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The Story of the Life of MacKay of Uganda
Chapter II - Early Days

'Tis strange how thought upon a child
Will, like a presence, sometimes press,
And when his pulse is beating wild,
And life itself is in excess-
When foot and hand, and ear and eye,
Are all with ardour straining high,-
“How in his heart will spring
A feeling whose mysterious thrall
Is stronger, sweeter far than all;
And on its silent wing,
How with the clouds he'll float away,
As wandering and as lost as they! " 


RHYNIE is for the most part a high-lying, pastoral, and sparsely peopled district. The inhabitants are believed to be of Pictish origin, and are a sturdy, shrewd, independent, and hospitable class of people. Their history has predisposed them to religion, for the Seceders and the Independents have been in the district for several generations. The Disruption conflict of 1843, which agitated Scotland from the Orkneys to the Solway Firth, reached a climax here, for Rhynie formed part of the famous Presbytery of Strathbogie, and its minister was one of the seven deposed by the Evangelical majority of the Church of Scotland; and no doubt this contest had a large share in quickening both the spiritual and intellectual life of the people. Even forty years ago many were wont to walk six miles to church every Sunday and six back. Weather never deterred them; indeed, their struggle with the elements on the way seemed to harden their frames and develop their brain-power, so that by the time they reached the house of God their appetite was whetted for a good doctrinal discourse and plenty of it. Short measure did not take in those days. They desired a good meal, and on their way home the little companies beguiled the weary miles by recalling the heads of the sermon, the observations on these, and the inferences drawn by the preacher; while the children were appealed to for the illustrations.

The dress of the women was primitive in the extreme. Many went to church in the mob-caps with a plain band of riband which fastened below the chin; while the better class wore bonnets made of pasteboard covered with black silk, close-fitting to the face. When these wore out they were replaced by others of the same style and pattern. Linsey-woolsey dresses, spun from a mixture of white and black fleeces, to save the expense of dyeing, and tartan shawls, completed the costume. Each woman carried her Bible neatly tied up in a white handkerchief, together with a sprig of southern wood or a bouquet of roses if it was summer, while the other hand invariably held a gingham umbrella! This fashion is now, however, quite obsolete, for with the smoke of the railway engine there came a wonderful change in the manners and dress of the inhabitants.

Looking back over the forty years of Alexander Mackay's life, it is evident that from the day almost that he emerged from the cradle God was preparing him in His own way and building him a pioneer missionary. Godly parents, a pious nurse who doted on him, the Bible-loving women of the parish, the intelligent workmen in the neighbourhood, each and all, unknown to themselves, and equally hidden from him, contributed a share in his equipment for the special work which the Master needed him to do.

In 1851 the new Free Church was erected close by the Manse; and as the stones were dressed in the garden, a golden opportunity presented itself to the boy to acquire practical knowledge and to use his dexterous fingers. His beauty and extraordinary gentleness, together with his wonderful aptitude for picking up all kinds of handicraft, speedily ingratiated him with the workmen, who took a delight in supplying him with the necessary tools to enable him to imagine that he was giving important assistance. When he appeared on the scene he was accosted with the question, "Weel, laddie, gaen to gie's a sermon the day?" and the invariable reply (in which there was something like prophetic instinct) was, "Please give me trowel; can preach and build, same time!"

He was full of questions, and was never satisfied until he thoroughly understood the reason of everything. One day he saw a man repairing a fence, and he asked how the fence came to be so broken down. The man replied that the snow had done it. The boy was incredulous, and after reflection he went back to the man and asked if snow was very heavy. "No, not very," was the reply. "Well, then, how could it break down a fence in that way?" But when it was explained to him that it was the great accumulation of snow lying against the fence that caused it to fall, he went away quite satisfied.

He was a very meditative boy, and very impressible to the moods of nature. A hot August day was his delight, and as the sunbeams played on the heathery slopes of Noth, and glanced on the silvery streaks of the burns as they rippled down its brow, he would tell Annie that "the mountain had donned the regal purple in honour of the visitors who had appeared in the neighbourhood. You know he must be old, for the Roman fort and the giant's footprints tell of other days.

[According to tradition, the Noth was guarded by a giant of extraordinary dimensions:-

“Between his een there was a yaird,
Between his shou'ders three."

Still he is neither blind nor deaf. He can see the unusual number of carriages in the lanes, and feel the tread of the horsemen on his side, and no doubt connects them with the sudden surprises of the red grouse. Hark to his long sigh accompanying that echo of firing in the glen and the merry laughter of the sportsmen as they bag their game, never thinking that the birds will no more breakfast off the leaves of the heather nor peck the cranberries which hide among its roots! But, as many of these Southerners have attired themselves, for the nonce, in the kilt and sporan and Glengarry bonnet, he takes it as a compliment to himself, and returns it by putting on his brightest smile and looking his very best. You know you like to look nice too, Annie. But why do you not iron your neck and take out all the creases, and smooth the furrows out of your brow?"

