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A blend of peat smoke,
tobacco smoke and the rhythm of Gaelic voices drifted languidly through
the open doorway of Janet’s cottage where the ceilidh was in progress.
It was early June and all day the land had been spread with sunshine
thick and yellow as Highland cream and even now, though it was past ten
o’clock in the evening, the sun was only thinking of dimming its
radiance; the larks were only thinking of moderating their exultation;
the cattle on the hills were only thinking of bedding down for the night
and the hens were only thinking of returning to their roosts in the
henhouse. The Bruachites had just begun their evening relaxation when I
‘Aye, indeed, it’s hard
when a man has to have one foot on his croft and the other in Glasgow,’
Old Murdoch was saying, referring to a crofter from the next village
whose funeral the men of Bruach had that day been attending.
‘Ach, but he was always
such a fast man,’ said Morag. ‘Flittin’ from one thing to another as if
he couldn’t rest at all.’
‘He lived fast an’ he
died fast,’ said Erchy. ‘So fast he nearly missed his own damty
‘How so?’ asked Murdoch.
Erchy paused to light a
cigarette before replying. ‘Why, when we was ready to take him to the
burial ground after the minister had finished with him we couldn’t find
the damty bier to put him on. We searched everywhere an’ we was thinkin’
we’d have to put the coffin on a wheelbarrow to take it to the grave
until Farquhar remembered seem’ the bier proppin’ up Hamish’s haystack
‘An’ that’s where it was?’ asked Murdoch.
‘Aye, right enough,
that’s where we got It. But by God! it was a good job it was June an’
not November or it would have been too dark to bury him by the time we
got to the burial ground. He’d have needed to stay out all night.’
There were faint murmurs
of condemnation, not of Hamish’s appropriation of the funeral bier for
such a mundane purpose but of his neglecting to mention its whereabouts
to the gravediggers.
‘He was young enough to
die,’ said Janet in a puzzled tone.
‘Aye, an’ he must have
been sore vexed with himself for dyin’ the night before he was to start
drawin’ his old age pension just,’ Morag observed. Her statement was
greeted with croons of sympathy.
Murdoch snatched the pipe
from his mouth. ‘Is that true?’ he queried in shocked tones.
emphatically. ‘1 had it from Fiona at the post office herself,’ she
asserted. ‘Not twelve hours after he died he would have been legible:
those were her very words to me.’ Morag nodded smugly.
Murdoch, who had been
drawing his pension for more than ten years sat back in his chair. ‘My,
my!’ he muttered, and then again, ‘My, my!’ he said, shaking his head.
‘What are you girnin’
about, Murdoch?’ asked the postman. ‘You should put in your new teeths
an’ then we’d know what you’re after sayin’.’
Murdoch spread his lips
in a gummy smile. ‘My teeths are stayin’ where they are now,’ he said,
indicating the dresser drawer. ‘Except for when the minister comes.’
‘Ach, come on, Murdoch!
Put them in an’ let’s see how you look In them. What’s the use of gettin’
new teeths from the dentist an’ then leavin’ them in the drawer?’ The
arrival of Murdoch’s false teeth had been a minor event in Bruach and
there was a chorus of exhortation. ‘Come on, Murdoch! Give us a good
Janet turned round in her
seat and reaching out opened the dresser drawer to take out Murdoch’s
new dentures. ‘They’ll not rest now till they see you in them,’ she
urged jovially. Obediently Murdoch took the teeth, stuffed them into his
mouth and bared them in a gorilla-like smile. The company screamed with
mirth and Murdoch, himself shaking with laughter, spat the teeth
hurriedly into his hand and gave them to Janet who returned them to the
‘There now,’ he told
them. ‘Don’t ask to see them again for they’re stayin’ there till the
day I die!’
‘And after,’ interposed
Erchy. ‘You won’t need teeths where you’re goin’. Not to eat hot soup.’
‘Oh, here, here.’ Murdoch
looked a little discomfited by Erchy’s remark. Janet hastily brought the
subject back to the funeral.
