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The Long Glen
Chapter I - Suicide and Superstition


"But whatever can have come over the to-be-pitied?" muttered the landlady of the Boar Inn to herself, as she was spreading out newly-washed linen on the nice lawn of her garden one fine summer day, when the bees were busy rifling the fragrant flowers, and rushing back to their doorsteps with pollen-laden thighs.

"It must be her trouble, surely, that has come back again upon the truaghan, [Poor body.] else she would never let her hens and ducks at this hour of the day cry in vain for food, and neglect to open the door to the creatures. The great fear is on me it must be her trouble. They say that ever since she broke the order of that uncanny priest, she has been expecting her trouble to come back worse than ever. Ach, there has been darkness in her face for days, and wildness in her eyes. She hates to be overlooked ; but it is uneasy I am about her. Who knows but she may die like the minister of Killin and Iain Mac Neachdainn, that were both just choked, because, when they fell on their faces, there was none by to turn them round. I cannot stand the smuain "of that, and I won't either."

"Haoi, Katie!" shouted the landlady, over the garden wall, to her little daughter, who was herding a newly-calved cow on a bit of sweet pasture beside the corn.

"Haoi there! " responded Katie, stopping knitting and crooning, " and, mother, what would you rather?"

"Turn the dubh-bhiorach into the cowhouse, and come thou here."

Having quickly done what she was ordered about the cow, Katie presented herself before her mother, who, hiding her uneasiness, told her to go and ask Ceit Donn if it would be convenient and pleasing to her to give a helping hand at the washing.

In a minute Katie crossed the one-plank bridge of the burn, and stood at the door of Ceit Donn's humble cottage. Her mother, who was watching from the garden, and, in fact, tearing her good currachd amidst the bramble and gooseberry cuttings that barbed the top of the wall, saw the little girl pulling the latch, and trying to push the door open. It was not opened for her, nor could she push it open. Then she peeped through the keyhole, gave a loud shriek, and fled home.

"Dhia gleidh sinn! " [God keep us.] exclaimed the landlady, "it must be e'en worse than I feared."

She ran forthwith to meet Katie, who could hardly gasp out when her mother came to her at the plank bridge, "As sure as death, mother, she is hanging behind the door, and the door is locked."

"God keep us, lassie! Go to the tailor and wright— they are the only men about the baile to-day. Raise the haro at every house as you pass."

The landlady herself raised the haro at the two nearest cottages, from which her shouts for aid called forth two old women, who accompanied her to Ceit Donn's door, shaking their heads in feebleness and terror.

"She may be yet living, if we could win at her and cut her down," said the landlady, pushing the door with all her weight and strength, which were both considerable.

But although the latch yielded easily, the door was still held firmly closed by a stout wooden bar, which was let into staples inside the posts.

"I'll go for an axe," said one of the old women, moving off with as much rapidity as trembling legs permitted.

"Smash in the window," suggested the other.

"That is a sense-streak —that is," responded the panting landlady, who forthwith took up a big stone, and smashed in the little four-paned window, frame and all. Alas! when she tried to push herself through the aperture, she fairly stuck in it, and the crone, with much difficulty, only succeeded in pulling her back by the legs just as the tailor, the wright, and half-a-dozen housewives, summoned by Katie's haro, appeared on the scene.

By this time the landlady was purple in the face from her struggles and emotion; but still she had her wits about her more than any other person in the group of hastily assembled people.

"Katie, my darling, get through the window, and lift the bar of the door."

Katie's large brown eyes opened wide in extremity of terror, but when her mother added, "She may live if you make haste," the brave little girl crept with some help through the window, and, pushing aside the hanging body in the trause, [Inside porch.] she lifted the bar, opened the door, and rushed into the open air.

Ceit Donn's body was of course instantly cut down. It was still warm, and the neck did not appear to be dislocated. The efforts made to restore animation were strenuous, if not scientific. The tailor opened a vein with his pen-knife; the wright and landlady beat the soles of the feet; others slapped the palms of the hands. Hot flannels, rubbings, whisky bathings, and fumigation by pungent dried herbs, which were burned on flax steeped in spirits, were also included among the traditional means of recovery resorted to.

