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Reminiscences of a Highland Parish

NO one attempting to describe from personal knowledge the characteristics of Highland life, can omit some mention of the fools. It must indeed be admitted that the term "fool" is ambiguous, and embraces individuals in all trades, professions, and ranks of society. But those I have in my mind were not so injurious to society, nor so stupid and disagreeable, as the large class commonly called "fools." Nor is the true type of "fool," a witless idiot like the Cretin, nor a raving madman, fit only for Bedlam;—but "a pleasant fellow i' faith, with his brains somewhat in disorder."

I do not know whether "fools" are held in such high estimation in the Highlands as they used to be in that time which we call "our day." It may be that the poor laws have banished them to the calm and soothing retreat of the workhouse; or that the moral and intellectual education of the people by government pupils and Queen's scholars have rendered them incapable of being amused by any abnormal conditions of the intellect; but I am obliged to confess that I have always had a foolish weakness for "fools"—a decided sympathy with them—which accounts for their occupying a very fresh and pleasing portion of my reminiscences of the "parish."

The Highland "fool" was the special property of the district in which he lived. He was not considered a burthen upon the community, it was felt to be a privilege to assist him. He wandered at his own sweet will wherever he pleased, "ower the muir amang the heather;" along highways and byways, with no let or hindrance from parish beadles, rural police, or poor-law authorities.

Every one knew the "fool," and liked him as a sort of prot4b c4 of the public. Every house was open to him, though he had his favourite places of call. But he was too wise to call as a fashionable formal visitor, merely to leave his card and depart if his friend was "not at home." The temporary absence of landlord or landlady made little difference to him. He came to pay a visit, to enjoy the society of his friends, and to remain with them for days, perhaps for weeks, possibly even for months. He was sure to be welcomed, and never treated uncivilly or sent away until he chose to depart. Nay, he was often coaxed to prolong the agreeable visit which was intended as a compliment to the family, and which the family professed to accept as such. It was, therefore, quite an event when some rare fool arrived, illustrious for his wit. His appearance was hailed by all in the establishment, from the shepherds, herds, workmen, and domestic servants, up to the heads of the family, with their happy boys and girls. The news spread rapidly from kitchen to drawing-room—" `Callum,' `Archy,' or' Duncan' fool is come!" and all would gather round him to draw forth his peculiarities.

It must be remembered that the Highland kitchen, which was the "fool's" stage, court, reception and levee room, and which was cheered at night by his brilliant conversation, was like no other similar culinary establishment, except, perhaps, that in an old Irish house. The prim model of civilised propriety, with its pure well-washed floors and whitewashed walls, its glittering pans, burnished covers, clean tidy fireside with roasting-jack, oven and hot-plate—a sort of cooking drawing-room, an artistic studio for roasts and boils—was utterly unknown in the genuine Highland mansion of a former generation. The Highland kitchen had no doubt, its cooking apparatus, its enormous pot that hung from its iron chain amidst the reek in the great chimney; its pans embosomed in glowing peats, and whatever other instrumentality (possibly an additional peat fire on the floor) was required to prepare savoury joints, with such barn-door dainties as ducks and hens, turkeys and geese—all supplied from the farm in such quantities as would terrify the modern cook and landlady if required to provide them daily from the market. The cooking of the Highland kitchen was also a continued process, like that on a passenger steamer on a long voyage. Different classes had to be served at different periods of the day, from early dawn till night. There were, therefore, huge pots of superb potatoes "laughing in their skins," and pots as huge of porridge poured into immense wooden dishes, with the occasional dinner luxury of Braxy—a species of mutton which need not be too minutely inquired into. These supplies were disposed of by the frequenters of the kitchen, dairymaids and all sorts of maids, with shepherds, farm-servants male and female, and herd lads full of fun and grimace, and by a constant supply of strangers, with a beggar and probably a "fool" also at the side--table. The kitchen was thus a sort of caravanserai, in which crowds of men and women, accompanied by sheep-dogs and terriers, came and went; and into whose precincts ducks, hens, and turkeys strayed as often as they could to pick up debris. The world in the drawing-room was totaIIy separated from this world in the kitchen, except when invited to it by the young lady of the family, who in her turn acted as housekeeper. The "gentry" in " the room" were supposed to look down upon it as on things belonging to another sphere, governed by its own laws and customs, with which they had no wish to interfere. And thus it was that "waifs" and "fools" came to the kitchen and fed there, as a matter of course, having a bed in the barn at night. All passers-by got their " bite and sup" in it readily and cheerfully. Servants' wages were nominal, and food was abundant from moor and loch, sea and land. To do justice to the establishment I ought to mention that connected with the kitchen there was generally a room called " the Servants' Hall," where the more distinguished strangers — such as the post or packman, with perhaps the tailor or shoemaker when these were necessarily resident for some weeks in the house—took their meals along with the housekeeper and more "genteel " servants.

