|Washer of the Ford, by Fiona
1896 Geddes edition
* These four short episodes are reprinted by courteous consent of the Editor of Harper's Magazine, where they appeared, interpolated in "From the Hebrid Isles."
THE "vision," or second-sight, is more common in the Western Isles than in the Highlands; now at least, when all things sacred to the Celtic race, from the ancient language to the degenerate and indeed all but vanished Beltane and Samh'in rites, are smiled at by the gentle and mocked by the vulgar. A day will come when men will lament more what is irrecoverable than ever a nation mourned for lapsed dominion. It is a bitter cruel thing that strangers must rule the hearts and brains, as well as the poor fortunes, of the mountaineers and islanders. Yet, in doing their best to thrust Celtic life and speech and thought into the sea, they are working a sore hurt for themselves that they shall discern in the day of adversity, We of the passing race know this thing: that in a day to come the sheep-runs shall not be in the Isles and the Highlands only; for we see the forests moving south, and there will be lack, then, not of deer and of sheep, but of hunters and shepherds.
That which follows is only a memento of what was told me last summer by a fisherman of Iona. If I were to write all I have heard about what is called second-sight, it would be a volume and not a few pages I should want. The "sight" has been a reality to me almost from the cradle, for my Highland nurse had the faculty, and I have the memory of more than one of her trances.
There is an old man on the island named Daibhidh (David) Macarthur.*[*As there are several Macarthurs on Iona, I may say that the old man I allude to was not so named. Out of courtesy I disguise his name, though, since the above was written, he is no more.]
It was Ivor McLean, my boatman friend, who took me to him. He is a fine old man, though "heavy" a little,---with years, perhaps, for his head is white as the crest of a wave. He is one of the very few of Iona, perhaps of the two or three at most, who do not speak any English.
"No," he told me, "he had never had the sight himself Ivor was wrong in saying that he had."
This, I imagine, was shyness, or, rather, that innate reticence of the Celt in all profoundly intimate and spiritual matters; for, from what Ivor told me, I am convinced that old Macarthur had more than once proved himself a seer.
But he admitted that his wife had "it."
We were seated on an old upturned boat on the rocky little promontory, where once were first laid the innumerable dead, brought for burial to the sacred soil of Iona. For a time Macarthur spoke slowly about this and that; then, abruptly and without preamble, he told me this:
The Christmas before last, Mary, his wife, had seen a man who was not on the island. "And that is true, by St Martin's Cross," he added.
They were, he said, sitting before the fire, when, after a long silence, he looked up to see his wife staring into the shadow in the ingle. He thought that she was brooding over the barren womb that had been her life-long sorrow, and now in her old age had become a strange and gnawing grief, and so he turned his gaze upon the red coals again.
But suddenly she exclaimed, "Cait a-ni bheil thu dol?" (Where are you going?)
He looked up, but saw no one in the room beside themselves.
"What has come to you ? " he asked. "What do you see?"
But she took no notice.
"Cuine tha Thu falbh ? " (When are you going?) she muttered, with the same strained voice and frozen eyes. And then, once again, "Cuine this- thu rithisd?" (When will you come again?) And with that she bowed her head, and the thin backs of her hands upon her knees were wet with falling tears.For the fourth of an hour thereafter she would say nothing except moan, "Tha an amhuinn domhain; tha an amhuinn dovihain, fuar, fuar; domhain, domhaini"* (Deep, deep is the river; cold and deep ; cold and deep!)
[* Pronounce Ha aun ah-ween do'-inn; f@w-ar, few-ar; do'-inn, do'-inn.]
And the man she saw, added Macarthur, was her nephew, Luthais, in Cape Breton, of Nova Scotia, who, as they learned before Easter, was drowned that Christmas-tide. He was the last of his mother's race, and had been the foster-child of Mary.
IN September of last year, I was ferried across the Sound of Kerrera by an old boatman.
