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The Long Glen
Chapter IV - The Smearing House


"A PENNY for thy thoughts Diarmad, a laoich." [A laoich, hero.]

"Mhuire, Mhic-Griogair, [By Mary, son of Gregor.] they are not worth even that small coin. If thou must know, I was listening to the reudan [Woodmoth.] drumming away in that old beam behind me, and wondering how and why such a soft-like beastie should make such a big noise. Maybe it has a sort of drum in its body, and beats it to call its sweetheart."

"Ach, for sure, the world is coming to an end, if thy thoughts begin to run upon sweethearts. Why look you, although he is nearly six feet high in his brogues, he runs away from the girls as.if they were ghosts and vipers."

"And Ewan thinks he has in face or figure a ball seirc, [Ball seirc-beauty spot] like the ancestor of my clan, Diarmad of the brown locks; and that the prettiest and proudest maid at fair or wedding, who looks upon him for the first time, must, because she cannot help herself, flutter to him like a yesterday little-soul (butterfly) to a shiny cabbage leaf, when sun breaks out after rain. Forsooth ! it is much in self conceit to be a giant. Yet, little David slew Goliath. Indeed, giants have never been famous for brains either in Palestine or Albyn."

"Bhiasd chaoil—thou starveling greyhound—I'll dip thy nose in the smearing tub to teach thy tongue better manners."

The last speaker, a gigantic young man of about twenty-five years of age, having finished smearing his sheep, as he concluded his threat, rose from his triangular stool, and with outspread arms rushed on the long lank lad who had so bitingly tongue-wounded him. There were four of them about two tubs containing mixed tar and grease lashed up with water. They occupied a low-roofed fern-thatched out-house, in which stirks were sheltered and fed during winter, but which at present served for a smearing house. The sheep waiting their turn to be smeared crowded around them, now quietly chewing the cud, and now making little rushes and digs with their horns at one another. Those that were finished were turned out off the stools, and the creatures, frightened at the transformation they had undergone, trotted off to their favourite haunts in the hills as fast as their four feet could carry them.

It was a foggy and depressing back-end day. The work was monotonous, and it had proceeded in silence for a long time when Angus Ruadh Macgregor broke the spell by offering Diarmad Mac Iain, the youngest of the four, a penny for his thoughts. Then Ewan Mor, of the clan of Lochiel, was pleased to give and take offence, and, finally, half in fun and half in wrath, to rush upon Diarmad for the purpose of convincing him that giants were not to be trifled with. Diarmad, the son of John, was a long thin lad of eighteen, whose loops and angles as yet justified comparison with the greyhound, although an unformed youth can boast little of the lithe grace of the runner-down of the deer. As the giant rushed menacingly upon him, Diarmad seized on the stick of the smearing tub, and opposed it so deftly to the pit of Ewan Mor's stomach, that the latter in a moment fell full length back among the sheep, thoroughly astonished at his own downfall. He was not a whit hurt by the mishap, nor was his temper much ruffled by the laughter with which Angus and old Rob Macarthur, who had till then been silent, greeted his misadventure. Diarmad neither spoke nor smiled, but with flushed face and kindled eye, rose from his stool, to be ready for further hostilities if required. Ewan, on getting up, which it took him some time to do, as in his smearing clothes and sheep-skin apron he was as heavy and helpless as a sack of steeped barley, took a long wondering look at his late antagonist and smiled quite kindly. He caught a sheep, went back to his stool, and then in a calm philosophical manner began to discuss his surprise :—

"So the starveling greyhound can turn into a bloodhound! The bald-headed bodaich [Bodaich—Old men.] of the smith's bench understand him. But who could think the dreamer should fight, and that a lad who blushes worse than the girls, and flies from the girls too, should dare to point a tar stick at me?"

"That could I, air m'anam," [On my soul.] said old Rob, who looked his full approval of Diarmad's ebullition of fighting passion. But the lad himself, as if he could not help justifying Ewan's remarks upon his bashfulness, blushed red to the roots of his hair, and changed the current of talk and ideas by begging Rob to give them a song or sgeulachd. [Story.]

Rob replied that Angus was the man of songs.

Ewan—"Ach, look you, Angus is afraid of the Session. He is courting an elder's daughter; and so it stands to reason he must walk and talk circumspectly, and conquer the Old Adam. Rob, you are an unregenerate sinner, or else you would not be leading Angus into temptation."

Angus—"Would not Ewan wish to step into my brogues, if he only could get his big feet into them? But that he cannot. Come, Rob, give us something to lighten the weight of this heavy day. When the doors will be closed and the candles lighted I'll sing you a song of love or war, in spite of the beard of the cleir." [Clergy.]

Rob—"And to my best thinking it is just that beard which has grown a great deal too long, and the great good it would be to cut it shorter; but who is to use the scissors or razor? Diarmad, dost thou know the ' Breisleach?'"