I have, perhaps, given the impression that these illustrious visitants, the "fools," belonged to that parish merely in which the houses that they frequented were situated. This was not the case. The fool was quite a cosmopolitan. He wandered like a wild bird over a large tract of country, though he had favourite nests and places of refuge. His selection of these was judiciously made according to the comparative merits of the treatment which he received from his many friends. I have known some cases in which the attachment became so great between the fool and the household that a but was built and furnished for his permanent use. From this he could wander abroad when he wished a change of air or society. Many families had their fool—their Wamba or jester—who made himself not only amusing but useful, by running messages and doing out-of-the-way jobs requiring little wit but often strength and time.

As far as my knowledge goes, or my memory serves me, the treatment of these parish "characters" was most considerate. Any teasing or annoyance which they received detracted slightly, if at all, from the sum of their happiness, and was but the friction which elicited their sparks and crackling fun. The herd boys round the fireside at night could not resist applying it, nor their elders from enjoying it; while the peculiar claims of the fool to be considered lord or king, admiral or general, an eight-day clock or brittle glass, were cheerfully acquiesced in. Few men with all their wits about them could lead a more free or congenial life than the Highland fool with his wit alone.

One of the most distinguished fools of my acquaintance was "Allan-nan-Con," or Allan of the Dogs. He had been drafted as a soldier, but owing to some breach of millitary etiquette on his part, when under inspection by Sir Ralph Abercromby, he was condemned as a fool, and immediately sent home. I must admit that Allan's subsequent career fully confirmed the correctness of Sir Ralph's judgment. His peculiarity was his love of dogs. He wore a long loose greatcoat bound round his waist by a rope. The greatcoat bagged over the rope, and within its loose and warm recesses a number of pups nestled while on his journey, so that his waist always seemed to be in motion. The parent dogs, four or five in number, followed on foot, and always in a certain order of march, and any straggler or undisciplined cur not keeping his own place received sharp admonition from Allan's long pike-staff. His headdress was a large Highland bonnet, beneath which appeared a small sharp face, with bright eyes and thin-lipped mouth full of sarcasm and humour. Allan spent his nights often among the hills. "My house," he used to say, "is where the sun sets." He managed, on retiring to rest, to arrange his dogs round his body so as to receive the greatest benefit from their warmth. Their trainaing was the great object of his life; and his pupils would have astonished any government inspector by their prompt obedience to their master's commands and their wonderful knowledge of the Gaelic language.

