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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter LXXIII. - Neighbours and Incidents


THE gate which opened on the highway was a short distance up above a small portion of field separating the parishes of Bingley and Keighley. But small as the distance was this access was only used for wheeled vehicles and horses and cattle. A footpath led straight to a stile in the boundary wall, and then through a little field, and another stile into Thwaites village. From the village to Keighley the way of foot passengers was, on crossing the Midland Railway a few yards below the village, by a long "snicket," or narrow path between the railway wall and the well-kept hedge above the lawns of the String Close mansion which had not many years before been erected by a Keighley manufacturer. These little matters are mentioned to show how jealously old rights-of-way were preserved amidst all the changes, and how England is super-abundantly provided with short cut footpaths, besides the public roads.

The village had a shop, an inn, called the Shoulder of Mutton, and a carpenter's workshop, but it lived in pure air outside the region of smoke and clatter of machinery, as it had no manufacturing mill or ironworks. The villagers were as good-living, hard-working, and honest a set of people as could be found anywhere. Religiously they appeared to be mostly divided between the Church of England and the Wesleyans. Their girls worked in the mills and shops of Keighley, and their men were artisans or workers in mills, ironworks, or trading firms, except the few who were employed in farm and garden work. I daresay a liberal amount of beer was imbibed by the major part of the male population at their gatherings in the Shoulder of Mutton, but, if so, they managed their drinking with such discretion as to give their neighbours no offence and the police no trouble. I was only once inside the Shoulder of Mutton, and that was when I was summoned to a coroner's jury that had to sit on the body of a poor boy, who was killed on the crossing, by trying, against warning, to rush a coming train within sight of him. The inn was, for a village, one of a superior sort, and a well managed one also. Good management was made easy by the habitually good conduct of the village frequenters. The inn-keeper's trouble, however, occasionally was apt to come on holidays, when hundreds, or it might, in fine weather, be thousands of the town young men arid women came out to the woods, fields, and Druid Altar, and on their return, full of joyousness, stopped to refresh at the Shoulder of Mutton, and created a bit of stir and noise there.

I am tempted to diverge here for the purpose of referring briefly, and in no chronological order, to two incidents which flash on my mind with compelling vividness. The first of these was the wind-storm of December, 1879, in which the Tay Bridge went down, and the second the trip of my wife and myself to the Isle of Man. The storm was sweeping over our district through the whole afternoon, but in was in the night that, with every successive gust, it gathered its thunderous destructive forces. My wife, with the then baby and younger children, was on a visit to her people in Bradford, and I lingered an hour or two after the boys and Kate had gone to their respective bedrooms over some writing I had to do. When I did go to the big bedroom, and laid down to sleep alone, the thundering gale made sleep impossible. The feeling I had was not fear of it, but a sort of mad desire to be out in the midst of its wild turmoil. Raging winds and raging waters have always excited me in this way. Well, I listened and did not sleep, and some of the slabs which covered the roof, when the storm reached its highest force, rattled down with a despairing noise of their own, heard weirdly through the roars of the tempest. Solidly as it was built, the old house shook, but whatever damage the roof might sustain, I was sure it would outstand the fiercest windstorm ever heard of in the British Isles. Besides the strong outer walls, there was an inner wall of such thick dimensions that the door entrance of it was like a culvert. The one end of the solid oak beams, which in the rooms below and above stairs supported the ceilings, rested on this thick interior wall, and their other end upon the house walls. The roof was of a similarly strong construction, and the chimney-stacks would have outlived a Skerrymore ocean blast. Sure enough next morning, in the fairyland calm succeeding the violent tempest, Thwaites House stood up stieve and stern, and barring the slabs which had rattled down from its roof with such uncanny noise in the night, altogether undamaged. But round about us a deal of damage had been done to buildings, and many fine trees had been blown down. Still, as I found later on when I made a flying visit to Glenlyon, the Highland woods had suffered much worse than ours. It saddened me to see so many of the magnificent beech trees planted about 1710 by Stewart of Ballied, the maternal grandfather of James Menzies of Culdares, uprooted, smashed, and huddled, as if by the hands of furious giants, on the top of one another, and fir trees, larch trees, and oak trees and birches prostrate in all the Glen woods. In Upper Airedale we escaped the worst wind-storm damage which ravaged the woods of Atholl and other parts of Scotland.

