Sunday, 22 August 2010

The man wi the bairn in his een

Come wi me a wee daunder doon the High Street o Auld Reekie. Ye'd best stick close tae me, it can get awfy crowdit this time o year, whit wi this damned Fringe Festival cairry-oan. Some days ye can barely see the street fer aw the fowk, but back in its hey-day the High Street wis this busy fae dawn til dusk, every day exceptin the Sabbath, aw year roond. Ye've got tae mynd there were near enough ten times the number o fowk bidin here as there are nooadays. Then there were the shops, the Luckenbooths, the mairkets, street hawkers, porters, water-cairriers, balladeers, gangs o bairns an thoosans o gossipin wummen, aw jostlin, shoutin an cairryin oan. Can ye imagine the din?

Let's stop here by the Mercat Cross fer a meenit. Stop an listen fer a meenit. Imagine aw that throng an bustle an noise, can ye? Is it daein yer heid in yet? fer it is mine. An then imagine it aw fadin awa tae nothin. Imagine it aw gaun quiet. Silence. Desolation. A deathly quiet...

Let's walk doon a bit further, doon past auld John Knox's hoose. Here, haud oantae ma airm, ignore the crowds. Listen tae the hush, the hush o a toun wi nae life in it, the quiet an stillness o a graveyaird. This wis how it soundit in the year 1645. That wis the year we had oor hintmaist visitation o the Black Death, oor last plague epidemic. Them that had the means an somewhaur tae go aw fled the toun, them that didnae had tae take their chances. Great canvas camps were set up oan the Burgh Muir sooth o the toun, whaur Marchmont an the Grange noo staun, fer aw the seek fowk tae be quarantined. Houaniver mony fowk widnae go there an preferred tae stay shut up in their ain hooses.

If ye cam doon wi the plague ye had tae hing a white sheet fae yer windae as a sign fer the plague doctor tae come visit ye, an whit a sicht he wis. He wore this mask wi a big beak oan it, filled up wi flooers an herbs tae protect him fae the evil air (an smells) an a great lang leather coat. Oor first plague doctor, Mr Paulitious, didnae last lang, he wis deid by June, but his successor, George Rae, managed tae see the epidemic oot alive, an got weel-paid fer his troubles, eventually. The Toun Cooncil ye see, bankin oan the plague doctor no bein aroon at the end o the epidemic, advertised the job wi a fantastic wage o a hunner poond a month! Puir George had tae fecht them aw the way tae pay oot, some things nivver chynge...

Ah wis lucky masel, ah've aye had a guid constitution, ah pit that doon tae the sherry, an so ah spent maist o that year gaun roon ma pals, ministerin tae them that werenae weel, dressin them that had succumbed, an daein ma best tae cheer up the survivors. It wis hard gaun but ye did whit ye could, ye ken how it is. Ma stairs jist had tae gang dirty. As the year wore oan though, the toun got quieter an quieter, the mairkets stopped, the shops shut, hooses got boardit up, even some closes, like Mary King's fer instance, got bricked up aw th'gither, though, despite whit fowk like tae tell ye, we nivver bricked fowk up inside them. Eventually it got sae desertit there wis even gress grawn thick atween the causey setts richt in the middle o the High Street. The toun wis deid, an we were aw feart o whit the future wid bring. An then the Pirates showed up...

Pirates ye say? Aye, Pirates, ye heard me richt. Wid ye credit it, jist as the toun's at it lowest ebb, this big Pirate ship cam sailin intae Leith Roads. There wid've been mass panic in the toun, if we'd had enough fowk tae muster a mass panic. As it wis, we could barely scrape th'gither sixty able-bodit men tae defend the toun, an they were nae match fer a band o brigands wi evil intent. We were aw feart fer oor lives, an us wummen were feart fer somethin even worse, even ma pal Josie Lafferty wis scared!

The day the Pirates arrived they came intae the Canongate through the Wateryett at the fit o Abbeyhill, an cam mairchin up tae the Netherbow, whaur they demandit tae meet wi the Provost. The few o us that were up an aboot were cowerin at aw the windaes thereaboots, keekin oot tae catch a glimpse o the savages, but no wantin tae be seen oorsels. Ah mynd seein the Pirate Captain, a big broad tower o a man, dressed like somethin fae anither world, aw exotic an fu o colour, an feelin this odd tremble gaun through ma body. No the usual tremble ah got when ah saw an ootlander, this wis different. There wis somethin aboot this man, somethin in his een, somethin burnin there, somethin strange an yet weel-kent at the same time. Whit wis it? Ah had tae hae a couple o big sherries jist tae steady ma nerves.

Listenin tae the parley gaun oan doon in the street we could hear the Pirate King tellin the Provost that he wantit a huge ransom fae the toun, somethin like a hauf o aw oor wealth, or he wid butcher us aw, an he wantit the Provost's eldest son as a surety in the meantime. Oor Provost telt the Barbar that he didnae hae a son, jist yin daughter, an he startit greetin as he telt him that she wis in her bed wi the plague an aw. Somethin saftened in the Pirate's features at this news, a chynge cam ower his face, an he offered the Provost a new deal. He said that he wid tak the Provost's daughter an try tae cure her. If he managed it an the lass survived, the Pirates wid lay aff the toun an leave us in peace.

Of course the Provost jumped at this chance an invitit the Pirate up tae his hoose in the Cap an Feather Close. But naw, says the Pirate, he wid tak ower yin o the empty hooses in the Canongate an she could be broucht tae him. So broucht doon she wis, an he set tae work. We aw held oor breath tae see whit wid happen...

