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Deeside Tales
Chapter XI

IAN ALLANACH (continued)

A variety of feature save Mont Keen’s bold peak, like a turret on a rampart, the broad wall stretches till lost in the distance towards the German Ocean. The nearer outposts of this array of mountains, Craignaban, Craiguise, and the Coil Hills, are seen to great advantage, while from Craiggowan to Craigandarroch, with a bird’s-eye view of Abergeldie opposite, the entire valley of the Dee is spread out as if on canvas, in all its beautiful variety of field and forest, and the soul of the whole, the silver river, in many a noble sweep and graceful bend, threading its mazy way with ceaseless song to its far off home in the deep.

The main features of this scene are unalterable, but the minor details have undergone much change since the century began. As an instance: this same picturesquely situated farmstead has taken the place of a considerable dachan, the twin of another less prominent, but more populous, that nestled cosily in the “howe-burn” close beside. This latter, whose sponsor was a huge boulder of granite resting on the summit of a neighbouring eminence, rejoiced in the name of Greystone. But notwithstanding the stability and sterling qualities of the patron, the prot6g£ has vanished entirely from the scene.

These two hamlets formed together a place of considerable note in the olden time. With the exception of a church and school—the latter not much in repute in those days—they contained within themselves all that was deemed necessary for the social and physical comfort of the inhabitants. Here the weaver, the carpenter, and the miller of the district had taken up their residence; and as for other trades, such as that of shoemaker and shopkeeper, they had not yet risen into separate branches of industry. Every man manufactured his own and dependants’ brogues, and any luxury of foreign importation was not dreamed of.

About the period when Ian Allnnach was fighting the battle of Fellinghausen for the first time, there was born in this same hamlet of Greystone a very remarkable man, of whom some account is here proposed to be given.

George Brown was of humble but respectable parentage. His ancestors, with small fluctuations of fortune, had been the tenants of an oxgate of land for an unknown length of time. Indeed, for aught that appears to the contrary, they might have been the lineal descendants of an aboriginal family. Most of them had never wandered beyond the bounds of their native district, knew no wants but such as it could supply, felt no ambition to live otherwise than their fathers before them had lived, and saw no reason why their children after them should not be content with similar ways and means.

Entertaining these highly conservative ideas, and despising all new-fangled notions about improvement of either mind or manners, George’s immediate ancestor was not the man to foster any bookish disposition his boy may have early displayed. It was the fashion of the time for the father, or rather the mother, to impart the first elements of education— early education it ought scarcely to be called, because seldom was a child initiated into the mysteries of the Roman alphabet before his ninth or tenth birthday; and most mysterious must the thing have even then appeared to him, it being his first introduction to an unknown language. It was no unusual thing to find a boy or a girl with a good ear who could glibly enough run over whole pages of the Shorter Catechism without comprehending the import of a single sentence, or even the meaning of a single word.

Often in the winter season some neighbour, out of other employment, would be found to undertake the elementary instruction of the children of a small district, and so relieve the mother’s hand, as it was expressed. In return for this service he received his victuals and the proceeds of the cock-fight^ with which humane spectacle the labours of the short session were annually wound up. The instruction, if it deserved the name, was of the same unintelligent and vicious type as that practised under the parental care, with the addition, however, of a larger allowance of birch (leather), which doubtless awakened much scholarly ardour in the youthful mind.

Subjected to this ordeal for two or three winters, the sons and daughters of a common man were supposed to be intellectually equipped for the discharge of the duties of their station in life. If they required more they could, and they generally did, finish off with a winter raith (three months) at the parish school, when they were “grown up,” forisfamiliated. The benches of that seminary were accordingly, during this season, mostly occupied by men and women, whose mature intellects were duly sharpened by being made the butt of the coarse jokes and nicknames of the laird’s ground officer—it would be a solecism to call him teacher, though he sat at his desk and drew his salary, such as it was. The schoolmaster in his treatment of his pupils must not be supposed to have outraged the usages of society, or to have been a Philistine above all men. He but reflected the manners of his betters, and in his style of address was only a low imitator of the judges of the land, as may be seen from Lord Cockbum’s Memorials.

