Last Game

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue12, September 2018)

There was a much-screened comedy sketch on British TV of a casting director for a ‘Tarzan’ film interviewing a hopping, one-legged applicant (played by Dudley Moore) for the lead part. The director says something like: ‘Your left leg would be great for the part. I’ve got nothing against your left leg. The trouble is, neither have you…’

That rather sums up my football skill-set: my right leg was effectively missing – I was hopelessly left-footed. I played for the Youth Club team on Saturday mornings. I sort-of-enjoyed it but, like a lot of stuff you do when you’re a child, I mainly turned up each week out of habit. Still, I might’ve stuck at it longer, if it hadn’t been for a Derbyshire Junior Cup-Tie we played. That game finished me.

We were drawn at home to a team from one of the mining villages. I’ll call ‘em ‘Bradgate Main’, just in case their Centre Half became a Queens Counsel when he left school. Our captain, Tony Mellors (centre-forward), was strutting about and holding forth, when he stopped in mid-sentence. We all turned to see what he was staring at: it was the Bradgate Main team – they’d arrived in a supporters’ bus! A double-decker. With scarves hanging out the windows! Unbelievable. Piggy Sowter (our left back) choked on his banana sandwich.

Their supporters, numbering at least a couple of dozen, started up a chant when Bradgate Main took to the field. A chant – unheard of! As they took up their positions for the kick-off, Bill Browning (inside left) muttered to me: ‘Bloody ‘ell. Look at the size of ‘em. They gotta be a couple of years older than us.’ Several of them looked to be fully grown. The centre half, in particular, must’ve been six foot, and hefty with it. He had one of those unintended, adolescent, whispy moustaches.

Five minutes in, Mellors and their centre half raced each other for a loose ball. There was a collision and Mellors stayed on the ground holding his ankle. The centre half trotted away from the resultant free kick with a secret smile. No substitutes back in 1961. Roy, the youth leader, examined Mellors’ ankle and switched him to the left wing – the traditional position for crippled passengers. Ordinarily, the switch would have been a source of quiet satisfaction to me. But not on this occasion. As I took Mellors’ place in the centre of the pitch, to await the free kick, the centre half towered over me. I felt his dog’s breath on my face as he whispered: ‘Burial or cremation, shit-face?’ Fortunately, the ball came nowhere near us. For the next five minutes, I wasn’t taking up positions so much as keeping out of the way.

Needless to say, the game was being played very largely in our half of the field. But although out-classed, we did have one secret weapon: our goalie, Pete Boulton, was a tremendous kicker of a dead ball. In those days, few thirteen year-olds, would have been able to lift that heavy leather ball past the halfway line. But Pete could do it with ease.

Eventually, we were awarded a goal kick. Pete raised both arms: his signal that he was going to slam it straight down the middle. Bradgate Main were unprepared. The goal kick soared over the halfway line. There were just me and Dog’s Breath underneath the ball, about twenty yards in. Dog’s Breath was a head taller than me: there was no chance of me being able to out-jump him. But I remembered a trick I’d seen Bill Curry, Derby’s centre forward, play on the colossus, Ron Yeats, Liverpool’s Scottish International Centre Half. As the ball plummeted down towards us, I sensed when Dog’s Breath was about to jump and backed into him. I caught him off-balance and he stumbled backward. I caught the ball on my foot (my left foot, of course) and flicked it first time over mine and Dog’s Breath’s left shoulder. I pivoted round him like he was a stone post, collected the loose ball and raced towards the goal, Dog’s Breath floundering in the middle distance.

The Bradgate goalie, startled out of his reverie, ran out to meet me. I shaped up to shoot and the goalie spread himself to make the save. But, instead of shooting, I took the ball round the goalie, spread-eagled on the ground, and simply side-footed it into the net (with my left foot). It was a sublime moment.

You know that phrase: the crowd went wild? Well, the Bradgate supporters gave that phrase a new twist: they were acting like a Wild West lynching-mob. As I trotted modestly back to the centre circle for the re-start, Dog’s Breath snarled: ‘I’m gonna rip your throat out.’

As a child, I was always sensitive to the moods of others. Suspecting that I might have become rather unpopular with the opposition, I thought it best to move out towards the left wing for a spell. Day-dreaming of succeeding Bill Curry in the Derby County attack, I was awakened from my reverie by a shout from Bill Browning: a loose ball was bouncing towards me and Bill was racing up-field looking for my pass. As I controlled the ball, I caught a glimpse of a Bradgate player bearing down on me. So I turned my back on him, shielding the ball while I measured the pass up to Bill.

Dog’s Breath slammed into my back like a runaway train. I was projected into the crowd of Bradgate supporters on the touchline. The force of the impact knocked all the breath out of me. I lay there, face-down on the muddy ground, unmoving, traumatised, arms out-stretched like a dead starfish. Then, in the meleé of crowding legs, someone stood hard on my hand.

It was a life-changing moment: by the time I’d struggled back upright, I’d decided to get a Saturday job.

A Misapprehension

By Michael Bloor

(first published in THE DRABBLE, Sept 7th 2018)

Beyond the barren rubble of an antique lava-flow, a herd of Icelandic ponies graze on rough pasturage among rashes and dwarf birch. A stallion sniffs the breeze; mares and foals snuffle among the grass and herbs. The stirring and shifting of their manes and tails seem all of a piece with the jagged mountain silhouettes on the horizon and the jumbled lava – a wild, young, restless country. I turn to Guðmundur: ‘Those horses … they’re almost an emblem of freedom.’

Guðmundur paused, smiled and shook his head: ‘My grandfather made his living selling them to work down the Scottish mines.’

The Long Watches of the Night

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Spelk Fiction, 25 Aug 2018)

The kirk was packed. Of course, there were the extended family and her university colleagues. But there were also many old friends from her student days and more friends and neighbours from the Ayrshire mining village where she’d been born and raised. At the meal afterwards, I found myself talking, first to her optician and then to her postman. As the minister — another old friend — said in her address, it seemed as if everyone she met had been touched by her warmth, her empathy, and her gentle humour.

Alan, Mary’s husband, had asked me to say a few words about her university career. I didn’t feel I could refuse. I’ve got up on my hind legs and said my piece in dozens of lecture theatres and conference halls over the years, but that speech was very tricky. Of course, it was easy enough to talk about her early achievements. There was the doctorate on the miners’ struggle to make pneumoconiosis officially designated as an industrial disease, eligible for compensation. And then there was her brilliant monograph on Abe Moffat, the great Scottish miners’ leader.

