Bourtree and Broom
Extracts from the kirk-session book of Pitfoglum:
June 23, 1691: Because of the scandal of rumouring that the late minister of this parish is not deid, Ishbel M’Hendrie compeared befoir session. She answered not guilty, bot said her man’s sister Jonat Teerie had spread the samyn blatant falset and the hail land was pregnant wi siclike lies. Baith women are delated to compeir befoir next session.
April 15, 1692: The quhilk day compeared David Smith of Barneydykes, quha admitted informing Alex. Dowland that he had seen owre lamentit minr. Rev. Mungo Reed alive on the Tod’s Knowe ane morning, and that the minr. was in cumpany with Jain M’Bride, quha was burnit less nor ane yeir syne.
David Smith rec’d public admonition and is ordained to appear in kirk fower times for ane month dressed in coarse clothe to schaw his true repentance.
Extract from the records of Dundon presbytery:
August 4, 1692: Jhon Tamson deponed that at a certane tym going to pasture with twa milch kye, he heard whilst passing the woods of Pitfoglum som stirring amid the trees. Going to see what had caused sich commotion - which was as the greeting of ane lost beast - he found ane child lying hiddlie in the busches. Quhen about to uplift it, som woman appeared to him, saying, doe nocht touch her or I schall hold thee ill till ye perish.
Being feared, he departed, bot hearing lauchter behind, turned and saw ane man dressed all in black. This same figure called him by name, saying, Jonie, man, what gars ye cum to the gowstie places whar ye have nae richt concern? Hurry hame and ye wuld find your guidwife ill-using ye.
He deponed that he returned to his house and there found his spouse Alson in bed with his neebor Malcom Holland. This being sae, he did beat the adulterers wi ane broom handel intill baith are now neir deid. The witness says he kens neyther the man nor woman inside the woods. Yet we wuld have him return at ane future tym to test his knowledge further.
Extract from the fragmentary journal of the Rev. Mungo Reid, minister of Pitfoglum, 1690-1691 (Advocates MS. 197-26-31, National Library of Scotland):
April 23, 1691: ‘This day, being at last of seasonable weather, I went for the first time through the hills which were hitherto blocked by snaw. I have received word there was discord among the upland people about the Restoration of the Kirk following the Revolution. Some here are supposed to adhere to the blasphemies of bishops and are staunch behind the former Royals. Maist of these high landes are bound to Lord Donaldson, that unhappie nobill sae prominent in the late Rebel actions at Dunkeld and previously. He has been reckoned absent since that time. Yet his name still halds universal respect here . . .
‘I made Balcarry House by noon and was attended by my lord’s factor Mr Harrison, who conducted me to various places thereabout. In ane puir hovel I speired the dwellers of the Commands and Beliefs, and they answered weill. I was pleased with what I saw, knowing I saw little.
‘Mr Harrison stated that the bitter climate did much dampen spirits of all here, but wait till summer be full, then wald we witness ane fuller measure of mischief among the tenants. Summer is their great season for sinning, he assured me. I replied that any time is richt for sin if men own ane evil caste of mind. His followers lauched ower much at this, which I think was for fear of him . . .
‘Dinner in the House was spoiled by the attentions of Harrisons twa daughters. . . To-morrow I go home, Christ be willing.’
Next morning Mungo Reid was left alone in the drawing-room, the maid informing him that the factor had ridden off early and the two daughters were still in bed. The table was laden, but the minister did not savour the meal. After finishing he followed his discomfort to two adjacent paintings on the wall. One showed a buxom, coarse peasant woman with pinched countenace, and he hoped that the artist was incompetent rather than the likeness was close. The neighbouring work was by a better hand, and his sympathies stopped him from believing that the person portrayed was superior also. It showed a great nobleman with an arrogant, sallow face and eyes like water jewels.
‘Lord Donaldson,’ the minister whispered, but said no more for fear further sound would break the repose of the atmosphere and something unbidden would join him. The rational reason for discomfort was the unfamiliar setting and the fact that both these dead figures were known Episcopalians and apologists for the unlamented King James.
To rouse himself as he left he made a mock salute to the portraits, then retrieved his horse from the groom and hurried down the glen. In his haste to escape the shadow of the overhanging hills he treated the animal too eagerly and the animal reacted by diverting him across a burn and up into rough lands on the steep far side. All of his entreaties did not prevent the animal carrying him higher into the wooded hills.
When the trees thinned and they emerged onto a wide plateau the horse whinnied pitifully at a further beating, and slowed to a recalcitrant walk. At last they neared a tumbledown cottage which was barren but for an old woman sitting in the garden by the dyke. She moved her lips and her yellow eyes to meet him.
