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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter III. - Big Duncan the Fool


BIG DUNCAN the Fool was called "Garth's Fool" in Edinburgh, and in the Highland glens and straths and Isles beyond his own district, "Big Duncan the Piper." His home district was the land between Logierait and Drumalbane, watered by the Tay and its tributaries the Dochart, the Lochay, the Lyon, the Tummel, and the Garry. Duncan and his sister were twins and both of them were born naturals. Their misfortune could not be attributed to any hereditary cause. Their father and mother were not even distantly related, and were healthy people. The two sons born to them after the unfortunate twins were two as bright lads as could be found anywhere. The father of this family of four was a tailor and crofter who prospered by his industry in a humbly comfortable and most respectable way, until he was struck down by fever and died, when the youngest was still a babe on the knee. His young widow was left heavily handicapped by the twins, and with little means beyond her own spinning industry and general resourcefulness. She had her reward for bearing with courage and hope a burden under which many in her position would have helplessly sunk, for she lived long after she saw the elder of her two younger sons a well-placed and deservedly popular minister of the Church of Scotland, and the other a worthy parish schoolmaster. The boys were clever, ambitious, and persevering. The parish school of Fortingall was taught, when they entered it, by crippled Neil Macintyre, who, if peppery and a strict disciplinarian, was quick to discern merit, and to give instruction out of school hours to pupils who wanted to go to the University, and shared his own enthusiasm for classical learning. "When Neil died his successor found the widow's two clever boys at the top, or nearly at the top of the school. This successor was Archibald Menzies, a probationer of the Church of Scotland, who some years later, by the influence of his Chief of Weem, was appointed to the parish of Dull. The widow-mother of the boys was a Menzies also, and that fact made, I suspect, a clannish connection which helped them on. They certainly could and did make a good fight on their own hand, but when the parish school of Dull became vacant, there can be no doubt the minister of Dull and the Chief of the Menzies clan helped to appoint Robert, the elder of the brothers, schoolmaster of that parish. As Robert wanted to make the school a stepping-stone to the Church, and his junior, Alexander, nourished a similar ambition, the notable expedient was hit upon of making them colleague schoolmasters, so that they could in alternate sessions be at St Andrews University. Robert compassed his ambition, but Alexander, after a session or two at college, married and settled down as schoolmaster of Dull, which position he most honourably held for nearly half a century. Both these Macgregor brothers were good Gaelic poets and very ardent patriots.

"When Napoleon's banners at Boulogne
Armed in our islands every freeman,"

they jointly composed a warlike appeal to the Highland clans, which had no small rousing and recruiting effect throughout the Highlands. It begins:

Eiribh suas anns an am so,
Gach ceannard tha fo'n chrun;
Cumaibh thall na Frangaich,
Na leigibh 'm feasd a nail iad;
Ged robh sibh arm an teanndachd,
Na tionndaibh 'ur cul
Gus an coisinn sibh Ian bhuaidh,
'S am faigh sibh duals is cliu.
Glcidhibh taobh na fairge,
Is earbaibh ris na suil;
Bibh trie gu clis gar dearbhadh fein,
Nach tig iad ann an anamoch oirbh
Gus an ruig na sealgairean
O gharbh-bhcannan nan stuc;
'S iad na Cinnich as gach ionad
A philleas iad gu dluth.

After that rattling general call on Highland patriotism, each clan is separately invoked to come forth in force for the national defence.

When children, Duncan and his sister were both obedient to their mother. Duncan always remained so, but Margaret when she grew up was a handful to the poor widow. She took violent fits of lunatic disobedience, and on more than one occasion assaulted her mother, who had to be rescued by the villagers. The rescuers had no compunction about binding Margaret in tethers until she recovered what portion of sense she possessed. Duncan, who adored his mother, and was never violent to anybody, strongly, if silently, resented Margaret's assaults on their mother. When Margaret died and was buried, he went to the churchyard to see where they had put her, for he never went to any funeral and always kept away from wakes, and when the bell-man showed him his sister's grave he danced on it with joy, and shouted exultingly, "Feuch an gabh thu air do mhathair a nise!" ("See if you can now beat your mother!").

