Sergeant More M’Alpin was, during his residence among us, one of the most honoured inhabitants of Gandercleugh. No one thought of disputing his title to the great leathern chair on the “cosiest side of the chimney,” in the common room of the Wallace Arms, on a Saturday evening. No less would our sexton, John Duirward, have held it an unlicensed intrusion, to suffer any one to induct himself into the corner of the left-hand pew nearest to the pulpit, which the Sergeant regularly occupied on Sundays. There he sat, his blue invalid uniform brushed with the most scrupulous accuracy. Two medals of merit displayed at his button-hole, as well as the empty sleeve which should have been occupied by his right arm, bore evidence of his hard and honourable service. His weatherbeaten features, his grey hair tied in a thin queue in the military fashion of former days, and the right side of his head a little turned up, the better to catch the sound of the clergyman’s voice, were all marks of his profession and infirmities. Beside him sat his sister Janet, a little neat old woman, with a Highland curch and tartan plaid, watching the very looks of her brother, to her the greatest man upon earth, and actively looking out for him, in his silver-clasped Bible, the texts which the minister quoted or expounded.
I believe it was the respect that was universally paid to this worthy veteran by all ranks in Gandercleugh which induced him to choose our village for his residence, for such was by no means his original intention.
He had risen to the rank of sergeant-major of artillery, by hard service in various quarters of the world, and was reckoned one of the most tried and trusty men of the Scotch Train. A ball, which shattered his arm in a peninsular campaign, at length procured him an honourable discharge. with an allowance from Chelsea, and a handsome gratuity from the patriotic fund. Moreover, Sergeant More M’Alpin had been prudent as well as valiant; and, from prize-money and savings, had become master of a small sum in the three per cent consols.
He retired with the purpose of enjoying this income in the wild Highland glen, in which, when a boy, he had herded black cattle and goats, ere the roll of the drum had made him cock his bonnet an inch higher, and follow its music for nearly forty years. To his recollection, this retired spot was unparalleled in beauty by the richest scenes he had visited in his wanderings. Even the Happy Valley of Rasselas would have sunk into nothing upon the comparison. He came — he revisited the loved scene; it was but a sterile glen, surrounded with rude crags, and traversed by a northern torrent. This was not the worst. The fires had been quenched upon thirty hearths — of the cottage of his fathers he could but distinguish a few rude stones — the language was almost extinguished — the ancient race from which he boasted his descent had found a refuge beyond the Atlantic. One southland farmer, three grey-plaided shepherds, and six dogs, now tenanted the whole glen, which in his youth had maintained, in content, if not in competence, upwards of two hundred inhabitants.
In the house of the new tenant, Sergeant M’Alpin found, however, an unexpected source of pleasure, and a means of employing his social affections. His sister Janet had fortunately entertained so strong a persuasion that her brother would one day return, that she had refused to accompany her kinsfolk upon their emigration. Nay, she had consented, though not without a feeling of degradation, to take service with the intruding Lowlander, who, though a Saxon, she said, had proved a kind man to her. This unexpected meeting with his sister seemed a cure for all the disappointments which it had been Sergeant More’s lot to encounter, although it was not without a reluctant tear that he heard told, as a Highland woman alone could ten it, the story of the expatriation of his kinsmen.
She narrated at great length the vain offers they had made of advanced rent, the payment of which must have reduced them to the extremity of poverty, which they were yet contented to face, for permission to live and die on their native soil. Nor did Janet forget the portents which had announced the departure of the Celtic race, and the arrival of the strangers. For two years previous to the emigration, when the night wind howled dawn the pass of Balachra, its notes were distinctly modelled to the tune of “HA TIL MI TULIDH” (we return no more), with which the emigrants usually bid farewell to their native shores. The uncouth cries of the Southland shepherds, and the barking of their dogs, were often heard in the midst of the hills long before their actual arrival. A bard, the last of his race, had commemorated the expulsion of the natives of the glen in a tune, which brought tears into the aged eyes of the veteran, and of which the first stanza may be thus rendered:—
Woe, woe, son of the Lowlander,
Why wilt thou leave thine own bonny Border?
Why comes thou hither, disturbing the Highlander,
Wasting the glen that was once in fair order?
What added to Sergeant More M’Alpin’s distress upon the occasion was, that the chief by whom this change had been effected, was, by tradition and common opinion, held to represent the ancient leaders and fathers of the expelled fugitives; and it had hitherto been one of Sergeant More’s principal subjects of pride to prove, by genealogical deduction, in what degree of kindred he stood to this personage. A woful change was now wrought in his sentiments towards him.
“I cannot curse him,” he said, as he rose and strode through the room, when Janet’s narrative was finished —“I will not curse him; he is the descendant and representative of my fathers. But never shall mortal man hear me name his name again.” And he kept his word; for, until his dying day, no man heard him mention his selfish and hard-hearted chieftain.
