From 'Kit Kennedy' first serialised in 1898 and published in 1899.
Kit Kennedy was playing truant. The fact is sad, but it must not be blinked. It was a glorious day in June, and the water of Loch Grenoch basked blue and warm in the eighteen-hour-long sunshine. Also Royal was with him, his great red collie, whose left-hand connection with the laird of Craes Newfoundland was suspected on strong presumptive and circumstantial evidence. Royal, however, like most mixed races, was of a joyous disposition, and questions of pedigree did not trouble him. That he should have a blue-blooded Newfoundland or another to his father was all the same to Royal. He had even been known to ‘down’ his putative parent on the open street of Whinnyliggate and to take unfilial toll of his ear, for the first commandment with promise is not of any canine acceptation.
This day, however, he had assuredly led Kit Kennedy astray. The boy had left the cottage in the wood in the most meek and obedient frame of mind. He even ran over the multiplication table as far as nine times nine so quickly that it sounded like the gurring of a sewing-machine in rapid action. It was no use going further, for ten, eleven, and twelve times are too easy to be required seriously of babes, while thirteen times is impossible even to chartered accountants.
Kit proceeded as far as the road end of Crae before letting his good intentions falter. This was the precise distance that Betty Landsborough's sugar ‘piece’ lasted him.
Mistress Armour did not approve of spoiling boys, and would have sent Kit off empty-handed. But Betty thought otherwise. She continued the plan of Kit's mother on his first day of school, and her foolish extravagance was connived at by Matthew the Elder.
So every morning when Kit set out for Whinnyliggate —that is, every day except Saturday and Sunday—Betty spread a scone with butter, and upon the butter, with no illiberal hand, she showered a coating of sugar, thick, brown, and gritty as the desert of Sahara. To Kit's unsophisticated palate the combination constituted the food on which angels grew their wings.
But at the end of the little straight avenue, which led from the cottage door to the pine-edged road, the tempter was lying in wait. Royal, whose position in the family was now purely supernumerary, had vanished from the green in front upon the first appearance of Kit Kennedy at the door with Betty, who was concealing the sugar piece under her apron from Mistress Armour, while that shrewd lady occupied a position of observation in the rear.
So at the end of the road Royal waited on his prey.
Kit caught sight of him and whistled joyously. The dog curved his tail and came bounding up to the boy to beg for ‘scone.’ He had had his breakfast, and he privately despised sugar, except perhaps in lumps and of the best white quality.
But he wanted Kit Kennedy to come down and play with him on the lochside. And so, as Kit himself would have said, Royal ‘let on’ to like it.
The tempter gambolled in front, barking joyously. He said as plain as print, ‘Now then, we're off! Hurrah for the water!’
But for awhile—for at least as much as a quarter of an hour—Kit manfully resisted. By that time a considerable distance had been put between the cottage and the wayfarers. The loch was very blue beneath. The little waves sparkled distractingly. The wind waved the yellow broom in a way it really ought not to. The universe was ill-arranged for a small boy attending school that day.
Kit thought of the hot and breathless schoolroom at Whinnyliggate, of Duncan Duncanson and his leathern taws (not that he cared much for those—he would back his granny's palm against them any day), the smell of spilled ink, the mussy, gritty slates and smutty copy-books, the bouquet of crowded and perspiring village childhood, the buzz of flies, the infrequency of so much as a wasp in a girl's class by way of entertainment. And—well, he followed Royal down to the edge of the loch.
He would stay just a minute—not more. He could easily make it up. He knew he could. He had started early that morning. And Royal would be so disappointed. See how he ran on before, saying ‘Come along. I want a swim. And I know where there is a lovely stick for you to throw in!’
And so Kit succumbed to temptation, telling himself (like certain wiser and older people who shall be nameless) that it was only this once, and just to see what it was like.
‘Splash,’ went Royal into the water, his eyes fixed on the stick, his head rising and falling steadily with the power of his mighty chest - strokes and the lift of the little incoming waves. 'Jerk,’ he had it, with a snap of the jaws and a snort to clear his windpipe of the water he could not swallow. He was coming back hand over hand. Now he touched ground, and his back appeared above the loch. Royal scorned to pretend he was swimming when his feet were upon the bottom. Kit respected him for this. He was not always so conscientious himself. Who is, at the age of eleven, if it comes to that?
Stand clear all! Shake! The crystal drops flashed every way as Royal dropped the stick and stood ready again. Head a little forward, legs fixed on hair springs, eyes intently watching Kit's hand as he lifted the wet branch, tail switching a little nervily—it was high summer time with Royal Armour.
‘Ouch! Get on,’ he said in his own language, ‘don't keep me waiting. I can't bear it. If you knew how nice it was in the water, you wouldn't like to stop out here either.’
Kit swung the branch over his head, but instead of throwing it far into the water, he flung it up the green back with a great heave into the waving broom on the slope. Then he laughed heartlessly.
Royal gave him one look—contempt mingled with a most painful surprise.
‘Et tu, Brute!’ he remarked, plain as Caesar at the foot of Pompey's statue.
‘Ha! ha! ha!’ laughed Kit.
‘Ouch!’ snorted Royal, in quite a different key, with his nose in the air, as who would say, ‘Ha! ha! Aren't you funny?’
Then he went slowly and without joyousness up the hill. With a grave submission he brought the branch back and dropped it in dejected fashion at Kit's feet.
‘I wouldn't have expected this from you,’ he said, reproachfully. ‘You treat me as if I were not more than half a water dog. And the nicest half of me, too, on a day like this!’
Whereat being shame-stricken, Kit again cast the branch into the clear brown water of the loch—clear, that is, but with a little amber in its depths decocted from the peat bogs at its upper end and from the green water meadows of Dornal and Crae.
It looked so cool that in a trice Kit had off his clothes, and he and Royal were tumbling hither and thither in a wild wrestle about the sandy shallows. The crystal drops flew every way. Laughter and splashings were mingled with joyous barking. The sun shown down with a broad grin upon the pleasant saturnalia.
Kit could swim a little. Geordie Elphinstone had taught him the breast stroke, but it was pleasanter and more interesting to wrestle near the shore with Royal, because at swimming he had no chance, whereas near the beach he was on more equal terms. The sun poured down upon his white glistening body. He shouted aloud in the young gladness of his heart. Duty, school-masters, lesson-books hid under broad stones, hours of exits and entrances, leathern taws and the moral law, were all alike forgotten.
