin’ the weight o’ my fist.”

The weasel halted in his tracks and turned to look him full in the eye as the crowd hushed and stopped moving up the gangplank to watch. Thick dark brows met in the middle of his face above a pointy nose, giving him a lupine, vaguely sinister air. Although small, he was stockier than Chief Rabbie had first thought and had a cunning, deceitful look about him.

“A’ believe ye hae a cheuk o’ mine,” Rabbie said forcefully glowering at him but the man coolly stood his ground and didn’t seem in the least intimidated by the big burly chief.

“I dinnae ken whit yer on aboot,” he answered boldly. Taken aback by the man’s bold denial, Rabbie looked at his daughter but she was nodding her head vigorously and pointing to the man.

“Away wie yer havering, my wee Annie saw ye.”

The stranger simply blinked his beady little eyes at the bigger man and stared at the small girl with a patronizing smile.

“Well, where is it then? I cannae see a cheuk! I’m tellin’ ye, she’s mistaken, maybe it fell in the brink,” he said calmly, pointing to the murky sea below them where a number of farmyard animals and fowl were still treading water, desperately awaiting rescue. Rabbie knew a moment of doubt. The stranger was carrying no bag in which he could hide the plundered bird and after all, it had been very confusing in the crowd with all the noise and the pushing. Perhaps his daughter had made a mistake but, looking down at his wee one who was still holding onto the fringe of his kilt, he saw that she was nodding her head vigorously and still pointing at the man.

“I saw him, Da, honest I did. He took it and put it...” but Rabbie was already lunging towards the stranger.

“Ye durty thieving cheuk-snatcher. Gie me back wha’s rightfully mine or by the balls o’ Great Glodden ye’ll wish yer pappy ne’er laid a haun on yer mammy!” As he was about to take the man by the neck an ox-like figure swiftly moved between them, blocking his way.

“Who are ye calling a thief, ye stinkin’ chuchter? If ye cannae find yer cheuk, maybe it’s because it ran away from yer smell!” Surprised, Rabbie stopped and stared. He saw a squat, swarthy figure dressed in the same tartan as the chicken-filcher.

“Get oot o’ ma way,” he tried to push past, “I donnae hae a problem wie youse, jus yon pilfering villain.”

“I am Tocher McTosser, chief of Clan McTosser and son of Magnus the Militant. Any problem wie one o my folk is a problem wie me!”

“Well, Chief McTosser, yer man there has stolen ma cheuk and I want it back.” Exasperated, Rabbie again tried to push past him but the stranger stood fast, immobile as a chunk of dark granite.

“Utter tosh! How dare ye accuse a McTosser, ye slandering, mealy-mouthed pap. No one trifles wie the honour o’ my Clan.”

“Och away and find yerself a midden tae play in!”

The two men faced up to one another and their respective clansfolk hastily dropped their bundles and grouped round them protectively, getting ready to do battle if need be. Rabbie was just about to charge when the thief, who had been cowering behind his chief, suddenly gave a strangled gasp, doubled up and grabbed hold of his sporran with two hands.

In rising disbelief, Rabbie noticed that the woolen fabric of the man’s kilt was moving in a strange undulating fashion, apparently independent of the rest of his body and a small white feather spiraled down onto the floor from beneath his robes.

“Aye, and jus wha’ wud that bulge be under his kilt then?” The big chief turned to his daughter and told her to look the other way, then in one swift movement he managed to dodge past Tocher, grab hold of the man by the shoulder with one hand and pull up his kilt with the other. A startled and terrified looking chicken looked up at him from the stranger’s groin where it had been hastily stuffed beneath his sporran. The dockside had suddenly become quiet, all eyes looking at the spectacle unraveling before them. With a loud cluck, the mortified chicken worked its way free and flew off in Annie’s direction.

“If ye so much as look ma way again on this crossing I swear I’ll kill ye,” growled Chief Rabbie to the half-naked man below him who was desperately trying to wriggle free whilst maintaining the impression that he was unaware of all the onlookers now laughing out loud and pointing at his misfortune. Rabbie finally released his kilt with a disdainful gesture.

“Come away all o’ ye’s,” he told his people, “...and Annie, y’ll need tae gie that cheuk a good washing now that we ken where it’s been!” To the sound of ribald laughter, he strode back to get his clan safely on board.