In childhood, Duncan and Margaret perambulated Fortingall together. As long as Dr David Campbell of Glenlyon, on whose land they were born and their mother had her cottage, was alive they were constant visitors to the Glenlyon House kitchen, with excursions also to that of Robert Stewart of Garth. When the last Campbell Laird of Glenlyon died, and his property passed to his grand-nephew, Francis Gardyn Campbell of Troup, who was a non-resident, the Garth House kitchen became their objective. The Laird of Garth had a lawyer relative, another Robert Stewart, in Edinburgh, whom his children, and the whole local population in imitation of them, called "Robbie Uncle." One evening the twins came rushing through the field to the house with the announcement that Robbie Uncle was coming in a coach, and that they had cut through the field to bring the news before he could get round and go up the drive. They were believed, although the visit was not expected. Robbie Uncle and his coach, however, were never seen by anybody else. The twins were truthful, but this story of theirs was thought to be a concoction or strange joint hallucination, until soon news came from Edinburgh that Robbie Uncle had died there on the very day on which the twins said they saw him and his coach.

Duncan's early and lasting desire was to be ranked among pipers. It was said that he could detect the mistakes and shortcomings of trained fiddlers and pipers. If so, he must have had a good ear for music, although he could never play anything through himself. He played bits of laments and marches and reels all mixed up in comical disorder and disharmony. But he admired his own performances, and this made him proud and happy, especially when at weddings he could, apart from the general company, get a lot of children on a green mound to dance and shout about him in an ecstacy of mad fun and frolic. In his early teens he somehow managed to get old pipes. He then began to widen the circuit of his roamings, and to expect a piper's welcome and even fees. From a gentleman he expected a silver coin, but from a common person a copper farthing, halfpenny, or penny, would quite content him if the coin given him had a king's head on it, his motto being, "Is bonn nach fhiach bonn gun dealbh," ("A coin without an image is a worthless coin "). He never consorted with tinkers, mealpoke beggars, or any other gangrel bodies, for in his own estimation was he not a strolling piper and gentleman? He never paid for anything, and never spent a penny in purchases or gifts. But as long as his mother lived he allowed her, under whining protests to turn out his pockets and take his money. He had the gathering and hiding instincts of a raven or a magpie, and after his mother's death took to the habit of concealing his coins in holes in trees and walls, and never took them out again. Several of his hoards have since been discovered, and more of them yet may be found, for although small in value they were numerous.

When George IV. visited Scotland, Duncan went to Edinburgh to see him, and on coming home reported that the King was a "duine reamhar tlachmhor" (a fat handsome man). He was in the habit of going annually to the Caledonian meeting in Edinburgh, and on the road and in the Capital was treated generously as "Garth's Fool," while in his own opinion he was Garth's piper. At Queensferry a change of ferryman had taken place. A Pharaoh had arisen there who knew not our innocent Joseph. The old ferryman passed Duncan back and forward without ever asking him to pay for the passage. The new ferryman turned him off the boat because he would not pay, although probably he could easily have done so had not paying for anything been totally contrary to his fixed principle. On being turned off, Duncan went down to the beach beside the boat, and having looked at the sea, shouted out in a defiant tone, "Ged tha e leathann cha'n eil e domhain; togaidh mi m' fheile, 's theid mi troimhe!" ("Though it is broad it is not deep; I'll lift my kilt and go through it!"). There were Highlanders on board who put his words into English, while Duncan was making visible preparations for carrying out his declared intentions. Several offered to pay Duncan's fare, but when matters were explained to the new ferryman, he took Duncan on board, and made him the free passenger he had been in the time of his predecessor.

