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Peerie Peter's Bible

It’s Robbie Burns day, so to commemorate I thought I'd share the following story. My great-grandfather, Peter Inkster (1879-1958) of Skelberry, North Roe, was an ardent life-long fan of the 18th century Scottish poet.

Robbie’s lifestyle and poetry were a bit racy, and what was appropriate for an adult was not considered fit for a youth, so young Peter was forbidden by his Methodist parents to read his works. Of course, that made reading the poems all the more irresistible, as he shared in the following childhood story!

August 17, 1948. [Our neighbour] Johnnie [Mouat, 1859-1935] was quite a character. My brother, Sam—two years my senior—and myself used to love to visit him and listen to his yarns and tall tales of mystery and adventure which, in later years, we generally found existed only in the imagination.

He had in his possession a much-used copy of Burn’s poems which we borrowed and perused on the sly—as Father and Mother considered it was quite unfit for our young minds. Mother came across it one day and we had to return it at once.

“Forbidden waters are sweet” and the strategy of young minds is at one and the same time both incomprehensible and unpredictable. At any rate, the following took place. Johnnie’s copy of Burns lacked a cover, and, sitting in church one day, I spied a bible cover which—to me—appeared to be the correct size for the forbidden volume of poetry. I put it under my jacket, took it home and, going over to Johnnie’s home, found that the fit was just about perfect.

Now, I know not where the inspiration originated but what more natural than to clothe Burns in the bible cover, take it home and, as we had two bible readings per week in school, combine the two operations without creating undue suspicion. Strange to say, this worked for quite a time and Peter’s stock advanced several points for being, “Oh, such a good boy! and a real bible student.”

“Be sure your sins will find you out”—and that holds good just as much in a ten year old boy as in anyone of a longer span of life, and, though the mills were grinding slowly, they were grinding exceedingly sure.

Early in October, we were in the field digging potatoes and Mother walked over from the house about three o’clock in the afternoon to let us know she had a cup of tea ready for us. I can see her yet as plainly as on the day it happened—white shawl thrown over her head and the knitting needles in her hand. Yes, we should appreciate a cup of tea and a bannock! we would be along in a few minutes, just as soon as we finished some particular row, and Mother turned and walked towards home. We carried on with our work, but a scream penetrated the air and we swiftly turned to see poor Mother collapsed on the ground and—as later proved—on account of internal haemorrhage, bleeding profusely from mouth and nose. No time was lost in getting the patient home and to bed and, while sisters and kind neighbours carried along with what restoratives were available, I sped to the nearest Telegraph Office—over a mile distant—to wire for the doctor. The medical gentleman—many miles distant—was away out on an emergency call and could not be reached. It was two or three days before he arrived.

In the meantime, Mother’s plight was desperate. Chill succeeded chill and, through loss of blood, the patient was very weak. Under those circumstances, the Methodist preacher [Reverend Willis]—a very solemn gentleman indeed—came along to render any possible help and, after a few minutes’ talk, he wished to read scripture and have prayer. He asked for a bible, but everything in this house of sickness had become upset and disorganised and Sister just could not lay hands on the family bible so she called to my youngest sister, “Lizzie, please run upstairs and bring down Peter’s bible. It is on the top shelf by the head of his bed.”

This took only a minute or so and the book was brought down and handed to His Reverence who started in to find some chosen portion especially adapted to such occasions. The volume automatically opened at Holy Willie’s Prayer, simply because such unholy writings were meat to a boy of that age and I had been browsing on it for weeks.

The preacher closed it again and verified the title on the cover—nothing wrong about that—and he just couldn’t understand it. It never seemed to dawn on him that there could be a distinct breach between the book and the cover; the fit was perfect. “A most unusual book, really most unusual,” he declared as he thumbed over several leaves to give him time to collect his thoughts and decide where to go from there.

Sisters, of course, were completely in the dark and I was not at home. However, at long last the book and cover parted company, the cat was out of the bag, and Peter’s month of false righteousness had “Gone with the wind” and I stood forth as a sacrilegious child of the very devil.

Mother’s sickness unto death overshadowed everything else. I kept a respectable distance from Dad for a week or so. Mother finally rallied and took my part, and the storm gradually subsided. At this writing, all the principals of that incident—except the writer—have passed to the Great Beyond, and those happenings of bygone days, so real then, are just memories now.

Excerpt from Voices from the Past: Stories of North Roe by Karen Inkster Vance (2023) pp. 152-53


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