Ben Nevis, Perth, And Thrums
( Originally Published 1912 )
BEN NEVIS is said to be " held on a snow-ball tenure "; which probably means that long centuries ago a king gave the mountain to one of his subjects, in return for which gift he was to be presented with a snowball at certain stated times. The mountain now belongs to a family in which is combined the blood of the once hostile Campbells and Camerons with that of English Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, whose deer Shakespeare stole, according to tradition.
In 1883 an observatory was founded on the top of Ben Nevis, but this has now been deserted because of lack of funds and perhaps, too, because of the hardships which were endured by the men in charge.
" What hardships? " inquired John ; " I should think 'twould be great living up above everybody else like that ! "
But the head-porter of whom he asked the question had been years at Fort William, had even talked once or twice with Mr. Robert Omond himself, the first head of the observatory, and he told John of many undreamed-of difficulties in connection with life 4,406 feet above sea level.
He said that hares, foxes, and weasels surrounded the men; that in summer scores of energetic tourists climbed up to visit the observatory, troubling the men by their innumerable questions, whereas in winter not a human face would they see and practically no news would they hear. In summer there are always banks of dirty snow from which the delighted August tourist can snowball, but winter brings such storms and gales that it would sometimes be impossible for the men to reach their instruments only a few yards away, the windows being entirely covered with drifts and the men imprisoned. Sometimes there would be such a dense fog that the men dared not trust them-selves to move about for fear of falling from a precipice. Seven inches of rain has been known to fall in one day; while again, even occasionally in winter, there would be times when the observatory stood out clear-cut against the blue sky, flooded with brilliant sunshine.
John was beginning to envy those men a little less. " Were there many thunder-storms' " he asked.
It's too high for ower mony storms to hit it," was the answer, " but sometimes the air would be sae charged wi' electricity the men's hair would fair stand on end; and once the telegraph apparatus was burned out wi' the lightning. Ay, I ken that fine ! I've heard the men tell o' it mysel' ! "
As the train carried them off toward Perth the next day, the clouds lifted here and there enough to show them something of Ben Nevis; but, as Mrs. Pitt suggested, they would have to return sometime and remain until fine weather permitted them to really see this mountain in all its grandeur.
Slowly the engine wound its way between the mountains, now puffing up grade, now skirting the border of a wild, dark lake. The Grampian Mountains were beautiful, but oh, so lonely on this gray day of rain and cloud !
The distance from Fort William to Perth appears very short upon the Scottish map, but to Mrs. Pitt and the rest the trip seemed far too long. They were seven hours on the way and three times did they change trains before they pulled into Perth, which Mrs. Pitt promptly styled " dirty, damp, and drunken," as indeed she had reason to.
However, they were only to stay the night there, and practically all that they saw on a short walk along the gloomy streets, were the site of the monastery where King James I was assassinated in 1437 when he had come from Edinburgh to spend Christmas, and the house where lived Scott's " Fair Maid of Perth." This house shows signs of recent restoration, although parts of its walls are very ancient and it possesses a little round turret bearing the date 1393.
Hm ! The maid needn't have been much of a peach to look fair in Perth! " was John's brief comment.
Half an hour's ride in a tramcar brought them to the gates of Scone Palace, a great stone mansion which is now the seat of the Earl of Mansfield. A flag was seen flying from the highest turret, and they well recognized this as a warning that the family was in residence and that visitors were to keep a respectful distance. Consequently they could only recall, while waiting for the tram to start on its return trip, that to the monastery which stood upon this site did Kenneth II carry the Stone of Destiny in 834. Mrs. Pitt told them how it was placed in the monks' burying-ground, and how, in the event of a coronation, it was covered with cloth of gold, and the king conducted to it by the proudest nobles of his realm. The crowds were allowed to watch the scene from the Mount of Belief or " Boot Hill," its name being ac-counted for by a strange tradition. These same nobles, when attending a coronation ceremony, are said to have partly filled their boots with soil from their native districts; each was thus standing " on his own land," as was required. The king being duly crowned, the boots were always emptied in one spot which in time became " Boot Hill."