‘It would be overwork
likely that killed yon fellow so young,’ she suggested.
‘Ach, the only way you
fellow overworked himself was dodgin’ tse income tax mannie,’ said
Hector, whose acquaintance with income tax assessments was limited to
watching them burn. ‘Tsat’s tse reason for him workin’ his croft for six
months of tse year an’ takin’ a job in Glasgow for tie otser six months.
He as good as told me so himself.’
‘I’m sayin’ it was hard
all the same,’ repeated Murdoch after a short silence. ‘A man cannot
rightly do two jobs together.’
‘Indeed it is so,’ agreed
Padruig the roadman. ‘Don’t I know myself what it’s like for a man to be
needed in two places at one time?’
‘An’ not to be found in
either one of them when the time comes,’ taunted Erchy with a wink at
the assembled company.
‘Why so?’ asked Murdoch
with pretended surprise and quickly pushed his pipe between his lips so
as to hide a grin...
‘Ach, the only times
Padruig’s usin’ his spade these few days past is for plantin’ potatoes
for his sweetheart Flora,’ Erchy elucidated. ‘Ever since she’s come back
to live on the croft she’s not wanted for help so long as Padruig’s
The return of Flora to
her native village after more than thirty years working as a servant on
the mainland was the subject of much speculation in Bruach. She was ten
years off pension age and she had never previously shown much eagerness
to live the crofting life yet here for the past year she had been living
and working, apparently contentedly, on the croft she had inherited some
years earlier from her parents. There were rumours of a legacy but the
Bruachites were sceptical. They knew all Flora’s relatives and not one
had died leaving more than the amount needed to ship the corpse home for
burial and since she had always chosen to be a servant at ‘the manse’
they dismissed the possibility of her having benefited either by savings
or inheritance from such a source. However, it was noticed that she did
not stint herself; that there was always a good dram in recompense for
work done and so, accepting she had money other than the income from the
croft, they could only ponder on its origin.
‘Tsat’s true what Erchy’s
sayin’,’ averred Hector. ‘An’ I’m tsinkin’ we’ll be hearin’ next she’s
after gettin’ the County Council lorry to take home her peats for her.’
‘Here no, surely,’
‘The Dear knows my fine
Flora’s no needin’ any County Council lorry,’ said Morag. ‘She’s well
able to pay for the hire of her own lorry.’ There was a slight trace of
envy in her voice.
Padruig leaned forward
and lifting a live peat from the fire with his spade-hardened fingers he
relit his pipe.
‘Sweetheart!’ He spoke
the word like an epithet. ‘There’s no harm in givin’ a body a hand when
it’s asked for,’ he defended. ‘Not when her croft’s right there beside
the road where I’m workin’.’
‘An’ you make damty sure
that’s where you are workin’,’ Erchy told him. ‘But ach, maybe you’re
wise. I daresay there’s a strupak an’ a good dram at the end of it.’
Padruig permitted himself
a slow, self-satisfied smile. ‘Aye, I’m no denyin’ it,’ he admitted.
‘Right enough there’s a good dram in it for me most days.’ He leaned
back puffing at his pipe, savouring their envy.
‘Ach, isn’t he the wily
one?’ commented Janet, getting up to swing the boiling kettle half on to
‘Sweetheart or no, I’m
after hearin’ you took flora to the Games yesterday, Padruig,’ Morag
‘I did not then,’ Padruig
‘You were sittin’ right
beside her on the bus,’ accused Tearlaich.
‘I sat where there was a
sit for me,’ retorted Padruig, becoming indignant. ‘But she paid her own
fare. Johnny here will tell you that,’ He turned to the bus driver who
was sitting on the floor, his back against the wall. ‘Is that not the
truth of it, Johnny?’
‘Aye,’ agreed Johnny,
‘but not till she’d given up waitin’ on you to pay It for her. Ach,’ he
shook his head, ‘You should have seen the look she gave him.’
‘I was no seem’ it then,’
said Padruig loftily.
