The location for this interview is the Stag’s Head Tavern at the rough end of Edinburgh’s Cowgate where Sergeant Angus MacIan and Hugh (Shug) Nicolls have taken their seats. Supplied with a tankard of the finest dark ale they welcome Mistress Moore-Hopkins.
Stephanie: Good afternoon gentlemen, thank you for inviting me to join you here (looks around and suppresses a shiver of horror) I have brought cake. (She looks at two men, one in the uniform of the Town Guard, the other dressed in rough, everyday clothes resembling a slightly down at the heels gentleman. Both are over six feet tall, powerfully built and looks slightly menacing. Sergeant MacIan is in his late fifties. Shug Nicolls, about thirty)
MacIan: It’s our pleasure, madam. I believe you have a few questions for us? I hope you don’t mind me saying, but it makes a nice change to have someone asking me questions for once!
Stephanie: Just a few, gentlemen. (Sips the offered tankard) Would it be possible for a glass of red wine? I’m not really an ale drinker.
Shug: (to the barmaid) Maisie, fetch Mistress Moore-Hopkins a claret, hen. Mind and put it in a clean glass!
Stephanie: Umm, thank you. Perhaps a slice of cake first, do we have a knife? (in the blink of an eye Shug produces a stiletto knife with a six-inch blade, just as quickly MacIan displays a dirk, twice as long and twice as broad, both are sharp enough to shave with) Err, thank you. So shall we begin?
MacIan and Shug: Aye, dad on!
Stephanie: A simple question to begin with. What are your normal habits in a standard day?
MacIan: Well, as the senior sergeant of Edinburgh’s ancient and respected Town Guard, my day consists of making sure that folk keep their noses clean, and don’t get up to any mischief. I do this through good old fashioned persuasion and kindness.
Shug: (laughing) Aye, and a fair amount o’ knocking heads together, eh! Dinnae listen tae his nonsense missus. He’s the biggest rogue in a redcoat ye’ll meet here in toon!
MacIan: Nicolls! This wifie is frae the Colonies! Speak English or she’ll no’ ken what yer havering aboot! Aye, and less o’ yer cheek! Yer nae angel yersel’
Stephanie: (blank look)
Shug: Forgive me, madam. I was just suggesting that Sergeant MacIan is no stranger to bending the rules when it is called for. I’m not calling him a bad man though. There are those who would cut a throat for a few shillings, aye, and those that think themselves above the law because of their position in society! They consider themselves to be untouchable. MacIan here…well, let’s just say that he doesn’t think that’s right. So, when he needs to, he’ll bend the rules, or if you want me to be completely honest, he’s willing to break the rules into a hundred pieces to see the guilty pay for their sins!
Stephanie: And yourself?
Shug: All I can say is that everything I do, I do with the best of intentions. If Mr. Young asks me to help him in any way during his work, well, I am always happy to do my wee bit to assist.
Stephanie: Ah yes, Robert Young of Newbiggin. I believe you owe him your life?
MacIan: Aye that he does. Shug here, well he was going to hang for killing a man not two feet from where you sit. I was convinced that he was guilty of murder. Mr. Young however decided to look into the matter. Turns out, Nicolls here was the victim of a deadly assault. He had no choice but to defend himself. Let’s just say that the man who attacked him ended up on the floor at your feet with a meat cleaver in his head! Are you alright? You’ve gone awfully pale!
Stephanie: Thank you, I’m fine (looks at the floor) Really? Right here? Moving on! How are you influenced by your setting?
Shug: You have to remember, missus, that this is a violent town at times. For the folk that live down here on the Cowgate, it can be dog eat dog at times. I’m not saying that everyone is bad, far from it! The vast majority of people would give you the shirt of their back if you needed it, but there are always those that see everyone else as a potential victim. I’ve lived my whole life on these streets. I learned early on that if you want to succeed, then you need to be able to look after yourself. Aye, and thanks to my dealings with Mr. Young, I’ve learned that there is satisfaction to be had by helping those weaker than yourself too.
