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The Long Glen
Chapter VI - Blazing the River

WHETHER John Macpherson followed Ewan's advice, deponent cannot say; but the evil-doers got rid at anyrate of the proofs of their guilt, and were on their smearing stools at the usual time next morning, looking as fresh and innocent as if they had slept through the whole night in a lawful and prosaic way. The story of the night's adventure was of course poured into Rob's trustworthy ear; and he laughed until his eyes overflowed at the mishap which interrupted the blazing, and made the memory of it pleasant to all except Ewan, who could not yet see any fun in a headlong plunge which almost drowned him, and which, worse still, prevented him from securing the fragments of the King trout of Lochan-na-larig.

"After being sent to the bottom of that cold pool, with Diarmad atop of me, and after losing the King of the Lochan in such a provoking way, I declare"—said Ewan solemnly—" I cannot have peace of mind again until I kill a big croman x in the river, and bring him to bank too."

Rob—"Mo laoch, be of good cheer. It is myself that has the best of news for thee."

Ewan—"And what may the best of your news be?"

Rob—"The salmon are out in the rapids digging their egg-holes, and drawing together in pairs."

Angus—"The frosty nights must be hurrying them into early marriage. Winter weather is a great marriage-maker, as says the Clerk of the Session when jingling in his pocket the heaps of silver he gets for Christmas and New Year proclamations."

Diarmad—"Bad end to Angus; his mind is always running on marriage. Perhaps more marriages take place in winter than in summer, because people in winter have less of useful work to do. What that English hymn says may apply sometimes to winter marriages :—

'The Devil finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.' "

Ewan—"Hist then, you two, and don't wrangle about nothing here or there. But, Rob, is it just as sure as death the salmon are out in the athan."

Rob—"Yea, as true as death, and no mistake at all. I have seen with my own eyes, through the tangle of a sloe tree fringed with brambles, a pair of them out in Ath-Ghrianaidh. There they were, sure enough, not three yards from the bank, and almost touching the floating roots of a spate-washed alder tree. I could have easily speared the croman, a regular king, Ewan, from the spot where I stood. He was the fine beast, that he was, thick-shouldered, hooknosed, wable-tailed, and with his white scales only touched with copper, and his back more brown than black."

Ewan—"O dhuine ghasda, good is your news. If you will just be our fear-leois, you will see me kill that very croman for you with my own hand."

Angus—"Wilt thou take thy spade and cut him in two, or choose an axe and only chop off his head ?"

Ewan—"I tell thee this, and I mean it too—I'll not take mock or scorn from any of thy clan."

Angus (laughing)—Is rioghail mo dhream."

Ewan—"Aye, indeed, a Royal race truly! Cattle-lifters, thieves, and outlaws."

Angus—"And if they were forced by oppression to be all that, they were not worse than thy clan, who did the same things without the same excuse. In what respect was Ewan son of Allan or Domhnull Dubh better than Donnacha Ladosach or Rob Roy?"

Diarmad—"Uistibh a ghillean gorach. Our stupid clan feuds, and snarlings, and jealousies, have been our race-ruin. The nobly-endowed Celtic peoples of Britain and other places have just missed their position and mission through want of union at critical periods of history. But is the doom fixed yet ? Who knows ? Truly as yet the light shines only on the hill-tops, and who can say what remains hidden in the darkness of the winding glens and rounding corries of the future revelation?"

Ewan—"Rob, as you are near him, poke Diarmad smartly beneath the fifth rib. His mind has gone on the seacharan (wandering), and if you don't wake him up immediately, the Black One for sure will get the advantage of him."

In this way Ewan rather cleverly turned the tables on the monitor ; and Diarmad, as if really waking from a reverie, slightly blushed and abruptly asked—

"When are we to blaze the river, then?"

Ewan—"That is coming to the mark with a jerk, like palsied Para Brocair's gun when pointed at a fox."

Rob—"Or Ewan Mor's spade striking straight at the King of Lochan-na-larig."

