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Deeside Tales
Chapter XX

“The steady brain, the sinewy limb
“To leap, to climb, to dive, to swim;
“The iron frame inured to bear
“Each dire inclemency of air;
“Nor less confirmed to undergo
“Fatigue’s chill faint, and famine's throe." —Scott.

THE propriety or impropriety of some kinds of life is to be judged of, not from any fixed canon, but from a relative point of view, and their social conventional aspect at the time they were enacted. This statement, of course, holds good only so far as man’s estimate of morality in his day and generation goes; for we must logically believe, whatever we do sentimentally and educationally, that the habit of “rieving,” or cattle-lifting, was abstractly as immoral in the days of Rob Roy as it would be in our own. So great an influence, however, has a perverse conventionalism on the mind of a man as to distort and pervert in his moral nature all honest notions of meum and tuum, and to paralyze in his mind the legitimate use of “The Law and the Testimony ” of an inflexible standard of appeal. To illustrate what is meant: Rob Roy lived at a time when such lax notions prevailed about cattle-lifting and money-taking from the wealthy, as to lead him not only to believe that there was no harm in this kind of life, but positively to think that, when the Chief of the McGregors could not live any other way—work or even commerce was out of the question—it afforded a means of livelihood not unbefitting a chieftain and gentleman. He would not allow young Rob to be taken to Glasgow by the Bailie, with whom his name is indissolubly associated, to learn the trade of a weaver, or any other honest calling. So perverted were the minds of men of this order of thinking, that, though they accounted the kind of theft spoken of rather meritorious than otherwise, they would sooner have burned their fingers than have been found burglarizing away the silver plate of those gentlemen from whom they would take a purse well lined with “gowd guineas,” or a well fed ox. “ Do you think the chief of the Macgregors is such a dog as to steal your silver plate ?” is the language Rob Roy would most naturally have used.

Whether, at any time, a sense of wrong-doing crossed the minds of these men, in their deviations from what now appears to a child the supreme law of right, may be open to question; but it is certain that there was at a more recent date another class of men, by many not thought much better than Rob Roy, who believed most sincerely in the legitimacy of their calling. One of these, Alexander Davidson, is the subject of this sketch.

Sandy held determinedly by the old saying that “the fish out of the water and the deer out of the forest were his, as well as the rich man’s.” He used to boast very much that he once argued the point with a minister the writer knew very well, and “fairly beat him.” Whatever may be thought of the casuistry by which he imposed upon himself, it is certain that he did not come to this conclusion unreasoningly. He was even punctilious in carrying his principle out into nice details. As an instance, he rarely, if ever, poached on the grounds of those who had recently paid hard cash for their property, saying, “It would be like stealing to take game from men who had really paid for themthough he always questioned the right of the original disposer to take money for what he had no good title to himself, at least no exclusive property in. He held with many in our own day that, if it were inquired into, it would be found that the ancestors of many of our proprietors did not come fairly by their estates; and that in any case, neither they nor their ancestors had paid hard cash for their lands, and had no exclusive right to the natural productions of these lands. On this principle also he held that “there was no harm in taking a stick out of the wood, if it was not planted, but to help one’s self to planted timber was theft.” Sandy and the class of men, of which he was a splendid specimen, are not for a moment to be confounded with the poachers or roughs, teeming in our large towns and villages, who hold at arm’s length all law, human and divine. He is rather to be classed with the men in our own day, who account the Game Laws as an iniquity on the statute book, and who only want his daring and bravery to shoot a deer or a muircock, with as little scruple of conscience as he felt The well known tenderness of conscience of this wonderful man in his own way will show itself as we proceed with a sketch of his life.

Alexander Davidson, or, as he was more frequently called, Sandy Davidson, or not unusually “Roch Same,” from his long beard and moustache, though, were he living now, the appellation would not be so distinctive as it then was, was bom at Mill of Inver in the year 1792. His grandfather, or great-grandfather migrated thither from Glenmuick, early in the century, having previously come from Donside for something not so commendable as “biggan’ kirks.” He probably was in the position of the grandfather of Tetsy, Dr. Johnson’s wife. When, in their courting days the Doctor, to test the sincerity of her love, informed her that his grandfather had been hanged for sheep-stealing, she replied that hers was not hanged, but should have been. In those days there were many men accounted worthy, who should have been hanged for sheep-stealing, or something worse. “Muckle Forbes,” whose history George Brown used to narrate, was one of them. He also migrated from Donside for a misdemeanour similar to that which drove Sandy’s ancestor from that country. They were unlike the migratory birds in this respect, that the latter leave on account of the cold, the former from the place getting “too hot for them.”

