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Reminiscences of Old Scots Folk
Ailie Gordon's Christening Robe, and a Piece of Bread and Cheese


IT WAS VERY OLD AND VERY GRAND. Not that it belonged to anybody of consequence. For the owner of it was not rich, neither had she ever been married. But she had been christened in it herself, and that was not yesterday, for old Ailie Gordon must have been seventy-five, although she never admitted it.

I can see her yet making her way slowly up the brae in the sunshine to the village school, where she had taught the bairns their sewing—hemming, and cross-stitch, and feathering—for many years. She was little and bent, with a faded black bonnet on her head, an auld-farrant face below it, with a pair of bright, faraway eyes looking out from the wrinkles, and an ancient shawl of great black-and-red checked tartan thrown over her shoulders. There was more red than black in the tartan, and the colour was so sun-bleached that the shawl was just like Ailie's own self, mellow and faded and full of that quiet beauty which old age alone can bring, either to a body or a shawl.

She was a great favourite with the bairns. The pocket of her black bombazine gown was seldom without a sweetie, and she loved the beasts and birds about the doors as well as the school-bairns whom she taught. For many a day a tame blackbird, whose broken leg she had once mended with two wooden matches for splints, hopped about her kitchen floor. When any of our bairns got burned, it was always Ailie Gordon who made the Carron oil, with lime shells from the kilns steeped in water.

Her cottage was by the burnside where the bridge gives access to the village. The bridge was the village cross, the newspaper shop, and the club-room all in one; and the public well being at one end of it, the women were on the bridge as often as the men. At the little end window of the cottage you could always see Ailie's white face framed in the gloom. That was her viewpoint, and nothing ever missed her. She saw everybody that came into the village by day, and on the dark winter forenights her lamp was early set on the little sill to light the traveller that passed up or down, in rain or wind or snow.

Ailie Gordon had come of gentlefolks. Her mind was as sharp as one of her own needles. She had gleg eyes and ears that had taken everything in through a long life. We used to think that she could not forget anything even if she tried. It is not for me, however, to tell of all the rare things she kept hidden away in her cupboards and drawers—ivory miniatures of some that were sib to her, soft silken scarfs of delicate colouring, relics which the French prisoners at Lauder had made, old dresses with an antique glory still about them, bits of curious china, and many other old-world odds and ends.

But the best of all was the Christening Robe. Old Ailie herself had been christened in it, and that was not yesterday. Before that, many more had doubtless got their names while wearing it for a couple of hours. But whatever century saw its coming into an ancient west-country seaport town, it is certain that it came first of all from Holland or one of the Low Countries. There, one of Ailie's grand forebears had bought it—perhaps when travelling to the old Scots College at Leyden, that ancient howff of all Scots scholars; or it may be when he was coming home in a red coat from some of the fights in Flanders. If this last was it, the young soldier must have got wind of a bairn born to him in far-off Scotland, for one of the ivory miniatures shows ably the young gallant in the scarlet dress of the old Scots Guard. Anyways, the precious thing came home for the bairn in the old seaport town, and a century or so after, it lay fragrant with sweet lavender and the memories of many a bonny bairn in old Ailie's chest of drawers.

It was like no other christening robe I ever saw; for it was made of rich white satin, heavily embroidered in every part with threads of gold. Its value in the olden days must have been great—tout certainly it is precious now. What delicate rich silky satin, and what beautiful embroideries of gold! Flowers and ornaments, scrolls and leaves, with an initial entwined most mystically in the ivory and gold of the whole! It had no bodice, to be sure; for what delicate infant's waist could thole to be enclosed in such stiff, gorgeous stuff? It was made in one large square-shaped pall, to cover the little one's long white underskirt—a glorious ornamental robe, for only one brief hour's pageantry in kirk or parlour.

Honoured by-the-ordinary was the mother whose bairn was christened in old Ailie's fine satin robe. For it is a custom among Scots mothers to lend out their robes to the mothers of other wee ones who may not have been as fortunate in good gear as themselves. So the christening robe is handed down from one generation to another, and many a fine frail muslin piece of open-work embroidery has served to carry one generation after another to the baptism. We have different names in Scots for our grandchildren,—an Oe or Oye; or, better still, a bairns bairn,—and to many an aged, grandmotherly eye the christening robe never looks better than when it is used for carrying a bairn's bairn to the baptismal basin.

Old Ailie had no bairns of her own, but more than once she was proud to carry a wee one within the folds of her own robe of white and gold. What a Sabbath that was in the country kirk when the summer sun shone down not only on the old foreign embroidery, but on Ailie Gordon's own fine white Paisley shawl, with its corner of red and yellow and black harness pattern, falling in a fringed point down the back of her best black silk gown!

It was the blate young father who carried the bread and cheese. For these great ceremonials of bairnhood have always been leavened with a bit of kind-hearted good luck. The first person to meet a bairn being carried to or returning from baptism was always given a piece of bread and cheese. There are worse customs than this kindly old Scots habit of the baptismal bread and cheese. It was a happy day for the young couple, and a blessed day for the little unconscious babe; and as the father and mother set out for the kirk to consecrate their bairn to God, and rendered thanks on returning for this the best of all the gifts of love, they handed the bread and the cheese in the bairn's name to the first person they forgathered with as a sign that they shared their blessing with all the world. Then the traveller not only ate his hallowed piece, but turned and walked with them a little way to show them that the heart of all the world went with them to wish them and their new-born bairnie joy.

Here is true Scots luck indeed! To have the good wish of every fellow-traveller on the brae that leads at last to the kirk on the hill, and the good blessing of God Himself who is the Father of every bairn that has ever come into an earthly parish.

Whiles the bairn was carried to kirk, and whiles the christening was in the kitchen or parlour at home. For Scots country miles are long, and mothers are not always able to travel them. Many a wee one has been taken long roads in a farm cart to the christening on a fair Sabbath morn, lying, like the Babe of Bethlehem, cradled in straw. The mother balooed it to sleep in her arms when the road was rough and stony on the moors, and the goodman walked at the horse's head in his best blacks, with the bread and cheese kept handy in a napkin for the first he met. And there, in God's house, standing up before a whole parishful of well-kenned faces, many a young herd and his wife have given a bairn to God that has honoured them greatly in after years, either in college or in kirk.

The old folks liked when the baby cried at the christening. They said the crying bairn had good luck. This, in olden times, meant that when the Man of God christened the babe, the cry was the evil spirit being cast out. "I hope the bairn will cry," said a godly old grandmother who could not get to the christening; and she did not know that her quaint saying was the last vestige of this old superstition about evil spirits. The poor innocent bairns! In their clean white souls, new come from God, there is not enough of the breath of evil to dim the most sensitive mirror in the world.

It was also unlucky to dry the water on the face of a newly baptized babe,—for every drop was holy now, —and even the handkerchief that was wetted with the sacred drops was kept as a charm. So were the pins that were placed in any part of the bairn's robe. And all these things point us back to a time when our forebears were the victims of much religious superstition.

*  *  *  *  *

Old Ailie is long since dead. She lies well happit, beaking fornent the sun in the old kirkyard beneath the trees. But the christening robe in white and gold still goes its hallowed round, and many a bairn's bairn, whose little fingers Ailie Gordon first guided among the criss-cross stitches of a sampler canvas, will proudly carry the old Dutch robe to kirk again.


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