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Deeside Tales
Chapter XXIV


IT will readily be conjectured that in leading such a life, and following such a calling, Sandy must have had many privations to endure, and many adventures and hair-breadth escapes “by flood and field,” but he had such an aversion to recount his hardships, lest he should be thought to be soliciting commiseration, and was so sensitive on the point of appearing to be boastful, that it was very seldom he could be got to narrate either his privations or adventures. One or two instances, merely as examples, must therefore suffice in this sketch.

On one occasion, late in the season, he set out from the neighbourhood of Ballater, provisioned only with the usual “whisky buckie,” to have a day among the ptarmigan on Benavon. The first day's sport proving unsuccessful, he passed the night in some crevice of the rocks, and next morning found him shooting over the broad brow of Benabourd. Wandering still further into the wilds, he on the following day made the circuit of Ben Muicdhui’s towering summit, having nothing to live on all this while but the pound or two of meal and whisky, which, not deeming it would be required to support him for such a length of time, had not been reserved for future exigencies.

Retracing his steps, he was on the afternoon of the third day overtaken on Benavon by one of those bitter storms of wind and snow which sometimes suddenly sweep over these inhospitable regions, like a Siberian poorga, threatening destruction to any living thing that may happen to be within its range. He was near no place of shelter, and the biting wind sent its fang to the bone. Still he continued to make his way through it; but his poor dog Charlie, cowering and shivering at his heels, was sinking fast before the breath of the storm. His master did everything he could to cheer him up, patted him, ran with him in the face of the blast to keep the blood from freezing in his veins, but all to no purpose; poor Charlie caught no heat, but set up his pitiful whine amid the hiss of the vengeful storm. Sandy had been accustomed to bear many things with indifference, but the call for pity, whether from man or beast, went straight to his heart. Stripping himself of his thin tartan coat he rolled poor Charlie up in its folds, leaving himself exposed to the storm, and in this state he awaited its termination.

The incident would probably never have become known, for Sandy was as averse to dilate on his acts of mercy as he was to rehearse his sufferings, had not a man in search of some stray sheep happened to come upon him and his dog in the plight described. When the matter was referred to in his hearing, he would attempt to turn it off with the slight remark, “Poor beast! I was sorry for him.” Though he made no scruple of denuding himself of his coat in the midst of a snow storm to alleviate the sufferings of his poor dog, it shows how shy he was of making known his own sufferings, when he did not ask the man who had been cast in his way for a morsel of food, though he must have been famishing, having had nothing to eat for the greater part of two days, and knowing that many hours must elapse before he could reach a human habitation. On this occasion Charlie had fared much better than his master; for he had not been allowed to feel the pangs of hunger while a bird was in the bag, in which there was probably enough for both, had the human sufferer had the means of cooking the game so as to make it fit and lawful food.

“I don’t think,” said Sandy, when he got to the house where his wants were supplied, and as an apology for the heartiness of the meal he was able to indulge in, “I don’t think I was ever so hungry in my life. It was provoking to have the birds on my back and yet be starving of hunger; but I do believe another half day would have made me eat the grouse raw.”

The incident just mentioned shows how great his affection for his dogs was. Indeed it got, in the case of Charlie, to assume a type beyond what is current between man and his pets of the lower creation. An old maid’s attachment to her cat is passionate and jealous enough; but it was a different kind of bond that knit Sandy to his dogs—a bond somewhat akin to what fellowship in suffering generates between human beings. “When Charlie died, I shed tears over him; we had gone so much together,” is perhaps the most pathetic expression Sandy was ever known to utter. Though Charlie reciprocated to the full his master’s affection for him, and though he would probably at any time have risked his life to save him had he been in danger, yet his power of enduring hunger and cold was not equal to his whose lot he shared. The following anecdote of Charlie has been told the writer by one who knew man and dog very well—

“I remember poor Charlie very well,—a rather little, white and brown dog. He was up to all his ways, and had a sort of human fondness for him. Yet for all this, I have known him under the pressure of sheer hunger desert him among the mountains. I recollect once when Sandy had been some days in the forest, Charlie made his appearance alone at my house. I was very much astonished, knowing how fond the dog was of him, and feared that something must have befallen his master, perhaps he might be lying dead among the hills. We got the dog into an outhouse and shut him in, giving him something to eat. But he had no sooner got his belly filled, than out he would be, scraping at the door and howling. I believe he would have gone mad if we had not let him out As soon as the door was opened, off he went like shot, and though we tried to coax him and called to him, it was of no use; away he went, and we saw no more of him till a day or so after Sandy and he both appeared together, and I then learned that Charlie had come twelve miles for his victuals the day he paid us the visit alone.”

