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Reminiscences of a Highland Parish
The Grassy Hillock; or The Grave of Flory Cameron

WE might expect to find peculiar types of character among a people who possess, as the Highlanders do, a vivid fancy, strong passions, and keen affections; who dwell among scenery of vast extent and great sublimity, shut up in their secluded valleys, separated even from their own little world by mountains and moorlands or stormy arms of the sea; whose memories are full of the dark superstitions and wild traditions of the olden time; who are easily impressed by the mysterious sights and sounds created by mists and clouds and eerie blasts, among the awful solitudes of nature; and who cling with passionate fondness to home and family, as to tic very life and soul of the otherwise desert waste around them But I never met, even in the Highlands, with a more remarkable example of the influence of race and circumstances than Flora, or rather Flory Cameron.

The first time I saw her was when going to the school of "the parish," early on an autumnal morning. The school was attached to the church, and the churchyard was consequently near it. The churchyard, indeed, with its headstones and flat stones, its walled tombs, and old ruined church, was fully appreciated by us, as an ideal place for our joyous games, especially for "hide and seek," and "I spy." Even now, in spite of all the sadder memories of later years. I can hardly think of the spot without calling up the blithe face of some boy peering cautiously over the effigy of an old chief, or catching the glimpse of a kilt disappearing behind a headstone, or hearing a concealed titter beside a memorial of sorrow.

As I passed the churchyard for the first time in the sober dawning of that harvest day, I was arrested by seeing the figure of a woman wrapt in a Highland plaid, sitting on a grave, her head bent and her hands covering her face, while her body slowly rocked to and fro. Beside her was a Highland terrier that seemed asleep on the grave. Her back was towards me, and I slipped away without disturbing her, yet much impressed by this exhibition of grief.

On telling the boys what I had seen, for the grave and its mourner were concealed at that moment from our view by the old ruin, they, speaking in whispers, and with an evident feeling of awe or of fear, informed me that it was "Flory the witch," and that she and her dog had been there every morning since her son had died months before; and that the dog had been a favourite of her son's, and followed the witch wherever she went. I soon shared the superstitious fear for Flory which possessed the boys; for, though they could not affirm, in answer to my inquiries, that she ever travelled through the air on a broomstick, or became a hare at her pleasure, or had ever been seen dancing with demons by moonlight in the old church, yet one thing was certain, that the man or woman whom she blessed was blessed indeed, and that those whom she cursed were cursed indeed. "Is that really true?" I eagerly asked. "It is true as death!" replied the boy Archy Macdonald, shocked by my doubt; "for," said he, "did not black Hugh Maclean strike her boy once at the fair, and did she not curse him when he went off to the herring fishery? and wasn't he and all in the boat drowned? True! ay, it's true." "And did she not curse," added little Peter M`Phie, with vehemence, "the ground officer for turning old Widow M'Pherson out of her house? Was he not found dead under the rock? Some said he had been drunk; but my aunt, who knew all about it, said it was because of Flory's curse, nothing else, and that the cruel rascal deserved it too." Ana then followed many other terrible proofs of her power, clinched with the assurance from another boy that he had once heard "the maister himself say, that he would any day far rather have her blessing than her curse!"

This conversation prepared me to obey with fear and trembling a summons which I soon afterwards unexpectedly received. Flory had one day, unseen by me, crossed the playground, when we were too busy to, notice anything except the ball for which we were eagerly contending at our game of "shinty." She heard that I was at the school, and seeing me, sent a boy to request my presence. As I came near her, the other boys stood at a respectful distance, watching the interview. I put out my hand frankly, though tremblingly, to greet her. She seized it, held it fast, gazed at my face, and I at hers. What she saw in mine I know not, but hers is still vividly before me in every line and expression. It was in some respects very strange and painfully impressive, yet full of affection, which appeared to struggle with an agonised look of sorrow that ever and anon brought tears down her withered cheeks. Her eyes seemed at one time to retire into her head, leaving a mere line between the eyelashes, like what one sees in a cat when in the light; they then would open slowly, and gradually increase until two large black orbs beamed on me, and I felt as if they drew me unto them by a mysterious power. Pressing my hand with one of hers, she stroked my head fondly, muttering to herself all the time, as if in prayer. She then said, with deep feeling, "Oh, thou calf of my heart! my love, my darling, son and grandson of friends, the blessed! let the blessing of the poor, the b!essing of the widow, the blessing of the heart be on thee, and abide with thee, my love, my love!" And then, to my great relief, she passed on. In a little while she turned and looked at me, and, waving a farewell, went tottering on her way, followed by the dog. The boys congratulated me on my interview, and seemed to think I was secure against any bodily harm. I think the two parties in our game that day, competed for my powerful aid.