‘My horse is done,’ he said. ‘Can I stay while it recovers?’
The woman did not speak; she made a whistling sound to herself that had an odd affinity with the rising wind. ‘Either gyte or deaf, this auld wife,’ Mungo thought, then watched with interest as a second denizen emerged from the house. This person, by contrast, was young and fair, with corn gold hair. While she stared, Mungo reasserted his request, trying to level his tone. The old woman veered her attention between them both, then looked at the horse which was calmly eating the withered greenery in the garden.
‘Dod, maister,’ she crowed. ‘Thon cratur’s jist a rickle o’ banes in a hair-cloth sack.’
‘I have to venture to the kirk,’ Mungo said, ignoring her. The young woman looked at him again, her face leavened with pity, but softer, and she led him around the back of the house.
‘Ye can tak that in exchange,’ the girl said, indicating a pure white filly, which looked like the wildest animal he had ever seen. He was going to decline, then saw a singular challenge in her eyes, and before he knew it the horse was saddled and he was on its back.
‘What about my ain beast?’ he asked.
‘I will heal it and send it to ye,’ she answered, looking up at him. To cover his embarrassment he took a cold shilling from his pocket and threw it at her feet.
‘For your trouble,’ he told her.
She gazed at the coin, then said gently, ‘That siller will cost ye dear, Mungo Reid.’
An inarticulate noise from her throat made the horse start across the moor. As he fled, he wondered if he had not become involved in more than an exchange of animals.
The reappearance of the minister on the snow white steed started talk in the kirk toun. It was said Mister Reid had swapped his own mount for a fairy beast. And there was something in his face and movements that lent credence to a meeting with the Others. He kept to silence until Fergusson the beadle came round from the byre next morning and said the white creature was rearing up wildly. There was nae doot it was an unco baste, Fergusson stated unnecessarily.
‘Henry,’ the minister warned, ‘the next fool that mentions fairy ponies in my presence will for certain find himself in the branks before sunset.’
The beadle bitterly changed his subject. ‘Ye’ll be haen a full kirk the morn, minister,’ he averred. ‘Thae hill fowk will invade us noo the road is clear.’
‘We shall see,’ the minister replied.
‘The ale hooses will be full tae,’ the beadle added, warming to the subject. ‘There will be trouble wi thae teuchters flytin an fechtin.’
Mungo sighed. ‘Ye forget, Henry, that Mr Harrison will be there. He will keep his tenants in order, I believe.’
‘Ye maun believe that,’ Fergusson said, ‘but thon wee lairdie disnae trail respect ahent him.’
At ten next morning Henry Fergusson tugged the rusty bell fixed in the kirkyard yew. Its cold clamour at first brought out only a few stray spinsters and drawn men, moths who had no other calling. Other villagers spasmodically appeared, and finally the ragged throng from the glen. At the bell swung for the second time Harrison and his daughters stalked past importantly and the beadle slammed the kirk doors after them. He heard the precentor inside intone the psalm and the congregation respond:
Help, Lord; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fall from among the children of men.
After the singing subsided the beadle returned to his tree and hauled the bell with the sobriety of an archangel calling the risen dead. He stopped to hear the minister pray. The word were lost, but the tone advised him to shudder. With the sermon underway two elders, David Smith and John Thomson, left the kirk and entered the village to search for absentees from the service. After scowling through the windows of a dozen places they felt far enough from the kirk to relent. David Smith undid his collar and spat. John Thomson added a grin to his Sabbath face and inhaled a measure of snuff.
‘I doot we’ll find naebody the day,’ he said genially.
His acquaintance muttered. ‘Dod Greig was no in kirk,’ he said. ‘Neither was Eck Barclay.’
‘They’ll be drinking ootbye Powheid.’ Thomson smiled. ‘I’ll be damned if I’ll gae there to get them. We’ll best get a seat at auld Annie’s.’ He led them down a vennel into a low thatched cottage. ‘Only me, Annie dear,’ he shouted as he entered. He was answered by a racking cough and scuttling movement from the bed in the corner. The room had a putrifying reek.
‘Whit d’ye want?’ the old woman asked.
‘Jist the same as before.’ Thomson sat beside her and gave her a soft look. As she struggled into a semi-seated position, Smith noticed with disdain that most of her hair had gone and the remains hung in two lank coils. Her eyes were the only things trully alive: two greedy coals of fever that scared him. But Thomson was evidently immune to the evidence of his senses. Without further talk he disrobed and climbed into the cot beside the dying woman.
