Though the records of
history and every-day experience teach us that human nature, when pressed
beyond certain limits by the force of stern necessity, loses all trace of
the lineaments of the lord of the creation, and degenerates as far below
the grade of brute existence as it is, when not subjected to any such
power, above it; yet it is remarkable how determinedly mankind cling to a
sceptical incredulity in regard to those facts which derogate, in a very
great degree, from the dignity of the character of their species. The
story of Christiecleek has been considered by many as only fit for being,
what it has been for five hundred years, a nursery bugbear: and yet it, as
narrated by Winton, one of the least credulous of historians, was attended
by circumstances rendering it highly probable at the time, and has been
corroborated by instances of civilized cannibalism, produced by
necessity, in cases of shipwreck, of almost yearly occurrence.
The united powers of war
and famine, which have so often poured forth their fury on the devoted
head of poor Scotland, at no time exhibited greater malignity than in the
beginning of the reign of David II. For about fifty years, the country had
scarcely ever enjoyed a year of quiet— with, perhaps, the exception of a
short period of the reign of Bruce. Repeatedly swept from one end to the
other by the invading armies of the Edwards, carrying the sword and the
faggot in every direction, she was, on the very instant of the departure
of the foreign foes, (in all cases starved out of a burnt and devastated
land,) laid hold of by the harpies of intestine wars. The strong resilient
energies of the country could have thrown off the effects of one attack,
however severe and however protracted; but a series of incursions of the
same disease, at intervals, allowing of no time for recruiting her powers,
produced a political marasmus—a confirmed famine—one of the most dreadful
evils (including in itself all others) that ever was visited on mankind.
It would be difficult to
draw a picture, because imagination falls short of the powers of a proper
portraiture, of the misery and desolation of Scotland at the time we have
mentioned. The land had got gradually out of cultivation, and the herds of
black cattle and sheep, on which the people relied, in default of the
productive powers of agriculture, had been either driven into England, or
consumed by the myriads of soldiers of the English invading armies. Great
numbers of the people having nothing wherewith to allay the pangs of
hunger, though they had plenty of money, quitted their country in despair,
and took refuge in Flanders. Those who had no money to pay their passage,
left their homes, and betook themselves to the woods, where, to appease
their agonies, they lay on the ground and devoured, like the inhabitants
of their styes, the acorns and the nuts that had fallen from the trees. In
the want of these, the very branches were laid hold of and gnawed; and
many poor creatures were found lying dead, with the half-masticated boughs
in their clenched hands. The only remedial influence that was experienced,
was the growth of dysenteries and other intestine diseases, which,
produced by hunger, and becoming epidemic, kindly swept off thousands who
would otherwise have died of protracted famine.
At a wild spot near the
Grampian Hills, a number of destitute beings had collected, for the
purpose of catching deer, (a few of which still remained,) to keep in the
spark of life. They agreed to associate together, and divide their prey,
which was dressed in a mountain cave, where they had assembled. Every
morning, they sallied forth, women and all, on the dreadful errand of
taking advantage of chance, in supplying them with any species of wild
animals that came in their way, to satisfy the imperative demands of
hunger. They got a few creatures at first, consisting chiefly of hares and
foxes, and occasionally wolves, as ferocious and hungry as their captors;
and such was the extremity to which they were often reduced, that they sat
down on the spot where the animals were caught, divided the smoking limbs
among their number, and devoured them without any culinary preparation.
This supply very soon
ceased—the animals in the neighbourhood having either been consumed or
frightened away to more inaccessible places. The wretched beings, like
others in their situation, had recourse tothe woods for acorns;
but the time of the year had passed, and no nuts were to be found.
Weakness preyed on their limbs; and several of their number, unable longer
to go in search of food, which was nowhere to be found, lay on the floor
of the cavern in the agonies of a hunger which their stronger companions,
concerned for their own fate, would not alleviate. All ties between the
members of the association began to give way before the despair of
absolute famine. They ceased all personal communication; silence, feeding
on the morbid forms of misery called up by diseased imaginations, reigned
throughout the society of skeletons, and hollow eyes, which spoke
unutterable things, glanced through the gloom of the cavern, where a
glimmering fire, on which they had, for the time, prepared the little meat
they had procured, was still kept up, by adding a few pieces of wood from
the neighbouring forest. No notice was taken of each other’s agonies, nor
could the groans which mixed and sounded with a hollow noise through the
dark recess, have been distinguished by the ear of sympathy; an occasional
scream from a female sufferer who experienced a paroxysm of more than her
ordinary agony, was only capable of fixing the attention for an instant,
till individual pain laid hold again of the tortured feelings.
