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Book of Scottish Story
The Billeted Soldier


In the autumn of 1803, the Forfar and Kincardine militia,—then an infantry regiment of about 1000 strong,—en route from the south of Scotland to Aberdeen, along the coast road, happened to perform the march between the towns of Montrose and Bervie on a Saturday. The want of the required accommodation in Bervie for so many men rendered it necessary that a considerable portion should be billeted in the adjoining villages of Johnshaven and Gourdon, and on farmers and others on the line of march. In carrying out this arrangement, it so happened that one private soldier was billeted on a farmer or crofter of the name of Lyall, on the estate of East Mathers, situated about a mile north-west of the village of Johnshaven. David Lyall, gudeman of Gateside, was a douce, respectable individual, a worthy member, if not an elder, of the secession church, Johnshaven. His wife, Mrs Lyal, possessed many of the good qualities of her worthy husband, whom she highly venerated, and pithily described as being "as gude a man as ever lay at a woman's side. Mrs Lyall was a rigid seceder, a strict Sabbatarian, stern and rigorous in everything relating to the kirk and kirk affairs, deeply learned in polemical disquisitions, had a wondrous "gift of gab," and by no means allowed the talent to lie idle in a napkin.

The soldier produced his billet, was kindly received, treated to the best as regarded bed and board, was communicative, and entered into all the news of the day with the worthy couple. Everything ran smoothly on the evening of Saturday, and an agreeable intimacy seemed to be established in the family; but the horror of Mrs Lyall may be conceived, when, on looking out in the morning rather early, she saw the soldier stripped to the shirt, switching, brushing, and scrubbing his clothes on an eminence in front of the house.

"Get up, David Lyall," she said, "get up; it ill sets you to be lying there snoring, an' that graceless pagap brackin' the Lord's day wi' a' his might, at oor door."

David looked up, and quietly composing himself again, said. "The articles of war, gudewife, the articles of war; puir chiel, he canna help himsel—he maun do duty Sunday as well as Saturday."

The soldier, after cleaning his clothes and taking a stroll in the romantic dell of Denfenella adjoining, returned in time to breakfast, which was a silent meal. With Mrs Lyall there was only "mony a sad and sour look," and on the table being cleared, she placed on it, or rather thrust, the "big ha' Bible" immediately in front of the soldier.

"Weel, mistress," said the soldier, "what book is this?"

"That's a beuk, lad," said the gudewife, "that I muckle doubt that you and the like o' ye ken unco little about."

"Perhaps," was the reply; "we shall see."

On opening the book the soldier said, "I have seen such a book before."

"Gin ye've seen sic a book before," said Mrs Lyall, "let's hear gin ye can read ony."

"I don't mind though I do," said the soldier, and taking the Bible he read a chapter that had been marked by Mrs Lyall as one condemnatory of his seeming disregard of the Sabbath. The reading of the soldier was perfect.

"There, lad," said David Lyall, "ye read like a minister."

"An' far better than mony ane o' them," said the mistress; "but gifts are no graces," she continued; "it's nae the readin' nor the hearin' that maks a gude man—na, na, it's the right and proper application—the practice, that's the real thing."

David saw that "the mistress was aboot to mount her favourite hobbyhorse," and cut her lecture short by remarking that "it was time to mak ready for the kirk."

"Aye, ye'll gae to the kirk," said Mrs Lyall. "an' tak the sodger wi' ye; and see that ye fesh the sermon hame atween ye, as I am no gaun mysel the day."

The soldier acquiesced, and on their way to church Mr Lyall remarked, among other things, that "the gudewife was, if anything, precise and conceited about kirk matters an' keepin' the Sabbath day, but no that ill a body, fin fouk had the git o' her and latten gang a wee thing her ain git. I keep a calm sough mysel, for the sake o' peace, as she an' her neebour wife, Mrs Smith, gudewife o' Jackston, count themselves the Jachin an' Boaz o' our temple. Ye'll mind as muckle o' the sermon as ye can, as depend upon it she will be speirin'." The soldier said he would do his best to satisfy her on that head.

