The Reverend David Sempill began his ministry in Woodilee on the
fifteenth day of August in the year of grace sixteen hundred and
forty-four. He was no stranger to the glen, for as a boy he had
spent his holidays with his grandfather, who was the miller of
Roodfoot. In that year when the horn of the Kirk was exalted the
voice of a patron mattered less; Mr. Sempill had been, as they
said, "popularly called," and so entered upon his office with the
eager interest of the parish which had chosen him. A year before he
had been licensed by the presbytery of Edinburgh; he was ordained
in Woodilee in the present year on the last Sabbath of June, and
"preached in" on the first Sabbath of August by the weighty voice
of Mungo Muirhead, the minister of Kirk Aller. His
plenishing—chiefly books—had come from Edinburgh on eight
pack-horses, and, having escaped the perils of Carnwath Moss, was
now set out in an upper chamber of the little damp manse, which
stood between the kirk and Woodilee burn. A decent widow woman,
Isobel Veitch by name, had been found to keep his house, and David
himself, now that all was ready, had ridden over on his grey cob
from his cousin's at Newbiggin and taken seisin of his new home. He
had sung as he came in sight of Woodilee; he had prayed with bowed
head as he crossed the manse threshold; but as he sat in the closet
which he named his "study," and saw his precious books on the
shelf, and the table before him on which great works would be
written, and outside the half-glazed window the gooseberry bushes
of the garden and the silver links of the burn, he had almost wept
with pure gratitude and content.
His first hour he had spent exploring his property. The manse
was little and squat, and gave lodging in its heather-thatched roof
to more than one colony of bees. The front abutted on the kirkton
road, save for a narrow strip of green edged with smooth white
stones from the burn. The back looked on a garden, where stood a
score of apple trees, the small wild fruit of which was scarcely
worth the gathering. There was also a square of green for bleaching
clothes, a gean tree, a plot of gillyflowers and monkshood, and
another of precious herbs like clary, penny-royal, and marjoram. At
one end of the manse stood a brewhouse and a granary or girnel, for
the storing of the minister's stipend meal; at the other a stable
for two beasts, a byre with three stalls, a hen-house of mud, and,
in the angle of the dykes of the kirk loan, a midden among
Indoors the place was not commodious, and even on that warm
August day a chill struck upward from the earthen floors. The
low-ceiled lobby had no light but the open door. To the right of it
was the living-room with a boarded ceiling, a wooden floor, and
roughly plastered walls, where the minister's eight-day clock (by
John Atchison, Leith, 1601) had now acclimatized itself. To the
left lay Isobel's kitchen, with a door leading to the brewhouse,
and Isobel's press-bed at the back of it, and a small dog-hole of a
cellar. The upper story was reached by a wooden staircase as steep
as a ladder, which opened direct into the minister's bedroom—an
apartment of luxury, for it had a fireplace. One door led from it
to the solitary guest-chamber; another to a tiny hearthless room,
which was his study or closet, and which at the moment ranked in
his mind as the most miraculous of his possessions.
David ranged around like a boy back from school, and indeed with
his thick, sandy hair and ruddy countenance and slim, straight back
he seemed scarcely to have outgrown the schoolboy. He spilt the
browst in the brewhouse, and made a spectacle of himself with
pease-meal in the girnel. Isobel watched him anxiously out of
doors, where he sampled the fruit of the apple trees, and with
various rejected specimens took shots at a starling in the glebe.
Then, in response to his shouts, she brought him a basin of water
and he washed off the dust of his morning ride. The August sun fell
warm on the little yard; the sound of the burn in the glen, the
clack of the kirkton smithy, the sheep far off on Windyways, the
bees in the clove gillyflowers, all melted into the soothing hum of
a moorland noontide. The minister smiled as he scrubbed his cheeks,
and Isobel's little old puckered apple-hued face smiled back. "Ay,
sir," she said, "our lines is fallen intil a goodly place and a
pleasant habitation. The Lord be thankit." And as he cried a
fervent amen and tossed the towel back to her, a stir at the front
door betokened his first visitors.
