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Deeside Tales
Chapter XXII

FROM this date Sandy ceased to be like other men, or to walk in their ways, and however little sympathy we may have for the course of life he adopted, we cannot withhold some meed of admiration for the character of one who, though exposed to the demoralizing influences of a lawless and unsettled avocation, never lost his native simplicity and generosity, or sank his respect for the dictates of morality and religion. Sandy now took professionally to the bag and the gun, and for twenty years led a roaming kind of life, having his home nowhere but everywhere. From March to November he seldom sought the shelter of a house to pass the night, preferring the grassy banks of the Dee or the Spey, or, what was to him more delightful still, the “bonnie blooming heather” of the mountains. This was of choice and not necessity. He was well known over the greater part of the Highlands, both among gentle and simple; and all who knew him would have been glad to have given him any comfort they had to bestow. The halls of noblemen and gentlemen were open to him at any time, and no poor man’s door would be shut if he requested admission. But he had a contempt for luxury. “No bed for me,” he would say, if he observed any preparations with that view, where he might make a call, wet, and probably hungry, after a day’s fishing—“No bed for me, they are but soft fellows that go to bed in summer.” It may illustrate what poor shifts he would be content with, as well as the generous impulses that governed his actions, to relate here an incident that came within the writer’s knowledge.

Mr. Roy, the factor on the Invercauld Estates, already mentioned, having been informed that one of his tenants, an old acquaintance, if not also a distant relation, of Sandy, was in the way of occasionally affording him shelter, and ministering to his wants, took the farmer severely to task for his conduct, and threatened him with expulsion from the estate if he again admitted under his roof the detested poacher. It happened that soon after this Sandy in the course of his peregrinations had arranged to pass the night, a very stormy night in winter, at his friend’s house; but learning on his way thither what had taken place, and not knowing where else to go for that night, chose rather than bring trouble on any man to turn into an open shed, and take what shelter it afforded. Late in the evening, a lad was sent out to the shed for some fuel, the storm and drift being considered too wild for the female servants to face. In groping about under the snow-drift for the peats he was in search of, his hand alighted on Sandy’s beard; and the exclamation of terror and surprise which he uttered awoke the sleeper. Recognizing Sandy’s voice, the lad insisted that he should come into the house. He gave some lame reason for declining to accept the invitation, saying that he wished to be at such a place by day-break and couldn’t stay all night; and made him promise not to tell his father that he was there, and he would rest for half-an-hour and then be off. Guessing the real reason, the lad argued that nobody could know of his having been in the house that night, and he need have no scruples about coming in. It was to no purpose; Sandy’s chivalrous determination that no one should suffer or run any risk of suffering loss on his account overcame all entreaty, and the lad was constrained to depart without him. But a few minutes’ reflection convinced him that his conduct in keeping silence was neither brave nor generous; and he accordingly told his father, and both sallied forth to bring in the poor wanderer, but he was gone; and the drifting snow had filled up the footmarks. They called loudly and long, but no answer was returned; and where Sandy spent that and many a similar night, none knew but himself, for he had a repugnance to recount what hardships he endured. In the morning, however, a hare was found in the shed, left by Sandy as compensation for the miserable shelter it had afforded him, or rather as an expression of his goodwill to the family.

He invariably devoted the month of March to fishing. His mode of prosecuting the sport few would care to imitate. He knew all the pools and parts of the pools, both on Dee and Spey, where the fish were likely to be met with at any particular season or condition of the river; and to get at that part, no matter how bitterly cold the weather might be, he walked straight in, often till nothing was to be seen of him above the water but his head and shoulders. There he would remain plying the gentle art, until he had either hooked his fish, or satisfied himself that it would not be forthcoming. After a day so spent, it was his usual custom, when the winds were very piercing, to make his way to the house of some friend, and after steaming himself over the kitchen fire for half an hour or so, turn out to the barn, throw himself down, wet clothes and all, among the straw, and take his chance of what sleep might fall to his lot till morning, when he would be early astir to go through the same privations again in some other district

