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The Long Glen
Chapter V - Lochan-Na-Larig


SO it was agreed to do wickedly that Diarmad might be reconciled to goodness. And, according to their agreement, the three young men that night, after supper, retired, not to bed, as their people supposed, but back to the smearing house, where they lighted a candle held in a cleft stick, whose other end was stuck in the wall, and set hard to work splitting up resinous bog pine for torches, or leusan, three of which were fashioned in no time.

Salmon gaffs and leisters—surviving proofs of the sporting liberties of tenants and commons in the times not long gone by—were to be found in almost every house. The old custom was to let the fishings with the farms. These salmon implements were useless of course for trout killing but Diarmad managed to convert a light leister with a short shaft, into a weapon fit for his purpose, by weaving willow twigs in the prongs down to their barbs.

No jeering or argument could convince Ewan that the sharp iron spade in which he rejoiced to believe was not as suitable a weapon as it was handy. Angus armed himself with the wooden shovel of the potato house, and the elder's John, wisest of them all, crept from the outer darkness into the dim light of the sputtering candle, with a long narrow-mouthed grain creel strapped on his back. He was immediately nicknamed the Hen Pedlar's pony, but that he did not mind a straw, being, as he was, a good-natured, rosy-faced youth full of merriment and mischief, notwithstanding the demure look he could readily assume, when occasion required.

The four issued forth on their marauding expedition, an hour before midnight. Their destination was a tarn or lakelet situated in a pocket of one of the highest ridges of the Grampians, and guarded in close embrace by crowning peaks which usually retained rust-edged wreaths of snow throughout the whole summer.

The long, narrow, whistling, craggy and heath-clad side glen, with its many voiced burns, by which they made their way to Lochan-na-larig, was weird and lonesome indeed at night's dead hour. Although, until past midnight, there should be a moon somewhere behind the dark-rolling clouds, it refused to shed a gleam of its silvery light on the path of the evil-doers. They had no fear of man before their eyes, but as much could not be said in regard to fear of ghosts.

Whenever sheep, whose rest was disturbed by the unwonted tread of human feet during the silence of darkness, rustled amidst the heather or knocked horns together as if seeking counsel of one another, big Ewan drew a shivering breath, and the elder's John said:—"Uist! ciod sud?" [Hist! what's that.] in a loud whisper of alarm. Angus was less sensitive to ghostly alarms, perhaps because more quick to distinguish natural sounds of all sorts. Diarmad did not know very well whether to believe in ghosts, or to class them with the fairies whom he had already banished to the realm of fancy and legendary myth. Ghosts were among the many ideas or things which his mind held in a state of suspension, until he could find means of settling them to the best of his knowledge and ability. He felt he should not like to go alone to a reputedly haunted place at night's witching time ; but he was confident no ordinary spirit would at any time, or in any place, have the boldness to encounter four persons, weighted by the solid teguments of mortality; and this confidence induced him to play upon the fears of Ewan and John.

As they were nearing the mossy ruins of a long-deserted shealing, where a bloody tragedy had been enacted generations before, Diarmad began to relate, in the pictorially effective manner natural to Highlanders when using their native language, the story of the fair-haired girl who was foully done to death. He told how her false lover, who wished to marry an ugly old woman with a tocher, wiled her out to the black tarn on the moor, and toppled her over a crag into the pool, and how, long after her mysterious disappearance from the shealing, her body was found, through ghostly information, in the sunless water. The murderer, he said, was neither tried nor hanged ; nor was he at first at all suspected ; for it was supposed the girl had accidentally fallen in while gathering cranberries. The wicked man, however, did not escape punishment. Wherever he turned his eyes, even in broad daylight, he saw a face unseen by others, which reproached him with a look that froze the marrow in his bones. For years he dared not lie down on a bed, lest he should lose the breath of life—to which he desperately clung—in sheer terror of the vision of murder and drowning that fell upon him when seeking rest like other men, with always increasing horror, and a weight heavier than lead.

