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Reminiscences of Old Scots Folk
The Blind Gangrel


IF THE SCOT IS A GRIPPY MAN WITH SILLER, it is because his land of birth is an ill place to gather gear. So when he gets even a pickle wealth, he is unco loth to part with it. But one way or another, Scotland has aye been rich in one thing—beggars.

It was Andrew Fletcher, the great patriot, who wrote within his own library at Saltoun in the year 1698 these words: "There are at this day two hundred thousand people begging from door to door. And though the number of them be perhaps double to what it was formerly, by reason of this present great distress, yet in all times there have been about one hundred thousand of these vagabonds who have lived without any regard or subjection either to the laws of the land, or even those of God and nature."

If the great statesman at Saltoun was right, then in a country with little over one million people in it, there must have been, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, one beggar for every five people in the land. Little wonder, then, that the country which has bred the best of men and brains on oatmeal and conscience was known at one time as Puir Auld Scotland.

Poverty has always been kindly dealt with in a country which itself has been so poor. Long ago, when hungry vagabonds roamed the country, the Scots law decreed that no man was to be charged with theft for as much meat as he could carry on his back. This was surely to lighten the weight of the heaviest sheep!

So to help the poor, in the time of James VI. a licence was given to a certain number of beggars in every parish. They wore blue gowns, to which were pinned lead badges supplied by the Kirk Session with the name of the parish stamped upon them. Added to their accoutrements of mendicancy was a stout leathern wallet which gave to these blue gownsmen the name of Gaberlunzies. Each parish was divided into different bands or strips, and a gaberlunzie might take one band each day until he had begged over the whole parish in a fortnight. To be three years resident in a parish was to qualify for the blue gown and lead token of the gaberlunzie.

From that ancient time to this, we have never been without the wandering man. In the towns and cities the law hunts him from one howf to another. But in the quiet country-places and in the highland glens in summer-time, he is still to be seen—no longer, it is true, with blue gown and leaden label, but with his little brown tent and willow wands, in which his gangrel wife and brown, barefooted bairns sleep, or trudging on alone with his bundle on his back, the world always before him at the top of each brae, and life one Great To-morrow that holds in it for him, no more or less than for us, the new, the unknown, and the better things that are always to be.

But the Blind Gangrel was one of the last of these namely picturesque wandering men that in past days used to make the roads of Scotland the happy hunting ground of those who love all that is kenspeckle in human nature.

It is many years since I first saw him with his dogs near the long glen-foot which lies on the wise man's side of Schiehallion. He was then on his way from Loch Tay to Rannoch, and as he never covered more
than five or six miles of good high road in the space of one day, it was easy to win up on him from behind.

What a queer character he was! He had a good six feet of highland stuff in him, with a fine old headpiece set proudly on a pair of broad shoulders, a brick-brown weather-beaten face with an old glengarry bonnet cocked over a shock of curly white hair. The high brow, the eagle nose with the aggressive breeding of a whole score of chieftains in it, a middling chin, with just a hint of slackness about the mouth below the white moustache, and a pair of true-blue, misty, farben highland eyes—surely a fine adventure in headcraft this, if only the eyes had not been blind! For the rest— add an ancient kilt of the colour that needs no introduction in Lochaber, home-knitted hosen of red and black marl, monstrous boots, a ragged rain-coat with a hint of the fine gentleman still in its cut, and over coat and all a thick black tarpaulin cape.

Whatever treasures of the humble this last might hide, it still took the baggage and the dogs to complete the blind gangrel's accoutrements. For, slung across the shoulders was a thick leathern strap, from one end of which dangled a square wooden box on the chest, balancing two bolsters or pokes, which hung from the other end down on the small of his back. In each hand he carried a stout stick to guide him as he crept along, grasping at the same time in the left hand the long dog-chain of the dour-looking collie that led him. A second collie ranged freely by his side. A set of bagpipes lay in the wooden box, and the back bolsters contained his changes and wherewithals.

