Inheriting a Scottish B&B and starting a new life was a bit scary ... I had no idea ...
As the train pulled into Troon Railway Station, I went over the solicitor’s instructions for the hundredth time, nervously twirling a lock of auburn hair around and around my finger as I read.
“Arriving to Prestwick Airport,” the letter said, “take the train to Troon, from where you can easily find a taxi to take you to your great-uncle’s bed and breakfast. I trust you will enjoy your tenure as the new owner of Thistledon Cottage.”
Shoving the letter back into its stiff white envelope—a little the worse for wear from its four thousand-mile journey from Kansas City to Glasgow-Prestwick, then a few miles farther to Troon, on the west coast of Scotland—I took a deep breath and tried to quell my nerves. After all, I was only changing countries and professions by a stroke of the pen, having put my signature on the last of the legal papers that transferred my recently-departed Great-Uncle Jimmy’s defunct B and B to me, his only living relative. What did it matter that I knew nothing about the service industry, the little village of Thistle outside Troon, or catering to the golfing crowd that would be coming this summer to play on some of Scotland’s most famous courses? I had a couple of months to shake off the mothballs and turn Thistledon Cottage back into the popular guest house it had once been.
At least the solicitor had been right about the taxi service; I had no trouble snagging one as soon as I disembarked from the train. The taxi driver, a grizzled old fellow with a bushy white beard, introduced himself as Angus and cheerfully whistled as he swung my bags into the trunk of an ancient car with “Troon Cab” painted on the side.
“So, lovely lassie, where are we off to?” Angus asked, spinning the car expertly out of the clogged train station parking lot and onto the exit road.
“Do you know Thistledon Cottage?” I asked, not sure how famous the place might have been in its glory days.
“Oh! och, aye,” Angus said, turning to glance at me over his shoulder. “So, you’d be the new owner of Thistledon Cottage, aye? Not been a livin’ soul there besides old Jimmy MacDougal for many a year. Although it was quite the destination in its day. A bit outside town, but close enough for tournaments at the Royal Troon.”
I’d done a bit of homework and knew that the Royal Troon had grown from a small local golf club in 1878 to be one of the best championship courses in the world. It was the B and B’s proximity to the clubs along Scotland’s “golf coast” that had ultimately made me decide to take the plunge and try to get Thistledon Cottage up and running again.
“Yes, Jimmy was my great-uncle,” I told Angus. “I never really understood why he didn’t keep the bed and breakfast going.”
“Och, aye, weel, ya know, after his family succumbed to that influenza back in the fifties, I reckon he just lost heart.”
“I suppose so,” I said. “Losing his wife and son, his sister, Bessie, and two of his three brothers, as well. Only my great-uncle and grandfather survived.”
“Aye, ‘twas a sad thing.” Angus slowed the cab for a border collie that was dashing across the road, chasing a stray sheep back to its flock. “But afore that, Thistledon Cottage was a popular spot. The MacDougals were known for their welcoming ways.”
I cleared my throat and hesitantly said, “I’m, er, hoping to find the place still welcoming to strangers. I’m a bit worried about feeling lonely out here.”
Angus gave me another glance over his shoulder and I detected a twinkle in his blue eyes.
“Do ye know what they say about your new place, lass?”
I shook my head.
“‘You’re never alone at Thistledon Cottage.’”
I smiled and settled back to enjoy the rest of the ride through the Ayrshire countryside. If people were that friendly here, perhaps everything would work out all right.
When we turned in at the gate, I noticed a dilapidated old sign hanging askew, the faded words “Welcome to Thistledon Cottage” barely visible. Angus deposited me and my luggage on the doorstep. “Sure you’ll be all right here on your own, lass?” he asked, as I turned the key the solicitor had given me in the rusty old lock. The door creaked open with a loud groan and I shoved the bags into the dark interior.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “The estate agent who’s been looking after the place said she’d stop by in the morning.” I handed Angus the fare and waved as he drove off. “Here goes something,” I told myself, stepping into my new life.
The cottage was every bit as quaint as the photos had made it seem, and it was much tidier than I’d expected. The estate agents had been doing their job, apparently, hiring local help to clean the place. I decided to deposit my bags upstairs in my room before making the grand tour. I chose the bedroom at the end of the hall, which had a big bay window with a window seat, and a small bathroom through a connecting door. Heading downstairs again, I sniffed the air curiously. It almost smelled like …
Pushing open the swinging door into the kitchen, I was hit full force by the heavenly scent of fresh-baked bread. My “mmm” of delight turned into a shriek when I saw a woman pulling a tray of scones from the oven. Turning to me with a smile, she said, “Ah, just in time for tea.”
I tried to gather my wits about me, but she’d given me quite a shock. “I—I didn’t expect anyone to be here,” I stammered.
“Oh, now dearie, you’re never alone at Thistledon Cottage,” the woman said, setting the scones down on the stone countertop. “The kettle’s on, just help yourself. I’ll be going now.”
And before I could say another word, she had glided out the door and disappeared.
I fell into bed, exhausted, just after sundown. The six-hour time difference on top of the grueling trip made an early bedtime sound divine. I pulled the eiderdown quilt up to my chin and smiled at the thought of the friendly Scottish people I’d already met since my arrival—Angus, the jolly cabby; the housekeeper whose delicious scones I’d had with my tea. My biggest fear—loneliness—seemed not to be a worry, after all. I was sure I’d sleep well in my new home.
