THE SWEET SINGERS OF THE DEER-SLUNK
Now my father had drilled it into me that Anton Lennox, called the Covenanter, was a good and sound-hearted man, even as he was doubtless a manifest and notable Christian. But the tale concerning him that most impressed me and touched my spirit nearest, was the tale of how he served Muckle John Gib and his crew, after godly Mr. Cargill had delivered them over to Satan.
It was Sandy, my brother, that was the eye-witness of the affair. He was ever of the extreme opinion—as my mother used often to say, ‘Our Sandy was either in the moon or the midden’—but in my judgment oftenest in the latter.
Yet I will never deny that he has had a great deal of experience, though I would rather want than have some of it. Now at this time, Sandy, perhaps by means of his wife, Jean Hamilton (who, like her brother Robert, was just inordinate for preachings and prophesyings), was much inclined to kick over the traces, and betake himself to the wilder extremes that were much handled by our enemies for the purpose of bringing discredit on the good name of the Covenants.
There was one great hulking sailor of Borrowstounness that was specially afflicted with these visions and maunderings. Nothing but his own crazy will in all things could satisfy him. He withdrew himself into the waste with two or three men and a great company of feeble-minded women, and there renounced all authority and issued proclamations of the wildest and maddest kinds.
The godly and devout Mr. Donald Cargill (as he was called, for his real name was Duncan) was much exercised about the matter. And finding himself in the neighbourhood to which these people had betaken themselves, he spared no pains, but with much and sore foot-travel he found them out, and entered into conference with them. But John Gib, who could be upon occasion a most faceable and plausible person, persuaded him to abide with them for a night. Which accordingly he did, but having wrestled with them in prayer and communing half the night, and making nothing of them, presently he rose and went out into the fields most unhappy. So after long wandering he came homeward, having failed in his mission. Then it was that he told the matter to old Anton Lennox, who had come from Galloway to attend the great Society's Meeting at Howmuir. With him at the time was my brother Sandy, and here it is that Sandy's story was used to commence.
And of all Sandy's stories it was the one I liked best, because there was the least chance of his having anything about himself to tell.
‘I mind the day’—so he began— ‘a fine heartsome harvest day in mid-September. We had our crop in early that year, and Anton, my father and I, had gotten awa' betimes to the Societies' meeting at Lesmahagow. It was in the earliest days of them—for ye maun mind that I am one o' the few surviving original members. We were a' sitting at our duty, when in there came into the farm kitchen where we abode, Mr. Donald Cargill himself. He was leaning upon his staff, and his head was hanging down. We desisted from our worship and looked at him steadfastly, for we saw that the hand of the Lord had been upon him and that for grief. So we waited for the delivery of his testimony.
‘'My heart is heavy,' he said at long and last, 'for the people of the wilderness are delivered over to the gainsayer, and that by reason of John Gib, called Muckle John, sailor in Borrowstounness, and presently leading the silly folks astray.' Then he told them how he had wrestled with the Gibbites mightily in the Spirit, and had been overthrown. Whereat he was notified that the hearts of all those that hated the Way would be lifted up.
‘He also brought a copy of the foolish sheet called the 'Proclamation of the Sweet Singers,' which was much handed about among all the persecutors at this time, and made to bring terrible discredit on the sober and God-fearing folk of the South and West, who had nothing whatever to do with the matter.
‘'Let me see it,' said Anton Lennox, holding out his hand for it.
‘Mr. Cargill gave it to him, saying sadly, 'The Spirit will not always strive with them!'
‘'Na,' said Auld Anton, 'but I'll e'en strive wi' them mysel'! Reek me doon Clickie!'
‘He spoke of his great herd's stave that had a shank of a yard and a half long and was as thick as my wrist.
‘Come you, Sandy,' he cried over his shoulder as he strode out, 'and ye will get your bellyful of Sweet Singing this day!'
‘Now I did not want to move for the exercise was exceeding pleasant. But my father also bade me go with Auld Anton, and as you know, it was not easy to say nay to my father.
‘It was over a moor that we took our way—silent because all the wild birds had by with their nesting, and where Mr. Cargill had left the company of John Gib was in a very desert place where two counties met. But Auld Anton went stegging over the hills, till I was fair driven out of my breath. And ever as he went he drove his staff deeper and dourer into the sod.
