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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Weird of Macgillivray — A Tale of Second Sight

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The Weird of Macgillivray
A Tale of Second Sight

“But I have dream'd a dreary dream
Beyond the Isle of Sky;
I saw a dead man win a fight,
And I think that man was I.”

“He looked in the face of the man,
And lo! the face was his own;
‘This is my weird,’ he said,
‘And now I ken the worst,
For many shall fall the morn,
But I shall fall with the first.’”

THE old Mauku church is there to-day, on the mound above the village and the stream, picture-like on its green hill, as a country church should always stand. It is of the early colonial design of Bishop Selwyn's time; its timbers are of the durable totara timber, its steep-pitched roof is shingled, dark with age, its slender spire lifts above the tree-tops; the gentle knoll on which it rests is white-dotted with the gravestones of the pioneers who built it and worshipped in it. This little shrine of the bush farmers, St. Bride's of the Mauku, was the settlers' garrison house in the days of the Maori War. Stockaded and entrenched, it was at once a tabernacle and a fort. The farmer-riflemen cut loopholes in its walls—I counted fifty-four of these rifle-slits in the timbers; they are now plugged with wood page 88 or covered with tin and painted over. The cruciform shape of the little church gave the needful flanking angles. The Mauku men in 1863 set up their palisade of split tree-trunks ten feet high close against the walls of the church, and the firing apertures for the long En-fields were cut through both wall and stockade. You can still see the line of the trench that closely skirted the palisade. Here the volunteer Forest Rifles and the Militia men ate and slept and stored their provisions and munitions; it was storehouse and magazine and camp house. The Maoris were in the bush, elusive as Red Indians. The small force of whites patrolled the tracks, never knowing when they would get a volley from some ambush party crouching in the twilight woods, dense and jungly and creeper-tangled, that overshadowed the trail.

The Mauku hills and levels have a well-tilled serenity of landscape to-day, the result of three generations of settlement. In the Sixties it was forest nearly everywhere; an almost continuous dark-green blanket of foliage covered the land. The fortified church was the focus of life in the clearings that made little oases of civilisation in the wilderness of puriri and rata and totara and white pine. The British flag floated from a tall staff; bell tents whitened the slope between the church and the Mauku stream that went coiling through the valley to the salt-water creek of the South Manukau. Bullock-carts came creaking along the heavy road from Drury camp, their drivers cracking their long whips and cursing the mud, the “cow-horses,” the troops, the ammunition loads. Sentries with loaded rifles paced the lines before the church; the sergeants drilled their squads on the level below.

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One of the Militia men in the garrison of the church-fort in the forest, this early spring of 1863, was Farquhar MacGillivray. He was a private in the 1st Regiment of Waikato Militia. Tall, dark, rather dour, serious beyond his years, there was a touch of the mystic about him. That at any rate was the impression one of his tent-mates formed; he was Highland-born like MacGillivray. The stern-avised Gael was a competent soldier; maybe he had served in one of his native Highland regiments; he walked as if he trod the heather to the sword-like sound of the pibroch. A good tent-mate, too, unselfish; tender as a woman nurse to one of his comrades who fell sick. He smiled in a grim kind of acquiescence when Jim Capper, who had been a man-o'-war sailor, said Farquhar was too long for everyday use; he'd call him Jack for short.

“Jack let it be, then,” said MacGillivray; “we'll keep Farquhar for my gravestone.”

A contrast, that pair of mates. Capper was short and very thick through of chest and as jolly as any Christmas pantomime hornpipe-dancing sailorman; given to yarn-spinning and chantey-singing. MacGillivray spoke little; he read often in the tent from a little Gaelic Testament he carried in his breast-pocket. Once in a cheerful mood he showed his comrades, after setting out their bayonets on the ground, how the sword-dance of his clan should be danced. “Ah,” he said, as he stopped short in the Gillie-Callum steps, “but it wants the music, and there are no pipes in this army whatever.”

