(First published in ‘Vox clamantium: the gospel of the People’ by Andrew Reid, - believed to be in the March edition 1894.)
THIRTY years ago Carronbrae feared God. A year ago it feared the Incubus Coal and Iron Company. To-day the fear of the Lord is getting a second chance. The originator of the Incubus Company was a far-seeing German analyst from Dusseldorf, who, upon departing this life for parts unknown, left his daughter to the senior of the present partners in the business, and his Latinized name to the great concern which had grown up at Carronbrae in the Scottish westlands.
It was thirty years since Carronbrae entered upon its present career of prosperity. Mining contracts were made. Royalties were arranged; the railway brought to the works; and the tall stagings, with the swiftly spinning wheels, were set up on the hillside, where for generations only the gowan had bloomed.
McKill and Grindlay were the sole partners in the Incubus Coal and Iron Company. It was Hector McKill who had wedded Sophia, the serious-minded daughter of Fritz Inkob, the Dusseldorf chemist, and settled himself down to rule Carronbrae with a firm but indubitably pious hand. Grindlay, on the other hand, was an unmarried man who attended to the worldly side of the connection, and did the swearing in the office. He was a red-faced man with a massive watch-chain of shining gold, and was not particularly attached to any of the Carronbrae kirks. But he was known at every drinking-bar within fifty miles of the pithead.
Hector McKill was ruling elder in the Kirk of the Valley, and a great hand at all the prayer-meetings. Indeed, it may be said, he kept them up; for if his foremen did not come out to hear their ruling elder and master jerking petitions out of himself much as though he were working a ship's pump, they might discover some fine morning that at the works of Incubus and Company, there was no further use for their services.
The Valley Kirk was not the fashionable kirk of Carronbrae. The county families did not frequent it, and perhaps that was one reason why it seemed to offer fairer scope for the peculiar talents of Hector McKill than the Kirk of the Hill. For one thing, the Kirk of the Hill did not believe in prayer-meetings. But it had an admirable and eminently aristocratic Primrose League attached to it, and the minister was said to be shaping for candles on the altar and the eastward position. Also most of its elders were better judges of whisky-toddy than of prayer-meetings. Grindlay, for instance, was a member of the Hill Kirk, for he was a man of no pretensions to religion, and he found himself at home there. But Hector McKill wrought the piety end of the business to perfection. It does not do, in a thriving business, to overman any department. Yet in the Incubus pits this division of labour wrought well. If it were desired to get rid of a man who belonged to the Valley Kirk, and was a regular attendant at the prayer-meetings, Partner Grindlay dismissed him. He had been taking up with ranters, to the neglect of his proper business. If the man attended the High Kirk (or, what was very much the same thing, if he attended no kirk at all), Partner Hector McKill called him into his office, wrestled with him in the spirit, prayed with him for his soul's good and then dismissed him without a character. The men on the whole preferred Grindlay's rough ‘We've no use for you. Get out of this!’ to the suaver methods of Hector McKill. Now, so long as the Reverend Silas Sleekman was the minister of the Valley Kirk of Carronbrae, all things went according to the will of Hector McKill. Incubus and Company had the rule all its own way. The Valley Kirk, with a splendid history of protest against the oppression of king and state, had become only the ecclesiastical arm of Incubus and Company.
McKill was indeed not so imperious and autocratic in the pits of the Carronbrae hillside as he was in the session of the Valley Kirk. The minister, Mr. Sleekman, was an admirable man of unblemished character, a great authority upon the typology of the Book of Numbers in his way, both a gentleman and a scholar.
But he was so thoroughly under control of the blatant personality of Hector McKill, that at all meetings he confined himself to saying, ‘I think what our dear friend has proposed will be best!’ The rest of the session murmured and abode their time, for they were not men to be thus set aside. The congregation seethed in silent and helpless discontent. But there was no mistake that the arm of Incubus and Company reached far in Carronbrae, and the man who openly opposed it in the long run went to the wall.
Yet somehow Incubus and Company, with all their graspings, did not seem very greatly to prosper. They paid the poorest wages, and, as a consequence, they had only good men in the most indispensable situations. But there was no manner of doubt that in Job Henderson, their underground manager, they had an excellent man. He was firm with the men under him, and, in consequence, at first he was not over-well liked. But as the men of the Carronbrae pits grew to know Job Henderson, they found how often his calm, mild strength came between them and the wrath of the partners of Incubus and Company.
It was at this time that the Act of Parliament was passed requiring all pits whatsoever to provide themselves with a second exit within a certain time, under pains and penalties to be enforced by the newly appointed Government inspectors. Job Henderson openly rejoiced, and started the construction of the spare shaft at once. McKill and Grindlay were not often down the workings, and it was some time before Hector McKill knew that the work was proceeding.
But as soon as he heard of the matter, he ordered such nonsense to be stopped at once. It was a waste of money. Besides, there had never been any accident in the Carronbrae pits, and the whole thing was wholly unnecessary and uncalled for. Surely a pit which was under the protection of the prayers of so noted a vessel as Hector McKill could come to no harm. The ruling elder of the Valley Kirk did not put this last into words, but his whole manner inferred it. Job Henderson went to lay the matter before the junior partner, Walter Grindlay. He found him at the bar of the Royal, telling a sultry story, which was causing uproarious laughter.
To him he stated the necessity, and what had been ordered. Grindlay, in a very brief manner, condemned the expense.
‘But the Government inspector?’ said the underground manager.
‘Leave him to me. I know how to work such cattle,’ said Walter Grindlay, returning to the bar.
So Job Henderson went back to the works and wrote out his resignation. He was a man with a family, and he did it painfully. But he could not consent to play with the lives of men. He stated the reasons for his resignation in his letter to the firm of Incubus and Company. Walter Grindlay laughed as he read it.
‘Risk to the lives of men!’ he said. ‘Well, I suppose we pay them for taking the risk, and they know it as well as we do. I never did read such cant.’
But the senior partner spoke seriously of it at his prayer-meeting. He had been that day, he remarked, wounded in his tenderest feelings by one whom he had trusted a serpent whom he had taken from the gutter, and warmed in his bosom. Yet he was eminently sustained in his affliction, and enabled to bear it all meekly.
So the spare shaft was stopped on the morrow, and a new manager came to the pit whose conditions of service were that he obeyed orders without question, made no complaint, cut down the working expenses, and increased the profits. He was a good man, this new manager, according to his lights; but his lights were the conditions of his managership, and the continued good-will and favour of Incubus and Company.
The shifts came and went with great regularity. The pit filled and emptied, and the narrow twin air- shaft, which ran alongside the main incline or ‘dock,’ was half filled with steam-pipes; for it was, according to Incubus and Company, a great pity to have an empty space which could be filled with what was useful.
But one or two men who spent their lives down there in the deeps of the earth tightened their lips, and said a prayer for wife and bairns that had little in common with the laboured paragraphs of which, on the evenings of the prayer-meeting, the senior partner delivered himself before going home to arrange for cutting down his men's wages ten per cent, all round.
Then came the Government inspector. The men had heard of his coming, and looked for great things. The obstructions were cleared away from the bottom of the abortive second exit, which had been carried so far and then abandoned at the end of the rule of Job Henderson.
But Mr. Grindlay had the inspector well in hand. He had treated him generously before he came, and Grindlay was the best of good company, and made himself liked when he chose. The inspector descended, admiring, as he did so, the perfect working of the cage, and feeling the strong draft of air. He walked along the working faces; he saw the men at their tasks. He passed the end of the partially constructed tunnel, which Grindlay indicated with a wave of his hand.
‘Our new exit,’ he explained generally.
‘Ah, indeed; that is right!’ said the Government inspector, for who could look too narrowly into the affairs of so pleasant and hospitable a man of the world as the junior partner of the great firm of Incubus and Company?
Alas that there was none to tell him that the tunnel ran up to within a hundred yards of the surface, and there stopped where, on the day of Job Henderson's resignation, the last hole had been driven, and the work dropped to cut down working expenses!
‘Now,’ said Mr. Walter Grindlay, hospitably, ‘we had better go up to dinner. It is hot and stuffy here; and I told them to ice the champagne. You are to dine with me, of course; I arranged that. Our old man is a teetotaler, and I thought you would prefer it.’
And the Government inspector did prefer it.
This was all that the inspection of the Carronbrae pits accomplished, and the report was enough to certify that there was no health-resort in Britain so entirely salubrious in climate and appliances as the pits of Incubus and Company.
But, in the mean time, the senior partner was having trouble considerable in his ecclesiastical relations. The Reverend Silas Sleekman was laid quietly away to rest from his labours in the graveyard in the valley, and there was a vacancy in ‘McKill's kirk,’ as the commonalty named it irreverently. This meant the reaching of candidates, and an exceeding interest among all the members in the election. But it was generally thought indeed, taken for granted that, though patronage had been abolished, Hector McKill would get in his man. Mrs. McKill (nee Incubus), for her own part, meant to have a young man with at least some tendencies to ritual. Hector did not much care one way or the other, but he was resolved like iron to have a man who would do as he was bidden, and who knew his place. In fact, he had found the very man. Providence had brought him to hand.
There was yet another Sleekman, and it was thought that the people would like a second of the breed one of the same meekness and ineffectiveness as that Silas who had recently laid himself down to rest from labours which apparently ought not to have tired him very much.