The following morning dawned brightly. Passing close by old Glamis Castle, famed for its connection with the story of Macbeth and King Duncan and where is still carefully pre-served the gay motley suit worn by the last jester to a Scottish laird, the early train brought them to Forfar Junction. Here they boarded a train of the little branch line running to Kirriemuir or " Thrums," as Barrie calls it.
The season being that of the " summer holidays " when most shops and factories are closed and everywhere a gala atmosphere prevails, the platform was crowded and the few coaches full many minutes before time for the train to start. Plainly troubled at the thought of having to put on another car, the wizened little station-master walked up and down, tap-ping the men on the shoulders to ask anxiously: " Are all o' ye goin' to Kirriemuir, or are some o' ye juist hangin' aroond l "
There are two great stone mills in the hollow, close by the little burn which flows through Kirriemuir. These have taken over all the work which, in former days, each weaver did on his own hand-loom; few, if any, people, remain who still hold to the old-fashioned method of weaving, and in consequence the sound of the shuttle is seldom heard. In the time of Barrie's " Sentimental Tommy " the two most conspicuous colors to be seen in Thrums were orange and blue, the orange of the masons' trousers stained by dust from the quarry and the brilliant blue of the hearthstones. Times must change, however, and Thrums is less picturesque now, even going so far as to print and sell a penny guide which lays great stress upon the town's advantages as a summer resort. It has yet a few quaint corners, and Mrs. Duncan, Barbara's and Philip's old nurse, actually boasts a blue hearthstone.
Mrs. Duncan lives alone in a cottage not far from the celebrated " Window in Thrums " house, to reach which it is necessary to leave Kirriemuir's largest square, dive down a rough, steep lane, cross the bridge over the burn, and panting-1y climb the brae, the brae upon which Jess looked down from her tiny window for so many years.
Who was she? " John asked, taking Mrs. Pitt's handbag and umbrella from her as they paused for breath at the steepest point of the brae. It was a moment or two before she could answer.
" Sometime you must read about Jess in Barrie's book, ` A Window in Thrums.' With her husband, Hendry, and her daughter, Leeby, she lived in this little whitewashed cottage which you can just see near the top of the brae; but Jess was an invalid and could only walk with help from her bed to her chair. So she sat all day long by her window, and when she was not busy with her sewing or her baking, she was watching the carts and the people going up and down the brae. Jess managed to know al-most everything that happened in Thrums. Now you can see her window, the one in the gable."
" But the window was in the kitchen, really ! " Barbara protested.
" Ah, yes ! That was Barrie's own change. He couldn't describe the house exactly, you know ! Who expects story-writers to. do that? "
Most of the Thrums houses are built of red sandstone from the hillside quarry, but the old ones are either dark and weather-stained or whitewashed. Jess's cottage periodically receives its coat of white and it now has a slated roof. A neat sign announcing the name of the house and the fact that lemonade and souvenirs are on sale within makes it clear that the present occupants are entirely up to date. It was a sad disappointment not to find a roof of thatch with heavy ropes to prevent the wind from carrying it away. They went past Jess's cottage and hurried on. Mrs. Duncan would be expecting them.
" My certie ! " exclaimed the good woman, as she met them at her own door. " I was keekin' frae my window and before I heard the chap at the door, I saw Miss Barbara i' the garden. But I didna ken it was hersel' for a meenute. I thought ` Ye canna draw my leg '; Miss Barbara 'll never be that tall ! Hoo are ye? Hoo are ye? Come awa' in ! Your tea's ready, Mrs. Pitt, ma'am! " Tea she must of course partake of, even if lunch-time were an hour away.
The outside of Mrs. Duncan's cottage much resembled the " Window in Thrums " house; though old, it had been kept in good repair. But inside, the owner had clung to old-fashioned ways. Her kitchen has above all else a blue hearthstone, as we have already learned; but it has also a huge fireplace with an oven at the side, and a row of stockings hung from a string beneath the mantelpiece; a " hoddy-table " for ironing and baking, small so that it can be slipped under the larger table at night; and last of all a genuine box-bed built into the wall.
" Do you sleep there, Mrs. Duncan? " asked Betty in amazement.
" There's no a doot but I do ! " was the answer. " And I like it fine ! It's sae warm there near the vent [chimney] for an old body!