There had been Maoris in the bush, hovering about the clearings and cultivations from which they were page 90 evicted at the beginning of the war. Now and again a gun-bang had echoed thunderously in the shadow of the timber-edge and an occasional shot at a despatch-carrier kept the garrison on the alert. But some weeks had passed since a skirmish, for the main tide of war went Waikato-wards. A dozen miles away along the great south road General Cameron's army, horse, foot and artillery, moved towards the Maori King's country, with an endless train of ammunition-carts and bullock-drays of provisions.

One still night of stars and frost in October Farquhar MacGillivray came off outlying picket duty, and turned in. He wrapped blankets and heavy coat about him, and he slept, and as he slept he dreamed.

∗ ∗ ∗

In the morning the Highlander's tent-mates observed that he looked strange. Always quiet, often sombre, his stern features bore a deeper cast of thought, a veil of melancholy mystery had fallen over his keen dark eyes. He was withdrawn into himself. “He looks fey,” thought his fellow-Scot.

“Why, Jack,” asked one of the tent-mates, big Bill Smith, “you seem a bit queer this morning. What's the trouble, old chap?”

“Oh,” interposed Capper, “I expect Mac's got a touch of indigestion from those fat eels we got in the creek yesterday. One can have too much of a good thing, you know.”

But the Highlander was not to be drawn that morning. He went about his camp duties in his methodical thoughtful way. In the evening at last he broke his silence.

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“I had a dream last night,” he said. “I dreamed I was back home in the old place, the old glen at Strathlanoch. I saw my people, I spoke to them. They spoke to me, but I did not hear what they said. Then I was back here, but not in this camp. It was in the bush, a clearing in the bush, just like those farm clearings up yonder along the track. There were fallen trees, and alongside them on the ground there were white naked bodies stretched out side by side. They had all been tomahawked about the head and face and body. I looked at them but I could only recognise one of them. And it was my own face that I saw.”

It was a long speech for MacGillivray. There was silence for some moments. Then Capper said, lightly, “One dreams all sorts of queer things, Jack. But you shouldn't take any notice of that sort of dream. You know they always go by contraries. It'll be Maoris that we'll lay out in the bush one of these days. But there's not a Maori about just now.”

But MacGillivray shook his head. “It's no joke to me,” he said. “It was my wraith that I saw.”

That dream came again to MacGillivray two nights later. Next midnight it came yet again, the battle vision, the row of mutilated corpses, stripped, blood-bathed, laid side by side in the forest.

The Highlander told his comrades that he had dreamed the wraith dream three times. “That's the last time, the third,” he said. “I know my weird.* I shall be lying somewhere out yonder before many days, and I'll not be alone.”

* Weird—Scottish Highland expression for fate foreshadowed by a dream or second-sight vision; portent of death.

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MacGillivray spoke very little more. He did camp duty, he ate with his mates, he mended his uniform. But he did all like a man in a dream. His spirit perhaps was already half withdrawn beyond the veil.

∗ ∗ ∗

Nearly a mile south of the Mauku church is a rounded hill of red volcanic earth, richly grassed, crowned by a farmer's homestead and traversed by the road to Waiuku. This abode of peace and fruitfulness to-day was a roughly cleared farm at the time of our story; much of it was still tall timber; there were masses of felled trees at the bush-edge. Its Maori name is Titi; it was the settler Wheeler's farm. Beyond on the south the land slanted to a long deep valley and on the farther side rose into the heights of the Bald Hills. Six miles away was the Waikato River; the intervening forest was threaded by one or two narrow tracks, the Maori war trails.

The banging of heavily-charged guns—the Maoris had a way of using too much powder—in the valley below Titi Hill, startled the pickets of the little garrisons at the church and the other stockade, nearer the Manukau waters. Maoris were shooting cattle on Wheeler's farm. Lieutenant Perceval, of the 1st Waikato, went off at the double from the lower stockade, making for the bush around the crown of the hill, to take the marauders in the rear.

