"Away wi' ye, Robbie, an' get me a wee dram, there's a good laddie."
Robbie McCubbin smiled as he untangled his legs and stood up. Looking down at his mother Agnes, he answered, "Are ye sure it's only the one ye'll be wantin'? It's a good step down to Donald Downie's wee cart just for the one cup. Maybe I'd better be makin' it two? Seein' it's fer medicinal purposes only?"
"Hold yer whisht, cheeky lad. Ye'll be makin' me out the local lush, that ye will. I'll no have people sayin' Agnes McCubbin's a drinker, not wi' the Reverend just o'er there. Now get ye gone."
With another grin, Robbie headed off between the picnic rugs down the slope to the long line of men at the whisky casks, his tartan hose and faded kilt handed down from his forefathers, a splash of red and yellow against the grass.
A weak sun clawed its way through the blanket of cloud, its meager warmth cloaking Mother Agnes' arthritic shoulders under her shawl. Her watery eyes watched the hundreds of bodies swarming around on Gresham Moor, the McCubbins'adopted Buchanan tartan, taking their small place in the predominance of Douglas colors swirling there.
She blinked, and her mind wandered to days long past. Other celebrations, in other times, always on this special patch of heath. Here, George had made the first tentative steps towards their betrothal, under the watchful gaze of her own, vigilant, mother. Here, a twelve-month later, he had asked her mother if he might come a-calling. Here he had passed the keen scrutiny of her father and two over-protective brothers. And here, in years past, she had been allowed to walk a short distance from the family spot with her husband-to-be, her two brothers keeping a respectful five steps behind the young couple.
Och, if only her George was still alive to see the splendor of the Douglas Games in this year of 1860.
The balmy winds of early summer heralded the time of the Gathering, when families from far and wide in the district came together to celebrate their heritage. Although it was the Douglas families, which predominated, many other clans were represented due to intermarrying or friendship and being neighbors. Families like theirs were always welcome in the large clan festivities.
She remembered as a wee girl, hearing young and old from many miles around swapping stories of the past couple of years, listening enthralled as hoary old men in faded kilts recited their versions of the history of Scotland, in their own style. Nowadays, with all this 'newfangled' schooling, less reliance was placed on the district gatherings to instill the feeling of one-ness that was the Scottish being. However the tellers of tales still found a wide audience for their stories.
Her rheumy old eyes traveled to the head of the valley, where colored banners and tents pinpointed the spots claimed by the local clan heads and organizers. There they sat, on carved wooden stools, their knobby knees wide apart to keep their cullage comfortable. Bushy-bearded cheeks screwed into smiles as they recognized the face of a clansman in passing. Drink in hand, and food within easy reach, they watched the festivities before them.
On the flat area in front of them a group of kilted lads danced over crossed swords. Their tartans showed the range of septs, or sub-clans, which gave their allegiance to this part of the Midlands of Scotland. Fleet feet wove intricate patterns as their black shod toes pointed this way and that at the four areas outlined by the intersecting blades. A lone piper stood to one side, his red face, and puffed out cheeks a testament to the effort of making his tune stand out from the general babble. Arms akimbo, the clansmen swung to his command, their pleated kilts swinging high behind them as their bodies leapt and twisted to the music.
To one side the hill was awash with black jackets showing silver braid around the pockets, topping the grey, black, blue and green of the plaids. The pipers and members of the sporting teams gathered here to wait for their turn at the competitions. Mysterious wailings arose as the musicians tuned their drones and fingered their chanters in preparation for the contests ahead.
On the opposing rise, the womenfolk in their best attire tended to the needs of the crowd. Each family or village had a spot, which, by rite of time or habit, was declared their own. However it was also easy to see which sept was in favor with the day's committee from its position adjacent to, or further from the main party.
Children dressed in fine clothes or rags, ran pell-mell through the crowds, yelling and cavorting as they made up games to suit the moment, or used the confusion of the crowd to pay back old scores. 'Flickie-kiltie' was high on the list of favored pastimes, with each player taking great care to sneak up behind his victim unseen. With the certainty of youth that this game was their very own, the youngsters were unaware that the 'victims' had no doubt played the same game themselves, years before.
