By Michael Bloor
(first published Feb 6th 2018, in The Copperfield Review)
January 1st, 1781
I do not fully know my reasons for setting down this record of past events. I have studied the works my great contemporary, David Hume, and I therefore no longer cleave to the kirk and to the faith of my fathers. Yet the purging of what others call my soul, penitence, and the striving for a moral life, they all remain a habit with me. Furthermore, I have a strong presentiment that I shall not live out this winter. These days of bitter chill may be my last opportunity to reveal my hidden crime and to state my case, not to the Maker in whom I no longer believe, but perhaps to my better self – the self who always seeks but never finds, who can carefully shape a principle but cannot always live by it. If others should find this manuscript after I am dust, may they read it and know that even a puir body can try to do his duty.
I have taught the school in the parish of Inverallan for thirty seven years and I trust I have discharged that duty honourably, though no Inverallan weaver’s or ploughman’s bairn has joined the ranks of David Hume, Adam Smith, William Robertson, and William Fergusson – the Philosopher-Kings of Scotland and all Europe. However, the Inverallan dominie has a further duty yet – a duty greater, I believe, than that of schooling the Inverallan bairns – I refer to my duty as Keeper of the Books. A hundred years since, the Inverallan laird bequeathed his library of two hundred volumes (together with a respectable sum for their upkeep) as a free library to all men and women who wished to borrow them. When the old minister, Mr MacKellar, informed me of my appointment and showed me the library that was to be in my charge, I could conceive of no duty under the sun that could be more pleasurable. I was not to ken then the rue that would come to me.
In the early years of my charge, Inverallan and the surrounding parishes were in a sorry state. The laird had declared for Prince Charles Stuart, and when the laird is for a cause then the tenants have little choice but to follow. Two score of men had marched off with the laird, my elder brother Alexander among them. Only three lads limped home. At first, we had good news of Alexander. It seemed that he had distinguished himself in the field at Preston Pans and, when the laird fell ill and was left behind in Edinburgh, Alexander took charge of the laird’s men on the march into England. On the retreat from Derby, Alexander was detailed to be part of the garrison the Prince left in Carlisle. After that we heard nothing. Cumberland’s army marched through our parish on their way to Culloden: they fired the laird’s castle and drove off all our cattle and our remaining horses.
It was in February 1752, a time of want and bitter cold, that I had more news. In the late evening there was a tapping at my window, but the pane was so frosted over that I could not see out. I took up my lantern and opened the door. A tall figure, muffled in a cloak stood before me. There was a bright moon, but his face was shadowed by his hat.
‘They tell me our parents are both dead.’ It was Alexander. I dropped the lantern; we embraced.
I fed him some porridge and spirits and studied him as he ate and drank. To my surprise, he seemed hardly changed, for all his seven-year absence. Only his rich, travel-stained clothes spoke of a difference. He told me bits and pieces of his story: it seemed that in the ’45 several men had died at his hands; more recently, he been in France in the service of the Stuarts, but Scots were no longer welcome there; he had used the last of his money to pay the ‘freetraders’ (as our smugglers are commonly called) to land him near Kirkcaldy; he had travelled to Inverallan only by night, there being a price on his head. But rather than talk over-much about himself, he had the charming ability to draw out the talk of others:
‘Well, Jamie lad, you’re quite the scholar now. I see on the table that “Lock’s Works” is your present study eh?’
‘Philosophy is only one of the subjects to be found in The Free Library, Sandy. There are books on geography, history, theology, and mathematics, translations of Ovid and Virgil, maps, collections of sermons…’
‘Yon is a strange conceit, is it not? to make a pile of your books, some of them doubtless worth a year of our faither’s labour. And then offer them up to any passin’ ploughboy that has a fancy for them?’
‘Each ploughboy, as you put it, must sign for each volume that he borrows. But Sandy, I don’t think you’ve grasped the wonder of the thing. They come here from their fermtouns and weavers’ cottages, limbs stiff after a hard day’s labour, walking miles through the sleet and the glaur. They carry back with them Shakespeare’s Sonnets to read by the ill light of their cruisie lamps. And that is their taste of Rhenish wine and honey cakes, their bed of goose down, their transport to Samarkand. With a book in his chapped hand, every ploughboy is an equal of the Duke of Argyll and the Marquis of Breadalbane. This free library is a growing light in a dark world, Sandy.’
