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Scenes and Legends of The North of Scotland
Chapter XVIII


"He whom my restless gratitude has sought
So long in vain.”—Thomson.

Early in the month of April 1734, three Cromarty boatmen, connected with the custom-house, were journeying along the miserable road which at this period winded between the capital of the Highlands and that of the kingdom. They had already travelled since morning more than thirty miles through the wild highlands of Inverness-shire, and were now toiling along the steep side of an uninhabited valley of Badenoch. A dark sluggish morass, with a surface as level as a sheet of water, occupied the bottom of the valley; a few scattered tufts of withered grass were mottled over it, but the unsolid, sooty-coloured spaces between were as bare of vegetation as banks of sea-mud left by the receding tide. On either hand, a series of dreary mountains thrust up their jagged and naked summits into the middle sky. A scanty covering of heath was thrown over their bases, except where the frequent streams of loose debris which had fallen from above, were spread over them; but higher up, the heath altogether disappeared, and the eye rested on what seemed an endless file of bare gloomy cliffs, partially covered with snow.

The evening, for day was fast drawing to a close, was as melancholy as the scene. A dense volume of grey cloud hung over the valley like a ceiling, and seemed descending along the cliffs. There was scarcely any wind, but at times a wreath of vapour would come rolling into a lower region of the valley, as if shot out from the volume above; and the chill bleak air was filled with small specks of snow, so light and fleecy that they seemed scarcely to descend, but, when caught by the half perceptible breeze, went sailing past the boatmen in long horizontal lines. It was evident there impended over them one of those terrible snow-storms which sometimes overwhelm the hapless traveller in these solitudes; and the house in which they were to pass the night was still nearly ten miles away.

The gloom of evening, deepened by the coming storm, was closing around them as they entered one of the wildest recesses of the valley, an immense precipitous hollow scooped out of the side of one of the hills; the wind began to howl through the cliffs, and the thickening flakes of snow to beat against their faces. “It will be a terrible night, lads, in the Moray Firth,” said the foremost traveller, a broad-shouldered, deep-chested, strong-looking man, of about five feet eight; “I would ill like to hae to beat up through the drift along the rough shores o’ Cadboll. It was in just such a night as this, ten year ago, that old Walter Hogg went down in the Red Sally.”—“It will be as terrible a night, I’m feared, just where we are, in the black strath o’ Badenoch,” said one of the men behind, who seemed much fatigued; “I wish we were a’ safe i’ the clachan.” —“Hoot, man,” said Sandy Wright, the first speaker, “it canna now be muckle mair than sax miles afore us, an’ we’ll hae the tail of the gloamin’ for half an hour yet. But, gude safe us! what’s that?” he exclaimed, pointing to a little figure that seemed sitting by the side of the road, about twenty yards before him; “it’s surely a fairy!” The figure rose from its seat, and came up, staggering apparently from extreme weakness, to meet them. It was a boy scarcely more than ten years of age. “O my puir boy!” said Sandy Wright, “what can hae taken ye here in a night like this?”—“I was going to Edinburgh to my friends,” replied the boy, “for my mother died and left me among the freme; but I’m tired, and canna walk farther; and I’ll be lost, I’m feared, in the yowndriftr—

“That ye winna, my puir bairn,” said the boatman, “if I can help it! gi’es a haud o’ your han’,” grasping, as he spoke, the extended hand of the boy; “dinna tine heart, an’ lean on me as muckle’s ye can.” But the poor little fellow was already exhausted, and, after a vain attempt to proceed, the boatman had to carry him on his back. The storm burst out in all its fury; and the travellers, half suffocated, and more than half blinded, had to grope onwards ‘along the rough road, still more roughened by the snow-wreaths that were gathering over it. They stopped at every fiercer blast, and turned their backs to the storm to recover breath; and every few yards they advanced, they had to stoop to the earth to ascertain the direction of their path, by catching the outline of the nearer objects between them and the sky. After many a stumble and fall, however, and many a groan and exclamation from the two boatmen behind, who were well-nigh worn out, they all reached the clachan in safety about two hours after nightfall.

