The McTavish Girls

The Prologue

The woman stared upon the gravestone of her husband feeling every bit as bitter as her tired, bereaved face looked; she was far too young to be a widow, far too young for single motherhood. Flanked on either side and drained of emotion after a long week of mourning, her two teenage daughters stood dry-eyed, the deep shadows cast in the hollows of their cheeks made all the more visible by the light of a full moon. The woman clenched her hand.

‘Your father has seen fit to leave us, girls, without so much as a parting word or a wave. How very inconsiderate and how very typical of a man.’

‘Ma …’ said her eldest, in a quiet, pleading voice.

The mother looked sideways into her daughter’s eyes. Her sorrow had yet to turn to bitterness, but sooner or later it would. ‘Ready?’ she asked. Both daughters nodded. ‘Then let’s get it over with.’

The mother led her daughters in a circle around the grave, allowing grain drawn from their pockets to seep between their fingers. The grain bequeathed protection upon the departed, a bequest that those left behind expected to receive in return.

‘There you go, dearest,’ said the woman through gritted teeth. ‘You may have relinquished your pledge to protect us in this life, but no such excuse remains in the life hereafter.’

‘Let him rest, Ma,’ her eldest pleaded again, although her voice was now tinged with an audible note of warning. The youngest daughter remained silent, her heart already hardened to her loss.

‘And what about my rest, dear? Did he give a thought to that before his sudden departure? He’ll get what he deserves from me, now and in the afterlife.’

She wiped the dust from her hands and took a couple of paces back on ground that fell gently towards a clearing and then more sharply through trees until it reached a thin shore and a peaceful expanse of still, glimmering water.

‘It’s just the three of us now, girls. What help your father gave us we must do without.’

She turned away and, without a backwards glance, led her daughters from the grave towards a side gate and a lane that disappeared into the darkness of overhanging trees.

Chapter 1


(pron. Jewel-ff)


Summer, 2001

High up a tree, a guiding light shone brightly across the water as two swimmers ploughed a determined course towards the bay and a lone, waiting figure. It was evening, the air was still, the noise and activity that had filled the loch during that long summer day all but gone. Few birds remained airborne, few insects uncovered. All looked for or had found somewhere safe to settle before the full darkness of night descended. The peace of the evening was all but complete, except for those two swimmers heading towards that light in Finlay Bay.

‘Look at them, look at my girls. Aren’t they strong, aren’t they brave.’

‘They take after you, Tily. They have your spirit, your resolve.’

‘Which they will need, they cannot survive without it. Maybe I should help …’

‘No, Tily, we will leave the work to the living, we will not interfere. Come, we must leave them be.’

‘Not just yet, Father. A moment longer, that is all.’

Lillandith Loch was a small stretch of water running west to east, a couple of miles long, but never more than half-a-mile wide. From its shallow waters a rich band of plant and animal life thrived between the narrow shoreline and a sudden, deep descent into unchartered depths. Abandoned rowing boats clung to thin, infrequent beaches that, along with the guiding light, were the only signs of man’s presence around the loch. As far as possible, it was left to nature and great care was taken to see it remained left to nature.

On the eastern shore, the banks of trees and open covers of wild flowers, long grass and heather gave way to a small outlet, where Lillandith’s waters slipped slowly and gently away. Rising up the opposing shore, an inn occupied centre stage, a centuries’-old cottage which, with two extensions, could accommodate the needs of both keepers and patrons. It was two of the inn’s present occupants, the landlady and her youngest daughter, that now swam an unwavering line between a large rock on the northern shore and the small shallow bay. Few days were allowed to pass without a dip in Lillandith or the neighbouring loch of Lonistle. Only during the harsh winters did the women let the waters rest undisturbed, but when the opportunity beckoned, they were quick to return.

‘Look at the young one, so small yet so determined to stay with her mother. She reminds me of my two.’

‘Yes, your two were no different.’

‘They were fighters, they were survivors.’

‘As all your children have since been. Come, Tily, it is time to leave.’

In the hills to the north-west, a feeder stream cut a crooked course over uneven terrain until it hit the western slope and turned towards the loch. It had carved its path over many hundreds of years and supplied the loch with a wealth of rich ingredients to nourish the natural habitat. The ancestors of those who now lived in Jualth had not wasted the benefits of a highland stream. Nestling unseen in the trees, the quiet premises of a working distillery lay hidden. Like the inn, it had stood for many centuries, linking each successive generation with the past, central to the area’s heritage and vital to its future.

‘Tily. Tily, we must leave.’

‘Must we?’

‘We must. They know where to find us if we are needed.’

‘And we’ll be there, waiting and watching.’

‘Tily …’

‘I’m coming, Devra … I’m coming.’

For strangers, finding their way into the small community was, by design, not easy. Jualth and Lillandith were local names and not those used in books or on maps, and the apparent absence of road signs did nothing to encourage the adventurous. The locals, who numbered just a few hundred and lived in tiny hamlets or scattered cottages along woodland tracks, were at one in defence of their community.

