THE TWA CORBIES takes its title and structure from the ancient, anonymous Scottish ballad where two ravens talk of an implied murder, a betrayal and a plot to cover everything up. Resonances of the ballad and its cryptic message appear throughout the novel, which is one of a series written round the psychiatrist, Gregor Maclean


Gregor Maclean, eminent Harley Street psychiatrist, is persuaded to see a schizoid girl in the Scottish border town where he grew up. Sheila Lockhart had worked for the local laird, Earl of Strathayre, and had a mental breakdown when he shot himself. Maclean cannot unscramble her arcane talk or her obsession with birds; he is about to leave when someone rings to whisper the laird was murdered and the sick girl knows who killed him.
With his helpmeet, Deirdre O’Connor, the psychiatrist makes inquiries and encounters several people who hated the laird enough to kill him. Sheila’s father, his former gamekeeper, knows the laird had seduced his daughter; Alasdair Maxwell, solicitor and Highland Games champion, thought the laird had stolen Sheila, his fiancée; Sheila herself had motive for murdering her lover; so did the laird’s impoverished cousin, David Creighton-Graham, who quarreled with him over land and money. Maclean also suspects Lady Strathayre capable of killing to keep her title and wealth; her estate manager and new lover, Neil Faulkner, who covets Strathayre money and the high life it can buy, might also be the murderer.
As he uncovers the truth, two attempts are made on Maclean’s life. When attacked by ravens in the woods, he sees the significance of Sheila’s bird obsession. After her father is murdered, the psychiatrist discovers she has torn a handful of pages out of her school poetry book—pages which include the poem, THE TWA CORBIES, linked in her mind with the laird’s murder. Maclean decides his only way to unravel the mystery is to hypnotize Sheila and let her enact the precise movements she made that morning the laird was shot; he and the police follow her, noting her actions then confronting her with all the suspects—Maxwell, Creighton-Graham, Lady Strathayre, Faulkner. She identifies the man she watched disguise the laird’s murder as a suicide; it is Faulkner (falconer, the hawk of the poem) and his accomplice is Lady Strathayre.
Maclean produces the shotgun Faulkner sold after the murder and accuses both the lady and her lover of murdering the laird and Sheila’s father as well as attempting to kill him and Deirdre.
Faulkner grabs a shotgun and threatens to shoot both Sheila and Maclean and take a hostage. He tries to persuade Lady Strathayre to come with him. When she refuses, he seizes the gun she is holding, forcing her (she claims) to pull both triggers and kill him.
Maclean is sure she murdered him to stop his tongue and place the guilt on him. But he realizes that a local jury will either acquit her completely or give her merely a token sentence.
However, as he say, that is her problem; his own and Sheila’s he had resolved.


As I was walking all alane
I heard twa corbies makin’ a mane;
The tane unto the t’other say,
“Where sall we gang and dine today?”

“—In behint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new-slain Knight;
And naebuddy kens that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.

“His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady’s ta’en another mate,
So we may mak our dinner sweet.

‘Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I’ll pick out his bonny blue een:
Wi’ ae lock o’ his gowden hair
We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.

“Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken whaur he is gane;
O’er his white banes, when they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.”


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