‘Ouch —let's have another!’ barked Royal, lumbering outwards like a great pot-walloping elephant through the shallows to become instantly perfectly graceful in the amber deeps, 'come and have another!’ And Kit went. The water was still chillish, for it was early in the year. But the violence of the exercise and the racing of the young blood through his veins kept Kit warm for the better part of an hour.
Then he began to think of putting on his clothes. He waded ashore, feeling as the water fell away from him and the fanning wind blew, as if he had left part of himself behind in the water. He wished he had kept his sugar piece till now.
‘Ouff ouff!’ barked Royal behind him, ‘call yourself a swimmer and going out already—look at me!’
And the doubtful Newfoundland pushed right across the loch for the woods on the farther side.
‘Oh, no doubt,’ said Kit in reply, turning to watch him, ‘it's very easy for you, staying in the water with all that hair on. Try it in your bare skin and see how you like it.’
Then he held up his foot to try how it felt to have the water run between his toes. This proved interesting with the right foot, so Kit repeated the operation on the left. A little shiver of cold began to strike downward along his spine. He would put on his clothes. Where were they? Oh, yes, he remembered, behind that broom bush on the bank. He sprang up the short turf and rounded the waving green and gold of the obstacle.
There sat his mother beside them.
Kit is one of many iterations of Crockett's fictional self. For a particularly interesting comparison, five years earlier, read the following chapter about Andra Kissock in 'The Lilac Sunbonnet.'
First published as 'Galloway Fastnesses' in 'The Lesiure Hour' Magazine in 1894 and subsequently in 'Raiderland' 1904 as RAIDERS COUNTRY
II.—WHAT WE SEE IN RAIDERLAND
The hills of Galloway lie across the crystal Cree as one rides northward towards Glen Trool, much as the Lebanon lies above the sweltering plains north of Galilee; a land of promise, cool grey in the-shadows, palest olive and blue in the lights. By chance it is a day of sweltering heat, and as we go up the great glen of Trool the midday sunshine is almost more than Syrian.
The firs' shadows in the woods fringing the loch about Eschonquhan are deliciously cool as the swift cycle drives among them. We get but fleeting glimpses of the water till we come out on the rocky cliff shelf, which we follow all the way to the farmhouse of Buchan. Trool lies much like a Perthshire loch, set between the granite and the blue-stone—the whin being upon the southern and the granite upon the northern side. The firs, which clothe the slopes and cluster thick about the shores, give it a beautiful and even cultivated appearance. It has a look more akin to the dwellings of men, and that aggregation of individuals which we call the world. Yet what is gained in beauty is more than lost in the characteristic note of untouched solitude which is the rarest pleasure of him who recognises that God made Galloway.
Trool is somehow of a newer creation, and the regularity of its pines tells us that it owes much to the hand of man. Loch Enoch, on the other hand, is plainly and wholly of God, sculptured by His tempests, its rocks planed down to the quick by the ancientest glaciers of ‘The Galloway Cauldron.’
The road gradients along Trool-side are steep as the roof of a house. From more than one point on the road the loch lies beneath us so close that it seems as if we could toss a biscuit upon its placid breast. The deep narrow glen may be flooded with intense and almost Italian sunshine. But the water lies cool, solid, and intensely indigo at the bottom. Far up the defile we can see Glenhead, lying snug among its trees, with the sleeping giants of the central hills set thick about it. Nor it is not long till, passing rushing burns and heathery slopes on our way, we reach it.
Heartsome content within, placid stillness without as we ride up—a broad straw hat lying in a friendly way upon the path—the clamour of children's voices somewhere down by the meadow—a couple of dogs that welcome us with a chorus of belated barking—this is Glenhead, a pleasant place for the wandering vagabond to set his foot upon and rest awhile. Then after a time, out of the coolness of the narrow latticed sitting-room (where there is such a collection of good books as makes us think of the nights of winter when the storms rage about the hill-cinctured farm), we step, lightly following, with many expectations, the slow, calm, steady shepherd's stride of our friend—the master of all these fastnesses—as he paces upwards to guide us over his beloved hills.
It is warm work as we climb. The sun is yet in his strength, and he does not spare us. Like Falstaff, a fatter but not a better-tempered man, we lard the lean earth as we walk along. But the worst is already overpast when we have breasted the long incline, and find beneath us the still blue circles of the twin lochs of Glenhead. Before we reach the first crest, we pass beneath a great granite boulder, concerning which we are told a remarkable story. One day in autumn, some years ago, a herd boy came running into the farmhouse crying that the day of judgment had come—or words to that effect. He had heard a great rush of rocks down from the overhanging brow of the crag - embattled precipice above. One great grey stone, huge as a cothouse, had been started by the heavy rains, and was coming downwards, bringing others along with it, with a noise like a live avalanche. The master saw it come, and doubtless a thought for the security of his little homestead crossed his mind. At the least he expected the rock to crash downward to the great dyke which protects his cornfields in the hollow. But the mass sank three or four feet in the soft turf of a ‘brow,’ and there to this day it remains embedded. A manifest providence! And the folk still acknowledge Providence among these hills—so behindhand are they!
As we mount, we leave away to the south the green, sheep-studded, sun-flecked side of Curleywee. The name is surely one which is given to its whaup-haunted solitudes, because of that most characteristic of moorland sounds—the wailing pipe of the curlew. ‘Curleywee—Curleywee—Curleywee.’ That is exactly what the whaups say in their airy moorland diminuendo, as with a curve like their own Roman noses they sink downward into the bogs.