Ewan—"Oh man of age! Let your wisdom be as your years, and show your discretion by becoming silence regarding Kings, and persons, and things that should not be universally spoken of; or else that croman, the glimpse of which made your mouth water, will never smoke on your table as the captive of my spear and skill."

Diarmad—"I begin to think Ewan must be training for being a bard or an elder—so eloquently does he speak. Although they hate each other, the song-makers and prayer-meeting leaders have much in common. Can either of you guess which of the two Ewan means to be?"

Ewan—"Not one of you three has the gift of the double sight, or the spirit of prophecy. So then let the grain and chaff lie quietly in one heap until you get a sieve and can raise a winnowing wind, which I think will not happen to-day or to-morrow. But look you ! let us blaze the river on Monday night, when the fathers and masters, praise to goodness, will mostly be away to Falkirk on the trail of their beasts, and bargaining over noggins of whisky."

Angus—"Biggest of Solomon's sons, thou sayest well. A better night there cannot be. As to-morrow is Sunday, we can make up Lochan-na-larig arrears of sleep by remaining in bed till nine o'clock, which will be still soon enough to let us get to church before twelve."

Ewan—"I don't mean to go to church at all. It is well known—or should be at anyrate—that smearing work ' so much reduces my strength that I need the full Sabbath's rest to pull up a bit. And look you, also, it is entirely against my principles to risk taking uaimhealan (sheep-ticks) to church with me, and never did I see the heathen plagues worse on the beasts than they are this year. So, look you, I'll lie in bed till dinner, unless I should happen to wake at brochan time, and feel dreadfully hungry— which would be a black misfortune."

Angus—"And having made up Lochan-na-larig arrears to-morrow, we can get up an hour or two before working time on Monday, and make the leusan,2 which Rob will hold aloft for us at night with the dignity of a royal standard-bearer."

Rob—"Nay, nay, I must ask to be let off. It was foolish of me to ever think of going with you. The cold water does not suit an old man, and the bailiff of the water is my crony. I must not wrong Do'ull-an-uisge (Donald of the water) by going to the blazing."

Diarmad—"That is hardly fair to me; for I know they will be wanting to make me their fear-leois ; but it must be turn about, I can tell them."

Angus—"For sure, turn about and fair play. There will be four fords within our range, and as the elder's John is sure to come, everyone will have his turn of the torch. I think it will be best to begin with the Blackwood fords. Do'ull-an-uisge seldom looks that way; and it is a grand lonely place, where it would be beyond the bounds of reason for other late night watchers to be abroad."

Rob—"I could almost swear to it Do'ull-an-uisge will be snoring—and it is the loudly snoring nose he has—by the side of Main his old wife, before you ever get to the Blackwood fords. Fish, game, and the public peace also, are better protected in the Garbh-Chriochan by ministers, elders, and other religious folk, than by water-watchers, gamekeepers, and constables."

Diarmad—"Very true is that, and a very creditable testimony it is to ministers, elders, and other pious folk. Dreadfully wild and unruly was the state of the hill country of Alba before the Cuigse faith and rule gained the upper hand. But these Non-Intrusionists and groaning saints we have now are, methinks, deserting the substance to follow shadows. A little more of credit and confidence, and a little less of creed and confession, would be a real blessing."

Ewan—"Stop him ! He is going again on the seacharan. But, Rob, do you surely think the Water Kelpie will be laid low like a decent man by the side of his old Mairi, and that he will not at all be poking his miserable bit of a turned-up nose through the willows and alders on Monday night?"

Rob—"Ach, surely do I think so; more by token as the hard night frosts have set in. And, indeed, well he may, or think he may, for I believe the river has not been blazed before, in any part of it, for more than a dozen years. That, at least, is what Do'ull-an-uisge says, and surely he is right. I fear me you will be going back to the fish pots of Egypt, and restoring the reign of iniquity on Monday night."