‘Come on, Janie, you’ve got to keep up!’ Sally shouted across – the seventeen-year-old was again slipping behind. Janie tried to increase her stroke to move up alongside her mother, whilst Sally slightly reduced hers, but only by a little; too much would have been self-defeating and no help to her daughter. The light in the bay was now close; they had little distance left to swim. Around the loch, other lights flicked into life in cottages dotted high up the surrounding banks, their reflections playing upon the surface of Lillandith’s waters.

Finally, and together, they reached the threshold of Finlay Bay, Janie having made up the distance she had lost. With their feet touching the bay’s shallow, rocky floor they waded in.

‘Still a bit slow, Janie,’ said Sally, immediately assessing her exhausted daughter’s performance. ‘We can’t afford to slacken any more, not at this stage.’ She looked around and decided a sparing word of encouragement appropriate. ‘But you weren’t too far off the pace; perhaps you will be ready in time.’

‘I will be ready, Ma, you’ll see,’ Janie gasped determinedly.

As they reached dry land, Janet, Sally’s mother, was ready with large towels to throw over their dripping, naked bodies. ‘Well done, girls, not a bad swim this evening. I reckon Janie’s coming along fine.’ Janet felt it best to follow in Sally’s latter vein of encouragement, recognising her granddaughter’s need for praise.

‘Aye, still a lot of work to do, but she’s getting there.’ Sally wrapped the towel around her tiny frame and turned to gaze across the loch. ‘I cannot see us swimming Lillandith for much longer. By the time our Annie joins us, we’ll be over yonder, disturbing the waters in Lonistle.’

With another swim complete, the three women started back, following Lillandith’s southern shore to its south-western corner, where a path climbed the hill to the inn. At the weekend, Sally’s eldest daughter was travelling home from London where she had spent her first year at college studying art. She had invited her boyfriend to accompany her – an important first-time visit that, through necessity, she had done little to prepare him for.

Chapter 2

Jualth was situated in the wild, rugged Highlands of Scotland, where recognisable routes to help travellers reach remote locations were sparse. Trains stopped at designated points, allowing their fares to get off and venture forth. Walking was a favoured occupation of many, with much-needed planning preceding their visits, but finding Jualth with even the best-laid plans was a task beyond most and few knew of a reason to try.

The station that served as a distant point of disembarkation was a small open platform ringed by a fence on three sides, with a couple of benches and a telephone. A gate opened onto a dozen wooden steps leading down to a narrow road that ran away into the trees. It was an isolated spot used only to get on or off the occasional train that rumbled through. On the first Sunday in August, one such train had dropped two passengers at the station and rumbled on north.

‘Did you tell them what time we were due to arrive?’ Paul asked.

Annie struggled to suppress her annoyance at such an unnecessary question. ‘I did, but as we were “due to arrive” two hours ago, it’s hardly surprising there’s nobody here to meet us.’

She walked over to the phone to ring home whilst Paul strolled along the platform, vainly hoping for a sight of their transport. Both were wearied and frustrated by the length of time it had taken to travel from London, a journey long enough without the delays. Instead of arriving in the late afternoon, it was now well into the evening and missing their lift was not the ideal way to end what had already been a gruelling day.

Annie wandered back, having made her call. ‘I spoke to my grandmother. Ma left about three hours ago and hasn’t returned yet. I’ll ring back in a while, but I expect she’s on her way home.’


‘She’s on her way home,’ Annie repeated with forced patience.

‘But … but … will she come back? I mean … is there somewhere else we can stay the night?’

Annie watched as her exasperated boyfriend engaged in a bout of flustered pirouettes. ‘No there isn’t and don’t go blaming me, it’s not my fault. We’ll just have to sleep rough tonight, that’s all.’


‘Aye, rough.’

Paul groaned. ‘Oh great, the perfect end to a perfect journey! My very first day in Scotland and I’ll be sleeping rough.’ Paul looked to the sky daring the heavens to make things worse. Perhaps a spot of Highland rain would summon forth a plague of mites to devour the unprotected flesh of all those stupid enough to spend the night sleeping rough.

‘Annie …’ Paul ventured after a moment.


‘Where exactly are we?’

Annie looked puzzled. ‘Can you not work out for yourself where we are?’

Paul gritted his teeth. ‘All right, I know where we are, but where are we in relation to any other human being. Could we contact someone else, maybe get them to help us?’

‘No, no we couldn’t. We’re all alone and before you ask, there are no more trains till tomorrow morning. Tonight, dearest, it’s just you, me and the beautiful Scottish elements.’

Paul bowed his head. ‘I did tell you this would be a memorable visit, an experience to match none other. It’s too late to complain now. Believe me, you’ll have a lot more to worry about on this trip than a wee night out in the open.’

Annie walked over to the bench and sat down, allowing Paul all the time he needed to accept the unwelcome change to their plans. Like all of her family, Annie was a redhead with freckles, elf-like in size, but with an abundance of energy that was even apparent when acting out the student life in London. For a small woman, she had surprisingly strong arms, evidence of countless hours of swimming already undertaken during her short life.

