Tag Archives: Michael Bloor

The Visionary Librarian

By Michael Bloor

January 1st, 1781

I do not fully know my reasons for setting down this record of past events. I have studied the works my great contemporary, David Hume, and I therefore no longer cleave to the kirk and to the faith of my fathers. Yet the purging of what others call my soul, penitence, and the striving for a moral life, they all remain a habit with me. Furthermore, I have a strong presentiment that I shall not live out this winter. These days of bitter chill may be my last opportunity to reveal my hidden crime and to state my case, not to the Maker in whom I no longer believe, but perhaps to my better self – the self who always seeks but never finds, who can carefully shape a principle but cannot always live by it. If others should find this manuscript after I am dust, may they read it and know that even a puir body can try to do his duty.

I have taught the school in the parish of Inverallan for thirty seven years and I trust I have discharged that duty honourably, though no Inverallan weaver’s or ploughman’s bairn has joined the ranks of David Hume, Adam Smith, William Robertson, and William Fergusson – the Philosopher-Kings of Scotland and all Europe. However, the Inverallan dominie has a further duty yet – a duty greater, I believe, than that of schooling the Inverallan bairns – I refer to my duty as Keeper of the Books. A hundred years since, the Inverallan laird bequeathed his library of two hundred volumes (together with a respectable sum for their upkeep) as a free library to all men and women who wished to borrow them. When the old minister, Mr MacKellar, informed me of my appointment and showed me the library that was to be in my charge, I could conceive of no duty under the sun that could be more pleasurable. I was not to ken then the rue that would come to me.

In the early years of my charge, Inverallan and the surrounding parishes were in a sorry state. The laird had declared for Prince Charles Stuart, and when the laird is for a cause then the tenants have little choice but to follow. Two score of men had marched off with the laird, my elder brother Alexander among them. Only three lads limped home. At first, we had good news of Alexander. It seemed that he had distinguished himself in the field at Preston Pans and, when the laird fell ill and was left behind in Edinburgh, Alexander took charge of the laird’s men on the march into England. On the retreat from Derby, Alexander was detailed to be part of the garrison the Prince left in Carlisle. After that we heard nothing. Cumberland’s army marched through our parish on their way to Culloden: they fired the laird’s castle and drove off all our cattle and our remaining horses.

It was in February 1752, a time of want and bitter cold, that I had more news. In the late evening there was a tapping at my window, but the pane was so frosted over that I could not see out. I took up my lantern and opened the door. A tall figure, muffled in a cloak stood before me. There was a bright moon, but his face was shadowed by his hat.

‘They tell me our parents are both dead.’ It was Alexander. I dropped the lantern; we embraced.

I fed him some porridge and spirits and studied him as he ate and drank. To my surprise, he seemed hardly changed, for all his seven-year absence. Only his rich, travel-stained clothes spoke of a difference. He told me bits and pieces of his story: it seemed that in the ’45 several men had died at his hands; more recently, he been in France in the service of the Stuarts, but Scots were no longer welcome there; he had used the last of his money to pay the ‘freetraders’ (as our smugglers are commonly called) to land him near Kirkcaldy; he had travelled to Inverallan only by night, there being a price on his head. But rather than talk over-much about himself, he had the charming ability to draw out the talk of others:

‘Well, Jamie lad, you’re quite the scholar now. I see on the table that “Lock’s Works” is your present study eh?’

‘Philosophy is only one of the subjects to be found in The Free Library, Sandy. There are books on geography, history, theology, and mathematics, translations of Ovid and Virgil, maps, collections of sermons…’

‘Yon is a strange conceit, is it not? to make a pile of your books, some of them doubtless worth a year of our faither’s labour. And then offer them up to any passin’ ploughboy that has a fancy for them?’

‘Each ploughboy, as you put it, must sign for each volume that he borrows. But Sandy, I don’t think you’ve grasped the wonder of the thing. They come here from their fermtouns and weavers’ cottages, limbs stiff after a hard day’s labour, walking miles through the sleet and the glaur. They carry back with them Shakespeare’s Sonnets to read by the ill light of their cruisie lamps. And that is their taste of Rhenish wine and honey cakes, their bed of goose down, their transport to Samarkand. With a book in his chapped hand, every ploughboy is an equal of the Duke of Argyll and the Marquis of Breadalbane. This free library is a growing light in a dark world, Sandy.’

