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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter IX — Old New Year: A Reminiscence

TO-DAY is New-Year’s Day, the first of January, 1 1904. In my young days, the Twelfth, a date now all but forgotten, was the day, and a great day too! The whole village, dressed in its Sunday best, turned out early to football and shinty.

There were no restrictions in numbers or in age: old and young met on the same field, and all were made welcome. Twenty! Fifty! One hundred a side ! And the more the merrier.

How well I remember the old days!

My heart still beats faster at the thoughts conjured up by them.

We are told somewhere that “A thousand years is to the Lord as one day;” and what is the longest of lifetimes when looked back upon, to man made in His image—to man the Godlike?

It is but as yesterday.

The memory of events that happened on a certain New Year’s Day some forty years ago, rises up before me while I write, clear and distinct as crag and scaur on summer hill before rain.

My dearest school friend and myself—we were as David and Jonathan in the closeness of our friendship !—were to take part in the game of football for the first time. How proud we felt, as we marched alongside of our seniors to the bank field, which was granted free for the occasion by Campbell of Auchindarroch,—the Pipers leading the way to the tune of “Bhanais, a bhanais, a bhanais a Raora.” .

There was a cool crisp feeling in the air that intoxicated, and many an iron-shod boot struck out anvil-notes from the hard ground as we made our way to the scene of action, making music in hearts already brimming over with the joy of gladness.

Every sound had a special significance to us on that morning of mornings, and seemed laden with a message of “Peace and goodwill to man.”

The twittering of the sparrows under the eaves of the house; the chirp of the robin in the holly bush hard by; the whimpering of the sea-birds on the icebound shore,—I seem to hear them still.

From the frozen river below, where some children were sliding, and one solitary skater, too “delicate” to take part in the great game, was wheeling about in graceful curves, the song of the ice floated up on the calm morning air, a delight to the ear.

While we waited for the settling of the all-important preliminaries, such as the choosing of captains and sides and the fixing of goals, the suspense was delicious, and it was with a thrill of excitement that we heard our own names at length called.

And now—having won the toss—as our captain, a tall, strapping young fisherman, in huge jack boots, stepped proudly out and in front of the field kicked off the ball, a mighty shout went up from a hundred throats strained to cracking point, that rent the air in twain, and hurtled north, disturbing the rooks as they sat warming their toes in the Bishopton trees, and sped west, past the canal and Auchindarroch House to the dark Tomb Wood, where the jackdaws, cowering among the ivy on the ruined walls, heard it and wondered ; and swept south over the frozen waters of Lochgilp, crackling through the solitary street which formed the fishing village of Ardrishaig like a salvo of artillery, and bringing the old women to their doors.

These latter, with many a wise shake of the head and sapient nod, breathed forth in one breath a hope and a prophecy. “Sure it’s the boys at the ba’,” said the one to the other. “I hope there’ll no be bloodshed before they’re done.”

It was not a very venturesome prophecy this to make ; not a very bold suggestion on the part of the old wives of Ardrishaig, who spoke from an intimate knowledge of their mankind and his behaviour in the past; for wherever men from different townships were gathered together in those days, whether at games or sports, at fairs or markets, at weddings or funerals, the most trivial discussion, once started, generally ended in a free fight.

But on this particular day of which I write the sun shone out of a clear sky all morning, flooding the land and the hearts of the players with brightness and gladness, and leaving no dark corner anywhere for fierce or angry thoughts to breed in.

Two Instruments allied to the Bagpipe.

Oil the left is the Chinese Cheng, a wind instrument as old as the days of Confucius. On the right is the Indian snake-charmer’s pipe. The wind bag in both these instances is represented by a hollowed-out gourd.

The only accident indeed that happened during the forenoon, and a pretty frequent one too, was the bursting of the bladder with which the old-fashioned football was blown up. When this occurred, came our opportunity.

