The water of life *

by Marie Marshall

There is a building in our burgh that once was – several generations ago, after it had been a cottage and before it became a warehouse for garments and then a dance studio – a chapel of sorts. Its small congregation was looked down upon by the Kirk, by the Baptists, by the Romans, and by the Episcopalians, and its pastor or preacher, John Michie, was a byword in the town. He was an incomer, along with his family and a couple of members of the congregation, from Clackmannan, and his church was of no noted denomination, save that some said it had been set off from the Sandemanians. One thing was certain, however, was that John Michie was a man who preached sin, and its consequences in eternal fire.

He was dead against strong drink, and preached every Wednesday and Saturday in the street, handing out tracts about the dangers of alcohol, of how it polluted a man’s soul and body, and how pure water was enough for man’s thirst. It was mainly this that made him a byword. He said it himself. “But he has made me a byword of the people, and I have become one in whose face men spit, Job chapter seventeen, verse six. I am now their taunting song and their byword, same book, chapter thirty, verse nine,” he declared. Small wonder, it could be said, because his Saturday preaching was done outside the Johnstone Arms, and his Wednesday at the gates of the distillery. Taunts he endured, sometimes he was pushed and shoved, an occasional stone was sent flying his way. Once a pebble struck him high on the cheekbone, just under his left eye – he never flinched, and his bearing of the wound seemed to make him stand straighter. For all their detestation of him, people said grudgingly that he had the courage of his convictions.

One Wednesday, having had enough of the disruption caused by Michie’s regular visits, the General Manager of the distillery, a Kirk man, came down in person to the gates and harangued him. The precise words of the exchange are not recorded, but the parting shot of Campbell, the Manager, as he ground on his heel and stalked back to his office, was to the effect that Michie was a fool; Michie, to his back, shouted, “Matthew, chapter five, verse twenty-two!”

Campbell had some influence in the Kirk of Scotland, and it was little surprise that on the following Sunday the Minister there preached about the Marriage at Cana, and how Christ’s first miracle was to turn water into wine, about how this prefigured the coming of the New Covenant and the ending of the Old, in which the injunction had been “Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup” according to the Book of Proverbs. Moreover, said the Minister, the Apostle Paul had told Timothy, his fellow-disciple, to take a little wine for the good of his stomach. When he heard of this, John Michie said very little, except he made a remark about people who confused fermentation with distillation.

People thought that perhaps he had been silenced by one better versed than he. However, next Saturday he appeared as usual at the Johnstone Arms. Only this time he did not preach outside. He pushed open the door and walked in. He walked right up to the counter and, in a room that had fallen silent, addressed the landlord.

“I believe you sell whiskey here, is that not so?”

The landlord placed his fists on the counter and leaned forward.

“I do, John Michie,” he said, “and it is my business if I do, and none of yours!”

“Landlord, I wish to buy some.”

If it were possible for a quiet room to become even quieter, then the bar of the Johnstone Arms did. For a second or two, the landlord, stunned, did not move. Then he reached for a glass.

“No,” said Michie, “I wish to buy more than that.”

The landlord raised his eyebrows and reached for a bottle.

“Landlord, please do not waste my time. Sell me a case. I presume you have one in your cellar? Yes? Then sell me a case of whiskey!”

Every denizen of the pub watched this drama unfold, disbelief on their faces. The landlord went down to the cellar and brought up a case of whiskey. Michie paid for it, hefted it onto his right shoulder, and walked outside. Several – most – of the drinkers followed him, watching as he marched up the road that led to the sharp glen cut into the Ochil Hills, at the foot of which our burgh stands. Some then walked after him, others went into the burgh, to passersby in the street and to customers in the shops, saying “John Michie has bought a case of whiskey, and he’s away up the glen with it!” Soon there was a long straggling line of townsfolk following behind the preacher.

John Michie wasn’t a big man, but he was wiry and tough, and even with the burden of the case of whiskey his pace up the steep glen was hard to match. The path, laid alongside the pipeline that carried the burgh’s water supply from the burn, was narrow, and the drop to the torrent below often sheer. As a result, the preacher kept ahead of the following crowd. When they eventually caught up to him, after a forced march of about an hour, he had stepped onto a rock in the middle of the burn, just below an artificial weir, and just above where an intake had been built to divert some of the water into the pipe. There he sat, the case open, and a whiskey bottle in his hand. The gathering crowd watched as he unscrewed the cap of the bottle.

He poured the contents into the burn.

“That’s a waste of good whiskey!” said one of the younger men in the crowd, and made as if to loup onto the rock himself. But Michie took up another bottle with a reverse grip, testing it as one might test the weight of a handy weapon.

“A wise man is strong; yea, a man of knowledge increaseth strength, Proverbs chapter twenty-four, verse five,” he said, and the young man decided not to intervene after all. In fact every single one of the preacher’s pursuers, come in ones and twos to that place where the hand of man first interferes with the wildness of the burn that runs through the steep-sided glen, simply stood and watched as he emptied the contents of bottle after bottle into the water.

Eventually the crowd was joined by Sergeant Turnbull. Or rather they made way for his slow approach; Turnbull being a man of some girth, and what is more another incomer, from Lothian, his stripes and his exoticism gave him a cachet in their eyes, and so they showed him a good deal of deference.

“John Michie,” he said, “Can ye no see what it says on yon notice?”

water supply for MarieThe preacher looked across to where the policeman was pointing – a sign stating that anyone found polluting the water supply would be prosecuted – and nodded. “I see it fine,” he said, emptying the last whiskey bottle.

“I shall have to arrest you, then.”

“Aye, I think so.”

Packing the empty bottles back into the case, and hefting them once again onto his right shoulder, the preacher followed the Sergeant on a stately progress back down the glen. The others stood back to let them pass. In answer to the occasional quizzical glance, the Sergeant jerked his thumb at the case and said, “Evidence.”

Two days later John Michie stood before the Procurator Fiscal at Alloa Sheriff Court. When asked how he pled to the charge of emptying bottles of whiskey into the water supply of the Burgh of Alva, he said only, “Guilty.” The Procurator Fiscal had been minded to fine the preacher twenty-five pounds, but because of his plea and his obvious subjection “unto the higher powers” as scripture has it, the fine was reduced to seventeen pounds and ten shillings.

If anyone thought this was the end of the extraordinary episode they were wrong. On the day after his appearance in court, John Michie caused a handbill to be circulated widely in the burgh – pinned to posts, handed out to all and sundry by members of his little congregation. The headline on it ran thus:

“THE LAW DECLARES WHISKEY TO BE A POLLUTANT.”

The text below was an honest account of the preacher’s actions, his deliberately disobeying the precise words of the sign, his subsequent appearance at the Sheriff Court, and his guilty plea. And of course no one would gainsay the headline, because it was literally true. It is not recorded whether this actually altered anyone’s drinking habits, but the story is always retold with a smile, and a note that no one ever called John Michie a fool after that. For a while his little congregation was even a person or two larger, and it is said that, with a twinkle in his eye, he preached less about hell fire and more about baptism, and about the pure water of life.

__________

*I was sent the photograph which accompanies this story, with the suggestion that I could probably find a story in it.