A wee story for Christmas - first published in December 1940 in The Gateway.
For the benefit of English readers, the Auld Lichts were the Original Seceders who left the Church of Scotland because of differences of opinion alike on points of doctrine and church government. They were evangelicals who objected to ‘cauld morality’ sermons and to the law which allowed a patron to impose a minister on the parish and people without their consent and free choice. The Disruption of a hundred years later was an assertion of the same right of a congregation to choose its own pastor. This right was legally recognised by the abolition of patronage in 1874.
The most unexpected element in Lichtie was in his drollery. Considering the preposterous beliefs he held in what is called religion, it was perplexing how readily his mind saw the mildly ludicrous in everyday events and sayings. He brought the gravity of a chancellor to the consideration of every topic, and made you wonder if you were not a trifler in a world of momentous solemnities. And yet he had a quirk of natural whimsicality that left you uncertain. If you asked him how he did, he would answer, ‘Oh, jist battlin’ awa.’ This reply he gave you always in the same undeviating tone. But you could never be quite sure what he meant by it – whether he intended you to infer that life was a discouraging battle or that he was enjoying the tussle. His tone gave no clue.
Lichtie’s genial neighbour, Geordie Crow, had one day ‘a narrow shave.’ Geordie was a blacksmith, and his smiddy was roofed with flagstones. One of these slid off as he was passing and just missed his head by an inch or two. He told the story to Lichtie, adding ‘Wasna that Providential escape, Robbie?’
After musing a little, Robbie said gravely, ‘Weel, I dinna see ony Providence in it, Geordie.’
The blacksmith drew back a step and looked at the immobile figure. ‘Only twa inches nearer, and the flagstane would hae killed me, man,’ he cried
Lichtie was unconvinced, and stated the fact in his own way.
‘If Providence threw the stane at ye, Geordie, He would either hae struck ye or made a wider deliverance – twa feet or mair.’
Geordie was puzzled by this, but tried again. ‘It’s this way, Robbie,’ he argued. ‘It cam’ sae near me that if it hadna been for the interference o’ Providence it micht hae clove my skull, man.’
The stoical Robbie could not follow this caprice.
‘I canna tak’ it in, Geordie. Providence couldna baith knock the flagstane aff the roof to kill ye, and at the same time keep it awa frae its mark.’
‘An’ why no?’ queried the amazed blacksmith.
This insistence slightly nettled Lichtie.
‘A’ I can say,’ he remarked stubbornly, ‘is this – that if Providence aimed at ye, and then repented, it would be because ye wasna fit to dee, Geordie!’ And he walked off solemnly.
Did anything so simple occur to them as the loosening of the slab by ordinary natural wear and tear and then the operation of the law of gravity, the passing of the blacksmith at the moment being pure fortuity? It would be hard to say. The discussion at any rate was purely theological, and irreverently ignored the only real laws of the occurrence.
The blacksmith, who thought he had proved a clear miracle, gazed after his inscrutable acquaintance in wonderment. Was Lichtie taking him off, or was he really being rebuked? He was bewildered, as Robbie’s hearers often were.
Lichtie was a mason to trade. While doing some repairs at Lengar Castle, the proprietor condescendingly asked the old man if he would like to see through the building; and without waiting for a reply he opened the front door and signalled Robbie to enter. The marvels of the interior did not escape the sturdy mason. He admired in his own fashion the scope of walls, staircases and rooms; but to any remark of the complacent castellan his sole answer was ‘Ay.’ ‘A fine view from this window’ was met solemnly with ‘Ay.’ The pictures and statuary were similarly honoured. When the two arrived at the doorstep again the laird sought to draw out his guest.
‘Well, a fine mansion, isn’t it?’ he said.
‘Ay,’ replied Lichtie, ‘an’ yet, d’ye ken, it wudna mak a SKYLICHT in oor Father’s hoose!’
Robbie left Willie Dow’s son Peter in the same plight. Peter had been in London for a year or more, and returned to the village in fashionable clothes. He called on Robbie as an old neighbour. Robbie gravely scrutinised him from head to heel.
‘Good fit, ain’t it?’ remarked the youth, turning himself round maliciously to allow Robbie a full view.
‘Fits ye like a coat o’ paint, sir,’ was Lichtie’s verdict.
Had it been another person’s. Peter would have considered it a neat saying and would have felt flattered. But Robbie was no sartorial connoisseur, and his remark must have meant something else. Did he infer that, like a rotten paling painted, Peter had only a skin-deep respectability? Who could tell? Peter came away hurt. Then he changed his mind. In the end he remained perplexed.
Fourteen miles Lichtie tramped every Sabbath. (We must not say Sunday – that was in Lichtie’s view only the profane, pagan, official name for the Lord’s own day.) His Auld Licht church was seven miles away. He was never absent unless very ill, and indeed often made the double journey in great enfeeblement. His house was one of the old type, with a hinged shutter to the window. This shutter was never opened on the Sabbath, which was thus no sun-day with his abode. His chief reason, however, was that he might not see the kind of weather until he was outside. Thus a sunny day did not tempt him to wander in his garden and neglect attending ‘the means of grace’; and if snow lay deep on the ground he did not know of it until he had stepped outside: and then, having committed himself so far, there was little to be gained by going back, even had he been tempted to do so. By this manoeuvre he held ‘the flesh’ by a firm rein.
He was taciturn to the end, and his droll turn remained also. When the neighbour who attended him in his last hours asked him if he had any ‘message’ for her, he merely answered, very feebly but earnestly, ‘Dinna forget God; an’ keep yersel’ clean.’
To her last breath she did not know whether to be pleased or offended. And he left the minister in a similar haze. To him he said, ‘Never preach the gospel in a dirty collar, sir.’
To warn people against venial ‘sins’ they are not likely to commit is very Calvinistic and unpleasant; yet we were all of one mind that Robbie was a saint and a mystic; but whether he was a satirist or not remained an open question. The children seemed to understand him best. His solemnity was an amusement to them, and they were never annoyed by the equivocal sayings he uttered to their seniors. When they christened him ‘Lichtie’ it was done more in a spirit of affectionate familiarity than to proclaim his connection with the Auld Licht Kirk.
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