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Ch. 6 - Pastoral

TO leave home in early life is to be stunned and quickened with
novelties; but when years have come, it only casts a more endearing
light upon the past. As in those composite photographs of Mr.
Galton's, the image of each new sitter brings out but the more
clearly the central features of the race; when once youth has
flown, each new impression only deepens the sense of nationality
and the desire of native places. So may some cadet of Royal
Ecossais or the Albany Regiment, as he mounted guard about French
citadels, so may some officer marching his company of the Scots-
Dutch among the polders, have felt the soft rains of the Hebrides
upon his brow, or started in the ranks at the remembered aroma of
peat-smoke. And the rivers of home are dear in particular to all
men. This is as old as Naaman, who was jealous for Abana and
Pharpar; it is confined to no race nor country, for I know one of
Scottish blood but a child of Suffolk, whose fancy still lingers
about the lilied lowland waters of that shire. But the streams of
Scotland are incomparable in themselves - or I am only the more
Scottish to suppose so - and their sound and colour dwell for ever
in the memory. How often and willingly do I not look again in
fancy on Tummel, or Manor, or the talking Airdle, or Dee swirling
in its Lynn; on the bright burn of Kinnaird, or the golden burn
that pours and sulks in the den behind Kingussie! I think shame to
leave out one of these enchantresses, but the list would grow too
long if I remembered all; only I may not forget Allan Water, nor
birch-wetting Rogie, nor yet Almond; nor, for all its pollutions,
that Water of Leith of the many and well-named mills - Bell's
Mills, and Canon Mills, and Silver Mills; nor Redford Burn of
pleasant memories; nor yet, for all its smallness, that nameless
trickle that springs in the green bosom of Allermuir, and is fed
from Halkerside with a perennial teacupful, and threads the moss
under the Shearer's Knowe, and makes one pool there, overhung by a
rock, where I loved to sit and make bad verses, and is then
kidnapped in its infancy by subterranean pipes for the service of
the sea-beholding city in the plain. From many points in the moss
you may see at one glance its whole course and that of all its
tributaries; the geographer of this Lilliput may visit all its
corners without sitting down, and not yet begin to be breathed;
Shearer's Knowe and Halkerside are but names of adjacent cantons on
a single shoulder of a hill, as names are squandered (it would seem
to the in-expert, in superfluity) upon these upland sheepwalks; a
bucket would receive the whole discharge of the toy river; it would
take it an appreciable time to fill your morning bath; for the most
part, besides, it soaks unseen through the moss; and yet for the
sake of auld lang syne, and the figure of a certain GENIUS LOCI, I
am condemned to linger awhile in fancy by its shores; and if the
nymph (who cannot be above a span in stature) will but inspire my
pen, I would gladly carry the reader along with me.

John Todd, when I knew him, was already "the oldest herd on the
Pentlands," and had been all his days faithful to that curlew-
scattering, sheep-collecting life. He remembered the droving days,
when the drove roads, that now lie green and solitary through the
heather, were thronged thoroughfares. He had himself often marched
flocks into England, sleeping on the hillsides with his caravan;
and by his account it was a rough business not without danger. The
drove roads lay apart from habitation; the drovers met in the
wilderness, as to-day the deep-sea fishers meet off the banks in
the solitude of the Atlantic; and in the one as in the other case
rough habits and fist-law were the rule. Crimes were committed,
sheep filched, and drovers robbed and beaten; most of which
offences had a moorland burial and were never heard of in the
courts of justice. John, in those days, was at least once
attacked, - by two men after his watch, - and at least once,
betrayed by his habitual anger, fell under the danger of the law
and was clapped into some rustic prison-house, the doors of which
he burst in the night and was no more heard of in that quarter.
When I knew him, his life had fallen in quieter places, and he had
no cares beyond the dulness of his dogs and the inroads of
pedestrians from town. But for a man of his propensity to wrath
these were enough; he knew neither rest nor peace, except by
snatches; in the gray of the summer morning, and already from far
up the hill, he would wake the "toun" with the sound of his
shoutings; and in the lambing time, his cries were not yet silenced
late at night. This wrathful voice of a man unseen might be said
to haunt that quarter of the Pentlands, an audible bogie; and no
doubt it added to the fear in which men stood of John a touch of
something legendary. For my own part, he was at first my enemy,
and I, in my character of a rambling boy, his natural abhorrence.
It was long before I saw him near at hand, knowing him only by some
sudden blast of bellowing from far above, bidding me "c'way oot
amang the sheep." The quietest recesses of the hill harboured this
ogre; I skulked in my favourite wilderness like a Cameronian of the
Killing Time, and John Todd was my Claverhouse, and his dogs my
questing dragoons. Little by little we dropped into civilities;
his hail at sight of me began to have less of the ring of a war-
slogan; soon, we never met but he produced his snuff-box, which was
with him, like the calumet with the Red Indian, a part of the
heraldry of peace; and at length, in the ripeness of time, we grew
to be a pair of friends, and when I lived alone in these parts in
the winter, it was a settled thing for John to "give me a cry" over
the garden wall as he set forth upon his evening round, and for me
to overtake and bear him company.

