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On Seutra Hill

On the last bleak day of a particular miserable Scottish November, the North Wind came snarling out of the high wilderness of snow and ice and pounced on the frozen slopes of Seutra hill.  It drove its sharp sleety teeth through the lashings branches of a straggling plantation of gnarled spruce and cypresses upon the solid wall of Seutra Monastery. Fretting and whirring over the rough stone surface, it probed for cracks and gnawed at the moss-covered roof slabs, seeking a way in through the impregnable masonry for its rheumatic draughts.

Ensconced within a sheltering niche overlooking the monastery entrance, the effigy of Saint MacSoolis gazed blandly out upon this view of streaming wet desolation with benevolent visage, his right arm extended and two fingers pointing derisively upward in perpetual benediction.  A discrete plaque attached to the plinth whereon the statue stood, bore the inscription ‘BLACK MacSOOLIS.  REFORMED CATTLE RUSTLER: VILLAGE PLUNDERER AND OUTLAW.  CHIEF OF THE CHEVIOTLAND REIVERS, LATTERLY BARON OF HERMITAGE CASTLE.  REPENTING OF THIS LIFE OF SIN AND LECHERY, HE DID FOUND THIS MONASTERY AND DECLARED HIMSELF OUR PATRON SAINT.’

Further up the frost-blasted hill, at some distance removed, the tumbled remains of a crumbling, roofless byre housed the monastery’s collection of neglected farm animals.  At the back of this byre, where it had been tacked onto the hillside, the wild mountain goats had annexed the cave entrance from whence the stone to build the byre had been excavated, for their winter quarters. The ram, made angry by the damp and cold in his matted coat – a wicked beast of uncommonly large stature – butted and bullied the other goats out of his way and slouched into the dark interior of the shelter in search of his favourite dry spot which lay situated some way down a narrow passage he had discovered last winter.  The rest of the goats followed him with some hesitation, uncertain of their footing and wary of the darkness.  The solitary, disgruntled sow who existed in a state of permanent dispute with the goats concerning their proprietorial attitude over the matter of the rock shelter, stared balefully a their departing rumps; and the cows shifted their hooves in the mire, for t’was near twilight and long past milking time and there was still no sign of Brother Walt.

Far out on the right flank of the hill, overlooking the monastery and its surroundings, a picket of recoats crouched in a sodden bothy swearing at each other; the weather; the Scottish heathens; the smoking fire; the sleet; the wind; the wet; the maggot-ridden rations and the English governor basking like a well-fed warm shark in the comfort of Edinburgh Castle.  The sergeant of redcoats in charge of the picket stood outside the bothy, a cape slung round his shoulders.  There was an implacable patience in his stance as if had stood there for many months and would continue to stand there for as long as it need be.  He was the army.  And the army could afford to wait.  And wait he would until the renegade MacPhail thought it safe to emerge from the sanctuary of the monastery.  Then, back to Edinburgh with his prisoner, and no doubt a reward of a few golden guineas from the governor and a spell of well-earned rest for himself and his lads.

Close within the monastery dining hall, the jovial smoke of Seutra didn’t give a jot for the north wind or anything else in the outside world.  They sat before the huge open fireplace, enjoying the warmth from its blazing logs, exchanging banter, quip and jest and making merry din.  For this day, and indeed the last day of every month, the Fraternal Communion Day when all penances were suspended, scourges put away, and hair shirts hung up to air.  Most welcome privilege of all was permission to break silence from rising time in the morning until midnight.  Indeed, the atmosphere was more than usually relaxed because of the absence of the Abbot and his prior who had departed on horseback three days ago on an ecclesiastical visit to Jedburg convent.

However, Fraternal Communion Day was no excuse for the general hilarity and excess of cordiality that was evinced in the monks’ behaviour.  The good Abbot and his observant priors would have viewed the proceedings with scandalised astonishment and called for immediate retribution.  The order was based on strict compliance to chastity; serous decorum, discipline and frugality in all things.  Conversation and discussion on this day of the month was supposed to provide an opportunity for an uplifting of the spirit, not a garrulous uproar of humour and ribaldry.

