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Chapter 7

The King’s Visit

No, no,” said the king decisively, “Bring them in, bring them in. I’ll have none cast into prison without at least a hearing. Have any of your men been killed?”

“No, your majesty,” replied Sir Donald, “but some of them have wounds they will not forget in a hurry; the Highlandmen fought like tiger-cats.”

“How many are there of them?” asked the king.

“Something more than a score, with a piper that’s noisier than the other twenty, led by a breechless ruffian, although I must say he knows what to do with a sword.”

“All armed, you say?”

“Every one of them but the piper. About half an hour ago they came marching up the main street of Stirling, each man with his sword drawn, and the pipes skirling death and defiance. They had the whole town at their heels laughing and jeering at them and imitating the wild Highland music. At first, they paid little attention to the mob that followed them, but in the square their leader gave a word in Gaelic, and at once the whole company swerved about and charged the crowd. There was instant panic among the townspeople, who fled in all directions out-screaming the pibroch in their fright. No one was hurt, for the Highlandmen struck them with the flat of their swords, but several were trampled under foot and are none the better for it.”

“It serves them right,” commented the king. “I hope it will teach them manners, towards strangers, at least. What followed?”

“A whistle from their leader collected his helots again, and so they marched straight from the square to the gates of the castle. The two soldiers on guard crossed pikes before them, but the leader, without a word, struck down their weapons and attempted to march in, brave as you please; who but they! There was a bit of a scuffle at the gate, then the bugle sounded and we surrounded them, trying to disarm them peaceably at first, but they fought like demons, and so there’s some sore heads among them.”

“You disarmed them, of course?”

“Certainly, your majesty.”

“Very well; bring them in and let us hear what they have to say for themselves.”

The doors were flung open, a sharp command was given, and presently there entered the group of Highlanders, disarmed and with their elbows tied behind their backs. A strong guard of the soldiery accompanied them on either side. The Highlanders were men of magnificent physique, a quality that was enhanced by the picturesque costume they wore, in spite of the fact that in some instances, this costume was in tatters, and the wearers cut and bleeding. But, stalwart as his followers were, their leader far outmeasured them in height and girth; a truly magnificent specimen of the human race, who strode up the long room with an imperial swagger such as had never before been seen in Stirling, in spite of the fact that his arms were pinioned. He marched on until he came before the king, and there took his stand, without any indication of bowing his bonneted head, or bending his sturdy bare knees. The moment the leader set his foot across the threshold, the unabashed piper immediately protruded his chest, and struck up the wild strain of “Failte mhic an Abba,” or the Salute to the Chief.

“Stop it, ye deevil!” cried the captain of the guard. “How dare you set up such a squawking in the presence of the king?” and as the piper paid not the slightest attention to him, he struck the mouth-piece from the lips of the performer. This, however, did not cause a cessation of the music, for the bag under the piper’s elbow was filled with wind and the fingers of the musician bravely kept up the strain on the reed chanter with its nine holes, and thus he played until his chief came to a stand before the king. The king gazed with undisguised admiration upon the foremost Highlander, and said quietly to the captain of the guard,—

“Unbind him!”

On finding his arms released, the mountaineer stretched them out once or twice, then folded them across his breast, making no motion however to remove his plumed bonnet, although every one else in the room except himself and his men were uncovered.

“You have come in from the country,” began the king, a suspicion of a smile hovering about his lips, “to enjoy the metropolitan delights of Stirling. How are you satisfied with your reception?”

The big Highlandman made no reply, but frowned heavily, and bestowed a savage glance on several of the courtiers, among whom a light ripple of laughter had run after the king put his question.

“These savages,” suggested Sir Donald, “do not understand anything but the Gaelic. Is it your majesty’s pleasure that the interpreter be called?”

“Yes, bring him in.”

When the interpreter arrived, the king said,—

“Ask this man if his action is the forefront of a Highland invasion of the Lowlands, or merely a little private attempt on his own part to take the castle by assault?”

