BIRSAY THE COBBLER
So many of the wanderers abode at the Duchrae that Maisie Lennox was much cumbered with serving; yet in her quiet sedate way she would often take a word with me in the bygoing, as if to let me feel that I was not lonely or forgotten. And it cheered me much to find that I was not despised, because I was (as yet) no great fighting man of many inches or noble make like my brother Sandy. Also I loved women's converse, having been much with my mother—indeed never long away from her side, till my vain adventuring forth to Edinburgh in the matter of the sequestering of the estate.
As for Earlstoun, we heard it was to be forfaulted very soon, and given to Robert Grier of Lag, who was a very grab-all among them. Indeed no one was better than another, for even Claverhouse got Freuch, ‘in consideration,’ it was quaintly said, ‘of his good service and sufferings.’ His brother David likewise got another estate in the Shire, and Rothes and Lauderdale were as ‘free coups’ for the wealth of the fined and persecuted gentry. Whenever there was a man well-to-do and of good repute, these men thought it no shame to strive to take him in a snare, or to get him caught harbouring on his estate some intercommuned persons. They rubbed hands and nudged one another in Council when they heard of a rising in arms. They even cried out and shook hands for joy, because it gave them colour for more exactions, and also for keeping an army in the field, whose providing and accoutring was also very profitable for them.
But at the Duchrae we abode fairly secure. At night we withdrew to the barn, where behind the corn-mow a very safe and quaint hiding-place had been devised. In the barn-wall, as in most of the barns in that country-side, there were no windows of any size—in fact nothing save a number of three-cornered wickets. These were far too small to admit the body of a man; but by some exercise of ingenious contrivance in keeping with the spirit of an evil time, the bottom stone of one of these wickets had been so constructed that it turned outwards upon a hinge, which so enlarged the opening that one man at a time had no difficulty in passing through. This right cunning trap-door was in the gable-end of the barn, and conducted the fugitive behind the corn-mow in which the harvest sheaves were piled to the ceiling. Here we lay many a time while the troopers raged about the house itself, stabbing every suspected crevice of the corn and hay with their blades, but leaving us quite safe behind the great pleasant-smelling mass of the mow.
Yet for all it was a not unquiet time with us, and I do not deny that I had much pleasant fellowship with Maisie Lennox.
But I have now to tell what befel at the Duchrae one Sabbath evening, when the pursuit had waxed dull after Bothwell, and before the Sanquhar affair had kindled a new flame.
At that time in Galloway, all the tailors, shoemakers, and artificers, did their work by going from house to house according as the several families had need of them. Now there was one man, who sat near us at the conventicle, whose actions that day it was impossible to mistake. When the troopers were jingling past beneath us, he flung himself on the ground, and thrust his plaid into his mouth, to prevent his crying out for fear. So pitiful did he look that, when all was past, my cousin Wat went over and asked of him:
‘What craven manner of hill-man art thou?’
For indeed the men of the broad bonnet were neither cowards nor nidderlings. But this fellow was shaking with fear like the aspen in an unequal wind.
‘I am but poor Birsay the cobbler,’ the man answered, ‘an it please your honour, I like not to come so near thae ill loons of soldiers.’
‘What sent you to the conventicle, then, when you fear the red-coats so greatly?’ asked my cousin.
The little man glanced up at my cousin with a humoursome gleam in his eyes. He was all bent together with crouching over his lap-stone, and as he walked he threw himself into all kinds of ridiculous postures.
‘Weel,’ he said, ‘ye see it's no easy kennin' what may happen. I hae seen a conventicle scale in a hurry, and leave as mony as ten guid plaids on the grund—forbye Bibles and neckerchiefs.’
‘But surely,’ I said to the cobbler, ‘you would not steal what the poor honest folk leave behind them in their haste?’
The word seemed to startle him greatly.