Just as the climax of dying confession and hopeless agony was reached, John cried—"Uist! Uist!" in a most terrible or rather terrified whisper, and Ewan laying a heavy hand on Diarmad's shoulder, growled in a voice shaking with fright—"Mhic an Diabhuil,[Son of the Devil] thou hast raised the ghost!" Then, in an altered deprecatory manner, he added—"Good Lord, forgive me for mentioning the evil name, but indeed, indeed,. I could not help it. Gleidh sinn! " There is the noise again! Can the hill be tumbling on our heads?"

Angus and Diarmad laughed heartily. There was sufficient noise heard to be sure, and they had narrowly escaped an accident; but no ghost or evil spirit had hand or foot in the matter. Angus explained the whole commotion by the one word, "goats." The goats used the shealing rock as a citadel of their own, and, on being disturbed, they fled to their place of strength, and crossing a sgairneach, [Heap of loose stones.] without stopping to pick their steps, they set some loose stones rolling, which bounded with sounding noise from crag to crag, and crossed our evil-doers' path too close in their front to be pleasant.

John gave forth a low, prolonged whistle of infinite relief, and hitched his creel comfortably on his back. Ewan was not so easily and instantly reassured. He repeated most inappropriately a stanza or two of Dugald Buchannan's poem of the "Skull," as a charm against ghosts and evil spirits in general, among which latter class he was disposed at the moment to include goats ; seeing that they were animals of damaged reputation, owing to unfavourable comparison with sheep in Scripture allegory, and to the Highland superstition which ascribed to the Devil feet like a goat's whenever he made himself visible. Angus and Diarmad irreverently laughed at Ewan's pious exercise; but most clearly the "Skull" calmed down his nervous excitement; for, once having gone through the severe ordeal of spiritual terror, he never again seemed to care a bodle for ghost, devil, or goat during the remainder of the night.

It was not long after the goat incident when our evildoers scented on the keen night air the peat reek of John Macpherson's house. And John Macpherson's dogs must have at the same time scented them, or heard the sound of their voices and footsteps, for they set up a loud barking chorus, which roused their master from his first sleep. John Macpherson was a wrathful man at being so disturbed. He reviled the dogs in most uncanonical language, thinking they were making a noise about nothing, as happened occasionally when they took a fancy for varying the monotony of their lives by a good night's howling, and appeared thereafter to be much refreshed by their performance.

On reaching the house, our evil-doers hailed the old shepherd through the window, showing him that the dogs had a good excuse for their outcry, and letting him know what they themselves were about. John Macpherson, grandfather as he was, declared he felt much inclined to get up and join them in spite of his rheumatism, as he had never been at a blazing of waters before since he was quite a little boy. But, as he turned in bed to get up, his stiff joints warned him they must not be trifled with to please the boyish inclination of which he ought to have got rid long ago. So he wisely compromised the contention between the inclination of his mind and the ailment of his limbs by resolving not to go to the blazing, and making a bargain with the marauders that they should stop on their return to take a bread, butter, and coffee breakfast with him, and furnish the fish themselves, which bargain was then and there ratified.

On this lofty mountain land John Macpherson, during the summer half of the year, led a lonely life as caretaker of young horses, cattle, and sheep, sent from many farms down the water, to eat the rough grass of the mossy dells, and the sweet herbage of the green corries. John was also a sort of national officer. The common of which he was the caretaker was a drove station, and all cattle and sheep passing backwards or forwards from Highlands to Lowlands were, by immemorial custom, entitled to rest and feeding for a night, on condition that so many pence were paid per score or per hundred. And as the scale of charges had been fixed in very ancient times it was not only reasonable, but very low indeed. The drivers also, on tendering payment fixed by the men of old, but on a higher scale, were entitled to ask for shelter, fire, food, and bed in John's house—which, consequently, being neither an inn nor a shebeen, was to be classed with the ancient hospitals or spittals which were established in early times in desolate places for the good of travelling men and beasts.

Lochan-na-larig received the water of many small streams into its basin, for it was the central depression of the extensive crow-foot wrinklings that marked, with individual character, the top section of a large and lofty range. When our marauders reached the margin, there was a little dispute among them as to whether they should first blaze the little burns flowing into the Lochan, or the big burn, large enough to be called a river, which issued from it. Ewan being a giant of six feet two in his stockings, and correspondingly stout, carried the verdict for the big stream.