Young men, beyond the age of such frivolity, strolled through the crowds. Their eyes were constantly roving, for this was the time of the matching where a young clansman could find a suitable lass for courting, in the hopes that she would end up his mate. The available lassies' cheeks would flush in anticipation, their shy faces turning away from the piercing gaze as a likely laddie approached, only to jerk upright again in dismay as the young buck passed by, heading for others more fair.
Mothers nudged their daughters or gossiped amongst themselves as the ancient ritual unfolded yet again. Occasionally a young man would stop by one of the family groups, sweep the Glengarry off his head, and address the mother with some observation about the weather or the dancing. It was not long before his eyes swung to the lassie of his choosing, and soon he would be sitting cross-legged beside her, striking up a bland conversation under the wary eyes of her family.
Robbie threaded his way down the slope between the family groups, from time to time nodding to acquaintances as he passed. Ahead of him was Donald Downie's cart, already surrounded by thirsty clansmen clamoring to be served.
"Me throat's afire and no mistake!"
"D'ye have ta die afore ye get a dram around here?"
"Next gatherin' I'm for settin' up a cask by mesel'. An' I won't be keepin' anyone waitin', that's a fact!"
He reached the outskirts of the crowd just in time to see a young lass join old Donald at dipping drams out of the open cask into the wooden cups provided. The young lass looked up as she handed a full cup to one of the old men, and Robbie caught a flash of green eyes as her gaze swept across the crowd. He caught his breath, wondering at the line of her jaw and the blush on her pretty cheeks. Full lips split into a smile as her eyes connected with her next customer, and he heard her voice say, "Alasdair, that's yer fourth already. D'ye no' think ye should slow down a wee bit?"
The man's face flushed as he took the rebuff.
"It's no up to a wee fluff like yersel' to tell me what I can an' canna do. Jest fill the damned cup an' be done wi' it."
"Now, now, brother, don't go givin' the lass a hard time. She meant nothin' by it," spoke up Robbie, his hand clasping the older man on the shoulder. "She just doesna' wish to see ye fall flat on yer face when ye're puffin' into yer blowstick durin' the pipin' competition."
"Aye, well, She still hasna' the right," and clasping the cup to his chest, he wormed his way out of the crowd and wandered off towards the pipers.
Thinking ahead, Robbie had brought his own mug, and now held it out towards her.
"And d'ye think that that deserves bein' treated special, like?" she said with a smile.
"No harm in a man tryin', now is there," he replied with a grin and inclined his head towards her. "It's only a wee dram I'll be askin' for my poor old mither."
"Poor old mither, indeed. I'll bet yer poor old mither wears tartan hose and shaves on Sundays. Now here ye are, and be off wi' ye."
Shoving the full pewter cup into his hand, she accepted the coin he offered and turned to her next customer.
Out of the crowd, Robbie turned and looked at her again. He saw a pretty lass of about his age, a little taller than most, with long brown hair cascading around her shoulders. She moved quickly, deft hands wielding the dipper without spilling a drop and he noticed she always smiled at her customers.
He stood there a full five minutes watching her, then as her eyes caught his again, flushed and turned away for the long trudge up the hill to Mother Agnes and the others.
The top of the door hit the bell hanging on a coil of spring metal, making it bob up and down and peal its message into the recesses of the little shop near the piers in Geelong. The Australian sun beat in through the small shop windows. Andie looked up from where he was untangling a length of chain, and crossed to the counter in time to welcome the red headed customer.
"Would ye' have any shovels wi' narra snouts around?" the grubby man enquired.
"How narrow d'you need?" replied Andie, leading over to where a collection of shovels sprouted up from a barrel.
"I'm diggin' a deep ditch for takin' all this bloody rainwater away from me hut, so about this wide," and he spread his thumb and forefinger to show.
"Well, I've got one called a trenching shovel which would be about that wide. Ah, yes, here it is," and he pulled out a shovel with a squared face about five inches across.
"Yair, that's bloody it. How much?"
"Normally fifteen shillings, but to you on this fine day, only fourteen and sixpence."
"Gord, d'ye think I'm made o' money? That's too much. Me ordinary one only cost twelve an' thruppence, an' it's a lot wider 'n this one."