That afternoon I went with my friend, a peasant farmer near the south end of Kerrera, and lay down in the grassy, bouldered wilderness beneath the cliff on which stands the ruin of Gylen Castle. The tide called in a loud insistent whisper, rising to a hoarse gurgle, from the Sound. The breeze that came from the mountains of Mull was honey-sweet with heather smell. The bleating of the ewes and lambs, the screaming of a few gulls-nothing else was audible. At times, it is true, like a deep sigh, the suspiration of the open sea rose and fell among the islands. Faint echoes of that sigh came round Gylen headland and up the Kyle. It was an hour wherein to dream of the sons of Morven, who had landed here often, long before the ancient stronghold was built; of Fionn and the Fèinn ; of the coming and going of Ossian in his blind old age; of beautiful Malvina ; of the galleys of the Fomorians ; of the songs and the singers and all the beautiful things of "the old ancient long ago."
But the tale that I heard from my friend was this.
You know that my mother's people are Skye folk. It was from the mother of my mother that I heard what you call the Incantatation of the Spirit, though I never heard it called anything but old Elsie's Sian. She lived near the Hart o' Corry. You know the part ? Ay, true, it is wild land---wild even for the wilderness o' Skye. Old mother Elsie had " the sight " at times, and whenever she wished she could find out the lines o' life. It was magic, they say. Who am I to know? This is true, she knew much that no one else knew, When my mother's cousin, Fergus MacEwan, who was mate of a sloop that sailed between Stornoway and Ardrossan, came to see her---and that was in the year before my mother was married, and when she was courted by Fergus, though she was never for giving her life to him, for even then she loved my father, poor fisherman of Ulva though he was (though heir, through his father's brother, to his crofter-farm on Kerrera here)when Fergus came to see her, because of the gloom that was upon his spirit, she foretold all. At first she could "see" poorly. But one wild afternoon, when the Cuchullins were black with cloud-smoke, she bade him meet her in that lonely savage glen they call the Loat o' Corry, He was loath to go, for he feared the place. But he went. He told all to my mother before he went away next dawn, with the heart in him broken, and his hope as dead as a herring in a net.
Mother Elsie came to him out of the dusk in that wuthering place just like a drifting mist, as he said. She gave him no greeting, but was by his side in silence. Before he knew what she was doing she had the soles of her feet upon his, and her hands folding his, and her eyes burning against his like hot coals against ash. He felt shudders come over him, and a wind blew up and down his back; and he grew giddy, and heard the roaring of the tide in his ears. Then he was quiet. Her voice was very far away when she said this thing, but he remembered every word of it:
By that which dwells within thee,
Oh! oh! ohrone, ochrone! green the
Then it was that a great calm came upon Fergus, though he felt like a drowned man, or as one who stood by his own body, but speechless, and feeling no blowing of wind through his shadow-frame.
For, indeed, though the body lived, he was already of the company of the silent. What was that caiodh, that wailing lamentation, sad as the Cumha fir Arais, which followed Elsie's incantation, her spell upon "the way" before him, that it and all the trailed lines of this life should be clear as moonlight before her? "Oh ! oh ! ohrone, ochrone ! red the blood-drop berries" ; did not these mean no fruit of the quicken-tree, but the falling drops from the maimed tree that was himself? And was not the green-clad lady, she who comes singing low, the sprouting of the green grass that is the hair of the earth? And was not the road, gleaming wet with ruts and pools all of tears, and overhung by dark rustling plumes of sorrow, the road that the soul traverses in the dark hour? And did not all this mean that the Grave Spell was already upon him, and that the Silence was to be his?**(1) Caiodh (a wailing lament) is a difficult word to pronounce. The Irish keeit will help the foreigner with Kùë-yh or Kùë-yhn. (2) The Cumha fir Arais (pronounce Küv'ah feer Arooss) means the lament of the Man of Aros---ie. the chieftain. Aros Castle, on the great island of Mull overlooking the Sound, was one of the strongholds of Macdonald, Lord of the Isles. (3) The quicken (rowan, mountain-ash, and other names) is a sacred tree with the Celtic peoples, and its branches can either avert or compel supernatural influences. (4) The green-clad Lady is the Cailleach, the Siren of the Hill-Sides, to see whom portends death or disaster. When she is heard singing, that portends death soon for the hearer. The grass is that which grows quick and green above the dead. The dark hour is the hour of death---ie. the first hour after death.
