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Wilson's Border Tales
The Brothers


The following story is a well-known tradition in the wild and remote district of Assynt, in the North Highlands of Scotland. The main incident on which it turns will startle a reader of the present day, and will, as a matter of course, be immediately set down as a thing wholly unworthy of credit; and in such an opinion, we ourselves cordially agree. But we give the story exactly as we found it, and leave it to make its own impressions. That the leading circumstances are true, however, there is no doubt, whatever may be thought of the particular incident in question.

In a remote and sequestered glen in the North Highlands of Scotland, there lived, about ninety years ago, a widow woman, of the name of Macrae. Her husband was killed at the battle of Culloden, and she was left with two sons, then mere children, to struggle for a subsistence from a miserable patch of land of which her husband had held a lease from, we believe Lord Seaforth. During the first years of her widowhood, Isabel Macrae had endured much; but, as her sons grew up, her toils and privations gradually became lighter; and, when they attained the years of manhood, these toils and privations may be said to have ceased altogether; for they were dutiful sons to her, and besides turning the little tract of land they rented to better account than she had been able to do, they added several other sources of income to that yielded by the farm, and thus amply provided for their own wants and their mother’s comfort. The names of the young men were John and Roderick. They were both as handsome fellows as the Highlands could boast of, and proud, proud was their poor mother of her stately boys; but she had yet a better reason to be proud of them than what their personal appearance afforded. They loved her with the most tender and sincere affection—they toiled that she might be at ease, and vied with each other in contributing to her comfort and happiness. They never spoke to her but in words of kindness and respect; and no frown, no harsh ward, no expressions of discontent, ever marred the harmony of their communion. Yet another reason the mother had to be happy in her boys; this was the fond regard they entertained for each other; and much did Isabel Macrae delight in the brotherly love that existed between them. She had never known the slightest approach to a quarrel between her sons; on the contrary, they seemed to live but for each other and for her, while they were constantly together, and appeared to desire no other society. Their tempers, too, were very nearly alike, both being mild, gentle, and patient.

Such, then, was the widow Macrae and her sons, and such were the circumstances in which they stood at the period of the story. Availing themselves of every honest means that came within their reach of adding to their income, John and Roderick were in the habit, like many others of their country people, of repairing to the low country every autumn to work for hire in cutting down the harvest, which being much earlier in the latter districts than in the Highlands, they could very easily accomplish, and be yet home in sufficient time to gather in their own little crops. These journeys the brothers performed together, and on foot; rather avoiding than seeking the society of others bound on a similar mission, as they preferred being alone. The season having come round for their setting out on their annual expedition, Isabel saw her sons a short distance on their way. This was not usual with her; but she felt in the present instance a reluctance to part with them, for which she could not account. Before leaving them, she insisted on their joining her in a prayer, although she did not say what induced her to make the proposal; and they accordingly retired to a lone spot, and there offered up an address to the Deity. On rising from her knees—

"Now, go, my sons," she said, "and God be with you! Be as kind to each other as you have always been. Be as upright and inoffensive in your conduct, and your paths will be pleasant, and your days long upon the earth." She then embraced them alternately; expressed a hope that they would return to their home and to her, in peace and safety; prayed again to God to bless them; and bade them go their ways. The young men were not a little surprised at their mother’s unusual conduct on this occasion; but, as she did not explain herself, they forebore making any remarks on the subject. She had always, indeed, parted from them with reluctance, and with many expressions of tenderness and regret; but, in this instance, her conduct was marked with a solemnity and anxiety which was not usual to her. At the close of the third day from their leaving home, the brothers found themselves, after a fatiguing journey of upwards of thirty miles, on the banks of a beautiful stream. The former was covered with wood; and directly opposite, on the other side of the river, stood the ruins of an ancient castle. Exhausted with fatigue, and tempted by the singular beauty of the spot--by the coolness of the shade, and the refreshing sound of the breaking waters—the brothers laid themselves down on the grass, when one of them immediately fell into a profound sleep. It was Roderick. The other observing his brother’s face exposed as he slept, to a ray of the sun, that found its way through an opening in the foliage above, took a handkerchief from his pocket and laid it gently on his face. Having performed this slight and expressive act of kindness and affection, he also fell asleep; and, for fully an hour afterwards, neither of them stirred. At the end of this period, however Roderick awoke, and rousing his brother— "John," he said, "I have had a curious dream."

"What was it, Roderick?" inquired his brother, with a smile.