Then Annie's heart experienced a pang which only the aged know, and, yearning for the society of her contemporaries, she replied, "If it's fine the morn, we'll gang to Blackhills for a day or twa."

“Oh, that will be delightful I But why do you look so sad, Annie?"
"Only because ye didna ken me when I was young, laddie."

But he required all his enormous proportions to combat his foes, especially the rival giant who guarded the hill of Bennachie, some thirteen miles distant. A frequent exchange of compliments took place between the two, in the shape of huge boulders thrown by the one against the other. On the Tap o' Noth may yet be seen (?) one of these, with the marks of five gigantic fingers thereon. On the occasion on which it was hurled, the giant of Noth retaliated by raising a huge mass of rock with the intention of hurling it at his adversary, who put out his foot and touched the boulder, with the result that it remains still on Noth with the impress of the giant's toe on it to this day! - See "Legendary Ballad Lore," by A. I. McConnochie.

"I am glad I did not, for then you would not be old Annie, and you could not tell me all I want to know."

On the morrow the pair set out on their excursion to the farm. It was six miles from the village, and situated in a lonely glen at the foot of the Buck, [The “Buck o' the Cabrach" is mentioned by Elspeth Muckle - backit in "The Antiquary," in her account of the coronach or Highland lament for the dead, after the "Battle o' the Harlaw] amidst wild and rugged scenery. Untamed nature on every side, and nothing to disturb the silence but the birr of the moor-cock, the bleating of the sheep, and the song of the burns intersecting the peat-moss. Every now and again a bell-shaped foxglove or a curious-looking rock attracted the boy's attention, and off he darted and forgot to return:

"And heedless of his shouted name
As of the carol of a bird,
Stood gazing on the empty air,
As if some dream were passing there." 

At length they pursued their way along the sheep-track amid the brushwood and heather, until they reached the hospitable home of Mrs. Smith, where fresh milk, new-laid eggs, and heather honey regaled the weary-footed travellers.

The repast over, they drew round the blazing fire of wood and peat, for the sun had gone down and a chilly breeze blew from “the Buck." The chimney was open to the heavens, and in the settle hung legs and shoulders of smoked mutton. The busy knitting-needles glanced in the firelight as the two old friends entertained each other with cherished stories which they had learned in childhood of the Brothers Erskine and of their father, the sainted Henry Erskine, who had been condemned to imprisonment for preaching at "conventicles," and how through the intercession of friends the sentence was commuted to banishment from the kingdom. The boy, seated on a low stool, listened appreciatively until Mrs. Smith produced her wheel and began to spin the wool yielded by the previous clipping. He then became oblivious to his friends and their conversation, -

"While flashes of intelligence dart from his pale-blue eyes,
Broad beams of golden humour, and long looks of surprise,
And laughter ripples o'er his lips, and joy like sunshine lies
Upon the fair fields of his cheeks, and danceth in his eyes."

The friends exchanged glances, and in private afterwards talked of the peculiar look in his face, which spoke of a future, and wondered what that future would be.

“Yet evermore the mystery which rang him round did press
Upon their larger sense, and set their riper wits to guess, -
To guess, but ever miss the mark, to flounder and to fall,
To wonder quite as much at him, as he, sweet child, at all.”

For even their love for him did not foresee that the impression which he took and photographed in his mind of that spinning-wheel would be reproduced thirty-five years afterwards for Mwanga, King of Uganda!

The following summer, when he was nearly four years of age, he spent a month at Blackhills; and this visit did him much good, for Mrs. Smith would allow him no lessons except to read a chapter from the Bible aloud to her, morning and evening. She was so proud of his attainments, however, that when a distant neighbour from some lonely cottage among the hills dropped in, she would put her hand in the "crap" in the wall beside the "saut poke" in the "ingle neuk" for the big Bible, and calling the boy, would tell him to read aloud the tenth chapter of Nehemiah. He did this, pronouncing with accuracy the names of those who sealed the covenant, and preserving the inflections so as to read gracefully.

Mr. Smith, the present tenant of the farm, tells how, on this visit, the boy followed him wherever he went at his work:

“Whether the farmer swung the scythe or turned the hay,"


“Merrily, with oft-repeated stroke,
Sounds from the threshing-floor the busy flail,”

there the child was, inquiring the reason for everything he saw done, and understanding the explanation as easily as a grown-up person.

"One day," Mr. Smith says, “I was taking up some small stones out of the ground, and I asked him to fetch me a small pick. He went, but as he did not return, I knew that something was preventing him from doing what he undertook. So I went to see what was the matter, and found that he had not fully understood the kind of tool I wanted, but having found a large pinch lever, which he had seen used for taking up stones, he was bringing it. It was six feet long, and by far too heavy for him to carry; still, he had succeeded in bringing it fifty yards or so. The way he accomplished it was by lifting one end at a time, and going round with it, and then going to the other end and doing the same thing, and every turn brought it six feet on! This shows his readiness of resource, and his determination to accomplish whatever he took in hand, even at four years of age."

