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Book of Scottish Story
My Grandmother's Portrait


By Daniel Gorrie

In picture galleries, or in private apartments, portraits seldom receive much attention from visitors, unless they happen to have known the originals, or to be aware that the pictures are the productions of distinguished artists. And yet, whether we have known the originals or not, and apart altogether from the general artistic merit of the works, there are many portraits which have a wonderful effect in giving the mind a reflective and inquisitive turn. Portraits of this description may occasionally be seen in retired country houses of modest dimensions, where one need scarcely expect to find specimens of the highest class of art. Faces we may there observe, silently depending from the walls, on which strongly-pronounced character is depicted in spite of every artistic defect, and through the deep lines of which the record of a stirring or painful life seems to struggle earnestly for utterance. People are too much in the habit of regarding every person as commonplace and uninteresting who has not managed somehow to make a noise in the world; but in these "counterfeit presentments” of men, and women who have died in comparative obscurity, known only to their own circle of friends, we may see much that strangely moves our hearts, and makes us long to learn what their history has been.

Let the reader look in fancy on that old portrait hanging before me there on the wall. To me it is no dead picture, but rather does it seem the living embodiment of a maternal grandmother—a heroic old dame, who never lost heart whatever might betide, and of whom that image is now almost the sole remaining relic. Even a stranger could scarcely fail to note with curious interest that small round face with nose and chin attenuated by years—those peering eyes, where a twinkle of youth yet breaks through the dim of eld—that wrinkled brow, shaded with a brown frontage•braid of borrowed hair—and that compact little head, encased in a snow-white cap with its broad band of black ribbon. The least skilful artist could hardly have failed in depicting the features; but the old familiar expression is also there, preserved as in amber, and the aged face is pleasantly blended in my mind with memories of early days. Detached incidents in her life, which she was fond of frequently relating to her grandchildren, who eagerly clustered around her, listening to the oft-told tale, recur to me with considerable freshness after the lapse of many years.

At the time when that portrait was taken, Mrs Moffat—as I shall name her—was well-nigh eighty years of age. For about the half of that period she had led a widowed life. Her husband, who witnessed many stirring scenes on sea and shore, had been a surgeon in the Royal Navy, and she was left "passing rich with forty pounds a year ” of government pension.

There was one remarkable incident in his history to which she frequently recurred. Samuel Moffat obtained an appointment as surgeon on board the ill-fated Royal George; but before the time set apart for her leaving port, he found that the smell of the fresh paint of the new vessel created a feeling of nausea, which would have rendered him unfit for duty ; and by his good fortune in getting transferred, on this account, to another man-of-war, he escaped the sad fate that befell so many hapless victims—

“When Kempenfelt went down
With twice four hundred men.”

A striking incident of this kind naturally made a deep impression on his own mind, and it also formed a prominent reminiscence in the memory of his faithful partner during the long remainder of her life.

The earlier period of Mrs Moffat’s widowhood was passed in Edinburgh ; but when death and marriage had scattered her family, she followed one of her married daughters into the country, and took up her abode in a neat poplar-shaded cottage on the outskirts of a quiet village, situated in a fertile and beautiful valley of the county that lies cradled in the twining arms of the Forth and the Tay. That cottage, with its garden behind, and pretty flower-borders in front, and with its row of poplar and rowan trees, through which the summer breeze murmured so pleasantly, comes up vividly before my mind’s eye at this moment. Beautiful as of yore the valley smiles around, with its girdling ridges belted with woods, and dotted with pleasant dwellings ; and away to westward, shutting in the peaceful scene from the tumult of the great world, rise the twin Lomond hills, glorious at morn and eve, when bathed in the beams of the rising and setting sun. The good old lady, who had spent a large portion of her life in "Auld Reekie," when narrow Bristo Street and Potterrow and the adjoining courts were inhabited by the better class of citizens, took kindly to the country cottage, and she was fond of the garden and flowers. With a basket on her arm, she trotted about the garden, apparently very busy, but doing little after all. In autumn, after a gusty night, one of her first morning occupations was to gather up the fallen ruddy apples, which she preserved for the special gratification of her grandchildren. Marry a time and oft were they debarred from touching the red berries of the rowan trees, which look as tempting in children’s eyes as did the forbidden fruit in those of Mother Eve. The girls were even enjoined not to make necklaces of these clustering red deceivers.

In that retired village there were, in those days, a good many well-to-do people, who had not found it very difficult to make money out of a generous soil. The different families lived on very sociable terms, and during the winter season there were rounds of tea-parties, winding up with cold suppers and hot toddy. Teetotalism was a thing unknown in that district and in those days, though I shall do the good folks the justice of saying that they knew the virtues of moderation. To all those winter gatherings of the local gentry, Mrs Moffat invariably received an invitation. They could not do without her, relishing as they did her ready wit and hearty good-humour. She was in sooth, the life of every party. On such occasions she displayed all the artless buoyancy of youth, as if she had never endured the agonies of bereavement, or borne the burdens of life: She was then the very image of "Old Delight,” and her aged face renewed its youth in the sunshine of joy. Some of the knowing lairds tried by bantering and otherwise to draw her out, and her quick cutting repartees were followed by explosions of mirth. It seemed marvellous that such a well of sunny mirth should be encased in that tiny frame. Indeed, it was nothing unusual for the hearty old lady to treat the company to a "canty" song at these village parties, and touches of melody still lingered about the cracks of her voice. When bothered overmuch to sing another song after she had already done enough, she generally met the request with a solitary stanza to this effect:—

“There was a wee mannie an' a wee wifie,
And they lived in a vinegar bottle :
" And O,” says the wee mannie to the wee wifie,
" Wow, but oor warld is little, is little !
Wow, but oor warld is little !”