“I never but once,” Sandy used to say, “got fairly bewildered among the hills. It was late in the year, and I had been shooting in Glenrinnes. It had been dull all day, and towards evening snow began to fall. I think I never saw the snow flakes so big or falling so fast In less than two hours there was not the vestige of a black thing over the whole face of the earth. I knew the ground as well as you know the floor of your own house, and yet I could make nothing of it I kept going on, going on, thinking I should certainly meet with some object that I could recognise. But no; and at last the snow got so deep that I scarcely knew if I was going up or down the hill. I thought of several plans to guide me, but they all failed. At last I came to a stream, and I resolved to follow it downwards, being sure it would bring me to some house; but so stupid was I in the head that I could not make out which way the stream ran, and when I put in some snow to see, it seemed to me to float up the stream. But I reasoned that I might be bewildered, but the laws of nature were not likely to be wrong; and so I followed the way the snow took, and at last with much ado I got to a house I knew.”

These were some of his field experiences; as an example of his flood experiences may be mentioned an adventure he once had in the Loch of Skene.

In his many wanderings he had come to this place for the purpose of shooting water-fowl, at a time when the loch was almost wholly frozen over with what appeared to him a strong sheet of ice. He had shot at and wounded a teal drake, which fell on the ice near the middle of the lake. Unfortunately on this occasion he was not accompanied by Charlie or any other dog, and was under the necessity of either relinquishing his prize, or venturing on the ice for it Any bird he might have shot would have tempted him to incur some risk for its recovery, but for a teal drake he would have run almost any danger. He all his life attached a laughable importance to the feathers of this bird, as dressing for salmon hooks. It was a remark he often made, “The hook without teal is no better than one made up of crows feathers.” His desire to possess the feathers of this teal nearly proved fatal to him.

He had not made his way far on the ice when be became aware that it was not so strong as it appeared to be. He therefore proceeded with great caution, testing its strength at almost every step he took. When just in the act of picking up the coveted teal, the .ice gave way; a large ledge had snapped off, and on this ledge he found himself floating away into the open water in the centre of the lake. Strangely enough the fragile raft remained unbroken till it came into collision with the fixed ice, when it went into fragments, precipitating Sandy into the water. At this critical moment he concentrated all the energies of his mind, and at once adopted the most likely way of escaping with sweet life. Firmly grasping his gun in both hands, he struck off with it fragment after fragment of the ice, taking care not to disengage but small pieces at a time lest he should be cut off horn reaching the rest In this way he made a lane of clear water for himself a distance of a quarter of a mile; and at last reaching ice of sufficient strength to sustain his weight, he hitched himself on to it, and gained the land, “very nearly gone,’ as he expressed it, and with his hands frightfully lacerated by the method he had adopted to break through the ice.

Sandy was a hero worshipper of the true Carlylean brand. He was disposed to pay due honour to the titled great; but unless the dignity they bore from men was sustained by a corresponding patent of nobility from nature, they were fit only to be made “laughing stocks of,” and to be treated as counterfeit coin. When, however, he found both patents in conjunction his admiration and respect scarcely knew any bounds. It has been already stated that though everywhere known to be an inveterate and incurable poacher, he was on visiting terms with most of the gentry in the north; and seldom was there a ball or occasion of rejoicing in the wide district over which his calling extended to which he was not invited. He had by nature the feelings of a gentleman, and this almost constant intercourse with the first society in the country had given his manners and conversation a polish and fascination far above those of the lower or even middle classes. However incongruous it may appear that the professional violator of the law of the land should be on familiar terms of acquaintance with clergymen and peers of the re-alm, yet to Sandy the manse and the mansion were equally open.

