The Fair Maid of Perth, by Walter Scott

Chapter 28

What want these outlaws conquerors should have

But history’s purchased page to call them great,

A wider space, an ornamented grave?

Their hopes were not less warm, their souls were full as brave.

BYRON.

The funeral obsequies being over, the same flotilla which had proceeded in solemn and sad array down the lake prepared to return with displayed banners, and every demonstration of mirth and joy; for there was but brief time to celebrate festivals when the awful conflict betwixt the Clan Quhele and their most formidable rivals so nearly approached. It had been agreed, therefore, that the funeral feast should be blended with that usually given at the inauguration of the young chief.

Some objections were made to this arrangement, as containing an evil omen. But, on the other hand, it had a species of recommendation, from the habits and feelings of the Highlanders, who, to this day, are wont to mingle a degree of solemn mirth with their mourning, and something resembling melancholy with their mirth. The usual aversion to speak or think of those who have been beloved and lost is less known to this grave and enthusiastic race than it is to others. You hear not only the young mention (as is everywhere usual) the merits and the character of parents, who have, in the course of nature, predeceased them; but the widowed partner speaks, in ordinary conversation, of the lost spouse, and, what is still stranger, the parents allude frequently to the beauty or valour of the child whom they have interred. The Scottish Highlanders appear to regard the separation of friends by death as something less absolute and complete than it is generally esteemed in other countries, and converse of the dear connexions who have sought the grave before them as if they had gone upon a long journey in which they themselves must soon follow. The funeral feast, therefore, being a general custom throughout Scotland, was not, in the opinion of those who were to share it, unseemingly mingled, on the present occasion, with the festivities which hailed the succession to the chieftainship.

The barge which had lately borne the dead to the grave now conveyed the young MacIan to his new command and the minstrels sent forth their gayest notes to gratulate Eachin’s succession, as they had lately sounded their most doleful dirges when carrying Gilchrist to his grave. From the attendant flotilla rang notes of triumph and jubilee, instead of those yells of lamentation which had so lately disturbed the echoes of Loch Tay; and a thousand voices hailed the youthful chieftain as he stood on the poop, armed at all points, in the flower of early manhood, beauty, and activity, on the very spot where his father’s corpse had so lately been extended, and surrounded by triumphant friends, as that had been by desolate mourners.

One boat kept closest of the flotilla to the honoured galley. Torquil of the Oak, a grizzled giant, was steersman; and his eight sons, each exceeding the ordinary stature of mankind, pulled the oars. Like some powerful and favourite wolf hound, unloosed from his couples, and frolicking around a liberal master, the boat of the foster brethren passed the chieftain’s barge, now on one side and now on another, and even rowed around it, as if in extravagance of joy; while, at the same time, with the jealous vigilance of the animal we have compared it to, they made it dangerous for any other of the flotilla to approach so near as themselves, from the risk of being run down by their impetuous and reckless manoeuvres. Raised to an eminent rank in the clan by the succession of their foster brother to the command of the Clan Quhele, this was the tumultuous and almost terrible mode in which they testified their peculiar share in their chief’s triumph.

Far behind, and with different feelings, on the part of one at least of the company, came the small boat in which, manned by the Booshalloch and one of his sons, Simon Glover was a passenger.

“If we are bound for the head of the lake,” said Simon to his friend, “we shall hardly be there for hours.”

But as he spoke the crew of the boat of the foster brethren, or leichtach, on a signal from the chief’s galley, lay on their oars until the Booshalloch’s boat came up, and throwing on board a rope of hides, which Niel made fast to the head of his skiff, they stretched to their oars once more, and, notwithstanding they had the small boat in tow, swept through the lake with almost the same rapidity as before. The skiff was tugged on with a velocity which seemed to hazard the pulling her under water, or the separation of her head from her other timbers.

Simon Glover saw with anxiety the reckless fury of their course, and the bows of the boat occasionally brought within an inch or two of the level of the water; and though his friend, Niel Booshalloch, assured him it was all done in especial honour, he heartily wished his voyage might have a safe termination. It had so, and much sooner than he apprehended; for the place of festivity was not four miles distant from the sepulchral island, being chosen to suit the chieftain’s course, which lay to the southeast, so soon as the banquet should be concluded. A bay on the southern side of Loch Tay presented a beautiful beach of sparkling sand, on which the boats might land with ease, and a dry meadow, covered with turf, verdant considering the season, behind and around which rose high banks, fringed with copsewood, and displaying the lavish preparations which had been made for the entertainment.

