Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Wilson's Border Tales
Peat-Casting Time

In the olden times, there were certain fixed occasions when frolic and labour went hand in hand—when professional duty and kind-hearted glee mutually kissed each other. The "rocking" mentioned by Burns— "On Fastening’s E’en we had a rocking"— I still see in the dim and hazy distance of the past. It is only under the refractive medium of vigorous recollection that I can again bring up to view (as the Witch of Endor did Saul) those images that have been reposing, "‘midst the wreck of things that were," for more than fifty years. Yet my early boyhood was familiar with these social senile and juvenile festivities. There still sits Janet Smith, in her toy-much and check-apron, projecting at intervals the well filled spindle into the distance. Beside her is Isabel Kirk, elongating and twirling the yet unwound thread. Nanny Nivison occupies a creepy on the further side of the fire, (making the third fate!) with her scars. Around, and on bed sides, are seated Lizzy Gibson, with her favoured lad; Tam Kirkpatrick, with his joe Jean on his knee; Rob Paton the stirk-herd; and your humble servant. And "now the crack gaes round, and who so wilful as to put it by?" The story of past times; the report of recent love-matches and miscarriages; the gleeful song, bursting unbid from the young heart, swelling forth in beauty and in brightness like the waters from the rock of Meribah; the occasional female remonstrance against certain welcome impertinences, in shape of, "Come now, Tam—nane o’ yer nonsense." "Will! I say, be peaceable, and behave yersel afore folk. ‘Od, ye’ll squeeze the very breath out o’ a body?’

"Till in a social glass o’ strunt,
They parted off careering
On sic a night."
"Ye’ve heard a lilting at our ewes-milking."

How few of the present generation have ever heard of this "lilting," except in song! It is the gayest and sunniest season of the year. The young lambs, in their sportive whiteness, are coursing it, and bleating it, responsive to their dams, on the hill above. The old ewes on the plain are marching—

"The labour much of man and dog"—

to the pen or fold. The response to the clear-toned bleat of their woolly progeny is given, anon and anon, in a short, broken, low bass. It is the raven conversing with the jack-daw!—all is bustle, excitement, and badinage.

"Weer up that ewe, Jenny lass. Wha kens but her woo may yet be a blanket for you and ye ken wha, to sleep in!"

"Haud yer tongue, Tammie, and gang hame to yer books and yer schooling. Troth, it will be twa days ere the craws dirty your kirk riggin!"

Wouf, wouf, wouf!—hee, hee, hee!—hoch, hoch, hoch!— there in they go, and in they are, their horny heads wedged over each other, and a trio of stout, well-made damsels, with petticoats tied up "a la breeches," tugging away at their well-filled dugs.

"Troth, Jenny, that ewe will waur ye; ‘od, I think ye hae gotten haud o’ the auld tup himsel. He’s as powerfu, let me tell ye, as auld Francie, wham ye kissed sae snug last nicht ayont the peat-mou."

"Troth, at weel, Tam, ye’re a fearfu liar. They wad be fonder than I am o’ cock birds wha wad gie tippence for the stite o’ a howlet."

"Howlet here, howlet there, Jenny, ye ken weel his auld brass will buy you a new pan."

At this crisis the crack becomes general and inaudible from its universality, mixed as it is with the bleating of ewes, the barking of dogs, together with the singing of herd-laddies and of your humble servant.

Harvest is a blythe time! May all the charms of "Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on him" who shall first invent a reaping machine! The best of all reaping machines is "the human arm divine," whether brawny or muscular, or soft and rounded. The old woman of sixty sits all year long at her domestic occupations—you would deem her incapable of any out-door exertions; but, at the sound of the harvest-horn, she renews her youth, and sallies forth into the harvest-field, with hook over shoulder, and a heart buoyant with the spirit of the season, to take her place and drive her rig with the youngest there. The half-grown boy and girl of fourteen are mingled up in duty and in frolic, in jest and jibe, and jeer and laugh, with the stoutest and the most matured. Mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, and, above and beyond all, "lads and lasses, lovers gay!" mix and mingle in one united band, for honest labour and exquisite enjoyment; and when at last the joyous kirn is won—when the maiden of straw is borne aloft and in triumph, to adorn for twelve months the wall of the farmer’s ben—when the rich and cooling curds and cream have been ram-horn-spooned into as many mouths as there are persons in the "toun"—then comes the mighty and long-anticipated festival, the roasted ox, the stewed sheep, the big pot enriched with the cheering and inebriating draught, the punch dealt about in ladles and in jugs, the inspiring fiddle, the maddening reel, and the Highland fling,

"We cannot but remember such things were,
And were most dear to us!"