How much of this rough discipline George Brown passed through is not known, but it may be presumed it was either a minimum quantity, or his desire of knowledge was unquenchable; for it is certain that while yet a young lad he had read and fully mastered every printed volume within miles of his residence, and "yet was unsatisfied in getting, which was no sin."

This literature was almost wholly religious, consisting mainly of the Scriptures, with notes practical and critical by various divines, the Shorter Catechism, without comment, known in its spelling to all who had ever been at school, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Holy War, Baxter’s Saints’ Rest, and Boston’s Fourfold State. He thus became a theologian at an early age; and, though by no means exclusively devoting his attention to that subject, it was the one which engaged by far the largest portion of his thoughts through life.

It was not long till his acquirements attracted the attention of others besides his companions and neighbours. Arrived at the age (about seventeen) when it was deemed proper that he should become a member of the Church of his fathers, he presented himself before the minister of Crathie for examination as to his fitness. The clergyman, the Rev. Murdoch M'Lennan, author of the popular Scottish ballad of “Sherifftnuir,” was a man of no mean literary taste and attainments, of a benevolent, kindly disposition, and a keen discemer of character. Perceiving that George was no ordinary young man, and having ascertained by what means he had become possessed of so unusual an amount of Scriptural knowledge, he took an interest in him, fostered and directed his taste for reading by lending him such books as he judged would be attractive, and improving to his mind.

The American war of Independence was then at its height; but in those days none but the laird and the minister had access to the news. Through the kindness of the latter, George was allowed to peruse such intelligence of the great struggle as found its way into the Aberdeen Journal\ then the only newspaper that circulated in the district. Of this privilege he was not slow to take advantage. America soon became to him a land of romance. He was fired with a desire to know all about it—its discovery, its colonization, the history of the early settlers, the hardships they had to endure, and the hopes that cheered them, their conflicts with the Indians, and the inhuman barbarities these, at the instigation of the French, committed upon them in the first war. On all these matters, so Car as the manse library contained information, he was fully read; and being the only oracle open to the peasantry of the district, his company was eagerly sought, and his father’s house nightly thronged with listeners.

It was thus he acquired the art of effectively communicating to others his own stock of knowledge, and of imparting to his narratives the charm of graphic description. It was one of his characteristics to muse on whatever he read till he obtained a representation of the scene in his own mind, drawn to the minutest detail by his own lively imagination —not perhaps always correct in every particular, but always vivid and dramatic The picture thus formed he described as he beheld it himself, and hence the force of his delineations. Deriving the outline or suggestive idea through the staid medium of the English language, and being required to employ his own romantic Gaelic as the vehicle of communi* eating his thoughts to others, he was led, irrespective of the natural bent of his mind, to add fire to his narratives and colour to his sketches. Beyond this his tales were strictly true to fact He never invented one merely to amuse, far less to deceive, though he often dealt in parables as well as proverbs for the purpose of instruction. It was, besides, not till he had grown over to years and had established a reputation for high moral worth as well as mental endowments, that his gifts of vivid description were much exercised. Though his more solid qualities procured for him the esteem and admiration of those above him in station, it was doubtless this art that earned for him the extraordinary fame with which his name was associated in the minds of his own class, and is still associated in the recollection of those of them who survive, and who even yet speak with rapture of the sage old man whom they knew in their youth.

The writer has heard one of these relate that, being a boy of a delicate constitution, he was for some time greatly troubled with sleepless nights, and that the good old man would often come to his bedside, and with tales that had rivetted his own youthful imagination—tales of the Red Indian and descriptions of the primeval forests, so vividly told that the sufferer thought he actually beheld the tall trees and the naked savages—he beguiled him from the world of sense to the regions of the imagination, and thence to dreamland and the realms of sleep.

But besides affording him opportunities of becoming acquainted with the present transactions and past history of his country, Mr. M'Lennan, who was an Islesman by birth, and had thus been nurtured on the very Parnassus of Highland lore, opened up to his protege his own rich stores of Celtic legend and song. These he drank in as if they had been nectar sent him from the gods, treasured them up in his retentive memory, and in after life made many a long winter evening fly but too quickly away with narratives of creach and foray, of love and war, or with recitations from Ossian and other Highland bards less fortunate than him, who have found no MacPherson to rescue their names from oblivion.


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