Perhaps it was just as well that the Abbot and his priors had no inkling of what was going on behind their backs.  Half of the monks were secretly drunk and the other half were near to it as makes no difference.  Not only were they breaking on of their strictest vows, insomuch as it was a mortal sin to even think about the word ‘drink’, but they were doing it with such deceit and cunning that it amounted to nothing less than a mutiny against the order of MacSoolis.  It was well known that more than one unhappy wretch had undergone severe penance for daring to venture a nostalgic word or two about his past fondness for some essential brew of malt and barley, and it was whispered that one of the brothers who had smuggled a flagon of mead into the monastery was still paying the penalty to this day, walled up in the vaults and fed twice a week by the cruel hand of a grim-jawed prior.  How else to explain the muffled thuds and faint cries of lamentation from under the flagstones?

Back to get back to the secretly drunken monks.  What was even worse than the deceit and cunning of it all was the way went on at it. They had developed tippling to a fine art.  Not a glimpse was to be seen of the crafty dram tucked away inside the folds of the draped sleeve.  The casual lift of the arm and the furtive twist of the wrist and the surreptitious sip behind the droop of the cowl might easily be mistaken for as a simple gesture of wiping the dripping nose with the forefinger.

The audacious perpetrator of this subterfuge was no less person than the renegade, Brother Hamish MacPhail – a wolf in sheep’s clothing if there ever was one.  It was entirely the fault of his natural talent for creating trouble, and the weakness for the drink that had cost him his last job as a torturer in the grim dungeons of Edinburgh castle and had brought the redcoats to wait for him like vultures on the hillside.

To his credit, he was thorough in whatever he set his mind to, and had been acknowledged in the castle as an expert with the ironmongery and a skilled craftsman at the intricacy of the rack; knowing just how far to stretch a joint in order to entertain the governor’s mistress who was usually hanging about watching his performance. The lady was so intrigued with some of his subtle variations that one day she entreated him to give her a personal demonstration on the rack with herself as the willing victim.  Being drunk at the time, he was in no condition to resist her suggestion and soon had her strapped down on proceeded to stretch her to the accompaniment of her delighted squeals.  The governor completely misunderstood the version reported to him by a spy and went ranting and storming through the castle, livid with rage, to give MacPhail a taste of lingering death in his own torture chamber.

Receiving warnings of the governor’s intentions, Hamish MacPhail had fled the castle and had made his escape to the sanctuary of the Seutra Monastery.  Incarcerated within its walls and denied access to liquor, MacPhail realised that the necessity of quenching his alcoholic thirst would result in certain capture by the redcoats if he so much as attempted to sneak out in search of a drink.  Somehow, he managed to drag himself through the unendurable anguish of the long days and nights of total abstinence, but his protesting nerves began twitching and quivering like fine hairs growing under his skin and his expression became drawn and haggard with worry.  He went about his monastic duties with trembling lips and darting eyes – his hands shaking and his body twitching in uncontrollable spasms.  An outsider would have been shocked at his appearance, but it aroused little comment within the monastic community except for nods of approval and acceptance from the dour and uncommunicative monks who thought that he was surely adjusting himself to the austerity and hardship of their existence.

MacPhail decided in the middle of a particularly bad night of restless tossing and turning on his hard bed that he would manufacture his own brew.  He got up and ripped the pitch pine planks out of his bed and, scraped off the beads of resin, hurried to the scullery and boiled them up into a bitter but satisfying brew.  Once started, there was no halting the ingenious flow of ideas.  Recruiting the aid of certain other blackguards sheltering at Seutra, he dug out a chamber beneath the floor of his cell and installed a small but highly efficient still.

When the first potent brew trickled through this contraption, MacPhail and his cronies excused themselves to solitary meditation and went on a three day bender underneath the flagstones.  In another week or so, they were wandering about the precincts of the monastery carrying bottles of the stuff hanging from belts around their waists, and distributing the supplies under cover of their voluminous habits.  One had only to mention the password, ‘WHIT THE PRIORS ’EEN DINNA SEEN; THE ABBOT’S LUGHOLE WILLNA KEEN’

And on the occasion the Abbot rebuked the assembled monks for overindulging their appetite for garlic, and complained about the odour of onions hanging about the monastery, he had to threaten to cut the bread ration if the sniggering did not cease immediately. The sniggering ceased all right, but the demand for MacPhail’s brew doubled within the next couple of days.