"Ah, yes, but that's it you see, you're not buying the shovel by the foot, like rope, you're buying it to do a special job. So it has a special price, which is it's, and it's alone."
The red head blinked at Andie, his brow furrowed, then scratched his long nose with a scarred and grubby finger.
"Well, I dunno..." he started.
"Look, there must be some others who have the same problem. Why don't you dig trenches for other people as well, then you'll make up the extra money and probably make a tidy profit besides," Andie suggested.
A pause as the redhead pondered this idea.
"Fine, I'll take it," he decided, and proceeded to take out an India rubber tobacco pouch, commonly called a 'horse's arse' by the miners in the goldfields to the northwest. Its novel name was due to the fact that it sealed by twisting the neck of the pouch and in the closed position, the creases around the seal looked like puckered flesh.
He opened it by un-twisting the top, and from the strands of thick black tobacco, extracted some coins and a note which he plunked onto the counter.
"There, count that an' if it's too much, ye can keep the change."
Andie counted out loud, slowly and carefully so the man could follow him.
"No. Another one and sixpence please."
The man dug into his pouch again, grumbling that he was using up all his good drinking money, but finally the deal was done and he marched out of the door with the shovel over his shoulder. The doorbell bade him farewell as he left.
Andie put the money into the cashbox under the counter, and returned to the chain, which had been annoying him all day. He had heard of the availability of cheap chain from some of the boys on the pier, and had arranged for a load of twenty yards of half-inch chain to be delivered to his shop this morning. He had not expected it to be dumped just inside his doorway in a jumbled mass.
"Serves me right," he mumbled to himself. "Ye get what ye pay for. I should have realized there'd be a catch in it somewheres. The deal was just too good." So he stood over the pile of chain, laboriously threading it through each loop as it twisted and turned in on itself. "Looks like I'm here for the rest of the day," he mumbled, as he freed up a particularly entangled knot. "Thank God I didna' buy twenty yards of watch chain, or I'd be untangling it for years."
"It's a good thing it's no watch chain, dearie," remarked Jessie as she came in through the back door and saw his face in the half light.
"Ye've read my mind, as usual," he answered his wife. "This size chain is bad enough, and I'm supposed to be writing up that article for Harrison at this minute."
James Harrison, the owner of the Geelong "Advertiser," had asked Andie to cover the arrival of the "Emperor of India" as it berthed at Cunningham's Pier. He had gone to the pier first thing, receiving the cargo manifest, passenger list and news of the voyage from England, which he was to write up and deliver to Harrison's office in time for the next morning's issue of the paper.
But arriving home to find twenty yards of tangled chain blocking the access to his counter had driven anything else from his mind. Now, close to midday and about halfway through the job, he knew he was heading for trouble.
"There's no way I can get this all untangled and still have time to pen the article before Harrison closes this afternoon. But if I don't get the item written in time, likely he'll not ask me to do any others. It's a right mess I'm in."
"Why not put the tangled stuff in a box and the good stuff on top of it. You don't sell that much of it, and ye can keep untanglin' it when ye have a mind to."
"Now, why didn't I think o' that, my love," he smiled wryly. "I'll do just that, an' then I'm down to penmanship for the rest o' the day," and he gave his wife a peck on the cheek. "An' tell young Ian when he wakes, that I'm not to be disturbed."
"Aye, I'll tell him, as usual, an' if ye leave this door open, I'll hear if we get any customers." She bustled off to the kitchen, leaving Andie to go upstairs and sharpen his quill pen.
The reed in the chanter was split. Hamish Spittal squatted by his pipes, the sweet smell of crushed heather in his nostrils as he searched in his kit for a replacement. Resplendent in his new plaid, he stood out from those milling around him in their faded colors.
In this year of 1860, dyers still used vegetable dyes to color the fleece prior to spinning, and the strength and hue of the dye varied with what plant was used, as well as the skill of the dyer.
And the skill of the weavers differed likewise. So even the range of major tartans arrayed on the slopes that day varied from wearer to wearer. Add to this the tartans from the septs and related families, and a whole host of colorful garb presented itself to the discerning eye.
