By Tim Porteus

WINTER is coming.

Yes, we can feel it in the sharpness of the wind and in the creeping darkness. We have now put on our ancient boiler to warm the house, hoping it will last another winter. If we are lucky enough to have a house to stay warm and company to keep it cheerful then the onset of winter can be a time to look forward to. It can be a cosy and social time.

But in 1680, the onset of winter for Isabel Heriot was not something to look forward to. She had for many years worked dutifully and faithfully as housekeeper for the minister at Peaston. But despite her loyal service she had been cast out of the house, just as the first signs of winter were biting the air.

She had no family and if she had friends they were too afraid to help her, for the minister’s wrath and power was such that they may also suffer. These were times when it was dangerous not to conform. Isabel was different in a number of ways: her looks, her manners, her confidence and forthright way of speaking.

Many even said she had brought it upon herself because of the way she spoke to the minister. She had challenged him on his interpretation of God’s word. As soon as she was out of the minister’s house, gossip and whispers were shared at the kirk.

The first Sabbath after her she had been made homeless she appeared at the kirk’s gate. She was dishevelled and unclean – hardly surprising since she had spent the last few nights in the nearby woods, sleeping on the leaf covered ground, under the canopy of a yew tree. She watched as people she knew piled into the kirk for Sunday service.

Most pretended not to see her; she was shunned by some because of their self-righteousness and by others because of fear of the self-righteous. Then the minister saw her. He stopped for a moment and stared at her pitiful state. For a moment, Isabel thought some compassion would now enter his heart, but no. He said nothing with words and instead shook his head in disapproval and made his way to the kirk.

“Close the door,” the minister said to the elder who was standing at the entrance. The door was symbolically closed. Isabel took a few steps forward; she still had the right to attend kirk and worship God and she wanted to do so. But then she stopped. She obviously wouldn’t be welcome anymore. She had done nothing wrong but was now being treated as an outcast. Suddenly she didn’t want to be amongst those who treated her in such a way, or lacked the courage to behave otherwise.

And so she turned and left.

The winter came and was bitter. It is said that Isabel returned to Peaston but as a ghostly apparition to accuse and torment the minister. The apparitions vanished soon afterwards, never to be seen again. So the story of Isabel Heriot became folk memory and her story told round the fireplaces of East Lothian and eventually written down.

People had judged her while not knowing or uninterested in the injustice she suffered. Others must have felt compassion for her or at the least pity at her plight but still walked by. Even those who had known her seem to have felt unable to help lest they be associated with someone considered outcast.

It is a sad tale and one which would make most people angry at the injustice. Yet it took place so long ago it may be told with a sense of distance from the events. But for me the power of the tale is in the universal and timeless message contained within it.

I cannot walk in the woods by the Keith and Humbie waters or wander past the old ruins of Peaston and not think of Isabel Heriot and her fate. What were those last weeks of her life like, unable to find shelter or compassion as the cold winds and dark night drew in? She was invisible to others, or rather others chose not to see her, and certainly not to seek her out. She vanished from their sight and so unseen she could be out of their thoughts and consciences.

And so as winter approaches and we retreat into the warmth of our homes with friends and family, the tale of Isabel Heriot reminds me to try not to be one of those who looks the other way or judges without knowing the story. I use the word ‘try’ because I fail in this on a regular basis. I am busy with my own concerns, my own worries and my own responsibilities, as we all are.

But as I wrap up, and head out for a walk in the woods with my crazy kids, or into town for a day out, or just walk down the street to go shopping, I sometimes stop and pause and soak in the joy of things we can take for granted. It is in these moments I am conscious of the need not only to think of others but to seek them out, check on them and, yes, try to find the time to be there.

Recently there was a letter in the Courier which made unpleasant and untrue remarks about a man otherwise homeless using the car park at Butterdean Wood as a place to sleep overnight in his campervan. The person who wrote the letter left no name but whoever it was had judged this man without knowing his story, which is one of remarkable fortitude and love.

The story of Isabel Heriot is one we should all tell ourselves this winter. It reminds us we should take the time to seek out and understand before we judge others