The Reverend Alexander Sleekman was a probationer of some standing, meaning thereby that he had been out of college several years without finding a resting-place for his foot in kirk or manse. But he had preached several times for his relative during the summer holidays; and Mr. Hector McKill, with that interest in the young for which he was famous, had sounded the lad, and found him of a very adaptive and facile disposition. The senior partner thought that this would be most suitable in a minister of the Valley Kirk, who, above all men, ought to be a model of humility. Mr. McKill liked all his sermons from the Old Testament, and especially rejoiced in denunciations of the wicked which, being interpreted, meant those who did not agree with Hector McKill. On the other hand, Mrs. McKill loved expositions of ‘ the little horn,’ and the settling of the exact year and day of the end of the world. She subscribed to the Prophetic Herald, and questioned all young preachers as to their views on the literal fulfilment of prophecy.
So the Reverend Alexander Sleekman satisfied both the chief inhabitants of Gripp Castle, which stood among sprouting larches over the hill out of sight of the pits. He was asked there to lunch. He stood with his hat in his hand on the gravel walk when he spoke to Hector McKill, and he expressed the most lively delight at finding a copy of the Prophetic Herald, ‘ my favourite journal,’ on the drawing-room table.
Mr. Sleekman did not mean to miss the good things of this life if he could help it. He was altogether a suitable young man, and Hector McKill said, ‘He'll do fine! ‘
Now, the senior partner in the great firm of Incubus and Company had not the least doubt that he should be able to carry the congregation of the Valley Kirk along with him. Indeed, that was a factor which he had not so much as considered. Were not most of the members his own employees? Hector loved the word. He was their employer, their master; and it would be a strange thing if he could not hire them to think as he thought as well as to do as he bade them.
Yet it will hardly be believed that there was rank treason and rebellion against so good a master being freely mooted in the pits themselves, and preparation was being made for the congregational meeting, with a view to disappointing his earnest and just expectations. This was a matter to which it is eminently painful to allude. We hardly like to enter into the depths which are to be found in human nature. Hector McKill made it a matter of public prayer that he should get his own way, and Mrs. McKill frequently consulted the Prophetic Herald. Who would dare to gainsay two such single-minded and powerful Christians?
Now, in the Presbyterian Kirk of Scotland, a selected number of those who have been proposed as candidates for the pastorate have to preach on one or more Sabbaths before the congregation, so that the people may judge as to the merits and popular gifts of the man whom they elect to rule over them in spiritual things.
Accordingly, the Reverend Alexander Sleekman reached first. He had a plaintive and monotonous voice, and he selected his text from the Prophet Daniel to please Mrs. McKill. But he was far from pleasing the rank and file of the free and independent members of the congregation. They complained that he whined whenever he did not snivel.
‘That craitur can never preach. He can only peep and mutter!’ said Angus Gilruth, gardener and theologian.
‘That piece o' machinery wad na work bena (except) when Hector McKill turned the handle!’ said Sandy McClymont. And so the word ran through the congregation.
But Hector went about the next day, saying to every member and adherent he met, ‘You were at the kirk yesterday, John. Wasna yon a grand sermon?’
And John thought that it was, having regard to the fact that he was speaking to his master. But he relieved himself when he sat on his hunkers at the pit-bottom, waiting for the cage.
But there was one of those who came to preach whose name was David Oliphant. He certainly did not peep and mutter. He had a message to deliver, and, at least, he stood and gave it forth like a man. He had long been wrestling with a poor district, where sin was the handmaid of poverty, and where prayer was not so divorced from the brotherhood of helping as it was in the theology of Hector McKill. He prayed with the people in the evening, and saw that they got milk for their babes in the morning.
In the Valley Kirk he preached on the address of Paul to the men of Athens, from the Hill of Mars.
‘This agitator,’ he called him, ‘this inciter of the populace, this socialistic lecturer, proclaimed his message, and the Athenians listlessly hearkened.’ For God hath made of one blood all the nations of men that are upon the face of the earth.' And the citizens smiled at one another as they heard the new doctrine. Did the little swarthy Jew think himself of the same race as themselves? And the Roman centurion smiled behind his hand like a stalwart British policeman in his pride of place. The slave-owner shrugged his shoulders and turned away. But on the skirts of the crowd, here and there, one listened and set his head nearer to catch every word. The helot heard a new thing. Of the same blood; equal in the new faith; neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, bond nor free; all free and equal in Jesus Christ the new Prophet.' Swart Ethiopian and flaxen-haired Goth, they paused ere they went to their task, hearing of ' a new burden and easier yoke,' a brotherhood of man! There was hope for them in the new faith. No wonder the common people heard him gladly, and the rich and increased in goods passed him by, for it was a helot's faith, this of the Nazarene, and once more to the poor the gospel was preached.’
David Oliphant's words rang through the Valley Kirk like the accents of a new inspired prophet. Such things had never so been spoken there. The workers had been dulled into apathy. Use and wont alone took them to their accustomed places on the morning of the Sabbath day; but the words of the preacher had fallen dully on their ear as something with no possible bearing upon their daily life.
And as the kirk emptied itself, there were many who whispered one to the other, ‘We have heard a new thing to-day!’
But they said little aloud, for Hector McKill was condemning the unhallowed doctrine in no measured tones. He would write to the officers of the Kirk about the men whom they sent out to preach to vacant congregations. He never had heard the pulpit so prostituted before. It was all he could do to keep still in his place. There was not a word of spirituality in the whole discourse. The young man was a disgrace to the presbytery that licensed him.
‘But he'll no get off with the like of that!’ said Hector McKill.
Yet he took him over the hill to Gripp Castle for dinner, and tried to overwhelm him with his importance. But David Oliphant was not overwhelmed. He had not met the great ones of the earth in vain, and he could give a reason for the faith that was in him. He told Mrs. McKill several things about Christ and his religion which considerably astonished Hector. More than that, he had the passages at the end of his tongue to bear out his doctrine.
‘He said to me in the smoking-room,’ said Hector to his astonished wife, ‘that there was no doubt that Jesus was a working-man, and His followers Socialists.’
‘But you surely did not sit and listen to such doctrine?’ queried his wife, aghast.
Hector McKill looked uneasy. He shrugged his shoulders and played with his watch-chain.
‘But, Sophia, in a manner he proved it that was the awkward thing.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Sophia, sharply; ‘I wish I had had him through my hands. I would puzzle him with the ' little horn’ and the ' time and a time and half a time.'’
Which indeed was likely enough, for David Oliphant devoted most of his attention to the vials of wrath which were being poured on the earth at the present time, and the horn that he was interested in was mostly to be found on the palms of the workers with whom he consorted, and in the hearts of such firms as Incubus and Company, whose employees they were.
So it was decided at Gripp Castle that Alexander Sleekman was to be their minister, and that Hector McKill should write to all the vacant churches, and warn their committee against the life and doctrine of David Oliphant.
‘I owed this duty to the Church at large,’ said Hector ‘such a wolf ought not to be allowed to masquerade in fleecy clothing among the silly sheep.’
But at the congregational meeting a sharp and horrid surprise was waiting for this worthy and notable follower of the apostles. He proposed the Reverend Alexander Sleekman. He lauded his likeness to his worthy predecessor. He called him ‘a chip off the old block’ (an irreverent person in the back benches interjected the syllable ‘head’ at this point, which raised a laugh among the unthinking). Hector McKill repeated his observation with greater emphasis, and again the objectionable syllable came from the back of the church. Then he went on to advert to the excellent doctrine which they had heard in the discourses of Mr. Sleekman, and the admirable manner in which the preacher had settled disputed points in the prophetic interpretation of Daniel. It would be a blessing of no ordinary calibre if they were privileged in the Valley Kirk to listen Sabbath after Sabbath to such teaching. For his part (Hector McKill's part), he asked nothing better than an eternity of such Sabbaths. He concluded by proposing the name of Mr. Sleekman, and he said that, were Mr. Sleekman elected, he should personally make it his business to give him all the assistance and advice in his power in fulfilling his onerous ministerial functions in their midst.
It will hardly be believed, yet it is a fact that at this point a deliberate wink was observed to pass round the congregation. Hector McKill caught Sandy McClymont in the act, and Sandy coughed and pre- tended that some obstruction in his throat was bringing the water to his eye. Man is by nature depraved.
Then there was a pause in the proceedings, till one of the firemen at the Carronbrae pits seconded his master's motion, as he had been ordered that morning to do. He kept his head down, and appeared very unhappy. But he had ten of a family, and was two quarters back with his rent. Then, without note or comment, Angus Gilruth stood up and moved the election of David Oliphant. A member at the back of the hall, believed to be another of the pit firemen an unmarried man swiftly seconded the motion. The worthy moderator, who was minister of a neighbouring church, all innocent of the complication of interests, rose to put the matter to the vote; but Hector McKill, choking with anger, was before him.
He fell upon David Oliphant, his character and doctrine, with tooth and nail. His doctrine was unspeakably bad. His opposition to constituted authority showed what manner of man he was better than anything else. His character, also, was more than doubtful. He would be a disgrace to the parish, and, for one, Hector McKill would give no support to a congregation which would call such a man to rule over them.
‘I and my wife,’ said Hector, speaking after his manner, ‘have had opportunities of diagnosing his character denied to the others here present, and we can vouch that our impressions were not favourable.’
Mrs. McKill nodded her head violently. David Oliphant's views on the ‘little horn’ had been very unsatisfactory indeed.
‘But I do not doubt that this factious opposition to such an admirable man as Mr. Sleekman, against whose character and doctrine there is no breath of suspicion, is confined to one or two irresponsible persons of no particular standing.’
Mr. McKill paused for a reply.
The people did not reply; but every man and woman made ready to vote.
Yet when the election proceeded, and a show of hands called for of those favourable to the candidature of the Reverend Alexander Sleekman, only eleven could be counted; and there was even a considerable uncertainty about some of these, for as soon as Hector McKill took his eyes off several of those who voted for his candidate, strangely enough their hands instantly dropped to their sides. These were all married men with large families and in the upper places about the Carronbrae pits. The moderator, indeed, declared that he could only count seven at any one time.
