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The Watcher by the Threshold

The Watcher by the Threshold
Author: Buchan John
Title: The Watcher by the Threshold
Release Date: 2018-06-26
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
Count views: 143
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[Pg i]



[Pg ii]


title page

[Pg iii]




Author of "Greenmantle,"
"Salute to Adventurers,"



[Pg iv]

Copyright, 1918,
By George H. Doran Company

Printed in the United States of America

[Pg v]



My dear Stair,

We have travelled so many roads together, highland and lowland,pleasant and dreary, that I ask you to accept this book of travellers'tales. For Scotland is a wide place to travel in for those who believethat it is not bounded strictly by kirk and market-place, and who havean ear for old songs and lost romances. It is of the back-world ofScotland that I write, the land behind the mist and over the seven bens,a place hard of access for the foot-passenger but easy for the maker ofstories. Meantime, to you, who have chosen the better part, I wish manybright days by hill and loch in the summers to come.

R. M. S. Briton, at sea

J. B.

[Pg vii]

"Among idle men there be some who tarry in the outer courts, speedingthe days joyfully with dance and song. But the other sort dwell near theportals of the House, and are ever anxious and ill at ease that they maysee something of the Shadows which come and go. Wherefore night and daythey are found watching by the threshold, in fearfulness and joy, notwithout tears." Extract from the writings of Donisarius of Padua, circa 1310.

[Pg ix]


I   No-Man's Land 13
II   The Far Islands 100
III   The Watcher by the Threshold 137
IV   The Outgoing of the Tide 204
V   The Rime of True Thomas 238
VI   Basilissa 255
VII   Divus Johnston 286
VIII   The King of Ypres 301

[Pg 11]


[Pg 13]




It was with a light heart and a pleasing consciousness of holiday that Iset out from the inn at Allermuir to tramp my fifteen miles into theunknown. I walked slowly, for I carried my equipment on my back—mybasket, fly-books and rods, my plaid of Grant tartan (for I boast myselfa distant kinsman of that house), and my great staff, which had triedere then the front of the steeper Alps. A small valise with books andsome changes of linen clothing had been sent on ahead in the shepherd'sown hands. It was yet early April, and before me lay four weeks offreedom—twenty-eight blessed days in which to take fish and smoke thepipe of [Pg 14]idleness. The Lent term had pulled me down, a week of modestenjoyment thereafter in town had finished the work; and I drank in thesharp moorish air like a thirsty man who has been forwandered amongdeserts.

I am a man of varied tastes and a score of interests. As anundergraduate I had been filled with the old mania for the completelife. I distinguished myself in the Schools, rowed in my college eight,and reached the distinction of practising for three weeks in the Trials.I had dabbled in a score of learned activities, and when the time camethat I won the inevitable St. Chad's fellowship on my chaoticacquirements, and I found myself compelled to select if I would pursue ascholar's life, I had some toil in finding my vocation. In the end Iresolved that the ancient life of the North, of the Celts and theNorthmen and the unknown Pictish tribes, held for me the chieffascination. I had acquired a smattering of Gaelic, having been broughtup as a boy in Lochaber, and now I set myself to increase my store oflanguages. I mastered Erse and Icelandic, and my first book—a monographon the probable Celtic elements in the Eddic songs—brought me thepraise of scholars and the deputy-professor's chair of[Pg 15] NorthernAntiquities. So much for Oxford. My vacations had been spent mainly inthe North—in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isles, in Scandinavia andIceland, once even in the far limits of Finland. I was a keen sportsmanof a sort, an old-experienced fisher, a fair shot with gun and rifle,and in my hillcraft I might well stand comparison with most men. Aprilhas ever seemed to me the finest season of the year even in our coldnorthern altitudes, and the memory of many bright Aprils had brought meup from the South on the night before to Allerfoot, whence a dogcart hadtaken me up Glen Aller to the inn at Allermuir; and now the same desirehad set me on the heather with my face to the cold brown hills.