Ewan—"Never mind that a plack. But it is the great comfort to think Do'ull-an-uisge will be sleeping musically, and earning his wages like a good Christian, and not like a perturbed spirit. Look you, people say it is difficult to know one man from another under torch light; but that is not true of me. Ach, not at all, at all."

Angus—"No, for sure, Ewan is as easily known from other sons of men as the one piebald pony in a herd of a thousand Shetland ponies."

Diarmad—"Like Saul, he is by the head and shoulders taller than his fellow men."

Rob—"Like Benmore to the wee Lowland hills, so is he to folk of common height and breadth."

Ewan—"Just stop your neonachas. The old Water Kelpie could neither catch nor hold me. That I know. I am sure he would ken me. And that would be a sore vexation. For, look you, I might get a name for badness which would stick like a burr to a cloak of clo, or a prickly thistle to a cow's touslie tail, when, goodness knows, we are only going out just this once to blaze the river for a bit of daft fun, and nothing else whatever. I pray for honest Do'ull, therefore, a warm bed and happy dreams on Monday night."

The day of rest was utilised for rest and sleep as resolved; and torches were duly prepared, and weapons of slaughter got before work time on Monday morning. Angus went to church to hear a strange preacher; or rather to meet his sweetheart, and to pass the word to the elder's John, who promised to join the others at the appointed hour beneath a trysting tree in the Blackwood— notwithstanding the ghosts. But the dark pine wood, although a fragment of the old forest of Caledonia, and therefore nearly as old as the hills, had, strange to say, no bad name at all for being haunted by ghosts, fairies, or anything uncanny.

Rob undertook to keep watch over Do'ull-an-uisge, whom he reported to be far enough away from the dark pine wood and his face set towards home on Monday evening.

The fathers and masters were at Falkirk, or on the road thither. The very minister chanced to be from home, preaching as candidate for a parish in the regions beyond the Grampians, and there was thus no properly constituted guardian of public morals left in the whole Glen, except Seumas Liath, the very old and cheerfully-disposed elder, who represented the "Moderatism," now fiercely denounced by the ruling party in the Kirk. Of course, great doubts of Seumas's soundness were entertained by the shining lights of the new school; but Seumas preserved his soul in peace, and had unbounded faith in the goodness of the Lord, and almost equal trust in the honesty of his fellow-men.

The farmers' wives, it must be said, endeavoured to rule daughters and maid servants with more than ordinary strictness, during these interregnal periods. At such a time, flirtation was understood to be totally prohibited; and, by being a little blind to small signs, it could be complacently assumed that the understood prohibition was effective. But big sons, shepherds, and ploughmen, might not be so ready, in all cases, to submit to distaff supremacy; and so the distaff was a little afraid of revolt, and usually well disposed to curry favour by graciousness.

Although our blazers were completely emancipated from paternal control for the time being, they fully recognised the necessity for covering their trail, lest their fathers should hear afterwards of their wickedness, and be much scandalised thereby. The precautions which had to be taken against present and future discovery counted at first for part of the fun, but the fun left an after-taste which was not so pleasant.

They met, the whole four of them, beneath the trysting-tree, in the dark giusach, soon after ten o'clock, and, therefore, much too soon to begin operations at once, because the whole Glen was not bound to go to bed before its ordinary time, just to accommodate evil-doing, of which it knew nothing. And, indeed, the only dwelling-house which was within the range of their vision still showed light. So they talked, joked, and laughed, quite free from care, sitting or lying on the long springy heather, thickened with bilberry tufts, and cushioned in the moss of ages.

Angus, more careful of health and personal comfort than the other three, chose for his couch a dry raised hillock, bestrewn with pins of the pine, on which, safe from damp, he stretched himself at full length. But, after a period of comfortable repose, during which he had been in an idly busy, unconscious manner progging about him with his leister, he stopped short in the middle of a sentence, and, with a smothered ejaculation, searched his pocket for flint and steel. A bit of nitrified spuing—or birch tree fungus—laid on the flint quickly caught a spark. The burning spuing was then lightly rolled in a ball of tow, with whieh they were plentifully provided for lighting the torches. Angus whirled the ball until the tow got into a blaze. An armful of dry heather then gave him light enough to make a quick investigation of his person, and particularly of his legs. The result was highly unsatisfactory.

