AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL STORY OF BOYHOOD LOVE IN ARGYLL, SCOTLAND
|The River, The Road, and Rachel
"The river is as home to the boy as any salmon". That was my father’s invariable answer when quizzed by my mother about my possible or likely whereabouts. "If he’s not up with the usual suspects playing the Siege of the Alamo or Cowboys and Indians up at Kilmory Castle then he will be either out stravaging or with Rachel Townsley his lassie, Jock's daughter".My father's favourite name for me and the reason for him mentioning the Alamo was because one of the heroes who died there among others including a Scottish highlander who played the pipes in the ceilidh they had there the night before Santa Anna attacked was Davie Crockett who played the fiddle with him,my hero,King of the wild frontier.He had been a frontier scout,knew the Indians well and respected their ways,how they only took from nature what they could use,when they killed the buffalo,they respected it even in death,they thanked it in death for the life gifts it gave them.The meat was all used, or dried and kept as pemmican,a dried lean meat,pounded into a paste with fat and preserved as round biscuits,the small bones were turned sometimes into needles, the sinews into thread, the skins into warm robes that they and their children would nestle into in long hard winters when the buffalo in their seasonal migration had left their ancestral lands. He knew their culture,knew their bravery,accepted their courage was as equal to his own and was an intelligent man conversing as equally with the Native American Indian,had fought the Creeks, and represented his state as a Senator within the United States Senate and he fought and died a hero's death at the cradle of Texas's liberty, the Alamo.He was a man much to be admired and as a mere stripling following in his footsteps I too was getting wiser in the ways of my hero,in the ways of the forest,and for a young boy with imagination Scotland was a wild place.We had bears and wolves here too and beaver too before they were all killed off by stupid people who were wise in their pockets and thick in their heads.
Of course all this was far away from a young boys mind.And a boy can imagine can't he fighting with bears like Crockett did.I had my trusty ballbearing shooting rifle bought in Canada for on one of his visits home.My coonskin cap was really an old fox stole which my father converted for me and I had my excellent catapult which he made for me for one of my birthdays.Always too on these trailblazing epics my faithful Bowie knife was with me,named after James Bowie who invented it and who died in arms at the Alamo with Davie Crockett his friend beside him.I was always well armed when I went out on the trail.Davie Crockett was my hero and my heroine was at home here in Scotland,my Rachel.
She was my lassie and I loved her with a love barely spoken of, at least there was no words known to me then for me to speak of even to myself, we were always together,hand and wrist,I just sort of knew it somewhere deep down,deep, deep inside me the first day we ever met. I had been doon at the shore looking for mussels to find pearlies and to eat the mussels and whelks over a fire. I had my father’s Swan matches and a wee traveller pot my father had asked the big traveller tinkers folk to make for me some time ago.I loved it because my daddy had got it made for me and because it had nice shapes in the bottom of it.I discovered later that the shapes in it were Celtic Art work.The pot was made of tin and home-made by the travellers just like my catapult was which my dad had made himself for me so all the more desired for that.I had just got hame, grabbed a piece o jeely jam and bread and off out again saying a brief hello and goodbye to my mother who had made it for me and who caught my face up in her hands and kissed me,her hands covered with flour,the imprint of her floured up fingers still left on my red cheeks and the red jam making a nice job of warpaint on my face-I was just as happy to be a frontiersman or an Indian so I didn't mind a bit and the homemade jam had a great taste anyway. So off I went and after a wee stravage here and there had just sat doon in my favourite wee hideaway near the barraket, a big homemade tent made of bent hazel sticks,where the big traveller folk were, when this lassie came into the wee clearing where I was ,sat doon near beside me and said “ I ken yer daddy and so does ma daddy and ma mammy“. Up to that minute I had thocht my dad private property, Everybody knew my daddy, of course they would know him,wasn't our house the ceilidh house where they would all gather for a singaround, wasn’t he always sitting with his cronies on a Saturday next to the old war memorial every day where I could always find him for a threepenny bit for sweets if he had any change from his purchases of Woodbine Special cigarettes.He was my hero too,blinded in one eye,
and his face grievously damaged by war wounds yet he had striven well to bring up three boys and look after and love my mother who by then could not look after herself.And he would play and cavort with us three thoughtless boys hiding as much as he ever could the pain which was his constant companion. He was my dad and I loved him,gone now for thirtynine years,I miss him still.So another bairn knowing my dad, this was not to be borne unless something special caused it.” How do you know my daddy I asked her and she said “ it was me that brought ye your birthday present that ye have in your han right now."
I looked at my pot and said "no ,yer wrong, my daddy gave me that pot and he got it specially made for me” "Aye I knew that" said Rachel "for it was my daddy that made it fir yur daddy to give to you."I knew my daddy got it made by the tinkers that come to see us and have meals with us and tell stories",I said "are you a tinker too.?" "Aye that's what you townies ca us, we dinna ca us that oursels mind.We are travelling folk,that's what we are." I dinna like being called names mysel" I said "anyway ma name is Davie, what’s your name?". She said "Rachel,come on" she said"come on and meet my folks,ye ken them anyway." That was the day a wee boy with shyness to his tackety boots got introduced to tea ye could stand on and as much sugar as ye could stomach and where all the wooden flowers my mother stored in the drawers were made. Rachel took my hand and drew me into the Barraket a canvas tent drawn over hazel sticks.
