Up in Ardmuirland
The following is from Up in Ardmuirland by Michael Barrett:
Chapter II - Memories
I have heard a complaint made of some reverend preachers (untruthfully, I well believe) that they could never begin a sermon without harking back to the Creation. Now it is not my intention to travel quite so far back into the past, but I must confess to a desire to dig somewhat deeply into the history of Ardmuirland in days gone by before touching upon more recent happenings. Such a desire led me to investigate the recollections of some of our "oldest inhabitants."
Willy Paterson, I well knew, was to be trusted for accurate memories of a certain class of happenings; but for more minute details of events the feminine mind is the more reliable. So I determined to start with Willy's wife, Bell. Their dwelling is nearest to ours; it stands, indeed, but a few yards down the road which leads past our gate. It is a white-walled, thatched house of one story only--like most of the habitations in Ardmuirland; it stands in a little garden whose neatness and the prolific nature of its soil are standing proofs of Willy's industry in hours of leisure.
Owing to the prevalence in our neighbourhood of some particular patronymics--Macdonald, Mackintosh, Mackenzie, and the rest--many individuals are distinguished by what is called in Ardmuirland a "by-name.” Some of these are furnished by the title of the residence of the family in question, others by the calling or trade of father, mother, or other relative; thus we have "Margot of the Mill," "Sandy Craigdhu," as examples of the former, and "Nell Tailor," "Duncan the Post," of the latter. Still more variety is obtained by the mention of some personal trait of the individual, such as "Fair Archie," "Black Janet," and the like. Willy Paterson's wife was commonly known by such a by-name; every one spoke of her as "Bell o' the Burn," from the name of her childhood's home.
Bell is a spare, hard-featured body--not attractive at first sight, though when one comes to know her, and the somewhat stern expression relaxes, as the lines about the mouth soften, and the brown eyes grow kindly, one begins to think that Bell must have been once quite handsome. She is always scrupulously clean whenever I chance to visit her, and is usually arrayed in a white "mutch" cap, spotless apron, and small tartan shawl over her shoulders. Willy and she have reared up a large family, all of them now settled in the world and most of them married. They are most proud of their youngest, Margaret, who is a lay sister in a town convent. Though her husband is reckoned a traveller, Bell can lay no claim to the title; she probably never moved farther than ten miles away from the family hearthstone until the day she left her father's house by the Burn of Breakachy to marry Willy Paterson, and certainly has never travelled much since that time.
Most of the houses of Ardmuirland are constructed on exactly the same plan. There are two principal rooms--"but" and "ben," as they are commonly designated. (It is unnecessary here to dive into etymology; but it may be noticed in passing that but signifies "without" and ben "within.") To "gae ben" is to pass into the inner room, which at one time opened out of the ordinary living apartment or kitchen, but is now usually separated from it by a little entrance lobby. Besides these two chief rooms, the initiated will be able to point out sundry little hidden closets and cupboards, fitted up as sleeping apartments, and reminding one of the contrivances on board ship. The two rooms each contain a more demonstrative bed, as a rule: but in some cases the bed is shut up with panelled doors like a cupboard.
All that I learned from Bell about the Ardmuirland of bygone days was gathered from her lips at intervals, and in the course of many repeated visits; for it would have been fatal to my purpose had I allowed her to imagine that I intended to make public use of her communications. Though I have retained the substance, I have often altered the form; for it would be useless to expect the reader to translate (if it were even possible to do so without the help of a glossary) Bell's broad Scots dialect. Yet the temptation has been too great to be resisted from time to time to quote her exact words--so quaint her diction and, to me at least, so attractive withal.
A description of the original chapel of the district will serve as a fitting introduction to these memoirs. According to Bell, it must have been simple even to destitution. No smoothly hewn stones, no carved windows, no decoration of any kind distinguished it from the houses of the people. It was a small, low building of rough stone, unplastered, even inside, and roofed by a heather thatch. There was a single door in the side wall. The roof within was open to the rude, unvarnished beams which upheld the thatch. The floor was of beaten clay, and there were rough benches for the people to sit upon during the sermon, but no contrivance for kneeling upon.
"Some o' the fowk had boards to kneel on, ye ken," Bell explained, "but the maist o' them prayed kneelin' on the flure."
