For several days the wind
had been easterly, with an intense frost. At last, however the weather
subsided into a calm and dense fog, under which, at mid-day, it was
difficult to find one’s way amidst those mountain tracts along which, in
general, my route lay. The grass and heath were absolutely loaded with
hoar frost. My cheeks became encompassed by a powdered covering; my breath
was intensely visible, and floated and lingered about my face with an
oppressive and almost suffocating density. No sun, moon, or star had
appeared for upwards of forty-eight hours; when, according to my
preconcerted plan, I reached the farm town of Burnfoot. I was now in the
centre of Queensberry Hills, the most notable sheep pasturage in the south
of Scotland. It was about three o’clock of the 15th day of January, when,
under a cheerful welcome from the guidwife, I rested my pack (for, be it
known, I belong to this class of peripatetic merchants) upon the meal ark,
disengaged my arms from the leather straps by which the pack was suspended
from my shoulders, and proceeded to light my pipe at the blazing
peat-fire. Refreshments, such as are best suited to the packman’s
drouth, were soon and amply supplied, and I had the happiness of
seeing my old acquaintances (for I visited Burnfoot twice a-year, on my
going and coming from Glasgow to Manchester) drop in from their
several avocations, one after another, and all truly rejoiced to behold my
face, and still more delighted to inspect the treasure and the wonders of
"the pack." At last the guidman himself suspended his plaid from the
mid-door head, put off his shoes and leggings, assumed his slippers,
together with his prescriptive seat at the head or upper end of the lang-settle.
The guidwife, returning butt from bedding the youngest of some
half-score of children, welcomed her husband with a look of the most
genuine affection. She put a little creepy stool under his feet, felt that
his clothes were not wet, scolded the dogs to a respectful distance, and
inspired the peats into a double blaze. The oldest daughter, now "woman
grown," sat combing the hoar frost from her raven locks, and looking out
from beneath beautifully arched and bushy eyebrows upon the interesting
addition which had been made to the meal ark. Some half-a-score of healthy
lads and lasses occupied the bench ayont the fire, o’er-canopied by
sheep-skins, aprons, stockings, and footless hose. The dogs, after various
and somewhat noisy differences had been adjusted, fell into order and
position around the hearth, enjoying the warmth, and licking, peacefully
and carefully, the wet from their sides. The cat, by this time, had made a
returning motion from the cupboard head, from which she had been watching
the arrangements and movements beneath. As this appeared to Help to be an
infringement of the terms of armistice and of the frontier laws, he sprang
with eagerness over the hearth. Pussy, finding it dangerous, under this
sudden and somewhat unexpected movement, "dare terga," instantly
drew up her whole body into an attitude, not only of defence, but
defiance; curving herself into a bristling crescent, with the head of a
dragon attached to it, and, with one horrid hiss and sputter, compelled
Help first to hesitate and then to retreat.
"Three paces back the youth retired,
And saved himself from harm."
The guidwife, however—who
seemed not unaccustomed to such demonstrations, and who manifestly acted
on the humane principle of assisting the weaker, by assailing the stronger
combatant—gave Help such demonstrations of her intentions, as at once
reduced matters to the status quo ante bellum. (I have as good a
right to scholarship as my brother packman, Plato, who carried oil to
Egypt.) Thus peace and good order being restored, the treasures of my
burden became an immediate and a universal subject of inquiry. I was
compelled, nothing loath, to unstrap my various packages, and disclose to
view all the varied treasures of the spindle and loom. Shawls were spread
out into enormous display, with central, and corner, and border ornaments,
the most amazing and the most fashionable; waistcoat-pieces of every
stripe and figure, from the straight line to the circle, of every hue and
colouring which the rainbow exhibits, were unfolded in the presence and
under the scrutinising thumb of many purchasers. The guidwife herself half
coaxed and half scolded a fine remnant of Flanders lace, of most tempting
aspect, out of the guidman’s reluctant pocket. The very dogs seemed
anxious to be accommodated, and applied their noses to some unopened
bales, with a knowing look of inquiry. Things were proceeding in this
manner, when the door opened, and there entered a young man of the most
prepossessing appearance; in fact, what Burns terms a "a strapping youth."
