The Drowning of Duncan
Malcolm - The Man who did not Believe in Second-sight - The Mystery of the
Illicit Still - In an Old Highland Cottage - The Priest of Moidart.
AT supper, Gillespie and
Grant decided that, after sitting for so many hours cramped up in a boat
on the loch, they would stretch their legs by walking to Loch Sunart and
back before bedtime. I did not understand the lure that Sunart held for
dwellers by the side of Loch Shiel until I was reminded that, while Loch
Shiel is dry in the alcoholic sense, whiskey could be bought at Loch
Sunart. I had no idea whether there was a licensed house at Ardnamurchan ;
for all I knew, someone there might have been plying a private trade in
liquor on which no duty had been paid to His Majesty ; and indeed, judging
by the winks and nods of the two adventurers as they set out, whiskey
brought down from an illicit still in some corrie of the mountains seemed
to be the secret kernel of their quest. In a hushed undertone, they
invited me to go with them, but I preferred to remain behind and listen to
Campbell's stories of his boyhood in Mull.
I forget how the subject of
second-sight arose, but we were soon in the thick of it.
"I don't think you believe
in second-sight," said Campbell, his head on one side, his big dark brown
eyes looking at me reproachfully.
I told him I had never come
across it in my own experience, and that no doubt a lot of superstition
was mixed up with it.
"Superstition! Ah, it is
more than superstition," said Campbell quietly. His eyes glowed in the
lamplight, and he ran his fingers through his thick upstanding russet
hair. " It is dying out in the Highlands, but there are folk who still
have it. Ah, many good things are dying out here. Even the folk themselves
are changing. And the children-they are not so hardy as they used to be.
Folk were more hardy in the old days of the black-house, when there was a
fire in the middle of the room with a hole in the roof instead of a
chimney. When I was a boy we ran barefoot, but now," he added, with a
contemptuous snort, " it is nothing but gum-boots from Glasgow ! Folk were
happier in the old days. But we were talking about second-sight. Come ben
to the kitchen, and my wife will tell you something. She knew a man in
Mull with the second-sight."
I followed him through to a big room at the
back of the house. It had a low ceiling and wooden beams and a bright fire
burning in the big grate. Beside this fire sat a man with a brown
weather-beaten face. His cap was pushed back on his head, and he smoked a
short-stemmed clay pipe while he talked with the landlord's wife, who was
busily ironing linen on the kitchen table.
On our entry, Mrs. Campbell looked up in
surprise and spoke sharply to her husband in Gaelic. Perhaps she was
reproaching him for having brought a hotelguest into the more homely
atmosphere of their own quarters. But his reply seemed to satisfy her, and
she asked me to sit down on the other side of the hearth.
"We were talking about second-sight," said
Campbell presently. "Tell the gentleman about MacNeil in Mull."
She smiled, and then used almost the identical
words of her husband: "You don't believe in second-sight?"
When I replied that I would like to hear about
MacNeil, she nodded and went on with her ironing.
"I got a fright with old Mr. MacNeil one
evening," she said. "I was coming up from the shore when I met him. He was
walking towards me, walking very quick, with his hands stretched out in
front of him, and he had a queer look in his eyes. I said good evening to
him, but he passed me as if he had not seen me at all." She put down her
iron on the stand and demonstrated. "He was saying over some words," she
continued. "He was talking about the water, and I could hear him mention
the name of Duncan Malcolm. I watched old MacNeil walk down to the end of
the pier and stand there looking down into the water, and when I got to
the post office I went in and asked what could be the matter with him. You
see, I was a stranger there at the time, and I did not know the people
well. The post-master told me never to mind MacNeil - he was a queer old
man. 'He was talking about Duncan Malcolm,' I said, and the postmaster
told me Duncan was a fine young man who had left Mull to work in the
shipyards- at Belfast. Well, I thought no more about it. But in a few days
we heard that Duncan Malcolm had been drowned off a pier at Belfast. It
happened the same evening and the same hour when MacNeil had passed me
going down to the water talking to himself about Duncan."
