Waverley, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter XX

A Highland Feast

Ere Waverley entered the banqueting hall, he was offered the patriarchal refreshment of a bath for the feet, which the sultry weather, and the morasses he had traversed, rendered highly acceptable. He was not, indeed, so luxuriously attended upon this occasion as the heroic travellers in the Odyssey; the task of ablution and abstersion being performed, not by a beautiful damsel, trained

To chafe the limb, and pour the fragrant oil,

but by a smoke-dried skinny old Highland woman, who did not seem to think herself much honoured by the duty imposed upon her, but muttered between her teeth, ‘Our fathers’ herds did not feed so near together that I should do you this service.’ A small donation, however, amply reconciled this ancient handmaiden to the supposed degradation; and, as Edward proceeded to the hall, she gave him her blessing in the Gaelic proverb, ‘May the open hand be filled the fullest.’

The hall, in which the feast was prepared, occupied all the first story of lan nan Chaistel’s original erection, and a huge oaken table extended through its whole length. The apparatus for dinner was simple, even to rudeness, and the company numerous, even to crowding. At the head of the table was the Chief himself, with Edward, and two or three Highland visitors of neighbouring clans; the elders of his own tribe, wadsetters and tacksmen, as they were called, who occupied portions of his estate as mortgagers or lessees, sat next in rank; beneath them, their sons and nephews and foster-brethren; then the officers of the Chief’s household, according to their order; and lowest of all, the tenants who actually cultivated the ground. Even beyond this long perspective, Edward might see upon the green, to which a huge pair of folding doors opened, a multitude of Highlanders of a yet inferior description, who, nevertheless, were considered as guests, and had their share both of the countenance of the entertainer and of the cheer of the day. In the distance, and fluctuating round this extreme verge of the banquet, was a changeful group of women, ragged boys and girls, beggars, young and old, large greyhounds, and terriers, and pointers, and curs of low degree; all of whom took some interest, more or less immediate, in the main action of the piece.

This hospitality, apparently unbounded, had yet its line of economy. Some pains had been bestowed in dressing the dishes of fish, game, etc., which were at the upper end of the table, and immediately under the eye of the English stranger. Lower down stood immense clumsy joints of mutton and beef, which, but for the absence of pork,48 abhorred in the Highlands, resembled the rude festivity of the banquet of Penelope’s suitors. But the central dish was a yearling lamb, called ‘a hog in har’st,’ roasted whole. It was set upon its legs, with a bunch of parsley in its mouth, and was probably exhibited in that form to gratify the pride of the cook, who piqued himself more on the plenty than the elegance of his master’s table. The sides of this poor animal were fiercely attacked by the clansmen, some with dirks, others with the knives which were usually in the same sheath with the dagger, so that it was soon rendered a mangled and rueful spectacle. Lower down still, the victuals seemed of yet coarser quality, though sufficiently abundant. Broth, onions, cheese, and the fragments of the feast regaled the sons of Ivor who feasted in the open air.

The liquor was supplied in the same proportion, and under similar regulations. Excellent claret and champagne were liberally distributed among the Chief’s immediate neighbours; whisky, plain or diluted, and strong beer refreshed those who sat near the lower end. Nor did this inequality of distribution appear to give the least offence. Every one present understood that his taste was to be formed according to the rank which he held at table; and, consequently, the tacksmen and their dependants always professed the wine was too cold for their stomachs, and called, apparently out of choice, for the liquor which was assigned to them from economy.49 The bag-pipers, three in number, screamed, during the whole time of dinner, a tremendous war-tune; and the echoing of the vaulted roof, and clang of the Celtic tongue, produced such a Babel of noises that Waverley dreaded his ears would never recover it. Mac-Ivor, indeed, apologised for the confusion occasioned by so large a party, and pleaded the necessity of his situation, on which unlimited hospitality was imposed as a paramount duty. ‘These stout idle kinsmen of mine,’ he said, ‘account my estate as held in trust for their support; and I must find them beef and ale, while the rogues will do nothing for themselves but practise the broadsword, or wander about the hills, shooting, fishing, hunting, drinking, and making love to the lasses of the strath. But what can I do, Captain Waverley? everything will keep after its kind, whether it be a hawk or a Highlander.’ Edward made the expected answer, in a compliment upon his possessing so many bold and attached followers.

‘Why, yes,’ replied the Chief, ‘were I disposed, like my father, to put myself in the way of getting one blow on the head, or two on the neck, I believe the loons would stand by me. But who thinks of that in the present day, when the maxim is, “Better an old woman with a purse in her hand than three men with belted brands”?’ Then, turning to the company, he proposed the ‘Health of Captain Waverley, a worthy friend of his kind neighbour and ally, the Baron of Bradwardine.’

‘He is welcome hither,’ said one of the elders, ‘if he come from Cosmo Comyne Bradwardine.’

‘I say nay to that,’ said an old man, who apparently did not mean to pledge the toast; ‘I say nay to that. While there is a green leaf in the forest, there will be fraud in a Comyne.

‘There is nothing but honour in the Baron of Bradwardine,’ answered another ancient; ‘and the guest that comes hither from him should be welcome, though he came with blood on his hand, unless it were blood of the race of Ivor.’

The old man whose cup remained full replied, ‘There has been blood enough of the race of Ivor on the hand of Bradwardine.’

‘Ah! Ballenkeiroch,’ replied the first, ‘you think rather of the flash of the carbine at the mains of Tully-Veolan than the glance of the sword that fought for the cause at Preston.’