Where I found myself in difficulty was in describing her time as Head of the History Department, as this touched more on her personal qualities: her seeming ability to find a solution to every problem at a time of simultaneous budget cuts and mushrooming student numbers; her kindness to troubled students; and her capacity to successfully and craftily manage university staff, a task sometimes likened to herding cats. So caring and temperate were her managerial performances that one misogynist senior lecturer — now deceased — was heard to describe her as “a Mother Teresa” (and this from a man who had spoken of marriage as “a lifetime of lifting and replacing the toilet seat”).

That last aside had raised a few titters: nothing tickles the British Public more than lavatory humour. So I risked one of her jokes: “I’m all for combatting climate change and saving the planet, but the idea of recycled toilet paper is really disgusting.” That got a chuckle that rolled into a roar.

The laughter triggered the tears, tears of sorrow. Mary’s sister in the front row was crying so loudly that I’m sure she could be heard right at the back. Horrified, I felt my own tears stinging my eyes, but I managed to hold it together, draw my piece to a close and step down into the body of the kirk.

The rest of the service and the following meal passed somehow. People were kind about my address, but I just longed to get out the door …

I will always be grateful that, just a fortnight before her death, my dear Mary had promised that I would always be her love, though we could never be together. It was a relief to pull out of the carpark into the November dusk: a fugitive lover can never be mourned in public, only in the long watches of the night.

The Reliquary of St Maelrubha

Michael Bloor

(first published in Firewords Magazine, No.10, pp. 32-35, August 2018)

On this day, April the First in the year of Our Lord 1701, I, Alexander Muirkirk, Minister of the Parish of Maybole in the County of Ayr, am resolved to set down plainly the events that occurred at the Maybole kirk session on March 28th, events that (I freely admit it here) have been the cause of my great uneasiness of mind and a severe test of my faith. My goodwife, Janet, has suggested that I make this private record in the hope that, together with earnest prayer and scriptural study, careful recollection of these disturbing events may lead me once again to pastures green and quiet waters.

The kirk at Dunure, known as Kirkbride, is ruinous and so successive Maybole ministers of religion have had the additional charge of the souls of the folk of the fishertoun of Dunure for more than fifty years. It has been a difficult charge for me. Fishermen have the reputation of being unruly sectarians and those in Dunure are no exception: a number of them are said to be Quakers and very few attend communion. In recent years I have suffered much from gout and am accordingly rarely able to ride the seven rough miles over the Carrick Hills to require the Dunure folk to attend like decent Christians. The kirk session has been supinely unconcerned by these absentees: the kirk session elders (Maybole farmers, weavers and tanners) view the fishermen as a race apart. Sadly, my lord, the Earl of Cassilis (resident here in Maybole) has so little control over the fishermen that he has been unable even to prevent the recurrent pillage of building stone from his ancient ancestral seat, Dunure Castle.

Though the Quakers are a pestilential brood, they are not the worst of the Dunure fishing families: that abominable accolade rests on the shoulders of old Andra Kennedy, who has openly rejected Scotland’s Great Covenant with Our Maker. I suspect him of being a secret papist, a follower of the Whore of Rome. He is a man of some learning (his hovel above the shore at Drumbain contains his father’s library) and in the past I have striven with him in disputation, in the barren hope of bringing him to an understanding of the great truths in the Scriptures. Alas, I found him more interested in touring the Ayrshire markets and blowsy market taverns, where he ekes out a bare living performing conjuring tricks, reading palms, and forecasting the weather.

Last winter it came to my attention that, in his wanderings about the markets, he had been carrying with him a mysterious casket. Credulous folk would pay him a silver merk for the privilege of kissing the casket, which was supposed to have miraculous powers. No doubt the casket was supposed to contain some body parts (finger bones, say, or nail clippings) of a papist saint, the idolatrous worship of which has been condemned by the Kirk for nearly two hundred years. I raised this matter in the kirk session and was amazed to discover that several of the elders not only knew about the matter, but saw no harm in it. Watty McCrindle, indeed, spoke up in defence of this heathenish practice:

‘Aye, Minister. It’ll be the Reliquary of St Maelrubha that ye’re spierin’ aboot. The Reliquary is a bonnie thing o’ siller and Andra’s family has had the charge o’ it for many generations past. There’s nae harm in it: the case is the very opposite. My ain fayther cam back whale an’ sound frae Montrose’s Wars and swore he owed it all to kissin’ the casket afore he marched awa’.’

I had to speak at length to the session on the evils of idolatry and of all clownish rituals which claimed spiritual value in contrast to the redemptive power of the scriptures. Eventually, I won my point, though McCrindle and a few others did not show much evidence of altered convictions. And certain it was that the session took no action against Kennedy and his casket at that time.

However, on Tuesday last, the Good Lord delivered the idolater into the hands of the righteous. I was preparing a suitable address for the funeral of Willie Burness, a hopeless toper, when Janet burst in on my study to tell me that Andra Kennedy was at that moment in his cups at a tavern in our ain High Street. I marvelled at the swank of the man, to parade his papist tricks under our very noses, but I acted with celerity. I sent word with Jeannie, the kitchen maid, to my lord the Earl to dispatch his retainers to hold the man fast til the next kirk session meeting should consider his sins and provide for his just punishment and hoped-for future absolution.

At the next meeting (on the Thursday evening) I had the opportunity to meet the notorious Kennedy for the first time in several years. My gout was particularly troublesome that evening, but I was loath to postpone our meeting. Kennedy’s appearance at the kirk session surprised me: for someone whose occupation was near-indistinguishable from that of a travelling tinker, he was carefully dressed, albeit in clothes of an antique cut. For an old man, he was powerfully built, but in the years since our previous meeting I had forgotten his most prominent feature, namely his steady gaze, from eyes of cerulean blue. I am setting down our exchange as far as I can recall it.

Muirkirk: ‘You are Andrew Kennedy of Drumbain, Dunure?

Kennedy: ‘I am, sir. I’m pleased to have your acquaintance, once again. I valued our previous discussions anent sacred subjects. Forbye, I kent your fayther very well: many a glass I’ve supped with him at the horse fairs.’ (This drew a snort of laughter from McCrindle, but I fancy that Kennedy intended no slight to my parentage – there was no guile in him).

