An elephant sighs forlornly and dies by the side of the road, just outside Dundee: It is April 1706 and discussions are beginning for the proposed Act of Union. Closet Jacobite sympathiser Dr Patrick Blair, an ambitious local surgeon-apothecary, embarks on a mission to become the first man in Britain to dissect an elephant.
He employs Gilbert Orum, harassed debtor, surgeons assistant and skilled copper engraver, to help him. After the dissection, the skeleton is reassembled as the centre-piece for a new Hall of Rarities in the town and Blair writes up his findings for the Royal Society in London, hoping to make his name as a great scientist. Ten years later, however, Blair languishes in a dungeon in London, condemned to death for his participation in the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. Gilbert Orum grasps the opportunity to write his own account of the dissection of the unfortunate elephant.