So the torch was lighted in the shelter of a peat stack, which stood near the bank of shallows full of fish. Ewan was the first to step into the water, flourishing his spade as if bent on slaughtering sons of Anak instead of poor trout. The elder's son, shrewdly calculating that most of the fish disturbed by his companions would make direct for the Lochan as a place of refuge, moved forward into the darkness above, laid his creel in a runnel convenient for his purpose, and waited for his prey. Angus deemed it foolish to go into the cold water as long as he could kill plenty of fish from the dry bank. As soon as the torch was fully lighted, Diarmad followed Ewan into the water, and threw the red glare on bank and stream.

For some time the silence of the work of slaughter was only broken by the splashings and ejaculations of Ewan( whose sharp spade cut almost every fish it touched right into two halves. As Ewan considered it a matter of conscience and duty to gather up the fragments of his victims, he lost both time and temper over the work; and the elder's son whispered softly down the stream—"Uist, Ewan! don't frighten the creatures." The prompt and angry reply went rolling back—"Uist thyself, man! and don't talk nonsense. The creatures are as deaf as stones. and could not hear Mons Meg if fired at their nose.'' Ewan's splashings and slashings, however, determined the fish, which were at first bewildered and fatally attracted by the red glare of the torch, to move in a body for the lochan.

Then John found his patience rewarded by fine hauls. Meanwhile, Angus, always keeping dry shod on the bank, had, with his wooden shovel, killed several dozens without mutilating them in the least. Diarmad's muffled leister also killed well and neatly; but, as he had to hold up his torch in one hand, he found it difficult to secure his slain; and Ewan was too much bothered about his own fragments to give attention to Diarmad's whole fish.

The next reach of the river promised even more satisfactory results in the way of slaughter than the one first tried. A sand bank, which had gathered round big sized stones, divided the water into a double stream. Ewan and Diarmad waded through pretty deep water to the middle bank, and the cruel, but exciting, slaughter recommenced. It seemed as if the biggest trout of Lochan-na-larig claimed this mid-bank as their own exclusive spawning ground. But suddenly the light went out, and the slaughter ended. As Ewan made a hasty onslaught upon a patriarch of patriarchs that, judging by his size and the regal sweep of his fins, must have been the king of the lochan for ages, he miscalculated the length of his spade, the depth of the water, and the steadfastness of the orbicular stone on which he was standing on one foot. The result of this complicated miscalculation was that Ewan fell headlong into the stream, pulling Diarmad down with him, and that, of course, the light was extinguished. Ewan, to be sure, had this consolation, that the last ray of light showed him clearly the king trout cut cleanly into two; but, alas ! the royal fragments could not be gathered up.

Ewan and Diarmad fell into the very deepest part of the stream, where they floundered and sputtered for some little time before they could find a foothold. They frightened, however, many large fish into the basket of the elder's son. On reaching bank Ewan resolutely declared he would have no more blazing that night. He said he was sure he would freeze to death if he did not run immediately to John Macpherson's house as fast as his legs could carry him. So the four turned their faces homeward, and made such a race of it that Ewan panted like a prize ox, and that Diarmad found his wet clothes nearly dry when the old shepherd opened to them his hospitable door.

The old man's table stood ready garnished with cups and saucers, oatcakes and butter. The kettle was on the tboil for the coffee-making, and a huge peat fire blazed on he hearth. Willing hands, and deft ones, too—for most Highlanders of that time knew well how to fend and cook for themselves—cut and cleaned two or three dozen fish which Angus carefully picked from the heap. And the first dozen cleaned, to be followed by as many successive batches as five men with excellent appetites could stow away, were soon fizzing in the frying-pan, duly peppered, salted, oatmeal-besprinkled, and larded with slices of fat bacon. So the breakfast was a great success, and host and guests very much enjoyed it.

Old John was then asked to accept all that now remained of the spoils of the night. He rather demurred, until Diarmad clearly proved it would be an act of charity on his part to rid them of an encumbrance which they did not know how otherwise to dispose of; and until Ewan in eloquent and moving terms described the future pleasures of the palate that would fall to him, if he carefully cleaned the fish, steeped them for a short time in brine, and then hanged them up in bunches inside his big chimley to smoke like red herrings.


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