That dread voice of his that shook the hills when he was angry,
fell in ordinary talk very pleasantly upon the ear, with a kind of
honied, friendly whine, not far off singing, that was eminently
Scottish. He laughed not very often, and when he did, with a
sudden, loud haw-haw, hearty but somehow joyless, like an echo from
a rock. His face was permanently set and coloured; ruddy and stiff
with weathering; more like a picture than a face; yet with a
certain strain and a threat of latent anger in the expression, like
that of a man trained too fine and harassed with perpetual
vigilance. He spoke in the richest dialect of Scotch I ever heard;
the words in themselves were a pleasure and often a surprise to me,
so that I often came back from one of our patrols with new
acquisitions; and this vocabulary he would handle like a master,
stalking a little before me, "beard on shoulder," the plaid hanging
loosely about him, the yellow staff clapped under his arm, and
guiding me uphill by that devious, tactical ascent which seems
peculiar to men of his trade. I might count him with the best
talkers; only that talking Scotch and talking English seem
incomparable acts. He touched on nothing at least, but he adorned
it; when he narrated, the scene was before you; when he spoke (as
he did mostly) of his own antique business, the thing took on a
colour of romance and curiosity that was surprising. The clans of
sheep with their particular territories on the hill, and how, in
the yearly killings and purchases, each must be proportionally
thinned and strengthened; the midnight busyness of animals, the
signs of the weather, the cares of the snowy season, the exquisite
stupidity of sheep, the exquisite cunning of dogs: all these he
could present so humanly, and with so much old experience and
living gusto, that weariness was excluded. And in the midst he
would suddenly straighten his bowed back, the stick would fly
abroad in demonstration, and the sharp thunder of his voice roll
out a long itinerary for the dogs, so that you saw at last the use
of that great wealth of names for every knowe and howe upon the
hillside; and the dogs, having hearkened with lowered tails and
raised faces, would run up their flags again to the masthead and
spread themselves upon the indicated circuit. It used to fill me
with wonder how they could follow and retain so long a story. But
John denied these creatures all intelligence; they were the
constant butt of his passion and contempt; it was just possible to
work with the like of them, he said, - not more than possible. And
then he would expand upon the subject of the really good dogs that
he had known, and the one really good dog that he had himself
possessed. He had been offered forty pounds for it; but a good
collie was worth more than that, more than anything, to a "herd;"
he did the herd's work for him. "As for the like of them!" he
would cry, and scornfully indicate the scouring tails of his
assistants.

Once - I translate John's Lallan, for I cannot do it justice, being
born BRITANNIS IN MONTIBUS, indeed, but alas! INERUDITO SAECULO -
once, in the days of his good dog, he had bought some sheep in
Edinburgh, and on the way out, the road being crowded, two were
lost. This was a reproach to John, and a slur upon the dog; and
both were alive to their misfortune. Word came, after some days,
that a farmer about Braid had found a pair of sheep; and thither
went John and the dog to ask for restitution. But the farmer was a
hard man and stood upon his rights. "How were they marked?" he
asked; and since John had bought right and left from many sellers
and had no notion of the marks - "Very well," said the farmer,
"then it's only right that I should keep them." - "Well," said
John, "it's a fact that I cannae tell the sheep; but if my dog can,
will ye let me have them?" The farmer was honest as well as hard,
and besides I daresay he had little fear of the ordeal; so he had
all the sheep upon his farm into one large park, and turned John's
dog into their midst. That hairy man of business knew his errand
well; he knew that John and he had bought two sheep and (to their
shame) lost them about Boroughmuirhead; he knew besides (the lord
knows how, unless by listening) that they were come to Braid for
their recovery; and without pause or blunder singled out, first one
and then another, the two waifs. It was that afternoon the forty
pounds were offered and refused. And the shepherd and his dog -
what do I say? the true shepherd and his man - set off together by
Fairmilehead in jocund humour, and "smiled to ither" all the way
home, with the two recovered ones before them. So far, so good;
but intelligence may be abused. The dog, as he is by little man's
inferior in mind, is only by little his superior in virtue; and
John had another collie tale of quite a different complexion. At
the foot of the moss behind Kirk Yetton (Caer Ketton, wise men say)
there is a scrog of low wood and a pool with a dam for washing
sheep. John was one day lying under a bush in the scrog, when he
was aware of a collie on the far hillside skulking down through the
deepest of the heather with obtrusive stealth. He knew the dog;
knew him for a clever, rising practitioner from quite a distant
farm; one whom perhaps he had coveted as he saw him masterfully
steering flocks to market. But what did the practitioner so far
from home? and why this guilty and secret manoeuvring towards the
pool? - for it was towards the pool that he was heading. John lay
the closer under his bush, and presently saw the dog come forth
upon the margin, look all about him to see if he were anywhere
observed, plunge in and repeatedly wash himself over head and ears,
and then (but now openly and with tail in air) strike homeward over
the hills. That same night word was sent his master, and the
rising practitioner, shaken up from where he lay, all innocence,
before the fire, was had out to a dykeside and promptly shot; for
alas! he was that foulest of criminals under trust, a sheep-eater;
and it was from the maculation of sheep's blood that he had come so
far to cleanse himself in the pool behind Kirk Yetton.