I remember on one occasion when Allan was about to leave "the manse," he put his dogs, for my amusement, through some of their drill, as he called it. They were all sleeping round the kitchen fire, the pups freed from the girdle, and wandering at liberty, when Allan said,' "Go out, one of you my children, and let me know if the day is fair or wet." A dog instantly rose, while the others kept their places, and with erect tail went out. Returning, it placed itself by Allan's side, so that he might by passing his hand along its back discover whether it was wet or dry! "Go," he again said, "and tell that foolish child" —one of the pups—"who is frolicking outside of the house, to come in." Another dog rose, departed, and returned wagging his tail and looking up to Allan's face. "Oh, he won't come, won't he? Then go and bring him in, and if necessary by force!" The dog again departed, but this time carried the yelping pup in his mouth, and laid it at Allan's feet. "Now, my dear children, let us be going," said Allan, rising, as if to proceed on his journey. But at this moment two terriers began to fight,--though it seemed a mimic battle,—while an old sagacious-looking collie never moved from his comfortable place beside the fire. To understand this scene you must know that Allan had taken offence at the excellent Sheriff of the district because of his having refused him some responsible situation on his property, and to revenge himself he had trained his dogs to act the drama which was now in progress. Addressing the apparently-sleeping dog, whom he called "the Sheriff," he said, "There you lie, you lazy dog, enjoying yourself when the laws are breaking by unseemly disputes and fights ! But what care you if you get your meat and drink! Shame upon you, Sheriff! It seems that I even must teach you your duty. Get up this moment, sir, or I shall bring my staff down on your head, and make these wicked dogs keep the peace!" In an instant "the Sheriff" rose and separated the combatants.

It was thus that when any one offended Allan past all possibility of forgiveness, he immediately trained one cf the dogs to illustrate his character, and taught it lessons, by which in every house he could turn his supposed enemy into ridicule. A farmer, irritated by this kind of dogmatic intolerance, ordered Allan to leave his farm. "Leave it, forsooth!" replied Allan with a sarcastic sneer. "Could I possibly, sir, take it with me, be assured I would do so rather than leave it to you!"

When Allan was dying he called his dogs beside him, and told them to lie close and keep him warm, as the chill of death was coming over him. He then bade them farewell, as his "children and best friends," and hoped they would find a master who would take care of them and teach them as he had -done. The old woman, in whose hut the poor fool lay, comforted him by telling him how, according to the humane belief of her country, all whom God had deprived of reason were sure to go to heaven, and that he would soon be there. "I don't know very well," said Allan, with his last breath, "where I am going, as I never travelled far; but if it is possible, I will come back for my dogs; and, mind you," he added, with emphasis, "to punish the Sheriff for refusing me that situation!"

Another most entertaining fool was Donald Cameron. Donald was never more brilliant than when narrating his submarine voyages, and his adventures, as he walked along the bottom of the sea passing from island to island. He had an endless variety of stories about the wrecks which visited in the caverns of the deep, and above all of his interviews with the fish, small and great, whom he met during his strange voyages, or journeys, rather. I remember his once telling me the following with grave earnestness, as we sat together fishing from a rock: "I was sadly put about, on one occasion, my boy, when coming from the island of Tyree. Ha! ha! ha! It makes me laugh to think of it now, though at the time it was very vexing. It was very stormy weather, and the walking was difficult, and the road long. I became very hungry at last, and looked out for some hospitable house where I could find rest and refreshment. I was fortunate enough to meet a turbot, an old acquaintance, who invited me, most kindly, to a marriage party, which was that day to be in his family. The marriage was between a daughter of his own, and a well-to-do flounder. So I went with the decent fellow, and entered a fine house of shells and tangle, most beautiful to look upon. The dinner came, and it was all one could wish. There was plenty, I assure you, to eat and drink, for the turbot had a large fishing bank almost to himself to ply his trade on, and he was too experienced to be cheated by the hook of any fisherman. He had also been very industrious, as indeed were all his family. So he had good means. But as we sat down to our feast, my mouth watering, and just as I had the bountiful board under my nose, who should come suddenly upon us with a rush, but a tremendous cod, that was angry because the turbot's daughter had accepted a poor, thin, flat flounder, instead of his own eldest son, a fine red rock cod? The savage, rude brute gave such a fillip with his tail against the table, that it upset, and what happened, my dear, but that the turbot, with all the guests, flounders, skate, haddock, and whiting, thinking, I suppose, that it was a sow of the ocean, (a whale,) rushed away in a fright; and I can tell you, calf of my heart, that when I myself saw the cod's big head and mouth and staring eyes, with his red gills going like a pair of fanners, and when I got a touch of his tail, I was glad to be off with the rest; so I took to my heels and escaped among the long tangle. Pfui! what a race of hide-and-seek that was! Fortunately for me I was near the Point of Ardnamurchan, where I landed in safety, and got to Donald M'Lachlan's house wet and weary. Wasn't that an adventure? And now," concluded my friend, "I'll put on, with your leave, a very large bait of cockles on my hook, and perhaps I may catch some of that rascally cod's descendants!"