Muirkirk: ‘Please state your occupation.’

Kennedy: ‘Weel, Meester Muirkirk, I’m no longer limber enough for the fishing, and I have nae son to tak my place. So I scrape an existence as best I can, entertaining folk at the fairs wi’ wee tricks and daft ploys. And oft times, the lassies will spier me to read their future fortunes in their palms, or read their dreams. Should they choose to sweeten the tale wi’ siller coin, I’ll not refuse them.’

Muirkirk: ‘What tricks and ploys are these, Mr Kennedy?’

Kennedy: ‘Jist “hunt the pea”, playing-card tricks, that sort o’ thing.’

Muirkirk: ‘An encouragement to idleness and irreligious frivolity, sir.’

McCrindle interjected here: ‘Andra can spier another man’s thoughts, Minister. There wis a tremendous stramash last Lammas-tide in Alloway, when Andra read what Tam Millar was thinking aboot Jeannie Gemmell. Archie Gemmell chased Tam twa mile doon the way wi’ a scythe.’

Muirkirk: ‘What do you say to that charge, Mr Kennedy? Do you indeed spier another man’s thoughts?’

Kennedy: ‘I admit the charge. But I dinna mak a man’s thoughts public withoot guid cause.’

Muirkirk: ‘Take care, sir. The kirk session is required to refer all cases of witchcraft to the Presbytery Courts. Now, tell us all – if you can – what you read in my thoughts at this minute.’

Kennedy: ‘Are ye sure ye wish to proceed with this Meester Muirkirk?’

Muirkirk: ‘Indeed, I am.’

Kennedy: ‘Very well. Ye’re thinkin’ that, on the one hand, referrin’ my case to the Presbytery would rid ye and the parish o’ a troublesome auld man. But on the other hand, ye’re also thinkin’ that it ill behoves a minister in these times to believe in witches, warlocks, fairies, dwarfs and the like.’

There was a hush after this. Kennedy still regarded me with his steady gaze. With horror, I understood that he felt sorry for me. Eventually, I collected myself: ‘Let us move on, to the main charge. It has been alleged, Mr Kennedy, that you harbour papist relicts. And that, further, you encourage idolatrous worship of the same. What do you say to the charge?’

Kennedy: ‘Ye mean the reliquary.’ He took from his coat pocket a small silver-gilt box, embossed with copper-work designs that looked to have once served as jewel-clasps, though the jewels were now missing. It rested comfortably in his large hand. It seemed to me very ancient; I have never seen its like. He spoke again: ‘I dinna “harbour” the reliquary: say instead that I am the Keeper of it, as was my fayther afore me, and his fayther afore him. For many centuries past, the Kennedys have been the Keepers. St Maelrubha brought the Christian faith to this coast from Ireland, long ago. Mulrhu Point, just south of my house at Drumbain, preserves his holy name to this day. Say also that I dinna “encourage” your parishioners to “worship” the saint’s remains, but say instead that, if poor folk come to me seeking relief from their ailments and askin’ to kiss, or just touch, the reliquary, then it would be churlish of me to deny them.’

Muirkirk: ‘You claim that just to touch that shabby metal box can relieve suffering?’

Still holding my gaze, Kennedy proffered me the reliquary. I stretched out my fore-finger to touch it. I smiled, experiencing nothing in that first instant. But very quickly, with near-panic, I felt a change: the painful tenderness in my right knee, caused by the gout, was diminishing. I clutched my knee, fancying that the swelling too was reducing: it seemed to be so. I felt faint and staggered. Kennedy caught my arm. I cried out: ‘Let me be. Stare at me no more: be gone! The session is closed: I am unwell.’

Kennedy nodded: ‘Aye, sir, you are unwell. A temporary indisposition, I hope. God be with ye.’

Since that day, the gout is gone. But I fear I have lost much more than my infirmity. The world has turned: dark night has replaced my day and I am lost in the shadows. Scotland’s Great Covenant with the Lord has fed me all my life, but now there are ashes in my mouth. I am choking.

Posterity, Here I Come

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, July 10th, 2018)

I remember it as a night of joy that zigzagged into a night of dolorous catastrophe. Scott and Zelda and I were drinking in our favourite café in Montmartre. The trouble began when Hemingway arrived. He was already drunk and insisted that we all drink repeated rounds of a murderous cocktail of his own devising, called The One-Legged Irishman. When I demurred, he called me a snivelling little faggot and threw a punch at me. I ducked and he accidentally hit Scott, who merely looked surprised and continued with his complaint:

‘I know the theme of the book I want to write – it’s the story of a good man, a generous man, who harbours a noble ambition; he has a high aim, but one that is within his powers. Yet his very generosity, his very goodness, trips him up – tangles him with duties and responsibilities, so that he fails. And he knows that he fails. I have the theme. I know it forwards and backwards, but I can’t locate it in a suitable context. Is it a novel about a great artist? A holy man – maybe a monk or a wandering sage? A lone scientist? A political visionary?’

I felt I could help. I knew my small talent would only equip me to turn out waspish magazine stories about lovelorn rubber planters. But Scott was a beautiful man with a soaring gifts: it would be a privilege to be his helpmeet in a small way. I said: ‘What about the story of the Prince Imperial? Do you know it – the brilliant young man, known to the Bonapartists as Napoleon IV? He threw away his life almost before it had begun, slaughtered by Zulus in a reckless and obscure action in Britain’s Zulu War in the 1870s.’

Zelda smiled her enigmatic smile. Scott looked interested. But as he started to reply, Hemingway broke in: ‘Hell, I’m so tired of your “brilliant young men”. Seen quite enough brilliant young men slaughtered.’ This wasn’t just a dig at my sexual preferences, it was also a dig at Scott, who hadn’t seen active service in the war.

Hemingway continued: ‘Here’s a context for you. How about an heroic hunt for a Great White Whale?’

Zelda giggled and Scott, already a bit befuddled by drink, was slow but hearty in his laughter. He slapped Hemingway on the shoulder and called for another round of One-Legged Irishmen. While we waited for the barman, Zelda poured the rest of her drink into Scott’s glass. The Prince Imperial was forgotten.

Scott mused: ‘Someone told me that Hawthorne dreamt the character of Captain Ahab. Very odd. I just dream of real characters, like you or Zelda’ (he was addressing Hemingway – I was forgotten along with the Prince Imperial) ‘the only strangers who appear – burglars, Arabs, shop-keepers, or whatever – are just cardboard cut-outs, with no depth of character at all.’

