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- ANGLING SKETCHES - 5/18 -
a guide's stock-in-trade, but the angler who had my barque in his charge proved to be a fresh fountain of legend. His own county is not Argyleshire, but Inverness, and we did not deal much in local myth. True, he told me why Loch Awe ceased--like the site of Sodom and Gomorrah--to be a cultivated valley and became a lake, where the trout are small and, externally, green.
"Loch Awe was once a fertile valley, and it belonged to an old dame. She was called Dame Cruachan, the same as the hill, and she lived high up on the hill-side. Now there was a well on the hill- side, and she was always to cover up the well with a big stone before the sun set. But one day she had been working in the valley and she was weary, and she sat down by the path on her way home and fell asleep. And the sun had gone down before she reached the well, and in the night the water broke out and filled all the plain, and what was land is now water." This, then, was the origin of Loch Awe. It is a little like the Australian account of the Deluge. That calamity was produced by a man's showing a woman the mystic turndun, a native sacred toy. Instantly water broke out of the earth and drowned everybody.
This is merely a local legend, such as boatmen are expected to know. As the green trout utterly declined to rise, I tried the boatman with the Irish story of why the Gruagach Gaire left off laughing, and all about the hare that came and defiled his table, as recited by Mr. Curtin in his "Irish Legends" (Sampson, Low, & Co.). The boatman did not know this fable, but he did know of a red deer that came and spoke to a gentleman. This was a story from the Macpherson country. I give it first in the boatman's words, and then we shall discuss the history of the legend as known to Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd.
THE YARN OF THE BLACK OFFICER
"It was about 'the last Christmas of the hundred'--the end of last century. They wanted men for the Black Watch (42nd Highlanders), and the Black Officer, as they called him, was sent to his own country to enlist them. Some he got willingly, and others by force. He promised he would only take them to London, where the King wanted to review them, and then let them go home. So they came, though they little liked it, and he was marching them south. Now at night they reached a place where nobody would have halted them except the Black Officer, for it was a great place for ghosts. And they would have run away if they had dared, but they were afraid of him. So some tried to sleep in threes and fours, and some were afraid to sleep, and they sat up round the fire. But the Black Officer, he went some way from the rest, and lay down beneath a tree.
"Now as the night wore on, and whiles it would be dark and whiles the moon shone, a man came--they did not know from where--a big red man, and drew up to the fire, and was talking with them. And he asked where the Black Officer was, and they showed him. Now there was one man, Shamus Mackenzie they called him, and he was very curious, and he must be seeing what they did. So he followed the man, and saw him stoop and speak to the officer, but he did not waken; then this individual took the Black Officer by the breast and shook him violently. Then Shamus knew who the stranger was, for no man alive durst have done as much to the Black Officer. And there was the Black Officer kneeling to him!
"Well, what they said, Shamus could not hear, and presently they walked away, and the Black Officer came back alone.
"He took them to England, but never to London, and they never saw the King. He took them to Portsmouth, and they were embarked for India, where we were fighting the French. There was a town we couldn't get into" (Seringapatam?), "and the Black Officer volunteered to make a tunnel under the walls. Now they worked three days, and whether it was the French heard them and let them dig on, or not, any way, on the third day the French broke in on them. They kept sending men into the tunnel, and more men, and still they wondered who was fighting within, and how we could have so large a party in the tunnel; so at last they brought torches, and there was no man alive on our side but the Black Officer, and he had a wall of corpses built up in front of him, and was fighting across it. He had more light to see by than the French had, for it was dark behind him, and there would be some light on their side. So at last they brought some combustibles and blew it all up. Three days after that we took the town. Some of our soldiers were sent to dig out the tunnel, and with them was Shamus Mackenzie."
"And they never found the Black Officer," I said, thinking of young Campbell in Sekukoeni's fighting koppie.
"Oh, yes," said the boatman, "Shamus found the body of the Black Officer, all black with smoke, and he laid him down on a green knoll, and was standing over the dead man, and was thinking of how many places they had been in together, and of his own country, and how he wished he was there again. Then the dead man's face moved.
"Shamus turned and ran for his life, and he was running till he met some officers, and he told them that the Black Officer's body had stirred. They thought he was lying, but they went off to the place, and one of them had the thought to take a flask of brandy in his pocket. When they came to the lifeless body it stirred again, and with one thing and another they brought him round.