Hay harvest, too, had its soft and delicate tints, resembling those of the grain harvest. As the upper rainbow curves and glows with fainter colouring around the interior and the brighter, so did the hay harvest of yore anticipate and prefigure, as it were, the other. The hay tedded to the sun; the barefooted lass, her locks floating in the breeze, her cheeks redolent of youth and her eyes of joy, scattering or collecting, carting or ricking the sweetly-scented meadow produce, under a June sun and a blue sky!

"Oh, to feel as I have felt,
Or be what I have been!"

the favoured lover, namely, of that youthful purity, now is its fourteenth summer—myself as pure and all un-thinking of aught but affection the most intense and feelings the most soft and unaccountable.

"Ah, little did thy mother think,
That day she cradled thee,
What lands thou hadst to travel in,
What death thou hadst to dee!"

Poor Jeanie Johnston! I have seen her, only a few weeks ago, during the sittings of the General Assembly, sunk in poverty, emaciated by disease, the wife of an old soldier, himself disabled from work, tenanting a dark hovel in Pipe’s Close, Castle Hill of Edinburgh.

In the upper district of Dumfriesshire—the land of my birth, and of all those early associations which cling to me as the mistletoe to the oak, and which are equally hallowed with that druidical excrescence—there are no coals, but a superabundance of moss; consequently, peat-fires are very generally still, and were, at the time of which I speak, universally made use of; and a peat-fire, on a cold frosty night of winter, when every star is glinting and goggling through the blue, or when the tempest raves, and

"There’s no a star in a’ the cary,"

is by no means to be despised. To be sure, it is short-lived--but then it kindles soon; it does not, it is true, entertain us with fantastic and playful jets of flame—but then its light is full, united, and steady; the heat which it sends out on all sides is superior to that of coals. Wood is sullen and sulky, whether in its log or faggot form. It eats away into itself, in a cancer ignition. But the blazing peat—

"The bleezing ingle and the clean hearth-stane"—

is the very soul of cheerfulness and comfort. But then peats must be prepared. They do not grow in hedges, nor vegetate in meadows. They must be cut from the black and consolidated moss; and a peculiarly-constructed spade, with a sharp edge and crooked ear, must be made use of for that purpose, and into the field of operation must be brought, at casting-time, the spademen with their spades; and the barrowmen, and women, boys, and girls, with their harrows; and the breakfast sowans, with their creamy milk, cut and crossed into circles and squares; and the dinner stew, with its sappy potatoes and gusty-onioned mutton fragments; and the rest at noon, with its active sports and feats of agility, and, in particular, with its jumps from the moss-brow into the soft, marshy substance beneath—and thereby hangs my tale, which shall be as short and simple as possible.

One of the loveliest visions of my boyhood is Nancy Morrison. She was a year or so older than me; but we went and returned from school together. She was the only daughter of a poor widow woman, who supported herself, in a romantic glen on the skirts of the Queensberry Hills, by bleaching or whitening webs. In those days the alkalis and acids had not yet superseded the slower progress of whitening green linen by soap-boiling, tramping, and alternate drying in the sun, and wetting with pure running water. Many is the time and oft, that Nanny and I have wielded the watering-pan, in this fairy, sunny glen, all day long. Whilst the bumble-bee boomed past us, the mavis occupied the thorn-tree, and the mother of Nanny employed herself in some more laborious department of the same process, Nanny and I have set us down on the greensward— in tenaci gramine—played at chucks, "head him and cross him," or some such amusement. At school, Nanny had ever a faithful defender and avenger in me; and I have even purloined apples and gooseberries from the castle garden— and all for the love I bore "to my Nanny, O"

I know not that any one has rightly described a first love. It is not the love of man and woman, though that be fervent and terrible—it is not the love of mere boy and girlhood, though that be disinterested and engrossing— but it is the love of the period of life which unites the two. "Is there a man whose blood is warm within him" who does not recollect it? Is there a woman who has passed through the novitiate of fifteen, who has not still a distinct impression of the feeling of which I speak. It is not sexual, and yet it can only exist betwixt the sexes. It is the sweetest delusion under which the soul of a created being can pass. It is modest, timid, retiring, bashful; yet, in absence of the adored—in seclusion, in meditation, and in dreams—it is bold, resolute, and determined. There is no plan, no design, no right conception of cause; yet the effect is sure and the bliss perfect. Oh, for one hour—one little hour—from the thousands which I have idled, sported, dreamed away in the company of my darling school-companion Nancy!

