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Scotland's Book of Romance
Chapter V. By the Shore of Loch Shiel


The Drowning of Duncan Malcolm - The Man who did not Believe in Second-sight - The Mystery of the Illicit Still - In an Old Highland Cottage - The Priest of Moidart.

AT supper, Gillespie and Grant decided that, after sitting for so many hours cramped up in a boat on the loch, they would stretch their legs by walking to Loch Sunart and back before bedtime. I did not understand the lure that Sunart held for dwellers by the side of Loch Shiel until I was reminded that, while Loch Shiel is dry in the alcoholic sense, whiskey could be bought at Loch Sunart. I had no idea whether there was a licensed house at Ardnamurchan ; for all I knew, someone there might have been plying a private trade in liquor on which no duty had been paid to His Majesty ; and indeed, judging by the winks and nods of the two adventurers as they set out, whiskey brought down from an illicit still in some corrie of the mountains seemed to be the secret kernel of their quest. In a hushed undertone, they invited me to go with them, but I preferred to remain behind and listen to Campbell's stories of his boyhood in Mull.

I forget how the subject of second-sight arose, but we were soon in the thick of it.

"I don't think you believe in second-sight," said Campbell, his head on one side, his big dark brown eyes looking at me reproachfully.

I told him I had never come across it in my own experience, and that no doubt a lot of superstition was mixed up with it.

"Superstition! Ah, it is more than superstition," said Campbell quietly. His eyes glowed in the lamplight, and he ran his fingers through his thick upstanding russet hair. " It is dying out in the Highlands, but there are folk who still have it. Ah, many good things are dying out here. Even the folk themselves are changing. And the children-they are not so hardy as they used to be. Folk were more hardy in the old days of the black-house, when there was a fire in the middle of the room with a hole in the roof instead of a chimney. When I was a boy we ran barefoot, but now," he added, with a contemptuous snort, " it is nothing but gum-boots from Glasgow ! Folk were happier in the old days. But we were talking about second-sight. Come ben to the kitchen, and my wife will tell you something. She knew a man in Mull with the second-sight."

I followed him through to a big room at the back of the house. It had a low ceiling and wooden beams and a bright fire burning in the big grate. Beside this fire sat a man with a brown weather-beaten face. His cap was pushed back on his head, and he smoked a short-stemmed clay pipe while he talked with the landlord's wife, who was busily ironing linen on the kitchen table.

On our entry, Mrs. Campbell looked up in surprise and spoke sharply to her husband in Gaelic. Perhaps she was reproaching him for having brought a hotelguest into the more homely atmosphere of their own quarters. But his reply seemed to satisfy her, and she asked me to sit down on the other side of the hearth.

"We were talking about second-sight," said Campbell presently. "Tell the gentleman about MacNeil in Mull."

She smiled, and then used almost the identical words of her husband: "You don't believe in second-sight?"

When I replied that I would like to hear about MacNeil, she nodded and went on with her ironing.

"I got a fright with old Mr. MacNeil one evening," she said. "I was coming up from the shore when I met him. He was walking towards me, walking very quick, with his hands stretched out in front of him, and he had a queer look in his eyes. I said good evening to him, but he passed me as if he had not seen me at all." She put down her iron on the stand and demonstrated. "He was saying over some words," she continued. "He was talking about the water, and I could hear him mention the name of Duncan Malcolm. I watched old MacNeil walk down to the end of the pier and stand there looking down into the water, and when I got to the post office I went in and asked what could be the matter with him. You see, I was a stranger there at the time, and I did not know the people well. The post-master told me never to mind MacNeil - he was a queer old man. 'He was talking about Duncan Malcolm,' I said, and the postmaster told me Duncan was a fine young man who had left Mull to work in the shipyards- at Belfast. Well, I thought no more about it. But in a few days we heard that Duncan Malcolm had been drowned off a pier at Belfast. It happened the same evening and the same hour when MacNeil had passed me going down to the water talking to himself about Duncan."

The man on the other side of the fireplace took the clay pipe from his mouth and gave a grunt.

"Hold your tongue, Peter," said Campbell. "You don't believe anything at all !"

"I'm not believing in second-sight," said Peter, pushing his cap still further back on his head.

"Never heed Peter," said Mrs. Campbell, testing the heat of her iron with a drop of spittle on the point of her finger. "MacNeil could see things that were happening far away, and he often saw them before they happened. Some people I knew were going to have a ceilidh - a gathering for stories and songs - in their house one evening. Mr. MacNeil warned them not to have it, but he would give no reason, and they had their friends in just the same. While they were sitting round the fire telling old stories, the mother of the house passed away in her chair. But I don't suppose Peter believes that either."