Then came the vote on behalf of David Oliphant. A whole forest of hands arose. The moderator thought there were about two hundred. Hector McKill was on his feet all the time, turning round like a teetotum, trying to focus his attention upon those of his employees as were voting against him; but it is a strange thing that for every one of these whom he really got his eye upon, and by dint of frowning prevailed upon to keep his hands beneath the pew, at least two others who were not so focussed held up their hands, so that the moderator could not in any way make the numbers of those voting for David Oliphant less than two hundred and ten. He rose to give his decision, and was interrupted by Hector McKill. But the moderator was not under the thumb of Incubus and Company. He lived in another parish, and so he made short shrift of the ruling elder, who only managed to say that he washed his hands of the responsibility of bringing such a man into their midst.
When David Oliphant came to Carronbrae, he was welcomed with a great assembly in the Valley Kirk to do him honour, and down in the pits and along the working faces there was joy which did not readily find expression. And, what pleased these swarthy miners as much as anything, their owner, the senior partner in the great firm of Incubus and Company, was explosively indignant, and refused to have anything to do with the ceremony. This was a capital introduction to the confidence of the workers of Carronbrae, and there was a larger contingent of them at church on Sabbath than had ever been there before. But the McKills' pew was empty, and the congregation whispered to each other that Hector McKill, lord of Gripp Castle, and of the serfs of the Carronbrae pits, had left the Valley Kirk, and betaken himself to the Kirk on the Hill. The ‘little horn’ went with him.
But this was not yet decided. Hector and his wife were that day deep in debate as to their future action. Should he secede forthwith, or remain to be a thorn in the side of the new minister? He could not hope to have the same authority in the Kirk of the Hill. On the other hand, the Reverend Septimus Easiman was ready to have any views or none upon the ‘ little horn,’ and he was entirely sound on the question of the rights of employers; so that it was finally decided by the conclave at the Castle that immediate withdrawal from the tainted and disgraced Valley Kirk was absolutely necessary. So Hector McKill ‘lifted his lines’ and removed his Bibles during the week.
Then, being without employment for his facility in petitioning, he started a prayer-meeting at the offices of the company, and invited those who attended to send in notices of requests for prayer. But the notes received showed the evil minds of the senders. One stated that the sepulchres of the neighbourhood stood much in need of a new coat of whitewash, and urgent prayers were asked for the same. Another remarked upon the tattered condition of the hypocrites' cloaks, and suggested a fresh supply. Another referred to the ‘second exit’ at the Carronbrae pit as a subject for Mr. McKill's petitions; while yet another suggested a rise of ten per cent, and an examination of the insanitary condition of the company's houses. The proposed prophetical prayer-meeting in Mrs. McKill's drawing- room was abandoned, and in the town of Carronbrae all things went on as they had done before.
The Government inspector came every three months, and strolled along the mains of the pit accompanied by the junior (drinking) partner. The senior (whitewashed) partner kept out of the way. Then at a certain fixed point Walter Grindlay proposed a return to the surface in time for dinner. So, with a magnum of champagne before him, the inspector rested from his labours and found all things very good.
And David Oliphant, cleared of Incubus and Company and all their works, preached the gospel as it was given to him, and instructed his people, among other things, that the fatherhood of God meant the brotherhood of man.
But on a day unforgotten in Carronbrae, swift and unexpected as lightning, fell the terror of great darkness.
At Carronbrae pit No. i, the day shift had turned out at six in the morning, stolidly taking its way to the pit to do the day's darg. In the little red houses the men and boys breakfasted mostly with little said; and as silently rose to go, each with his dinner-can along with him, into the still sunshiny morning. The men went to labour. The women abode at home, worked, and waited. The laddies followed their fathers as soon as it was time for them to leave school and go to work.
‘Weel, I'm awa'!’ was the more effusive greeting heard as the men shut to the doors. Yet some of the younger of them took a look at wives and bairns ere they went forth, for to all who win the coal from the deeps of the mine, there is the grim risk that they who go forth in the morning with head erect, may be brought home before ever evening come with drooping head and feet that are carried first through the door.
So in scattered groups, fathers with their boys walking manfully by their side, sometimes running a few steps to keep up, and single men in silent companionship with their mates, they took their way up the hill to the pit-mouth.
The wheels spun round opposite ways on the tall scaffolding. The cage sank and rose. The engineman pulled his levers and tested his throttle-valves. Down to the bottom of the long dark shaft and along the ‘incline,’ the parties of men and boys sped to their work. Tools clinked as the men lifted them to their shoulders.
Fifteen hundred feet beneath the yellow cornfields, fifteen hundred feet beneath the great house of Gripp Castle, where Hector McKill, senior partner in the firm of Incubus and Company, was not yet out of bed, lay the workings where the picks began to play a merry tune. The pony-boys brought the waggons quickly along the dark underground ways. Here and there the lamps glimmered and danced over the mounds of rubbish. From the abandoned workings there came strange faint smells, and the lamp-flame sometimes forsook the centre wick and seemed to cling strangely to the wire of the Davy frame.
Few of the men in that great pit remembered as they wrought that the yellow sunshine of the autumn day slept above them. For the pit hummed like a hive, and there was little enough time for thought.
The door-boys heard the whistle of the men running the coal-trucks through the dark passages, and threw back their doors. Then with a yell and a gust of wind, a long line of cars rushed through the open doorway. Sometimes one of the men upon them would wave a hand kindly to the lonely boy, left by himself in the darkness. And the flames of their hat-lamps streamed back like the smoke-track behind a railway engine.
Suddenly that day in August, as the boys were bringing their loads of coal to the bottom of the ‘dook,’ John Roy, the ‘bottomer,’ looking upward, saw thick volumes of smoke pouring down the shaft of the long incline.
‘The pit's afire!’ was his quick and terrible cry.
There was but one way to the surface; but one to the outer air, and the flame had gripped it, as John Roy well knew when he saw the red glow in the heart of the smoke.
Now, doubtless it was his duty to bide by his signals, for the bottomer is the man at the helm, and only he can communicate up that long incline, nearly a third of a mile in length, with the men in the engine-house on the surface, whose levers and wire ropes control in turn the movements of the cage by which alone safety can be reached. But John Roy had little time to think. Bewildered, stunned, not knowing which way to turn for the blinding downpour of smoke and the crackling of the deadly fire among the timbers of the pit, he leapt into the cage, and stood with his hand on the bell-lever.
But before he ‘belled himself away,’ he called to the three boys who stood beneath with their loads ready for the trucks,
‘The pit's afire, lads; come away with me!’
Then these three lads, whose names deserve to be written in golden letters, though no more than boys in years, returned to the bottomer the answer of brave men. They said
‘No; we will gang and warn the men.’
John Roy jerked the lever thrice, and was whisked through the smoke and fire just in time, leaving the hundred men below to their fate.
But the three boys sped on their way. The weight of many men's lives was on their boyish hearts. Breathing deep to give them vigour, they ran through the gathering smother, which, instead of feeding the great pit with pure air, was carrying down the deadly smoke along all the faces of the pit. They raced with bent backs under the black archways. Every moment they were risking their own lives to warn their comrades.
‘The pit's afire; run, men, run!’ they cried, and at the word each man and boy dropped his tools and ran for the bottom of the incline.
But when they arrived there they found only the red fire glowing down from above on the dull waters of the ‘sump,’ and the cage gone, which ought to have been there to take them to safety. Some started for the air-shaft; but it was blocked with steam-pipes, and no man could climb thirty yards up it. The legal second exit had, as we know, never been driven, and a hundred yards of solid rock lay between. So down there men and boys were penned, with the great fire roaring in their only exit. They were no better than rats caught in the trap set for them by Incubus and Company, and baited with thirty shillings a week. But the senior partner was a pious man, and had often prayed for them only he had not finished the second exit. The thought must have been a comfort to them at that moment.
But on the plans of the pit, approved and passed by the Government inspectors, there were splendid exits, wide and clear. All was completely arranged on paper. It is a pity that men cannot escape on paper.
And above in the sunlight women wailed and wept, and watched and waited. Through the long and anxious August night the women-folk, many of them with their babies, stood about the pit-head. Hector McKill, in a white waistcoat, moved among them, telling them that they had better go home; they could do their men no good.
Suddenly a woman broke down, and the weird, unforgettable sound of the Irish ‘keen’ went out on the air. It nearly broke the hearts of those that heard it. Grief among the Scottish women was quieter more patient, stiller.
But when the dead-carts began to rumble, and the bodies were brought home, the women broke loose from all restraint, and clambered on the waggons, crying for their husbands. Then David Oliphant, who had gone from house to house, ran along to meet each cart, and, reverently laying the cloth aside, he identified the poor clay, and so drove the husband home to his wife's fireside, which he had left sound and well that morning.
Yes, the boys had warned the men! The three heroes who thought of no Victoria Cross had done their deed, and now they lay quiet one in his father's house, with the deadly reek oozing stilly out of his nostrils; another as quiet, the only son of his mother, and she a widow. But one lay at the bottom of the black water of the ‘sump,’ so deep that even the ruddy fire scarce glimmered down upon him. But the boys had warned the men.
On a quiet Scottish Sabbath they were laid in their resting-graves on a breezy hilltop, looking down on the lace that had been their death-trap. The fields over them were yellow with the corn, but under the sheaves fifty men lay buried in a deep common grave. They had a service on the green, and the lift of the widowed and orphaned voices as they sang their psalm almost broke our hearts,
‘Yea, though I walk through death's dark vale, Yet will I fear none ill; For Thou art with me, and Thy rod And staff me comfort still.’