Leaving Hamish MacPhail to carry on towards his inescapable reckoning with destiny, and returning to the dining hall, we find that it is now supper time.  The merry brotherhood move unsteadily away from the warmth of the fire and sit themselves down at the long table in anticipation of their meal. One or two of them beat out a tattoo on their food bowls causing Brother Jamie McLean of Perth to lift his habit round hits knees and rotate his portly figure in a travesty of a highland fling.  Out in the chilly scullery where he was preparing supper, Brother Ignatius de Quincey, a Sassenach from over the border, adamant teetotaller and probably the only monk in the entire monastery remaining true to his vocation, frowned disapprovingly at the howls of tipsy merriment issuing from the dinning hall.  Deservedly unpopular for the reasons already stated, it was his unhappy lot to be at the beck and call of whosoever required his services.  He heaved the huge cauldron of steaming porridge from the kitchen range and staggered into the dinning hall where he dished it up for the rumbustuous monks.

There was a brief recession of noise for a few perfunctory words of grace to be gabbled, then they continued the uproar again and went at the porridge with lusty appetites. Exclamations of horror and disgust broke out among the eaters.  Expectorated porridge flew in all directions.  Several monks fell over backwards from the table, recoiling from the vile and terrible taste in their mouths.

 “Ye bliddy Sassenach!” roared Hamish MacPhail. “Whit ur ye trying tae do?  Pizen us all?”  De Quincey gaped at the writhing monks in consternation, too taken aback by the reception his porridge had received to think of escaping  from the terrible MacPhail.  “Whit,” roared MacPhail again, “did ye mak this mizzerable skilly oot o’? Soor mulk and tatty peelins? Taste it!  Taste it, ye mizzerable wee wretch!”

At this juncture, one of the monks who had rushed off to the scullery to swill his mouth out with water entered the dining hall with a pitcher in his arms.  “Nivver mind the parritch noo!” he yelled.  “The wee Sassenach has used yesterdays bath water tae mak it wuth!”  He proffered the pitcher to MacPhail who sipped from it fastidiously.  “By Saint MacSoolis!” he roared.  “Yur right!”  He grabbed hold of the unhappy de Quincey.  “What d’ye mean by makin the parritch oot o’ oor auld bath watter?  Eh O.”  De Quincey wriggled in his grasp.  “It’s not true! He protested.  “I drew the water from the well only half an hour ago.  It must be fresh!  It must be!”

Brother Eustace Smith, a lowlander of mild disposition, spoke up on behalf of de Quincey. “Gintlemum!  Gintlemum!  We must obsairve the proprieties, ye ken, just because he doesny jine in the festiveeties!  Chuck the bliddy wee teetotaller doon the bliddy well and let’s get on with the bliddy drinkin!”

The rest of the monks roar a unanimous chorus of approval; laid hold of the struggling de Quincey and frog-marched him back to the scullery.  But another voice of authority blared above the clamour.  “Wait!”  It was Brother Inglis of Hawick – noted for his piety until the whiskey got at him. “Wait the noo!  Accordin to the taste o’ the watter, yon Sassenach has been tipping the rubbish doon the well instead of o’ carrying it outside.  I think we should lower him doon and mak him clean it oot.  Otherwise hoo ur we goin tae get fresh watter?”  “Aye!” yelled the monks.  “Lower him doon the well and mak him clean iy oot!”

Forthwith, they sat de Quincey in the well bucket, gave him a burning pitch pine form the fire for a light, and lowered him down with admonishments to send up the ‘rubbitch’ or else he would stay down there for the rest of the night.

