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Deeside Tales
Chapter XVI

THE writer is sensible that the preceding stories occupy far too much space in this sketch of the life of George Brown, but he has found it impossible to abbreviate them farther without destroying their character as specimens of the traditional tales which that singular man had collected, and was in the habit of narrating to delighted audiences during the long winter evenings.

His fund of this kind of lore seemed inexhaustible. There was not within the district the ruins or site of an old church or chapel regarding which he had not gleaned some legend. The names of hills, glades, glens, corries, streams, and even pools and rapids in the river, had each its legend which accounted for its origin or related some circumstance connected with it.

It is a peculiarity of Highlanders—some ethnologists affirm of Celts universally—to attach a name to every locality, however small, that has anything distinctive about it These names are mostly pictorial, or descriptive of physical features; but a large number are also traditional, or commemorative of some striking event

This latter class, by each of which there hung a tale, formed as it were an index to the greater part of the legends of the district Accounts of miracles, generally cases of exorcism of evil spirits, constituted a principal feature of the legends attached to ancient chapels, while ghost stories prevailed to a great extent among those relating to ruined churches, and narratives of strife and blood among those commemorated by the names of less sacred places. George himself did not share the superstitious notions of the ignorant around him, and seldom failed to point out what priestcraft had to do with originating and propagating a miraculous story or legend

It was not, however, in local traditions alone that he was great He was conversant with general history, and particularly with the history, civil and ecclesiastical, of his native country; and delighted much more to rehearse stories from this source than the wild and unauthenticated tales of tradition.

With his Bible, both in English and Gaelic, he was so familiar that he could repeat large portions of it from memory, and rarely could a text be quoted that he could not instantly refer to its chapter and verse. The use which his shrewd and acute mind enabled him to make of this knowledge, procured for him the respect and veneration of a wide circle.

Theological polemics were then the favourite subjects of discussion among the peasantry. The ignorance of the disputants, so far from imposing silence on them, only lent keenness to the arguments with which they supported their views; but their good sense led them very generally to constitute George sole arbiter of their differences on knotty points of doctrine and interpretations of obscure passages of Holy Writ, and from his decisions there seldom or never was any appeal. It was therefore no unusual thing to find his house filled of an evening with controversialists who had come to have the matters in dispute between them adjusted. On these occasions George would take the judicial bench, and after hearing each party state his views, would lay down the law on the point with a clearness and gravity that never failed to command acquiescence.

The annual diet of catechising was, however, his great theological field day. When the one appointed for the district in which he lived was announced from the pulpit on the Sabbath preceding, the old people employed all their leisure hours during the interval in a careful perusal of the Shorter Catechism with the contents of which, as the text book, all were expected to be familiar. Punctual to the hour, the minister presented himself at the house appointed for the meeting, and having opened the diet with prayer, would request George to take a seat beside him. He then put a question from the catechism to each all round, till he came to George, when he would remark—

“I need not ask a question at you, George. I am well aware how familiar you are with the standards of our church. I shall therefore proceed to enquire what reason we can give for the hope that is in us.”

When in the course of the examination that followed any one stated a difficulty he had regarding a point of doctrine or passage of Scripture, or when an answer of doubtful orthodoxy was received to a query, the clergyman would turn to George and say—

“What is your opinion on that point, George?”

Thus appealed to, he would handle the question in a manner that always gave satisfaction to the minister, and raised himself greatly in the estimation of his fellows.

From the reputation which he thus acquired for learning and wisdom, other disputes than theological were not infrequently referred to him for settlement; and in his decisions he invariably sustained a character which he coveted even more than scholarly reputation—that of peace maker. He had the rare art of supporting his opinions with short sententious remarks that generally carried conviction of their wisdom. Many of these passed into proverbs, and are still occasionally quoted by the old people of the district

There was, however, one man, though only one in the whole country, on whose erroneous theological opinions he could make no impression—this was Walter Stewart Yet, strange to say, though their religious notions were wide as the poles asunder, the men themselves were staunch and bosom cronies. It will be better not to interrupt this notice of George Brown by any account of their intercourse, but to reserve it for a sketch of Walter, to be given anon.

