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Sketch Book of the North
A Loch-side Sunday


A quarter to twelve. How quiet it is! Only the mellow note of a mavis sometimes in the oak woods, and the clear, high treble of a shilfa, break on the stillness. The tinkle of the little village smithy, down there among the trees, is silent. It is the Day of Rest. There was a shower of rain in the early morning; it has laid the dust, and left the road firm and cool to the tread. Everything is refreshed: wild rosebuds, red and white, are everywhere opening after the shower; the yellow whin-blossom is softer and brighter; the delicate forget-me-nots have a lovelier blue; and beyond, in the shady spaces of the woods, the foxgloves raise their spires of drooping bells. The rain, too, has brought out afresh every wayside scent; the new-cut clover there in the meadow, the flowerless sweetbrier and clambering yellow honeysuckle here in the hedge, all fill the air with fragrance. The tide is out, almost at full ebb, and from the stony beach below sometimes the gentle swaying of the air brings up faintly the fresh smell of seaweed. The sun is very warm, and the last of the clouds, floating far up in the sky, are melting into the blue. The air is clear yet, though, and on the other side of the loch the sheep—small white dots—can be quite well seen feeding high up on the green patches of the mountain. A little later the heather will begin to bloom on these brown hill-sides, and the mighty Bens, seated yonder on their rugged thrones, will put on their imperial purple. The loch lying calm below reflects perfectly every detail of the opposite hills—shrub and heather and shieling! Even the white gull, circling slowly a yard above the water, casts its image on the glassy mirror. Out on the open firth, too, beyond the low-lying points at the mouth of the loch, the sea, like cloth of silver, glistens in the sun.

Hark! the bell on the roof of the little kirk among the trees has begun to ring, and already, in groups of two and three, the people are coming along the lochside and down the road from the hills. These early arrivals mostly travel a long way to attend the service. From quiet farmhouses in lonely straths, and solitary shielings on the upland moors, some of the simple-hearted folk have wended for hours. Here are heavy-footed shepherds, shaggy bearded and keen-eyed, in rough mountain tweed and flat Glengarry bonnets, grasping their long hazel staves, and accompanied, more than one of them, by a faithful old collie. There are comely lasses, of sun-browned pleasant features, and soft hill speech, in sober straw hats, strong boots, and serviceable dresses of homespun, with, perhaps, a keepsake kerchief in the bosom for a bit of colour. Over high stiles, across uneven stepping-stones, and through rugged glens of birch and rowan, they have made their way to attend the kirk. Farmers from ten and twelve miles distance come jogging in with their wives and daughters in primitive two-wheeled conveyances, built for strength, and drawn by shaggy little Highland horses. Here, too, come the people from the village—bent old women, their wrinkled faces hidden under snowy linen mutches, and carrying in their hands, with the long-treasured Bible, a sprig of southernwood and sweet-william to smell at during sermon; the big-bearded, big-handed blacksmith, looking wonderfully clean for once; the lithe, sallow-faced tailor, and the widow who keeps the store. All linger in the sunny graveyard among the moss-grown stones, and while the beadle in the porch keeps ringing the bell, greetings are exchanged among friends who meet here once a week from distant ends of the parish. The gamekeeper has a word to say to the pier-master, the schoolmistress comes up talking with the housekeeper from the castle, the old men exchange snuff-boxes with solemn nods, and young McKenzie, who is expecting to be made the Duke’s forester, takes the opportunity, getting near and whispering something of interest to the blacksmith’s pretty daughter.

Presently, however, they all move into the kirk, dropping their "collection" as they pass, upon the plate in the porch, where two deacons stand to watch it. Inside, all is very still, though a swallow that has flown in and skims about the roof gives an occasional chirrup, and the regular rhythm of the bell is faintly heard. The doors are open, yet the sunshine, falling in on the yellow walls, makes the air very warm, and through the clear lattice windows the cattle in the glebe close by can be seen whisking the flies from their sides under the larches. The old precentor has just come in from the vestry with his list of the psalm-tunes, and in his seat under the pulpit is polishing his spectacles by way of preparation. At last the bell stops: there follows a tramp, tramp of heavy feet, and the youth of the parish who by immemorial custom have been hanging about outside till the last moment, file solemnly down the aisles to their seats. The beadle carries in Bible and psalm-book, and, after a moment’s pause, the minister, in ample black gown and white neck-bands, reverently enters and ascends the pulpit.

All is perfectly still for a minute while he bows his head; and then in a low tremulous voice he reads the verses of the rhymed psalm that is to be sung. The precentor leads off the singing, for there is no organ, and as he beats time with his tuning-fork, the praise that ascends, if not perhaps of perfect harmony, is at least sincere. More is felt by these simple folk than is apparent on the surface. Associations of many sorts influence them in the place. Pulpit and pew have been occupied and passed from father to son for generations; memories of the past and hopes of the future alike gather here, and the place is sacred to them all. The grey-haired minister, standing where his father once stood, hears rising about him with the praise of the child lips he has baptized, the quavering voices of those who were young when he was young; and his thoughts are of years gone by. The young forester in the raftered "loft" listens to the singing of a sweet voice in the choir, and his eyes grow bright with the hope and strength of days to come. The youthful look forward; the aged look back; and both feelings are an inspiration of worship.

When the minister has read and prayed—a solemn extempore prayer—and they have sung again, the sermon, the principal part of the service, begins. The opening of the discourse is like the peaceful morning hour of summer. It is the calm, dispassionate statement of truth. Has this no effect? Their minds must be moved by fear. Cloud after cloud rolls up into the sky: the preacher is marshalling the battalions of his argument. Darker and darker they become. No ray of hope can pierce that leaden heaven. All deepens to the gloom of despair. Joy has fled; the twitter of little birds is still. There comes a sharp question—a flash of lightning; then, in a thunder roll of denunciation, argument after argument overwhelms the sinner: the clouds are rent, earth trembles, rain falls. Are the hearers not awed? They must be stirred by gratitude. The thunders cease, the storm sweeps past, the clear light of hope shines again upon earth; a lark flutters up into the sky, and the last clouds of fear are melted afar into the rugged gold of sunset. The sermon is ended. Those who were not moved by reason, awed by terror, or inspired by hope have been thrilled by the earnestness of the preacher. The old have listened with reverent, downcast looks, shaking their bent heads ever and again in solemn conviction; while the young have sat with earnest eyes rivetted on the minister. The discourse has continued without a break for three-quarters of an hour, and when it is over, the hushed stillness lasts for more than a minute. The final prayer is short, condensing and putting in practical form the aspirations of the sermon, not neglecting, either, to stir pity "for all we love, the poor, the sad, the sinful." A "paraphrase" is sung with renewed fervour, and a solemn benediction ends the service.

Slowly the congregation melts out of the kirk. It has been very close inside, and the faint air moving out of doors is most refreshing. The tide is flowing in now with a gentle ripple on the beach, and the little boat at anchor off-shore has drifted round with the current. The sun is striking the west side of the mossy tombstones, the shadows of the trees have shifted on the grass, and all traces of the morning shower have disappeared. The people linger yet a little about the graveyard to talk over points of the sermon. Presently the minister comes out of the vestry, and, stopping here and there to say a kindly word to some of the old folk, who are pleased by the attention, passes across the glebe to the pleasant white manse resting, with deep eaves, among its fuchias and rose-trees.


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