The interpreter put the question in Gaelic, and was answered with gruff brevity by the marauder. The interpreter, bowing low to the king, said smoothly,—

“This man humbly begs to inform your majesty—”

“Speak truth, MacPherson!” cautioned the king. “Translate faithfully exactly what he says. Our friend here, by the look of him, does not do anything humbly, or fawn or beg. Translate accurately. What does he say?”

The polite MacPherson was taken aback by this reproof, but answered,—

“He says, your majesty, he will hold no communication with me, because I am of an inferior clan, which is untrue. The MacPhersons were a civilised clan centuries ago, which the MacNabs are not to this day, so please your majesty.”

The MacNab’s hand darted to his left side, but finding no sword to his grasp, it fell away again.

“You are a liar!” cried the chief in very passable English which was not to be misunderstood. “The MacPhersons are no clan, but an insignificant branch of the Chattan. ‘Touch not the Cat’ is your motto, and a good one, for a MacPherson can scratch but he cannot handle the broadsword.”

MacPherson drew himself up, his face reddening with anger. His hand also sought instinctively the hilt of his sword, but the presence in which he stood restricted him.

“It is quite safe,” he said with something like the spit of a cat, “for a heathen to insult a Christian in the presence of his king, and the MacNabs have ever shown a taste for the cautious cause.”

“Tut, tut,” cried the king with impatience, “am I to find myself involved in a Highland feud in my own hall? MacPherson, it seems this man does not require your interpreting, so perhaps it will further the peace of our realm if you withdraw quietly.”

MacPherson with a low obeisance, did so; then to MacNab the king spoke,—

“Sir, as it appears you are acquainted with our language, why did you not reply to the question I put to you?”

“Because I would have you know it was not the proper kind of question to ask the like of me. I am a descendant of kings.”

“Well, as far as that goes, I am a descendant of kings myself, though sorry I should be to defend all their actions.”

“Your family only began with Robert the Bruce; mine was old ere he came to the throne.”

“That may well be, still you must admit that what Robert lacked in ancestry, he furnished forth in ability.”

“But the Clan MacNab defeated him at the battle of Del Rhi.”

“True, with some assistance, which you ignore, from Alexander of Argyll. However, if this discussion is to become a competition in history, for the benefit of our ignorant courtiers, I may be allowed to add that my good ancestor, Robert, did not forget the actions of the MacNabs at Del Rhi, and later overran their country, dismantled their fortresses, leaving the clan in a more sane and chastened condition than that in which he found it. But what has all this to do with your coming storming into a peaceable town like Stirling?”

“In truth, your majesty,” whispered Sir David Lyndsay, “I think they must have come to replenish their wardrobe, and in that they are not a moment too soon.”

“I came,” said the chief, who had not heard this last remark, “because of the foray you have mentioned. I came because Robert the Bruce desolated our country.”

“By my good sword!” cried James, “speaking as one king to another, your revenge is somewhat belated, a lapse of two centuries should have outlawed the debt. Did you expect then to take Stirling with twenty men?”

“I expected King James the Fifth to rectify the wrong done by King Robert the First.”

“Your expectation does honour to my reputation as a just man, but I have already disclaimed responsibility for the deeds of ancestors less remote than good King Robert.”

“You have made proclamation in the Highlands that the chieftains must bring you proof of their right to occupy their lands.”

“I have, and some have preferred to me their deeds of tenure, others prepared to fight; the cases have been settled in both instances. To which of these two classes do you belong, Chief of the Clan MacNab?”

“To neither. I cannot submit to you our parchments because Robert, your ancestor, destroyed them. I cannot fight the army of the Lowlands because my clan is small, therefore I, Finlay MacNab, fifth of my name, as you are fifth of yours, come to you in peace, asking you to repair the wrong done by your ancestor.”

“Indeed!” cried the king. “If the present advent typifies your idea of a peaceful visit, then God forfend that I should ever meet you in anger.”