‘Na, na; Birsay steals nane, stealin's no canny!’ he cried. ‘Them that steals hings in a tow—an' forbye, burns in muckle hell—bleezin' up in fuffin lowes juist as the beardie auld man Sandy Peden said.’
And the cobbler illustrated the nature of the conflagration with his hand.
‘Na, na,’ he cried, in the strange yammering speech of the creature, ‘there's nae stealin' in gatherin' thegether what ither folks hae strawed, surely. That's i' the guid Buik itsel'. An' then after the bizz is bye, and the sough calmed doon, Birsay can gang frae auld wife to auld wife, and say to ilka yin, 'Ye wadna loss ocht lately, did ye, guid wife?' 'Aye,' says she. 'I lost my Bible, my plaid, or my kercher at the field preachin'!' 'Ay, woman, did ye?' says I. 'They're terrible loons the sodgers for grippin' and haudin'. Noo I mak' shoon for a sergeant that has mony a dizzen o' thae things.'
‘Wi' that the auld wife begins to cock her lugs. 'Maybes he has my Bible!' 'I wadna wunner,' says I. 'O man, Birsay,' she says, 'I hae aye been a freen' o' yours, ye micht e'en see gin he has it, an' seek it aff him? There's the texts an' heads an' particulars o' mony sermons o' guid Maister Welsh and precious Maister Guthrie in the hinner end o' the Buik!'
'So,' says I, aff-hand like, 'supposin' noo, just supposin' that Sergeant Mulfeather has gotten your bit buik, an' that for freendship to me he was wullin' to pairt wi't, what wad the bit buik be worth to ye. Ye see it's treason to hae sic a thing, and rank conspiracy to thig and barter to get it back—but what wull freends no do to obleege yin anither?’
‘Ay, man Birsay,’ I said, to encourage him, for I saw that the little man loved to talk. ‘An' what wull the auld body do then?’
‘Faith, she'll gie me siller to tak' to Sergeant Mulfeather and get back her bit buikie. An' that's just what Birsay wull do wi' richt guid wull,’ he concluded cantily.
‘And hae ye ony mair to tell me, Birsay?’ I asked him. For his talk cheered the long and doleful day, and as for belief, there was no reason why one should believe more than seemed good of Birsay's conversation.
‘Ay, there's yan thing mair that Birsay has to say to ye. You an' that braw lad wi' the e'en like a lassie's are no richt Whigs, I'm jaloosin'. Ye'll aiblins be o' the same way o' thinkin' as mysel'!’
At this I pretended to be much disconcerted, and said: ‘Wheest, wheest, Birsay! Be canny wi' your tongue! Mind whaur ye are. What mean you?’
‘Trust Birsay,’ he returned cunningly, cocking his frowsy head like a year-old sparrow. ‘Gin the King, honest man, never comes to mair harm than you an' me wusses him, he'll come gey weel oot o' some o' the ploys that they blame him for.’
‘How kenned ye, Birsay,’ I said, to humour him, ‘that we werna Whigs?’
‘O, I kenned brawly by the fashion o' your shoon. Thae shoon were never made for Whigs, but for honest King's folk. Na, na, they dinna gree well wi' the moss-broo ava—thae sort wi' the narrow nebs and single soles. Only decent, sweering, regairdless folk, that wuss the King weel, tryst shoon like them!’
It was clear that Birsay thought us as great traitors and spies in the camp as he was himself. So he opened his heart to us. It was not a flattering distinction, but as the confidence of the little man might be an element in our own safety and that of our friends on some future occasion, I felt that we would assuredly not undeceive him.
But we had to pay for the distinction, for from that moment he favoured us with a prodigious deal of his conversation, which, to tell the truth, savoured but seldom of wit and often of rank sculduddery.
Birsay had no sense of his personal dishonour, and would tell the most alarming story to his own discredit, without wincing in the least. He held it proof of his superior caution that he had always managed to keep his skin safe, and so there was no more to be said.