I often saw Flory afterwards, and instead of avoiding her, felt satisfaction rather in having my hand kissed by her, and in receiving the blessing, which in some kind form or other she often gave. Never, during the autumn and winter months when I attended that Highland school, did she omit visiting the grave on which I first saw her. The plashing rain fell around her, and the winds blew their bitter blast, but there she sat at early morning, for a time to weep and pray. And even when snow fell, the black form of the widow, bent in sorrow, was only more clearly revealed. Nor was she ever absent from her seat below the pulpit on Sunday. Her furrowed countenance with the strange and tearful eye, the white mulch with the black ribbon bound tightly round the head, the slow rocking motion, with the old, thin, and withered body,—all are before me, though forty years have passed since then.

In after years, the present minister of the parish, and son of "the manse," told me more about Flory than I then knew. The account given to me by the boys at school was to some extent true. She was looked upon as a person possessing an insight into the character of people and their future, for her evil predictions had in many cases been fulfilled. She, had remarkable powers of discernment, and often discovered elements of disaster in the recklessness or wickedness of those whom she denounced; and when these disasters occurred in any form, her words were remembered, and her predictions attributed to some supernatural communications with the evil one. Although the violence of her passion was so terrible when roused by any act of cruelty or injustice, that she did not hesitate to pour it forth on the objects of her hate, in solemn imprecations expressed in highly-wrought and poetic language; yet Flory herself was never known to claim the possession of magic powers.

[In many IIighlaud parishes—ay, and in Scotch and English ones too—there were persons who secretly gave charms to cure diseases and prevent injtuies to man or Least. These charms have come down from Popish times. A woman still lives, I believe, in the "parish" who possessed a charm which the minister was resolved to obtain from her, along with the solemn promise that she would never again use it. We understand that if any charm is once repeated to and thus possessed by another, it cannot, according to the law which regulates those supposed powers of darkness, be used again by its original owner. It was with some difficulty that the minister at last prevailed on "the witch" to repeat her charm. She did so, in a wild glen in which they accidentally met. She gave the charm with loud voice, outstretched arm, and leaning against the stem of an old pine-tree, while the minister quietly copied it into his notebook, as he sat on horseback. "here it is, minister," she said, "and to you or your father's son alone would I give it, and once you have it, it will pass my lips no more:-

"The charm of God the Great
The free gift of Mary:
The free gift of God :
The free gift of every Priest and Churchman:
The free gift of Michael the Strong:
That would put strength in the sun."

Yet all this echo of old ecclesiastical thunder was but "a charm for sore eyes!" Whether it could have been used for greater, if not more useful purposes, I know not.]

She spoke, she said, but the truth, and cursed those only who deserved it, and had her curses not all come true ? Her violent passion or hysteria was her only demoniacal possession.

Flory was not by any means an object of dislike. She was as ardent and vehement in her attachments as in her hates, and the former were far more numerous than the latter. Her sick and afflicted neighbours always found in her a sympathising and comforting friend. With that strange inconsistency by which so much light and darkness, good and evil, meet in the same character, Flory, to the minister's knowledge, had been the means of doing much good in more than one instance by her exhortations and her prayers, to those who had been leading wicked lives; while her own life as a wife and a mother had been strictly moral and exemplary. She had been early left a widow, but her children were trained up by her to be gentle, obedient, and industrious, and she gave them the best education in her power.

But it was God's will to subdue the wild and impassioned nature of Flory by a series of severe chastisements. When a widow, her eldest son, in the full strength of manhood, was drowned at sea and her only daughter and only companion died. One son alone, the pride of her heart, and the stay of her old age, remained, and to him she clung with her whole heart and strength. He deserved, and returned her love. By his industry he had raised a sufficient sum of money to purchase a boat, for the purpose of fishing herring in some of the Highland lochs—an investment of capital which in good seasons is highly advantageous. All the means possessed by Donald Cameron were laid out on this boat and both he and his mother felt proud and happy as he launched it free of debt and was able to call it his own. He told his mother that he expected to make a little fortune by it, that he would then build a house, and get a piece of land, and that her old age would be passed under his roof in peace and plenty. With many a blessing from Flory the boat sailed away. But Donald's partner in the fishing speculation turned out a cowardly and inefficient seaman. The boat was soon wrecked in a storm. Donald, by great exertion, escaped with his life. He returned to his mother a beggar, and so severely injured that he survived the wreck of his boat and fortune but a few weeks.