“I came in peace and have been shamefully used.”

“You must not hold that against us,” said James. “Look you now, if I had come storming at your castle door, sword in hand, how would you have treated me, Finlay the Fifth?”

“If you had come with only twenty men behind you, I should treat you with all the hospitality of Glendochart, which far exceeds that of Stirling or any other part of your money-making Lowlands, where gold coin is valued more than a steel blade.”

“It has all been a mistake,” said the king with great cordiality. “The parchment you seek shall be given you, and I trust that your generosity, Lord of Glendochart, will allow me to amend your opinion of Stirling hospitality. I shall take it kindly if you will be my guests in the castle until my officers of law repair the harshness of my ancestor, Robert.” Then, turning to the guard the king continued,—

“Unbind these gentlemen, and return to them their arms.”

While the loosening of the men was rapidly being accomplished, the captain of the guard brought the chief his sword, and would have presented it to him, but the king himself rose and took the weapon in his own hand, tendering it to its owner. The chieftain accepted the sword and rested its point on the floor, then in dignified native courtesy, he doffed his broad, feathered bonnet.

“Sire,” he said, with slow deliberation, “Scotland has a king that this good blade shall ever be proud to serve.”

For three days, the MacNabs were the guests of the king in the castle, while the legal documents were being prepared. King and chieftain walked the town together, and all that Stirling had to show, MacNab beheld. The king was desirous of costuming, at his own expense, the portion of the clan that was now in his castle, whose disarray was largely due to his own soldiers, but he feared the proposal might offend the pride of Finlay the Fifth.

James’s tact, however, overcame the difficulty.

“When I visit you, MacNab, over by Loch Tay, there is one favour I must ask; I want your tailors to make for me and the men of my following, suits of kilts in the MacNab tartan.”

“Surely, surely,” replied the chief, “and a better weaving you will get nowhere in the Highlands.”

“I like the colour of it,” continued the king. “There is a royal red in it that pleases me. Now there is a good deal of red in the Stuart tartan, and I should be greatly gratified if you would permit your men to wear my colours, as my men shall wear yours. My tailors here will be proud to boast that they have made costumes for the Clan MacNab. You know what tradesmen bodies are, they’re pleased when we take a little notice of them.”

“Surely,” again replied MacNab, more dubiously, “and I shall send them the money for it when I get home.”

“Indeed,” said the king, “if you think I am going to have a full purse when I’m in the MacNab country, you’re mistaken.”

“I never suggested such a thing,” replied the chief indignantly. “You’ll count nane o’ yer ain bawbees when you are with me.”

“Ah, well,” rejoined the king, “that’s right, and so you will just leave me to settle with my own tailors here.”

Thus the re-costuming came about, and all in all it was just as well that MacNab did not insist on his own tartan, for there was none of it in Stirling, while of the Stuart plaid there was a sufficiency to clothe a regiment.

