Authors: Alice Munro
Dedicated to Douglas Gibson,
who has sustained me through many travails,
and whose enthusiasm for this particular book
has even sent him prowling through the graveyard
of Ettrick Kirk, probably in the rain.
About ten or twelve years ago I began to take more than a random interest in the history of one side of my family, whose name was Laidlaw. There was a good deal of information lying around about them—really an unusual amount, considering that they were obscure and not prosperous, and living in the Ettrick Valley, which the Statistical Account of Scotland (1799) describes as having
I lived in Scotland for a few months, close to the Ettrick Valley, so I was able to find their names in the local histories in the Selkirk and Galashiels Public Libraries, and to find out what James Hogg had to say about them in
Hogg’s mother was a Laidlaw, and he took Walter Scott to see her when Scott was collecting ballads for
The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.
(She supplied some, though she later took offense at their being printed.) And I was lucky, in that every generation of our family seemed to produce somebody who went in for writing long, outspoken, sometimes outrageous letters, and detailed recollections. Scotland was the country, remember, where John Knox had decided that every child should learn to read and write, in some sort of village school, so that everybody could read the Bible.
It didn’t stop there.
I put all this material together over the years, and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories. Some of the characters gave themselves to me in their own words, others rose out of their situations. Their words and my words, a curious re-creation of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be.
During these years I was also writing a special set of stories. These stories were not included in the books of fiction I put together, at regular intervals. Why not? I felt they didn’t belong. They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person. In other first-person stories I had drawn on personal material, but then I did anything I wanted to with this material. Because the chief thing I was doing was making a story. In the stories I hadn’t collected I was not doing exactly that. I was doing something closer to what a memoir does—exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality. They joined the Salvation Army, they revealed that they had once lived in Chicago. One of them got himself electrocuted and another fired off a gun in a barn full of horses. In fact, some of these characters have moved so far from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with.
You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. And the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative. With these developments the two streams came close enough together that they seemed to me meant to flow in one channel, as they do in this book.
This parish possesses no advantages. Upon the hills the soil is in many places mossy and fit for nothing. The air in general is moist. This is occasioned by the height of the hills which continually attract the clouds and the vapour that is continually exhaled from the mossy ground…The nearest market town is fifteen miles away and the roads so deep as to be almost impassable. The snow also at times is a great inconvenience, often for many months we can have no intercourse with mankind. And a great disadvantage is the want of bridges so that the traveller is obstructed when the waters are swelled…Barley oats and potatoes are the only crops raised. Wheat rye turnips and cabbage are never attempted…
There are ten proprietors of land in this parish: none of them resides in it.
Contribution by the Minister of Ettrick Parish, in the county of Selkirk, to the Statistical Account of Scotland, 1799
The Ettrick Valley lies about fifty miles due south of Edinburgh, and thirty or so miles north of the English border, which runs close to the wall Hadrian built to keep out the wild people from the north. During the reign of Antoninus the Romans pushed farther, and built a line of fortification between the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth, but that was not so lasting. The land between the two walls has been occupied for a long time by a mix of people—Celtic people, some of whom came from Ireland and were called Scots, also Anglo-Saxons from the south, Norse from across the North Sea, and possibly some leftover Picts as well.
The high stony farm where my family lived for some time in the Ettrick Valley was called Far-Hope. The word
as used in the local geography, is an old word, a Norse word—Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and Gaelic words being all mixed up together in that part of the country, as you would expect, with some old Brythonic thrown in to indicate an early Welsh presence.
means a bay, not a bay filled with water but with land, partly enclosed by hills, which in this case are the high bare hills, the near mountains of the Southern Uplands. The Black Knowe, Bodesbeck Law, Ettrick Pen—there you have the three big hills, with the word
in three languages. Some of these hills are now being reforested, with plantations of Sitka spruce, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they would have been bare, or mostly bare—the great Forest of Ettrick, the hunting grounds of the Kings of Scotland, having been cut down and turned into pasture or waste heath a century or two before.
The height of land above Far-Hope, which stands right at the end of the valley, is the spine of Scotland, marking the division of the waters that flow to the west into the Solway Firth and the Atlantic Ocean, from those that flow east into the North Sea. Within ten miles to the north is the country’s most famous waterfall, the Grey Mare’s Tail. Five miles from Moffat, which would be the market town to those living at the valley head, is the Devil’s Beef Tub, a great cleft in the hills believed to be the hiding place for stolen cattle—English cattle, that is, taken by the reivers in the lawless sixteenth century. In the lower Ettrick Valley was Aikwood, the home of Michael Scott, the philosopher and wizard of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, who appears in Dante’s
And if that were not enough, William Wallace, the guerrilla hero of the Scots, is said to have hidden out here from the English, and there is a story of Merlin—
—being hunted down and murdered, in the old forest, by Ettrick shepherds.