The altar was a plain, deal kitchen table, devoid of all ornament in the shape of draperies except the necessary linen coverings. Underneath it was a box, within which the vestments were stowed away; for there was no semblance of sacristy, and the priest's house was some yards distant. At the opposite end from the altar was a raised dais for the accommodation of the singers, of whom Bell herself was one. She could not recall what they were accustomed to sing as a rule.
"I mind we wad sing the Dies Irae, whiles," was all the information she could give on that point. One would think it scarcely possible that so penitential a chant could form the usual musical accompaniment to Sunday Mass! A teacher of music from a neighbouring glen used to come over from time to time to practise the singers.
"I mind weel," said Bell, "he had a wand and a tunin' fork.” Are these not the recognized signs of ability, all the world over, to conduct a band of singers? The practices were held in the priest's house; sometimes the pastor would join in the singing, although Bell naïvely remarked on that point:
"He hadna much ear for music, ye ken."
Of the priest of that day, "Mr." McGillivray, as the old style of address ran, more will be said later. The figure next in prominence to him in Bell's recollections was the old sacristan, Robbie Benzie. For many years he acted as "clerk" at the altar, continuing to carry out his duties when well advanced in years. During the week he carried on his trade of weaver; on Sundays he was at his post betimes, carrying a lantern with him, from which he took the light for the altar candles. Bell describes him as a stalwart man with fine features and dark eyes. Clad in his green tartan plaid, he always accompanied the priest round the little chapel with the holy water for the Asperges, and with his "lint-white locks" flowing onto his neck, he used to appear in Bell's eyes "a deal mair imposin' lookin' ner the priest himsel'.” His modest and respectful bearing gained him the esteem of all. "I always think of him," said Bell, "as one o' the saints of th' olden times, ye ken. He was the model of a guid Catholic--pious, hard-workin', and aye happy and contented."
In those far-off days Ardmuirland was entirely Catholic. The Faith, in consequence, was an integral part of the life of the district, and the priest the recognized potentate, whom every one was at all times ready to serve--working on his croft, ploughing, harvesting, and such like--with cheerful promptitude. Any such labour, when required, was requested by the priest from the altar on Sunday.
"I shall be glad to receive help this week on the glebe-land," he would announce. "You will kindly arrange the division of labour among yourselves."
The same would happen when the time came for cutting and storing up peats for the winter fuel. The day and hour would be named, and all who could possibly help would be at the hill punctually to take their respective shares in the labour.
It was on one such occasion that the incident occurred which struck me as the culminating point of Bell's recollections. I cannot give it as dramatically as she did, and if I attempted to do so the pathos would be marred by the broad Doric--unintelligible to southrons--in which her narrative was told; but I will reproduce it as faithfully as possible in my own words.
It was the "peat-casting" for the priest; every one had worked with a will--young and old. Dinner had been sent up to the moss at noon by the various housewives of the district. It was a sumptuous repast, as usual on so great an occasion; chickens, oatcake, scones, cheese, and abundance of milk had been thoroughly enjoyed by the workers. The children--bearers of the dainties from their respective mothers--though bashful in responding to the fatherly greetings of the old priest, were yet secretly proud of the honour of his special notice. Shyly they stood about in groups, watching for a time the resumed labours of fathers and brothers, until afternoon was wearing away, and it was time to betake themselves home to make ready for the still more important event of the day. Gaily they rushed down the hill, their joyous laughter and merry shouts--relieved as they were from the restraint which good manners had imposed in the priest's presence--awaking the echoes of the glen. For many of them would be allowed to take part in the evening's festivity, and all might share in the preparations for it. This event was the public supper in the priest's barn, when women were welcomed with their husbands and brothers, and even the bigger children were admitted. For the evening repast, as for that of noonday, each family contributed its share of provisions, which were always ample in quantity as well as excellent in quality.
Supper, on this particular occasion--as was usual--took some time, and it was a serious business, when little conversation was encouraged. But after supper the real fun began. None love dancing more than Scots; so dancing must needs form the climax of every gathering for social enjoyment. The bashful roughness which characterized the commencement had worn off; lads and lasses were thoroughly enjoying the somewhat rare opportunity of taking part in so large an assembly; Archie Cattanach, the piper, was throwing his whole soul into the skirls and flourishes of his choice tunes; all was gaiety and innocent enjoyment. The good priest sat looking on pleased because his people were happy; now and again he would move his position to another group of the older guests, so that he might chat with all in turn; his flock, though they held their Pastor in that reverence which none but a priest can inspire, were under no false restraint in his presence, but joined in laugh and jest with ease and simplicity.