‘It was a long season before we arrived at the place, but at last we came to the top of a little brow-face, and stood looking at the strange company gathered beneath us.
‘There was a kind of moss-hag of dry peat, wide and deep, yet level along the bottom. Down upon the black coom was a large company of women all standing close together and joining their hands. A little way apart on a mound of peat in the midst, stood a great hulk of a fellow, with a gown upon him, like a woman's smock, of white linen felled with purple at the edges. But whenever it blew aside with the wind, one saw underneath the sailor's jerkin of rough cloth with the bare tanned skin of the neck showing through.
‘Certes, Master Anton,' said I, 'but yon is a braw chiel, him wi' the broad hat and the white cock ontill the bob o't!'
‘And indeed a brave, braw, blythesome-like man he was, for all the trashery of his attire. He kept good order among the men and women that companied with him in the Deer-Slunk. There were thirty of them—twenty-six being women—many of them very respectable of family, that had been led away from their duty by the dangerous, persuading tongue of John Gib. But Auld Anton looked very grim as he stood a moment on the knowe-top and watched them, and he took a shorter grip of the cudgel he carried in his hand. It was of black crabtree, knotted and grievous.
‘John Gib!' cried Anton Lennox from the hilltop suddenly in a loud voice.
‘The great sea slug of a man in the white petticoat turned slowly round, and looked at us standing on the parched brae-face with no friendly eye.
'Begone—ye are the children of the devil—begone to your father!' he cried back.
'Belike—John Gib—belike, but bide a wee—I am coming down to have a word or two with you as to that!' replied Auld Anton, and his look had a smile in it, that was sour as the crab-apples which his cudgel would have borne had it bidden in the hedge-root.
'I have come,' he said slowly and tartly, 'that I might converse seriously with you, John Gib, and that concerning the way that you have treated Mr. Donald Cargill, an honoured servant of the Lord!'
'Poof!' cried John Gib, standing up to look at us, while the women drew themselves together angrily to whisper, 'speak not to us of ministers. We deny them every one. We have had more comfort to our souls since we had done with ministers and elders, with week-days and fast-days, and Bibles and Sabbaths, and came our ways out here by ourselves to the deeps of the Deer-Slunk!'
'Nay,' said Old Anton, 'ministers indeed are not all they might be. But without them, ye have proved yourself but a blind guide leading the blind, John Gib! Ye shall not long continue sound in the faith or straight in the way if ye want faithful guides! But chiefly for the fashion in which ye have used Mr. Cargill, am I come to wrestle with you,' cried Anton.
'He is but an hireling,' shouted Muckle John Gib, making his white gown flutter.
'Yea, Yea, and Amen!' cried the women that were at his back. But Davie Jamie, Walter Ker, and John Young, the other three men who were with him, looked very greatly ashamed and turned away their faces—as indeed they had great need.
'Stand up like men! David Jamie, Walter Ker, and John Young!' cried Anton to them, 'Do ye bide to take part with these silly women and this hulker from the bilboes, or will ye return with me to good doctrine and wholesome correction?'
‘But the three men answered not a word, looking like men surprised in a shameful thing and without their needful garments.
'Cargill me no Cargills!' said John Gib; 'he is a traitor, a led captain and an hireling. He deserted the poor and went to another land. He came hither to us, yet neither preached to us nor prayed with us.'
‘John Young looked about him as John Gib said this, as though he would have contradicted him had he dared. But he was silent again and looked at the ground.
'Nay,' said Auld Anton, 'that is a lie, John Gib; for I know that he offered to preach to you, standing with his Bible open between his hands as is his ordinary. But ye wanted him to promise to confine his preaching to you—which when he would not consent to do, ye were for thrusting him out. And he came home, wet and weary, with the cold easterly wet fog all night upon the muir, very melancholy, and with great grief for you all upon his spirit!'
Then at this John Gib became suddenly very furious and drew a pistol upon us. This made Anton Lennox laugh.
'I shall come down and wrestle with your pistols in a wee, John Gib. But I have a word to say to you all first.'
‘He stood awhile and looked at them with contempt as if they were the meanest wretches under heaven, as indeed they were.
'You, John Gib, that lay claim to being a wizard, I have little to say to you. Ye have drawn away these silly folk with your blasphemous devices. Your name is legion, for there are many devils within you. You are the herd of swine after the devils had entered into them. Hath your master given you any word to speak before I come down to you?'