Hamish had been very specific in the choice of material for his new outfit. Only the best cloth, made from properly dyed yarn so the hues were bright, and sought from a specialist weaver in Glasgow who was able to insert all the intricate crosslines into the pattern. His finely pleated kilt said 'Here is the son of the Lord's Factor. Pay respect.'
Why, all the lasses were giving him the eye, as well they might. Even that pretty one down at 'Downie's Drams.' What was her name? Och, that's right, Jane. Mmm, Jane Young. Now she might be a bit o' fun in the heather tonight. Although there was that Mollie Gibb, she with the one leg shorter, but she made up for it in action by all accounts. Or Mary Macauslan, whose brother owed him a favor. Och well, the day was still early... who knows what might occur between now and sunset?
"And how would ye be this fine day, Hamish?"
He looked up to see Robbie McCubbin towering over him, pewter mug in hand and a big smile on his face. Two muscled legs grew out from under his faded kilt, supporting his trim body, kept fit by long treks through the surrounding hills and glens. His kilt was handed down from his grandfather's grandfather and only worn on occasions such as this. A carpenter by trade, he was well known for his skill with a chisel and draw-knife. He had even spent some time, years ago, carving the horses heads on those new fangled bicycles for sale to the gentry.
"I'm doin' fine, but this damned reed has been splittin', an' it's skirlin' a wee bit, so I'm changin' it over before my turn t' play for the judgin'."
"Well, good luck to ye. I'd better be getting' back to the auld dragon. She's wantin' another dram. I'd better not spill it on the way. You know what she's like."
"Aye. Did ye get it from the wee lass, or from Donald himself?"
"The wee lassie poured it. She's very easy on the eyes, ye ken."
"Aye,... it's a waste, isn't it," Hamish replied with a straight face after a brief pause.
"A waste? Why a waste?"
"Och, havena ye heard? She's one o' them that likes the lassies more than the laddies. Ye ken?"
Robbie was rather taken aback by this bombshell. His mind flashed back to the beaming smile she had bestowed on him, but his mind had been seeing her in a different setting...lying under a tree, toying with a sprig of heather, tousled hair falling across her bare shoulder, her big eyes shyly staring at him...
He jerked his mind back. That's right, she had smiled at the others as well. Smiling at people made them feel comfortable...accepted...it encouraged them to open their sporrans and dig deeper for another coin. Oh, yes, she had not been so interested in him as his money, probably.
Hamish watched the play of emotions over the young man's face. As his father's son, his duty was to be present at many business meetings and he had grown quite adept at reading what people were thinking from their faces and the way they held themselves. Many a time this skill had helped him with the lasses.
But this time, he watched Robbie with considerable interest. So Robbie had been thinking of trying the lass on. Well, not until he had tried her himself. He spoke up.
"Aye, old Donald himself told me, not more than a week ago when we were settin' out the deal for hirin' the space today. "Dinna ken what to do wi' her," he said, plain as day, "She runs off wi' these other lasses every night, an' bundles up wi' 'em in their cotts. Comes back at cock crow wi' eyes like cowpats," and he laughed at his own wit.
Robbie, really taken aback by this time, had not realized that he was being made fun of. His cheeks flaming red, he turned away with a "Well, I must get this dram back to mither," he stumbled off, mortified that the girl he had almost set his cap for, could be so unattainable. In his anguish, he imagined that everyone knew what had happened, and he kept his eyes averted from all the faces ahead of him.
A sly grin crossed Hamish's flat face as he wiped that name off his mental slate. "We'll see who she finishes up with this night," he thought as he watched the young McCubbin mope away.
In the dark, a stone fell. Its clattering woke the sleeper, his eyes immediately searching for the cause of the disturbance. Ears strained for any sound and his eyes, used to the darkness, probed forwards to locate any movement. The plop, plop of water dripping from the roof of the cave was the only sound. He stretched his legs cautiously, feeling the blood force its way through cramped arteries and bringing on an attack of pins and needles. His hand dropped to his thigh but he stopped its movement before he could create any telltale noise. A gentle snore from close by told him that Ben was still asleep.
The moist smell clogged his nostrils and he breathed in deeply but silently, to see if there was any new odor present. Satisfied, he let his hand rub the leg gently. The cramp started to go, and he rolled a little sideways to help alleviate it.
