The flickering of the fire picked out the creases in the old man’s face. He had their attention now. The room was crammed. The usual codgers from the Barony of Gruids had gathered in the Munro house for story-telling, just like in the days when he was young. His childhood friend had finished recounting one of the clan feuds of the district and the elderly man was deciding which epic tale of Ossian and the Fionn he would fill the rest of the evening with.
In the far corner he could just about make out his old friend Munro, the smoke from the central hearth misting above his head as he sat in his low wooden chair. In age he was shorter now than when they took to hill and river with gun and rod, but still a solidly built man, his grave face hiding a cheerful temperament. Never one for idleness, although his son now largely ran the farm, he still worked as a factor for the proprietor of Gruids. The old man chuckled as remembered the wild youth of half a century before. Even in those days when dancing at wakes as well as weddings was common, he had been legendary. He had once even persuaded a new widow to take the floor in a strathspey beside her husband’s corpse. When everyone else failed he roguishly remarked in her hearing, ‘that whoever else might have refused to dance at poor Donald’s death wake, he little thought it would have been she.’
William, the eldest lad, sat beside the patriarch. The gathering was in honour of him, the fortune-earning merchant son home for a visit from the south. Rumour had it he was worth fifteen hundred pounds a year. For weeks the old man had seen the string of visitors, most who never normally set foot in the Munros’ home, resurrecting faint ties of friendship. It was such a strain that poor Mrs Munro had called on her sister from Cromarty to help with the catering. Young Mrs Miller looked delicate, but she had apparently walked the thirty miles from Cromarty with that boy of hers in two days.
In later life that boy described his uncle’s house as a ‘low, long, dingy edifice of turf’ which ‘lying along a gentle acclivity, somewhat resembled at a distance a huge black snail creeping up the hill.’ Dingy with lack of light perhaps, but the six milk cows shifting and chewing behind the wattle wall betrayed the Munros’ comfortable circumstances. Beyond where the company circled around the open hearth, was a further room split for privacy into small, dark bed-rooms. Further was a closet with a little window, assigned to the Millers. And at the extremity was ‘the room’. Built of stone with a window and chimney, it had chairs, table, a chest of drawers, a large box-bed, and a small but well-filled bookcase. While William the merchant was home, this was his.
Next to William, leaning close to the central hearth to get the light, was Hugh, carving those little snuff boxes he liked to give his friends. Despite spending every daylight hour building his father a barn, he couldn’t keep his hands still. And big George, the mason and slater, home also to see his brother. For all his reading of books and the English poetry-writing he had picked up when working in the south, the old man knew what George really loved was hearing the ancient tales by the fireside. On a stool, poking at the peats, was the other Hugh, the Cromarty schoolboy. He had no Gaelic, but George had been muttering translations all evening. The lad might enjoy the story about the Fion who were despised by the women of the tribe as, being only fifteen feet tall, they could not leap across the Cromarty or Dornoch Firths on their spears. The danger of telling any of these stories was that it was likely to call forth a lecture from William on the ongoing controversy as to how genuine or otherwise were the published ‘translations’ of Ossian. James MacPherson claimed to have gathered the stories at firesides, passed down by word of mouth since time immemorial. But detractors maintained he had fabricated the lot. William had the nature of a teacher and young Hugh was the current target. When not out exploring the countryside, the boy was expected to master the key thinkers in the debate, and then learn Gaelic. Well, if he were learning about the old stories out of modern books, then he should also experience them the way they were meant to be told. An active lad like him, what would he like? Yes, the lecture would be risked, and the boy would hear of when jealous Fingal tried to eliminate the handsome hunters by sending them after the monstrous wild boar with the poisonous bristles.
Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1889), chapter 5.