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Auld Licht Idyls by J.M. Barrie

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"Donal Elshioner's was a vary seemilar case," broke in Snecky Hobart
shrilly. "Maist o' ye'll mind 'at Donal was michty plagueit wi' a
drucken wife. Ay, weel, wan day Bowie's man was carryin' a coffin
past Donal's door, and Donal an' the wife was there. Says Donal,
'Put doon yer coffin, my man, an' tell's wha it's for.' The laddie
rests the coffin on its end, an' says he, 'It's for Davie
Fairbrother's guid-wife.' 'Ay, then,' says Donal, 'tak it awa', tak
it awa' to Davie, an' tell 'im as ye kin a man wi' a wife 'at wid be
glad to neifer [exchange] wi' him.' Man, that terrified Donal's
wife; it did so."

As we delved up the twisting road between two fields that leads to
the farm of Little Rathie, the talk became less general, and another
mourner who joined us there was told that the farmer was gone.

"We must all fade as a leaf," said Lang Tammas.

"So we maun, so we maun," admitted the new-comer. "They say," he
added, solemnly, "as Little Rathie has left a full teapot."

The reference was to the safe in which the old people in the
district stored their gains.

"He was thrifty," said Tammas Haggart, "an' shrewd, too, was Little
Rathie. I mind Mr. Dishart admonishin' him for no attendin' a
special weather service i' the kirk, when Finny an' Lintool, the twa
adjoinin' farmers, baith attendit. 'Ou,' says Little Rathie, 'I
thocht to mysel, thinks I, if they get rain for prayin' for't on
Finny an' Lintool, we're bound to get the benefit o't on Little

"Tod," said Snecky, "there's some sense in that; an' what says the

"I d'na kin what he said," admitted Haggart; "but he took Little
Rathie up to the manse, an' if ever I saw a man lookin' sma', it was
Little Rathie when he cam oot."

The deceased had left behind him a daughter (herself now known as
Little Rathie), quite capable of attending to the ramshackle "but
and ben;" and I remember how she nipped off Tammas' consolations to
go out and feed the hens. To the number of about twenty we assembled
round the end of the house to escape the bitter wind, and here I
lost the precentor, who, as an Auld Licht elder, joined the chief
mourners inside. The post of distinction at a funeral is near the
coffin; but it is not given to every one to be a relative of the
deceased, and there is always much competition and genteelly
concealed disappointment over the few open vacancies. The window of
the room was decently veiled, but the mourners outside knew what was
happening within, and that it was not all prayer, neither mourning.
A few of the more reverent uncovered their heads at intervals; but
it would be idle to deny that there was a feeling that Little
Rathie's daughter was favoring Tammas and others somewhat
invidiously. Indeed, Robbie Gibruth did not scruple to remark that
she had made "an inauspeecious beginning." Tammas Haggart, who was
melancholy when not sarcastic, though he brightened up wonderfully
at funerals, reminded Robbie that disappointment is the lot of man
on his earthly pilgrimage; but Haggart knew who were to be invited
back after the burial to the farm, and was inclined, to make much of
his position. The secret would doubtless have been wormed from him
had not public attention been directed into another channel. A
prayer was certainly being offered up inside; but the voice was not
the voice of the minister.

Lang Tammas told me afterward that it had seemed at one time "vary
queistionable" whether Little Rathie would be buried that day at
all. The incomprehensible absence of Mr. Dishart (afterward
satisfactorily explained) had raised the unexpected question of the
legality of a burial in a case where the minister had not prayed
over the "corp." There had even been an indulgence in hot words,
and the Reverend Alexander Kewans, a "stickit minister," but not of
the Auld Licht persuasion, had withdrawn in dudgeon on hearing
Tammas asked to conduct the ceremony instead of himself. But, great
as Tammas was on religious questions, a pillar of the Auld Licht
kirk, the Shorter Catechism at his finger-ends, a sad want of words
at the very time when he needed them most incapacitated him for
prayer in public, and it was providential that Bowie proved himself
a man of parts. But Tammas tells me that the wright grossly abused
his position, by praying at such length that Craigiebuckle fell
asleep, and the mistress had to rise and hang the pot on the fire
higher up the joist, lest its contents should burn before the return
from the funeral. Loury grew the sky, and more and more anxious the
face of Little Rathie's daughter, and still Bowie prayed on. Had it
not been for the impatience of the precentor and the grumbling of
the mourners outside, there is no saying when the remains would have
been lifted through the "bole," or little window.

