Oathlaw – A Tale of Murder in Strathmore and Malice in Old Dundee

Every working day for several years I would drive northwards into the great county of Angus where I visited clients in the towns and villages of Strathmore. On the way, I’d pass familiar landmarks, intimidating speed traps, and interesting signposts that pointed down country roads towards to intriguingly named hamlets and farmtouns.

I often imagined out-of-the-way places like Justinhaugh, Memus and Fern to be charming reminders of a long lost past, but I didn’t want to spoil the illusion by actually visiting them.

One of these road signs announces the approaching turn-off for Oathlaw, surely the most evocatively named of rural destinations anywhere in Scotland. It is the striking conjunction of two affirmative words that immediately catches the eye and, for me, fires the imagination. The result has been ‘Oathlaw’, a novel that fuses conventional detective fiction with the salient features of life in mid-nineteenth century Scotland.

The bolting together of Oath and Law implies something profound and important behind the name but it may infer nothing more than the presence of a hill (Scots n: law = hill). Similarly, there is no evidence of oath-taking on the site other than the presence of a church from early times.

Looking at Johnston’s 1846 map of Forfarshire (now Angus), we can see that Oathlaw parish was once quite extensive and important enough to have a substantial church at its centre. Today, Oathlaw is little more than an intersection of three rural roads while the Parish Kirk has long been decommissioned. Confusingly for the erstwhile researcher, there is also the presently extant church named ‘Oathlaw Tannadice Church’, which is located 3 miles to the north.

In many ways, this largely agricultural and apparently unremarkable parish is an ideal canvas on which to create a fictional mise-en-scène. It is also relatively easy to populate this quasi-imaginary landscape with characters living in isolation from each other, yet mindful of each other’s business. More importantly, the juxtaposition of Oathlaw, Forfar, Kirriemuir and Glammis makes the geography credible for a tale of murder in Strathmore and the events that followed.

QUOTE: Oathlaw, a parish in the centre of Forfarshire, whose church stands 4½ miles NNE of the post-town, Forfar. It includes part of the ancient parish of Finhaven (sic), and on into the present century was oftener known by that name than its own. It is bounded N by Tannadice, E and SE by Aberlemno, S by Rescobie, and SW, W, and NW by Kirriemuir (from Frances Groome’s Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland 1882-4).

To my mind, any novel entitled Oathlaw would have to be about serious matters, and what could be more serious than premeditated murder, wilful misdirection, and venal motives? It also occurred to me that Oathlaw should be strongly suggestive of promises made and promises kept. Such vows as often strongest when they are made in times of turbulence and duress and this became another major driver in the telling of the tale.

The main challenge was to interleave conventional legal oaths with the personal promises given by individuals. I leave the reader to judge whether that challenge has been met. I would only say that in this present age of casual mendacity it has never been more important to keep your solemn word. It is often hard to get to the truth of things, but that isn’t a licence to lie, cheat, steal and murder with impunity.

The foregoing is the foundation upon which Oathlaw, a fictional account of cold-blooded murder in Victorian Scotland, is built. Set in 1846, it concerns Reefka, a resourceful and resolute African woman. She is the ‘live-in’ maid-of-all-work at Oathlaw Rise, a small mansion in a remote part of eastern Scotland. Reefka appears to be a former slave in the keeping of Captain Robert Cargill, a reclusive former naval officer. She has not lived there long and is, in every sense, a stranger in a strange land.

One night, very late, Cargill is murdered in his study by a single pistol shot to the middle of his forehead. In the immediate aftermath, Reefka disturbs the killer but is assaulted and knocked unconscious. Cargill’s safe is untouched but banknotes and valuables are strewn on the desk and floor. Cargill has a small pistol in his hand, but is it there to mislead? Cargill was once was a leading figure in the West Africa Squadron, the principal anti-slavery division of the Royal Navy. Perhaps his past has finally caught up with him?

The motive seems to have been robbery, but Reefka quickly realises that it is the servant who is ‘first to be blamed’ and she takes flight from the scene. So begins the fast-moving tale of ‘Clever Reefka’ a fugitive who is educated, adaptable, and extremely capable. The story moves through a period when Scotland stood on the cusp of far-reaching change and sees Reefka travel from a safe, rural retreat into the hostile centre of an industrial town on the make.

The country police quickly lose interest, but the case is duly taken up by a mismatched team of private investigators, namely: Commodore Alexander Fothringham (retd.); Constable Edwin Gray of the Forfar Constabulary; and Dundee polymath James Bowman Lindsay. They are all very different personalities, but together they join forces in pursuit of truth, justice, and the missing maid-of-all-work. From here on, Oathlaw fuses conventional detective fiction with the salient features of life in mid-19th Century Scotland.

The characters include several ‘Dundee Worthies’ drawn very much from life and a raft of fictional provocateurs including Harry Prophet, the shifty factor of Oathlaw. I have also created a large supporting cast of personalities who are integral to the story, most notably Charles Mearns, the shit-stirring editor of the Bonnet Hill Bulletin, and Josiah Jupp the parasitic jeweller. Then there is Angwantibo. He is a small animal and Reefka’s constant companion, but he is not a pet. He is many things, including a confidante, an adviser, and a sage, but he is certainly not a pet.

Naturally, some poetic licence has been applied to the various landscapes that Reefka passes through between Oathlaw and Bonnet Hill. I have, however, been largely faithful to locations and settings, some of which still exist today while others are long gone. Nevertheless, these places persist in the memory as half-remembered backstreets, and live on in the histories of ordinary people who lived through extraordinary times.

They say you should write about the things you know, and that is what I have done here. I know the undulating lands of Strathmore very well. I also know the snickets, pends and closes that cling to the side of the Dundee Law intimately. I can safely say, however, that I know them even better now for having written Oathlaw

Oathlaw is out now and available from Amazon or directly from the author in person.