When Rob McLean, the fresh-faced local news reporter of the Highland Gazette, tells his colleague Joanne Ross there is a fishing boat on fire next to
a whiskey-filled warehouses, both rush to the docks, eager for the scoop of the year. The couple plan to get the most out of the story
- and hopefully do their best to impress the dark-eyed editor-in-chief of the Gazette, John McAllister, and industrious deputy editor Don McLeod.
Together with Hector Bain, “part boy, part man, part troglodyte,” who wields his camera like a weapon, Joanne and Rob are helping to reinvent this small-town newspaper. But as clouds of thick,
acrid, oily smoke rise above the crisp and clear Black Isle and its distant hills, the topmost snowy tip of Ben Wyvis reflects a picturesque setting hidden in the drama of a murder scene. Someone has thrown a petrol bomb at the herring boat
The Good Shepphard.
While Joanne and Ben wonder why someone would want to burn down a boat, Joanne discovers that the skipper, Sandy Skinner, is about to marry Patricia Ord-Mackenzie,
the daughter of wealthy land-baron Ord-Mackenzie. Friends since their boarding school days, Joanne is surprised to discover that privileged Patricia is pregnant by this working class boy with a sleazy reputation.
The Ord-Mackenzie family have a grand name in this estate-owning area of Scottish gentry, officious matriarch Mrs. Janet Ord Mackenzie making sure everyone shows due deference to her. She’s appalled that her daughter is going to marry a fisherman. For his part, Sandy - with his fishing boat now no more than wreckage at the bottom of the canal - is completely unaware of the consternation as he becomes ever more cocky, defiant, and full of himself.
In this land of heather and lochs, of sacred wells, prehistoric standing stones, and ancient castles, Scott’s story teems with ubiquitous, hard-bitten characters. Scotland in the 1950s is a place where appearances count just as much as a fear of "otherness," where you can’t help but hear “every bit o’ gossip." While Joanne wrestles with the fate of Patricia, she must dodge Bill, her
own drunken ex-husband. Now a single mother, Joanna is determined never to repeat her loveless childhood with her two girls, of having to get married and face her parents who disowned her after discovering
that she was pregnant.
Joanne’s situation deeply pains John; he battles his feelings for her while everyone at the
Gazette is aware of the emotion enveloping the newsroom, the air charged “as before a thunderstorm.” Events are set in motion:
two deaths, same day, same farm, and the day before the deadline. From Rob, who breaks the link, to Mrs. Ord-Mackenzie, who sees herself as the chatelaine of all she surveys, a deep, dark grievance festers for years on an island that is as much a state of mind as it is geography.
Challenged by Patricia's half-truths over Sandy's disappearance and the manslaughter of Frazer Munro, a local farmhand, Joanna gives a silent wish for Bill to be out of her life. As patrician and working classes prepare to do battle, Scott’s well-written mystery is lyrical and arresting, Joanne persevering in spite of the obstacles of the time.