Hearses had hardly come in at this time, and the coffin was carried
by the mourners on long stakes. The straggling procession of
pedestrians behind wound its slow way in the waning light to the
kirk-yard, showing startlingly black against the dazzling snow; and
it was not until the earth rattled on the coffin-lid that Little
Rathie's nearest male relative seemed to remember his last mournful
duty to the dead. Sidling up to the favored mourners, he remarked
casually and in the most emotionless tone he could assume; "They're
expec'in' ye to stap doon the length o' Little Rathie noo. Aye, aye,
he's gone. Na, na, nae refoosal, Da-avit; ye was aye a guid friend
till him, an' it's onything a body can do for him noo."

Though the uninvited slunk away sorrowfully, the entertainment
provided at Auld Licht houses of mourning was characteristic of a
stern and sober sect. They got to eat and to drink to the extent, as
a rule, of a "lippy" of short bread and a "brew" of toddy; but open
Bibles lay on the table, and the eyes of each were on his neighbors
to catch them transgressing, and offer up a prayer for them on the
spot. Ay me! there is no Bowie nowadays to fill an absent minister's



The ministers in the town did not hold with literature. When the
most notorious of the clubs met in the town-house under the
presidentship of Gravia Ogilvy, who was no better than a poacher,
and was troubled in his mind because writers called Pope a poet,
there was frequently a wrangle over the question, "Is literature
necessarily immoral?" It was a fighting club, and on Friday nights
the few respectable, God-fearing members dandered to the town-house,
as if merely curious to have another look at the building. If Lang
Tammas, who was dead against letters, was in sight they wandered
off, but when there were no spies abroad they slunk up the stair.
The attendance was greatest on dark nights, though Gavin himself and
some other characters would have marched straight to the meeting in
broad daylight. Tammas Haggart, who did not think much of Milton's
devil, had married a gypsy woman for an experiment, and the Coat of
Many Colors did not know where his wife was. As a rule, however, the
members were wild bachelors. When they married they had to settle

Gavin's essay on Will'um Pitt, the Father of the Taxes, led to the
club's being bundled out of the town-house, where people said it
should never have been allowed to meet. There was a terrible towse
when Tammas Haggart then disclosed the secret of Mr. Byars' supposed
approval of the club. Mr. Byars was the Auld Licht minister whom Mr.
Dishart succeeded, and it was well known that he had advised the
authorities to grant the use of the little town-house to the club on
Friday evenings. As he solemnly warned his congregation against
attending the meetings, the position he had taken up created talk,
and Lang Tammas called at the manse with Sanders Whamond to
remonstrate. The minister, however, harangued them on their
sinfulness in daring to question the like of him, and they had to
retire vanquished though dissatisfied. Then came the disclosures of
Tammas Haggart, who was never properly secured by the Auld Lichts
until Mr. Dishart took him in hand. It was Tammas who wrote
anonymous letters to Mr. Byars about the scarlet woman, and, strange
to say, this led to the club's being allowed to meet in the town-house.
The minister, after many days, discovered who his correspondent was,
and succeeded in inveigling the stone-breaker to the manse. There,
with the door snibbed, he opened out on Tammas, who, after his usual
manner when hard pressed, pretended to be deaf. This sudden fit of
deafness so exasperated the minister that he flung a book at Tammas.
The scene that followed was one that few Auld Licht manses can have
witnessed. According to Tammas, the book had hardly reached the floor
when the minister turned white. Tammas picked up the missile. It was
a Bible. The two men looked at each other. Beneath the window Mr. Byars'
children were prattling. His wife was moving about in the next room,
little thinking what had happened. The minister held out his hand for
the Bible, but Tammas shook his head, and then Mr. Byars shrank into
a chair. Finally, it was arranged that if Tammas kept the affair to
himself the minister would say a good word to the bailie about the
literary club. After that the stone-breaker used to go from house to
house, twisting his mouth to the side and remarking that he could tell
such a tale of Mr. Byars as would lead to a split in the kirk. When the
town-house was locked on the club Tammas spoke out, but though the
scandal ran from door to door, as I have seen a pig in a fluster do, the
minister did not lose his place. Tammas preserved the Bible, and
showed it complacently to visitors as the present he got from Mr.
Byars. The minister knew this, and it turned his temper sour.
Tammas' proud moments, after that, were when he passed the minister.

Driven from the town-house, literature found a table with forms
round it in a tavern hard by, where the club, lopped of its most
respectable members, kept the blinds down and talked openly of
Shakespeare. It was a low-roofed room, with pieces of lime hanging
from the ceiling and peeling walls. The floor had a slope that
tended to fling the debater forward, and its boards, lying loose on
an uneven foundation, rose and looked at you as you crossed the
room. In winter, when the meetings were held regularly every
fortnight, a fire of peat, sod, and dross lit up the curious company
who sat round the table shaking their heads over Shelley's
mysticism, or requiring to be called to order because they would not
wait their turn to deny an essayist's assertion, that Berkeley's
style was superior to David Hume's. Davit Hume, they said, and Watty
Scott. Burns was simply referred to as Rob or Robbie.

