The McAlby Folly, a short story by Rory O’Sullivan at
Matteo Maretto

The McAlby Folly

The McAlby Folly

written by: Rory O’Sullivan


It was not until she belatedly, and rather ignominiously, ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’, that it transpired the late Mrs Margo McAlby, wife of the even later Hector McAlby, was, in reality, no such person. The truth of the matter was that for over twenty years Margo Burns had enjoyed, if that’s the correct term, a duplicitous existence, ostensibly the respectable wife of the Laird of Lochnafoyle, whilst in reality, as well as in law, she remained the wife and accomplice of a notorious Edinburgh confidence trickster. According to her death certificate the lady succumbed to excessive alcohol poisoning, her co-conspirator, and legal husband, predeceasing her by only a matter of months, and with little mourning involved. Her demise precipitated an astonishing and quite unexpected sequence of events, which would resonate far beyond their Highland roots.

The first, indeed the only legitimate, Mrs McAlby had, before her premature death at a relatively young age, dutifully provided her husband with the requisite male descendants; ‘an heir and a spare‘ as the saying goes, Alistair and Gordon, to secure the family line. It was, alas, a line more notable for its profligacy and ineptitude than anything else, having, over the course of three consecutive generations, squandered an enormous Highland estate to the point where little of its original grandeur remained other than a rather fine, if now somewhat shabby town house in Edinburgh, and a modest hunting lodge-cum-folly, on the banks of Lochnafoyle, together with a few acres of forest and lakeside. It was to Foyle Folly that Hector McAlby had retreated in his latter years, as much to escape the tortures of his domestic discomfort as to enjoy the pleasures of Highland solitude, and so it was to here that Gordon ‘the spare‘, would regularly come to visit his ailing father. His elder brother, Alistair, was, to his father’s eternal regret and sadness, a lost soul. Meanwhile, the avaricious and misanthropic Margo remained immovably ensconced at Connaught House in Princes Street, the Edinburgh residence, from where she initially transferred what little remained in the family coffers into an account of her own, and then went on systematically to sell any family items of value that the city auctioneers would take off her hands. By the time of her death, after two score years of plundering, there was very little remaining in Connaught House worth selling, and yet, quite extraordinarily, there appeared to be nothing whatsoever upon which the pecuniary rewards of this labour had been spent. Margo’s inexplicable control over the hapless Hector for so many years would remain a mystery, even beyond the Laird’s death.

And so it was to Foyle Folly, not Connaught House, that Gordon McAlby now came to look into what might remain of his father’s estate. Ironically, Hector had slipped peacefully away at almost the same time as the unscrupulous Mr Burns, indeed if to lose two husbands looked like carelessness on Margo’s part, to then die so abruptly herself of the drink, seems positively obtuse. Gordon was, of course, very familiar with much of the property, having spent many a happy summer holiday on the loch, but now he explored it more thoroughly for the first time. Describing it as a folly perhaps gives a false impression of the size of the place. It still had six guest bedrooms, a handsome dining hall and spacious reception rooms, as well as adequate accommodation for a small staff. Hector had lived there more or less contentedly for his final decade with just a butler and cook, and very little about the interior had altered over the years, except that none of it was cleaned very often. Hector’s study, only a small room but comfortable, was of particular interest to Gordon, because it was here that his father had spent much of his time, reading, smoking cigars and poring over ancient maps of his beloved Highlands. It was in this room that the son imagined he would discover his father’s papers, uncovering anything pertinent they might contain, a task centred around the enormous oak desk that stood in the stone bay window which had been its home for the last hundred years. The three deep drawers on either side were stuffed to overflowing with a miscellany of bills, letters, invoices, and notices as well as advertisements and pamphlets for a vast variety of causes. In the bottom right-hand drawer was a stained manilla folder with the word ‘Certificates‘ scribbled on the front. As well as numerous official documents relating to the running of the estate, when there had still been an estate to run, there were also various birth, death and marriage certificates, dating back over the years, with the most glaring and significant absence being a second marriage certificate, that for Hector and Margo.