The man on the other side of the fireplace
took the clay pipe from his mouth and gave a grunt.
"Hold your tongue, Peter," said Campbell. "You
don't believe anything at all !"
"I'm not believing in second-sight," said
Peter, pushing his cap still further back on his head.
"Never heed Peter," said Mrs. Campbell,
testing the heat of her iron with a drop of spittle on the point of her
finger. "MacNeil could see things that were happening far away, and he
often saw them before they happened. Some people I knew were going to have
a ceilidh - a gathering for stories and songs - in their house one
evening. Mr. MacNeil warned them not to have it, but he would give no
reason, and they had their friends in just the same. While they were
sitting round the fire telling old stories, the mother of the house passed
away in her chair. But I don't suppose Peter believes that either."
Peter scratched his head, and in doing so he
tipped his cap on one side, which gave him a slightly comic look, though
his brown face was very serious.
"I'm not saying it isna true," he remarked
slowly, "but how can any man tell what's going to happen ? It's no'
no'," insisted Campbell, "some folk can tell of things before they happen.
I knew an old woman who used to see funerals before there was a death-ay,
and she could see the very folk who were at the funeral. And she would
sometimes see a wee blue light over the bed of a person that was going to
die, and the light would go away over the hills on the road to the
graveyard." He glowered down on the man on the other side of the hearth. "
But you'll not believe in lights, Peter ? "
"Me? No; I'm not so old-fashioned," declared
Peter. "Ach, some of you folk are afraid of the dark ! I've slept out on a
hillside for three weeks, and I never saw anybody worse than myself. Would
you sleep out by yourself on the hillside ?" he asked Campbell.
"I would not," said Campbell decisively.
"Whiles there's queer things in the hills at night. The old people were
very wise, but you'll no' believe what they tell you. I knew a woman in
Mull with the evil eye. Folk would not let any of their cattle beasts be
driven to the byre in front of the beast belonging to this woman. If she
saw a fine red cow or a fine black cow, better than her own, she would be
jealous and wish it harm, and it would sicken that very night in the byre.
I have seen a cow sicken, and I have given it medicine that wouldna act
because the beast had sickened with the evil eye. But some can give a bad
wish to a personas well."
Peter shook his head, and Campbell stooped
down and stared into his face.
"Man, Peter, what did they say over you when
you were born and when they were bathing you with water ?" He began to
recite in the Gaelic, then put it into English so that I could understand.
A palmful of water for your years,
A palmful of water for your growth,
And for your taking of your food;
And may the part of you that grows not
during the night
Grow during the day.
Three palmfuls of the Holy Trinity
To protect and guard you
From the Evil Eye
And from the jealousy of wicked folk.
"And I'm no' believing that nonsense!" Peter
cried when Campbell had finished.
"You're no' believing there are people on Loch
Shielside who might say, `I hope Campbell will not prosper in his
business,' and could give trouble to me with the bad wish?"
The man on the other side of the fire shook
his head. "It's no' a bad wish I would ever be giving to John Campbell !"
Campbell thrust his big hands into the pockets
of his knickerbockers and laughed. "Peter never did a bad turn to anybody
in his life-he's too good a Catholic ! If Peter wished anybody harm, he'd
have the priest from Mingarry after him with a big stick, and he wouldna
like that at all !"
Peter drew himself up in his chair, and pulled his cap straight. "I'll not
have you miscalling Father Patrick," he said sharply.
"Whose miscalling him?" demanded Campbell.
"He's a fine man, and he's got more sense in
his head than you. Go to Mingarry and ask him if he believes in
he would tell me not to be a fool, and you too, John Campbell. It's you
Protestants at Acharacle that are the old-fashioned ones, and you folk
from Mull are worse than any. There's a lot of daft folk in Mull, I'm
daft," said Campbell good-naturedly. "I know an old man in Mull who will
not sink in the water. Duncan MacGillivray is his name, and he's alive to
this day at Kilfinichen."