‘Ay, ay,’ said Birsay, ‘these are no canny times to be amang the wild hill-folk. Yin wad need to be weel payed for it a'. There's the twa black MacMichaels—they wad think nae mair o' splatterin' your harns again the dyke than o' killing a whutterick. Deil a hair! An' then, on the ither hand, there's ill-contrived turncoats like Westerha' that wad aye be pluff-pluffin' poother and shot at puir men as if they were muir-fowl. An' he's no parteecler eneuch ava wha he catches, an' never will listen to a word.
‘Then, waur than a', there's the awesome nichts whan the ghaists and warlocks are aboot. I canna bide the nicht ava. God's daylicht is guid eneuch for Birsay, an' as lang as the sun shines, there's nae fear o' deil or witch-wife gettin' haud o' the puir cobbler chiel! But when the gloamin' cuddles doon intil the lap o' the nicht, and the corp-cannles lowe i' the bogs, an' ye hear the deils lauchin' and chunnerin' to themselves in a' the busses at the road-sides, I declare every stound o' manhood flees awa' clean oot o' Birsay's heart, an' he wad like to dee but for thocht o' the After come. An' deed, in the mirk-eerie midnicht, whether he's fearder to dee or to leeve, puir Birsay disna ken!’
‘But, Birsay,’ I said, ‘ill-doers are aye ill-dreaders. Gin ye were to drap a' this thievery an' clash-carryin' wark, ye wadna be feared o' man or deil!’
‘Weel do I ken,’ Birsay said, ‘that siccan ploys are no for the like o' me; but man, ye see, like ither folk, I'm terrible fond o' the siller. An' there's nocht so comfortin', when a' thae things are yammerin' to get haud o' ye, as the thocht that ye hae a weel-filled stockin'-fit whaur nane but yersel' can get haud o't!’
And the creature writhed himself in glee and slapped his thigh.
‘Yae stockin' fu', man,’ he said, ‘an' tied wi' a string, an' the ither begun, an' as far up as the instep. O man, it's blythe to think on!
‘But heard ye o' the whummel I gat aff this verra Duchrae kitchen laft?’ said Birsay. He often came over in the gloaming on a news-gathering expedition. For it was a pleasure to give him news of a kind; and my cousin, who had not a great many occupations since Kate McGhie had gone back to the great House of Balmaghie, took a special delight in making up stories of so ridiculous a nature that Birsay, retailing them at headquarters, would without doubt soon find his credit gone.
‘The way o't was this,’ Birsay continued. ‘As I telled ye, I gan frae hoose to hoose in the exercise o' my trade, for there's no sic a suitor i' the countryside as Birsay, though he says it himsel', an' no siccan water-ticht shoon as his ever gaed on the fit o' man. Weel, it was ae nicht last winter, i' the short days, Birsay was to begin wark at the Duchrae at sax by the clock on Monday morn. An' whan it comes to coontin' hours wi' Auld Anton Lennox o' the Duchrae, ye maun begin or the clock has dune the strikin'. Faith an' a' the Lennoxes are the same, they'll haud the nose o' ye to the grund-stane—an' the weemen o' them are every hair as bad as the men. There's auld Lucky Lennox o' Lennox Plunton—what said ye?—aweel, I'll gang on wi' my story gin ye like, but what's a' the steer so sudden, the nicht's afore us?
‘As I was sayin', I had to start at Auld Anton's on the Monday mornin', gey an' early. So I thocht I wad do my travellin' in time o' day, an' get to the Duchrae afore the gloamin'. An' in that way I wad get the better o' the bogles, the deils o' the bogs, the black horse o' the Hollan Lane, an' a' sic uncanny cattle.
‘But I minded that the auld tod, Anton Lennox, was a terrible man for examinin' in the Carritches, an' aye speer-speerin' at ye what is the Reason Annexed to some perfectly unreasonable command—an' that kind o' talk disna suit Birsay ava. So what did I do but started ower in the afternoon, an' gat there juist aboot the time when the kye are milkit, an' a' the folk eyther at the byre or in the stable.
