Gil Cunningham had hoped that the first time he set foot
in the whorehouse on the Drygate would also be the last;
but by the time all was settled he felt quite at home within
its artful painted chambers.
The first inkling he had of the matter came one day in
late April, in the form of a loud knocking at the door of his
father-in-law’s house as family and servants were eating
their midday meal in the hall. Conversation at the long
board ceased and heads turned towards the sound; Gil and
Alys exchanged a surprised glance, Alys’s aged French
duenna Catherine paused in her absorption of sops-inwine.
The wolfhound Socrates was already on his feet, the
hackles standing up on his narrow back. A stranger, Gil
‘Who calls at the dinner-hour?’ wondered Maistre
Pierre, pushing back his great chair. He rose with caution,
muttering darkly about his knees, but his young journeyman
Luke was before him, opening the big planked door
to reveal a serving-man in unfamiliar blue-grey livery
bowing on the doorstep, felt bonnet in hand.
‘My mistress, Dame Isabella Torrance, seeks Maister Gil
Cunningham,’ he said. ‘Is this where he dwells?’
‘Isabella Torrance?’ Gil repeated in some surprise, going
forward as Luke turned to relay the message. ‘She’s still
‘She’s at the gate, maister,’ said the man.
Gil looked down at his wife as she joined him in the
doorway. ‘Godmother to my sister Tib,’ he explained.
‘Dwells over by Stirling, I think. I wonder if it’s about Tib’s
‘Stirling?’ repeated Alys. ‘Whatever is she doing in
The servant shrugged his shoulders.
‘Likely she’ll tell you hersel,’ he offered. ‘Will I bid her
‘Aye, bid her enter,’ said Maistre Pierre from the head of
the table. ‘We are still at meat, man, ask her if she will
‘She doesny eat in the middle of the day,’ the man said,
shaking his head regretfully.
There was a commotion in the pend which led out to the
street, and a number of people emerged into the courtyard,
headed by a short, stout, loud individual with a stick.
Their guest had not waited to be invited in. Alys exclaimed
briefly and hurried down the steps past Gil to offer a welcome.
Her curtsy was spurned with a brief nod, her arm
was ignored, and the small dark figure ploughed across
the yard to the foot of the steps where it stopped, scowling
up at Gil with eyes like jet rosary beads.
Dame Isabella was probably five feet high and the same
around, though this girth also engrossed a vast furred
brocade gown which hung open over several layers of different,
equally expensive, black fabrics. Beneath a black
silk Flemish hood with extravagantly long foreparts, finely
pleated linen framed her small padded face, heightening
its colour unbecomingly; she had a dab of a nose, separated
by a dark wispy moustache from a mouthful of
very large, improbably white teeth. She seemed to have
brought her entire household visiting; at her back were
four sturdy grooms, including the man who had come to
the door, and two waiting-women.
‘So you’re Gelis Muirhead’s laddie, are you?’ she said in
deep, disparaging tones. ‘Aye, you’ve a look of her, though
you’re more like your faither.’ This was clearly not a compliment.
‘At least you’ve more sense than get yoursel slain
the way he did. And both your brothers, was it?’
‘Dame Isabella,’ Gil said, very politely, and bowed.
‘Welcome to my house. Will you enter, madame?’
offered Maistre Pierre over Gil’s shoulder.
‘Aye, I’ll come in. You’re the good-father I take it. I hope
ye’ve a seat for me. I want a word wi young Gilbert, afore
that gowk Sempill gets involved. Here, you fools, get me
up these steps.’
‘Sempill? John Sempill of Muirend?’ Gil repeated, but
the servants who surrounded Dame Isabella had begun
the considerable task of hoisting her up the fore-stair,
which she endured with much shouting and brandishing
of her stick. In his ear his father-in-law said,
‘What does she want with Sempill? Why should he
‘No idea,’ said Gil, stepping back to allow the nearest
manservant elbowroom. ‘When did we see him last?’ He
counted on his fingers. ‘It must have been August last year.
It’s been the gallowglass – Euan Campbell – who brought
me the money for the boy’s keep at both the quarter-days
since then.’ He met Maistre Pierre’s eye. ‘If it’s about the
boy, it’s likely no good.’
‘So I think,’ agreed the mason. They both turned to look
inside the hall, where Maistre Pierre’s foster-child, small
John McIan, bastard son of John Sempill’s runaway wife
and her lover the harper, was perched on his nurse’s knee
at the long table addressing a large crust of bread.
‘Sempill still needs an heir, surely?’ said Maistre Pierre
doubtfully. ‘That was why he acknowledged John. What is
he about now?’
‘We’ll find out soon enough,’ said Gil.
