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Wilson's Border Tales
Christie of the Cleek


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 to the 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 great pain.

"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?"

"Christie!" 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 Highland cave.

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?"

"Because," 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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