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San Cassimally

Scottish-Mauritian novelist and playwright.

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Hugh Breac Mackenzie greeted the news with mixed feelings, but he had always wanted to become a father. His own father had provided him with a role model, in the sense that he knew that if he did the opposite of what Da did, he would be bound to be a great father. Mam said not to be too harsh on the old sot, that he was not born a drunk and that all men turned to the devil drink when they found that God sided with the lairds. He was an intelligent man who had read books, she reminded him, and spoke English like them folks doon sooth. She was as upright a woman as ever breathed the cold Highland air, but whilst she knew what motivated the greedy lairds, she could not understand the mind of God. How could a just and loving God allow so much misery on His earth? She went to church like everybody else only because she hated to have fingers pointed at her. She had heard stories of women being burnt as witches for much less, but her heart was never in it. She liked Father Anthony Ross as a man but only because he was the son of Molly Ross, a good childhood friend. She had known Anthony as a bairn, and had always liked his cheerful disposition and his ready laughter. He let her air her feelings about “your God” when there were no strangers around. The priest knew that Mrs Mackenzie meant every word she said, but cleverly made as if it was all banter and laughed it off, grateful that the woman was intelligent enough not to put him on the spot when in company. He tut tutted with feigned severity and winked at her as they parted. Having made her point, she was willing to leave it at that.

‘No, Martha, I am truly delighted,’ Hugh assured his wife when she told him that she suspected that she might be with child. It’s probably the wrong time, the expectant mother said, as if to excuse herself. For the likes of them, Hugh mused, could there ever be a right time? ‘No, lassie,’ he said, ‘I’ve always wanted a bairn in the house, rest assured, we will find the means to feed him.’ She had laughed and said how did he know it was going to be a he. He had protested, a wee girl would be just as good. Hugh was as hardworking and upright a man as walked the rugged rocky glens of Strathrusdale. He had been brought up by his no-nonsense mother Mhairi after his father Kenneth had walked out and disappeared into the Highland mist. In spite of her ambivalence, she had encouraged Hugh to go to Father Ross and learn the 3 R’s, with a handful of other ragamuffins of the glen, and the boy seemed to delight in it. She had some reservations about the bible the man of cloth allowed the boy to take home sometimes, but knew that it was his only chance of improving his reading skill. Anyway, she never failed to air her views about Father Ross’s so-called all-loving and omnipotent God to the boy, just to provide a balanced view.

It was a great source of joy to Hugh that his formidable mother and his meek Martha, who was all sweetness and light, got on so well. Not that Mam kept her criticisms of what she saw as the failings of the younger woman to herself. She was wanting in organisational skills, used too much soap when she did the laundry, spilled too much oatmeal when she made bread, but Martha shrugged these pinpricks off because she knew the old lady meant well, and hardly gave them any thought. Mam would often think that she should keep her thoughts to herself, but although she resolved to do this, she always forgot herself when she saw what she thought was a weakness in the daughter-in-law. When Hugh teased his wife about the drubbing she endured at the hands of the old dear, she would only smile and say, ‘If you think that was a drubbing, Hugh Breac Mackenzie, you should listen to what my Mam says to oor Rabbie’s wife.’

Photo Credit: CC-BY Henry Hemming

The granny-to-be was overjoyed at the news of the new addition, but in keeping with her no-nonsense nature, her first reaction was, ‘What? Another mouth to feed!’ Still she shook her head and smiled, saying, Father Ross’s God will provide. Then she pursed her lips and frowned for a bit, saying, ‘It’s all right for the wean to call me Granny when she begins to speak, but you are not to call me anything but Mam, I am not your granny, you hear? Och, and another thing, I hate baby talk… yup yup glig glig choop choop…’ Hugh winked at Martha.

He whistled a tuneless and indeterminate air as he went out to collect Big Eyes and Sniffer, from their pasture. They were his lifeline, these two black cows, generous with their milk which provided for the family, when traded for oat and turnips with other cotters. Besides there was an arrangement whereby some of the women brought her their share of milk and Mam made butter which she took to the market in Boath every Friday.

Ever since the Cameron brothers of Lochaber had rented a massive stretch of land from Sir Hector Munro, the crofters knew that dark clouds were gathering. The brothers began by moving their sheep to Culcairn, and ordering the tenants to move out. Then seemingly relenting they changed their minds but demanded a big increase in rent instead. Soon after, came the coup de grace: they were limiting the available pasture to the tenants on pain of having their cattle poinded if they strayed outside the permitted area. Life had taken a turn for the worse. So far Hugh had escaped the fate of poor John Aird, whose cattle had ventured on Cameron land, and who had to pay fines of seventeen shillings, a sum which exceeded what the poor man made in two weeks. He was a good friend, John, and whenever Hugh took his cows whoring, as John said, he would laugh and say it was for him to pay Hugh, and not the other way round. Why Hugh, he would say, the whores of Edinburgh would charge less, my Jupiter had his wicked ways with your Big Eyes, and now you are paying me! Not that the God-fearing and virtuous John would know anything about the whores of Edinburgh. In any case he had never even set foot in that wicked city. He loved using bad words as a way of compensating for his sedate and unblemished life.