"Canna sink in the water ? Maybe he'll be a
good swimmer," said Peter quizzically.
"He canna soom at all," said Campbell
emphatically, "but he will never drown. One day he was helping his son to
put some sheep in a boat and take them up the Loch Scridain, and some of
the tups took fright and jumped into the deep water, and the old man fell
in too. The son was a grand swimmer, and he got the tups into the boat,
and then saved his father. There was a man on the shore who saw it, and
asked young MacGillivray why he didna save his old father before the tups.
But young MacGillivray laughed. `Ach,' he said,' there was no need to
bother about my father. He canna drown if he tried. It would be a fine
thing if I had to tell the laird I had lost some of his fine tups !' And
here's another queer thing about Duncan MacGillivray," went on Campbell.
"You canna shoot him with a gun. There's no shot from a gun that could
hurt him !"
took the pipe from his mouth and stared at Campbell blankly. "Then he must
be the black devil himself! " he said. " It's no' a mortal man that you
canna kill with a gun."
"You canna kill Duncan MacGillivray," insisted
smoked thoughtfully, and then his brown face lit up, and his blue eyes
opened wide. "But have they tried it on him?"
"Ah, I don't know if they've tried it on him,"
admitted Campbell. "Maybe he wouldna like them to do it. But it wouldna
harm him if they did," he added confidently. "And he's not the only queer
man that has lived there. It's a very wild place, all rocks, and very
lonely. You'll see many a sithean there - that's a fairy-hill," he
explained to me with a nod, and then he whipped round to Peter. "You have
slept out on the hillside, Peter, and have seen nothing. But would you
sleep on a dark night beside a sithean?"
Peter hesitated. "If I had a dog with me," he
"But would you sleep alone?" cried Campbell.
"I would take a bit of bread and cheese with
me," said Peter, after another pause.
"Not for yourself to eat!" declared Campbell,
and then burst out with a low roll of laughter. "Not for yourself to eat,
Peter ! It would be for the little people after they came out of their
hill. And you'll be telling us you don't believe in the little people."
"I do not," said Peter doggedly, "but a man
shouldna take risks with them." He looked over at the window, on which the
blind had not been drawn. "It's a dark night, and I'll be getting home . .
. I'm thinking it'll be more rain before morning." He put his pipe
carefully away in his waistcoat pocket and rose to his feet. " Were you
coming along the road, Campbell?"
Campbell and I walked up as far as the gate,
where we said good night to Peter. I listened to the sound of his
footsteps fading along the road, and suddenly I could hear the distant
steps quickening, then the man broke into a run. Peter, in spite of all
his scorn of the old-fashioned ones, was taking no chances in the dark ...
When I got upstairs to my bedroom that night,
I found an enormous jug of fresh milk awaiting me on the chest of drawers.
It was warm and rich and silky, as delicious milk as I have ever tasted,
and I, as reminded of the old rhyme:
My cummer and I lay down to sleep,
With two pint stoups at our bed feet,
And aye when we wakened we drank them dry,
What think you o' my cummer and I?
In the old days in Scotland it used to be a
custom to put ale or wine in the bedroom of a guest for his refreshment
during the night, and Campbell evidently believed that the tradition-with
a change of liquor that was appropriate to a dry lochside - should be
continued. While I drank my milk, I wondered how Grant and Gillespie were
faring at Sunart. As a boy in Breadalbane, I had once been permitted to
take a romantic sip of whiskey from an illicit still, and I thought it as
vile as any medicine I had ever been compelled to swallow. The stuff
scorched my tongue, as if a red-hot cinder had been dropped on it ; and if
it was the same kind of fire-water that Gillespie and Grant were pledging
themselves with at that moment, then I wished them joy of their adventure.
For myself, I preferred my sweet innocuous milk which I sipped in bed,
with a candle on a chair at my side casting its soft yellow light on the
pages of The Four Georges. And what more suitable book could there be for
the delight of a man on a Jacobite pilgrimage? I read on and on, until the
candle burned down, then flickered and went out ; and I fell asleep with
the echo of Thackeray's rippling music in my ear.
