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Old cottage


“Eh, siccan bonnie floueries!” Who visited the old woman on the night before she died and what do her last words mean. Gavin Sprott conjures up a strange, unsettling world in the farmlands of his native Angus.

This story first appeared in Lallans.


There wes this man and his faimly, him and his wife and his son and his dauchter. He wes cottar't wi this fairmer. Ae day at seed time, he wes in this park wi a pair o horse and the harras. He had haltit and gae't round til the heid o the lan'side horse tae get a luik o his mouth. He thocht the bit wes chaivin. The neist thing there wes the crack o a gun in the wuid aside the park. The horse gets an affa stert, they rear, doun they come and they belt. The man gings doun and in a flash the harras is ower him, the tines riving the flesh fae his banes somethin terrible. And whan they fund him, the puir deivil wes deid his thrapple wes cut like he wes a pig.

It had been the laird out wi his gun. And ye micht say, this hail upturn wes his blame. And he maun 'ae thocht it hissel, for he peyit for the laddie tae ging til the skail i' the toun, and for the weidae and dochter, he alloued the neibours tae bigg a houss til them.

And there they bade in this houss. A fell roch houss it wes. In thae times they biggit a houss in a day or twa wi big couples and waas o fail and stanes, and a theik o divots and bruim and mair divots and onythin 'at cam til hand. And the windaes wes nae windaes ava, but holes i' the waa they wes, stappit wi auld clouts, and there wes nae lum tae speak o, juist a brak i' the riggin at the gae'le for the reik.

And sae the twa o them won their livin wi aa mainner o little fees. That wes the days o the heuk, and in time o hairst they'd ging doun til the big fairms in the laich kintra. They'd mebbe get out-wark at clattin neips and sneddin thristles, and for aa ye ken, turnin hye and wailin tatties. And they'd tak in washin. In they days they'd tak it doun til the burnside and rax it ower big stanes and clatter it wi sticks.

And sae the years gae't by, and the mither becam a bittie shauchlie and she begun tae fail. And aye the dauchter gae't out tae get whit wark she could. But ae day the auld wumman got a shock. She wes cripple doun the ae side o her, she couldna stand but she cowpit, and she could scarce speak: nae richt words, a roar it wes, juist.

Weil, there it wes. The dauchter becam thirl't til the mither, tendin aa her wants. She couldna laeve her lang: she'd ging doun the trackie til the merchant's shop, and suin's she gets back, she hears the broken-backit roar o the auld wumman.

At this rate she canna get out and wark: the maist she can dae is tak in bits o mendin, and she taks in 'oo fae the shop and knits it intil stockins and ganseys and that. But in conseideration o the hardship, the pairish gies her a bit aliment, and there is a poke 'at hings in the mill, and fowk upliftin their meal pits a twa-three pund intil't, and the auld decay't and weidae bodies i' the pairish, it is dividit amang them. Ye micht say that fowks wes kind til them. They'd sort the theik, the neibours 'ad win and lead peats til them, the bairns 'ad get sent for tae gaither sticks and rin wee errans. In the fine spring and simmer days, the dauchter she'd haal her auld mither out the houss and cock her up on a chair in the sun.

At the stert, fowk thocht the auld wifie's nae lang for this warld, she'd be cairryit awa wi anither shock, shairly, yit it didna turn out that wye. The years pass't, she bade the same, and the dauchter she wes weil intil her middle years, mebbe mair.

And there wes the twa o them in this houss. It wes ae room juist, wi the fire at the gae'le, and the press bed whaur the auld mither sleepit at the tither. The nicht time the dauchter lee't on a settle alang the waa. And ye'd think sleep 'ad be a mercy grantit them, mair in the winter nichts, wi the blast o the storm outside, and a fire 'at 'ad scarce keep in, that carefae wi the peats they wes. But na, the auld wumman she'd kirn about, she'd roar, and the dauchter she'd sit up wi her 'or she settl't.

A weary life ye micht say. Neibours cam wi their help. The dominie that wes the session clerk aye cam wi the aliment and a hauf-stane o meal and a poke o sids til their sowans. And the meinister cam and sat wi the auld wumman, and whyles he'd read the Psaums o Dauvit, and whyles he spak o the warld tae come, whan aa tears 'ad be dichtit fae their een.

The days wore on. Fowk aye cam about the place, and yit the dauchter thinks they's a bittie sweir growin. And there she wes, cruiv't in wi their charity and their guid warks, and aye she thankit them. But whyles some fowk thocht they seen a cast o pride in her gratitude. There wes a sourness creepit in. Gin fowk aye cam, it wes mair seldom.

Ae day the dauchter wak, and she hears the blackie singin on the riggin o the houss, and she thinks, strange that, I'm weil sleepit. She duisna rowse hersel, she kens her mither's deid. That weary she is she pits her heid doun and gings back tae sleep for a twa-three 'ours. She rowses hersel syne, and athout sae muckle's a keek in the bed at the gae'le, she gings doun til the meinister.