The inmates were seated round an immense peat fire, placed, according to the custom of the country, in the middle of the floor. They made way for the travellers ; and Sandy Wright, drawing his seat nearer the fire, began to chafe the hands and feet of the boy, who was almost insensible from cold and fatigue. “Bring us a mutchkin o’ brandy here,” said the boatman, “ to drive out the cauld frae our hearts; an’, as supper canna be ready for a while yet, get me a piece bread for the boy. He has had a narrow escape, puir little fellow; an’ maybe there’s some that would miss him, lanerly as he seems. Only hear how the win’ roars on the gable, an’ rattles at the winnocks and the door. It’s an awfu’ night in the Moray Firth.”

“It’s no gude,” continued the boatman, as he tendered a half glass of the brandy and a cake of bread to his protege, “it’s no gude to be ill-set to boys. My own loon, Willie, that’s the liftenant now, taught me a lesson o’ that. He was a wild roytous laddie, fu’ ,o’ droll mischief, an’ desperately fond o’ doos an’ rabbits. He bad a doo’s nest out in the Crookbum Wood ; but he was muckle in the dread o’ fighting Rob Moffat, the gamekeeper; an’, on the day it was ripe for harrying, what did he do but set himself to watch Rob, at his house at the Mains ] He saw him setting off to the hill, as he thought, wi’ his gun an’ his twa dogs; an’ then awa sneaks he to the burn, thinking himsel’ out o’ Rob’s danger. He could climb like a cat, an’ so up he clamb to the nest; an’ then wi’ his bonnet in his teeth, an’ the twa doos in his bonnet, he drapped down frae branch to branch. But, as ill luck would hae it, the first thing he met at the bottom was muckle Rob. The cankered wretch raged like a madman, an’ laying hold on the twa birds by the feet, he dawded them about Willie’s face till they were baith massacred. It was an ill-hearted cruel thing; an’, had I been there, I would hae tauld him sae on the deafest side o’ his head, lang though he be. Willie cam’ hame wi’ his chafts a’ swelled an’ bluidy, an’ the greet, puir chield, in his throat, for he was a3 muckle vexed as hurt. He was but a thin slip o’ a callant at the time; but he had a high spirit, an’, just out o’ the healey, awa he went in young Captain Robinson’s lugger, an’ didna come near the place, though he sent his mither pennies now an’ then by the Campvere traders, for about five years. Weel, back he cam’ at last, a stalwart young fallow o’ sax feet, wi’ a grip that would spin the bluid out at the craps o’ a chield’s fingers; an’ we were a’ glad to see him ! ‘ Mither,’ said he, ‘is fighting Rob Moffat at the Mains yet V ‘O ay!’ quo’ she. ‘ Weel, then, I think I’ll call on him in the morning,’ says he, ‘ an’ clear aff an old score wi’ him an’ his brow grew black as he spoke. We baith kent what was working wi’ him; an’, after bedtime, his mither, puir body, gaed up a’ the length o’ the Mains to warn Rob to keep out o’ the way. An’ weel did he do that; for, for the three weeks that Willie stayed at hame wi’ us, not a bit o’ Rob was to be seen at either kirk or market.—Puir Willie ! he has got fighting enough sinsyne.”

