A Scottish Story with Shortbread
Join us during Welcome Week to discuss a Scottish short story written by a North East writer!
The Scottish Snow Child
By Roger Meachem
Welcome Week event with author - live here (passcode P1%jk13)
January 2020 Wellington New Zealand.
They met me off the plane, my sister Annie quiet and grim, her husband loud and angry.
‘How is Jill?’ I asked.
Peter ignored my question, continuing the rant that my journey from Aberdeen had interrupted: His daughter hurting, his daughter refusing to speak, hardly eating, ignoring her parents, her friends. What had happened in Scotland? There’d better be an explanation.
I didn’t know if I could, but I’d try, once I was able to get a word in edgeways. I began, standing there in the arrivals area and finished sitting down in one of the airport pubs, clutching a beer. Peter had listened without comment, and he stayed silent now. Annie had been examining the envelope and its contents that I’d dropped into her hands. She spoke quietly, ‘This can’t be true.’
December 2019, Aberdeen, Scotland.
I watched Jill, my twenty-five-year-old niece, eat as though she'd been starved for weeks. She reminded me of her mother; she had Annie’s genius for untidiness. Severe weather had delayed things on the film location where she had a temporary job. I asked if she was now thinking of going into film work.
‘Uncle Iain, I’m just a props-runner on the Rannoch Moor set. This job is an opportunity to get enough money to travel. Oh! And get to see more of Scotland while I’m here.’ She gulped more food down and added, belatedly I thought, ‘And see you of course!’ Reaching across the kitchen table – already strewn with her things, she began to dig in the pockets of a padded coat. Out came sweets, tissues, lip balm, hand warmers and finally a scrappy leaflet. It showed a young girl dressed in a tartan shawl running in a bleak landscape along a snowy path. She was holding up some kind of metal basin. A bold title ran across the top of the leaflet: The story of the Scottish Snow Child. And under the picture: 150 years. Film release expected Winter 2020.
The title pulled at the edge of my memory, but I gave up. ‘This film, it’s a fantasy story then?’
‘No!’ Jill’s face expressed indignation, 'It takes a New Zealander to tell you your country's history? The Snow Child.’ A pause while she searched my face for any sign of recall, then, ‘The young Clearances girl, Effie Gunn, the one who died on Rannoch Moor?’
She told me the story between slurps of soup. The Gunn family were amongst the last victims of the Scottish Clearances - pushed out from Caithness clear across to Aberdeenshire in the late 1850s - Barras and Jane Gunn with a toddler, Effie. Jane Gunn died during the trek, and Barras carried his daughter from place to place seeking work. They might have ended in Glasgow, or set off for America, Australia or Canada. But Barras had schooling and initiative so managed to apprentice himself to a Chain-Man, one of the government surveyors - map-makers.
In December 1870 he and Effie were living on Rannoch Moor. Barras, now a Chain-Man in his own right was away from home for days at a stretch helping survey for the Highland Railway line. Effie stayed in one of the barely habitable Black Houses that littered the desolate moor. The fire was everything in these stone and turf buildings. It burnt peat and gave you some warmth, the facility to cook and a lot of smoke. You could recognise a Black-House family by their red eyes.
One afternoon, three days before Christmas, Effie discovered that their fire was out. Her father would be home that night, needing warmth and food, so the eleven-year-old girl took a wash pan, a lid-less tin bowl, and ran three miles under a snow-filled sky to their nearest neighbour to beg for pieces of smouldering peat.
The rest of the story is simple. The youngster got her peat, began the run back home clutching the hot pan to herself and was overtaken by a blizzard. They found her on Christmas Day, a hundred yards off the path, kneeling, covering the cold tin with her shawl, frozen to death.
Where they buried Effie isn’t recorded, but within a week Barras headed for Glasgow and a ship to the New World. His surveying skills were valuable in the post-Civil-War States, and he first became rich then genuinely wealthy. He spent a great deal of money keeping the memory of the crime of the Scottish Clearances alive through statues, and grants of money to colleges - to ensure that the evil would never be forgotten. There were no statues of Effie in Scotland; Gunn wouldn't spend a penny of his money in Britain, but some admirer had paid for a statue to be erected in London, and Effie now ran with her peat-filled pan across a leafy West-End square.