‘Pish, Jamie. Your ploughboy is a duke’s equal (mention not that damned Argyll to me) in the alehouse, wi’ a tankard in his hand and a maid on his knee. What need of books, when you’ve left the schoolroom?’
In my eagerness to convince Alexander, I fetched the Borrower’s Register to show him. As he turned the pages, he murmured: ‘Well, well, Andra Comrie borrows Abercrombie’s Sermons. I thought him dead on the field at Falkirk.’
Seizing on this sign of interest, I lent over his shoulder to point out one of old Peter Reid’s borrowings. Alexander frowned: ‘I never marked Auld Peter as a scholar, Jamie. Does he have a daughter or a granddaughter who would read to him?’
‘He died last Lammas, Sandy and he’d lived alone up at Loanhead these four years. It’s my guess that the old man sought and loved the nearness of books. Perhaps his was the delight of the adventurer who trembles at the threshold of the treasure chamber…’
Alexander snorted, but I persisted – a man who lives too much alone with his thoughts: ‘I fancy that old Peter’s pleasure in his borrowings is like my pleasure in this library. I am surrounded by more books than I can ever read, surrounded by more knowledge than I can ever glean, more wisdom than I can guess at. Surrounded thus, I’m not daunted, I tremble with pleasure.’
I paused, embarrassed. Alexander gave me a long look and spoke softly: ‘Jamie, I have need to borrow a pile of your books… Indefinitely.’ I stared. ‘There’s a bounty on my head. I know of a vessel at the Broomielaw in Glasgow that will carry me to a new life in the Carolinas. For a price. Your books are as good as ready currency.’
My elder brother faded before my eyes and a simulacrum took his place. The brawling spirited lad I had idolised, and run after, was vanished like snow off a dyke. I recalled my mother’s sorrowing judgement: that Alexander was like a cherry, sweet to taste but with a stone at his centre. Before me was the callous gallant who had left his parents to fret and go to their graves thinking him dead on a battlefield, who had fawned and intrigued for place and favour in foreign courts, and who had only returned briefly to his native Scotland to profit from, and ruin, his brother’s position of trust. Worst yet, he would pillage the free library – the library that is, and should remain, a hope and consolation in a wretched world.
Every schoolroom is a stage for the dominie to strut and strike a pose. It was now my turn to dissemble and fall in with Alexander’s plans. We made up his bed, despite his faint protestations (‘I’m an old campaigner, Jamie – the heather has oft times been bed enough for me’) and fixed that he would stay hidden with me the next day, departing in the dusk with his booty of sixteen books (more than he needed for his fare, I’ll warrant).
That next day, I watched him take the less-frequented moorland road. I marvelled at how he hardly bent his back, shouldering the coarse linen sack of books. When he was past the castle ruins, I grabbed my hat and walked over to the manse, to beg the loan of the minister’s mare (I was still a communicant in those days and a member of the kirk session). I then took the military road to Stirling. I had slow progress over the half-frozen snow and dawn was breaking when I reached Stirling Brig. Mares’ tails of mist were twisting over the River Forth, which Alexander had to cross to gain the Glasgow road. I had the Brig sentry call up the Sheriff’s Officer, an old pupil of mine, to whom (in confidence) I told my tale.
After resting the horse, I turned for home and only heard the end of the story a week later. Samuel Haldane, the Sheriff’s Officer, came by to return the linen bag of books. I sat him down at the fireside and poured him a glass. He told me that Alexander, as he’d surmised, had been too canny to try to cross the brig: Haldane had put a concealed watch on the upstream ford and his men had taken Alexander there by surprise. However, as the party were marching back to Stirling, Alexander had slashed at one man with a concealed dirk, broken away and ran for the river. Whether the pursuers’ musketry had been successful, or the cold of the river had overcome Alexander, Haldane was unable to say, but Alexander’s body was seen to be borne away by the current, down to the sea.
Haldane could see that his news had pierced me. He rose and laid a hand on my shoulder: ‘Mr Robertson, your brother Alexander was well-kent in all this countryside from Stirling to Crieff, even before The Rebellion. He was too wild a man for these New Times.’
Though Haldane’s words were some comfort to me, mine is nevertheless the sin of Cain. But I did not commit fratricide merely to repossess a bag of books. Rather, I would claim that I sinned for a great principle, the principle of free knowledge. I have served that principle (not always constantly, but as best I can) for thirty seven years. And, if I could still pray, I would pray that the light of Inverallan library would shine out across all Scotland and the whole wide world.