These were no less than three in number, neighbouring ministers
who had ridden over on their garrons to bid the young man welcome
to Woodilee. Presently stable and byre were crowded with their
beasts, and the three brethren had bestowed themselves on the rough
bench which adjoined the bleaching-ground. They would have their
dinner at the village ordinary—let not Mr. Sempill put himself
about—they would never have come thus unannounced if they had
thought that they would be pressed to a meal. But they allowed
themselves to be persuaded by the hospitable clamour of Isobel, who
saw in such a function on her first day at the manse a social
aggrandizement. "Mr. Sempill would think black burnin' shame if the
gentlemen didna break breid… ." There was walth o' provender in the
house—this moment she had put a hen in the pot—she had a brace of
muir-fowl ready for brandering that had been sent from Chasehope
that very morn… . The three smiled tolerantly and hopefully. "Ye've
gotten a rare Abigail, Mr. Sempill. A woman o' mense and sense—the
manse o' Woodilee will be well guidit."
The Reverend Mungo Muirhead had a vast shaven face set atop of a
thick neck and a cumbrous body. He had a big thin-lipped mouth
which shut tight like a lawyer's, a fleshy nose, and large grey
eyes which at most times were ruminant as a cow's, but could on
occasion kindle to shrewdness. His complexion was pale, and he was
fast growing bald, so the impression at first sight was of a
perfect mountain of countenance, a steep field of colourless skin.
As minister of Kirk Aller he was the metropolitan of the company,
and as became a townsman he wore decent black with bands, and
boasted a hat. The Reverend Ebenezer Proudfoot, from the moorland
village of Bold, was of a different cast. He wore the coarse grey
homespun of the farmer, his head-covering was a blue bonnet, his
shoes were thick brogues with leather ties, and he had donned a
pair of ancient frieze leggings. A massive sinewy figure, there was
in his narrow face and small blue eyes an air of rude power and
fiery energy. The third, Mr. James Fordyce from the neighbouring
parish of Cauldshaw, was slight and thin, and pale either from
ill-health or from much study. He was dressed in worn blue, and
even in the August sun kept his plaid round his shoulders. In his
face a fine brow was marred by the contraction of his lean jaws and
a mouth puckered constantly as if in doubt or pain, but redeemed by
brown eyes, as soft and wistful as a girl's.
At the hour of noon they sat down to meat. Mr. Muirhead said a
lengthy grace, which, since he sniffed the savour from the kitchen,
he began appropriately with "Bountiful Jehovah." All the dishes
were set out at once on the bare deal table—a bowl of barley kail,
a boiled fowl, the two brandered grouse, and a platter of oatcakes.
The merchant in the Pleasance of Edinburgh had given his son a
better plenishing than fell to the usual lot of ministers, for
there were pewter plates and a knife and a fork for each guest. The
three stared at the splendour, and Mr. Proudfoot, as if to testify
against luxury, preferred to pick the bones with his hands. The
home-brewed ale was good, and all except Mr. Fordyce did full
justice to it, so that the single tankard, passed from hand to
hand, was often refilled by Isobel. "Man, Mr. David," cried Mr.
Muirhead in high good-humour, "this is a great differ from the days
of your predecessor. Worthy Mr. Macmichael had never muckle but
bannocks to set before his friends. But you've made us a feast of
David inquired about his predecessor, whom he remembered dimly
from his boyhood as a man even then very old, who ambled about the
parish on a white shelty.
"He was a pious and diligent minister," said Mr. Muirhead, "but
since ever I kenned him he was sore fallen in the vale of years. He
would stick to the same 'ordinary' till he had thrashed it into
stour. I've heard that he preached for a year and sax months on
Exodus fifteen and twenty-seven, the twelve wells of water and
three score and ten palm trees of Elim, a Sabbath to ilka well and
ilka tree. I've a notion that he was never very strong in the
"He wrestled mightily in prayer," said Mr. Proudfoot, "and he
was great at fencing the Tables. Ay, sirs, he was a trumpet for the
pure Gospel blast."