"I dreamt, John," said the former, "that I was in yon old castle," pointing to the ruined structure on the other side of the stream, "and that I found there one entire apartment, untouched by time, and just as it had been left by those who inhabited it. In the centre of the floor of this chamber I discovered a large flag stone, and while wondering what purpose it could be for, an old man entered and told me that it covered a great treasure, and that if I would raise it, I should become possessed of it all."

John looked grave at this recital; for he partook largely of the superstition of the times, and of the country of his birth. "It is a curious dream, Roderick," he said; "I have been told of such dreams before, and have heard of them being realized. When our grandfather was drowned in the water of Inver, his body could nowhere be found, although the spot where he fell into the river was known, and every exertion made to recover it. Several nights after the accident, when they had given up the search in despair, our grandmother dreamt that her husband came to her, and told her that, if they looked for him at a certain part of the stream, which he minutely described, they would find him with one of his feet locked fast between two stones; which was the reason, he said, of his not having been carried any length by the current—as those who searched for him had calculated. The spot thus mysteriously pointed out, was examined next day, and the body found exactly in the circumstances described."

"I have heard something of that story," said Roderick; "but what has it to do with my dream, John."

"Don’t you perceive, brother?" replied the latter. "We’ll go and see if we can find any apartment resembling that you dreamt of. Who knows but your vision may be realized. Was its situation pointed out to you Roderick?"

"It was," said the latter, half jocularly and half seriously. "The chamber was on the west side of the building."

"Let us seek it," rejoined his brother, starting to his feet.

"With all my heart," replied Roderick; and he also arose.

They proceeded to the old castle; but whether they found what they sought or not, belongs to another part of our tale. In the meantime, we return to the cottage of Isabel Macrae, in Glen Spean.

It was at the close of a sultry day, in the beginning of September, and about a week after her sons had left her for the low country, that Isabel, as she sat knitting a stocking at the door, saw a man approaching the house. It was now dusk; and, at the distance he was yet from her, she could not make out who he was; but, as he approached nearer, her heart began to beat, for the figure resembled that of her son, Roderick—but it could not be. He came yet nearer. It was —it was Roderick—and no other.

"Gracious Heaven!" exclaimed Isabel, to herself in great alarm —"what does this mean? Roderick back already, and without his brother. "O God! O God!" ejaculated the terrified woman, "some fatal accident has happened to my boy. My fears were but too well founded!"

She flew to meet her son, who was now close at hand, to question him regarding his brother; but that son was a changed man—ay, a changed man within the space of one short week. His face, before glowing with the ruddy hue of health, was now pale and haggard. His eye, before beaming with gentleness and kindness, was now wild and unsettled. His manner was sullen—nay, even fierce; and he returned not his mother’s greeting, for, notwithstanding her alarm and anxiety, she had hailed his return with her usual marks and expressions of affection—but doggedly walked on towards the house. His mother inquired where was his brother? He answered nearly in the words of Cain; and, without vouch-safing any further explanation, passed into the cottage, out of which no inducement could again make him stir. When he entered, he took a seat by the fire; and there, wrapt in gloomy abstraction, he sat for several days and nights, taking no food, and never retiring to rest. During all this time, too, he never opened his lips, excepting to return brief and surly answers to the importunities of his distracted parent regarding his brother. From these, however, the former at length ceased; finding she could not elicit from him any of the information she desired. It was a strange and unaccountable change. Roderick, who used to be so cheerful, so active, so kind, so gentle, was all at once become morose, indolent, and repulsive in his manner. He seemed to care for nothing, and to have lost all interest in the affairs of his mother’s household. For hours together, he sat gazing on the fire in dark and moody silence; till at length, however, the appalling monotony of this scene was broken in upon.

One day, about a week after Roderick’s return, his mother hastened in great alarm, to her son, to inform him that she saw three men, strangers, approaching the house, adding—"Who on earth can they be, Roderick, and what can they be wanting?"

"They want me," said Roderick, fiercely. "They are come for me, and I am glad of it."

"For you, my son, my life!" exclaimed his mother in great agitation, and bursting into tears. "Oh, what can they want with you, Roderick? I am sure you have harmed no one—you are incapable of it. Tell me, then, in God’s name, my son, since you seem to know, what it is they want with you."

"You will know all too soon, mother," replied Roderick, suddenly, and now, for the first time since his return, resuming the mild manner and tone which was natural to him—"You will know all to soon," he said, throwing his arms around his mother’s neck in a paroxysm of grief and despair. "O unhappy woman," he exclaimed, "why did you bring such a wretch, such a monster as I am, to the world?"

