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Good Words 1860
True Stories of God's Providence


The Highland hills, before sheep grazed on them, were pastured by cattle only; and, to save the time and trouble of bringing those down from the high hills to be milked every morning and evening, the people to whom they belonged used to build huts and small dairies in some sheltered nook among the hills, and live there during summer, making cheese for the winter. These summer cottages, or shielings, were generally situated beside some little stream, where the grass was greenest and the best shelter was afforded. If you ever walk among the Highland hills, and notice little knolls, green as emerald, with blooming heather like a band of rubies surrounding them, and hear a little stream singing all alone, with here and there a small heap of stones, you are pretty sure that in this spot was once the shieling where happy families lived long ago, where they milked the cattle when the summer sun at morning and evening was shining on those bare precipices, or gleaming on the far-off sea; and boys and girls laughed and sang, and played many a merry hour where now all is silent as the grave!

When the sheep were sent to the hills, the shielings were no longer of any use, and so they fell into ruins. But for many a year one hut remained far up in Glen Immern, inhabited by old Jenny Maclean. How she came to live there we never heard. Perhaps she had been there while a child with her father and mother, and with others who had passed from her sight, but not from the eye of her heart: and so she would see forms among the hills that others saw not, and hear voices of the old time whispering in her ear, or echoing among the knolls, that others heard not. Thus in the lonely glen Jenny was not alone. And I think she knew One who was more real to her than all those dreams of her heart, One who was her Father in heaven, and ever present with her. It is certain, however, that Jenny was singularly respected and beloved. In the Highlands, in the olden time, rich and poor mingled much more than in any country we have ever known or read of. It is a great mistake to suppose that the chiefs or proprietors were proud and haughty to the people. The very reverse was the case. High and low knew all about one another, and took a deep and tender interest in one another's joys and sorrows. In no district on earth was there such intercourse between rich and poor, as in the Highlands; and hence no people were so well mannered; so frank and familiar, yet respectful; so affectionate, and yet so polite and deferential to their superiors. The "laird" was familiarly acquainted with his people, and would converse with them for hours, as man with man. Shaking of hands, for example, heartily and cordially, was the ordinary salutation between acquaintances, whatever was their rank. The utmost respect, courtesy, and kindness was thus always shewn to the poorest; and a respect for those who were respectable was universal—never surpassed, and seldom equalled, in any society we have ever seen. Thus Jenny though poor was good, and so was known and respected by all the parish. When she came down from the glen once a year to the "big house," the laird's wife brought her into the dining-room and chatted with her, and gave her something from her own hand to eat and drink as a pledge of friendship. The minister visited her regularly; and she came as regularly to see the family, and would remain for days a welcome guest in the kitchen. Besides this, she was often sent for to nurse the sick, and few houses had not received her advice and assistance in time of trouble; for Jenny knew a remarkable collection of "cures," —that is, medicines made up from plants and roots, —as remedies for those accidents and diseases which were common in the country. These "cures" were at one time familiar to many in the Highlands, and until educated physicians settled there, were the only sources of relief to the sufferer, and very good service they did. By such means, old Jenny was a sort of public character. No one passed her cottage, on their way across the mountains to the thickly-peopled valley on the other side, without calling on her and giving her all the news of the district.