On the last night, there was a banquet given which was the best that Stirling could bestow, in honour of the Clan MacNab. The great hall was decorated with the colours of the clan, and at the further end had been painted the arms of the MacNab—the open boat, with its oars, on the sea proper, the head of the savage, the two supporting figures and the Latin motto underneath, “Timor omnis abseto”. Five pipers of the king’s court had learned the Salute to the Chief, and now, headed by MacNab’s own, they paced up and down the long room, making it ring with their war-like music. The king and the chieftain came in together, and as the latter took his place at his host’s right hand, his impassive face betrayed no surprise at the splendid preparations which had been made for his reception. Indeed, the Highlanders all acted as if they had been accustomed to sit down to such a banquet every night. Many dainties were placed on the ample board cunningly prepared by foreign cooks, the like of which the Highlanders had never before tasted; but the mountaineers ate stolidly whatever was set in front of them, and if unusual flavours saluted their palates, the strangers made no sign of approval or the reverse. The red wine of Burgundy, grown old in the king’s cellars, was new to most of them, and they drank it like water, emptying their tankards as fast as the attendant could refill them. Soon the ruddy fluid, whose potency had been under-estimated, began to have its effect, and the dinner table became noisy as the meal progressed, songs bursting forth now and then, with strange shouts and cries more familiar to the hills of Loch Tay than to the rafters of Stirling. The chief himself, lost the solemn dignity which had at first characterised him, and as he emptied flagon after flagon he boasted loudly of the prowess of his clan; foretold what he would do in future fields now that he was allied with the King of Scotland. Often forgetting himself, he fell into the Gaelic, roaring forth a torrent of words that had no meaning for many there present, then remembering the king did not understand the language, he expressed his pity for a man in such condition, saying the Gaelic was the oldest tongue in existence, and the first spoken by human lips upon this earth. It was much more expressive, he said, than the dialect of the Lowlands, and the only language that could fittingly describe war and battle, just as the pibroch was the only music suitable to strife, to all of which the smiling king nodded approval. At last MacNab sprang to his feet, holding aloft his brimming flagon, which literally rained Burgundy down upon him, and called for cheers for the King of Scotland, a worthy prince who knew well how to entertain a brother prince. Repeating this in Gaelic, his men, who had also risen with their chief, now sprang upon the benches, where standing unsteadily, they raised a series of yells so wild that a shudder of fear passed through many of the courtiers there present. The chief, calling to his piper, commanded him instantly to compose a pibroch for the king, and that ready musician, swelling with pride, marched up and down and round and round the great hall pouring forth a triumphal quickstep, with many wonderful flourishes and variations. Then at a word from the chief, each man placed his flagon on the table, whipped out his sword, swung it overhead, to the amazement of the courtiers, for it is not in accord with etiquette to show cold steel to the eyes of the king. Down came the blades instantly and together, each man splitting in two the goblet he had drunk from.

“You must all come to Loch Tay,” cried the chief, “and I will show you a banqueting hall in honour of James the Fifth, such as you have never before seen.” Then to the horror of the courtiers, he suddenly smote the king on the back with his open palm and cried, “Jamie, my lad, you’ll come and visit me at Loch Tay?”

The smitten king laughed heartily and replied,—

“Yes, Finlay, I will.”

The next day the MacNabs marched from the castle and down through the town of Stirling with much pomp and circumstance. They were escorted by the king’s own guard, and this time the populace made no sneering remarks but thronged the windows and the roofs, cheering heartily, while the Highlanders kept proud step to the shrill music of the pipes. And thus the clansmen set faces towards the north on their long tramp home.

“What proud ‘deevils’ they are,” said Sir David Lyndsay to the king after the northern company had departed. “I have been through the MacNab country from one end of it to the other, and there is not a decent hut on the hillside, let alone a castle fit to entertain a king, yet the chief gives an invitation in the heat of wine, and when he is sobered, he is too proud to admit that he cannot make good the words he has uttered.”

“That very thing is troubling me,” replied the king, “but it’s a long time till July, and between now and then we will make him some excuse for not returning his visit, and thus avoid putting the old man to shame.”

“But that too will offend him beyond repair,” objected the poet.

“Well, we must just lay our heads together, Davie,” answered the king, “and think of some way that will neither be an insult nor a humiliation. It might not be a bad plan for me to put on disguise and visit Finlay alone.”

“Would you trust yourself, unaccompanied, among those wild caterans? One doesn’t know what they might do.”

“I wish I were as safe in Stirling as I should be among the MacNabs,” replied the king.

However, affairs of state did not permit the carrying out of the king’s intention. Embassies came from various countries, and the king must entertain the foreigners in a manner becoming their importance. This, however, gave James the valid excuse he required, and so he sent a commission to the chief of the MacNabs. “His majesty,” said the head commissioner, “is entertaining the ambassadors from Spain and from France, and likewise a legate from the Pope. If he came north, he must at least bring with him these great noblemen with their retinues; and while he would have been glad to visit you with some of his own men, he could not impose upon the hospitality thus generously tendered, by bringing also a large number of strangers and foreigners.”