You are to picture a sort of plateau, benty and rock-strewn, runningridge-wise above a chain of little peaty lochs and a vast tract ofinexorable bog. In a mile the ridge ceased in a shoulder of hill, andover this lay the head of another glen, with the same dolefulaccompaniment of sunless lochs, mosses, and a shining and resolutewater. East and west and north, in every direction save the south, rosewalls of gashed and serrated hills. It was a grey day with blinks ofsun, and when a ray chanced to fall on one of the great dark[Pg 16] faces,lines of light and colour sprang into being which told of mica andgranite. I was in high spirits, as on the eve of holiday; I hadbreakfasted excellently on eggs and salmon-steaks; I had no cares tospeak of, and my prospects were not uninviting. But in spite of myselfthe landscape began to take me in thrall and crush me. The silentvanished peoples of the hills seemed to be stirring; dark primeval facesseemed to stare at me from behind boulders and jags of rock. The placewas so still, so free from the cheerful clamour of nesting birds, thatit seemed a temenos sacred to some old-world god. At my feet the lochslapped ceaselessly; but the waters were so dark that one could not seebottom a foot from the edge. On my right the links of green told ofsnake-like mires waiting to crush the unwary wanderer. It seemed to mefor the moment a land of death, where the tongues of the dead criedaloud for recognition.

My whole morning's walk was full of such fancies. I lit a pipe to cheerme, but the things would not be got rid of. I thought of the Gaels whohad held those fastnesses; I thought of the Britons before them, whoyielded to their advent. They were all strong peoples in their day, andnow they had gone the way of the earth.[Pg 17] They had left their mark on thelevels of the glens and on the more habitable uplands, both in names andin actual forts, and graves where men might still dig curios. But thehills—that black stony amphitheatre before me—it seemed strange thatthe hills bore no traces of them. And then with some uneasiness Ireflected on that older and stranger race who were said to have held thehill-tops. The Picts, the Picti—what in the name of goodness were they?They had troubled me in all my studies, a sort of blank wall to put anend to speculation. We knew nothing of them save certain strange nameswhich men called Pictish, the names of those hills in front of me—theMuneraw, the Yirnie, the Calmarton. They were the corpus vile forlearned experiment; but Heaven alone knew what dark abyss of savageryonce yawned in the midst of this desert.

And then I remembered the crazy theories of a pupil of mine at StChad's, the son of a small landowner on the Aller, a young gentleman whohad spent his substance too freely at Oxford, and was now dreeing hisweird in the Backwoods. He had been no scholar but a certain imaginationmarked all his doings, and of a Sunday night he would come and talk tome of[Pg 18] the North. The Picts were his special subject, and his ideas weremad. "Listen to me," he would say, when I had mixed him toddy and givenhim one of my cigars; "I believe there are traces—ay, and more thantraces—of an old culture lurking in those hills and waiting to bediscovered. We never hear of the Picts being driven from the hills. TheBritons drove them from the lowlands, the Gaels from Ireland did thesame for the Britons; but the hills were left unmolested. We hear of noone going near them except outlaws and tinklers. And in that very placeyou have the strangest mythology. Take the story of the Brownie. What isthat but the story of a little swart man of uncommon strength andcleverness, who does good and ill indiscriminately, and then disappears?There are many scholars, as you yourself confess, who think that theorigin of the Brownie was in some mad belief in the old race of thePicts, which still survived somewhere in the hills. And do we not hearof the Brownie in authentic records right down to the year 1756? Afterthat, when people grew more incredulous, it is natural that the beliefshould have begun to die out; but I do not see why stray traces shouldnot have survived till late."

[Pg 19]

"Do you not see what that means?" I had said in mock gravity. "Thosesame hills are, if anything, less known now than they were a hundredyears ago. Why should not your Picts or Brownies be living to this day?"

"Why not, indeed?" he had rejoined, in all seriousness.

I laughed, and he went to his rooms and returned with a largeleather-bound book. It was lettered, in the rococo style of a youngman's taste, 'Glimpses of the Unknown,' and some of the said glimpses heproceeded to impart to me. It was not pleasant reading; indeed, I hadrarely heard anything so well fitted to shatter sensitive nerves. Theearly part consisted of folk-tales and folk-sayings, some of them whollyobscure, some of them with a glint of meaning, but all of them with somehint of a mystery in the hills. I heard the Brownie story in countlessversions. Now the thing was a friendly little man, who wore greybreeches and lived on brose; now he was a twisted being, the sight ofwhich made the ewes miscarry in the lambing-time. But the second partwas the stranger, for it was made up of actual tales, most of them withdate and place appended. It was a most Bedlamite catalogue of horrors,which, if true, made the [Pg 20]wholesome moors a place instinct with tragedy.Some told of children carried away from villages, even from towns, onthe verge of the uplands. In almost every case they were girls, and thestrange fact was their utter disappearance. Two little girls would becoming home from school, would be seen last by a neighbour just wherethe road crossed a patch of heath or entered a wood and then—no humaneye ever saw them again. Children's cries had startled outlyingshepherds in the night, and when they had rushed to the door they couldhear nothing but the

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