There was little drinking at these meetings, for the members knew
what they were talking about, and your mind had to gallop to keep up
with the flow of reasoning. Thrums is rather a remarkable town.
There are scores and scores of houses in it that have sent their
sons to college (by what a struggle!), some to make their way to the
front in their professions, and others, perhaps, despite their
broadcloth, never to be a patch on their parents. In that literary
club there were men of a reading so wide and catholic that it might
put some graduates of the universities to shame, and of an intellect
so keen that had it not had a crook in it their fame would have
crossed the county. Most of them had but a threadbare existence, for
you weave slowly with a Wordsworth open before you, and some were
strange Bohemians (which does not do in Thrums), yet others wandered
into the world and compelled it to recognize them. There is a London
barrister whose father belonged to the club. Not many years ago a
man died on the staff of the _Times_, who, when he was a weaver
near Thrums, was one of the club's prominent members. He taught
himself shorthand by the light of a cruizey, and got a post on a
Perth paper, afterward on the _Scotsman_ and the _Witness_, and finally
on the _Times_. Several other men of his type had a history worth
reading, but it is not for me to write. Yet I may say that there is
still at least one of the original members of the club left behind in
Thrums to whom some of the literary dandies might lift their hats.

Gavin Ogilvy I only knew as a weaver and a poacher: a lank, long-armed
man, much bent from crouching in ditches whence he watched his snares.
To the young he was a romantic figure, because they saw him frequently
in the fields with his call-birds tempting siskins, yellow yites, and
Unties to twigs which he had previously smeared with lime. He made the
lime from the tough roots of holly; sometimes from linseed, oil, which
is boiled until thick, when it is taken out of the pot and drawn and
stretched with the hands like elastic. Gavin was also a famous
hare-snarer at a time when the ploughman looked upon this form of
poaching as his perquisite. The snare was of wire, so constructed that
the hare entangled itself the more when trying to escape, and it was
placed across the little roads through the fields to which hares confine
themselves, with a heavy stone attached to it by a string. Once Gavin
caught a toad (fox) instead of a hare, and did not discover his mistake
until it had him by the teeth. He was not able to weave for two months.
The grouse-netting was more lucrative and more exciting, and women
engaged in it with their husbands. It is told of Gavin that he was on
one occasion chased by a game-keeper over moor and hill for twenty
miles, and that by and by when the one sank down exhausted so did the
other. They would sit fifty yards apart, glaring at each other. The
poacher eventually escaped. This, curious as it may seem, is the man
whose eloquence at the club has not been forgotten in fifty years. "Thus
did he stand," I have been told recently, "exclaiming in language
sublime that the soul shall bloom in immortal youth through the ruin
and wrack of time."

Another member read to the club an account of his journey to
Lochnagar, which was afterward published in _Chambers's
Journal_. He was celebrated for his descriptions of scenery, and
was not the only member of the club whose essays got into print.
More memorable perhaps was an itinerant match-seller known to Thrums
and the surrounding towns as the literary spunk-seller. He was a
wizened, shivering old man, often barefooted, wearing at the best a
thin, ragged coat that had been black but was green-brown with age,
and he made his spunks as well as sold them. He brought Bacon and
Adam Smith into Thrums, and he loved to recite long screeds from
Spenser, with a running commentary on the versification and the
luxuriance of the diction. Of Jamie's death I do not care to write.
He went without many a dinner in order to buy a book.