MacIan: As for me? Well, I hail from Glen Fenstrae originally. Ran away to join the army when I was just a young man. Why? Because I thought the girl I loved didn’t love me! Turns out I was wrong, but I only learned that last year when I was blessed by our Lord and reunited with my Marie. A wee bitty older, a wee bitty wiser, but still just as feisty as I remembered her. Anyway, I fought on the Continent and over in your Colonies, up along the Canadian border against the Frenchies. When I got too old for marching and fighting, I settled here in Edinburgh and joined the Guard. Now, what, ten years later? I’m still here! Like Nicolls, I see it as my duty to protect the weak and defenceless. If that means that I sometimes have to get a bit rough with ne’er-do-wells? Well, let’s just say that they brought it upon themselves.
Stephanie: Yes, I can understand that. You are both quite intimidating fellows; it has to be said. From what I have heard though, you are both honourable in your own way. May I ask what are the emotional triggers of your characters and how do they act on them?
MacIan: Thank you Mistress. Emotional triggers? For me? That would be knowing what’s right, and what’s wrong. Too many people seem unable to tell the difference! When I see someone who has suffered violence through no fault of their own, it raises my hackles. I try to stay within the law when dealing with those responsible. Just occasionally though, you need to take a step over the line to see justice done.
Shug: And sometimes you need to get your feet wet, eh MacIan! But you don’t want to be hearing about that Mistress. Some things are best left out of this interview! What was the question? Oh aye, emotional triggers! Like MacIan here, there are some things that just annoy me. Rich men thinking they can do as they please with the poor, aye, that is something that gets my back up. Violence towards women and children? Let’s just say that if a man does that, then they had best pray that I don’t hear about it, or they’ll be sorry!
Stephanie: Would I be right in thinking that you are actually two sides of the same coin?
MacIan: (looking offended) Indeed you would not! I have nothing in common with this man. He’s nothing but a common thug!
Shug: (laughing) a thug, perhaps? But common? I think not. No. MacIan here is all about upholding the law, and seeing the guilty brought to trial. As for me? I do my best to avoid having any dealing with the law if I can help it. The Town Guard have spent the last few years trying to find a way to put my neck in a noose on the Grassmarket! No, we have nothing in common.
Stephanie: I see. Very well, I shall allow my readers to make up their own minds about that then. One final question then. Self-image is important in your characters I would imagine. How do you hope that people see you?
MacIan: A year ago, I would have said that I was seen as a loyal servant of the town. A hard, but fair, member of the Guard, and someone that folk could turn to for assistance. These days? Aye, all of that, but more importantly, I’d like to be remembered as a good man to my Marie, and a good father to the daughter I never even knew I had until forty years after she was born! And not forgetting my grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter. Aye, just to be remembered as a family man! That would do me fine.
Shug: I’d settle for being seen as something more than a bar-room brawler! I know I don’t have the best reputation in town. Folk see me coming and think I’m about to rip their head off! Just because I have broken a few people along the way, others tend to see the worst in you. I see myself more as a victim of circumstance. I was born with nothing and everything I have, I have had to work for. I would hope that my dealings with Mr. Young have allowed people to see that there is more to me than a one dimensional character whose only role is to turn up and break faces! Thankfully Mr. Young could see the man within. He has allowed me the opportunity to become a better man. That is why I am always there to keep a careful watch over him, his family and friends. He saved my life. Now I see it as my duty to protect theirs.
Stephanie: Well, thank you very much for your time gentlemen. I think I have all that I need here. Do you know the best route back to Leith? I have to catch the evening tide for Georgia!
Shug: I’ll rustle you up a coach, missus. Don’t worry yourself, we’ll make sure you don’t miss your boat. Would it be alright if I take this cake? I hate to see good cake go to waste!
Interview arranged by Stuart S. Laing, author of the Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries.
With thanks to the management and staff at the Stag’s Head for allowing the use of their premises.
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Born and raised on the east coast of Scotland in the ancient Pictish Kingdom of Fife, Stuart Laing grew up looking across the Firth of Forth towards the spires and turrets of the city of Edinburgh and its castle atop its volcanic eyrie. He has always been fascinated by the history of Auld Reekie and has spent most of his life studying Scottish history in all its aspects whenever he finds the time between family, work and the thousand and one other things that seek to distract him. Despite the vast panorama of Scotland’s history, he always finds himself being drawn back to the cobbled streets of the Old Town. Those streets have provided the inspiration for his stories and characters. He would urge all visitors to Scotland’s ancient capital to (briefly) venture into one of the narrow closes running down from the Royal Mile to get a flavour of how alive with mischief, mayhem, love and laughter these streets once were.