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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter III — Introductory


‘As life wanes, all its cares and strife and toil
Seem strangely valueless, while the old trees
Which grew by our youth’s home, the waving mass
Of climbing plants heavy with bloom and dew,
The morning swallows with their songs like words,
All these seem clear, and only worth our thoughts.
So, aught connected with my early life,
My rude songs or my wild imaginings,
How I look on them—most distinct amid
The fever and the stir of after years!

Robert Browning in Pauline.

"MY earliest recollections are of War and the Bagpipe. I was born a few years before the outbreak of the Crimean War. During that great war there was but one subject of discussion in the village among our elders—the war itself—and but one ambition among the boys at school—the ambition to be a soldier. Mimic warfare occupied all our spare time. In winter *ve built our forts of snow, and in summer of stone, and these we defended often at no small’- risk, with a certain degree of skill, I believe, and certainly with an overflowing zeal and energy and determination, which in real warfare should go far towards securing victory.


The Ghefyita of Spain: a One-Drone Bagpipe
The gift of the late Mr Henry Aitken, of Falkirk.

One half of the village was dubbed “Cossackees,” and many a battle royal—often with road metal for want of better—took place after school hours, between it and the other half of the village, which was called “Portuguese,” for what reason, unless it were a mere childish rhythmic one, I know not. Saturday afternoons were devoted to the game of war by the two rivals. Wounds got in such fights were looked upon as honourable, and we prided ourselves upon them, and shewed a fine indifference to all bruises and cut heads. Among the bigger boys duels by challenge were quite common, and as there was a spice of danger in them, they often aroused tremendous enthusiasm among the privileged spectators, who of course took “sides.”

These duels, fashioned on traditional lines, were carried through with every punctilio : seconds were gravely appointed, time and place of meeting fixed, and weapons chosen—generally broadsword or bow-and-arrow. The broadsword, I need hardly explain, was a supple ash plant, and the bow was a primitive weapon, of rude home-make, but could throw an arrow straight and true twenty-five to thirty yards.

My eldest brother was shot in the eye one day in one of these duels with the bow, and the tin barb with which the arrow was tipped got fixed in the bones at the inner angle of the eye, and had to be extracted by the village doctor, to whose house we took him. He was the hero of the township for many a long day after.

On another occasion cousin McIntosh got blown up by a mine, which exploded unexpectedly during some siege operations.

The attack on the “Redan,” which was defended by the “Cossackees,” had failed. A series of assaults, extending over a long Saturday afternoon, left the Russian flag still flying and the garrison defiant. It was determined as night drew near to blow up the fortress. With the connivance of the brave defenders, who even assisted us in the preparatory sapping and mining work, some four pounds of coarse blasting powder were placed in position under the south wall of the fort, which looked on to the river, and a long train from the mine was successfully laid. When all was ready we lit the fuse, and besiegers and besieged retired hurriedly to a place of safety, and watched eagerly for what was to be the glorious finale to a great day’s fighting.

But something had gone wrong! No explosion took place. As minute after minute passed, and still there was no explosion, the excitement grew intense. Perhaps the powder was damp, or the train had gone out before reaching the mine. To go forward and examine was a risky job, as we all knew from previous experience. Volunteers were called for, and cousin McIntosh at once stepped to the front. “I’ll go,” he said simply, and he went, there being no competition.

What happened to him, and how, has been told in various ways by the different boys present. I can only recount here what I saw for myself and remember.

My cousin had just reached the fort, and was stooping over to examine the mine, when a huge sheet of flame shot out and enveloped him from head to foot. The force of the explosion threw him heavily to the ground, at the same time bringing the defences about his ears.

His comrades rushed to his assistance, and found him lying all huddled up—a singed heap—his body half covered with fallen masonry.

His own mother would not have known him at that moment. He was unconscious, and at first we thought him dead, but after a time he began to moan piteously, which relieved us mightily. The hair on head and face was gone, and the latter was begrimed with blood and mud and gunpowder. His front teeth were blown in, or blown out—they were never seen again—and his hands and face were dreadfully scorched.

Tenderly the boys lifted the fallen stones off his bruised body; tenderly they wiped the poor bleeding face with handkerchiefs—not over-clean I am afraid— dipped in the river which ran at their feet ; tenderly they carried the brave one home.

The doctor, who had been sent for, was in waiting when we arrived at the house ; and during the two hours which he spent picking pebbles and powder out of my cousin’s face and dressing his burns, and patching him up generally, we waited anxiously outside to hear the verdict, and while we waited we discussed in low tones, but also with a fearful joy, the events of the day which had ended in so tragic a manner, but which were so like real war.

When at last the doctor appeared, and announced that recovery was more than probable, we all but mobbed him in our excitement, and a great cheer was raised, after which we quickly dispersed and hurried home, feeling more than happy.

For many weary days cousin McIntosh lay unconscious—the doctor pronounced him to be suffering from concussion of the brain ; his eyesight was for a time despaired of, and his face was scarred and pitted as if he had had a bad attack of small-pox.

Many were the anxious inquiries made daily by the boys during his slow recovery, and many and touching were the little acts of kindness shown by them to their wounded comrade, but nothing did more to help his return to health than nicknaming him “Sebastopol,” in honour of his bravery: a name which he still bears among his few remaining friends.

