School of doughtiness
The Scots have a reputation for relishing the macabre and most children, not only Scottish ones, share this relish. In childhood my brother and sister and I wove into our Lowland country landscape a vast lore of the uncanny. In the surrounding woods and fields we mapped certain haunted places to be approached on tiptoe. We had an intense feeling for the old Celtic festivals, for ballads and Scots words. For us crows were huddy craws, bats baikie birds, owls hoolets and foxgloves bluidy fingers. We loved larksong but were obsessed by the mournful wail of whaups and peesweeps.
My brother was always thinking up exploits that put our courage to the test. ''We'll go past the twittering birks at twilight,'' he would say. ''Bags, you lead the way,'' my sister and I, never brave, would reply. Mysterious whimperings came from the aspens, known locally as twittering birks, the leaves quivered like spirits in the half-light. ''Bags, we leave now!'' we would exclaim, taking to our heels. Running home over the heathery moorlands, we would hear the mating cry of a fox or come on weasels skipping in their fantastic dances that cast spells on rabbits and on us too. All nature at that hour was filled with a dark sorcery.
We were drawn to abandoned barns and steadings by that strange mixture of attraction and fear. Once we found a broken windowpane in the deserted Thriepwood Farm. ''Bags, you go first,'' ne said to our brother, climbing in after him, trembling with excitement at our bravery. He whispered that he felt bar-ghaists hovering around us, and our terror at these white spectres sent us scurrying back into the farmyard. There, regaining our courage, we called ''Baudrons!'' to the cat that had gone wild. The echo whined back ''Bau-drons!'' , the wind soughed through the empty barns, a daytime hoolet called and our dog's hackles rose. ''Bags, we go now!'' and we darted down the farm lane, homewards.
Sometimes we read favourite stories in the spooky setting of the blueberry woods - Scott's ''Wandering Willie's Tale,'' Stevenson's ''Thrawn Janet'' or the tale of ''Tod Lapraik,'' the warlock on the Bass Rock. The thought of Thrawn Janet being sib to the deil sent icy shivers down our spines. Tod Lapraik in a dwam, ''sitting on his doup, smiling like creish'' gart us scunner - put us right off - as it did Stevenson's narrator. The rustling woods around us would become so eerily oppressive that we sensed eyes watching us. Afraid that they might belong to the wee men, the drinkers of heather ale, who would steal us away for evermore, we would snatch up our books and run like the wind.
A family of tinkers wandered our country lanes, leering at us and mouthing strange songs. The tramp we called Auld Gowkie wore a tartan tammy and moved with a crab-like scuttle. He would shake his fist at us, shouting ''I'll gie you'se three a baisting!'' if we dared snigger at his caperings. He delivered this threat with such a gurgling croak that, in spite of ourselves, we got him to repeat it over and over by shouting back at him, ''You'll never baist us!'' before we fled.
We marked the passage of the seasons with secret celebrations of the old festivals of Candlemas, Lammas, Beltane and Hallowmas. When at Hallowe'en, decked out in chimney hats and claw-hammer coats, we swaggered down the village street with turnip lanterns, we never forgot a furtive backward glance.
For Beltane we lit a need-fire in a circle of stones, giving shrieks of mingled delight and fear as we leapt over the flames. We had a strong belief that we were about to receive some weird and wonderful revelation of May-day. We would stand under the night sky beside the dying flames, and for a moment we had the awesome and mystical sensation of the universe wheeling about us, with ourselves part of the infinite mystery of things.
Perhaps those early brushes with danger, that playing with fire, were a half-conscious preparation for the real thing, for the sterner stuff of adult life when the frightful fiand on the lonesome road has to be faced, with no longer the possibility of ''Bags, not go! Bags, not look!'' Perhaps, too, in our attempts to screw our courage to the sticking place we even learned to acquire a little.