It was night in the dead of winter, and we sat around the fire that burned in red and blue flames on the wide open hearth. The blue flames were a sign of storm.
The snow was white on the ground that stretched away from the door of my father's house, down the dip of the brae and over the hill that rose on the other side of the glen. I had just been standing out by the little hillock that rose near the corner of the home gable-end, watching the glen people place their lamps in the window corners. I loved to see the lights come out one by one until every house was lighted up. Nothing looks so cheerful as a lamp seen through the darkness.
On the other side of the valley a mountain stream tumbled down to the river. It was always crying out at night and the wail in its voice could be heard ever so far away. It seemed to be lamenting over something which it had lost. I always thought of women dreeing over a dead body when I listened to it. It seemed so strange to me, too, that it should keep coming down and down for ever.
The hills surrounding the glen were very high; the old people said that there were higher hills beyond them, but this I found very hard to believe.
These were the thoughts in my mind as I entered my home and closed the door behind me. From the inside I could see the half-moon, twisted like a cow's horn, shining through the window.
"It will be a wet month this," said my father. "There are blue flames in the fire, and a hanging moon never keeps in rain."
The wind was moaning over the chimney. By staying very quiet one could hear the wail in its voice, and it was like that of the stream on the far side of the glen. A pot of potatoes hung over the fire, and as the water bubbled and sang the potatoes could be seen bursting their jackets beneath the lid. The dog lay beside the hearthstone, his nose thrust well over his forepaws, threaping to be asleep, but ready to open his eyes at the least little sound. Maybe he was listening to the song of the pot, for most dogs like to hear it. An oil lamp swung by a string from the roof-tree backwards and forwards like a willow branch when the wind of October is high. As it swung the shadows chased each other in the silence of the farther corners of the house. My mother said that if we were bad children the shadows would run away with us, but they never did, and indeed we were often full of all sorts of mischief. We felt afraid of the shadows, they even frightened mother. But father was afraid of nothing. Once he came from Ardara fair on the Night of the Dead and passed the graveyard at midnight.
Sometimes my mother would tell a story, and it was always about the wee red-headed man who had a herd of goats before him and a herd of goats behind him, and a salmon tied to the laces of his brogues for supper. I have now forgotten all the great things which he went through, but in those days I always thought the story of the wee red-headed man the most wonderful one in all the world. At that time I had never heard another.
For supper we had potatoes and buttermilk. The potatoes were emptied into a large wicker basket round which we children sat with a large bowl of buttermilk between us, and out of this bowl we drank in turn. Usually the milk was consumed quickly, and afterwards we ate the potatoes dry.
Nearly every second year the potatoes went bad; then we were always hungry, although Farley McKeown, a rich merchant in the neighbouring village, let my father have a great many bags of Indian meal on credit. A bag contained sixteen stone of meal and cost a shilling a stone. On the bag of meal Farley McKeown charged sixpence a month interest; and fourpence a month on a sack of flour which cost twelve shillings. All the people round about were very honest, and paid up their debts whenever they were able. Usually when the young went off to Scotland or England they sent home money to their fathers and mothers, and with this money the parents paid for the meal to Farley McKeown. "What doesn't go to the landlord goes to Farley McKeown," was a Glenmornan saying.
The merchant was a great friend of the parish priest, who always told the people if they did not pay their debts they would burn for ever and ever in hell. "The fires of eternity will make you sorry for the debts that you did not pay," said the priest. "What is eternity?" he would ask in a solemn voice from the altar steps. "If a man tried to count the sands on the sea-shore and took a million years to count every single grain, how long would it take him to count them all? A long time, you'll say. But that time is nothing to eternity. Just think of it! Burning in hell while a man, taking a million years to count a grain of sand, counts all the sand on the sea-shore. And this because you did not pay Farley McKeown his lawful debts, his lawful debts within the letter of the law." That concluding phrase "within the letter of the law" struck terror into all who listened, and no one, maybe not even the priest himself, knew what it meant.