"I doubt not he was a good man," said Mr. Fordyce, "and is now
gone to his reward. But he was ower auld and feeble for a sinful
countryside. I fear that the parish was but ill guided, and, as ye
ken, there was whiles talk of a Presbytery visitation."
"I differ!" cried Mr. Muirhead. "I differ in toto.
Woodilee has aye been famous for its godly elders. Has it not
Ephraim Caird, who was a member of Assembly and had a hand in that
precious work of grace done in the East Kirk of St. Giles's two
years syne? Has it not Peter Pennecuik, who has a gift of
supplication like Mr. Rutherford himself? Ay, and in the Bishops'
War you'll mind how Amos Ritchie was staunch to uphold the Covenant
with the auld matchlock that had been his gudesire's. There's no
lack of true religion in Woodilee."
"There's no lack of carnal pride, Mr. Mungo. The folk of
Woodilee are ready enough for any stramash in Kirk or State. But
what of their perishing souls, I ask? Are they striving to get a
grip of Christ, as a bird scrapes with its claws at a stone wall?
And do they bring forth works meet for repentance?"
"There was no clash of cauld morality in worthy Mr. Macmichael,"
said Mr. Proudfoot sourly.
"Is there the spirit of God in the people? That's what I want to
ken. There's ill stories in the countryside anent Woodilee. The
Black Wood could tell some tales if the trees could talk."
Mr. Muirhead, having finished his meal and said a second grace,
was picking his teeth in great good-humour.
"Hoot toots, Mr. James, you'll give our young brother a scunner
of the place, to which it has pleased the Almighty to call him,
before he has had a look at it himself. I'm not denying that the
Wood is ower near Woodilee. It's a wanchancy thing for any
parochine to have a muckle black forest flung around it like a maud
[plaid]. And no doubt the Devil walks about like a roaring lion in
Woodilee as in other bits. But there's men of God here to resist
him. I tell you, sirs, there have been more delations to the
Presbytery for the sin of witchcraft in Woodilee than in any other
parish on the water of Aller."
"And what does that prove, Mr. Mungo?"
"That there's wealth of prayerful and eident [careful] folk to
confound the Adversary. This is no season to despair of Kirk and
Covenant, when this day they hold the crown of the causeway. You'll
no have heard of the astonishing mercy vouchsafed to us in England?
A post came to Kirk Aller yestreen, and it seems that some weeks
syne there was a great battle beside the city of York, where our
Scots wrought mightily, and our own Davie Leslie gave the King's
horsemen their kail through the reek. What does that portend?"
"It portends," said Mr. Proudfoot, whom food did not mellow,
"that our pure and reformed Kirk of Scotland is linked more than
ever with sectaries and antinomians and those, like the bloody and
deceitful Cromwell, that would defile the milk of the Word with the
sour whey of their human inventions. What avails a triumphant Kirk
if its doctrine be sullied?"
Mr. Muirhead laughed. "It portends nothing of the kind. The good
work goes cannily on, and the noble task to which the Assembly of
Divines at Westminster set itself is advanced by a long mile. Man,
Eben, you folk at Bold live ower far from the world. It's the Kirk
of Scotland that holds the balance to-day and can enforce its will
on both King and sectaries. Two days back I had a letter from that
gospel-loving nobleman, the Earl of Loudoun … "
Mr. Muirhead was mounted on his high horse. He lit his pipe and
for the space of half an hour dealt comprehensively with politics,
labouring to show the happy posture of affairs for what he called
the "good cause." The Solemn League and Covenant bound all Scotland
in a pact with the Lord, and presently all England would follow
suit. There would be soon that comfortable sight which had been
foretold by their godly fathers, a uniform Kirk and a pure Gospel
established by law from London to the Orkneys, and a covenanted
Sion to which all the peoples of the earth would go up. Mr.