In the matter of clothing he was equally hardy. Those who knew him will remember the thin tartan coat, the thinner tartan trousers, with no under clothing save a cotton shirt, and the unsubstantial Forfar pumps, which formed his winter’s attire. The only change he made in summer was the substitution of a kilt for the trousers. If any one suggested something more warm and comfortable, his usual remark was—“No, no, people kill themselves wearing too many clothes.” He never paid anything for washing, that is, he never had any article of wearing apparel washed, and yet he was of very tidy habits, even, it must be owned, fond of being smartly dressed. When therefore, a shirt appeared to him to be losing its respectability, he would make it in his way to pass some shop where a new one could be purchased, dressed and ready. This he would carry with him to some lonely and rugged corry on the mountains, or sylvan retreat by the river, where he could make the transfer, and leave the discarded article to be washed and bleached by a purely natural process, but never to be worn again by him. Though he had nothing of the fop in his nature, it must be owned that he had something akin to a child’s pleasure in seeing himself smartly dressed after his own style. When he got a new shirt that pleased him particularly well, it was no unusual thing to find his coat wrists turned up a bit, and his vest laid open an extra button or two to display its graces, while furtive glances of satisfaction were occasionally cast by the wearer at both localities. Alas! he ought to be forgiven for this apparent vanity, for in his latter days the opportunities of indulging it had become somewhat rare.

Of his peculiarities of mind the most striking were his feeling of reverence, and keen perception, and unbounded admiration, of whatever was great and grand. These might be traced in all his sentiments and opinions. “His deep and sacred regard for the name of God,” says one who knew him intimately for many years, “was such, that I have never known him profane the sacred majesty of heaven by an irreverent use of his Maker’s name. That name he never took in vain, unless he were in the heat of some violent passion, and even then it was very seldom he did so, and on cooling down, deeply regretted he had done it. The condition of his clothing often prevented him from attending church, especially in his later years; but as Sunday came round, he invariably took a Bible or a volume of sermons and went to worship in some quiet spot in the great temple of nature. I have never known another man who had the same amount of awe and holy dread cast over his mind as Sandy, when brought into contact with the wild and grand in nature. The terrible loneliness, and huge massiveness of Ben Muicdhui brought a tremor over his mind, as it suggested to him that passage in the Revelations, where sinners are spoken of as calling on the mountains to cover them from the wrath of the Lamb. ‘We cannot,’ I have heard Sandy say, ‘have any idea of a sinner’s fear on the day of judgment,'when it is such that he will call on these terrible rocks to fall on him. In a moment an army would be destroyed were it even hurled over them. It makes one’s mind recoil with horror at the idea of falling over them, going down, down, down.’”

“A thunder storm too,” continues the same acquaintance, “had an overpowering and hallowing influence on his susceptible mind. I remember once meeting him on his way from Benavon, where he had been during an extraordinary thunderstorm. He was literally shaking with sensation. It was not fear, but that sort of holy awe which pious persons sometimes feel when they are, it may be, on the brink of eternity.

“‘I would not have missed,’ said he, ‘being on Benavon to-day for five pounds: the thunder was so majestic and awful among the rocks. It produced in my mind a fear of God’s greatness and might nothing else could. I tremble yet at His terrible power who could have hurled me to destruction in a moment with one of the smallest of these flashes of lightning. But he preserved me safe in the midst of it, giving me time for repentance; and I am not without hope, however small, that he has some love for me when he did not crush me in yon terrible place this day.’ ”*

"On 28th July, 1852, the writer, happening to be on this same mountain, though for a very different purpose from poor Sand/s, was caught in a thunderstorm of such sublimity that the wnole scene is even yet fresh in his memory. The following short note was made soon after the occasion: A little before noon, after having well filled a botanical case with small cairngorms, and other treasures of the mountain, I was standing on one of tnose huge excrescences of rock that extrude like great moles on the brow of Benavon and distinguish it to the distant beholder from the surrounding mountains. The day was moderately calm, and the sky, though not free from some ominous looking clouds, was very transparent, affording a fine and extensive view to the north and east. Suddenly a little cloud showed front over the north shoulder of Braeriach. On it came through the glack between Ben Muicdhui and Cairngorm, increasing in magnitude and darkening in aspect. It descended into the hollow of Loch Avon, and I could see the summit of Cairngorm over its upper surface. There it twisted and boiled in a most wonderful manner, while the lightnings glared amid its murky folds with a peculiar red colour, and the thunder reverberated among the rocks incessantly. On it came down the deep valley of the Avon, till almost under my feet I could see the lightning playing through the cloud beneath me. I had heard of such sights before, but though I had wandered among the mountains since ever I could wander at all, I had never seen one till now; and I recollected the lines of Byron descriptive of such a scene—

“When I roved a young Highlander o’er the dark heath,

“And climbed thy steep summit, oh Morven of snow!