‘Parcel of fools!’ announced Dame Isabella. Achieving
the topmost step, she paused long enough to adjust her
grasp on her stick and surged forward, shaking off her
gasping servants and ignoring Maistre Pierre’s courtesies
as she had ignored Alys’s. Behind her, Alys slipped up the
fore-stair and into the hall, with a brief touch on Gil’s hand
as she went.
‘You’re at meat, are you?’ continued their guest, staring
at the household arranged round the long board. Small
John waved his crust and shouted something unintelligible.
‘I hope you’ve all had your bowels open at stool the
day. It’s no good to eat on a full bowel.’
‘Will you not join us, madame?’ Alys offered, gesturing
at the head of the table. ‘There is good broth, and fresh oatcakes
‘No.’ The black beads considered her. ‘I suppose you’re
the French wife. Christ aid us, you’ve a nose on you like a
papingo’s. I see he’s no bairned you yet. Has he bedded
you? Is your bowels regular? You’ll no take if your bowel’s
full, it unbalances the humours.’
Alys stared at the old woman, amazement outweighing
her natural courtesy. Gil moved to intervene, but
Catherine had already risen and now forestalled him.
,’ she said in her elegant French, ‘you
do right to concern yourself with such matters. It is
important to keep the humours of the body balanced, but
I find the young are often careless of their internal
‘And who are you?’ demanded Dame Isabella in the
same language. ‘You speak French uncommonly well,
even if you have not kept your teeth as I have.’
Over the two black-draped heads Alys caught Gil’s eye,
her expression carefully neutral. Catherine closed her
toothless mouth on whatever reply came first, and Gil said
‘This is Madame Catherine Calvin, who keeps my wife
company. Will you sit in by the hearth, madam, while they
clear the board?’
‘Aye, and watch all,’ said Dame Isabella, ‘so I can tell
Gelis Muirhead what kind of household you’re wedded
into. No, I’ll ha no refreshment. It’s no my hour for it.’
‘Lady Cunningham was with us for a week at Yule,’
observed Catherine. ‘She is a most cultured lady, and
speaks excellent French.’
Dame Isabella ignored this shaft, and seated herself
nearest the hearth, staring about her. The household, taking
the hint, began the process of dismantling the long
table, stacking up platters and bowls and sweeping the
cloth into a bundle to be shaken into the courtyard. By the
time board and trestles were in place against the wall,
Dame Isabella’s entourage had been dismissed to the
kitchen, save for a man with a huge leather satchel and one
waiting-woman who studied Maistre Pierre with intent
dark eyes, and the two old ladies were deep in a conversation
involving the humours, the elements, and the
zodiac. Gil, standing awkwardly by, was aware of his
wife conferring with her father, and of the mason’s two
journeymen leaving the house, but his mind was occupied
with possible reasons for this sudden visitation.
He had met Dame Isabella once or twice as a boy, and
felt she had not improved. She had been a member of
Margaret of Denmark’s household alongside his mother,
which was presumably why she had been invited to stand
godmother to his youngest sister. Lady Cunningham had
mentioned her occasionally over the years; he vaguely
recalled that she had been wedded at least twice since the
death of her royal mistress, though to judge by her black
garb and the pleated linen barbe pinned below her chin
she was currently a widow. Small wonder, he thought.
As Tib’s godmother, it would be appropriate for her to
do something for the girl before her approaching marriage,
whether it embraced coin or a gift of land or jewels, and
as Tib’s nearest male relative he could expect to be consulted
in the transaction. But she had mentioned John
Sempill’s involvement. There was no connection between
Sempill and Tib that he knew of.
‘Maistre le notaire
awaits your convenience, madame,’ said
Catherine by the hearth. ‘We should not keep him waiting,
‘He’s got little enough to do,’ pronounced Dame
Isabella, but she turned to stare at Gil. ‘Like my servants,
the useless troop. Come here, Gilbert. Is that the brat?’ She
nodded towards small John, who was just being led
towards the kitchen stair by his quiet nurse.
‘That’s John Sempill’s heir,’ agreed Gil, repressing anger.
‘Does this concern the boy? My good-father should be
present if so.’
‘Why? What’s it to do wi him?’
‘The boy is in my care,’ said Maistre Pierre, coming forward
from the door. Dame Isabella glared at him, grunted,
and gestured at the bench opposite her.
‘You may as well sit down and all, then, and listen.’
Catherine rose at this point with a murmured farewell,
which was ignored, and Alys moved quietly towards one
of the far windows, where she had left her needlework.
‘Now, Gilbert. You’ll ken I’ve two goddaughters, your sister
Isobel and a lassie Magdalen Boyd, who’s some kin of
yours so Gelis your mother tells me.’
‘Boyd.’ Gil sat down obediently beside his father-in-law,
searching his memory of the kindred. ‘Aye, she is. Third
or fourth cousin, I’d say. There was a brother too, name
of – name of – was it Alexander? They were about penniless,
‘That was their faither’s doing,’ she said dismissively.