I would observe that, at
his entrance, the daughter’s eye (of whom I have formerly made mention)
immediately kindled into an expression of the most universal kindness and
benevolence. Hitherto she had taken but a limited interest is what was
going on; but now she became the most prominent figure in the group—whilst
the mother dusted a chair for the welcome stranger with her apron, and the
guidman welcomed him with a—
"Come away, Willie Wilson,
an’ tak a seat. The nicht’s gay dark and dreary. I wonder hoo ye cleared
the Whitstane Cleugh and the Side Scaur, man, on sic an eerie nicht."
"Indeed," responded the
stranger, casting alook, in the meantime, towards the guidman’s
buxom, and, indeed, lovely daughter—"indeed, it’s an unco fearfu nicht—sic
a mist and sic a cauld I hae seldom if ever encountered; but I dinna ken
hoo it was—I couldna rest at hame till I had tellt ye a’ the news o’ the
last Laughom market."
"Ay, ay," interrupted the
guidwife; "the last Langhom market, man, to an auld tale noo, I trow. Na,
na, yer mither’s son camna here on sic a nicht, and at sic an hour, on sic
an unmeaning errand"—finishing her sentence, however, by a whisper into
Willie’s ear, which brought a deeper red into his cheek, and seemed to
operate in a similar manner on the apparently deeply engaged daughter.
"But, Watty," continued my
fair purchaser, "you must give me this Bible a little cheaper—it’s
owre dear, man— heard ever onybody o’ five white shillings gien for a
Bible, and it only a New Testament, after a’?—it’s baith a sin an’ a
After some suitable
reluctance, I was on the point of reducing the price by a single sixpence,
when Willie Wilson advanced towards the pack, and, at once taking up the
book and the conversation—
"Owre dear, Jessie, my
dear!—it’s the word o’ God, ye ken—his ain precious word; and I’ll e’en
mak ye a present o’ the book, at Watty’s ain price. Ye ken he maun live,
as we a’ do, by his trade."
The money was instantly
paid down from a purse pretty well filled; for William Wilson was the son
of a wealthy and much respected sheep-farmer in the neighbourhood, and had
had his name once called in the kirk, along with that of "Janet
Harkness of Burnfoot, both in this parish."
"Hoot, noo, bairns," rejoined the
mother; "ye’re baith wrang—that Bible winna do ava. Ye maun hae a big ha’
Bible to take the buik wi’, and worship the God o’ yer fathers night an’
morning, as they hae dune afore ye; and Watty will bring ye ane frae
Glasgow the next time he comes roun; and it will, maybe, be usefu, ye ken,
in anither way."
"Tout, mither, wi’ yer
nonsense," interrupted the conscious bride; "I never liked to see my name
and age marked and pointed out to onybody on oor muckle Bible; sae just
had yer tongue, mither, and tak a present frae William and me,"
added she, blushing deeply, "o’ that big printed Testament. The minister,
ye ken, seldom meddles wi’ the auld Bible, unless it be a bit o’ the
psalms; and yer een now are no sae gleg as they were whan ye were married
to my faither there."
The father, overcome by
this well-timed and well-directed evidence of goodness, piety, and filial
affection, rose from his seat on the lang settle, and, with tears in his
eyes, pronounced a most fervent benediction over the shoulders of his
"O God in heaven, bless and
preserve my dear Jessie!" said he—his child’s tears now falling fast and
faster. "Oh, may the God of thy fathers make thee happy—thee and thine—him
there and his!—and when thy mother’s gray hairs and mine are laid and hid
in the dust, mayst thou have children, such as thy fond and dutiful self,
to bless and comfort, to rejoice and support thy heart!"
There was not, by this
time, a dry eye in the family; and, as a painful silence was on the point
of succeeding to this outbreaking of nature, the venerable parent slowly
and deliberately took down the big ha’ Bible from its bole in the wall,
and, placing it on the lang-settle table, he proceeded to family worship
with the usual solemn prefatory anunciation—"Let us worship God."
