At the Rising of the Waters
In mid-September the moors are changing from red to a dusky brown, as the fire of the heather wanes, and the long grass yellows with advancing autumn. Then, too, the rain falls heavily on the hills, and vexes the shallow upland streams, till every glen is ribbed with its churning torrent. This for the uplands; but below, at the rim of the plains, where the glens expand to vales, and trim fields edge the wastes, there is wreck and lamentation. The cabined waters lip over cornland and meadow, and bear destruction to crop and cattle.
This is the tale of Robert Linklater, farmer in Clachlands, and the events which befell him on the night of September 20th, in the year of grace 1880. I am aware that there are characters in the countryside which stand higher in repute than his, for imagination and love of point and completeness in a story are qualities which little commend themselves to the prosaic. I have heard him called ‘Leein’ Rob’, and answer to the same with cheerfulness; but he was wont in private to brag of minutest truthfulness, and attribute his ill name to the universal dullness of man.
On this evening he came home, by his own account, from market about the hour of six. He had had a week of festivity. On the Monday he had gone to a distant cattle-show, and on Tuesday to a marriage. On the Wednesday he had attended upon a cousin’s funeral, and, being flown with whisky, brought everlasting disgrace upon himself by rising to propose the health of the bride and bridegroom. On Thursday he had been at the market of Gledsmuir, and, getting two shillings more for his ewes than he had reckoned, returned in a fine fervour of spirit and ripe hilarity.
The weather had been shower and blast for days. The grey skies dissolved in dreary rain, and on that very morn there had come a downpour so fierce that the highways ran like a hillside torrent. Now, as he sat at supper and looked down at the green vale and red waters leaping by bank and brae, a sudden fear came to his heart. Hitherto he had had no concern―for was not his harvest safely inned? But now he minds of the laigh parks and the nowt beasts there, which he had bought the week before at the sale of Inverforth. They were Kyloe and Galloway mixed, and on them, when fattened through winter and spring, lay great hopes of profit. He gulped his meal down hurriedly, and went forthwith to the garden-foot. There he saw something that did not allay his fears. Gled had split itself in two, at the place where Clachlands water came to swell its flow, and a long, gleaming line of black current stole round by the side of the laigh meadow, where stood the huddled cattle. Let but the waters rise a little, and the valley would be one uniform, turgid sea.
This was pleasing news for an honest man after a hard day’s work, and the farmer went grumbling back. He took a mighty plaid and flung it over his shoulders, chose the largest and toughest of his many sticks, and set off to see wherein he could better the peril.
Now, some hundreds of yards above the laigh meadow, a crazy wooden bridge spanned the stream. By this way he might bring his beasts to safety, for no nowt could hope to swim the red flood. So he plashed through the dripping stubble to the river’s brink, where, with tawny swirl, it licked the edge of banks which in summer weather stood high and flower-decked. Ruefully he reflected that many good palings would by this time be whirling to a distant sea.
When he came to the wooden bridge he set his teeth manfully and crossed. It creaked and swayed with his weight, and dipped till it all but touched the flow. It could not stand even as the water was, for already its mid prop had lurched forward, like a drunken man, and was groaning at each wave. But if a rise came, it would be torn from its foundations like a reed, and then heigh-ho! for cattle and man.
With painful haste he laboured through the shallows which rimmed the haughlands, and came to the snake-like current which had even now spread itself beyond the laigh meadow. He measured its depth with his eye and ventured. It did not reach beyond his middle, but its force gave him much ado to keep his feet. At length it was passed, and he stood triumphant on the spongy land, where the cattle huddled in mute discomfort and terror.
Darkness was falling, and he could scarcely see the homestead on the affronting hillside. So with all speed he set about collecting the shivering beasts, and forcing them through the ring of water to the bridge. Up to their flanks they went, and then stood lowing helplessly. He saw that something was wrong, and made to ford the current himself. But now it was beyond him. He looked down at the yellow water running round his middle, and saw that it had risen, and was rising inch by inch with every minute. Then he glanced to where aforetime stood the crazy planking of the bridge. Suddenly hope and complacency fled, and the gravest fear settled in his heart; for he saw no bridge, only a ragged, saw-like end of timber where once he had crossed.
Here was a plight for a solitary man to be in at nightfall. There would be no wooden bridge on all the water, and the nearest one of stone was at distant Gledsmuir, over some score of miles of weary moorland. It was clear that his cattle must bide on this farther bank, and he himself, when once he had seen them in safety, would set off for the nearest farm and pass the night. It seemed the craziest of matters, that he should be thus in peril and discomfort, with the lights of his house blinking not a quarter mile away.