I met there with some of the finest people I have ever met in my life and become sure friends with to this day and was and still am told the finest stories too,Duncan Williamson, Rachel's older brother is my good friend still from that first day. He tells and publishes these traditional Scottish stories ,stories being told to me with Rachel by her father Jock Williamson, stories long lost to the townies but lovingly preserved by the travelling people that having been formerly despised and rejected are now sought out by Scottish Academics for their folklore and knowledge of traditional herbs and cures for all kinds of ailments. I was welcomed in by the family,our family having been friendly to the travellers for many years.I sat down on an old blanket and round the fire in the gloaming just before sunset I soon requested a story and was regaled with story after story.Afterwards heading homewards I began telling myself to stay in the middle of the road because the Broonies ,Bogles, Selkies,witches or uncanny beasties would get me,might get me, of course I might just escape or turn on them with my faithful Bowie and then by gum I would have my own story to tell wouldn't I just.
Of course being travellers,Rachel and her family moved around the country and sometimes I was allowed by my parents to go with them over the long summer holidays. Aye those days were many of the best days,and many's the long day they were too, and many’s the day I would come out frae somewhere like maybe near Meggernie Castle and having been down in the river fishing for freshwater pearls, I would come out of the river there wi a bag fu o pearls,a wee bag for ma self and the most as my work wi the family for earning my keep during the time I was away from home.The older folks fished the day long for theirs while we were only allowed to stay so long in the river and then we had to go and get warmed up again then play.It became too cold and too hard for young bodies to cope with and as far as Uncle Jock and Auntie Bessie, their courtesy titles, were concerned,days in childhood were not to be used up in work.There would be enough of them and to spare the good Lord willing they always said.
So anyway that was the way it was and here we were we were one summer, and we were below Meggernie castle standing together barefooted in the river, I had my biscuit tin with the bottom out of it and a bit of glass in where the bottom had been, stuck in with glue or chewing gum and my long stick with the two forks to open the oyster and get my fingers in and see if there was a pearl there. I had been getting pearls all m.We liked to work close together,sometimes we would stop and I would move a tendril of hair from her face or just run my fingers through her hair and sometimes I would even ask for a kiss which was gently given. These gentle joys,the very beginnings of our love for each other were such treasures that even now I hold their memory close to my heart,I still remember how my heart used to leap in me when I saw her. Waking or sleeping her face is often before me.When in repose she slept my gaze would ever linger on her,awake I would run my fingers over her face so that my fingers and thence to my heart would treasure that slow and brilliant and sleepy smile she would give me.So we loved each other and there we were fishing for pearls in the coldest rushing water. I said to her" Rachel, let's go for one more each and then we'l play."She nodded her yes with a slight shiver and we bent to the task.She found one, a lacklustre one,in her oyster bed and popping it in the main pocket in her dress she put a piece of grit back in the oyster and taking the prongs of the stick out allowed the oyster to close again, to carry on its mysterious work under the water.I spat in my tin ,held it under the water so that I could see and guiding my stick I gently but with pressure forced the oyster apart so i could feel later with my hand if there was a pearl inside.I reached down and in and getting the pearl there out I put some grit in and let the oyster close in on its task once more.Raising my hand from the water I had in my hand a beauty of a pearl and hard won by me for I had no leggings and the water and mossy stones was bitterly hard cold on my bare feet and legs.
We were as one gazing at this beauty,a perfect size,a blued white translucence shone from this pearl and Rachel exclaimed with pleasure"What a braw one Davie,well done" I held out my hand to her and gave it to her saying "Here you are my ain lassie,its for you my jo". She looked to me and smiled radiantly and then her face fell. She said to me "och no that canna be Davie for that yin would be worth a lot of money and times are hard for us ye ken".We stopped then as we had said we would and she told her mother what had transpired."No,No lassie,we are not to have it,your father and me, the boy Davie gave you it because he loves you and he worked hard for it the livelong day and besides you should see how many he got for us all" "You will have it my lassie as his gift and what is more I will ask yer dad tae mount it on a necklace so you can wear it for him" She hugged her mum and said to herself in a funny kind of voice thatshe would wear it forever and forever.So after a few days the necklace was made and it was a proud and happy girl that slipped it round her neck to further admire it hanging there.So the days passed, work and play taking turns in our holiday life together.I would soon have to go home, my parents wanting me back to school. I would see Rachel again after the summer was over for the family would winter out near Furnace,about twelve miles from Home. Twelve miles for me was but a stroll with Rachel at the end of it. I went back to my home, my town,my school,and played with my own cronies frae home until Friday. Off then on Friday I would go to Furnace,my heart singing as I walked and Friday night then most of Saturday.On Sunday if I could escape from church I would be with Rachel-we were like two spring lambs leaping in the fields and happiness was here right now-we excelled in the moment.. Our summers together were to end though and far far too soon and I was never to see my
Rachel alive again. My mother had the last of three strokes and died when I was twelve and I was put in a childrens home when my father,his heart broken, went into hospital. He died there when I was a laddie of fourteen and I had to leave home as my brothers did not want me and I became a traveller myself but sadly not with the travelling folk themselves.
It was to be many years later at a meeting of travellers that I was to learn of my Rachel’s last days and moments on this earth from the nurse who had the care of her till her death She told me Rachel had a translucent beauty about her, her long lustrous hair still had its beauty and she seemed to glow as from an inner fire that was slowly in her last few days but firmly being extinguished by the ravages of cancer. She was only thirty six when she died.
We would wheel her in her chair to the hospital window the nurse told me and gazing out she would finger the little pearl fixed on a chain at her throat and a slow radiant smile would light her features and would linger there for hours as a benediction to those of us who were trying to make her last days easier.
She slipped away quietly and peacefully one day sitting in her chair gazing out the hospital window.
It is not likely that she could see the Argyllshire hills from where she sat or slept wreathed in pain and trying to avoid bedsores as well as the constant pain that was her cancer but she smiled such a smile as she died and in her mind as her eyes focused and fixed out there somewhere far away,far far in time and who can say but may be it was to where a little boy held out his hand,declaring his love for her with a beautiful freshwater pearl as his gift.