Rare encounters of wit and amusing banter occasionally took place between her and a strange eccentric humorist of a lawyer of the old school, who frequently visited the village from a neighbouring country town. Old Bonthron was the name by which he was familiarly known.

It may readily be imagined that, when old Mr Bonthron and Mrs Moffat met in the same company, the fun would grow "fast and furious," and such certainly was the case. I have seen the hearty old humorist take the equally hearty old lady on his knee, and dandle her there like a child, greatly to their own delight and to the infinite amusement of the company. There will be less genial and boisterous mirth now-a-days, I should imagine, in that sequestered village.

Such was Mrs Moffat in her lightsome hours, when friends met friends ; but her grandchildren were as much delighted with her when, in graver mood, she recalled early recollections, told them pleasant little stories, and narrated graphically what to her were eventful incidents in her life.

I can still remember some of the pleasant pictures she gave us of her early days. She was born in the town of Dalkeith, which is beautiful for situation, being planted in the midst of the richest woodland scenery, and she imprinted in our hearts vivid impressions of the delighted feelings with which, in the days of her girlhood, she looked through the gate of the Duke’s great park, and saw the long winding avenue and the greensward traversed by nibbling sheep, and the magnificent trees whose " shadowing shroud ” might cover a goodly company at their rural feast in the noontide of a summer’s day. She described the rustic seats and summer-houses on the banks of a brook, that wandered at its own sweet will through the wooded grounds—regions and resorts of joyance, where the children of the town, through the kindness of the then reigning Duke of Buccleuch, were permitted to spend the livelong summer’s day, thus enabling them to store their memories with pleasing recollections, which might corne back upon them in their declining days, like visions of beauty from lands of old romance. There was a pathetic story about a family of larks that had their nest in the Duke’s Park, which she recited to us over and over again, by way of inculcating the virtue of treating kindly all the creatures of God. Her story was, that some of the young rascals of Dalkeith had caught the mother-bird in the nest, and had carried off her and the whole family of young ones at one fell swoop. The male bird, thus deprived at once of mate and family, took up his melancholy station near the nest, and mourned his loss with plaintive pipe for two days, at the end of which time the broken-hearted warbler died. This affecting incident, told with much seriousness and feeling, was not unproductive of good effect upon the young listeners. Cities and towns being still to us mysteries of which we had only a vague conception, it pleased us much to hear her tell how the bells of Dalkeith tolled children to bed, and how little boys walked through the streets at night, calling "Hot pies for supper!” It struck us that at whatever hour the bell tolled, we should have liked to remain out of bed till the pies went round.

On winter evenings, beside the good old lady’s cottage fire, she was often constrained to recount her famous voyage to London, in which she well-nigh suffered shipwreck. The war-vessel on board of which her husband acted as surgeon had arrived in the Thames. He could not then obtain leave of absence, and as they had not met for many long months, she determined—protracted as the passage then was from Leith to London—to make an effort to see her husband, and to visit the great metropolis. Steamers had not, at that period, come into existence, and the clipper-smacks that traded between Leith and London, and took a few venturesome passengers on their trips, dodged along the Scotch and English coasts for days and weeks, thus making a lengthened voyage of what is now a brief and pleasant sail. It was considered a bold and hazardous undertaking, in those days, for any lady to proceed alone on such a voyage. This, however, she did, as she was gifted with a wonderful amount of pluck, leaving her family in the charge of some friends till she returned.

The vessel had scarcely left the Firth of Forth, and got out into the open sea, when the weather underwent a bad turn, and soon they had to encounter all the fury of a severe storm, which caused many shipwrecks along the whole eastern seaboard. With a kind of placid contentment—nay, even with occasional glee—would she describe the protracted miseries and hardships they endured, having run short of supplies, and every hour expecting the vessel to founder. It was three weeks afterleaving Leith until the smack was, as she described it, towed up the Thames like a dead dog, without either mast or bowsprit—a hapless and helpless hulk. However, she managed to see her husband, and the happiness of the meeting would be considered a good equivalent for the mishaps of the voyage. She saw, in the great metropolis, the then Prince of Wales—the "First Gentleman in Europe," and used to relate, with considerable gusto (old ladies being more rough—and—ready then than now), how the Prince, as he was riding in St ]ames’s Park, overheard a hussar in the crowd exclaiming, "He’s a d----d handsome fellow !” and immediately lifting his hat, his Royal Highness replied, " Thank you, my lad; but you put too much spice in your compliments ! ” That London expedition was a red-letter leaf in Mrs Moffat’s biography, and it was well thumbed by us juveniles. Her return voyage was comparatively comfortable, and much more rapid ; but she never saw her husband again, as he died at sea, and was consigned to the deep.