Around George’s hearth there was now springing up a blooming family of sons and daughters. The boys were in no way remarkable; but one at least of the girls—Barbara, or as she was generally called “Babby”—was almost as celebrated for her beauty as her father for his wisdom and knowledge. As she grew up to woman’s estate, she attracted to the paternal fireside many a youth whose heart throbbed with a softer passion than a hankering after ancient lore or modem news. With sweet features and fair form, she was also gifted with captivating manners and sparkling wit. Nor was it a mere hamlet reputation her beauty had gained for her. Wherever she appeared she won both friends and admirers; so that before she was out of her teens she was universally acknowledged to be, and styled, “The Flower o’ Deeside.”

Babby Brown “had many hearts a-keeping;” and widely envied was the youth for whom she was supposed to have any partiality. Nor were her admirers confined to her own station in society. It was well enough known that, among others of the better sort, an officer in His Majesty’s Royal Militia was deeply smitten by her charms, and for long was most assiduous in his attentions to her; but both she and her father had the good sense to discourage his suit

Although Babby was no flirt, yet she was so sprightly that the state of her own heart was for long either free, or very well concealed. At last, however, it did begin to be rumoured that there was a favoured one among her numerous wooers. This was Peter Frankie. Peter was in all respects an eligible match, and, however many might be disappointed, few were surprised at the selection she had made. Though her senior by several years and a widower, he was still young. In personal appearance he was smart, neat, and active, dressed well, and in short was rather irresistible. Having been a favourite retainer of the Abergeldie family, he had been appointed to what was then considered one of the prize situations of the country—that of gamekeeper at Allt na Giuthsaich, now one of Her Majesty’s favourite mountain lodges. Such was the man who had won the heart of the “Flower of Deeside,” and on whom she was about to bestow her hand.

It is here necessary to interrupt this narrative a little in order to relate a bogle story, which will lead to its resumption again, with an account of a melancholy occurrence.

"Gael. Frangach (Frenchman). In a description of the Castle in one of the author’s note-books, it is stated that there is a dark recess under the stair called Katie Frankieas Hole, in which a witch of the name was confined before being burnt on the top of Craignaban. She was a Frenchwoman. —D.

The ghost or bogle story might have been omitted for any connection it has with this history; but because it is a fair specimen of such tales, and will re-introduce the narrative in the words of a contemporary of the events, it may not be amiss to relate it

“I’m no believer in ghosts an’ witches mysel’,” usually began the person on whose authority the following account rests, who was a man of strict veracity and by no means superstitious, and whose very words the writer believes he can now give, so often has he heard the tale, and so strong a hold did it take of his boyish mind—

“I’m no believer in ghosts and witchcraft and sic like things mysel’, but this that I am ga’an to tell you, I saw wi’ my ain een, though what it was I’ll no pretend to say.

“So far as I can remember, it was in the year ’23. In the go-hairst, when the black fish were coming on to the redds, I and a cousin took it into our heads to go down one evening to the Craiguise, to hole some fir to make blazes. I mind weel it was on a Monday night; and down we went, and crossed over at the foot o’ Polslaig. We met wi’ some disturbance in the wood, and had to come back without our errand.

“As we were coining up the water side at the haughs o’ Easter Micras, we fell in wi’ an auld-fashioned ploo that the man had been fauchan* wi’. We were feelish young men then, and we didna care muckle what we did gin we got fun, an’ ‘the mair mischief the better sport,’ as the saying is. But nae good ever comes o’ that Howsomever, that’s the humour we were in that night; and so we began to joke about the ploo, an’ at last took it up an’ threw it ower the bank, on to the stunners (river beach), thinkan’ it would be sic a fine joke, as we would likely hear a story in a day or twa how that the kelpie had been tryan’ to make aflf wi* the ploo.

“We hadna come awa’ many hunder yards, when my cousin, he stops, and says he, *What's that on the other side o’ the water?"

“Now, if ye mind, there’s a sheet o’ backwater at the head o’ Polslaig. The night wasna dark; the meen was like a quarter auld, but gey well on to the setting. Aweel, I looks across, an9 sees something white swimman’ round and round about at the upper end o9 the backwater, an9 says I—

“‘That’s surely ane o9 the Abergeldie deuks that is come down the water an9 tint the rest'

“‘Whatever it is,9 says he, 1 let 9s hae a shot at it wi9 a stane'

“Wi' that we fell to; but still it never minded the stanes, but kept swimman9 round an' round as before. This made us a' the mair determined to put it out there, but it never minded us, only it began to look bigger an9 bigger.