Muirhead was eloquent, for he repeated a peroration which he had
once used in the General Assembly.
"I have heard," he concluded, "that in Woodilee there was a
signing of the Covenant by every soul that could make a scart with
a pen. That for your encouragement, Mr. David."
Mr. Fordyce shook his head. "How many appended their names out
of fear or from mere carnal policy? Mankind will run like jukes
after a leader. I much misdoubt if there is any spiritual health to
be got from following a multitude under duress. I would have left
the choice to every man's conscience."
"You're not sound," cried Mr. Muirhead. "You're shaky on the
fundamentals, Mr. James. I will confound you out of the Word. When
King Josiah made a solemn covenant, did he leave it to ilka man's
fancy to sign or no? Nay, he caused all—all, I say—in Jerusalem and
Benjamin to stand to it. See Second Chronicles thirty-four and
There was a touch of asperity in the one disputant and of
recalcitrance in the other, so David for good-fellowship's sake
suggested that he might show them the manse in its new guise. But
at that moment Isobel appeared with word that Chasehope was at the
door seeking speech with the minister of Kirk Aller. At her back
appeared the fiery head of the visitor, who was that Ephraim Caird
whom Mr. Muirhead had already praised as a pillar of the Covenant
and who farmed the largest tack in the parish. He was a big fellow,
red as a fox, with a white freckled face, no eyebrows, and greenish
blue eyes, a man of over forty, whose muscular frame was now
somewhat overlaid by flesh. His mouth was small and generally
puckered together, a habit which gave him an air of thought and
gravity. He had been an opponent of David Sempill before the call,
but had acquiesced in the majority vote and had welcomed the new
minister at the "preaching in" with a great show of goodwill.
To-day he was apologetic and affable. He asked pardon for his
intrusion—he would take neither bite nor sup—he had heard that the
ministers were at the manse, and he begged a word with Mr. Muirhead
on Presbytery matters which would save him a journey to Kirk Aller,
when he was busy with the bog hay. So David took the other two to
his closet and left Chasehope and Mr. Muirhead to their
Mr. Proudfoot eyed with disapproval the books in the little dark
chamber. He was content, he said, with the Bible and the Institutes
of John Calvin and old Robert Rollock's commentary on the Prophet
Daniel. He read the lettering on one volume, Sancti Clementi
Opera, and on another, a work by a Dutch theologian, De
Sancti Pauli Epistolis. The word "Saint" roused his ire. "Rags
of Popery," he muttered, as he banged the books back on their
shelves. "What for 'Saint' Paul and not 'Saint' Moses or 'Saint'
Isaiah? It's a queer thing that Antichrist should set himself to
miscall the godly Apostles of the New Testament and let the auld
prophets alone. You're a young man, Mr. Sempill, and, as is natural
in youth, with but a small experience of religion. Take the advice
of an older man, and no clog yourself on the road to Heaven with
ower much printit lear, when you can put the whole Word of God in
But Mr. Fordyce looked at the shelves with greedy eyes. The
moor-fowl at dinner had loosened a tooth, and now it came out in
his hand and was wrapped carefully in his kerchief. "I have kept
ilka tooth I have ever cast," he told the others, "and they will go
into my coffin with me that my bodily parts may be together at the
Resurrection." "Would you shorten the arm of the Lord?" Mr.
Proudfoot had asked testily. "Can He no gather your remnants from
the uttermost parts of the earth?" "True, true," the other had
answered gently, "but it's just my fancy to keep all my dust in the
one place." This ceremony over, he flung himself on the books like
a hungry man on food. He opened them lovingly, read their titles,
fingered them as if he could scarcely bear to part with them.
"You're no half my age," he told the owner, "but you've twice as
many books as there are in the Cauldshaw manse. You start well
provided, Mr. David."