‘Well if she wasn’t at
the Games with you why is it you were standin’ so close together when
you were waitin’ on the bus to
bring you home? I could hardly see you, you were cuddlin’ her that
close,’ Erchy pursued mercilessly.
‘Oh, whist, whist!’ Padruig
replied hastily. ‘I got her to stand close to me so the missionary
wouldn’t get a sight of me. He was passin’ at the time an’ I didn’t want
him to know I was at the Games.’ There were exclamations of disbelief
from the young people.
‘Hear tsat now!’ scoffed Hector
who was lazily netting a coloured glass net float for a pretty young
tourist he hoped to seduce the following day. ‘Tse man’s feared tse
missionary will condemn him to hell and burnin’ fire because he’s been
to see a bit of caber tossin’ an’ listen to a few bagpipes at tse
The old people, themselves in the
thrall of the missionary, were embarrassed by Hector’s remark. The young
ones risked half suppressed giggles.
‘An’ what caber tossin’. Why that
wee slick they was usin’ for a caber would not have made a decent fence
stob,’ sneered Tearlaich who, like the rest of the Bruachites, practised
caber tossing with freshly washed-up pit props from the shore having a
diameter of about nine inches and weighty with sea water. A man had to
be strong indeed to ‘toss’ such a caber.
‘An’ the playin’ for the bagpipes
competition was awful poor, I’m thinkin’,’ submitted Morag. ‘Indeed
there was times when I was after puttin’ my thumbs into my ears with the
noise of them.’ She looked about her expecting confirmation. ‘It was no
so bad for the Judge,’ she added, ‘seem’ he was stone deaf anyway.’
Janet handed round mugs of freshly
made tea to those who wanted it and before resuming her seat she glanced
through the window. ‘Here now!’ she exclaimed. ‘If it isn’t Flora
herself comin’ to ceilidh.’
Flora was small and slight with a
long face strained into an expression of unassailable virtue and a mouth
that had to be constantly restrained from stretching itself into a
‘So here you all are,’ she greeted
us briskly and while everyone murmured salutations in return we moved
along the bench to make room for her to sit down. ‘I thought I’d most
likely find you here,’ she told us.
‘Were you wantin’ us, then?’ asked
‘Maybe some of you I want,’
replied Flora, taking the cup of tea Janet proffered. ‘That’s to say
those of you that’s young enough to be interested in dancin’ still.’
‘Dancin’?’ echoed Tearlaich, who
at fifty was reckoned to be among the youngsters of the village.
‘Aye.’ Flora surveyed their
reactions between sips of tea.
‘What for would we be goin’ dancin’?’
asked Padruig, his voice betraying his disappointment. He too was young
by Bruach standards but his religion made him almost senile.
‘More than that,’ continued Flora.
‘It’s no Just a dance but a fancy dress dance I’m speakin’ of.’
The old people looked down into
their laps but the faces of the young ones brightened with interest.
‘What, here in Bruach?’ asked the
‘No, indeed,’ replied Flora. ‘It’s
over on the mainland in a place where I used to work at the Manse.
There’s a fancy dress dance goin’ to be put on in the hail there an’
those of you would like to come then I’m thinkin’ of hirin’ a bus to
take us an’ it’ll cost you nothin’ but the drinkin’ money.’
‘There’s never been that sort of a
dance hereabouts, that I’ve heard of,’ mused Erchy. Flora chuckled, a
funny throbbing chuckle that made one think it had been too often
repressed. ‘No, nor will be in my lime nor yours, I’m thinkin’,’ she
‘Ach, you’ll not get anyone to go
from this place,’ Tearlaich told her. ‘You’ll never get folks to dress
themselves the way we did at Halloween an’ then go off on a bus to some
place on the mainland.’
‘Indeed no,’ responded Flora.
‘You’ll not be dressin’ yourselves up like you did at Halloween. No,’
she repeated when Tearlaich looked at her in surprise. ‘You’ll need to
come in somethin’ better than old clothes you’ve taken from out of your
lofts.’ She turned to me. ‘You’ll know about fancy dress, Miss Peckwitt,’
she said and looked at me questioningly.