Hugh had never been entirely sure of where to stand in the controversy between Mam and Father Ross. Sometimes he found it expedient to believe in a benevolent God watching over His people. Certainly that afternoon, the heart of the father-to-be ringing with joyful little bells that he believed he could hear as he went to meet his two lovely cows, he believed in Him with all the fibres in his body. Yes, God would see to it that the wee boy would come out healthy, that dear sweet Martha would not suffer too much, that by the time the boy had become a strapping young man, the world would be a better place. It was bound to be. Father Ross often said that there were enlightened voices making themselves heard these days, which were bound to put right the iniquities on this earth. He only went to Sunday Mass in Boath once in a while, and only to placate Martha anyway. Mam said that if God was so kind and just, why would he need to be begged favours? Wouldn’t he provide for his creatures without asking?

‘God knows,’ she said laughing at herself for taking His name, ‘when you were a helpless wee bairn, you did not have to beg me to give you what was in my power to give you. I would steal to feed you, eggs and potatoes, turnips. I even used to milk the farmer’s cow behind his back for you. Why would God only help you if you begged him?’ Somehow, Hugh could not quite picture the dignified Mhairi Mackenzie furtively hiding behind a bush, bowl in hand, waiting for the farmer’s wife to be out of away so she could sneak into the stable to do some illegal milking.

John Aird was always only too willing to give them a seat on his cart, and Mary Aird was always happy to see her good friend Martha. It made him so happy to see the two girls laugh and exchange gossip, although these poor dears led such a humdrum existence that he could not imagine what they had to talk about. He felt so guilty about her having so little joy in her life. Next Sunday he would definitely go, and he would pray to the good Lord to see to it that his yet-to-be-born boy grow up healthy, and implore him that if he was ever minded to visit some ailment or misfortune on the boy, to direct his wrath against him instead. Why could he only contemplate having a boy? He must be careful not to air his preference in Martha’s hearing. It was selfish, but he could not control his thoughts. It was not altogether selfishness, he was sure of that, for if anything should happen to him, a boy would be more able to look after his mother than a girl. No doubt Martha would be dreaming of a little girl, and he must do nothing to make her feel bad if it was a girl, he must watch his words. To be sure, I would love my little girl just as wholeheartedly. Would I though? he wondered. From a distance he could see Loch Morie, and the shiny sheet of gold floating on its surface told him that the sun was going to set shortly, and he knew that he would soon reach the place where he had left the cows to roam in the morning. Sniffer! She made him smile, always lifting her head and sniffing disdainfully.

Photo Credit: by the author

He kept walking at a brisk rate, trampling over the heather, absently hitting small pebbles with his walking stick, making them fly. On an impulse he decided to do the hitting with the knobby end, tightened his grip, chose a nice round granite pebble at his feet, and raising the stick above his head, he let go with all his might. The contact was perfect, he thought, and to his amazement the stone rose up in the air as if it had wings and flew away in a curve, landing at a good distance from him. Nice little game this, I’ll teach the boy, he thought. Now where were Big Eyes and Sniffer? Where the hell were they? He began to fret a bit. Had they fallen into a crack somewhere? Into a bog? Suddenly it hit him like a cold blast in the face on a winter morning as one tentatively puts one’s head outside the bothie. The hard-hearted Cameron brothers! At first no one believed that they would have the nerve to turn their words into actions, but had they not poinded John Aird’s cattle? Where would he find the five shillings he would have to pay to get them released? Maybe as this was a first offence, Captain Cameron would let him off with a warning. With John they had been merciless though. Perhaps John had rubbed them the wrong way. He has a certain brusqueness that people in his position had better take great care to hide when dealing with the lairds and their henchmen. Hugh would keep his head down, explain that the cows had strayed inside the lairds’ enclosure by mistake, that he would make sure this would not happen again. Still, God knows they had grazed all the grass on the allowable pastures, it was hunger that drove them outside their borders. What would they feed on? The brothers were not going to make it easy for him, since it was clear as the Highland air on a sunny morning that they really wanted was to be rid of everybody. Where would he go? How was he to feed his family? What would the wee one eat?

