Friday, 21 September 2007

Each quarter day we paid our dues

A Poem about the Clearances by a real master of words

Each quarter day we paid our dues [given title, 20 September 2007]

The Quarter Day

Sellar, Young and Loch were canny lawyers;
Writ and assignation were their powers.
Each quarter-day they took the rents, and woe
Betide all those that could not pay full due.

All three were the Duke of Sutherland’s men;
And through Helmsdale and Strathnaver ran
The promise that they swore their lord to keep:
To clear the clanns and turn the land to sheep.

They did their work. They cleared it inch and strath,
And felled all opposition to their swath.
Burning roofs and breaking walls they came
To make the clanns forget ’twas ever hame.

The dispossessed were cast into the cold:
Man and wife and weans, the sick and the old.
Their ministers told them it was God’s will,
Then dined with the lawyers, and took good fill.

Many and many walked with burden cruel
The destitution road to Ullapool,
And took the ships that packed across the sea
To foreign lands and foreign destiny.

Sellar, Young and Loch grew rich and thrived
On sheep that roamed in glens where once men lived.
They raised a glass, a bumper to success
In a country they’d filled with emptiness.

But now the sun has set; the day falls dark;
Upon the grand oak door is heard a knock.
The serving-woman comes into the hall
To tell the lawyers who has come to call.

A stranger stands before them, finely clad,
His coat and boots the best that can be had.
“Good sirs, I greet you all this night,” says he,
“For I know tomorrow is quarter-day.

“MacLeod of Kildonan bids me hither,
And glad he’d be to see you all together.
The last he saw you was the quarter-day
When his father pleaded more time to pay.

“His family by you was stripped of land
And cast into the weather out of hand.
Below the glen they watched their houses burn,
And thence were driven, never to return.

“A weary road they travelled to its ends;
Cold and hunger were their only friends;
Until at last a sombre ship they found
To part forever from their native ground.

“But all’s not lost: dark clouds are silver-lined
And fickle Providence may turn out kind.
America’s where MacLeod has made his hame
And prospers there to fortune and to fame.

“In consequence of which, he bids to you
This purse of gold, which now I lay in view;
And further bids me, gentlemen, to say
He clears his debt to you this quarter-day.”

Loch looks to Young, Young to Sellar the same,
All three wondering what’s the stranger’s game.
Good lawyers are not so easily caught:
They know that payment seldom comes unfraught.

Says Loch, “If MacLeod has paid in full grace,
The Duke may deign to give him back his place.
Which being so, we’ll take the money here
And you may tell MacLeod all debts are clear.”

“Not so,” says the stranger. “There is a fee
That you must pay this quarter-day to me.
Look not startled. Sit, whilst I enlarge
The case to you, and then you’ll know the charge.

“The young MacLeod now lives content at last,
And for himself all bitterness is past.
But his father was broken unto death
And left a curse upon his dying breath.

His gentle mother died in like despair;
His sisters, from disease and want of care.
Payment for these souls, gentlemen, is due,
And that’s the charge that now I lay on you.

“You need not stir. I’ll hear no argument,
Nor is there need to sign a document.
Your warrant is your breath; and that I’ll draw
Until the hour you breathe it nevermore.”

The stranger smiles; and now they see his coat
Unbutton all the way from skirt to throat;
And in its folds, the lawyers freeze to see
Their souls enmembered and entombed, all three.

The stranger has gone; the hall is dark and still;
The fires die, leaving a graveyard chill.
The lawyers sit as dead men, faces grey,
To meet the dawn of their last quarter-day.

Ailean MacGlas
20 September 2007

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