But what thing it was she saw, Elsie would not say. Darkly she dreamed awhile, then leaned forward and kissed his breast. He felt the sob in her heart throb into his.
Dazed, and knowing that she had seen more than she had dreamed of seeing, and that his hour was striding over the rocky wilderness of that wild Isle of Skye, he did not know she was gone, till a shuddering fear of the silence and the gloom told him he was alone.
Coll MacColl (he that was my Kerrera friend) stopped here, just as a breeze will suddenly stop in a corric so that the rowan berries on the side of a quicken will sway this way and that, while the long thin leaves on the other will be as still as the stones underneath, where their shadows sleep.
I asked him at last if Elsie's second-sight had proved true. He looked at me for a moment, as though vaguely surprised I should ask so foolish a thing.
No sleep came to Fergus that night, he resumed, quietly, as though no other words were needed, and at daybreak he rose and left the cot of his kinsman, Andrew MacEwan. In the grey dawn he saw my mother, and told her all. Then she wished him farewell, and bade him come again when next the Sunbeam should be sailing to Portree, or other port in Skye ; for she did not believe that her mother had seen speedy death, or death at all, but perhaps only a time of sorrow, and even that she had done this thing to send Fergus away, for she too had her eyes on Robert MacColl, that was my father.
"And so you will come again, Fergus, my friend," she said; and added, "and perhaps then you will be telling me of a Sunbeam ashore, as well as that you sail from Ardrossan to the far-away islands!"
He stared at her as one who hears ill. Then he took her hand in his, and let it go suddenly again. With one arm he rubbed the rough Uist cap he held in his left hand; then he brushed off the wet mist that was grey on his thick black beard.
"You are not well, Fearghas-mo-charaid," my mother said, and gently. When she saw the staring pain in his eyes, she added, with a low sob, " My heart is sore for you!"
With that he turned away, and she saw him no more that day or any day of all the days to come.
"And what thing happened, Coll?"
"They kept it from her, and she did not know it for long. It was this : Fergus MacEwan did not sail far that morning. He was ill, he said, and was put ashore. That night Aulay Macaulay saw him moving about in that frightful place of the Storr Rock, moaning and muttering. He would have spoken to him, but he saw him begin to leap about the pinnacled rocks like a goat, and at last run up to The Old Man of Storr and beat it with his clenched fists, blaspheming with wild words; and he feared Fergus was mad, and he slipped from shadow to shadow, till he fled openly. But in the morning, Aulay and his brother Finlay went back to look for Fergus. At first they thought he had been drowned, or had fallen into one of the fissures. But from a balachan, a 'bit laddie,' as they would call him in the town over the way [Oban], they heard that a man had pushed off that morning in John Macpherson's boat, that lay about a mile and a-half from the Storr, and had sailed north along the coast.
" Well, it was three days before he was found-stone-dead. If you know the Quiraing you will know the great Needle Rock. Only a bird can climb it, as the saying goes. Halfway up, Finlay Macaulay and a man of the neighbourhood saw the body o' Fergus as though it were glued to the rock. It was windless weather, or he would have been blown away like a drifted leaf They had to jerk the body down with net-poles. God save us the dark hour of Fergus, that died like a wild beast!"
In the spring of the year that my boy Tormaid died, the moon-daisies were as thick as a woven shroud over the place where Giorsal, the daughter of Ian, the son of Ian MacLeod of Baille 'n Bad-a-sgailich, slept night and day.*
[* Baille'n Bad-a-sgailich:: the Farm of the Shadowy Clump of Trees. Cairstine, or Cairistine, is the Gaelic for Christina (for Christian), as Tormaid is for Norman, and Giorsal for Grace. "The quiet havens" is the beautiful island phrase for graves. Here, also, a swift and fatal consumption that falls upon the doomed is called "The White Fever." By "the mainland," Harris and the Lewis are meant.]
All that March the cormorants screamed, famished. There were few fish in the sea, and no kelp-weed was washed up by the high tides. In the island and in the near isles, ay, and far north through the mainland, the blight lay. Many sickened. I knew young mothers who had no milk. There are green mounds in Carnan kirkyard that will be telling you of what this meant. Here and there are little green mounds, each so small that you might cuddle it in your arm under your plaid.