“‘It’s nae a deuk,” says I, ‘ its ane o9 the Abergeldie geese, an' I think we should let it alane, for we may chance to strike it, an kill it'

“‘Whatever it is,9 says he, ‘we should be able to make it shift its quarters.'

“After a little it did shift, and began to leave the backwater, and come across the stanners, makan' straight for where we were. I mind we thought that queer, but we made sure o' hittan' 't now, as it looked as big as a sheep. But no. On it came, and before it got to the water edge it was black instead o9 white.

“‘Whatever it is,' says my cousin, ‘ I’ll gie 9t a sair hide gin it comes farther.'

“Wi' that he sets about gatheran9 some stanes to throw at it I threw ane or twa I had in my hand, and wondered that I didna hit it, and syne I fell a gatheran’ st&nes tee that we might baith charge it thegither. When I had gathered half a dozen good bumlacks out o’ the land, I lookit round, but my cousin wasna there. He had taen to his heels, and was makan’ for the road as fast as his legs could cany him. I gave a look at the thing, and there it was in the middle o’ the water, as big’s a calf.

“You may be sure, when ance we set out we werena lang on the road, and we had run near a mile before either o’’s spak a word. At last, says I to him—

“'What gart ye run aff yon way, man?'

“‘Run!’ says he; ‘it was time to run ! didna ye see the horns on’t an’ the licht in its een?’

“Now, I saw nae sic thing, but at the same time I did think it was unearthly like.

“Weel, we made straight for George Brown’s; and we didna meet nor see a body dll we met Babby Brown at her ain father’s door. We didna wait to speak lang to her, but gaed in and told auld George a’ that had happened.

“Weel, lads,' says he, ‘I canna but think ye were needan’ a fleg. Ye shouldna hae meddled wi’ the honest man’s ploo, and I hope it will be a lesson to you for the time to come.’

“After that we put bye our forenight wi’ George; and I thought Babby wasna sae cherry as she used to be, but maybe that was only my ain thought She was aye sae cheery an’ sae fu’ o’ fun, but that night she hardly spak a word, though we expeckit she wid tease us for being sae coordly.

“I’ve aften thought on this since, and aften considered what the thing we saw could be, but to this day I canna mak’ it out; and what happened afterwards made it stranger still*

“Aweel, time passed by, and we said naething mair about that night’s business for fear o’ folk makan’ a story o’’t, and sayan’ we had seen the kelpie, and the go-hairst came round again. Syne Babby Brown was marriet to Peter Frankie. She was to stop a week or twa at her father’s after the marriage, till the house at Allt na Giuthsaich would be put in order for her; and, as she was sae vera weel liket, a’ the neighbours were askan’ her to their houses afore she gaed awa’. Ane o’ the first places she an’ Peter were to go to was Mr. Smart’s, at the Mains o’ Abergeldie, as he was a great friend o’ Peter’s.

“It was a Sunday afternoon that they gaed across at the cradle. The water wasna what ye would ca’ in spate, but far ower big for wadan’ in ony place, for there had been a good sup rain the nicht afore.

“After supper time (9 p.m.) some o’ our folk chanced to be out about the doors, and came in cryan’—

“‘Men, men! there’s something nae richt about the cradle. There ’s lichts ga’an up an’ down the water in a fearsomelike way. Run, run, an’ see that naething has happened! ’

“We that were men were aff in a minute, and the rest soon followed, but there was some folk nearer at han’ there afore’s.

“I’ll never forget that night—women, no kennan’ what to do, runnan’ about, an’ cryan’—

Oh! can naething be done, can naething be done? Babby Brown’s lost! Babby Brown’s lost 1 ’ And the folk at the Castle and the Mains wi’ lichts an’ lanterns runnan’ here and there on the ither side, and cryan’ across.

“I saw in a moment what had happened; for there was the rope floatan’ down the water. The nicht was vera dark, •but I an’ twa or three ither young fellows took a haud o’ ither’s hands, and in we jumped to try to get at the rope, thinkan’ they might still be haudan’ on to it The stream was awful strong, and we had enough ado to keep our feet At last we reached it, but there was naething there—neither sicht nor soun’, but the sough o’ the water ga’an swirlan’, swirlan’ doom

“A’ hope o’ recoveran’ them alive was now at an end, but we couldna gae hame. The hail countra was soon gathered, but what could they do? Down, down the water edge they wandered, peeran’ into the dark stream to see if they could notice onything tumblan’, or ony sight o’ the lost bodies. Oh, it was a waesome night!