But to return to Sandy. Of his early years and education little is known, but it may be inferred from the fact that he could read well and write ordinarily so, that it had not been so much neglected as was too common at that time among people in the social position of his parents. But whether he got much school education or not, he must have been early imbued with the superstitions of Highland Deeside, having known from childhood the “story of the black han’,” a ghostly visitation experienced by his grandfather. Perhaps it may be as well here to narrate this story, as it will be an apology for Sandy’s strong belief in the preternatural, and for his feeling a little timid, or as he used himself to express it, “a little eerie,” at the murky hour of midnight, when lying out, as he almost invariably did, among the wild mountains of Lochnagar, Ben Muicdhui, or Benavon.

In the year of grace 1767 there lived at Mill of Inver, Crathie, a brave and honest miller of the name of John Davidson. On a certain night he, along with another man, who, as the sequel of the story shows, was not so courageous when unearthly visitors made their appearance, was engaged in drying com. The night was a very dark one, and none of the neighbours were abroad to keep the miller from “thinking lang.” He therefore directed his assistant to keep watch over the kiln, while he lay down to sleep on some sacks behind the door, telling him to awaken him when the com was ready for turning. The dryster promised to do this; and then, to beguile the time, busied himself in clipping off his beard with a scissors, which, according to the custom of the men of that day, he carried for the purpose. The miller, who had been mistimed for several previous nights, was soon fast asleep. But his well-earned repose was of short duration. All the mill and even bam doors of that period were provided with a round hole about the centre, and from this hole a heavy weight was dropped upon the sleeper’s breast, which awoke him just in time to see a black hand withdrawn from the opening, while beside him lay a stone of considerable size, that appeared to have been just taken from the bed of the mill bum. Instead of being alarmed at the uncouth visitant, or deeming it unearthly, he came to the conclusion that it was some person practically joking with him, and lay down again to sleep. But his slumbers were again disturbed by another visit from the “black han’,” and another stone dropped upon his breast. His temper was now ruffled, and he resolved within himself that, if the thing should be again repeated, hs would rush out, lay hold of and chastise the perpetrator who would thus be caught “black handed.” He had not long to wait; a heavy sleep seemed to have fallen upon him. Again the black hand appeared, and the third stone was dropped upon his breast Springing up in hot haste, he was just about to rush forth, when he was startled by a voice that spoke ‘richt howe}—“Follow me.” Before obeying the unearthly summons, the miller cast his eyes on the man sitting on the kilnogie, whose ghastly visage and quaking limbs bespoke his fear, and in order to prove how far he might be serviceable in the circumstances, he said to him, “Will you go out, or will you watch the kiln?”

“Go out yourself,” was his instant reply, “for I winna.” Finding there was no help to be got from his craven companion, he opened the door and issued forth. The darkness of the night not a little appalled him, but he was supported by unnatural courage; or, if certain doctrines of the present day be true, that spirit afflatus was upon him which transforms its subject into a spirit-meeting condition of mind. Notwithstanding the almost palpable darkness in which he found himself, he was conscious of a still darker shadow that preceded him across a small foot bridge over the Fearder, the stream on which the mill stood, and then on through a glade to a “heugh” beside the stream. Here the apparition came to a stand; and the miller, knowing that a combat was inevitable, rushed forward, and laid hold of it, resolving to do battle with it according to the rules laid down in ghost lore, which saith that no spirit can be laid “ unless words can be had of it,” and that it will not speak till “the air be let between it and the ground” After a long wrestle he succeeded in accomplishing this feat; and then his antagonist gave utterance to its troubles. It revealed its name, though the miller, like all spirit wrestlers, would never divulge it; but it informed him, as the cause of its disquietude, that in the days of its fleshly sojourn it had stolen a sword-handle, which, having iron on it and being concealed in the earth, debarred its former unlawful possessor from finding rest in the world of spirits.

The progress of events now brings the tale a link nearer to Sandy Davidson. On the day after the interview above narrated, the miller directed his son, Sandy’s unde, whom the writer remembers well, and has often heard tell the story of the “Black Han’,” to look out for a spade and bring it to him. When the little boy did so, the father, addressing him in a more solemn tone than was his wont, said, “Come awa’, laddie, wi* me,” and then directed his steps to the kail-yard, where he began digging industriously beside an apple tree. The mysterious silence he preserved regarding the purpose of his work impressed the boy much; and still more was he struck, when, after digging a long while and going very deep, he began to mutter to himself with evident tokens on his face of disappointment, “I doot I’m wrang.” But he still went on digging downwards, and when at last the spade struck on something hard, his son observed a light of joy suffuse his countenance, as he handed him the spade, saying, “Noo, noo, laddie, gae ’wa and put by the spade, the "black han” will get rest noo.”

This sword-handle was kept for many years, laid up on the top of one of the beds, as a trophy of the old man’s encounter with the “black han’”; and as the story was often told in the hearing of Sandy, during his most impressionable years, and the sword-handle exhibited in token of its truth, it is little wonder that he was deeply imbued with the superstitious notions of his forefathers.

