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Memoirs of a Highland Lady
Chapter XII. 1813-1814


THE winter of 1814 set in extremely cold; we had the Spey frozen over early in January. The whole country was hung with frost, the trees looking like so many feathers sparkling with diamonds in the sunshine. The harvest-homes, and the forest ball, and the Christmas at Belleville, and the Christmas at the Doune had all taken place in due order; our fęte being remarkable by the opening of the library, now at last completed. The bookcases, finished by handsome cornices, and very high, looked very comfortable when quite filled with books; all along the top were busts, vases, etc. The old Puritan in the ruff was over the mantelpiece. There were the Thorley telescope, microscope, theodolite, and other instruments of scientific value; a large atlas, portfolios of prints, and a fair collection of books amounting to three or four thousand volumes there was not a subject on which information could not be gathered amongst them. There were some little old Elzevirs, Aldines, Baskervilles, and a Field Bible, to rank as curiosities. A shelf of huge folios, the architecture of Italy, Balbec, Palmyra, and other engravings, as I may well know, for I wrote the catalogue.

My father and I were months at this pleasant work, during the progress of which I think that my frivolous mind learned more of actual worth to me than it had taken in during all the former years of my young life.
We were still in the middle of our books when the poor old Captain died. He had been subject for many years to violent attacks of tic in some of the nerves of the face. He had had teeth drawn, had been to Edinburgh to undergo treatment both surgical and medical, to no purpose. Twice a year, in the spring and fall, violent paroxysms of pain came on. The only relief he got was from heat; he had to live in a room like an oven. His good wife was so tender of him at these times; what a mass of comforts she collected round him!

He had been longer than usual without an attack; we were in hopes he was to be relieved during his decline from such agony, and so he was—but how? by a stroke of paralysis. It took him in the night, affected one whole side, including his countenance and his speech. He never recovered, even partially, and was a piteous spectacle sitting there helpless, well-nigh senseless, knowing no one but his wife, and not her always, pleased with the warmth of the fire and sugar-candy; the state of all others he had had the greatest horror of falling into. He always prayed to preserve his faculties of mind whatever befell the failing body, and he lost them completely; not a gleam of reason ever again shot across his dimmed intellect. This melancholy condition lasted some months, and then the old man died gently in the night, either eighty-four or eighty- six years of age.

The news was brought to the Doune early in the morning, and my father and mother set out immediately for Inverdruie. They remained there the greater part of the day. In the evening my father and I were occupied writing the funeral letters, and the orders to Inverness for mourning. Next day Jane and I were taken to Inverdruie. We had never seen a corpse, and the Captain had died so serenely, his vacant expression had disappeared so entirely, giving place to a placidity amounting to beauty, that it was judged no less startling first view of death could be offered to young people. The impression, however, was fearful; for days I did not recover from it. Jane, who always cried abundantly when excited, got over it more easily. The colour—the indescribable want of colour, rather—the rigidity, the sharp outline of the high nose (he had prided himself on the size and shape of this feature), the total absence of flexibility, it was all horror—him, and not him. I longed to cry like Jane, but there came only a pain in my chest and head. My father preached a little sermon on the text before us. I am sure it was very good, but I did not hear it. He always spoke well and feelingly, and the people around seemed much affected; all my senses were absorbed by the awful image on that bed. We were led away, and then, while conversation was going on in the chamber of the widow, my mind's eye went back to the scene we had left, and things I had not seemed to notice appeared as I must have seen them.

The body lay on the bed in the best room; it had on a shirt well ruffled, a night-cap, and the hands were crossed over the breast. A white sheet was spread over all, white napkins were pinned over all the chair cushions, spread over the chest of drawers and the tables, and pinned over the few prints that hung on the walls. Two bottles of wine and a seed-cake were on one small table, bread, cheese, butter, and whisky on another, offered according to the rank of the numerous visitors by the solitary watcher beside the corpse, a natural daughter of the poor Captain's married to a farmer in Strathspey.