In proportion to the warmth of his admiration for those who worthily bore their honour, so was the intensity of his dislike and contempt for those whom he deemed to have dishonoured their dignities. Extremely sensitive on all points of honour and character, he never either forgot or forgave any slight cast upon his own.

It happened once in a district where Sandy was very well known by every one, that the tenants of a certain large proprietor had resolved to entertain their landlord at a dinner and ball on the occasion of some family rejoicing. Sandy, happening to be in the neighbourhood at the time, and there being no special cause of quarrel between him and the guest of the evening, presented himself, on invitation by some of his friends among the tenants, to take part in the rejoicing, and add his tribute to the general esteem entertained for the proprietor. But such was not the view of the matter taken by the laird, who, too hastily fancying himself insulted by the presence of such a notorious poacher among his entertainers, demanded that Sandy should leave the company; otherwise he could not stay. Stung to the quick by this insult, Sandy immediately left, and repairing to a neighbouring hotel, engaged rooms and set up an opposition ball, which, as asserted at the time, not only damaged but eclipsed the entertainment to the laird.

Such was his method of taking revenge, and to the end of his days he never got over the slight thus cast upon him. When reference was made to it in his hearing, he would assume a posture of dignity, and in a tone of contempt, exclaim, “Churlish fellow! there is not a spark of the gentleman in him. No gentleman would ever do the like* But what would you expect of a dirty Whig?”

Of the many gentlemen’s residences to which he received invitations, Gordon Castle held by far the first place in his esteem. The late Duke of Richmond was his beau-ideal of what a peer of the re-aim ought to be. “He is generous, noble-minded, and no oppressor of the poor,” were the terms in which Sandy usually described him. But in speaking of his son, then Earl of March, and now leader of her Majesty’s Opposition in the House of Lords, these, or indeed any words, were wholly insufficient to express his admiration.

“I tell you,” he would say, and his eyes spoke more of his feelings than his words, “that is a young nobleman that his country will one day be proud of; mind, I tell you! ”

The author received the following account of Sandy’s first interview with the Duke of Gordon from John MacLaren, gamekeeper to Mr. Coltman at Deskrie, who had it from Marshall, the famous violinist and prot£g6 of his Grace. The Duke and a friend happened to be shooting on the Glenfiddoch moors, when he observed a puff of smoke on the hillside opposite and, by the aid of a glass, a man with a game bag slung over his shoulder, accompanied by a dog, also engaged in grouse shooting. Calling his head keeper he said, "Robert, I thought we were to have the whole of these moors to this party to-day. Who can that be shooting over there?” “I do not know, your Grace, but I shall send to enquire.” “No,” said the Duke, “go yourself, it may be some mistake that you have committed in making your arrangements.” Robert immediately set off, and was seen by Sandy more than a mile away, who however, instead of making off, sat down and awaited his arrival The keeper knew Sandy and explained to him the circumstances, upbraiding him with his want of courtesy. “Well, Robert,” said the culprit, “it was not that, but a pure mistake on my part Tell his Grace that I am the last man in the world that would interfere with his sport, and that I am very sorry for what has happened and will leave immediately/’ This being reported to the Duke, who had been told something of Sandy’s character, a message was dispatched to intimate that he might take the other side of the hill for the afternoon and come to the Lodge in the evening. Sandy did so, bringing with him a well-filled bag, which he desired Robert to present to the Duke with his thanks for his kindness and an assurance that he would not again disturb either him or any party of his in the pursuit of their sport It is recorded that he spent a very merry night at Glenfiddoch and received his first invitation to a dance at Gordon Castle.

He was invariably invited to the balls there when he happened to be accessible, and received particular attention from the Earl of March, who always took him aside as he was leaving, and gave him a hint not to want a day’s sport when he was inclined. It it needless to say that his kindness was never abused. At these balls he often overheated himself in the dance, deeming, as he did, his displays in that line an expression of the high honour in which he held his entertainer. “The Earl of March,” he would say, “made me dance with all the large company of ladies staying at Gordon Castle”; and proud he was of the honour. In his latter years, when his iron constitution was giving way, oxidized as it had been by the exposure and privations he had endured, he was less able to encounter these violent exertions with impunity, and sometimes was brought to admit that in dancing a long round of reels “he was not the man he had been.”


 


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