In those now all but forgotten days of wars and rumours of war the recruiting sergeant, with a gay cock of ribbons fixed jauntily on his cap, and a piper or drummer by his side, was a frequent sight. Morning, noon, and night he perambulated the district, eloquent on the many advantages of an army career ; standing treat generously to all young men likely to take the Queen’s shilling; now appealing to their love of a red coat, now to their cupidity, always to their loyalty. Urging them to respond to their comrades’ cry for help from far Crimea, by joining the troops which were being hurriedly got together to reinforce the depleted ranks of that gallant army which was then lying out in the snow before Sebastopol : nor did the Highlanders require much urging, as the martial spirit of the nation was never more fully aroused than it was during the Crimean War. And when the campaign was over it was a familiar sight to see the war-worn, medal-bedecked pensioners sunning themselves against the gable of Uncle McIntosh’s house: a sheltered spot and warm, which looked to the south and away over the sea—the glorious sea which never loses its charm for those born within sound of its waves. And here on sunny afternoons, when freed from school, we boys used to assemble and listen in wonder to those brave old warriors as they fought their battles over again, drawing maps on the sand with the points of their sticks for our better understanding. The many courageous deeds of their comrades were told so simply; the outwitting of the stolid, lumbering, heavy-coated Russians seemed so easy, as we listened open-mouthed to their tales, that we silently wondered how the enemy withstood, even for a single day, the assault of those brave men who knew the art of war so well.

A little later and the Indian Mutiny was upon us, enveloping the entire nation in a cloud of gloom and sorrow. These were the dark days before the dawn. I remember my father one day reading aloud in the gloaming, with an unsteady voice and dim eye, the awful story of the massacre of Cawnpore, while my mother, at whose feet I lay, and nestled in the firelight, cried and sobbed as if her heart vvrould break ; and I, too — not understanding altogether — cried aloud out of sympathy with her who was always the dearest woman in the world to me.

One more of my early recollections, also associated with piping and redcoats, I should like to give here, and it will be my last.

One day, in the autumn of ’53, I was taken by my father to see Queen Victoria as she passed through the Crinan Canal on one of her early trips to the Highlands. Miller’s Bridge, as it was called, was the point of vantage aimed at, as at that spot the track boat called the Sunbeam slowed down to allow of the track-rope being unhitched to clear the bridge, and also because from there we commanded a good view of a long stretch of canal, and, at the same time, of the low or main road along which the soldiers who formed the bodyguard of the Queen— picked men of the Ninety-Third—were to march on their way to Crinan.

It was thus an ideal spot from which to watch the whole proceedings. The weather was “Queen’s weather.” The sun shone out of a cloudless sky, flooding the country-side with a glorious mellow light. Such a day on the West Coast is something to be experienced; something to be remembered ; something to be enjoyed; but cannot be described.

It is as superior to an autumn day elsewhere as is a Lochfyne herring to every other herring in the sea, and leaves happy memories behind. On this day of which I speak the warm wind came off the sea in short puffs, and wandered and lost itself languorously in the tree-tops by the canal bank, as if, too, awaiting the coming of the greatest lady in the land. The woods of Auchindarroch, which dipped down to and kissed the water on the opposite bank, were decked out in all their autumn finery of brown and gold. The silken stirring of the leaves, and the hum of myriad insects whispered of eternal summer. The waters of Lochgilp, lying at our feet, glistened in the bright sunshine like polished silver, and the calm surface of the loch, disturbed only by the late swell of the paddle steamer Iona, rose and fell with a gentle heaving like the breast of some young girl in love’s first dream.

The last bell of the Iona had scarcely done ringing when the distant sound of Bagpipes announced to us that the Queen had started on her journey through the canal, and ere long the music, growing clearer and louder, heralded the near approach of the soldiers as they marched gaily along the low road, to the tune of “The Campbells are Coming, Hurrah! Hurrah!” To my great disappointment, however, the pipers ceased playing as they drew near to Miller’s Bridge; a short disappointment it was, as almost immediately the music had ceased a soldier stepped out of the front rank, and facing round so that he marched backwards, sang that beautiful Jacobite marching song, “Ho, ro, March Together; Ho, ro, Mhorag.” At the end of each verse, the soldiers took up the chorus, and in this way they marched and sang, and sang and marched, until the company was lost to sight, and the singing had died softly away. To us children, the passing of the Highlanders in their gay uniforms, the swing of the kilts, the piping, and the singing, were simply entrancing, and together gave a real touch of holiday feeling to the afternoon.

Hardly, however, had silence fallen upon the air when it was once more broken by sounds of distant cheering, and a thrill of excitement passed through the waiting crowd as it eagerly watched for the coming of the Queen. As the six grey horses, with their little boy riders, came in sight, sweeping round the bend at “Taura-vinyan-vhor” like a tornado, the great gathering which lined the canal bank, far as eye could see, raised a mighty cheer. It was a beautiful spectacle which met the eye and an impressive one. Each rider wore a black or crimson, gold-braided jockey cap, scarlet coat, white corduroy breeches, and patent leather boots with yellow tops. Drawn by six splendid greys, on this most favoured of days, the Sunbeam seemed to fly, and sitting on the top deck, smiling and bowing to all, we at length beheld Her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen. “The Queen! The Queen!” shouted the people, “God bless the Queen! ” cried old and young.


 

Perched on my father’s shoulder, I had a splendid view of everything, and shall never forget the scene.

The crowd around us cheered again and again with wild enthusiasm as the boat slowed down going through the narrow bridgeway, and feasted their eyes upon the “little lady” who ruled so lightly over so mighty a kingdom; but as for me, though carried away by the prevailing enthusiasm for a moment, being yet but a child, my eyes soon wandered away from the main attraction of the day to the six grey horses with their little rider-boys, who in their smart gay-coloured trappings looked as if fresh out of Fairyland.


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