The Antiquary

Chapter XXVI

Walter Scott

O weel may the boatie row
    And better may she speed,
And weel may the boatie row
    That earns the bairnies’ bread!
The boatie rows, the boatie rows,
    The boatie rows fu’ weel,
And lightsome be their life that bear
    The merlin and the creel!
Old Ballad.


WE MUST NOW introduce our reader to the interior of the fisher’s cottage mentioned in chapter eleventh of this edifying history. I wish I could say that its inside was well arranged, decently furnished, or tolerably clean. On the contrary, I am compelled to admit, there was confusion,—there was dilapidation,—there was dirt good store. Yet, with all this, there was about the inmates, Luckie Mucklebackit and her family, an appearance of ease, plenty, and comfort, that seemed to warrant their old sluttish proverb, “The clartier the cosier.” A huge fire, though the season was summer, occupied the hearth, and served at once for affording light, heat, and the means of preparing food. The fishing had been successful, and the family, with customary improvidence, had, since unlading the cargo, continued an unremitting operation of broiling and frying that part of the produce reserved for home consumption, and the bones and fragments lay on the wooden trenchers, mingled with morsels of broken bannocks and shattered mugs of half-drunk beer. The stout and athletic form of Maggie herself, bustling here and there among a pack of half-grown girls and younger children, of whom she chucked one now here and another now there, with an exclamation of “Get out o’ the gate, ye little sorrow!” was strongly contrasted with the passive and half-stupified look and manner of her husband’s mother, a woman advanced to the last stage of human life, who was seated in her wonted chair close by the fire, the warmth of which she coveted, yet hardly seemed to be sensible of—now muttering to herself, now smiling vacantly to the children as they pulled the strings of her toy or close cap, or twitched her blue checked apron. With her distaff in her bosom, and her spindle in her hand, she plied lazily and mechanically the old-fashioned Scottish thrift, according to the old-fashioned Scottish manner. The younger children, crawling among the feet of the elder, watched the progress of grannies spindle as it twisted, and now and then ventured to interrupt its progress as it danced upon the floor in those vagaries which the more regulated spinning-wheel has now so universally superseded, that even the fated Princess in the fairy tale might roam through all Scotland without the risk of piercing her hand with a spindle, and dying of the wound. Late as the hour was (and it was long past midnight), the whole family were still on foot, and far from proposing to go to bed; the dame was still busy broiling car-cakes on the girdle, and the elder girl, the half-naked mermaid elsewhere commemorated, was preparing a pile of Findhorn haddocks (that is, haddocks smoked with green wood), to be eaten along with these relishing provisions.

While they were thus employed, a slight tap at the door, accompanied with the question, “Are ye up yet, sirs?” announced a visitor. The answer, “Ay, ay,—come your ways ben, hinny,” occasioned the lifting of the latch, and Jenny Rintherout, the female domestic of our Antiquary, made her appearance.

“Ay, ay,” exclaimed the mistress of the family—“Hegh, sirs! can this be you, Jenny?—a sight o’ you’s gude for sair een, lass.”

“O woman, we’ve been sae ta’en up wi’ Captain Hector’s wound up by, that I havena had my fit out ower the door this fortnight; but he’s better now, and auld Caxon sleeps in his room in case he wanted onything. Sae, as soon as our auld folk gaed to bed, I e’en snodded my head up a bit, and left the house-door on the latch, in case onybody should be wanting in or out while I was awa, and just cam down the gate to see an there was ony cracks amang ye.”

“Ay, ay,” answered Luckie Mucklebackit, “I see you hae gotten a’ your braws on; ye’re looking about for Steenie now—but he’s no at hame the night; and ye’ll no do for Steenie, lass—a feckless thing like you’s no fit to mainteen a man.”

“Steenie will no do for me,” retorted Jenny, with a toss of her head that might have become a higher-born damsel; “I maun hae a man that can mainteen his wife.”