And at the open-air service, behind the rows of weeping women, the children played upon Carronbrae Green, or stood staring open-eyed as at a show, with never a father among them all. But Hector McKill went to the church with a conscience void of offence. He had subscribed a hundred pounds to the relief fund.
Now David Oliphant had a word to say, and he said it. ‘I do not stand here to apportion blame or to decide legal quibbles; but I say that the men who are responsible for failing to provide a way of escape for these men are responsible for the loss of these hundred lives, and one day shall have to answer for the murder before the bar of God.’
Two mornings after David Oliphant found on his table a legal letter from the solicitor of Incubus and Company. The letter informed him that he had laid himself open to an action for libel, and requested the name of his solicitor. David Oliphant had no solicitor; but he had an answer, and his answer ran thus :
‘I specially declared in my address that I had nothing to do with apportioning blame before human tribunals; and I shall rejoice to meet your clients at the bar which I mentioned, on the great day when the secrets of all hearts shall be revealed, when all wrong shall be righted, and all evil punished.’
David Oliphant's faith was simple; but, like many simple things, it wore well and carried him through. He heard no more of the action for libel.
The water had filled the mine. It was seven months before it was again pumped out of the flooded pit. Then once more the explorers enter the dread place where the smoke choked, the fire burned, and the water drowned so many lives that were bright and young. They are again at the pit-bottom. They pass along the dripping passages, from which the great pump has sucked the water. They clamber over falls of rock which have thundered down from the roof. They shade their eyes and hold up their lamps as they go down the slope.
‘Stop! what is that?’
This is what they see dark shapes, leaning against the wall, some sitting as if in thought, some resting at ease as if asleep, some lying prone on their faces.
‘I declare,’ said one of the searchers, ‘they were sitting there, after seven months under water, as if they were waiting for the oversman to call the next shift!’
He was right. The Great Oversman had called the next shift, and every man had answered to his name. One little lad had run upon the first alarm to find his father. The men who lifted him had strong arms, but the tears ran down their cheeks upon their grimy hands. And well they might, for the boy lay lovingly and confidingly with his head upon his father's knee. He had found his father. Perhaps so had they all. At any rate, it was better to die with them than to live with Hector McKill.
Incubus and Company still survives, but does not greatly prosper, though Hector's white waistcoat is broader and whiter than ever. But, though he got clear in the Government inquiry, the Great Court of Appeal has not done with him yet. There is a certain white throne to be set up; and even if there be no hell, as the new-fangled folk say, God is going to set about making one specially for Hector McKill.
S. R. CROCKETT.
125 years on, reading this story, which references back to the Mauricewood Pit Disaster of 1889, it is easy to dispel the myth that Crockett was a 'stickit, sentimental minister' of any sort. This is hard-hitting and humorous by turn and gives Dickens a run for his money any day! If it's evidence you need to prove that Crockett wasn't 'Kailyard' this is a great place to start. The story was turned into a serial in 1907 and then published as 'Vida: The Iron Laird of Kirktown.' It's available from the unco store HERE
in this excerpt from 'Auld Licht Idylls' first published 1888, we see J.M.Barrie at his entertaining best...
The ministers in the town did not hold with literature. When the most notorious of the clubs met in the town-house under the presidentship of Gavin Ogilvy, who was no better than a poacher, and was troubled in his mind because writers called Pope a poet, there was frequently a wrangle over the question, Is literature necessarily immoral? It was a fighting club, and on Friday nights the few respectable, god-fearing members dandered to the town-house, as if merely curious to have another look at the building. If Lang Tammas, who was dead against letters, was in sight they wandered off, but when there were no spies abroad they slunk up the stair. The attendance was greatest on dark nights, though Gavin himself and some other characters would have marched straight to the meeting in broad daylight. Tammas Haggart, who did not think much of Milton’s devil, had married a gypsy woman for an experiment, and the Coat of Many Colours did not know where his wife was. As a rule, however, the members were wild bachelors. When they married they had to settle down.
Gavin’s essay on Will’um Pitt, the Father of the Taxes, led to the club’s being bundled out of the town-house, where people said it should never have been allowed to meet. There was a terrible town when Tammas Haggart then disclosed the secret of Mr. Byars’s supposed approval of the club. Mr. Byars was the Auld Licht minister whom Mr. Dishart succeeded, and it was well known that he had advised the authorities to grant the use of the little town-house to the club on Friday evenings. As he solemnly warned his congregation against attending the meetings the position he had taken up created talk, and Lang Tammas called at the manse with Sanders Whamond to remonstrate. The minister, however, harangued them on their sinfulness in daring to question the like of him, and they had to retire vanquished though dissatisfied. Then came the disclosures of Tammas Haggart, who was never properly secured by the Auld Lichts until Mr. Dishart took him in hand.
It was Tammas who wrote anonymous letters to Mr. Byars about the scarlet woman, and, strange to say, this led to the club’s being allowed to meet in the town-house. The minister, after many days, discovered who his correspondent was, and succeeded in inveigling the stone-breaker to the manse. There, with the door snibbed, he opened out on Tammas, who, after his usual manner when hard pressed, pretended to be deaf. This sudden fit of deafness so exasperated the minister that he flung a book at Tammas. The scene that followed was one that few Auld Licht manses can have witnessed. According to Tammas the book had hardly reached the floor when the minister turned white. Tammas picked up the missile. It was a Bible. The two men looked at each other. Beneath the window Mr. Byars’s children were prattling. His wife was moving about in the next room, little thinking what had happened. The minister held out his hand for the Bible, but Tammas shook his head, and then Mr. Byars shrank into a chair. Finally, it was arranged that if Tammas kept the affair to himself the minister would say a good word to the Bailie about the literary club. After that the stone-breaker used to go from house to house, twisting his mouth to the side and remarking that he could tell such a tale of Mr. Byars as would lead to a split in the kirk. When the town-house was locked on the club Tammas spoke out, but though the scandal ran from door to door, as I have seen a pig in a fluster do, the minister did not lose his place. Tammas preserved the Bible, and showed it complacently to visitors as the present he got from Mr. Byars. The minister knew this, and it turned his temper sour. Tammas’s proud moments, after that, were when he passed the minister.
Driven from the town-house, literature found a table with forms round it in a tavern hard by, where the club, lopped of its most respectable members, kept the blinds down and talked openly of Shakespeare. It was a low-roofed room, with pieces of lime hanging from the ceiling and peeling walls. The floor had a slope that tended to fling the debater forward, and its boards, lying loose on an uneven foundation, rose and looked at you as you crossed the room. In winter, when the meetings were held regularly every fortnight, a fire of peat, sod, and dross lit up the curious company who sat round the table shaking their heads over Shelley’s mysticism, or requiring to be called to order because they would not wait their turn to deny an essayist’s assertion that Berkeley’s style was superior to David Hume’s. Davit Hume, they said, and Watty Scott. Burns was simply referred to as Rob or Robbie.
There was little drinking at these meetings, for the members knew what they were talking about, and your mind had to gallop to keep up with the flow of reasoning. Thrums is rather a remarkable town. There are scores and scores of houses in it that have sent their sons to college (by what a struggle!), some to make their way to the front in their professions, and others, perhaps, despite their broadcloth, never to be a patch on their parents. In that literary club there were men of a reading so wide and catholic that it might put some graduates of the universities to shame, and of an intellect so keen that had it not had a crook in it their fame would have crossed the county. Most of them had but a thread-bare existence, for you weave slowly with a Wordsworth open before you, and some were strange Bohemians (which does not do in Thrums), yet others wandered into the world and compelled it to recognize them.
There is a London barrister whose father belonged to the club. Not many years ago a man died on the staff of the Times, who, when he was a weaver near Thrums, was one of the club’s prominent members. He taught himself shorthand by the light of a cruizey, and got a post on a Perth paper, afterwards on the Scotsman and the Witness, and finally on the Times. Several other men of his type had a history worth reading, but it is not for me to write. Yet I may say that there is still at least one of the original members of the club left behind in Thrums to whom some of the literary dandies might lift their hats.
Gavin Ogilvy I only knew as a weaver and a poacher; a lank, long-armed man, much bent from crouching in ditches whence he watched his snares. To the young he was a romantic figure, because they saw him frequently in the fields with his call-birds tempting siskins, yellow yites, and linties to twigs which he had previously smeared with lime. He made the lime from the tough roots of holly; sometimes from linseed oil, which is boiled until thick, when it is taken out of the pot and drawn and stretched with the hands like elastic. Gavin was also a famous hare-snarer at a time when the ploughman looked upon this form of poaching as his perquisite. The snare was of wire, so constructed that the hare entangled itself the more when trying to escape, and it was placed across the little roads through the fields to which hares confine themselves, with a heavy stone attached to it by a string. Once Gavin caught a toad (fox) instead of a hare, and did not discover his mistake until it had him by the teeth. He was not able to weave for two months.
The grouse-netting was more lucrative and more exciting, and women engaged in it with their husbands. It is told of Gavin that he was on one occasion chased by a gamekeeper over moor and hill for twenty miles, and that by and by when the one sank down exhausted so did the other. They would sit fifty yards apart, glaring at each other. The poacher eventually escaped. This, curious as it may seem, is the man whose eloquence at the club has not been forgotten in fifty years. “Thus did he stand,” I have been told recently, “exclaiming in language sublime that the soul shall bloom in immortal youth through the ruin and wrack of time.”
Another member read to the club an account of his journey to Lochnagar, which was afterwards published in Chambers’s Journal. He was celebrated for his descriptions of scenery, and was not the only member of the club whose essays got into print. More memorable perhaps was an itinerant match-seller known to Thrums and the surrounding towns as the literary spunk-seller. He was a wizened, shivering old man, often bare-footed, wearing at the best a thin ragged coat that had been black but was green-brown with age, and he made his spunks as well as sold them. He brought Bacon and Adam Smith into Thrums, and he loved to recite long screeds from Spenser, with a running commentary on the versification and the luxuriance of the diction. Of Jamie’s death I do not care to write. He went without many a dinner in order to buy a book.