I pitched in: ‘Can anyone tell me why it is that the great parade of relatives, friends and acquaintances that appear in our dreams always – ALWAYS – behave in character? They never ever do anything unusual or preposterous. I remember dreaming about my mother one time and…’

Hemingway: ‘Gonna tell me about these Arab strangers in your dreams, Scott? Where the Hell did they shine in? I shot at an Arab once.’

Zelda and Scott together: ‘You shot an Arab??’

‘Naw. I missed.’ Hemingway chortled, downed his new One-Legged Irishmen and called for another round: ‘And put more whiskey in it this time!’

Hemingway wasn’t so drunk that he hadn’t realised that it was my turn to buy the round. His calling for the round was simply another calculated insult, a feigned failure to register my presence. And yet, and yet… I doubted if I had sufficient francs on me to pay for all these exotic drinks. Angry and confused, I excused myself (only Zelda noticed) and headed for the pissoir.

I stood at the urinal and tried to clear my head. The evening which had shone like a winter star was now dark as pitch. Should I cut my losses and head back to my frowsty rooms? I had seen Hemingway in these cruel moods before: they dragged on for hours and hours until everyone found themselves in the same drunken ditch. But I couldn’t bear to leave the ineffably beautiful couple: I plunged back into the café.

Hemingway squinted up at me: ‘Ah, there you are. Did you meet anyone nice in there?’

I must have been drunker than I realised. I picked up one of my untouched One-Legged Irishmen and flung it in Hemingway’s face. Was it his filthy jibe, or Scott’s smile, that goaded, or shamed me, over the edge? Hemingway growled and rose. I shouted: ‘You bastard! It’s a duel now. I challenge you to a duel.’

Scott had a trick of instantly sobering up, and he was immediately on his feet quelling the uproar in the café and dispensing francs and soothing words. As he ushered the three of us out onto the street, he whispered to me: ‘You crazy English rooster, he’s a crack shot. But he won’t hold you to this when he’s sober – leave it to me.’

I was drunk on his regard: ‘Damn it. HE can play chicken if he wants to. As for me, I’m ready to shoot the bastard any day, any time.’ Scott gave me a long, silent stare, a quick smile and a nod. He gave my address to the waiting taxi, told me that he’d call on me tomorrow, and turned his attention to Zelda who was sobbing in the shadows.

As the taxi pulled away, I slumped back into the seat and simultaneously fell out of my mood of hysterical bravado. I spent the rest of the night pacing up and down my room.

When Scott eventually turned up, just before noon, he was tired but kind. I’d been half-expecting him to be carrying a pair of duelling pistols for my inspection. Instead, he told me right away that he’d just come from Hemingway’s place, that Hemingway evidently had no recollection of my challenge. Of course, neither Scott nor Zelda were about to remind him.

Scott paused, and to my horror, I felt my eyes wet with stinging tears. I found myself steered outside to a pavement café and Scott ordered two brandies. I started to stumble through an apology, but Scott cut me short: ‘Hell, no. It was a brave thing you did last night.’ He smiled and was soon gone.

A couple of days later, I was called back to Sussex by my mother’s illness. I never saw Scott and Zelda again, as they soon returned to the States. When ‘The Great Gatsby’ came out, it was largely ignored by critics and public alike. A blow for Scott, who needed money for Zelda’s hospital treatments – after her breakdown, that is. There was then a long delay before his next novel. He was working for MGM studios, churning out film scripts for the regular salary cheque.

And then came ‘Tender is the Night’. Right from the first pages, I knew this was the one where he was shedding blood. This was the great novel of lost hopes that he’d spoken of in the café that night. He’d found the context for his great theme: the context was his own thinly-disguised life. I loved it; the public ignored it (who knows why? perhaps because The Jazz Age of The Twenties was gone and it was the time of The Great Depression).

Reading on and revelling in his poet’s prose, I was unprepared for a great shock. I was at the point in the tale of the Riviera house-party, the night when the lives of Dick and Nicole Diver – the golden couple – start to unravel. One of the more noxious guests, Violet McKisco, stumbles on evidence of Nicole’s mental fragility. As she rushes to share this gossip with her fellow-guests, she is rudely silenced by the taciturn soldier, Tommy Braban. Out of the late-night confusion that follows, it emerges that Violet’s husband, a minor writer, and Braban have engaged to fight… a duel!

The minor writer, McKisco, wasn’t an attractive character, yet the novel tells us that he shows some ‘spunk’ in his determination to go ahead with the duel against an opponent who is an expert shot. McKisco’s unexpected courage redeems him in the eyes of the party-goers, and probably in his own eyes as well.

I read and re-read the passage: I had helped Scott after all. That drunken spat in the café, all those years ago, had given Scott an inkling of how to signal the start of the disintegration of the lives of the golden couple, of how to mark a pivotal point in the story. Long after my slight tales of rubber planters will have dwindled to mere ‘period’ curiosities, I will live on as a kind of fugitive muse for one of the very greatest novels of the twentieth century. That’s my view of it anyway: posterity, here I come.

PADRAIG NEILL AND THE LAST ISLE

MICHAEL BLOOR

(first published in Dodging the Rain June 1, 2018)

CastlebayCottage ,Shore Rd
Thousand Islands Bay
North Island
New Zealand
December 15th, 2016

The Librarian
School of Scottish Studies
University of Edinburgh.

Dear Sir/Madam,
I would be most grateful if you would accept the gift of the enclosed manuscript.
Yours faithfully,
Captain Alan Padraig MacNeil (retired)

#

Summer vacation, Isle of Barra, 1954.

‘… Càc a’choin! Another empty creel, Alan. Ach, time we were heading back anyhow. Best that you are coming into the wheelhouse with me, it’s getting a bitty choppy.’