The theology he knew already and approved, but there were other
works over which he shook a moralizing head. "You've a hantle of
pagan writers, Mr. David. I would counsel a young minister to apply
himself rather to the Hebrew than to the Greek, for though the
Greek was the tongue of the New Testament, it was also the tongue
of lascivious poets and mocking philosophers, whereas the Hebrew
was consecrate wholly to God… . But you have the Hebrew too, I see.
Losh, here's the lexicon of Bamburgius, of which I have read but
have never seen. We must consult, Mr. David. I've a new theory of
the Hebrew accents on which I would like your judgment."
As he ran over the list he suddenly cried aloud with pleasure,
and then checked himself almost shamefacedly. "Preserve us, but
here's Hieronymus Cardanus, and other astrologic works. Man, I've
diverted myself whiles with the science of the stars, and can make
a shape at calculating a nativity. I cannot see why the thing
should not be turned to holy uses, as when the star guided the Wise
Men of the East to Bethlehem. You and me must have long cracks some
day. These books will be like the Pole Star to draw me to Woodilee,
and I'm looking to see you soon at Cauldshaw. It's but a poor
desert bit, but there have been precious occasions there and many
an outpouring of grace. I'm sore troubled with the gravel, Mr.
David, and the goodwife has had a flux in the legs this twelvemonth
back, but the Lord has showed me singular favour, and my damps are
lightened since a leech in Edinburgh prescribed a hyperion of
bourtree and rue… . We're a childless household, for we had but the
one bairn, and sax year syne the Lord gathered her to Himself."
Downstairs Mr. Muirhead had finished his talk, and the three
ministers took their leave—they of Bold and Cauldshaw to jog the
moorland miles to their homes, he of Kirk Aller to take his
"four-hours" with Chasehope at Lucky Weir's in the clachan. Each of
the three kissed David on the cheek and blessed him after his
fashion. "May you live to be a pillar of the Kirk," said Mr.
Muirhead. "Keep a Gospel walk," said Mr. Proudfoot, "on the narrow
rigging of the truth." But Mr. Fordyce took the young man's hand,
after saluting him, and held it with a kind of wistful affection.
"I pray," he said, "that your windows may be ever open towards
When his guests had gone David Sempill explored once more his
little domain, like a child who counts his treasures. Then, as the
afternoon mellowed into evening, the slopes of the Hill of Deer,
red with flowering heather, drew him for a walk. He wanted a wide
prospect, to see his parish in its setting of hill and glen, and
recall the landmarks now blurred in his childhood's memory. His
black coat and breeches were of Edinburgh make and too fine for
moorland work, but he had stout country shoes and hose of ram's
wool, the gift of his cousin's wife at Newbiggin, and he moved over
the bent with the long stride of a shepherd. He crossed the burn of
Mire, and saw below him the farm-town of Mirehope, with barley and
nettles at strife in the infield, and the run-rigs of the outfield
feathered with very green oats. Presently he was on the Hill of
Deer, where the long stacks of peats were drying so well that every
breath of air sent up from them a fine flurry of dust. The Mirehope
cattle, wretched little black beasts, were grazing under the charge
of a herd-boy, and the Mirehope sheep, their coats matted with tar
till they looked like monstrous slugs, were picking up an uneasy
livelihood among the heather bushes, leaving tufts of smelly wool
behind them on the scraggy twigs which were still charred from the
March moorburn. He reached the low summit, and flung himself down
on a patch of thymy turf between the whinstone screes, with his
face to the valley.
His holiday mood still held. The visit of his ministerial
brethren had not dashed him, for he saw their prosiness through a
golden haze. Mr. Muirhead was a stout warder on the walls of Sion,
Mr. Proudfoot a guardian of the purity of the Temple, and Mr.
