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Reminiscences of a Highland Parish
Stories of Snowstorms for the Fireside


I. - OLD JENNY OF GLEN IMMEREN.

When the sheep were sent to the hills, the shielings were no longer of any use, and so they fell into ruins. But for many a year one hut remained far up in Glen Immeren, inhabited by "old Jenny." How she came to live there we never heard. Perhaps she had been there when a child with her father and mother, and with others who had passed from her sight, but not from the eye of her heart: and so she would see forms among the hills that others saw not, and hear voices of the old time whispering in her ear, or echoing among the knolls that others heard not. Thus in the lonely glen Jenny was not alone. And I think she knew One who was more real to her than all those dreams of heart—One who was her Father in heaven, and ever present with her. It is certain, however, that Jenny was singularly respected. When she came down from the glen once a year to the "big house," the laird's wife brought her into the dining-room and chatted with her, and gave her something from her own hand to eat and drink as a pledge of friendship. The minister visited her regularly; and she came as regularly to see the family, and would remain for days a welcome guest in the kitchen. Besides this, she was often sent for to nurse the sick, and there were few houses which had not received her advice and assistance in time of trouble; for Jenny knew a remarkable collection of "cures,"—that is, medicines made up from plants and roots,—as remedies for those accidents and diseases which were common in the country. These "cures" were at one time familiar to many in the Highlands, and until educated physicians settled there, they were the only sources of relief to the sufferer; and very good service they did. By such means old Jenny became a sort of public character. No one passed her cottage, on the way across the mountains to the thickly-peopled valley on the other side, without calling on her and giving her all the news of the district.

A goat and a few hens were all Jenny's property. But then she got wool from one family, and meal from another, and her peats from a third; so that she 'lived in such comfort as no forced poor-law ever gave, or can give; for charity did not injure self-respect, and every gift was a sign of kindness. Spring was the trying season, when the winter had almost exhausted all her means of living. The meal was nearly done—potatoes were not then so common among tile poor—the pasture was scanty for the goat ; and Jenny was sometimes forced to take a journey to visit her kind neighbours down near the sea-coast, driven, like a vessel in a storm, for shelter to a friendly harbour. Well, it so happened that one day a dreadful snowstorm came on just as she was planning an excursion to get some meal, and when her but was almost empty of food except the little milk she could get from her goat. For a long time that snow-storm was a sort of date in the parish, and people counted so many years before or after "the great storm." Never had they seen such a constant and heavy fall with such deep snowdrifts. When the heavens at last became clear, the whole face of the country seemed changed. It was some time before the thought suddenly occurred to a shepherd—"What has old Jenny been doing all this time?" No sooner was her name mentioned than she at once became the theme of conversation among all the cottages in the Highland hamlet nearest Glen Immeren, and throughout the parish. But for many days, such was the state of the weather that no mortal foot could wade through the snow-wreaths, or buffet the successive storms which swept down with blinding fury from the hills. Jenny was given up as lost! When the minister prayed for her there was deep silence in the small church, and manly sighs were heard. At last, three men resolved, on the first day the attempt was possible, to proceed up the long and dreary glen to search for Jenny. They carried food in their plaids, and whatever comforts they thought necessary—nay, they resolved to bring the old woman home with them, if they found her alive. So off they went; and many an eye watched those three black dots among the snow, slowly tracking their way up Glen Immeren. At last, they reached a rock at an angle, where the glen takes a turn to the left, and where the old woman's cottage ought to have been seen. But nothing met the eye except a smooth white sheet of glittering snow, surmounted by black rocks; and all below was silent as the sky above! No sign of life greeted eye or ear. The men spoke not, but muttered some exclamations of sorrow. "She is alive!" suddenly cried one of the shepherds; "for I see smoke." They pushed bravely on. When they reached the hut, nothing was visible except the two chimneys; and even those were lower than the snow-wreath. There was no immediate entrance but by one of the chimneys. A shepherd first called to Jenny down the chimney, and asked if she was alive; but before receiving a reply, a large fox sprang out of the chimney, and darted off to the rocks.

"Alive!" replied Jenny; "but thank God you have come to see me! I cannot say come in by the door; but come down—come down."

In a few minutes her three friends easily descended by the chimney, and were shaking Jenny's hand warmly. Hurried questions were put and answered.

"Oh, woman! how have you lived all this time?"

