The Fair Maid of Perth, by Walter Scott

Chapter 26

Hail, land of bowmen! seed of those who scorn’d

To stoop the neck to wide imperial Rome —

Oh, dearest half of Albion sea walled!

Albania (1737).

“I have been devising a mode,” said the well meaning provost, “by which I may make you both secure for a week or two from the malice of your enemies, when I have little doubt I may see a changed world at court. But that I may the better judge what is to be done, tell me frankly, Simon, the nature of your connexion with Gilchrist MacIan, which leads you to repose such implicit confidence in him. You are a close observer of the rules of the city, and are aware of the severe penalties which they denounce against such burghers as have covine and alliance with the Highland clans.”

“True, my lord; but it is also known to you that our craft, working in skins of cattle, stags, and every other description of hides, have a privilege, and are allowed to transact with those Highlanders, as with the men who can most readily supply us with the means of conducting our trade, to the great profit of the burgh. Thus it hath chanced with me to have great dealings with these men; and I can take it on my salvation, that you nowhere find more just and honourable traffickers, or by whom a man may more easily make an honest penny. I have made in my day several distant journeys into the far Highlands, upon the faith of their chiefs; nor did I ever meet with a people more true to their word, when you can once prevail upon them to plight it in your behalf. And as for the Highland chief, Gilchrist MacIan, saving that he is hasty in homicide and fire raising towards those with whom he hath deadly feud, I have nowhere seen a man who walketh a more just and upright path.”

“It is more than ever I heard before,” said Sir Patrick Charteris. “Yet I have known something of the Highland runagates too.”

“They show another favour, and a very different one, to their friends than to their enemies, as your lordship shall understand,” said the glover. “However, be that as it may, it chanced me to serve Gilchrist MacIan in a high matter. It is now about eighteen years since, that it chanced, the Clan Quhele and Clan Chattan being at feud, as indeed they are seldom at peace, the former sustained such a defeat as well nigh extirpated the family of their chief MacIan. Seven of his sons were slain in battle and after it, himself put to flight, and his castle taken and given to the flames. His wife, then near the time of giving birth to an infant, fled into the forest, attended by one faithful servant and his daughter. Here, in sorrow and care enough, she gave birth to a boy; and as the misery of the mother’s condition rendered her little able to suckle the infant, he was nursed with the milk of a doe, which the forester who attended her contrived to take alive in a snare. It was not many months afterwards that, in a second encounter of these fierce clans, MacIan defeated his enemies in his turn, and regained possession of the district which he had lost. It was with unexpected rapture that he found his wife and child were in existence, having never expected to see more of them than the bleached bones, from which the wolves and wildcats had eaten the flesh.

“But a strong and prevailing prejudice, such as is often entertained by these wild people, prevented their chief from enjoying the full happiness arising from having thus regained his only son in safety. An ancient prophecy was current among them, that the power of the tribe should fall by means of a boy born under a bush of holly and suckled by a white doe. The circumstance, unfortunately for the chief, tallied exactly with the birth of the only child which remained to him, and it was demanded of him by the elders of the clan, that the boy should be either put to death or at least removed from the dominions of the tribe and brought up in obscurity. Gilchrist MacIan was obliged to consent and having made choice of the latter proposal, the child, under the name of Conachar, was brought up in my family, with the purpose, as was at first intended, of concealing from him all knowledge who or what he was, or of his pretensions to authority over a numerous and warlike people. But, as years rolled on, the elders of the tribe, who had exerted so much authority, were removed by death, or rendered incapable of interfering in the public affairs by age; while, on the other hand, the influence of Gilchrist MacIan was increased by his successful struggles against the Clan Chattan, in which he restored the equality betwixt the two contending confederacies, which had existed before the calamitous defeat of which I told your honour. Feeling himself thus firmly seated, he naturally became desirous to bring home his only son to his bosom and family; and for that purpose caused me to send the young Conachar, as he was called, more than once to the Highlands. He was a youth expressly made, by his form and gallantry of bearing, to gain a father’s heart. At length, I suppose the lad either guessed the secret of his birth or something of it was communicated to him; and the disgust which the paughty Hieland varlet had always shown for my honest trade became more manifest; so that I dared not so much as lay my staff over his costard, for fear of receiving a stab with a dirk, as an answer in Gaelic to a Saxon remark. It was then that I wished to be well rid of him, the rather that he showed so much devotion to Catharine, who, forsooth, set herself up to wash the Ethiopian, and teach a wild Hielandmnan mercy and morals. She knows herself how it ended.”

“Nay, my father,” said Catharine, “it was surely but a point of charity to snatch the brand from the burning.”

“But a small point of wisdom,” said her father, “to risk the burning of your own fingers for such an end. What says my lord to the matter?”

“My lord would not offend the Fair Maid of Perth,” said Sir Patrick; “and he knows well the purity and truth of her mind. And yet I must needs say that, had this nursling of the doe been shrivelled, haggard, cross made, and red haired, like some Highlanders I have known, I question if the Fair Maiden of Perth would have bestowed so much zeal upon his conversion; and if Catharine had been as aged, wrinkled, and bent by years as the old woman that opened the door for me this morning, I would wager my gold spurs against a pair of Highland brogues that this wild roebuck would never have listened to a second lecture. You laugh, glover, and Catharine blushes a blush of anger. Let it pass, it is the way of the world.”

“The way in which the men of the world esteem their neighbours, my lord,” answered Catharine, with some spirit.

“Nay, fair saint, forgive a jest,” said the knight; “and thou, Simon, tell us how this tale ended — with Conachar’s escape to the Highlands, I suppose?”