Fordyce beyond question a saint, with his haggard face and his
wistful eyes. It was Mr. Fordyce who stuck in his memory. A lovable
saint, with his cast teeth saved up to make easy the business of a
bodily resurrection, his love of the stars, his pathetic
bookishness. David was full of the zest of his calling, but for
himself he was ready to circumscribe its duties. Not for him to
uphold the Kirk against its ill-wishers in the State; in that cause
he would do battle when the need arose, but not till then. He left
to others the task of keeping the canon of truth pure from alloy:
he accepted the Kirk's doctrine loyally, but let others do the
dogmatizing. The work for which he longed was to save and comfort
Seen on that hilltop the minister of Woodilee was a different
figure from that beheld by his colleagues in the dim light of the
manse. His active form, his colour, his tumbled hair, spoke of the
boy, but his face was not boyish. In its young contours there were
already thought and resolution and spiritual fineness, and there
was a steady ardour in the eyes. If his chin was the fighter's, his
mouth was the comforter's. Five years before he had been set on a
scholar's life. At the college he had been a noted Grecian, and in
Robert Bryson's bookshop at the Sign of the Prophet Jonah in the
West Bow his verses, Latin and English, had been praised by the
learned. When religion called him it was as a challenge not to
renounce but to perfect his past. A happy preoccupation with his
dream made him blind to the harshness and jealousies which beset
the Kirk, and he saw only its shining mission. The beauty which was
to be found in letters seemed in very truth a part of that
profounder beauty which embraced all earth and Heaven in the
revelation of God. He had not ceased to be the humanist in becoming
the evangelist. Some had looked askance at him as too full of
carnal learning for the sacred office, some as too cheerful for a
shepherd of souls in a perishing world. But his critics as yet were
few, for David carried with him a light and warmth which it was
hard for the sourest to resist. "He is a gracious youth," an old
minister had said at his ordination. "May the Lord deal tenderly
David's eyes from his perch on the hilltop rested first on the
kirkton of Woodilee. He saw the manse among its trees, and the
church with its thatched roof—the roof had been lead till Morton
the Regent stripped it and melted it down for bullets. He saw the
little beehive cottages in the clachan with the taller gable-end of
Lucky Weir's ale-house. He saw the adjoining farm-towns—the Mains,
Chasehope, Nether Windyways, Crossbasket, the two Fennans, each
with its patches of crops lifted well above the bogs of the glen.
He saw the mill of Woodilee at present idle by the burn, and hay
being cut on the side of Windyways hill, and what looked like the
clipping of the miller's sheep. In the bright evening the scene was
all of peace and pastoral, and David's heart kindled. There dwelled
his people, the little flock whom God had appointed him to feed.
His heart yearned over them, and in a sudden glow of tenderness he
felt that this sunset prospect of his parish was a new and more
It was long before he lifted his eyes beyond the glen to the
great encircling amphitheatre of the hills. At first he gazed at
them in an abstraction, till childish memories came back to him and
he began to name the summits to himself one by one. There was the
bald top of the Lammerlaw, and the peak of the Green Dod, and far
beyond the long line of the great Herstane Craig, which in that
childhood had been the synonym for untravelled mystery. He saw the
green cleft in the hills where the Aller came down from its distant
wells, and the darker glen of the Rood where bent was exchanged for
rock and heather. He saw the very patches of meadow by Roodside
which he had made his boyish playground. Such a hilltop prospect he
had never before known, for a child lives in a magnified world, and
finds immensity in short vistas. One thing struck hard on his mind.
Never before had he realized the extent of the forest ground. He
remembered travelling to Roodfoot through trees, and all up the
water of Rood there had been a drift of scrub. But it was the
meadows and the open spaces that had been his kingdom, and his
recollection was of a bare sunny land where whaup and peewit cried
and the burns fell headlong from windy moors. But now, as he gazed,
he realized that the countryside was mainly forest.