‘And well I may,’ answered Ballenkeiroch; ‘the flash of the gun cost me a fair-haired son, and the glance of the sword has done but little for King James.’

The Chieftain, in two words of French, explained to Waverley that the Baron had shot this old man’s son in a fray near Tully-Veolan, about seven years before; and then hastened to remove Ballenkeiroch’s prejudice, by informing him that Waverley was an Englishman, unconnected by birth or alliance with the family of Bradwardine; upon which the old gentleman raised the hitherto-untasted cup and courteously drank to his health. This ceremony being requited in kind, the Chieftain made a signal for the pipes to cease, and said aloud, ‘Where is the song hidden, my friends, that Mac-Murrough cannot find it?’

Mac-Murrough, the family bhairdh, an aged man, immediately took the hint, and began to chant, with low and rapid utterance, a profusion of Celtic verses, which were received by the audience with all the applause of enthusiasm. As he advanced in his declamation, his ardour seemed to increase. He had at first spoken with his eyes fixed on the ground; he now cast them around as if beseeching, and anon as if commanding, attention, and his tones rose into wild and impassioned notes, accompanied with appropriate gestures. He seemed to Edward, who attended to him with much interest, to recite many proper names, to lament the dead, to apostrophise the absent, to exhort, and entreat, and animate those who were present. Waverley thought he even discerned his own name, and was convinced his conjecture was right from the eyes of the company being at that moment turned towards him simultaneously. The ardour of the poet appeared to communicate itself to the audience. Their wild and sun-burnt countenances assumed a fiercer and more animated expression; all bent forward towards the reciter, many sprung up and waved their arms in ecstasy, and some laid their hands on their swords. When the song ceased, there was a deep pause, while the aroused feelings of the poet and of the hearers gradually subsided into their usual channel.

The Chieftain, who, during this scene had appeared rather to watch the emotions which were excited than to partake their high tone of enthusiasm, filled with claret a small silver cup which stood by him. ‘Give this,’ he said to an attendant, ‘to Mac-Murrough nan Fonn (i.e. of the songs), and when he has drank the juice, bid him keep, for the sake of Vich Ian Vohr, the shell of the gourd which contained it.’ The gift was received by Mac-Murrough with profound gratitude; he drank the wine, and, kissing the cup, shrouded it with reverence in the plaid which was folded on his bosom. He then burst forth into what Edward justly supposed to be an extemporaneous effusion of thanks and praises of his Chief. It was received with applause, but did not produce the effect of his first poem. It was obvious, however, that the clan regarded the generosity of their Chieftain with high approbation. Many approved Gaelic toasts were then proposed, of some of which the Chieftain gave his guest the following versions:—

‘To him that will not turn his back on friend or foe.’ ‘To him that never forsook a comrade.’ ‘To him that never bought or sold justice.’ ‘Hospitality to the exile, and broken bones to the tyrant.’ ‘The lads with the kilts.’ ‘Highlanders, shoulder to shoulder,’ — with many other pithy sentiments of the like nature.

Edward was particularly solicitous to know the meaning of that song which appeared to produce such effect upon the passions of the company, and hinted his curiosity to his host. ‘As I observe,’ said the Chieftain, ‘that you have passed the bottle during the last three rounds, I was about to propose to you to retire to my sister’s tea-table, who can explain these things to you better than I can. Although I cannot stint my clan in the usual current of their festivity, yet I neither am addicted myself to exceed in its amount, nor do I,’ added he, smiling, ‘keep a Bear to devour the intellects of such as can make good use of them.’

Edward readily assented to this proposal, and the Chieftain, saying a few words to those around him, left the table, followed by Waverley. As the door closed behind them, Edward heard Vich Ian Vohr’s health invoked with a wild and animated cheer, that expressed the satisfaction of the guests and the depth of their devotion to his service.

48 Pork or swine’s flesh, in any shape, was, till of late years, much abominated by the Scotch, nor is it yet a favourite food amongst them. King Jamie carried this prejudice to England, and is known to have abhorred pork almost as much as he did tobacco. Ben Jonson has recorded this peculiarity, where the gipsy in a masque, examining the king’s hand, says —

You should, by this line,

Love a horse and a hound, but no part of a swine.

The Gipsies Metamorphosed.

James’s own proposed banquet for the Devil was a loin of pork and a poll of ling, with a pipe of tobacco for digestion.

49 In the number of persons of all ranks who assembled at the same table, though by no means to discuss the same fare, the Highland chiefs only retained a custom which had been formerly universally observed throughout Scotland. ‘I myself,’ says the traveller, Fynes Morrison, in the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the scene being the Lowlands of Scotland, ‘was at a knight’s house, who had many servants to attend him, that brought in his meat with their heads covered with blue caps, the table being more than half furnished with great platters of porridge, each having a little piece of sodden meat. And when the table was served, the servants did sit down with us; but the upper mess, instead of porridge, had a pullet, with some prunes in the broth.’ — Travels, p. 155.

Till within this last century the farmers, even of a respectable condition, dined with their work-people. The difference betwixt those of high degree was ascertained by the place of the party above or below the salt, or sometimes by a line drawn with chalk on the dining-table. Lord Lovat, who knew well how to feed the vanity and restrain the appetites of his clansmen, allowed each sturdy Fraser who had the slightest pretensions to be a Duinhewassel the full honour of the sitting, but at the same time took care that his young kinsmen did not acquire at his table any taste for outlandish luxuries. His lordship was always ready with some honourable apology why foreign wines and French brandy, delicacies which he conceived might sap the hardy habits of his cousins, should not circulate past an assigned point on the table.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/scott/walter/waverley/chapter20.html

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