‘Pish, Jamie. Your ploughboy is a duke’s equal (mention not that damned Argyll to me) in the alehouse, wi’ a tankard in his hand and a maid on his knee. What need of books, when you’ve left the schoolroom?’

In my eagerness to convince Alexander, I fetched the Borrower’s Register to show him. As he turned the pages, he murmured: ‘Well, well, Andra Comrie borrows Abercrombie’s Sermons. I thought him dead on the field at Falkirk.’

Seizing on this sign of interest, I lent over his shoulder to point out one of old Peter Reid’s borrowings. Alexander frowned: ‘I never marked Auld Peter as a scholar, Jamie. Does he have a daughter or a granddaughter who would read to him?’

‘He died last Lammas, Sandy and he’d lived alone up at Loanhead these four years. It’s my guess that the old man sought and loved the nearness of books. Perhaps his was the delight of the adventurer who trembles at the threshold of the treasure chamber…’

Alexander snorted, but I persisted – a man who lives too much alone with his thoughts: ‘I fancy that old Peter’s pleasure in his borrowings is like my pleasure in this library. I am surrounded by more books than I can ever read, surrounded by more knowledge than I can ever glean, more wisdom than I can guess at. Surrounded thus, I’m not daunted, I tremble with pleasure.’

I paused, embarrassed. Alexander gave me a long look and spoke softly: ‘Jamie, I have need to borrow a pile of your books… Indefinitely.’ I stared. ‘There’s a bounty on my head. I know of a vessel at the Broomielaw in Glasgow that will carry me to a new life in the Carolinas. For a price. Your books are as good as ready currency.’

My elder brother faded before my eyes and a simulacrum took his place. The brawling spirited lad I had idolised, and run after, was vanished like snow off a dyke. I recalled my mother’s sorrowing judgement: that Alexander was like a cherry, sweet to taste but with a stone at his centre. Before me was the callous gallant who had left his parents to fret and go to their graves thinking him dead on a battlefield, who had fawned and intrigued for place and favour in foreign courts, and who had only returned briefly to his native Scotland to profit from, and ruin, his brother’s position of trust. Worst yet, he would pillage the free library – the library that is, and should remain, a hope and consolation in a wretched world.

Every schoolroom is a stage for the dominie to strut and strike a pose. It was now my turn to dissemble and fall in with Alexander’s plans. We made up his bed, despite his faint protestations (‘I’m an old campaigner, Jamie – the heather has oft times been bed enough for me’) and fixed that he would stay hidden with me the next day, departing in the dusk with his booty of sixteen books (more than he needed for his fare, I’ll warrant).

That next day, I watched him take the less-frequented moorland road. I marvelled at how he hardly bent his back, shouldering the coarse linen sack of books. When he was past the castle ruins, I grabbed my hat and walked over to the manse, to beg the loan of the minister’s mare (I was still a communicant in those days and a member of the kirk session). I then took the military road to Stirling. I had slow progress over the half-frozen snow and dawn was breaking when I reached Stirling Brig. Mares’ tails of mist were twisting over the River Forth, which Alexander had to cross to gain the Glasgow road. I had the Brig sentry call up the Sheriff’s Officer, an old pupil of mine, to whom (in confidence) I told my tale.

After resting the horse, I turned for home and only heard the end of the story a week later. Samuel Haldane, the Sheriff’s Officer, came by to return the linen bag of books. I sat him down at the fireside and poured him a glass. He told me that Alexander, as he’d surmised, had been too canny to try to cross the brig: Haldane had put a concealed watch on the upstream ford and his men had taken Alexander there by surprise. However, as the party were marching back to Stirling, Alexander had slashed at one man with a concealed dirk, broken away and ran for the river. Whether the pursuers’ musketry had been successful, or the cold of the river had overcome Alexander, Haldane was unable to say, but Alexander’s body was seen to be borne away by the current, down to the sea.

Haldane could see that his news had pierced me. He rose and laid a hand on my shoulder: ‘Mr Robertson, your brother Alexander was well-kent in all this countryside from Stirling to Crieff, even before The Rebellion. He was too wild a man for these New Times.’