Waterfalls are gleaming in the clefts—‘jaws of water,’ as the hill folks call them—the distant sound coming to us pleasant and cool, for we begin to desire great water-draughts, climbing upwards in the fervent heat. But our guide knows every spring of water on the hillside, as well as every rock that has sheltered fox or eagle. There, on the face of that cliff, is the apparently very accessible eyrie where nested the last of the Eagles of the southern uplands. Year after year they built up there, protected by the enlightened tenants of Glenhead, who did not grudge a stray dead lamb, in order that the noble bird might dwell in his ancient fastnesses and possess his soul—for surely so noble a bird has a soul—in peace. As a reward for his hospitality, our guide keeps a better understanding of that great Isaian text, ‘They shall mount up with wings as eagles,’ than he could obtain from any sermon or commentary in the round world. For has he not seen the great bird strike a grouse on the wing, recover itself from the blow, then, stooping earthwards, catch the dead bird before it had time to fall to the ground? Also he has seen the pair floating far up in the blue, twin specks against the supreme azure. Generally only one of the young was reared to eaglehood, though sometimes there might be two. But on every occasion the old ones beat off their offspring as soon as these could fly, and compelled their children to seek pastures new. Some years ago, however—in the later seventies—the eagles left Glenhead and removed to a more inaccessible rock-crevice upon the rocky side of the Back Hill o' Buchan. But not for long. Disturbed in his ancient seat, though his friends had done all in their power to protect him, he finally withdrew himself. His mate was shot by some ignorant scoundrel prowling with a gun, somewhere over in the neighbourhood of Loch Doon. We have no doubt that the carcass is the proud possession of some local collector, to whom, as well as to the original ‘gunning idiot,’ we would gladly present, at our own expense, tight-fitting suits of tar and feather.
Behind us, as we rise upwards into the realms of blue, are the heights of Lamachan and Bennanbrack. Past the side of Curleywee it is possible to look into the great chasm of air in which, unseen and far beneath us, lies Loch Dee.
We gain the top of the high boulder-strewn ridge. Fantastic shapes, carved out of the gleaming grey granite, are all about. Those on the ridges against the sky look for all the world like polar-bears with their long lean noses thrust forward to scent the seals on the floes or the salmon running up the Arctic rapids to spawn. To our right, above Loch Valley, is a boulder which is so poised that it constitutes a ‘logan’ or rocking-stone. It is so delicately set as to be moved by the blowing of the wind.
Loch Valley and Loch Neldricken form, with the twin lochs of Glenhead, a water system of their own, connected with Glen Trool by the rapid torrential burn called the Gairlin, that flashes downward through the narrow ravine which we leave behind us to our left as we go upward. At the beginning of the burn, where it escapes from Loch Valley, are to be seen the remains of a weir which was erected in order to raise artificially the level of the loch, submerging in the process most of the shining beaches of silver granite sand. But the loch was too strong for the puny works of man. One fine day, warm and sunny, our guide tells us that he was working with his sheep high up on the hill, when the roar and rattle of great stones carried along by the water brought him down the ‘screes’ at a run. Loch Valley had broken loose. The weir was no more, and the Gairlin burn was coming down in a ten-foot breast, creamy foam cresting it like an ocean wave. Down the glen it went like a miniature Johnstown disaster, while the boulders crashed and ground together with the rush of the water. When Loch Valley was again seen, it had resumed its pristine aspect—that which it had worn since the viscous granite paste finished oozing out in sheets from the great cracks in the Silurian rocks, and the glaciers had done their work of grinding down its spurs and outliers. It takes a Napoleon of engineering to fool with Loch Valley.
From this point we keep to the right, passing the huge moraine which guards the end of the loch and effectually prevents a still greater flood than that which our master shepherd witnessed. These mounds are full of what are called in the neighbourhood ‘jingling stones.’ Without doubt they consist of sand and shingle, so riddled with great boulders that the crevices within are constantly being filled up and forming anew as the sand shifts and sifts among the stones. As we proceed the sun is shining over the shoulder of the Merrick, and we are bound to hasten, for there is yet far to go. Neldricken and Valley are wide-spreading mountain lakes, lying deep among the hills which spread nearly twenty miles in every direction. The sides of the glens are seared with the downward rush of many waters. Waterspouts are common on these great hills. It is no uncommon thing for the level of a moorland burn to be raised six or ten feet in the course of a few minutes. A ‘Skyreburn’ warning is proverbial in the south country along Solwayside. But the Mid Burn, and those which strike north from Loch Enoch tableland, hardly even give a man time to step across their normal noisy brattle till they are roaring red and it is twenty or thirty feet from bank to bank.
These big boulders, heaped up on one another, often make most evil traps for sheep to fall into. Sometimes it needs crowbars and the strength of men to extricate those that happen to be caught there. The dogs that range the hills, questing after white hares and red foxes, are quick to scent out these poor prisoners. These prison-houses are named ‘yirds’ by the shepherds. They are especially numerous on the Hill of Glenhead, at a place called Jarkness, which overlooks Loch Valley. And indeed it is difficult anywhere to see a more leg-breaking place. It will compare even with that paragon of desolation, the Back Hill o' Buchan. It is understood in the district that when the Great Architect looked upon His handicraft and found it very good, He made a mental reservation in the case of the ‘Back Hill o' Buchan.’
But our eyes are upwards. Loch Enoch is the goal of our desire. For nights past we have dreamed of its lonely fastnesses. Now they are immediately before us. Enoch is literally a lake in cloudland. Overhead frowns what might be the mural fortification of some titanic Mount Valerien or Ehrenbreitstein. The solemn battlemented lines rise above us so high that they are only dominated by the great mass of the Merrick. It is hard to believe that a cliff so abrupt and stately has a lake on its summit. Yet it is so. The fortress-like breastwork falls away in a huge embrasure on either side, and it is into the trough which lies nearest the Merrick that we direct our steps. As we go we fall talking of strange sights seen on the hills. Our guide, striding before, stalwart and strong, flings pearls of information over his shoulder as he goes, and to the steady stream of talk the foot moves lighter over the heather. Beneath us we have now a strange sight—in a manner the most wonderful thing we have yet seen. On the edge of Loch Neldricken lies a mass of green and matted reeds— brilliantly emerald, with the deceitful brilliancy of a ‘quakin' qua,’ or shaking bog, of bottomless black mud. In the centre of this green bed is a perfectly-defined circle of intensely black water, as exact as though cut with a compass. It is the Murder Hole, of gloomy memory. Here, says the man of the hill, is a very strong spring which does not freeze in the hardest winters, yet is avoided by man and beast. It is certain that if this gloomy Avernus were given the gift of narration it would tell of lost men on the hills, forwandered and drowned in its dark depths.