Even more interesting than the London trip were all the stories and incidents connected with her only son —our uncle who ‘ought’ to have been, but who was dead before any of us were born. Through the kindness and influence of Admiral Greig of the Russian navy, he obtained a commission in the Russian service at an unusually early age—Russia and Britain being at that time in close alliance. Neither the Russian navy nor army was in the best condition, and the Emperor was very desirous to obtain the services of British officers, Scotsmen being preferred. Mrs Moffat loved her son with all the warmth of her kindly nature, and when he had been about a year or two in the Russian service, the news spread through Edinburgh one day, that a Russian man-of-war was coming up the Firth to Leith roads. I have heard the good lady relate the eventful incidents of that day with glistening eyes and tremulous voice.

The tidings were conveyed to her by friends who knew that she had some reason to be interested in the news. She had received no communication from her son for some time, as the mails were then very irregular, and letters often went amissing; and, filled with the hope that he might be on board the Russian vessel that was approaching the roads, she immediately hurried off for Leith, whither crowds of people were already repairing, as a Russian war-vessel in the Forth was as great a rarity then as it is now. Before she arrived at the pier, the vessel had anchored in the roads, and the pier, neither so long nor so commodious as it is now, was thronged with people pressing onwards to get a sight of the stranger ship. Nothing daunted by the crowd, Mrs Moffat squeezed herself forward, at the imminent risk of being seriously crushed. A gentleman who occupied a "coigne of vantage," out of the stream of the crowd, observed this slight-looking lady pressing forward with great eagerness. He immediately hailed her, and asked, as she appeared very much interested, if she expected any one, or had any friends on board. She replied that she half expected her son to be with the vessel. The gentleman, who was to her a total stranger, but who must have been a gentleman every inch, immediately took her under his protection, and having a telescope in his hand, he made observations, and reported progress.

One of the ship’s boats had been let down, and he told her that he observed officers in white uniform rapidly descending. Mrs Moffat’s eagemess and anxiety were now on the increase. The boat put off from the ship, propelled by sturdy and regular strokes, cutting the water into foam, which sparkled in the sunshine. When the boat had approached midway between the ship and the shore, Mrs Moffat asked her protector if he could distinguish one officer apparently younger than the others.

"Yes," he replied; "there is one who seems scarcely to have passed from boyhood to manhood."

Her eager impatience, with hope and fear alternating in her heart, seemed now to agitate her whole frame, and the bystanders, seeing her anxiety, appeared also to share in her interest.

At last the boat, well filled with officers, shot alongside the pier, the crowd rushing and cheering, as it sped onward to the upper landing-place. It was with great difficulty that the gentleman could restrain the anxious mother from dashing into the rushing stream of people. When the crowd had thinned off a little, they made their way up the pier, and found that the officers had all left the boat and gone into the Old Ship Inn—probably because they had no desire of being mobbed. Mrs Moffat immediately went to the inn, and requested an attendant to ask if one of the officers belonged to Scotland, and if so, to be good enough to mention his name.

"Yes—Moffat!” was the cheery response, and in a short time mother and son were locked in each other’s arms in the doorway of the Old Ship.

With a glee, not unmingled with tender regrets, she used to tell how, when she and the spruce young officer were proceeding up Leith Walk together to Edinburgh, an old woman stopped them, and, clapping him kindly on the shoulder, said—"Ay, my mannie, ye’ll he a captain yet !” This prophecy of the old woman certainly met its fulfilment.

After staying a few days in the old home near the Meadows, young Moffat again took his departure, never more to see his affectionate mother, or the bald crown of Arthur Seat rising by the side of the familiar Firth. He joined the army (changes of officers from the navy to the army being then frequent in the Russian service), and enacted his part honourahly in many memorable scenes. Still do I remember the tender and tearful care with which his old mother opened up the yellow letters, with their faded ink-tracings, which contained descriptions of the part he played in harassing the French, during their disastrous retreat after the burning of Moscow. One of these letters, I recollect, commenced thus, “Here we are, driving the French before us like a flock of sheep;” and in others he gave painful descriptions of their coming up to small parties of French soldiers who were literally glued by the extreme frost to the ground—quite stiff and dead, but still in a standing attitude, and leaning on their muskets. Poor wretches! that was their sole reward for helping to whet the appetite of an insatiable ambition. In those warlike times, young Moffat grew into favour, and gained promotion. He received a gold-hilted sword from the Emperor for distinguished service, but he succumbed to fatigue, and died on foreign soil. The gold-headed sword and his epaulets, which he had bequeathed to a favourite sister, fell into the hands of harpies in London, and to this day have never reached Scotland.

In the quiet village Mrs Moffat spent her declining days in peace and sweet content, and she now sleeps in the village churchyard, till the last spring that visits the world shall waken inanimate dust to immortal life.


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