Though Haldane’s words were some comfort to me, mine is nevertheless the sin of Cain. But I did not commit fratricide merely to repossess a bag of books. Rather, I would claim that I sinned for a great principle, the principle of free knowledge. I have served that principle (not always constantly, but as best I can) for thirty seven years. And, if I could still pray, I would pray that the light of Inverallan library would shine out across all Scotland and the whole wide world.

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Michael Bloor is a retired sociologist living in Dunblane, Scotland, who has recently discovered the exhilarations of short fiction. This story was written as an homage to the wonderful Innerpeffray Library, founded as a free library in 1680s.

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Shakespeare Meets the Macbeths

By Michael Bloor

In 1601, James VI of Scotland (soon to be crowned James I of England) summoned Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chancellor’s Men, to give performances of their plays in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In Aberdeen at least, the visit seems to have been highly successful: on October 9th, the registers of the Town Council show that the company were awarded ‘the svme of threttie tua merkis’ and Laurence Fletcher, a shareholder in the company, was elected an honorary burgess of the town. It is not known for certain whether Shakespeare was with the company, but as a shareholder and owner of the company’s stage properties, it seems quite likely that he travelled North with the rest.

 

Three days out from the Port of Leith, the Barbara Anne, rounded Girdleness: Aberdeen at last hove into view. Shakespeare, Fletcher and Burbage left the shelter of the forecastle to stand in the bows and study their destination. Burbage shivered:

‘What place is this that you have brought us to, Laurence? Ultima Thule? ‘Tis even colder than Edinburgh. A mean place too, it seems.’

Fletcher sighed: ‘Yours is a strange fancy, Dick – that, because I was born in Scotland, I am responsible for the Scottish weather. But Aberdeen is no mean city. Indeed, the merchants’ houses are very fine. I fancy we will find good lodgings in the Guestrow.’

‘Better than you found for us in Edinburgh, I trust. ‘Faith, I tired of having bowls of piss thrown over me every time I stepped into the street. What think you of Aberdeen, Will?’

Shakespeare smiled and shook his head: ‘Why, ‘tis a miracle to come upon humankind at all, after those dreary cliffs and miles of sodden, blasted heath that the good Barbara Anne did carry us safely past this morning. Yon stone church seems a symbol of deliverance, yon fisherman’s cottage – a haven of rest and peace.’

Burbage mimed being run through by a sword: ‘Must you always talk like one of your plays, Will? And pray don’t remind us once more that “All the world’s a stage, and all the people merely players.” There is no genius in repetition. Tell us instead what you crave most to find when we reach Laurence’s fabled lodgings in fine Guestrow.’

Fletcher was quicker off the mark: ‘I’ll tell you what I’m looking forward to in Aberdeen. A bowl of sheepsheid broth – the food of the gods. I travelled here as a child, with my father, and I’ve tasted no finer food since that visit than Mistress Mary’s sheepsheid broth.’

‘As ever, your stomach leads and you follow, Laurence.’ Shakespeare scratched his whispy head of hair: ‘If you seek a serious answer, Dick, I’m looking forward to hearing some new tales.’ He turned back to the forecastle: ‘Now I must see to our baggage. If there are no playhouses here, it’s all the more important that we have our costumes.’

Fletcher looked quizzically at Burbage: ‘New tales, new tales. Surely, Will has given us tales enough?’

‘Tales enough for our present purposes, Laurence. But when we return to London and the Globe, our fickle play-goers will not pay their pennies for tales they’ve heard a dozen times before.’

‘Aye, aye, as you say, there’s no genius in repetition. Will’s new hatchings put food on our table. I fancy he’s broody just now: he’s been studying Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland ever since we left Edinburgh.’

‘I also marked his studies, Laurence. I fancy our broody is hatching us a new history play: the world shall wonder anew at my mastery of character and emotions. But let’s give him a hand with the properties.’

Shortly afterwards, the company were following Laurence Fletcher’s lead towards Guestrow and their hoped-for lodgings. Shakespeare smiled as he caught sight of a couple of sheep’s heads on display at a flesher’s booth. But beyond the flesher’s booth was a bookseller’s. He immediately spotted a copy of Hector Boece’s Scotorum Historiae, so he gave over charge of the stage properties to Will Sly, also telling Will to reserve for him a clean bed at the lodgings.