A great crowd was gathered in and about the house; the name of each new arrival was carried up immediately to Mrs Grant, who bowed her head in approbation; the more that came the higher the compliment. She said nothing, however; she had a serious part to play—the Highland widow—and most decorously she went through it. Every one expected it of her, for when had she failed in any duty? and every one must have been gratified, for this performance was perfect. She sat on the Captain's cornered armchair in a spare bedroom, dressed in a black gown, and with a white handkerchief pinned on her head, one side pinned round the head, all the rest hanging over it like the kerchief on the head of Henry of Bolingbroke in some of the prints. Motionless the widow sat during the whole length of the day, silent and motionless; if addressed, she either nodded slowly or waved her head, or, if an answer were indispensable, whispered it. Her insignia of office, the big bright bunch of large house keys, lay beside her, and if required, a lady friend, first begging permission, and ascertaining by the nod or the wave which was the proper key to use, carried off the bunch, gave out what was wanted, and then replaced it.

All the directions for the funeral were taken from herself in the same solemn manner. We were awestruck, the room was full, crowded by comers and goers, and yet a pin could have been heard to drop in it; the short question asked gravely in the lowest possible tone, the dignified sign in reply, alone broke the silence of the scene—for scene it was. Early in the morning, before company hours, who had been so busy as the widow? Streaking the corpse, dressing the chamber, settling her own, giving out every bit and every drop that was to be used upstairs and down by gentle and simple, preparing the additional supplies in case of need afterwards so quietly applied for by the friendly young lady, there was nothing, from the merest trifle to the matter of most importance, that she had not, her own active self, seen to.

I shall never forget her on the day of the funeral, the fifth day from the death. Her weeds had arrived, and remarkably well she looked in them. She, a plain woman in her ordinary rather shabby attire, came out in her new "mournings" like an elderly gentlewoman. She sat in the same room, in the same chair, with the addition of just a little more dignity, and a large white pocket-handkerchief. All her lady friends were round her, Miss Mary and Mrs William from the Croft, Mrs Macintosh from the Dell, Mrs Stewart from Pityoulish, two Miss Grants from Kinchurdy, her own sister Anne from Burnside, Miss Bell Macpherson from Invereshie, my mother, Jane, and I. There was little said; every gig or horse arriving caused a little stir for a moment, hushed instantly.

The noise without was incessant, for a great concourse had assembled to convoy the last of Macalpine's Sons to his long home.

A substantial collation had been set out in the parlour, and another, unlimited in extent, in the kitchen; people coming from so far, waiting for so long, required abundance of refreshment. They were by no means so decorous below as we were above in the lady's chamber, though we had our table of good things too; but we helped ourselves sparingly and quietly.

At length my father entered with a paper in his hand ; it was the list of the pall-bearers. He read it over to Mrs Grant, and then gave it to her to read herself. She went over the names without a muscle moving, and then, putting her finger upon one, she said, "I would rather Ballintomb, they were brothers in arms." My father bowed, and then offered her his hand, on which she rose, and every one making way they went out together, a few following.

They passed along the passage to the death- chamber, where on trestles stood the coffin, uncovered as yet, and with the face exposed. The widow took her calm last look, she then raised a small square of linen—probably put there by herself for the purpose— and dropping it over the countenance, turned and walked away. It was never to be raised. Though Jane and I had been spared this solemnity, there was something in the whole proceedings that frightened us. When Mrs Grant returned to her arm-chair and lay back in it, her own face covered by a handkerchief, and when my father's step sounded on the stairs as he descended, and the screws were heard as one by one they fastened down the coffin lid, and then the heavy tramp of the feet along the passage as the men moved with their burden, we drew closer to each other and to good Mrs Mackenzie from Aviemore, who was among the company.

Hundreds attended the funeral. A young girl in her usual best attire walked first, then the coffin borne by four sets of stout shoulders, extra bearers grouping round, as the distance to the kirkyard was a couple of miles at least. Next came the near of kin, and then all friends fell in according to their rank without being marshalled. Highlanders never presume, their innate good-breeding never subjecting them to an enforced descent from a too honourable place; there is even a fuss at times to get them to accept one due to them. Like the bishops, etiquette requires them to refuse at first the proffered dignity. What would either say if taken at his word?