(As far as I know, my ancestors, generation after generation, were Ettrick shepherds. It may sound odd to have shepherds employed in a forest, but it seems that hunting forests were in many places open glades.)
Nevertheless the valley disappointed me the first time I saw it. Places are apt to do that when you’ve set them up in your imagination. The time of year was very early spring, and the hills were brown, or a kind of lilac brown, reminding me of the hills around Calgary. Ettrick Water was running fast and clear, but it was hardly as wide as the Maitland River, which flows past the farm where I grew up, in Ontario. The circles of stones which I had at first taken to be interesting remnants of Celtic worship were too numerous and well kept up to be anything but handy sheep pens.
I was travelling by myself, and I had come from Selkirk on the twice-a-week Shoppers’ Bus, which took me no farther than Ettrick Bridge. There I wandered around, waiting for the postman. I’d been told that he would take me up the valley. The chief thing to be seen in Ettrick Bridge was a sign on a closed shop, advertising Silk Cut. I couldn’t figure out what that might be. It turned out to be a well-known brand of cigarette.
After a while the postman came along and I rode with him to Ettrick Church. By that time it had begun to rain, hard. The church was locked. It disappointed me, too. Having been built in 1824, it did not compare, in historic appearance, or grim character, to the churches I had already seen in Scotland. I felt conspicuous, out of place, and cold. I huddled by the wall till the rain let up for a bit, and then I explored the churchyard, with the long wet grass soaking my legs.
There I found, first, the gravestone of William Laidlaw, my direct ancestor, born at the end of the seventeenth century, and known as Will O’Phaup. This was a man who took on, at least locally, something of the radiance of myth, and he managed that at the very last time in history—that is, in the history of the people of the British Isles—when a man could do so. The same stone bears the names of his daughter Margaret Laidlaw Hogg, who upbraided Sir Walter Scott, and of Robert Hogg, her husband, the tenant of Ettrickhall. Then right next to it I saw the stone of the writer James Hogg, who was their son and Will O’Phaup’s grandson. He was known as The Ettrick Shepherd. And not far from that was the stone of the Reverend Thomas Boston, at one time famous throughout Scotland for his books and preaching, though fame never took him to any more important ministry.
Also, among various Laidlaws, a stone bearing the name of Robert Laidlaw, who died at Hopehouse January 29th 1800 aged seventy-two years. Son of Will, brother of Margaret, uncle of James, who probably never knew that he would be remembered by his link to these others, any more than he would know the date of his own death.
As I was reading these inscriptions the rain came on again, lightly, and I thought I had better start to walk back to Tushielaw, where I was to catch the school bus for my return ride to Selkirk. I couldn’t loiter, because the bus might be early, and the rain might get heavier.
I was struck with a feeling familiar, I suppose, to many people whose long history goes back to a country far away from the place where they grew up. I was a naïve North American, in spite of my stored knowledge. Past and present lumped together here made a reality that was commonplace and yet disturbing beyond anything I had imagined.
MEN OF ETTRICK
Here lyeth William Laidlaw, the far-famed Will o’ Phaup, who for feats of frolic, agility and strength, had no equal in his day…
Epitaph composed by his grandson, James Hogg, on Will O’Phaup’s tombstone in Ettrick Kirkyard.
His name was William Laidlaw, but his story-name was Will O’Phaup, Phaup being simply the local version of Far-Hope, the name of the farm he took over at the head of Ettrick Valley. It seems that Far-Hope had been abandoned for years when Will came to inhabit it. The house, that is, had been abandoned, because it was situated so high up at the end of the remote valley, and got the worst of the periodic winter storms and the renowned snowfall. The house of Potburn, the next one to it, lower down, was until recently said to be the highest inhabited house in all of Scotland. It now stands deserted, apart from the sparrows and finches busy around its outbuildings.
The land itself would not have belonged to Will, it would not even have been leased to him—he would have rented the house or got it as part of his shepherd’s wages. It was never worldly prosperity that he was after.
He was not native to the valley, though there were Laidlaws there, and had been since the first records were kept. The earliest man of that name I have come across is in the court records of the thirteenth century, and he was up on charges of murdering another Laidlaw. No prisons in those days. Just dungeons, mainly for the upper class, or people of some political importance who had fallen out with their rulers, and summary executions—but those happened mostly in times of large unrest, as during the border raids of the sixteenth century, when a marauder might be hanged at his own front door, or strung up in Selkirk Square, as were sixteen cattle thieves of the same name—Elliott—on a single day of punishment. My man got off with a fine.
