This early novel takes place along the Scottish Border, on the old farm and lands of Norlaw, where the farmhouse stands only a few feet from a ruined castle. As family and friends meet to transport the body of the old laird of Norlaw across the Tweed to Dryburgh Abbey, a shocking incident takes place which halts the procession. It will take ingenuity and courage to find a way forward. Later the laird's three sons make plans to save the estate, two of them going out into the world to "make their fortunes". The youngest son, a dreamer, will contribute in an unexpected way.
A related story line deals with a neighbouring property which the brothers, or the missing "Mary of Mellor", may have rights to, but which is held by their father's enemy. Other story lines relate to two young women whom two of the brothers love. Meanwhile the young men's determined mother works to rebuild the farm, which had been jeopardized by the spendthrift old Laird.
Biographical and other notes
Margaret Oliphant usually based her locales on real places she was familiar with. The painting shown above, painted around 1905 by amateur painter Oscar Leake, is entitled "The Laird of Norlaw". It is unknown whether the unnamed house and castle in the painting bear any relationship to the setting of the novel.
A memorable stand-alone scene, only loosely related to one of the story lines, is in Volume 2 chapter 9, in which the people of Kirkbride village anxiously await the coach from Edinburgh which will bring the news of whether the Reform Bill of 1832 has passed - a bill which would increase the number of people eligible to vote by over 60%. It is likely that Margaret Oliphant is drawing on her own memories from age four in her own village, Lasswade - out at night with her brothers (as often happened); hearing the discussions among the villagers; starting out on the road to meet the coach; and more.
Another tie to Lasswade is near the end of the novel, in scenes set in the cottage known as "the Hewan" - a real cottage remembered by Margaret Oliphant all her life. (See "Lasswade" in the series and themes listed below.)