“Tell his majesty,” replied MacNab with dignity, “that whether he bring with him the King of Spain, the Emperor of France, or even the Pope himself, none of these princes is, in the estimation of MacNab, superior to James the Fifth, of Scotland. The entertainment therefore, which the king graciously condescends to accept, is certainly good enough for any foreigners that may accompany him, be their nobility ever so high.”

When this reply was reported to the king he first smiled and then sighed.

“I can do nothing further,” he said. “Return to MacNab and tell him that the Pope’s legate desires to visit the Priory on Loch Tay. Tell the chief that we will take the boat along the lake on the day arranged. Say that the foreigners are anxious to taste the venison of the hills, and that nothing could be better than to give us a dinner under the trees. Tell him that he need not be at any trouble to provide us lodging, for we shall return to the Island Priory and there sleep.”

In the early morning the king and his followers, the ambassadors and their train embarked on boats that had been brought overland for their accommodation, and sailed from the Island Priory the length of the beautiful lake; the numerous craft being driven through the water by strong northern oarsmen, their wild chaunting choruses echoing back from the picturesque mountains as they bent to their work. The evening before, horses for the party had been led through forests, over the hills, and along the strand, to the meeting-place at the other end of the lake. Here they were greeted by the MacNabs, pipers and all, and mounting the horses the gay cavalcade was led up the valley. The king had warned their foreign Highnesses that they were not to expect in this wilderness the niceties of Rome, Paris or Madrid, and each of the ambassadors expressed his delight at the prospect of an outing certain to contain so much that was novel and unusual to them.

A summer haze hung in the valley, and when the king came in sight of the stronghold of the MacNabs he rubbed his eyes in wonder, thinking the misty uncertainty of the atmosphere was playing wizard tricks with his vision. There, before them, stood the most bulky edifice, the most extraordinary pile he had ever beheld. Tremendous in extent, it seemed to have embodied every marked feature of a mediæval castle. At one end a great square keep arose, its amazing height looming gigantically in the gauze-like magic of the mist. A high wall, machicolated at the top, connected this keep with a small octagonal tower, whose twin was placed some distance to the left, leaving an opening between for a wide entrance. The two octagonal towers formed a sort of frame for a roaring waterfall in the background. From the second octagonal tower another extended lofty wall connected it with a round peel as high as the keep. This castle of a size so enormous that it made all others its beholders had ever seen shrink into comparative insignificance, was surrounded by a bailey wall; outside of that was a moat which proved to be a foaming river, fed by the volume of water which came down the precipice behind the castle. The lashing current and the snow-white cascade formed a striking contrast to the deep moss-green hue of the castle itself.

“We have many great strongholds in Italy,” said the Pope’s legate, “but never have I seen anything to compare with this.”

“Oh,” said MacNab slightingly, “we are but a small clan; you should see the Highland castles further north; they are of stone; indeed our own fortresses, which are further inland, are also of stone. This is merely our pleasure-house built of pine-trees.”

“A castle of logs!” exclaimed the Pope’s legate. “I never before heard of such a thing.”

They crossed the bridge, passed between the two octagonal towers and entered the extensive courtyard, surrounded by the castle itself; a courtyard broad enough to afford manœvring ground for an army. The interior walls were as attractive as the outside was grim and forbidding. Balconies ran around three sides of the enclosure, tall thin, straight pine poles, rising three stories high, supporting them, each pole fluttering a flag at the top. The balconies were all festooned with branches of living green.