Peter scratched his head, and in doing so he tipped his cap on one side, which gave him a slightly comic look, though his brown face was very serious.

"I'm not saying it isna true," he remarked slowly, "but how can any man tell what's going to happen ? It's no' natural."

"Natural or no'," insisted Campbell, "some folk can tell of things before they happen. I knew an old woman who used to see funerals before there was a death-ay, and she could see the very folk who were at the funeral. And she would sometimes see a wee blue light over the bed of a person that was going to die, and the light would go away over the hills on the road to the graveyard." He glowered down on the man on the other side of the hearth. " But you'll not believe in lights, Peter ? "

"Me? No; I'm not so old-fashioned," declared Peter. "Ach, some of you folk are afraid of the dark ! I've slept out on a hillside for three weeks, and I never saw anybody worse than myself. Would you sleep out by yourself on the hillside ?" he asked Campbell.

"I would not," said Campbell decisively. "Whiles there's queer things in the hills at night. The old people were very wise, but you'll no' believe what they tell you. I knew a woman in Mull with the evil eye. Folk would not let any of their cattle beasts be driven to the byre in front of the beast belonging to this woman. If she saw a fine red cow or a fine black cow, better than her own, she would be jealous and wish it harm, and it would sicken that very night in the byre. I have seen a cow sicken, and I have given it medicine that wouldna act because the beast had sickened with the evil eye. But some can give a bad wish to a personas well."

Peter shook his head, and Campbell stooped down and stared into his face.

"Man, Peter, what did they say over you when you were born and when they were bathing you with water ?" He began to recite in the Gaelic, then put it into English so that I could understand.

A palmful of water for your years,
A palmful of water for your growth,
And for your taking of your food;
And may the part of you that grows not
during the night
Grow during the day.
Three palmfuls of the Holy Trinity
To protect and guard you
From the Evil Eye
And from the jealousy of wicked folk.

"And I'm no' believing that nonsense!" Peter cried when Campbell had finished.

"You're no' believing there are people on Loch Shielside who might say, `I hope Campbell will not prosper in his business,' and could give trouble to me with the bad wish?"

The man on the other side of the fire shook his head. "It's no' a bad wish I would ever be giving to John Campbell !"

Campbell thrust his big hands into the pockets of his knickerbockers and laughed. "Peter never did a bad turn to anybody in his life-he's too good a Catholic ! If Peter wished anybody harm, he'd have the priest from Mingarry after him with a big stick, and he wouldna like that at all !"

Peter drew himself up in his chair, and pulled his cap straight. "I'll not have you miscalling Father Patrick," he said sharply.

"Whose miscalling him?" demanded Campbell.

"He's a fine man, and he's got more sense in his head than you. Go to Mingarry and ask him if he believes in second-sight!"

"And he would tell me not to be a fool, and you too, John Campbell. It's you Protestants at Acharacle that are the old-fashioned ones, and you folk from Mull are worse than any. There's a lot of daft folk in Mull, I'm thinking."

"Not so daft," said Campbell good-naturedly. "I know an old man in Mull who will not sink in the water. Duncan MacGillivray is his name, and he's alive to this day at Kilfinichen."

"Canna sink in the water ? Maybe he'll be a good swimmer," said Peter quizzically.

"He canna soom at all," said Campbell emphatically, "but he will never drown. One day he was helping his son to put some sheep in a boat and take them up the Loch Scridain, and some of the tups took fright and jumped into the deep water, and the old man fell in too. The son was a grand swimmer, and he got the tups into the boat, and then saved his father. There was a man on the shore who saw it, and asked young MacGillivray why he didna save his old father before the tups. But young MacGillivray laughed. `Ach,' he said,' there was no need to bother about my father. He canna drown if he tried. It would be a fine thing if I had to tell the laird I had lost some of his fine tups !' And here's another queer thing about Duncan MacGillivray," went on Campbell. "You canna shoot him with a gun. There's no shot from a gun that could hurt him !"

Peter took the pipe from his mouth and stared at Campbell blankly. "Then he must be the black devil himself! " he said. " It's no' a mortal man that you canna kill with a gun."

"You canna kill Duncan MacGillivray," insisted Campbell.

Peter smoked thoughtfully, and then his brown face lit up, and his blue eyes opened wide. "But have they tried it on him?"

"Ah, I don't know if they've tried it on him," admitted Campbell. "Maybe he wouldna like them to do it. But it wouldna harm him if they did," he added confidently. "And he's not the only queer man that has lived there. It's a very wild place, all rocks, and very lonely. You'll see many a sithean there - that's a fairy-hill," he explained to me with a nod, and then he whipped round to Peter. "You have slept out on the hillside, Peter, and have seen nothing. But would you sleep on a dark night beside a sithean?"