The Merrick begins to tower above us with its solemn head as we thread our way upward towards the plateau on which Loch Enoch lies. We are so high now that we can see backward over the whole region of Trool and the Loch Valley basin. Behind us, on the extreme south, connected with the ridge of the Merrick, is Buchan Hill, the farmhouse of which lies low down by the side of Loch Trool. Across a wilderness of tangled ridge-boulder and morass is the Long Hill of the Dungeon, depressed to the south into the ‘Wolf's Slock’ —or throat. Now our Loch Enoch fortress is almost stormed. Step by step we have been rising above the rugged desolations of the spurs of the Merrick.
‘Bide a wee,’ says our guide, ‘and I will show you a new world.’ He strides on, a very sturdy Columbus. The new world comes upon us, and one of great marvel it is. At first the haze somewhat hides it—so high are we that we seem to be on the roof of the Southern Creation—riding on the rigging of all things, as indeed we are. Half-a-dozen steps and ‘There's Loch Enoch!’ says Columbus, with a pretty taste in climax.
Strangest sight in all this Galloway of strange sights is Loch Enoch—so truly another world that we cannot wonder if the trouts of this uncanny water high among the hills decline to wear tails in the ordinary fashion of common and undistinguished trouts in lowland lakes, but carry them docked and rounded after a mode of their own.
This still evening Enoch glows like a glittering silver-rimmed pearl looking out of the tangled grey and purple of its surrounding with the strength, tenderness, and meaning of a human eye. The Merrick soars away above in two great precipices, whereon Thomas Grierson, writing in 1846, tells us that he found marks showing that the Ordnance surveyors had occupied their hours of leisure in hurling great boulders down into the loch. There were fewer sheep on the Merrick side in those days, or else the tenant of that farm might with reason have objected. It seems, however, something of a jest to suppose that this heathery desolation is really a farm, for the possession of which actual money is paid. Yet our guide tells of an old shepherd, many a year the herd of the Merrick, who, when removed by his master to the care of an easier and lower hill, grew positively homesick for the stern majesty of the monarch of South Country mountains, and related tales of the Brocken spectres he had often seen when the sun was at his back and the great chasm of Enoch lay beneath him swimming with mist.
Loch Enoch spreads out beneath us in an intricate tangle of bays and promontories. As we sit above the loch, the large island with the small loch within it is very prominent. The ‘Loch-in-Loch ‘ is of a deeper and more distinct blue than the general surface of Loch Enoch, perhaps owing to its green and white setting upon the grassy boulder-strewn island. Another island to the east also breaks the surface of the loch, and the bold jutting granite piers, deeply embayed, the gleaming silver sands, the far-reaching capes so bewilder the eye that it becomes difficult to distinguish island from mainland. It increases our pleasure when the guide says of the stray sheep, which look over the boulders with a shy and startled expression: ‘These sheep do not often get sight of a man.’ Probably no part of the Highlands is so free from the presence of mankind as these Southern uplands of Galloway, which were the very fastness and fortress of the Westland Whigs in the fierce days of the Killing.
On the east side of Loch Enoch the Dungeon Hill rises grandly, a thunder-splintered ridge of boulders and pinnacles, on whose slopes we see strewn the very bones of creation. Nature has got down here to her pristine elements, and so old is the country, that we seem to see the whole turmoil of ‘taps and tourocks’—very much as they were when the last of the Galloway glaciers melted slowly away and left the long ice-vexed land at rest under the blow of the winds and the open heaven.
Right in front of us the Star Hill, called also Mulwharchar, lifts itself up into the clear depths of the evening sky—a great cone rounded like a hayrick. At its foot we can see the two exits of Loch Enoch—the true and the false. Our guide points out to us that the Ordnance Survey map makes a mistake with regard to the outlet of Loch Enoch, showing an exit by the Pulscraig Burn at the north-east corner towards Loch Doon—when as a matter of fact there is not a drop of water issuing in that direction, all the water passing by the northwest corner towards Loch Macaterick.
Beyond the levels of desolate, granite-bound, silver-sanded Loch Enoch lies a tumbled wilderness of hills. To the left of the Star is the plateau of the Rig of Millmore, a wide and weary waste, gleaming everywhere with grey tarns and shining ‘Lochans.’ Beyond these again are the Kirreoch hills, and the pale blue ridges of Shalloch-on-Minnoch. Every name is interesting here, every local appellation has some reason annexed to it, so that the study of the Ordnance map—even though the official nomenclature enshrines many mistakes— is weighted with much suggestion. But no name or description can give an idea of Loch Enoch itself, lifted up (as it were) close against the sky—nearly 1700 feet above the sea —with the giant Merrick on one side, the weird Dungeon on the other, and beyond only the grey wilderness stretching mysteriously out into the twilight of the north.
It is with feelings of regret that we take leave of Loch Enoch, and, skirting its edge, make our way eastward to the Dungeon Hill, in order that we may peer down for a moment into the misty depths of the Dungeon of Buchan. A scramble among the screes, a climb among the boulders, and we are on the edge of the Wolfs Slock—the appropriately named wide throat up which so many marauding expeditions have come and gone. We crouch behind a rock and look downward, glad for a moment to get into shelter. For even in the clear warm August night the wind has a shrewd edge to it at these altitudes. Buchan's Dungeon swims beneath us, blue with misty vapour. We can see two of the three lochs of the Dungeon. It seems as if we could almost dive into the abyss, and swim gently downwards to that level plain, across which the Cooran Lane, the Sauch Burn, and the Shiel Burn are winding through ‘fozy’ mosses and dangerous sands. It is not for any man to venture lightly at nightfall, or even in broad daylight, among the links of the Cooran, as it saunters its way through the silver flow of Buchan. The old royal fastness keeps its secret well.
Far across in the distance we can see the lonely steading of the Black Hill o' the Bush, and still farther off the great green whalebacks of Corscrine and others of the featureless Kells range, deepening into grey purple with a bloom upon them where the heather grows thickest, like the skin on a dusky peach.