The parish church of Benholm, as well as the secession church of Johnshaven, were that day filled to overflowing more by red coats than black. On their return from church, and while dinner was discussing, Mrs Lyall inquired about the text at David. He told her the text.

"A bonnie text," she said; "Mr Harper" (the name of the minister) "would say a hantle upon that; fu did he layout his discourse?"

"Weel gudewife," said David, "I can tell ye little mair aboot it; ye may speir at the sodger there. I can tell ye he held the killivine (pencil) gaun to some tune a' the time."

"Ye've ta'en a note o' the sermon, lad?" said the mistress. "I will see it when we get our dinner."

After dinner, and after the soldier had read the chapter of which the text formed part, in the same correct and eloquent style as he did in the morning, Mrs Lyall asked him to "favour her with a sight of the sermon." After adjusting her spectacles, Mrs Lyall examined with seeming seriousness the manuscript, page after page, glancing a look now and then at the soldier and her husband. She took off her specks, and handing back the sheets to the soldier, said—

"Weel, lad, ye are the best reader that ever I heard, an' the warst writer I ever saw; there's naething there but dots an' strokes an' tirliewhirlies; I canna mak a word o' sense o't; ye've sairly neglected yer handwrite—sairly."

"That may be," replied the soldier, "but I can assure you the sermon is all there."

"Ye can read it yoursel, then," said the gudewife.

The soldier took the manuscript and read, or rather re-delivered, the sermon, each head and particular, word for word as Mr Harper had given it. When he had concluded it, David Lyall, looking triumphantly at the mistress, said—

"Weel, gudewife, ye've gotten the sermon to Amen. Fat think ye o' that?"

She sat in silent amazement for a considerable time, and at length ejaculated — "Fat do I think o' that? Fat do I think o' that? Fa' wadna think o' that? I may just say this, that I never believed before that a red coat had sae muckle grace about it, but I've been thinkin', lad, that ye are no a sodger— at ony rate if ye are ane, ye could be something else, — I'm doon sure o' that."

The soldier stated that he was only a private soldier, that there was nothing extraordinary in what he had done, that all or nearly all the men in his regiment could just do the same thing, and that many of them were better scholars than he pretended to be; and taking from his knapsack a copy of the Greek New Testament, he laid it before her, saying that "as she had been so kind as allow him to read her Bible, he would favour her with a look of his, and hoped that she would now in turn read for his edification."

Mrs Lyall examined the volume with deep attention for some time, and shaking her head, said—

"Na, na, lad; they maun be deeper beuk-learned than me that read that beuk; yer far ayont my thumb."

He told her what book it was, employed the afternoon or evening of that Sabbath in reading, expounding, and giving literal translations of many of the passages of the New Testament that seemed doubtful or difficult to Mrs Lyall. She found the soldier equally conversant with all her theological authors—Bunyan, Baxter, Brown, and Boston, were at his finger-ends; the origin and history, as well as the fathers, of the Secession Church were nothing new to him. The soldier conducted family worship that evening in a most solemn and becoming manner for David Lyall.

On resuming his march in the morning he was urgently pressed by Mrs Lyall to accept of some of her country cheer, such as cheese or butter; in fact, she would have filled his knapsack. A complete revolution had been effected in her opinion regarding the moral, religious, and intellectual qualities of soldiers. "I aye took them for an ignorant, graceless pack, the aftscourings o' creation, but I now see that I have been far mista'en;" and until the day of her death, which occurred many years afterwards, she would tolerate no insinuation in her presence to the prejudice of the profession. When such was attempted in her hearing, she instantly kindled up with—"Awa wi' yer lees an' yer havers, I'll hear nane o' them; there shall nae chield speak ill o' sodgers in my presence, na, na. Mony's the minister that I hae seen in my house, —some better, some waur,—but nane o' them had either the wisdom, the learning, the ready unction, of a gallant single sodger."

The name of "the gallant single sodger" was Robert Mudie, afterwards editor of the Dundee Advertiser newspaper.—Eminent Men of Fife.


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