Ou, ay ! I wadna daur sleep in ony ither bed ! "
Old people believe that box-beds are far superior to others because of the convenience of shutting a sick person away from any noise and confusion by closing the folding doors, or of being able to jump in and there undress quite privately, no matter who might be in the kitchen at the time. Thrums has not discovered the fresh-air cure nor does it believe in sleeping-porches.
" What's this? " said John suddenly, putting his hand into a small round hole in the kitchen wall. It proved to be the place where Mrs. Duncan kept her salt.
In the " room," or parlor of the cottage, they saw a table on which stood a gayly painted reading lamp and some books; several hair-cloth chairs were set stiffly around the wall ; and there was an ordinary iron bed. Mrs. Dun-can evidently respected the wishes of her guests who did not share her love of the old customs. Indeed not many could be found nowadays to agree with her.
Of course, all these things were not seen in a moment. While Mrs. Pitt helped Mrs. Duncan in her preparations for luncheon and answered the nurse's volley of questions, the children climbed the ladder leading to the unfinished attic where there was little beside dust and rubbish, wandered in the bit of a garden between the house and the dusty road, and thoroughly explored the cottage, especially admiring the wonderful red-and-blue shepherd and shepherdess, with their accompanying cow and deer of colored china, which were on the " room " mantelpiece.
For their luncheon they had delicious cold ham, bread and unsalted butter, more tea, jam, scones, pancakes, and bridies, these last being specialties apparently known only to Thrums. They are three-cornered turnovers of pastry with steak inside.
" Some eats them hot and some cauld," said Mrs. Duncan, flushing with pride at the interest shown.
In general Mrs. Duncan shared the poor opinion of Mr. Barrie's books held by the Thrums people. They consider that " nothing happens " in his stories, and they find it a great bore to read about themselves and to recognize their own habits and ways of speech. But Mrs. Duncan, nevertheless, condescended to walk with them about the town and to show them " the Den."
" The Den " is to Thrums what " the Islands " are to Inverness, a place for picnics and games on evenings and holidays. " The Den " is a little green glen at the edge of the town, inclosed by precipices and steep grassy banks. Here " Sentimental Tommy," after he had finished delivering the weekly paper from London, for which service he was paid one penny a week, would join his sister and playmates in inventing delightful games. Children were still playing here, and perhaps their games did not differ very greatly from some of Tommy's,—Tommy who could always " find a wy."
" Lemme see what those fellows are doing," cried John excitedly, running towards one end of the glen. " Looks something like baseball." But when he saw that, while in playing Bee-zee," the boys certainly do run to bases in a perfectly intelligible fashion, they do not use bats but wind a muffler around their right hands, hitting the India-rubber balls with that, he turned his back in disgust that knew no words.
Instead of saying " Time ! " Betty noticed that they called out " Barley ! "
" What does it mean? " she asked, and was told that, like many Scotch words, it probably came from the French word parlez, meaning " speak."
They noticed some smaller boys who were playing a game of throwing buttons into little holes which they had scooped out of the ground. A Scotch boy prizes buttons as an American does his marbles, and of these a button from a soldier's coat is considered the choicest. Many children were spinning tops, which they called " peeries." In shady nooks sprawled some of the holiday-makers who had been their companions on the morning train from Forfar.
Mrs. Pitt quoted for Betty and Barbara a charming paragraph of Barrie's in regard to the size of " the Den ":
"If she be with you, the Den is so large that you must rest here and there; if you are after her boldly, you can dash to the Cuttle Well, which was the trysting-place, in the time a stout man takes to lace his boots; if you are of those self-conscious ones who look behind to see whether jeering blades are following, you may crouch and wiggle your way onward and not be with her in half an hour.' "
So, laughing, they started in search of Barrie's birthplace in " the tenements."
Kirriemuir is full of steep wynds and quaint closes, and many of her dwellings have outside stairs leading to a door in the second story. In summer the old people sit at the top of these steps and only stare when a camera is pointed at their frilled caps, huddled shawls, and coarse, patched clothing. In walking about one meets many who, like the ladies of Cranford, seem to reason: Here everybody knows us; away from home nobody knows us; so what matter how we dress? "
As it was a holiday, they met the dulseman in the square. On his wheelbarrow he had a long box full of the reddish-brown seaweed, and a shorter box in which were " buckies " or sea-snails. These the loiterers were buying as we see Americans buy peanuts, the " buckles " being pulled with pins from the shells, which afterwards strew the pavement.