The Coat of Many Colours and Silva Robbie were two street preachers who gave the Thrums ministers some work. They occasionally appeared at the club. The Coat of Many Colours was so called because he wore a garment consisting of patches of cloth of various colours sewed together. It hung down to his heels. He may have been cracked rather than inspired, but he was a power in the square where he preached, the women declaring that he was gifted by God. An awe filled even the men, when he admonished them for using strong language, for at such a time he would remind them of the woe which fell upon Tibbie Mason. Tibbie had been notorious in her day for evil-speaking, especially for her free use of the word handless, which she flung a hundred times in a week at her man, and even at her old mother. Her punishment was to have a son born without hands. The Coat of Many Colours also told of the liar who exclaimed, “If this is not gospel true may I stand here for ever,” and who is standing on that spot still, only nobody knows where it is.
George Wishart was the Coat’s hero, and often he has told in the Square how Wishart saved Dundee. It was the time when the plague lay over Scotland, and in Dundee they saw it approaching from the West in the form of a great black cloud. They fell on their knees and prayed, crying to the cloud to pass them by, and while they prayed it came nearer. Then they looked around for the most holy man among them, to intervene with God on their behalf. All eyes turned to George Wishart, and he stood up, stretching his arms to the cloud and prayed, and it rolled back. Thus Dundee was saved from the plague, but when Wishart ended his prayer he was alone, for the people had all returned to their homes. Less of a genuine man than the Coat of Many Colours was Silva Robbie, who had horrid fits of laughing in the middle of his prayers, and even fell in a paroxysm of laughter from the chair on which he stood. In the club he said things not to be borne, though logical up to a certain point.
Tammas Haggart was the most sarcastic member of the club, being celebrated for his sarcasm far and wide. It was a remarkable thing about him, often spoken of, that if you went to Tammas with a stranger and asked him to say a sarcastic thing that the man might take away as a specimen, he could not do it. “Na, na,” Tammas would say, after a few trials, referring to sarcasm, “she’s no a critter to force. Ye maun lat her tak her ain time. Sometimes she’s dry like the pump, an’ syne, again, oot she comes in a gush.”
The most sarcastic thing the stone-breaker ever said was frequently marvelled over in Thrums, both before and behind his face, but unfortunately no one could ever remember what it was. The subject, however, was Cha Tamson’s potato pit. There is little doubt that it was a fit of sarcasm that induced Tammas to marry a gypsy lassie. Mr. Byars would not join them, so Tammas had himself married by Jimmy Pawse, the gay little gypsy king, and after that the minister re-married them. The marriage over the tongs is a thing to scandalise any well-brought-up person, for before he joined the couple’s hands, Jimmy jumped about in a startling way, uttering wild gibberish, and after the ceremony was over there was rough work, with incantations and blowing on pipes.
Tammas always held that this marriage turned out better than he had expected, though he had his trials like other married men. Among them was Chirsty’s way of climbing on to the dresser to get at the higher part of the plate-rack. One evening I called in to have a smoke with the stone-breaker, and while we were talking Chirsty climbed the dresser. The next moment she was on the floor on her back, wailing, but Tammas smoked on imperturbably. “Do you not see what has happened, man?” I cried. “Ou,” said Tammas, “she’s aye fa’in aff the dresser.”
Of the schoolmasters who were at times members of the club, Mr. Dickie was the ripest scholar, but my predecessor at the school-house had a way of sneering at him that was as good as sarcasm. When they were on their legs at the same time, asking each other passionately to be calm, and rolling out lines from Homer, that made the inn-keeper look fearfully to the fastenings of the door, their heads very nearly came together although the table was between them. The old dominie had an advantage in being the shorter man, for he could hammer on the table as he spoke, while gaunt Mr. Dickie had to stoop to it. Mr. McRittie’s arguments were a series of nails that he knocked into the table, and he did it in a workmanlike manner. Mr. Dickie, though he kept firm on his feet, swayed his body until by and by his head was rotating in a large circle. The mathematical figure he made was a cone revolving on its apex.
Gavin’s reinstalment in the chair year after year was made by the disappointed dominie the subject of some tart verses which he called an epode, but Gavin crushed him when they were read before the club. “Satire,” he said, “is a legitimate weapon, used with michty effect by Swift, Sammy Butler, and others, and I dount object to being made the subject of creeticism. It has often been called a t’nife (knife), but them as is not used to t’nives cuts their hands, and ye’ll a’ observe that Mr. McRittie’s fingers is bleedin’.”
All eyes were turned upon the dominie’s hand, and though he pocketed it smartly several members had seen the blood. The dominie was a rare visitor at the club after that, though he outlived poor Mr. Dickie by many years. Mr. Dickie was a teacher in Tilliedrum, but he was ruined by drink. He wandered from town to town, reciting Greek and Latin poetry to anyone who would give him a dram, and sometimes he wept and moaned aloud in the street, crying, “Poor Mr. Dickie! poor Mr. Dickie!”
The leading poet in a club of poets was Dite Walls, who kept a school when there were scholars, and weaved when there were none. He had a song that was published in a half-penny leaflet about the famous lawsuit instituted by the farmer of Teuchbusses against the Laird of Drumlee. The laird was alleged to have taken from the land of Teuchbusses sufficient broom to make a besom thereof, and I am not certain that the case is settled to this day. It was Dite or another member of the club who wrote, “The Wife o’ Deeside,” of all the songs of the period the one that had the greatest vogue in the county at a time when Lord Jeffrey was cursed at every fireside in Thrums. The wife of Deeside was tried for the murder of her servant who had infatuated the young laird, and had it not been that Jeffrey defended her she would, in the words of the song, have “hung like a troot.” It is not easy now to conceive the rage against Jeffrey when the woman was acquitted. The song was sung and recited in the streets, at the smiddy, in bothies, and by firesides, to the shaking of fists and the grinding of teeth. It began --
“Ye’ll a’ hae hear tell o’ the wife o’ Deeside, Ye’ll a’ hae hear tell o’ the wife o’ Deeside, She poisoned her maid for to keep up her pride, Ye’ll a’ hae hear tell o’ the wife o’ Deeside.”
Before the excitement had abated, Jeffrey was in Tilliedrum for electioneering purposes, and he was mobbed in the streets. Angry crowds pressed close to howl, “Wife o’ Deeside!” at him. A contingent from Thrums was there, and it was long afterwards told of Sam’l Todd, by himself, that he hit Jeffrey on the back of the head with a clod of earth.
Johnny McQuhatty, a brother of the T’nowhead farmer, was the one taciturn member of the club, and you had only to look at him to know that he had a secret. He was a great genius at the hand-loom, and invented a loom for the weaving of linen such as has not been seen before or since. In the day- time he kept guard over his “shop,” into which no one was allowed to enter, and the fame of his loom was so great that he had to watch over it with a gun. At night he weaved, and when the result at last pleased him he made the linen into shirts, all of which he stitched together with his own hands, even to the buttonholes. He sent one shirt to the Queen, and another to the Duchess of Athole, mentioning a very large price for them, which he got. Then he destroyed his wonderful loom, and how it was made no one will ever know.
Johnny only took to literature after he had made his name, and he seldom spoke at the club except when ghosts and the like were the subject of debate, as they tended to be when the farmer of Muckle Haws could get in a word. Muckle Haws was fascinated by Johnny’s sneers at superstition, and sometimes on dark nights the inventor had to make his courage good by seeing the farmer past the doulie yates (ghost gates), which Muckle Haws had to go perilously near on his way home. Johnny was a small man, but it was the burly farmer who shook at sight of the gates standing out white in the night. White gates have an evil name still, and Muckle Haws was full of horrors as he drew near them, clinging to Johnny’s arm. It was on such a night, he would remember, that he saw the White Lady go through the gates greeting sorely, with a dead bairn in her arms, while water kelpies laughed and splashed in the pools, and the witches danced in a ring round Broken Buss. That very night twelve months ago the packman was murdered at Broken Buss, and Easie Pettie hanged herself on the stump of a tree.
Last night there were ugly sounds from the quarry of Croup, where the bairn lies buried, and it’s not mous (canny) to be out at such a time. The farmer had seen spectre maidens walking round the ruined castle of Darg, and the castle all lit up with flaring torches, and dead knights and ladies sitting in the halls at the wine-cup, and the devil himself flapping his wings on the ramparts.
When the debates were political, two members with the gift of song fired the blood with their own poems about taxation and the depopulation of the Highlands, and by selling these songs from door to door they made their livelihood.
Books and pamphlets were brought into the town by the flying stationers, as they were called, who visited the square periodically carrying their wares on their backs, except at the Muckly, when they had their stall and even sold books by auction. The flying stationer best known to Thrums was Sandersy Riach, who was stricken from head to foot with the palsy, and could only speak with a quaver in consequence. Sandersy brought to the members of the club all the great books he could get second hand, but his stock-in-trade was Thrummy Cap and Akenstaff, the Fishwives of Buckhaven, the Devil upon Two Sticks, Gilderoy, Sir James the Rose, the Brownie of Badenoch, the Ghaist of Firenden, and the like. It was from Sandersy that Tammas Haggart bought his copy of Shakespeare, whom Mr. Dishart could never abide. Tammas kept what he had done from his wife, but Chirsty saw a deterioration setting in and told the minister of her suspicions. Mr. Dishart was newly placed at the time and very vigorous, and the way he shook the truth out of Tammas was grand. The minister pulled Tammas the one way and Gavin pulled him the other, but Mr. Dishart was not the man to be beaten, and he landed Tammas in the Auld Licht kirk before the year was out. Chirsty buried Shakespeare in the yard.