The Presbyterian Church has no burial ceremony. It is the custom, however, for the minister to attend, generally speaking, and to give a lengthy blessing before the feast, and a short prayer at the grave. Mr Grant of Duthil did his part better than was expected; no one, from the style of his sermons, anticipated the touching eulogy pronounced over the remains of the good old Captain—not undeserved, for our great-granduncle had died at peace with all the world. He was long regretted, many a kind action he had done, and never a harsh word had he said of or to any one.

My father gave the funeral feast at the Doune; most of the friends of fit degree accompanied him home to dinner. All sorts of pleasant stories went the round with the wine-bottles, and very merry they were, clergy and all; the parsons of Alvie and Abernethy were both there, coming in to the library to tea in high good- humour. The rest of the people, who had been abundantly refreshed at Inverdruie, dispersed.

The funeral over, there came on a marriage. Lord Huntly, now in the decline of his rackety life, overwhelmed with debts, sated with pleasure, tired of fashion, the last male heir of the Gordon line—married. What would not the mother who adored him have given to have seen his wedding-day? What regrets she caused to herself and to him for preventing the love of his youth from becoming her daughter-in-law! She actually carried this beautiful girl away with her to Paris and married her to an old merchant, while her son was away with his regiment. His bride was young, and good, and rich, but neither clever nor handsome. She made him very happy, and paid his most pressing debts, that is her father did, old Mr Brodie of the Burn, brother to Brodie of Brodie, who either himself or somebody for him had had the good sense to send him with a pen to a counting-house instead of with a sword to the battle-field. He made a really large fortune; he gave with his daughter, his only child, one hundred thousand pounds down, and left her more than another at his death. Really to her husband her large fortune was the least part of her value; she possessed upright principles, good sense, and when by and by she began to feel her powers and took the management of his affairs, she turned out a first-rate woman of business. In her later years she got into the cant of the Methodists. At the time of her marriage she was very young, and too unformed to be shown as the bride of the fastidious Marquis, so while all the North was a blaze of bonfires in honour of the happy event, her lord carried her off abroad.

The minister of Alvie made what was thought a very indelicate allusion to "coming rejoicings closely connected with the present" in a speech to the crowd round the blazing pile on Tor Alvie; and as no after- events justified the prophecy, this incorrect allusion was never forgotten. The marriage was childless; Lord Huntly was the last Duke of Gordon.

Miss Elphick's mother having had a serious illness during the winter, and wishing to see her daughter, it was determined that we should have holiday for six weeks, and that our governess should travel to town under my father's escort, Caroline the French girl going with them. She was not to return; she had been very useful to us in naturalising her language amongst us. People may read a foreign language well, understand it as read, even write it well, but to speak it, to carry on the affairs of daily life from mere grammar and dictionary learning, I do not believe to be possible. A needle full of thread was my first example in point. We were all at work, and I asked for "du flu pour mon azçuulle." "Ah," said Caroline, "me azguullée de flu; tenez, mademoiselle;" and so on with a thousand other instances never forgotten, for those eighteen months during which her Parisian French was our colloquial medium for the greater part of the day made us all thoroughly at home in the language; and though rusted by years of disuse, a week in France brought it back so familiarly to my sister Mary and me that the natives could not believe we had not been brought up in the country. My father was much pleased at his plan having succeeded so well; he however forbade any mixture of tongues; when we wrote or spoke English no French words were to be introduced; English, he said, was rich in expletives, there could be no difficulty in finding in it fit expressions to convey any meaning. He would send us to Dryden, Milton, Bolingbroke, and Addison in proof of this; were we to alter any sentences of theirs by changing an English for a French word we should enfeeble the style.

One of his favourite exercises for us was making us read aloud passages from his favourite authors; he himself had been taught by Stephen Kemble, and he certainly read beautifully. Jane was an apt pupil; she sometimes mouthed a little, but in general she in her clear round voice gave the music, as it were, to the subject, expressed so perfectly by the gentle emphasis she employed. William was not bad; I was wretched, they did nothing but make fun of me. They used to tell an abominable story of me—how Jane, having got grandly through the mustering of all the devils in hell, alias fallen angels, and ended magnificently with "He called so loud that all the hollow deep Of hell resounded" (as did our library!), I began in what William called my "childish treble," "Princes, Potentates," in a voice that a mouse at the fireside could have imitated!