“Ou ay, hinny—thae’s your landward and burrows-town notions. My certie!—fisherwives ken better—they keep the man, and keep the house, and keep the siller too, lass.”

“A wheen poor drudges ye are,” answered the nymph of the land to the nymph of the sea. “As sune as the keel o’ the coble touches the sand, deil a bit mair will the lazy fisher loons work, but the wives maun kilt their coats, and wade into the surf to tak the fish ashore. And then the man casts aff the wat and puts on the dry, and sits down wi’ his pipe and his gill-stoup ahint the ingle, like ony auld houdie, and neer a turn will he do till the coble’s afloat again! And the wife she maun get the scull on her back, and awa wi’ the fish to the next burrows-town, and scauld and ban wi’ilka wife that will scauld and ban wi’her till it’s sauld—and that’s the gait fisher-wives live, puir slaving bodies.”

“Slaves?—gae wa’, lass!—ca’ the head o’ the house slaves? little ye ken about it, lass. Show me a word my Saunders daur speak, or a turn he daur do about the house, without it be just to tak his meat, and his drink, and his diversion, like ony o’ the weans. He has mair sense than to ca’ anything about the bigging his ain, frae the rooftree down to a crackit trencher on the bink. He kens weel eneugh wha feeds him, and cleeds him, and keeps a’ tight, thack and rape, when his coble is jowing awa in the Firth, puir fallow. Na, na, lass!—them that sell the goods guide the purse—them that guide the purse rule the house. Show me ane o’ yer bits o’ farmer-bodies that wad let their wife drive the stock to the market, and ca’ in the debts. Na, na.”1

“Aweel, aweel, Maggie, ilka land has its ain lauch—But where’s Steenie the night, when a’s come and gane? And where’s the gudeman?”

“I hae putten the gudeman to his bed, for he was e’en sair forfain; and Steenie’s awa out about some barns-breaking wi’ the auld gaberlunzie, Edie Ochiltree: they’ll be in sune, and ye can sit doun.”

“Troth, gudewife” (taking a seat), “I haena that muckle time to stop—but I maun tell ye about the news. Yell hae heard o’ the muckle kist o’ gowd that Sir Arthur has fund down by at St. Ruth?—He’ll be grander than ever now—he’ll no can haud down his head to sneeze, for fear o’ seeing his shoon.”

“Ou ay—a’ the country’s heard o’ that; but auld Edie says that they ca’ it ten times mair than ever was o’t, and he saw them howk it up. Od, it would be lang or a puir body that needed it got sic a windfa’.”

“Na, that’s sure eneugh.—And yell hae heard o’ the Countess o’ Glenallan being dead and lying in state, and how she’s to be buried at St. Ruth’s as this night fa’s, wi’ torch-light; and a’ the popist servants, and Ringan Aikwood, that’s a papist too, are to be there, and it will be the grandest show ever was seen.”

“Troth, hinny,” answered the Nereid, “if they let naebody but papists come there, it’ll no be muckle o’ a show in this country, for the auld harlot, as honest Mr. Blattergowl ca’s her, has few that drink o’ her cup o’ enchantments in this corner o’ our chosen lands.—But what can ail them to bury the auld carlin (a rudas wife she was) in the night-time?—I dare say our gudemither will ken.”

Here she exalted her voice, and exclaimed twice or thrice, “Gudemither! gudemither!” but, lost in the apathy of age and deafness, the aged sibyl she addressed continued plying her spindle without understanding the appeal made to her.

“Speak to your grandmither, Jenny—Od, I wad rather hail the coble half a mile aff, and the nor-wast wind whistling again in my teeth.”

“Grannie,” said the little mermaid, in a voice to which the old woman was better accustomed, “minnie wants to ken what for the Glenallan folk aye bury by candle-light in the ruing of St. Ruth!”

