Aquila’s Eyrie: CHRISTMAS IN ABERCAIRN

Robert Bruce Drummond

The celebration of Christ’s birth is the most blessed time of the whole year, the marker from which everyone counts time.  Though the calendar had been changed in 1750, Abercairn still celebrated Old Christmas from the middle of December until January 6.  Preparations began as long beforehand as harvest, with selection of the best fruits for preserves, mincemeat, and fruitcakes, and the best pumpkins for pies.  The best turkeys were penned by themselves and given each cook’s special mixture of feed.  The best hams from hog killing of the previous year were set aside, and choice portions of beef and pork selected to be chopped fine for mincemeat.  Each woman laid by the ingredients for her special recipes.  Men and boys hunted squirrel for Brunswick stew, and venison and wildfowl for pies and roasts.

            Cooking began with fruitcakes in mid-November and reached its crescendo the second week in December.  Mrs. Grieg commanded the Glenlochie kitchen, storerooms, cook, and helpers.  When Douglas and Torquil were small, they haunted the kitchen, asking for a taste of everything.  She gave it to them, but took her due by giving them nuts to shell and dried fruit to chop for the baking.  As the boys grew older, they went to the hunting instead.

 Houses were full of friends and relatives, and the hired helpers’ quarters crowded with temporary help and servants of the visitors, by mid-December.  Our close relations having emigrated to the west, we Drummonds entertained friends and business connections from the Court House or downriver.  Guests from the lower Rapidan or Rappahannock marveled at the standard of learning and refinement Abercairn maintained in what to them was a frontier wilderness.  They brought their children for the boys to play with.

The MacHughs were always included.  Aidan Mor was Clerk of the Court, so they lived at the Court House.  Their kin were far away in North Carolina, and their house could barely contain their lively family.  In addition to the company at Glenlochie, they appreciated quiet time in the country, away from the heavy wagon traffic on the turnpike.  Their eldest was Amelia, a bright and intelligent talker, interested in all aubjects, who read everything she could to learn more.  Next were the twins, Aidan and Ann—called Nannie—who, when still in frocks, could not be told apart.  They were inseparable.  When Aidan was breeched, he wouldn’t leave Nannie behind, nor would she let him be without his constant playmate.  They went together wherever both were allowed to go.  They shared their unique bond by inventing and playing games for which only they knew the object and the rules.  School separated them in the daytime, but they were best friends, and their reunion afterward was joyous.  By learning each other’s school lessons, both enriched their minds.  Younger by about ten years were Aluinn and Abhainn, born within a year of each other, and petted and indulged by their elder siblings.  They had their own riotous partnership, and their pranks amused their elders.  Amelia turned more and more toward the friendship and conversation of adults.

Torquil   

Douglas and I took the boys and Nannie to race sleds or skate on the loch, ride horseback or hunt rabbits in snow covered woods.  Nannie feared nothing, skating as close as we did to thin ice and shutting her eyes to danger while careening over jumps on a sled.  She was joyful, and determined that all should have as much happiness as she.  After the short daylight hours, we played blind man’s buff and wrote and presented little plays, and sang with our elders when ladies played the pianoforte.

Robert Bruce Drummond

The largest hunt of the year met on the morning of Christmas Eve.  Ewen Murray the Elder was host, and his dogs were the core of the pack.  Reynard was the quarry, but we hunters also celebrated the wiles of foxes that escaped.  All year long, the neighborhood observed them:  grays that kept their minds on their business and reds that were curious to a fault.  Roving herdsmen, the ever riding planters, and exploring boys found their dens and followed their trails.  Some of the wiliest were named.  It was bad form to shoot them.  The backcountry men and mountaineers trapped them for their pelts, and laborers and working farmers pursued them with dogs, to save their poultry from destruction.

The hunt, however, was more about horsemanship than killing predators.  We  Abercairners disdained the English pink and wore our usual suits.  Horses were groomed to a shine and horse furniture dressed to a gleam.  Fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, and boys who were old enough gathered to Mount Murray before first light.  Some men brought a couple of dogs, others several couple.  Those from a distance had stayed at the house the night before, and all arrivals were given a hearty breakfast.