Now at last the sun is dipping beyond the Merrick, and all the valley to the south, or rather the maze of valleys, grow dim in the shadow. Loch Enoch has turned from gleaming pearl to dusky lead, or, more accurately still, to the dull shimmer that one may see on so unpoetical a thing as cooling gravy. So great are the straits of comparison to which the conscientious artist in words is driven in the description of scenery. But we must turn homeward. The Merrick itself is dusking. Enoch falls behind its hummocks of iceworn rocks. We descend rapidly into the valley which leads to Loch Neldricken, threading our way till we come to the grave of the wanderer Cameron, who lost his road and perished in a storm alone upon the waste. The form of the body is still plainly to be seen upon the emerald turf, and certainly the boulders around give good evidence of the power of the winter storms. Our guide, with his strong hill voice, tells us of these times of fear, when winter sends the spindrift of the snow hurtling across the mountains. The storms here are rarely fatal to many sheep, partly because it is the office of the shepherd to keep an eye upon the places where the sheep are collected, but still more because of a very wonderful piece of special adaptation. It is not upon these rough hills of boulder and heather that many sheep are lost. Smoother hills are far more dangerous. The overlapping rocks, tossed and set in fantastic congeries of crags, seem to suck in the snow automatically. The granite blocks, lying all around, give shelter, and as it were provide a thousand dustbins, into which the wind, careful and untiring housemaid, sweeps the snow almost as it falls. At least, since the ‘close cover’ of the famous ‘sixteen drifty days,’ there has been recorded here no great or widespread loss of the black-faced sheep—the current coin of the hills.
Presently we are skirting the ‘silver sand’ of Loch Neldricken, which, as our guide says, would be good scythe sharpening, were it not that so much better can be got at Loch Enoch. For from these uplands the ‘straikes’ of the lowland scythes are supplied with the pure flinty granite sand which puts an edge upon the blades that cut the hay and win the golden corn. Emery straikes are used for easy corn by some newfangled people who are ill to satisfy with the good gifts by Nature provided. But the stalwart men who mow in the water meadows know well that nothing can put the strident gripping edge upon their blade like the true Loch Enoch granite sand.
It is dusking into dark as we master the final slope, and to the barking of dogs, and the cheerful voices of kindly folk, we overpass the last hill dyke, and enter the sheltering homestead of Glenhead, which looks so charmingly out over its little crofts down to the precipice-circled depths of Loch Trool.
Ere we came over the hill, however, we entered the sheep ‘buchts,’ a very fortress of immense granite blocks, set upon a still more adamantine foundation of solid rock— a monument of stern and determined workmanship. Indeed, something more than sheep bars are needed to restrain the breed of sheep that is to be found hereabouts—animals that by no means conduct themselves like slow-going and respectable Southdowns or alder manic Cheviots, but fight like Turks, climb like goats, and run like hares. We remember taking a newly-imported Englishman over a Galloway hill. We were climbing in the heat, when suddenly, with a rush, a fearsome animal, with twisted horns half a yard long, and a black and threatening face, rose behind us, leapt a wide watercourse and disappeared up the precipice, amid a rattle of stones scattering downward from its hoofs.
‘What wild beast is that?’ asked our companion in some trepidation.
‘A Galloway tip,’ we replied.
‘And what might a 'tip' be, when he's at home?’
‘Only a sheep,’ we replied calmly.
The Englishman, accustomed to the breed of Leicester, looked at us with a curious expression in his eyes.
‘If I were you I would not try to take in an orphan—and one far from home,’ he said. ‘We English may be verdant, but at least we do know a sheep when we see one.’
And to this day he does not believe it was ‘only a sheep’ that he saw on our slopes of granite and heather.
As we lay asleep that night, the sound of the wind drawing lightly up and down the valleys breathed in upon us, and the subtle smell of honey came to us in the early morning from the ranged beehives under the wall. Around was a great and sweet peace—pure air refined by heather and the wild winds—content so perfect that we wished to live for ever with the chief guide and his partner divided between the travail of writing and the rest of reading.
But it is morning over Glen Trool. The light has poured over from the east, flooding the valley. But there is a mist coming and going upon Curleywee. Lamachan hides his head. Only the ‘taps’ towards Loch Dee are clear.
We are out amid the stir of the farmyard with its pleasant familiar noises.
‘D'ye see yon three stanes on the hill atween it and the sky?’ asks the Man of the Hills.
‘We see them,’ we reply, making out three knobs upon the ultimate ridges.
‘Weel, yon's your road for Loch Dee, but you'll hae to gang a guid bit back.’
He is right—the canny Galwegian—Loch Dee is over there, but it certainly is a ‘guid bit back.’
It was easier to get the direction of the three silent watchers on the hill crest than to keep straight for them over the tangle of heather and moss which lies between.
The way to the loch seems to be over the white granite bed of a burn that comes down from the rugged sides of Craiglee. Following it we reach the high and precipitous side of the hill, and follow the burn up to the ‘lirk of the hill’ where the streamlet takes its rise. This burn, which comes over the white rocks in sheets in wet weather, is named the Trostan. Near the summit of Craiglee lies a little loch, high up among the crags—called the Dhu Loch; sombre, dark, and impressive. From the jutting point of rock, called the Snibe, which looks towards the north, we see the great chasm of the Dungeon from the south. We can catch the glint of the Dungeon Lochs far to the north—all three of them—while nearer the Cooran Lane and other burns seek their ways through treacherous sands and ‘wauchie wallees’ to Loch Dee, which lies beneath us to the south. Seen from the Snibe, Loch Dee looks its best. It has indeed no such remarkable or distinctive character as the splendid series of lochs between Glenhead and Enoch. It would be but a wild sheet of water on a featureless moor, were it not that it derives dignity from the imminent sides of Craiglee and the Dungeon.
We reach the bottom by a narrow cleft that leads downwards from the Snibe towards the loch. It is called the Clint of Clashdaan. Then comes a wading wetfoot through some boggy land grazed over by sheep (which must surely be born web-footed), till we reach the boathouse on the western shore of Loch Dee. Beyond is a strip of sand so inviting and delightful to the feet that in a few moments we are swimming across the narrows of the loch. Then follows a run on the beach in costume which might occasion some remark on Brighton beach, and a brisk rub down with the outside of a rough coat of Harris tweed in lieu of a towel. In a few minutes the steep sides of Curleywee are bringing out a brisk reaction of perspiration. It had been our thought that from Curleywee it might be possible to obtain a general view of the country of the Granite Lochs, but the persistent downward sweep of the mist makes this impossible. Yet by persevering along the verge we have some very striking glimpses down into the deep glen of Trool, at the upper end of which lie cosily enough the farmhouses of Buchan and Glenhead. High up on the side of Curleywee, where the whaup are crying the name of the mountain, like porters at a railway station, we come upon two or three deep little pools in which the trouts are rising. How they get up there is a question which others must settle. There they are, and there for us they shall stop. If they got up the ‘jaws’ which come pouring over the side of the hill somewhat farther down, they are certainly genuine acrobats—the descendants of some prehistoric freshwater flying-fishes.
