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The Long Glen
Chapter XI - The Corpse-Light Watch


The winter passed, and such a severe winter it was that the people of the south-side, instead of having to go round by the bridge, crossed the river on the ice, when going to church and coming back, for eleven successive Sundays.

In the spring the sgeul came over the hills that a farmer in the next valley, who had many friends in the Glen, was lost, and could not be found dead or alive.

There was not a shadow of cause to suspect voluntary disappearance. The lost man was at the time of his disappearance engaged to be married. He was in good health and comfortable circumstances, and with that foreshadowed light of domestic happiness on his mind, which is perhaps more to bachelors getting on in years, such as he was, than to younger men who cannot know the discipline of self-control and deferred hopes to the same extent. He was finally, although an elder of the Kirk, a man of very cheerful disposition, and quite free from any morbid tendencies whatever.

On a certain day he left his own farm towards evening with the avowed intention of visiting his betrothed. The intention was carried out. His household thought nothing of his not returning home that night; but when he did not appear next day, his brother and cousins got alarmed and instituted inquiries. It was then discovered that he paid the proposed visit to his betrothed, and left to return home when the night was dark enough, but before it was very late His road for some distance was by the side of the river, and the river was in flood. It was a lonely way, and in a dark night rather dangerous, but he was well acquainted with it, and although it was the most natural thing in the world to suppose that he stumbled into the river, by missing the path, the opinion of the country was dead against that conclusion.

It was, in short, well known that there was a rival in the case, and foul play was suspected. The rival of the middle-aged elder was a man of younger years and boisterous character. His tongue was an unbridled one, and his hand was ready for a blow whenever his blood was up. It was notorious that he took the rejection of his suit very ill, and swore considerably among his intimate acquaintances both at the lady and the man of her choice. There was no proof whatever that the rejected and the successful suitors met on the night the latter disappeared, but it could, it was supposed, be proved that such a meeting was possible, from what was known of the rejected suitor's whereabouts during the day.

Search was instituted for the body of the missing man. Sure instinct pointed to the river as the most likely place to hold the body, whether the death came by accident or foul play. In case of accident, indeed, there could be no doubt that only the river could be the keeper of the dead. So day after day the river was covered with boats, and searched and dragged with fishing gear and improvised rakes, all the way from the home of the bereaved bride to the loch, a distance of some four or five miles. The searchers wore all the scarlet waistcoats and plaids in two parishes, "to make the water clear." But the body was not discovered. A land search also was instituted concurrently with the water search, and this also yielded no results.

It does not seem that the Gael ever connected the future state of the soul, like Latins and Greeks, with the sepulture of the body. They had no doctrine of continued latent union like the Egyptians; and although Christianity taught them the doctrine of the resurrection, their proverbs and poetry still retained, down to this century, the colouring of their heathen pre-historic faith, according to which the soul went into its cloud to roll about forever in places more or less near the sun, according to deserts, and the earthly tabernacle returned to the earth from which it sprang. But while, both as heathens and as Christians, the Gael did not think it of great importance, from the religious point of view, what came of corpses at all, or whether they were hid in the earth or the water—from the kith and kindred point of view it was a sacred debt of love and regard for living relatives to see that deceased ones were buried honourably amidst ancestral and clan dust.

Although the vigorous search for the lost farmer led to no discovery, the kith and kin persevered, going over the same pools, and the same bogs and woods, day after day, seeking traces and finding none. The Glen friends of the lost man did their share of this searching work, although the scene of operations was far away. At last they came back dispirited, yet still saying "murder will out.''

The brother and cousins of the lost man searched the river again by themselves, and dragged particularly every place at which floating corks or straws indicated eddies. Meanwhile other people were putting their heads together, and overhauling all the traditions of supernatural discoveries of murdered bodies since the days of St Fillan. Finally the weary searchers were advised to set a watch for the corpse-light. The theory, it seems, was that at a certain time after death the corpse-light of a murdered body would be sure to show the place of its concealment if a watch happened to be set. The searchers were ready enough to try any means of discovery, and they accordingly resolved to give a trial to the corpse-light watch. It would appear, however, that the whole chance of its success depended on the lost man having been murdered. But public opinion assumed foul play; and so steps were taken to watch the whole course of the river, and also to place outside watchers in woods and on heights, during the night on which superstition said the murdered would show revealing light.

A messenger was sent to the Glen to summon a band of watchers from the kith and kin of the lost man—for it was an army of such watchers that the case required. The matter was discussed throughout a wide district for a considerable time before the appointed night, and everything requisite for success, as far as watching was concerned, was carefully prepared. Whether from natural aptitude, or whether the result of clannish habits and communal experience, the Highlanders were then, and perhaps are still, highly gifted with the power of readily organising themselves for anything to be done by a number of people.