The stirrup cup was Ewen the Elder’s rich, strong eggnog:  milk and cream, eggs and sugar,  brandy and whiskey, sherry and rum, served generously.  I warned my sons that if they took too much, the “over lively” would spoil their horsemanship.  They were too proud of their riding and their horses, and too anxious to make a fine showing, to run the risk.  They accepted the thimblefuls boys were served and felt proud to be included.

Following the flowing freshet of upwards of thirty eager dogs, the field moved off through the gate, over rolling pasture toward a thicket that was the nearest likely covert.  Noses to the earth, the dogs cast in all directions for a line of scent.  Spade took the lead, and the field soon heard him give tongue from beside an old oak snag.  Seconded by Tip and Lightning, also identified by their voices, Spade doubled his speed, followed in a rush by the rest of the pack in full cry.  To the tune of this wild music, second only to the pipes to fire our hearts, we restrained our horses only until fox and pack were well away before we galloped hard after them, Ewen the Elder on Sachem in the lead.  Keeping pace with him, I on Nightfire, Douglas on Dainty Darling, and Torquil on Thunderfoot, were barely ahead of the others.

Auld Aidan MacHugh, other ancient gentlemen, and those disabled from previous falls didn’t try to keep the furious pace.  They cantered to a rise where they could watch, and turn to follow the chase.  But Judge Carmichael, whose heart was great, though he was older than any of them, kept his place among the field.

We crashed pell mell through the thicket and jumped a zigzag rail fence into the fallow field on the other side.  Mssr. DeVique’s and Aidan Mor’s horses refused the fence, so they had to take down rails, lead them across, and replace the rails.  To their great disgust, they fell far behind, but Ewen the Elder’s booming halloo to announce the view could be heard for a mile. 

“It’s Old Whiskers!”  shouted Douglas.

Then we all knew we’d be tested.  Like a shooting streak of gray silver, Old Whiskers outdistanced the swiftest of the frenzied pack, his legs moving so fast they were but a blur.  Across the field he flew, widening the gap between himself and his pursuers.  With shouts and the singular yip of the chase harmonizing with the belling of the dogs, we thundered after. 

Torquil

That reckless, headlong dash was ecstasy, it was thrilling freedom, it was like being the wind.  I looked neither right nor left.  Thunderfoot ran his fastest, vent a terre.   

When we reached the far side of the field, Old Whiskers disappeared into thick woods.  It was blind country.  None of us could see far ahead or see the nature of the earth beneath the horses’ hooves.  Only Old Whiskers knew exactly where he was going. 

The ground was rising, but the horses caught the excitement and pushed upward with powerful haunches and legs like springs.  For us Abercairners, mountain riding was an everyday activity.  Old Whiskers, the dogs, and the field traversed the slope.  We bent our horses around trees and broke right and left when the brush was too thick to penetrate, rejoining at the opposite side.  Douglas, riding to one side, took a header when Dainty Darling fell in a stump hole where an old tree had rotted away.  It wasn’t deep enough to hurt him or his horse much.  He said so to those who stopped to see if he were disabled, mounted again, and followed after the field.  We jumped streams or scrambled over, and, where the river poured down, almost swam our horses across.  The ground rose more sharply.  Old Whiskers, running for his life, never slowed.  The next streambed was deeper.  The wave of dogs rushed into it, through the stream, flowed up the other side, and ran on. 

Then they began to mill in confusion.  Their exuberant baying gave way to panting and whines of frustration.  They’d received a check.  They cast for the lost line but failed to find it.  Mister Murray turned the hunt back down the mountainside.  Everyone called his dogs to come along, and we returned to the pastures, hoping to find a fresh line.

Aquila Dhu

Old Whiskers went to ground in his summer lair, a tunnel under the streambank, concealed by vegetation and old tree roots.  Its mouth was half below the water line, upstream from where the hunt had crossed.  His heart beat like a piston gone mad, and his tongue lolled, but only when he heard the noise dying away did he pant aloud.

Robert Bruce Drummond 

We hunters returned to Glenlochie in time to rest, bathe, and dress for dinner late in the afternoon.  I’d learned the custom of trimming a Christmas tree from my downriver connections and brought it to Glenlochie to delight my little sons.  After dinner, the company gathered in the parlor.  The ladies cut intricate ornaments from colored or gilt paper in the shape of stars or angels or snowflakes or fantastic birds and animals, and the special Star of Bethlehem to crown the top.  Children strung dried berries, popcorn, and little pine cones to make garlands.  We men set up the tree and attached small candles firmly to the ends of the branches.  After all the trimmings were in place and the candles lighted, the ladies pronounced the tree perfect.  A lady from downriver played the pianoforte and her husband, the violin.  The company sang carols and Christmas hymns and told stories the rest of the evening.