At the bottom of the well, de Quincey stepped out of the bucket and considered his situation.  The well, he recognised by the light of his torch, was not a well at all.  It was, in fact, a deep pool of water fed by a stream which flowed along the bed of a fair sized natural passage similar to many such underground places he had explored in his native Somerset. A voice bellowed from above, “Whur’s the rubbitch, then?”  De Quincey did some rapid thinking.  If he said there was no rubbish to send up, they would pull up the bucket and leave him down the well all night.  On the other hand, there could be another way out since there must be and entrance to the cave upstream.  Light, however, was the problem.  “I’m looking for the rubbish” he shouted back, “But its all dark down here and I can’t see very well.”  There was some muttering from above and then another bellow.  “Mind yer heid!” and a bundle of faggots thumped on to the rock on which he was standing.

Tearing strips from his habit, de Quincey tied the precious sticks together, the more conveniently to carry them through the cave, he shouted up the well shaft, “Hang on a minute! I’ve got the lights going now I’m going up a passageway that I have found to look for the rubbish.”  With this reassurance to the impatient monks, he set of in search of a way out.

The echoes of this last exchange of shouting preceded his progress by some minutes, since sound travels faster than a caving monk, and awoke the irate ram from his sleep on the soft but uncomfortable cold patch of sand further up the cave.  The ram got to his feet and kicked the nearest recumbent ewe goat to get rid of the cramp in his haunches.  He listened intently.  Yes, there was definitely something moving down there.  Probably that wall-eyed sow.  The thought infuriated him.  That pig had no right to be in his shelter.  No common pig had any right to a dry place to lie in.  Especially that pig.  A pig’s place was out in the wind and cold.  He would go down there and butt that damned impudent pig back to where it belonged.

It was thus that Brother Ignacious de Quincey, on rounding a corner, was surprised to finds a fair sized ram barring his advance.  The ram, equally surprised at seeing the steadily brightening gleam of light followed by the sudden appearance of the monk instead of the expected pig, jumped backwards in a reflex leap coincident with de Quincey’s own backward somersault and, turning in mid air, galloped a short distance up the cave where he halted on the shadows, and looked back.

Now that ram, once it had got an idea into its head, was not lightly to be deflected from its purpose. Nothing could shift it.  It had come down here to get a pig, and a pig it was going to have.  Anything that even looked like a pig was in trouble, and there was definitely something silhouetted in the feeble light of the monk’s torch that looked like a pig. The ram put his head down, presented his horns, and charged.

De Quincey listened to the approaching clatter of hooves in profound consternation. The ram was coming to get him.  Forsooth, he hadn’t a chance.  The fall had winded him, but he struggled to his feet.  The ram, at full tilt now, saw his mistake when he was about a yard away from what he had taken to be a pig.  De Quincey watched, horrified, as the ram, veering at the last moment, smashed into an inoffensive boulder perched on four stumpy stalagmites and sent the lot scattering.

The ram, still conscious albeit slightly concussed, regarded the monk with some confusion.  A moment ago, he had been asleep with the rest of the goats.  So why was he standing here looking at a monk?  It must be some nightmare.  Slowly, as if indeed in a dream, the ram turned his back on the monk and plodded back up the cave.  De Quincey heaved a sigh of relief and muttered a fervent prayer of thanks.  He picked up the torch and looked around, wondering what to do next.  He couldn’t go on.  That was for sure.  He’d come across many unusual things in caves back home, but a ram!  A crazy ram roaming about under the ground and smashing up boulders!  That was something that was just typical of Scotland.  And the size of the beast!  Those horns! Massive!  Like great curved battering rams.  De Quincey shuddered.  Battering Rams!  He started shaking all over.  The brute must have mistaken the boulder in the dim light for himself.  It was an act of providence that had saved him from a severe mauling.  Better to return to the monastery and risk the wrath of the monks who were probably so drunk by now that they would have forgotten all about the porridge. Anyway, at least he now had the answer to the foul taste of the water.  The ram would account for that.  No wonder that the porridge was polluted.  He laughed hysterically as an idea occurred to him, and imagined the ram let loose amongst the drunken monks.  That would teach them a thing or two – the Scotch bullies!