Love, filial affection, and
piety—what a noble, what a beautiful triumvirate! By means of these,
Scotland has rendered herself comparatively great, independent, and happy.
These are the graces which, in beautiful union, have protected her
liberties, sweetened her enjoyments, and exalted her head amongst the
nations, and which, over all, have cast an expression and a feature
irresistibly winning and nationally characteristic. It is over such scenes
as the kitchen fireside of Burnfoot, now presented, that the soul hovers
with ever-awakening and ever-intenser delight; that, even amidst the
coldness, and unconcern, and irreligion of an iron age, the mind, at least
at intervals, is redeemed into ecstasy, and feels, in spite of habit, and
example, and deadened apprehensions, that there is a beauty in pure and
virgin love, a depth in genuine and spontaneous filial regard, and an
impulse in communion with Him that is most high, which, even when taken
separately, are hallowing, sacred, and elevating; but which, when blended
and softened down into one great and leading feature, prove incontestably
that man is in his origin and unalloyed nature, but a little lower than
Such was the aspect of
matters in this sequestered and sanctified dwelling, when the house
seemed, all at once, to be smitten, like Job’s, at the four corners. The
soot fell in showers into the grate; the rafters creaked; the dust
descended; every door in the house rattled on its sneck and hinges; and
the very dogs sprung at once from their slumbers and barked. There was
something so awful in the suddenness and violence of the commotion, that
the prayer was abruptly and suddenly brought to a conclusion.
"Ay, fearfu’ sirs!" were
John Harkness’ first words when springing to his feet; "but there is an
awfu night. Open the outer door, Jamie, and let us see what it is like."
The outer door was opened; but the drift burst in with such a suffocating
swirl, that a strong lad who encountered it, reeled and gasped for breath.
"The hogs!" exclaimed the
guidman, "and the gimmers!—where did ye leave them, Jamie?"
"In Capleslacks," was the
answer, "by east the Dod. The wind has set in frae the nor’-east, and
fifty score o’ sheep, if this continue, will never see the morning."
But what was to be done?
"The wind blew as ‘twould
blawn its last,"
and the whole atmosphere
was one almost solid wreath of penetrating snow; when you thrust forth
your hand into the open air, it was as if you had perforated an iceberg.
Burnfoot stands at the convergence of two mountain glens, adown one of
which the tempest came as from a funnel—collected, compressed,
irresistible. There was a momentary look of suspense—every one eyeing the
rest with an expression of indecision and utter helplessness. The young
couple, by some law of affinity, stood together in a corner. The shepherd
lads, with Jamie Hogg at their head, were employed in adjusting plaids to
their persons. The guidman had already resumed his leggings, and the dogs
were all exceedingly excited—amazed at this unexpected movement—but
perfectly resolved to do their duty.
"Jamie," said the guidman,
"you and I will try to mak oor way by the Head Scaur to Capleyetts where
the main hirsel was left; and Will, Tam, and Geordie will see after the
hoggs and gimmers ayont the Dod."
"I, too," exclaimed a voice
from the corner, over which, however, a fairhand was pressed, and
which was therefore but indistinctly heard—"I will—(canna ye let me speak,
Jessie!)—I will not, I shall not be left behind—I will accompany the
guidman, and do what I can to seek and to save."
"Indeed, and indeed, my
dear James, ye can do use guid— ye dinna ken the grun like my faither; and
there’s mony a kittle step, forby the Head Scaur; and, the Lord be wi’ us!
on sic a nicht too." So saying, she clasped her betrothed firmly around
the neck, and absolutely compelled him to relinquish his purpose. Having
gained this one object, the fair and affectionate bride rushed across the
room to her father, and falling down on her knees, grasped him by the
legs, and exclaimed—
"O mither, mither! come and
help me—come and help me! faither, my dear faither, let Jamie Hogg gang,
and the rest; they are young, ye ken, and as weel acquent as yersel wi’
the ly o’ the glens; but this is no a nicht for the faither o’ a family to
risk his life to save his substance. O faither, faither! I am soon, ye
ken, to leave you and bonny Burnfoot—grant me, oh, grant me this one, this
The mother sat all this
while, wringing her hands and exclaiming—
"Ay, ay, Jenny, get him to
stay, get him to stay!"