Heading back to Castlebay, after lifting the last of the creels – that was always my favourite part of the trip. That was when Uncle Ruairidh, Ruairidh Mòr oil-skinned colossus, would tell his sea stories. Coaxing him was part of the game: he would feign reluctance, claiming he couldn’t tell a story properly in English, protesting that I’d heard all his stories a thousand-million times, that the wild geese could tell me a better story. At length, the clamoured-for narrative would begin: maybe the story of the storm that beached the great whale, in testimony of which the whale-bone stool stood in Ruairidh Mòr’s croft-house; maybe that of the storm that wrecked the Norwegian tramp-steamer and brought a dozen dripping, silent, blond giants in to warm themselves at Katie Ann’s fire, scaring that old lady half out of her remaining wits; and most marvellous of all, perhaps the story of the storm that stranded my great-uncle, Padraig Neill, on ‘the Last Isle,’ when he was just nineteen years old. This is my poor re-telling of Ruaridh Mòr’s luminous tale of the stranding…

The Barra boats were all fishing off Berneray when that storm broke with sudden violence — the very same storm that capsized the Isle of Pabbay boat and drowned the only five able-bodied men left on that small, green, holy island. The storms thereabouts can be as loud as cannon-fire and fierce enough to deposit small fish at the top of the cliffs, a mocking offering to the fishermen in their fragile open boats. My great-uncle, Padraig Neill, was in a boat with three other Barra men, helpless in the blast and fury of the storm. After one enormous wave broke over them, he was alone in the boat. He guessed the boat was being driven towards the 700-foot cliff of Builacraig on the west coast of the Isle of Mingulay. He expected, any moment, to be dashed against the foot of Builacraig, but instead, the great sea-stack of Gunamul suddenly loomed over the boat.

Now, Gunamul is that rare thing, a sea-stack that is also a sea-arch. The arch is narrow, yet passable by a small boat. But it’s passable only in very favourable conditions, rare enough in the seas around Mingulay, where there is nearly always a heavy swell. Strange chance: the tiny boat was lifted up, as if to be dashed on Gunamul, but instead was carried straight through that tower of rock. Padraig Neill, in his disordered mind, could not understand what had happened – it was only subsequently that he reasoned that the storm must have borne him through the sea-arch, like a bullet through a gun barrel.

Soon after, exhausted, deafened and disorientated, he apparently lost consciousness. At any rate, he had no memory of the rest of the storm, nor of how long he must have drifted before the storm blew itself out. His next memory was of lying face-upwards in the boat, his left wrist still roped for safety to a brass rowlock. There was still a swell; the seas were slopping into the swamped boat. He was chilled, very thirsty, bruised and bloodied. It was dark, but he could tell he was close to land, not by the sound of the breaking of the waves (he was still deaf from the storm), but by the dark mass of hills on his right hand. He began to bail out the boat, but the effort was beyond his strength. Now there was moon enough to see the waves breaking in a regular line, not on cliffs or rocks, but on a beach. He loosed the rope that held him to the rowlock, kicked off his sea-boots, and swam for the shore. He could only swim a short distance before he had to desist and float upon his back. With a last effort, he rolled over to swim again and was surprised to find himself in shallow water. He crawled up the beach to the high-tide mark.

Sometime later, Padraig Neill awoke to feel the hot sun on his back. He rolled over in the sand to see a young woman kneeling beside him. When Padraig told the tale, a thing he did only rarely and privately, he said that he thought at first that he had died and he was now in Paradise. But then his reason told him that, in Paradise, he would surely be freed from his thirst, cuts and bruises. The woman silently offered him a blue-edged, white enamel cup of water. He drank and asked no questions. It was the best water that he had ever tasted. It was the best drink he had ever tasted: better even than the whisky from the famous still at Clachtol on the mainland. He looked again at the woman and saw that she was very beautiful – brown-eyed and white-skinned, clad in a simple grey dress.

‘Was she a seal woman, Uncle Ruairidh?’ I had asked.

‘Perhaps, who is knowing?’ Ruairidh Mòr had replied, ‘Your great-uncle never said. I’m thinking that he never knew.’

The woman spoke with a smile in her voice. She said to Padraig Neill: ‘You are a fisherman. My father was a fisherman. You are welcome on this island’. She helped him to his feet and they walked off the beach onto the sweet machair turf, grazed short by nearby sheep with their leggy lambs. At the far edge of the machair ground was a spring-fed pool with a cabin beside it. Here, the woman bathed Padraig Neill’s wounds and fed him crowdie cheese and bannocks.

As he ate, Padraig stared alternately at the woman and out of the open cabin door, across the short stretch of machair grassland and out to sea. He saw no familiar landmarks, not the high cliffs of the Isle of Mingulay, nor the Berneray lighthouse, nor the dazzling white beaches of his native Barra. But this caused him no uneasiness as he listened to the woman with the smile in her voice. She told him that his boat had been carried away on the ebb-tide, but her half-brother, Lachlan Luspardan, was searching for it. Padraig simply listened to the smile in her voice and looked long into her shining brown eyes. Never had he been so content. And then he slept.

When he awoke the woman was gone. For the first time on that strange shore, thoughts of Barra assailed him. He thought of his mother waiting in vain at the harbour for his boat to return out of the storm. He thought of the widows of his lost companions, with no knowledge of what had become of their husbands. He realised he must go home, if only briefly, before he could return to the beautiful woman with the smile in her voice and to the fortunate shore where she lived. Then he saw the woman making her way towards him across the machair, her grey dress swaying about her as she walked. A step behind her was another figure, dwarfish, with an ungainly shuffle.

‘Greetings fisherman,’ she said simply. ‘This is my brother, Lachlan.’ The dwarf remained silent, hands on hips. ‘Lachlan has not found your boat. I’m afraid the tide and the currents have borne it away from our island.’

‘But I must go home,’ blurted Padraig. ‘I mean, I must put my mother’s mind at rest and tell the village what has happened. And then…’ He paused and blushed. ‘I would wish… if I may… if you would allow… to return here to you. I cannot…’ And then he could say no more.

The woman nodded. ‘Of course, you must see your mother. Lachlan here will take you in his boat. And if you wish it,’ she smiled, ‘you may return to us here on the Last Isle.’

‘How shall I find you?’ said Padraig. ‘I’ve never heard of the Last Isle. Does it lie far from Barra?’

‘Not far, no. But still, it is not easily found. You must pass through the Great Arch and then sail westward. But I will give you a chart. You will be very welcome, should you choose to return.’ At this, the dwarf turned abruptly on his heel, and shuffled quickly away. Padraig saw that he was making for a skiff that was anchored off-shore at the far end of the bay. Padraig and the woman were left alone at the cabin: Padraig never said what they spoke of, but the woman handed Padraig a rolled parchment that she said would serve for a chart. At length, they followed Lachlan Luspardan down to the skiff, which was now ready to depart and Padraig waded through the surf to clamber aboard. As the dwarf weighed anchor, Padraig turned to the shore: the woman stood still and grave at the water’s edge, and remained there as the vessel drew away and she dwindled to a distant speck, seen intermittently between the heaving waves.