The Maoris, having ended their cattle-hunting, turned their attention to the human game. Skirmishing from tree to tree like Indians, they extended their flanks until they almost encircled the pakehas.

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The smoke of battle on the bush-edge was now in plain sight from the Church stockade, and off dashed the Forest Rifle Volunteers under Lieutenant Lusk, with some Militia-men, MacGillivray and Capper among them.

Advancing at the double up the long slope, the reinforcements were soon in touch with Perceval's men, who were hard pressed by the raiding warriors. Now the united force boldly attacked, and advancing with fixed bayonets forced the Maoris in their turn to fall back, through a strip of felled but unburned bush to a narrow open clearing.

But the skilful brown fighters, moving with the utmost rapidity, spread out in a kind of rough half-moon, to outflank their opponents. They were stripped to a waist-mat or a bit of blanket; their ammunition belts were buckled around their waists and over their shoulders; each warrior wore at least two of those cartridge-holding hamanu; thrust inside their belts were their short tomahawks. Some of them carried long-handled tomahawks; at close quarters they threw down their now cumbrous muzzle-loading guns and used those fearful weapons, the kakauroa, with both hands. There were about sixty white riflemen; these were outnumbered by the Maoris by more than two to one.

Green leaves, masses of ferns and creeping shrubs, dark tree-trunks, puffs of smoke from behind trees and stumps and logs. There was at first little to see at which to fire. Moving quickly from cover to cover, firing over logs and from behind black burned stumps on the ragged bush edge, the volunteers and Militia-men for a while kept their foes at a distance. But presently the page 94 danger of being outflanked and surrounded compelled a retirement. The fighting became closer. Double-barrel gun and ancient musket replying to the long Enfields, the Maoris gradually pressed their opponents back towards the church valley.

Now a desperate fight, often hand to hand, developed as the Maori King's men charged with reckless determination on the troops. Often only the width of a black stump or the trunk of a fallen tree separated the antagonists. Sometimes there were duels, bayonet countering long-handled tomahawk. Gunpowder smoke hung heavily over the clearing and befogged the woods. The sharp fumes of saltpetre made noses tingle and eyes smart. Tomahawk blades flashed in the air as the warriors delivered terrific lightning-swift blows. Many Maoris fell before the accurate fire of such marksmen as Lusk. Perceval, an impetuous young officer, jumped on a log calling on his men to charge. He used a rifle with skill and shot three of his opponents. At last a bullet stilled his brave heart. His fellow-lieutenant, Norman, too, was shot dead, and several other men fell, dead and wounded.

Lusk was now without officers to help him, but a big powerful Militia-man, Corporal Michael Power, a veteran of the 65th Regiment, took charge of his comrades with cool efficiency. “Steady, lads!” he called to the men around him, “don't fire wild! Take cover and wait for your target.” But the target often did not wait for the bullet, but sprang at the pakeha like a tiger. Most of the Maoris fought silently; their chiefs' voices rose in high yelping cries, “Patua, patua! Raunatia! Tahuna, tahuna!” (“Kill, kill! Surround them! Fire away!”)

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The Forest Rifles officer, outflanked on both sides, shouted to his skirmishers to retire into the cover of the bush on the north. In the withdrawal the Maoris' cross-fire felled several more men. One of the Forest Rifles, busy reloading, was in the act of using his ramrod when a Maori killed him with the tomahawk. Corporal Power, the last to retire, shot one Maori and bayoneted another. He was recovering his bayonet, which he had driven right through a giant warrior's body, when the Maori, with a desperate dying effort, swung his kakauroa high above his head and brought it down with fearful force before his foeman could withdraw his steel. Power's head was split down from crown to nose, and there the two lay across a log, Power's weapon still fast in the Maori.

