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Beautiful Just!
by Lillian Beckwith

Beautiful Just!, Chapter 1
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Beautiful Just!Fancy Dress

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 joined them.

‘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 funeral.’

‘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 last winter.’

‘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.

Morag nodded 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 laugh.’

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 drawer.

‘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 around.’

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,’ protested Janet.

‘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 the hob.

‘Sweetheart or no, I’m after hearin’ you took flora to the Games yesterday, Padruig,’ Morag challenged him.

‘I did not then,’ Padruig repudiated.

‘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 Highland Games.’

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 smile.

‘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 Murdoch.

‘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 schoolteacher.

‘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 told him.

‘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 leave?’

‘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 that, surely?’

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 me.’

‘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 Mhath!’

‘Oidche Mhath!’ we called after her.

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 to wear.’

‘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 from
You can purchase Beautiful Just from

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