Within the fortnicht the lassie wis sittin up an seemed tae be oan the mend. The toun breathed a huge sigh o relief, we werenae gaunnae be slaughtert in oor beds efter aw, an when word got roon that the Pirate an the Provost's lassie were gettin, ye ken, close, we aw felt that oor troubles were ahint us. Things were still bad, dinnae get me wrang, fowk were still ill, but we could at least look forrit again. Ah startit ma visits up again, an ah wis oan ma way doon the Canongate this day, gaun doon tae veesit a pal at the White Horse Close, when the big Pirate King suddenly steps richt oot in front o me. "Sophia ma darlin, can ye still dance the Jig o Life?"

Weel! Ye could've cowped me ower wi a feather! "Oh. My. God." says me, "Is that you in there Andra?" thinkin fer some reason that this big Pirate had eaten ma wee pal o aw thae years ago. "It's me Sophia! It's Andra! Ah can hardly believe ye're still alive amangst aw this death an pestilence. Ye've even managed tae pit oan the beef!"

That deserved a hearty slap, but insteid ah threw ma airms aroon the big man-mountain an plonked a big kiss oan his cheek. Turns oot wee Andra had managed tae escape the country aw that langtime ago, got hissel selt intae slavery, an endit up at the Sultan o Morocco's coort. Andra wis aye a sharp tack an had got intae the Sultan's favour an worked his way up in the piratin business till he had his ain ship. He had returned intendin tae wreak his revenge oan the auld toun, but found yince he got here that he couldnae gang through wi it, thank the Lord. Andra swore me tae secrecy aboot his real identity oan account o him still bein sentenced tae hing fer arson, an ah've nivver telt anither soul aboot it, no until ah telt you that is, sae dinnae you go spreadin it aroon, right?

It wisnae lang afore Andra an the Provost's lassie got mairrit, which pit me oot a wee bit, but the way ah see it, there's aye plenty mair fish tae land, ye've jist got tae cast aroon a bit. Still, he wid've been a michty fine catch that yin, especially the way he'd filled oot, if ye ken whit ah mean. He wisnae the bairn ah had rescued fae the Tolbooth cell, he wis a fu-grawn man an aw the better fer it, though ah could still see wee Andra in thae twinklin een o his. Him an his new wife settlet doon in that same hoose in the Canongate, an tae mark his gratitude tae the Sultan o Morocco Andra pit up a wee statue o him oan the front o the hoose an named the hoose Morocco Land. Ye see it, up there, see? The hoose has been rebigged ower the years, but the statue remains tae this day, a wee marker o yin o Embra toun's closer scrapes wi fate.

Ah aften invitit Andra up tae ma hoose fer a wee sherry an a blether, but he aye remindit me o that vow he took oan the banks o the Nor Loch aw thae years afore, that he wid nivver set fit in the toun again, an richt enough he nivver went a step beyond the Netherbow, stayin in the Canongate till the day the bonnie lad breathed his last...


  1. Avast there, Sophia, for one so young you've been around a bit! What an exciting life! The only exciting thing that ever happened to me was when a barmaid mistook me for her husband and clobbered me for spending too much time in the pub, chatting up barmaids and neglecting her.

  2. Yo Mr Brownlie! Ah'm no really sae young ye ken, ah'm jist weel-preserved, an' it's an auld photie.

    A life's only excitin when ye pick oot the high spots ye ken, inbetween there's been a lot o' mundane stair-cleanin. Ah'm no sure onybody wid stop by if ah wis aw "This day ah scrubbed a stair" an' "That day ah polished a bannister" which isnae tae say ah dinnae tak ma work seriously. In fact, withoot blawin ma ain trumpet ower much, ah wid say ah'm up there wi the tap scrubbers in the business...

    Which brings me tae yer barmaid. Ah hope ye clobbered her back, fer she sounds a right piece o' work that yin. Ah barmaid should aye ken her place, which is tae protect a man fae his wife, ah aye did when ah wis ahint a bar.

    Didnae win me ony freens doon the steamie mind...

  3. Tell me Sophia, is the Edinburgh festival or the tram constructions worse?

  4. Ye had me wonderin there fer a meenit Dean. Wonderin if it wis a trick question that is. Ah ken we complain in Embra aboot the Festival, aboot trippin ower towrists when we're daein oor messages, aboot no bein able tae sleep fer aw the fireworks, aboot haein every posh bairn in England dressed up as an Aenas or a Dido oan wur street-corners, aboot - weel, ye get ma pynt. We complain, aye, but we widnae hae it ony ither way. Aw the world comin tae yer toun tae get happy an' hae a guid time? An' gaun hame an' tellin aw their freens whit a bonny toun it is, an' how aw the fowk are freenly auld sowels an' awfy cultured intae the bargain? Of course we love the Festival, we're the only city in the world that could dae it justice!

    But we dae love tae complain aboot it, an' we'll keep a ticht haud o' that right if ye dinnae mynd.

    Whereas, the trams?

    Dinnae get me startit oan the trams...

  5. So, it was wee Andrew... and I thought, looking at the photo, that it was Brownlie... Oh well, they must be related I guess.

    Another thumper of a story Sophia... and I'm sorry I was a bit late and nearly missed the beginning!

  6. Aye tris, ah wis a bit backside-fairmist there, ah cannae work oot if ah meant tae be or no...

    Mibbe Mr Brownlie an' Andra are relatit. Mibbe we've aw got a wee bit o' the Pirate in us, ah ken ah - now, stop it - hae. Ah'm forever daein ma Lang Jock Siller wi a besom under ma oxter fer the bairns. It keeps them fae playin chapdoor run oan ma landin.

  7. Tris/Sophia,

    I'll bet you four doubloons and two pieces-of-eight that Brownlie is not related to pirates, me hearties.