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Book of Scottish Story
Peat-Casting Time

By Thomas Gillespie

In the olden times, there were certain fixed occasions when labour and frolic went hand in hand—when professional duty and kindhearted glee mutually kissed each other. The "rockin’” mentioned by Burns—

"On Fasten e'en we had a rockin’ ”—

I still see in the dim and hazy distance of the past. It is only under the refractive medium of vigorous recollection that I can again bring up to view (as the Witch of Ender did Samuel) those images that have been reposing, " ’midst the wreck of things that were," for more than fifty years. Yet my early boyhood was familiar with these social senile and juvenile festivities. ‘There’ still sits Janet Smith, in her toy-mutch and check-apron, projecting at intervals the well-filled spindle into the distance. Beside her is Isabel Kirk, elongating and twirling the yet unwound thread. Nanny Nivison occupies a ‘creepy’ on the further side of the fire (making the third Fate !), with her shears. Around, and on bedsides, are seated Lizzy Gibson, with her favoured lad; Tam Kirkpatrick, with his jo jean on his knee; Rob Paton the stirk-herd ; and your humble servant. And "now the crack gaes round, and who so wilful as to put it by?" The story of past times ; the report of recent love-matches and miscarriages; the gleeful song, bursting unbid from the young heart, swelling forth in beauty and in brightness like the waters from the rock of Meribah: the occasional female remonstrance against certain ‘welcome’ impertinences, in shape of, "Come now, Tam—nane o’ yer nonsense.” "Will ! I say, be peaceable, and behave yersel afore folk. 'Od, ye’ll squeeze the very breath out o’ a body.”

“Till, in a social glass o' strunt,
They parted oft careering
On sic a night.”

“I’ve heard a lilting at our ewe-milking.”

How few of the present generation have ever heard of this "lilting,” except in song. It is the gayest and sunniest season of the year. The young lambs, in their sportive whiteness, are coursing it, and bleating it, responsive to their dams, on the hill above. The old ewes on the plain are marching—

“The labour much of man and dog” —

to the pen or fold. The response to the clear-toned bleat of their woolly progeny is given, anon and anon, in a short, broken, low bass. It is the raven conversing with the jackdaw ! All is bustle, excitement, and badinage.

"Weer up that ewe, Jenny, lass. Wha kens but her woo may yet be a blanket for you and ye ken wha to sleep in!”

"Haud yer tongue, Tammie, and gang hame to yer books and yer schoolin. Troth, it will be twa days ere the crews dirty your kirk riggin!”

Wouf, wouf wouf!—hee, hee, hee! —
hoch, hoch, hoch !—there in they go,

and in they are, their horny heads wedged over each other, and a trio of stout, well-made damsels, with petticoats tied up “a la breeches” tugging away at their well-filled dugs.

"Troth, Jenny; that ewe will waur ye ; ’od, I think ye hae gotten hand o’ the auld tup himsel. He’s as powerfu, let me tell ye, as auld Francie,‘wham ye kissed sae snug last nicht ayont the peat-mou.”

"Troth, at weel, Tam, ye’re a fearfu liar. They wad be fonder than I am o’ cock birds wha wad gie tippence for the stite o’ a howlet."

"Howlet here, howlet there, Jenny, ye ken weel his auld brass will buy you a new pan.”

At this crisis the crack becomes general and inaudible from its universality, mixed as it is with the bleating of ewes, the barking of dogs, together with the singing of herd-laddies and of your humble servant.

Harvest is a blithe time! May all the charms of " Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on him ” who shall first invent a reaping-machine! The best of all reaping-machines is "the human arm divine," whether brawny or muscular, or soft and rounded. The old woman of sixty sits all year long at her domestic occupations—you would deem her incapable of any out-door exertions; but, at the sound of the harvest-horn, she renews her youth, and sallies forth into the harvest-field, with hook over shoulder, and a heart buoyant with the spirit of the season, to take her place and drive her rig with the youngest there. The half-grown boy and girl of fourteen are mingled up in duty and in frolic, in jest and jibe, and jeer and laugh, with the stoutest and the most matured. Mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, and, above and beyond all, "lads and lasses, lovers gay !” mix and mingle in one united band, for honest labour and exquisite enjoyment ; and when at last the joyous kirn is won —when the maiden of straw is borne aloft and in triumph, to adorn for twelve months the wall of the farmer’s ben—when the rich and cooling curds-and-cream have been ramhorn-spooned into as many mouths as there are persons in the "toun ”—then comes the mighty and long-anticipated festival, the roasted ox, the stewed sheep, the big pot enriched with the cheering and elevating draught, the punch dealt about in ladies and in jugs, the inspiring fiddle, the maddening reel, and the Highland fling.

