– Synopsis –
The rocky, whale-shaped islet which lies in the shadow of the Forth Railway Bridge is called Inchgarvie. Nowadays, the only creatures which live on the island are the seabirds on its eastern side and the huge colony of rats deep below the crumbling monastery on its western side. The colony has evolved over hundreds of years. Originally consisting of native black rats, it was conquered by much larger brown rats from a passing foreign ship. The native rats, or Scavengers, were enslaved. Over time, careful interbreeding produced a race of strong, black-furred warriors to protect, feed and keep watch for the brown rats. Thus evolved the colony’s present society: the Inner Circle of Rulers and the Outer Circle of Protectors, Hunters and Watchers. Presiding over the society is its ancient Chamberlain, Long Snout.
It is now late September. The Cold Cycle will begin soon. The hunting of the white birds will stop then, and it will be the time for mating. But the Cold Cycle will also herald the Selection, when the less robust and less purely formed young are sought out and imprisoned by the Protectors to await slaughter for the hungry mouths of the Inner Circle. The Selection is a time of immense sadness, a time of sacrifice for the greater good of the society – and for the continued wellbeing of the ruling Circle.
When a handful of slave-rats escape to the outside world just before dawn, Twisted Foot and Long Ears, two deformed, but intelligent, young warriors from the Watchers’ lair, are assigned the task of keeping an eye on them during daylight. In the course of that day, the Watchers observe the slaves killing and feasting on a white bird, and the arrival on the island of two young men, who beat a hasty retreat when they come upon the escaped rats. On the following day, they witness the arrival of Tam Proudfoot, the local rat-catcher, with Nipper, his dog, and the subsequent demise of the escapees. During those two days, Twisted Foot begins to resent the favoured lifestyle of the Inner Circle; he reflects on the cruelty of the society; and he wonders whether there are less cruel societies among the trees and fields and hills on the distant shoreline.
Two events, one coming immediately after the other, then threaten the very existence of the island’s society. After many days of human activity along its length, the giant steel bridge suddenly lights up, turning night into day over the island and scaring away the white birds. On the following morning, the two young men, confident that the threat of rats has been eradicated, return to complete their business, erecting a shiny contraption on the crest of the island. In response to these grave human intrusions, it is decreed by Long Snout that the Cold Cycle will begin immediately and that it will last as long as the threat remains. During that time, there will be frequent Selections, and the Selections will be complete, with no youngsters spared.
Sunday, October 14th 1990 will be the hundredth anniversary of the official opening of the Forth Railway Bridge. To celebrate the centenary, major events have been planned on both sides of the Forth estuary. A million spectators are expected to converge on the area that day. There will be air displays and parachute demonstrations. Pipe bands and street performers will entertain the crowds. At night, there will be a spectacular fireworks display, in the midst of which a switch will be thrown to inaugurate the permanent floodlighting of the bridge, its final birthday tribute. There are seven days still to go. Following a successful trial switch-on during the previous week, the floodlighting is in place, as are the arrangements for the fireworks display, which is to be mounted from Inchgarvie. A scare about a large number of rats on the island had put the latter arrangements in jeopardy, but that scare was quickly dispelled by the local pest control expert, who was called in to exterminate a handful of stray ‘visitors’.
In the underworld, Twisted Foot is bitter about the recent proclamation of complete Selections. Long Ears, who feels the same way, approaches him with a plan for a group of young Watchers and their families to flee the island to form a new society, and pleads with him to lead the group. Twisted Foot is reluctant at first, but he agrees when he discovers that his mate has been raped by a gang of swaggering Protectors. He works out the details of the plan, but before there is an opportunity to put it into action, Narrow Back, a highly nervous and excitable young Watcher and one of the conspirators, falls into the clutches of Long Snout and the Protectors. Under horrific torture, he reveals the escape plot and its two ringleaders. Twisted Foot and Long Ears are promptly arrested and imprisoned in the Scavengers’ dungeon to await execution at a special Assembly to be called by Long Snout. In the dungeon, Slayer, the slave-King, strikes up a conversation with the condemned Watchers. He learns from them for the first time the role of the Scavengers as slaves to the society. He also learns that the numbers in his lair far exceed the society.