As soon as we leave the ridge above, it is downhill steeply all the way till we come to hospitable Glenhead, where by the burn the warm-hearted master is working quietly among the sheaves. It does one good in the turmoil of the world to think that there are kind souls living so quietly and happily thus remote from the world, with the Merrick and the Dungeon lifting their heads up into the clouds above them, and over all Loch Enoch looking up to God, with a face sternly sweet, only less lonely than Himself.
First published in 'The Leisure Hour' Magazine on June 2nd 1894. (subsequently published in Raiderland, 1904) as 'Raiders Country: 1 - Why we are what we are.
Between Dee and Cree—that is our Galloway. A link of Forth were almost worth it all. The uninstructed conceives of Galloway as but a parish somewhere in broad Scotland. To the native it is—as its wild Picts were in the national line of battle—the very vanguard of empire.
When we meet each other far overseas, or even in such outlandish parts as Edinburgh, to be of Galloway warms our hearts to one another, and not unfrequently, perhaps, uncorks the ‘greybeard.’ But when we of one part of that wide province meet one another down in Galloway itself we are a little apt to walk round each other, and growl and snarl like angry stranger curs at one another's heels. For to the man from the Rhynns, the man from the East Side that looks on Nith is but a border thief. And with regard to a man from Dumfries itself, the question is not whether any good can come out of such a Nazareth, but rather whether any evil can come out of anywhere else.
However, we are forgetting Ayrshire. To belong to Dumfries is indeed a crime in the eyes of every true son of the ancient and independent province. But yet there is a kind of pity attached to the ignoble fact, as for men who would have helped the matter if they had been consulted in time, but who now have to face the fault of their parents as best they may.
The case is, however, entirely different with an Ayrshire-man. He is an Ayrshireman by intent. For him there can be no excuse. For his villainy no palliation. Is there not in the records of Scottish law a well-authenticated case in which one Mossman was hanged on May 20, 1785, upon the following indictment:--
1. That the prisoner was found on the king's highway without cause.
2. That he ‘wandered in his discoorse.’
3. ‘That he belonged to Carrick.’
The last count was proven and was fatal to him. And with good reason. Many an honester man has been hanged for less.
I remember a very intelligent old native of Kirkcudbright telling me that the reception of Burns's poems in Galloway was much retarded by the prejudice against an Ayrshireman, and was indeed never completely overcome during the poet's lifetime.
Other parts of the country were little regarded by the true sons of Stewartry and Shire. There were known to be such districts as ‘Lanerickshire and the wild Heelants,’ but they were ill thought of. People who said that they had been there were looked ‘a thocht agley,’ as we might look at one who, with no record for conspicuous daring, asserted that he had been to the summit of Mount Everest. Accounts of their travels were received with conspicuous and almost insulting unbelief. ‘Oh, ye hae been in the Heelants, say ye?’ ‘Ow, aye,— umpha —aye!’
Edinburgh was known, of course. It was a bad place, Edinburgh. A Galloway man only went there once. The place he visited was the Grassmarket, where the king's representative presented him with the loan of a long tow-rope for half-an-hour.
So that though most of the Galloway lairds of any degree of respectability in the olden times had had their little bit of trouble in the days before the Union, most of them preferred to be ‘put to the horn’ (that is, proclaimed rebel and traitor to the realm and the king's majesty by three blasts upon the horn at the Cross of Edinburgh), rather than come up and risk getting their necks mixed up with the ‘King's tow.’
It was a very far cry to Cruggleton and a farther to the Dungeon of Buchan, and the region of Galloway was not healthy for king's messengers. The enteric disease called ‘six inch o' cauld steel in the wame o' him’ was extraordinarily prevalent in the district, and anyone who was known to carry the king's writ or warrant about his person was almost certain to suffer from it.
It was told of Kennedy of Bargany that on one occasion his man John had cruelly assaulted an innocent traveller upon the highway, and was brought before the Sheriff Court at Wigton for the offence. Bargany appeared to defend his man, and his plea of innocence on behalf of John was that the man assaulted ‘lookit like a Sheriff’s offisher or a lawyer.’ John got off.
All Galloway is divided into three parts—the Stewartry, the Shire, and the parish of Balmaghie. Some have tried to do without the latter division, but their very ill-success has proved their error. The parish of Balmaghie is the Cor Cordium of Galloway. It is the central parish—the citadel of Gallovidian prejudices. It was the proud sanctuary of the reivers of the low country before the Reformation. Then it became the headquarters of the High Westland Whigs in the stirring times that sent Davie Crookback to watch the king's forces on the English border. From its Clachanpluck every single man marched away to Rullion Green, very few returning from the dowsing they got on Pentland side from grim long-bearded Dalyell. It was the parish that for many years defied, indiscriminately, law courts and Church courts, and kept Macmillan, the first minister of the Cameronian Societies, in enjoyment of kirk, glebe, and manse in spite of the invasion of the emissaries of Court of Session and the fulminations of the Erastian Presbytery of Kirkcudbright.
Balmaghie was a great place for religious excitement in the old days—though, as one of the historians of the county says, it is remarkable with what calmness the people of Balmaghie have taken the matter since.
The adjoining parts of Galloway—the Stewartry and the Shire—are important enough in their way. They cannot all be Balmaghies, but they do very well. The Stewartry was in ancient time the more important of these two larger divisions. Its rental and taxable value were to the Shire in the proportion of nine to five.
But, strangely enough, it was not proud of the fact, and has often since tried to get the valuation reduced. This shows how little conceit of themselves Stewartry men have. If you want to see real conceit you must go to the neighbourhood of Glenluce, and ask who makes the best bee-skeps in Scotland.