"The Black Officer was not himself again for long, and they took him home to his own country, and he lay in bed in his house. And every day a red deer would come to the house, and go into his room and sit on a chair beside the bed, speaking to him like a man.
"Well, the Black Officer got better again, and went about among his friends; and once he was driving home from a dinner-party, and Shamus was with him. It was just the last night of the hundred. And on the road they met a man, and Shamus knew him--for it was him they had seen by the fire on the march, as I told you at the beginning. The Black Officer got down from his carriage and joined the man, and they walked a bit apart; but Shamus--he was so curious--whatever happened he must see them. And he came within hearing just as they were parting, and he heard the stranger say, 'This is the night.'
"'No,' said the Black Officer, 'this night next year.'
"So he came back, and they drove home. A year went by, and the Black Officer was seeking through the country for the twelve best men he could find to accompany him to some deer-hunt or the like. And he asked Shamus, but he pretended he was ill--Oh, he was very unwell!--and he could not go, but stayed in bed at home. So the Black Officer chose another man, and he and the twelve set out--the thirteen of them. But they were never seen again."
"Never seen again? Were they lost in the snow?"
"It did come on a heavy fall, sir."
"But their bodies were found?"
"No, sir--though they searched high and low; they are not found, indeed, till this day. It was thought the Black Officer had sold himself and twelve other men, sir."
"To the Devil?"
"It would be that."
For the narrator never mentions our ghostly foe, which produces a solemn effect.
This story was absolutely new to me, and much I wished that Mr. Louis Stevenson could have heard it. The blending of the far East with the Highlands reminds one of his "Master of Ballantrae," and what might he not make of that fairy red deer! My boatman, too, told me what Mr. Stevenson says the Highlanders will not tell--the name of the man who committed the murder of which Alan Breck was accused. But this secret I do not intend to divulge.
The story of the Black Officer then seemed absolutely unpublished. But when Sir Walter Scott's diary was given to the world in October, 1890, it turned out that he was not wholly ignorant of the legend. In 1828 he complains that he has been annoyed by a lady, because he had printed "in the 'Review'" a rawhead and bloody-bones story of her father, Major Macpherson, who was lost in a snowstorm. This Major Macpherson was clearly the Black Officer. Mr. Douglas, the publisher of Scott's diary, discovered that the "Review" mentioned vaguely by Scott was the "Foreign Quarterly," No. I, July, 1827. In an essay on Hoffmann's novels, Sir Walter introduced the tale as told to him in a letter from a nobleman some time deceased, not more distinguished for his love of science than his attachment to literature in all its branches.
The tale is too long to be given completely. Briefly, a Captain M., on St. Valentine's day, 1799, had been deer-shooting (at an odd time of the year) in the hills west of D-. He did not return, a terrible snowstorm set in, and finally he and his friends were found dead in a bothy, which the tempest had literally destroyed. Large stones from the walls were found lying at distances of a hundred yards; the wooden uprights were twisted like broken sticks. The Captain was lying dead, without his clothes, on the bed; one man was discovered at a distance, another near the Captain. Then it was remembered that, at the same bothy a month before, a shepherd lad had inquired for the Captain, had walked with him for some time, and that, on the officer's return, "a mysterious anxiety hung about him." A fire had also been seen blazing on an opposite height, and when some of the gillies went to the spot, "there was no fire to be seen." On the day when the expedition had started, the Captain was warned of the ill weather, but he said "he MUST go." He was an unpopular man, and was accused of getting money by procuring recruits from the Highlands, often by cruel means. "Our informer told us nothing more; he neither told us his own opinion, nor that of the country, but left it to our own notions of the manner in which good and evil is rewarded in this life to suggest the author of the miserable event. He seemed impressed with superstitious awe on the subject, and said, 'There was na the like seen in a' Scotland.' The man is far advanced in years and is a schoolmaster in the neighbourhood of Rannoch."
Sir Walter says that "the feeling of superstitious awe annexed to the catastrophe could not have been improved by any circumstances of additional horror which a poet could have invented. But is there not something more moving still in the boatman's version: "they were never seen again . . . they were not found indeed till this day"?
The folklorist, of course, is eager to know whether the boatman's much more complete and connected narrative is a popular mythical
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