The other elder went outside and retched. He only returned after a long interval and saw that the woman had sprawled back in the bed. Thomson was crouching beside her, laughing as he drank her ale. He handed a cup to Smith, then humourously chided Annie:
‘Ye should rise up and gang to the service. Your last practice for the final trump. Thon young minister would soon cure your ills, lass.’
But she was lost in her own waning world. ‘I’m no lang for this life,’ she muttered. ‘The time is coming.’
The men glanced at each other. Thomson tittered uneasily, then whispered, ‘Tell us the future, wumman.’ He dutifully placed two coppers beside her.
‘Guid,’ she rasped. ‘Ye are fixed to me now. Listen here: the shadow’s brought the man to the vixen’s den. He will misthrive intill the fire has all. Watch yersels, guidmen, for ye baith will be touched.’
The elders finished the drink, left the house and weaved towards the kirk. As they crossed the Spynie Burn they saw a white beast streak past them. It was gone in an instant and they ran after it. When they were unsucessful in finding it they doubled back and reached the kirk as the congregation spilled out, then hurried on to the byre behind the manse and found a tense group there, including Harrison and Mungo Reid.
Henry Fergusson confirmed the white horse had bolted, but angrily denied it could have escaped up the lane past the kirk.
‘I had my ee on the road during service, an came back that way. I couldna have missed it,’ he said.
David Smith commented, but no-one chose to heed him.
‘There is something stranger,’ the factor said tersely to the elders. ‘Mr Reid’s horse is back in the stall and naebody kens how is got there. Will ye state whit’s behind this, minister?’
‘No here,’ Mungo said lowly. ‘Come into the manse.’
Once they were indoors he gave a halting, confused account of meeting the two women. He did not know the name of either.
‘I believe it’s the two hellcats on Tod’s Knowe,’ Henry Fergusson stated.
‘What,’ Harrison exclaimed, ‘Grizzel McBride and that dudderon daughter, what’s her name?’
‘Jane,’ the beadle said.
‘Aye.’ The factor flew into a temper and swore he would drag the bitches off the braeside and cut them into collops. Mungo merely regarded him with distant incomprehension. It was left to the beadle to reply.
‘Na, man,’ he objected. ‘Such business in the lawful work o the session. We will meet and send word to the presbytery. Then we may tak the enchanters.’
‘Act fast,’ Harrison warned, ‘or I’ll find a fitting noose for their necks.’
After the group stalked off the minister seemed to dispel his dreariness. But his mood was still not to Fergusson’s liking.
‘The morn,’ the minister said firmly, ‘I will gae to Tod’s Knowe and see to this matter myself.’
‘Ye’ll dae nae such thing,’ Fergusson said. ‘Look at ye. Ye’re ower frantic tae preach this afternoon let alane journey the morn. Besides, ye have nae richt tae meddle wi them. Guid Lord help ye if ye fa in that company again.’
The argument was forestalled by Reid falling asleep in his chair, after which Fergusson went to his own house. He was disturbed there later by a delegation of elders who wanter the women dealt with promptly. Henry Fergusson agreed, but when he suggested a party should ride up the glen next morning they were half-hearted. Only Thomson and Smith agreed to accompany the beadle; the first was motivated by a wish to escape his wife, the second by bald curiosity.
The trio were sombre and self-conscious at cock-crow as they rode on the north road out of the farm lands. All the way they were over shadowed by a flight of corbies which croaked black comment on their progress. As they reached the turning for Tod’s Knowe a thickening of the air made them spur the horses up the final incline. Little of the moor could be glimpsed through a haar of acrid smoke and they became separated as they crossed it. Fergusson misled himself into a peat hag full of brackish water and made efforts to free himself. John Thomson was the first to reach the house of the McBrides. The old woman was seated in the garden, screaming shrilly, her body wreathed in flames. Thomson unthinkingly snatched a charred plank from the fallen door of the cottage and beat her head until both life and fire were extinguished. Then he knelt and cried like a bairn beside the ruins.
It took a considerable while before heat and smoke subsided and Thomson could see the devastation. The house had utterly collapsed on itself. He threw down the bloody wood he was still clutching, seeing there were six black raindrops painted on it: the tears of the countryside for Lord Donaldson. In a state of near derangement he managed to staggger to the moor edge where David Smith was waiting with Jane Mc Bride at the edge of the woods.
Smith had stumbled halfway over the plateau when he froze. The cloud above him seemed one minute a feathered blackness brought on by a great gathering of carrion crows, the next it was composed of pungent haar. Then the girl had found him and led him away. When they reached the woods, he tried to speak to her, but she was locked in a shocked daze and her face was transfigured by ashes.
The elders exchanged experiences in hushed tones, then Smith asked if they could wait for the beadle.