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Reminiscences of a Highland Parish
Passing Away


THE minister, when verging on four-score, became blind. A son of the manse, his youngest, was, to his joy, appointed to be his assistant and successor in the ministry. I cannot forget the last occasion on which "the old man eloquent  appeared in the pulpit. The Holy Communion was about to be dispensed, and, before parting for ever from his flock, he wished to address them once more. When he entered the pulpit, he mistook the side for the front; but old Rory, who watched him with intense interest, was immediately near him, and seizing a trembling hand, placed it on the book-board, thus guiding his master into the right position for addressing the congregation. And then stood up that venerable man, a Saul in height among the people, with his pure white hair falling back from his ample forehead over his shoulders. Few, and loving, and earnest, were the words he spoke, amidst the profound silence of a passionately-devoted people, which was broken only by their low sobs, when he told them that they should see his face no more. Soon afterwards he died. The night of his death, sons and daughter.; were grouped around his bed, his wife on one side, old Rory on the other. His mind had been wandering during the day. At evening he sat up in bed; and one of his daughters, who supported his head, dropped a tear on his face. Rory rebuked her and wiped it off; for it is a Highland superstition (?), that no tear should ever drop on the face of a good man dying;—is it because it adds to the burden of dying, or is unworthy of the glorious hopes of living? Suddenly the minister stretched forth his hand, as if a child was before him, and said, "I baptize thee into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit," then falling back, he expired. It seemed as if it were his own baptism as a child of glory.

The widow did not long survive her husband. She had, with the quiet strength and wisdom of love, nobly fulfilled her part as wife and mother. And who can know what service a wife and mother is to a family, save those who have had this staff to lean on, this pillow to rest on, this sun to shine on them, this best of friends, to accompany them, until their earthly journey is over, or far advanced? Her last years were spent in peace in the old manse, occupied then and now by her youngest son. But she desired, ere she died, to see her first-born in his Lowland manse far away, and with him and his children to connect the present with the past. She accomplished her wishes, and left an impress on the young of the third generation which they have never lost during the thirty years that have passed since they saw her face and heard her voice. Illness she had hardly ever known. One morning a grandchild gently opened her bedroom door with breakfast. But hearing the low accents of prayer, she quietly closed it again, and retired. When she came again, and tapped and entered, all was still. The good woman seemed asleep in peace; and so she was, but it was the sleep of death. She was buried in the Highland churchyard, beside her husband and nine of her children. There, with sweet young ones, of another generation, who have since then joined them from the same manse, they rest until the resurrection morning, when all will meet "in their several generations."

Old Rory, however, first followed his beloved master. One evening, after weeks of illness, he said to his wife, "Dress me in my best; get a cart ready; I must go to the manse and bless them all, and then die." His wife thought at first that his strange and sudden wish was the effect of delirium, and she was unwilling to consent. But Rory gave the command in a tone which was never heard except when, at sea or on land, he meant to be obeyed. Arrayed in his Sunday's best, the old man, feeble, pale, and breathless, tottered into the parlour of the manse, where the family were soon around him, wondering, as if they had seen a ghost, what had brought him there. "I bless you all, my dear ones," he said, "before I die." And, stretching out his hands, he pronounced a patriarchal blessing, and a short prayer for their welfare. Shaking, hands with each, and kissing the hand of his old and dear mistress, he departed. The family group felt awe-struck,—the whole scene was so sudden, strange, and solemn.

Next day, Rory was dead.

Old Jenny, the henwife, rapidly followed Rory. Why mention her? Who but the geese or the turkeys could miss her? But there are, I doubt not, many of my readers who can fully appreciate the loss of an old servant who, like Jenny, for half a century has been a respected and valued member of the family, She was associated with the whole household life of the manse. Neither she nor any of those old domestics had ever been mere things, but living persons with hearts and heads, to whom every burden, every joy of the family was known. Not a child but had been received into her embrace on the day of birth; not one passed away but had received her tears on the day of death; and they had all been decked by her in their last as in their first garments. The official position she occupied as hen-wife had been created for her in order chiefly to relieve her feelings at the thought of her being useless and a burden in her old age. When she died, it was discovered that the affectionate old creature had worn next her heart, and in order to be buried with her, locks of hair cut off in infancy from the children whom she had nursed. And here I must relate a pleasing incident connected with her. Twenty years after her death, the younger son of the manse, and its present possessor, was deputed by his church to visit, along with two of his brethren, the Presbyterian congregations of North America. When on the borders of Lake Simcoe he was sent for by an old Highland woman, who could speak her own language only, though she had left her native hills very many years before. On his entering her log-hut, the old woman burst into a flood of tears and, without uttering a word, pointed to a silver brooch which clasped the tartan shawl on her bosom. She was Jenny's youngest sister, and the silver brooch she wore, and which was immediately recognised by the minister, had been presented to Jenny by the eldest son of the manse, when at college, as a token of affection for his old nurse.