"Mille murta!" exclaimed Angus in a distressed and wrathful voice. "Devil take them! I'll be nothing but pimples and blotches before morning."

"Surely," queried Ewan, awed-like, "the vipers have not been crawling about thee and biting thee?"

Angus—"No, thou turnip-head—ants! I am given for a prey to red-coated ants. They crawl upon me everywhere. Who could have supposed a low mound, not many inches above ground level, to be an ant-hill? I thought it was just a broad stone covered with dry dust, withered leaves, and pine pins. Respectable ants build respectable domes, which one knows by night and by day. These are not respectable ants. Rogues, hypocrites, thieves, murderers. Oh ! the blood-sucking villains, how they possess me!"

As he poured out his revilings on his persecutors, Angus kept stamping about, flapping his clothes, and shaking himself. Diarmad, who, with much difficulty, refrained from j'oining in Ewan's roars of far-echoing laughter, said as demurely as under the circumstances he possibly could— "Angus, don't revile the red-coated ants. 'Tis not so long since I was telling thee about the old heathen doctrine of the passing of souls from one body to another. Who can tell but that there may be some truth in it? Man, take care. Revile not these respectable red ants who are proved to be diligent in work by night and by day. How canst thou say they are not animated by the souls of thy ancestors, four times forty times removed, or there and thereabout ? The Macgregors have been a red-haired race from the beginning. Thou art red-haired thyself, and freckles go with thy blood. Revile not the diligent ants, for they may verily be thy kindred."

The elder's John—"Aye, and don't kill the creatures in that savage way. Family feuds and bloodshed are the worst of crimes."

Angus—"And don't you chiels come within reach of my grasp, or I'll introduce you to my red-coated kindred by rolling you on the top of their disreputable dwelling, and progging with the leister to call forth their array."

Ewan by this time was out of breath, and sore in the sides with his loud cachinnations. Pulling himself painfully together, and shaking his head like a palsied giant, with red swollen cheeks, he observed sagely, that it was all a just punishment on Angus for being too dainty, and caring too much for enjoyments of the flesh, such as a drier couch in the forest than any hardy young laoch ought to require. And Diarmad chimed in with Ewan, preaching patience, moderation of language, and control of temper; but Angus was far too much taken up with his ants to pay great attention to his human tormentors. By piling on dry heather and withered pine branches he had now got up a bright blaze, and the idea was working in his head that he could scorch up the army of foes by a fiery purgation. So he pulled heath stems with close bushy tops, set the heads aflame, and flapped himself all over with them. The remedy, however, was only effective in clearing the outside and driving the enemy inside their fortifications. This obliged Angus to make a counter move. Hastily pulling off stockings and trousers, he passed them rapidly back and forward, inside and outside, through the flames, until they gave forth the smell of a singed sheep's head. Probably the rest of his garments would have been put through the same severe ordeal of purification, if the elder's John had not rushed on the fire like a demented being, and scattered and tramped it out ere Angus could sufficiently recover to speak a word of protest.

John's earnest "uist, uist," silenced Ewan and Diarmad's bursts of merriment, and silence being restored, they all heard plainly enough a plish-plash, swish-swash sound ascending from the river, which at once explained John's sudden attack upon the tell-tale fire.

"Do'ull-an-uisge, as sure as death!" said Ewan, preparing for flight.

Diarmad—"No, nor ghost, nor fairies, nor anything frightful. Ewan and John, don't look as if you heard the taghairm."

Ewan—"Don't you all hear the noise the body makes crossing through the river."

Diarmad—"That noise is made by bodies carried on four legs."