Milton did not suit me, but Sterne was worse; nobody could read Sterne, I am certain. My father could not; that ass, and the Lieutenant's death, and the prisoner—who could read them aloud, or without tears?

To return from this episode. My father, Miss Elphick, and Caroline happily off, we bade adieu to the restraints of the schoolroom. We did not neglect our studies, but we shoved them aside sometimes, and we led an easy sort of half-busy merry life, more out of doors than in, all the fine bright weather of the spring- tide. Jane looked after Mary's lessons, I carried Johnnie through his; we all four agreed that the governess was quite a supernumerary! Yet we owed her much; with Mary she had done wonders; by methodical perseverance she had roused her mind to exertion; Touchstone had been a great help. Jane and I were surprised to find the child who a year before could not count, able to work any sum in the simple rules. She gave great expression to the simple airs she had learnt on the pianoforte, and she had wakened up to ask questions, and to be merry and enjoy her walks, and though, from her great size for her age, her intellect remained slow till her growth of body was over, she was never again so inert as Miss Elphick had found her.

Johnnie was so easy to teach that he and I worked in sunshine. He was the dearest little fellow ever was in the world, not pretty except for fine eyes, small, slight, very quiet and silent, but full of fun, full of spirit, clever in seeing and bearing and observing and understanding all that went on around him, preferring to learn in this practical way rather than from books. He grew fond of reading, but he had found the mastering of the mere mechanical part so difficult that he had rather a distaste for the labour then.

We had two ponies at our command, William's pretty and rather headstrong Black Sally, and the old grey my mother used to ride to the reviews, now grown milk-white. He was large, but so quiet that Mary, who was a coward, was mounted on him. She never liked riding, and went but seldom. Johnnie, besides being so little, was much of her mind; Jane and I therefore had our steed to ourselves, and plenty of use we made of it. We rode to Belleville, to the Dell of Killiehuntly, and all over the country up and down the Spey, a fat coachman on one of the carriage horses behind us.

At the Dell of Killiehuntly lived John and Betty Campbell, doing well, but alas! not happy. His brother shared the farm, a good managing man with whom it was easy to live—but he had a wife with whom it was not easy to live. The two ladies soon disagreed, and though they parted household—John and Betty living in the farmhouse, Donald and Mary in rooms they fitted up in the offices—perfect harmony never subsisted until sorrow came to both.

Donald and Mary had a fine son drowned in the Spey; John and Betty lost their only child, my goddaughter, in the measles. Neither bereaved mother ever " faulted" the other after these events. Each had shown so much heart on the occasion of the grief of the other, that some bond of kindness, at least of forbearance, existed evermore between them. Betty never got over her "puir Eliza's" death ; she never alluded to her, never replied when any one else did, nor did she appear altered outwardly, yet it had changed her. Her hair turned grey, her manner became restless, and from that day she never called me anything but Miss Grant, my Christian name she never uttered, nor the pet name "burdie" by which she had oftenest called us both. It altered John Campbell too. What had brought that pair together was a problem not to be solved. John had but very few words of English, it was difficult to make out his meaning when he tried to explain himself in that foreign language; to the end of his life he never got beyond the smattering he began with. Betty, a Forres woman, spoke broad, low-country Scotch, pure Morayshire, and never anything else to her husband or to any one; she never attempted the Gaelic. The language she did speak was all but incomprehensible, any English the Highlanders acquire being real good English such as they are taught by books at school, and in conversation with the upper classes; Betty's was another tongue, the Low Dutch would have comprehended it as easily as did the Highlander, yet she and John managed to understand each other and to get on together lovingly, the grey mare taking the lead.