The father answered not a
word, but, making a sign to Hogg, and whistling on Help, and at the same
time kissing his now all but fainting child, he rushed out of the
door, (as Mrs Harkness said)"like a fey man," and he and his companion,
with a suitable accompaniment of dogs, were almost instantly invisible.
The three other lads, suitably armed and accompanied, followed the example
set to them; and the guidwife, the two lovers, five or six younger
branches, and the female servants of the family, with myself, remained at
home in a state of anxiety and suspense which can be better conceived than
"The varnished clock that
clicked behind the door,"
with a force and a stroke
loud and painful in the extreme, struck first ten, then eleven, then
twelve; but there was no return: again and again were voices heard
commingling with the tempest’s rush; again and again did the outer door
seem to move backwards on its hinges; but nothing entered, save the shrill
pipe of the blast, accompanied by the comminuted drift, which penetrated
through every seam and cranny. This state of uncertainty was awful—even
the ascertained reality of death, partial or universal, had perhaps less
of soul-benumbing cold in it than this inconceivable suspense. It required
Willie Wilson’s utmost efforts and mine to keep the frantic women from
madly rushing into the drift; and the voice of lamentation was sad and
loud amongst the children and the servant lasses—each of the latter class
lamented, indeed, the fate of all, but there was always an under prayer
offered up for the safety of Geordie, or Will, or Jamie, in particular. At
last the three lads who had encompassed the Dod, arrived—alive, indeed,
but almost breathless and frozen to death. They had, however, surmounted
incredible difficulties, and had succeeded in placing their hired in a
position of comparative security; but where were Jamie Hogg and the
guidman? The violence of the storm had nothing abated, the snow was every
moment accumulating, and the danger and difficulty increasing tenfold.
Spirits, heat, and friction gradually restored the three lads to their
senses, and to the kind attentions of their several favourites of the
female order; but there sat the mother and the daughter, whilst the
father was either, in all probability, dead or dying. The very thought was
distracting; and, accordingly, the young bride, now turning to her lover
with a look of inexpressible anguish, exclaimed—
"O Willie! my ain dear
Willie! ye maun gang, after a’—ye maun gang this instant," (Willie was on
his feet and plaided whilst yet the sentence was unfinished,) "and try to
rescue my dear, dear faither from this awfu and untimely end; but tak
care, oh, tak care, o’ the big scaur, and keep far west by Caplecleuch,
and maybe ye’ll meet them coming back that way." These last words were
lost in the drift, whilst Willie Wilson, with his faithful follower,
Rover, were penetrating, and flouncing, and floundering their way towards
the place pointed out."
In about half-an-hour after
this, the howl and scratch of a dog were heard at the door-back, and Help
immediately rushed in, the welcome forerunner of his master and Hogg. They
had, indeed, had a fearful struggle, and fearful wanderings; but in
endeavouring to avoid the dangerous, because precipitous Head Scaur, they
had wandered from the track, and from the object of their travel; and,
after having been inclined, once or twice, to lie down and take a
rest—(the deceitful messenger of death)—they had at last got upon the
track of Capel Water; and, by keeping to its windings—which they had often
traced, at the risk of being drowned—they had at last weathered the old
cham’er, the byre, and peat-stack, and were now, thank God! within "bigget
But where, alas! was Willie
Wilson? Him, in consequence of their deviations, they had missed; and over
him, thus exposed, the tempest was still renewing, at intervals, its
hurricane gusts. There was one scream heard, such as would have penetrated
the heart of a tiger, and all was still. There she lay, the beauteous, but
now marble bride; her head reposing on her mother’s lap—her lips pale as
the snow-drop—her eyes fixed and soulless—her cheek without a tint—and her
mouth half-open and breathless. Long, long was the withdrawment; again and
again was the dram-glass applied to the mouth, to catch the first
expiration of returning breath; ere the frame began to quiver, the hands
to move, the lips and cheeks to colour, and the eyes to indicate the
approaching return to reason and perception.
