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Up in Ardmuirland

The following is from Up in Ardmuirland by Michael Barrett:

Chapter X - A Rustic Pastor

    "In sober state,
Through the sequestered vale of rural life,
The venerable patriarch guileless held
The tenor of his way."

(Porteus--"Death")

The priest who ministered to the Catholic flock of Ardmuirland in the far-off days when "Bell o' the Burn" was a lassie was known as "Mr. McGillivray"; for the repeal of the penal laws had not yet emancipated the people from the cautious reticence of the days of persecution, and they still spoke of "prayers" instead of "Mass," and of "speaking to the priest" and "going forward" to intimate Confession and Holy Communion.

"He wes a stoot, broad-shouldered gentleman o' middle size," said Bell in one of her reminiscent moods; "when I first knew him he wes gettin' bent wi' age, and his hair wes snow-white and lang on his shoulders like. I couldna' ha' been muckle mair ner five or sax year auld when he took me by the hand and askit me if I'd like to come an' herd his coos an' leeve wi' his niece at the chapel hoose. That wes in 1847, sir, ten years aifter Queen Victoria (God rest her!) cam' to the throne. That's a good bit back, ye ken."

Bell dwelt under the same roof as the priest until she was needed at home, a few years later. Although chiefly employed during the day in looking after the two cows that grazed on the hillside about a mile distant, and driving them out and in, she was sufficiently within doors to be able to gain much knowledge of the daily life of a simple Scottish pastor of the old school.

That life, as her reminiscences witness, was one of extreme homeliness--not to say austerity. The food of the priest was that of the ordinary peasant class among which he lived. "His denner," said Bell, "wes juist tatties, taken in their skins; his supper wes brochan an' sometimes tatties as weel. Some o' the neebors would come an' join him, whiles, an' share the supper wi' him, as they sat roond the hearth.” (In answer to my query Bell explained that "brochan" was a kind of soup or gruel, made from oatmeal.)

"My faither an' mither," Bell remarked with some pride, "usit often to tak' denner wi' the priest o' Sundays. They wes bidin' a good bit awa' frae the chapel, ye ken, sir, an' they aye likit a talk wi' me aifter Mass. So Mr. McGillivray wouldna' aloo them to fast till they got hame, but aye pressit them to stay. For they wouldna' break their fast till the priest did, ye ken; it had aye been the custom in their young days, and they keepit it till they wes too weak to fast sae lang."

Besides the Ardmuirland district, the priest had charge of two others at some little distance over the hills in different directions. It was his duty to say Mass at one or other of these stations occasionally, and the Ardmuirland folk who could conveniently manage the journey would generally accompany him on a Sunday. They would walk over the hill in a kind of unorganized procession, reciting the Rosary and litany as they went.

During the week the priest kept daily moving about among his people, and little of interest could happen which did not soon come to his knowledge. "The fowk aye enjoyit a chat wi' the priest," said Bell, "for Mr. McGillivray wes the best oot at tellin' auld-fashioned stories.” His figure was a familiar one in all the countryside, as he walked slowly along, leaning on his silver-mounted walking-stick, and wrapped in the ample folds of a well-worn Spanish cloak, buckled at the neck by a silver clasp. Under that same cloak he would often carry tit-bits of oatcake for the horses he might come across in the farms he visited--for he was a lover of all dumb creatures.

Mr. McGillivray's only outdoor recreation was fishing. Children knew his ways, and would shyly steal after him down to the side of the burn and watch him from a distance. When his rod happened to get caught in the branches of the stunted birches which bordered the stream--which was not of infrequent occurrence--they would run to his assistance and help to untangle the hook; they would often search for and carry to him worms to serve as bait. Both kinds of service were sure to be rewarded by a piece of "black sugar," as Bell styled liquorice, which he always carried with him for use in such emergencies.

"We bairns," she explained, "were niver feared o' the priest. I weel remember hoo my mither chided me for usin' sic freedom wi' him--I had lived sae lang in the hoose wi' him, ye ken, that I wes whiles gey familiar in my speech. Well, when he askit me one day--juist as a joke, ye ken--to tak' a snuff oot o' the wee boxie he aye carrit, I tossit my head and said (ill bred as I wes!), 'Fuich!' Mr. McGillivray wesna' angered; he juist laughed oot an' says he: 'Weel, lassie, ye couldna' ha' said worse to a dog!' But I got mair words frae my mither aifter, an' a strappin' as weel, an' to bed wi'oot supper. It learned me to be mair respectful-like to the priest!"