Sandy Wright shared with the boy his supper and his bed ; and, on setting out on the following morning, he brought him along with him, despite the remonstrances of the other boatmen, who dreaded his proving an incumbrance. The story of the little fellow, though simple, was very affecting. His mother, a poor widow, had lived for the five preceding years in the vicinity of Inverness, supporting herself and her boy by her skill as a seamstress. As early as his sixth year he had shown a predilection for reading; and, with the anxious solicitude of a Scottish mother, she had wrought late and early to keep him at school. But her efforts were above her strength, and, after a sore struggle of nearly four years, she at length sank under them. “ Oh !” said the boy to his companion, “ often would she stop in the middle of her work, and lay her hand on her breast, and then she would ask me what would I do when she would be dead—and we would both greet. Her fingers grew white and sma’, and she couldna sit up at nights as before; but her cheeks were redder and bonnier than ever, and I thought that she surely wouldna die she has told me that she wasna eighteen years older than mysel’. Often, often when I waukened in the morning, she would be greetin’ at my bedside; and I mind one day, when I brought home the first prize from school, that she drew me till her, an’ told me wi’ the tear in her ee, that the day would come, when her head would be low, that my father’s gran’ friends, who were ashamed o’ her because she was poor, would be proud that I was connected wi’ them. She soon couldna hold up her head at all, and if it wasna for a neighbour woman, who hadna muckle to spare, we would have starved. I eculdna go to the school, for I needed to stay and watch by her bedside, and do things in the house ; and it vexed her more that she was keeping me from my learning, than that hersel’ was sae ill. But I used to read chapters to her out of the Bible. One day when she was very sick, two neighbour women came in, and she called me to her and told me, that when she would be dead I would need to go to Edinburgh, for I had no friends anywhere else. Her own friends were there, she said, but they were poor, and couldna do muckle for me ; and my father’s friends were there too, and they were gran’ and rich, though they wadna own her. She told me no to be feared by the way, for that Providence kent every bit o’t, and He would make folk to be kind to me; and then she kissed me, and grat, and bade me go to the school. When I came out she was lying wi’ a white cloth on her face, and the bed was all white. She was dead; and I could do nothing but greet a’ that night; and she was dead still. I’m now travelling to Edinburgh, as she bade me, and folk are kind to me just as she said; and I have letters to show me the way to my mothers friends when I reach the town ; for I can read write.” Such was the narrative of the poor boy.

Throughout the whole of the journey, Sandy Wright was as a father to him. He shared with him his meals and his bed, and usually for the last half dozen miles of every stage, he carried him on his back. On reaching the Queensferry, however, the boatman found that his money was wellnigh expended. I must just try and get him across, thought he, without paying the fare. The boat had reached the middle of the ferry, when one of the ferrymen, a large gruff-looking fellow, began to collect the freight. He passed along the passengers one after one, and made a dead stand at the boy. “Oh!” said Sandy Wright, who sat by him, “dinna stop at the boy;—it’s a puir orphan; see, here’s my groat.” The ferryman still held out his hand. “It’s a puir orphan,” reiterated the boatman; “we found him bewildered, on the bursting out o’ the last storm, in a dismal habitless glen o’ Badenoch, an’ we’ve ta’en him wi’ us a’ the way, for he's going to seek his friends at Edinburgh; surely ye’ll no grudge him a passage?” The ferryman, without deigning him a reply, plucked off the boy’s bonnet; the boatman instantly twitched it out of his hand. “Hoot, hoot, hoot!” he exclaimed, “the puir fatherless and motherless boy! —ye’ll no do that?” “Take tent, my man,” he added, for the ferryman seemed doggedly resolved on exacting the hire; “take tent; we little ken what may come o’ oursel’s yet, forbye our bairns.” “By, boatman, or whatever ye be,” said the ferryman, “I’ll hae either the fare or the fare’s worth, though it should be his jacket;” and he again laid hold on the boy, who began to cry. Sandy Wright rose from his seat in a towering passion. “Look ye, my man,” said he, as he seized the fellow by the collar with a grasp that would have pulled a bull to the ground, “little hauds me from pitching ye out owre the gunwale. Only crook a finger on the poor thing, an’ I’ll knock ye down, man, though ye were as muckle as a bullock. Shame! shame ye for a man!—ye hae nae mair natural feeling than a sealchie’s bubble.” The cry of shame! shame! was echoed from the other passengers, and the surly ferryman gave up the point.

“An’ now, my boy,” said the boatman as they reached the West Port, “I hae business to do at the Customhouse, an’ some money to get; but I maun first try and find out your friends for ye. Look at the letters and tell me the street where they put up.” The boy untied his little bundle, which contained a few shirts and stockings, a parcel of papers, and a small box.—“What's a’ the papers about?” inquired the boatman; “an’ what hae ye in the wee box?” “My mither,” said the boy, “bade me be sure to keep the papers, for they tell of her marriage to my father; and the box hauds her ring. She could have got money for it when she was sick and no able to work, but she would sooner starve, she said, than part wi’ it; and I widna like to part wi’ it, either, to ony bodie but yoursel’—but if ye would take it?” He opened the box and passed it to his companion. It contained a valuable diamond ring. “No, no, my boy,” said the boatman, “that widna do; the ring’s a bonny ring, an’ something bye ordinar, though I be no judge; but, blessings on your heart! tak ye care o’t, an* part wi’t on no account to ony bodie;—Hae ye found out the direction?” The boy named some place in the vicinity of the Cowgate, and in a few minutes they were both walking up the Grassmarket.

“O, yonder’s my aunt!” exclaimed the boy, pointing to a young woman who was coming down the street; “yonder’s my mither’s sister;” and away he sprang to meet her. She immediately recognised and welcomed him; and he introduced the boatman t9 her as the kind friend who had rescued him from the snow-storm and the ferryman. She related in a few words the story of the boy’s parents. His father had been a dissipated young man of good family, whose follies had separated him from his friends; and the difference he had rendered irreconcilable by marrying a low-born but industrious and virtuous young woman, who, despite of her birth, was deserving of a better husband. In a few years he had sunk into indigence and contempt; and in the midst of a wretchedness which would have been still more complete had it not been for the efforts of his wife, he was seized by a fever, of which he died. “Two of his brothers,” said the woman, “who are gentlemen of the law, were lately inquiring about the boy, and will, I hope, interest themselves in his behalf.” In this hope the boatman cordially acquiesced. “An’ now, my boy,” said he, as he bade him farewell, “I have just one groat left yet; —here it is ; better in your pocket than wi’ the gruff carle at the ferry. It’s an honest groat, anyhow; an’ I’m sure I wish it luck.”

Eighteen years elapsed before Sandy Wright again visited Edinburgh. He had quitted it a robust, powerful man of forty-seven, and he returned to it a greyheaded old man of sixty-five. His humble fortunes, too, were sadly in the wane. His son William, a gallant young fellow, who had risen in a few years, on the score of merit alone, from the forecastle to a lieutenancy, had headed, under Admiral Vernon, some desperate enterprise, from which he never returned: and the boatman himself, when on the eve of retiring on a small pension from his long service in the Customhouse, was dismissed without a shilling, on the charge of having connived at the escape of a smuggler. He was slightly acquainted with one of the inferior clerks in the Edinburgh Customhouse; and in the slender hope that this person might use his influence in his behalf, and that that influence might prove powerful enough to get him reinstated, he had now travelled from Cromarty to Edinburgh, a weary journey of nearly two hundred miles. He had visited the clerk, who had given him scarcely any encouragement, and he was now waiting for him in a street near Brown Square, where he had promised to meet him in less than half an hour. But more than two hours had elapsed; and Sandy Wright, fatigued and melancholy, was sauntering slowly along the street, musing on his altered 'circumstances, when a gentleman, who had passed him with the quick hurried step of a person engaged in business, stopped abruptly a few yards away, and returning at a much slower pace, eyed him steadfastly as he repassed. He again came forward and stood. “Are you not Mr. Wright?” he inquired. “My name, sir, is Sandy Wright,” said the boatman, touching his bonnet. The face of the stranger glowed with pleasure, and grasping him by the hand, “Oh, my good kind friend, Sandy Wright!” he exclaimed, “often, often, have I inquired after you, but no one could tell me where you resided, or whether you were living or dead. Come along with me—my house is in the next square. What! not remember me; ah, but it will be ill with me when I cease to remember you! I am Hamilton, an advocate—but you will scarcely know me as that.”