‘So I watched my chance frae the end o' the hoose, an' when no a leevin' soul was to be seen, I slippit up the stairs, speelin' on the rungs o' the ladder wi' my stockin' soles as quiet as pussy.
‘Then whan I got to the middle o' the laft, whaur the big hole o' the lum is, wi' the reek hingin' thick afore it gangs oot at the riggin' o' the hoose, I keekit doon. An' there at the table, wi' his elbows on the wood, sat Auld Anton takin' his lesson oot o' the big Bible—like the bauld auld Whig that he is, his whinger in a leather tashe swingin' ahint him. It's a queerie thing that for a' sae often as I hae telled the curate aboot him, he has never steered him. There maun be something no very thorough aboot the curate, an' he none so great a hero wi' the pint stoup either, man!
‘Aweel, as the forenicht slippit on, an' the lassies cam' in frae the byre, an' the lads frae the stable, it was just as I expected. They drew up their stools aboot the hearth, got oot their Bibles an' warmed their taes. Lord preserve me, to see them sittin' sae croose an' canty ower Effectual Callin' an' Reason Annexed, as gin they had been crackin' an' singin' in a change-hoose! They're a queer fowk thae Whigs. It wad hae scunnered a soo! An' twa-three neebours cam' in by to get the benefit o' the exerceeses! Faith! if Clavers had chanced to come by the road, he wad hae landed a right bonny flaucht o' them, for there wasna yin o' the rive but had grippit sword at either o' the twa risin's. For a' the auld carles had been at Pentland an' a' the young plants o' grace had been at Bothwell—ay, an' Auld Anton an' twa-three mair warriors had been at them baith. An' gin there had been a third he wad hae been there too, for he's a grim auld carle, baith gash an' steeve, wi' his Bible an' his brass-muntit pistols an' his Effectual Callin'!
‘Then bywhiles, atween the spells o' the questions, some o' the young yins fell a-talkin', for even Auld Anton canna haud the tongues o' the young birkies. An' amang ither things what did the loons do but start to lay their ill-scrapit tongues on me, an' begood to misca' puir Birsay for a' that was ill!’
‘'Listeners hear nae guid o' themselves,' is an auld-farrant say, Birsay,’ I said.
‘Aweel,’ the suitor went on, ‘that's as may be. At ony rate, it was 'Birsay this' an' 'Birsay that,' till every porridge-fed speldron an' ill-gabbit mim-moo'ed hizzie had a lick at puir Birsay.
But at the lang an' last the auld man catched them at it, an' he was juist the man to let them hear aboot it on the deafest side o' their heids. He was aye a don at reprovin', was Auld Anton. No mony o' the preachers could haud a can'le to him on the job.
‘Is it no a gey queer thing,’ said Birsay, breaking off his story, ‘that when we set to an' curse a' an' sundry, they ca' it profane sweerin', and misca' us for awesome sinners; but when they lay their tongues to their enemies an' curse them, it's ca'ed a Testimony an' printed in a buik?’
The thing did indeed strike me as strange, but I desired to keep Birsay to his story, so I only said:
‘But, Birsay, what did the auld man say to them when he heard them misca'in' you?’
‘Oh, he e'en telled them that it wad fit them better to look to their ain life an' conversation. An' that it wad be tellin' them yae day, gin they had made as guid a job o' their life wark as Birsay made o' his bits o' shoon—a maist sensible an' just observe! Faith, the auld tog is nane sae ill an auld carle, though siccan a dour an' maisterfu' Whig. He kens guid leather wark when he sees it!
‘So when they were a' sittin' gey an' shame-faced under this reproof—whang! Doon on the hearthstane fell my suitor's elshin—the cankersome thing had slippit oot o' my pooch an' drappit ower the edge o' the hole in the laft aboon the fireplace.