Will Mather was about two years older than Nancy—a fine youth, attending the same school, and evidently an admirer of Nancy. Mine was the love of comparative boyhood; but his was a passion gradually ripening (as the charms of Nancy budded into womanhood) into a manly and matrimonial feeling. I loved the girl merely as such—his eye, his heart, his whole soul were in his future bride. Marriage in no shape ever entered into my computations; but his eager look and heaving bosom bespoke the definite purpose— he anticipated felicity. I don’t know exactly why, but I was never jealous of Will Mather—we were companions; and he was high-souled and generous, and stood my friend in many perilous quarrels. I knew that my pathway in life was to be afar from that in which Nancy and Will were likely to walk; and I felt in my heart that, dear as this beautiful rose-bud was to me, I was not man enough—I was not peasant enough to wear it in my bosom. Had Nancy on any occasion turned round to be kissed by me, 1 would have fled over muir and dale, to avoid her presence—and yet I had often a great desire to obtain that favour. Once indeed, and only once, did I obtain, or rather steal it. She was sitting beside a bird’s nest, the young ones of which she was feeding and cherishing—for the parent birds, by the rapacity of a cat, had recently perished. As the little bills were expanding to receive their food, her countenance beamed with pity and benevolence. I never saw even her so lovely—so, in a moment, I had her round the neck, and clung to her lips with the tenacity of a creature drowning. But, feeling at once the awkwardness of my position, I took to my heels, becoming immediately invisible amidst the surrounding brushwood.

Such was "Will Mather," and such was "Nancy Morrison" at the period of which I am speaking. We must now advance about two or three years in our chronology, and find Will possessed of a piece of information which bore materially on his future fortunes. Will was an illegitimate child. His mother had kept the secret so well that he did not know his father, though he had frequently urged her to reveal to him privately all that she knew of his parentage. In conversing, too, with Nancy, his now-affianced bride, he had expressed similar wishes; whilst she, with a becoming and feminine modesty, had urged him not to press an aged parent on so delicate a point. At last the old woman was taken seriously ill, and, on her death-bed, and at midnight, revealed to her son the secret of his birth. He was the son of a proprietor in the parish, and a much respected man. The youth, so soon as he had closed his mother’s eyes, hurried off, amidst the darkness, to the abode of his father, and, entering by a window, was in his father’s bed-chamber and over his body ere he was fully awake.

"John Scott!" said the son, in a firm and terrible tone, grasping his parent meantime convulsively round the neck— "John Scott of Auchincleuch, I am thy son!"

The conscience-striken culprit, being taken by surprise, and almost imagining this a supernatural intimation from heaven, exclaimed, in trembling accents—

"But who are you that makes this averment?"

"I am thy son, father—oh, I am thy son!"

Will could no more; for his heart was full, and his tears dropped hot and heavy on a father’s face.

"Yes," replied the parent, after a convulsive solemn sob—(O heaven! thou art just!)—" Yes, thou art indeed my son—my long-denied and ill-used boy—whom the fear of the world’s scorn has tempted me, against all the yearnings of my better nature, to use so unjustly. But come to my bosom, to a father’s bosom now, for I know that voice too well to distrust thee."

In a few months after this interesting disclosure, John Scott was numbered with his fathers, and Will Scott (no longer Mather) became Laird of Auchincleuch.

Poor Nancy was at first somewhat distressed at this discovery, which put her betrothed in a position to expect a higher or genteeler match. But there was no cause of alarm. Will was true to the backbone, and would as soon have burnt his Bible as have sacrificed his future bride. After much pressing for an early day, on the part of the lover, it was agreed, at last, that the marriage should take place at "Peat-Casting Time," and that Nancy should, for the last time, assist at the casting of her mother’s peats.

I wish I could stop here, or at least proceed to give you an account of the happy nuptials of Will Scott and Nancy Morrison, the handsomest couple in the parish of Closeburn. But it may not be! These eyes, which are still filled (though it is forty-eight years since) with tears, and this pen, which trembles as I proceed, must attest and record the catastrophe.

Nancy, the beautiful bride, and I, (for I was now on the point of leaving school for college,) agreed to have a jump for the last time, (often had we jumped before,) from a suitable moss brow.

