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Book of Scottish Story
An Incident in the Great Moray Floods of 1829


THE flood, both in the Spey and its tributary burn, was terrible at the village of Charlestown of Aberlour. On the 3d of August, Charles Cruickshanks, the innkeeper, had a party of friends in his house. There was no inebriety, but there was a fiddle; and what Scotsman is he who does not know that the well-jerked strains of a lively strathspey have a potent spell in them that goes beyond even the witchery of the bowl? On one who daily inhales the breezes from the musical stream that gives name to the measure, the influence is powerful, and it was that day felt by Cruickshanks with a more than ordinary degree of excitement. He was joyous to a pitch that made his wife grave. Mrs Cruickshanks was deeply affected by her husband’s jollity. "Surely my goodman is daft the day," said she gravely; "I ne’er saw him dance at sic a rate. Lord grant that he binna ‘fey’!

[‘fey’ – a word which the common people express those violent spirits which they think a presage of death.]

When the river began to rise rapidly in the evening, Cruickshanks, who had a quantity of wood lying near the mouth of the burn, asked two of his neighbours to go and assist him in dragging it out of the water. They readily complied, and Cruickshanks getting on the loose raft of wood, they followed him, and did what they could in pushing and hauling the pieces of timber ashore, till the stream increased so much, that, with one voice, they declared they would stay no longer, and, making a desperate effort, they plunged over-head, and reached the land with the greatest difficulty. They then tried all their eloquence to persuade Cruickshanks to come away, but he was a bold and experienced floater, and laughed at their fears; nay, so utterly reckless was he, that having now diminished the crazy ill-put-together raft he stood on, till it consisted of a few spars only, he employed himself in trying to catch at and save some haycocks belonging to the clergyman, which were floating past him. But while his attention was so engaged, the Hood was rapidly increasing, till, at last, even his dauntless heart became appalled at its magnitude and fury. "A horse! a horse!" he loudly and anxiously exclaimed; "run for one of the minister’s horses, and ride in with a rope, else I must go with the stream." He was quickly obeyed, but ere a horse arrived, the flood had rendered it impossible to approach him.

Seeing that he must abandon all hope of help in that way, Cruickshanks was now seen as if summoning up all his resolution and presence of mind to make the perilous attempt of dashing through the raging current, with his frail and imperfect raft. Grasping more firmly the iron-shod pole he held in his hand - called in floater’s language ‘a sting’ – he pushed resolutely into it; but he had hardly done so when the violence of the water wrenched from his hold that which was all he had to depend on. A shriek burst from his friends, as they beheld the wretched raft dart off with him down the stream, like an arrow freed from the bowstring. But the mind of Cruickshanks was no common one to quail before the first approach of danger. He poised himself, and stood balanced, with determination and self-command in his eye, and no sound of fear, or of complaint, was heard to come from him.

At the point where the burn met the river, in the ordinary state of both, there grew some trees, now surrounded by deep and strong currents, and far from the land. The raft took a direction towards one of these, and seeing the wide and tumultuous waters of the Spey before him, in which there was no hope that his loosely connected logs could stick one moment together, he coolly prepared himself, and, collecting all his force into one well-timed and well-directed effort, he sprang, caught a tree, and clung among its boughs, whilst the frail raft, hurried away from under his foot, was dashed into fragments, land scattered on the bosom of the waves. A shout of joy arose from his anxious friends, for they now deemed him safe; but he uttered no shout in return. Every nerve was strained to procure help. "A boat!" was the general cry, and some ran this way, and some that, to endeavour to procure one. It was now between seven and eight o’clock in the evening. A boat was speedily obtained, and though no one was very expert in its use, it was quickly manned by people eager to save Cruickshanks from his perilous situation. The current was too terrible about the tree to admit of their nearing it, so as to take him directly into the boat; but their object was to row through the smoother water, to such a distance as might enable them to throw a rope to him, by which means they hoped to drag him to the boat. Frequently did they attempt this, and as frequently were they foiled, even by that which was considered as the gentler part of the stream, for it hurried them past the point whence they wished to make the cast of their rope, and compelled them to row up again by the side, to start on each fresh adventure.

