WINNER of the prize for HISTORICAL FICTION (THE WELKIN WRITING PRIZE 2023)
by Fiona Milne
Sae rantinly, sae wantonly, sae dauntinly gaed he
He played a tune and he danced aroon, below the gallows tree
(‘MacPherson’s Rant’, traditional Scottish ballad)
Dazzlingly bright for a November morning: pale sky, wispy cold.
MacPherson has not stopped playing his fiddle all night. The dungeon is dark, but he can see the music leap and burn. He plays like a starving man, as if he could never play enough, not even if he had the years of a long life ahead. Sometimes he plays with banging foot, sometimes with tender stillness; always with heart hammering along, out of time.
Now it is morning and the gallows has sprung up, an angular tree, dark edges liquid against the sky. MacPherson is permitted to take his fiddle with him, outside, across the square, up the steps, one by one.
His legs shake.
His tune is twisting through his veins muscles stomach scalp sinews knees bones.
I scorn death, says MacPherson, and he plays his tune and stamps a heavy caper.
I dare to die, says MacPherson, and grasping his violin in his fist, he smashes it down. It slams and cracks on the platform. His deft fiddler’s fingers snap it into two pieces. He grinds the edges broken body scraps shards splinters dust.
But the music pours out of him a little longer,
and What is death? says MacPherson. He is dancing. The violin is scattered in shreds beneath his feet, and above his head, the blue vault of the sky.
Fiona Milne is a Glasgow-based writer with a background in literary history. She’s currently working on a book about political trials, and taking her first steps into writing short fiction. Fiona is interested in folklore, history, and the way we find meaning in lives and stories from the past.
This was a piece that ticked so many boxes for me – historical, musical, atmospheric. There is startling imagery throughout from the simile in the opening sentence (“He plays like a starving man, as if he could never play enough”) to the picture of the gallows as “an angular tree”; the writing is rhythmical and the build through that list of adverbs feels intoxicating.