Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
A Highland Scene
By Hugh Miller (1802–1856)
 
From My Schools and Schoolmasters

I ROSE to a little window which opened upon a dreary moor, and commanded a view, in the distance, of a ruinous chapel and solitary burying-ground, famous in the traditions of the district as the chapel and burying-ground of Gillie-christ. Dr. Johnson relates, in his “Journey,” that when eating, on one occasion, his dinner in Skye to the music of the bagpipe, he was informed by a gentleman, “that in some remote time, the Macdonalds of Glengarry having been injured or offended by the inhabitants of Culloden, and resolving to have justice, or vengeance, they came to Culloden on a Sunday, when, finding their enemies at worship, they shut them up in the church, which they set on fire; and this, said he, is the tune that the piper played while they were burning.” Culloden, however, was not the scene of the atrocity: it was the Mackenzies of Ord that their fellow-Christians and brother-Churchmen, the Macdonalds of Glengarry, succeeded in converting into animal charcoal, when the poor people were engaged, like good Catholics, in attending mass; and in this old chapel of Gillie-christ was the experiment performed. The Macdonalds, after setting fire to the building, held fast the doors until the last of the Mackenzies of Ord had perished in the flames; and then, pursued by the Mackenzies of Brahan, they fled into their own country, to glory ever after in the greatness of the feat. The evening was calm and still, but dark for the season, for it was now near midsummer; and every object had disappeared in the gloom, save the outlines of a ridge of low hills that rose beyond the moor; but I could determine where the chapel and churchyard lay; and great was my astonishment to see a light flickering amid the grave-stones and the ruins. At one time seen, at another hid, like the revolving lantern of a lighthouse, it seemed to be passing round and round the building; and, as I listened, I could hear distinctly what appeared to be a continuous screaming of most unearthly sound, proceeding from evidently the same spot as the twinkle of the light. What could be the meaning of such an apparition, with such accompaniments—the time of its appearance midnight, the place a solitary burying-ground? I was in the Highlands: was there truth, after all, in the many floating Highland stories of spectral dead-lights and wild supernatural sounds, seen and heard by nights in lonely places of sepulture, when some sudden death was near? I did feel my blood run somewhat cold, for I had not yet passed the credulous time of life—and had some thoughts of stealing down to my master’s bedside, to be within reach of the human voice, when I saw the light quitting the churchyard, and coming downwards across the moor in a straight line, though tossed about in the dead calm, in many a wave and flourish; and further, I could ascertain, that what I had deemed a persistent screaming was in reality a continuous singing, carried on at the pitch of a powerful though somewhat cracked voice. In a moment after, one of the servant-girls of the mansion-house came rushing out half-dressed to the door of an outer-building in which the workmen and the farm-servants lay, and summoned them immediately to rise. Mad Bell had again broken out, she said, and would set them on fire a second time.
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  The men rose, and as they appeared at the door, I joined them; but on striking out a few yards into the moor, we found the maniac already in the custody of two men, who had seized and were dragging her towards the cottage, a miserable hovel, about half a mile away. She never once spoke to us, but continued singing, though in a lower and more subdued tone of voice than before, a Gaelic song. We reached her hut, and, making use of her own light, we entered. A chain of considerable length, attached by a stopple in one of the Highland couples of the erection, showed that her neighbours had been compelled on former occasions to abridge her liberty; and one of the men, in now making use of it, so wound it round her person as to bind her down, instead of giving her the scope of the apartment, to the damp uneven floor. A very damp and uneven floor it was. There were crevices in the roof above, which gave free access to the elements; and the turf walls, perilously bulged by the leakage in several places, were green with mould. One of the masons and I simultaneously interfered. It would never do, we said, to pin down a human creature in that way to the damp earth. Why not give her what the length of the chain permitted—the full range of the room? If we did that, replied the man, she would be sure to set herself free before morning, and we would just have to rise and bind her again. But we resolved, we rejoined, whatever might happen, that she should not be tied down in that way to the filthy floor; and ultimately we succeeded in carrying our point. The song ceased for a moment: the maniac turned round, presenting full to the light the strongly-marked, energetic features of a woman of about fifty-five; and surveying us with a keen, scrutinising glance, altogether unlike that of the idiot, she emphatically repeated the sacred text, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” She then began singing, in a low, mournful tone, an old Scotch ballad; and, as we left the cottage, we could hear her voice gradually heightening as we retired, until it had at length attained to its former pitch and wildness of tone.  2
 
 
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