Often were they carried so much in the direction of the tree as to be compelled to exert all their strength to pull themselves away from him they would have saved, that they might avoid the vortex that would have caught and swept them to destruction. And often was poor Cruickshanks tantalized with the approach of help, which came but to add to the other miseries of his situation that of the bitterest disappointment. Yet he bore all calmly. In the transient glimpses they had of him, as they were driven past him, they saw no blenching on his dauntless countenance—they heard no reproach, no complaint, no sound, but an occasional short exclamation of encouragement to persevere in their friendly endeavours. But the evening wore on, and still they were unsuccessful. It seemed to them that something more than mere natural causes was operating against them. "His hour is come!” said they, as they regarded one another with looks of awe; "our struggles are vain." The courage and the hope which had hitherto supported them began to fail, and the descending shades of night extinguished the last feeble sparks of both, and put an end to their endeavours.

Fancy alone can picture the horrors that must have crept on the unfortunate man, as, amidst the impenetrable darkness which now prevailed, he became aware of the continued increase of the flood that roared around him, by its gradual advance towards his feet, whilst the rain and the tempest continued to beat more and more dreadfully upon him. That these were long ineffectual in shaking his collected mind, we know from the fact, afterwards ascertained, that he actually wound up his watch while in this dreadful situation. But, hearing no more the occasional passing exclamations of those who had been hitherto trying to succour him, he began to shout for help in a voice that became every moment more long-drawn and piteous, as, between the gusts of the tempest, and borne over the thunder of the waters, it fell from time to time on the ears of his clustered friends, and rent the heart of his distracted wife. Ever and anon it came, and hoarser than before, and there was an occasional wildness in its note, and now and then a strange and clamorous repetition for a time, as if despair had inspired him with an unnatural energy; but the shouts became gradually shorter,—less audible and less frequent,—till at last their eagerly listening ears could catch them no longer. "Is he gone?" was the half-whispered question they put to one another; and the smothered responses that were muttered around but too plainly told how much the fears of all were in unison.

"What was that?" cried his wife in a delirious scream; "that was his whistle l heard!” She said truly. A shrill whistle, such as that which is given with the fingers in the mouth, rose again over the loud din of the deluge and the yelling of the storm. He was not yet gone. His voice was but cracked by his frequent exertions to make it heard, and he had now resorted to an easier mode of transmitting to his friends the certainty of his safety. For some time his unhappy wife drew hope from such considerations, but his whistles, as they came more loud and prolonged, pierced the ears of his foreboding friends like the ill-omened cry of some warning spirit; and it may be matter of question whether all believed that the sounds they heard were really mortal. Still they came louder and clearer for a brief space; but at last they were heard no more, save in his frantic wife’s fancy, who continued to start, as if she still heard them, and to wander about, and to listen, when all but herself were satisfied that she could never hear them again.

Wet and weary, and shivering with cold, was this miserable woman, when the tardy dawn of morning beheld her straining her eye-balls through the imperfect light, towards the trees where Cruickshanks had been last seen. There was something there that looked like the figure of a man, and on that her eyes fixed. But those around her saw, alas! too well, that what she fondly supposed to be her husband was but a bunch of wreck gathered by the flood into one of the trees,—for the one to which he clung had been swept away.

The body of poor Cruickshanks was found in the afternoon of next day, on the Haugh of Dandaleith, some four or five miles below. As it had ever been his uniform practice to wind up his watch at night, and as it was discovered to be nearly full wound when it was taken from his pocket, the fact of his having had self -possession enough to obey his usual custom, under circumstances so terrible, is as unquestionable as it is wonderful. It had stopped at a quarter of an hour past eleven o'clock, which would seem to fix that as the fatal moment when the tree was rent away; for when that happened, his struggles amidst the raging waves of the Spey must have been few and short.

When the men, who had so unsuccessfully attempted to save him, were talking over the matter, and arguing that no human help could have availed him,—

"I’m thinkin’ I could hae ta’en him out," said a voice in the circle.

All eyes were turned towards the speaker, and a general expression of contempt followed ; for it was a boy of the name of Rainey, a reputed idiot, from the foot of Benrinnes, who spoke.

"You!” cried a dozen voices at once; "what would you have done, you wise man?"

"I wud hae tied an empty ankercask to the end o’ a lang, lang tow, an’ I wud hae floated it aff frae near aboot whaur the raft was ta’en first awa; an’ syne, ye see, as the stream teuk the raft till the tree, maybe she wud hae ta’en the cask there too ; an’ if Charlie Cruickshanks had ance gotten a haud o` this rope ——"

He would have finished, but his auditors were gone: they had silently slunk away in different directions, one man alone having muttered, as he went, something about "wisdom coming out of the mouth of fools."

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