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Reminiscences of the Lews
Chapter XI - Dear Old Shippy


IT was with great regret, as I have already said, that I parted with my friend Burnaby. Independent of the regard I had for him, there was a comfort in having near at hand a countryman on whom one could rely in case of emergency. You may say what you like, but Celt clings to Celt, Saxon to Saxon; and in the far regions of the north-west one likes to be sure of something like fellow-feeling—one wants something like plain, down-right English. Living, as I did at that time, a great deal in the' Hebrides, I wanted a companion that understood English ways and habits thoroughly. No doubt, as long as Fred was in the island, and my own immediate neighbour, there was no lack of fellowship; but then, alas! December generally saw him migrate. I don’t think I could have stood the island by myself at first without Dick; but when he also went, my heart sank within me; and, but for my bright home, I believe I should have gone too. But Providence was very kind to me.

There still existed another Saxon in the long island—a true one too—with whom I had already smoked the calumet of peace, and with whom before we separated, I entered into the strongest bonds of amity. This individual was the Episcopalian clergyman of Stornoway —whom for short we used, or I used, to call Shippy—and an excellent, good man he was. He was a true specimen of an upright, conscientious being, with good brains, and that rare gift of common sense. By common sense I don’t mean worldly sense; but that instinct that sees what is the right thing to do, and never swerves one inch to right or left, to please the “Devil, the Pope, or the Pretender,” and thus gains respect, and by respect a following also. His preferment was not very large — one hundred pounds per annum ; but then Stornoway was not in those days a very dear place to live in, and its merchants were not “the princes of the earth.” The duties of his cure were not onerous, but in their discharge he managed to secure the good opinion of both the Established and the Free Church; and when he left the island to take a small, very small, living in England, lie did. so to the great regret of all classes. In a pecuniary point of view he did not much better himself by the change; for, while the incomes of both valuable pieces of preferment were equal, the expenses of living in the county to which he moved were trebled. But I advised him strongly to do so, as where he was, with a wife and children, the future was a bad prospect. He took my advice, and that of his other friends, and there he is, “as you was,” as the drill-sergeant says, some fourteen years ago, except that he has received some small augmentation of £40 per annum to his means. And yet all agree in sounding his praises as a model parish priest. I visited him the other day on my road north, only to find him the same happy, contented being. Of course his bishop is most anxious to do something for so exemplary a man; but somehow bishops never find the opportunity of doing anything for these plain, hard-working, parish priests. No; tutorise, platformise, inspectarise, and you have a chance. But there are so many good, hardworking men, it would be invidious to select one. It, is like the army: the regimental officers get the kicks, the staff the halfpence. Oh, dear! how I wish I w~as a bishop for only a short time, to give a few good things to such men as good Shippy.

Now, as I said before, Shippy’s duties were not of so decidedly overpowering a nature as to prevent my occasionally inveigling him into taking a rod in his hand. Indeed, sometimes I smuggled him out of Stornoway, to come and stay with me, and take a walk over the muir and see my dogs work; and then I wanted to try a gun I had not shot out of some time, and it was taken out by chance, and Shippy came in for a shot. The gulls, too, used to plague his garden, and someone lent him a short, thick single-barrel, that could shoot. But Shippy’s passion was fishing, and this I had both the power and the will of gratifying; for, much as I dislike loafers, more do I like seeing a friend enjoy himself by my rivers’ side. He was the most extraordinary fisher I ever saw. He did not fish a river—he thrashed it; and there was not much use fishing after him. His lines were cables; his rods something like the good springy twenty feet ash poles we used to jump the fen ditches with in days of yore, when there were fens, and before your improving agriculturists drained them—for which may the unclean beast defile their graves ! "With these he worked his flies on the water, as much as to say to the fish, “Attention!” and they did attend, and they were astonished at what they saw. For Shippy dressed his own flies; and what flies ! I never saw anything like them before, except my own, and they were better; and I did not think it possible I could have an inferior in that art. But Shippy’s were even less ephemeral than mine. They were a mixture of caterpillars of various hues, of gigantic size, and rough Welsh buzzes. But Shippy whacked these flies a long way and straight on the water, so that he never missed a fish that rose. His line was never curved—it was always as taut as a hauled-on hawser; and he was a most successful man. I never knew him come home empty-handed, and he used to kill fish when I could not. When he left the island he gave me his flies— if so they could be called—and I killed many, many fish with them, but I never could catch his decided whack with them; and no human fly-dresser I ever encountered could put anything together resembling his patterns. He had a peculiarity, too, in fishing. He never could handle a rod without smashing it to atoms; his own poles even could not stand his work. And I used to rig up rods on purpose for him—for I delighted in having him to fish with me—to see if he could break them, which he generally succeeded in doing. But he never came home without plenty of fish; and he was like an otter—he always got the best fish, and seemed always to whack his caterpillars right on the very spot where a taking fish was; for he must have been a taking fish not to have rushed back to sea incontinently on so rough a summons.