There was not a family in the parish which did not share the sorrow of poor Flory.

I received the following account of his funeral now before me, from the minister, who was so much struck by all he saw and heard on that occasion that he noted down the circumstances at the time. I shall give it in his own words:-

"When I arrived at the scene of woe, I observed the customary preparations had been judiciously executed, all under the immediate superintendence of poor Flory. On entering the apartment to which I was conducted, she received me with perfect composure and with all that courteous decorum of manner so common in her country. Her dress she had studiously endeavoured to render as suitable to the occasion as circumstances would admit. She wore a black woollen -own of a peculiar, though not unbecoming form, and a very broad black riband was tightly fastened round her head, evidently less with regard to ornament than to the aching pain implanted there by accumulated suffering. According to the custom of the country she drank to the health of each individual present, prefacing each health with a few kind words. In addressing the schoolmaster, who had been assiduous in his attentions towards her, she styled him the `counsellor of the dying sufferer, the comforter of the wounded mourner.' Another individual present she addressed as `the son of her whose hand was bountiful, and whose heart was kind,' and in like manner, in addressing me. she alluded very aptly and very feelingly to the particular relation in which I then stood towards her. She then retired with a view of attending to the necessary preparations amongst the people assembled without the house. After a short interval, however, she returned, announcing that all was in readiness for completing the melancholy work for which we had convened. Here she seemed mush agitated. Her lips, and even her whole frame seemed to quiver with emotion. At length, however, she recovered her former calmness, and stood motionless and pensive until the coffin was ready to be carried to the grave. She was then requested to take her station at the head of the coffin, and the black cord attached to it was extended to her. She seized it for a moment, and then all self-possession vanished. Casting it from her, she rushed impetuously forward, and clasping her extended arms around the coffin, gave vent to all her accumulated feelings in the accents of wildest despair. As the procession slowly moved onwards, she narrated in a sort of measured rhythm her own sufferings, eulogised the character of her son, and then, alas! uttered her wrath against the man to whose want of seamanship she attributed his death. I would it were in my power to convey her sentiments as they were originally expressed. But though it is impossible to convey them in their pathos and energy, I shall endeavour to give a part of her sad and bitter lamentation by a literal translation of her words.

Alas! alas! woe's me, what shall I do?
Without husband, without brother,
Without substance, without store :
A son in the deep, a daughter in her grave,
The son of my love on his bier
Alas ! alas! woe's me, what shall I do?
'Son of my love, plant of beauty,
Thou art cut low in thy loveliness
Who'll now head the party at their games on the plains of Artornish?

The swiftest of foot is laid low.
Had I thousands of gold on the sea-cover'd rock,
I would leave it all and save the son of my love.
But the son of my love is laid low
Alas! alas! woe's me, what shall I do?

"Land of curses is this!—where I lost my family and my friends,
My kindred and my store,
Thou art a land of curses for ever to me
Alas ! alas! what shall I do?

"'And, Duncan, thou grandson of Malcolm,
Thou wert a meteor of death to me;
Thine hand could not guide the helm as the hand of my love.
But, alas the stem of beauty is cut down,
I am left alone in the world,
Friendless and childless, houseless and forlorn
Alas! alas! woe's me what shall I do?'

"Whilst she chanted forth these and similar lamentations, the funeral procession arrived at the place of interment, which was only about a mile removed from her cottage. The grave was already dug. It extended across an old Gothic arch. Under it Flory sat for some moments in pensive silence. The coffin was placed in the grave, and when it had been adjusted with all due care, the attendants were about to proceed to cover it. Here, however, they were interrupted. Flory arose, and motioning to the obsequious crowd to retire, she slowly descended into the hollow grave, placed herself in an attitude of devotion, and continued for some time engaged in prayer to the Almighty.