Dominie Gilchrist

On Christmas Day, every pew in the Kirk was crammed with the congregation and their guests.  I never tire of proclaiming God’s gifts of mercy and forgiveness and salvation in the person of his Son.  Each year, I pray for and receive a new and life-giving message to inspire the hearts of my congregation, and to enable them to realize the glory and magnitude of such a blessing.  Self forgotten, becoming but the channel through whom God poured his offering of love, I spoke the inspired words with elegance that satisfied the intellectuals and simplicity that reached even the children’s minds.  I was assured that all my hearers’ spirits were filled with the holy joy of their Saviour and Lord, because, as they bade each other farewell and Merry Christmas before turning homeward, they told me and each other it was their best Christmas gift.

Robert Bruce Drummond

Blessed with a message they could understand and which filled and delighted their hearts, Aidan and Nannie, Torquil and Douglas, the most spiritually inclined among the children, rehearsed it all the way home.  But they were quick to get excited about the other pleasures of the day. 

The dining table held such an array of ham and turkey, duck and venison, chicken and goose, along with butter, preserves, and relishes, that there was scarcely room for the plates, glassware, and silver.  Candles glowed for cheer as well as light, and the centerpiece was the Christmas fruitcake arranged on a three-tiered serving platter.  On the sideboard were heaping dishes of vegetables.  These and trays of hot bread freshly sliced were served around by Mrs. Grieg’s helpers.  The serving table held mincemeat, pumpkin, and fruit pies, custards, and, at each end, a plate of little cakes piled in the shape of a cone.  I invited Aidan Mor to ask the blessing.

Torquil 

We children were glad he didn’t ask it at great length, because the savory and sweet aromas had set their mouths to watering.  We had to make the delightful choice between eating only a bite of all the foods, or big servings of our favorites, before we got too full to hold it all and still have room for sweets.  We boys tried to do both, with the result that we fell asleep wherever we stopped afterward.  We drowsed onto chairs or the floor or our beds.  Aidan was siezed with slumber halfway up the front stairs.

Robert Bruce Drummond 

Others of the company also took naps, gentlemen went into the porch to enjoy cigars or pipes, and some put on coats or wraps for a stroll outdoors.  The chess board was set forth in the library.  We discussed Dominie Gilchrist’s sermon or the latest news from Tidewater cities.  A number of the ladies went into the parlor, closed the doors, and arranged crackers, small toys, oranges, and little bags of treats on the Christmas tree for the children before they settled to an evening’s conversation.  They emerged in time for the light supper served an hour or so after full dark.

Then the candles on the Christmas tree were lighted and the doors were opened between parlor and dining room. The children burst in, slowed when their mothers caught their eyes, and were invited to receive their presents by turns.  They had shared in blessing and good things all day long, but these were their very own and treasured accordingly.      

 The children went outside to light their crackers and hollow for fun at each sharp little explosion.  We men joined them to set off larger crackers and torpedos in the drive, and all who had them shot guns to magnify the celebration.  We heard the same loud reports and saw the flares from Mount Murray, and more came from down the glen toward the Court House.  Christ is born!  Abercairn rejoiced

.         

One Christmastide stood out among the rest, as the Christmas before the worst snowstorm in living memory.  It began on the nineteenth of January in 1857, and drifts piled up ten to twenty-five feet deep before it ended.  When it showed no signs of abating, we farmers and our hired men labored long into the night to drive our sheep and cattle to shelter.  We returned frozen and exhausted.  Douglas and Torquil brought in the poultry, milch cows, pigs, and other barnyard animals.  Grieg stretched ropes between the house, stables, and barn for guide lines in the blinding, blowing snow, and we waited out the weather.  School didn’t go in, Court didn’t meet, and only those who lived at the Court House were able to get to Kirk.  Everyone was glad the storm had held off till after the round of visiting between houses during Christmas was completed, and the guests safely returned home.    

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