"True," said Angus, while putting on his clothes without delay. "Ewan and John are right skeared by innocent creatures they have themselves frightened by their fools' laughter."

Diarmad—"Right thou art, Angus; and it is ashamed of themselves Ewan and John should be. But they have not the grace "------

Ewan—"Uist, then ! Whatever can it be?"

Diarmad—"Nothing more dreadful than the roe-deer of the island. And they are quite as much afraid of thy loud laughter from an empty cask, or echoing cavern, as thou art afraid of the Water Kelpie; and that is saying much."

Ewan—"Ach, the news is good, although it comes from the biting tongue, which, look you, is not good at all, at all. But is it not now the lucky time for kindling the leus?"

John—"Yes, for sure, if Angus has settled his ants. The Dalmore light has been out nearly an hour. All the glen is asleep."

Ewan—"Let Angus drown his ants. Water is better than fire for the nasty things."

Diarmad—"And that is a good saying, too, although it comes from the foolish tongue, which, look you, is not good at all, but a mill-clapper gone mad."

Angus—"Ochoin, they are yet crawling all over me, na donais! The fear is on me I must just drown myself before water will make them give up their ghosts."

Diarmad—"Not a bit fear of that. Here now we are on the river bank, and down there at the elm tree is good Ghost-call—see "Lady of the Lake." - The fiends. depths of water, just where the crooked branch bends over. So, while I light the leus and flourish it to amaze the fish, you Ewan and John take Angus carefully and dip him three times in the pool, feet downwards, just up to the tip of the chin, and not the breadth of a hair further."

Angus—"That would only drive the whole army of ants into my hair."

Ewan—"And if they be driven into thy hair, can't they be driven back again, or just drowned clean where they stand?"

Diarmad—"Oh, Ewan, son of Solomon, wisely hast thou spoken. As I have already said, you two take Angus by the wrists tightly, and first dip him thrice up to the tip of his chin. Then take him fast by the ankles, and dip him thrice head downwards, until the water will reach the small of the leg, and not a bit further. He can very well keep the breath in his body under the water for the short time required, and if the cure be not good call me Amadan."

John—"It is the beautiful plan entirely."

Ewan—"O righ! that it is indeed. And the leus is now burning brightly, and making the swirlies on the top of the water laugh with hurrying glee. So now come Angus, a ruin, come and be dipped like a Christian bairn, or maybe I should say like a Baptist convert, in the mill-dam."

Angus saw the joke was becoming serious. Ewan and John, with mischievous fun dancing in their eyes, were beginning to close upon him, so that they might seize him unawares. Angus, anticipating their strategic movements, strode quickly away from the ominous vicinity of the pool, and walked straight into the shallow water above, saying in a quiet business way—" Forward with the torch. Let the sport begin." Diarmad, with the torch in fine blaze, immediately followed Angus into the water, and passed the word — "Strike the croman (milter), let the euchrag (spawner) go." Ewan and John, relinquishing reluctantly the intention of dipping Angus to drown his ants, ranged themselves in their pre-appointed places in the stream, and the exciting hunt of the salmon, with which the ford was crawling, began in earnest.

For the next hour or two, during which several fords were blazed in quick succession, the wicked fun was fast and furious. The fish were still strong, wild, and in good condition, for the spawning season was only just beginning. Fascinated by the light, and maddened by pursuit, they flashed through the water, now cutting sharp curves, and now crossing each others' paths, describing all sorts of figures, but seldom seeking safety at once in the deep pools whither their foes could not follow them. When the blazing was over, the evil-doers found themselves encumbered with ten fish, all big males, except one euchrag, with uncommonly clean scales, which Ewan had killed in mistake. Tired with slaughter and laden with spoils, the four took the shortest way home; but notwithstanding rapid motion, the keen hoar frost stiffened their wet clothes, and chilled almost the marrow in their bones. Wrapping the salmon in moss and fern, they hid them in the loft of the smearing house, and retired to snatch sleep, until Rob, according to promise, should come to wake them up.

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