Everywhere, muffling the lower glen of the Woodilee burn and the
immediate vale of the Aller, and climbing far up the hillside, was
the gloom of trees. In the Rood glen there was darkness only at the
foot, for higher up the woods thinned into scrub of oak and hazel,
with the knees of the uplands showing through it. The sight
powerfully impressed his fancy. Woodilee was a mere clearing in a
forest. This was the Silva Caledonis of which old writers
spoke, the wood which once covered all the land and in whose glades
King Arthur had dwelt. He remembered doggerel Latin of Merlin the
Bard and strange sayings of True Thomas—old wives' tales which
concerned this sanctuary. He had grown up beside it and had not
known of it, and now he had come back to a revelation. Silva
Caledonis! Up the Rood water lay the house of Calidon. Were
the names perhaps the same?
The young man's fancy was quick to kindle, and he looked with
new eyes at the great cup of green, broken only at one spot by
Aller side with the flash of water. At first in the soft evening
light it had worn a gracious and homely air, even the darkness of
the pines seemed luminous, and the feathery top of a patch of
birches was like the smoke of household fires… . But as the sun
sank behind the Rood hills a change seemed to come over the scene.
The shade became gloom, a hostile, impenetrable darkness. The
birches were still like smoke, but a turbid smoke from some
unhallowed altar. The distant shallows of Aller caught a ray of the
dying sun and turned to blood… . The minister shivered and then
laughed at himself for his folly.
The evening deepened in the hollows, though the hilltops were
still faintly bright. The great wood seemed now to be a moving
thing, a flood which lapped and surged and might at any moment
overflow the sandspit which was Woodilee. Again the minister
laughed at himself, but without conviction. It must be an eerie
life under the shadow of that ancient formless thing. Woodilee
could not be quite as other parishes, or its folk like other folk.
The Wood, this hoary Wood of Caledon, must dominate their thoughts
and form their characters… . Had not some one called it the Black
Wood?—Yes, they had spoken of it that afternoon. Mr. Muirhead had
admitted that it must be queer to live so near it, and Mr. Fordyce
had shaken his head solemnly and hinted at tales that would be told
if the trees could speak… . Did the Devil use the place as a
stronghold and seduce the foolish into its shadows? Could it be
said of a lost soul, Itur in antiquam silvam?
David was less superstitious than most men, but he had too ready
a fancy and a mind too well stored with learning to be easy at the
thought. Already he felt that he had found an antagonist. Was
Woodilee to prove a frontier-post for God's servant against the
horrid mysteries of heathendom? … He gave a sudden start, for
a voice had sounded behind him.
The voice was singing—a charm against bogles which he remembered
himself using as a child:
"Weary, Ovie, gang awa',
Haste ye furth o' house an' ha',
Ower the muir and doun the burn,
Wearie, Ovie, ne'er return."
A grotesque figure emerged from the dusk. It was a tall fellow,
who seemed to have been broken in the middle, for he walked almost
doubled up. His face, seen in the half-light, was that of a man of
thirty or so, with a full black beard and red protuberant lips. His
clothes were ruinous, an old leather jerkin which gaped at every
seam, ragged small-clothes of frieze, and for hosen a wrapping of
dirty clouts. There were no shoes on his feet, and his unwashed
face was dark as a berry. In his hand he had a long ash pole, and
on his head a blue cowl so tight that it was almost a
David recognized the figure for Daft Gibbie, the village
natural, who had greeted him with mewing and shouting at his
ordination. In the clachan street he had seemed an ordinary
deformed idiot—what was known locally as an "object"—but up on this
twilight hilltop he was like an uncouth revenant from an
older world. The minister instinctively gripped his staff tighter,
but Gibbie's intention was of the friendliest.
"A braw guid e'en to ye, Mr. Sempill, sir. I saw ye tak' the
hill and I bode to follow, for I was wantin' to bid ye welcome to
Woodilee. Man, ye gang up the brae-face like a maukin [a hare].
Ower fast, I says to mysel', ower fast for a man o' God, for what
saith the Word, 'He that believeth shall not make haste!'"
The creature spoke in a voice of great beauty and softness—the
voice rather of a woman than of a man. And as he spoke he bowed,
and patted the minister's arm, and peered into his face with bright
wild eyes. Then he clutched David and forced him round till again
he was looking over the Wood.
