How few of the present
generation have ever heard of this "lilting," except in song! It is the
gayest and sunniest season of the year. The young lambs, in their sportive
whiteness, are coursing it, and bleating it, responsive to their dams, on
the hill above. The old ewes on the plain are marching—
"The labour much of man and
to the pen or fold. The
response to the clear-toned bleat of their woolly progeny is given, anon
and anon, in a short, broken, low bass. It is the raven conversing with
the jack-daw!—all is bustle, excitement, and badinage.
"Weer up that ewe, Jenny
lass. Wha kens but her woo may yet be a blanket for you and ye ken wha, to
"Haud yer tongue, Tammie,
and gang hame to yer books and yer schooling. Troth, it will be twa days
ere the craws dirty your kirk riggin!"
Wouf, wouf, wouf!—hee, hee,
hee!—hoch, hoch, hoch!— there in they go, and in they are, their
horny heads wedged over each other, and a trio of stout, well-made
damsels, with petticoats tied up "a la breeches," tugging away at
their well-filled dugs.
"Troth, Jenny, that ewe
will waur ye; ‘od, I think ye hae gotten haud o’ the auld tup himsel. He’s
as powerfu, let me tell ye, as auld Francie, wham ye kissed sae snug last
nicht ayont the peat-mou."
"Troth, at weel, Tam, ye’re
a fearfu liar. They wad be fonder than I am o’ cock birds wha wad gie
tippence for the stite o’ a howlet."
"Howlet here, howlet there,
Jenny, ye ken weel his auld brass will buy you a new pan."
At this crisis the crack
becomes general and inaudible from its universality, mixed as it is with
the bleating of ewes, the barking of dogs, together with the singing of
herd-laddies and of your humble servant.
Harvest is a blythe time!
May all the charms of "Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on him" who
shall first invent a reaping machine! The best of all reaping machines is
"the human arm divine," whether brawny or muscular, or soft and
rounded. The old woman of sixty sits all year long at her domestic
occupations—you would deem her incapable of any out-door exertions; but,
at the sound of the harvest-horn, she renews her youth, and sallies forth
into the harvest-field, with hook over shoulder, and a heart buoyant with
the spirit of the season, to take her place and drive her rig with the
youngest there. The half-grown boy and girl of fourteen are mingled up in
duty and in frolic, in jest and jibe, and jeer and laugh, with the
stoutest and the most matured. Mothers and daughters, husbands and wives,
and, above and beyond all, "lads and lasses, lovers gay!" mix and mingle
in one united band, for honest labour and exquisite enjoyment; and when at
last the joyous kirn is won—when the maiden of straw is borne aloft and in
triumph, to adorn for twelve months the wall of the farmer’s ben—when the
rich and cooling curds and cream have been ram-horn-spooned into as many
mouths as there are persons in the "toun"—then comes the mighty and
long-anticipated festival, the roasted ox, the stewed sheep, the big pot
enriched with the cheering and inebriating draught, the punch dealt about
in ladles and in jugs, the inspiring fiddle, the maddening reel, and the
cannot but remember such things were,
And were most dear to us!"
Hay harvest, too, had its
soft and delicate tints, resembling those of the grain harvest. As the
upper rainbow curves and glows with fainter colouring around the interior
and the brighter, so did the hay harvest of yore anticipate and prefigure,
as it were, the other. The hay tedded to the sun; the barefooted lass, her
locks floating in the breeze, her cheeks redolent of youth and her eyes of
joy, scattering or collecting, carting or ricking the sweetly-scented
meadow produce, under a June sun and a blue sky!
"Oh, to feel as I have felt,
Or be what I have been!"
the favoured lover, namely,
of that youthful purity, now is its fourteenth summer—myself as pure and
all un-thinking of aught but affection the most intense and feelings the
most soft and unaccountable.
"Ah, little did thy mother think,
That day she cradled thee,
What lands thou hadst to travel in,
What death thou hadst to dee!"
Poor Jeanie Johnston! I
have seen her, only a few weeks ago, during the sittings of the General
Assembly, sunk in poverty, emaciated by disease, the wife of an old
soldier, himself disabled from work, tenanting a dark hovel in Pipe’s
Close, Castle Hill of Edinburgh.