"My frolicksome days will sune be owre," she cried, laughing; "the guidwife o’ Auchincleuch will hae something else to do than jump frae the moss-brow; and, while my name is Nancy Morrison, I’ll hail the dules, or jump wi’ the best o’ my auld playmates."

"Weel dune, Nancy!" cried I; "you are now to be the wife o’ the Laird o’ Auchincleuch when your jumping days will be at an end, and I am soon to be sent to college, where the only jump I may get may be from the top of a pile of old black-letter folios—no half me guid a point of advantage as the moss-brow."

"There’s the Laird o’ Auchincleuch coming," cried Peggy Chalmers, one of the peat-casters, who was standing aside, along with several others. "He’s nae langer the daft Will Mather, wha liked a jump as weel as the blythest swankie o’ the barn-yard. Siller maks sair changes; and yet, wha wad exchange the Will Scott o’ Auchincleuch, your rich bridegroom, Nancy, for the Will Mather, your auld lover! Dinna tempt Providence, my hinny! The Laird winna like to see his bride jumpin frae knowe to knowe like a daft giglet, within a week o’ her marriage."

"Tout!" cried Nancy, bursting out into a loud laugh; "see, he’s awa round by the Craw Plantin, and winna see us—and whar’s the harm if he did? Come now, Tammie, just ae spring and the last, and I’ll wad ye my kame against your cravat, that I beat ye by the length o’ my marriage slipper."

"Weel dune, Nancy!" cried several of the peat-casters who, leaning on their spades, stood and looked at us with pleasure and approbation. The Laird had, as Nancy said, crossed over by what was called the Craw Plantin, and was now out of sight. To make the affair more ludicrous—for we were all bent on fun—Nancy took out, from among her high-built locks of auburn hair, her comb—a present from her lover—and impledged it in the hands of Billy Watson, along with my cravat, which I had taken off and handed to the umpire.

"Here is a better moss-brow," cried one at a distance— and so to be sure it was, for it was much higher than the one we had fixed upon, and the landing-place was soft and elastic. Our practice was always to jump together, so that the points of the toes could be measured when both the competitors’ feet were still fixed in the moss. We mounted the moss-brow. I was in high spirits, and Nancy could scarcely contain herself, for pure, boisterous, laughing glee. I went off, but the mad girl could not follow, for she was still holding her sides and laughing immoderately. I asked her what she laughed at. She could not tell. She was under the influence of one of those extraordinary cachinations that sometimes convulse our diaphragms without our being able to tell why, and certainly without our being able to put a stop to them. Her face was flushed, and the fire of her glee shone bright in her eye. I took my position again. "Now!" cried I; and away we flew, and stuck deeply in the soft and spongy moss. I stood with my feet in the ground, that the umpire might come and mark the distance. A loud scream broke on my ear. I looked round, and, dreadful sight! I saw Nancy lying extended on the ground, with the blood pouring out at her mouth in a large stream. She had burst a blood vessel. The fit of laughing which preceded her effort to leap, had, in all likelihood, distended her delicate veins, and predisposed her to the unhappy result.

The loud scream had attracted the notice of the bridegroom, who came running from the back of the Craw Planting. The sight appalled and stupified him. He cried for explanation, and ran forward to his dead or dying bride, in wild confusion. Several voices essayed an explanation, but none were intelligible. I was as unable as the rest to satisfy the unhappy man; but though we could not speak intelligibly, we could act, and several of us lifted her up. This step sealed her fate. The change in her position produced another stream of blood. She opened her eyes once, and fixed them for a moment on Will Scott. She then closed them, and for ever.

I saw poor Nancy carried home. Will Scott, who upheld her head, fainted before he proceeded twenty yards, and I was obliged to take his place. I was almost as unfit for the task as himself—for I reproached myself as the cause of her death. I have lived long. Will the image of that procession ever pass from my mind The blood-stained moss-ground—the bleeding body—the trailing clothes—the unbound locks, are all before me. I can proceed no further. Would that I could stop the current of my thoughts as easily as that of this feathered chronicler of sorrow! But—

"There is a silent sorrow here,
A grief I’ll ne’er impart;
It breathes no sigh, it sheds no tear,
But it consumes my heart."

I have taken up my pen to add, that Will Mather still remains a bachelor, and that, on every visit I make to Dumfriesshire, I take my dinner, solus cum solo, at Auchincleugh, and that many tears are annually shed, over a snug bottle, for poor Nancy.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus