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Deeside Tales
Chapter XVII


“When thowes dissolve the snawy hoord,
An' float the jinglin’ icy-boord,
Then Water-Kelpies haunt the foord,
By your direction,
An' nighted Travelers are allured
To their destruction.

An' aft your moss traversm’ spunkies
Decoy the wight that late an' drunk is;
The bleezin’, curst, mischievous monkies
Delude his eyes,
Till in some miry slough he sunk is,
Ne’er mair to rise.” —Burns.

THE man of mystical lore was another type of Highland character, that has almost, if not altogether, disappeared from Deeside; but in the earlier years of the century there were several representatives. Highlanders have long obtained a wide notoriety for their knowledge of the supernatural, more especially for the possession of that awful gift, second sight In remote times, it would seem that revelations of this nature were made only to a select few, whom their Lowland neighbours most inappropriately named wizards. The Lowland wizard was an infamous character, for whom the stake was accounted too good a fate; the Highland seer, on the other hand, was a revered and sacred personage, to injure whom was held a sacrilege of a very deep dye. In those early times, moreover, the gift was rarely bestowed on any but those of noble birth, and was often found in highest perfection, not with withered hags, as in the Lowlands, but with the head of the clan, and added very much to the importance and veneration in which he was held. It was an attribute also that belonged exclusively to hoary age.

“Tis the sunset of life gives me mystical lore,”

said the bold seer, who was not afraid to confront the brave Lochiel, and tell him his fate.

But a time came when the gift was shorn of its venerable and reputable character. Ambitious and unscrupulous men, seeing the advantages with which it was attended, did not hesitate to play the hypocrite, and laid claim to an endowment which they did not possess, and of which they were altogether unworthy. Thus the profession got overrun with quacks and charlatans, who finally brought it into great contempt in the eyes of the aristocrats, who had formerly a monopoly of it; and in consequence it soon became quite a plebeian attribute. At this period of its history it experienced a still worse degradation. Instead of being privileged to take a peep into futurity with his own eyes, the seer, probably as a slight on his ignoble extraction, was condemned to seek his information from ghosts, goblins, and all kinds of apparitions, who were themselves not always well informed; and hence the art descended into the sphere of demonology. It was now impossible to avoid the conclusion that those unprincipled spirits played tricks on their human commission agents, in fact practised upon them the same arts of deception as they with such success practised on the general public. What, then, with quackery within and quackery without the line that separates the natural from the preternatural, sensible people were driven to the belief that the thing was a delusion throughout, and began to laugh it to scorn. It now reached the lowest depths of its degradation, and soon after took leave of the reprobate Highlanders.

But strange to say, having made a clean sweep of the old machinery of ghosts, goblins, and witches, the spirit of divination next appeared among the Saxons, with a new ministry of table-tumers, spirit-rappers, and clairvoyants. These are only our old friends with new faces, the shoddy of effete Highland superstition. The change can in no respect be held to be an improvement, so far as the interests of mankind are concerned, whatever it may be for those of the kingdom of darkness, for in the olden time—

“When the Devil for weighty dispatches,
Wanted messengers cunning and bold,
He passed by the beautiful faces,
And picked out the ugly and old;

“Of these he made warlocks and witches,
To run on his errands by night,
Till the over-wrought hag-ridden wretches
Were as fit as the Devil to fright.

“But whoever had been his adviser,
As his kingdom increases in growth,
He now takes his measures much wiser,
And traffics with beauty and youth.”

In the days of George Brown, Deeside possessed a good representative of the Highland ghost-seer, of whom a short account is now to be given. It is unnecessary to refer to his parentage or early life farther than to say that he rejoiced in the highly aristocratic name of Walter Stewart, and thus, nominally at least, was entitled to the gift he claimed in all its primitive excellence.

Walter was a singular character. In his youth he had by industry and economy got together some little money, on which, deeming it sufficient for his wants, he in middle life retired from active employment, and took up his abode in a small cottage1 in a birch wood directly behind the school of Cr&thie. Here he led not merely a bachelor, but an anchorite life. He permitted no female to enter his house, which, nevertheless, as he had a taste for domestic duties, he kept in a marvellous state of tidiness. To the cottage was attached a little garden, in which he spent a good deal of his waking hours, and in the cultivation of which he displayed no small horticultural skill. From the attention he paid to it, and especially from the quantities of kail and cabbage plants he reared and sold, he acquired the nickname of “Wattie Plants,” and was seldom referred to under any other designation.

His fruit, as well as his vegetables, were the best in the country. The writer well remembers what a temptation the loaded bushes were to the boys at school Yet, though constantly before our view, for the garden wall was low, the boldest of us shrank from entering surreptitiously. We were strongly impressed with the belief that it was enchanted ground, that, besides material defences, such as concealed man-traps and spring-guns, it was guarded by supernatural engines that had the power of stiffening up our limbs and depriving us of the faculty of flight in the event of a surprise. These ideas, which Wattie no doubt took pains to impress upon us, more effectually preserved his garden from our depredations than if it had been surrounded by a wall ten feet high.