“To gaze on the torrent that thundered beneath,

“Or the mist of the tempest that gathered below.”

Not a drop of rain fell where I was—some 3,800 feet above sea level— but in the valley below, I have little doubt, it fell in torrents. The cloud passed away in the direction of Inchrory, but its culminating grandeur to me was gone, and I set off for Benabourd, thankful for the magnificent spectacle I had beheld.

Sandy could not endure to observe people other than serious when the thunder rolled and the lightning flashed. To their philosophical arguments as to their safety he would answer with impatience—“Why, what’s the good of your reasoning? Though only one person may be killed, what does that matter to you, if you be the man?”

Though one might have thought that his living day and night among the grand and solitary in nature for so many years would have blunted his susceptibility of receiving impressions from them, yet it was not so. His feelings were as keen for realising the grandeur of a waterfall and the sublimity of a great mountain at the day of his death as when he was young.

It was this same feeling of veneration for all that was entitled to respect that made him sometimes appear severe to conceited young people when more talkative than he deemed respectful in the presence of their seniors. “Hold your tongue, you brat; you speak like a powder monkey,” was his usual rebuke on such occasions.

He was at war also with several of the habits of luxury and effeminacy that he accounted innovations on the good old modes of living. The use of tobacco as an article of luxury, and of pork as an article of diet was particularly offensive to him. “Tobacco smokers and pork eaters I abhor,” he would say in his own proud way; but it was the practices and not the practisers that he despised. These peculiarities of taste showed how thoroughly Scotch he was. On this point it will not be irrelevant to adduce the authority of Sir Walter Scott, who thought it necessary to explain the absence of pork at the great feast at Glennaquoick by the following note:

“Pork, or swine’s flesh, in any shape, was dll of late years much abominated by the Scotch, nor is it yet a favourite food amongst them. King Jamie carried this prejudice to England, and is known to have abhorred pork almost as much as he did tobacco. Ben Jonson has recorded this peculiarity, where the gipsy in a masque, examining the King’s hand, says,—

‘Yon should by this line Love a horse and a hound, but no part of a swine.'

The Gipsies Metamorphosed. James’s own proposed banquet for the Devil was a loin of pork and a poll of ling, with a pipe of tobacco for digestion.” For any difference in their tastes King Jamie and Sandy might have dined together every day in the year.

In politics Sandy was a Tory to the heart’s core. The principles on which the two great parties of the state were divided he probably had not studied theoretically. It was enough for him to observe the practices which as individuals in a private capacity they followed. On that he founded his politics; and as might be supposed, his opinions were strong, and strongly expressed. He did nothing by halves, least of all did he hold opinions so. With him it was no case of agreeing with this man and disagreeing with that; it was simple loving and hating.

Happening to be present on one occasion when politics formed the subject of discussion among some friends, Sandy listened for a little to the arguments used by the champion of the Whig cause; and, having caught their gist, abruptly broke in, “What a fool you are to allow yourself to be duped in that manner! The Whigs are not the poor man’s friend. They are made up of high promises to the poor, but it is the Tories who practise them. The Whigs, on the other side, practise every villainy and meanness, pouring the woes of sour-milk persecution on those below them. They have no veneration for anything human, and end too often by disbelieving everything divine.”

When he had denounced a nobleman as a Whig, he had emptied upon him the vials of his utmost contempt After that there was nothing more to be said; there was no lower depth into which he could be flung. It must be admitted that the treatment he personally received at the hands of certain gentlemen may have had some influence in swaying his politics; but no man had a keener perception, or a higher appreciation of noble and generous features of character; and with whomsoever these were found, to them, man or party, he ascribed all the virtues, political among the rest He was besides drawn towards the Tories by the reverence of his nature for any institution or custom hallowed by age, or enshrined in the affections of the people.

His love of freedom was his ruling passion. It probably drove him from earning his living after the manner of other men; for he could not endure to be bound to work or to follow any course of action whatever if his inclination did not lead him to it. The very idea of imprisonment was torture to him. He had often been heard to say—“Before I would be a month in jail I would give five hundred pounds of the hardest earned money I ever had for liberty to get my feet on the heather again.” He had, however, one night’s experience of this hated place, but it was not on account of poaching, but for a debt alleged to have been due by him arising out of some transaction regarding the purchase of wood.

