CHAPTER FORTY FOUR
A DESIRABLE GENERAL MEETING
The next morning dawned colder and more chilly. The catch of the autumn of the year was in the air, and it nipped shrewdly till the sun looked over the hills in the east. This was to be the great day of the Societies' general meeting, which had been summoned in the wilds of Shalloch-on-Minnoch. Though the morn had dawned caller, with a white rime of frost lying on the grass and for a little space making grey the leaves of the trees, the day of the great conventicle was one of great and lowering heat. My mother was set to go—and Kate McGhie also. Wat must needs therefore accompany them, and I had a letter from Groningen which I behoved to read. With Anton Lennox, stout of heart even in his sickness, abode my lass, Maisie Lennox—of whom (though I looked to be back on the morrow) I took leave with reluctance and with a heavy and sinking heart.
For us who were used to making a herd's track across the hills, it was not a long step over the moors from Macaterick to the foot of the Craigfacie of Shalloch, where the General Meeting of the Societies was to take place. But it was a harder matter for my mother.
She needed help over every little brink of a peat brow, and as we passed Tonskeen, where there is a herd's house in the wild, far from man and very quiet with God, I ran to get her a staff, which the shepherd's good wife gladly gave. For there was little that would be refused to a wanderer in these parts, when on his way to the Societies' Meeting.
Soon we left the strange, unsmiling face of Loch Macaterick behind, and took our way towards the rocky clint, up which we had to climb. We went by the rocks that are called the Rig of Carclach, where there is a pass less steep than in other places, up to the long wild moor of the Shalloch-on-Minnoch. It was a weary job getting my mother up the steep face of the gairy, for she had so many nick-nacks to carry, and so many observes to make.
But when we got to the broad plain top of the Shalloch Hill it was easier to go forward, though at first the ground was boggy, so that we took off our stockings and walked on the driest part. We left the burn of Knocklach on our left—playing at keek-bogle among the heather and bent—now standing stagnant in pools, now rindling clear over slaty stones, and again disappearing altogether underground like a hunted Covenanter.
As soon as we came over the brow of the hill, we could see the folk gathering. It was wonderful to watch them. Groups of little black dots moved across the green meadows in which the farmsteading of the Shalloch-on-Minnoch was set—a cheery little house, well thatched, and with a pew of blue smoke blowing from its chimney, telling of warm hearts within. Over the short brown heather of the tops the groups of wanderers came, even as we were doing ourselves—past the lonely copse at the Rowantree, by the hillside track from Straiton, up the little runlet banks where the heather was blushing purple, they wended their ways, all setting towards one place in the hollow. There already was gathered a black cloud of folk under the rickle of stones that runs slidingly down from the steep brow of Craigfacie.
As we drew nearer we could see the notable Session Stone, a broad flat stone overhanging the little pourie burn that tinkles and lingers among the slaty rocks, now shining bone-white in the glare of the autumn sun. I never saw a fairer place, for the heights about are good for sheep, and all the other hills distant and withdrawn. It has not, indeed, the eye-taking glorious beauty of the glen of Trool, but nevertheless it looked a very Sabbath land of benediction and peace that day of the great Societies' Meeting.
Upon the Session Stone the elders were already greeting one another, mostly white-headed men with dinted and furrowed faces, bowed and broken by long sojourning among the moss-hags and the caves.
When we came to the place we found the folk gathering for prayer, before the conference of the chosen delegates of the societies. The women sat on plaids that had been folded for comfort. Opposite the Session Stone was a wide heathery amphitheatre, where, as on tiers of seats, rows of men and women could sit and listen to the preachers. The burnie's voice filled up the breaks in the speech, as it ran small and black with the drought, under the hollow of the bank. For, as is usual upon our moors, the rain and storm of the night had not reached this side of the hill.
I sat down on a lichened stone and looked at the grave, well-armed men who gathered fast about the Session Stone, and on the delegates' side of the water. It was a fitting place for such a gathering, for only from the lonely brown hills above could the little cup of Conventicle be seen, nestling in the lap of the hill. And on all the moor tops that looked every way, couching torpid and drowsed in the hot sun, were to be seen the sentinels—pacing the heather like watchmen going round and telling the towers of Zion, the sun flashing on their pikes and musket barrels as they turned sharply, like men well-disciplined.