My wife and I remember with pleasure the trip to the Isle of Man, which was to us both like a romantic elopement and a new honeymoon. After we settled down at Thwaites House, we were seldom free to go out together, unless on a day excursion to Morecombe, Blackpool, or to visit the Leeds Exhibition, or to witness some Bradford great function. Since the enjoyable and, to me, recuperative sojourn at Loch Vennacharside, we never had any real outing together until we went to the Isle of Man in the summer of a year I do not presently remember. I always, indeed, had an annual sort of holiday; but when I made a run to the Highlands my wife could not leave the children to go with me. That was a great drawback, and there was this other one in addition to it, that some of my work was sure to follow me, and make me feel as if at every step I dragged a lengthened chain. The writing of articles which at home would have been always easy, and frequently pleasurable work, was in the outing time forced labour and penal servitude. I hated to write letters, and hated to see newspapers. Even on a rainy day I could not sit comfortably in a house to read a book, however entertaining. Now our trip to the Isle of Man was made ten times more enjoyable to us by perfect security against what was, to me, such a source of irritation in both apprehension and fact, that the bad temper it invariably engendered would spoil my wife's pleasure as well as my own. Mrs Aspinall, my wife's always helpful and kind-hearted mother, undertook, with Kate, to rule our house and children when we were away. So we quietly slipped away without leaving an address, got to Barrow-in-Furness, which then was rising into great importance, thanks to iron ore, and the liberal and enterprising help of the Duke of Devonshire. A few years before our visit Barrow had been a small old-fashioned seaside place of no account whatever, but it has now grown into one of the most important towns in the North of England. At Barrow we embarked in the small steamer which was then plying between Barrow and Douglas in the Isle of Man. When we embarked the sea was lively and the wind was rising. I expected to be seasick, especially if I saw any of the children and women on deck first giving way. My former experience was that I was very imitative, and had to pay a tribute to Neptune before having much pleasure on his watery domain. After that entrance tribute was paid, I found sea life very happy, but more so in a sailing ship than in a floating hotel steamer. I withdrew down stair, and was settling myself among coils of ropes, when my wife came and persuaded me to go up again upon deck. She was confident she was not to be sick herself, and I am not sure she did not, in a soft way, accuse me of nervous fancifulness and what amounted to moral cowardice. Ere the Barrow coast looked like a dim dark line, the breeze hardened into a half gale, and there were several cases of seasickness on board. But the sight of the afflicted did not affect me in the least, nor did the heaving sea, nor the plunging boat, nor its smoke, nor its smell of oil. On the other hand, my wife was not so fortunate. She had slightly to give way just when we were within a few miles of our destination, and just when I was expatiating to her, with glowing enthusiasm, on the picturesqueness of Douglas Bay and its neighbouring coasts.

