Read CHAPTER ONE of Shenac's Work at Home , free online book, by Margaret Murray Robertson, on

A long time ago, something very sad happened in one of the districts of Scotland. I cannot tell you how it all came about, but a great many people were obliged to leave their homes where they and their forefathers had lived for many generations. A few scattered themselves through other parts of the country; a few went to the great towns to seek for a livelihood; but by far the greater number made up their minds to leave for ever the land of their birth, and rose in the new, strange world beyond the sea a home for themselves and their children.

I could never make you understand what a sorrowful time that was to these poor people, or how much they suffered in going away. For some of the old left children behind them, and some of the young left their parents, or brothers, or sisters; and all left the homes where they had lived through happy years, the kirks where they had worshipped God together, and the kirkyards where lay the dust of the dear ones they had lost.

And, besides all this, they knew little of the land to which they were going, and between them and it lay the great ocean, with all its terrors. For then they did not count by days, as we do now, the time that it took to cross the sea, but by weeks, or even by months; and many a timid mother shrank from the thought of all her children might have to suffer ere the sea was passed. Even more than the knowledge of the many difficulties and discouragements which might await them beyond it, did the thought of the dangers of the sea appal them. And to all their other sorrows was added the bitter pain of saying farewell for ever and for ever to Scotland, their native land. It is true that not among all her hills or valleys, or in all her great and prosperous towns, could be found room for them and theirs; it is true that a home in the beloved land was denied them: but it was their native land all the same, and eyes that had refused to weep at the last look of dear faces left behind, grew dim with tears as the broken outline of Scotland’s hills faded away in the darkness.

But out of very sorrowful events God oftentimes causes much happiness to spring; and it was so to these poor people in their banishment. Into the wide Canadian forests they came, and soon the wilderness and the solitary place were glad for them; soon the wild woods were made to rejoice with the sound of joyful voices ringing out from many a happy though humble home. And though there were those among the aged or the discontented who never ceased to pine for the heather hills of the old land, the young grew up strong and content, troubled by no fear that, for many and many a year to come, the place would become too strait for them or for their children.

They did not speak English these people, but a language called Gaelic, not at all agreeable to English ears, but very dear to the heart of the Scottish Highlander. It is passing somewhat out of use now; but even at this day I have heard of old people who will go many miles to hear a sermon preached in that language the precious gospel itself seeming clearer and richer and more full of comfort coming to them in the language which they learned at their mother’s knee.

“It was surely the language first spoken on earth, before the beguiling serpent came to our mother,” once said an old man to me; “and maybe afterwards too, till the foolish men on the plain of Shinar brought Babel on the earth. And indeed it may be the language spoken in heaven to-day, so sweet and grand and fit for the expression of high and holy thoughts is it.”

It is passing out of use now, however, even among the Highlanders themselves. Gaelic is the household language still, where the father and mother are old, or where the grand-parents live with the rising generation; but English is the language of business, of the newspapers, and of all the new books that find their way among the people. It is fast becoming the language in which public worship is conducted too. There are very few books in the Gaelic. There are the Bible and the Catechism, and some poems which they who understand them say are very grand and beautiful; and there are a few translations of religious books, such as “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and some of the works of such writers as Flavel and Baxter. But though there are not many, they are of a kind which, read often and earnestly, cannot fail to bring wisdom; and a grave and thoughtful people were they who made their homes in this wilderness.

Among those who were most earnest in overcoming the difficulties which at every step meet the settler in a new country were two brothers, Angus and Evan MacIvor. Their farms lay next to each other. They were fortunate in securing good land, and they were moderately successful in clearing and cultivating it. They lived to a good old age, and the youngest son of each succeeded him in the possession of the land. It is about the families of these two sons that my story is to be told.

The two cousins bore the same name, Angus MacIvor; but they were not at all alike either in appearance or character. The one was fair, with light hair and bright blue eyes; and because of this he was called Angus Bhan, or Angus the fair, to distinguish him from his cousin, who was very dark. He had a frank, open face and kind manner; and if anyone in the neighbourhood wanted a favour done, his first thought was sure to be of Angus Bhan.

His cousin Angus Dhu, or Angus the black, had a good reputation among people in general. He was honest and upright in his dealings, his word could be relied on; but his temper was uncertain, and his neighbours called him “close,” and few of them would have thought of looking to Angus Dhu when they wanted a helping hand.

When these two began life they were very much in the same circumstances. Their farms were alike as to the quality of the soil and as to the number of acres cleared and under cultivation. They were both free from debt, both strong men accustomed to farm-work, and both, in the opinion of their neighbours, had a fair chance of becoming rich, according to the idea of wealth entertained by these people.

But when twenty years had passed away the affairs of the two men stood very differently. Angus Dhu had more than realised the expectations of his neighbours. He was rich richer even than his neighbours supposed. More than half of his farm of two hundred acres was cleared and under cultivation. It was well stocked, well tilled, and very productive. Near the site of the log-house built by his father stood a comfortable farm-house of stone. All this his neighbours saw, and called him a prosperous man; and now and then they speculated together as to the amount of bank-stock to which he might justly lay claim.