Loudly rang out Archie's pipes, merrily tripped the dancers, and joy reigned supreme, when suddenly there came an unexpected check. The outer door flew open, and a girlie of about ten, wild-eyed, bare-headed, panting for breath, rushed into the midst of the gathering. She was evidently labouring under the stress of some unwonted excitement. There was no shyness now, in spite of the priest's presence--in spite of the eager faces that sought hers in anxious questioning.
"Mither, Mither!" she screamed shrilly, as she caught sight of the familiar face she sought, and rushed toward her mother's open arms. It was little Peggy, Bell's younger sister.
"Oh, Mither," she wailed through her sobs, "oor Jessie's nae to be foond! She's nae at hame. I dinna ken wha she's gane!"
With her mother's arms around her, the child was able to give a more coherent account of the circumstances which had led to this abrupt cessation of the dance; for Archie's melody had trailed off into an unmusical drone and speedily ceased, and the dancers had spontaneously crowded round the child and her mother.
Peggy had been left in charge at home, for Bell was allowed to take part in the "ball.” Jessie, the youngest but one of the family, was a little maid of four years. She had accompanied Peggy and her brothers, with a crowd of other small folk, when the children went to the moss with provisions for the workers. All had gone and returned in a body, and no one noticed that Jessie was not with them. It was only when Peggy began to assemble her own little charges, to conduct them to their own house, that she missed the wee lassie. Peggy knew that her father and mother, together with all her elders in the family, had already started for the barn--some to help in the preparations, others to chat with those who were assembling outside. It was growing dark, for the children had delayed their homeward journey (as they often will when a number are together) to play and sport.
There was no one to advise or help the child. Sending on three-year-old Elsie and the other little ones in charge of Johnnie, she ran back, half distracted, toward the hill they had left earlier in the afternoon. Shouting out for Jessie by name, she wandered hither and thither--terrified, self-accusing, disconsolate. But it was all to no purpose. Darkness fell, and fearful and contrite, Peggy had no resource but to seek her mother.
There was no more merriment that night. A search party was at once organized by the younger men, who started with lanterns and some of their collies to the peat-moss. All that night the anxious mother kept weary vigil, while the men-folk searched the hill. Day broke, and no trace had been found of the lost child. Weary and sad, the men returned for some needful rest and others took their places. But though they traversed the moors all day, and searched crevices and water-courses with diligence, they met with no better success. Sometimes a sound would break through the stillness which would stir their hearts with renewed hope. The cry of a child! Weak and faint, indeed, but telling of the continuance of life! But again and again, after scaling heights or creeping down comes, they were doomed to disappointment. It was but the bleat of a strayed lamb! That night a larger party set out with lanterns and torches, and once more ranged the hills shouting for the child; but once again morning dawned upon disappointed hopes.
Then every one who could be of any possible use was pressed into the service. The people flocked out of their homes from all that district, and hand in hand they started in a long line stretching across a wide tract of country, and moving slowly on until every inch of ground in their way had been thoroughly explored.
It was after three nights and three days had passed that they came upon the weak little body, lying stark and still under an overhanging rock, and half buried in the heather. Moss was clutched in her clenched hand, and shreds of moss were on her cold lips; the poor little bairn had hungered for food, and had seized that which first came to hand to satisfy her craving. She was quite dead.
The bereaved mother mourned her darling with a grief that none but a mother can know. But the child had been her father's special pet of all his little flock.
"His heart," said Bell, the rising tears witnessing to the sadness of the memories called back by her story, "was well-nigh broke. He burst into tears at the sight of her wee white face, and sobbed like a bairn wi' the rest of us."
And poor little Peggy! How touching the story! She never ceased to reproach herself for what she considered her carelessness in losing sight of Jessie on that fatal day. No single creature attached a shadow of blame to her; on the contrary, it was the dearest wish of all to try to console her and assure her of her innocence in that respect. But it was of no avail. Her unceasing grief fretted away her strength, and six months later she was borne to St. Mungo's ancient burying ground to share Jessie's grave.
"It's nigh on sixty years sin'," said Bell apologetically, as she wiped her streaming eyes with her apron; "but the thocht o' that time brings the tears up yet."