From the corner of his eye, he detected a slight easing of the cloak of darkness. He looked in that direction, but could not see any change. Looking sideways again, he let the sensitive part of his eyesight locate the source of light.
Must be nearly daylight, he thought. Just the time the troopers would choose to attack. Better check it out, and he levered himself up slowly so as not to make any noise.
By now the faintest flush of light was coming from the curve leading to the cave entrance. He stepped softly to the corner and squatted down by the rock face to begin his daily ritual. Easing his head around the corner, he looked down the weathered tube towards the narrow fissure. He knew that anyone coming into the cave would not expect to see a head at ground level, so he felt that this was the safest way to find out if they had been betrayed to the law.
Seeing no sign of any silhouetted figures, he picked himself up and, hugging the wall for security, edged towards the fast growing daylight. Reaching the cave's narrow opening, he peered through the bush, which covered the hole, and scanned the area quickly for any sign of life.
Only the harsh early morning caw of a magpie greeted him, and he stared at it dispassionately. Squeezing past the protective branches he walked over to the edge of the rock-ledge and relieved himself into space. Watching his water cascade into the depths, he thought back over the years he and Ben had lived cooped up in this cave since that terrifying run from the law on the Ballaarat goldfields. In his nightmares he still saw the hideous face of his one-time friend and partner Dereck, stretched wide in his death-throes.
He found himself wondering if he would ever again lead a normal life. Or would he spend all his days holed up here like an animal, eternally on edge, waiting for the clink of armaments, the snort of horses and the imperious calling of orders as the troopers sought him out.
He lifted his eyes and scanned the plains around his fortress hideaway. Nothing moved in the scrub country for miles around. Reassured, he stretched, coughed and spat into the void below him, letting the sun's strengthening rays warm his tired bones.
"Hanging Rock" they called it. A huge collection of basalt outcrops leaning on each other for support as they clawed their way into the heavens. Standing as they do in the middle of a flat plain covered in light scrub and gum trees, they command the area like some medieval castle. Easy to approSach, but difficult to assail, their entry paths wind around buttresses and become a confusing mass of pathways, crevasses and stony defiles. So confused are the winding walkways that in a moment, one cannot tell for sure which way is which. In fact it is very easy to find yourself back at an outcrop that you are sure you passed some time before.
As well as this, a strange aura hangs over the outcrop. A sense of unease, a foreboding, of waiting for...who knows what. It is almost a physical weight cloaking you as you move throughout the maze that is the fortress of Hanging Rock.
No wonder the troopers dreaded the thought of a search out in this remote area. Stories were told of troopers who never returned, or whose body was found at the foot of a rocky cliff.
Returning to the here and now, he turned and vanished back into the narrow fissure.
Behind him, a distant flash, as the rising sun glanced off a horse buckle.
Old Donald Downie looked behind him at the game of "Shinty" being played on the floor of the valley. Something like an expanded form of hockey, players of all ages were swinging their clubs, or 'camans' at the ball, trying to force it down the length of the valley against heated opposition. This was a special demonstration game with a team of highland players invited to test out the locals. A Douglas piper blew out his cheeks as villagers from all over the countryside vied to control the direction of the ball. This was made twice as difficult, as there was no way of telling whose side someone was on. Many a player passed the ball on to a supposed 'team mate' who, after feinting, drove the target back the way it had come. It seemed like hundreds of players were locked in a grand tussle for possession of the prized pill. Players came on as they felt the tide of fortune turn against them, while others left the field of battle to eat, drink, or have their wounds attended. Many a player would remember this game for a week or so as they waited for bruised or bloody shins to heal.
Hamish Spittal ran with the others, his caman swinging loosely from his hand. He was a little behind the action, which is how he liked it, as there was less chance of getting injured or having his clothes grubbied, but he kept in close enough to have the onlookers believe he was a keen player. Chasing the main protagonists towards the distant goal post, his concentration was momentarily shaken as the leather bound target flew back towards him at ankle level. He leapt up, his legs scissoring apart, and let it fly underneath him. Landing clumsily, he was shirt-fronted by the main party who had turned back to retrieve the ball. Someone knocked him flying and he measured his length on the flattened heath.