“With his return thither,” said the glover. “There was, for some two or three years, a fellow about Perth, a sort of messenger, who came and went under divers pretences, but was, in fact, the means of communication between Gilchrist MacIan and his son, young Conachar, or, as he is now called, Hector. From this gillie I learned, in general, that the banishment of the dault an neigh dheil, or foster child of the white doe, was again brought under consideration of the tribe. His foster father, Torquil of the Oak, the old forester, appeared with eight sons, the finest men of the clan, and demanded that the doom of banishment should be revoked. He spoke with the greater authority, as he was himself taishatar, or a seer, and supposed to have communication with the invisible world. He affirmed that he had performed a magical ceremony, termed tine egan, by which he evoked a fiend, from whom he extorted a confession that Conachar, now called Eachin, or Hector, MacIan, was the only man in the approaching combat between the two hostile clans who should come off without blood or blemish. Hence Torquil of the Oak argued that the presence of the fated person was necessary to ensure the victory. ‘So much I am possessed of this,’ said the forester, ‘that, unless Eachin fight in his place in the ranks of the Clan Quhele, neither I, his foster father, nor any of my eight sons will lift a weapon in the quarrel.’

“This speech was received with much alarm; for the defection of nine men, the stoutest of their tribe, would be a serious blow, more especially if the combat, as begins to be rumoured, should be decided by a small number from each side. The ancient superstition concerning the foster son of the white doe was counterbalanced by a new and later prejudice, and the father took the opportunity of presenting to the clan his long hidden son, whose youthful, but handsome and animated, countenance, haughty carriage, and active limbs excited the admiration of the clansmen, who joyfully received him as the heir and descendant of their chief, notwithstanding the ominous presage attending his birth and nurture.

“From this tale, my lord,” continued Simon Glover, “your lordship may easily conceive why I myself should be secure of a good reception among the Clan Quhele; and you may also have reason to judge that it would be very rash in me to carry Catharine thither. And this, noble lord, is the heaviest of my troubles.”

“We shall lighten the load, then,” said Sir Patrick; “and, good glover, I will take risk for thee and this damsel. My alliance with the Douglas gives me some interest with Marjory, Duchess of Rothsay, his daughter, the neglected wife of our wilful Prince. Rely on it, good glover, that in her retinue thy daughter will be as secure as in a fenced castle. The Duchess keeps house now at Falkland, a castle which the Duke of Albany, to whom it belongs, has lent to her for her accommodation. I cannot promise you pleasure, Fair Maiden; for the Duchess Marjory of Rothsay is unfortunate, and therefore splenetic, haughty, and overbearing; conscious of the want of attractive qualities, therefore jealous of those women who possess them. But she is firm in faith and noble in spirit, and would fling Pope or prelate into the ditch of her castle who should come to arrest any one under her protection. You will therefore have absolute safety, though you may lack comfort.”

“I have no title to more,” said Catharine; “and deeply do I feel the kindness that is willing to secure me such honourable protection. If she be haughty, I will remember she is a Douglas, and hath right, as being such, to entertain as much pride as may become a mortal; if she be fretful, I will recollect that she is unfortunate, and if she be unreasonably captious, I will not forget that she is my protectress. Heed no longer for me, my lord, when you have placed me under the noble lady’s charge. But my poor father, to be exposed amongst these wild and dangerous people!”

“Think not of that, Catharine,” said the glover: “I am as familiar with brogues and bracken as if I had worn them myself. I have only to fear that the decisive battle may be fought before I can leave this country; and if the clan Quhele lose the combat, I may suffer by the ruin of my protectors.”

“We must have that cared for,” said Sir Patrick: “rely on my looking out for your safety. But which party will carry the day, think you?”

“Frankly, my Lord Provost, I believe the Clan Chattan will have the worse: these nine children of the forest form a third nearly of the band surrounding the chief of Clan Quhele, and are redoubted champions.”

“And your apprentice, will he stand to it, thinkest thou?”

“He is hot as fire, Sir Patrick,” answered the glover; “but he is also unstable as water. Nevertheless, if he is spared, he seems likely to be one day a brave man.”

“But, as now, he has some of the white doe’s milk still lurking about his liver, ha, Simon?”

“He has little experience, my lord,” said the glover, “and I need not tell an honoured warrior like yourself that danger must be familiar to us ere we can dally with it like a mistress.”

This conversation brought them speedily to the Castle of Kinfauns, where, after a short refreshment, it was necessary that the father and the daughter should part, in order to seek their respective places of refuge. It was then first, as she saw that her father’s anxiety on her account had drowned all recollections of his friend, that Catharine dropped, as if in a dream, the name of “Henry Gow.”

“True — most true,” continued her father; “we must possess him of our purposes.”

“Leave that to me,” said Sir Patrick. “I will not trust to a messenger, nor will I send a letter, because, if I could write one, I think he could not read it. He will suffer anxiety in the mean while, but I will ride to Perth tomorrow by times and acquaint him with your designs.”

The time of separation now approached. It was a bitter moment, but the manly character of the old burgher, and the devout resignation of Catharine to the will of Providence made it lighter than might have been expected. The good knight hurried the departure of the burgess, but in the kindest manner; and even went so far as to offer him some gold pieces in loan, which might, where specie was so scarce, be considered as the ne plus ultra of regard. The glover, however, assured him he was amply provided, and departed on his journey in a northwesterly direction. The hospitable protection of Sir Patrick Charteris was no less manifested towards his fair guest. She was placed under the charge of a duenna who managed the good knight’s household, and was compelled to remain several days in Kinfauns, owing to the obstacles and delays interposed by a Tay boatman, named Kitt Henshaw, to whose charge she was to be committed, and whom the provost highly trusted.

Thus were severed the child and parent in a moment of great danger and difficulty, much augmented by circumstances of which they were then ignorant, and which seemed greatly to diminish any chance of safety that remained for them.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00