Marjorie Hay-Heriot's father is laird of Pitcomlie in Fife. The Hay-Heriots are proud of their lineage and of their place in the world. 25-year-old Marjorie (May) feels herself such a necessary member of the household that she has never seriously considered marriage, though she has had opportunities. But a series of deaths will shake her position and bring unpleasant strangers to the old house - including a 3-year-old heir and two young women so vulgar in their tastes that they would like to tear down the grand old castle ruins!
The only way to save the ancestral home, and the good name of Hay-Heriot, would be if the eldest brother Tom had married before his death, and had a male child. Was Tom in an unsanctified relationship before his death, or did the couple indeed marry, though by a private marriage difficult to prove? (A "Scotch marriage".) Helping May unravel this mystery is a young man who quietly loves her. Among other memorable characters is May's strong-minded great-aunt Jean, an "old maiden" in Mrs Oliphant's fond terminology.
Biographical and other notes
The fictional Fife town of "Comlie" is based on the town of Crail, the last in a series of five fishing villages strung along the northern coast of the Firth of Forth. Margaret Oliphant's ancestors came from nearby Anstruther Wester - see The Family Tree of Margaret Oliphant for more information.
The house in Saint Andrews which May's uncle takes for the summer is based on the Principal's House of St Mary's College, where two of Margaret Oliphant's closest friends lived, Jane Tulloch and her husband Principal Tulloch. Mrs Oliphant spent several weeks in Saint Andrews each year, usually from late summer to early autumn.
The novel's scenes in Saint Andrews evoke the atmosphere of this ancient home of golf, including topical references to golfer Tom Morris. Margaret Oliphant's sons were avid golfers, teenagers at the time this novel was written. The book's dedication to "the Honourable Captain and members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrews" probably refers to her publisher and friend John Blackwood, who was Captain in 1871.
Under the novel's title is an Italian proverb, referring to the month of May: "Maggio non ha paraggio" - meaning "May has no equal," or "Nothing can compare to May." Mrs Oliphant uses it as a pun, referring to her character May.