After giving a day to sad recollections, the hardy spirit which had carried him through so many dangers, manned the Sergeant’s bosom against this cruel disappointment. “He would go,” he said, “to Canada to his kinsfolk, where they had named a Transatlantic valley after the glen of their fathers. Janet,” he said, “should kilt her coats like a leaguer lady; d — n the distance! it was a flea’s leap to the voyages and marches he had made on a slighter occasion.”
With this purpose he left the Highlands, and came with his sister as far as Gandercleugh, on his way to Glasgow, to take a passage to Canada. But winter was now set in, and as he thought it advisable to wait for a spring passage, when the St. Lawrence should be open, he settled among us for the few months of his stay in Britain. As we said before, the respectable old man met with deference and attention from all ranks of society; and when spring returned, he was so satisfied with his quarters, that he did not renew the purpose of his voyage. Janet was afraid of the sea, and he himself felt the infirmities of age and hard service more than he had at first expected. And, as he confessed to the clergyman, and my worthy principal, Mr. Cleishbotham, “it was better staying with kend friends, than going farther, and faring worse.”
He therefore established himself and his domicile at Gandercleugh, to the great satisfaction, as we have already said, of all its inhabitants, to whom he became, in respect of military intelligence, and able commentaries upon the newspapers, gazettes, and bulletins, a very oracle, explanatory of all martial events, past, present, or to come.
It is true, the Sergeant had his inconsistencies. He was a steady jacobite, his father and his four uncles having been out in the forty-five; but he was a no less steady adherent of King George, in whose service he had made his little fortune, and lost three brothers; so that you were in equal danger to displease him, in terming Prince Charles, the Pretender, or by saying anything derogatory to the dignity of King George. Further, it must not be denied, that when the day of receiving his dividends came round, the Sergeant was apt to tarry longer at the Wallace Arms of an evening, than was consistent with strict temperance, or indeed with his worldly interest; for upon these occasions, his compotators sometimes contrived to flatter his partialities by singing jacobite songs, and drinking confusion to Bonaparte, and the health of the Duke of Wellington, until the Sergeant was not only flattered into paying the whole reckoning, but occasionally induced to lend small sums to his interested companions. After such sprays, as he called them, were over, and his temper once more cool, he seldom failed to thank God, and the Duke of York, who had made it much more difficult for an old soldier to ruin himself by his folly, than had been the case in his younger days.
It was not on such occasions that I made a part of Sergeant More M’Alpin’s society. But often, when my leisure would permit, I used to seek him, on what he called his morning and evening parade, on which, when the weather was fair, he appeared as regularly as if summoned by tuck of drum. His morning walk was beneath the elms in the churchyard; “for death,” he said, “had been his next-door neighbour for so many years, that he had no apology for dropping the acquaintance.” His evening promenade was on the bleaching-green by the river-side, where he was sometimes to be seen on an open bench, with spectacles on nose, conning over the newspapers to a circle of village politicians, explaining military terms, and aiding the comprehension of his hearers by lines drawn on the ground with the end of his rattan. On other occasions, he was surrounded by a bevy of school-boys, whom he sometimes drilled to the manual, and sometimes, with less approbation on the part of their parents, instructed in the mystery of artificial fire-works; for in the case of public rejoicings, the Sergeant was pyrotechnist (as the Encyclopedia calls it) to the village of Gandercleugh.
It was in his morning walk that I most frequently met with the veteran. And I can hardly yet look upon the village footpath, overshadowed by the row of lofty elms, without thinking I see his upright form advancing towards me with measured step, and his cane advanced, ready to pay me the military salute — but he is dead, and sleeps with his faithful Janet, under the third of those very trees, counting from the stile at the west corner of the churchyard.
The delight which I had in Sergeant M’Alpin’s conversation, related not only to his own adventures, of which he had encountered many in the course of a wandering life, but also to his recollection of numerous Highland traditions, in which his youth had been instructed by his parents, and of which he would in after life have deemed it a kind of heresy to question the authenticity. Many of these belonged to the wars of Montrose, in which some of the Sergeant’s ancestry had, it seems, taken a distinguished part. It has happened, that, although these civil commotions reflect the highest honour upon the Highlanders, being indeed the first occasion upon which they showed themselves superior, or even equal to their Low-country neighbours in military encounters, they have been less commemorated among them than any one would have expected, judging from the abundance of traditions which they have preserved upon less interesting subjects. It was, therefore, with great pleasure, that I extracted from my military friend some curious particulars respecting that time; they are mixed with that measure of the wild and wonderful which belongs to the period and the narrator, but which I do not in the least object to the reader’s treating with disbelief, providing he will be so good as to give implicit credit to the natural events of the story, which, like all those which I have had the honour to put under his notice, actually rest upon a basis of truth.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00