A trade that touches nature, one that lies at the foundations of
life, in which we have all had ancestors employed, so that on a
hint of it ancestral memories revive, lends itself to literary use,
vocal or written. The fortune of a tale lies not alone in the
skill of him that writes, but as much, perhaps, in the inherited
experience of him who reads; and when I hear with a particular
thrill of things that I have never done or seen, it is one of that
innumerable army of my ancestors rejoicing in past deeds. Thus
novels begin to touch not the fine DILETTANTI but the gross mass of
mankind, when they leave off to speak of parlours and shades of
manner and still-born niceties of motive, and begin to deal with
fighting, sailoring, adventure, death or childbirth; and thus
ancient outdoor crafts and occupations, whether Mr. Hardy wields
the shepherd's crook or Count Tolstoi swings the scythe, lift
romance into a near neighbourhood with epic. These aged things
have on them the dew of man's morning; they lie near, not so much
to us, the semi-artificial flowerets, as to the trunk and
aboriginal taproot of the race. A thousand interests spring up in
the process of the ages, and a thousand perish; that is now an
eccentricity or a lost art which was once the fashion of an empire;
and those only are perennial matters that rouse us to-day, and that
roused men in all epochs of the past. There is a certain critic,
not indeed of execution but of matter, whom I dare be known to set
before the best: a certain low-browed, hairy gentleman, at first a
percher in the fork of trees, next (as they relate) a dweller in
caves, and whom I think I see squatting in cave-mouths, of a
pleasant afternoon, to munch his berries - his wife, that
accomplished lady, squatting by his side: his name I never heard,
but he is often described as Probably Arboreal, which may serve for
recognition. Each has his own tree of ancestors, but at the top of
all sits Probably Arboreal; in all our veins there run some minims
of his old, wild, tree-top blood; our civilised nerves still tingle
with his rude terrors and pleasures; and to that which would have
moved our common ancestor, all must obediently thrill.

We have not so far to climb to come to shepherds; and it may be I
had one for an ascendant who has largely moulded me. But yet I
think I owe my taste for that hillside business rather to the art
and interest of John Todd. He it was that made it live for me, as
the artist can make all things live. It was through him the simple
strategy of massing sheep upon a snowy evening, with its attendant
scampering of earnest, shaggy aides-de-champ, was an affair that I
never wearied of seeing, and that I never weary of recalling to
mind: the shadow of the night darkening on the hills, inscrutable
black blots of snow shower moving here and there like night already
come, huddles of yellow sheep and dartings of black dogs upon the
snow, a bitter air that took you by the throat, unearthly harpings
of the wind along the moors; and for centre piece to all these
features and influences, John winding up the brae, keeping his
captain's eye upon all sides, and breaking, ever and again, into a
spasm of bellowing that seemed to make the evening bleaker. It is
thus that I still see him in my mind's eye, perched on a hump of
the declivity not far from Halkerside, his staff in airy flourish,
his great voice taking hold upon the hills and echoing terror to
the lowlands; I, meanwhile, standing somewhat back, until the fit
should be over, and, with a pinch of snuff, my friend relapse into
his easy, even conversation.

Robert Louis Stevenson