Gillespie and Grant were in high spirits next
morning at breakfast. They were so eager to tell me the result of their
four-mile tramp to Sunart that it was not easy to sort out the copious
details. A man called
Angus had acted as their guide, it seemed, and had taken them up to a
lonely croft high above Salen Bay. There, a friend of his called John had
welcomed them. It had required a good deal of persuasion to make John go
out to a hut near the croft and bring in a "greybeard" - that is, a big
earthenware jar. He was a fine man, this John, a big lanky fellow of sixty
with a wonderful fund of old stories. After swearing his guests to
secrecy, he had uncorked the greybeard, and had poured out into tumblers,
which had been bought by his niece at Woolworth's in Glasgow, a good stiff
three-fingers of the finest whiskey that had ever dodged the gaugers and
crossed the lips of man. It had warmed the cockles of their heart so
fervently that another peg had gone into the Woolworth tumblers, and John
himself had given vent to his elation in song. They had kept it up until
after midnight, Grant assured me.. Until nearly one o'clock, Gillespie
insisted. And it was a mighty good job they had both gone with Angus, for
they had to help their guide home to Loch Shielside. Their scornful
laughter went hooting around the little dining-room when I mentioned my
jug of milk. But so forced was their scorn that I began to have doubts
about the truth of their story: doubts that increased when Grant suddenly
changed the subject by asking what I proposed to do that morning.
"Church," I replied; "I'm going to the
Catholic service at Mingarry."
"I didn't know you were a Papist," said
I told him
I wasn't, and added that I didn't see what difference that made ; but they
preferred to spend the day on the loch.
Along in the scattered village of Acharacle
there lived a man called "Archie-Charlie," and Campbell had a message to
take to him, so we set out together. It seemed that Archie's father's name
was Charlie, and the old Highland nomenclature was still in use: it did
not matter what Archie's surname was, he was the son of Charlie. The
moment I set eyes on Archie-Charlie's cottage on the hillside above us I
wanted to see inside it, and Campbell took me up to the door.
Archie-Charlie himself was not in, but a woman bade me enter. The little
place had been built with stones taken from the hills. The walls were
about three feet thick, and the roof had been thatched with rushes laid
upon the beams. These beams were black and shining like polished ebony
with the peat-smoke which had curled among them for many generations. The
floor of stone-flags was as clean as the white-washed walls of the room. A
log-fire burned in a nest of carefully swept ashes on the hearth-stone,
the outside edges of which had been whitened with chalk. Over the fire was
a sooty cleek, on which the hanging kettle could be pushed into the heart
of the flames. At the wall' opposite to the fireplace were a couple of
high beds with curtains. The period of the cottage was obviously much
later than that of an old "blackhouse," for the roof was high, and sloping
beams rested on the outside of the walls. The walls themselves both inside
and out were plastered, but this may have been done long after the cottage
had been built ; and the chimney which separated the two rooms had
probably been added later. Altogether, it was as snug a place as one could
have wished for; and since it had stood there for at least two hundred
years, there was no reason why it would not stand for another two hundred
if the thatch were kept in good repair.
"Take a good look at it," said Campbell, "for
it is to be pulled down this winter."
"Yes," said the woman, "we are building a fine
new house in its place. The old stones are to be used -they are good
enough, and it would be a waste to have them thrown away."
I protested against what I called the
sacrilege of pulling down a cottage that must be so warm and dry in
winter, and cool in the hottest day of summer.
"But it isna much to look at," said the woman.
"I would like to see a fine new house here, with nice slates on the roof
like the manse."
protested that, since they would not build it so well as the old one, it
would not last so long.
"Ah, I'm not minding that," replied the woman.
"It will last as long as we need it. If they do not like it in years to
come, they can pull it down and build another."