A century-and-a-half later, the Gunn Corporation still promoted the tale - this time with a proposed blockbuster film. They’d broken with tradition, deciding that for the sake of historical accuracy it would be filmed on Rannoch Moor itself.
Jill got a call to return to Rannoch one Monday a week before Christmas. She set off in a panic to get through the Grampian hills while there was still light, forgetting her phone. I had no idea when to expect her back and was surprised out of my bed a couple of days later by midnight banging on the bolted front door. She was standing there, dishevelled, her coat dirty and damp. At first, she was incoherent, but tea laced with a little whisky calmed her.
It’d been a typical day on the set she said. She’d been assigned the young actress who played the part of Effie to watch over – fetch hot drinks, sandwiches, a change of tights. The ground was inches deep in snow and the girl - Effie, barely a teen, had to run in wooden clogs.
The Director was delighted – real snow! A threatening sky. He’d save a fortune on special effects. When the time came for ‘Effie’s Run’ as the sequence was titled, the temperature dropped another few degrees, but they decided to go ahead and shoot anyway.
The first few takes took longer than expected. For one thing, they’d got real, smoking peat in the pan and it grew too hot. Mitts were provided. But the biggest problem was the wind whipping across the moor and causing cameras to wobble. One last try was attempted in fading light. Jill had been helping the girl change clothes by the side of the track to save time, and now she hid behind snowdrifts to get out of view. She watched the youngster running, carrying her precious load and then saw her disappear in a flurry of snow. It seemed as if the clouds had been slashed open by the lightning that was striking all too close.
My niece told me that she had run to the actress and scooped her up. The tin had fallen, and the youngster screamed at its loss. Actors! Thought Jill, and collected the hot container one-handed before running for the crew huts and shelter.
She couldn’t find the huts. The snow was swirling thickly but not so thick that the accommodation, ranged alongside the path could be missed. Jill wondered whether she’d become disorientated and run the wrong way – but she’s an outdoors-girl, used to mountain weather; the snow had been driving from the North, the path lay North-South; with the wind behind her she knew she was heading in the right direction, but the huts weren’t there.
The young girl in her arms was shivering and beginning to cry. She wasn’t as heavy as Jill had expected, but still, she couldn't be carried for much longer, and both of them were being soaked and frozen by the sleety snow. It was then that Jill saw the Black-House.
The Director had used a restored ruin as the Gunn family’s home. The roof wasn't right, but the proportions were, and CGI would do the rest. It was no-where near where Jill expected, but at this point, she would have been grateful for a tent. She rushed into the building, and the girl in her arms struggled free, took possession of the tin and then stood as if in shock. Jill must have looked equally shocked because the rescued child wasn't the young actress. The dominant thought in her mind now was that a child was still out there in the snow. She flew out of the house and hurried back along the track.
Cold or shock must have affected her. She didn't attempt to find the film-crew but became obsessed with finding the child. Experience should have forbidden her to do what she now did. She left the path. When my niece finally gave up the search and attempted to retrace her steps she had no idea where she was. She did recognise the dangerously cold condition she was in, and a part of her brain told her to head to where she would find the West Highland Railway tracks and an emergency phone. Praying that the wind direction hadn't changed, Jill turned East.
As luck would have it, she found the unmanned Station at Corrour and used the phone there. Railway police came along in the next train to meet her.
They'd reacted as any police would hearing of a child missing in the snow. Mountain Rescue was alerted, and Jill gently probed for any information she could give. But things didn’t add up. There was no film company making a film in the middle of winter on Rannoch Moor. None that the authorities knew of. None with any permission. The phone numbers Jill gave were all bogus, non-existent. Even the story of the Snow Child which my niece knew almost by heart wasn’t known to the police, and internet searches showed no history of any Scottish Snow Child. Jill was detained and taken to a hospital where an overnight stay was advised, or perhaps commanded, but my niece, who had ridden with the police compliantly on the train to Perth jumped ship so to speak. Using just about all the cash she had on her, she headed by taxi for Aberdeen. She hadn't told anyone about where she was staying, so we had a few hours before she was tracked via calls to New Zealand – the police had her passport.
