Act one opens on a dark and damp prison cell, the lone figure of James MacPherson sits in despair. He begins to sing MacPhersons Lament
“Farewell ye dungeons dark and strang, farewell farewell tae thee
Macpherson’s time will no be lang, on yonder gallows tree…..”
James’ narrative voice begins the story and tells of how he came to Banff in the summer of 1698 to make himself known to his Father and thus fulfill a promise made to his Mother on her death bed. He arrives in Banff on the morning of the Summer Fair day and this is where he first sees Bess Frazer dancing with her friend Mhairi Duncan……..
James meets Bess the next day when she is walking with her Father Angus; they are clearly attracted to each other which upsets Angus who warns James off telling him that Bess is the intended of Laird Duff. Bess is angered by this as she has no knowledge of this arrangement and the scene ends with her singing of her dream of finding true love and her feeling that James might well be her destiny.
In the village square Two Sergeants from the Highland Regiment are recruiting for volunteers to help defeat the Jacobite rebels. Ian Duff the Lairds Son is in the village enjoying the spectacle with his friend Hugh Laing when a stranger (James) enters the square, they question him and a quarrel ensues where James’s quest to find his Father is revealed to Ian’s shock and dismay. Ian and James almost cross swords and it is clear that they have become enemies.
Ian returns to Duff Castle to confront his Father and of course the Laird denies all knowledge of having another child.
Later, Bess is compromised by The Laird and she has no choice but to accept his marriage proposal after he threatens her Fathers position and life in a private conversation with her, where he also exposes himself as a tyrant and a bully.
James interrupts the wedding in order to persuade Bess to leave the town with him and not to marry the Laird, but she tells him that she cannot and he is banished from the area and a bounty is placed on his head. He wanders the land with Lachlan Hogg, the leader of a small band of Jacobite sympathizers who had fought the English Kings men at Killiecrankie, drinking and singing and generally feeling heartbroken.
The curtain opens on an ale house. Three years have passed and tired of trying to forget Bess through drinking and wandering, James decides to return to Banff to determine if Bess is happy and still has any feelings for him. Lachlan and the rebels try to talk him out of it but when they see he is determined they reluctantly agree to go with him.
On the way to Banff they set up camp in the mountains and are discovered by the Highland Regiment soldiers. A fight ensues and Robbie is killed. Undeterred James resolves to continue his journey.
Meanwhile back in Castle Duff: Bess's eldest Sister Margaret has become the mistress of The Laird. This leaves Bess trapped by convention in a loveless marriage from which there is no possibility of escape as her youngest Sister Mary is slow witted and needs the care and protection that living in the Lairds house brings. Bess is desperately unhappy and thinks of how her life with James would have been almost every day.
James establishes contact with Bess and persuades her to leave with him. Bess wants to ensure Mary’s safety so she confides in Margaret who agrees that she will use her influence with the Laird to allow Mary to continue to live in the Castle.
However Margaret betrays both James and her sister and James is captured by the Lairds son Ian. He is sentenced by the Laird to death on trumped up charges of being a gypsy and being on the Lairds land to steal his livestock. His friends travel to Edinburgh to plead his life and a pardon is arranged, however Duff hears of it and sets the town clock hands forward in order that James is hung before the pardon arrives.