'Ay,' said John Gib, leaping up in the air and clapping his hands together as if he would again begin the dance, which, accompanied by a horrid yowling like that of a beaten dog, they called Sweet Singing.
'Ay, that I have! Out upon you, Anton Lennox, that set up for a man of God and a reprover of others. I alone am pure, and God dwells in me. I lift up my testimony against all the months of the year, for their names are heathen. I alone testify against January and February; against Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday; against Martinmas and holidays, against Lammas-day, Whitsun-day, Candle-mas, Beltan, stone crosses, saints' images, Kelton Hill Fair and Stonykirk Sacrament. Against Yule and Christmas, old wife's fables, Palm Sunday, Carlin Sunday, Pasch, Hallow, and Hogmanay; against the cracking of nits and the singing of sangs; again all romances and story-buiks; against Handsel Monday, kirks, kirkyairds and ministers, and specially against cock-ups in the front o' the Sabbath bonnets o' ministers' wives; against registers, lawyers and all lawbooks.’
He cried out this rigmarole at the top of his voice, speaking trippingly by rote as one that says his lesson in school and has learned it often and well. He rolled his eyes as he recited, and all the women clapped their hands and made a kind of moaning howl like a dog when it bays the moon.
'Yea, Yea, and Amen!' they cried after him, like children singing in chorus.
'Peace, devil's brats all!' cried Anton Lennox, like a tower above them.
‘And they hushed at his word, for he stood over them all, like one greater than man, till even Muckle John Gib seemed puny beside the old man.
'David Jamie, hearken to me, you that has your hand on your bit shable. Better put up your feckless iron spit. It will do you no good. You are a good scholar lost, and a decent minister spoiled. I wonder at you—a lad of some lear—companying with this hairy-throated, tarry-fisted deceiver.'
This David Jamie was a young limber lad, who looked paler and more delicate than the others. What brought him into the company of mad men and misguided women, it is perhaps better only guessing.
He looked sufficiently ashamed now at all events.
'Walter Ker and John Young, hearken ye to me; I have more hope of you. You are but thoughtless, ignorant, land-ward men, and the Lord may be pleased to reclaim you from this dangerous and horrible delusion.'
Anton Lennox looked about him. There was a fire smouldering at no great distance from him. Something black and square lay upon it. He took three great strides to the place. Lifting the dark smouldering object up from off the fire, he cried aloud in horror, and began rubbing with his hands. It was a fine large-print Bible, with more than half of it burned away. There were also several little ones upon the fire underneath. I never saw a man's anger fire up more quickly. For me, I was both amazed and afraid at the awful and unthinkable blasphemy.
'John Gib,' cried Anton Lennox, 'stand up before the Lord, and answer—who has done this?'
'I, that am the head of the Sweet Singers, and the Lord's anointed!' said he. 'I have done it!'
'Then, by the Lord's great name, I will make you sing right sweetly for this!' cried Anton, taking a vow.
Then one of the women took up the parable.
'We heard a voice in the Frost Moss,' she said, 'and a light shone about us there; and John Gib bade us burn our Bibles, for that the Psalms in Metre, the chapter headings, and the Table of Contents were but human inventions.'
'And I did it out of despite against God!' cried John Gib.
Then Anton Lennox said not a word more, but cast away his plaid, spat upon his cudgel-palm, and called over his shoulder to me:
'Come, Sandy, and help me to wrestle in the Spirit with these Sweet Singers.'
As he ran down the brae, David Jamie, the student youth, came at him with a little spit-stick of a sword, and cried that if he came nearer he would run him through.
'The Lord forgie ye for leein', callant,' cried Anton, catching the poor thin blade on his great oak cudgel, for Anton was a great player with the single-sticks, and as a lad had been the cock of the country-side. The steel, being spindle-thin, shivered into twenty pieces, and the poor lad stood gaping at the sword-hilt left in his hand, which had grown suddenly light.
'Bide you there and wrestle with him, Sandy!' Auld Anton cried again over his shoulder.
So I took my knee and tripped David up. And so sat up upon him very comfortable, till his nose was pressed into the moss, and all his members sprawled and waggled beneath me like a puddock under a stone.