But all efforts were vain. Ceit Donn had finished her earthly existence most efficiently, and in the most deliberate manner. She decked up her bed with lily-white linen sheets and hangings, laid out her corpse garments all in order, and then suspended herself to the beam of the trause in a most business-like way.

Suicide has ever been thoroughly abhorred by the Highland race as the lowest and worst form of cowardice. Their reply to all such arguments as were advanced by so-called philosophical journals some years ago in favour of what they styled euthanasia, is that anyone who tries to evade his full life trials by self-destruction, is, if in possession of his senses, a sneaking coward, who affronts Deity and dishonours humanity.

That sort of "forced labour" which sentimentalists denounce as a terrible injustice to the inhabitants of Cyprus, existed in the Long Glen down to the early years of Queen Victoria's reign; and when work was at last converted into equivalent money rates, the reform was not received with general acclamation. The tenants and commons of this old-fashioned community preferred to give work instead of road rates. They turned out, and worked energetically at mending and making roads at seasons which suited their other pursuits. They were rather fond of working in communal gatherings. The tenants were bound to cut, win, and send to the castle so many car-moine [Peat cart.] loads of peats yearly, in proportion to the values of the holdings; and these kain peats were not cut on all moors, like ordinary ones, but in one place, not far from the Boar Inn. Old and young mustered strong to the kain peat cutting, which was, in truth, one of the great annual events to which lads and lasses particularly looked forward with hope.

Now, on that unlucky day on which Ceit Donn put an end to her earthly existence, the people of all the Castle barony, with the fewest possible exceptions, were up on the moor cutting the kain peats. It was a grand day, and they were happy, very happy, in the spirit of their minds. For reasons of their own, which, although not discussed, were quite well understood, the young folk dearly liked the foregathering, nor were the old folks' feelings much different; for if they did not dance or play at eun-cor [Odd bird, or play of terze.] during the dinner hour, they had their old cracks together, and renewed their youth.

When the peat-makers were streaming down the hillside in a body, and when the shadow of the lofty mountain, which sun-dialed the evening hour of rest, had crossed the river, a boy, sent on purpose, brought them the tale of horror.

It was only a short walk to the inn; and so they all went towards it, both for further information and for consulting together what ought to be done, according to the customs of the fathers, which they always preferred to follow when left to themselves.

There did not happen to be any representatives of Church or State at hand to assume authority in this emergency ; and, therefore, when they formed a double circle round two or three of the older tenants, one of the latter, Donnachadh Ban, taking up the word at the solicitation of the others, proposed they should first hear what the people who found the body had to say, and that the wisest in ancient lore should then state what their ancestors did in such cases, so that they might follow in their footsteps.

This proposal was adopted by a unanimous "So be it."

The landlady, the old women, the tailor, the wright, and also those who had last seen and talked with Ceit Donn, had their say.

There could not be the slightest doubt the poor woman had committed suicide—"Put hands on her own life," the Glen people called it..

But under what circumstances? The communal inquest must have thought the circumstances required elucidation, for several persons intimately acquainted with the deceased from her childhood, were asked if they could throw light upon her unhappy history.

Iain Donn, an aged man, and a distant relative of the deceased, stepped within the circle, and, lifting up his voice, spoke as follows :—