Both husband and wife loved us dearly; few events made either of them happier that the sight of our ponies picking their steps cannily down the brae a little piece away from their good farmhouse. All that they had of the best was brought out for us, our steeds and our fat attendant faring equally well for our sakes; and then Betty would promise to return the visit, and she would not forget her promise either, but walk her eight or nine miles some fine day, and pay her respects all through the Duchus. She always reminded me of Meg Merrilies, a tall, large-framed, powerfully-made woman, with dark flashing eyes and raven hair, eminently handsome, though resolute-looking. Her dress, though of a different style from the gipsy's, was picturesque; a linsey gown, white neckerchief, white apron, a clear close-fitting cap with a plaited lace-edged border, and a bright satin ribbon to bind it on the head, and over this a high steeple cap of clearer muslin, set farther back than the underneath one so that the borders did not interfere. A red plaid of the Campbell tartan, spun and dyed by herself, was thrown round her when she went out.

She spun the wool for stockings too, and knitted them; at fine needleworks she was not expert, indeed she was too active to sit to them. She was a stirring wife, in and out, but and ben, cooking, washing, cleaning, keeping a quick eye over all, warm-tempered and kindhearted. In her old age, when husband and child were gone, Betty grew fond of money. She was free-handed in happier days.

Miss Elphick returned before my father. She came by sea to Inverness, stayed a day or two with the Coopers, and then came on in the gig with Mr Cooper, who had business with William Cameron and such a dose of north country gossip for my mother! She liked a little gossip, and she got abundance. I like gossip too, I suppose we all do, clever gossip, but not Mr Cooper's: "The laird of this, his bills flying about; the lady of that, too sharp a tongue to keep a servant. Everything under lock and key at Glen here; open house to all corners at Rath there. Fish bought at extravagantly high price by Mrs So-and-So of New Street, while the children of Some-one in Church Lane often came to Mrs Cooper for a 'piece." He was a kind good-natured man, and his home was very happy. Miss Elphick admired him extremely, "his coats fitted so beautifully." She had brought for her own wear from London a bottle-green cloth surcoat, much braided, quite military-looking, and a regular man's hat, a Welsh style of dress she fancied particularly becoming and suited to her, as tartans were to us, her mother being a Welshwoman. In this guise she went in the month of May, or June indeed, to pay her visit of condolence to the widow at Inverdruie; a farewell on our part, Mrs Grant having determined to give up her farm and return to Burnside to keep house with her very old mother and her bachelor brother. We were coming back, and had reached the turn in the road under the bank of fir trees near James Macgregor's, when a disastrous piece of news reached us. What we called "the widows' house" at Loch-an-Eilan was burnt to the ground.

My father had always had a turn for beautifying Rothiemurchus with cottages; it was more that, at first, than the wish to improve the dwellings of the people, consequently his first attempts were guiltless of any addition to the family comfort. A single room, thatched, with a gable end battened down at top, like a snub nose, had been stuck on the hill at the Poichar for the gamekeeper, on the bank at the ferry for the boatman, at the end of the West gate as a lodge. They were all as inconvenient as any old turf hut, and a great deal more ugly, because more pretending.

Searching through our drawing-books for a model for the Croft improved his ideas of cottage architecture; also, he now better understood the wants of a household. He picked out a number of pretty elevations, suggested the necessary changes, and left it to Jane and me to make correct drawings and working plans.

We had to try perhaps a dozen times before a sketch was sufficiently good to be accepted. We became attached to the subjects; it was no wonder that the new cottages became of such importance to us. The West gate was the first improved. It was lengthened by a room, heightened sufficiently to allow of a store loft under the steep roof, the snub nose disappeared, the heather thatch was extended by means of supporting brackets, and a neat verandah ran along the side next the road and round the gable end. We trained Ayrshire roses on the walls, honeysuckle on the verandah, and we planted all sorts of common flowers in a border between the cottage and the road. It was a pretty cottage, particularly suited to the scenery, and when neatly kept was one of the shows of the place.

The next attempt was the Poichar, a more ambitious one, for there were a front and a back door, a long passage, staircase, pantry, kitchen, parlour, and two bedrooms above. It was very picturesque with its overhanging heather-thatched roof, its tall chimneys, and its wide latticed windows. There was no border of flowers, only a small grass plot and a gravel walk, but there was an enclosed yard fronted by the dog kennels, and a path led to a good kitchen garden laid out in a hollow close by. Another path went down to the edge of the first of the chain of Lochans, and on through the birch wood to the Croft. Another path skirted these little lochs by James Macgregor's to the fir forest—aunt Mary's walk. It was a model for the dwelling of a Highland gamekeeper.