‘Any road, Magdalen has wedded John Sempill for her
second husband.’ She looked with satisfaction at his
astonished face. ‘Aye, a good match, for the both of them,
and I was right glad to support it.’
‘I’d not wed my worst enemy’s daughter to John
Sempill,’ said Gil. Beside him Maistre Pierre rumbled
‘He’s done better than you have, mewed up here in a
town wi a barren foreigner. Maidie has no trouble wi him.
But the point is, she’s in a likely way.’ Sweet St Giles, when
were they wedded, Gil wondered grimly, not looking at
Alys. ‘So she’s no wanting another man’s get to be
Sempill’s heir, no when she’s in a way to provide him wi
one. Sempill’s in full agreement, so they’re proposing that
he’ll no recognize the brat as his heir any longer, and in
consideration they’re offering it a bit land here in Glasgow
where it’s handy.’
Gil stared at her, preserving his expression as best he
might. After a moment Maistre Pierre said,
‘But does the man Sempill have anything left to offer? I
thought he was hard pressed.’
‘He was,’ Gil said. ‘He was in Glasgow to deal with that
when his wife – his first wife,’ he corrected himself, ‘was
killed, and left her son motherless. That was why he took
the boy for his heir, so old Canon Murray would leave him
his fortune, though I think the old man still lives.’ He eyed
Dame Isabella, hoping his dislike did not show. ‘I take it
his circumstances have changed with the new marriage?’
She gave a bark of laughter.
‘Aye, they’ve changed, and for the better. So will you
accept the offer?’
‘We can’t say,’ said Gil without pausing to consult with
Maistre Pierre, ‘until we know what the offer might be.’
‘That’s a pity,’ said Dame Isabella, ‘for once that’s dealt
wi I’ve a couple of plots to dispose of and all. There’s one
of them out Carluke way, been in my family for years, and
one in Strathblane, they bring in much the same rent, and
we’ll can see about which goes to Maidie and which to
your sister Isobel.’
‘It would surely be more convenient,’ said Maistre Pierre
reasonably, ‘that the Lanarkshire property go to the
Lanarkshire lassie, unless your other goddaughter dwells
there also. No, she must be in Renfrewshire,’ he corrected
‘We’ll can see,’ Dame Isabella repeated. Gil sat still, wondering
how his mother had ever liked this woman enough
to invite her to be Tib’s godmother. The bargain was clear
enough: if he agreed to Sempill’s proposal for young John
McIan and accepted the offered property in exchange for
the boy’s present status as Sempill’s heir, Tib would get the
land close to where she would be settled; if not, it was
likely she would find herself in possession of a patch of
Strathblane, a full day’s ride from her new home, with the
attendant difficulties of administering the rent and overseeing
‘We need to know more, madam,’ he said as politely
as he could, ‘and we’ll need time to consider. As the
boy’s tutor and foster-father we should take it all in
‘You’ve an hour to think on it,’ she retorted. ‘We’re to
meet at your uncle the Canon’s house. He made a right todo
about having no time, this was the only moment in the
week he could spare us, as if he didny dwell and work in
the burgh, so you’d best no be late.’
It was hardly worth trying to explain, Gil thought, that
the Official of Glasgow, the senior judge of the diocese,
had a caseload that would tax an elephant and regularly
worked all the hours he was not sleeping. Sempill had
been fortunate to find a moment when Canon Cunningham
could see them. As for the papers he himself had to
complete for the next day’s taking of sasines in Rottenrow,
that would clearly have to wait until later.
‘Will we convoy you up the road?’ he suggested.
‘No, you’ll no. If you need to consult, you’ll consult, for
I want a decision the day, else the whole goes to Maidie.’
She turned her head. ‘Here, Attie scatterwit, where are
ye? And you, you worthless frivol. Call the men, and send
out to see if Sproat’s waited like I bade him. Time I was on
When Maistre Pierre returned from seeing their unwelcome
guest to the street he found Gil discussing the
interview with Alys.
’ he said, shutting the house door and leaning
on it. ‘Quelle horreur de femme! Ma mie
, your nose does
not in the least resemble a parrot’s, it is the image of that
of your sainted mother.’
Gil had already reassured his wife on this point, though
she did not seem to be concerned; now he said in Scots,
‘Christ never such another bought That ever I saw
. I’ve aye
thought it was little wonder Margaret of Denmark died
young, given her household. So do we accept?’
‘It depends what the offer is,’ said his father-in-law.
‘I would be glad for John to be clear of Sempill,’ Alys
observed, ‘but should we not consult his father?’
‘McIan? Do we know where McIan is?’ Gil wondered.