"Barefooted Lachlan," another parish worthy, was famous as a swimmer. lie lived for hours in the water, and alarmed more than one boat's crew, who perceived a mysterious object—it might be the sea-serpent—a mile or two from the shore, now appearing like a large seal, and again causing the water to foam with gambols like those of a much larger animal. As they drew near, they saw with wonder what seemed to be the body of a human being floating on the surface of the water. With the greatest caution an oar was slowly moved towards it; but just as the supposed dead body was touched, the eyes, hitherto shut, in order to keep up the intended deception, would suddenly open, and with a loud shout and laugh, Lachlan would attempt to seize the oar, to the terror and astonishment of those who were ignorant of his fancies. The belief in his swimming powers—which in truth were wonderful—became so exaggerated that his friends, even when out of sight of land, would not have been surprised to have been hailed and boarded by him. If any unusual appearance was seen on the surface of the water along the coast of the parish, and rowers paused to consider whether it was a play of fish or a pursuing whale, it was not unlikely that one of them would at last say, as affording the most probable solution of the mystery, " I believe myself it is Barefooted Lachlan !"

Poor Lachlan had become so accustomed to this kind of fishy existence that he attached no more value to clothes than a merman does. He looked upon them as a great practical grievance. To wear them on his aquatic excursions was at once unnecessary and inconvenient, and to be obliged, despite of tides and winds, to return from a distant swimming excursion to the spot on the shore, where they had been left, was to him an intolerable bore. A tattered shirt and kilt were not worth all this trouble. In adjusting his wardrobe to meet the demands of the sea, it must be confessed that Lachlan forgot the fair demands of the land. Society at last rebelled against his judgment, and the poor-law authorities having been appealed to, were compelled to try the expensive but necessary experiment of board-in, Lachlan in a pauper asylum in the Lowlands, rather than permit him to wander about unadorned as a fish out of water. When he landed at the Broomielaw of Glasgow, and saw all its brilliant gas lights, and beheld for the first time in his life a great street with houses which seemed palaces, he whispered with a smile to his keepers, "Surely this is heaven! am I right?" But when he passed onward to his asylum, through the railway tunnel with its smoke and noise, he trembled with horror, declaring that now, alas! he was in the lower regions and lost for ever. The swimmer did not prosper when deprived of his long freedom among the winds and waves of ocean, but died in a few days after entering the well-regulated home provided for his comfort by law. Had it not been for his primitive taste in clothes, and his want of appreciation of any better or more complete covering than hi; tanned skin afforded, I would have protested against his being confined in a workhouse as a cruel and needless incarceration, and pleaded for him as Wordsworth did for his Cumberland beggar:-

"As in the eye of Nature he has lived,
So in the eye of Nature let hint die!"