Diarmad—"I know something about it, Rob. An Irish priest of the days of old wished to write his last will and testament. He was old, and his mind was astray. So in trying to write his will he wrote the mixture of nonsense called the 'Breisleach;' and well it is named, too, for its changes are quicker, and hold less together, than those of a fevered dream."

Ewan—"I have heard the Miller Mor give screeds of it by the kiln fire. It is funny enough, but I should think it worse to learn than both the Shorter and Longer Catechisms with proofs."

Angus—"Come, Rob, give us the 'Breisleach.' I have never yet heard the nonsense verses that are always the comparison for things out of joint and meaning."

Rob—"Ire mhire Mhairi! Mo sgeul deurach, Mo chruaidh dhileas, An diugh cha leir domh Bhi ga dhith sin. Tarruinn chualta Do chlaoidh mise, O' n chraoibh thoraidh. Breac o' n uiridh. Sac brachadh Ann an earn guirmein ! 'S co chuireadh an teagamh Mac-'ille-Phedeir Thighinn air Laideann "

Rob proceeded for a long time with his recitation in a sustained half-chanting voice. His hearers were kept in a chorus of loud merriment by the wonderful incoherences of topics and images which pourtrayed in the liveliest manner the maunderings of an insane mind. Rob had to stick to his work solemnly and seriously. He dared not stop to laugh, nor could he even afford to vary his recitative tone, lest, losing the stepping stones of sound, his memory should stumble and tumble, and become like the Breisleach itself. But the darkening of the door, which also served as a window, brought the entertainment to a premature conclusion. In the aperture appeared the Elder Claon (Claon means squinting), who happened to be passing by on his lawful or holy business when the unhallowed Breisleach words and accompanying laughter reached his ears. The Elder Claon must not be mistaken for Angus's prospective father-in-law, who was by no means averse to the old songs and stories of his country. The Elder Claon admired no uninspired poetry except the hymns of Dugald Buchannan, whose lurid "Day of Judgment" sublimity was very much indeed to his taste. He once rather liked the hymns of Peter Grant, the Strathspey Baptist, whom he personally knew very well, but when Peter, in old age, took a second wife to his bosom, the Elder Claon ceased to admire either him or his hymns; for he was an old bachelor himself, and counted that for merit and mortification.

This good man having been disturbed in his meditations of the higher subjects, not perhaps of the Law and the Prophets, but of the prices of wool and beasts, as a matter of duty stepped to the smearing house door to give a word of rebuke in passing.

"Rob, thy locks are thin and mixed with white. Thy years are not much under threescore. The shadows of life's evening are fast gathering round thee. Why then dost thou cling to vanities, and show a bad example to the young? Thou and I are old men, and in natural course of things near our graves. We should think then of our latter end."

"Well, Elder," replied Rob rather testily, "as we were born to die we were in a sense always near our graves. Yet I have seen you laugh at the Breisleach yourself, and that not twenty years ago either. What earthly harm is in it, can you say?"

"In itself not much, perhaps ; but it belongs to the vanities of uncovenanted times. There is much harm in the songs which excited men to war for the wrong in former days; and love songs are still worse."

"Yet you enjoyed them both once, and sang them well too—that I remember."

"Oh, Rob, bring not against me the follies and sins of my unregenerate youth. Ever since I received my call from the Lord, and the peace following on that which was at first a sharp tribulation, which weak humanity could scarcely bear, the only bardachd. I have cared for are the psalms of the sweet Psalmist of Israel, and the soul-searching hymns of Dugald Buchannan. Oh Rob, oh young men, we should strive to conquer the Old Adam and to get our souls rooted in the sure hope of the Blessed Life to come— the glorified life of those justified by faith, and foreordained from the beginning to salvation through imputed righteousness."

Rob was silent, and Angus and Ewan looked like penitents, but Diarmad looked the Elder Claon straight in the face, and said :—

"But we have no right to 'boo' the sun out of the sky, or to suppose that the Lord of all is as mean, narrow, and intolerant as are even the best men among ourselves."

The Elder looked pained, but having done his duty, and expecting nothing but evil here and hereafter for the favourite of unregenerate grey-headed Philistines, he turned his face and went on his way without attempting to reply.

At the time of our story many ministers and sessions in the Highlands were waging, with most unreasoning ferocity, war with piping, fiddling, dancing, song-singing, athletic sports, and all amusements in which the unregenerate people of the older times had found enjoyment. Rob Macarthur, although a peaceable, industrious, and good fellow in secular matters, was in religious affairs counted a black sheep, with a scant sprinkling of white tufts. He grumbled sub rosa, but did not rebel openly against the fanatical tyranny which was pretty strong in the Glen, and Poetry, reigned absolutely in other parts of the Highlands on the eve of the Disruption.