The boatman accompanied him to an elegant house in Brown Square, and was ushered into a splendid apartment, where there sat a Madonna-looking young lady engaged in reading. “Who of all the world have I found,” said the advocate to the lady, “but good Sandy Wright, the kind brave man who rescued me when perishing in the snow, and who was so true a friend to me when I had no friend besides.” The lady welcomed the boatman with one of her most fascinating smiles, and held out her hand. “How happy I am,” she said, “that we should have met with you! Often has Mr. Hamilton told me of your kindness to him, and regretted that he should have no opportunity of acknowledging it.” The boatman made one of his best bows, but he had no words for so fine a lady.

The advocate inquired kindly after his concerns, and was told of his dismissal from the Customhouse. “I’ll vouch!” he exclaimed, “it was for nothing an honest man should be ashamed of.” “Oh! only a slight matter, Mr. Hamilton,” said the boatman; “an’ troth I couldna’ weel do other than what I did though I should hae to do't o’er again. Captain Robinson o’ the Free Trade was on the coast o’ Cadboll last har’st, about the time o’ the Equinoxal, unlading a cargo o’ Hollands, whan on cam’ the storm o’ the season, an’ he had to run for Cromarty to avoid shipwreck. His loading was mostly out, except a few orra kegs that might just make his lugger seizable if folk gied a wee owre strict. If he could but show, however, that he had been at the Isle o’ Man, an’ had been forced into the Firth by mere stress o’ weather frae his even course to Flushing, it would set him clear out o’ our danger. I had a strong liking to the Captain, for he had been unco kind to my poor Willie, that’s dead now; an’ when he tauld our officer that he had been at Man, an’ the officer asked for proof, I contrived to slide twa Manks baubees intil his han’, an’ he held them out just in a careless way, as if he had plenty mair proof besides. Weel, this did, an’ the puir chield wan off; but hardly was he down the Firth when out cam’ the haill story. Him they coudna harm, but me they could; an’ after muckle ill words, (an’ I had to bear them a’, for I'm an auld failed man now,) instead o’ getting retired on a pension for my forty years’ service, I was turned aff without a shilling. I have an acquaintance in the Customhouse here, Mr. Scrabster the clerk; an’ I came up ance errand to Edinburgh in the hope that he might do something for me; but he’s no verra able I’m thinking, an’ I’m feared no verra willing; an’ so, Mr. Hamilton,' I just canna help it. My day, O’ coorse o’ nature, canna be verra lang, an’ Providence, that has aye carried me through as yet, winna surely let me stick now.”—“Ah no, my poor friend!” said the advocate. “Make up your mind, however, to stay for a few weeks with Helen and me, and I’ll try in the meantime what my little influence may be able to do for you at the Customhouse.”

A fortnight passed away very agreeably to the boatman. Mrs. Hamilton, a fascinating young creature of very superior mental endowments, was delighted with his character and his stories :—the latter opened to her a new chapter in her favourite volume—the book of human life; and the advocate, a man of high talent and a benevolent heart, seemed to regard him with the feelings of an affectionate son. At length, however, he began to weary sadly of what he termed the life of a gentleman, and.to sigh after his little smoky cottage, and “the puir auld wife.” “Just remain with us one week longer,” said the advocate, “and I shall learn in that time the result of my application. You are not now quite so active a man as when you carried me ten miles through the snow, and frightened the tall ferryman, and so I shall secure for you a passage in one of the Leith traders.” In a few days after, when the boatman was in the middle of one of his most interesting stories, and Mrs. Hamilton hugely delighted, the advocate entered the apartment, his eyes beaming with pleasure, and a packet in his hand. “This is from London,” he said, as he handed it to the lady;  it intimates to us, that Alexander Wright, Customhouse boatman,’ is to retire from the service on a pension of twenty pounds per annum.”—But why dwell longer on the story? Sandy Wright parted from his kind friends, and returned to Cromarty, where he died in the spring of 1769, in the eighty-second year of his age. “Folk hae aye to learn,” he used to say, “an’, for my own pairt, I was a saxty-year-auld scholar afore I kent the meaning o’ the verse, ‘Cast thy bread on the waters, and thou shalt find it after many days.’ ”


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