In the upper district of
Dumfriesshire—the land of my birth, and of all those early associations
which cling to me as the mistletoe to the oak, and which are equally
hallowed with that druidical excrescence—there are no coals, but a
superabundance of moss; consequently, peat-fires are very
generally still, and were, at the time of which I speak,
universally made use of; and a peat-fire, on a cold frosty night of
winter, when every star is glinting and goggling through the blue, or when
the tempest raves, and
"There’s no a star in a’ the
is by no means to be
despised. To be sure, it is short-lived--but then it kindles soon; it does
not, it is true, entertain us with fantastic and playful jets of flame—but
then its light is full, united, and steady; the heat which it sends out on
all sides is superior to that of coals. Wood is sullen and sulky, whether
in its log or faggot form. It eats away into itself, in a cancer ignition.
But the blazing peat—
"The bleezing ingle and the
is the very soul of
cheerfulness and comfort. But then peats must be prepared. They do not
grow in hedges, nor vegetate in meadows. They must be cut from the black
and consolidated moss; and a peculiarly-constructed spade, with a sharp
edge and crooked ear, must be made use of for that purpose, and into the
field of operation must be brought, at casting-time, the spademen with
their spades; and the barrowmen, and women, boys, and girls, with their
harrows; and the breakfast sowans, with their creamy milk, cut and crossed
into circles and squares; and the dinner stew, with its sappy potatoes and
gusty-onioned mutton fragments; and the rest at noon, with its active
sports and feats of agility, and, in particular, with its jumps from the
moss-brow into the soft, marshy substance beneath—and thereby hangs my
tale, which shall be as short and simple as possible.
One of the loveliest
visions of my boyhood is Nancy Morrison. She was a year or so older than
me; but we went and returned from school together. She was the only
daughter of a poor widow woman, who supported herself, in a romantic glen
on the skirts of the Queensberry Hills, by bleaching or whitening webs. In
those days the alkalis and acids had not yet superseded the slower
progress of whitening green linen by soap-boiling, tramping, and alternate
drying in the sun, and wetting with pure running water. Many is the time
and oft, that Nanny and I have wielded the watering-pan, in this fairy,
sunny glen, all day long. Whilst the bumble-bee boomed past us, the mavis
occupied the thorn-tree, and the mother of Nanny employed herself in some
more laborious department of the same process, Nanny and I have set us
down on the greensward— in tenaci gramine—played at chucks,
"head him and cross him," or some such amusement. At school, Nanny had
ever a faithful defender and avenger in me; and I have even purloined
apples and gooseberries from the castle garden— and all for the love I
bore "to my Nanny, O"
I know not that any one has
rightly described a first love. It is not the love of man and woman,
though that be fervent and terrible—it is not the love of mere boy and
girlhood, though that be disinterested and engrossing— but it is the love
of the period of life which unites the two. "Is there a man whose blood is
warm within him" who does not recollect it? Is there a woman who has
passed through the novitiate of fifteen, who has not still a distinct
impression of the feeling of which I speak. It is not sexual, and yet it
can only exist betwixt the sexes. It is the sweetest delusion under which
the soul of a created being can pass. It is modest, timid, retiring,
bashful; yet, in absence of the adored—in seclusion, in meditation, and in
dreams—it is bold, resolute, and determined. There is no plan, no design,
no right conception of cause; yet the effect is sure and the
bliss perfect. Oh, for one hour—one little hour—from the thousands which I
have idled, sported, dreamed away in the company of my darling
Will Mather was about two
years older than Nancy—a fine youth, attending the same school, and
evidently an admirer of Nancy. Mine was the love of comparative boyhood;
but his was a passion gradually ripening (as the charms of Nancy budded
into womanhood) into a manly and matrimonial feeling. I loved the girl
merely as such—his eye, his heart, his whole soul were in his future
bride. Marriage in no shape ever entered into my computations; but his
eager look and heaving bosom bespoke the definite purpose— he anticipated
felicity. I don’t know exactly why, but I was never jealous of Will Mather—we
were companions; and he was high-souled and generous, and stood my friend
in many perilous quarrels. I knew that my pathway in life was to be
afar from that in which Nancy and Will were likely to walk; and I felt in
my heart that, dear as this beautiful rose-bud was to me, I was not man
enough—I was not peasant enough to wear it in my bosom. Had
Nancy on any occasion turned round to be kissed by me, 1 would have fled
over muir and dale, to avoid her presence—and yet I had often a great
desire to obtain that favour. Once indeed, and only once, did I obtain, or
rather steal it. She was sitting beside a bird’s nest, the young ones of
which she was feeding and cherishing—for the parent birds, by the rapacity
of a cat, had recently perished. As the little bills were expanding to
receive their food, her countenance beamed with pity and benevolence. I
never saw even her so lovely—so, in a moment, I had her round the
neck, and clung to her lips with the tenacity of a creature drowning. But,
feeling at once the awkwardness of my position, I took to my heels,
becoming immediately invisible amidst the surrounding brushwood.