It certainly appeared that the estate of Hector McAlby, 22nd Laird of Lochnafoyle, would be a very straightforward affair; in Alistair’s absence, Gordon was named in his father’s will as his principal heir, with a number of small bequests left to close friends, and somewhat larger ones to Angus McCloud, his butler at the Folly for more than thirty years, and Mary Carr, his loyal cook and housekeeper. At one point, soon after Hector’s death and before Margo’s, a young man, barely twenty years of age, calling himself Robert McAlby, made himself known to Campbell and Partners, the McAlby estate solicitors, claiming to be an unrecognised son of the Laird. The matter, which unsurprisingly turned out to be another of Margo’s schemes, was soon dismissed by the lawyers as without foundation, and the boy unceremoniously sent packing. Gordon’s wife, Teresa, was herself a solicitor, albeit an English one, and so took a particular interest in the business of her husband’s inheritance. With the departure of Margo from Connaught House, the property could be put on the market and the proceeds set against the not insubstantial Death Duties on the estate. Clearing out the old house proved a simple enough task, with so many of the rooms denuded of much of their furniture or ornament, and with no sentimental attachment to the little that did remain, a majority of the house was soon cleared, with the exception of the enormous outdated kitchen in which Mr and Mrs Burns would appear to have spent their days, and the two separate, second floor bedrooms, where they presumably spent their solitary nights. Numerous items of kitchen equipment were old enough to prove of interest to the Edinburgh City Museum, to which they were duly donated, but it was to be the swindler’s sleeping quarters that would provide the most astonishing revelations. Teresa appointed Gordon to clear Mr Burns room whilst she attacked Margo’s, armed with rubber gloves and bin liners, and it was she who made the first discovery. Having stripped the bed of its unsavoury clothing she knelt down to check underneath the iron frame, and innocently withdrew a heavy, old fashioned leather suitcase. It was, perhaps surprisingly for its location, locked, and no amount of wrenching on her part would allow Teresa access to the portmanteau. Just as frustration was beginning to get the better of her, Gordon appeared in the doorway, hauling by his side an object identical to her own discovery. They set the two cases side by side, and clearly to ensure that no mistake was ever made, the lid of each bore initials, boldly painted in cream gloss; M.B. on the one, presumably for Margo, and K.B. on the other, for whatever Mr Burns was called, Kenneth probably. Gordon produced an uncompromising looking screwdriver and, with little effort this time, the locks succumbed. They took hold of a lid each ‘After three’ said Teresa ‘One, two, three’. Nothing could possibly have prepared them for the sight that greeted their eyes.

With Edinburgh’s leading estate agents duly instructed, and a remarkably high estimated valuation on the old house, Gordon and Teresa returned to Lochnafoyle to continue the job of putting the Folly in order. Mr McCloud and Mrs Carr were still in residence, and happy to remain so, as long as required, which meant until they died as far as they were concerned. Teresa set about making systematic lists, room by room, of necessary repairs, improvements and additions that would be essential if the old place was to be turned into a habitable modern home. The exterior was, of course, wonderful as it was, with its mock battlements, its two towers, Great Tower and Wee Tower, and its entirely superfluous moat and, permanently lowered, drawbridge, but the interior had been due, indeed long overdue, a major facelift, and Teresa felt that she was the woman for the task. Gordon resumed his investigations in Hector’s study, which for some unknown family reason, had always been referred to as the Book Room. As he lowered himself into the desk chair, Gordon could picture his father sat there, crouched over his desk, often scribbling away in his ever-present black diary, and now he thought about it, the very same image came to him of his grandfather, all those years earlier, doing the very same thing, in his own diary. The moment passed, and the new Laird glanced around at the room to everything that seemed so familiar, and yet at the same time strange. As a boy he had stood in that room so many times, not infrequently in trouble, and even, in later years, sat in it, discussing matters with his ageing parent, but he had never really known the room, and now it was his. His eye travelled to the oak bookcase, with its ancient sets of books, nothing published in the last half century, Gordon thought to himself. Then one set of volumes caught his notice; it was at head height, all plain black leather spines, each apparently emblazoned with a year date in gold tooling, and on closer inspection, the strangest thing was that the dates did not stop at the current year, but instead progressed on, at one per year, until 2029. Fascinated by this, Gordon removed a couple of the post-dated books only to find, to his enormous disappointment, that they were entirely blank, as were the rest of these postdated books. They were clearly destined for some future purpose. Gordon now turned his attention to the remaining books on the same shelf, the editions running the full width of the bookcase, and now he noticed, spilling onto the shelf below. Every book, identical in its binding, bore dates stretching back to 1929. He looked across at the desk, and there in the very same livery, sat his father’s diary. Gordon shivered, as one does when sensing something is about to happen. There were exactly one hundred of these books, and it now occurred to Gordon, had it not been obvious, that they must be diaries. Was that possible? Almost a hundred years of McAlby history?