Under the shelter of the bush, the Forest Rifles and the Militia-men made accurate shooting and kept the Maoris to cover. A breathing space after the combat at close quarters. It was now late in the afternoon. Pakeha dead lay in the clearing, with many of their enemies, but it was impossible to carry them off the field. Lusk re-formed his men, and drew off, firing by sections as he retired down the partly wooded slopes to the church stockade. After the church was reached a glint of steel was seen in the rays of the setting sun on the bank of the Mauku stream which the force had just crossed. A party sallied out from the stockade and found a badly wounded man lying there. He had crawled down after his comrades and just had strength enough to wave his bayonet in a forlorn hope of attracting attention.

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A sad and anxious night. The roll call showed six men missing, besides the two officers shot dead. And one of the six was Farquhar MacGillivray. In the heat of the fight no one had seen him fall.

∗ ∗ ∗

Reinforcements, cavalry and foot, came in by morning, and early a strong force was marching up the slopes to the battlefield. Volleys were heard in the distance. Long afterwards, when peace came, the Maoris told how a second war party met the retiring fighters, carrying off a score of dead and many wounded. On learning that they had not fired a volley after the battle by way of claiming the victory, the second band marched in and fired their guns over the bodies of the slain, and retired as quickly as they had come.

A fearful sight that clearing on Wheeler's farm in the morning light. Side by side on the ground, grass and leaves sparkling wet with the morning dew, there were stretched out side by side the fallen whites. They had been stripped of their uniforms, their arms and equipment were gone. The Maoris had carried them from where they fell, and set up a stake with a white haversack on it. They lay there stark, and everyone had been mutilated with the tomahawk. The faces and heads had been chopped about; the noses of some had been cut off.

Capper and his tent-mates bent over the dead, sick with grief and anger. Some of the bodies were unrecognisable as to features, but there was no mistaking the dark stern-faced Highlander.

“Poor old Jack!” said one of the comrades. “How soon his dream came true!”

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Second-sight—the matakité of the Maori, the “seen-face”—may be scoffed at by the matter-of-fact Sassenach. But to the Celt, like the Polynesian, it is a fact well verified in families of seers and mystics.

∗ ∗ ∗

In the days of peace, twenty years after the war, one of those tent-mates told the story of Farquhar MacGillivray to Thomas Bracken, the poet. It was in Wellington, and Bracken was there attending Parliament as member for a Dunedin constituency. There were two of the old Militia-men there in Parliament; one was William Smith, now become M.H.R. for Waipawa, the other, James Capper, served in a humbler capacity, head messenger on the House staff. Smith and Capper often yarned together about their bush-fighting days.

One morning Bracken and Smith were sitting in the lobby and Capper passed. Smith beckoned him over and said: “Capper, I want you to tell my friend Bracken that story of MacGillivray's dream that came true. He might write something about it.”

So the battle of the Titi Hill was fought again and that story was the inspiration of Tom Bracken's long poem, “McGillviray's Dream.”*

Bracken amplified the soldier's story of his wraith-dream, the vision and the portent; he wrote of the old home in the Highland glen, the wandering one's reunion in spirit with his loved ones. To his comrades the soldier seer says:

* “McGillviray” is Bracken's spelling in his poem, but those who knew the man in life pronounced it “MacGillivray” and spelled it as the Highlander himself spelled it, therefore I adopt their version.

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“A hand has beckoned through the gloom,
And signalled me away, away.”

To the kindly tent-mate who attempted to laugh him out of his premonitions, he replies:

“Ah! friend, you were not nursed beneath
The Highland hills where every glen
Is filled with those who've conquered death—
Is tenanted with ghosts of men.”

∗ ∗ ∗

But that comrade who told the poet the story could well understand the Gael's belief in second-sight and wraiths and weirds, for he was born in the Inverness country. In his old age he told me the story himself, that sailor and soldier and world-wandering adventurer, the last survivor of all those who had known Farquhar MacGillivray in the flesh and fought in the battle of Titi Hill.