Such was "Will Mather," and
such was "Nancy Morrison" at the period of which I am speaking. We must
now advance about two or three years in our chronology, and find Will
possessed of a piece of information which bore materially on his future
fortunes. Will was an illegitimate child. His mother had kept the secret
so well that he did not know his father, though he had frequently urged
her to reveal to him privately all that she knew of his parentage. In
conversing, too, with Nancy, his now-affianced bride, he had expressed
similar wishes; whilst she, with a becoming and feminine modesty, had
urged him not to press an aged parent on so delicate a point. At last the
old woman was taken seriously ill, and, on her death-bed, and at midnight,
revealed to her son the secret of his birth. He was the son of a
proprietor in the parish, and a much respected man. The youth, so soon as
he had closed his mother’s eyes, hurried off, amidst the darkness, to the
abode of his father, and, entering by a window, was in his father’s
bed-chamber and over his body ere he was fully awake.
"John Scott!" said the son, in a
firm and terrible tone, grasping his parent meantime convulsively round
the neck— "John Scott of Auchincleuch, I am
culprit, being taken by surprise, and almost imagining this a supernatural
intimation from heaven, exclaimed, in trembling accents—
"But who are you that makes
"I am thy son, father—oh, I
am thy son!"
Will could no more; for his
heart was full, and his tears dropped hot and heavy on a father’s face.
"Yes," replied the parent,
after a convulsive solemn sob—(O heaven! thou art just!)—" Yes, thou art
indeed my son—my long-denied and ill-used boy—whom the fear of the world’s
scorn has tempted me, against all the yearnings of my better nature, to
use so unjustly. But come to my bosom, to a father’s bosom now, for
I know that voice too well to distrust thee."
In a few months after this
interesting disclosure, John Scott was numbered with his fathers, and Will
Scott (no longer Mather) became Laird of Auchincleuch.
Poor Nancy was at first
somewhat distressed at this discovery, which put her betrothed in a
position to expect a higher or genteeler match. But there was no cause of
alarm. Will was true to the backbone, and would as soon have burnt his
Bible as have sacrificed his future bride. After much pressing for an
early day, on the part of the lover, it was agreed, at last, that the
marriage should take place at "Peat-Casting Time," and that Nancy should,
for the last time, assist at the casting of her mother’s peats.
I wish I could stop here,
or at least proceed to give you an account of the happy nuptials of Will
Scott and Nancy Morrison, the handsomest couple in the parish of Closeburn.
But it may not be! These eyes, which are still filled (though it is
forty-eight years since) with tears, and this pen, which trembles as I
proceed, must attest and record the catastrophe.
Nancy, the beautiful bride,
and I, (for I was now on the point of leaving school for college,) agreed
to have a jump for the last time, (often had we jumped before,) from a
suitable moss brow.