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While some people sit at home wondering what happened to their New Year Resolutions, and others are wearying on spring, a hardy bunch of Gallowa' locals are out in the hills. And this month they've been out on Curlywee, experiencing the weather and taking some pictures for us. So, because every day's a school day... here's Crockett's story 'The Tutor o' Curlywee' from The Stickit Minister and some common men.
THE TUTOR OF CURLYWEE
The Minister of Education started to walk across the great moors of the Kells Range so early in the morning that for the first time for twenty years he saw the sun rise. Strong, stalwart, unkempt, John Bradfield, Right Honourable and Minister of the Queen, strode over the Galloway heather in his rough homespun. 'Ursa Major' they called him in the House. His colleagues, festive like schoolboys before the Old Man with the portfolios came in, subscribed to purchase him a brush and comb for his hair, for the jest of the Cabinet Minister is even as the jest of the schoolboy. John Bradfield was sturdy in whatever way you might take him. Only last session he engineered a great measure of popular education through the House of Commons in the face of the antagonism, bitter and unscrupulous, of Her Majesty's Opposition, and the Gallio lukewarmness of his own party. So now there was a ripple of great contentment in the way he shook back locks which at forty-five were as raven black as they had been at twenty-five; and the wind that blew gently over the great billowy expanse of rock and heather smoothed out some of the crafty crows' feet deepening about his eyes.
When he started on a thirty-mile walk over the moors, along the dark purple precipitous slopes above Loch Trool, the glory of summer was melting into the more Scottish splendours of a fast-coming autumn, for the frost had held off long, and then in one night had bitten snell and keen. The birches wept sunshine, and the rowan trees burned red fire.
The Minister of Education loved the great spaces of the Southern uplands, at once wider and eerier than those of the Highlands. There they lie waiting for their laureate. No one has sung of them nor written in authentic rhyme the strange weird names which the mountain tops bandy about among each other, appellations hardly pronounceable to the southron. John Bradfield, however, had enough experience of the dialect of the 'Tykes' of Yorkshire to master the intricacies of the nomenclature of the Galloway uplands. He even understood and could pronounce the famous quatrain: 'The Slock, Milquharker, and Craignine, The Breeshie and Craignaw; Are the five best hills for corklit, That e'er the Star wife saw.'
The Minister of Education hummed this rhyme, which he had learned the night before from his host in the tall tower which stands by the gate of the Ferrytown of Cree. As he made his way with long swingin’ gait over the heather, travelling by compass and the shrewd head which the Creator had given him, he was aware in old times the rocks and cliffs of the Dungeon of Buchan were kind of moss known a, 'corklit,' used for dyeing, the gathering formed part of the livelihood of the peasantry. About midday he came upon a shepherd's hut which lay in his track. He went briskly up to the door, passing the little pocket-handkerchief of kailyaird which the shepherd had carved out of the ambient heather. The purple bells grew right up to the wall of grey stone dyke which had been built to keep out the deer, or mayhap occasionally to keep them in, when the land was locked with snow, and venison was toothsome.
'Good day to you, mistress,' said the Minister of Education, who prided himself on speaking to every woman in her own tongue.
'And good day to you, sir,' heartily returned the sonsy, rosy-cheeked goodwife, who came to the door, ‘an' blithe I am to see ye. It's no that aften that I see a body at the Back Hoose o' Curlywee.'
John Bradfield soon found himself well entertained— farles of cake, crisp and toothsome, milk from the cow, with golden butter in a lordly dish, cheese from a little round kebbuck, which the mistress of the Back House of Curlywee kept covered up with a napkin to keep it moist.
The goodwife looked her guest all over.
'Ye'll not be an Ayrshireman nae, I'm thinkin'. Ye kind o' favour them in the features, but ye hae the tongue o' the English.'
'My name is John Bradfield, and I come from Yorkshire,' was the reply.
'An' my name's Mistress Glencairn, an' my man Tammas is herd on Curlywee. But he's awa' ower by the Wolf's Slock the day lookin' for some forwandered yowes.'
The Minister of Education, satisfied with the good cheer, bethought himself of the curly heads that he had seen about the door. There was a merry face, brown with the sun, brimful of mischief, looking round the corner of the lintel at that moment. Suddenly the head fell forward and the body tumultuously followed, evidently by some sudden push from behind. The small youth recovered himself and vanished through the door, before his mother had time to do more than say, 'My certes, gin I catch you loons,' as she made a dart with the handle of the besom at the culprit.
For a little John Bradfield was left alone. There were sounds of a brisk castigation outside, as though some one were taking vigorous exercise on tightly stretched corduroy. 'And on the mere the wailing died away!’
'They're good lads eneuch,' said the mistress, entering a little breathless, and with the flush of honest endeavour in her eye, 'but when their faither's oot on the hill they get a wee wild. But as ye see, I try to bring them up in the way that they should go,' she added, setting the broomstick in the corner.
'What a pity,' said the Minister of Education, 'that such bright little fellows should grow up in this lonely spot without an education.'
He was thinking aloud more than speaking to his hostess. The herd's wife of Curlywee looked him over with a kind of pity mingled with contempt.
'Edicated! did ye say? My certes, but my bairns are as weel edicated as onybody's bairns. Juist e'en try them, gin it be your wull, sir, an' aiblins ye'll fin' them no' that far ahint yer ain!’
Going to the door she raised her voice to the telephonic pitch of the Swiss jodel and the Australian 'coo — ee, Jee-mie, Aa-leck, Aa-nie, come ye a' here this meenit!’
The long Galloway vowels lingered on the still air, even after Mistress Glencairn came her ways back again into the house. There was a minute of a great silence outside. Then a scuffle of naked feet, the sough of subdued whispering, a chuckle of interior laughter, and a prolonged scuffling just outside the window.
'Gin ye dinna come ben the hoose an' be douce, you Jeemie, an' Rob, an' Alick, I'll come till ye wi' a stick! Mind ye, your faither 'ill no be lang frae hame the day.'
A file of youngsters entered, hanging their heads, and treading on each other's bare toes to escape being seated next to the formidable visitor.
'Wull it please ye, sir, to try the bairns' learning for yoursel'?’
A Bible was produced, and the three boys and their sister read round in a clear and definite manner, lengthening the vowels it is true, but giving them their proper sound, and clanging their consonants like hammers ringing on anvils.
'Very good!’ said John Bradfield, who knew good reading when he heard it.
From reading they went on to spelling, and the great Bible names were tried in vain. The Minister of Education was glad that he was examiner, and not a member of the class. Hebrew polysyllables and Greek-proper names fell thick and fast to the accurate aim of the boys, to whom this was child's play. History followed, geography, even grammar, maps were exhibited, and the rising astonishment of the Minister of Education kept pace with the quiet complacent pride of the Herd's Wife of Curlywee. The examination found its appropriate climax in the recitation of the 'Shorter Catechism.' Here John Bradfield was out of his depth, a fact instantly detected by the row of sharp examinees. He stumbled over the reading of the questions. He followed the breathless enunciation of that expert in the 'Caritches,' Jamie, with a gasp of astonishment. Jamie was able to say the whole of Effectual Calling in six ticks of the clock, the result sounding to the uninitiated like the prolonged birr of intricate clockwork rapidly running down.
'What is the chief end of man?’ slowly queried the Minister of Education, with his eye on the book.
'Mans-chiefend-glorfyGod-joyim-frever!’ returned Jamie nonchalantly, all in one word, as though some one had asked him what was his name.
The Minister of Education threw down his Catechism.
'That is enough. They have all done well, and better than well. Allow me,' he said, doubtfully turning to his hostess, 'to give them each a trifle.'
'Na, na,' said Mistress Glencairn, 'let them e'en do their work withoot needin' carrots hadden afore their nose like a cuddy. What wad they do wi' siller?’
'Well, you will at least permit me to send them each a book by post—I suppose that you get letters up here occasionally?’
‘'Deed, there's no that muckle correspondence amang us, but when we're ower at the kirk there, yin o' the herds on Lamachan that gangs doon by to see a lass that leeves juist three miles frae the post-office, an' she whiles fetches ocht that there may be for us, an' he gi'es it us at the kirk.'
John Bradfield remembered his letters and telegrams even now entering in a steady stream into his London office and overflowing his ministerial tables, waiting his return—a solemnising thought. He resolved to build a house on the Back Hill of Curlywee, and have his letters brought by way of the kirk and the Lamachan herd's lass that lived three miles from the post-office.
'Oot wi' ye!’ said the mistress briefly, addressing her offspring, and the school scaled with a tumultuous rush, which left a sense of vacancy and silence and empty space about the kitchen.
'And now will you tell me how your children are so well taught?’ said John Bradfield. 'How far are you from a school?’
'Weel, we're sixteen mile frae Newton Stewart, where there's a schule but no road, an' eleven frae the Clatterin' Shaws, where there's a road but no schule.'
'How do you manage then?’ The Minister was anxious to have the mystery solved.
'WE KEEP A TUTOR!’ said the herd's wife of Curlywee, as calmly as though she had been a duchess.
The clock ticked in its shiny mahogany case, like a hammer on an anvil, so still it was. The cat yawned and erected its back. John Bradfield's astonishment kept him silent.
'Keep a tutor,' he muttered; 'this beats all I have ever heard about the anxiety of the Scotch peasantry to have their children educated. We have nothing like this even in Yorkshire.'
Then to his hostess he turned and put another question.
'And, if I am not too bold, how much might your husband get in the year?’
