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Reminiscences of Old Scots Folk
The Hinmost Sleep


"Carry me over the long last mile,
Man of Nazareth, Christ for me!"

AMONG THE UPLANDS AND THE HILLS men, women, and bairns are well accustomed to the long road and the steep brae. There are, I suppose, many walking the streets this day who have never walked a score of miles on a stretch of country road from one end of life to another,—kirk, doctor, and counting-house are but a stone's-throw from their doors,—and if a man can win at religion, health, and daily work by the short road, he seldom seeks the long way round.

But at Fairshiels, most things worth winning are at a distance. In sickness or in health we have to go far for help. Yet the country way has its own blessing; for those who walk farthest in life keep farthest from death, and all up and down the Lammermoors you will find hale old folk with the cheeriest of faces, in which are set a pair of far-away, old-time eyes. So it has become a custom among us to speak of life itself as the Long Road.

But the longest road must havean end, and it is one of the uncos of life that we can never bid good-bye without a pang. Still and on, we can say that there is more beauty about the Last Mile to countryfolk now than there was in the stern old days. We have learned a cleaner way of life, which makes us look with a less fearful eye on death—and all this comes from an ever growing knowledge of the good God's love.

In every country kirkyard you will find the history of the parish written on tables of stone. In Fairshiels there are two volumes to the local history book—for there is an old kirkyard and a new. The old God's acre stands high on the rising ground above the village, encircled by ancient trees—the new one lies at the foot of the moor road, bielded by a belt of pines.

Here our countryfolk sleep sound at last, and here in midsummer heat or winter cold we lay our beloved to rest. The time was when stern Scots folk kept up their strifes in death as they had done in life—when little innocent bairns, who had come into the world unwelcomed, were sent away unbaptized and unnamed to a corner in the kirkyard of their own, without a blessing from priest or pastor. And those who, with rash hand, had drawn aside the curtain that divides this world from the next were kept outside the hallowed ground altogether. The self-destroyed were always buried where three lairds' lands met, and I am thinking now of an island in the west where a ruined kirkyard stands on a cliff with nothing but wee green howes in it where the unbaptized bairns and the disowned were buried by themselves in an unholy exile, with only one long grave in their midst, old Cairstine's, the blind witch. But of them and her we may hear again.

Now the kirkyard in Scotland is all one God's Acre. When it comes to the end of things, we lay a-side all differences of creed and rank, reputation and age, fortune or failure, and take our places side by side on the hill among the howes, well pleased to leave the weighing of life to the Great Father who makes no errors of judgment, and who claims us all for His own bairns. So in Fairshiels I have seen a Roman priest standing in the deep snow of a dreary winter day to robe himself and his two little acolytes in white skirts with lace frills, while both Papist and Presbyter stood reverently side by side to hear the strange words and see the stranger sprinkling of the holy water with which a poor man's soul was committed to God. But mostly we commit our dead with simpler ceremony to their last resting-place, and those are wisest who can make up all their bickers before they fall on sleep.

It was a rare quiet day of early spring when we carried Adam Allison over the Last Mile. He went a-way, as he had lived, modestly, with his house all in order, and without a complaint. The sun shone out of a clear blue sky upon the grey-green world as the men gathered in the roadway about the garden gate down in the sleepy hollow where the old man had come to spend his last days. They were all there, from the Laird to the labourer. It is our way of showing sympathy in country places. We are known to one another all through life. So we gather with one accord to bid each other good-bye when it comes to the hinder end.

The little cottage with the fir trees rising behind it, and the garden stretching up to the road in front, and the burn whimpling between the house and the meadow, was invested with a strange dignity as the minister passed down the walk to the door. The still air seemed to be instinct with the sense of a presence that was lingering somewhere close by, unseen. The garden he had tended so faithfully cried out in mute appeal for the hand that would tend it no more. A spade stood at the end of an unfinished trench, giving startling testimony to the labourer's sudden interruption in his task. The well-trimmed hedge, whose cuttings lay still ungathered; the half-empty box of seed potatoes lying waiting to be planted beside their fellows; the little heap of chopped wood; the carefully raked gravel walk—everything that the eye rested upon seemed to whisper, "He is not dead, but sleepeth."

For a whole generation Adam Allison had sat in the corner pew by the east door in Fairshiels kirk. It was he who kept the quaint sheepskin-covered book whose ancient yellow pages told the tale of the contributions of Christ's folk among the hills. It was he who with careful hand had prepared the bread and poured out the wine in the old pewter cups for the Sacrament of the Lord. It was he who reverently laid the snow-white cloth on the holy table, pinning it round at the ends with fastidious hand in his own particular way. Silent, reserved, devout—this Clerk of Christ had served his fellows with an antique courtesy, and his kirk with steadfast loyalty. He had seen one minister after another come and go, and now he was following them himself, at God's bidding, when all was done.

Within the cottage the silence is only broken by the sound of the minister's voice repeating those words of everlasting consolation which have taken the edge from sorrow for many a bereaved heart; and in a new burst of living sunlight the slow procession begins to ascend the steep, winding brae which leads from Sleepy Hollow to Fairshiels.

How the old-time memories are recalled by this one and that as we climb the Last Mile! How often the school bairns run up this very brae with lightsome steps of play; how bravely strong men are breasting it with heavy loads on their backs every day; and how steep and forbidding it becomes to those who are past the allotted span of years! Until, one day, our nearest of kin have to carry us over its brow, and lay us to rest beside our own kith in the green kirkyard.

Some wondered at the last resting-place of old Adam Allison when they saw the open grave—not beside his own folk, but hard by the family vault of a well-known merchant in the city. But the minister knew why the old man was laid there.

"Lay me," he had said, "beside my old friend and master, with whom I have trafficked these forty years. I have found him a' that he should be in life, and I would like to be close beside him in death."

This was his last sentiment.

And in these present days, when the world seems to be for ever wrangling over the enmities of master and servant, it is good to stand here in the spring sunshine and see the living sentiment of a servant's love immortalised beyond the grave. For to be sib in life to those we love is to be sib in death for evermore.

When the last words of committal and prayer have been said, and we turn away from the green hill towards our village homes, it is with an inexpressible regret in our hearts for the breaking of the last of those living links which bind us to the past, and a thankful prayer to Him who will continue to lead our bairns' bairns by the green pastures and the still waters after we too have been carried over the Last Mile.

Oh the old days, and the old ways,
And the world is it used to be!
How the heart goes out in longing
For the days we shall never see!

For friends grow old, and heads grow grey,
And time flies fast;
But all the love in the world, dear,
Will never bring back the past.

Oh the steep brae, and the long brae,
The brae we used never to see!
Youth ran to the top with laughter,
And breasted it easily.

But age creeps slow, with back bent low,
And level roads are best
For the feet that refuse to climb, dear,
When the sun goes down in the west.

But the old days, and the old ways
Are the life of the days to come,
And the lost will be found again, dear,
When we all win home.

So, let friends grow old and leave us,
And let time fly never so fast,
The love that is better than life, dear,
Will rob us of nothing at last.

The Pathos of Life


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