Douglas is splendidly situated in irregular crescent form on rising ground round its beautiful bay. Its name is pure Gaelic, and has the same "dark-grey" meaning as the surname of our famous Gallowegian Douglases, who played such prominent and diverse parts in the history of Scotland. Like Barrow, Douglas is an upstart of recent date, but nearly a century older than the former. When the Duke of Atholl built Castle Mona to be his palatial residence as Lord of Man the kinship having before then been sold under compulsion, on what now seems inadequate price, to the British Crown I was told that Douglas was nothing more than a small collection of thatched houses, inhabited by fishermen, smugglers, and crofters. The Duke, who was the last Lord of Man, is called in Atholl "John the Planter," and the woods of Atholl are his lasting memorial. He has left the marks of his taste, tree-planting passion, and rather reckless expenditure on the Isle of Man likewise. Castle Mona, with spacious, well laid-out, and finely wooded grounds, was devoted to grand hotel purposes, at the time of our visit to the island. Very likely his costly planting of the hills of Atholl which could only be profitable to his successors his building of Castle Mona, and the fine Bridge of Dunkeld, and other various undertakings, had run him into financial difficulties, but without these, I believe, it would have been necessary for the Crown, in the reign of George IV., to buy him out under compulsion, since otherwise the revenue could not be protected from the extensive smuggling of the Manxmen. Before the royalty was bought up, debtors and outlaws from England, Scotland, and Ireland sought, and, in spite of the "Kings in Man," whether Stanley or Murray, found asylum in the island. It was during the long war with France that the smuggling of the Manxmen, supported as it was by British and foreign capitalists arid blockade-runners, assumed intolerable dimensions, which could only be effectively dealt with by gathering all powers into the hands of the British Government. I could not help feeling sorry that the Atholl family had to part first with the royalty and afterwards with all their feudal, patronial, and territorial rights in the Isle of Man, but it was at the same time clear that only the British Government could put down the evils which urgently called for drastic repression. The Atholl regime in Man made a real and recent connection between that island and the Perthshire Highlands. When I was schoolmaster of Fortingall, we had living among us John Macgregor, the piper of Duke John the Planter, who had come back after his master's death to end his days, which were prolonged in the place of his nativity. John was one of the sept of musicians and lorists, or seanachies, who were called Clann an Sgeulaiche, children of the story-teller or reciter. John, who could play on many instruments, and had carried off chief prizes of musical contests held at the Tinwald and elsewhere, was full of Manx music, songs, and legends. In his time steamers had not yet begun to bring in hosts of visitors from England, Ireland, and Scotland. Douglas had not grown into a reception place and settlement for "foreigners." The natives all over the island spoke their native Gaelic dialect, into which the Bible had been translated and phonetically printed for them, and which was preached to them in their places of worship, both by their Church of England clergy and by their Methodist rivals. I gathered that John had no difficulty in understanding and speaking Manx Gaelic. And, indeed, there was no reason that he should, for it was, as far as the vocabulary and grammatical construction were concerned, the twin or "lath-bhreac" of his own Fortingall Gaelic, although the pronunciation differed pretty widely. In the interval of thirty years between John's farewell to Man and my visit to it, a great change had taken place. When I asked, on the first Sunday we were there, where I should go to hear service and sermon in Manx Gaelic, I was told that in Douglas and its neighbourhood religious services had ceased to be regularly held in Gaelic, but that two men the old and very popular vicar of Kirkbraddan and a Methodist local preacher held such services occasionally, and that they were eagerly attended by the old people, while the young ones gave them the go-by. We got good lodgings up the hill behind the shoulder of the Castle Monawood, in the house of the English man and wife who kept the bathing machines down on the shore; and here, from the Manx girl-servant of those two "foreign" invaders, I had an object-lesson about the way in which Manx Gaelic was dying out, and, in languages, the imitative character of the Celtic race. The girl, not yet fully woman-grown, with her brown hair, black eyes, round face, and mental and physical alertness, was typically Celtic. When I tried to make her speak in Manx Gaelic, she denied that she could speak it, but said her grandmother spoke nothing else. "And why then," I asked, "did you not learn it from your grandmother?" The reply, after hesitation, was, "Because it isn't nice." Next morning, when at breakfast, I heard her through the open window scolding a man with a basket of fish or groceries, in fluent Manx Gaelic, about some blunder or other. I had no idea then that in after years I should see the same assimilative snobbishness playing havoc with the native language of the Highlanders, who, while mastering English, should not have lost their hold on Gaelic; for bilingualism is in itself an aid to education, and Gaelic is rich in pabulum for the feast of reason and the flow of soul. We had such glorious summer weather all the time we were on the island, that we spent our days out of doors, either about Douglas or making excursions into the country. On our first Sunday we went to Kirkbraddan, but it happened to be the day on which the new church was being opened, and although services were simultaneously held in the handsome and capacious new edifice and in the old church near it, which was to be kept up as a memorial of past times, such crowds attended, that with hundreds more of the later comers we had to stop in the churchyard, and only heard the singing through the open windows. But in the evening we went to hear the local Methodist, who preached in Gaelic to some three or four hundred, among whom were few young men or women, and no children at all. My wife, of course, did not understand a word of what the preacher said; she had to practice patience while listening to language which was wholly unintelligible to her. At first I was much at sea myself, as I was then wholly unacquainted with Manx Gaelic. But by the time the first prayer and singing were over, I began to get my bearings, and to follow the preacher when he read a chapter of St John's Gospel and preached from it. His Gaelic and mine were substantially the same, but differed much in pronunciation and to some degree in the use of words which, although known to me, were not quite of the same meaning in Highland Gaelic and Manx Gaelic. When, after the service, the preacher and I spoke to one another, we found that, with ease, we could make ourselves mutually intelligible, and the good old man bewailed the way in which the young islanders were, while properly enough learning English, foolishly and needlessly dropping the old native language entirely.