Tormaid sickened. A bad day was that for him when he came home, weary with the sea, and drenched to the skin, because of a gale that caught him and his mates off Barra Head. When the March winds tore down the Minch, and leaped out from over the Cuchullins, and came west, and lay against our homes, where the peats were sodden and there was little food, the minister told me that my lad would be in the quiet havens before long. This was because of the white fever. It was of that same that Giorsal waned, and went out like a thin flame in sunlight.
The son of my man (years ago weary no more) said little ever. He ate nothing almost, even of the next to nothing we had. At nights he couldna sleep because of the cough. The coming of May lifted him awhile. I hoped he would see the autumn ; and that if he did, and the herring came, and the harvest was had, and what wi' this and what wi' that, he would forget his Giorsal that lay i'the mools in the quiet place yonder. Maybe then, I thought, the sorrow would go, and take its shadow with it.
One gloaming he came in with all the whiteness of his wasted body in his face. His heart was out of its shell; and mine, too, at the sight of him.*[*A cochall a' chridhe: his heart out of its shells phrase often used to express sudden derangement from any shock. The ensuing phrase means the month from the 15th of July to the 15th of August, Mios crochaidh nan con, so called as it is supposed to be the hottest, if not the most waterless, month in the isles. The word clear, used below, is the name given a small wooden tub, into which the potatoes are turned when boiled.]
This was in the season of the hanging of the dog's mouth.
"What is it, Tormaid-a-ghaolach?" I asked, with the sob that was in my throat.
"Thraisg mo chridhe," he muttered (My heart is parched). Then, feeling the asking in my eyes, he said, " I have seen her."
I knew he meant Giorsal. My heart sank.
But I wore my nails into the palms of my hands. Then I said this thing, that is an old saying in the isles: "Those who are in the quiet havens hear neither the wind nor the sea." He was so weak he could not lie down in the bed. He was in the big chair before the peats, with his feet on a clear.
When the wind was still I read him the Word. A little warm milk was all he would take. I could hear the blood in his lungs sobbing like the ebb-tide in the sea-weed. This was the thing that he said to me:
She came to me, like a grey mist, beyond the dyke of the green place, near the road. The face of her was grey as a grey dawn, but the voice was hers, though I heard it under a wave, so dull and far was it. And these are her words to me, and mine to herand the first speaking was mine, for the silence wore me:
Are you going,
And then I saw that it was a mist, and that I was alone. But now this night it is that I feel the breath on the soles of my feet."
And with that I knew there was no hope. Ma tha sin an dàn! . . . if that be ordained," was, all that rose to my lips. It was that night he died. I fell asleep in the second hour. When I woke in the grey dawn, his face was greyer than that, and more cold.
I learned two things on the day when I saw Sheumas McIan dead upon the heather. He of whom I speak was the son of Ian McIan Alltnalee, but was known throughout the home straths and the countries beyond as Sheumas Dhu, Black James, or, to render the subtler meaning implied in this instance, James the Dark One. I had wondered occasionally at the designation, because Sheumas, if not exactly fair, was not dark. But the name was given to him, as I learned later, because, as commonly rumoured, he knew that which he should not have known.I had been spending some weeks with Alasdair McIan and his wife Silis (who was my foster-sister), at their farm of Ardoch, high in a remote hill country. One night we were sitting before the peats, listening to the wind crying amid the corries, though, ominously as it seemed to us, there was not a breath in the rowan-tree that grew in the sun's-way by the house. Silis had been singing, but silence had come upon us. In the warm glow from the fire we saw each other's faces. There the silence lay, strangely still and beautiful, as snow in moonlight. Silis's song was one of the Dana Spioradail, known in Gaelic as the Hymn of the Looms. I cannot recall it, nor have I ever heard or in any way encountered it again.