'Tammas Glencairn is a guid man, though he's my man, an' he gets a good wage. He's weel worthy o't. He gets three an' twenty pound in the year, half score o' yowes, a coo's grass, a bow o' meal, a bow o' pitatas, an' as mony peats as he likes to cast, an' win', an' cairt.'
'But how,' said John Bradfield, forgetting his manners in his astonishment, 'in the name of fortune does he manage to get a tutor?’
'He disna keep him. I keep him!’ said Mistress Glencairn with great dignity.
The Minister of Education looked his genuine astonishment this time. Had he come upon an heiress in her own right?
His hostess was mollified by his humbled look.
'Ye see, sir, it's this way,' she said, seating herself opposite to him on a clean-scoured, white wooden chair: ‘there's mair hooses in this neighbourhood than ye wad think. There's the farm hoose o' the Black Craig o' Dee, there's the herd's hoose o' Garrary, the onstead o' Neldricken, the Dungeon o' Buchan—an' a wheen mair that, gin I telled ye the names o', ye wadna be a bit the wiser. Weel, in the simmer time, whan the colleges gang doon, we get yin o' the college lads to come to this quarter. There's some o' them fell fond to come. An' they pit up for three or fower weeks here, an' for three or fower weeks at the Garrary ower by, an' the bairns travels ower to whaur the student lad is bidin', an' gets their learnin'. Then when it's time for the laddie to be gaun his ways back to college, we send him awa' weel buskit wi' muirland claith, an' weel providit wi' butter an' eggs, oatmeal an' cheese, for the comfort o' the wame o' him. Forbye we gather up among oorsels an' bid him guid speed wi' a maitter o' maybe ten or twal' poun' in his pooch. And that's the way we keep a tutor!’
If you enjoyed this story and want more... there's another Curlywee story up on the FREE SRC website HERE
And why not catch up, week by week, with The Lilac Sunbonnet, serialised right HERE in commemoration of its first outing 125 years ago. You can purchase the complete Stickit Minister and some common men HERE or download it for free digitally HERE
Giving Dickens a run for his money, here's a free Christmas story... with a difference.
The packman's pool by S.R.Crockett
‘It's just three days to Christmas,’ said Gray Stiel to Robin as they stood at the black gates of the farm-town and looked up at the threatening December sky.
‘Kirsmas—I think I hae heard tell o' that afore— what is't?’ said Robin Stiel, who was Gray Stiel's nephew and twelve years old.
‘Oh,’ said Gray Stiel, whistling on his smooth-haired little collie, ‘it's a time, juist!’
‘But what is it a time for?’ continued Robin, who was small for his age but mighty persistent.
‘Robin, man, ye are awfu' ignorant; I maun send ye to the schule,’ said Gray Stiel, who had been as far as Lockerby Lamb Fair and once met an Englishman. ‘Christmas is a time when folk hae mair to eat than they ken what to do wi', and mair to drink than is guid for them.’
‘O Lord,’ groaned Robin, ‘I wuss Kirsmas wad come to the Nethertoun. I'm no mindin' what I hae to drink. There's naething sae slockenin' as cauld water, but to hae mair than ye can eat, it's just heeven to think on!’
Gray Stiel sighed, and for a moment his face looked a little weary. He too did not know what it was to have more to eat than left him hungry when it was gone. And, to tell the truth, he did not care much. For he had grown indurated to a brave, brisk, hard life at the hill farm of Nethertoun among the wild hills of Galloway. He had been fourteen years herd to Ralph Edgar of the House of Folds, commonly known as ‘Hoppety-Skip’ from a hobbling way of walking he had, through his leg having once been put out of joint (it was said by an indignant former herd), and he now knew that he would not make a fortune in the service of his present master.
Gray had thought it was a fine thing when he was a younger man to get such a place, the sole charge of as fine a ‘hill’ as there was in all Galloway, a cow's grass, one lamb in every two-score of those drafted off the farm at selling time, and five-and-twenty pounds in wages. Gray Stiel at that time was twenty-four years of age and sanguine.
He was in love, too, and hoped that this ‘doing for himself’ would bring him quickly to the goal of his hopes. But after the first successful season a series of backward unkindly years had smitten him sore. There were late snowstorms, into which the young lambs were born only to die. He himself was stricken with a pleurisy which cut like a knife into his flesh each time he mounted a brae. But still he struggled on, with hope upspringing in the loyal faithful heart of him. Gray Stiel was true steel.
But yet sorer things to bear struck him. In one year his father died, his mother, left penniless, aged and infirm, came to live with him, bringing one Robin, a baby, the son of Allan, Gray Stiel's elder brother, who had levanted into parts unknown out of the reach of his responsibilities. Then one week after she had come to her son's house, she woke wailing in the dawn with a great and strange fear upon her. She was blind. Something had snapped after long wearing pain in her eyeballs—snapped suddenly and without warning. And so she became a burden upon Gray, and wearied his life out by telling him so—which, indeed, was his greatest burden.
With his own hands he had to dress her, and lead her about the house. He was nurse to little Robin, carrying him often to the hills with him in the nook of his plaid, or in bad weather taking a hasty run down in the mid of the morning to the cot-house to see that all was right within.
Then to show that the blast of misfortune had not blown itself out, the one cow died, and Gray had three miles to walk before he could get a bottle of milk for his two helpless charges, while the road was so rough that oftentimes it was churned into butter in his pocket by the time he got back. After the lambing time it was easier, of course, for then he milked the ewes which happened to lose their lambs. And those who know understand that it is no joke to milk a full-sized old blackface of the mountains—a ‘Snaw-breaker’ and the mother of many.
But Gray Stiel came through the trial, though it handicapped him for life. In the autunm his cunning master offered him an advance upon his wages, part of which he used in buying another cow, and part in paying some outstanding obligations of his father's about which his mother kept up a perpetual craking complaint wearisome to listen to.
Then quite suddenly his sweetheart, Peggy Sinclair, a small farmer's daughter in the low country, married his master, Ralph Edgar, called Hoppety-Skip. She was eighteen years of age and she had been acted on by her people, whose pride was awakened when Hoppety-Skip came a-courting in a dark green gig with lines picked out in red. That the bridegroom was within a few years of seventy made no difference to them, though it did to Peggy, gentility's sacrifice.
For many days Gray Stiel went to the hill with a worse pain in his heart than last winter's stitch of pleurisy. He had never seen Peggy since, though she had come to Nethertoun once or twice with her husband. But on these particular days Gray Stiel had business among his flocks on the remotest hilltops, and if Hoppety-Skip wanted to see him, he could come to seek him.
So the years went on and Robin grew a big boy. The weariful complaining of Gray's mother was suddenly stilled in the tenth year of his herdship at Nethertoun, and the lonely man felt the want acutely. But from that day his heart was set on Robin, the child of his lost brother Allan. It used to be his fear that he would come back and claim his son. Gray Stiel felt sure that Allan could do that, or any other mean thing to which he applied his mind.
So at the yett of Nethertoun, leaning upon the top bar and looking at the dull grey of a sky which presaged snow. Gray Stiel and his nephew Robin stood. Three or four dogs, feeling the need of keeping the blood coursing through their veins that nipping winter morning, tumbled over each other with riotous snapping of teeth, worrying and yelping with their noses in the scruff of each other's necks.
A far-away whistle reached them in the midst of their play, and instantly every dog stopped in the midst of a spring, or was turned to stone with jaws wide open for a snap. Their ears were instantly cocked in the direction of the sound, and a low continuous gur-r-r-ring quivered through each from sharply-pointed nose to twitching tail.
With a great fear in his heart Gray Stiel went to the barn-end and looked down the valley. What he saw made him turn sharply round and bid Robin go into the house and bide there. Whereat the boy, though infinitely curious, obeyed without question. He had but one law, and that was the will of Gray Stiel.
Then Gray took his staff in his hand and went down the glen to face what he felt might be the greatest peril of his life. Upon a rock sat a tall, burly man clad apparently in rags. The toe of one foot peeped through the broken boot. His hair of a sandy grey was short cropped, and his face had an unwholesome prison pallor like half-bleached cloth.
He was drinking raw spirits out of a bottle as the clean muirland nose of his brother told him a hundred yards off
‘Ho, Square-toes!’ he cried, waving the bottle about his head, ‘come and have a drink. You won't — you upsettin' blastie. Well, then, I will, if ye will not. There!’
He swigged off the remainder of the contents without removing the bottle from his lips. Then catching it by the neck he threw it with unsteady aim at one of the circling collies, who, of course, easily evaded the clumsy missile. The bottle smashed against the rock with an ugly sound as Gray Stiel stood face to face with his enemy.
Allan Stiel balanced himself uneasily, lurching a little, and trying to suppress a hiccough. Then he smiled.
‘I have come for my share of the family estate,’ he said, ‘heir, you know. Gray—eldest son of his parents. Where's the cash my father left— mother too? Give me my portion of goods. Master Stay-at-home, or Allan Stiel will soon let ye ken what's what!’
‘Allan,’ said Gray Stiel, ‘well do you know that our father not only left no money but died in debt—not through any fault of his own, poor man. And as for my mother, God rest her, she brought me nothing but the clothes on her back.’
Allan Stiel laughed aloud.
‘Nonsense, man,’ he said, ‘I’ve heard you paid faither's creditors in full, and some o' mine too. That shows ye hae siller. Nae man pays siller that he hasna got. Sae if ye please, nae gammon wi' Allan. Ten pounds ye pay me or I will tak' awa' that callant o' mine to learn my new business. Oh, it's a braw trade!’
There was no need for Gray Stiel to ask what that trade was. The man breathed beggary, theft, and debauchery from polled head to cracked boots. And to think that such an one had a claim upon Robin, and could make him like that!
Gray Stiel drew his breath hard.
‘I havena the siller,’ he said slowly; ‘I havena a pound note i' the hoose!’