Now a word as to time. The eighteenth century did not begin in 1701 according to the received opinion. It really began with William of Orange coming over from Holland in the year of the ‘glorious revolution,’ and settling the country down into that smug respectability which for a good while played havoc with the old picturesque interest. Yet in Galloway there always remained elements of special interest, owing to the remote and independent nature of the country.
On the other hand, it was Walter Scott who put an end to the eighteenth century. The Waverley Novels were a great civiliser, and by making the old world the world of literature, Scott convinced people in Scotland that they were living in modern times—for many had lived contentedly all their lives and never known it. They were as surprised to hear it as M. Jourdain was when he found out that for a long season he had been talking prose.
‘Guy Mannering’ was the instrument by which Scott cultivated Galloway out of the eighteenth century. Yet the local colour of the book is slight, and to a born Gallovidian hardly recognisable. For Scott did not know Galloway. He got Galloway legends from Joseph Train, that careful and most excellent literary jackal; but he dressed them up in the attire of Ettrick Forest. He thinks, for instance, that the hills of Galloway are smooth, green-breasted swells, like Eildon or Tinto; and there is nothing to show that he even suspected what fastnesses lie hid from the ken of the ordinary romancer and topographer about the Dungeon of Buchan and Loch Enoch.
So in this wide field of the eighteenth century it is not easy to give a general idea of how the people of the double province lived. There was indeed a great advance in all the comforts of living in Galloway during the eighteenth century—though not so great, perhaps, as during the nineteenth.
The ancient gentry of Galloway, of true Galloway blood, were never a very numerous race, and some of the greatest names were extinct long before the eighteenth century. The Douglasses, of course, the greatest Names of all, had had neither art or part in Galloway since the fifteenth century. The great house of the Kennedies of Cassilis had retired upon Ayrshire. Gone were the days when
‘Frae Wigton to the toun o' Ayr, An' laigh doon by the cruives o' Cree, Nae man may howp a lodging there Unless he coort wi' Kennedy.’
But in the eighteenth century there were still Agnews in Lochnaw as there are to this day, Stewarts in Garlies, MacDowalls in Garthland, M'Kies in Myrtoun and in Barrower, Maxwells in Mochrum and Monreith, and of course there were the great politicians of the time—the Dalrymples of Stair in the old Cassilis stronghold of Castle Kennedy.
In the upper Stewartry the well-known names were those of the Gordons of Lochinvar and Kenmure—of Earlstoun, and of Culvennan. On the Dumfries Marches the Maxwells held sway, and the Murrays of Broughton were rapidly acquiring land in the south.
The baronage were mostly content to live quietly on their estates in a kind of ‘bien’ hospitality and good-fellowship. One of the big houses could account for a sheep a week, besides many pigs and an odd ‘nowt beast’ or two in the ‘back end.’ But even in the great houses porridge and milk and homely oatcake were still the commonest of fare. We find, for instance, a Galloway soldier of Marlborough's mourning in a far land that in these outlandish parts they had neither ‘farle of cake,’ nor yet a ‘girdle’ to bake it on. The great houses were mostly defenced, and such were the exigencies of the time that sieges were not unknown—the gipsies and outlaw clans of the hills making no scruple to come down, ‘boding in fear of weir,’ and to assault any man's house against whom they had a grudge.
The position of many of these Galloway gentry was little different from that of a feudal baron. In the seventeenth century two and three ‘merklands’ were still granted to likely young fellows who would settle down on the estates of a knight, under pledge to be his men and breed lusty loons to wear the leathern jack, and ride behind him when he went to leave his card on a brother baron with whom he might have a difference. This, says Sir Andrew Agnew of Lochnaw, in his excellent ‘Hereditary Sheriffs of Galloway,’ is the origin of the phrase— ‘Ye are but a bow o' meal-Gordon.’
This was a telling sarcasm against undue pretensions to pedigree, based on a tradition that a Gordon of Lochinvar and Kenmure, anxious to increase his vassalage, gave any likely-looking young fellow willing to take his name at least three acres and a cow—together with a boll of meal yearly. From which it will be seen that the supposed Radical innovation of ‘three acres and a cow,’ used as a bribe, was really feudal in origin, and began, as many wise and good things did, in the province of Galloway.
Still this was a better custom than the charge which is enshrined in another Galloway story: ‘Ye gat the price o' it where the Ayrshireman gat the coo.’ The admirable Trotter has the story thus: ‘There was a queer craitur that they caa Tarn Rabinson leeved at Wigton, and he had a kind o' weakness; but he had some clever sayings for all that. Also, like most Gallowaymen, he disliked the Ayrshiremen for what he considered their meanness and their undoubted habit of taking people's farms over their heads. One day Tarn found a very big mushroom, and was taking it home to his mother. So when he came to the corner end, a lot of men were standing about, and a big Ayrshire dealer of the name of Cochrane among them that had the habit of tormenting Tam, and trying to make a fool of him. Seeing Tam with the big mushroom, Cochrane cried out:
'Hullo, Tammock, what did you pay for the new bannet?'
'The same price that the Ayrshireman payed for the coo,' says Tam.
‘An' what did he pay for the coo?' asks Cochrane.
‘Oh, naething!' says Tam, 'he juist fand it in a field.'
Which was a saying exceedingly hard for an Ayrshireman and a cattle-dealer to stomach.
The bonnet lairds were a well-known class in Galloway, and were mostly the sternest and most unbending of Whigs.
They were reared exactly like the ordinary farmers, but their farms belonged to themselves, though a certain service was given to some of the great barons in return for steadfast protection. Some of these rose to considerable honour. For instance, there was Grierson of Bargatton, in Balmaghie, who on more than one occasion was returned to Parliament as one of the representatives of the Stewartry.
The bonnet lairds lived much as the better farmers did, but in some things they stood aloof. For one thing, they locked their doors at night, which no farmer body was said to do in all Galloway during the eighteenth century. They lived in the summer time and in the winter alike on porridge and milk, flavoured with occasional fries of ham from the fat ‘gussie’ that had run about the doors the year before. Sometimes they salted down a ‘mart’ for the winter, and there was generally a ham or two of ‘braxy’ sheep hanging to the joists. Puddings, both white and black, were supposed to be an article of dainty fare.