The only one in the Long Glen who scoffed openly at the corpse-light watch was Diarmad. In the next parish there was more of open unbelief expressed ; but the majority of religious people were believers in supernaturalism, and, in truth, old superstitions relating to dreams, visions, and so forth, were finding a new lease of life among the "unco guid." From the regions of the North, tales of wonders and prophecies were coming in great force, and vouched for by the holy men who frequented field preachings and communions. No mediaeval saint, according to these authorities, was ever more favoured with prophetic gifts than Mr Lachlan Mackenzie, of Lochcarron. As for strange spiritual visions, and wonderful answers to prayers, every '"man" had a story to tell.

In those days, moreover, there was a little book in Gaelic widely diffused among Highlanders, which told how the murderer of Grant, the Assynt pedlar, was found out by the "sight" given to Kenneth Fraser in his sleep. Kenneth not only saw the home of Hugh Macleod, who had murdered and robbed Murdoch Grant, the pedlar, but a voice, like unto the voice of a man, said to him in his dream— "The marsan's pack is lying in a cairn of stones in a hole near their house." The case was tried at Inverness in 1831 before Lord Moncrieff. The vision evidence, which was apparently accepted by judge and jury, was ascribed in the book to the direct intervention of God, and altogether the opportunity was improved to show that God's dealings were inscrutable, but all tending to the good of men of faith. Hugh Macleod was found out in his guilt, convicted, and hanged, but, through a solemn repentance, he made an edifying end. The wisdom of man was rebuked, inasmuch as what the sheriff, procurator-fiscal, and constables could not discover, was revealed to Kenneth Fraser, the tailor.

The Assynt murder had been the subject of many an Evangelical sermon. The Assynt murder book was written by a shining light among the pious people of the North. It therefore exercised a decided influence in favour of the corpse-light watch. The Black Moderates, on the other hand, told stories about the "death-candles," which were seen marching in procession to the churchyard, just before the snow-slip came down on Duncan the son of Finlay's house, in 1746, and smothered Duncan, his wife, and five children. So the old and the new beliefs agreed for once, and those who objected to the corpse-light watch were •denounced as being little better than infidels.

The Glen band of watchers mustered at Duncan Ban's house, which was situated at the entrance of the pass leading to the required destination. Iain Breac, the wright,was mending carts and peat barrows in the shed, and about Iain's working bench the young men stood and gossiped until the band should be complete. Duncan Ban and the wright had much to ask and much to say, and time was not pressing, as the muster began long before the appointed hour.

Ewan Mor, Diarmad, the elder's John, and Angus Mac-:gregor, were the last to join, but still they came, as the stone dial indicated, before the shadow passed the hour.

"I thought thou wouldst not come at all," said Duncan Ban to the unbeliever Diarmad.

"Well, it is a neonachas x thing, but you see one must answer to a call on kith and kin."

"It is the crois-tarra that brings thee out, then?"

"That, and nothing more."

"I think thy grand-uncle, the old minister Macdiarmid, peace be to him ! who taught thee some of his Latin and Greek, and left thee his books, must have left thee some queer opinions also. Wilt thou deny the lights of the dead altogether?"

"Yes, in the sense in which you ask about them."

"What is the other sense?"

"The breath of rottenness takes fire in a natural way. Look at the bog wild-fire."

"Well, call it teine sionnachain then; but if it will lead to the discovery of the body all will be well."

"Aye, but one body in a large fast-flowing river is not likely to produce the light of rottenness which a decaying log will give forth in a quiet shallow bog."

"Thy unbelief is such that it may ruin the whole watch."

"Don't be afraid of that. Ewan and the elder's John will be with me, and they have faith enough for a dozen."

"And maybe," said the wright, "that the obstinate unbeliever shall keep the two good believers from running away."

Ewan got into great wrath instantly—"And is it thou who shouldst jeer at people for being afraid of ghosts ? I'll tell you a true story (turning to the company). This brave man was once frightened almost out of life by the Eight Merkland tups. Their fold was in want of repairs, and till it got mended, Niall, the herd, without telling it to anybody, shut them up in the churchyard. Now, the wright was coming up the glen with his bag of tools on his back, far on in the night, and the noise he made with feet and tool-bag when passing the churchyard disturbed the beasts, who, after their fashion, rustled into a mob, and knocked their horns against each other. When the wright heard the rustling and horn-knockings he threw his bag away,. took to his heels, and ran as fast as he could to the nearest house, where he said the dead were surely getting up, for he heard the bones knocking together and getting into their places !"

The audience laughed, and the wright admitted the general truth of Ewan's story, but denied that he threw away his bag of tools.

The corpse-light watch was vigilantly kept, yet no-corpse-light was seen. But after a spate, which shifted the sand bank at the river's point of entrance into the lake, the body was discovered, and it was in a wonderful state of preservation, considering how long it had been in the water. There was a post-mortem, and the Procurator-Fiscal held an inquiry, but no trial or an)' official confirmation of foul play resulted. Still public opinion stubbornly stuck to its own theory, notwithstanding the failure of miracle and officials to reveal the secret of the dead.


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