While engaged in the unusual task of writing the biographies of fools, I cannot forget one who, though not belonging to "the parish," was better known perhaps than any other in the North. The man I speak of was "Gillespie Aotrom," or "light-headed Archy," of the Isle of Skye. Archy was perhaps the most famous character of his day in that island. When I first made his acquaintance a quarter of a century age, he was eighty years of age, and had been a notorious and much-admired fool during all that period — from the time, at least, when he had first babbled folly at his mother's knee. Archy, though a public beggar, possessed excellent manners. He was welcomed in every house in Skye and if the landlord had any appreciation of wit, or if he was afraid of being made the subject of some sarcastic song or witty epigram, he was sure to ask Archy into the dining-room after dinner, to enjoy his racy conversation. The fool never on such occasions betrayed the slightest sense of being patronised, but made his bow, sat down, accepted with respect, ease, and race his glass of wine or whisky punch, and was ready to engage in any war of joke or repartee, and1 to sing some inimitable songs, which hit off with rare cleverness the infirmities and frailties of the leading people of the island—especially the clergy. Some of the clergy and gentry happened to be so sensitive to the power and influence of this fool's wit, which was sure to be repeated at "kirk and market," that it was alleged they paid him black-mail in meat and money to keep him quiet, or obtain his favour. Archy's practical jokes were as remarkable as his sayings. One of these jokes was the following. An old acquaintance of mine, a minister in Skye, who possessed the kindest disposition and an irreproachable moral character, was somehow more afraid of Archy's sharp tongue and witty rhymes than most of his brethren. Archy seemed to have detected intuitively his weak point, and though extremely fond of the parson, yet he often played upon his good-nature with an odd mixture of fun and selfishness. On the occasion I refer to, Archy in his travels arrived on a cold night at the manse when all its inmates were snug in bed, and the parson himself was snoring loudly beside his helpmate. A thundering knock at the door awakened him, and thrusting his head, enveloped in a thick white nightcap, out of the window, he at once recognised the tall, well-known form of Archy. "Is that you, Archy? Oich, oich ! what do you want, my good friend, at this hour of the night?" blandly asked the old minister. "What could a man want at such an hour, most reverend friend," replied the rogue, with a polite bow, "but his supper and his bed!" "You shall have both, good Archy," said the parson, at the same time wishing Archy on the other side of the Coolins. Dressing himself in his home-made flannel unmentionables, and throwing a shepherd's plaid over his shoulders, he descended and admitted the fool. He then provided a sufficient supper for him in the form of a large supply of bread and cheese, with a jug of milk. During the repast Archy told his most recent gossip and merriest stories, concluding by a request for a bed. "You shall have the best in the parish, good Archy, take my word for it!" quoth the old dumpy and most amiable minister. The bed alluded to was the hay-loft over the stable, which could be approached by a ladder only. The minister adjusted the ladder and begged Archy to ascend. Archy protested against the rudeness. "You call that, do you, one of the best beds in Skye? You, a minister, say so? On such a cold night as this, too? You dare to say this to vie?" The old man, all alone, became afraid of the gaunt fool as he lifted his huge stick with energy. But had any one. been able to see clearly Archy's face, they would have easily discovered a malicious twinkle in his eye betraying some plot which he had been concocting probably all day. "I do declare, Archy," said the parson, earnestly, "that a softer, cleaner, snugger bed exists not in Skye!" "I am delighted," said Archy, "to hear it, minister, and must believe it since you say so. But you know it is the custom in our country for a landlord to show his guest into his sleeping apartment, isn't it? and so I expect you to go up before me to my room, and just see if all is right and comfortable. Please ascend!" Partly from fear and partly from a wish to get back to his own bed as soon as possible, and out of the cold of a sharp north wind, the simple-hearted old man complied with Archy's wish. With difficulty, waddling up the ladder, he entered the hay-loft. When his white rotund body again appeared as he formally announced to his distinguished guest how perfectly comfortable the resting-place provided for him was, the ladder, alas! had been removed, while Archy calmly remarked, "I am rejoiced to hear what you say! I don't doubt a word of it. But if it is so very comfortable a bed-room, you will have no objection, I am sure, to spend the night in it. Good night, then, my much-respected friend, and may you have as good a sleep and as pleasant dreams as you wished me to enjoy." So saying he made a profound bow and departed with the ladder over his shoulder. But after turning the corner and listening with fits of suppressed laughter to the minister's loud expostulations and earnest entreaties—for never had he preached a more energetic sermon, or one more from his heart—and when the joke afforded the full enjoyment which was anticipated, Archy returned with the ladder, and advising the parson never to tell fibs about his fine bed-rooms again. but to give what he had without imposing upon strangers, he let him descend to the ground, while he himself ascended to the place of rest in the loft.

