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"Peermen" and their relations
By Mary MacKellar


I THINK it may be useful to follow up Mr Linn's delightful paper with the little knowledge I possess on this head. I have a right to speak on the subject, seeing that in my very early life when about six years of age I acted the "Peerman" often when living at my grandfather's house in Corriebeag. I have held the fir torch in the byre when the servant was milking the cows, and I have accompanied her to the river, holding it when she went for her stoupfuls of water. At the slack time of the year the men of each household went to dig the roots of the fir trees out of the bogs, and they were placed uncut to dry, on what was called a "farradh." When winter came and lights were required, stock after stock was taken down and cut into neat, small candles, and if there was a very knotty stock it was called "stoc suiridhich," and carefully laid aside, to be given to some young man when his patience as a husband was to be tested, by the calmness he manifested over this very trying and difficult ordeal. A "leus," or torch of fir, was a sure protection against ghosts or evil spirits.

When, at that time I referred to, I lived at Corriebeag, Locheil-side, the nearest house to us was occupied by a woman who was considerably above a hundred years old. She had all her faculties and the force of a young woman until within three days of her death.

She was not an amiable woman, her temper was something awful, and she could improvise and compose verses of the most sarcastic and scurillous sort up to the last day of her life. When the centenary of Prince Charles Stuart's raising his standard at Glenfinnan was held at that historic spot, the ladies and gentlemen driving past little dreamed that in a little hut by the roadside a withered old crone lived who actually remembered the gathering they commemorated, and who had seen Bonnie Prince Charlie at the head of his men. This old woman's grandson and his wife lived with her, and when the great-grandchildren were born she was sorely exercised on their account, in case the fairies might steal them, and among the other spells used by her to save her descendants from so sad a fate, she charred a piece of fir in the fire, and made the sign of the cross with it daily on the infant. At the Dark Mile near Loch-Arkaig there are two hillocks, called respectively Tor-a-Mhuilt and Tor-a-Chronain. The low wailing sounds heard there the sobbing of the winds, the rustling of the leaves, the wimpling of brooks, and the waving of the branches of the trees, made the poetic and imaginative people of the country think they were hearing the dead holding converse in low whispering tones with one another.

They put it thus in a saying that has been handed down

"Tor-a-Mhuilt is Tor-a-Chr6nain,
Far am bi 'na mairbh a comhradh."

The road leads between these low hills, and one night when a man was passing there, carrying the head of an enemy he had slain, a voice came to him alternately from each hill, saying "Fag an ceann," "Leave the head;" to which request he each time replied, "Cha'n fhag mi 'n ceann," "I will not leave the head." At length the cry from each hill was "Mur bhi' dhomhsa an leus giubhais tha os do chionn dh'fhagadh tu da cheann," "If it were not for the fir torch you hold above you, you would leave two heads." That meant, of course, that he would leave his own head as well as the other. But he had taken the precaution of having a fir torch to light him on his way, as well as to protect him from harm, and his faith had its reward.

I have seen the bark of the birch used for light. They did not go to the wood to seek it for that purpose, but if a birch tree was being used, the bark was retained for light, along with the fir, or alone. The bits were dipped in grease or oil, each being called "beileag."

The Gaelic name for the "roughy," or "ruffy," is "buaichd," and I have often seen one made to give light during supper and the reading of the chapter ; it was, of course, blown out when all knelt in prayer. Another improvised light of this sort is the "coinneal ghlas." The grease is placed in a piece of old white cotton, and rolled into the shape of a candle. It gives a splendid light, but does not last long. I heard the following anecdote told about the "coinneal ghlas," or "grey candle:" Some Englishmen were passing the night at King's House, in the Black Mount, and were complaining bitterly of the miserable light afforded them by one lean, sputtering tallow candle, when a Highlander joined them. He, too, said he thought they were badly used in being supplied by this light, that only made the darkness visible, and on going out for a moment, he asked the landlady to make six large candles of the "coinneal ghlas" kind, and bring them to him all lighted when he called for them. He returned to the Englishmen; and, by-and-bye, they rose to go to bed, and the Highlander said he had to sit up late, having some writing to do; and added "I must get better light." "If you can," said one of the strangers, with a sneer. The Highlander forthwith ordered in "six candles with the wicks on -the outside." "Candles with the wicks on the outside," echoed all the Englishmen simultaneously in great surprise, and when they saw the blaze that surrounded the Highlander with those candles on his table, they went off to bed muttering something worse than "Well, I never." They did not know that the candles were blown out the moment after they left the room, nor how short a time they would last, even if they were left lighted.

The lowest form of artificial light in the Highlands was the following: When the fire was getting spent, two or three fresh peats were put on, and when the side next the fire of those got charred, the cry "Tiondaidh foid," "Turn a peat," was given to the person most conveniently situated for that performance. Even that was better than the contentment with total darkness that existed in some districts. I have heard it said that in Blarmacfaoildeach, in Lochaber, when supper was ready, that the goodwife of the house used to go about groping for a hand, saying "Fair do lamh;" and having found the searched-for member, she placed a bowl in it, saying "So do shuipeir." Verily, it might be said of each one who partook of that meal, "Great is thy faith."

It is interesting to know, that it was cannel coal that Robert Burns used, and that by its light he wrote the greater number of his poems. The iron with which he used to break off the charred parts, in order to get a fresh blaze, was long in the possession of an old lady who is a personal friend of mine. She spent some years of her girlhood with Bonnie Jean, as companion to the poet's grand-daughter Sarah, and she gave this interesting bit of iron to some museum I think in Jedburgh.


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