"I have killed him, I have
killed him!" were the first frantic accents. "I have murdered, murdered my
dear Willie! It was me that sent him—forced him—compelled him out—out into
the drift—the cold, cold drift. Away!" added the maniac—"away! I’ll go
after him—I’ll perish with him—where he lies, there will I lie, and there
will I be buried. What! is there none of ye that will make an effort to
save a perishing—a choking—oh, my God! a suffocating man?"
Hereupon she again sank
backwards, and was prevented from falling by the arms of a father.
"O my child!" said parental
love and affection—"O my dear wean!—oh, be patient!—God is guid—He has
preserved us all—He will not desert him in the hour of his
need—He neither slumbers nor sleeps—His hand is not shortened that He
cannot save--and what He can, He will—He never deserted any that trusted
in Him. O my child! my bairn— my first born!—be patient—be patient.
There—there— there is a scratch at the door-back—it is Rover."
And to be sure Rover it
was; but Rover in despair. His faithful companion and friend only entered
the house to solicit immediate aid—he ran round and round, looking up into
the face of every one with an expression of the most imploring anxiety.
The poor frantic girl sprung from her father’s embrace, and clung to the
neck of the well-known cur—she absolutely kissed him—(oh, to what will not
love, omnipotent, virtuous love, descend!)—then rising in renewed
recollection, she sat herself down on the long settle beside her father,
and burst into loud and passionate grief.
It was now manifest to all
that something must be attempted, else the young farmer must perish. Hogg,
though awfully exhausted, was the first to volunteer a new excursion. The
whole band were at once on their feet; but Jessie now clung to her father,
as she had formerly done to her lover and would not let him go—indeed, the
guidman was in no danger of putting his purpose into effect, for he could
scarcely stand on his feet. He sat, or rather fell down, consequently
beside his daughter, and continued in constant prayer and supplication at
the throne of grace. The daughter listened and said she was comforted—the
voyagers were again ontheir way—the tempest had somewhat
abated—the moon had once or twice shone out—and there was now a greater
chance of success in their undertaking.
How we all contrived to
exist during an interval of about two hours, I cannot say; but this I
knew, that the endurance of this second trial was worse than the first, to
all but the sweet bride herself. Her mind had now taken a more calm and
religious view of the case. She repeated, at intervals and pauses in her
father’s ejaculatory prayer—
"Yes—oh, yes—His will—His
holy will be done! The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away—blessed be the
name of the Lord for ever! We shall meet again—oh, yes— where the weary
are at rest.
"‘A few short years of evil past,
We reach the happy shore
Where death-divided friends at last
Shall meet, to part no more.’
O father, is not that a
gracious saying, and worthy of all acceptation!"
At length the door opened,
and in walked William Wilson.
The reader needs scarcely
to be told that the sagacious dog had left his master floundered, and
unable to extricate himself in a snow wreath; that the same faithful guide
had taken the searchers to the spot, where they found Wilson in the act of
falling into a sleep—from which, indeed but for the providential sagacity
of his dog, he had never wakened; and that, by means of some spirits which
they had taken in a bottle, they completely restored and conducted him
"Lives there one with soul
as not now to image the
happy meeting betwixt bride and bridegroom; and, above all, the influence
which this trial had upon the happiness and religious character of their
future married and prosperous lot?
It is, indeed, long since I
have laid aside the pack—to which, after a good education, I had taken,
from a wandering propensity—and taken up my residence in the flourishing
village of Thornhill, Dumfriesshire; living, at first on the profits of my
shop, and now retired on my little, but, to me, ample competency; but I
still have great pleasure inpaying a yearly visit to my friends of
Mitchelslacks, and inrecalling with them, over a comfortable meal,
the interesting incidents of the snow storm, 1794.
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