The bookseller was quickly at Shakespeare’s elbow: ‘You are interested in Principal Boece’s volume, sir? I have more than one copy for sale, but the volume you have is the best preserved.’

‘Indeed sir? You style the author as Principal Boece, why so?’

‘Why so, sire? ‘Tis no mystery: the author was Principal of King’s College here. From your speech, I gather you are an Englishman: do you have an interest in our Scottish history? I also have a fine copy of Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia…’

‘Is that so, I should like to see it. ‘Tis true I have an interest in Scotland’s past. Who would have thought there was so much blood in it: I am both drawn and repelled.’

‘Then, you have done well to visit our town, sire. Much of that blood was spilt about here. There is the field of Red Harlaw, where Provost Davidson and most of the burgesses of the town were slain by Donald, Lord of the Isles, and his wicked Highlanders. And King Macbeth fell at the Peel of Lumphanan, a few miles west of here.’

‘Macbeth you say? Surely, he fell at Dunsinane?’

‘No sire. He was defeated at Dunsinane Hill, but he got away. It was three years later that he died in a battle at Lumphanan. It is said he fell in single combat there with MacDuff, the Earl of Fife.’

‘Say you so, bookseller?’ Shakespeare turned and sniffed the air about him, heavy with the smell of slaughter from the Flesher’s booth. ‘Yet, Dunsinane surely has a ring to it; Lumphanan is a lumpish name for the dooming of a King.’ He addressed the bookseller once more: ‘Tell me, good fellow – what manner of man was this Macbeth? What do the old tales tell of his character?’

‘Sire, he lived in hard times. Macbeth’s father was slain by Macbeth’s cousin. Macbeth trapped his cousin and his entourage in a building and burned them alive. He slew King Duncan in battle. Yet though he lived by the sword, he ruled well and gave thought to the Kingdom to come: he went on a pilgrimage to Rome and gave freely to the Church and to the poor.’

‘A pilgrimage to Rome?? No, no, neither my Queen, nor your King, would applaud that scene, I fancy.’

‘A scene, sire? I do not follow you.’

‘No matter. What of his Queen, bookseller? I have read in Holinshed that she burned with ambition to be Queen.’

‘Perhaps so, sire. Certes it is that Queen Gruoch lived in a world, and at a time, when the path to the throne was slippery with spilt blood. Her grandfather, Kenneth II, was murdered. Macbeth married her after he had burned to death her first husband, his cousin. King Duncan slew Gruoch’s cousin as a rival claimant. Regicide was no uncommon crime to her.’

‘Hmm. Most interesting, bookseller, most interesting. Now, Boece’s volume here – scuffed and foxed, as it is – would you take one of your Scottish half-merks?’

‘The foxing is slight, sire. And the price is two merks.’

‘I see. Good day to you, sire.’

Finding his way to Guestrow a little later, with some difficulty, he is hailed by Burbage: ‘Here is Wandering Will, with new tales to tell of this frowzy, freezing land of sheeps’ heids and grasping lodging-keepers. I know that distracted look of old: what hast thou learned, old friend?’

‘I have learned nothing for certain, but I have surely met with a queer old couple… Here, Will Sly, call you this bed “clean”?’ He continued to stare at the bed for some moments, and then muttered to himself: ‘But regicide is a tricksy tale for the teller. Unless, of course, that heinous and unnatural crime doth drive the slayer to madness and death – that would be a salutary tale indeed. Yet I cannot call her Gruoch – too ugly a name for a tragic Queen. So many problems…’

Fletcher was watching these mutterings with a smile: ‘Faith, Dick, I believe the old hen is laying us a new tale…’

‘Let him be, Laurence, would you have it that the tale be, from the womb, untimely ripped?’

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Michael Bloor is a retired sociologist living in Dunblane, Scotland, who has recently discovered the exhilarations of short fiction, with pieces published in Breve New StoriesInk Sweat & Tears, Fictive Dream, Platform for Prose, Flash Fiction Magazine, the Flash Fiction PressScribble, and Occulum.

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