Sometimes the country folk did not wait till the unfortunate animal was dead in order to provide entertainment for their guests.
‘Saunders, rin, man, and blood the soo—here's the minister gettin' ower the dyke!’ was the exclamation of a Galloway goodwife on the occasion of a ministerial visitation.
It is told of the famous Seceder minister, Walter Dunlop, of Dumfries, that he too loved good entertainment when he went out on his parochial visitations.
Specially he liked a ‘tousy tea’—that is, one with trimmings.
On one occasion he had to baptize a bairn in a certain house, and there they offered him his tea—a plain tea—before he began.
This was not at all to Walter's liking. He had other ideas, after walking so far over the heather.
‘Na, na, guidwife,’ he said, ‘I'll do my work first—edification afore gustation. Juist pit ye on the pan, an' when I hear the ham skirling, I'll ken it's time to draw to a conclusion.’
In the early part of the eighteenth century the common people of Galloway lived in the utmost simplicity—if it be simplicity to live but and ben with the cow. In many of the smaller houses there was no division between the part of the dwelling used for the family and that occupied by Crummie the cow, and Gussie the pig.
But things rapidly improved, and by 1750 there was hardly such a dwelling to be found in the eastern part of Galloway. The windows in a house of this class were usually two in number and wholly without glass. They were stopped up with a wooden board according to the direction from which the wind blew. The smoke hung in dense masses about the roof of the ‘auld clay biggin',’ and, in lieu of a chimney, found its way occasionally out at the door. But many of the people who lived in these little houses fared surprisingly well. The sons were ‘braw lads’ and the daughters ‘sonsy queans.’ They could dress well upon occasion, and we are told in wonder by a southern visitant that it is no uncommon thing to see a perfectly well-dressed man in a good plaid or cloak come out of a hovel like an outhouse.
‘The clartier the cosier’ was, we fear, a Galloway maxim which was held in good repute even in the earlier part of the eighteenth century among a considerable section of the common folk.
Later, however, the small farmers became exceedingly particular both as to cleanliness in food and attention to their persons. We saw recently the dress worn to kirk and market by a Galloway small farmer about 1790. It consisted of a broad blue Kilmarnock bonnet, checked at the brim with red and white; a blue coat of rough woollen, cut like a dress-coat of today, save that it was made to button with large silver buttons; a red velvet waistcoat, with long flaps in front; corded knee-breeches, rig-and-fur stockings, and buckled shoes completed the attire of the douce and sonsy Cameronian farmer when he went a-wooing in his own sober, determined, and, no doubt, ultimately successful way.
I have yet to speak of the ‘ministry of the Word’ and of the state of religion. Things were not very bright in Galloway at the beginning of the eighteenth century. We hear, for instance, of a majority of a local Presbytery being under such famas that the Synod had to take the matter up; and in several of the parishes of Galloway the manse was by no means a centre of light and good example.
This was perhaps owing to the state of the country after the Killing Time and the Revolution. Many of the people of Galloway would not for long accept the ministrations of the regular parish clergy, who were ready to hold fellowship with ‘malignants.’ The Society men, Cameronian and other, held aloof, and though, till the sentence of deposition was pronounced against Mr. Macmillan of Cameronians at Balmaghie, they had no regular ministry, their numbers were very considerable, and their influence greater still. They knew themselves to be the salt of the earth, and we remember that even thirty-five years ago the Cameronians of the remoter parts of Galloway held themselves a little apart in a stiff kind of spiritual independence and even pride, to which the other denominations looked up, not without a certain awe and respect.
But the effect on the Cameronian boy was not always so happy. We were in danger of becoming little prigs. Whenever we met a boy belonging to the Established Kirk (who learned paraphrases), we threw a stone at him to bring him to a sense of his position. If, as Homer says, he was a lassie, we put out our tongue at her.
But it is a more interesting thing to inquire concerning the state of religion among the people than into the efficiency of the clergy. In many of the best families, and these too often the poorest, religion was instilled among them in a very high, noble, and practical way indeed. Such a house as that of William Burness, described in the ‘Cotter's Saturday Night,’ was a type of many Galloway homes of last century.
Prayers night and morn were a certainty, however early the field work might be begun, and however late the workers were in getting home. On the Sabbath morn especially the sound of praise went up from every cothouse. In the farm kitchens the whole family and dependants were gathered together to be instructed in religion.
The ‘Caratches’ were repeated round the circle, and grandmother in the corner and lisping babe each took their turn, nor thought it any hardship.
The minister expressed national characteristics excellently well. But even he of the Cameronian Kirk was to some extent affected by the tone of learning in the university towns where he had attended the college, and ‘gotten lear’ and ‘understanding of the original tongues.’ But in the sterling qualities of many an old Galloway farmer (who, perhaps, never had fifty pounds clear in a year in his life, and whose whole existence was one of bitter struggle with the hardest conditions) we get some understanding of how the religion of our country, so stern and tender, so tempest-tossed and so victorious, stood the strains of persecution and the frosts of the succeeding century of unbelief. In the darkest times of indifference there were, at least in Scotland, many more than seven thousand who never bowed the knee to Baal, and whose mouths had never kissed him—though, so far as Galloway is concerned, let it not be forgotten that even this comes with a qualification, like all things merely human. For it is of the nature of Galloway to share with Providence the credit of any victory, but to charge it wholly with all disasters. ‘Wasna that cleverly dune?’ we say when we succeed. ‘We maun juist submit!’ we say when we fail. A most comfortable theology, which is ever the one for the most of Galloway folk, whom ‘chiefly dourness and not fanaticism took to the hills when Lag came riding with his mandates and letters judicatory.’
(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
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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EXCLUSIVE TO UNCO
S.R.Crockett's Deep Moat Grange (1908) published 31st October 2018 in a new digital edition which includes the short story it was derived from 'How Elsie Danced for her life' (1901 ) as well as illustrations from the original and an introduction by Cally Phillips which contextualises this most misunderstood Crockett work.
Available in epub, pdf and mobi (Kindle) formats.
To transfer a mobi file to your kindle follow
the instructions https://www.amazon.com/gp/sendtokindle
RAIDERS 125 MEMBERS CAN GET THIS FOR FREE UNTIL MIDNIGHT ON 31ST OCTOBER 2018
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)