"The Hill o' Deer's a grand bit for a prospect, sir, for is it
no like the Hill o' Pisgah from which ye can spy the Promised Land?
Ye can lift up your eyes to the hills, and ye can feast them on the
bonny haughs o' the Aller, or on the douce wee clachan o' Woodilee,
wi' the cots sittin' as canty round the kirk as kittlins round an
"I was looking at the Wood," said David.
The man laughed shrilly. "And a braw sicht it is in the gloamin'
frae the Hill o' Deer. For ye can see the size o' the muckle
spider's wab, but doun in the glen ye're that clamjamphried wi'
michty trees that your heid spins like a peery and your e'en are
dozened. It's a unco thing the Wud, Mr. Sempill, sir?"
"Do you know your ways in it, Gibbie?"
"Me! I daurna enter it. I keep the road, for I'm feared o' yon
dark howes." Then he laughed again, and put his mouth close to the
minister's ear. "Not but what I'll tak' the Wud at the proper
season. Tak' the Wud, Mr. Sempill, like other folk in
He peered in the minister's face to see if he were understood.
Satisfied that he was not, he laughed again.
"Tak' Gibbie's advice, sir, and no gang near the Wud. It's nae
place for men o' God, like yoursel', sir, and puir Gibbie."
"Do they call it the Black Wood?"
Gibbie spat. "Incomin' bodies, nae doot," he said in contempt.
"But it's just the Wud wi' nae 'black' aboot it. But ken ye the
name that auld folk gie'd it?" He became confidential again. "They
ca'd it Melanudrigill," he whispered.
David repeated the word. His mind had been running on heathen
learning, and he wondered if the name were Greek.
"That might mean the 'place of dark waters,'" he said.
"Na, na. Ye're wrong there, Mr. Sempill. There's nae dark waters
in Melanudrigill. There's the seven burns that rin south, but
they're a' as clear as Aller. But dinna speak that name to ither
folk, Mr. Sempill, and dinna let on that Gibbie telled ye. It's a
wanchancy name. Ye can cry it in a safe bit like the Hill o' Deer,
but if ye was to breathe it in the Wud unco things micht happen. I
daurna speak my ain name among the trees."
"Your name is Gibbie. Gibbie what?"
The man's face seemed to narrow in fear and then to expand in
confidence. "I can tell it to a minister o' the Word. It's Gilbert
Niven. Ken ye where I got that name? In the Wud, sir. Ken ye wha
gie'd it me? The Guid Folk. Ye'll no let on that I telled ye."
The night was now fallen, and David turned for home, after one
last look at the pit of blackness beneath him. The idiot hobbled
beside him, covering the ground at a pace which tried even his
young legs, and as he went he babbled.
"Tak' Gibbie's advice and keep far frae the Wud, Mr. Sempill,
and if ye're for Roodfoot or Calidon haud by the guid road. I've
heard tell that in the auld days, when there was monks at the
kirkton, they bode to gang out every year wi' bells and candles and
bless the road to keep it free o' bogles. But they never ventured
into the Wud, honest men. I'll no say but what a minister is mair
powerfu' than a monk, but an eident body will run nae risks. Keep
to fine caller bits like this Hill o' Deer, and if ye want to
traivel, gang west by Chasehope or east by Kirk Aller. There's
nocht for a man o' God in the Wud."
"Are there none of my folk there?"
For a second Gibbie stopped as if thunderstruck. "Your folk!" he
cried. "In the Wud!" Then he perceived David's meaning. "Na, na.
There's nae dwallin' there. Nether Fennan is no far off and
Reiverslaw is a bowshot from the trees, but to bide in the Wud!—Na,
na, a man would be sair left to himsel' ere he ventured that!
There's nae hoose biggit [built] by human hand that wadna be clawed
doun by bogles afore the wa' rase a span frae the grund."
At the outfield of Mirehope Gibbie fled abruptly, chanting like
a night bird.