‘It’s a long lime since I was at a
fancy dress dance,’ I told her.
‘No matter,’ she replied. ‘You can
tell them some ideas about what to wear.’ She looked at the young
schoolteacher. ‘What about you, Elspeth? You must have seen fancy dress
dances when you were at college, did you not?’
‘Aye,’ admitted Elspeth. ‘I went
to one once as Mary, Queen of Scots,’ she confessed.
‘Right enough then,’ said Flora.
‘An’ what about Jeannac here goin’ as Meg Merrilees?’
‘Is that the idea of it?’ said
Tearlaich as enlightenment dawned. ‘You dress up as somebody you learned
about at school?’
‘You can go as anything,’ the
schoolteacher started to explain. ‘You can put on a pair of horns an’ go
as a stag.’
‘One of you could dress up as a
policeman, or even as a minister,’ I suggested daringly but except for
Flora who flashed me a conspiratorial smile the rest ignored my
suggestions and the conversation continued as various proposals as to
suitable attire were put forward.
‘Erchy should go dressed up as a
bottle of whisky,’ suggested Johnny.
‘Here no! They’d have me buried
alive the minute they saw me,’ said Erchy, referring to the Bruach
custom of burying their whisky bottles outside the dance hall.
‘What I’m wantin’ to know is why
you yourself is so keen to go to the dance that you’ll be wantin’ to
hire a bus?’ Old Murdoch said.
Flora put down her cup. ‘Well now,
I’ll tell you for why,’ she began and while we all listened avidly she
told us the story of how she had come by her ‘legacy’ and why she
particularly wanted to go to the fancy dress dance.
‘As you know,’ she began, ‘I’ve
been workin’ the past three years for a Free Presbyterian Minister an’
then one day after a telegram comes for him he calls me into his study.
The man was in a terrible state! I knew that when the first thing he did
was ask me to sit down. Then he says, "How long have you been with us
now, Flora?" "Three years, near enough," says I. "An’ have you been
content with us?" says he. Well, I told him I’d been content enough
though the Dear knows workin’ for that old fright of a wife he has I
used to think sometimes I would be better off workin’ in a salt mine.
Anyway the next thing is he’s tellin’ me I’ll have to leave. It fairly
took my breath away at first an’ I was just goin’ to tell him I was
thinkin’ of doin’ that anyway when he shows me this telegram.’ Flora
paused to ensure she had our complete attention. ‘I don’t like telegrams
but I knew I had no relations that could have passed on to give me a
shock so I just stares at him. Then he tells me of how he was travellin’
on the train one day an’ not havin’ his bible with him at the time, so
he says,’ she grimaced knowingly, ‘he picks up this paper that someone’s
left behind an’ when he’d read all that was fit to read he started to do
the competition an’ when he’d done it he was feelin’ that pleased with
himself he decided to send it off. It wasn’t until he came to address
the envelope that he noticed he’d been readin’ a Sunday newspaper!’
The Bruachites were aghast. A ‘Wee
Free’ minister reading a Sunday paper was such an unthinkably wicked
thing to do they were as agog to hear the rest of Flora’s tale as they
would have been to hear the final denouement in a detective story.
‘"Well, Flora," says he, an’ this
is his story. "It somehow got posted along with some other letters I was
postin’ at the same time an’ now has come this telegram today to say
I’ve won first prize." No one spoke and Flora continued, ‘I could see he
was in a right mess with the Church Assembly no doubt wantin’ him thrown
out of the Church an’ his wife no doubt wantin’ him thrown into the sea
but what I couldn’t see was how it had to do with me. Then he points out
that not only have we the same surname, himself an’ me, but we have the
same initial too. "You’re flora an’ I’m Farquhar," says he. "So Flora,"
he begs me, "if you will say it was yourself won the competition an’
have your name go in the papers then you’re welcome to every penny the
devil has tried to tempt me with."
‘An’ you took it?’ asked Morag
with faint disapproval.