Will was said to be “one of the old Laidlaws of Craik”—about whom I have not been able to discover anything at all, except that Craik is an almost disappeared village on a completely disappeared Roman road, in a nearby valley to the south of Ettrick. He must have walked over the hills, a lad in his teens, looking for work. He had been born in 1695, when Scotland was still a separate country, though it shared a monarch with England. He would have been twelve years old at the time of the controversial Union, a young man by the time of the bitter failed Jacobite Rebellion of 1715, a man deep into middle age by the time of Culloden. There is no telling what he thought of those events. I have a feeling that his life was lived in a world still remote and self-contained, still harboring its own mythology and local wonders. And he was one of them.
The first story told of Will is about his prowess as a runner. His earliest job in the Ettrick Valley was as shepherd to a Mr. Anderson, and this Mr. Anderson had noted how Will ran straight down on a sheep and not roundabout when he wanted to catch it. So he knew that Will was a fast runner, and when a champion English runner came into the valley Mr. Anderson wagered Will against him for a large sum of money. The English fellow scoffed, his backers scoffed, and Will won. Mr. Anderson collected a fine heap of coins and Will for his part got a gray cloth coat and a pair of hose.
Fair enough, he said, for the coat and hose meant as much to him as all that money to a man like Mr. Anderson.
Here is a classic story. I heard versions of it—with different names, different feats—when I was a child growing up in Huron County, in Ontario. A stranger arrives full of fame, bragging of his abilities, and is beaten by the local champion, a simple-hearted fellow who is not even interested in a reward.
These elements recur in another early story, in which Will goes over the hills to the town of Moffat on some errand, unaware that it is fair day, and is cajoled into taking part in a public race. He is not well dressed for the occasion and during the running his country breeches fall down. He lets them fall, kicks his way out of them, and continues running in nothing but a shirt, and he wins. There is a great fuss made of him and he gets invited to dinner in the public house with gentlemen and ladies. By this time he must have had his pants on, but he blushes anyway, and will not accept, claiming to be mortified in front of such
Maybe he was, but of course the leddies’ appreciation of such a well-favored young athlete is the scandalous and enjoyable point of the story.
Will marries, at some point, he marries a woman named Bessie Scott, and they begin to raise their family. During this period the boy-hero turns into a mortal man, though there are still feats of strength. A certain spot in the Ettrick River becomes “Will’s Leap” to commemorate a jump he made, to get help or medicine for someone who was sick. No feat, however, brought him any money, and the pressures of earning a living for his family, combined with a convivial nature, seem to have turned him into a casual bootlegger. His house is well situated to receive the liquor that is being smuggled over the hills from Moffat. Surprisingly this is not whiskey, but French brandy, no doubt entering the country illegally by way of the Solway Firth—as it will continue to do despite the efforts late in the century of Robert Burns, poet and exciseman. Phaup becomes well known for occasions of carousing or at least of high sociability. The hero’s name still stands for honorable behavior, strength, and generosity, but no more for sobriety.
Bessie Scott dies fairly young, and it is probably after her death that the parties have begun. The children will have been banished, most likely, to some outbuilding or the sleeping loft of the house. There does not appear to have been any serious outlawry or loss of respectability. The French brandy may be worth noting, though, in the light of the adventures that come upon Will in his maturity.
He is out on the hills as the day turns to evening and he keeps hearing a sound like a chattering and a twittering. He knows all the sounds that birds can make and he understands that this is no bird. It seems to come out of a deep hollow nearby. So he creeps and creeps very softly to the edge of the hollow and flattens himself down, just raises up his head enough that he can look over.
And what does he see down below but a whole company of creatures all about as high as a two-year-old child, but none of them are children. They are little women, all dainty looking and dressed in green. And busy as they can be. Some baking bread in a bit of an oven and some pouring drink out of little kegs into glass pitchers and some fixing up the other one’s hair and all the time humming and chittering away and never looking up, never raising one of their heads but just keeping their eyes on their business. But the more he keeps listening to them the more he thinks he hears something familiar. And it comes clearer and clearer—the little chirp-chirp song they make. Finally it comes clear as a bell.
Will O’Phaup, Will O’Phaup, Will O’Phaup.
His own name is all the word in their mouths. The song that sounded sweet enough to him when he first heard it is not that anymore, it is full of laughing but it is not decent laughing. It makes the cold sweat run down Will’s back. And he remembers at the same time that this is All Hallows’ Eve, the time in the year when these creatures can work their way however they please with any human being. So he jumps up and runs, he runs all the way back to his house faster than any devil could chase him.