Happy Spring! Even in the far north of Scotland there are signs of spring everywhere; buds forming, birdie-love rampant in the bushes and trees, the first tiny lamb sightings, and the eagerly-awaited longer daylight hours. It’s still chilly and until May there’s always the chance of snow but this old earth keeps turning and new life is all around.
Before I continue on this happy trail I feel I should follow up on Dinah, who you ‘met’ in my last article. Sadly, she died the week the article was published. As people say in these situations it was a mercy… but she will be missed. The village folk turned out in force to see her off, and the minister paid tribute to her kindness, her friendly hospitality and her faith. Even the “wee cakeys” she used to bake and give to people got a mention, which brought a smile to many of our faces. She would have liked that so many people were there, though her heart would have broken along with all of ours if she’d seen her brother trailing along behind her casket, following his big sister for the final time (I was all right, up until then). But he has rallied with the help of family and friends and in fact, he gifted us with one of Dinah’s many figurines, which both surprised and touched us. It’s not our style, but it is a treasured keepsake nonetheless and I am glad to give it pride of place on the mantel.
Within a very short time her house was emptied and her “wee hoosie” in the back garden was taken down and sold. Our walkway has been quiet. I miss her, and her constant stream of visitors, too.
Dinah didn’t make it to the re-emergence of early morning and late evening light, but the seasons keep their time and so we find ourselves here, on this fine sunny day right at the beginning of spring. My thoughts have turned to cheerier subjects and this time I’d like to take you from Dinah’s pious goodness to another type of villager: the likeable rogue.
One person in particular comes to mind. I’ll call him Magnus though that’s not his real name. Magnus comes from a family I have mentioned before whose notable traits are their love for their animals, their eagerness to work, and the fact that in times past they were unlikely to take poaching laws seriously. Say what you like about The Law but to a certain sort of person in the Highlands the notion that fish in the rivers and deer on the hills “belong” to someone and therefore should not be taken without permission, is laughable. When they see “the toffs” demanding payment for the privilege of catching a fish or shooting a deer, they find it preposterous.
I’m sure the landowners saw it rather differently but back in the day, Magnus and his family just wanted to either catch a meal or earn a little extra money, and like many others of their time, they would go out under cover of darkness to do a spot of poaching. There’s many a laughter-filled tale about these heart-pounding escapades, when Magnus and his brother would have to burrow into a cold and muddy riverbank, a sack of freshly-caught salmon thrown under a bush while they hid as the river-watcher roared their names into the dark night. “I know you’re out there, boys! You might as well show yourselves!” As if Magnus and his brother would do any such thing. They knew each pebble on the riverbank and every inch of the woodland paths worn smooth by foraging deer, far better than the river-watchers and gamekeepers who would, in the end, have to give up the search and go home empty-handed. The brothers, on the other hand, went home more often than not with a bit of bounty for their trouble, not to mention another tale for gleeful re-telling.
In the past, in other villages, my husband has been gifted lovely big salmon by friends or neighbors, handed over with a wink and a knowing look, so Magnus and his family were certainly not the only ones. I suppose someone who keeps strictly to the letter of the law would find this sort of thing abhorrent, but I think that in places like these it’s as much in defiance as it is for sustenance or profit. It’s an everyday workingman saying, “Who are you to say that a God-given fish belongs to you just because it meandered through a river that runs through your land?” Substitute ‘deer’ for ‘fish’ and ‘forest’ for ‘river’ and it’s the same argument. There isn’t the poverty and urgent need that there was in the long-ago, but the affront of the Highlander towards the “landed gentry” and their ideas about ownership lives on.
Magnus, who used to lead gamekeepers and river-watchers on merry chases across the countryside, is also somewhat of a pillar in the community. He has a steady and respectable job, a nice wife and good kids. He was in local government for years, he remains active in various community events, and he is a staunch friend. My husband said of Magnus and his brother, “Any one of us would gladly have hidden them if they were making a run for it.” This isn’t to say that Highlanders tolerate all manner of thievery, mind you! There is a distinct difference in the mindset here between poaching and, for example, stealing sheep. “The sheep belong to someone,” Sem said when we discussed it today. “People have raised them, fed them, cared for them, and protected them. That’s different. Deer and fish are wild, they belong to no one even if the land-owners see it differently.”
While I suspect there’s not so much poaching going on these days, the spirit of it lives on. I’ve previously written of the Highland Clearances, when landowners evicted their tenants in favor of sheep, throwing people out of their homes and off of the land, leaving them to fend for themselves in any way possible. I suspect it leaves a bit of animosity behind, even after all these years. Not only that, but for a certain type of person I think it’s also the adrenaline-shot fun of it, the exhilaration of the chase, the feeling that for that night, at least, they have “won” in the battle between the Haves and the Have-Nots.
To be sure, Magnus and his brother are hard and intimidating men when they want to be, but they are the very definition of likeable rogues and I can say this: I’ve spent time in the company of Magnus and some of his family, and they are nice people who would do you a good turn before they’d do you a bad one. If they’re your friends, they are completely your friends. On the other hand, I’ve also spent an hour in the company of a “Lord” who came into our home last year. Lord ____ was a smooth-talker with a mouth full of lies. He was our friend so long as he thought he had our vote; not a bad guy, perhaps, but interested only in his own agenda and worse, trying to make it sound like he had the villagers’ best interests at heart. He did not. Magnus and his brother, though… well, if they had a friend or family member who needed a bit of help, it’s likely that person would find packages of venison or the occasional salmon on their doorstep.
Magnus & Co. may be poachers, but they look out for their people.