It is Saturday afternoon on the eve of the centenary celebrations. A great storm is raging in the Forth Valley. The organisers are concerned about the effect of the storm on the sophisticated fireworks display platform on Inchgarvie. They decide that a boat must go out to the island. The storm goes unnoticed in the underworld. Long Snout announces the special Assembly and instructs Broken Tail, the Chief Protector, to fetch the prisoners. However, instead of handing over the prisoners to Broken Tail, whom he refers to as the Master, Slayer orders his warriors to invade the Master’s lair and to kill all of the Master’s race. Amidst the ensuing carnage, Twisted Foot, Long Ears and the rest of the conspirators make their way into the Protector’s lair. From there, they intend to escape through a tunnel that leads to the outside. In the otherwise deserted lair, their way is barred by Neck-Snapper, a particularly sadistic young Protector, but Sharp Claws, the Chief Watcher, comes to their aid and holds off Neck-Snapper, allowing them all to escape. The storm is still raging when they reach the water’s edge, where they are unexpectedly joined by Slayer. With the exception of Fat One, who decides at the last moment to return to the underworld to assist Sharp Claws, they all plunge into the sea to make the short swim to the top of one of the massive granite pillars which support the bridge’s structure.
Meanwhile, a small boat, skippered by local man, Charlie McNulty, has ferried the two young men to the island. In the howling wind and driving rain, the young men have been struggling to cover their contraption in polythene sheets. From the cabin of his boat, Charlie spots what he believes to be a huge black rat slinking across the rocks. He leaves the boat to take a closer look. By this time, Fat One has returned to the tunnel in the Protectors’ lair. From its mouth, he sees Long Snout and the surviving Protectors and Rulers retreating into the lair to hold off the slaves from there. Hearing from Neck-Snapper about the escaping Watchers, Long Snout beheads Sharp Claws and sends a gang of Protectors after the traitors. Although seriously wounded by them, Fat One manages to escape from the Protectors, but he is unable to join the other fugitives because of Charlie’s presence. For the same reason, the Protectors are prevented from continuing their pursuit of the fugitives. Charlie catches sight of the big rat again and hits it with a rock. He and the two young men, their work completed, leave the island with the corpse of Digger, an old, frail member of the Watcher’s lair.
By dawn of the following day, the fugitives are still huddled around the top of the pillar, the storm having forced them to remain there overnight. With no trains running on the bridge that day, it is unusually quiet. In the aftermath of the battle, it is also quiet in the underworld. The Inner Circle has been decimated and the Watchers massacred, but the Protectors and Hunters have successfully fought off the slaves. As soon as Long Snout gives the signal, the surviving warriors will join forces to launch a counterattack and drive the slaves back into their dungeon. Meanwhile, up on the bridge and along the banks of the estuary the preparations for the Big Day’s celebrations get underway, and on the island the two young men have returned in Charlie’s boat to unwrap and check their apparatus. While he is waiting, Charlie resolves to show his trophy from the previous night to the local rat-catcher. When he sees Charlie’s boat departing the island, Twisted Foot leads the group up into the structure of the bridge. The group quickly returns to the top of the pillar, however, when they hear the approach of many humans on the walkway above. Before long, the celebrations begin, and they see and hear much noisy human activity on the opposite shore, in the air and on the water around them. Twisted Foot decides that they should remain where they are until darkness falls.
Although the party on the opposite shore is still going strong when night comes, everything seems quiet on the bridge. Twisted Foot leads the climb again. When he and the others are safely up on the walkway, the contraption on the island below them begins to shoot out fireworks in all directions. Retreating from the explosions to the centre of the bridge, the group huddles on the gravel aisle between the two railway tracks. Their ordeal is worsened when a locomotive, also shooting fireworks, comes thundering at them and then crosses and re-crosses the bridge several times. Just when the locomotive disappears and the fireworks from the island end, the bridge lights up. Still traumatised from their experiences, the fugitives resume their journey northwards through the bright, eerily silent belly of the bridge. They clamber down a pillar at its far end and then up a hillside, where they sleep for the rest of the night. By this time, the second battle of the underworld is over and Long Snout is back in control. He lusts for revenge, blaming all that has gone wrong on the cripple, Twisted Foot. On his instructions, Neck-Snapper and another sadistic Protector, Jagged Fangs, go after the fugitives with orders to bring the cripple back and kill the rest.
On the following morning, the fugitives travel to the top of a tree-covered promontory, where they decide to make their new home. From the edge of the promontory, they can look down on the bridge and the little island from which they have escaped. Suddenly, they are trapped at the edge by the approach of Neck-Snapper and Jagged Fangs, but the two Protectors are quickly defeated with the aid Fat One, who has been following the pursuers. The next day, still awaiting the return of the cripple, his anger mounting, Long Snout is on the outside world when Tam Proudfoot and Nipper arrive back on the island. In a fight between Nipper and Long Snout and his Protectors, the dog is killed. Tam leaves the island, vowing revenge.
Some days later, Twisted Foot, having found peace at last, looks down from the promontory to see a lot of commotion on the island. He recognises the familiar figure of the rat-catcher, who is there along with other humans in white protective suits. In his nest, still licking his wounds from the fight with Nipper, more obsessed than ever about the cripple, Long Snout doesn’t seem concerned about the human presence above him. Nor does he notice the fumes and the others dying around him.
– o –