"Friends and neighbours, I have known Ceit Donn, and known about her since her birth, which took place forty-four years ago. Well do I mind the day, for it was the great foy1 her father gave the whole baile, because, having lost many breast-children, he was so uplifted since another child was given to him in his old age. Oh, my sorrow ! if he lived to see this day he would e'en have wished she had ne'er been born. It is surely the wings of mercy that surround human life with darkness. While stars that are aye setting and rising glimmer on the ocean of years behind and present, faint indeed is the shadow of dawn on the years yet to be. It is within the knowledge of you all that falling sickness came upon poor Ceit long years ago ; but it maybe few of you that learned in what way the sorrow was put upon her. I will lip the truth in justice to the dead, even as if on my oath, and as far as I know it. Ceit was as light of foot and bright of eye as any other young daughter of the glen, as long as her parents tarried. But they died, the father, as it were, this year at the falling of the leaf, and the mother next year at the springing of the root. Thus, ere she was twenty, Ceit was left an orphan, without near kindred. She was not, however, forlorn, nor helpless, nor penniless. Having watered her graves with the sincere but summer tears of hopeful youth, the dancing light came back to her eye, and the sunshine to her face. But ochonaree! one mischance, and no fault of hers at all, threw a cloud without a rift on all her coming years in this life, which have now ended so miserably."

"It is of the spell (senna) laid upon her by the wicked Gobhainn (smith), and his wicked wife, that thou wouldst speak about," said.Kurstan Combach, a wizened, one-eyed woman of lengthened years.

"Aye, aye, Kurstan, thou knowest all about it; for was it not to my wife and thee the unfortunate lass first revealed the dark sorrow of her life? But let me follow the thread. It is now some thirty years ago since there was a short break, afterwards mended, in the succession of the Macfarlanes, who, as you well know, have been our glen smiths for centuries, son succeeding father for full fourteen generations. When Patrick Gobhainn's life was cut short his son was still an apprentice. So the land got a smith from another glen; and he was a man of evil life, and no great hand at his ceaird1 besides. His wife and he came both to evil ends ; but that is nothing to the purpose."

Kurstan Combach—"Ach, but that it is ; for it was heaven's justice. He killed his wife, the villain, although he got off by making out she fell in drink against the fire stone, and that he was not near the house when it happened. Nor was it long after that judgment overtook him, too, for, when returning drunk from St Fillan's Fair, he fell into a milldam, and was drowned."

"Ach, never mind the wicked Gobhainn; go on with poor Kate's story, Iain Donn," said the acting president of the informal inquest.

"Hearken then," resumed Iain. "This Gobhainn had a daughter, and from her earliest years there had been falling sickness upon her. The father and mother, being evil livers, were not liked, but all people pitied the poor lass, who suffered dreadfully, and was not well used at home. Ceit Donn, then a fine healthy caileag, just growing into a fine woman, became kindly and friendly with the smith's Kate; and so it was no wonder, one day when she went her way to the smith with something to be mended, that, having given him whatever it was, she should say to him— 'While you are mending it I'll go into the house and see Kate.' She minded afterwards that the man said nothing, but bent over his work, and when he lifted his head his face was of the dubh-liathag (pancreas) colour. The sign was lost upon the lass—the more the pity. She went to the house door. It was closed; and there was a bit branch—she did not know of what plant or tree—sticking out of the keyhole. She lifted the latch, and, to her lifelong sorrow, went heedlessly in, and pushed open the trause door, which was only closed to. She saw nobody in the cearna (kitchen) but the poor troubled lass, who, all her lone, was sitting in the smith's big chair right before a large fire, which was a strange fire, too, the day being very warm, and no pot at all hanging on the crook. When Ceit Donn pushed open the trause door, the smith's Kate, without looking behind to see who was coming in, began waving a green branch she had in her hand, and saying strange words, which have not remained well preserved in the folds of my memory."

Kurstan Combach—"Were not these the words Ceit Donn repeated to us?"—

"By the dooms of life and birth,
By the weird each one must dree,
By the cock beneath the hearth,
One, two, three,
By the mystic soul of earth,
Three times three.
Nameless sorrow seek the door,
 Pass from me for evermore."