‘I did indeed,’ replied Flora. ‘It
was worth gettin’ acquainted with the devil for it to my way of thinkin’.’
‘But you had to leave your place
through it?’ asked Murdoch.
‘Aye, indeed,’ replied Flora. ‘A
Godly man like him couldn’t go on having a sinner like me that did
competitions in Sunday newspapers livin’ under the same roof as himself
now, could he? Not once my name got into the paper?’
‘An’ were you no sorry at all to
‘Not a bitty,’ asserted Flora. ‘1
was kind of fancyin’ comin’ back to the croft anyway. Ach, the minister
himself wasn’t so bad but his wife was such an old fright the poor man
would hardly dare to look at a flower in his garden on the Sabbath. I’m
tellin’ you without a word of a lie she was that mad with religion she
used to go sniffin’ round the house in case I’d been wicked enough to
bring in a bit of scented soap to wash myself with.’
I found myself wondering why Flora
should have chosen to work at a ‘Wee Free’ manse and had I not been
aware of the old people’s indoctrination of their children with the idea
that if they went away to be servants they must go either to the manse
or to the laud’s house I would have suspected she had a masochistic
streak in her.
‘In a way I’m after seem’ now why
you’re so keen to get to this fancy dress dance,’ said Tearlaich. ‘But
neither the minister nor his wife is goin’ to be seen anywhere near
Flora let out a ripple of
laughter. ‘No, what I’m hopin’ is there’ll be a photographer there from
the paper so that maybe I’ll get my picture in It for the minister to
see. I know the mannie that does the pictures,’ she added, ‘an’ I
believe when I tell him what I want he’ll be well pleased to do it for
‘Why, what will you be dressin’
yourself up as, then?’ asked Erchy.
flora treated him to a brazen
smile. ‘I’m goin’ to dress myself up as one of these nuns,’ she told
him, ‘an’ I’m goin’ to be carryin’ a big bundle of Sunday papers under
my arm.’ She stood up and while dusting some crumbs of scone from her
skirt enjoyed the varying expressions of amusement, admiration and
disapproval. ‘Think about what I’ve been sayin’ now an’ make up your
minds in good time,’ she instructed them. ‘You’ll have a good time, I
promise you that.’ She winked at them.
‘I can tell you right now,’ said
Erchy. ‘I’m damty sure I will come so long as somebody promises to see
me safely home again afterwards.’
‘Didn’t I tell you I’m hirin’ a
bus,’ she reminded him.
‘Ach, no, but what I’m meanin’ by
safe is nothin’ to do with the bus. See now,’ he explained, ‘when I’m at
a dance I’m likely to take a good drink an’ it’s then the women get at
me.’ The ‘women’ hooted with laughter.
‘I’ll promise to protect you from
the women,’ Flora assured him.
‘Hell!’ parried Erchy
ungratefully. ‘Who will be protectin’ me from you then?’
‘Away with you, man,’ Flora
teased. ‘I’ve not worked fot ministers all these years without learnin’
to keep myself to myself.’ She opened the door. ‘It’s a grand night,’
she called as she stepped out into the still golden twilight. ‘Oidche
‘Oidche Mhath!’ we called after
I started to laugh. ‘Flora’s
certainly given you all plenty to think about, hasn’t she?’ I said. ‘And
this fancy dress dance sounds as if it might be a lot of fun.’
‘I wouldn’t mind goin’ myself,’
said Johnny. ‘That’s if Miss Peckwitt here will fix up somethin’ for me
‘I’ll do that,’ I promised.
‘An’ what about me?’ joked
Murdoch. ‘Will you no find somethin’ for me to dress up as so that I can
go?’ He wheezed with laughter.
Erchy grunted. ‘You, you old
bodach! Why if you’re thinkin’ of goin’ Miss Peckwitt will no be needin’
to find somethin’ for you to dress yourself up in. All you will need to
do is put in your new teeths an’ go as a horse.’
You can purchase Beautiful Just
You can purchase
Beautiful Just from Amazon.com