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Life and Times of D. M. Stuart, D.D.

Chapter IV. — Herding

page 24

Chapter IV.

It was the custom of the united hamlets of Styx and Croft Moraig to provide a herd laddie for six months of the year, and Donald Stuart, whose aptitude and diligence had carried him well over the ground covered in the village school, was chosen by the heads of the people to fill that office. He was now ten years of age, possessed of quick observation and lively fancy, and intelligently sympathetic with all the forms and aspects of Nature around him.

The pasture ground was bounded on three sides by woods, and lay within easy reach of clumps of hazel and patches of land which presented traces of former settlement and cultivation, and of gooseberry bushes and crab-apple trees which still bore fruit in sheltered places. These things were a source of unfailing interest to the boy—and the blackberries that grew among the crags in the afternoon pastures, and the linns, and the waterfalls of the burn that warbled down past birch and alder and mountain ash—all furnished him with ample scope for his explorations, and for the study of the natural history of his native vale.

His daily task began at six o'clock a.m., when the cows were turned out, and found their way to the forenoon feeding-ground, where they remained till page 25mid-day, when they were milked by the matrons of the hamlets. Their heads were then turned towards the afternoon pastures, known as "The Doctor's Park," where it was their custom to graze until the hour of home-going, about eight o'clock p.m. The boy observed the habits of his charge with an interest that never waned—the direction of their movements, the hours and the spots which they selected for their rumination—their likes and dislikes, and their apparent selection of mates, both in their grazing excursions and when they lay down to rest.

But his thoughts were often busy with other and more important themes during the long hours usually spent in loneliness in that open glade.

"On bright mornings," he said, "when the sunlight streamed around me, and the midges slept in, I gave two or three hours daily to reading the Bible from a well-printed and well-bound pocket edition which belonged to my father. Its histories, miracles, Psalms, and parables threw a glamour over my young soul. I never ceased to wonder at the considerate goodness of God in visiting the children of men, and addressing communications to them replete with interest, and finding pleasure in thus revealing Himself to us. I expected Him to speak to me, and I sometimes heard Him counselling me to follow in the footsteps of Abel and Enoch, and Noah and Abraham, and the other heroes of the Bible. I had the feeling that He loved me, and that He desired me to become like Himself—so far as child of our race could do that; and I noticed that my increasing delight in His Word was accompanied with an page 26increasing delight in the birds of the air, and in the beasts of the forest and field, which His hand had made. But I wondered why He had created midges in millions, which in dull, close weather tormented the cows—those beneficent helpers of our families—and unceasingly ortured the kilted herd laddie himself!"

After the example of his predecessors, he re-erected a low hut which had fallen into a state of disrepair, and kindled a fire in it—the reek of which, he found to his joy, dispersed the midges; and there he sometimes amused himself in roasting earth-nuts or potatoes, on which he fared with the wild fruits which he had gathered in bush and field.

On Saturday afternoons, many of the hamlet boys, released from the work of school, enlivened his solitude with their companionship; and the keenness of his enjoyment of that social break in the quiet monotony of his life, was evidenced by the vividness of the Doctor's recollections of the bright mirthfulness of those days, after so long an interval of busy years. Nutting expeditions were then undertaken under his leadership, or they went for rambles in the bush to inspect the nests which his keen eyes had discovered among embowering leaves, or made visits to the linns to search for silvery trout that essayed to hide themselves where the shadows lay darkest in the stream.

In the wood bounding the south side of the Doctor's Park, there was a dropping spring, which the young men and maidens used to visit at sunrise on the first day of May. Tradition connected it with page 27the Druidical Circle close to Croft Moraig. The more prominent geographical features of the surrounding country bore names which indicated that they had been the scenes of religious observances in the days of old. One of these—a gentle knoll known to this day as "the Hill of Adoration"—is crowned with clumps of the rowan tree and of the oak, which had a place in the Pagan worship of the long ago. "In my day," Dr. Stuart said, "no one ventured to drink of the waters of the 'Dropping Spring' until some propitiatory offering had been made—until a fishhook or a button, or a piece of lead, or a copper, had been dropped into the pool which it fed. I occasionally visited this lonely spot, which was surrounded by firs and larches and other trees, and was the common haunt of the timid roe. The genius loci on such occasions always awed my spirit; and, though my information respecting the Druids was very limited, yet I knew enough to kindle my imagination, and to carry me back into the dim twilight of our religious history. It was my delight to gaze, with the eye of the mind, on processions of white-robed priests engaged in their solemn ceremonial of worship, and on the great religious assemblies that were held there in the far-off days. The lonely forest became peopled with an adoring multitude—the creation of the vivid fancy with which I had been gifted. I used to say to myself that the men of all ages worshipped God, and found pleasure and profit in His service, and felt sure that He spoke to the prophets of those times as He spoke to Adam, and Noah, and Abraham, and Moses, and David. The thoughts of God which I cherished page 28in those distant days still dominate in my soul. With duller eyes and ears I still think I hear and see God and His angels, and have no doubt that He communicates with His creatures. Of children, He said in the days of His personal ministry, 'Of such is the kingdom of God.'

"In the early summer I spent whole days in watching the movements of the crows, and their modes of communicating with one another, and felt convinced that their debates and discussions about the pros and cons of their work or ways were characterised by as much directness and intelligence as the debates of our representatives in Parliament. I never grudged the homely crows their bit of food from the common stock, for many a long hour they made short for me by their manæuvres, which, beyond question, had something like rational principle to direct them."

The accession to the herd of two well-bred and showy cows, and the natural disaffection excited in the others against the intruders, furnished occasion for the projection of a new joy into the lonely life of the boy, and for the display of all the chivalry and instinctive courtesy of his nature. The owners of the new cattle—MacDougall and MacIntyre, of Styx—sent their daughters, Margaret and Jenny, every evening, about 7 o'clock, to protect the new cows from the spiteful attacks of the herd on the homeward journey. They were both the seniors of the boy by two years, and had won his regard by their personal worth and kindness to him; and by the time they reached the pasture ground it was his wont to have page 29some present ready for them, according to the season. In the early autumn it was a handful of choicest rasps, or blackberries, or the small gooseberries which the uncultivated bushes in the pastures bore; and later on it was black cherries, crab apples, hazel nuts, or sloes. When the weather was wet, a fire sent its genial glow through the hut, and roasted potatoes, with onions for condiment, were provided for his guests. Their appreciation of his kindly attentions awakened a great joy in his heart, which was greatly enhanced when Margaret MacDougall was induced to sing for him one of her "chorused" songs.

"Margaret MacDougall was married in due course to James MacDonald, and became a substantial farmer's wife. She reared a large family, who, like herself, were attached to the Free Church. Her two sisters and two brothers in the South died childless, and she inherited the portion of goods which they left—an inheritance which she used in giving her children a start in life on their respective lines of work. Mrs MacDonald still survives, and I have the satisfaction of sending her slight reminders that the associations of the far-away herding days are still gratefully recalled to the renewing of the old joy which made the summer evenings short, and filled them with pleasure. Jenny MacIntyre, who afterwards kept house for her father, who had charge of the Bock Lodge, at one of the private avenues to Taymouth Castle, and who succeeded to his duties after his death, languished at her post, and passed away to service and reward in the presence of her Lord and Redeemer."

page 30

"The scene of my herding," the Doctor said, "was to me one of God's schools, in which I learned lessons which now, after an interval of sixty-five years, turn up not infrequently in my mind, and communicate instruction to which I give heed—instruction far from being devoid of mental stimulus and delectation."