"What do these dreadful words mean, my child?" said his mother. "O Roderick, have pity on the mother that bore you, that nursed you, that watched over your infant years, and tell me at once the worst I have to learn. Where, again I ask you, in the name of God, is your brother John?" And without waiting for his reply, "O God, O God," she exclaimed, in wild distraction, "I fear what I dare not name, what I dare not think of; but it cannot, cannot be. Tell me, my son, where is John?"

At this instant the men who had been seen approaching the house entered, when, without giving them time to announce their errand, Roderick stepped up to them, and said, with the utmost coolness and collectedness of manner, "I am the man you want."

"You are," replied the foremost of the strangers; "and once you have said so, I need not tell you our business, I suppose. You will go along with us."

"I’m ready," replied Roderick, firmly. And all that afterwards passed was conducted in silence, excepting on the part of the unhappy mother of the prisoner, (for such now was Roderick Macrae,) whose shrieks and cries—as she at one time vainly implored both her son and the strangers to tell her the meaning of what she saw, (a piece of information which both withheld from motives of compassion,) at another besought the latter not to take her son from her—might have been heard at a long distance. At length, however, the dreadful scene was brought to a close. The miserable woman fainted; when the officers of justice—for such were the visitors—taking advantage of her insensibility, hurried away the prisoner, who had indeed himself pointed out the opportunity which her condition presented; leaving her in charge of two female relatives who had chanced to come in at the moment. Ere leaving the house, Roderick stooped down and imprinted a fervent kiss on the pallid lips of his unfortunate parent, burst into tears, then rushed out of the house followed by the officers. Two months after this, Roderiek Macrae stood at the bar of the High Court of Justiciary, charged with the horrible crime of fratricide—with having murdered his brother, John Macrae, in the old Castle of Droonan.

The first evidence called on his trial was a labouring man, who deponed, that, having been at work in an adjoining field, he had seen the prisoner at the bar and another man enter the building on the day libelled: That, in about an hour afterwards, he saw the prisoner suddenly rush out of the castle, and run away at his utmost speed: That the other did not again appear at all: That on the same day, he and another person found a dead body in one of the apartments of the building, apparently that of a murdered man, as there was a deep wound on his left side, as if inflicted by a sharp instrument; and that they also found such a knife, as is called in the Highlands a skien dhu, lying at a little distance from the corpse: That the apartment where the body was discovered was one he had never been in before, as, although he had lived for twenty years in the immediate vicinity of the castle, and had been in it a thousand times, he had never known that such a chamber existed. This witness also deponed, that there was a large flag-stone in the centre of the apartment where the body was found, and that it seemed to have been recently raised from its bed on the floor. They also found, he said, on the occasion spoken of, a coarse earthen pot filled with gold and silver coin, standing beside the deceased. This pot was produced in court, and identified by the witness.

The next evidence called was a boy about fourteen years of age. The deposition of this witness was conclusive; and in establishing, as he did, the guilt of the prisoner, presented one of the most startling views of both the weakness and wickedness of human nature, of the fatal power of its evil passions under the influence of momentary impulses, that is, perhaps, upon record. The testimony of the boy was to the following effect:— On the day on which the murder was perpetrated, he was climbing about the ruins of the Castle of Droonan, in search of bird’s nests, and was, at the moment the prisoner and his brother entered it, in such a situation as gave him, from the dilapidated state of the building, a full view of the apartment in which the crime was committed, without exposing himself to discovery. Curiosity to know what the men were going to do, induced him to remain quietly where he was, to watch their proceedings, when, on the former entering the apartment, they immediately began to raise the flagstone, alluded to by the preceding witness. The operation seemed to be a difficult one, and took them a considerable time; but was at length successful. On the stone’s being raised, the companion of the prisoner made a sudden plunge with his hand into a hole which it had covered, and took out an earthenware pot, filled with coin;. when, all at once, the two men appeared to quarrel, seemingly about the contents of the pot, and the prisoner struck the other on the side; but the witness could not say that it was a knife. He, however, had no doubt that it was the blow he struck that killed the deceased; for he instantly fell, uttering a loud shriek or cry, and never again moved. On his falling, the prisoner rushed out of the apartment, seemingly in great terror, and he saw nothing more of him. Such, in substance, was the evidence of the boy in this dreadful case, and it carried conviction of the prisoner’s guilt to the minds of all who heard it.

Roderick Macrae was condemned to death; and, in due course of time, suffered the last penalty of the law—confessing, with his dying breath, the justice of his sentence, and attributing the crime which had exposed him to it, to a sudden gust of passion, occasioned by a quarrel with his brother—whom he yet declared he loved with the most sincere affection—about the division of the money they had found.


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