She had met Paul by answering an ad for a model he had pinned to the college notice board. He was a practising artist of the modern genre in search of a wider market. To date, sustaining his commitment to his work had only been possible with financial top-ups from supportive parents. He was tall, with dark brown hair and was a few years older than Annie, having just turned thirty. Although passionate when working on or talking about art, Paul was usually an easy-going, calm character who rarely lost his temper, even when annoyed and fed-up as he was now. He wandered over to Annie, still unhappy, and sat down beside her.

‘Has this ever happened before?’ he asked.

‘No, never. No one would leave me here by myself. But, as I have a man with me, why should anyone worry? “Surely, our Annie will be safe with him,” they’ll say. So you’d better make sure I am, hadn’t you?’

‘Annie, I’m no use to myself out here, I’m totally and utterly lost. If it wasn’t for that railway track, I wouldn’t have a clue how to return to civilisation.’

Annie rubbed his shoulder, sensing an opportunity to tease. ‘Will you stop worrying? All they’ll expect you to do is protect me from the strange nightlife that we’ll attract once our scent is picked up, nothing more.’


‘Most of it will be harmless, I should think, but the odd beast could prove a mite troublesome.’

‘The odd beast!’ Paul was horrified. Spending a night outside was one thing, spending the night outside on a survival exercise was quite another. ‘Real ones?’

Annie considered the question seriously. ‘Well, there’ve always been rumours about the occasional circus animal or privately owned beast being freed into the wild. I mean most of it’s rubbish, I’m sure, and if any of the animals were left to roam, it’s highly unlikely they’d live long.’

If Annie was attempting to unsettle her boyfriend further, she was doing a good job. ‘So there are real beasts!’ Annie shrugged unhelpfully. ‘Great, so there could be lions, tigers, bears or … or whatever, lurking in the woods waiting to savage anyone who possesses the ridiculous notion of sleeping rough.

Annie laughed, enjoying his discomfort. ‘Calm down. No lions or tigers, maybe the odd bear, but the likelihood of meeting one here, tonight …’ She pursed her lips, weighing up the possibility. ‘Can’t be much, can it?’

The flippancy with which she treated the subject was enough to provoke Paul into action. He rose to his feet. ‘Oh good, well as long as it isn’t here, tonight. That is a relief.’

‘Where are you going?’

‘For a walk and, seeing I’m on wholly alien territory, it would be nice to know when, and if, I return, whether or not you’re joking. Oh, and if by some miracle your mother does come back, please do not leave without me.’ He opened the gate and climbed down the steps.

‘Stay on the lane,’ Annie shouted as he strode off. ‘If you get lost, we may never find you.’ She laughed at the dismissive wave swung in her direction and watched until her boyfriend was out of sight. Unconcerned by their predicament, a playful smile crept across her face – she had just had a wonderful idea.


When Paul returned to the station after about forty minutes, having stuck to the lane as instructed, he was now reconciled to spending the night in the open. He had expected to see his young redhead on the platform or sitting on the steps awaiting his return. One glance as he approached was enough to realise his expectations were ill-founded. The platform was empty, the steps deserted, the bags gone. He rushed through the gate and looked around wildly. There was no sign of his girlfriend, her mother, a note … There was no sign of anything or anyone.

‘Annie!’ he shouted. ‘Annie!’ His cries went unanswered. Where was she? Having turned in several unproductive circles, he threw up his arms in exasperation. Although seemingly impossible, events had taken a turn for the worse. With the evening light disappearing behind the trees, he walked over to the bench and sat down. This was either one of Annie’s little jokes or wild beasts had eaten his young girlfriend. He folded his arms, crossed his legs and passed a few tense minutes gazing into the distant landscape. An indecisive gust of wind blew the treetops one way and then another, the branches stirring and whispering as if in secret communication. Paul squirmed uneasily, feeling every bit the lost, forlorn stranger in a hostile land.

A sudden sound on the steps brought him jumping back to his feet. He spun around. ‘Annie!’ His girlfriend had reappeared.

‘So you’ve come back, have you? I thought you’d decided to walk home the time you were gone. Did you forget that you were supposed to be looking after me?’

‘Annie,’ Paul repeated, his reprieve from the depths of isolation momentarily barring any further utterance.

‘The one and only.’ Paul was observed with a touch of amusement. ‘You look a wee bit shaken, lover, and judging by your breathing, a fair bit out of condition. We’ll have to do something about that whilst you’re with us, won’t we?’

‘Where did you come from? Where have you been?’

‘Worried that I’d run off without you?’

‘I didn’t know what to think. I just saw an empty station with no Annie and no bags.’ Paul looked around. ‘Where are the bags?’

Annie grinned contentedly and took his hand. ‘Follow me.’ She led him down the steps, off the lane and into the surrounding trees, eventually arriving at a small clearing. ‘There you go, lover, haven’t I been a busy girl in your absence? Well, what do you think?’