For Duncan and Hughie MacLeod, summers in Glencoe weren’t all about play. One day they were sent to help old Mr. MacDonald down the road. The old man was part of a large family known locally as the Bornish MacDonalds, to distinguish them from all the other MacDonalds, who were (and still are) legion in Cape Breton. (There are lots of MacDonalds in my family tree. When I was a kid, there were 12 pages of MacDonalds in the phone book, and that was just my town.) The boys thought they were in for a fun day, because the old man was blind.
“Watch out!” said the MacGillivray boys, John and Hughie, as Duncan and Hughie were walking to the old man’s place. “Whatever you do, don’t eat his biscuits.”
“Why not?” asked Duncan.
“Because the old man chews tobacco all day,” said one of them, “and he spits it in his hands because he can’t see the pot. Those are the hands he makes the biscuits with. I’m telling you, don’t eat them!”
Duncan and Hughie were thoroughly disgusted by the very thought of biscuits mixed with spit and chewing tobacco. Their faces were still all knotted up when they arrived at the old man’s house.
“Co thusa?” asked the old man in Gaelic in response to Duncan’s knocking. He was looking out over their heads, until Duncan spoke.
“Duncan and Hughie MacLeod, sir. We’re…”
“Ah yes, yes. The MacLeod boys. You’re the ones who walked up the mountain at night. Hah! Isn’t that something? Come in!”
The boys weren’t surprised that the old man already knew about them. Not just because everyone in the area had already heard the story of their arrival, but also because the old man had what people called the second sight. People often went to him for advice on various matters. He was also the local authority on the genealogies of the various families in the area. When young couples wanted to marry, they’d go to him first, to see if they were related and, if they were, how closely.
The old man’s sons, Angus and Colin, weren’t around that day. My grandfather remembers Angus for his giant eyebrows, and Colin for the fact that he was constantly clearing his throat really loudly but never spit anything out. On this particular day, it was just Duncan, Hughie, and the old man.
The boys did some work out in the yard for the old man, and had a little fun with him too. “Oh, look at that beautiful buck out in the yard,” they said to him, describing in great detail a majestic animal that was in fact not there. The old man loved the boys’ description of the buck, and seemed to be buying it, even though they came close to cracking up with every detail they added.
Finally, after the boys had completed their work out in the yard and around the house, the old man called them inside and had them sit at the table. “Now,” he said, “let me give you something to eat.”
Duncan and Hughie shot each other the same look. “Oh no,” Duncan said, “we’re fine. Really, we should be go—”
“Oh go on,” said the old man. “Just a little something. Here, have some biscuits.”
There they were. Before Duncan and Hughie could say another word, there was a tray of tea biscuits on the table before them. The old man gave each boy a small plate and put two or three of the biscuits on each plate.
Hughie was sitting close to an open window, so he quickly tossed his biscuits outside. Duncan, at the other side of the table, was about to do the same, when the old man grabbed his hand.
“Oh, having another one are you? That’s a good boy.” Then he felt his way over to Hughie and ran his hands over the empty plate, and Hughie’s empty hands. “Gone already! Oh, you like my biscuits, do you? I made them myself!” He took another biscuit from the tray and put it into Hughie’s hand. “Here you go, have one more.”
With the old man standing over him, breathing on him, those brown, knotted hands mere inches away from his face, Hughie had no choice: he ate the biscuit. Duncan grimaced and looked away. He didn’t want to be next, so he put one biscuit into his pocket, and left the other one on the plate. When the old man came back and felt the plate, Duncan said, “I’m quite full. But your biscuits are delicious.” By this time, Hughie’s face was a disturbing shade of green.
The boys had only managed to get a few steps out of the yard when Hughie threw up. He was still wiping strings of puke-coloured drool from his mouth when the boys came to the MacGillivrays’ house. The MacGillivray boys were out front, with their dog.
“Jesus, you ate the old man’s biscuits, didn’t you!”
“Hughie had to eat one,” Duncan laughed, “but not me.” With that, he pulled the biscuit out of his pocket and held it aloft. Hughie threw up again as Duncan examined the vile thing in his hand. Shaking his head, Duncan tossed the biscuit in the direction of the MacGillivray boys’ dog.
No sooner had the biscuit hit the ground than John MacGillivray lunged and kicked it away.
“Are you crazy?! he screamed. “Don’t give that to the dog!”
Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod is a series of posts on my MacLeod ancestors, based on a combination of research and stories told to me by my grandfather, Duncan MacLeod. To read other posts in the series, click here.