Thoroughly winded, he watched the others as they streamed back over long fought territory. Realizing his ungainly position, he struggled gingerly to his feet, felt his back groan as the muscles left the support of the hard ground, and deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, hobbled off to the side of the battle. Seeing he was near Donald Downie's cart, he decided it was time for some refueling, so he joined the crowd waiting to be served.
As he saw himself as being of some importance, he edged his way past the lesser workers, discounting their mumbled protests. In the front line, he ignored Donald who offered to serve him, and focused his attention on Jane Young as she dipped the measure deep into the barrel. Filling the wooden cup and handing it to her customer, her eyes traveled over and away from Hamish's. Rather put out by her apparent disrespect, he spoke up gruffly.
"I'll have a measure here."
Her eyes traversed to see who had piped up. Catching his muddied face, she replied, "Aye, I think ye need it...but for washin' yer face, not for drinkin'," and laughed lightly as she took the cup back ready to serve again.
"None of yer cheek an' impudence, lassie. My father's the Factor of Thornhill, and that means I get served next. So smarten it up."
She looked at Donald who was busy making change and wouldn't catch her eye, then bent over and inspected the barrel.
"Why, what a shame. All our good liquor is gone. I'm afraid we havena any fine enough for the likes of you. All we have is that fit for common men. I'm sorry, ye ken, but there's naught I can do about it," and gave him her most disarming smile. This raised quite a chuckle from those around him, and he felt his cheeks starting to color.
Thinking quickly, he realized that there was too much to lose here, so he took a small step back, treading on someone's toes in doing so, and returned with, "My apologies if I sounded impolite. 'Twas not meant I assure you. 'Tis just that playing Shinty for so long has given me a raging thirst which has taken over my senses. I offer my humble apologies," and he made as much of a bow to her as he could, while being caught tightly in the throng.
"Yer apology is accepted, and as a token, have this small dram on the house."
Donald's face swiveled around, his jaw dropping open in surprise. The crowd murmured behind him as he took the cup from her, his hand intentionally brushing hers. He used his kerchief to wipe the rim of the small bowl, then drank thirstily. Touching his kerchief lightly to his lips in the manner of the English gentlemen, he smiled engagingly at her.
"Thank ye, lassie. And would ye be having a moment's break? I would speak with ye on a matter of some concern."
Her eyes clouded slightly, then as Donald nodded his assent, she took off her serving cloth and moved from the tray of the cart over to a nearby tree. Hamish wormed his way through the crowd to her side.
"Now, Sir. What is it of such great import, that you would be takin' me away from my honest work?"
"Ye ken who I am?"
Her slight nod was enough answer.
"Then ye'll rightfully deem it an honor that I will collect you after you finish here, and we will go for a walk together."
"And what if I was to refuse your kind offer?"
"Och, I would think of somethin'. Maybe Downie wouldna get permission to sell at the next Games. Maybe some dafties might mess wi' his cart, scare the horse off, somethin' like that. Now, ye'd no want that to happen, I'm thinkin'."
Head bowed, she thought for a moment. Old Donald Downie had given her a chance, a future. When she was in need of work in her home territory of Haddington he had taken her on at the Seton Clan Gathering and, liking the way her ready smile attracted custom, he had offered ongoing employment in his gypsy lifestyle. Since then, she spent a lot of time traveling to Gatherings and Highland Games with the old man and really enjoyed the gay activities such meetings offered. In the off times, she would help Donald brew up his next batch of the 'water of life' in his hidden distillery. He had taken her off the land that she dreaded, and had given her so much in its stead that she couldn't bear to think of him distressed by her refusing Hamish now. After all, it wasn't as if Hamish was the first laddie she had walked with under the moon. And she had always managed to keep things under control in the past.
Lifting her head, but keeping her eyes downcast as befitted his status, she replied in a low voice, "I'll be gettin' off a little after sundown."
"Good. Settled then. I'll come for ye. But don't tell that old fool that it's me yer away with. I'll not have him prattlin' it all over the gatherin'."
Business over, he turned and strode away, keeping his tender back muscles taut until he was sure he was out of her sight. She started slightly as Donald tapped her arm.
Go on to Chapter Two