“And why not?” he asked aloud in sudden inspiration.  “By Saint MacSoolis, why not?”  He hastened back to the well, igniting his supply of faggots on the way and leaving them at intervals to illuminate the cave.  “Are you still there?” he shouted up the well shaft.  There was no reply.  Anxiously, he gave the bucket rope a hefty shake which rattled the windlass. There was a commotion of shuffling feet from above.  “Whut d’ye want doon ther? Somebody bellowed, “makin that confounded racket on oor machinery! Have ye foond the rubbitch then?”

De Quincey felt a surge of hope at the sound of the voice.  “Send me down – I mean doon – a bottle of whiskey!”  He shouted, and listened to the mutterings from above, wondering if his scheme would work.

“What fur?” came he surprised reply.  He answered with another shout, spacing his words to make then distinct.  “Because I’ve found a passage down here, and a good way along there are some rotting chests full of metal stuff and shining stones and I want a drink to keep warm while I go and have another look.”  A babble of exited argument rose from above his head, then abruptly ceased at the crafty solicitous voice of MacPhail came wheedling down to him.  “Git yerself intae the bucket mun, and we’ll gie ye a wee dram up heer and a warm in front o’ the fire afore ye go doon again.  Ye must be nigh on perished with the cauls!”

At the top of the well, MacPhail pulled him bodily out of the bucket and dumped him gently on his feet, surrounded by a ring of attentive faces.  “Noo then, ma wee many, whit’s this aboot chests filled wi’ stuff, eh? It widna be Saint MacSoolis’s treasure noo that ye’ve foond, wid it?”  Ye widna be tryin tae cheat yer brother monks oot o’ theer share wi’ ye?” De Quincy quailed before them in mock fright.  “It’s treasure all right, Brother MacPhail.  I just wanted to make quite sure before I came up to tell you.  That’s all.”  MacPhail leered at him.  “Aye! O’course ye did ma wee many.  Noo awa and warm yeresel in front o’ the fire.  Here’s your whiskey.  We’ll gang doon the well and bring the stuff oot for ye! Awa wi ye noo!”

The monks on the outer fringe of the listening circle were already edging over to the well.  “Me first!” bellowed MacPhail.  “I’ll hae nane o’ that!  Git oot o’ ma way ye scurvy bunch o’ hypocrites!”  he shouldered through the jostling throng who were by now so drunk that they has to support one another to avoid falling flat on their faces.

No sooner than MacPhail had disappeared overt the edge of the well than there was a concerted rush for the rope.  Body crashed into body.  Skin ripped off against stone.  Hands burned on the rope.  Fist and sandal flailed into rib and groin.  Some jumped in feet first to get the press of bodies on the move, sure of a soft landing.  Others dived in head first, too drunk to know or care which way up they were.  The din of thuds yells and curses and the stench of honked up whiskey was appalling.  De Quincey waited for the sounds of departure to fade into the distance and then calmly cut the rope.

The ram woke from his already disturbed slumber in a worse temper than he could ever remember.  This row was just too intolerable.  What the hell was going on?  It was that damned pig again.  Memory of the incidents leading up to the stunning impact with the boulder returned with it, the realisation that the pig had tricked him into charging into a trap.  That monk! What was he doing down there?  He was surely in league with that pig.  That was it!  The pair of them were probably laughing their heads off now, but what kind of fool did they take him for?  He’d show them this time!

The ram’s rage was so vicious that for a moment or two all he could do was to totter around gasping for breath, stepping indiscriminately on the other goats and scattering them with savage butts as they started to their feet.  That pig!  He would deal with that pig once and for all!  Judging from the bellowing and stampeding about coming from below him, that damned pig must have taken all those mud-wallowing cows with her just to wake up decent goats and to annoy them.  Well, the whole damned lot were going to get it.  Right where it hurts most.  Hard.

Such was the ram’s fury that it communicated itself to the younger rams in the herd, who began to leap about in the dark butting and kicking each other and anything else within range including the solid walls of the cave.  Then, as if prompted by some instinctively sensed signal, the whole lot herd of goats gathered itself together and raced after the ram who had gone running off down the cave with such speed and purpose that his steel hard hooves struck sparks off the rocks.