'Preserve us,' I thought to mysel', 'it's a' by wi' Birsay noo. They'll be up the stair swarmin' like a bee's byke.' But when I keeked it ower, they were a' sittin' gapin' at the elshin that had stottit on to the floor. An' what wi' me steerin' an' lookin' ower the edge, clash fell my braid knife, that I cut the leather wi', oot o' my pooch! It fell on the clean stane, an' then lap to the side, nearly on to the knees o' a great fat gussie o' a loon they ca' Jock Wabster. An' Jock was in siccan a hurry to get oot o' the road o' the thing—for he thocht it wasna canny—that he owerbalanced himsel', and, certes! ower he gaed amang the lassies, stool an' a', wi' an awesome clatter. An' a' the lassies cried oot wi' fricht an' gruppit the lad they likit best—for there's a deal o' human nature even amang the Whigs, that the Covenants canna fettle, nor yet Effectual Callin' keep in bounds, and nae doot there's Reason Annexed for that too!
My sang, but whan Auld Anton got him straucht on his chair again, whatna tongue-threshin' did he no gie the lassies, an' indeed a' the lave o' them. He caa'ed them for a' thing that was bad, an' telled them what kin' o' black ill consciences they bood hae, to be feared o' a wee bit thing that was but wood an' airn. But when they showed him the knife whaur it lay glintin' on the hearth (for nae man o' them daured to touch it), Anton was a wee bit staggered himsel', an' said it was a sign sent to reprove them for speakin' aboot puir Birsay on a Sabbath nicht. 'It was a deil's portent,' he said, 'an' nae mortal man ever forged that steel, an' gin onybody touched it he wadna wunner but it wad burn him to the bane, comin' direc' frae sic a place as it had dootless loupit frae.'
This tickled me so terribly that I creepit a wee nearer to see the auld tod's face, as he laid it aff to them aboot the deil's elshin an' his leather knife—that had baith been bocht frae Rab Tamson, the hardware man in the Vennel o' Dumfries, an' wasna payed for yet! When what d'ye think happened?
Na, ye couldna guess—weel, I creepit maybe a hair ower near the edge. The auld rotten board gied way wi' me, an' doon Birsay fell amang the peats on the hearthstane, landin' on my hinderlands wi' a brange that nearly brocht the hoose doon. I gaed yae skelloch as I fell, but, gracious me,’ said Birsay, waving his hands, ‘that was as naething to the scraich that the fowk aboot the fire gied. They scattered like a flock o' wild deuks when a chairge o' shot splairges amang them. They thocht the ill auld boy was comed into the midst o' them, an' wi' yae consent they made for the door. Jock Wabster took the hill baa-haain' like a calf as he ran, and even bauld Auld Anton stood by the door cheek wi' his sword point atween him an' the deil whummelt on his hearthstane!
But I didna bide lang amang the reed peats, as ye may guess. I was scramblin' oot, whan the auld man gruppit me by the cuff o' the neck, an', maybes because he had been a kennin' frichtit himsel', he gied puir Birsay an awesome warm pair o' lugs. He near dang me stupit. Gin I had gane to the laft to escape Effectual Callin', he didna scruple to gie me Effectual Daudin', an' that without ony speerin' or as muckle's a single reason annexed!’
‘And what,’ I said, ‘came o' Jock Wabster?’
'Deed as for Jock,’ said Birsay, ‘thereupon he got great experience o' religion and gaed to join John Gib and his company on the Flowe o' the Deer-Slunk, where Maister Lennox vanquished them. But he didna catch Jock, for Jock said gin he had beat the deil flat-fit in a race, he wasna feared for any Lennox o' the squad. But Jock was aye ower great wi' the weemen folk, an' sae John Gib's notions just suited him.’
Here Birsay made an end of his story, for Anton Lennox himself came in, and of him Birsay stood in great and wholesome awe.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.