Iain Donn—"Yea, for sure, such were the words; and the smith's Kate aye kept bowing to clach an teine, and stretching forth her hands as she said 'one, two, three,' and 'three times three.' Ceit Donn looked on like one in a dream until the other lass went through her druidheachd, nor did the latter know who the incomer was before she finished. When she turned round and knew it was her kindly friend, the smith's Kate fairly sobbed, and said— ' Ah me ! what has brought thee here this day of all days, and this hour of all hours. Is cruaidh an dan—hard is the fate—the live cock is turning into coal beneath the hearth, and, not knowing it was thou, I have said the words of might, and done the things the Wizard of Rannoch told me to say and do. They knew I was all my lone waiting for the footsteps of an incomer, and why did they not keep thee at least from coming in?' And Ceit Donn turned back sick at heart, and saying—'God help me, for much I fear thy sorrow has been passed to me by unholy druidheachd.' For sure it was. She went straight home feeling all the way as if her trembling body could not bear the burden of sorrow put upon her. When she got home, and before she could call in a friend, she went for the first time into her cloud, and she came out of it with a darkened soul, dreading the life before her."

"Was the smith's daughter cured?" asked the president.

Iain Donn—"Yes, after a manner. She was freed from the old trouble, but she fell into a wearing-away, and scarcely lived a year."

There was now a pause for a few minutes, while the inner circle people put their heads together, debating in whispers whether they should ask further questions. Their decision was anticipated, and the question about which they spoke was taken out of their hands by Gregor, a young man in the outer ring who liked to make his voice heard : —

"Is it true that many years ago Ceit Donn was herself cured by the spell of a Lochaber priest, who bound her never to enter a church any more, and said if she did there would come seven devils to possess her, instead of the one that possessed her before."

Iain Donn replied that for sure Kate went at last to a priest, and got relief for a time. It was not for him to condemn what she did ; for sore was her trouble, and many years had she borne it. He could not say the priest had told her never to enter any church at all; but it might be true he had told her never to enter a Protestant church, because ill as the Protestants thought of the Catholics, the Catholics, especially the priests, thought still worse of the Protestants.

The questioner observed that Iain Donn was chewing this part of the story like a quid of tobacco.

Iain Donn—"Very good, then, I'll close my mouth. Let Kurstan Combach lip the sgeul,1 for she knows it best.

Kurstan Combach—"It must be ten years come next Nollaig (Christmas) when Alastair Macarthur was in the Glen visiting Iain Donn, who is his cousin thrice removed. He then for the first time saw Ceit, who was his kinswoman in the fourth remove, and I told him myself how the sorrow had been put upon her. Now, Alastair, who had married a Catholic wife, and turned half Catholic himself, as it afterwards came out, took his secret opportunity to tell Ceit that he knew a priest who still retained the words of power which confounded the Druids, and drove evil spirits out of possessed persons long ago. And he advised her to go to this priest, and asked her to stay at his house. Ceit then said nothing about this to any of her friends ; but she told me afterwards Alastair's words kept pulling her all the winter; and when the spring carne she put gold for the priest in her purse, took the path of heath, and off she went. The priest took her gold, and said over her the prayers in Latin with which he declared the holy men of old drove out evil spirits. And whether it was from faith in the prayers or what not, she got relief from her long trouble; but he said to her for sure that the Protestants had not the true faith, and that if she ever entered and worshipped in a church of the heretics, the blessing of his church would surely depart from her, and he could not say the end then might not be worse than the beginning."

"That is to say, he caused her to make a compact with Satan, by which she pledged her soul to obtain a little relief from the body."

Kurstan Combach—"Thy tongue, Gregor Ruadh, is like the clapper of a mill when there is no grist in the hopper. What dost thou know of her sufferings? Who art thou that shouldst presume to judge a soul standing naked before the All-knowing Maker?"

Donnachadh Ban—"But, Kurstan, did she not enter the church on our wet communion day last year?"

Kurstan Combach—"Aye, indeed. Ever from her being to the priest till then, she used to listen in the porch or outside an open window ; but at this last communion, the day being so wet as to stop the tent preaching, she went in with the rest to hear the sermon of Mr Macalister."

