Authors: M.C. Beaton
The Hamish Macbeth series
Death of a Gossip
Death of a Cad
Death of an Outsider
Death of a Perfect Wife
Death of a Hussy
Death of a Snob
Death of a Prankster
Death of a Glutton
Death of a Travelling Man
Death of a Charming Man
Death of a Nag
Death of a Macho Man
Death of a Dentist
Death of a Scriptwriter
Death of an Addict
A Highland Christmas
Death of a Dustman
Death of a Celebrity
Death of a Village
Death of a Poison Pen
Death of a Bore
Death of a Dreamer
Death of a Maid
Death of a Gentle Lady
Death of a Witch
A Hamish Macbeth Festive Mystery
Constable • London
Constable & Robinson Ltd
3 The Lanchesters
162 Fulham Palace Road
London W6 9ER
First published in the USA by Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group USA, Inc.
This edition published by Constable,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson, 2009
Copyright © M. C. Beaton 1999, 2009
The right of M. C. Beaton to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any
form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in Publication data is available from the British Library
UK ISBN: 978-1-84529-890-6
Printed and bound in the EU
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
For Brian and Judith Harris
and their son, Adam
ore and more people each year are going abroad for Christmas. To celebrate the season of goodwill towards men, British Airways slams an extra one
hundred and four pounds on each air ticket. But the airports are still jammed.
For so many people are fleeing Christmas.
Fed up with the fact that commercial Christmas starts in October. Fed up with carols. Dreading the arrival of Christmas cards from people they have forgotten to send a card to. Unable to bear
yet another family get-together with Auntie Mary puking up in the corner after sampling too much of the punch. You see at the airports the triumphant glitter in the eyes of people who are leaving
it all behind, including the hundredth rerun of
Miracle on 34th Street.
But in Lochdubh, in Sutherland, in the very far north of Scotland, there is nothing to flee from. Christmas, thought Hamish Macbeth gloomily, as he walked along the waterfront, his shoulders
hunched against a tearing wind, was not coming to Lochdubh this year any more than it had come the previous years.
There was a strong Calvinist element in Lochdubh which frowned on Christmas. Christmas had nothing to do with the birth of Christ, they said, but was really the old Roman Saturnalia which the
early Christians had taken over. And as for Santa Claus – forget it.
So there were no Christmas lights, no tree, nothing to sparkle in the dark winter.
PC Hamish Macbeth was feeling particularly sour, for his family had taken off for Florida for a winter vacation. His mother had won a family holiday for thinking up a slogan for a new soap
powder – ‘Whiter Than The Mountain Snow’ – and Hamish could not go with them. Sergeant Macgregor over at Cnothan was ill in hospital with a grumbling appendix and Hamish had
been instructed to take over the sergeant’s beat as well as do his own.
Hamish’s family were unusual in that they had always celebrated Christmas – tree, turkey, presents and all. In parts of the Highlands, like Lochdubh, the old spirit of John Knox
still wandered, blasting anyone with hellfire should they dare to celebrate this heathen festival.
Hamish had often pointed out that none other than Luther was credited with the idea of the Christmas tree, having been struck by the sight of stars shining through the branches of an evergreen.
But to no avail. Lochdubh lay silent and dark beside the black waters of the loch.
He turned back towards the police station. The wind was becoming even more ferocious. The wind of Sutherland can sound frightening as it moves up from ordinary tumult to a high-pitched screech
and then a deep booming roar.
Hamish decided to settle down with a glass of whisky in front of the television. He was just reaching up for the whisky bottle in one of the kitchen cupboards when he realized he had not checked
the answering machine. He went through to the police office. There was one message, and it was Mrs Gallagher saying she wanted him to call on her immediately as she wished to report a burglary.
Hamish groaned. ‘This is all I need,’ he said to the dingy, uncaring walls of the police office. He loathed Mrs Gallagher. She was a tough, wiry old lady who ran her small croft
single-handed. She lived out on the Cnothan road and was generally detested. She was described as crabbit, meaning ‘sourpuss’. Mrs Gallagher never had a good word to say for anybody.