“Peer auld George! It would hae melted a heart o’ stane to hae seen him, seldom speakan’ a word to anybody; but what he did say was like a meek an’ humble Christian, as he was. Now and then he would step close up to the water edge as gin something had caught his sight in the stream; but we a’ kent it was only to hide his grief, for instead o’ lookan’ into the water he would bring the comer o’ his grey plaid up to his een, an’ mony’s the saut tear that fell into’t that sorrowfu’ night

“Ance somebody thought he saw something tumblan’ wi’ the water, and there was a rush to the place, but if there was onything mair than the swirl o’ the stream ower the head o’ a stane, we couldna find it out

“It was just a little after this, when the folk were spreadan’ themselves down the water side, that I chanced to come upon George among some am bushes. He thought that they had a’ gane past him, and that he was alane. I noticed that he was on his knees, an’ coveran’ his face wi’ his grey plaid. A kind o’ an awe came ower me, and I creepit awa’ saftly that I mightna disturb him; for my ain heart tell’t me he should be left to the company he had chosen himsel9. I could hae heard what he was sayan9, for he was speakan1 like under his breath, but a’ that I catch’t as I was creepan9 awa* was—

‘“She was my favourite bairn, and fain would I that Thou hadst spared her whilst Thou wast pleased to spare me; but not my will, but Thine be done.9

“When I saw him next I couldna but think he was less waesome than afore.

“After mair than three hours had been spent in vain search in the dark, where should Babby Brown9s body be gotten, but just on the very stanners where my cousin an9 me saw that nasty thing the nicht we were at the Craiguise ? And what made it more strange still was that it was just that nicht twelvemonth by-gane that we saw it I9m nae believer in ghosts an9 sic like superstitions, and maybe it was mere chance; but, whatever it was, it was the strangest thing that I ever met wi.'"

The bogle story is by no means difficult of explanation. The two youths had been engaged in an illicit affair during the evening, and their consciences were probably none of the easiest Add to this that their imaginations had been teeming with supernatural fancies—they had actually been engaged in plotting a kelpie farce—and we shall find their minds in a high state of preparedness for magnifying any optical delusion into a supernatural apparition. An object to excite the fancy might be and probably was supplied by the pale beams of the setting moon streaming through the trees and reflected on the water. To this, motion could easily have been given by the wind moving the boughs. Nor is the change of colour inexplicable. A struggling ray might, as the moon pursued her course, be intercepted by a thick trunk, and thus a dark shadow would be cast where before there was a reflected moonbeam. Much less than such a change from light to shade would have sufficed to raise the phantom they imagined they saw.

That one of the bodies should have been found there is not at all surprising, because in making a sharp turn, the river spreads out over a shallow, and nothing was more likely than that a heavy body borne along by the stream should be stranded there.

It is, however, by no means probable that the above or any similar explanation would have been satisfactory to the mind of the honest man, who saw the “ nasty thing,” as he was in the way of calling the vision. He always held it to be inexplicable, and having, by a general declaration of his disbelief in “ kelpies, ghosts, an' sic like things,” vindicated himself from any suspicion that he entertained superstitious notions regarding it, he indicated that he had said all that could be said, and that his tale was told.

Reverting to the sad death of Babby Brown, the inquisitiveness of some youthful listener usually extracted the following observation connected with it—

Listener “And was Peter Frankie got at the same place as Babby Brown?”

“Na, na, laddie, it was mair than a week afore his body was gotten; an’ there’s no sayan’ when it would hae been gotten had it not been for auld John MacRay. John was aye remarkable for the clearness o’ his eye-sicht He could hae seen things nae ither body could see, baith near at hand and far awa’, but mair especially in the water. He could hae seen trouts there when ither folk couldna see salmon.

“Aweel, ye see, ae day, after the river had fa’an in a bit, John gaed out wi’ some o’ his neighbours to hae a look o’ the water down about Coilacreich, but instead o’ keepan’ close by the brink like the rest, he climbed up a tree on a heich bank near a quarter o’ a mile out ower.

"After lookan’ a whilie, he cries down to the ithers, ‘ I see him.’

“At first they misdoubted John, but says he, ‘ I’m sure I see Peter Frankie’s white waistcoat, an’ gin ye dinna believe me, wade in where I’ll tell ye, an’ see for yersels.’