“We cannot but remember such things were,
And were most dear to us!”

Hay harvest, too, had its soft and delicate tints, resembling those of the grain harvest. As the upper rainbow curves and glows with fainter colouring around the interior and the brighter, so did the hay harvest of yore anticipate and prefigure, as it were, the other. The hay tedded to the sun; the bare-footed lass, her locks floating in the breeze, her cheeks redolent of youth, and her eyes of joy, scattering or collecting, carting or ricking, the sweetly-scented meadow produce, under a June sun and a blue sky!

“Oh, to feel as I have felt,
Or be what I have been ! “ —

the favoured lover, namely, of that youthful purity, now in its fourteenth summer—myself as pure and all unthinking of aught but affection the most intense, and feelings the most soft and unaccountable.

“Ah, little did thy mother think,
That day she cradled thee,
What lands thou hadst to travel in,
What death thou hadst to dee!”

Poor Jeanie Johnston! I have seen her, only a few weeks ago, during the sittings of the General Assembly, sunk in poverty, emaciated by disease, the wife of an old soldier, himself disabled from work, tenanting a dark hovel in Pipe’s Close, Castlehill of Edinburgh.

In the upper district of Dumfries-shire—the land of my birth, and of all those early associations which cling to me as the mistletoe to the oak, and which are equally hallowed with that druidical excrescence—there are no coals, but a superabundance of moss; consequently peat-tires are very generally still, and were, at the time of which I speak, universally, made use of; and a peat-fire, on a cold, frosty night of winter. when every star is glinting and goggling through the blue, or when the tempest raves, and …

“There’s no a star in a' the cary,”

is by no means to be despised. To be sure, it is short-lived—but then it kindles soon ; it does not, it is true, entertain us with fantastic and playful jets of flame—but then its light is full, united, and steady; the heat which it sends out on all sides is superior to that of coals. Wood is sullen and sulky, whether in its log or faggot form. It eats away into itself, in a cancer ignition. But the blazing peat—

“The bleezing ingle, and the clean hearthstane”—

is the very soul of cheerfulness and comfort. But then peats must be prepared. They do not grow in hedges, nor vegetate in meadows. They must be cut from the black and consolidated moss ; and a peculiarly-constructed spade, with a sharpe edge and crooked ear, must be made use of for that purpose ; and into the field of operation must be brought, at casting-time, the spademen, with their spades ; and the barrowmen, and women, boys, and girls, with their barrows; and the breakfast sowans, with their creamy milk, cut and crossed into circles and squares; and the dinner stew, with its sappy potatoes and gusty-onioned mutton fragments ; and the rest at noon, with its active sports and feats of agility; and, in particular, with its jumps from the moss-brow into the soft, marshy substance beneath—and thereby hangs my tale, which shall be as short and simple as possible.

One of the loveliest visions of my boyhood is Nancy Morrison. She was a year or so older than me; but we went and returned from school together. She was the only daughter of a poor widow woman, who supported herself in a romantic glen on the skirts of the Queensberry Hills, by bleaching or whitening webs. In those days, the alkalines and acids had not yet superieded the slower progress of whitening green linen by soap-boiling, trampling, and alternate drying in the sun, and wetting with pure running water. Many is the time and oft that Nanny and I have wielded the watering-pan, in this fairy, sunny glen, all day long. Whilst the humble-bee boomed past us, the mavis occupied the thorn-tree, and the mother of Nanny employed herself in some more laborious department of the same process, Nanny and I have set us down on the greensward—‘in tenaci gramine’ —played at chucks, “head him and cross him,” or some such amusement. At school, Nanny had ever a faithful defender and avenger in me; and I have even purloined apples and gooseberries from the castle garden—and all for the love I bore "to my Nanny, oh !”

I know not that any one has rightly described a first love. It is not the love of man and woman, though that be fervent and terrible; it is not the love of mere boy and girlhood, though that be disinterested and engrossing; but it is the love of the period of life which unites the two. “Is there a man whose blood is warm within him” who does not recollect it? Is there a woman who has passed through the novitiate of fifteen, who has not still a distinct impression of the feeling of which I speak? It is not sexual, and yet it can only exist betwixt the sexes. It is the sweetest delusion under which the soul of a created being can pass. It is modest, timid, retiring, bashful; yet, in absence of the adored—in seclusion, in meditation, and in dreams—it is bold, resolute, and determined. There is no plan, no design, no right conception of ‘cause’, yet the ‘effect’ is sure and the bliss perfect. Oh, for one hour—one little hour—from the thousands which I have idled, sported, dreamed away in the company of my darling school—companion, Nancy!


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