Gordon hardly dared to look. He called to Teresa, who was clearly in some far-flung corner of the Folly and out of earshot. He went out into the passageway and called again, and this time the urgency in his voice reached his wife’s hearing, and when she arrived, and his speculation was explained, they ventured into the Book Room together, and stood in front of the bookcase. With something akin to religious reverence, Gordon ran his finger gently across the spines of the books until he reached 1929. His fingers tingled with anticipation as he carefully withdrew the volume and opened it. ‘Mullach’ was the single word inscribed, almost carelessly, on the inside cover, and it meant nothing to him. The husband and wife looked at each other and shrugged. On the following pages it became clear that what they had discovered was indeed a diary; the diary of Hamish McAlby, 18th Laird of Lochnafoyle, and whilst it was by no means an exhaustive daily account of life of the Laird, it was nonetheless a personal record of the comings and goings of Lochnafoyle during the year in question. As the couple methodically took down further copies, the significance of their discovery began to dawn on them; if this really turned out to be a continuous personal record of life of the McAlby estate over almost a hundred years, surely it would be an amazing find. Housekeeping records of great estates, dating back centuries, were not uncommon, but a continuous personal diary over such a timespan, such a thing might well be unique. Added to the contents of the Connaught suitcases, this was turning out to be a revelation on an epic scale.

Despite the security of his inheritance, perhaps even because of it, Gordon felt resolved, if not obliged, to make further attempts at contacting his lost brother, last thought to be living somewhere in the West Indies. Through various connections in the international media and rather more tenuous ones in the Foreign Office, Gordon made valiant efforts to reach his brother, or at the very least, let him know somehow that their father had died, but without success. It was some eighteen months after the events that immediately followed Margo Burns’ death, that a letter arrived at Lochnafoyle Folly, having originated in St Lucia; apparently it had been misaddressed and thereby delayed. It read quite simply – My Dear Gordon, Just found out on the grapevine about the old boy’s departure – sad and all that, etc. Best of luck with Lochnafoyle – rather you than me – alls well at this end – do feel free to visit. And it was signed – The prodigal son – Alistair. No address was included.

It had clearly been necessary, at Teresa’s insistence it has to be said, to inform the police when the contents of the suitcases had been revealed, but despite the Edinburgh Constabulary’s best efforts to the contrary, there appeared to be no legitimate reason why the McAlby family could not keep their newly discovered treasure trove. And what a trove it was; Teresa’s best guess, when she first saw the money, was about ten thousand pounds in each case, but if you have never seen such a vast quantity of cash, it’s really very tricky to estimate. The actual amount was three hundred and eighty-five thousand, four hundred and fifteen pounds……in each suitcase, in hundreds, twenties, tens and five-pound notes. The amount was identical in each hoard, down to the fifteen pounds, but what seemed so utterly inexplicable was the pleasure that Margo and….. Kenneth, if that was his name, what strange pleasure they must have derived simply from knowing that all that cash was resting directly beneath them. It was quite beyond Gordon and Teresa, but of course it was double edged in that this new figure had now to be added to the estate when estimating the Death Duties. ‘I knew we should have kept quiet about it’ Gordon had moaned to his wife, who simply rolled her eyes and said nothing.