After having officiated a time at Braemar, Duncan's minister brother was appointed to the parish of Kilmuir, in Skye. Duncan used to visit the minister when he was at Braemar, but Skye lay outside the circuit of his roamings and the bounds of his topographical and social knowledge. The people there, with the exception of the minister and his wife, would be all strangers to him, and he would be a stranger to them. So he let some years elapse before he set his face towards Skye. But one midwinter, such a longing to see his brother came over him, that he went forth with his pipes on that pilgrimage without telling anyone at home. He must have had some share of the instinct of the birds of passage, for he managed to make his way to Portree through districts hitherto unknown to him, and to obtain free ferry passage. Between Portree and Kilmuir, he was overtaken by a wild snow and wind storm. Stranger as he was, he always kept his face the right way, although he finally strayed a little from the proper road. He did not know it, but he was pretty near the manse when his half- frozen legs failed him, and he sat down to die. He had some breath left yet, and he used it to blow the pipes for his own coronach. His brother heard the skirling between the gusts of wind, and said at once: "That is Duncan if he is alive, and if he is not it is his ghost. I feel he is in extreme peril. Let us go and search for him." They marched rapidly in the direction of the sound, but as that was soon hushed, they lost some time in rinding the place where poor Duncan had laid himself down to die. When discovered he was speechless and helpless. They carried him to the manse, where on being thawed and regaining power of utterance, he said, as if in apology for his unwonted breakdown: "Mar bhitheadh a ghaoth cha d' thoirinn baol air a chathamh" ("Were it not for the wind I would not care the skin of a bean for the drifting.") General David Stewart, the historian of the Highland regiments, who, on the deaths of his father and his elder brother, succeeded to the Garth estate, was Duncan's hero of heroes and earthly providence and deity. Duncan often carried messages and letters between lairds' houses, and always carried out his instructions with the greatest promptitude and fidelity. General Stewart, in conversation with Sir Neil Menzies, declared his belief that it was impossible by any temptations to make Duncan break a promise or cause him to deviate from the literal performance of his instructions. Sir Neil said, "Let us put him to a hard test. Send him down to me next week with a note and an empty basket, tied and sealed. Tell him that I will send something else back in the basket, and make him promise that he will deliver it to you as I gave it to him without opening it by the way." The proposed test was carried out. Duncan gave his promise to the General, and delivered note and basket to Sir Neil, who sent him to the Castle kitchen to be well fed there, while he put the mysterious something in the basket, and tied and sealed it very carefully. He solemnly gave Duncan a note to the General and the sealed basket, and made him promise again that nothing should tempt him to open the basket by the way. The day was hot and Duncan was well fed, and very likely had been on one of his restless roamings the previous night. So when he reached Callwood he went over the wall to have a nice sleep in the shade of the bushes among the ferns, keeping a hand still on the basket. But his repose was in a short time disturbed by movements and noises in the basket. Between sleep and wakefulness curiosity made Duncan forget his double promise. He opened the basket, and out jumped a hare, which in a moment got out of his sight among the bushes. At Garth House he delivered an open basket and the accompanying letter to the General. The latter, having looked at the empty basket, read the note and said, "Duncan, in this letter there is a hare." He was not allowed to finish his sentence by the word "mentioned," for Duncan, cutting a caper, cried in huge delight, "Dilliman! Dilliman! she has got into the letter though she jumped out and ran away when I opened the basket in Callwood!"

At the General Election which followed the passing of the Reform Bill, the Whigs of Perthshire brought out Lord Ormelie, the son and heir of the very popular first Marquis of Breadalbane, to oppose the farmer Tory member, and they had a meeting to promote his candidature at Fortingall, which all the local Whig gentlemen attended. Among these was Boreland, who not long before had been tried for manslaughter. In a dark night Boreland fired with small shot at a man who had broken into his house, and when challenged and threatened, neither stopped nor spoke. Some of the pellets intended for his legs hit him in vital parts; and although he was not killed on the spot, he subsequently died of the injuries. Duncan of course was present at the gathering, and, in the pauses of the oratory, interjected some skirls of his pipes. At the close he went round, hat in hand, for his piper's fee, and made a great haul of sixpences and shillings. Boreland, having no smaller coin, threw a half-crown into the hat. Amazed at getting such a big silver coin, Duncan inspected it on both sides, and on finding that its "dealbhan" or "images" were all that could be desired, looked up at Boreland and said in a loud voice, "Dhia!'s math nach do chroch iad sibh" ("O God! it's well they did not hang you!")