Grumblers and Laodiceans might be permitted to hope, but rebels to the prevalent ideas were marked down as irreclaimable, unless they were miraculously changed into their own opposites. Much to the grief of the Elder Claon, the pious women, and all other fanatics, there was in the Glen a company of old men who tenaciously clung to denounced vanities and ancient customs. These were not numbered among the black sheep—they were relegated to the left-hand fold of the goats. As Diarmad Mac Iain consorted much with these outcasts, who refused to consider themselves outcasts, it followed of course that he also got prematurely into the fold of the goats.

As soon as the Elder's footsteps ceased to'be heard, Ewan relieved his feelings by an ejaculation which was pious once, but was now called bad language. Angus completed this once pious ejaculation, by adding words of anathema orthodox in all ages. Rob's face expressed mingled surprise and gratification as he turned to Diarmad and said :—

"And it is at clipping the beard of the cleir thou wouldst be, young man. Ah, Diarmad, these sons of Seruiah will be too strong for thee, as they were for David, King of Israel. Dost thou want to be denounced in the conventicles of the pious, and preached at from the pulpit, aye, and a deal sorer, too, than if thou hadst really deserved Session discipline."

Diarmad—"The Elder Claon and all of them may mean well; but I for one will not submit to their intolerance, or think so ill of the Lord, or even of poor human nature, as to accept some of their views."

Rob—"It is the dangerous thing, however, to touch the beard of the cleir with thy Philistine scissors. But, come, tell us what is thy opinion of this Non-Intrusion barm that works on our holy people as if they were old leather bottles full of bursting new wine."

Ewan—"He cannot, at anyrate, think or speak any ill off Angus's father-in-law that is to be; for he is the broadest man in the Session, except Seumas Liath, and Seumas is"------

Rob—"The best man in any of their skins. That much I would say to their faces, minister included. What have they to say against Seumas that they geek at him as if he were a strange bird which had dropped wrongly into their nest, although, for sure, he was in the nest first—aye, before some of them were born?"

Diarmad—"All they can say or whisper against Seumas Liath is much to his credit He speaks like an honest Gael, and not like a Pharisee. At nearly fourscore he enjoys life, and does not think he ought to groan and excuse himself to the good Lord for daring to bask in the light of the blessed sun."

Angus—"Thou dost with heart defend the old Moderate."

Ewan—"No wonder, for look you, Diarmad is the disciple of the grey-haired carles, and Seumas Liath is their favourite elder. I have heard the good folk speaking of Diarmad, with head shakes and sighs, as a rampant young goat. His own kith and kin fear that he is far from grace; for look you, there is a buzzing whisper, made strong by dark looks, going round the country, that when with the old carles on the Scorners' Seat at the Smith's he dares laugh at Mairi Bhaiche's ululich (howling) for her soul's salvation in church, and makes mocking fun of Duncan the tailor's corpse-wake readings and words. Ochonaree ! it is the dangerous person he must be whatever, and it is I who was warned to take care lest he should lead me astray."

Bob—"Ach, indeed, the fear is upon me that Diarmad sits often in the Scorners' Seat—which, for sure, is the bad thing entirely, if we believe those who pretend to know best about all things here and hereafter. Yet, why should there be a scorners' seat in the world at all, if nobody must use it? Methinks for sure the Black One himself must have some useful work to do; else why should creation be plagued with him at all? But let that pass by—I want to know our scorner's real opinion of all this nose-grinding holiness, and, above all, of the Non-Intrusion hullabaloo."

Angus—"Now, Diarmad, pour out the words of knowledge thou hast learned from books or heard from the lips of the old."

Diarmad—"My opinion is of little weight or worth. It is made of soft clay which has not taken stable form, and has not been hardened in the furnace. As to the patronage question, it seems to be required by the true life-law of our Kirk that congregations should be allowed to choose their ministers. But I don't think these noisy Non-Intrusionists go about a right thing in the right way. It is the duty of the State—Caesar they call it—to cause every law to be carried out until it be changed. Now, laws can only be made and unmade by Parliament; and yet these Non-Intrusionists are trying to set aside an Act of Parliament by an Act of Assembly. Such a thing cannot, methinks, be permitted without injuring kingdom-rule, and setting up kirk-popery. As for the holiness which gloats over the fore-ordained destruction of the so-called unconverted, which groans at the general cheerfulness of God's world, mingled with suffering, sin, and sorrow, as it may be, and grudges us the light of the sun, the music of birds, and the perfume and beauty of the bonnie flowers that sleep beneath the winter's snow, and in spring and summer offer their thanksgiving—as for this shroud-clad holiness of the gloomy brow, weeping eye, and ranting tongue, I feel sure the old Adam will conquer it in the end, and to my thinking, too, the old Adam's conquest will be richly deserved."