Peter hesitated. "If I had a dog with me," he replied uneasily.

"But would you sleep alone?" cried Campbell.

"I would take a bit of bread and cheese with me," said Peter, after another pause.

"Not for yourself to eat!" declared Campbell, and then burst out with a low roll of laughter. "Not for yourself to eat, Peter ! It would be for the little people after they came out of their hill. And you'll be telling us you don't believe in the little people."

"I do not," said Peter doggedly, "but a man shouldna take risks with them." He looked over at the window, on which the blind had not been drawn. "It's a dark night, and I'll be getting home . . . I'm thinking it'll be more rain before morning." He put his pipe carefully away in his waistcoat pocket and rose to his feet. " Were you coming along the road, Campbell?"

Campbell and I walked up as far as the gate, where we said good night to Peter. I listened to the sound of his footsteps fading along the road, and suddenly I could hear the distant steps quickening, then the man broke into a run. Peter, in spite of all his scorn of the old-fashioned ones, was taking no chances in the dark ...

When I got upstairs to my bedroom that night, I found an enormous jug of fresh milk awaiting me on the chest of drawers. It was warm and rich and silky, as delicious milk as I have ever tasted, and I, as reminded of the old rhyme:

My cummer and I lay down to sleep,
With two pint stoups at our bed feet,
And aye when we wakened we drank them dry,
What think you o' my cummer and I?

In the old days in Scotland it used to be a custom to put ale or wine in the bedroom of a guest for his refreshment during the night, and Campbell evidently believed that the tradition-with a change of liquor that was appropriate to a dry lochside - should be continued. While I drank my milk, I wondered how Grant and Gillespie were faring at Sunart. As a boy in Breadalbane, I had once been permitted to take a romantic sip of whiskey from an illicit still, and I thought it as vile as any medicine I had ever been compelled to swallow. The stuff scorched my tongue, as if a red-hot cinder had been dropped on it ; and if it was the same kind of fire-water that Gillespie and Grant were pledging themselves with at that moment, then I wished them joy of their adventure. For myself, I preferred my sweet innocuous milk which I sipped in bed, with a candle on a chair at my side casting its soft yellow light on the pages of The Four Georges. And what more suitable book could there be for the delight of a man on a Jacobite pilgrimage? I read on and on, until the candle burned down, then flickered and went out ; and I fell asleep with the echo of Thackeray's rippling music in my ear.

Gillespie and Grant were in high spirits next morning at breakfast. They were so eager to tell me the result of their four-mile tramp to Sunart that it was not easy to sort out the copious details. A man called
Angus had acted as their guide, it seemed, and had taken them up to a lonely croft high above Salen Bay. There, a friend of his called John had welcomed them. It had required a good deal of persuasion to make John go out to a hut near the croft and bring in a "greybeard" - that is, a big earthenware jar. He was a fine man, this John, a big lanky fellow of sixty with a wonderful fund of old stories. After swearing his guests to secrecy, he had uncorked the greybeard, and had poured out into tumblers, which had been bought by his niece at Woolworth's in Glasgow, a good stiff three-fingers of the finest whiskey that had ever dodged the gaugers and crossed the lips of man. It had warmed the cockles of their heart so fervently that another peg had gone into the Woolworth tumblers, and John himself had given vent to his elation in song. They had kept it up until after midnight, Grant assured me.. Until nearly one o'clock, Gillespie insisted. And it was a mighty good job they had both gone with Angus, for they had to help their guide home to Loch Shielside. Their scornful laughter went hooting around the little dining-room when I mentioned my jug of milk. But so forced was their scorn that I began to have doubts about the truth of their story: doubts that increased when Grant suddenly changed the subject by asking what I proposed to do that morning.

"Church," I replied; "I'm going to the Catholic service at Mingarry."

"I didn't know you were a Papist," said Gillespie.

I told him I wasn't, and added that I didn't see what difference that made ; but they preferred to spend the day on the loch.