The old woman paused in the act of twirling the spindle, turned round to the rest of the party, lifted her withered, trembling, and clay-coloured band, raised up her ashen-hued and wrinkled face, which the quick motion of two light-blue eyes chiefly distinguished from the visage of a corpse, and, as if catching at any touch of association with the living world, answered, “What gars the Glenallan family inter their dead by torchlight, said the lassie?—Is there a Glenallan dead e’en now?”

“We might be a’ dead and buried too,” said Maggie, “for onything ye wad ken about it;”—and then, raising her voice to the stretch of her mother-in-law’s comprehension, she added,

“It’s the auld Countess, gudemither.”

“And is she ca’d hame then at last?” said the old woman, in a voice that seemed to be agitated with much more feeling than belonged to her extreme old age, and the general indifference and apathy of her manner—“is she then called to her last account after her lang race o’ pride and power?—O God, forgie her!”

“But minnie was asking ye,” resumed the lesser querist, “what for the Glenallan family aye bury their dead by torch-light?”

“They hae aye dune sae,” said the grandmother, “since the time the Great Earl fell in the sair battle o’ the Harlaw, when they say the coronach was cried in ae day from the mouth of the Tay to the Buck of the Cabrach, that ye wad hae heard nae other sound but that of lamentation for the great folks that had fa’en fighting against Donald of the Isles. But the Great Earl’s mither was living—they were a doughty and a dour race, the women o’ the house o’ Glenallan—and she wad hae nae coronach cried for her son, but had him laid in the silence o’ midnight in his place o’ rest, without either drinking the dirge, or crying the lament. She said he had killed enow that day he died, for the widows and daughters o’ the Highlanders he had slain to cry the coronach for them they had lost, and for her son too; and sae she laid him in his gave wi’ dry eyes, and without a groan or a wail. And it was thought a proud word o’ the family, and they aye stickit by it—and the mair in the latter times, because in the night-time they had mair freedom to perform their popish ceremonies by darkness and in secrecy than in the daylight—at least that was the case in my time; they wad hae been disturbed in the day-time baith by the law and the commons of Fairport—they may be owerlooked now, as I have heard: the warlds changed—I whiles hardly ken whether I am standing or sitting, or dead or living.”

And looking round the fire, as if in a state of unconscious uncertainty of which she complained, old Elspeth relapsed into her habitual and mechanical occupation of twirling the spindle.

“Eh, sirs!” said Jenny Rintherout, under her breath to her gossip, “it’s awsome to hear your gudemither break out in that gait—it’s like the dead speaking to the living.”

“Ye’re no that far wrang, lass; she minds naething o’ what passes the day—but set her on auld tales, and she can speak like a prent buke. She kens mair about the Glenallan family than maist folk—the gudeman’s father was their fisher mony a day. Ye maun ken the papists make a great point o’ eating fish—it’s nae bad part o’ their religion that, whatever the rest is—I could aye sell the best o’ fish at the best o’ prices for the Countess’s ain table, grace be wi’ her! especially on a Friday—But see as our gudemither’s hands and lips are ganging—now it’s working in her head like barm—she’ll speak eneugh the night. Whiles she’ll no speak a word in a week, unless it be to the bits o’ bairns.”

“Hegh, Mrs. Mucklebackit, she’s an awsome wife!” said Jenny in reply. “D’ye think she’s a’thegither right? Folk say she downa gang to the kirk, or speak to the minister, and that she was ance a papist but since her gudeman’s been dead, naebody kens what she is. D’ye think yoursell that she’s no uncanny?”

“Canny, ye silly tawpie! think ye ae auld wife’s less canny than anither? unless it be Alison Breck—I really couldna in conscience swear for her; I have kent the boxes she set fill’d wi’ partans, when”—

“Whisht, whisht, Maggie,” whispered Jenny—“your gudemither’s gaun to speak again.”

“Wasna there some ane o’ ye said,” asked the old sibyl, “or did I dream, or was it revealed to me, that Joscelind, Lady Glenallan, is dead, an’ buried this night?”

“Yes, gudemither,” screamed the daughter-in-law, “it’s e’en sae.”

