Kilmahoe

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Kilmahoe: a Highland Pastoral; with other Poems.


By John Campbell Shairp.
(Macmillan & Co.)


IF there be no rushing wind of inspiration stirring the leaves of this little book, there is a very pleasant breath of health and a gentle glow of real life in it, both fresh from the country.  The writer turns, with all a clansman's feeling in his heart and a mist of affection in his eyes, to that far-away life in the distance which he knows well, and which is now passing away for ever.  He may mix in the crowd of the present, where the crush is so great, the strain so trying, and men are being hustled and rubbed and ground down more and more into one common likeness; but his heart is evidently in the Highlands.  Day by day are the fine old simplicities of character growing scarce, and we have to seek in the remote and heathery parts of human life for our specimens of more piquant and robust individuality than we find close at hand, and for the plots of soil which are yet uncultured enough to grow a few thistles, whose wild honey is more pungent in its fragrance than any we can get from our over-civilized garden-flowers.  Mr.  Shairp is one of those who thus look backward on certain phases of life and character belonging to the past, and would fain catch some likeness of the features which are fixing, and the expression which is fading fast in death.

    'Kilmahoe' has the real colour of the country and atmosphere of the Lower Highlands, the warm wafts of heather honey that come floating over the summer lochs, the smell of the peat-fire and smack of its smoke in the whisky.  The human life may change.  The old grey heads may lie low, and the young curls, with the warm glow of the Highland summers in them, may now whiten on the other side of the world.  The homesteads and sheilings may crumble, but the face of external nature remains much the same; and by that we test the truthfulness of Mr.  Shairp's pictures.  We might follow the writer to the seaside, where the gulls and gannets swim and dive, and the burns come hurrying down behind, and the purple peaks of Arran are flushing in front; or climb the hills, and hear the big Bens muttering in their cloudland dreams,—peep in on the family life of the Scottish laird, and note its simple manners and quaint customs,—spy out the hidden dells where the Covenanters worshipped God as in some natural kneeling-place,—or mark where rise the misty cairns on the lonely moor, and the martyrs sleep headless, rolled in their bloody plaids,—and everywhere we might pause to pay tribute to Mr.  Shairp's genuine love for the old life and his truthful portraiture of Highland landscape.  Somehow, however, the following ballad has taken our fancy:—

                                       PAUL JONES.

Through the grey summer dawn up the shores the cry hath
            gone,
    "Paul Jones comes, yonder is his sail;"
And startled mothers prest their babies to their breast,
    And the manliest cheeks turned to pale.

With the sou'-west blowing strong, he hath wrestled all
            night long
    And the breakers roaring white upon his lee,
Now with flow of morning tide from the Atlantic wide
    He is setting for our inland sea.

As from mountain-tops amain stoops the eagle to the plain,
    See, with every stitch of sail unfurled,
He sweeps past Ailsa Craig with the sable pirate flag
    Bearing death, from the western world.

Sheer on—he is bearing down on the little harbour town,
    That crouched in its sheltered bay cloth lie;
Will he try if the roof of Kilmahoe be proof
    To his guns, as he sweepeth by?

Yet what seeks he here? Is his tackle out of gear?
    Is he tempest-maimed, mast or yard?
What can our small port give, where only poor men live,
    To fix this cruel man' s regard?

Like men of reason reft, the fisher-folk have left
    Their boats and their nets to the waves,
And are up wi' wives and bairns among the mountain
            cairns,
    The corries and dank dripping caves.

And all the harbour bay is tumult and deray,
    Men and women hurrying here and there; '
Some to cellars underground, and some have refuge found,
    High aloof on the uplands bare.

Yon veterans on the steep, by the ruined castle-keep,
    With their rusty guns how crousely they craw!
"Let the pirate show his beak this side the island peak,
    How his Yankee kaim we will claw! "

But at bonny Kilmahoe, will they stay? will they go?
    What is doing at the old farm toun?
Men stand agape and stare, lasses skirt and rive their hair;
    That's what they're doing, lass and loon.