“They did sae, and there they got the body stickan’ on a stane in the middle o’ the water.”

Listener. “An’ was it ever found out how the cradle rope broke?”

“No, laddie, that has aye been a mystery. Some said that it was a rotten spar that broke, an’ let the rope run off; but there were slooms that it had been meddled wi’; God knows. If it was sae, may the Lord have mercy on their souls that did it”

Listener. “ But what could hae gart ony body dee sic a fearful thing as that?”

“There’s nae good rakan’ up auld suspicions; an’ far be it f’ae me to hurt onybody’s character, when I ken so little about it”

Listener. “Was there ever ony ither body lost at the cradle but just Babby Brown an’ Peter Frankie?”

“Aye was there, laddie, lang, lang ago, when I was about your age, there was a gauger o’ the name o’ Bruce lost. But there was nae wonder, or vera muckle sorrow that time.”

Listener. “Foo did it happen ? Tell’s about it”

“Weel, ye see, Bruce had got word that there was smuggling ga’an on i’ the ither side o’ the water, I think they said it was about Clachantum, an9 ower he would be. The Dee was in perfect flood, fae bank to brae, an’ nane o’ the boats would venture out He raged at the boatman o’ Monaltrie, an’ ca’d him a coord, till the man thought he wasna richt in his mind, or else he was fated But a’ wouldna dee; the boatman had mair sense, an’ wouldna risk on the water.

“Bruce was a headstrong man, an’, as he thought there was a plot to keep him f ae gettan’ at the smugglers, he was the mair determined to be at them. At last he comes to the cradle, an’ though there was as muckle water ga’an down the haughs o’ Torgalter, as there is sometimes in the Dee itself, he waded in through till he came to the post. As the man that wrought the cradle wasna very willan’ to venture, for the water wasna far f’ae touchan the rope, Bruce swore that, if he wouldna come for him he would go across sprawlan’ on’s hands an’ feet

“Weel, the man risks, jumps into the cradle, an’ off he goes. He got to this side quite safe, though the water was just touchan’ his feet i’ the middle. But as they were ga’an back, the weight o’ the twa brought the rope further down, .an’ just as they were in the mids, the water catched them. Snap went the post on this side, and they were baith plunged into the roaring river. Bruce was a capital swimmer, but the man could swim nane, but he held on to the rope, and the force o’ the water was so great that it soon swung him to the side. The people at the Castle were ready to catch at it as soon as it came within reach, an’ there they got the man haudan’ on wi’ a death grip; but Bruce was gone, an’ he was never mair seen alive.

“Weeks after this his body was gotten on ane o’ the islands o’ Polcholaig, mair than six miles down the water. There was little mane made for Bruce, as it was his ain rashness that had caused his death and endangered the ither man’s life as weel But for Babby Brown and Peter Frankie, naething in my day has happened in this country that caused sae muckle sorrow.”

The melancholy death of his favourite daughter produced an effect on George Brown’s mind from which he never wholly recovered. In addition to this, the infirmities of age were creeping on him apace; and although he still took an interest in his former studies, the tone of his conversation was more subdued, and his manner of life, never wanting in gravity, now became almost solemn.

His society, however, lost none of its charms for the young. By them his fireside was more than ever frequented, and in them he seemed, with advancing years, to evince a growing interest The patriarchal character has in it a halo of kindness and wisdom peculiarly attractive to youthful minds. But besides this character which George so well sustained, he possessed the gift, always indicative of a sound moral constitution, of entering heartily into their fancies and feelings.

During his remaining uneventful years, he still paid occasional visits to the manse and schoolhouse of Crathie; and not infrequently would be seen, staff in hand, making his way with faltering steps over the hills to the manse of Glen-gaim, where he was not only a welcome, but a valued visitor.

At last, in a good old age he was gathered to his fathers on the 9th day of February, 1828; and his mortal remains were conveyed with more respect and regret than those of any man in his station in the present or last generation to their kindred dust in the churchyard of Crathie. The writer regrets that no tombstone marks the place where repose the ashes of a man so notable in his time and station, and who for no little good in his limited sphere, “Has left his footprints on the sands of time and would express the hope that, while a few still remain who can point out the spot, this desideratum may be supplied."

The grave is still unmarked. Old people can remember when the churchyard contained only two or three tombstones. The practice was to place headstones on the graves, inscribed merely with the initials of the deceased.—D.


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