04:30 – Edinburgh, Scotland
It is early morning in Edinburgh. The rear doors of the pubs are open and as the publicans rinse out their beer taps a yeasty warming smell rises into the pre-dawn gloom competing with the aromas from brewers and bakers.
“Ah, Auld Reekie,” says Major Campbell, in full dress uniform under his overcoat, as he gets out of the rear seat of his car on the forecourt of Edinburgh Castle. Auld Reekie is Edinburgh’s ancient nickname due to its smokehouses of yore. The capital city of Scotland has never shaken this tag, but it no longer deserves it. Major Campbell pats his concealed side arm and looks across at Bishop Lennox getting out of the car. His ceremonial robes are hidden under his overcoat and his mitre is tucked into his armpit. A concealed weapon of sorts.
Bishop Lennox’s thin face is dimly lit from below by the screen of his phone. He is tapping something to someone. Demonstrating some of the famed social media proficiency that has facilitated his meteoric rise through the ranks of his archaic institution, the Church of Scotland.
Lieutenant MacDonald, hand picked for this mission, gets out of the driver’s seat and swiftly fetches the white plastic chair from the boot. Lieutenant MacDonald is also in full dress uniform, boots shining and medals gleaming. Major Campbell looks him over with a gruff nod. A good man. He will serve well. And his service will go a long way toward cleaning the three-hundred-year-old stain of treachery from the MacDonald family name.
The castle shows signs of waking for the day’s tourist trade. The lights are on. The outer sentry is alert. The walls as foreboding as they always are. The castle portcullis rises and a jeep exits, headlights sweeping across the castle forecourt. Shift change. Military precision. Lieutenant MacDonald slides the white plastic chair out of sight.
The jeep sweeps by without so much as a sideways glance at the chilly trio.
Time for a little morale check. Major Campbell turns to the other two men. “Well Bishop, as you might say in a different context, if any man have any doubt may he speak now or forever hold his peace.”
MacDonald nods his lack of objection.
Bishop Lennox says, “Of course not. It’s not like we’re defying the ancient rules of guest-right by killing thirty-three men in their beds, burning their town, and turning their women and children out into the snow to die.”
Major Campbell scowls. Lieutenant MacDonald grins. The three men form a phalanx behind Major Campbell and head toward the castle gates.
The sentry steps out of his warm guard box clapping his hands in the cold, rifle slung over his shoulder. His eyes scan across the Major, the Bishop and the Lieutenant holding the plastic chair as though awaiting the first line of a joke. He’s not going to like the punchline.
“Good morning soldier. Major Robert Campbell and guests to deliver a message personally to your CO. Immediately please. And tell him to bring the Castle Governor.”
A second of puzzlement crosses the sentry’s face, but like the good soldier he is, he follows the order given to him.
And now it is all about timing. How long until one of the other sentries with an earbud in, listening to whatever young people listen to these days, hears the breaking news?
The news is still under reporting restrictions, but there is no bag big enough for this cat.
Fortune favours the bold. Major Campbell’s regimental motto has never failed him. And now he needs it most.
The CO, Major Armstrong bustles down from his lodgings just above the inner gatehouse with the Castle Governor in tow.
Well, it’s true then. They do sleep together. Not like there’s anything wrong with that in this day and age. Just another enabling convenience.
“Major Campbell.” Armstrong extends his hand, blinking sleep from his eyes. Campbell tries not to think of the three other soldiers, members of Edinburgh Castle’s garrison, handpicked five years previously, patiently awaiting the secret orders that should have been delivered to them less than an hour ago.
If they are not in place, if they did not receive the order, if they have a moment of conscience or understand even the edges of this history-changing moment, then the plan is doomed and the only criminal charge for which Britain still holds the death penalty will be Major Campbell’s fate.
Major Campbell shakes the offered hand, grips it tight, draws his sidearm with his left hand and places it on Armstrong’s heart.
Ps-chew. The suppressed retort is swallowed by the stone walls. An iron stench of blood and flying spatter.
Ps-chew. MacDonald takes out the sentry.
Ps-chew. Major Campbell shoots the Castle Governor.
MacDonald, good man that he is, puts the plastic chair behind the Castle Governor catching him as he falls. After frisking him for the all-important key, MacDonald picks up the chair, dead man and all, and trots a few paces into the castle. He throws the body, with an undignified theatrical flourish, into a narrow gap between the inner arch and the thick stone wall. He repeats the journey twice more for the sentry and Major Armstrong. MacDonald picks up the assault rifle dropped by the sentry.
Bishop Lennox holds his nerve remarkably well for a man of God in the presence of murder.
Good men, doing their jobs. It’s a shame.
“Hold.” A rifle cocks in the dark.
“Wha dares meddle wi me?” says MacDonald. His thick Highlands accent doing the archaic phrase proud. The same phrase would sound like a bad pantomime coming from Campbell. A childhood in English boarding schools will do that to you.
“Damn few and they’re a’ deid,” comes a guttural Glaswegian reply. Three men hefting assault rifles step forward from the shadows.