But the lone lady fair, with braided silver hair,
    Down has steppit, when she heard the din,
"Do ye think that ye will flout, wi' your senseless roar and
           rout,
Paul Jones from his entering in?

'Twere better lads, belyve, that ye should rise and drive
    The kye and calves to the burnie clench;
And lasses, screech na here, but haste and hide our gear,
    In the house, atweel, there is wark eneuch."

Then up the stair she stept to where her bairnies slept
    In an upper chamber ben.
"Now, Flory! haste thee, flee, wi' my bonnie bairnies
            three,
    To the hills frae thae rover men.
There tide what may, they'll be safe a' day
    I' the how o' the brackeny glen."

Up the long broomy loan, wi' mickle dool and moan
    And out upon the hillside track,
Nurse Flory forward bent, crooning as she went,
    With the wee balm clinging on her back.

But Moira hand in hand with Marion forward ran,
    Nor dool nor any care had they,
But they chased the heather bee, and they sang aloud for
            glee,
    As they hied up the mountain way:

When the hill-top they had clomb, one glance back to their
            home,
    And awesome was the sight that they saw;
Close in shore the pirate bark on the bright sea looming
            dark:
    On their little hearts fell fear and awe.

One quick glance at the ship, and o'er the edge they dip,
    And down to the long glen run;
Where the burnie gleams between its braes o' bracken
            green,
    And one lone sheiling reeks i' the sun.


        *                *                *                *


But down at Kilmahoe all was hurrying to and fro,
    And stowing away of the gear,
And the lady's self bare forth the things of choicest worth,
    The heirlooms that her husband held dear.


And she dug for them a tomb beneath the snowy bloom
    Of the old pear tree's hugest arm,
As tho' that giant of his race, the patriarch of the place,
    By power of immemorial charm,
Girt the whole orchard ground with a magic safety round,
    And screened all within from harm.

"What can be done is done, weel ye've borne your part,
            each one:"—
    To her elder daughters twain spake she,—
"Now ye maun climb outright to Crochnachaorach height,
    And see what the end will be.
For me, I will abide my gude auld house beside,
    While my house bides by me."

From that knowe in long suspense, with eager eyes intense,
    They watch the dark hull heave to and fro,
As if through the harbour mouth, that opens on the south,
    She would go, and yet would not go,
O'er her purpose pausing, like a falcon poised to strike,
    Yet hovering ere he stoop below.

But the breeze sprung up off shore, and round the great
            ship wore, 
    With her head to the Atlantic main,
As the falcon down the wind sudden wheels, and far
            behind,
    Leaves his quarry, to return no more again.

From many a hidden nook, from many a high outlook,
    Straining eyes westward long were bent
On the dim tower of sail, with the evening fading pale,
    Where the ocean with the heaven was blent.

Let them gaze, there is one cannot gaze till all be done,
    She hath taken all unseen her way,
The lady, through the still of the twilight up the hill,
    Where her heart hath been yearning all the day.

And there, out owre the knowes, hair streamed back from
            her brows,
    And the mountain flush bright upon her cheek,
Came Moira, and her face plunged deep in that embrace—
    And then Marion, too full at heart to speak.

Last of all, the lady prest her wee bairn to her breast,
    And their hearts of joy had their fill;
As the covey to the call of moor-hen meets at fall
    Of gloamin', when the fowler leaves the hill.

Forth at morn they went and weeped, and joy at eve they
            reaped,
    Yea, the day's pain, if tenfold more,
In the meeting of the night had found harvest of delight,
    That repaid it o'er and o'er.

They who then were little ones, of the coming of Paul
            Jones,
    And the fray of that affrighted morn,
Shall tell, as grey-haired dames, by yet unlit ingle flames,
    To children that are yet to be born.

But what strange impulse bore to this secluded shore ,
    That bark, none ever will make plain;
Nor what sudden fear had sway to waft him west away
    Back to night and the Atlantic main.

    We have quoted the above, not because it will do justice to the author's powers or his feeling for Scottish ballad poetry, but possibly because it seems so odd to think that there are people yet living on our coasts who have had to bury their household goods and escape inland as the ominous pirate's flag floated and his sails hovered along shore.

 



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