At the game itself we boys were not of much use. Playing on the outskirts of the crowd, for safety’s sake, we occasionally got the chance of picking up the ball and of running off with it; but how could we run far, with a huge Jack in seven-league boots close on our tracks, and rapidly overtaking us with mighty stride?

Now, however, when it came to the buying of a bladder we could be useful. We knew right well the difference between the three kinds which generally adorned the flesher’s shop, as they hung in rows from strong iron hooks fixed into the wooden rafters overhead. It would take a very clever man to palm off upon us—young and all as we were—the inferior sheep’s or cow’s for the more substantial pig’s. Threepence, fourpence, and fivepence were the usual prices, but on New Year’s Day the demand was great and prices ruled high, the unconscionable butcher making extortionate demands—even to the extent of eightpence or ninepence—from the players, who were of course in his power, the demand being greater than the supply.

On this occasion I was one of the two who were chosen for the special mission of bladder-buying, and it was with a feeling- of great importance that we ran down the crowded field in view of all on our way to the village square, where stood the butcher’s shop.

“Be sure you bring a pig’s,” cried one greybeard; “Get it as cheap as you can,” said another; while a score of voices sped us on our way with the shout of “Hurry back; hurry back.”

And hurry back we did, I can assure you, breathless and panting, but full of pride and joy at having knocked a whole penny off the butcher’s price. To-day the smallest boy or girl scoffs at so insignificant a sum as a penny, and holidays are of weekly occurrence. In those days a penny was a penny, and the Queen’s Birthday and Old New Year were the only holidays in the year.

At noon a much-needed halt was called, when a few of the players went home for dinner, but the majority remained on the field, and partook of a modest meal of bread and cheese and whisky galore—“lashins and lavins in whisky”—which had been provided for by a subscription raised earlier in the day from the players on the ground.

After a short rest, during which the “sneeshan mull” was handed round freely, and quiet jokes recounted by the elders, while the young men indulged in the game of brag, the game was once more started, but with renewed vigour, each side, with an equal number of goals to its credit at the interval, determined to win.

From the very outset the game was seen to be rougher, and tempers were curbed with difficulty, so that over and over again the forebodings of the old wives of Ardrishaig all but came true. At length the word was spoken, with the insult in it that nothing but blood would wipe out. A challenge was given and accepted, umpires were appointed, and while the combatants stripped for the fray, the players, glad of the rest, seated themselves round in a circle on the grass to watch the fight and discuss probabilities.

I have said that the football of those days was not so scientific as is the modern game; there was not at least so much head play in it, but boxing, while not perhaps quite like the modern science either, was on a much higher level of excellence.

Every boy at school had learned to use his fists, and I need hardly add that gloves were unknown, and that the fight was generally a fight to the finish.

Now, with stout hearts behind strong arms, and clothed in the “quarrel just,” I have seen many a contest in the old days, that for pluck and endurance, and the courage that can take a “licking like a man,” would take a great deal of beating even to-day.

One fight which I saw between little Ian Fraser and big Neil M‘Geoghan lives fresh in my memory yet. It was “a great effort entirely” for Fraser to beat the bully M‘Geoghan, who was a giant compared to him, and had a tremendous reach of arm, and was looked upon as the most scientific boxer in the district. The battle of the gods, when Pelion was heaped upon Ossa, was not a more glorious encounter than this, and if I had the pen of an Ovid I might try and describe here, although it is in nowise connected with the Bagpipe, a fight that was the talk of the village for many a long day after. But if Neil is still alive I would fain be the last to open up old sores; besides, his broken nose speaks more eloquently of that rude encounter than any pen of mine can ; and if he is dead, which I very much suspect, then peace be to his ashes.

Three different fights on that afternoon formed pleasant interludes in a game that might otherwise have flagged.

And when descending darkness brought play to a close, the opposing sides, now that the contest was over, marched back to the village, more friends than ever, with the pipers leading the way.

The evening was spent in merry-making, in strathspey and reel dancing, interspersed with riddle guessing, and the singing of old Gaelic songs, and in this way in olden times the New Year was well begun.

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