Once more he tried to break the water-ring and once more he failed. The flood was still rising, and the space of green which showed grey and black beneath a fitful moon was quickly lessening. Before, irritation had been his upper feeling, now terror succeeded. He could not swim a stroke, and if the field were covered he would drown like a cat in a bag. He lifted up his voice and roared with all the strength of his mighty lungs, ‘Sammie’, ‘Andra’, ‘Jock’, ‘come and help’s’, till the place rang with echoes. Meantime, with strained eyes he watched the rise of the cruel water, which crept, black and pitiless, over the shadowy grey.
He drove the beasts to a little knoll, which stood somewhat above the meadow, and there they stood, cattle and man, in the fellowship of misfortune. They had been as wild as peat-reek, and had suffered none to approach them, but now with some instinct of peril they stood quietly by his side, turning great billowy foreheads to the surging waste. Upward and nearer came the current, rising with steady gurgling which told of great storms in his hills and roaring torrents in every gorge. Now the sound grew louder and seemed almost at his feet, now it ceased and nought was heard save the dull hum of the main stream pouring its choking floods to the sea. Suddenly his eyes wandered to the lights of his house and the wide slope beyond, and for a second he mused on some alien trifle. Then he was brought to himself with a pull as he looked and saw a line of black water not three feet from the farthest beast. His heart stood still, and with awe he reflected that in half-an-hour by this rate of rising he would be with his Maker.
For five minutes he waited, scarce daring to look around him, but dreading each instant to feel a cold wave lick his boot. Then he glanced timorously, and to his joy it was scarce an inch higher. It was stopping, and he might yet be safe. With renewed energy he cried out for aid, till the very cattle started at the sound and moved uneasily among themselves.
In a little there came an answering voice across the dark, ‘Whae’s in the laigh meedy?’ and it was the voice of the herd of Clachlands, sounding hoarse through the driving of the stream.
‘It’s me,’ went back the mournful response.
‘And whae we ye?’ came the sepulchral voice.
‘Your ain maister, William Small, forewandered among water and nowt beast.’
For some time there was no reply, since the shepherd was engaged in a severe mental struggle; with the readiness of his class he went straight to the heart of the peril, and mentally reviewed the ways and waters of the land. Then he calmly accepted the hopelessness of it all, and cried loudly through the void,―
‘There’s nae way for’t but juist to bide where ye are. The water’s stoppit, and gin mornin’ we’ll get ye aff. I’ll send a laddie down to the Dow Pule to bring up a boat in a cairt. But that’s a lang gait, and it’ll be a sair job gettin’ it up, and I misdoot it’ll be daylicht or he comes. But haud up hour hert, and we’ll get ye oot. Are the beasts a’ richt?’
‘A’ richt, William; but, ‘od man! their maister is cauld. Could ye no fling something ower?’
‘No, when there’s twae hunner yairds o’ deep water atween.’
‘Then, William, ye maun licht a fire, a great muckle roarin’ fire, juist fornenst me. It’ll cheer me to see the licht o’ ’t.’
The shepherd did as he was bid, and for many minutes the farmer could hear the noise of men heaping wood, in the pauses of wind and through the thicker murmur of the water. Then a glare shot up, and revealed the dusky forms of the four serving-men straining their eyes across the channel. The gleam lit up a yard of water by the other bank, but all mid-way was inky shadow. It was about eight o’clock, and the moon was just arisen. The air had coldened and a light chill wind rose from the river.
The farmer of Clachlands, standing among shivering and dripping oxen, himself wet to the skin and cold as a stone, with no wrapping save his plaid, and no outlook save a black moving water and a gleam of fire―in such a position, the farmer of Clachlands collected his thoughts and mustered his resolution. His first consideration was the safety of his stock. The effort gave him comfort. His crops were in, and he could lose nothing there; his sheep were far removed from scaith, and his cattle would survive the night with ease, if the water kept its level. With some satisfaction he reflected that the only care he need have in the matter was for his own bodily comfort in an autumn night. This was serious, yet not deadly, for the farmer was a man of many toils and cared little for the rigours of weather. But he would gladly have given the price of a beast for a bottle of whisky to comfort himself in this emergency.
