In my novel Dancing King, Michael and Sarah Kent-Hughes have something of a break from London, when they go to Scotland for Christmas (with a slight interruption with Michael’s sermon at Southwark Cathedralin London). It’s a relatively short part in the narrative, but two important things happen.
First, Michael has a conversation in the stable with his guardian father, Ian McLaren. Ian and his wife Iris were surprised – shocked is a better word – to discover they become the guardians of a six-year-old boy. Childless themselves, they raised him as their own child, and he still calls them “Ma and Da.” And Michael gets his degree from the University of Edinburgh, which is where he meets American exchange students and twins David and Sarah Hughes in the first novel in the series, Dancing Priest.
Their home, known to the family simply as McLarens, is some 40 miles from the center of Edinburgh, positioned in a somewhat rural area that’s hilly (as a boy and teenager, Michael does considerable mountain biking on the property). Although born in southern England, Michael considers Scotland and Edinburgh as “home.”
Edinburgh is on the eastern side of Scotland. The inspiration for McLarens is actually on the western side. The address for the home and rather famous gardens of An Calais the “Isle of Seil, Argyll, and Bute,” near the village of Ellenabeich. The gardens were first established in 1930, and it took considerable renovation and blasting of the terrain to plant them. Then, as now, the gardens feature azaleas, rhododendrons, and roses.
For the Dancing Priest novels, I “borrowed” the house and gardens, moved them to east side of Scotland near Edinburgh, and expanded the size of the property. I created a barn / stable for equine veterinarian Ian, and it’s there in Dancing Kingthat he and Michael have a long talk on the morning of Christmas Eve. The scene is meant to show the closeness and tenderness in their relationship and even add a bit of humor. It was not in the first draft of the manuscript but came during the editing process; it was one of those ideas that suddenly began to spill from my head on to the page in front of me. And it turned into one of my favorite scenes in the book.
That afternoon, Ian leads Michael, his adopted sons Jason and Jim, the baby Hank, Sarah’s brother David and his son Gavin, and Michael’s best friend Tommy MacFarland on the annual McLaren Men Last-Minute Christmas Eve Shopping Expedition to downtown Edinburgh. Their first stop is Jenners Department Store.
Jenners, often called the “Harrod’s of the North,” was the largest independent department store in the U.K. until 2005, when it was bought by House of Fraser. It’s a beautiful, and old, store, with that classic Victorian architecture and a spectacular grand hall. And it’s there that Michael’s friends and family learn firsthand how life has changed for Michael and his boys. They’re recognized as soon as they step through the doors, and Michael feels the obligation to speak to the growing crowd.
What the Scotland scenes show is that Michael Kent-Hughes has the continuity of a loving family and the press of new and demanding obligations.