The optimism of the morning was instantly washed away by a relentless tide of gloom. He could see no way out of his predicament. As he directed his steps towards the Camerons’ farm, despair had taken over completely, and the lump in his throat made it difficult for him to speak properly. He was greeted at the big iron door of the estate by Big Jim Davidson.

‘What are you doing here, Hughie? Do you want to be poinded too?’ And he burst out laughing.

‘What can you be meaning, Jimmy?’ Hugh said angrily. ‘Why talk about poinding? I left my cows in pastures agreed upon by contract.’

‘Ah, you must be thinking of the verbal contract between me and you. Don’t you know, Hughie boy, a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, wee pal.’ Big Jim guffawed aloud at the witticism, but recognising the pain he had caused, he relented.

‘It’s like this, Hughie, I was the one who settled this matter with you, but when I told the Captain he was reet furious. Why did you go and give those peasants so much leeway? he said. The land between the stream and crest is out of bounds for those ruffians under any circumstances, he said.’

‘But Jimmy, where would my cows go to drink? They-‘

‘I only carry out his orders, that’s what the captain said, Hughie.’

‘But that’s wickedness… a sin… shouldn’t be allowed…’ Hugh was now so confused that he could only mutter disjointed phrases.

‘Listen to me Hughie, why don’t you do what you should have done already? Leave the area, there is no future here for you, the brothers want yous all out and you know it. They’ve got the law on their side, they have all the power and you can’t do nought. Why do you think they decided to stop you men from watering your beasts? They want you oot.’ Although he had softened his tone, Hugh was mighty angry with him.

‘You’ve sold your soul to the devil Jimmy Davidson!’

‘Don’t be saying things like that, Hughie, I have a wife and bairns. I sold the only thing I had left, to feed them, man. Masel!’

Photo Credit: CC-BY scott1346

It was at that moment that Captain Allan Cameron appeared. He ignored Hugh completely and addressed himself to his man.

‘What’s happening Jim? Why are you not tending the new-born lambs?’

‘Why Captain sir, this man Mackenzie is complaining about his cows being poinded, Captain sir.’

‘Did you not tell him that his cows trespassed on enclosed pastures.’

‘That’s what I was explaining, Captain, sir.’

‘Captain Cameron, sir, we agreed… with Jimmy here… that the cows need access to water. It is against God’s laws to stop his creatures from drinking…’

‘Tell the man that I am not stopping his cows drinking, but they must not trespass on my land.’

‘But Captain, sir, it’s well nigh impossible for the beasts to get to the water sir, for them crags and sheer drops, unless they-‘

‘Tell the man that he should have thought of that when he refused my generous offer.’ Never once had the laird cast a glance at Hugh, and he found that attitude gross and insulting. Cameron then curtly turned away, playfully decapitating some marigolds with his whip, adding as an afterthought, ‘Tell him we do not mean to keep his cows, he can have them if he pays the usual fine, that’s seven shillings per cow.’

‘But I don’t even have seven pence Captain…’ wailed Hugh, but it is doubtful whether the man heard, and certain that, had he done so, he would have been delighted, in the knowledge that his ploy was working, for his ill-concealed aim was indeed to drive away all the crofters so he could bring in the more lucrative Cheviot sheep.

As Hugh descended the hillock, prey to the darkest thoughts, he was almost at touching distance to the men before he realised that John Aird and Alistair Mor Wallace were engaged in excited conversation underneath the big oak where they were sheltering from the rain, which in his agitated state Hugh had been unaware of. He noticed that the two men had glum faces too, and even before he heard a single word of what they were saying, he had gathered that they were in the same boat as him. Their cattle had also been poinded and for the same reason. In Aird’s case for the third time.

‘Are there no means of stopping them lairds riding roughshod over our needs?’ Wallace was saying.

‘It’s them and their kind that make the laws,’ said John Aird, ‘so who’s to stop them?’

‘Who’s to stop them, you ask?’ Hugh said in a booming voice which surprised himself. Then in a hoarse voice the words, ‘If we don’t, nobody else will!’ were heard. Hugh did not immediately recognise them as his own. Alistair Wallace looked at Hugh intently and nodded gravely.

‘Hughie, are you saying we should take the law unto our own hands?’ Hugh had not meant that, it was just an expression of despair, but that was how the seed for what was to happen in the following months saw the light of the day. After the connotation Wallace had put on the words of the father-to-be, the decision for action had become inexorable. It was like a rock balancing on the top of a snow covered cliff at the moment of thaw, nothing could prevent its plunge into the abyss below. With uncharacteristic bravado, he pursed his lips, lifted his nose slightly and assumed a harsh expression.

‘Aye, that’s what I was saying, Cousin Wallace, what else do you think I was meaning? We must indeed take the law unto our own hands.’

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