This silenced me. What were the thoughts in
the bullet-shaped heads of the sturdy little Normans when they tore down
the Saxon churches and built new ones to their own taste and
requirements-what were the thoughts of the Gothic builders, when they in
their turn pulled down the Norman churches and built others according to
their own desires? But there is this to be said. The old masons did lay
stone upon stone in the belief that their work would be permanent, and
from this they drew an inspiration that ennobled their labour and made
them lavish upon it a care which to the jerry-builder of to-day must seem
ridiculous. This conviction has always burned in the heart of men in the
great periods of architecture. Who can put his soul into his job when he
feels that his work may soon be undone? I had food for thought as I
continued on my way to the Catholic chapel at Mingarry.
In the middle of the Shiel Bridge I stopped to
look into the river, an ashen-faced stream with many pools and shallows
that runs down into the tidal sealoch of Moidart. Near the spot where I
stood was a part of the river called Torquil's Ford, which I had read
about in Father Macdonald's book. In the twelfth century, a bloody battle
is said to have been fought near Loch Shiel between the Gaels and the
Norsemen. The Gaelic leader was the great Somerled -from whom many
Highland clans are proud to claim descent-and it was this battle which
paved the way for his supremacy over the western mainland and isles.
According to the Red Book of Clanranald, his grandfather had been driven
out of his lands in Scotland by that vigorous and rapacious strategist,
King Magnus of Norway, called Magnus Barelegs because he wore the short
kirtle or kilt of the Western Countries. Barelegs had swept over the
Orkneys and the Hebrides and the Isle of Man pillaging and burning, then
sent to the peace-loving King Edgar to tell him that the Western Islands
were no longer Scottish soil. One is sometimes apt to forget that it was
not until the time of Shakespeare's "gentle Duncan" in the eleventh
century that Scotland became a united kingdom, that the southern boundary
was not fixed for at least another hundred years, that it was not until
the thirteenth century that the Hebrides were given up by Norway, and that
Orkney and Shetland did not become part of Scotland until they were given
as pledge for the dowry of Margaret, the young wife of James III, in the
fifteenth century. So recent and yet so profound is our unity as a nation
! But it was the religious disunion of the Scots, and their bloody wars
for differing faiths and forms of worship, that occupied my thoughts as I
left the river Shiel behind me and made tracks for the Catholic chapel
that stands among the pine trees at Mingarry looking down across the moor
to the cold waters of the loch.
This chapel is built of grey stone, and is
larger than the little place at Glenuig in the quiet coolness of which I
had rested for a few minutes on my walk across Moidart two days before. It
stands on a bold green mound, and as I climbed the path I saw groups of
men in their stiff looking Sunday clothes lingering a little way off. They
had calm peaceful faces, browned by the summer sun, and their necks had
been burned a rich deep mahogany colour. I thought that they loafed more
gracefully than the Lowland and Border farm-servant, who seems always to
stand in an ungainly attitude when he is not at work. The day was sunless,
and there was little light inside the chapel. At the eastern end, a great
dark shadow gave the altar dignity, and two candles burned like tiny gems
on black velvet. Twenty or thirty people were already seated on the plain
wooden benches, and others entered in twos and threes, each one bowing
deeply towards the altar in a way that seemed strange and even foreign to
one brought up in the Presbyterian form of worship. I had only once before
in my life attended a Roman Catholic service in this country, and my
memories of it had been unpleasant. It was in the South, and the priest -
an Irishman - had hustled through his duties in a way that had struck me
as not unlike that of a bored schoolboy who is mumbling over to himself
two dozen lines of Ovid which he had been compelled for his sins to learn
by heart; only when it came to the sermon had that priest shown signs of
life, and his metallic voice had clanged through the little church in a
harsh denunciation of all heretics. Those outside the Catholic Church, he
had declared, were heading straight for the flames of Hell: indeed, most
of his discourse might have been lifted almost word for word from one of
those wild brutal Calvinistic sermons that were preached and printed in
Scotland last century. That priest had been a large-faced belligerent man,
run very much to beef about the jowl and stomach, and his intolerance and
spleen had made me bristle; I had left that Roman Catholic church more
doggedly a heretic than when I had entered, and in my ignorance I wondered
if his sermon was the usual kind of stuff which was hurled at the heads of
all "poor deluded Catholics." I could not help thinking about that
experience of a dozen years before, and the priest with his small
repellent eyes and brazen voice, while I sat in the hush of the little
chapel at Mingarry and watched those folk from Loch Shielside, with their
shy yet dignified ways, and deep shrewd quiet eyes that glanced neither to
the right nor the left as each one walked very slowly up the aisle.