Don't you remember," asked Mrs. Pitt, " how dulse was one of Hendry's extravagances? Oh, I forget that you children haven't read the book! He used to pay the dulseman about a bawbee (or halfpenny) every two weeks to have his pockets stuffed full of dulse. These men to-day are putting it in their pockets, but the women hold out their aprons, don't they?
" The tenements " is a block of old, plastered houses in which live some of the poorest of the weavers. In one of these cottages Barrie spent the first nine years of his life, learning there the ways and language of the humble people ; later, the author lived in a house very near Hendry's cot, but strangely enough, he has never been inside the cottage he has made so famous. Not far from the tenements " is the " Auld Licht Manse," the home of Barrie's
Little Minister." It is an ordinary plastered cottage, perhaps a bit more pretentious than some, having two full stories; it was Barrie's genius that made it of more interest than its neighbors.
That evening the train to Perth took its own time, arriving at its destination about forty-five minutes late. But it was not crowded as was the one they had taken that morning and they had a compartment to themselves. All the way Mrs. Pitt entertained the others with descriptions of Scottish holidays and of odd plays and customs among the children.
Christmas," she said, " is not such a famous festival as with us in England. Long ago, at the time of the Scottish Reformation, the people decided that there should be no Holy Day except the Sabbath, and, as you know, the Scotch, particularly the old people, cling to ancient ways. You've heard about some who still refuse to ride upon trams on Sunday; your own Dr. Van Dyke once whistled of a Sunday on a village street and was sternly reproved by an elder who said, ` Young mon, do ye no ken it's the Sawboth day'?
But to continue about the holidays. The greatest is New Year's, when the people begin to celebrate on the last day of the old year. The young men do not go to bed on that night and at twelve o'clock they ring bells and start off on a circuit of the village, making all the noise they possibly can with singing, shouting, or beating upon drums and tin pans. In years gone by the boys used to make midnight calls upon their friends, expecting to be offered refreshments. This they called ' First Footing,' but it is done but little in these modern times.
Then, there's the children's day, the first Mon-day in January, which is called ` Hansel ' or Present Monday.' "
" What do they do then? " asked Betty eagerly, edging a little nearer Mrs. Pitt.
It's the time they have their presents, just as you do on Christmas Day. People give them bits of money and trinkets. The older people go calling and each housewife must have on hand a good supply of shortbread. On the first of April the children play all the familiar pranks, the favorite being to send people on make-believe errands ; the day is called ' Gowk's Errant Day.' In certain country places, one of them being Drumtochty about which another famous Scotch author, Ian Maclaren, has writ-ten, ' Fastern's E'en,' the evening before Lent, is celebrated by young and old as a time of general merrymaking. At these gatherings there are usually scones in which thimbles or rings or threepenny-bits are baked. But really the best holiday of them all is ' Hogmanay Night.' "
Here Mrs. Pitt paused once more, this time to search for their tickets, and John asked what that strange name might mean.
It may have come from the old greeting,
God be with you,' " she went on. " This is also on the last night of the year. The children go about in companies during the evening and people give them food and small coins. Best of all they like putting on funny costumes.
Here's the way a Scotch woman once described ` Hogmanay Night ' ; see if you can understand me when I imitate her speech. I must hurry, for we're almost back to Perth!
" Soom blacks, their faces with soot, with perhaps a spot here and there of whitening. Ithers hae false faces on. They wear auld coats, and tie their trousers up wi' strae. I gey often dress Jimmie as a wuman. I hae seen them no kenning him at a'. Soom wull hae penny whustles, and they carry long sticks to pound wi' when they dance. They gae a' through the clachan to every hoose, and then to the farmhooses not too far awa'. They gae in wi' no muckle knockin', an' the fowk say, " Why div ye no begin to sing and dance? " One o' their songs is this
"`"Get up, auld wife, and shake your feathers,
Before they go, the fowk treats them to oranges, shortbread, or cake, and gies them usually a penny apiece. They wullna get hame till ten or eleven o'clock, and soomtimes Jimmie hae near twa shillings.' "