The auld wife's buryit, and the dauchter duis her best for aa the fowk 'at comes back til the houss, wi bannocks and cheese and bowles o tae. And there's fowk she can scarce recogneise, and there's a merry racket in the place that minds her on the day it wes biggit whan she wes a bairn.

Syne they're awa. The first thing she duis 'or she redds up ahent them is haals the covers fae the bed and taks them round the back, gets kinnlin fae the fire and sets them in a bleize, that and the auld wife's gibbles, and her claes and that.

Nou, ye'd think that wes her free, in a wye o speakin. The neist Sunday, she gets hersel redd up. She howks in the kist for claes she hasna worn for years, she gets hersel til the kirk. But she is that ill-yais't wi company she canna face it, and whan the kirk skails, she skutters awa hame in an affa steir. And fowk says she's fell founer't wi her mither's daith, yit she's mebbe nae richt i' the heid for aa that.

And whan she gets hame she considers her claes. They're a richt orrie mixter-maxter o auld-farrant things, and aeven gin naebodie's pyin nae attention, she's this notion it's an affa fuil o hersel that she's made. And she gets a luik o hersel in the keikin-gless, and it's an auld wumman wi white hair that she sees.

Weil, she's nae trauchl't wi her auld mither nou, she's out a bittie mair. She gings til the moss tae cast peats, yit aye whan there's naebodie there, and that's simple, for there's nae mony fowk 'at burns peats nae mair. She gets a bittie milk fae her neibors for knittin and mendin, and a bit wark they gie her for peity, and for that they laece her a pitcher o milk at the road-end.

And sae there wes nae mony fowk cam about the place. She wes a crabbit auld wife some said, and ithers, they wes mebbe feart at her. Ae day she gae't tae cut whins 'at she yais't til her fire, they gie't a quick flame for a bilin o watter and eekit her store o peats. She's takin her aix til til a whin buss and by comes the fairmer. “Ye're nae tae tak ma whins” says he, “the ends is tae be bruisit for maet til ma horse”. “Damn yer whins” says she, and for aa that he roars at her, hame he gings like a thrash't bairn, greitin that she's cursit him, and that it's a witch she is, and that his crap will fail and his baes' nae thrive.

Nou there wes some fowk held this wes rank supersteition, and a shame it wes tae miscaa some hairmless auld bodie, yit in thae days there wes ithers 'at believ't it. But in nae wye wes she tae ken this, for this day she wes hame fae the moss and at her door wes a kebbock o cheese, and on the tap o't this little figure o a man made out o strae wes set. Nae a thing micht she mak o't, but the kebbock wes fine, she'd nivver had the like o that she micht mind on. She taks the strae man ben the houss and sets him on the gai'le ahent the fire whaur she can see him.

But the neist time there's a bit ham shank set at the door rowit in a clout. A fine bit ham it wes, it fair gar't her teeth watter, but a secont luik o't and she thinks: it's evil. She taks it and casts it fae the door, and the craas had it.

Nou there wes nae mony fowk bar the dominie wi the aliment cam about the place, but there wes the bairns. That wes whan they begun tae torment her. Ein 'ad daur ither tae craal the length o the gairden dyke at the back o the houss, and ower the hill they'd rin, and she'd tae warstle the cowpit stanes back ontil the cope, and some she wesna able for, and there on the grund they'd bide.

And back til the houss she'd ging and greit, for the bairns wes cruel. And whan she'd duin greitin, she'd sit and wonder gin truly she wes a witch. She'd pit her hand in the flame o the fire, and nae pain wad there be. A sign she thocht it wes, and again she'd greit. Whit she'd duin tae be a witch she couldna think.

About that time it wes, the pains begun. Auld age she thocht it wes, and that she'd rax't her back. Yit the pain wes aye waur getting. At nicht she couldna get sleepit for't. And it begun warkin its wye up her back, and at the feinish, it wes atwein her shouders. Whyles she cryit out wi the pain, yit there wes nane tae hear it.

And ae day the dominie cam by wi her aliment. She offer't him a bowle o tae, but he could see she wes scarce able for tae mak it. Sae awa he gings and comes back wi this doctor mannie. He sits her on the bed and up and doun her back he chaps wi his fingers, and tells the dominie he'll send some medicine gin the pairish'll pye for't.

Weil, the medicine comes, and shairly a doze o't 'ad sort the pain for a whylie. She'd manage out for tae get her sticks again, and in the gairden she tinker't awa, howkin at the silly bit dreil o tatties, tae lift them 'or the frost got them. The medicine she keepit maistly for the smaa 'ours. It made her dozent kind, for that wes the time she micht thole the least. Gin she wes in this warld or the neist she scarce kent, and little odds it made, for the fire o pain in her bodie wes a torment. Her days wes a waste o lanesomness. It wes but the spuinfae o medicine 'at droun't the pain, and she'd get sleepit. And that wes the fear she livit in: 'at the pairish wadna gie her the medicine. And nou gin she grat 'at she wes a witch, the tears 'at rowit doun her face brunt like they wes gobs o meltit leid, and gin she pass't her hand near the flame, wes her fingers nae craz't wi frost?