A person of the name of
Andrew Christie, a butcher, originally from Perth, had endeavoured, at
first, to organize the society, with a view to save himself and his fellow
sufferers. He was a strong, hardy man; and, if any of the number could be
said to retain a small portion of self-command in the midst of the
horrible scene of suffering which surrounded them, it was this man. He was
still able to walk, though with difficulty, and continued to feed the
fire, going out occasionally, and seizing on grubs that were to be found
about the mouth of the cavern. The others were unable to follow his
example, and even he latterly was unfitted for his loathsome search. All
were now nearly in the same predicament: agony and despair reigned
throughout, to the exclusion of a single beam of hope of any one ever
again visiting the haunts of man. At Christie’s side, a woman ceased to
groan; an intermission of agony was a circumstance, and the only
circumstance to be remarked. The thought struck him she was dead; he laid
his hand upon her mouth to be assured of the fact; she was no more! The
dead body was a talisman in the temple of misery—in a short time, that
body was gone!
The Rubicon of the
strongest of natural prejudices was past, with the goading furies of
hunger and despair behind. A prejudice overcome is an acquisition of
liberty, though it may be for evil. The death of the woman had saved them
all from death; but the efficacy of the salvation would postpone a similar
course of relief. Christie saw the predicament of his friends, and
proposed, in the hollow, husky voice of starvation, that one of their
number should die by lot, and that then, having recovered strength, they
should proceed to the mountain pass and procure victims. This oration was
received with groans, meant to be of applause. The lot of death
fell on another woman, who was sacrificed to the prevailing demon. A
consequent recovery of strength now fitted the survivors for their
dreadful task. They proceeded to the mountain pass, headed by Christie,
and killed a traveller, by knocking him on the head with a hammer, and
then removed him to the cavern, where his body was treated in the same
manner as that of the woman on whom the lot of death had fallen. They
repeated this operation whenever their hunger returned; making no
selection of their victims, unless when there was a choice between a foot
passenger and a horseman— the latter of whom (always preferred for the
sake of his horse) was dragged from his seat with a large iron hook, fixed
to the end of a pole—an invention of Christie’s, serving afterwards to
give him the dreadful name by which he became so well known. That which
hunger at first suggested, became afterwards a matter of choice, if not of
fiendish delight. The silent process of assuaging the pain, arising from
want, subsequently changed into a banquet of cannibals; the song of
revelry was sounded in dithyrambic measure over the dead body of the
victim, and the corrybantie dance of the wretches who required to still
conscience by noise, or die, was footed to the wild music which, escaping
from the cavern, rung among the hills. Such were the obsequies which
Scotchmen, resigning the nature of man, amidst unheard of agonies,
celebrated over the corpses of their countrymen.
These things reached the
ears of government; and an armed force was despatched to the hills to
seize the cannibals. Several of them were caught; but Christie and some
others escaped, and were never captured. The bones of their victims were
collected, and conveyed to Perth; where, upon being counted, it appeared
that they had killed no fewer than thirty travellers. From these
transactions sprung that name, Christiecleek, which is so familiar to the
ears of Scotchmen. "Christiecleek! Christiecleek!" became instantly the
national nursery bugbear. No child would cry after the charmed name
escaped from the lips of the nurse; and even old people shuddered at the
mention of a term which produced ideas so revolting to human nature, and
so derogatory of Scottish character. It is said that, some time after the
performance of the dreadful tragedy we have narrated, an old man in the
town of Dumfries, who had three children by his wife, quarrelled her often
for the use of a term intended simply to pacify her children when they
cried, but which he declared was too much even for his ears. He was a
respectable merchant; had earned a considerable sum of money by his trade,
and was reputed a most godly man, attending divine service regularly, and
performing all the domestic duties with order and great suavity of manner.
His neighbours looked up to him with love and respect, and solicited his
counsel in their difficulties. His name—David Maxwell—was applauded in the
neighbourhood, and he received great sympathy from all who knew him, in
consequence of having, as was reported, lost an only brother among
Chanticleer’s victims—a fact he had concealed from his wife, till her use
of the name compelled him to mention it to her, but which afterwards came
to be well known.
The silence of the mother
had, however, no effect upon the urchins, who, the more they were
requested to cease terrifying each other by the national
terriculamentum— "Christiecleek," the more terrible it appeared to
them, and the more they used it. If they abstained from the use of the
words in the presence of their parents, they were the more ready to have
recourse to it in the passages of the house, and in the dark rooms, and
wherever the dreaded being might be supposed to be. The pastime was
general throughout Scotland; and David Maxwell’s children only followed an
example which has been repeated for five hundred years. "Christiecleek!—Christiecleek!"
What Scotchman has not heard the dreaded words? Time rolled on, and the
Misses Maxwell resigned their childish pastime for the duties of women.