Duncan's ideas of what should be his full dress as a piper were peculiar. In one thing he never varied. He always wore on his head no Highland bonnet but an old chimney-pot hat. He got their discarded ones from gentlemen and ministers. His jackets were well bedizzened with buttons. He wore a girdle and shabby sporran. His kilt was less like a kilt than a woman's short petticoat. Brogues and either hose or stockings, as necessity decreed, completed his attire. Very often he was restless at night, and would sleep outside in the daytime. It was lucky for himself and others that he was strictly honest, for had he not been so he might have been very troublesome, since when the night-roaming fit was on him it was his habit to go to bed in one place at the usual hour, and ere morning to be found scaring sleepers at another house miles away, and reassuring the scared ones by saying it was only himself, "'S mi fhein a th' aim." These house-breaking night surprises were, it is said, made easier for him by the fact that dogs took him for a friend and would not bark at him. He seems to have had a brotherhood relationship and mysterious influence over most animals. Although it is well vouched for, the following story about that mysterious influence of his is hardly credible. But it gained local belief in the district of which it was the scene, and even was pictorially represented. Here it is as far as I can recollect it:-

The Laird of Duntanlich had a fine young bull, for which he got summer-grazing in the Duke of Atholl's deer forest. The animal became rampagious in the forest, attacked dogs and men, and nearly killed a forester. Word was sent to the Laird that the bull would be shot if he did not instantly take him away. Taking him away alive and safe was too risky a task to be readily undertaken by ordinary men. Knowing of Duncan's reputation for having a mysterious influence over animals, the Laird sent for him, told him his difficulty, and asked him if he would go for the wild beast. Duncan said he would on these conditions, that a horse and some lengths of cord should be given to him, and that he should be let into the forest to spend a night there, and that the foresters should not interfere with him. Having before night-fall been let into the forest, and the place where the bull was to be found having been pointed out to him, the foresters left him to his own devices. Next morning, when people were rising and lighting their fires, they saw Duncan, with tall hat and pipes, riding down the highway on the back of a quietly marching bull, with the horse, its halter tied to the bull's tail, placidly following. Whether or not the tale received ornamental touches of fiction in the popular version of it, there is, I believe, no doubt as to the fact that Duncan safely brought home a dangerous animal, which was ever afterwards as tame as any of its kind.

Had Duncan, like persons of his sort in the present day, been shut up in a workhouse or an asylum, he would soon have died of a broken heart, and the places of his perambulations would have been deprived of a long, lasting source of amusement. He had such a horror of death that it kept him away from wakes and funerals. He loved wedding festivities, and, invited or uninvited, contrived to be present at most of those which took place within two or three parishes. He lived and roamed about till between seventy and eighty years of age. His legs at last suddenly failed him, and he was taken to his brother the schoolmaster's house, where some months later he died. The parish minister used to visit him and speak to him about the present life and the after-death life. Duncan did not much care about either life. The word "aiseirigh," the "re-arising," which is the Gaelic for resurrection, aroused his keen attention. "Do we all rise again?" he eagerly asked. "The Bible, which is the word of God, says so," replied the minister. Duncan raised his head, clapped his hands, and cried out, "Dilliman! Dilliman! I'll see my General again!" meaning General Stewart of Garth, who died at St. Lucia, of which he was Governor, many years before. To poor Duncan, seeing his General meant heavenly bliss and the fulfilment of his highest desire.


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