The Coat of Many Colors and Silva Robbie were two street preachers
who gave the Thrums ministers some work. They occasionally appeared
at the club. The Coat of Many Colors was so called because he wore a
garment consisting of patches of cloth of various colors sewed
together. It hung down to his heels. He may have been cracked rather
than inspired, but he was a power in the square where he preached,
the women declaring that he was gifted by God. An awe filled even
the men when he admonished them for using strong language, for at
such a time he would remind them of the woe which fell upon Tibbie
Mason. Tibbie had been notorious in her day for evil-speaking,
especially for her free use of the word handless, which she flung a
hundred times in a week at her man, and even at her old mother. Her
punishment was to have a son born without hands. The Coat of Many
Colors also told of the liar who exclaimed, "If this is not gospel
true may I stand here forever," and who is standing on that spot
still, only nobody knows where it is. George Wishart was the Coat's
hero, and often he has told in the square how Wishart saved Dundee.
It was the time when the plague lay over Scotland, and in Dundee
they saw it approaching from the West in the form of a great black
cloud. They fell on their knees and prayed, crying to the cloud to
pass them by, and while they prayed it came nearer. Then they looked
around for the most holy man among them, to intervene with God on
their behalf. All eyes turned to George Wishart, and he stood up,
stretching his arms to the cloud, and prayed, and it rolled back.
Thus Dundee was saved from the plague, but when Wishart ended his
prayer he was alone, for the people had all returned to their homes.
Less of a genuine man than the Coat of Many Colors was Silva Robbie,
who had horrid fits of laughing in the middle of his prayers, and
even fell in a paroxysm of laughter from the chair on which he
stood. In the club he said, things not to be borne, though logical
up to a certain point.

Tammas Haggart was the most sarcastic member of the club, being
celebrated for his sarcasm far and wide. It was a remarkable thing
about him, often spoken of, that if you went to Tammas with a
stranger and asked him to say a sarcastic thing that the man might
take away as a specimen, he could not do it. "Na, na," Tammas would
say, after a few trials, referring to sarcasm, "she's no a crittur
to force. Ye maun lat her tak her ain time. Sometimes she's dry like
the pump, an' syne, again, oot she comes in a gush." The most
sarcastic thing the stone-breaker ever said was frequently marvelled
over in Thrums, both before and behind his face, but unfortunately
no one could ever remember what it was. The subject, however, was
Cha Tamson's potato pit. There is little doubt that it was a fit of
sarcasm that induced Tammas to marry a gypsy lassie. Mr. Byars would
not join them, so Tammas had himself married by Jimmy Pawse, the gay
little gypsy king, and after that the minister remarried them. The
marriage over the tongs is a thing to scandalize any well-brought-up
person, for before he joined the couple's hands Jimmy jumped about
in a startling way, uttering wild gibberish, and after the ceremony
was over there was rough work, with incantations and blowing on
pipes. Tammas always held that this marriage turned out better than
he had expected, though he had his trials like other married men.
Among them was Chirsty's way of climbing on to the dresser to get at
the higher part of the plate-rack. One evening I called in to have a
smoke with the stone-breaker, and while we were talking Chirsty
climbed the dresser. The next moment she was on the floor on her
back, wailing, but Tammas smoked on imperturbably. "Do you not see
what has happened, man?" I cried. "Ou," said Tammas, "she's aye
fa'in aff the dresser."

Of the school-masters who were at times members of the club, Mr.
Dickie was the ripest scholar, but my predecessor at the schoolhouse
had a way of sneering at him that was as good as sarcasm. When they
were on their legs at the same time, asking each other passionately
to be calm, and rolling out lines from Homer that made the inn-keeper
look fearfully to the fastenings of the door, their heads very nearly
came together, although the table was between them. The old dominie
had an advantage in being the shorter man, for he could hammer on the
table as he spoke, while gaunt Mr. Dickie had to stoop to it. Mr.
McRittie's arguments were a series of nails that he knocked into the
table, and he did it in a workmanlike manner. Mr. Dickie, though he
kept firm on his feet, swayed his body until by and by his head was
rotating in a large circle. The mathematical figure he made was a
cone revolving on its apex. Gavin's reinstalment in the chair year
after year was made by the disappointed dominie the subject of some
tart verses which be called an epode, but Gavin crushed him when they
were read before the club. "Satire," he said, "is a legitimate weapon,
used with michty effect by Swift, Sammy Butler, and others, and I
dount object to being made the subject of creeticism. It has often
been called a t'nife [knife], but them as is not used to t'nives cuts
their hands, and ye'll a' observe that Mr. McRittie's fingers is
bleedin'." All eyes were turned upon the dominie's hand, and though
he pocketed it smartly several members had seen the blood. The dominie
was a rare visitor at the club after that, though he outlived poor
Mr. Dickie by many years. Mr. Dickie was a teacher in Tilliedrum, but
he was ruined by drink. He wandered from town to town, reciting Greek
and Latin poetry to any one who would give him a dram, and sometimes
he wept and moaned aloud in the street, crying, "Poor Mr. Dickie!
poor Mr. Dickie!"