"Sit down and I will tell you," said old Jenny, whose feelings now gave way to a fit of hysterical weeping. After composing herself, she continued, "How did I live?" you ask, Sandy. "I may say, just as I have always lived—by the power and goodness of God, who feeds the wild beasts."

"The wild beasts indeed," replied Sandy, drying his eyes; "did you know that a wild beast was in your own house? Did you see the fox that jumped out of your chimney as we entered?"

"My blessings on the dear beast!" said Jenny, with fervour. "May no huntsman ever kill it and may it never want food either summer or winter!"

The shepherds looked at one another by the dins light of Jenny's fire, evidently thinking that she had become slightly insane.

"Stop, lads," she continued, "till I tell you the story. I had in the house, when the storm began, the goat and hens. Fortunately, I had fodder gathered for the boat, which kept it alive, although, poor thing, it has had but scanty meals. But it lost its milk. I had also peats for my fire, but very little meal; yet I never lived better; and I have been able besides to preserve my bonnie hens for summer. I every day dined on flesh meat too, a thing I have not done for years before; and thus I have lived like a lady."

Again the shepherds were amazed, and asked in a low voice, as if in pity for her state, "Where did you get meat, Jenny?"

"From the old fox, Sandy!"

"The fox!" they all exclaimed.

"Ay, the fox," said Jenny; "just the dear, old fox, the best friend I ever had. I'll tell you how it was. The day of the storm he looked into the chimney, and came slowly down, and set himself on the rafter beside the hens, yet never once touched them. Honest fellow! he is sorely miscalled; for he every day provided for himself, and for me, too, like a kind neighbour, as he was. He hunted regularly like a gentleman, and brought in game in abundance for his own dinner—a hare almost every day—and what he left I got, and washed, and cooked, and ate, and so I have never wanted! Now that he has gone, you have come to relieve me."

"God's ways are past finding out!" said the men, bowing down their heads with reverence.

"Praise Him," said Jenny, "who giveth food to the hungry!"

II. - THE WIDOW AND HER SON.

A WIDOW, who, I have heard, was much loved for her "meek and quiet spirit," left her home in "the parish," early one morning, in order to reach, before evening, the residence of a kinsman who had promised to assist her to pay her rent. She carried on her back her only child. The mountain-track she pursued passes along the shore of a beautiful salt-water loch; then through a green valley, watered by a peaceful stream which flows from a neighbouring lake. It afterwards winds along the margin of this solitary lake, until, near its farther end, it suddenly turns into an extensive copse-wood of oak and birch. From this it emerges half-way up a rugged mountain side ; and, entering a dark glen, through which a torrent rushes amidst great masses of granite, it conducts the traveller at last, by a zigzag ascent, up to a narrow gorge, which is hemmed in upon every side by giant precipices, . with a strip of blue sky overhead, all below being dark and gloomy.

From this mountain-pass the widow's dwelling, was ten miles distant. She had undertaken a long journey, but her rent was some weeks overdue, and the sub-factor had threatened to dispossess her.

The morning on which she left her home gave promise of a peaceful day. Before noon, however, a sudden change took place in the weather. To the northward, the sky became black and lowering. Masses of clouds fell down upon the hills-Sudden gusts of wind began to whistle among the rocks, and with black squalls to ruffle the surface of the lake. The wind was succeeded by rain, and the rain by sleet, and the sleet by a heavy fall of snow. It was the month of May, and that storm is yet remembered as the "great May storm." The wildest day of winter never saw snowflakes falling faster, or whirling with more fury through the mountain-pass, filling every hollow and whitening every rock!

Little anxiety about the widow was felt by the villagers, as many ways were pointed out by which she might have escaped the fury of the storm. She could have halted at the steading of this farmer, or the shieling of that shepherd, before it had become dangerous to cross the hill. But early in the morning of the succeeding day they were alarmed to hear from a person who had come from the 'place to which the widow was travelling, that she had not made her appearance there.

In a short time about a dozen men mustered to search for the missing woman. At each house on the track they heard with increasing fear that she had been seen pursuing her journey the day before. The shepherd on the mountain could give no information regarding her. Beyond his hut there was no shelter; nothing but deep snow; and between the range of rocks, at the summit of the pass, the drift lay thickest. There the storm must have blown with a fierce and bitter blast. It was by no means an easy task to examine the deep wreaths which filled up every hollow. At last a cry from one of the searchers attracted the rest, and there, crouched beneath a huge granite boulder, they discovered the dead body of the widow.