“And e’en sae let it be,” said old Elspeth; “she’s made mony a sair heart in her day—ay, e’en her ain son’s—is he living yet?”

“Ay, he’s living yet; but how lang he’ll live—however, dinna ye mind his coming and asking after you in the spring, and leaving siller?”

“It may be sae, Magge—I dinna mind it—but a handsome gentleman he was, and his father before him. Eh! if his father had lived, they might hae been happy folk! But he was gane, and the lady carried it in-ower and out-ower wi’ her son, and garr’d him trow the thing he never suld hae trowed, and do the thing he has repented a’ his life, and will repent still, were his life as lang as this lang and wearisome ane o’ mine.”

“O what was it, grannie?”—and “What was it, gudemither?”—and “What was it, Luckie Elspeth?” asked the children, the mother, and the visitor, in one breath.

“Never ask what it was,” answered the old sibyl, “but pray to God that ye arena left to the pride and wilfu’ness o’ your ain hearts: they may be as powerful in a cabin as in a castle—I can bear a sad witness to that. O that weary and fearfu’ night! will it never gang out o’ my auld head!—Eh! to see her lying on the floor wi’ her lang hair dreeping wi’ the salt water!—Heaven will avenge on a’ that had to do wi’t. Sirs! is my son out wi’ the coble this windy e’en?”

“Na, na, mither—nae coble can keep the sea this wind; he’s sleeping in his bed out-ower yonder ahint the hallan.”

“Is Steenie out at sea then?”

“Na, grannie—Steenie’s awa out wi’ auld Edie Ochiltree, the gaberlunzie; maybe they’ll be gaun to see the burial.”

“That canna be,” said the mother of the family; “we kent naething o’t till Jock Rand cam in, and tauld us the Aikwoods had warning to attend—they keep thae things unco private—and they were to bring the corpse a’ the way frae the Castle, ten miles off, under cloud o’ night. She has lain in state this ten days at Glenallan House, in a grand chamber a’ hung wi’ black, and lighted wi’ wax cannle.”

“God assoilzie her!” ejaculated old Elspeth, her head apparently still occupied by the event of the Countess’s death; “she was a hard-hearted woman, but she’s gaen to account for it a’, and His mercy is infinite—God grant she may find it sae!” And she relapsed into silence, which she did not break again during the rest of the evening.

“I wonder what that auld daft beggar carle and our son Steenie can be doing out in sic a nicht as this,” said Maggie Mucklebackit; and her expression of surprise was echoed by her visitor. “Gang awa, ane o’ ye, hinnies, up to the heugh head, and gie them a cry in case they’re within hearing; the car-cakes will be burnt to a cinder.”

The little emissary departed, but in a few minutes came running back with the loud exclamation, “Eh, Minnie! eh, grannie! there’s a white bogle chasing twa black anes down the heugh.”

A noise of footsteps followed this singular annunciation, and young Steenie Mucklebackit, closely followed by Edie Ochiltree, bounced into the hut. They were panting and out of breath. The first thing Steenie did was to look for the bar of the door, which his mother reminded him had been broken up for fire-wood in the hard winter three years ago; “for what use,” she said, “had the like o’ them for bars?”

“There’s naebody chasing us,” said the beggar, after he had taken his breath: “we’re e’en like the wicked, that flee when no one pursueth.”

“Troth, but we were chased,” said Steenie, “by a spirit or something little better.”

“It was a man in white on horseback,” said Edie, “for the soft grund that wadna bear the beast, flung him about, I wot that weel; but I didna think my auld legs could have brought me aff as fast; I ran amaist as fast as if I had been at Prestonpans.”

“Hout, ye daft gowks!” said Luckie Mucklebackit, “it will hae been some o’ the riders at the Countess’s burial.”

