By Tim Porteus

SOME said he was a gypsy, although he travelled alone. He would arrive for a few months in the summer, then vanish until the following year.

He was always mysterious as to where he came from and where he was going. He had an accent that some said was Irish, but it was mixed with a most definite local Scots dialect. He was an old man with an unkempt beard. He always wore a bonnet a certain way, and wild strands of white hair grew from the sides of it. While he still had most of his teeth, there was one visibly missing, which was revealed when he smiled. When people asked him his name he would be reluctant to say. People called him the Porridge Maker.

His most treasured possession was his cooking pot. It was large and heavy and he would carry it on his back with the help of straps he had made. He tied the lid tightly and all his other possessions would be stored in the pot. It became a kind of rucksack as he travelled.

He would walk for miles, humming to himself, singing and sometimes playing his penny whistle. Then he would choose a place to settle for the night, and unpack his pot, and start cooking. He would make an evening broth from whatever he had managed to acquire during his day’s travel. Then under the canopy of the stars, or under the boughs of a tree if it was raining, he would wrap himself up in the thick blanket that he used during the day as a kind of jacket.

Every morning he would make porridge, and always a larger amount than he would need himself. This was the time when people would enquire as to his purpose and origins. Often it was the small children of the village whose curiosity would make them assemble round him and ask questions. Sometimes they would be shooed away by their parents, but often the older members of the community who had more time would engage him in conversation, and then sit with him.

The Porridge Maker had tales and riddles, news from far-flung lands and memories of past deeds and events which made his company fascinating for old and young alike. Soon it became apparent why he would make more porridge than he needed: it was to share. He would share it from his one bowl, which he called his Porridge Quaich. It would be passed round in an almost religious ceremony.

But to have a taste of his delicious porridge, a price had to be paid. A story or riddle must be told, a memory shared or some wisdom imparted. The Porridge Maker would listen carefully to everything said. This was one way he gained his vast knowledge of the world and of its stories.

The other was, of course, in his travels. As he walked he would observe everything: the way the clouds formed, the song of the birds, the landscape and its curiosities, the way people behaved; everything. Then he would just be, and allow his thoughts and observations to mingle. This was how new tales and riddles formed in his imagination.

And so as he cooked his evening meal, he would tell stories to himself and whisper his riddles, and he would look forward to sharing them with whoever might come his way and sit by his fire.

Then one day, someone recognised him.

The Porridge Maker had settled himself away from the road by the River Tyne, downstream from Haddington. He had made a small fire and was cooking a trout he had secretly caught when an old man of similar age walked by, stopped, stared at him, and then made his way towards him.

The Porridge Maker thought he was now in trouble. But the old man wasn’t interested in the fish. He studied the Porridge Maker’s features carefully, then he nodded with a grin.

“Aye, sae it is ye!” said the man with an accusing tone.

“Aye, fir sure I am maist certainly me!” replied the Porridge Maker.

“Ye cannae bamboozle me,” said the stranger with a triumphant mocking laughter, “I thocht I kent ye by the way ye wear yer bonnet and by yer stooped shudder, but noo that I’ve seen yer face I ken fir sure!”

“And?” asked the Porridge Maker, seemingly unfazed by this sudden attempt to unmask his identity.

The stranger sat himself down and looked the Porridge Maker in the eye.

“I cannae mind yer exact name,” he said, “but I ken ye were a Jacobite.”

“Those days are lang past noo,” said the Porridge Maker, still keeping his calm.

“Aye, they are, thankfully. And they hanged many o’ the likes o’ ye.”

“That they did,” replied the Porridge Maker.

“Yer a MacGregor,” said the old man, “I mind that, and ye hud blood oan yer haunds aifter Prestonpans.”

The Porridge Maker said nothing. He just stared into his fire.

“Ye sliced a man’s heid in twa by the wall.”

Suddenly the Porridge Maker looked up. “How’d ye ken that?” he asked, now startled.

“Because I wis there!”

The Porridge Maker now looked the man in the eye.

The old man continued: “Ye were goanie dae the same tae me. I hud nae weapon sae I punched ye.”

“Aye”, said the Porridge Maker, “I remember that weel enough,” revealing the gap in his teeth that was the result.

The old man laughed.

“That punch saved ma life,” said the old man, “fir it gied me time tae run as ye stood like a stunned rabbit. But I saw ye aifter, greetin like a bairn.”

The Porridge Maker was silent but pursed his lips and nodded.

“Ye cudnae thole it cud ye?” said the man accusingly.

“I wis a lad, and a’ fired up with rage,” said the Porridge Maker. “He wisnae the only one that day I killt. But I vowed he wud be the last I’d kill tae decorate another’s pride. He hud cried fir mercy sayin he had bairns, but I didnae understand his words till after I’d cut him.”

The old man laughed. “Sae much fir the great warrior race! Ye deserted after the battle, didn’t ye? Ye ran awa like a coward and cudnae gang hame. If the Redcoats hadnae caught ye, yer ain family wud huv disowned ye fir the coward that ye are!”

“I did go hame after, but I found ma hoose burnt and ma wife and bairns slain. Sae I hud nae family left after that time,” said the Porridge Maker with a breaking voice.

The old man bowed his head. “Aye, it wis a sair time richt enough. But the wages o’ rebellion are unforgiving.”

“Dae ye ken the name o’ the lad that I killt by ye?” asked the Porridge Maker hopefully.

The man was surprised by the question, and looked at the ground as he thought.

“Wull I think, aye, it wis Wull. I mind he wis really feart, poor lad, he ca’d fir his mither as he died.”

The Porridge Maker lowered his head, reliving that moment he had tried so often to forget.

Neither men had yet exchanged their names.

“You hungry?” asked the Porridge Maker, “for ye can share whit I have; ye huv earned it by sharing yer memory wi me.”

And so two men, who once had tried to kill each other, now shared a meal.

“Wull,” the Porridge Maker whispered as he ate.

He finally had a name for the young lad he’d slain all those years ago in 1745 at Prestonpans.

The deepest wounds of war are often those unseen, and the stories left out by military historians are the stories of lives traumatised and changed forever.

Sadly, what’s left of the Prestonpans battlefield site is now under threat by proposed new developments.