Next came a cottage for four aged widows; they had been living apparently in discomfort, either alone in miserable sheilings, far from aid in case of sickness, and on such dole as kind neighbours gave helped by a share of the poor's box, or in families weary enough of the burden of supporting them.

My father thought that by putting them all together he could lodge them cheaply, that they might be of use to one another in many ways, and that the help given to them would go farther when less subdivided. It was a really beautiful home that he built for them; there were the cantilever roof of heather, the wide latticed windows, the tall chimneys, but he made it two storeys high, and he put the staircase leading to the upper rooms outside. It had quite a Swiss look. Sociable as were his intentions regarding the widows, he knew too well to make them live together except when they were inclined. Each was to have a room and a closet for herself. Two of them were to live on the ground floor with a separate entrance to their apartments, one door opening from the front, the other from the back of the house; the two above reached their abode by the hanging staircase, a balcony landing each beside her door-window.

We were charmed with this creation of our united fancies, and had grand plans for suitable fittings, creeping plants, flower borders, rustic seats, and furniture. The loch was on one hand; the meal-mill at the foot of the Ord, with the burnie, the mill-race, a few cottages and small fields, on the other; the grey mountains and the forest behind; all was divine but the spirit of woman. The widows rebelled; old, smoke-dried, shrivelled-up witches with pipes in their mouths, and blankets on their backs, they preferred the ingle-nook in their dark, dirty, smoke-filled huts to this picture of comfort. Stone walls were cold, light hurt the eyes, deal floors got dirty and had to be scrubbed! The front door complained of the outside stair, it was so much in the way and noisy; the back door objected to entering at the back, she had as good a right as her neighbour to the exit of honour; her windows looked on the burn, there was no road that way, she could see nothing; she equally detested the stairs though they were not near her; both ground floors said that people going up and coming down, for ever crossing them in all ways, forced them to spend a great deal of valuable time at the foot of this annoyance, expostulating with the upper windows for the ceaseless din they made. These more exalted ladies felt themselves quite as ill used as those beneath them. Their backs were broken carrying burdens up those weary stairs; no one could come to see them without being watched from below. In short, they were all in despair, agreeing in nothing but hatred of their beautiful home. The fact is that they were not fit for it; it is not at threescore and ten that we can alter habits and the feelings grown out of them. It was very little understood then where to begin, and how slowly it was necessary to go on in order to reach the first even of the many resting-places on the road to better ways.

The poor Captain sealed the fate of the widows' house. One day after he had come in from his drive in the old pony phaeton with the long-tailed black pony, somebody asking which way he had been, he replied, "By Rothie's poorhouse at Loch-an-Eilan." Of all things on earth this name is most repugnant to the feelings of the Highlander; to be paraded as inmates of a recognised almshouse was more than the pride of any clanswoman could bear, and so it fell out that by accident the heather thatch took fire, and although neighbours were near, and a stream ran past the door, and the widows were all alive during the burning, active as bees removing their effects—the stairs being no hindrance—the flames raged on. In the morning only blackened walls remained.

We could not help being so far uncharitable as to believe that whether or no they had lit the spark that threw them homeless on the world, they had at least taken no trouble to extinguish it.

My father was much annoyed at this misfortune; he would do nothing towards any further arrangements for the comfort of these old bodies. Perhaps they lived to repent their folly. He did not, however, give up his building; the next cottage he undertook was given to more grateful occupants. He had intended it as a toy for my mother, but the amusement of fitting it up not suiting her tastes, it was eventually made over to us, and became one of the principal delights of our happy Rothiemurchus life.

We will pause before describing it. Dalachapple once conversing with my mother concerning some firm in Glasgow the partners in which had been her acquaintance in her dancing day, "They failed, did not they?" said she. "They paused," said he; and so will we.


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