Padraig observed that the dwarf was a skilful sailor and used to handling the skiff. But he was unresponsive to Padraig’s eager questions, answering reluctantly in few words and in a strange, high-pitched, hoarse voice. After half an hour or so, the dwarf pulled a corked bottle and a satchel of bannocks from a locker, and offered them to Padraig. The liquid within the bottle surprised Padraig: it was not the spring water he’d drunk earlier with so much relish, but a thick, sweet, opaque liquid. Some minutes later, he began to feel drowsy – whether from the strange liquid, or simply from the continuing after-effects of his previous ordeal, he could not say. The dwarf indicated that he could curl up in the bows of the skiff and he did so, falling asleep almost immediately.

He awoke sometime later among some sheep-skins the dwarf must have drawn over him. It was dusk and the dwarf was making use of the evening wind to sail close into a deserted beach that Padraig immediately recognised as a beach close to his Barra home. The dwarf smiled and bobbed his head: ‘Yes fisherman, it is time for us to part company. Show me my sister’s chart, that I may guide you back to us’.

Padraig automatically rose to hand over the rolled parchment. At the same time as he took the parchment, the dwarf deftly and fiercely shoved Padraig overboard. By the time Padraig had surfaced and recovered his wits, the wind had carried the skiff well out of reach and the dwarf had already changed tack, away from the shore. Padraig struck out for the skiff, but quickly realised the effort was futile. As he trod water, he watched the dwarf cackle and shred the parchment into fragments.

Padraig could do nothing but turn about and swim for the beach. Though afterwards he often sought for the Last Isle, once even taking a rowing boat through the narrow Gunamul sea-arch on a rare day of absolute calm, he never found the isle nor the woman ever again. He died while still in his twenties – a drowning – his body was never found.

All through my childhood and adolescence, the strange tale of Great-Uncle Padraig Neill’s stranding stayed with me like an old song: a tale of longing and loss, sweetness and sadness, a world glimpsed and then forever beyond reach.

Some forty years passed by: Ruairidh Mòr was crippled with arthritis; his boat was sold; I was away in the Philippines; and Padraig Neill’s tale was starting to fade along with all my other Barra memories. Then I chanced to come upon a similar story (‘Le Grand Meaulnes’) written by a young Frenchman, Alain-Fournier, who had gone on to die in the slaughter of the First World War. As I read on, that old tale of my uncle’s came surging back to me like a high tide among the rock pools. That story was like a scene glimpsed through the wrong end of a telescope: a tiny, bright, treasured fragment of a world I’ve long lost. Now it’s a taken-for-granted part of me, like my left-handedness or my long stride.

I’ve no nephew to pass this manuscript onto. I hope the University’s School of Scottish Studies will be able to find a place for it in their oral history archive. The whale-bone stool is going to the Barra Heritage and Cultural Centre.

The Poet’s Revenge

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue 8, May 2018)

It was one of those online poetry magazines where they invite readers to comment on the poems. Dorothy shows me them from time to time. One evening, she said to me, ‘This poem here reminds me of the poem you wrote to me, back when we got engaged.’ She passed over her iPad and went out the room. I put down The Yorkshire Post and studied the poem. To be honest, I couldn’t make much of it.

Dorothy came back in and leaned over the couch, looking over my shoulder. I muttered, ‘What does “lambent” mean?’ She ignored my question and passed over an old-fashioned Valentine Card. I recognised my handwriting from forty years ago: I didn’t know that she’d kept the card all this time.

Reading the poem I’d written again, after all those years, I couldn’t help feeling that it wasn’t too bad. I was pretty certain, anyway, that it was a sight better than the ‘lambent moonlight’ rubbish on the iPad. I said as much to Dorothy.

‘Not too bad?? I think it’s absolutely wonderful, Clive. Why not email it to the magazine and see if they’ll publish it? There’s just a ten dollar reading fee to pay – what’s ten dollars these days? Still a bit less than ten quid, anyway.’

Her eyes were shining – I let myself be persuaded.

We sent it off, and at first, I used to feel a sugar-rush of excitement each time I opened up my email. But after a couple of months, still not hearing anything, I forgot all about it. And Dorothy apparently stopped looking at their website.

Then one winter evening, I opened up my laptop to renew my season ticket for the footie [if they can hang onto the lad McHardie, in midfield, and buy a half-decent goalie, I’ve a feeling they could be promotion candidates next time]. As I say, I opened up my laptop and there was an email from ‘The Editorial Team.’ They would be delighted to publish my poem in their next issue, which would ‘go live’ at the beginning of next month. Bloody ‘Ell: I’m a poet.

I showed the email to Dorothy, attempting a casualness I didn’t feel and couldn’t maintain. We ended up opening the bottle of champagne that my brother brought round last Christmas, and Dorothy printed off a copy of the poem to send to her sister in Canada.

Come the first of the month, I rushed home from work and Dorothy met me at the door, her iPad in her hand. My plan had been for the poet to take his muse out for a meal, but we ended up ordering a take-away – The Golden Dragon in Sadlergate does a wonderful vegetable fried rice that’s a meal in itself. We had a lovely, cosy evening: Dorothy persuaded me to recite the poem and then had a little cry.

The trouble came two days later. Dorothy was noticeably quiet all evening. I finally got it out of her after we’d gone to bed: she showed me on her iPad the comments that had been posted on the website about my poem. One comment was an innocuous ‘Well done.’ The other comment was… well, a slow-acting poison.

It seemed that the ‘sentiment’ of my poem was ‘mawkish;’ ‘scansion’ indicated ‘an irregular metre;’ the line ‘All that’s best of dark and light’ had been ‘pinched from Lord Byron;’ etc., etc. The dribble of bile came to a close with the remark that ‘the poet certainly displays a unique approach. One is reminded of Chesterton’s bon mot that if we cannot have goodness, let us at least have rich badness.’

Dorothy, bless her, pointed out that Byron’s line had been ‘dark and bright,’ not ‘dark and light.’ But she was still troubled. As for me, I never slept all that long night.