Then Auld Anton made straight for John Gib himself, who stood back among his circle of women, conspicuous in his white sark and with a pistol in his hand. When he saw Auld Anton coming so fiercely at him across the peat-hags, he shot off his pistol, and turned to run. But his women caught hold of him by the flying white robe, thinking that he was about to soar upward out of their sight.
'Let me be,' he cried, with a great sailor oath; and tearing away from them, he left half the linen cloth in their hands, and betook him to his heels.
Anton Lennox went after him hot foot, and there they had it, like coursing dogs, upon the level moor. It was noble sport. I laughed till David Jamie was nearly choked in the moss with me rocking to and fro upon him. Anton Lennox was twice the age of John Gib, but Muckle John being a sailor man, accustomed only to the short deck, and also having his running gear out of order by his manner of life, did exceedingly pant and blow. Yet for a time he managed to keep ahead of his pursuer. But there was no ultimate city of refuge for him.
Anton Lennox followed after him a little stiffly, with a grim determined countenance; and as he ran I saw him shorten his cudgel of crabtree in his hand. Presently he came up with the muckle man of Borrowstounness. The great stick whistled through the air, soughing like a willow-wand. Once, twice, thrice—it rose and fell.
And the sound that ensued was like the beating of a sack of meal.
'I'll learn you to burn the Bible!' cried Anton, as he still followed. His arm rose and fell steadily while John Gib continued to run as if the dogs were after him. The great hulk cried out with the intolerable pain of the blows.
'I'll mak' ye Sweet Singers a', by my faith! I'll score ilka point o' your paper screed on your back, my man—Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Pasch, Beltan, and Yule!'
At the Yule stroke John Gib fell into a moss-hole. We could not easily see what followed then. But the grievous cudgel steadfastly rose and fell like the flail of a man that threshes corn in a barn, and a howling and roaring that was aught but sweet singing came to us over the moor.
Presently Anton returned, striding back to where I sat upon David Jamie his back.
'Rise!' he said. And that was all he said.
But he took his foot and turned the bit clerk over, pulling him out of the moss with a cloop like the cork being drawn out of a brisk bottle of small ale.
'David, lad, do ye renounce John Gib and all his ways?'
The limber-limbed student looked doubtful, but the sight of the cudgel and the distant sound of the sweet singing of Muckle John decided him.
'Ay,' he said. 'I am content to renounce them and him.'
'See ye and stick to it then!' said Anton, and went after Walter Ker and John Young, who stood together as though they had gotten a dead stroke.
'Ye saw visions, did ye?' he said. 'See ye if this be a vision?'
And he gave them certain dour strokes on their bodies, for they were strong carles and could bide the like—not like the poor feckless loon of a colleger.
'Did ye see a light shining in the moss late yestreen?' he asked them.
'It was but glow-worms!' said Walter Ker.
'It was, aiblins, Wull-o'-the-Wisp?' said John Young.
'Ay, that's mair like the thing, noo!' said Auld Anton, with something like a smile on his face.
So saying he drove all the women (save two or three that had scattered over the moss) before him, till we came to the place of the ordinary Societies' Meeting at Howmuir, from which we set out.
Here were assembled sundry of the husbands of the women—for the black shame of it was, that the most part of them were wives and mothers of families, of an age when the faults of youth were no longer either temptation or excuse.
To them he delivered up the women; each to her own husband, with certain advice.
'I have wrestled with the men,' he said, 'and overcome them. Wrestle ye with the women, that are your own according to the flesh. And if ye think that my oaken stave is too sore, discharge your duty with a birch rod, of the thickness of your little finger—for it is the law of the realm of Scotland that every husband is allowed to give his wife reasonable correction therewith. But gin ye need my staff or gin your wives prefer it, it is e'en at your service.'
So saying, he threw his plaid over his shoulder, and made for the door.
'Learn them a' the sweet singin',' he said. 'John Gib was grand at it. He sang like a mavis oot by there, on the moor at the Deer-Slunk.'‘
This was the matter of Sandy's cheerful tale about John Gib and Auld Anton Lennox.
And this cured Sandy of some part of his extremes, though to my thinking at times, he had been none the worse of Auld Anton at his elbow to give him a lesson or two in sweet singing. I might not in that case have had to buy all over again the bonny house of Earlstoun, and so had more to spend upon Afton, which is now mine own desirable residence.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.