Along in the scattered village of Acharacle there lived a man called "Archie-Charlie," and Campbell had a message to take to him, so we set out together. It seemed that Archie's father's name was Charlie, and the old Highland nomenclature was still in use: it did not matter what Archie's surname was, he was the son of Charlie. The moment I set eyes on Archie-Charlie's cottage on the hillside above us I wanted to see inside it, and Campbell took me up to the door. Archie-Charlie himself was not in, but a woman bade me enter. The little place had been built with stones taken from the hills. The walls were about three feet thick, and the roof had been thatched with rushes laid upon the beams. These beams were black and shining like polished ebony with the peat-smoke which had curled among them for many generations. The floor of stone-flags was as clean as the white-washed walls of the room. A log-fire burned in a nest of carefully swept ashes on the hearth-stone, the outside edges of which had been whitened with chalk. Over the fire was a sooty cleek, on which the hanging kettle could be pushed into the heart of the flames. At the wall' opposite to the fireplace were a couple of high beds with curtains. The period of the cottage was obviously much later than that of an old "blackhouse," for the roof was high, and sloping beams rested on the outside of the walls. The walls themselves both inside and out were plastered, but this may have been done long after the cottage had been built ; and the chimney which separated the two rooms had probably been added later. Altogether, it was as snug a place as one could have wished for; and since it had stood there for at least two hundred years, there was no reason why it would not stand for another two hundred if the thatch were kept in good repair.

"Take a good look at it," said Campbell, "for it is to be pulled down this winter."

"Yes," said the woman, "we are building a fine new house in its place. The old stones are to be used -they are good enough, and it would be a waste to have them thrown away."

I protested against what I called the sacrilege of pulling down a cottage that must be so warm and dry in winter, and cool in the hottest day of summer.

"But it isna much to look at," said the woman. "I would like to see a fine new house here, with nice slates on the roof like the manse."

I protested that, since they would not build it so well as the old one, it would not last so long.

"Ah, I'm not minding that," replied the woman. "It will last as long as we need it. If they do not like it in years to come, they can pull it down and build another."

This silenced me. What were the thoughts in the bullet-shaped heads of the sturdy little Normans when they tore down the Saxon churches and built new ones to their own taste and requirements-what were the thoughts of the Gothic builders, when they in their turn pulled down the Norman churches and built others according to their own desires? But there is this to be said. The old masons did lay stone upon stone in the belief that their work would be permanent, and from this they drew an inspiration that ennobled their labour and made them lavish upon it a care which to the jerry-builder of to-day must seem ridiculous. This conviction has always burned in the heart of men in the great periods of architecture. Who can put his soul into his job when he feels that his work may soon be undone? I had food for thought as I continued on my way to the Catholic chapel at Mingarry.

In the middle of the Shiel Bridge I stopped to look into the river, an ashen-faced stream with many pools and shallows that runs down into the tidal sealoch of Moidart. Near the spot where I stood was a part of the river called Torquil's Ford, which I had read about in Father Macdonald's book. In the twelfth century, a bloody battle is said to have been fought near Loch Shiel between the Gaels and the Norsemen. The Gaelic leader was the great Somerled -from whom many Highland clans are proud to claim descent-and it was this battle which paved the way for his supremacy over the western mainland and isles. According to the Red Book of Clanranald, his grandfather had been driven out of his lands in Scotland by that vigorous and rapacious strategist, King Magnus of Norway, called Magnus Barelegs because he wore the short kirtle or kilt of the Western Countries. Barelegs had swept over the Orkneys and the Hebrides and the Isle of Man pillaging and burning, then sent to the peace-loving King Edgar to tell him that the Western Islands were no longer Scottish soil. One is sometimes apt to forget that it was not until the time of Shakespeare's "gentle Duncan" in the eleventh century that Scotland became a united kingdom, that the southern boundary was not fixed for at least another hundred years, that it was not until the thirteenth century that the Hebrides were given up by Norway, and that Orkney and Shetland did not become part of Scotland until they were given as pledge for the dowry of Margaret, the young wife of James III, in the fifteenth century. So recent and yet so profound is our unity as a nation ! But it was the religious disunion of the Scots, and their bloody wars for differing faiths and forms of worship, that occupied my thoughts as I left the river Shiel behind me and made tracks for the Catholic chapel that stands among the pine trees at Mingarry looking down across the moor to the cold waters of the loch.