The bell tolled in the steeple, and there was
the shuffle of many feet at the door as the groups of men I had seen
talking outside now came into the chapel. After the last one had taken his
place, there was perfect silence, and then the priest entered. He was a
short dark man, with a pale eager face and big burning black eyes. His
voice was thin and weak, with a reedy note that was curiously pleasant,
and though he spoke quietly and at times not much above a whisper, every
word was distinct with the lovely modulations of one who apprehends the
majesty of the Latin language. As I listened to him, I reproached myself.
I felt like a spy in a foreign country, rather than one who had come to
worship God. But the guilty feeling passed. I had been brought up to
despise ritual; I had hazily gathered in my boyhood that ritual was
mummery if not idolatry, a lip-worship of outward things which saved one
the bother of digging very deep into one's erring soul : nor had I
associated the Presbyterian form of worship with ritual, although it ought
to have been plain to me that even to close the eyes and bow the head
during prayer, or to stand up during praise, is part of the ritual of
Presbyterian worship. And it had not struck me that the value of any rite
depends upon the attitude of mind in those who are taking part. A man may
be repulsed by an elaborate outward symbolism and yet grapple to his heart
an idea like that of the Trinity, which itself is but a verbal symbol of a
mystery that he cannot understand.
I soon perceived that every one in the chapel
was actively taking part in the service; and I felt that even I, a
stranger and an outsider, was one of them. I was profoundly conscious of
an emotional link. And although it is easy to scoff at emotion, I somehow
or other felt that I understood these people around me, though perhaps not
so well as they understood . me. It is strange how worship can bind human
beings, and how much stronger must be the bonds where there is a common
faith. When the priest began his sermon, however, I was ready to revolt,
for I could not forget that other priest of the South and his vitriol-,
but before many minutes had passed, the beefy fellow with the harsh voice
was forgotten. In that quiet dimly lit Highland chapel, the priest spoke
to his flock in a way that completely captured me. If ever a man had in
his hands an opportunity for propaganda of the cruder kind, it was the
frail figure at the altar. The Shiel Bridge was but a mile away, and the
arches of that bridge are in a very real sense the bulwarks between Rome
and Protestantism. When the Reformation swept northward, it stopped short
at the river Shiel, so that the north of it and throughout all Moidart no
Protestant church has ever been built. To this day almost every family on
the south bank of the Shiel is Protestant, and on the north Roman
Catholic. And yet, if for once the little Presbyterian church at Acharacle
had been closed and the congregation had crossed the bridge to listen to
Father Patrick's sermon, not a man or woman would have heard a word which
would have given the faintest offence. I have forgotten the text, but I
have not forgotten the effect the sermon made upon me. There was a
magnificent spirit of toleration about it; and if it is true - and I
believe it to be true - that the hope of civilisation in this era lies in
the spiritual regeneration of the peoples of the West, it is certain that
this regeneration will either sweep all the Churches together into a
religious unity, or will be accompanied by a miracle of toleration. To
agree to differ is almost as fine a thing as to agree with each other
entirely; the point lies in the agreement ; and while in many parts of
Scotland to-day Roman Catholics and Protestants are hot with the swelter
of discord, it is strange that at Loch Shiel, where a river has formed the
boundary for three centuries and where you might expect the two groups to
glower across this boundary at each other, you find a spirit of exquisite
friendliness. I returned to Protestant Acharacle with a feeling of quiet
elation. But there was another reason why I was glad I had crossed the
river to Mingarry.