This anecdote recalled another. "I mind weel hoo I got my first bonnet through Mr. McGillivray. In they times, ye ken, sir, it wes aye the fashion to wear large bonnets o' Tuscan straw, an' a lassie o' foorteen wes surely auld enough for siclike--I said to mysel'. So when the priest cam' to oor hoose aince, I made sae bold as to get him to ask my faither to buy me a bonnet for Sundays, next time he went to the toon o' Aberdeen. My faither wouldna' ha' done it for me, but he did when the priest askit him, and I got my bonnet! But I doot I wes a bit o' a favourite with the priest, sin' I herdit his coos sae lang."

However free the children may have been in their intercourse with the old priest, I gathered from Bell's narrative that the grown-ups rather feared him. His methods were certainly such as would be considered unnecessarily severe in these days; still, there is no doubt he managed by them to keep his people well in hand.

"I canna' mind muckle aboot Mr. McGillivray's discoorses," she answered, when I questioned her on that subject. "I wes but a bit lassie, an' I couldna' onderstand weel. He seemed to me to stan' an' drone awa' mostly. Whiles, he wud gi' great scoldin's, an' then I usit to think it wes splendid! He could be eloquent then, I assure ye, sir! I mind weel when there wes a marriage in Advent in a Protestant family, an' Mr. McGillivray warned the fowk that they mightna' attend it; some o' them, in spite o' that, went to the marriage, an' I could niver forget the awfu' way he chided them in the chapel on the Sunday aifter! It wes tarrible!

"If ony o' the fowk cam' to the chapel in their working clothes he would be greatly pit aboot. He would ca' them up to the rail at catechism time an' reprove them before a' the congregation."

"So you said your catechism in public!" I asked.

"There wes aye catechism, atween the Mass an' the preachin'. Aebody had to be prepared to be callit up till they wes marrit, at least! Even aifter that, a body couldna' be sure o' bein' left alane! I mind him callin' a mon o' saxty years o' age ane Sunday! He wes a mon greatly thought of by the congregation, an' maybe the priest wes afeared he wes gettin' prood. Onyways, Mr. McGillivray had him at the rails wi' the bairns. 'Are you ashamed,' he says, 'to learn your Christian Doctrine?' 'Na, na, sir,' says he. 'Then gae back an' sit ye doon,' says the priest."

Such treatment would scarcely be appreciated in these days, but perhaps the reason is that we are less endowed with humility than our fathers in the Faith.

Bell had other anecdotes of a like kind.

"If ony o' the bairns wes restless or trifling-kind, during the preachin', Mr. McGillivray would stop his discoorse an' ca' them up to the rail an' reprove them severely. I mind him summoning a grown man from the choir aince, and mak' him own his fault. Hey! He wer a graund priest, an' nae mistak'--wer Mr. McGillivray!"

On stormy days, when it was difficult for the aged pastor to wade through the deep snow down to the chapel, Mass was said in his own house. The people crowded in at the door of his little living-room, and would fill the kitchen. When he grew old and infirm it was impossible for the greater number to hear anything of the sermon; yet he never omitted to preach.

"An' I mind," naïvely added Bell, "that there wes aye a collection made."

People went to Confession in the house at such times; otherwise the priest heard them in the chapel on Saturdays or Sundays, and on the eves of feasts.

It can not be denied that Mr. McGillivray was a militant churchman, whenever the interests of his flock or of the Catholic Church were at stake. Bell had more than one anecdote to prove it.

A poor woman who was at the point of death had been induced by two good old Catholic spinsters who lived near her to send for the priest to reconcile her to the Church. She was the offspring of a mixed marriage; her mother--the Catholic party--had died when the child was quite young, and the father had at once taken the girl to Kirk with him. She had once been to Confession, but had received no other Sacrament except Baptism. When she had grown to womanhood, she married a Presbyterian, and all her family had been brought up in that religion. Yet the grace of her Baptism seemed to cling to her. After her husband's death she would now and again attend at Mass, driven the six miles by her Protestant son; but she was not known to the priest, and so she remained outside the pale. Her intimacy with Jeannie and Katie Ann McGruer was the means of keeping her in touch with Catholic matters, and eventually resulted in her reconciliation.

This was not accomplished, however, without a stiff skirmish between the old priest and the members of her family--not to mention the minister of their particular Kirk.

In compliance with the summons conveyed by one of the McGruers (Bell spoke of them as "guid Catholic lassies," but in answer to my query explained that Katie Ann, the younger sister, would be "risin' sixty"!), Mr. McGillivray betook himself to the house of the invalid. The door was opened by her eldest son, Adam Fordyce--a burly, black-browed, bearded man of forty. He had charge of the roads in the district, so that he and the priest were on speaking terms, at least.

Adam held the door in one hand and the door-post in the other, and his portly figure filled up the opening fairly well.

"I am sorry to hear that your mother is unwell," said the priest sympathetically.

"Aye, aye, sir, she's nae weel at all," was the answer.

"I would like to see her, if she's well enough," said Mr. McGillivray.

"Weel, sir, I wouldna' like to say she's nae fit to see a veesitor--but--ye ken, sir----"

"You mean she's not well enough to see me."

"Weel, it's this wye, Mr. McGillivray," answered Adam, lowering his voice; "I'm nae objectin' mysel', sin she askit me to let ye come; but the ithers is awfu' set again' it. That's the wye it is, sir."

The fact was, the "Cerberus" was not at all fierce--quite the contrary! He had been deputed by the others to confront the unwelcome visitor, as being the eldest, and therefore responsible for all unpleasant duties; but as far as he was concerned, he had no feeling in the matter. Like any Scotsman who had lived with his mother from childhood to mature manhood, he was deeply attached to her, and willing to agree to anything that might give her satisfaction in her present weak state; that the visit of the priest would be a comfort to her he strongly suspected, and hence the conflict between duty--as he regarded it--and affection.

It took very little persuasion from the priest to overcome Adam's scruples and gain admittance to the sick-room; this accomplished, it might seem that the battle had been won for religion, but the victory was not yet complete!

Adam had relented so far as to admit the priest, but no argument could persuade him to leave him alone with the invalid. He was the agent of the family, and it was his duty to see everything that went on. He would have nothing underhand in the matter!

Mr. McGillivray easily interpreted his action. He was afraid of what the others might say should he desert his post--that was all. Diplomacy was necessary and the priest rose to the occasion.

"Look here, Adam," he said; "I know you are merely carrying out what you feel to be a duty to your family in staying here. We can arrange matters without any difficulty. I must have a few minutes' private talk with your mother on religious matters which concern herself and no one else. Just leave me with her for a bit and you can come back and stay here as long as I do."

But Adam was obstinate. He acknowledged that the others "wouldna' be pleased" should he relinquish his post of watch-dog. He must "bide" in the room as long as the priest remained.

As in many houses of that class, there was what is called a "bed-closet" opening out of the room in which the sick woman lay. It was literally a closet, containing nothing except the bed, and lighted by a tiny window. Without more ado, Mr. McGillivray seized the man by the arm and led him to the closet.

"Just jump onto the bed," he whispered. "No one will know that you have not remained in the room. You shall come out in a few minutes."

So the burly Adam climbed onto the bed, and the priest shut the door upon his prisoner and fastened the "sneck.” After hearing the mother's Confession, he released his captive, and Adam stood by while the saving unction was administered to prepare the poor woman for her last journey. It was soon over and the priest took his leave.

Adam was quite relieved to find that his mother had been gladdened by the priest's ministrations--for she had poured forth grateful thanks for his kindness--while he had not been compromised in the eyes of his brothers and sisters. He willingly consented for Mr. McGillivray to return next day to administer Holy Communion for the first--and probably the last--time in the life of the dying woman.

"I've only one more office to do for your mother, Adam," the priest had explained, "and then she will be quite at rest. So I will call to-morrow about this time.” And Adam had cordially agreed.

But there were others to be reckoned with. The news of the priest's visit was soon carried to the Free Church minister, and down he swooped upon the luckless Fordyces that very afternoon. Poor Adam was the scapegoat. He it was who had to bear the whole of the blame. The minister congratulated himself, when he took his leave (without venturing into the sick-room, for the present), that he had successfully prevented any further "popish antics" in that house!

Consequently, when Mr. McGillivray returned next day, according to promise, he was met, not by Adam, but by the younger son--a dour Presbyterian, of pronounced type. He absolutely refused to allow the priest to cross the threshold again. His brother was "oot"; but he had left word that he must not be allowed to enter the house. The minister, as the brother explained, "had been sair angered" on account of the proceedings of the previous day. He had threatened to remove Adam from his post of "precentor" should he allow any more intercourse between his mother and any "popish minister."

Remonstrances, persuasions, entreaties were all unavailing. The man declared that his mother "didna' wish to see" Mr. McGillivray. The latter had therefore reluctantly to submit to circumstances and return home with the Blessed Sacrament, leaving the poor woman "unhouselled"--although not "unanointed.” He feared that she had given in to the persuasions of the minister to refuse further help. But after her death, which occurred a few days later, the good priest ascertained that she had died in most edifying dispositions. The minister had not visited her, and she had thought it best to wait a little before seeing the priest again, merely on account of her family. The McGruers, who were present at the last, assured him that she had died a good Catholic---her only regret the deprivation of Holy Communion.

Some remarks dropped by the Free Church minister as to the priest's "interference" with a member of his congregation drew forth so vehement a denial from Mr. McGillivray, and a demand for a public contradiction of the statement from the pulpit on the following Sunday, that the crestfallen minister had to eat his words.

The priest was indeed a match for any of his opponents in whatever way they chose to attack him. Once at a dinner, when three ministers were present as well as Mr. McGillivray, one of them thought to make a butt of the priest, and during the after-dinner toasts proposed suddenly: "The Auld Kirk!” But the priest was too quick for him. Raising his glass, he responded promptly: "The Auld Kirk--the True Kirk!"

"No! No!" cried the entrapped Presbyterian.

"Then I'm sorry for you!" was the quiet retort.

One feature in Bell's recollections must not be passed over. The priest was renowned as a peacemaker. Anything like family strife was speedily put an end to by his tactful intervention. Even by Protestants his services were not infrequently asked for in this respect, and the result was a great popularity with all classes in the district of Ardmuirland. There was much pathos about the old man's last days; for he hastened his end by his self-denying charity in the cause of peace.

A violent quarrel had taken place some years before between two Protestant farmers, both living some distance away from the priest's house. They had married two sisters, and a dispute had arisen on the subject of a legacy left to one of these nieces by their father's brother, while the other was passed over entirely. Suspicions and insinuations of underhand dealing on the part of the successful legatee had aroused strong feelings, with the result that all communication between the two families had ceased.

At length the wife of one of the belligerents lay upon her deathbed, and under the softening influence of that solemn hour she begged that her sister should be asked to visit her, that they might part as sisters should. The other woman was just as anxious for a reconciliation, but their respective husbands could not be brought to terms.

In her distress the dying woman sent a message to the priest, begging for his intervention. It was the dead of winter, and a severe frost had set in. The old priest had to drive in a friendly farmer's open vehicle for ten miles in a keen wind. He succeeded in persuading one of the men to seek for peace and friendship, then drove on five miles farther to interview the other. Through his earnest remonstrances the strife was entirely brought to an end. But it was at the cost of the life of the aged peacemaker. He caught a severe chill, which he was never able to throw off, and after two or three months he bade farewell to earth.

Mr. McGillivray had desired, when old age should have rendered him incapable of his priestly charge, to be allowed to retire from active work, and end his days in the quiet seclusion of his native district--a strath shut in by hills, many miles to the north of Ardmuirland. But the family from which the priest had sprung were no great favourites there, and his wish, when made known, had not been cordially received by the people. This had been sufficient to excite the wrath of the Ardmuirland folk; they had risen up as one man against any such arrangement. An appeal was made to the Bishop to prevent their beloved pastor from leaving his flock to die among comparative strangers. So it had been settled by authority that Mr. McGillivray should continue his ministrations among them as long as he was able, and should then receive a helper; thus he was never to take leave of Ardmuirland except to receive his heavenly reward. As we have seen, he died in harness, before there could be any question of retirement.

And now another difficulty arose. His own native district naturally laid claim to his mortal remains, and his relatives had speedily made arrangements for his burial in the family grave. Then, indeed, Ardmuirland was stirred.

"They wouldna' tak' him leevin'; they'll nae get him deid!" was the universal cry.

So in the bright springtime, after a late fall of snow had clothed the countryside in dazzling whiteness, his people bore him to the grave. An immense gathering--of both Catholics and Protestants--had assembled; in Bell's expressive phrase--"the country wes full o' men!” Every man took his turn in helping to bear the coffin shoulder-high all the five miles which lay between the priest's house and the ancient burial-ground of St. Michael below the hill. There, surrounded by the flock he had tended so long and so faithfully, the body of the pastor awaits with them the general awakening to life eternal.

Chapter XI--A Sprig Of Shamrock


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