This chapel is built of grey stone, and is larger than the little place at Glenuig in the quiet coolness of which I had rested for a few minutes on my walk across Moidart two days before. It stands on a bold green mound, and as I climbed the path I saw groups of men in their stiff looking Sunday clothes lingering a little way off. They had calm peaceful faces, browned by the summer sun, and their necks had been burned a rich deep mahogany colour. I thought that they loafed more gracefully than the Lowland and Border farm-servant, who seems always to stand in an ungainly attitude when he is not at work. The day was sunless, and there was little light inside the chapel. At the eastern end, a great dark shadow gave the altar dignity, and two candles burned like tiny gems on black velvet. Twenty or thirty people were already seated on the plain wooden benches, and others entered in twos and threes, each one bowing deeply towards the altar in a way that seemed strange and even foreign to one brought up in the Presbyterian form of worship. I had only once before in my life attended a Roman Catholic service in this country, and my memories of it had been unpleasant. It was in the South, and the priest - an Irishman - had hustled through his duties in a way that had struck me as not unlike that of a bored schoolboy who is mumbling over to himself two dozen lines of Ovid which he had been compelled for his sins to learn by heart; only when it came to the sermon had that priest shown signs of life, and his metallic voice had clanged through the little church in a harsh denunciation of all heretics. Those outside the Catholic Church, he had declared, were heading straight for the flames of Hell: indeed, most of his discourse might have been lifted almost word for word from one of those wild brutal Calvinistic sermons that were preached and printed in Scotland last century. That priest had been a large-faced belligerent man, run very much to beef about the jowl and stomach, and his intolerance and spleen had made me bristle; I had left that Roman Catholic church more doggedly a heretic than when I had entered, and in my ignorance I wondered if his sermon was the usual kind of stuff which was hurled at the heads of all "poor deluded Catholics." I could not help thinking about that experience of a dozen years before, and the priest with his small repellent eyes and brazen voice, while I sat in the hush of the little chapel at Mingarry and watched those folk from Loch Shielside, with their shy yet dignified ways, and deep shrewd quiet eyes that glanced neither to the right nor the left as each one walked very slowly up the aisle.

The bell tolled in the steeple, and there was the shuffle of many feet at the door as the groups of men I had seen talking outside now came into the chapel. After the last one had taken his place, there was perfect silence, and then the priest entered. He was a short dark man, with a pale eager face and big burning black eyes. His voice was thin and weak, with a reedy note that was curiously pleasant, and though he spoke quietly and at times not much above a whisper, every word was distinct with the lovely modulations of one who apprehends the majesty of the Latin language. As I listened to him, I reproached myself. I felt like a spy in a foreign country, rather than one who had come to worship God. But the guilty feeling passed. I had been brought up to despise ritual; I had hazily gathered in my boyhood that ritual was mummery if not idolatry, a lip-worship of outward things which saved one the bother of digging very deep into one's erring soul : nor had I associated the Presbyterian form of worship with ritual, although it ought to have been plain to me that even to close the eyes and bow the head during prayer, or to stand up during praise, is part of the ritual of Presbyterian worship. And it had not struck me that the value of any rite depends upon the attitude of mind in those who are taking part. A man may be repulsed by an elaborate outward symbolism and yet grapple to his heart an idea like that of the Trinity, which itself is but a verbal symbol of a mystery that he cannot understand.

I soon perceived that every one in the chapel was actively taking part in the service; and I felt that even I, a stranger and an outsider, was one of them. I was profoundly conscious of an emotional link. And although it is easy to scoff at emotion, I somehow or other felt that I understood these people around me, though perhaps not so well as they understood . me. It is strange how worship can bind human beings, and how much stronger must be the bonds where there is a common faith. When the priest began his sermon, however, I was ready to revolt, for I could not forget that other priest of the South and his vitriol-, but before many minutes had passed, the beefy fellow with the harsh voice was forgotten. In that quiet dimly lit Highland chapel, the priest spoke to his flock in a way that completely captured me. If ever a man had in his hands an opportunity for propaganda of the cruder kind, it was the frail figure at the altar. The Shiel Bridge was but a mile away, and the arches of that bridge are in a very real sense the bulwarks between Rome and Protestantism. When the Reformation swept northward, it stopped short at the river Shiel, so that the north of it and throughout all Moidart no Protestant church has ever been built. To this day almost every family on the south bank of the Shiel is Protestant, and on the north Roman Catholic. And yet, if for once the little Presbyterian church at Acharacle had been closed and the congregation had crossed the bridge to listen to Father Patrick's sermon, not a man or woman would have heard a word which would have given the faintest offence. I have forgotten the text, but I have not forgotten the effect the sermon made upon me. There was a magnificent spirit of toleration about it; and if it is true - and I believe it to be true - that the hope of civilisation in this era lies in the spiritual regeneration of the peoples of the West, it is certain that this regeneration will either sweep all the Churches together into a religious unity, or will be accompanied by a miracle of toleration. To agree to differ is almost as fine a thing as to agree with each other entirely; the point lies in the agreement ; and while in many parts of Scotland to-day Roman Catholics and Protestants are hot with the swelter of discord, it is strange that at Loch Shiel, where a river has formed the boundary for three centuries and where you might expect the two groups to glower across this boundary at each other, you find a spirit of exquisite friendliness. I returned to Protestant Acharacle with a feeling of quiet elation. But there was another reason why I was glad I had crossed the river to Mingarry.


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