MY GOSSIP, MAISIE MAY
It was upon the fair green braes that look over the Black Water of Dee near by where it meets the clear Ken, that Maisie May and I played many a morning at Wanderers and King's men. I mind it as it were yesterday, for the dales and holms were pranked out with white hawthorn and broad gowans, and by our woodland hiding-places little frail wildflowers grew, nodding at us as we lay and held our breath.
Now Maisie Lennox (for that was her proper given name) was my cousin, and had been gossip of mine ever since we came to the age of five years; Sandy, my elder brother, making nothing of me because I was so much younger and he ever hot upon his own desires. Neither, if the truth must be told, did I wear great love upon him at any time. When we fell out, as we did often, he would pursue after me and beat me; but mostly I clodded him with pebble stones, whereat I had the advantage, being ever straight of eye and sure of aim. Whereas Sandy was gleyed and threw stones like a girl, for all the stoutness of his arm.
But that is not to say like Maisie Lennox, who was Anthony Lennox's daughter, and could throw stones with any one. She lived at the Lesser Duchrae above the Black Water. As for me I lived at Earlstoun on the hillside above the Ken, which is a far step from the Duchrae. But our fathers were of the one way of thinking, and being cousins by some former alliance and friends of an ancient kindliness, it so happened, as I say, that Maisie Lennox and I played much together. Also my mother had great tenderness of heart for the bit lass that had no mother, and a father as often on the moors with the wildfowl, as at home with his one little maid.
For the times were very evil. How evil and contrary they were, we that had been born since 1660 and knew nothing else, could but dimly understand. For though fear and unrest abode in our homes as constant indwellers, with the fear of the troopers and plunderers, yet because it had always been so, it seemed not very hard to us. Indeed we bairns of these years played at Covenanting, as it had been the game of ‘Scots and English’ on the hillside, even from the time when we first began to run alone.
Well do I mind that day when I pleaded and fleeched on my father to take me before him on Gay Garland, as he rode to the Duchrae. It was a brisk May day with an air vigorous as a draught of wine, yet cool, clear, and sweet as spring water is—a pearl of a day, such as hardly seems to come in these sullen later years.
So I cried out upon my father to take me. And as his manner was, he told me to inquire of my mother. But I desired rather that he should ask for me himself. So I lingered about the doors till he should ride forth upon his great black horse, that he might catch me up beside him on the cantle and cry in at the door, ‘Mother, I am taking William,’ as was his kindly wont. Never a man so brave and true and simple as my father.
While I bided there, Alexander my brother seeing me wait, called me to come with him to the hill. But because my heart was set to ride to the Duchrae with my father, I had no desire to go to the rabbit hunting. So when he saw that I would not company with him, he mocked me and called me ‘Lassie-boy!’ Whereupon I smote him incontinent with a round pebble between the shoulder-blades, and he pursued me to the hallan door within which was my mother, looking to the maids and the ordering of the house.
From thence I mocked him, but under my breath, for fear that for ill-doing my mother would not permit me to go to the Duchrae.
‘Stable-boy!’ I called him, for he loved to be ever among the lowns of the wisp and currying comb, and as my mother said, grew like them even in manners. ‘Faugh, keep wide from me, mixen-varlet!’
These were no more than our well-accustomed greetings.
‘Wait till I catch you, little snipe, down by the water side!’ Sandy cried, shaking his fist at me from the barn-end.
‘And that will be a good day for your skin,’ answered I, ‘for I shall make you wash your face thoroughly—ay, even behind your ears.’
For Sandy, even when in after days he went a-courting, was noways partial to having many comings and goings with a basin of cold water.
So he departed unsatisfied, because that in words I had the better of him.
Then came my father, and as I expected, stooping from the saddle he swung me up before him, supposing that I had already advised my mother. But indeed I had not said so, and happily he asked me nothing.
‘A good day and an easy mind, sweetheart,’ he cried up the stairs to my mother, ‘I ride to the Duchrae for Conference. William goes with me for company.’
And my mother came down the steps to see us ride off. For my father and she were like lad and lass after their years together, though not so as to make a show before strangers.
‘Watch warily for the dragoons as you come to the narrows of the Loch,’ she said, ‘and bide not at Kenmuir. For if there be mounted muskets in all the neighbourhood, it is at the Kenmuir that they will be found.’
And she watched us out of sight with her hand to her brows, before turning inward to the maids—a bonny woman in these years, fair as a blowing rose, was my mother. Or at least, so the picture rises before me as I write.
