The rain had ceased in the early afternoon and though the clouds had threatened more, occasionally releasing a few drops here and there, a wind had risen and the grey cover had broken up into a patchwork of crimson and gold lit by the setting sun. Cold, deeper than before had descended as the sun sank below the horizon and the wind died. The world was soaked and as I approached the door of the stone house, I glanced up at the thatching hanging over the eves wondering when it would be time to re-thatch. The “blackhouse” had been transformed long ago into a larger dwelling, with rooms and fireplaces. The animals had their own byre and had not been housed since my grandfather’s time. I ran a fond eye over the old stones, the ever present moss beginning to make its presence known from anchored strongholds in the wetter cracks. A few more days of sunlight like this evening and it’d be time for cleaning, I thought as I pushed open the door and let the dogs in.
Peat still smoldered in the grate. It’s pungent presence, shoring up heat like a blanket, had kept the worst of the chill at bay but only just. The dogs went straight for the hearth rugs nonetheless and I had to nudge them aside as I stirred the ashes and added another turf or two. I rubbed my eyes and looked ruefully at the smoldering chunks. I should have been in earlier to bank the fire. Now it would be pure luck that kept the stuff alight through the night. Ach, I’d be waking up plenty of times, thinking on how I rarely slept the night through. I was not so stoic about the pot hanging above the soft heat. The water would be lukewarm at best. I shrugged and glanced over my shoulder at the door to the short hall that lead to the bedrooms thinking on the cold back there. I had taken to sleeping in the main room next to the fire.
Well, though I was mildly hungry, I decided my middle could do with an evening without. I rose and hung my coat on a peg next to the door along with my bonnet. I returned to the hearth and settled into the rocking chair to remove my damp boots. It felt good to let my toes breath and stretch my arches. I tucked them under dogs and settled back into the chair intending to sit for short time and allow the illusion of heat to build as the turfs took to burning.
I must have dozed for sometime, for when I awoke the fire was burning steadily and the room was warmer. I groggily considered making myself a cuppa, but then discarded the thought. I was just too tired. The dogs looked settled for the night. If they needed to go out, they would wake me. I rose and turned to the bed I’d moved in from the nether rooms and undressed, pulling on a woolen night shirt and a stocking cap then slipped between the cold blankets. I shivered for a time, but the down soon warmed about me and with a tuck here and a fold there, I built a little nest about me from which naught but my eye peaked. I chuckled to myself as I remembered doing just the same when I was a lad. From my comfortable ‘cave,’ I watched the turfs glow beyond the silhouetted outlines of the curled dogs.
Though I was tired, sleep was not so easily found. My mind was at work, thinking of the day and what needed to be done tomorrow. My girls were gone, married to good men—one in the next glen, but the other had moved far to the south. I missed them both and for a time wandered again behind them as wee lassies, they explored the hillsides and played in the mossy burn. How swiftly time had passed. I felt my throat grow thick and my eyes burn. No, I thought, we’ll have none of that now and I turned my mind back to the issue of taming sleep, but it wasn’t until Malcolm up the glen began the piobaireachd, that sleep was finally brought to bay.
Though it was cold, I must admit I reveled in it and always had. It was a point of pride with me that when the world went about in trews, I still sported the breacan-an-feile…the belted plaid. Thus, the window next to the door, though lost in the shadows of the room, I knew as cracked open a bit, its shutters unlatched. “To keep the vapors at bay,” my mother used to say. Through this came the delicate and far off strains of Malcolm’s stand. If I turned my head just so, I could just hear them. Sharp they were, but I knew it would be only moments before, warmed by his breath, they flattened and he, screwing up the drone tops, would soon be standing in a coat of sound that no cold could penetrate. He began the lovely strands of “I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand,” the chanter digging deep and rising, like the rise and fall of the sea. I listened willing my fingers to cease their sympathetic twitching of the tune. It was as perfect as it could be under my circumstances: a fire burning, hounds within beck and call, an early bed with warm blankets, and now sweet music softly drifting on the air filling my mind with sleep.
I never did awaken that night. The last tune I heard begun was “Cumha Mairi Nic-Leoid.” I vaguely recall the dogs joining me, curling up in the down behind the crook in my knees and along my side as I dreamed of kings and cattle, warriors and lassies, shinty goals and fishing for salmon whilst whistling Sadhbh Ni Bhruinneallaigh under my breath.