Though living in this secluded manner, he was fond of the society of his own sex, but he preferred seeking it abroad to finding it at home. In fact, with the exception of George Brown, seldom did any one see the interior of his dwelling. His own haunts of an evening were the manse, the school-house, and especially George Brown’s fireside; yet he was perhaps the only man in the whole country on whose erroneous theological opinions George could make no impression. But though their religious notions were wide as the poles asunder, the men themselves were familiar friends.

Though very illiterate, Wattie was passionately fond of argument, especially on deep and mysterious subjects; but failing that, he could enjoy story-telling or even hilarious mirth. Not only did he set at nought the religious opinions of his friend, but he was not in the least afraid to dispute the speculative or theological positions of the schoolmaster and minister, with both of whom he took surprising liberties. As an illustration—

One Saturday evening, having got around him in the schoolhouse kitchen a few companions disposed for fun, they all became so hearty as quite to forget the annoyance they were causing the schoolmaster, who was preparing a sermon for the following day in an adjoining room. When the poor man could bear the disturbance no longer, he stepped into the kitchen to remonstrate. There Wattie, who never made or understood an apology, found himself called upon to defend the proceedings complained of, and very coolly replied—

“What! do you think that people must stint themselves o’ their pleasures for your convenience?”

“But you forget, Walter,” meekly put in the master of the house, “ that it is a necessity and not a convenience with me to-night, as I have my preparations to make for tomorrow, and the noise is very distracting.”

Wattie saw in this statement a chance for originating an argument, a thing dearer to his heart than any fun, and resolved to embrace it, gravely answering—

“And if you gave them a sermon off-hand, I don’t think the people would be at much loss. Are we not told in Scripture, (Take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate’? How do ye explain that passage?”

The schoolmaster, perceiving Wattie’s intention, beat a quiet retreat, and made the best of his circumstances.

Wherever he spent his evenings Wattie was always home about eleven o’clock, but never retired to bed before two or three the following morning. How he occupied these three or four hours no one ever knew. He did no work and read none. Many people therefore thought that he had com-panions of a supernatural order—a supposition which his evasive answers to enquiries on this head rather favoured than dispelled; and there can be little doubt he was deep in converse with himself and the creatures of his own teeming brain.

But strange as was his social life, his mental constitution was stranger still His religion was practically a compound of fatalism and fetishism, but theoretically a belief in revealed religion, though of a very superstitious type. For him the world swarmed with preternatural beings,

“Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimeras dire!’

agents of the great roaring lion, sent abroad among mankind seeking whom they might devour, to all which he applied the generic name of doolies. His belief in these rested on no hearsay testimony. Some of them he had himself seen and conversed with, particularly the water-kelpie, with whose pranks he was quite familiar. In fact, as he himself used to affirm, he required to be constantly on the watch against the machinations of this spirit; for he seldom committed a breach of what he deemed divine law, but instantly the kelpie would give unmistakeable indications of his presence.

Nothing could be more sincere than Wattie’s belief in kelpies, ghosts, bogles, fairies, brownies, and witches; nor is the hallucination under which he laboured difficult to explain. He was a man of a most lively and even grotesque imagination, had early imbibed the superstitious notions of his age and class, had, for want of other companions, conjured up in his solitude creatures of his own fancy, and conversed with them till in such moods he had lost the power of distinguishing between the subjective and the objective—between the subjects of his imagination and the objects of sense. The kelpie, of course, only existed in his own conscience; and when the functions it discharged there are considered, we are not disposed to think the less favourably of Wattie for having such a tenant in his moral faculty; indeed it would be a great boon for many a man to have such a kelpie in his conscience.

Regarding women, his notions were very peculiar. He did not look upon them as human beings at all. They were of an order of spirits very much akin to the fairies, and had assumed human shapes merely to play off their sorceries upon mankind In this he suspected they had some deep design which would come to light in another world; though it might be, he occasionally admitted, that it was only a malicious pleasure they took in teasing men. At all events, he deemed it prudent to have nothing to do with them, feeling no confidence that any of his fair friends might not lead him into some scrape and then suddenly vanish into thin air. He believed that intellectually they were considerably man’s superiors, and saw through him much more thoroughly than he saw through them—an opinion which he held was sufficiently proved by the proclivity and capacity of the sex to become witches and fortune tellers. The only individual in whose favour he made any concession from these notions was Babby Brown. So winning were her ways, that he was constrained slightly to modify his views of woman on her account She alone was able to thaw the severity of his judgment, and wring from him the only doubt that he was ever known to express regarding its soundness— “Weel, weel, Babby, to please ye we’ll say that a’ the glamour ye cast ower us is out o’ nae ill intention, but only to mak’ fun to yerselves.”