‘Then ye ken where to get it,’ retorted his brother, ‘there's your sweetheart, Peggy, married to your rich maister, a young lass wedded to an auld man. She will never refuse a loan to her jo for the sake o' auld lang syne.’
‘I cannot do that!’ said Gray with a gasp.
Allan Stiel swore a great oath, and held up his clenched hand above his head. His prison paleness flushed purple.
‘Then I swear that if ye do not get me that ten pounds by Christmas Day, I will tak' the boy wi' me. It's an awesome-like thing to keep a boy frae his ain faither that has tane a' the trouble o' bringin' him into the world, and noo ye wad hinder him frae learnin’ to earn an honest penny, and to be the staff o' his faither's declinin' years!’
The affectionate parent turned and strode unsteadily down the rough rocky track which led towards the loch. Gray Stiel watched him with wild whirling thoughts in his heart. At the angle of the path Allan stopped and shouted back, ‘Ten o'clock at the Packman's Pool on Christmas mornin', and mind ye hae the siller wi' ye!’
Gray Stiel went back into the house and his collies slunk uneasily after him. Their master ought, they knew, to have been on the hill long ere this. There were not so many hours of daylight left in which to cover so much moss and heather. But still Gray Stiel sat and thought.
Robin, wearied of his book, had risen and gone to the door with his dog Airie. Gray Stiel abruptly bade him come in and sit down. He was not to go out of doors that day while he was on the hill. He was afraid that his brother might yet return.
Then, having locked the door, Gray took the path for the Craig Lee knowes, whence the best general idea of the hill can be got. The sheep, it appeared to him, were all on their several ridges and slopes, and Gray Stiel resolved (as he put it) to ‘leave them to Providence for yae day!’
Then with an abrupt change of direction he struck right across the moorland for Dee fords, conquering the heather and moss-hags with his long shepherd's stride. He was making a bee line for the House of Folds, where dwelt a woman he had never set eyes upon, since she had looked up and told him how much she loved him. But now it was not a time to let any sentimental considerations stand in the way. He must see Peggy Sinclair— he could not bring himself to say the other name by which men called her. And as he spoke the image of Hoppety-Skip, his mean, narrow-visaged grippy master, rose before his eyes with a sense of physical disgust. He stopped and half turned on his heel. No, he could not do it— not even for Robin's sake. And yet the thought of the babe whom he had held in his arms, laying him down in his plaid only that he might milk the ewes, and— yes, it should be done.
It was late in the short winter's afternoon before he reached the House of Folds and asked for ‘the Mistress.’
She came, and at sight of him set hand to her side with a strange little animal cry, something like a weak thing that has been trodden upon.
‘Gray,’ she whispered mechanically, ‘ye hae comed!’ Perhaps she was thinking of the tryst she never kept. At least Gray Stiel was.
Then it was that there came a strange construction into the man's throat. Something seemed to grow so great and hard at the root of his tongue, that he had no words to articulate. Then all at once he noted that it was dark, and he thought of little Robin sitting alone with his dog in the cothouse of Nethertoun. Then words came suddenly to him.
‘I have a sudden call,’ he said; ‘Allan has come back and swears that he will take Robin frae me— and— mak' him a thief like himsel' if I winna gie him ten pounds on Christmas morning!’
There was a pitiful look on the face of the young mistress of the House of Folds and her hand sought her throat, wavering upwards like a little detached flame from a fire of green wood. ‘Oh, I havena a shilling. Gray,’ she whispered, ‘he—he winna— And oh, Gray, it was a' my faither!’
At that moment from the little parlour there came the sound of a kind of skipping patter as if a large dog had leaped down from a chest upon the bare wooden floor. And the girl involuntarily withdrew further from the door, as it were, shrinking within herself.
‘Wha's there— wha's there?’ cried a high-pitched, querulous voice, ‘what for canna ye come in, wha-ever ye are? Stiel—Stiel! What's wrang aboot Nethertoun? Are ony o' the sheep deid? Dinna say that the steadin's on fire?’
Then he turned to his wife.
‘Gang in there,’ he said, as he would have spoken to a dog, glancing over his deformed shoulder at her with an ugly look on his face, strange under his crown of reverend hair.
‘Lend ye ten pounds to gie to your ill-set brither — my bonny pound notes that I hae worked sae hard for!’ he screamed when he understood. ‘Gray Stiel, do ye think I hae gane crazy? And ye hae no been that fast in payin' back what ye owe me already, that I should fling awa' ten pounds, for you and your brither to waste in drink an' debauchery!’
‘To keep the boy—and what for should ye keep the boy? I wat ye hae wasted mair on that boy than wad hae paid me my legal debt ten times ower! Na, na, Gray, gang your ways back, and let the wean gang to his faither. That's aye a mouth the less to be fed aff the Nethertoun! And get a strong laddie that will be some use to ye on the hill. Guid-nicht to ye. And mind, dinna leave your hill and my sheep on ony mair siccan daft errands! Ay, or you and me will quarrel, Gray!’
The door slammed to and Gray Stiel was left without in the darkness gripping his hands to keep them from taking hold of the miser's scraggy neck. And while Peggy, the wife of Hoppety-Skip, lay all night awake thinking of Gray Stiel and his trouble, hardly once did Gray Stiel think of her. For all his mind was on Robin, the boy whom he must deliver into his father's hand on the morning of Christmas,—the day when Happiness came to the whole earth.
And on the twenty-fifth day of December Robin woke late to see through the curtains of his bed a strange sight. His uncle Gray was taking down the old gun off the wall— the gun with the long single barrel which had not been fired for many a year. He cleaned it carefully, and then as carefully loaded it, measuring the powder in the hollow of his hand and taking care with the wadding and something else that was certainly not the lead pellets he used for rabbit-shooting. And the face of Gray Stiel was as the face of the dead, for he had not slept since he had met with his brother Allan three days before.
Then drawing an ancient web purse from a worm-eaten desk, sole relic of the former better estate of the family, he counted out seventeen shillings and nine pennies, in silver and copper—all his worldly possessions. It was with a somewhat grim look that he thrust this into his pocket, and taking in hand the alternative to the seventeen-and-ninepence, he went out on tiptoe.
Robin drew aside the curtain and saw him striding away down towards the loch through the falling snow. That was why Robin had slept so long. It was after nine o'clock of the day, but the snow had been falling all night and still continued. His uncle sank nearly to the knees in it. Poor Uncle Gray—Robin thought—to be obliged to go out in such weather. But again, perhaps he had seen a deer on the side of Craig Lee, and was only going to try for a shot.
That might be God's Christmas gift. Robin had once tasted venison and the flavour remained with him yet.
Gray Stiel came of a race which loves not murder, but is not averse to slaying in a just cause. And it was with no thought of the consequences to himself that he resolved that upon no consideration would he deliver Robin to his father. The seventeen-and-ninepence— yes, or—that which he had dropped into the old musket! His brother should have his choice of these two—but not Robin.
The snow fell softly, whisperingly. It was powdery with frost, and slid off the plumy branches of the fir trees with a hushing sound. There— there was the Packman's Pool, dead black amid a perfection of whiteness.
A mist as of blood ran redly across Gray Stiel's eyes. His ears drummed and he gripped the old gun that had been his father's. He could feel his heart beating in his throat. He knit his brows, and tried hard to collect himself, and even to con the speech he had resolved to make to Allan, his brother.
Yet, as he approached, there was no Allan to be seen— an empty bottle winked at him with one black eye from under a hoary eyelid of snow. Beyond, on the edge of the pool, there was a curious mound of snow hunched together.
Something in the shape took Gray Stiel by the heart. He uttered a hoarse cry, and dropping his gun he ran forward and laid his hand upon the thing.
It was his brother, frozen dead, all his evil days and evil deeds covered with the spotless righteousness of the snow.
And Gray Stiel fell on his knees and lifted up his hands in thankfulness to heaven that the sin of Cain was not to be his that bitter Christmas Day.
And away in the little cothouse Robin, for whose unconscious sake certain things might have been done, drew in a creepie stool to his porridge and milk with another thankful heart.
‘So this is Christmas Day,’ he said, ‘and in England where they hae a' the siller they want, folk get presents, and grand gifts, and as muckle as ever they can eat?’
He took one spoonful and then, recollecting that he had forgotten to say grace, he reverently took off his bonnet and asked a blessing.
Then he took another spoonful.
‘But after a',’ he added thankfully, ‘Christmas or no Christmas, porridge is hard to beat!’
But though he knew it not, out by the Packman's Pool, God had placed the best Christmas gift that could have come to the cothouse of Nethertoun, or into the life of young Robin Stiel, the nephew of one Gray, a brave man of that name. But that is not the end of the story. Other things even more interesting occurred after the death of Hoppety-Skip, which happened also before that Christmas snow melted.
For death as well as life is the gift of God.
For the ebook edition of the S.R.Crockett anthology 'A Cameronian Christmas and other Winters Tales' click HERE. Galloway Raiders members can get this free with the code issued in the December Raiders125 e-newsletter. For the rest of you, it's discounted from the Amazon price until the end of the month.
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Introducing you to some of our classic unco writers.
Here's a story for Halloween.
'A Cry Across the Black Water' is a spooky story set in Galloway at the Black Water of Dee.
Written by S.R.Crockett and first published in the Pall Mall Magazine in 1894 you can read it free online at McStorytellers.
It was subsequently published in the short story collection of 1895 Bog Myrtle and Peat available from Unco in paperback and digital formats
Find out more about S.R.Crockett at The Galloway Raiders
Find out more about the history of The Pall Mall Magazine
meet the authors
Introducing some unco Scots writers and their works. Our featured author is S.R.Crockett (it's his 160th anniversary this year)