A goat and a couple of hens were all Jenny's property. But then she got wool from one family, and meal from another, and her peats from a third; so that she lived in such comfort as no forced poor-law ever gave, or can give; for charity did not injure self-respect, and every gift was a sign of kindness. Spring was the trying season, when the winter had almost exhausted all her means of living. The meal was nearly done— potatoes were not then so common among the poor —the pasture was scanty for the goat; and Jenny was sometimes forced to take a journey to visit her kind neighbours down near the sea-coast, driven, like a vessel in a storm, for shelter to a friendly harbour. "Well, it so happened that one day, just as she was planning an excursion to get some meal, and when her hut was empty of almost all food except the little milk she could get from a goat, that a dreadful snow-storm came on. For a long time it became a sort of date in the parish, and people counted so many years before or after "the great storm." Never had they seen such a constant and heavy fall with such deep snowdrifts. When the heavens at last became clear, the whole face of the country seemed changed. It was some time before the thought suddenly occurred to a shepherd—"What has old Jenny been doing all this time?" No sooner was her name mentioned than she at once became the theme of conversation among all the cottages in the Highland hamlet nearest Glen Immern, and throughout the parish. But for many days, such was the state of the weather that no mortal foot could wade through the snow-wreaths, or buffet the successive storms which swept down with blinding fury from the hills. Jenny was given up as lost! When the minister prayed for her there was a deep silence in the small church, and the sighs of many were heard. At last, three men resolved, on the first day that made the attempt possible, to proceed up the long and dreary glen, and search for Jenny. They brought food in their plaids, and whatever comforts they thought necessary—nay, they resolved to carry the old woman home with them, if she was found alive. So off they went; and many an eye watched those three black dots among the snow, slowly tracking their way up Glen Immern. At last, they reached a rock at an angle, where the Glen takes a turn to the left, and where the old woman's cottage ought to have been seen. But nothing met the eye except a smooth white sheet of glittering snow, surmounted by black rocks; and all below was silent as the sky above! No sign of life greeted the eye or ear. The men spoke not a word, but muttered some exclamations of sorrow. "She is alive!" suddenly cried one of the shepherds; "for I see smoke." They pushed bravely on. When they reached the hut, nothing was visible except the two chimneys; and even those were lower than the snow-wreath. There was no immediate entrance but by one of the chimneys. A shepherd first called to Jenny down the chimney, and asked if she was alive; but before receiving a reply, a large fox sprang out of the chimney, and darted off to the rocks.

"Alive!" replied Jenny; "but thank God you have come to see me! I cannot say come in by the door; but come down—come down."

In a few minutes her three friends easily descended by the chimney, and were shaking Jenny warmly by the hand. Hurried questions were put and answered.

"Oh, woman! how have you lived all this time?"

"Sit down and I will tell you," said old Jenny, whose feelings now gave way in a fit of hysterical weeping. After composing herself, she continued, "How did I live? you ask, Sandy. I may say, just as I have always lived, by the power and goodness of God, who feeds the wild beasts."

"The wild beasts, indeed," replied Sandy, drying his eyes; "did you know that a wild beast was in your own house? Did you see the fox that jumped out of your chimney as we entered?"

"My blessings on the dear beast!" said Jenny, with fervour. "May no huntsman ever kill it! and may it never want food in summer or winter!"

The shepherds looked at one another by the dim light of Jenny's fire, evidently believing that she had become slightly insane.

"Stop, lads," she continued, "till I tell you the story. I had in the house, when the storm began, the goat and two hens. Fortunately, I had fodder gathered for the goat which kept it alive, although, poor thing, it has had but scanty meals. But it lost its milk. I had also peats for my fire, but very little meal; yet I never lived better; and I have been able besides to preserve my two bonnie hens for summer. I every day dined on flesh meat too, a thing I have not done for years before ; and thus have I lived like a lady."

Again the shepherds were amazed, and asked in a low voice, as if in pity for her state, ''Where did you get meat, Jenny?"

"From the old fox, Sandy!"

"The fox!" they all exclaimed.

"Ay, the fox," said Jenny; "just the dear, old fox, the best friend I ever had. I'll tell you how it was. The day of the storm he looked into the chimney, and came slowly down, and set himself on the rafter beside the hens, yet never once touched them. Honest fellow ! he is sorely miscalled ; for he every day provided for himself, and for me, too, like a kind neighbour, as he was. He hunted regularly like a gentleman, and brought in game in abundance for his own dinner—a hare almost every day—and what he left I got, and washed, and cooked, and eat, and so I have never wanted! Now that he has gone, you have come to relieve me."

"God's ways are past finding out!" said the men, bowing down their heads with reverence.

"Praise the Lord," said Jenny, "who giveth food to the hungry!"

This story was told me, as strictly true, by an old clergyman, who attended Jenny's funeral about sixty years ago, and can point out to this day the ruins of her hut.

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