We went to Castletown, Peel, and the Tinwald. The Tinwald, although the Parliament Mound of the Kingdom of Man, from which laws must still be proclaimed ere they take effect, is, with its three stages, a pretty little mound, not at all so imposing in size and form or so commandingly situated as Tom-na-cuairteig, the similar law and justice mound above Kerrumore, in Glenlyon, where I was born. I looked in vain for fair-headed, blue- eyed descendants of the Scandinavians among the country population. The prevalent dark Celtic type appeared to connect them with the Irish more than with the Gaels of Scotland, although their language is nearer Highland than Irish Gaelic.

The Norse domination of three centuries left behind it place-names, burial-mounds, and various other memorials, but it passed over the original inhabitants without changing their language or physical appearance. The marks of the Norse domination, although few and far between, are certainly more discernible on the people of the Scotch islands than they were forty years ago on the people of Man. But the English invasion was even then rapidly abolishing their language, and changing, in Douglas, Ramsey, and other places that were frequented by regular or excursion steamers, the ethnological situation.

From early boyhood I was familiar with the story of Diarmid and Grainne, as it used to be told by ceilidh seanachies. There was a rock above my father's house, which was called "Craig na Grainne" or "Rock of Grainne," where there was a sheltered nook in which the fugitives could have, and were supposed to have rested. Moreover, the Campbell clan claimed with far - back, although not well- sustained, confident audacity, thin descent from Diarmid O'Duibhne and Grainne, and in that belief adopted the boar's head for their clan crest. In their genealogies they had a Diarmad and a Duibhne, and that fact led no doubt to their appropriation of legend and crest. Of course I believed when a boy in the ceilidh myth, and in that myth Diarmid was made the pupil of Mannanan Mac Lir, the weird magician who owned and gave his name to the Isle of Man Eilean Mhannain, as we called it in Glenlyon.

In bidding looking far back a long farewell to the Isle of Man, where, away from our world and all its cares, my wife and I had our glorious outing in glorious weather, I may mention that I, ever since I remember, have had a liking for islands that was strange in one born and brought up in an inland Grampian glen, the soul of whose grand scenery entered into and mixed inseparably with the souls of its children. The kinks and crooks in human nature are very inexplicable. My life, I can truly say, has been that of a hard-working, practical man, who had no time for indulging in futile reveries and luxuriating in deceptive pleasures of the imagination. Yet I did refresh wearied mind and body when the day's task was done by building castles in the air which were as evanescent as the smoke from my pipe. But there was one of these castles in the air which persistently reared itself anew. This was the thought that there could be no better earthly paradise for me than to possess a one-farm little island, not far from a mainland, where, on sunny days, I could read a book with my face to the sea and my back to a cliff, and where, in other weather circumstances, I could look out from a cosy study window on raging storms and wars of the elements. The long spell of good weather lasted till some time after we got home, and found all well there. The sea was as calm as the proverbial mill pond when the little fussy steamer brought us back in the morning from Douglas to Barrow. We broke our journey at Furness to see the ruins of the Abbey, which are in a sheltered hollow amidst grand old trees. Furness Abbey had, in days of old, close relations with the Isle of Man, and some connection likewise with the Scotch Galloway, which remained long Celtic in race and language. To use a Highland phrase, the day was one of those rare ones which threw a white or fairyland calm on sea and land "feath gheal air muir 's air tir" and indelibly impresses the picture of a lovely scene on one's memory.


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