“Men. Carry out your orders,” says Major Campbell.
The three men move to the vacant sentry post and lower the portcullis and close the gate. Locking them all inside a garrison, filled with soldiers unaware of recent events within and without the castle walls.
Lieutenant MacDonald and Bishop Lennox fall in behind Major Campbell as he heads uphill. Through the inner arch, past the closed ticked booth and left up the Lang Stairs. Major Campbell checks his watch. It is 04.42. The reinforcements are due at 05:15 precisely.
They pass the chapel of Saint Margaret, the oldest church in Edinburgh. With a nod, Major Campbell decides to pay his respects there when the dust settles.
On they go, looking for the other sentries between them and the main keep. Past the Scottish National War Memorial.
A fine monument to those fallen during service from the Scottish regiments. Theirs was the greatest share of blood spilled in founding the now-deceased British Empire. And theirs was the most meagre of spoils.
There are three inner sentries. None stir. All are sunk in that sullen introspection that comes with the chill of pre-dawn guard duty.
Good. The less blood shed, the better.
Major Campbell, Bishop Lennox and Lieutenant MacDonald cross the courtyard to the inner compound unchallenged. Even though MacDonald’s white plastic chair gleams in the low light.
The single guard at the entry to the main keep is quickly and quietly dispatched by MacDonald.
Poor kid. Looks about nineteen. Fresh faced and wide eyed. Send flowers and a full pension to his mother, Major Campbell takes a mental note.
Up the stairs of the main keep, past the display describing the rediscovery of the Scottish crown jewels in 1818 after they were hidden from Cromwell and his army. The theft of the Stone of Destiny in 1296 by the English King, Edward Longshanks – the Hammer of the Scots. The Stone upon which every Scottish monarch had been crowned and every English monarch thereafter.
Major Campbell smiles in remembrance of his grandfather confiding that he had been one of the Scottish nationalists who had stolen the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey in 1950. Only to grudgingly return it in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the second.
They have reached the heavy vault door at the top of the stairs. The very door between him and his success. Bishop Lennox steadies his hands enough to put the huge key in the lock, but turning it is beyond his strength.
“Hold this.” Major Campbell hands his gun to Bishop Lennox and steps forward. His hackles rise at stepping in front of an armed man. His exposed back feels too large for his skin.
With a steady force applied, the lock turns smoothly and the seventeen bolts securing the door to its solid steel frame withdraw with a satisfying clunk. And there they are. Like Sleeping Beauty in a glass case. The Honours of Scotland: the Sword of State, the silver Sceptre, the Crown of Scotland.
And the Stone of Destiny.
Major Campbell takes back his gun from Bishop Lennox. “Eyes.” He says as he shields his own and fires his third bullet. The shatter bursts down the stairs. The sentries will have heard it. It is 04:48. We have twelve minutes, maximum.
MacDonald heaves the plastic chair into the small room and Major Campbell closes and secures the heavy door.
“Bishop, get that feed going.” Lennox removes his overcoat and straightens the cuffs of his Geneva gown, pulls out his mitre and pops it open with his fist. Inside is a selfie stick. He attaches his phone, props it in a torch holder and smiles as he checks his position in the shot. Just off camera he puts on his mitre and is transformed by the moment. From squalid conspirator to holy visionary.
“Are we live?” asks Major Campbell. Bishop Lennox nods without meeting his eyes.
MacDonald draws the Stone of Destiny down to the floor with a crash and places the white plastic chair over it. A smear of the castle governor’s blood somewhat sullying the scene. Bishop Lennox picks up the crown from the shattered case with shaking hands.
Major Campbell faces his destiny down the staring eye of the phone’s camera and out into the waking world. Where the news would soon break in the 05:00 bulletins.
With a deep draw of breath he delivers his long rehearsed speech.
“My fellow Scots. Too long we have suffered under English oppression. Yoked to their plough we forged their Empire in sweat, blood and sacrifice. We fought the hardest, won the finest victories and were cheated of the spoils. Queen Elizabeth the second is dead. God rest the Queen.”
“Long live the King of Scotland,” say Bishop Lennox and Lieutenant MacDonald right on cue. A hissing pain and a squelch cut Major Campbell straight through. He looks down incredulously at the Sword of State through his ribs, its handle held by MacDonald.
Traitor! He opens his mouth to say, spraying his heart’s blood onto the vault door.
“And that King is me … James MacDonald.”
MacDonald eases Campbell’s bleeding form to the floor moving the sword handle out of the shot.
Looking down upon the dead Major, MacDonald says, “The Highlands remember. Three hundred and twenty seven years may have passed but this simple truth remains – never trust a Campbell. Today the Glencoe Massacre is avenged and the Jacobite rebellion reborn.”
He nods at Bishop Lennox. “Good job Uncle Archie. Now get that feed going.” Bishop Lennox tucks the crown into his armpit, taps the phone and starts the feed.
And with a grace fit for a king, James MacDonald sits upon the plastic throne over the Stone of Destiny looks out through the feed into the future.