Brother Hamish MacPhail, lured on by the flickering light for de Quincey’s carefully placed torches, was still in the lead, but only just.  He plunged ahead of the stumbling monks. Tripping over his own lacerated feet and the tangled remnants of his tattered habit which hung in strips from his battered body.  Five monks had fallen on top of him in the well shaft, pounding him into the pool where he had nearly drowned.  His right arm hung useless – dislocated at the shoulder – and his eyes peered from slitted lids that were just about the only recognisable feature left on his trampled face.  He was still to drunk to appreciate his pitiful condition, but not yet beyond feeling bewilderment at the way the walls of the cave kept crashing into him when there was really ample room and width of passage to run through ahead of the others and get to the treasure first.

The howling mob behind him were in no better shape.  Some had thrown aside the heavy cloth garments on the way and were shambling through the cave completely naked and unprotected from the sharp rock.  Three others had climbed up into the narrow roof to traverse along overhead and now fell in a heap, frantically clutching each other as they fell.  Another beat his fists against the wall, screaming to be let out and a maudlin bunch of slack-mouthed inebriates, so drunk that they has forgotten what they were supposed to be there for, stood lurching and swaying before a large slab of stone intoning the beatitudes in solemn incoherence.

MacPhail didn’t even have time to stop his staggering run when Auld Nick appeared before him.  But he did pray, if only for a flash of frightened thought, for the first time in his life, when he saw what was coming at him – tearing straight for him out of the dark, with his horns and his beard and his cloven hooves and hairy body and terrible glaring yellow eyes.  His last thought was when the crash came and the wind whooshed out of his gaping mouth, was that he had been taken and was on his way to hell.

There was no merciful oblivion for the rest of the monks.  Those in the rear were trampled underfoot in the backwash from the shambles up in front.  Some had a chance to run, and run they did – for the sake of their very souls, never mind their lives.  The goats threw themselves upon their fleeing victims with ferocious accuracy.  If there wasn’t room on the floor of the cave to get a clear run at the waddling posteriors, they then took to the walls and their flailing hooves knocked down the flaming torches in showers of sparks to fall on the heads and shoulders of the monks, where they were promptly followed by butts and kicks.

The Abbot and his priors returned late on the night of that last day in November in the middle of a violent thunderstorm to learn that the monastery had a new tenant.  The Devil had moved in and the monks were moving out and they’d set light to the place to make their guest feel more at home. Saint MacSoolis lay in fragments on the ground, struck by a thunderbolt.  Most of the monks had already departed into the night in search of a bed to sleep in.  The few that remained were limping around in the driving rain, attending those who could not walk and getting them into improvised litters ready to face the six mile journey to the nearest cottage.  “It was the Sassenach de Quincey” explained one of the bloodstained monks to the Abbot, “in league with them doon below.  He tricked us intae the jaws o’ Hades.  All flames and fire and demented things rushing aboot an underground passage leadin doon tae hell.  We wur lucky tae get oot alive!”

The phlegmatic sergeant of redcoats sat astride his horse and watched the exodus from then blazing monastery with a sardonic smirk on his face; the nearest he had come to smiling for years.  He sniffed appreciatively at the fine smell of wood smoke, stale drink singed flesh and scorched cloth which hung in the dam air.  The prisoner MacPhail looked as if an avalanche had hit him the way he was wrapped up in bandages and splints.  Yes, he had been through the mill all right, yelling and swearing one minute and gabbling prayers the next.  Still, with luck he would recover on his way to Edinburgh and be fit enough for the tortures that awaited him there.  Meanwhile, there was nothing to hang about here for in the driving rain.  Best to be moving.  He jerked MacPhail’s chain, pulling him forward in a shuffling, slithering run across the churned-up ground, and addressed his picket of soldiers. “On your way, you scum!  On your way!  Back to Edinburgh my lucky lads, and keep your eyes on that rascal of a monk and see he doesn’t escape.”

All this happened many years ago, and there is such a place as Seutra Hill, where you can still see the ruins of the monastery.  To this day, the locals say the place is curst, and they steer away from its loneliness. In fact, the only living thing you’ll find up there are a few wild mountain goats, munching contentedly at the withered brown bracken.

‘Jok’ Orr