‘They were to be in Stirling, and then they are coming
here, so Ealasaidh sent me the other day.’
‘We’ll not get a reply from Stirling within an hour.’
‘No, I fear not,’ said Maistre Pierre. ‘But if we are both
to go up the road, there is another matter to see to.’ He
crossed to the hearth and reached up onto the carved hood
of the chimney-breast. ‘We may take this counterfeit silver
to the Sheriff while we are there.’
‘More false coin,’ said Andrew Otterburn glumly.
‘It looks like it,’ said Gil.
The present depute Provost of Glasgow was a lanky
Borderer in his forties with a long gloomy face. Gil suspected
his mother must have been a Chisholm, to judge by
the deep, close set of his eyes, but had never quite liked to
ask. The man had a difficult task; Sir Thomas Stewart,
Provost of Glasgow for eight or ten years, had demitted
office at Yule and Archbishop Robert Blacader had
installed Maister Otterburn to take care of his burgh until
the election of a new provost at the Town Meeting in the
autumn. Sir Thomas had been accepted and respected, and
his successor did not meet with unanimous approval. It
did not help that Glasgow and the surrounding area was
plagued by an outbreak of false coin, of which the first
specimens had come to light in the burgh coffers themselves
less than a month after Otterburn was put in post.
Now, discovered in the Provost’s lodgings in the Castle,
he scrutinized the handful of coins Maistre Pierre offered
him as if they were personal bad tidings.
‘Aye,’ he said at length. ‘I’d say they were out of the
same workshop. See, these are all the same plack wi
James Third on it, and that’s the silver threepenny piece
wi four mullets on the back. I’ve had two o these brought
me from the bawdy-house. The madam wasny best
pleased, I can tell you.’ He turned the coin to the light,
then bit it reflectively and shook his head. ‘My lord’s right
keen to learn the source of these, but I’ve not found yet
where they come fro’, though it seems there are more
entering through Dumbarton out of the Isles. How did you
come by these, maister?’
‘The placks came back from the market yesterday,’ said
Maistre Pierre. ‘The maidservant who brought them
thought they came from more than one trader. The silver
piece I had from Daniel Hutchison, in a bag of coin.’
‘Hutchison,’ Otterburn repeated. ‘Oh, aye, he’s putting
a new wing to his house, is that right? Over in the Gorbals.
Outside the burgh, strictly,’ he added, spinning one of the
placks. It twirled once or twice and fell over.
‘But the coin has come into the burgh,’ Gil pointed out.
‘Oh, I’m not arguing.’
‘You say they come from the Isles?’ Maistre Pierre said.
‘Who should make false coin in the Isles? Is there any
source of metal?’
‘None that I ken,’ admitted Otterburn. ‘I’d not say the
coin was being struck out yonder, just that it comes back
in from there.’
‘So someone is taking it there,’ Gil said thoughtfully.
‘Where from, and why?’
‘Good questions.’ Otterburn spun the plack again. ‘As to
where from, likely the same place as these came from,
which my lord would like fine to ken as I say, but why’s
‘To alter the balance of wealth out there?’ suggested
Maistre Pierre. ‘Is there any suddenly rich?’
‘The Islesmen set less store by coin than we do,’ said Gil.
‘It’s a world of barter and payment in kind, wi little call
for money within factions. I suppose if one kinship was
buying the friendship of another, or buying in gallowglasses
– hired fighting men, like the Campbell brothers,
from Ireland or another part of the Isles – they might need
coin. Is there any word of that kind of thing?’
‘When is there no?’ said Otterburn, making a long face.
‘The King didny settle matters out there, for all he took
John of the Isles prisoner last year. Indeed, matters are
worse, for they’re all at each other’s throats now to determine
who has his place. Word is the King’s Grace is
planning to go out again this spring.’ He stacked the coins
neatly, considering them. ‘Would this come within your
writ, Maister Cunningham? As Blacader’s quaestor? I’m
thinking it’s about time we did something about it, other
than wringing our hands and passing resolutions in the
‘It would,’ Gil said cautiously, ‘if my lord so instructed
me. If you were to suggest to him that I look into it, I’d be
‘It’s as good as done, man,’ said Otterburn. He hitched
up the shoulders of his fur-lined gown, swept the coins off
the table-carpet into his hand and moved to the cabinet
beside the tall window. ‘Walter can scribe me a note of
where these came from and I’ll put them wi the others, and
then he can write to my lord. The day’s despatch has yet
to go. And when that’s done and we’ve had my lord’s
agreement,’ he added, ‘I’ll let you hear all I ken of the
things. It’s no a lot, I confess.’From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Counterfeit Madam by Pat McIntosh. Copyright © 2011 by Pat McIntosh. Excerpted by permission of Soho Constable, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.