The authorities were kind, concerned for her, anxious it seemed that she be examined by a doctor and at least given something to help her sleep, but Jill wasn’t cooperative, and in the end, she was left in my care. She didn’t appear to be suicidal, no-one was hurt, but I was asked if I knew whether she used any stimulants? In my innocence, I asked, 'Coffee?’
‘Drugs!’ said a police officer young enough in my eyes to be a schoolboy.
The day after Christmas, I saw her off on the first stage of her journey back to New Zealand. She was barely talking to me by then. She'd overheard my call to her mother and knew that I doubted her sanity.
‘You think I’m lying or crazy, don’t you?’
I'd protested, but she looked at me then turned away to board her plane.
It isn't easy even in our world of instant communication to have a reasonable conversation with someone who's eleven time-zones away. Not when that person believes you are somehow responsible for the wreck of a daughter they’d entrusted to your care. All I’d got out of my latest attempt to talk to my sister was a demand that I send Jill’s various possessions – left scattered around my flat – out to Wellington.
I’d picked up the padded coat and thought about getting it cleaned, but that would take a day or two, so it would just have to go mired as it was, wrapped in lots of brown paper. I emptied the pockets of the usual detritus, coins, bits of paper, a sudoku puzzle torn from a newspaper, tickets, an envelope.
I used to collect stamps as a boy, and perhaps that’s why I looked again. Someone had used a good number of small denomination stamps to send Jill a letter from California. It was the two large stamps that caught my eye. They were 49 cent stamps, both franked and bearing an image of a statue of a girl, holding a round pan aloft. The legend said: Scottish Snow Child 150 years.
Shaken, I decided to read the letter; perhaps there was something there that would begin to explain this matter. It didn't; it made it worse. The message itself was innocuous, a girl-friend from Wellington, now in Berkeley; she was sending Jill a single page of newsprint dated Dec 18th 2019, from the San Francisco Times. The friend had written: ‘Hope your press is enjoying this as much as ours!’ The headline was huge; Trump resigns on the brink of impeachment. The picture was Donald Trump glaring through a car's side window. I began to look more carefully at the other items I'd found.
I decided that I’d be taking Jill’s effects out to New Zealand myself.
January 2020 Wellington New Zealand.
I had only one opportunity to speak to Jill alone; Peter and Annie guarded her closely. On my last morning, before I returned to Scotland, we met in the garden overlooking Lyall Bay. Jill was looking a little like her old self, and we stood in the bright sunshine watching yachts below us.
'Mum and Dad think it's all some scam I've concocted with Jessie in California. It's possible to create your own stamps in the States, you know.'
‘And Trump certainly hasn’t resigned.’ I added.
‘There is a statue of the Snow Child in London – it’s the same one as on the stamps. Dad showed me a photograph he found online.’
‘I know, but he told me it isn’t called The Scottish Snow Child. He asked someone in London to check it out. It’s just called “Girl carrying water-bowl.” ’
‘So Uncle Iain, am I mad?’
I paused, still debating whether to tell her. 'I don't understand what has happened,' I said, 'But there's more to this than you have told us.' I took her right palm in my hand. A burn mark was still visible there. Then I took the coin from my pocket and placed it in her palm.
‘They’re such funny shapes fifty pence pieces. Aren’t they' She looked at me questioningly.
‘Turn it over,’ I told her. ‘What do you see?’
It was the last piece of evidence that something had happened to her that was beyond any explanation I could fathom. The coin still held that special newly minted shininess. On one side was the usual image of Britannia, but on the other, instead of Elizabeth II, there was a male profile and above it: Charles III. There were no Latin inscriptions, just the year: 2019.
February 2020, Aberdeen, Scotland.
I researched the Gunn family and found a surveyor, Barras Iain Gunn, who died in Inverness in 1901. It took longer for me to trace Effie, but the internet is a wonder, and at last, I found her. She’d lived until just before the Second World War. Her descendants were now living in Aberdeenshire.
I’m thinking of getting in touch – Perhaps Effie told a story to her children and they to theirs of a strange encounter on a snow-swept Rannoch Moor. If so, I'd like to hear it.
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