Never talk to me about the necessity of fine fishing after Shippy’s exploits! I once sent him to the Blackwater with a celebrated fisherman, the surgeon of a war-steamer, stationed for sometime at Stornoway, and a Hampshire man, accustomed to the Test. The sailor boy floated his lines in the air till they, floss-silk fashion, dropped almost imperceptibly on the water. It was a marvel to see, but the product was not equal to the science. Shippy whacked away, and filled his pannier with salmon and sea-trout, and would have filled three that day, I believe; only, of course, he broke his rod, and so badly as to be past mending by the side of the river.

Our friend was not a good shot, much as he enjoyed it; but there was no mistake in his shooting—he missed them clean. There was no feathering, or legging, or following up wounded birds. When he hit them, he did it in earnest—the same whack with which he delivered his flies—and there was no difficulty in finding his bird, or rather what was left of him, which was not much. When he shot a snipe, which did not often happen, the bird vanished into thin air—the long neb alone remaining to tell of what genus it had been. The only thing I ever knew that stood his style of shooting was a wild goose, and even that was not safe to eat after his killing. Occasionally kind friends gave him a chance at a deer; and then was he not in his glory? He drilled such holes through his quarry, that I don’t think the Ghassepot could have surpassed his weapon. For all this, Shippy was a charming camarado, always cheerful, always full of resource ; and I was only too delighted whenever I could get him to accompany me over to the wild west side, to look after all sorts of imaginary things.

Then Shippy had a gig like no other gig I ever saw; a pair of wheels on a very wide axle-tree, on which was fixed a kind of revolving box, in shape somewhat like the carriages of the roundabouts of immortal memory in the palmy days of Bartholomew Fair. Whether there were any springs I forget now; but, certainly, when in motion, one was not conscious of their existence. The shafts of that vehicle were very wide, and the animal inclosed within them very small, and it consequently rolled in its progress like a trooper-transport in a gale of wind in Table Bay. Dick Burnaby and I were commissioned to horse this wonderful carriage ; and, accordingly, we attended the great July fair, then held on the muir side, three miles from Stornoway, on the Callernish road. There we picked out a chestnut pony that would not, it was said, go in harness. This animal, after finding every fault under the sun with every part of its carcass, we, to the farmer’s great astonishment, purchased. Dick soon persuaded the chestnut as to the necessity of going in harness, and in due time Shippy was allowed to navigate his own vessel; and I never heard of his coming to any greater grief than pitching a brother, who came up to see him, and was not yet accustomed to its lurches, out on the high road, and splitting his trousers to ribands—he wore them tight and strapped down over his boots. I see him now on the road, near the Creed Gate, as we were going over to the Blackwater to fish; and for the rest of the journey he took a tight clutch of that roundabout. Then the harness of this carriage was not of the highest order; I don’t think any of our Lewisian carriages were got up quite in Hyde Park style. But Shippy’s harness was really a thing of shreds and patches. The only part about it that could be said to have the slightest substance was the collar; and this haying been made for a yery large carriage horse, some seventeen hands high, while the chestnut was barely twelve, I often wondered he did not go through it like one of the sylphs through the hoops at old Astley’s.

Of course, Shippy, whenever he went on a fishing expedition, as invariably broke his harness as he did his rod. I remember well one night (Saturday), we had been passing the week at wild Dalbeg, and had come across from thence to Diensten bothy, where our respective traps were to meet us to convey us home. Shippy started before me in his, and I was following down the Diensten Hill, in a true Hebridean night, blowing a hurricane, and bucketing hailstones in your face, when through the storm I heard the most frantic exclamations and entreaties not to drive over him, as he could not stir. And there he was safe by the side of the road, with nothing of harness left save the eternal collar and parts of the reins—no vestige of traces. But practice had rendered Shippy very perfect in all mending powers. I fortunately had a dog chain and one or two dog couples, so in less than no time he put himself to rights, and arrived home in safety, though, like Wallenstein’s roan that he mounted his cousin on at the battle of Leipsic, “Dog chain and dog couples saw I, never more.”

Suet was Shippy; and, to me at least, when he took his departure, he left a great blank behind him. We all attended the sale of his effects; and, owing to his popularity, they sold downright well. I remember it opened with some old empty powder canisters, which realised over sixpence a-piece; other things in proportion. The pony fetched twice the price he gave for it; the roundabout three times its value; and the harness—will any one believe it?—realised £2. 10s.

N.B.—It is as well to state that the roundabout was purchased, as well as the harness, by the old farmer I have already written of; who never, as a rule, bought and sold when sober, which was not often. This time he was, and he rued his bargain, for his old pony always took him home on his back safe when he was drunk; but when harnessed, was not accountable for the, roundabout’s lurches, which very soon nearly demolished his poor old master, and he gave his equipage up.

Thus did the good old Stornowegians show their kind feeling towards the man, and every one tried to possess some relic of one they so truly and justly appreciated. For some time I felt like a fish out of water, my play-fellow gone, and it was not long before I learnt how ill I could do without him. Therefore, should this meet Shippy’s eye, let it not ruffle him— as, if I know him, it will not—that I have had my laugh at some of his ways. The object of these reminiscences is to harm or gall none, but to recall happy days engraven on my own recollection, and I flatter myself on that of others; and thus not only cheer up my own decline, but win a smile from those who shared with me those bygone times. The pleasures of memory and imagination being all that are left him, pardon the garrulous, old fool if he spins them out to such an extent.


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