The Highlanders, well known for ready hatchet men, had constructed a long arbour or silvan banqueting room, capable of receiving two hundred men, while a number of smaller huts around seemed intended for sleeping apartments. The uprights, the couples, and roof tree of the temporary hall were composed of mountain pine, still covered with its bark. The framework of the sides was of planks or spars of the same material, closely interwoven with the leafy boughs of the fir and other evergreens, which the neighbouring woods afforded, while the hills had furnished plenty of heath to form the roof. Within this silvan palace the most important personages present were invited to hold high festival. Others of less note were to feast in various long sheds constructed with less care; and tables of sod, or rough planks, placed in the open air, were allotted to the numberless multitude. At a distance were to be seen piles of glowing charcoal or blazing wood, around which countless cooks toiled, bustled, and fretted, like so many demons working in their native element. Pits, wrought in the hillside, and lined with heated stones, served as ovens for stewing immense quantities of beef, mutton, and venison; wooden spits supported sheep and goats, which were roasted entire; others were cut into joints, and seethed in caldrons made of the animal’s own skins, sewed hastily together and filled with water; while huge quantities of pike, trout, salmon, and char were broiled with more ceremony on glowing embers. The glover had seen many a Highland banquet, but never one the preparations for which were on such a scale of barbarous profusion.

He had little time, however, to admire the scene around him for, as soon as they landed on the beach, the Booshalloch observed with some embarrassment, that, as they had not been bidden to the table of the dais, to which he seemed to have expected an invitation, they had best secure a place in one of the inferior bothies or booths; and was leading the way in that direction, when he was stopped by one of the bodyguards, seeming to act as master of ceremonies, who whispered something in his ear.

“I thought so,” said the herdsman, much relieved —“I thought neither the stranger nor the man that has my charge would be left out at the high table.”

They were conducted accordingly into the ample lodge, within which were long ranges of tables already mostly occupied by the guests, while those who acted as domestics were placing upon them the abundant though rude materials of the festival. The young chief, although he certainly saw the glover and the herdsman enter, did not address any personal salute to either, and their places were assigned them in a distant corner, far beneath the salt, a huge piece of antique silver plate, the only article of value that the table displayed, and which was regarded by the clan as a species of palladium, only produced and used on the most solemn occasions, such as the present.

The Booshalloch, somewhat discontented, muttered to Simon as he took his place: “These are changed days, friend. His father, rest his soul, would have spoken to us both; but these are bad manners which he has learned among you Sassenachs in the Low Country.”

To this remark the glover did not think it necessary to reply; instead of which he adverted to the evergreens, and particularly to the skins and other ornaments with which the interior of the bower was decorated. The most remarkable part of these ornaments was a number of Highland shirts of mail, with steel bonnets, battle axes, and two handed swords to match, which hung around the upper part of the room, together with targets highly and richly embossed. Each mail shirt was hung over a well dressed stag’s hide, which at once displayed the armour to advantage and saved it from suffering by damp.

“These,” whispered the Booshalloch, “are the arms of the chosen champions of the Clan Quhele. They are twenty-nine in number, as you see, Eachin himself being the thirtieth, who wears his armour today, else had there been thirty. And he has not got such a good hauberk after all as he should wear on Palm Sunday. These nine suits of harness, of such large size, are for the leichtach, from whom so much is expected.”

“And these goodly deer hides,” said Simon, the spirit of his profession awakening at the sight of the goods in which he traded —“think you the chief will be disposed to chaffer for them? They are in demand for the doublets which knights wear under their armour.”

“Did I not pray you,” said Niel Booshalloch, “to say nothing on that subject?”

“It is the mail shirts I speak of,” said Simon —“may I ask if any of them were made by our celebrated Perth armourer, called Henry of the Wynd?”

“Thou art more unlucky than before,” said Niel, “that man’s name is to Eachin’s temper like a whirlwind upon the lake; yet no man knows for what cause.”

“I can guess,” thought our glover, but gave no utterance to the thought; and, having twice lighted on unpleasant subjects of conversation, he prepared to apply himself, like those around him, to his food, without starting another topic.

We have said as much of the preparations as may lead the reader to conclude that the festival, in respect of the quality of the food, was of the most rude description, consisting chiefly of huge joints of meat, which were consumed with little respect to the fasting season, although several of the friars of the island convent graced and hallowed the board by their presence. The platters were of wood, and so were the hooped cogues or cups out of which the guests quaffed their liquor, as also the broth or juice of the meat, which was held a delicacy. There were also various preparations of milk which were highly esteemed, and were eaten out of similar vessels. Bread was the scarcest article at the banquet, but the glover and his patron Niel were served with two small loaves expressly for their own use. In eating, as, indeed, was then the case all over Britain, the guests used their knives called skenes, or the large poniards named dirks, without troubling themselves by the reflection that they might occasionally have served different or more fatal purposes.

At the upper end of the table stood a vacant seat, elevated a step or two above the floor. It was covered with a canopy of hollow boughs and ivy, and there rested against it a sheathed sword and a folded banner. This had been the seat of the deceased chieftain, and was left vacant in honour of him. Eachin occupied a lower chair on the right hand of the place of honour.