Thus my father, William Gordon of Earlstoun, rode away through these sweet holms and winding paths south toward the Duchrae. Nowhere is the world to my thinking so gracious as between the green woodlands of Earlstoun and the grey Duchrae Craigs. For the pools of the water of Ken slept, now black, now silver, beneath us. They were deep set about with the feathers of the birches, and had the green firs standing bravely like men-at-arms on every rocky knoll. Then the strath opened out and we saw Ken flow silver-clear between the greenest and floweriest banks in the world. The Black Craig of Dee gloomed on our right side as we rode, sulky with last year's heather. And the great Kells range sank behind us, ridge behind ridge of hills whose very names make a storm of music—Millyea, Milldown, Millfire, Corscrine, and the haunted fastnesses of the Meaull of Garryhorn in the head end of Carsphairn. Not that my father saw any of this, for he minded only his riding and his prayers; but even then I was ever taken up with what I had better have let alone. However, I may be held excused if the memory rises unbidden now, before the dimmer eye of one that takes a cast back into his youth, telling the tale as best he may, choosing here and there like a dorty child, only that which liketh him best.
In a little we clattered through the well-thatched roofs of New Galloway and set Gay Garland's head to the southward along the water side, where the levels of the Loch are wont to open out upon you blue and broad and bonny. All that go that way know the place. Gay Garland was the name of my father's black horse that many a time and oft had carried him in safety, and was loved like another child by my mother and all of us. I have heard it said that in the Praying Society of which he was a grave and consistent member, my father was once called in question because he gave so light a name to his beast.
‘Ye have wives of your own,’ was all the answer he made them, ‘I suppose they have no freits and fancies, but such as you are ready to be answerable for this day.’
When my mother heard of this she said, ‘Ay, William, thy excuse was but old and lame, even that of our first father Adam—'The woman thou gavest me she called my horse Gay Garland.’
I suppose that today Ken flashes as clear and the heather blooms as bonny on the Bennan side. But not for me, for I have laid away so many that I loved in the howe of the Glen since then, and seen so many places of this Scotland red with a crimson the bell heather never made. Ay me for the times that were, and for all that is come and gone, whereof it shall be mine to tell!
But we came at long and last to the Duchrae, which is a sweet bit house, sitting on a south-looking brae-face, though not a laird's castle like the tower of Earlstoun. Maisie Lennox met us at the loaning foot, whereat I begged that my father would put me down so that I might run barefoot with her. And I think my father was in nowise unwilling, for a twelve-year-old callant on the saddle before one is no comfort, though Gay Garland bore me like a feather.
So Maisie Lennox and I fell eagerly a-talking together after our first shy chill of silence, having many things to say. But as soon as ever we reached the Craigs we fell to our fantasy. It was an old game with us, like the sand houses we used to build in bairns' play. We drew lots, long stalk and short stalk, which of us should be the Wanderer. Maisie Lennox won the lot—as she always did, for I had no good fortune at the drawing of cuts. So she went to hide in some bosky bouroch or moss-hag, while I bode still among the hazels at the woodside, accoutring myself as a trooper with sword and pistol of tree.
Then I rode forth crying loud commands and sending my soldiers to seek out all the hidie-holes by the water sides, and under all the tussocks of heather on the benty brows of the black mosses.
Soon Maisie Lennox began to cry after the manner of the hunted hill-folk—peeping like the nestlings of the muir-birds, craiking like the bird of the corn, laughing like the jack-snipe—and all with so clear a note and such brisk assurance that I declare she had imposed upon Tom Dalyell himself.
After seeking long in vain, I spied the fugitive hiding behind a peat-casting on the edge of the moss, and immediately cried on the men to shoot. So those that were men-at-arms of my command pursued after and cracked muskets, as the Wanderers jooked and fled before us. Yet cumbered with cavalry as I was on the soft bog land, the light-foot enemy easily escaped me.
Then when I saw well that catch her I could not, I sat me down on a heather bush and cried out to her that it was a silly game to play, and that we should begin something else. So she stopped and came back slowly over the heather. What I liked at all times about Maisie Lennox was that she never taunted back, but only took her own way when she wanted it—and she mostly did—silently and as if there were no other way in the world. For in all things she had an excellent humour of silence, which, though I knew it not then, is rarer and worthier than diamonds. Also she knew, what it seems to me that a woman but rarely knows, when it is worth while making a stand to gain her will.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.