He had no belief in physical laws. The whole phenomena of nature were the direct and immediate acts of spiritual beings. The government of the world was a disputed sway, and nature the battle-field between the two belligerent powers. So evenly balanced were they in strength that it would be difficult to say which might prevail, were there not behind and above their warfare the decrees of fate or of the Deity to turn the scales ultimately in favour of the good. As a sample of his natural philosophy take the following:

On the memorable night of the great flood of August, 1829, the schoolmaster was roused from sleep by the commotion of the elements and the rain, which had found its way through the joints of the slates and by the chimney, and was coursing in torrents through every part of the house. It was five a.m., and as black as Erebus, except when the lightning's flash glared across the murky sky. On looking out he was much surprised to find that his neighbour Wattie was also astir, early rising not being one of his habits, and not only astir but had his cottage all aglow with fire and light as if he were illuminating it in honour of some great event He therefore paid him a visit and found him in the highest spirits, not in the least alarmed by the thunder and rain. To an expression of surprise at this, Wattie answered—

“Have I not great cause for rejoicing ? Have you not understood what has been going on for the last three days ? ”

“No, Walter,” replied the schoolmaster, “what has it been?”

“I'm astonished at that, and you such a learned man,” continued Wattie. “Why, three days ago Satan began to cast up embankments against this world, cloud after cloud, and darkness behind darkness. His design, doubtless, was to bury it in outer darkness to all eternity, and for three days he prospered. But I had faith that, as our Saviour burst open the dark abode of death on the third day, so on the third day this dark design would receive a check. While I was this night musing on my bed by whose hand this deliverance would be wrought, lo and behold! the Archangel Michael opened his artillery on the foul fiend; and I said, I will arise and be a beholder of this great work, and rejoice and be exceeding glad.” And then, pointing up to the dark clouds where the thunder was rolling, he exclaimed, “Eh, man! isn’t there carnage up there? Hear the noise o’ the cannon, and see how the blood o’ the slauchtered squadrons is coman’ pouran’ down!”

It may seem strange that a person so wild and fantastic in his ideas should have been admitted into the place of bosom companion to a man so staid and well informed as George Brown. But there is an attraction in contrariety no less than in similarity of mind. We are drawn to men who have what we desiderate almost as strongly as to those with whom we hold gifts in common. But whether it was this, or the poetry of Wattie’s conceptions, or their very extravagance and originality, that gave his company zest in the estimation of George Brown, the men found something agreeable in each other’s society, though they seldom agreed, or agreed to differ. In fact, they were in a state of chronic contradiction, which, however, only gave piquancy to their intercourse, and did not for any length of time interrupt their friendship.

Wattie’s visits to George were at irregular intervals, usually two or three a week, and always in the evenings; while he, in return, was expected to dine with Wattie every Sunday he was at church. Wattie himself seldom went to church; not because he had any objection on the score of conscience, or that he was likely to hear unpalatable doctrine, but simply because it was quite contrary to the rule for him to be out of bed in time. George, on the other hand, was most regular in his attendance. By the time the congregation was dismissed, Wattie was ready to receive his friend, and probably had set about preparing some dinner. As in other respects, so in this, the men were antipodal; George was a stoic in the matter of meats and drinks, the bare necessaries of life were all he cared for. Wattie, on the other hand, was in his own way an epicurean, and might have vied with a Frenchman in the art of cookery.

While the pot was boiling, the two generally retired to the garden if the day was fine. Seated there, it was a marvel if they did not get into controversy, which sometimes ran so high as to terminate unfortunately for the dinner party. When Wattie’s absurdities were bearing hard on George’s patience, he was in the habit of seeking relief for his outraged feelings by continually adjusting the grey plaid which he always wore slung over his shoulder in Highland fashion. This peculiarity was so well known, that, when the neighbours at the schoolhouse observed it, the remark was generally made, “You’ll find there will be no dinner party to-day, George Brown’s plaid is too restless.” It however went through several stages of movement corresponding to the rising choler of the wearer, before the final catastrophe occurred. From slight adjustments, it passed into being pulled down, and hitched up with increasing rapidity and violence, till at last, springing to his feet, George would pluck it down, and with an indignant toss send the end of it flying over his shoulder, and march off with an air of great contempt for his companion, leaving him to cook and discuss his dinner in solitude as he best might. Wattie never attempted to smoothe matters by offering an apology, nor was he in the least annoyed by his friend’s ruffled temper. He paid his own visits as usual; and before next Sunday George had forgot the offence, and forgiven the offender, who, however, was quite ready to repeat it afresh should they chance again to fall upon the same subject of discussion. But after the melancholy death of his favourite daughter, already noticed, it was observed that, though George paid his visits as usual, he never allowed himself to be inveigled into keenness of argument by any provocation on the part of his friend.


 


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