Angus—"Thou art the blackest Moderate I have ever listened to."

Ewan—"Yes, for sure, and what our cleir teach us is that Moderatism is a Christ-denying, God-dishonouring, soul-slaying thing."

Diarmad—" Truly they condemn strongly; but who made them judges? The holiness they preach is one that can only be truly described by their own language of anathema. I cannot bear it. It makes me shiver with repulsion and hot with rage. Now, look you, I daresay the Elder Claon is all he professes to be, and that he sincerely wishes us all to be Łood after his pattern; but his doctrines rather drive me the other way, and his words just now have so raised my corruption that I think I must plunge into some small wickedness just to make me afterwards fit to be reconciled to goodness."

Rob—"That has been a fine holding forth, but the lastly is a strange one. And what, mo ghille, may be the small wickedness into which thou wishest to plunge just to make thee good again?"

Diarmad—"Just stop and let me think."

Ewan—"Think quickly then and let us know; for sure I am it is Angus who is dying to hear."

Diarmad—"Here for you then. What are the three things which it is not lawful to take, and which honest men may yet take without being much ashamed?"

Angus—"A bird from the hill, a fish from the linn, and a tree from the wood."

Diarmad—"Very well then; let us blaze the river."

Ewan—"That is the beautiful plan entirely. So it is indeed. And, look you, just think of Diarmad putting the tar stick into the pit of my stomach, bearding the Elder Claon, and making such a beautiful wicked plan, all in one day! Why, look you, I do believe the disciple of the carles will be a leader of men in very deed, whenever he will give up being afraid of the girls, which, to tell the truth, is the foolishest fear ever seen. Why, look you, there is no reason in nature for it at all, and it is not known among the very beasts, but quite the contrary. But Diarmad, mo charaid, I can tell thee how to get to the other side of it, just as naturally as summer gets to the other side of winter My lad. "- My friend. by melting the ice and snow. But there now! I see thou art blushing like a young maiden when first kissed by the lover of her heart, or like that wee flower of the mountains which in early spring shows its crimson face on the edge of the deep snow wreath, and seems to be much ashamed of itself for popping forth its head so soon. Ach, just listen to me, and I'll"------

Diarmad—"Bad end to thee! Listen thou to me. The river is full of salmon."

Rob—"For sure, but are they out in the shallows? The white scales are scarcely copper-tinged yet. I don't think they have commenced to make egg-trenches in the shallows ; and you cannot come near them in the linns."

Ewan—"Whatever then is to be done? Diarmad's beautiful plan will come to naught, if we cannot blaze the river when the fathers and masters will be away selling their beasts at Falkirk. That is the best time for the fun, and must we give it up because the frost has not yet been strong enough to warm up the fish to love-making? It is the sore pity!"

Angus—"Poor Diarmad must remain hopelessly wicked for a little longer."

Diarmad—"If it be too soon for the river, we can blaze Lochan-na-larig, which has, I daresay, never been yet blazed since the day it was made. There will be just as good sport with the trout as with the salmon, and it is just a bit fun we want and nothing else. Is my thought your thought?"

Angus—"With all my heart."

Ewan—"And with all my two hearts, if I had them."

Diarmad—"Be moderate. The gift of two hearts was only bestowed on Uilleam Gaelach, whom the bodaich ghallda call William Wallace."

Rob—"Aye, for sure, they make out every great man of our race to be one of their own kith and kin."

Diarmad—"Ach, there is some excuse for them in the case of Wallace; for you see, although his people were Gael, and continued to be called Gaelach in the land of their sojourning, taking their race name for their sloinne,1 yet they dwelt before his birth among the men of Strath-clyde, who were by that time fast losing their old language, and forgetting that they were Britons, and own cousins of the Gael. But, Ewan, mo laoch, modern giants must do the best they can with one heart. Rob, will you come with us?"

Rob—"Nay, nay; but, for sure, I wish I could too, and that I do indeed. Old age is come upon me with its stiff joints and its feet slow to move. After smearing my number, I feel I need and deserve my rest. Four miles there and four miles back in the dark of night, are not for me. But if, when the time for it come, you blaze the river, I do not say I'll not be with you there. Methinks it would be like jumping back forty years at a bound to the days of my youth."

Ewan—"Very good; and, Rob, on this whole affair, you must keep your tongue within your teeth."

Rob—"Which is just the thing that is impossible for me to do, seeing I have lost all my teeth—bad luck to them."

Ewan—"Let teeth go to the gallows then, but keep your tongue tight within your jaws, and let no one know."

Angus—"I want him to let one fellow know. When you go home to-night, Rob, just give the elder's John, as you are passing their house, a hint of the ploy."

Ewan—"Very good. The elder's John will just complete the band."


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