“What!” said Edie, “is the auld Countess buried the night at St. Ruth’s? Ou, that wad be the lights and the noise that scarr’d us awa; I wish I had ken’d—I wad hae stude them, and no left the man yonder—but they’ll take care o’ him. Ye strike ower hard, Steenie I doubt ye foundered the chield.”

“Neer a bit,” said Steenie, laughing; “he has braw broad shouthers, and I just took measure o’ them wi’ the stang. Od, if I hadna been something short wi’ him, he wad hae knockit your auld hams out, lad.”

“Weel, an I win clear o’ this scrape,” said Edie, “I’se tempt Providence nae mair. But I canna think it an unlawfu’ thing to pit a bit trick on sic a landlouping scoundrel, that just lives by tricking honester folk.”

“But what are we to do with this?” said Steenie, producing a pocket-book.

“Od guide us, man,” said Edie in great alarm, “what garr’d ye touch the gear? a very leaf o’ that pocket-book wad be eneugh to hang us baith.”

“I dinna ken,” said Steenie; “the book had fa’en out o’ his pocket, I fancy, for I fand it amang my feet when I was graping about to set him on his logs again, and I just pat it in my pouch to keep it safe; and then came the tramp of horse, and you cried, Rin, rin,’ and I had nae mair thought o’ the book.”

“We maun get it back to the loon some gait or other; ye had better take it yoursell, I think, wi’ peep o’ light, up to Ringan Aikwood’s. I wadna for a hundred pounds it was fund in our hands.”

Steenie undertook to do as he was directed.

“A bonny night ye hae made o’t, Mr. Steenie,” said Jenny Rintherout, who, impatient of remaining so long unnoticed, now presented herself to the young fisherman—“A bonny night ye hae made o’t, tramping about wi’ gaberlunzies, and getting yoursell hunted wi’ worricows, when ye suld be sleeping in your bed, like your father, honest man.”

This attack called forth a suitable response of rustic raillery from the young fisherman. An attack was now commenced upon the car-cakes and smoked fish, and sustained with great perseverance by assistance of a bicker or two of twopenny ale and a bottle of gin. The mendicant then retired to the straw of an out-house adjoining,—the children had one by one crept into their nests,—the old grandmother was deposited in her flock-bed,—Steenie, notwithstanding his preceding fatigue, had the gallantry to accompany Miss Rintherout to her own mansion, and at what hour he returned the story saith not,—and the matron of the family, having laid the gathering-coal upon the fire, and put things in some sort of order, retired to rest the last of the family.

1.    Gyneocracy - In the fishing villages on the Firths of Forth and Tay, as well as elsewhere in Scotland, the government is gyneocracy, as described in the text. In the course of the late war, and during the alarm of invasion, a fleet of transports entered the Firth of Forth under the convoy of some ships of war, which would reply to no signals. A general alarm was excited, in consequence of which, all the fishers, who were enrolled as sea-fencibles, got on board the gun-boats which they were to man as occasion should require, and sailed to oppose the supposed enemy. The foreigners proved to be Russians, with whom we were then at peace. The county gentlemen of Mid-Lothian, pleased with the zeal displayed by the sea-fencibles at a critical moment, passed a vote for presenting the community of fishers with a silver punch-bowl, to be used on occasions of festivity. But the fisher-women, on hearing what was intended, put in their claim to have some separate share in the intended honorary reward. The men, they said, were their husbands; it was they who would have been sufferers if their husbands had been killed, and it was by their permission and injunctions that they embarked on board the gun-boats for the public service. They therefore claimed to share the reward in some manner which should distinguish the female patriotism which they had shown on the occasion. The gentlemen of the county willingly admitted the claim; and without diminishing the value of their compliment to the men, they made the females a present of a valuable broach, to fasten the plaid of the queen of the fisher-women for the time.

It may be further remarked, that these Nereids are punctilious among themselves, and observe different ranks according to the commodities they deal in. One experienced dame was heard to characterise a younger damsel as “a puir silly thing, who had no ambition, and would never,” she prophesied, “rise above the mussel-line of business.”    [back]

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