Sandy’s mode 6f conducting business was far enough from being in accordance with the rules now universally adopted, but like many other traits of his character it faithfully reflected that of his countrymen before they were corrupted by the introduction among them of a system that appealed less to personal virtue than to the observance of legal forms. To ask a man for a receipt or an acknowledgment of payment was in his opinion to cast a doubt upon his honour. “A man’s word is his honour,” was a favourite maxim with him, and he had not that respect for the law and lawyers that would lead him to look for justice in a court of law, if it were denied him at the hands of a private individual. The loss he suffered at the time of the Earl of Fife’s bankruptcy, from this style of conducting business, has already been noticed. That was a case, however, in which it may be safely affirmed his noble debtor would have afterwards done him justice had it been in his power; but there were others in which those who owed him money denied their debt designedly, knowing well that Sandy would not prosecute. He was himself entirely governed by his high sense of honour, and he could not understand why any other safeguard against unjust dealing was required. Only experience taught him that there were a few mean people who did not value their word of honour, and whose proper punishment in his estimation was, not to raise an action against them at law, but “to hound them from society.” Some dealings with one of this fraternity in the days when he traded in wood, resulted in Sandy being brought into a Court of Law, where an adverse decision on some technical point was given against him. He had relied on the justice of his case to carry him.

General Stewart has recorded the following instance of the regard paid by the Highlanders to such engagements: “A gentleman of the name of Stewart agreed to lend a considerable sum of money to a neighbour. When they met and the money was already counted down upon the table, the borrower offered a receipt. As soon as the lender (Stewart of Ballachulish) heard this he immediately collected the money, saying that a man who could not trust his own word without a bond, should not be trusted by him and should have none of his money, which he put up in his purse and returned home.” through, but finding that it was no match for the craft of his prosecutor in the arena into which he had been dragged, he resolved to balk him of the money which he was unjustly suing him for, by going to prison for a time. But one night there entirely altered his resolution. His own account of his experience is the best that can be given—“No sooner was the door locked upon me than I felt myself nearly going mad; and all the night through instead of sleeping I kept thinking, if I had not the money to take me out, my reason must give away. In the morning I paid the one hundred pounds without thinking of the unfair play I had got, and immediately set out for the hills; and such was the state of my mind that I never was satisfied I was free dll I got my feet on the heather moors again.”

Reference has already been made to Sandy’s attainments as a dancer, but a triumph which he achieved in this line requires still to be noticed; and when it is known that he had never been taught the art but possessed it as a pure gift from nature, his success will appear all the more marvellous.

At a meeting of the Caledonian Hunt in Edinburgh, it was resolved to give a number of prizes for the encouragement of Highland games and accomplishments, among others one for dancing. The Highland gentlemen, members of the society, were ambitious of the honour of producing from their estates the winners of the prizes, and accordingly brought with them on the day of trial such of their retainers or tenants as they deemed likely to be successful competitors. There were thus assembled in Edinburgh, from all parts, the best men the country could produce. Sandy presented himself among the rest, though under the patronage of no superior. So great was the number entered for the prize in dancing that the competition extended over sixteen evenings, each succeeding trial however diminishing the list; and finally the first prize was awarded to Sandy. Though very averse to talk about his actions, he was proud of being considered the first dancer in Scotland, and could be got to give an account of the “great competition in Edinburgh.”

“Though I had good hope,” he would say, “after the first day’s trial, of being the successful man, it was not till I got up to dance for the last time, that the great cheering of the ladies and gentlemen made me certain that I was the lucky man; but I sprained my thumb ‘cracking,’ and it has never been quite right since.”

“As a dancer,” says one who has had good opportunities of judging, “he was incomparably the most graceful of his own time; and his style was more characteristically Highland than any I have ever seen; while his fine personal appearance, lit up by the sparkle of his bright piercing eye, never shone to better advantage than when he became excited in a Highland reel”

His victory in Edinburgh, though it could scarcely have increased his celebrity on Deeside, spread his fame into other parts, so that, wherever he went, he was the hero of the ballroom; and it must be admitted that he had no disposition to hide his talent in the earth. He was so fond of this pastime that when opportunities were long wanting for its indulgence, he would sometimes organise on his own account a ball, paying the whole costs, for this among other reasons, “that he might get a right hearty dance.”


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