The world had not gone so well with Angus Bhan. There was not so much land under cultivation, neither was what he had so well cultivated as his cousin’s. He had built a new house too, but he had been unfortunate as to the time chosen to build. Materials were dear, and a bad harvest or two put him sadly back in the world. He was obliged to run into debt, and the interest of the money borrowed from his cousin was an additional burden. He was not successful in the rearing of stock, and some heavy losses of cattle fell on him. Worse than all, his health began to fail, for then his courage failed too; and when there came to that part of the country rumours of wonderful discoveries of the precious metals in the western parts of the continent, he only faintly withstood the entreaties of his eldest son that he might be permitted to go away and search for gold among the mountains of California. His going away nearly broke his mother’s heart; and some among the neighbours said it would have been far wiser for young Allister to stay at home and help his father to plough and sow and gather in the harvest, than to go so far and suffer so much for gold, which might be slow in coming, and which must be quick in going should sickness overtake him in the land of strangers. But the young are always hopeful, and Allister was sure of success; and he comforted his mother by telling her that in two or three years at most he could earn money enough to pay his father’s debt to Angus Dhu, and then he would come home again, and they would all live happily together as before. So Allister went away, and left a sorrowful household behind.

And there was another sorrowful household in Glengarry about that time. There was only sorrow in the hearts of Angus Bhan and his wife when their first-born son went away; for he went with their consent, and carried their blessing with him. But there were sorrow and bitter anger in the heart of Angus Dhu when he came to know that his son had also gone away. He was not a man of many words, and he said little to anyone about his son; but in his heart he believed that he had been beguiled away by the son of Angus Bhan, and bitter resentment rose within him at the thought.

A few months passed away, and there came a letter from Allister, written soon after his arrival in California. His cousin Evan Dhu was with him. They had done nothing to earn money as yet, but they were in high spirits, and full of hope that they would do great things. This letter gave much comfort to them all; but it was a long time before they heard from the wanderers again.

In the meantime the affairs of Angus Bhan did not grow more prosperous. It became more and more difficult for him to pay the interest of his debt; and though his cousin seldom alluded in words to his obligation, he knew quite well that he would not abate a penny either of principal or interest when the time of payment came.

A year passed away. No more letters came from Allister, and his father’s courage grew fainter and fainter. There seemed little hope of his ever being able to pay his debt; and so, when Angus Dhu asked him to sell a part of his farm to him, he went home with a heavy heart to consult his wife about it. They agreed that something must be done at once; and so it was arranged that if Allister was not heard from, or if some other means of paying at least the interest did not offer before the spring, the hundred acres of their land that lay next to the farm of Angus Dhu should be given up to him. It was sad enough to have to do this; but Angus Bhan said to his wife,

“If anything were to happen to me, you and the children would be far better with half the land free from debt, than with all burdened as it must be till Allister comes home.”

They did not say much to each other, but their hearts were very sore his, that he must give up the land left to him by his father; hers, for his sake, and also for the sake of her first-born son, a wanderer far away.

That autumn, when the harvest was over, the second son, Lewis, set off with some young men of the place to join a company of lumberers, who were, as is their custom, to pass the winter in the woods. It was a time of great prosperity with lumber-merchants then, and good wages could be earned in their service. There was nothing to be done at home in the winter which his father, with the help of the younger children, could not do; and Lewis, who was eighteen, was eager to earn money to help at home, and eager also to enter into the new and, as he thought, the merry life in the woods. So Lewis went away, and there were left at home Hamish and Shenac, who were twins, Dan, Hugh, Colin, and little Flora, the youngest and dearest of them all. The anxieties of the parents were not suffered to sadden the lives of the children, and the little MacIvors Bhan were as merry young people as one could wish to see.

Though they were not so prosperous, they were a far happier household than the MacIvors Dhu. There was the same number of children in each family; but Angus Dhu’s children were most of them older than their cousins, and while Angus Bhan had six sons and two daughters, Angus Dhu had six daughters and two sons. “His cousin should have been a far richer man than he, with so many sons,” Angus Dhu used to say grimly. But three of the boys of Angus Bhan were only children still, and one of them was a cripple. And as for the daughters of Angus Dhu, they had been as good as sons even for the farm-work, labouring in the fields, as is the custom for young women in this part of the country, as industriously and as efficiently as men far more so, indeed, than their own brother Evan did; for he was often impatient of the closeness with which his father kept them all at work, and it was this, quite as much as his love of adventure and his wish to see the world, that made him go away at last. The two eldest daughters were married, and the third was living away from home; so, after Evan left, there were four in their father’s house three girls and Dan, the youngest of the family, who was twelve years of age. The children of these two families had always been good friends. Indeed, the younger children of Angus Dhu had more pleasure in the house of their father’s cousin than in their own home; and many a winter evening they were in the habit of passing there.

They had a very quiet winter after Lewis went away. There was less visiting and going about in the moonlight evenings than ever before; for the boys were all too young to go with them except Hamish, and he was a cripple, and not so well as usual this winter, and though the girls were quite able to take care of themselves, they had little pleasure in going alone. So Angus Dhu’s girls used to take their knitting and their sewing to the other house, and they all amused themselves in the innocent, old-fashioned ways of that time.