The strange thing was that the name of the bastard commentator, Colman Thaxted, was vaguely familiar. Couldn’t place it though. In the early morning, with Dorothy breathing quietly and regularly, I crept out of bed and fired up the laptop in the spare room. Google only offered one Colman Thaxted – then it came back to me…

The Methodist Chapel Youth Club in the early 1970’s. Colman Thaxted had been the chairman of the club committee, an unassailable position as he was the nephew of the Methodist Minister, Drippy Drinkwater. Thaxted had been a year older than me and determined to steal my Dorothy away from me. He’d been one of several rival suitors, though not perhaps the most dangerous (that was Andy McKillop, who claimed to be getting his own band together). Thaxted’s idea of a trump card was to make Dorothy secretary of the club committee and keep calling round to her house to ‘discuss club business.’

I was mentally reliving his under-hand campaign, when Dorothy touched my shoulder: she’d woken and traced me to the spare room. She confessed that she’d recognised the name at once, but told me that Thaxted had never been a real contender: I was a better dancer AND I’d managed to get tickets to The Stones 1973 tour (Kings Hall, Manchester – September 12th, 1973). She said we were already a done deal by Valentine’s Day 1974, but my card had served as a lasting confirmation.

It was Sunday, so we went back to bed.

The next day, in my lunch hour, I popped into the chemist’s and bought a well-known brand of medicinal anti-acid tablets. I’d traced Thaxted to the School of Cross-Media Studies in a university in the West Midlands. Anonymously, I posted him one of the tablets, with the suggestion: ‘Suck on this.’

The Redeeming Flood

Michael Bloor

(first pubished in Scribble, Issue No.77, Spring 2018, pp. 67-69)

I found the battered and scratched figure in the hospital bed to be surprisingly cheerful. Jim Shardlow, our village GP, is in his sixties and I’d expected his near-death experience (cracked rib, large gash on his hip, multiple bruises and scratches, blood loss and exposure) to have produced an altogether frailer and more subdued patient. I put Jim’s jollity down to the painkillers, but I turned out to be quite wrong.

As the Minister in Strathgaudie (a combined charge with Newparks and Kilblair) for the last thirty years, hospital visiting is a familiar part of my job. I observed all the hospital-visitor conventions: how was he feeling? (‘starving’ – I passed him the custard pie I’d brought as part of my tea); did he need anything? (‘could I feed his cat?’ – already attended to). And then I waited impatiently for his story. Eventually, Jim brushed a couple of pie crumbs out of his grey beard, smiled and said, ‘I suppose you want to know how it happened…

He paused and then continued. ‘I reckon Sally must’ve been crossing the Mill Burn footbridge to meet her wee Nickie off the school bus: it was that time of day. I was between patients and I heard her scream. I looked out the surgery window in time to see that that the footbridge was down and there was a head in the water.’

I nodded, ‘Yep, one of the bridge stanchions has gone. Remember the flash flood back in 1997? Both stanchions were swept away then. The burn’s still running high. But what happened to you?’

‘I knew I had to be quick. I grabbed an old tow rope as I went out the back porch. I ran as fast as I could. I was hoping she’d manage to cling onto to something, otherwise I’d never be able to catch her up. I soon spotted her: she was tangled up in some semi-submerged gorse bushes on the far bank. But there was no point in throwing her the tow rope: she wasn’t moving – she was unconscious. I had to go in after her.’

I shook my head at Jim. He and I are roughly the same age. He’s reasonably fit, but in your sixties, you may be still have the will, but you lack the stamina. And unless you’ve actually witnessed a flash flood in the Highlands, it’s difficult to imagine how furious those flood waters can be: I’ve seen the Mill Burn rise a good three feet in as many seconds, and I’ve seen boulders and whole trees borne along like pebbles and twigs.

Jim smiled and shook his head in return. ‘I didn’t have much time. Unconscious as she was, she’d quickly drown. I tied one end of the tow rope to an alder tree and stepped into the burn, with the rope-end wrapped around my fist. I thought I was prepared for the force of the current, but I wasn’t. I was immediately knocked off my feet. I reckon that’s when I got the cracked rib and the gashed hip – banging against submerged rocks. But I hung onto that rope-end: I hung on as if it was Jacob’s Ladder. I lost my footing again. More than once, I think. The cracked rib was shrieking at me, but I finally made it into the flooded gorse thicket. That was a bad moment, cos I was still a few yards away from Sally and the tow rope would stretch no further.

‘I had to abandon the rope and force my way through the gorse. I got to her somehow and freed her from the gorse tangles. She wasn’t breathing. So I picked her up…’

‘You picked her up, though you had a cracked rib??’

‘I suppose the adrenaline helped. I hoisted her onto my good shoulder – she’s only a wee thing – and struggled through the remaining bushes onto higher ground. I got her breathing again and headed up the glen to Wester Strathgaudie to raise the alarm. I found Charlie Smith in his lambing shed – afraid I must’ve given him quite a fright – I told him what had happened… and passed out. I came to again in the air ambulance, alongside Sally.’

For Jim, this was quite a lengthy tale. He’s courteous to all, and a caring, conscientious GP, but he’s reserved. Of course, the local doctor can’t be seen whooping it up in the public bar at the Gordon Arms Hotel, but Jim’s reserve is more than professional self-restraint. Annie Forbes, who drives the school bus and always gives a plastic bag of romantic novels for the Kirk ‘bring-and-buy’ sale, claims he has a ‘secret sorrow.’ My brother-in-law, Angus MacQuarrie, a surgeon at the children’s hospital, told me that Jim’s a first-rate doctor, implying that he’s rather wasted on us good folks in Strathgaudie. Even to me, Jim’s been a bit an enigma: nearly every Monday night for more than twenty years, we’ve played each other at chess in either his house or mine, and we’ve slipped gradually into one of those comfortable male friendships where we talk less and less as time goes by.

But I didn’t want to lapse into a comfortable silence in the ward just then. ‘You’re a hardy soul, Jim, as well as a brave one. Many a younger and fitter man might have hesitated before plunging into that burn.’

‘It’s true: I didn’t hesitate, Sandy. But that wasn’t because I’m brave… it was because I was grateful. Grateful that, after more than forty years I’d been given a second chance…’

He paused, seeing the puzzlement on my face, squinted up at the ceiling and recited some lines of a poem about the moment when the poet realises that life no longer offers a smorgasbord of possibilities, and gates onto rose gardens have just slammed shut. ‘That happened to me, forty-odd years ago. But down at the Mill Burn yesterday, I got a reprieve. It’s an old, dark story, Sandy. But I think I’ve maybe now earned the right to tell it.