An exchange of courtesies in the passing, and the travel-talk soon began. From John o'Groats to Crieff, with some word of the Lothians, Linlithgow kirk and palace, and the glens and bens between—he knew them all, for he had been on the road for a whole generation. My own rags were little better than his, for it had been a long, hard-climbing day, yet he jaloused by the voice what I was.

"Parson or dominie?"

"The first. But how did you know?"

"Because you speak like one that explains to the crowd."

"Have you the Gift, then?"

"Ay—so. But I am old and done now, and when the body is failing, the thrum of the spirit is easy broke."

With that we came to the garden gate, from which you can see the deer coming down the hill fornent to feed on the sweeter grasses in the quiet evening sun. I asked him in to rest and eat, and we were soon seated on the grass. For he would not cross the doorstep. So out came the Bit Ladye whose chief business in life is to entertain gangrels; tea and scones followed; and there, with the growling collies guarding the box and bolsters, the blind beggar slipped a wooden coggie from beneath his cape, and held it out for the tea. When he ate the scones, a dog's mouth joined his on either side of the white moustache, and so the three of them nibbled quietly at the same piece. If one of us happened to touch the wooden box or the bolsters, there was a snarl and a snap from the collies.

"Ah! Dinna meddle wi' my bit things, or the dogs will flee at ye!"

So the feast went on, with intermittent talk of hillcraft and the gift, until the last drop of tea was drained from the coggie.

There is something weird in listening to the talk of a blind old man who has the Sight. Let glib folk from the cities say what they will, there are high mysteries blowing, like the wind, about a hillman's soul, and the Unseen envelops him, like the mist in a corrie.

Then came the spaeing of our fortunes. For he read the hand, feeling it all over with a strong, firm touch, and peering into the lines in the summer evening sun-shine with his almost sightless eyes. He truly divined many things that were past, and spoke plainly of some things that are hidden away in a man's own knowledge of himself. Then a routh of other things: Jenny Geddes and her stool, conscience and the schools, human affinities and the sense of God—these were some of the subjects of our evening collogue.

We spoke, too, of the high mountains and the solitary stravaigings of men who, like ourselves, love them with a great love. He talked of winds and thunders and the whispering voices that speak to men out of the swirling mists. He showed great intimacy with the Book, and those holy things which are only revealed to one who is in rapport with the unseen. Then, pointing to the hills that were sleeping in their evening silences all about us, he ended with these words:—

"You can never win close to Him till you climb high up yonder all your lone, where there is no one else to break the thrum."

At last, with much yelping from the dogs, he rose to go, swinging with ease the box and bolsters over his shoulder, and muttering to himself all the while.

The glen folks said he was a lost laird, with a story of his own that could not stand the telling; and sure enough, he would give no hint of name or clan or dwelling-place. But on parting at the bend of the bridge over the river which in the good Gaelic is called the Spatey Stream, he turned to me and said, "When you are far away in yon dark town, call me, if you like. The man who wears the Urim and the Thummim!"

So with that we parted. But we were sib. And we shall meet again—some day!

There's a gangrel bit in the heart of me
That makes me sib to the wandering man,
And many a time has my soul cried out
For the way men lived when the world began—
Wind, and sun, and the splash of rain,
And the bonny brown earth to roam;
With beasts and birds and flowers for friends,
And the bield of a wood for home.
So I say good-bye to the haunts of men
Where the fever of life runs high,
And the noise of the midnight street is heard
'Neath the glare of the lamp-lit sky!
For the road, the hill, and the running stream
Keep calling my heart through the summer night,
Like a yammering whaup that seeks its mate
On the purple moor in the sunset light.
Then I lie at rest, with the silver stars
Piercing the velvety darkness through,
And I hear the sound of the mountain streams
Quieting the soul like a bairn's baloo.
For men were not only fashioned to live
'Mid the clash and clang of a jostling crowd;
God made the silence as well as the sound,
And the simple soul as well as the proud.
So I climb the desolate hills that make
The ramparts of God's great world,
Where the ruins of earth from shattered cliffs
Down from their summits are hurled.
There—in the windless silence, alone,
Forgetful of every load,
I lift my soul to the Infinite,
In perfect rapport with God.


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