In order to draw him ou.t, the farmer amused himself by arguing occasionally with him on different subjects; but the boy got tired of arguments, and said, one day, quite gravely, "Now, Mr. Smith, we must not have any more disputes in this way, but, as 'the law is open,' we will settle everything there where it ought to be settled, and let us live in peace henceforward." Another time he went to the byre while the cows were being milked, and expatiated on the difference between the higher and lower animals, taking himself as an example of the higher and the cows of the lower. When some one remarked that "the brute creation know more than they get credit for," he replied, "Oh, yes, I allow the lower animals have instinct, but that is different from the power of reason in man, although it is very useful to them. It helps them to preserve their lives, and sometimes it helps them to preserve the lives of their masters too."

A niece of Mr. Smith says, "When my sister and I were children, nothing was such a treat to us as to get Our mother to tell us sayings and doings of Mackay when he was a child. She was so happy in recalling them, and invariably concluded her stories with the remark, "I did like that laddie!"

When he was five years of age, the regime of his old nurse came to rather a sudden end. One morning a heavy fall awoke him, and as the curly head raised itself from the pillow, the blue eyes opened wider and wider, as he saw his friend lying prostrate on the nursery hearth, with her head in close proximity to the fire. In a minute he was up, dragging and pulling her out of danger; but, failing in his efforts to move her, with wonderful foresight he returned to his cot, and seizing his quilt, tucked it well over her head, lest a blazing log should fall on her. He then sped like lightning to his parents' room, exclaiming,

"Annie is dead! I am sure she is dead! "

Annie, however, recovered, and in a few days was herself again. But it was thought advisable that she should have some lighter occupation, so she invested her savings in furnishing a small house in Old Aberdeen, conveniently situated for letting lodgings to students attending King's College.

The prospect of her departure was the boy's first real grief. When the day came for their last walk Annie said, "Cheer up, laddie! I'm comin' back to see ye ilka summer; but we'll gang the noo to the Brig o' Bogie. I want to show ye something afore I gae awa'."

When they reached the bridge, Annie sat down to rest on the stone coping of the low wall, while the boy leaned idly over, wondering what was to be seen. After a little Annie said, "I'm gaen awa' the morn!" but he was already absorbed in the click-clack of the mill-wheel, and he heard her not.

After repeated efforts to gain his attention, she pulled his sleeve, saying, "I'm nae gaen to let anybody whip my bairn when I'm awa';" and producing a little leather "tawse" out of her pocket, she dropped it into the stream.

It took the boy a minute to forget the wheel and to realise the situation, but when he did so he darted to the other side of the bridge, screamed, and then rushed down the bank and into the Bogie. Annie was in terror, for she was too weak to follow him, and some parts of the stream were deep. She succeeded, however, in attracting the notice of a man in an adjoining field, who was singing blithely as he followed the plough. This man kindly rescued the child from the water and tried to reason with him:

"But his young heart, was swelling
Beneath his snowy bos'om, and his form
Straightened up proudly in his tiny wrath,
As if his light proportions would have swelled,
Had they but matched his spirit, to the man."

"Ye maun hie hame," said Annie, "and change yer droukit claes"; but with a determination which surprised her, he quietly told her that until the tag was recovered, or properly searched for, he would not return. Presently the sound of merry voices coming down the hill announced that the schoolchildren were on their way home, so he climbed up the bank on to the road and told them of his trouble. They were highly amused, and the bigger boys were soon wading in the Bogie. A shout and a loud "hurrah!" announced its recovery, and a long-legged, red-haired boy, with a twinkle of humour in his eye, restored it to the rightful owner, with the caution, "Dinna dry it ower fast, or it'll be a' the harder for its doukin.' "

On the way home, after reflection, he said, "Perhaps it is best you should go, Annie, for you used to try to make me good, and how can I be good without a tag?"

"Ye are aye gude, my bairn; ye never do naething wrang, except forgettin' to learn yer lessons, and ye shall nae be whipped for that. Ye canna help forgettin', whiles."

"Yes, I ought not to forget, because if I cannot say my lessons immediately after breakfast, papa has no time to hear me all day. Have you forgotten about the pilgrims and the black man, Annie?"

Annie, wishing to divert his attention, affected ignorance.

"Well, you know, Annie, the pilgrims had stopped all night with the shepherds on the Delectable Mountains, and when they were leaving, the shepherds gave them a note of directions for the way. They forgot, however, to read the note, and they got into a black man's net before they knew, and had to stop there a long time, till a shining one came to them, with a whip in his hand. He let them out of the net and put them on the right way again; but after he had heard their story, he asked them if the shepherds had not given them a note of direction, and they said,' Yes.' “

" 'But did you read it ?' and they said, ' No.' “

“ ‘Why did you not read it?' and they replied, , ‘We forgot;' so he ordered them to lie down on the grass and he whipped them sore. Then he bade them get up and go on their way, and not to forget again. And the pilgrims thanked him for his kindness, and went on their way softly."

Annie lived some years after this scene, and many a time she told the story of the boy's inflexible rectitude.

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