"The crowd of attendants had retired to a little distance, but being in some degree privileged, or at least considering myself so, I remained leaning upon a neighbouring brave-stone as near to her as I could without rudely intruding upon such great sorrow. I was however too far removed to hear distinctly the words which she uttered, especially as they were articulated in a low and murmuring tone of voice. The concluding part of her address was indeed more audibly given, and I heard her bear testimony with much solemnity to the fact that her departed son had never provoked her to wrath, and had ever obeyed her commands. She then paused for a few moments, seemingly anxious to tear herself away, but unable to do so. At length she mustered resolution, and after impressing three several kisses on the coffin, she was about to arise. But she found herself again interrupted. The clouds which had hitherto been lowering were now dispelled, and just as she was slowly ascending from the grave, the sun burst forth in full splendour from behind the dark mist that had hitherto obscured its rays. She again prostrated herself, this time under the influence of a superstitious belief still general in the Highlands, that bright sunshine upon such occasions augurs well for the future happiness of the departed. She thanked God `that the sky was clear and serene when the child of her love was laid in the dust.' She then at length arose, and resumed her former position under the old archway, which soon re-echoed the ponderous sound of the falling earth upon the hollow coffin.

"It was indeed a trying moment to her. With despair painted on her countenance, she shrieked aloud in bitter anguish, and wrung her withered hands with convulsive violence. I tried to comfort her, but she would not be comforted. In the full paroxysm of her grief, however, one of the persons in attendance approached her. 'Tears,' said her friend, `cannot bring back the dead. It is the will of Heaven—you must submit.' 'Alas!' replied Flory, `the words of the lips—the words of the lips are easily given, but they heal not the broken heart!' The offered consolation, however, was effectual thus far, that it recalled the mourner to herself, and led her to subdue for the time every violent emotion. She again became alive to every-thin- around, and gave the necessary directions to those who were engaged in covering up the grave. Her directions were given with unfaltering voice, and were obeyed by the humane neighbours with unhesitating submission. On one occasion indeed, and towards the close of the obsequies, she assumed a tone of high authority. It was found that the turf which had been prepared for cover-in- the grave was insufficient for the purpose, and one of the attendants not quite so fastidious as his countrymen, who in such cases suffer not the smallest inequality to appear, proposed that the turf should be lengthened by adding to it. The observation did not escape her notice. Flory fixed her piercing eye upon him that uttered it, and after gazing at him for some moments with bitter scorn, she indignantly exclaimed, 'Who talks of patching up the grave of my son? Get you gone! cut a green sod worthy of my beloved.' This imperative order was instantly obeyed. A suitable turf was procured, and the grave was at length covered up to the entire satisfaction of all parties. She now arose, and returned to her desolate abode, supported by two aged females, almost equally infirm with herself, and followed by her dog.

"But Flory Cameron did not long remain inactive under suffering. With the aid of her good friend, the parish schoolmaster, she settled with scrupulous fidelity, all her son's mercantile transactions; and with a part of the very small reversion of money accruing to herself she purchased a neat freestone slab, which she has since erected as the `Tribute of a widowed mother to the memory of a dutiful son.' Nor has her attention been limited to the grave of her son. Her wakeful thoughts seem to have been the subject of her midnight dreams. In one of the visions of the night, as she herself expressed it, her daughter appeared to her, saying, that she had honoured a son and passed over a daughter. The hint was taken. Her little debts were collected; another slab was provided on which to record the name and merits of a beloved daughter; and, to his honour I mention it, a poor mason employed in the neighbourhood entered so warmly into the feeling by which Flory was actuated that he gave his labour gratuitously in erecting this monument of parental affection. But though the violence of her emotion subsided, Flory Cameron's grief long remained. In church, where she was a regular attendant, every allusion to family bereavement subdued her, and often, when that simple melody arose in which her departed son was wont very audibly to join, she used to sob bitterly, uttering with a low tone of voice, `Sweet was the voice of my love in the house of God.' Frequently I have met her returning from the burying-ground at early dawn and at evening twilight, accompanied by her little dog, once the constant attendant of her son ; and whilst I stood conversing with her I have seen the daisy which she had picked from the grave of her beloved, carefully laid up in her bosom. But her grief is now assuaged. Affliction at length tamed the wildness of her nature, and subdued her into a devotional frame. She ceased to look for earthly comfort, but found it in Christ. She often acknowledged to me with devout submission that the Lord, as He gave, had a right to take away, and that she blessed His name; and that as every tic that bound her to earth had been severed, her thoughts rose more habitually to the home above, where God her Father would at last free her from sin and sorrow and unite her to her dear ones."

Flory continued to visit the grave of her children as long as her feeble steps could carry her thither. But her strength soon failed, and she was confined to her poor hut. One morning, the neighbours, attracted by the howling of her dog, and seeing no smoke from her chimney, entered unbidden, and found Flory dead and lying as if in calm sleep in her poor bed. Her body was laid with her children beneath the old arch and beside the stone coffin of the Spanish Princess.


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