The only opening was to the south-west, but even there nothing but the distant hills of Colmonell looked in, blue and serene. Down in the hollow there was a glint of melancholy Loch Moan, lying all abroad among its green wet heather and stretches of yellow bent.
What struck me as most surprising in this assembly was the entire absence of anything like concealment. From every quarter, up from the green meadows of the Minnoch Valley, over the scaurs of the Straiton hills, down past the craigs of Craigfacie, over from the deep howe of Carsphairn, streams of men came walking and riding. The sun glinted on their war-gear. Had there been a trooper within miles, upon any of the circle of the hills, the dimples of light could not have been missed. For they caught the sun and flecked the heather—as when one looks upon a sparkling sea, with the sun rising over it and each wave carrying its own glint of light with it upon its moving crest.
As I looked, the heart within me became glad with a full-grown joy. So long had we of the Religion hidden like foxes and run like hares, that we had forgotten that there were so many in the like case, only needing drawing together to be the one power in the land. But the time, though at hand, was not yet.
I asked of a dark long-haired man who stood near us, what was the meaning of such a gathering. He looked at me with a kind of pity, and I saw the enthusiasm flash from his eye.
‘The Seven Thousand!’ he said; ‘ken ye not the Seven Thousand upon the hills of Scotland, that never bowed the knee to Baal?’
‘Pardon me, friend,’ said I, ‘long hiding on the mountains has made me ignorant. But who are the Seven Thousand?’
‘Have ye indeed hidden on the mountains and ken not that? Did ye never hear of them that wait for the time appointed?’
I told him no.
‘Then,’ said he, ‘who may you be that kens so little?’
I said that I was William Gordon, younger son of the persecuted house of the Gordons of Earlstoun.
‘O, the Bull's brother!’ said he, shortly, and turned him about to go away. But Spitfire Wat was at his side, and, taking the dark man by the elbow, presently halted him and span him round so that he faced us.
‘And who are you that speaks so lightly of my cousin of Earlstoun?’ he asked.
I think Wat had forgotten that he was not now among his Cavalier blades—who, to do them justice, are ready to put every pot-house quarrel to the arbitrament of the sword, which is after all a better way than disputation and the strife of tongues.
The dark man smiled. ‘Ye are hot, young sir,’ he said bitterly. ‘These manners better befit the guard-room of Rob Grier of Lag than a gathering of the Seven Thousand. But since ye ask my name, I am poor unworthy Robin Hamilton, on whom the Lord hath set His hand.’
Then we knew that this dark-browed man was Sir Robert Hamilton, who with my brother Sandy had been the Societies' Commissioner to the Low Counties, and who was here at Shalloch-on-Minnoch to defend his action. He was also brother of Jean Hamilton, Sandy's wife, and of a yet more sombre piety.
Then, though I knew well that he had been the rock on which the Covenant ship split at Bothwell, and a stone of stumbling in our counsels ever since, yet, because he looked so weary and broken with toils, travels, and watchings, my heart could not choose but go out to him.
As he looked and said nothing, a more kindly light came into his eye as he gazed at Wat. ‘Ye will be Black Bess of Lochinvar's son—a tacked-on Covenant man. But I doubt not a kindly lad, for all ye are so brisk with your tongue and ready with your blade. I have seen the day when it would have done me a pleasure to step out with you, in days that were full of the pride of the flesh. I do not blame you. To fight first and ask wherefore after, is the Gordon all over. But do not forget that this day, here on the wild side of the Shalloch-on-Minnoch, there are well-nigh a thousand gentlemen of as good blood as your own. Homespun cloth and herds' plaidies cover many a man of ancient name this day, that never thought to find himself in arms against the King, even for the truth's sake.’
Robert Hamilton spoke with such an air of dignity and sadness, that Wat lifted his hand to his blue bonnet in token that he was pacified. And with a kindly nod the stranger turned among the throng that now filled all the spacious place of meeting.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.