Having said so much about his grandfather, it may not be amiss to notice shortly his father, who also was a remarkable man, if not for doing battle with spirits, at least for holding his own against any beings of flesh and blood, in a set-to with cudgels. All the old people the writer has ever met, who knew Alexander Davidson, Sandy’s father, are unanimous in saying that for personal appearance, noble courage, sprightly manners, as well as for the moral qualities of a warm and kind heart, he had no peer on Deeside in his day. It is a pity these qualities were not better directed. Their possessor was well fitted to shine in other walks than the barbarous one into which he was led by the infamous custom of the age, in which he had no match in a very extensive district of country. It must not, however, be inferred that, though he was universally acknowledged to be the prince of fighters, he was a rough, or even a quarrelsome man. The combats in which he won his laurels were not accounted brawls, they were rather looked upon as trials of strength. In short, they were ill-regulated plebeian tournaments, copied from the more aristocratic engagements so named in previous centuries, and adapted to the circumstances of the time, and of those who engaged in them; and they had the very same objects in view—to earn the envy of men and the admiration of women. In a purely moral point of view it might be difficult to determine who was most to be condemned, the knight of the bloody tournament, who with lance in rest spurred on to meet his antagonist that he might win the applause of beauty, or the man who, at a penny wedding or a Tarland market, should, for his prowess in dealing most plaguey knocks, be crowned by the shouts of an admiring crowd, king d the cudgel\

Alexander Davidson, having fairly earned this meed over a large district, was held in high admiration by his own class. But he had other qualities, qualities of head and heart, that procured him the friendship of those above him in the scale of society. Besides being the hero of country balls and festivals, he was on terms of familiarity with the surrounding gentry, and a guest at all their rejoicings. Captain Gordon, Abergeldie—he to whom reference has already been made in connection with the 77th regiment—was particularly fond of him, and they were very often together. Though in different stations in life, they were men very like each other in natural gifts; and they held one accomplishment in common, they were both great dancers. Of Captain Gordon’s dancing powers it is related that he leaped so high, and possessed such agility that he could cross his legs three times before coming to the floor. At that time, men in his position did not think it derogatory to their social standing to rub shoulders with their poor neighbours at balls and weddings; and it was no unusual sight on such occasions to witness the Captain and Sandy trying each other’s mettle at an old Highland “ headset” This easy intercourse permitted a familiarity of speech between Davidson and his superiors, which is now a thing of the past, but of which the following will serve as an illustration.

In Aberarder, the district in which Sandy resided, there happened to be a penny wedding; and of course Captain Gordon was there to help to set up the young couple in the world. Sandy, it would seem, as was usual with him in his neighbourhood, was governor of the feast The Captain (he was afterwards Colonel), observing that there was rather a scarcity of drinkables, seized the opportunity to chaff the master of ceremonies, knowing the generosity of his nature, and addressed him, “How is it, Sandy, that ye have not plenty of whisky going among the people?” To which Sandy replied in the same high-toned strain, “If I were Captain Gordon of Abergeldie, I would order in an anker forthwith.” “It shall be done, Sandy,” said the Captain, quietly remarking to himself, “Sandy has the best of it.”

Whether there was any fighting at this wedding or not is not recorded; but it is certain that hardly ever did a penny wedding pass over without some display of this nature, and when people from different districts met at one, they never parted without such a trial of skill and strength. One of these occasions was the direct cause of Davidson’s strong life being snatched away.

At Ruibalchlaggan, a grazing station far up on the Gaim, there happened to be a penny wedding, to which assembled two or three hundred men, contributed in nearly equal numbers by Deeside and Donside. Their ostensible object was social enjoyment, but the real object of the meeting was to put to the proof & outrance, which district produced the best men, if it was necessary to draw a distinction between these two objects. Each party was led on by its own champion; the Donside people by Finla MacHardy, Dalgargie, and the Deeside men by Alexander Davidson. There had never been such a tournament as this in the memory of the oldest man; and it is still spoken of, though nearly a hundred years have gathered their mists around it, as “the great fecht at Ruibalchlaggan.” Davidson performed prodigies in the mill but was, it has been said, surrounded in a quiet way, sometime after the contest had been decided, and got his strong skull so injured that he came home, lingered for a few months, and then died, leaving a widow with two sons and two daughters to bewail the barbarous custom of the times, which had deprived them of that life on which they depended for support.

The day on which his remains were conveyed to the family burying ground in the churchyard of Glenmuick, was so remarkable for the depth of snow on the ground that tradition still signalizes it as “the day of the great storm.” Yet, notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather, three hundred men from Ciathie turned out to do honour to the shade of their hero, and conduct his remains to their last resting place. When the procession had advanced a little beyond Corbieha’, a hamlet about a mile below Abergeldie, the men deposited the coffin on the snow, and sat down to rest and have some refreshments—a dram, to wit Perhaps they had been a little too free with the dram; at all events, it was deemed unbecoming for the funeral of such a man to pass over without a fight, and a fight too, worthy of the occasion. They accordingly set to, and nearly ended by doing by the coffin, what was done by "Lady Jane’s,” as recorded in Dean Ramsay’s Reminiscences, going to the churchyard without it.


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