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Deeside Tales
Chapter XII

IAN ALLANACH (continued)

LORD MACAULAY was wont to say that, should Milton’s “Paradise Lost” happen to be destroyed, he believed he could restore every line of it from memory, and the same might have been said of George Brown with respect to Ossian’s poems. It is deeply to be regretted that the mantle of his genius did not descend to some one of his many listeners. Mere fragments—a line here and there—is all that the memories of those who heard them most frequently have retained of many a heroic poem, soft song, and sad elegy. Even these fragments are now gone into irrecoverable oblivion with the decease of the few who attempted to commit them to memory.

It is not difficult to assign a sufficient reason for the loss of this lore. A change of manners, of taste, or of occupation among a people does much to obliterate the recollection of a literature, born and bred in a state of society that has passed away and lost its interest But more effectual than any or all of these is a change of language. Such a change had, indeed, made some progress on Deeside during the lifetime of George Brown, but within a period of twenty years after his death it had reached an entire revolution. In 1830 there was scarcely a family in the district in which he resided whose fireside language was not the Gaelic. In 1850 there were just as few who had not adopted the English; and now (1870) only very old people use the ancient tongue. The prose traditions may still be gathered up, because during the transition they were frequently repeated in both languages; but it has fared otherwise with the poetic, which do not admit of a translation without loss of character, and consequently of interest

Many years ago the writer heard an aged person repeat a good few lines of a poem styled the Oatgeann (Skull) which is said to have been a favourite with George. The poem seemed to be somewhat in the strain of Blair’s “ Grave,” but the reflections were more quaint and less philosophical, though, from the unconnected lines remembered and the manner of the reciter, it was difficult to form a decided opinion: a couplet, then a long pause with serious efforts at recollection, then an exclamation — “Oh, if I could remember,” then another couplet, then a longer pause with more strenuous efforts at recollection, then another exclamation—“Oh! it was beautiful! but I have foigot it”

The writer has never met with anyone in the Highlands who was in the least acquainted with it, and he has in consequence been laid to fancy that it must have been a fugitive piece by the author of “The Sheriffmuir” himself, the effect of which he may have been playfully trying on George. If such indeed was its origin, it is doubly to be regretted that it has perished, as it was likely to have had an excellence not often attained by Gaelic poetry.

Had this good man survived a few years longer, it is not improbable that he might have put his pupil on some way of elevating himself in the social scale, and of occupying a sphere where his talents would have had an ample scope for good, and might have gained for him something more than an ephemeral and merely local reputation. Death, however, takes no account of such things. Their intercourse had been sufficiently long and intimate to enable the master to lay the stamp of his character upon the scholar. Thenceforth the youth was left to hew out his own path through life.

George had now reached the age when it was necessary that he should betake himself to some means of earning his own livelihood. He accordingly selected one of the few indoor occupations that held out that prospect, and became a weaver of woollen stuffs. This was a trade in which it was supposed no steady man could fail for want of employment Many young men adopted it, and there was work for all, for, with the exception of the minister's Sunday clothes, there was not usually in the parish an article of male attire (and very few of female) that did not pass through the hands of the district weaver.

After a time, having by industry and economy procured for himself a comfortable home, he began to look around him for a partner in life. The result of this undertaking was not—so rumour went—as fortunate as might have been expected from a man of his sagacity. Love makes sport of wisdom. Her blessings are rarely in proportion to the sapiency of the receiver. Indeed, if any law regulates their bestowal, it would rather appear to be that they are in the inverse ratio. It is needless to give instances; sacred history contains some, and the lights of modem literature have known of more. If love’s gift to George was a Xanthippe, this was only one of the many respects in which, to compare small men with great, he resembled the ancient Grecian sage. Whether or not our little Socrates was, like his great prototype, unequally yoked in matrimony, he had too much good sense not to make the best of his bargain, and there is no reason to believe that his mate rendered him unhappy.

Soon after his marriage he began a practice which he continued till the frailties of age broke in upon it. It was that of paying an annual visit to Aberdeen in search of books and to post himself up in the literary topics of the day. The distance was forty-seven miles by the turnpike, and the journey he always performed on foot His stay in the town did not usually exceed a week, but during that short time he visited all the book shops, museums, and manufactories, and by conversation and acute observation laid up in his retentive memory a great store of materials for afterthought.

In one of these journeys he was overtaken by a storm, and obliged to seek shelter in the house of a small farmer in the parish of Culter. His conversation so engaged the family that time flew past unheeded till the preparations for the evening meal warned him that, if he meant to reach Aberdeen that night, there was no more time to be lost, and as the storm had considerably abated, he prepared to depart The mother of the family, however, interposed—

“Yell jist wait,” she said, “an* tak yer supper wi’s; for the like o* ye was never in my hoose afore.”

“I am very much obliged by your kindness,” replied George, “but it is a long way to Aberdeen, and I do not like to be very late in getting in.”

“If s ower lang for you to gang the nicht It’ll be vera dark, an’ the road, they say, is nae ower chancey; sae yell jist tak a bit supper wi’s, an’ ye can get a bed tee, sic like as we hae to spare.”

George accepted the friendly offer under the impression that he would be allowed to pay for his victuals and accommodation. But on his proposing to do so, the gudewife, with a touch of injured hospitality in her manner, exclaimed,

“Pay for yer bed an’ bit supper! We micht as seen speer at you fiat we hae tae pay for your stories. Na, na, weel awyte! we’re mair than pay’t already. But gin ye widna tak’ it amiss, I wid like tae ken fat ye are, an’ far ye come f’ae; for I canna mak ye out by a’thing i’ the warl’. Ye’re surely college bred, an’ yet ye dinna look like ane o’ that kind o’ folk.”

“No, my good woman,” replied George, “I was never at either college or grammar school; but am just a plain weaver from the Highlands of Deeside, where my forebears lived before me.”

“Weel, weel, weaver or no weaver, ye’re an extraordinar1 man, an’ mony ane has a kirk that wid gie something for your talent. But ye maun promise me, afore ye gang awa’, that as aften as ye pass this way ye’ll stop a nicht wi’s; an’ as lang as I hae a hoose ye sanna want for onything it can afford.”

In after years George frequently visited this family, bringing the young members some little fair in from town, by way of sauce to his stories, and always held in high appreciation the kindness he uniformly received.

Though the cares of a large family by and bye pressed upon him, he still found time to pursue his old and favourite studies. He had gleaned from various sources a large amount of legendary lore relating to Deeside, and a better fortune attended his efforts to transmit these to posterity than fell to the lot of his poetic collections. Many of his stories were told and re-told from fireside to fireside till they became common property, and now form a considerable portion of the current legends of the district.

The skeletons of a few of the more historic have of late years been oftener than once collected and published, though without any knowledge on the part of the collectors that it was mainly owing to George Brown that they had not long ago perished. This is perhaps the only form in which they can now appear; for, after having lain bleaching in an ungenial climate for more than half a century, it would require the magician touch of another Scott to reinvest these bones with their complement of humanity and bring them before us in life character. Without any pretension to such an aim, the writer yet feels that this sketch would be very imperfect indeed did it not contain at least one of these tales, and that in as nearly as he can remember the very words in which he has often heard it told, though that was only at second hand from George Brown.*


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