She was entombed by the snow. A portion of a tartan cloak which appeared above its surface led to her discovery. But what had become of the child? Nay, what had become of the widow's. clothes? for "all were bone except the miserable tattered garment which hardly covered her nakedness? That she had been murdered and stripped, was the first conjecture suggested by the strange discovery. But being in a country in which one murder only had occurred within the memory of man, the notion was soon dismissed from their thoughts. She had evidently died where she sat, bent almost double; but as yet all was mystery as to her boy and her clothing. Very soon, however, the mystery was cleared up. A shepherd found the child alive in a sheltered nook in the rock, very near the spot where his mother sat cold and stiff in death. He lay in a bed of heather and fern, and round him were swathed all the clothes which his mother had stripped off herself to save her child! The story of her self-sacrificing love was easily read.

The incident has lived fresh in the memory of many in the parish; and the old people who were present in the empty hut of the widow, when her body was laid in it, never forgot the minister's address and prayers, as he stood beside the dead. He was hardly able to speak for tears, as he endeavoured to express his sense of that woman's worth and love, and to pray for her poor orphan boy.

More than fifty years had passed away, when the eldest son of "the manse," then old and gray-headed, went to preach to his Highland congregation in Glasgow, on the Sunday previous to that on which the Lord's Supper was to be dispensed. He found a comparatively small congregation assembled, for snow was falling heavily, and threatened to continue all day. Suddenly he recalled the story of the widow and her son, and this again recalled to his memory the text:—"He shall be as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land."

He resolved to address his people from these words, although he had carefully prepared a sermon on another subject.

In the course of his remarks he narrated the circumstances of the death of the Highland widow, whom he had himself known in his boyhood. And having done so, he asked, "If that child is now alive, what would you think of his heart, if he did not cherish an affection for his mother's memory? and what would you think of him if the sight of her clothes, which she had wrapt round him, in order to save his life at the cost of her own, did not touch his heart, and even fill him with gratitude and love too deep for words? Yet what hearts have you, my hearers, if, over the memorials of your Saviour's sacrifice of Himself, which you are to witness next Sunday, you do not feel them glow with deepest love, and with adoring gratitude?"

Some time after this, a messenger was sent by a dying man with a request to see the minister. This was speedily complied with. The sick man seized him by the hand, as he seated himself beside his bed, and, gazing intently in his face, said, "You do not, you cannot recognise me. But I know you, and knew your father before you. I have been a wanderer in many lands. I have visited every quarter of the globe, and have fought and bled for my king and country. But while I served my king, I forgot my God. Though I have been some years in this city, I never entered a church. But the other Sunday, as I was walking along the street, I happened to pass your church door when a heavy shower of snow came on, and I entered the lobby for shelter, but, I am ashamed to say, not with the intention of worshipping God, or of hearing a sermon. But as I heard the singing of psalms, I went into a seat near the door; then you preached, and I heard you tell the story of the widow and her son." Here the voice of the old soldier faltered, his emotion almost choked his utterance; but, recovering himself for a moment, he cried, "I am that son!" and burst into a flood of tears. "Yes," he continued, "I am that son! Never, never, did I forget my mother's love. Well might you ask, what a heart should mine have been if she had been forgotten by me! Though I only saw her as an infant, dear to me is her memory, and my only desire now is, to lay my bones beside hers in the old churchyard among the hills. But, sir, what breaks my heart, and covers me with shame, is this —that until now I never saw the love of Christ in giving Himself for me,—a poor, lost, hell-deserving sinner. I confess it ! I confess it !" he cried, look-in- up to heaven, his eyes streaming with tears. Then pressing the minister's hand close to his breast, he added, "It was God made you tell that story. Praise be to His holy name, that my dear mother did not die in vain, and that the prayers which I was told she used to offer for me have been at last answered; for the love of my mother has been blessed by the Holy Spirit, for making me see, as I never saw before, the love of the Saviour. I see it, I believe it; I have found deliverance now where I found it in my childhood,—in the cleft of the rock—the Rock of Ages!" and, clasping his hands, he repeated, with intense fervour, "Can a mother forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? She may forget; yet will I not forget thee!"

He died in peace.


 


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