Their father had become a very old man; and the attentions which their
mother could not bestow, were willingly yielded by the young women, who
were remarked as being very beautiful, as well as very good. They loved
their father dearly; and looked upon their filial duties as willing
tributes of affection. After they became entrusted with the secret, they
substituted for the cry of their youth, which had given their father so
much pain, pity for the brother of the victim of the execrated fiend.
At last, David Maxwell came
to die; and, as he lay on his bed, surrounded by his wife and daughters,
he seemed to be wrestling with some dreadful thought which allowed him no
rest, but wrung from him, incessantly, heavy groans and muttered prayers.
His wife pressed him to open his heart to her, or, if he was disinclined
to repose that confidence in her when dying, which he had awarded to her
so liberally during a long union, he should, she recommended, send for
Father John of the Monastery of St. Agnes, and be shrived. The daughters
wept as they heard these melancholy statements, and the old man
sympathised in their sorrow, which seemed to give him additional pain. A
last he seemed inclined to be communicative, and, after a struggle, said
to his wife—"Wha is to tak care o’ my dochters when I am consigned to that
cauld habitation whar a faither’s love and an enemy’s anger are alike
unfelt and unknown? My effects will be sufficient for the support o’ my
household; but money without a guardian, is only a temptation to
destroyers and deceivers. If I could get this point settled to my
satisfaction, I might die in peace."
"You never tauld me o’ yer
freens, David," said his wife—"a circumstance that has often grieved me.
The hundreds o’ Maxwells in the Stewartry and in Dumfriesshire, surely
contain among them some relation, however distant; but my uncle will act
as guardian to our dochters, and ye hae tried his honesty."
"Yet I dinna want relations,"
groaned the dying man. "I hae a brither."
"A brither!" ejaculated the
mother and daughters, in astonishment; "was he no killed by the monster,
Christie-cleek, in the Highland cavern?"
"No," answered David, with
"Whar lives he, and what’s
his Christian name?" cried the wife, in amazement.
"Is it his Christian
name ye ask?" said the old man.
"Surely, David," replied
the wife, "his surname maun be Maxwell."
"But it is not Maxwell,"
said he, still groaning.
"Not Maxwell!" said the
wife. "What is it, then?"
ejaculated David, with a groan.
The mention of this name
acted as a talisman on the minds of the wife and daughters, who, in the
brother, saw (as they thought) at once the hated Christiecleek, and found
an explanation of the horror which David Maxwell had uniformly exhibited
when the name was mentioned in his presence. They had at last discovered
the true solution of what had appeared so wonderful; and, having retired
for a few minutes, to allow their excitement to subside, they, by
comparing notes, came to the conclusion that their father having been
ashamed of his connection with the unnatural being, had changed his name
and dropped all intercourse with him; but that now, when he was about to
die, his feelings had overpowered him, and forced him to make the awful
confession he had uttered. Pained and shamed by this newly-discovered
connection, they were not regardless of what was due to him whose shame
and grief had been even greater than theirs, and, accordingly, resolved to
yield all the consolation in their power to the good man who could not
help having a bad brother. On their return to the bedside, they found him
in great agony both of mind and body.
"This brither, David," said
the wife, "I fear, is little worthy o’ your friendship, and the change o’
your name is doubtless the consequence o’ a virtuous shame o’ the
connection. But can it be possible that he is that man o’ the mountain
cavern, whose name terrifies the bairns o’ Scotland, and makes even the
witches o’ the glens raise their bony hands in wonder and execration? Tell
us, David, freely, if this be the burden which presses sae heavily on yer
mind. Yer wife and dochters will think nae less o’ you for having been
unfortunate; and consolation is never sae usefu as when it is applied to a
grief that is nae langer secret. The surgeon’s skill is o’ little avail
when the disease is unknown."
This speech, containing
apparently the fatal secret, produced a great effect upon the bed-ridden
patient, who rolled from side to side, and sawed the air with his sinewy
hands, like one in a state of madness.
"We were speakin’ o’
guardians for my dochters," said he at last, "and I said I had a brither
whase surname is Christie. You promised me consolation. Is this your
comfort to a deein man? For twenty years I have hated the mention o’ that
dreadfu name; and now, when I am on my deathbed, speakin’ o’ curators for
my bairns, ye rack my ears by telling me I am the brither o’
Christiecleek! Would Christiecleek be a suitable guardian for my
dochters? Speak, Agnes—say if ye think Christiecleek would tak care o’
their bodies and their gowd as weel as he tended the victims o’ the
The wife saw she had gone
too far, and begged his pardon for having made the suggestion.
"Ye will forgive me,
David," said she, "for the remark. I hae dune ye great injustice; for how
is it possible to conceive that sae guid a man could be sae nearly related
to a monster? But ye hae to explain to me the change o’ name. How hae you
and your brither different surnames?"
said the dying man, turning round, and
staring with lack-lustre eyes broadly in the face of his wife—"Because
I am Christiecleek!"
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