She had a genius for sniffing out the vulnerable points in anyone’s character and going in for the kill.
In the far north of Scotland in winter, there are only a few hours of daylight. Hamish glanced at his watch. ‘Three o’clock and black as hell already,’ he muttered.
The wind cut like a knife as he climbed into the police Land Rover. As he held the wheel tightly against the buffeting of the wind and drove along the curving road out of the village, he
realized that he had never questioned Mrs Gallagher’s bitterness. It had simply been one of those unpleasant facts of his existence since he had started policing in Lochdubh.
At last he bumped up the rutted track leading to the low croft house where Mrs Gallagher lived. Bending his head against the ferocity of the wind, he rapped at the door. He waited as he heard
her fumbling with locks and bolts. What was she afraid of? Most crofters didn’t bother locking their doors.
Then he saw the gleam of an eye through the door, which she opened on a chain. She had always had all those locks. How on earth could anyone manage to get in and burgle her?
‘Police,’ he said.
The chain dropped and the door opened wide. ‘Come ben,’ she said curtly.
He ducked his head and followed her in.
As in most croft houses, the kitchen was used as a living room with the parlour being kept for ‘best’. That meant the parlour was usually only used for weddings and funerals. Mrs
Gallagher’s kitchen was cosy and cheerful, belying the permanently sour expression on her face. She had a mass of thick crinkly pepper-and-salt hair. The skin of her face was like old
leather, beaten into a permanent tan by working outdoors. Her eyes were that peculiar light grey, almost silver, you still see in the Highlands. Emotions flitted over the surface of such eyes like
cloud shadows on the sea and yet rarely gave anything away.
‘What’s been taken?’ asked Hamish.
‘Sit down and stop looming over me,’ she snapped. Hamish obediently sat down. ‘My cat, Smoky’s been stolen.’ Hamish had started to tug out his notebook, then left
‘How long’s the cat been gone?’
‘Look here, Mrs Gallagher, it’s probably strayed, gone wild or been killed by the fox.’ Like ‘the devil’, it was always ‘the fox’ in the Highlands of
Scotland, where crofters had no sentimentality about an animal they damned as the worst piece of vermin in the countryside.
‘Havers!’ said Mrs Gallagher. ‘If I say it is stolen, then it is stolen and it is your duty to get it back.’
‘I’ll have a look around for it,’ said Hamish, struggling to rise out of the low chair on which he was sitting. ‘Is there any sign of a break-in? Any doors, locks or
windows been tampered with?’
‘Not a sign. But they could be too cunning for the likes of you. I want you to get a SOCO team out here,’ said Mrs Gallagher. Hamish, who watched police soaps as well, knew she meant
a Scene of Crime Operatives team. ‘Smoky was here with me. He didn’t go out.’
‘Did you go out yourself?’
‘Yes, I went to feed the sheep.’
‘And wouldn’t Smoky nip out after you?’
‘No, Smoky never goes out until dinnertime.’ Hamish interpreted ‘dinnertime’ to mean midday. In most houses in and around Lochdubh, dinner was still in the middle of the
day and high tea, that is, one course followed by bread and scones and cakes and washed down with tea, in the early evening.
‘I cannot order a forensic team frae Strathbane for a missing cat,’ said Hamish. ‘Anyway, they chust wouldn’t come.’
‘Your trouble,’ said Mrs Gallagher, ‘is that you are lazy. That is why you are still unmarried. You are too damn lazy to get off your scrawny backside to even court a
Hamish stood up and looked down at her. ‘I will look around outside for your cat and post a notice at the police station,’ he said evenly. ‘That iss all I can do.’ His
Highland accent became more sibilant when he was angry or distressed.
‘You have not even checked the doors or windows to see where they might have got in!’ shouted Mrs Gallagher. ‘I’ll report you.’
‘Do that.’ Hamish put on his cap and let himself out.
The wind had died as suddenly as it had sprung up. It was still blowing hard far up in the sky, for ragged black clouds were tearing across a small cold moon. He set off over the surrounding
fields calling ‘Smoky!’ but there was no sign of any cat.