‘I was a medical student at Cambridge. It was a wonderful time to be young. “Sergeant Pepper” could be heard through every open window and the beer was cheap, but it was the girls who were intoxicating. On a warm April night, after two days of heavy rain, I’d been in love with Jenny Sangster for the previous two hours. We smuggled a bottle of cheap wine out of the party and headed across the river. I don’t think we were consciously making for my room: we were innocents, just wanting to be together under the warm night sky. On the bridge, I was reciting Byron to Jenny and the shrouded moon. Jenny scrambled up onto the parapet, spread her arms out wide, threw back her head and shouted, “I walk in beauty, like the night!” So lovely she looked: her dark, tumbled tresses, her short, vivid, red dress, and her suede boots…

‘The parapet was still wet from the recent rain. She slipped backwards and fell. It was thought afterwards that she must have hit her head on the bridge stonework as she fell, because she never made a sound. I rushed to the parapet. I shouted her name. There was very little light. Perhaps she had been carried under the bridge? There was a swift current in the river that night. I rushed to the opposite parapet and shouted her name again: no sign.

‘I was a poor swimmer in those days, really more of a floater. I scrambled down to the river bank and ran up and down it, calling her name. What shameful futility! I knew then that the right thing to do, the only thing to do, was to jump in the river myself: to put myself at risk. But I didn’t. I didn’t. I didn’t.’

By this point in his story, there was a sob in Jim’s throat. My occupational instincts kicked in and I started to murmur words of comfort and condolence. Jim cut me short: ‘No, no, Sandy. Please: those kindnesses lacerate me. They lacerated me then. At the inquest, the consideration that Jenny’s parents showed towards me was almost unbearable…

‘Afterwards, I knew what I had to do. I would find a small world where I could live quietly and acquit myself as well as I was able. That’s what I’ve tried to do, these past years in Strathgaudie. Believe me, Sandy, I have never looked for… redemption. But redemption found me! Not everyone gets a second chance, but I was blest. Of course, I never hesitated when I got that second chance. A cracked rib, a little spilt blood and some scratches – they were a very small price to pay.’

When I left the ward, Jim was wearing an unfamiliar broad smile. I no longer put his mood down to the medication. As I drove back home, I reflected that Annie, the school bus driver, had been right about Jim after all.

MACBETH, THE PILGRIM

MICHAEL BLOOR

(first published March 24, 2018 in Dodging the Rain)

In 1050, Macbeth went on a pilgrimage to Rome, the only Scottish king ever to do so. The chronicler, Marianus, wrote that Macbeth gave money to the poor of Rome ‘as if it were seed.’ Pope St. Leo IX was one of the great reforming popes, campaigning against the sale of ecclesiastical offices and against married priests. But Leo IX also appears in popular history as a tragic figure, his letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople having brought about ‘The Great Schism’ between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Leo IX was a German speaker and Macbeth (Mac Bethad mac Findlaich) was a native Gaelic speaker, so it is possible that they conversed with the help of a monk from one of the Scottish monasteries that brought the Gospels into Germany.

‘… Indeed, Your Holiness, it has been an arduous journey. But with my entry at last into Rome, my dirty soul has felt a little cleaner.’

‘Have you found it so, Mac Bethad mac Findlaich? In my own case, I have found many times that re-entering the city, being once more among the ruins of barbarous paganism, engenders in me a sense of futility, of the transience of earthly kingship. The ancient emperors of the known world built here, piling carved stone on carved stone in salute to their pagan Gods. Great artists swarmed to Rome to celebrate the might of its rulers. Yet all that has endured is… rubble.’

‘I understand. My long journey to Rome has impressed upon me that Scotland is only a small country on the cold shoulder of the world, but Brother Colm here may have told you that we too have our ruins: great circles of upended stones, so huge that our legends tell us they must have been fashioned by giants. They too are deserted now – roosts for the hoodie crow. Yet it has seemed to me that those who dwelt there – men, or giants, or evil trows – are to be pitied, having had no knowledge of Our Saviour. To look upon those ruins among the heather lifts my heart, because I know Christians are right and those old pagans were wrong.’

‘That is so. Your heart told you true. But Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world. Because of Adam’s sin, we who rule in this world can only rule in error, as the pagans ruled in error. Is that not what has dirtied your soul, Mac Bethad mac Findlaich?’

‘Perhaps so, Your Holiness. But a man can only plough a field as he finds it, likewise with a ruler and a kingdom. I burned my cousin, Gille Coemgain, and his retainers in his hall, but justice demanded his death for his slaughter of my father. Thereafter, for peace and unity, I took to wife Gruoch, my cousin’s widow, and I have named Lulach, my stepson, as my heir. Duncan, the usurper, fell in battle at Pitgaveny and it was well that I had the victory, because Duncan was a young and foolish ruler. Like many a king, I have stepped in blood to reach the throne, but I have tried long and hard to rule wisely and well.’

‘I begin to understand why you have felt impelled to make this pilgrimage, Mac Bethan mac Findlaich. But you speak well when you qualify your rule as an attempt at wisdom. It may be some consolation to you to know that I, your holy father, have laboured long and hard to rule God’s Church wisely and well… And yet, and yet… I have travelled Christendom, I have cast down bishops who have bought their sees, I have cast out priests who flaunt their concubines… But for all my little victories over the sins of simony and clerical incontinence, I can only wonder if I have always ruled wisely and well. This matter of the appointment of Humbert as Archbishop of Sicily, for example: inadvertently, I seem to have angered Patriarch Michael Cærularius in Constantinople… Hmm, I see from your face, and that of Brother Colm, that I am wandering along paths that are strange to you — my apologies.’

‘Please, Your Holiness, I am honoured by your confidences. And I understand the lesson you would teach: that all rulers – secular and ecclesiastic – must strive for righteousness, but in this life they can never know whether they succeed. They will only know when they stand before your Apostolic Predecessor, St Peter.

‘That is so: Heaven shall be our judge. But I also wonder about the judgement of posterity. I am told that, among your people you are known as “the red king”. Take care that posterity names you thus for the colour of your hair, rather than the blood of your enemies. Go in peace with my blessing, Mac Bethan mac Findlaich.’

The Visionary Librarian

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.