"And her going in broke the compact with the enemy: and lo! the end is worse than the beginning," observed the irrepressible Grigor.

Kurstan Combach—"It is the branks, if branks there were now, that would best suit the fool's tongue. Yet true it is, Mr Macalister's sermon very much unsettled Ceit. It was a powerful discourse, on the text—'For what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? or, What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?' So much was the fear upon her of having lost her soul, that she declared she would be glad if her old sorrow came back."

"And did it?" asked Donnachadh Ban.

"I am not aware that it did," answered Kurstan, "but sure I am she was never again herself after that powerful sermon of Mr Macalister."

"It is not ours to judge of things within the veil," said Donnachadh Ban. "It is clear, however, she put her hand to her own life; and now let the voice of age declare to us how those who ended in like manner were buried in the olden times; for, verily, before to-day no such death has taken place in this glen within the memory of the living."

Then Angus Maol lifted up his voice and said:— "Only once before to-day has life been taken by its owner in the Long Glen, within two hundred years at least. There is only one cairn gointe" visible outside the churchyard walls. It covers the bones of a self-killed one. I have heard my grandfather, who lived to be eighty-nine, tell that when a young boy he was present at the funeral. It took place by torchlight at night's darkest hour, and the body was silently consigned to the dust. There was no wake, no lamenting pibroch, no tolling of the bell, no prayers ; for you must know that although Creideamh na Cuigse (Faith of the Whigs or Associates, meaning Covenanters) was set up before that time, yet the burial customs of this Glen still remained, even down to my own days, much as they had ever been since the Culdees first converted our far away ancestors."

"So it was from of old," added Calum Ciobair, corroborating the other ancient. "Silent torchlight burial outside the churchyard at the mirkest hour of night, no pibroch, no wake, no bell, no prayeis, all as different as could be from the burial rites of those who died honourably before God and man."

Donnachadh Ban looked round and asked:— "Is the old custom in your opinion good to hold?" "Good it is," they reply. "Let it then be maintained." "So be it," all replied.

The carpenter was questioned, and he promised to get the coffin ready in time; and it was therefore resolved the men should assemble at eleven o'clock next night to "lift" the body, and take it on the "lunnan," or hand spokes, to its appointed place outside the churchyard wall. On a call from Donnachadh Ban, more than twenty people volunteered to bring long torches made of the pitch-laden pine stumps, and "spears" dug out of the peat bogs.

As to the wake, the communal inquest omitted to consider it at all; and this omission was counted a gain by the landlady, Iain Donn, and Kurstan Combach, to whom the idea of locking up the body, and leaving it alone in the dark hut, was simply abhorrent.

Kurstan, when Gregor seemed disposed to raise the question just as the meeting was breaking up, bade him hold his tongue, and not be so zealous to serve the devil. "For it is well known," she unscrupulously averred, "that when a cat which passes over a dead body passes again over a living person, that person becomes blind."

So, as the wake was not forbidden, it was kept in a quiet way. When the evening shadows darkened into night, the landlady, taking one of the big candles made by herself from the wax of her own bees, and only used on great occasions, joined the small group that were keeping the wake. She found them sitting in the cearna, and the door of the little bedroom opened, so that the corpse on the bed beyond was dimly within sight.

Laying down her candle, the landlady opened Ceit Bonn's aumry, took a large plate therefrom, on which she placed a small quantity of salt. Without a word spoken. Kurstan Combach, when she first saw the candle, went out with a knife, and came back with a nicely rounded green sod in her hand. By a few turns of the knife, she made a hole in the centre of the sod, which she then handed to the landlady, who placed it on the plate. The big wax candle was then stuck in the sod and lighted. Finally, the landlady, taking up the plate with the salt, sod, and lighted candle thereupon, she carefully placed these symbols of altar, death, preservation, light, and spirit, on the bosom of the corpse within the crossed hands.

The "faire," so begun, was kept up by small relays of old people until the men assembled, lighted their torches, and carried away the body silently to its appointed place.


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