The reader would be greatly mistaken who should follow out this description by supposing that the guests behaved like a herd of hungry wolves, rushing upon a feast rarely offered to them. On the contrary, the Clan Quhele conducted themselves with that species of courteous reserve and attention to the wants of others which is often found in primitive nations, especially such as are always in arms, because a general observance of the rules of courtesy is necessary to prevent quarrels, bloodshed, and death. The guests took the places assigned them by Torquil of the Oak, who, acting as marischal taeh, i.e. sewer of the mess, touched with a white wand, without speaking a word, the place where each was to sit. Thus placed in order, the company patiently waited for the portion assigned them, which was distributed among them by the leichtach; the bravest men or more distinguished warriors of the tribe being accommodated with a double mess, emphatically called bieyfir, or the portion of a man. When the sewers themselves had seen every one served, they resumed their places at the festival, and were each served with one of these larger messes of food. Water was placed within each man’s reach, and a handful of soft moss served the purposes of a table napkin, so that, as at an Eastern banquet, the hands were washed as often as the mess was changed. For amusement, the bard recited the praises of the deceased chief, and expressed the clan’s confidence in the blossoming virtues of his successor. The seannachie recited the genealogy of the tribe, which they traced to the race of the Dalriads; the harpers played within, while the war pipes cheered the multitude without. The conversation among the guests was grave, subdued, and civil; no jest was attempted beyond the bounds of a very gentle pleasantry, calculated only to excite a passing smile. There were no raised voices, no contentious arguments; and Simon Glover had heard a hundred times more noise at a guild feast in Perth than was made on this occasion by two hundred wild mountaineers.

Even the liquor itself did not seem to raise the festive party above the same tone of decorous gravity. It was of various kinds. Wine appeared in very small quantities, and was served out only to the principal guests, among which honoured number Simon Glover was again included. The wine and the two wheaten loaves were indeed the only marks of notice which he received during the feast; but Niel Booshalloch, jealous of his master’s reputation for hospitality, failed not to enlarge on them as proofs of high distinction. Distilled liquors, since so generally used in the Highlands, were then comparatively unknown. The usquebaugh was circulated in small quantities, and was highly flavoured with a decoction of saffron and other herbs, so as to resemble a medicinal potion rather than a festive cordial. Cider and mead were seen at the entertainment, but ale, brewed in great quantities for the purpose, and flowing round without restriction, was the liquor generally used, and that was drunk with a moderation much less known among the more modern Highlanders. A cup to the memory of the deceased chieftain was the first pledge solemnly proclaimed after the banquet was finished, and a low murmur of benedictions was heard from the company, while the monks alone, uplifting their united voices, sung Requiem eternam dona. An unusual silence followed, as if something extraordinary was expected, when Eachin arose with a bold and manly, yet modest, grace, and ascended the vacant seat or throne, saying with dignity and firmness:

“This seat and my father’s inheritance I claim as my right — so prosper me God and St. Barr!”

“How will you rule your father’s children?” said an old man, the uncle of the deceased.

“I will defend them with my father’s sword, and distribute justice to them under my father’s banner.”

The old man, with a trembling hand, unsheathed the ponderous weapon, and, holding it by the blade, offered the hilt to the young chieftain’s grasp; at the same time Torquil of the Oak unfurled the pennon of the tribe, and swung it repeatedly over Eachin’s head, who, with singular grace and dexterity, brandished the huge claymore as in its defence. The guests raised a yelling shout to testify their acceptance of the patriarchal chief who claimed their allegiance, nor was there any who, in the graceful and agile youth before them, was disposed to recollect the subject of sinister vaticinations. As he stood in glittering mail, resting on the long sword, and acknowledging by gracious gestures the acclamations which rent the air within, without, and around, Simon Glover was tempted to doubt whether this majestic figure was that of the same lad whom he had often treated with little ceremony, and began to have some apprehension of the consequences of having done so. A general burst of minstrelsy succeeded to the acclamations, and rock and greenwood rang to harp and pipes, as lately to shout and yell of woe.

It would be tedious to pursue the progress of the inaugural feast, or detail the pledges that were quaffed to former heroes of the clan, and above all to the twenty-nine brave galloglasses who were to fight in the approaching conflict, under the eye and leading of their young chief. The bards, assuming in old times the prophetic character combined with their own, ventured to assure them of the most distinguished victory, and to predict the fury with which the blue falcon, the emblem of the Clan Quhele, should rend to pieces the mountain cat, the well known badge of the Clan Chattan.

It was approaching sunset when a bowl, called the grace cup, made of oak, hooped with silver, was handed round the table as the signal of dispersion, although it was left free to any who chose a longer carouse to retreat to any of the outer bothies. As for Simon Glover, the Booshalloch conducted him to a small hut, contrived, it would seem, for the use of a single individual, where a bed of heath and moss was arranged as well as the season would permit, and an ample supply of such delicacies as the late feast afforded showed that all care had been taken for the inhabitant’s accommodation.

“Do not leave this hut,” said the Booshalloch, taking leave of his friend and protege: “this is your place of rest. But apartments are lost on such a night of confusion, and if the badger leaves his hole the toad will creep into it.”

To Simon Glover this arrangement was by no means disagreeable. He had been wearied by the noise of the day, and felt desirous of repose. After eating, therefore, a morsel, which his appetite scarce required, and drinking a cup of wine to expel the cold, he muttered his evening prayer, wrapt himself in his cloak, and lay down on a couch which old acquaintance had made familiar and easy to him. The hum and murmur, and even the occasional shouts, of some of the festive multitude who continued revelling without did not long interrupt his repose, and in about ten minutes he was as fast asleep as if he had lain in his own bed in Curfew Street.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29