And the winter cam wi the lang nichts. She'd finnd a puckle peats and sticks at the door, fowk aye left them for peity. The dominie, he'd bring her meal and medicine, yit whit he said she scarce made sense o't. Aeven the bairns gie't ower tormentin her, they wes driven til their hames wi the sleet and the cauld. The winds ruggit at at the theik o the ruif, the rain 'ad come, there'd be little dubs in the howes o the flair, there'd scare be kinnlin in the fire, scarce a glim o licht fae the cruisie lamp 'at gutter't by the strae man at the waa. The houss wes but a grave ye'd think, a silly midden o divots and sticks hauf-lair't i' the grund.

Weil, it wore on past the turn o the year. Ye'd dout she'd nae the strength tae see in the spring. The days lengthen't a bittie, the frosts passit, there wes a souch o warmth in the air, the sap o life risin ye micht say.

And late this day, the wumman's sittin there, hingin ower the esses 'at wes her fire, it wes caulder inside nor out. And at the door there wes this chap-chap. At first the wumman didna pye nae attention, somethin in her heid she thocht it wes. Yit there it wes again, and up she gets and til the door she hirples, and there wes this man wi his pack. A gaberlunyie is the auld word, a gaein-about bodie 'at pickit up a bit wark, but nae muckle, for maist o the time he'd beg a bowlefae o kail or a neivefae o meal til his brose. And for that, mebbe a guid crack ye'd get, or tales tae fleg the bairns.

And eh, the wumman wes fair fear't at this man. “Whit div ye want?” says she. “Ludgin for the nicht” says he, “there's a storm comin”. Weil, that pits her in an affa steir. A stranger nivver bade i' the houss, nivver, 'or it is biggit. The verra thocht o't's a muckle upturn. “Whit is there tae fear?” says he. She speirs intil hersel, and nae answer can she finnd. Weil the licht is failin and the wind is risin and there she is standin shakkin i' the cauld, and in sic a swither she's near on greitin, yit she hasna the strength tae counter him. Sae she steps aside, and in he waaks.

He sets his pack doun on the settle and gets a luik o the place. The first thing, he redds the cruisie, and eh, fair bonnie it burns. Syne he gaes doun on his hunkers and and blaas a bit life intil the fire. The neist thing he's pittin on mair peats, and the auld wife lats out a scraich. “Ma peats, ma peats!” “Dinna fash yersel, wumman” says he, “there's there's mair peats in creation 'n iver ye thocht o”. And neist he's intil her meal bowie. “Ma meal, ma meal!” she cries. “Dinna greit wumman” says he, “there's mair corn tae growe in this warld 'n ivver ye ken't o”. And 'or ye can blenk, he's a bilin o watter, and there's twa bowles o brose at the hairth standin. And eftir a bit he lifts the brose and bids her sit doun and sup it. “I'll nae can sup aa that” says she. “But sup it, wumman, there's nane can sup it for ye” says he. And wi that, he sits doun and haals a horn spuin fae his pouch and sups his ain.

Weil, she suppit the bowle clean. The storm dirl't about the ruif yit she didna heed it. She thanks him for the brose. She has clean forgot the pains. But at the thocht, there they are, a savage bruit rivin at the hairt o the bodie o her. And she is up, up, hirplin for the medicine. But he is there afore her and his hand is ower it. “Ma medicine!” she cries.

Weil nivver a word says he. He's handit her a bowle o tae and she sups it. And it's nae tae ava, nae like onythin she kens, neither sour nor sweet. And she's that divertit wi the taste o't, whan she thinks on the pains again, they're awa.

She thanks him and he raxes hissel out on the settle and she gings til her bed. And she gets sleepit like she's nae sleepit for sae lang's she can mind on. And in the forenuin it is, she waks up, and the mannie is awa. She is vex't at that, for she wantit ta\e thank him. She keeks out at the door. There is a fair scatter of sticks on the grund, skail't fae the trees, but the storm is awa and the sun is out. She gings round til the peat houss, and she sees it is fill't wi guid bleck peats. She gings intil her girnal, and sees that there is nae want o fresh meal. The pitcher, it is fill't wi sweet milk.

Syne on the settle she sees a puckle flouers. They are spinkies, and thinks she, it wes the spinkies he made thon tae out o. And eh, she's thocht on the tae, and there is the pains again, and she gings tae get her medicine. Syne she halts, and in its steid she maks a bowle o tae til hersel wi the spinkies. She pits mair peats on the fire, she opens the windae tae get mair licht and settles tae sup the tae. The sun strikes in at the windae and she sees the strae man is awa. The mannie maun 'ae taen it, but she luiks doun at the hairth, and she sees a twa-three ends o strae o strae amang the esses.

She gings out intil the wuids and alang the banks and gaithers spinkies til hersel. And the bairns sees her out and offers for tae fesh spinkies til her, and they bring them til her houss.

And ae day they cam til the door. They tell her 'at they canna fiind nae mair spinkies. “Bairnies” says she, “the time o the spinkies is duin. Eh, siccan bonnie floueries”. And that nicht she is deid.