He stood on a knuckle of green land some twenty feet long, with a crowd of cattle pressing around him and a little forest of horns showing faintly. There was warmth in these great shaggy hides if they had not been drenched and icy from long standing. His fingers were soon as numb as his feet, and it was in vain that he stamped on the plashy grass or wrapped his hands in a fold of plaid. There was no doubt in the matter. He was keenly uncomfortable, and the growing chill of night would not mend his condition.
Some ray of comfort was to be got from the sight of the crackling fire. There at least was homely warmth, and light, and ease. With gusto he conjured up all the delights of the past week, the roaring evenings in market ale-house, and the fragrance of good drink and piping food. Necessity sharpened his fancy, and he could almost feel the flavour of tobacco. A sudden hope took him. He clapped hand to pocket and pulled forth pipe and shag. Curse it! He had left his match-box on the chimney-top in his kitchen, and there was an end to his only chance of comfort.
So in all cold and damp he set himself to pass the night in the midst of that ceaseless swirl of black moss water. Even as he looked at the dancing glimmer of fire, the moon broke forth silent and full, and lit the vale with misty glamour. The great hills, whence came the Gled, shone blue and high with fleecy trails of vapour drifting athwart them. He saw clearly the walls of his dwelling, the light shining from the window, the struggling fire on the bank, and the dark forms of men. Its transient flashes on the waves were scarce seen in the broad belt of moonshine which girdled the valley. And around him, before and behind, rolled the unending desert waters with that heavy, resolute flow, which one who knows the floods fears a thousand-fold more than the boisterous stir of a torrent.
And so he stood till maybe one o’clock of the morning, cold to the bone, and awed by the eternal silence, which choked him, despite the myriad noises of the night. For there are few things more awful than the calm of nature in her madness―the stillness which follows a snow-slip or the monotony of a great flood. By this hour he was falling from his first high confidence. His knees stooped under him, and he was fain to lean upon the beasts at his side. His shoulders ached with the wet, and his eyes grew sore with the sight of yellow glare and remote distance.
From this point I shall tell his tale in his own words, as he has told it me, but stripped of its garnishing and detail. For it were vain to translate Lallan into orthodox speech, when the very salt of the night air clings to the Scots as it did to that queer tale.
‘The mune had been lang out,’ he said, ‘and I had grown weary o’ her blinkin’. I was as cauld as death, and as wat as the sea, no to speak o’ haein’ the rheumatics in my back. The nowt were glowrin’ and glunchin’, rubbin’ heid to heid, and whiles stampin’ on my taes wi’ their cloven hooves. But I was mortal glad o’ the beasts’ company, for I think I wad hae gane daft mysel in that muckle dowie water. Whiles I thocht it was risin’, and then my hert stood still; an’ whiles fa’in’, and then it loupit wi’ joy. But it keepit geyan near the bit, and aye as I heard it lip-lappin’ I prayed the Lord to keep it whaur it was.
‘About half-past yin in the mornin’, as I saw by my watch, I got sleepy, and but for the nowt steerin’, I micht hae drappit aff. Syne I begood to watch the water, and it was rale interestin’, for a’ sort o’ queer things were comin’ doun. I could see bits o’ brigs and palin’s wi’oot end dippin’ in the tide, and whiles swirlin’ in sae near that I could hae grippit them. Then beasts began to come by, whiles upside doun, whiles soomin’ brawly, sheep and stirks frae the farms up the water. I got graund amusement for a wee while watchin’ them, and notin’ the marks on their necks.
‘“That’s Clachlands Mains,” says I, “and that’s Nether Fallo, and the Back o’ the Muneraw. Gudesake, sic a spate it maun hae been up the muirs to work siccan a destruction!” I keepit coont o’ the stock, and feegured to mysel what the farmer-bodies wad lose. The thocht that I wad keep a’ my ain was some kind o’ comfort.
‘But about the hour o’ twae the mune cloudit ower, and I saw nae mair than twenty feet afore me. I got awesome cauld, and a sort o’ stound o’ fricht took me, as I lookit into that black, unholy water. The nowt shivered sair and drappit their heids, and the fire on the ither side seemed to gang out a’ of a sudden, and leave the hale glen thick wi’ nicht. I shivered mysel wi’ something mair than the snell air, and there and then I wad hae gien the price o’ fower stirks for my ain bed at hame.