Nearly forty years after the old minister had passed away, and so many of "the old familiar faces" had followed him, the manse boat, which in shape and rig was literally descended from the famous "Roe," lay becalmed, on a beautiful summer evening, opposite the shore of the glebe. The many gorgeous tints from the setting sun were reflected from the bosom of the calm sea. Vessels, "like painted ships upon a painted ocean," lay scattered along "the Sound," and floated double, ship and shadow. The hills on both sides rose pure and clear into the blue sky, revealing every rock and precipice, with heathery knoll or grassy alp. Fish sometimes broke the smooth unrippled sea, "as of old the Curlews called." The boating party had gone out to enjoy the perfect repose of the evening, and allowed the boat to float with the tide. The conversation happened to turn on the manse and parish.

"I was blamed the other day," remarked the minister, who was one of the party, "for taking so much trouble in improving my glebe, and especially in beautifying it with trees and flowers, because, as my cautious friend remarked, I should remember that I was only a life-renter. But I asked my adviser how many proprietors in the parish—whose families are supposed to have a better security for their lands than the minister has for the glebe—have yet possessed their properties so long as our poor family has possessed the glebe? He was astonished, on consideration, to discover that every property in the parish had changed its owner, and some of them several times, since I had succeeded my father."

"And if we look back to the time since our father became minister," remarked another of the party, "the changes have been still more frequent. The only possessors of their first home, in short, in the whole parish, are the family which had no possessions in it."

"And look," another said, "at those who are in this boat. How many birds are here out of the old nest!" And strange enough there were in the boat the eldest and youngest sons of the old minister, both born on the glebe, and both doctors of divinity; with three of their sons, likewise clergymen, sitting beside them, in all five ministers descended from the old minister. The crew was made up of an elderly man, the son of "old Rory" and of a white-haired man, the son of "old Archy," both born on the glebe. And these clergymen represented a few only of the descendants of the old minister who were enjoying the manifold blessings of life. These facts are mentioned here in order to connect such mercies with the anxiety expressed sixty years ago by the poor parson himself in the letter to his girls, which I have quoted.

One event more remains for me to record connected with the old manse, and then the silence of the hills, in which that lowly home reposes, will no more be broken by any word of mine about its inhabitants—except as they are necessarily associated with other "reminiscences." It is narrated in the Memoir of Professor Wilson, that when the eldest son of our manse came to Glasgow College, in the heyday of his youth, he was the only one who could compete, in athletic exercises, with Christopher North, who was his friend and fellow-student. The physical strength, acquired in his early days by the manly training of the sea and hills, sustained his body; while a spiritual strength, more noble still, sustained his soul, during a ministry, in three 'Large and difficult parishes, which lasted, with constant labour, for more than half a century, and until he was just about to enter on his eightieth year—the day of his funeral being the anniversary of his birth. He had married in early life the daughter of one of the most honourable of the earth, who had for upwards of forty years, with punctilious integrity, managed the estates of the Argyle family in the Western Highlands. Her father's house was opposite the old manse, and separated from it by the "Sound." This invested that inland sea which divided the two lovers, with a poetry that made "The Roe" and her perilous voyages a happy vision that accompanied the minister until his last hour. For three or four years he had retired from public life, to rest from his labours, and in God's mercy to cultivate the passive more than the active virtues in the bosom of his own family. But when disposed to sink into the silent pensiveness and the physical depression which often attend old age, one topic, next to the highest of all, never failed to rouse him—even as the dying eagle in its cage, when it sees far off the mountains on which it tried its early flight—and that one was converse about the old parish, about his father, and his youth. And thus it happened that on the very last evening of his life he was peculiarly cheerful, as he told some stories of that long past; and among others a characteristic anecdote of old Rory. How naturally did the prayer of thanksgiving then succeed the memories of those times of peace and early happiness!

That night, his first and last love—the "better half," verily, of his earthly life, was awakened from her anxious slumbers near him, by his complaint of pain. But she had no time to rouse the household ere he, putting his arms round her neck, and breathing the words "My darling" in her ear, fell asleep. He had for more than twenty-five years ministered to an immense congregation of Highlanders in Glasgow; and his public funeral was remarkable, not chiefly for the numbers who attended it, or the crowds which followed it—for these things are common in such ceremonies—but for the sympathy and sorrow manifested by the feeble and tottering Highland men and women, very many of whom were from the old parish, and who, bathed in tears, struggled to keep up with the hearse, in order to be near, until the last possible moment, one for whom they had an enthusiastic attachment. The Highland hills and their people were to him a passion, and for their good he had devoted all the energies of his long life; and not in vain! His name will not, I think, be lost in this generation, wherever, at least, the Celtic language is spoken; and though this notice of him may have no interest to the Southern reader, who may not know, nor care to know, his name, yet every Gael in the most distant colony, who reads these lines, will pardon me for writing them. He belongs to them as they did to him.


 


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