“I’ll get ye for this,” Tocher shouted after him. “Nobody makes a mockery o’ Clan McTosser!” Thus took place the first of what were to be several confrontations between the McGlaikit and McTosser clans. Hamish, the Mate, had witnessed everything and later dutifully reported the encounter to his Captain once they had finally got everyone on board and were preparing at long last to leave Leith.

“God’s teeth, what next? Have we no’ got enough problems wi’out warring clans?” Stewart exclaimed, disturbed by the news. A veteran of over twenty-five years on the high seas, he had never had a departure so fraught with difficulties and an uneasy feeling in his gut told him that this whole venture was not going to go as smoothly as he had hoped.

Much to their mutual disgust the McTossers and McGlaikits discovered on boarding that they had been allotted berths next to one another down below. It was no small matter to plunder another man’s chicken and the incident still rankled sorely. Through the dim gloom of the oil-lantern lit hold, Chief Tocher could see Rabbie McGlaikit glowering at him like a man possessed. Ignoring him, he turned his attention to the far from easy task of establishing his clansfolk in their individual hammocks and putting their livestock into the pens which had been provided. Great was the confusion and noise, everyone fighting over what were perceived to be the better berths and it was no time at all before the first territorial dispute took place between the McTossers and McGlaikits.

“Chief Rabbie, Chief Rabbie, will ye no come quickly!” came a plaintive cry from the murky shadows, together with other wailing and sounds of some sort of tussle. Walking rapidly down one aisle to the fringes of his own little group, Rabbie came upon the wizened figure of Widow Nessie hunched in battle over a hammock with a McTosser female of equally advanced years. Great was the hissing and cursing as each of the aged crones tried to scratch and maim the other while clinging obstinately to their side of the canvas hammock. Tocher McTosser arrived on the scene almost immediately and the two chiefs stood face-to-face, uncertain as to what to do. The problem was obvious. To the left could be seen a horde of McTossers stowing their belongings and crawling into their berths. To the right, the McGlaikits were all doing the same thing. This particular hammock was smack in the middle, the dividing line between the two clans.

“Ugly whore!”

“Evil strumpet!”

“Rabbie, this great mother o’ harlots is stealing ma bed,” squawked Widow Nessie, looking to Rabbie for help.

“Will ye no defend me, Chief,” her opponent wailed in appeal to Tocher.

Both chiefs stared at each other. To tell the truth, neither of them felt any particular fondness for the old harridans and neither wished to start a fight at the very beginning of such a long trip but a clan’s honour must be satisfied.

“Will ye relinquish that hammock?” Rabbie asked Tocher, almost in appeal.

“I cannae dae that. ’Tis McTosser property,” Tocher answered him reluctantly.

“Ha’e at thee then.” Simultaneously, they lunged for their claymores.

“Belay those weapons!” came a roar from behind them and both men stopped in surprise and looked round to find the First Mate bearing down on them. “Are ye mad that ye carry on like this before we even clear the docks?” Hamish, although not as tall as his captain, was built like an Aberdeen Angus bull and had a temper to match. His crew knew better than to get on the bad side of the Mate and even the chiefs, both known for their impetuous natures, felt momentarily intimidated. The lull only lasted for seconds, however, before both were shouting out their side of the affair and beseeching the Mate to take their side.

“Enough!” he roared again. “Is it a keel-hauling yer both after?” He stared at them hard. The only thing he had managed to understand out of the whole garbled account was that these idiots were both demanding that their clans be relocated far away from each other, preferably at opposite ends of the ship. Hamish, who knew what his skipper’s views would be on rearranging eighty-odd berths just to satisfy this pair, rapidly put paid to that idea. “Here ye are and here ye’ll stay and that’s an end o’ it. And dinnae let me catch ye mewlin’ tae the skipper, he’s got problems enough tae contend wie, wi’oot the likes of youse.”

“But wha’ about ma hammock?” wailed Widow Nessie.

“Neither of ye is havin’ it,” Hamish adjudicated firmly. “If ye would only look around ye instead of carrying on, ye’d see that there are hammocks tae spare on both sides down at t’other ends. This hammock here is tae stay empty as a barrier between ye. As fer the pair of youse,” he turned to the chiefs, “I expect ye to control yer wimmen and yerselves. Another peep out of ye and it’s the cat’o’nine tails ye’ll be feeling. Now get moving, the lot o’ye.” Sullenly returning to his own berth, Chief Rabbie informed his wife and kin of the bad news.

“There’s nothing for it, we ha’ tae share this area wie yon villain and his folk. Jus’ watch oot for yer belongings and dinnae let them bother ye.”

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