Whilst there was an inordinate amount of Hector’s unattended business to deal with, matters that had been building up over many years, it was the diaries that Gordon found himself returning to repeatedly, and in particular his own father’s incomplete, and occasionally incoherent, writings and that first edition of 1929. In a strange way his father’s concerns were frequently for the future; what would become of the Folly, of the redoubtable staff, of what was left of the McAlby inheritance and of Gordon and his family. Hamish, the 18th Laird, appeared more vexed about the past, constantly referring back to earlier, better days. He frequently mentioned the views and actions of his predecessors, both recent and from further back in time, and he did so with such clarity it was almost as though he had been part to these events in person. In 1929 Hamish had succeeded his father as Laird, Lochnafolye Castle had reluctantly been sold, and the family had moved into the Folly with whatever possessions could be squeezed into, what felt to the family like, a tiny space. Every inch of the Folly was crammed with precious family treasures, and yet still, to the distress of the new Laird, much had to be disposed of. Gordon could feel the tragedy scrawled across the diary pages, but there was also a vague feeling that somehow, he was missing something. The other thing that nagged away at him was that word printed so hastily on the inside of the first volume –MULLACH. It must mean something he supposed, and perhaps characteristically it was the house itself that eventually provided the answer, at least the house in the guise of Mr McCloud. ‘Mullach, aye, it means roof, plain enough’ said the old butler ‘and we’ve plenty of those to choose from’ he added helpfully.

The Folly had indeed numerous roofs and roof voids, eleven in total, from the huge space suspended above the massive, beamed ceiling of the Dining Hall, to the tiny conical that topped out Wee Tower, but it was in the loft above the Laird’s bedroom that the chests, which nobody knew they were actually looking for, were eventually found. It was no small task to remove the six solid oak coffers from their dusty resting place, but when eventually they were arrayed across the floor of the gallery it was with an air of almost unbearable excitement that Gordon, his wife, Angus McCloud and Mary Carr stood over them, speculating on their possible contents. This time Gordon was gentler in prizing apart the latches and it was not until the final lid was up that anyone of them could quite believe what lay in front of them. In each box were various bundles of books, neatly tied together with ribbon, and on the identical spines of each set, sometimes clearly visible others needing closer scrutiny, were dates, consecutive year dates. They were, it seemed, sets of diaries, and whilst the binding had changed from time to time, and some were clearly in far better condition than others, they appeared to date back to 1610 in an unbroken line.

The rest of the story is part, and a very major part, of Scottish literary history. The diaries were authenticated by Professor John Stride from the Department of Antiquities at Edinburgh University, and heralded as one of the greatest literary discoveries in the English-speaking world. In terms of their age the Lochnafoyle Folly Diaries could not match the 10th Century ‘Pillow Book’ Diaries of the Japanese court ladies, but they did outdate Mr Pepys’ celebrated journals, and whilst his spanned a mere ten years, the McAlby literary line endured for almost four hundred years, so far that is. Their monitory value was inestimable, but that was immaterial since the family donated the bulk of the dairies to the National Museum of Scotland, with the understanding that one diary would always be on public display, a handsome cabinet being specially commissioned to house the treasure, and with a different page open each day for visitors to read. The most recent diaries, from 1929 onwards, remained at Lochnafoyle Folly, where they are still treasured by the current Laird and his family to this day.
An interesting footnote to the story: the Lochnafoyle Folly Diaries became so famous that in time the name became shortened, for convenience, to the ‘Folly Diaries’ and so the term folly became synonymous with the literary form, to the extent that, whilst South of Berwick, a collection of diaries is correctly known as a ‘Dork’, North of the boarder they are frequently described as a ‘Folly’.

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