The air was tremulous with the thunder of the cataract and the courtyard was cut in two by a rushing torrent, spanned by rustic bridges. The walls were peopled by cheering clansmen, and nearly a score of pipers did much to increase the din. Inside, the king and his men found ample accommodation; their rooms were carpeted with moss and with flowers, forming a variety of colour and yielding a softness to the foot which the artificial piles of Eastern looms would have attempted to rival in vain. Here for three days the royal party was entertained. Hunting in the forest gave them prodigious appetites, and there was no criticism of the cooking. The supply of food and drink was lavish in the extreme; fish from the river and the loch, game from the moors and venison from the hills.

It was evening of the third day when the cavalcade set out again for the Priory; the chief, Finlay MacNab, accompanied his guests down the valley, and when some distance from the castle of logs, James smote him on the shoulder, copying thus his own astonishing action. “Sir Finlay,” he cried, “a king’s hand should be no less potent than a king’s sword, and thus I create thee a knight of my realm, for never before has monarch been so royally entertained, and now I pause here to look once more on your castle of pine.”

So they all stayed progress and turned their eyes toward the wooden palace they had left.

“If it were built of stone,” said the Pope’s legate, “it would be the strongest house in the world as it is the largest.”

“A bulwark of bones is better than a castle of stones,” said Sir Finlay. “That is an old Highland saying with us, which means that a brave following is the best ward. I will show you my bulwark of bones.”

And with that, bowing to the king as if to ask permission, he raised his bugle to his lips and blew a blast. Instantly from the corner of the further bastion a torch flamed forth, and that torch lighted the one next it, and this its neighbour, so that speedily a line of fire ran along the outlines of the castle, marking out the square towers and the round, lining the curtain, the smaller towers, turrets and parapets. Then at the top of the bailey wall a circle of Highlanders lit torch after torch, and thus was the whole castle illumined by a circle of fire. The huge edifice was etched in flame against the sombre background of the high mountain.

“Confess, legate,” cried the king, “that you never saw anything more beautiful even in fair Italy.”

“I am willing to admit as much,” replied the Roman.

Another blast from the bugle and all the torches on the castle itself disappeared, although the fire on the bailey wall remained intact, and the reason for this soon became apparent. From machicolated tower, keep, peel and curtain, the nimble Highlanders, torchless, scrambled down, cheering as they came. It seemed incredible that they could have attained such speed, picking their precarious way by grasping protruding branch or stump or limb, or by thrusting hand between the interstices of the timber, without slipping, falling and breaking their necks.

For a moment the castle walls were alive with fluttering tartans, strongly illuminated by the torches from the outer bailey. Each man held his breath while this perilous acrobatic performance was being accomplished, and silence reigned over the royal party until suddenly broken by the Italian.

“Highlander!” he cried, “your castle is on fire.”

“Aye,” said the Highlander calmly, raising his bugle again to his lips.

At the next blast those on the bailey wall thrust their torches, still burning among the chinks of the logs, and swarmed to the ground as speedily and as safely as those on the main building had done. Now the lighted torches that had been thrown on the roof of the castle, disappearing a moment from sight, gave evidence of their existence. Here and there a long tongue of flame sprung up and died down again.

“Can nothing be done to save the palace?” shouted the excitable Frenchman. “The waterfall; the waterfall! Let us go back, or the castle will be destroyed.”

“Stand where you are,” said the chief, “and you will see a sight worth coming north for.”

Now almost with the suddenness of an explosion, great sheets of flame rose towering into a mountain of fire, as if this roaring furnace would emulate in height the wooded hills behind it. The logs themselves seemed to redden as the light glowed through every crevice between them. The bastions, the bailey walls, were great wheels of flame, encircling a palace that had all the vivid radiance of molten gold. The valley for miles up and down was lighter than the sun ever made it.

“Chieftain,” said the legate in an awed whisper, “is this conflagration accident or design?”

“It is our custom,” replied MacNab. “A monarch’s pathway must be lighted, and it is not fitting that a residence once honoured by our king should ever again be occupied by anyone less noble. The pine tree is the badge of my clan. At my behest the pine tree sheltered the king, and now, at the blast of my bugle, it sends forth to the glen its farewell of flame.”

Robert Barr

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