Archy's description of the whole scene was ever afterwards one of his best stories, to the minister's great annoyance. In some way or other he had been grievously offended by another of the clergy, on whom he revenged himself by robbing his hen-roost of a Iarge cock, with splendid yellow feathers and a noble comb. Archy having carefully cut open and disembowelled the cock, without injuring its magnificent plumage, formed it into a helmet. Concealing it under his great-coat, and occupying a prominent seat in church, immediately opposite the pulpit, he patiently waited, with becoming gravity, until the minister had reached the climax of his discourse, and was eloquently addressing the congregation, when, stooping down, he adjusted his helmet, tying the legs of the cock under his chin, its tail feathers drooping behind, and the head, with its glowing comb and appendages, stuck up before; then assuming his former position, with folded arms, he gazed on the minister, who, it may be well believed, returned the gaze with awful gravity. While the congregation joined him in the gaze, their gravity was considerably Iess.

A friend of mine met Archy on the highway, and, wishing to draw him out, asked his opinion of several travellers as they passed. The first was a very tall man. Archy remarked that he had never seen any man before so near heaven! Of another he said that he had " the sportsman's eye and the soldier's step," which was singularly true in its description.

A Skye laird who was fond of trying a pass of arms with Archy, met him one day gnawing a bone. "Shame on you, Archy," said the laird, "why do you gnaw a bone in that way?" "And to what use, sir," asked Archy in reply, "would you have me put it?" "I advise you," said the laird, "to throw it in charity to the first dog you meet." "Is that your advice? then I throw it to yourself!" said Archy, shying the bone at the laird's feet.

While correcting these sheets, an old woman from Skye, now in Glasgow, and who knew Archy well, has repeated to me the words which he never failed to use with reverence as his grace before meat. They seem to contain some allusion to the sin of the evil eye, so much feared and hated by the old Highlanders. I translate them literally:

"May my heart always bless my eyes;
And my eyes bless all they see ;
And may I always bless my neighbour,
Though my neighbours should never bless me. Amen."

By this time I fear that my sedate and wise readers will conclude that a sympathy with fools comes very naturally to me. I must bow my head to the implied rebuke. It is, I know, a poor defence to make for my having indulged, however briefly, in such biographies, that the literary world has produced many longer ones of greater fools less innocent of crime, less agreeable, and less beneficial to society, than those which I have so imperfectly recorded among my reminiscences of the old Highlands. [Since writing the above, I have heard of a distinguished general officer who left the Highlands in his youth, but returned a short time ago to visit his early home, who, with great seriousness and naivitet, said to my informant, "Will you believe me when I tell you that among the many things so long associated with my remembrances, and which I miss much—are —are—pray don't laugh at me when I confess it—are my old friends the fools!" I heartily sympathise with the general!]

But lest any one should imagine for a moment that I treat lightly the sufferings of those deprived of God's highest gift of reason, let me say that my fools were generally strong and healthy in body, and in many cases, as I have already hinted, took a share in farm-work, boating, fishing, &c., and the treatment which they received was, on the whole, humane and benevolent. At the same time I do not forget another very different class, far lower in the scale of humanity, which, owing to many circumstances that need not be detailed here, was a very large one in the Highlands--I mean, creatures weak in body and idiotic in mind, who, in spite of the tenderest affection on the part of their poor parents, were yet miserable objects for which no adequate relief existed. Such cases indeed occur everywhere throughout the kingdom to a greater extent, I think, than most people are aware of. Those idiots are sometimes apparently little removed above the beasts that perish, yet they nevertheless possess a Divine nature never wholly extinguished, which is capable of being developed to a degree far beyond what the most sanguine could anticipate who have not seen what wise, patient, benevolent, and systematic education is capable of accomplishing. The coin with the Kinds image on it, though lying in the dust with the royal stamp almost obliterated, may be again marvellously cleansed and polished. I therefore hail asylums for idiot children as among the most blessed fruits of Christian civilisation. Though, strange to say, they are but commencing among us, yet I believe the day is near when they will be recognised as among the most needed, the most successful, and most blessed institutions of our country.


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