It had a lovely refrain, I know not whether its own or added by Silis. I have heard her chant it to other runes and songs. Now, when too late, my regret is deep that I did not take from her lips more of those sorrowful, strange songs or chants, with their ancient Celtic melodies, so full of haunting sweet melancholy, which she loved so well. It was with this refrain that, after a long stillness, she startled us that October night. I remember the sudden light in the eyes of Alasdair Mclan, and the beat at my heart, when, like rain in a wood, her voice fell unawares upon us out of the silence:
Oh! oh! ohrone,
arone ! Oh ! oh ! mo ghraidh, mo chridhe
[*Pronounce mogh-räy, mogh-rëe (my heart's delight---lit. my dear one, my heart).
The wail, and the sudden break in the second line, had always upon me an effect of inexpressible pathos. Often that sad windsong has been in my ears, when I have been thinking of many things that are passed and are passing.
I know not what made Silis so abruptly begin to sing, and with that wailing couplet only, or why she lapsed at once into silence again. Indeed, my remembrance of the incident at all is due to the circumstance that shortly after Silis had turned her face to the peats again, a knock came to the door, and then Sheumas Dhu entered.
" Why do you sing that lament, Silis, sister of my father?" he asked, after he had seated himself beside me, and spread his thin hands against the peat glow, so that the flame seemed to enter within the flesh.
Silis turned to her nephew, and looked at him, as I thought, questioningly. But she did not speak. He, too, said nothing more, either forgetful of his question, or content with what he had learned or failed to learn through her silence.
The wind had come down from the corries before Sheumas rose to go. He said he was not returning to Alltnalee, but was going upon the hill, for a big herd of deer had come over the ridge of Mel Mòr. Sheumas, though skilled in all hill and forest craft, was not a sure shot, as was his kinsman and my host, Alasdair McIan.
"You will need help," I remember Alasdair Ardoch saying mockingly, adding, "Co dhiubh is fhearr let mise thoir sealladh na fàileadli dhiubh ?"---that is to say, Whether would you rather me to deprive them of sight or smell?
This is a familiar saying among the old sportsmen in my country, where it is believed that a few favoured individuals have the power to deprive deer of either sight or smell, as the occasion suggests.
"Dhuit cidr nan carn !---The gloom of the rocks be upon you!" replied Sheumas, sullenly; " mayhap the hour is come when the red stag will sniff at my nostrils."
With that dark saying he went. None of us saw him again alive.
Was it a forewarning? I have often wondered. Or had he sight of the shadow?
It was three days after this, and shortly after sunrise, that, on crossing the south slope of Mel Mòr with Alasdair Ardoch, we came suddenly upon the body of Sheumas, half submerged in a purple billow of heather. It did not, at the moment, occur to me that he was dead. I had not known that his prolonged absence had been noted, or that he had been searched for. As a matter of fact, he must have died immediately before our approach, for his limbs were still loose, and he lay as a sleeper lies.
Alasdair kneeled and raised his kinsman's head. When it lay upon the purple tussock, the warmth and glow from the sunlit ling gave a fugitive deceptive light to the pale face. I know not whether the sun can have any chemic action upon the dead. But it seemed to me that a dream rose to the face of Sheumas, like one of those submarine flowers that are said to rise at times and be visible for a moment in the hollow of a wave. The dream, the light, waned; and there was a great stillness and white peace where the trouble had been. "It is the Smoothing of the Hand," said Alasdair Mclan, in a hushed voice.
Often I had heard this lovely phrase in the Western Isles, but always as applied to sleep. When a fretful child suddenly falls into quietude and deep slumber, an isleswoman will say that it is because of the Smoothing of the Hand. It is always a profound sleep, and there are some who hold it almost as a sacred thing, and never to be disturbed.
So, thinking only of this, I whispered to my friend to come away; that Sheumas was dead weary with hunting upon the hills; that he would awake in due time.
Mclan looked at me, hesitated, and said nothing. I saw him glance around. A few yards away, beside a great boulder in the heather, a small rowan stood, flickering its feather-like shadows across the white wool of a ewe resting underneath. He moved thitherward slowly, plucked a branch heavy with scarlet berries, and then, having returned, laid it across the breast of his kinsman.
I knew now what was that passing of the trouble in the face of Sheumas Dhu, what that sudden light was, that calming of the sea, that ineffable quietude. It was the Smoothing of the Hand.