Shenac seldom went to visit her cousins; for, besides the fact that her father’s house was the pleasantest meeting-place, her brother Hamish could not often go out at night, and she would rarely consent to leave him; and no one added so much to the general amusement as Hamish. He was very skilful at making puzzles and at all sorts of arithmetical questions, and not one of them could sing so many songs or tell so many stories as he. He was very merry and sweet-tempered too. His being a cripple, and different from all the rest, had not made him peevish and difficult to deal with as such misfortunes are so apt to do, and there was no one in all the world that Shenac loved so well as her twin-brother Hamish.

I suppose I ought to describe Shenac more particularly, as my story is to be more about her than any of the other MacIvors. A good many years after the time of which I am now writing; I heard Shenac MacIvor or, as English lips made it, Jane MacIvor spoken of as a very beautiful woman (the Gaelic spelling is Sinec); but at this time I do not think it ever came into the mind of anybody to think whether she was beautiful or not. She had one attribute of beauty perfect health. There never bloomed among the Scottish hills, which her father and mother only just remembered, roses and lilies more fresh and fair than bloomed on the happy face of Shenac, and her curls of golden brown were the admiration and envy of her dark haired cousins. They called little Flora a beauty, and a rose, and a precious darling; but of Shenac they said she was bright and good, and very helpful for a girl of her age; and her brother Hamish thought her the best girl in the world indeed, quite without a fault, which was very far from being true.

For Shenac had plenty of faults. She had a quick, hot temper, which, when roused, caused her to say many things which she ought not to have said. Hamish thought all those sharp words were quite atoned for by Shenac’s quick and earnest repentance, but there is a sense in which it is true that hasty and unkind words can never be unsaid.

Shenac liked her own way too in all things. This did not often make trouble, however; for she had learned her mother’s household ways, and, indeed, had wonderful taste and talent for these matters. Being the only daughter of the house, except little Flora, and her mother not being very strong, Shenac had less to do in the fields than her cousins, and was busy and happy in the house, except in harvest-time, when even the little lads, her brothers, were expected to do their part there.

Hamish and Shenac were very much alike, as twins very often are that is, they were both fair, and had the same-coloured hair and eyes. But, while Shenac was rosy and strong, the very picture of health, her brother was thin and pale, and often of late there had been a look of pain on his face that it made his mother’s heart ache to see. They were all in all to each other Shenac and Hamish. They missed Lewis less on this account, and they knew very little of the troubles that so often made their father and mother anxious; and the first months of winter passed happily over them after Lewis went away.

Christmas passed, and the new year came in. A few more pleasant weeks went by, and then there came terrible tidings to the house of Angus Bhan. Far away, on one of the rapids of the Grand River, a boat had been overturned. Three young men had been lost under the ice. The body of one had been recovered: it was the body of Lewis MacIvor.

“We should be thankful that we can at least bring him home,” said Angus Bhan to his wife, while she made preparations for his sad journey. But he said it with very pale, trembling lips, and his wife struggled to restrain the great burst of weeping that threatened to have way, that he might have the comfort of thinking that she was bearing her trouble well. But when she was left alone all these sad days of waiting, she was ready to say, in the bitterness of her heart, that there was no sorrow like her sorrow. One son was a wanderer, another was dead, and on the face of the dearly-beloved Hamish was settling the look of habitual suffering, so painful to see. Her cup of sorrow was full to the brim, she declared, but she knew not what she said.

For, when a few days had passed, there were brought home for burial two dead bodies instead of one. Her husband was no more. He had nearly accomplished his sorrowful errand, when death overtook him. He had complained to the friend who was with him of feeling cold, and had left the sleigh to walk a mile or two to warm himself. They waited in vain for him at the next resting-place, and when they went back to look for him they found him lying with his face in the snow, quite dead. He had not died from cold, the doctor said, but from heart-disease, and probably without suffering; and this comfort the bereaved widow tried to take to herself.

But her cup of sorrow was not full yet. The very night before the burial was to be, the house caught fire and burned to the ground. It was with difficulty that the few neighbours who gathered in time to help could save the closed coffins from the flames; and it seemed a small matter, at the time, that nearly all their household stuff was lost.

The mother’s cup did seem full now. I do not think that the coming of any trouble, however great, could at this time have added to her grief. She had striven to be submissive under the repeated strokes that had fallen upon her, but the horrors of that night were too much for her, weakened as she was by sorrow. For a time she was quite distracted, heeding little the kind efforts of her neighbours to alleviate her distress and the distress of her children. All that kind hearts and willing hands could do was done for them. The log house which their grandfather had built still stood. It was repaired, and filled with gifts from every family in the neighbourhood, and the widow and her children found refuge there.

“Oh, what a sad beginning for a story!” I think some of my young readers may say, in tones of disappointment. It is indeed a sad beginning, but every sorrowful word is true. Every day there are just such sorrowful events happening in the world, though it is not often that trouble falls so heavily at once on any household. I might have left all this out of my story; but then no one could have understood so well the nature of the work that fell to Shenac, or have known the difficulties she had to overcome in trying to do it well.