The leading poet in a club of poets was Dite Walls, who kept a
school when there were scholars and weaved when there were none. He
had a song that was published in a halfpenny leaflet about the
famous lawsuit instituted by the fanner of Teuchbusses against the
Laird of Drumlee. The laird was alleged to have taken from the land
of Teuchbusses sufficient broom to make a besom thereof, and I am
not certain that the case is settled to this day. It was Dite, or
another member of the club, who wrote "The Wife o' Deeside," of all
the songs of the period the one that had the greatest vogue in the
county at a time when Lord Jeffrey was cursed at every fireside in
Thrums. The wife of Deeside was tried for the murder of her servant,
who had infatuated the young laird, and had it not been that Jeffrey
defended her she would, in the words of the song, have "hung like a
troot." It is not easy now to conceive the rage against Jeffrey when
the woman was acquitted. The song was sung and recited in the
streets, at the smiddy, in bothies, and by firesides, to the shaking
of fists and the grinding of teeth. It began:

"Ye'll a' hae hear tell o' the wife o' Deeside,
Ye'll a' hae hear tell o' the wife o' Deeside,
She poisoned her maid for to keep up her pride,
Ye'll a' hae hear tell o' the wife o' Deeside."

Before the excitement had abated, Jeffrey was in Tilliedrum for
electioneering purposes, and he was mobbed in the streets. Angry
crowds pressed close to howl "Wife o' Deeside!" at him. A contingent
from Thrums was there, and it was long afterward told of Sam'l Todd,
by himself, that he hit Jeffrey on the back of the head with a clod
of earth.

Johnny McQuhatty, a brother of the T'nowhead farmer, was the one
taciturn member of the club, and you had only to look at him to know
that he had a secret. He was a great genius at the hand-loom, and
invented a loom for the weaving of linen such as has not been seen
before or since. In the day-time he kept guard over his "shop," into
which no one was allowed to enter, and the fame of his loom was so
great that he had to watch over it with a gun. At night he weaved,
and when the result at last pleased him he made the linen into
shirts, all of which he stitched together with his own hands, even
to the button-holes. He sent one shirt to the Queen, and another to
the Duchess of Athole, mentioning a very large price for them, which
he got. Then he destroyed his wonderful loom, and how it was made no
one will ever know. Johnny only took to literature after he had made
his name, and he seldom spoke at the club except when ghosts and the
like were the subject of debate, as they tended to be when the
farmer of Mucklo Haws could get in a word. Mucklo Haws was
fascinated by Johnny's sneers at superstition, and sometimes on dark
nights the inventor had to make his courage good by seeing the
farmer past the doulie yates (ghost gates), which Muckle Haws had to
go perilously near on his way home. Johnny was a small man, but it
was the burly farmer who shook at sight of the gates standing out
white in the night. White gates have an evil name still, and Muckle
Haws was full of horrors as he drew near them, clinging to Johnny's
arm. It was on such a night, he would remember, that he saw the
White Lady go through the gates greeting sorely, with a dead bairn
in her arms, while water kelpie laughed and splashed in the pools
and the witches danced in a ring round Broken Buss. That very night
twelve months ago the packman was murdered at Broken Buss, and Easie
Pettie hanged herself on the stump of a tree. Last night there were
ugly sounds from the quarry of Croup, where the bairn lies buried,
and it's not mous (canny) to be out at such a time. The farmer had
seen spectre maidens walking round the ruined castle of Darg, and
the castle all lit up with flaring torches, and dead knights and
ladies sitting in the halls at the wine-cup, and the devil himself
flapping his wings on the ramparts.

When the debates were political, two members with the gift of song
fired the blood with their own poems about taxation and the
depopulation of the Highlands, and by selling these songs from door
to door they made their livelihood.

Books and pamphlets were brought into the town by the flying
stationers, as they were called, who visited the square periodically
carrying their wares on their backs, except at the Muckly, when they
had their stall and even sold books by auction. The flying stationer
best known to Thrums was Sandersy Riaca, who was stricken from head
to foot with the palsy, and could only speak with a quaver in
consequence. Sandersy brought to the members of the club all the
great books he could get second-hand, but his stock in trade was
Thrummy Cap and Akenstaff, the Fishwives of Buckhaven, the Devil
upon Two Sticks, Gilderoy, Sir James the Rose, the Brownie of
Badenoch, the Ghaist of Firenden, and the like. It was from Sandersy
that Tammas Haggart bought his copy of Shakespeare, whom Mr. Dishart
could never abide. Tammas kept what he had done from his wife, but
Chirsty saw a deterioration setting in and told the minister of her
suspicions. Mr. Dishart was newly placed at the time and very
vigorous, and the way he shook the truth out of Tammas was grand.
The minister pulled Tammas the one way and Gavin pulled him the
other, but Mr. Dishart was not the man to be beaten, and he landed
Tammas in the Auld Licht kirk before the year was out. Chirsty
buried Shakespeare in the yard.

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