‘It was as quiet as a kirkyaird, for suddenly the roar o’ the water stoppit, and the stream lay still as a loch. Then I heard a queer lappin’ as o’ something floatin’ doun, and it sounded miles aff in that dreidfu’ silence. I listened wi’ een stertin’, and aye it cam’ nearer and nearer, wi’ a sound like a dowg soomin’ a burn. It was sae black, I could see nocht, but somewhere frae the edge o’ a cloud, a thin ray o’ licht drappit on the water, and there, soomin’ doun by me, I saw something that lookit like a man.
‘My hert was burstin’ wi’ terror, but, thinks I, here’s a droonin’ body, and I maun try and save it. So I waded in as far as I daured, though my feet were sae cauld that they bowed aneath me.
‘Ahint me I heard a splashin’ and fechtin’, and then I saw the nowt, fair wild wi’ fricht, standin’ in the water on the ither side o’ the green bit, and lookin’ wi’ muckle feared een at something in the water afore me.
‘Doun the thing came, and aye I got caulder as I looked. Then it was by my side, and I claught at it and pu’d it after me on to the land.
‘I heard anither splash. The nowt gaed farther into the water, and stood shakin’ like young birks in a storm.
‘I got the thing upon the green bank and turned it ower. It was a drooned man wi’ his hair hingin’ back on his broo, and his mouth wide open. But first I saw his een, which glowered like scrapit lead out o’ his clay-cauld face, and had in them a’ the fear o’ death and hell which follows after.
‘The next moment I was up to my waist among the nowt, fechtin’ in the water aside them, and spowkin’ into their wet backs to hide mysel like a feared bairn.
‘Maybe half an ’oor I stood, and then my mind returned to me. I misca’ed mysel for a fule and a coward. And my legs were sae numb, and my strength sae far gane, that I kenned fine that I couldna lang thole to stand this way like a heron in the water.
‘I lookit round, and then turned again wi’ a stert, for there were thae leaden een o’ that awfu’ deid thing staring at me still.
‘For anither quarter-hour I stood and shivered, and then my guid sense returned, and I tried again. I walkit backward, never lookin’ round, through the water to the shore, whaur I thocht the corp was lyin’. And a’ the time I could hear my hert chokin’ in my breist.
‘My God, I fell ower it, and for one moment lay aside it, wi’ my heid touchin’ its deathly skin. Then wi’ a skelloch like a daft man, I took the thing in my airms and flung it wi’ a’ my strength into the water. The swirl took it, and it dipped and swam like a fish till it gaed out o’ sicht.
‘I sat doun on the grass and grat like a bairn wi’ fair horror and weakness. Yin by yin the nowt came back, and shouthered anither around me, and the puir beasts brocht me yince mair to mysel. But I keepit my een on the grund, and thocht o’ hame and a’ thing decent and kindly, for I daurna for my life look out to the black water in dreid o’ what it micht bring.
‘At the first licht, the herd and twae ither men cam’ ower in a boat to tak me aff and bring fodder for the beasts. They fand me still sitting wi’ my heid atween my knees, and my face like a peeled wand. They lifted me intil the boat and rowed me ower, driftin’ far down wi’ the angry current. At the ither side the shepherd says to me in an awed voice―
‘“There’s a fearfu’ thing happened. The young laird o’ Manorwater’s drooned in the spate. He was ridin’ back late and tried the ford o’ the Cauldshaw foot. Ye ken his wild cantrips, but there’s an end o’ them noo. The horse cam’ hame in the nicht wi’ an empty saiddle, and the Gled Water rinnin’ frae him in streams. The corp’ll be far on to the sea by this time, and they’ll never see ’t mair.”
‘“I ken,” I cried wi’ a dry throat, “I ken; I saw him floatin’ by.” And then I broke yince mair into a silly greetin’, while the men watched me as if they thocht I was out o’ my mind.’
So much the farmer of Clachlands told me, but to the countryside he repeated merely the bare facts of weariness and discomfort. I have heard that he was accosted a week later by the minister of the place, a well-intentioned, phrasing man, who had strayed from his native city with its familiar air of tea and temperance to those stony uplands.
‘And what thoughts had you, Mr Linklater, in that awful position? Had you no serious reflection upon your life?’
‘Me,’ said the farmer; ‘no me. I juist was thinkin’ that it was dooms cauld, and that I wad hae gien a guid deal for a pipe o’ tobaccy.’ This in the racy, careless tone of one to whom such incidents were the merest child’s play.
John Buchan (1875-1940) 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, was a writer. He was best known for his novels including The Thirty-Nine Steps.