I hadn’t counted on the confusion of jet lag, however, and drifted in and out of a muddled half-sleep for a good hour or more. I kept thinking I was still on the airplane, jolting awake because I sensed the flight attendant beside me, asking me if I needed anything. My dreams must have gotten all jumbled up, because I remember at one point hearing a voice quite clearly asking, “Can I get you anything, dearie?” and when I opened my eyes, the woman standing beside me was wearing a long, white robe and carrying a candle. My eyelids closed again, and I drifted away.
In the morning, I was awakened by sunlight streaming in through the big bay window and the sound of birdsong in the garden below. Struggling to sit up and disentangle myself from the covers, I realized the notes were not birds singing, but someone whistling, followed by the sound of something rolling across the wooden floor downstairs.
“Who in the world?” I wondered, quickly pulling clothes from my suitcase and tugging them on. I ventured out into the hallway and stood listening a moment. All was silent now. Wondering if I could possibly have imagined it, perhaps a leftover from my mixed-up dreams of the night before, I made my way to the landing and started down the stairs. Suddenly, I noticed a young boy, perhaps ten years of age, standing at the bottom of the staircase.
“Oh!” I said, startled. “Who are you?”
The boy smiled up at me. “Have you seen my top, miss?” he asked.
“Your … top? To what?”
He gave me a look that said, “Grown-ups are so silly” and said, “My top! It’s rolled off somewhere.”
Deciding any further conversation about who he was or why he was running amok in my house would be easier from a lesser height, I glanced at the stairs to make sure of my footing before continuing down, and when I looked again—he was gone.
Without a sound.
I felt a slight chill run over my scalp. “Don’t be silly,” I told myself. “He’s probably the estate agent’s boy.”
I went through to the kitchen, where, once again, delicious smells greeted me. A basket full of steaming scones sat on the kitchen table beside an equally steaming tea pot. A movement caught my eye, and I saw the woman from the day before disappearing into the pantry doorway on the far side of the room.
“Thank you, Mrs. … I’m afraid I don’t know your name!” I called. I crossed the room and stuck my head through the pantry doorway. “It’s awfully kind of you to …”
I stopped, my eyes fixed on the two parallel rows of shelves, half-filled with cans and jars, which lined the pantry walls. There was no one there.
This time the chill ran all the way down my spine.
I backed slowly away, and turned cautiously to face the kitchen once more. The teapot still steamed on the table. The basket of scones was still there—now half full. Muffled giggles came from the other side of the kitchen door, which was gently swinging shut, followed by scuffing sounds like hard-soled shoes tripping across the floorboards of the entry hall, then the squeak of rusty hinges from the front door. I stood very still, trying to calm my pounding heart.
The next pounding I heard was not my heart, but a fist on the front door.
“Halloo, anybody there?” called a cheerful voice.
I couldn’t bring myself to move for a moment but the pounding continued in a cheerful-but-determined way, so I forced myself out of the kitchen and into the foyer, reaching with trepidation to turn the dead bolt on the still-locked front door.
The door creaked open to reveal a young woman dressed in a neat pantsuit adorned with a lapel pin that said, “Frasier Estate Agents.”
“I thought you must be here,” the woman said. “The postmistress said you’d not been down to the village yet. Hello, I’m Lizzie Frasier, Frasier Estate Agents. You’ll be Caroline MacDougal, then?”
She stuck her hand out at me and I grabbed it, relieved to find her handshake quite solid and firm. “Yes,” I managed. “I’m Caroline. Do come in.”
I led the way into the kitchen, as it was warmer than the unused parlor, and invited her to sit at the table.
“Ah, I see you’ve received the famous Thistledon scones!” she exclaimed, helping herself to one. “No one beats Bessie’s scones.”
“That was … Bessie?” I asked faintly.
“Sure,” Lizzie said, around a mouthful of scone. “She’s been baking her famous goodies for the guests for ages.”
“But I thought … I mean, I didn’t think there had been any guests here since the 1950s.”
Lizzie nodded, still chewing. “That’s right.”
My confusion must have shown on my face, because Lizzie reached out and patted my hand.
“Have ye had a visit yet from wee Jamie?” she asked.
I frowned, unsure how to reply.
“Brown-haired lad, about so tall, short pants, leather shoes, always lookin’ for his wee top?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
“And perhaps Mrs. MacDougal as well? Askin’ after your needs?”
I swallowed and nodded.
“Och, aye, well that’s good, then.” She licked the crumbs from her fingers and reached for the teapot. There were two teacups sitting there that I didn’t remember seeing before.
Lizzie poured two teas and pushed one of the cups toward me. “Drink up, dear, it’ll give you strength.” The sparkle in her eye made me think of Angus.
I poured the scalding liquid down my throat, hoping to find that promised strength.
“I don’t supposed you’ve seen old Jimmy yet?” she asked.
I shook my head, never taking my eyes off her.
“Not to worry, you will,” she said. She took a sip of tea, and gave me a knowing smile.
“You’re never alone at Thistledon Cottage.”
By summer of the following year, Thistledon Cottage was doing a booming business,
welcoming golfers from around the world—and another sort of guest I hadn’t originally counted on: ghost hunters. My guests never want for anything, and the scent of fresh-baked scones fills the air every morning. I’ve hung a new sign out front with the B and B’s official promise of hospitality: “You’re never alone at Thistledon Cottage.”