"My frolicksome days will
sune be owre," she cried, laughing; "the guidwife o’ Auchincleuch will hae
something else to do than jump frae the moss-brow; and, while my name is
Nancy Morrison, I’ll hail the dules, or jump wi’ the best o’ my auld
"Weel dune, Nancy!" cried
I; "you are now to be the wife o’ the Laird o’ Auchincleuch when your
jumping days will be at an end, and I am soon to be sent to college, where
the only jump I may get may be from the top of a pile of old black-letter
folios—no half me guid a point of advantage as the moss-brow."
"There’s the Laird o’
Auchincleuch coming," cried Peggy Chalmers, one of the peat-casters, who
was standing aside, along with several others. "He’s nae langer the daft
Will Mather, wha liked a jump as weel as the blythest swankie o’ the
barn-yard. Siller maks sair changes; and yet, wha wad exchange the
Will Scott o’ Auchincleuch, your rich bridegroom, Nancy, for the Will
Mather, your auld lover! Dinna tempt Providence, my hinny! The Laird winna
like to see his bride jumpin frae knowe to knowe like a daft giglet,
within a week o’ her marriage."
"Tout!" cried Nancy,
bursting out into a loud laugh; "see, he’s awa round by the Craw Plantin,
and winna see us—and whar’s the harm if he did? Come now, Tammie, just ae
spring and the last, and I’ll wad ye my kame against your cravat, that I
beat ye by the length o’ my marriage slipper."
"Weel dune, Nancy!" cried
several of the peat-casters who, leaning on their spades, stood and looked
at us with pleasure and approbation. The Laird had, as Nancy said, crossed
over by what was called the Craw Plantin, and was now out of sight. To
make the affair more ludicrous—for we were all bent on fun—Nancy took out,
from among her high-built locks of auburn hair, her comb—a present from
her lover—and impledged it in the hands of Billy Watson, along with my
cravat, which I had taken off and handed to the umpire.
"Here is a better
moss-brow," cried one at a distance— and so to be sure it was, for it was
much higher than the one we had fixed upon, and the landing-place was soft
and elastic. Our practice was always to jump together, so that the points
of the toes could be measured when both the competitors’ feet were still
fixed in the moss. We mounted the moss-brow. I was in high spirits, and
Nancy could scarcely contain herself, for pure, boisterous, laughing glee.
I went off, but the mad girl could not follow, for she was still holding
her sides and laughing immoderately. I asked her what she laughed at. She
could not tell. She was under the influence of one of those extraordinary
cachinations that sometimes convulse our diaphragms without our being able
to tell why, and certainly without our being able to put a stop to them.
Her face was flushed, and the fire of her glee shone bright in her eye. I
took my position again. "Now!" cried I; and away we flew, and stuck deeply
in the soft and spongy moss. I stood with my feet in the ground, that the
umpire might come and mark the distance. A loud scream broke on my ear. I
looked round, and, dreadful sight! I saw Nancy lying extended on the
ground, with the blood pouring out at her mouth in a large stream. She had
burst a blood vessel. The fit of laughing which preceded her effort to
leap, had, in all likelihood, distended her delicate veins, and
predisposed her to the unhappy result.
The loud scream had
attracted the notice of the bridegroom, who came running from the back of
the Craw Planting. The sight appalled and stupified him. He cried for
explanation, and ran forward to his dead or dying bride, in wild
confusion. Several voices essayed an explanation, but none were
intelligible. I was as unable as the rest to satisfy the unhappy man; but
though we could not speak intelligibly, we could act, and several of us
lifted her up. This step sealed her fate. The change in her position
produced another stream of blood. She opened her eyes once, and fixed them
for a moment on Will Scott. She then closed them, and for ever.
I saw poor Nancy carried
home. Will Scott, who upheld her head, fainted before he proceeded twenty
yards, and I was obliged to take his place. I was almost as unfit for the
task as himself—for I reproached myself as the cause of her death. I have
lived long. Will the image of that procession ever pass from my mind The
blood-stained moss-ground—the bleeding body—the trailing clothes—the
unbound locks, are all before me. I can proceed no further. Would that I
could stop the current of my thoughts as easily as that of this feathered
chronicler of sorrow! But—
"There is a silent sorrow here,
A grief I’ll ne’er impart;
It breathes no sigh, it sheds no tear,
But it consumes my heart."