We rose at seven o'clock, and left Golspie at eight en route for Bonar Bridge. As we passed the railway station we saw a huge traction engine, which we were informed belonged to the Duke of Sutherland, and was employed by him to draw wood and stone to the railway. About a mile after leaving the town we observed the first field of wheat since we had left John o' Groat's. The morning had turned out wet, so there was no one at work among the corn, but several machines there showed that agriculture received much attention. We met some children carrying milk, who in reply to our inquiry told us that the cows were milked three times each day - at six o'clock in the morning, one o'clock at noon, and eight o'clock at night - with the exception of the small Highland cows, which were only milked twice. As we were looking over the fields in the direction of the railway, we observed an engine with only one carriage attached proceeding along the line, which we thought must be the mail van, but we were told that it was the duke's private train, and that he was driving the engine himself, the engine being named after his castle, "Dunrobin." We learned that the whole railway belonged to him for many miles, and that he was quite an expert at engine driving.
About five miles after leaving Golspie we crossed what was known as "The Mound," a bank thrown across what looked like an arm of the sea. It was upwards of half a mile long, and under the road were six arches to admit the passage of the tide as it ebbed and flowed. Here we turned off to the right along the hill road to Bonar Bridge, and visited what had been once a mansion, but was now nearly all fallen to the ground, very little remaining to tell of its former glory. What attracted us most was the site of the garden behind the house, where stood four great yew trees which must have been growing hundreds of years. They were growing in pairs, and in a position which suggested that the road had formerly passed between them.
Presently our way passed through a beautiful and romantic glen, with a fine stream swollen by the recent rains running alongside it. Had the weather been more favourable, we should have had a charming walk. The hills did not rise to any great elevation, but were nicely wooded down to the very edge of the stream, and the torrent, with its innumerable rapids and little falls, that met us as we travelled on our upward way, showed to the best advantage. In a few miles we came to a beautiful waterfall facing our road, and we climbed up the rocks to get a near view of it from a rustic bridge placed there for the purpose. A large projecting rock split the fall into the shape of a two-pronged fork, so that it appeared like a double waterfall, and looked very pretty. Another stream entered the river near the foot of the waterfall, but the fall of this appeared to have been artificially broken thirty or forty times on its downward course, forming the same number of small lochs, or ponds. We had a grand sight of these miniature lakes as they overflowed one into another until their waters joined the stream below.
We now left the trees behind us and, emerging into the open country, travelled many miles across the moors alongside Loch Buidhee, our only company being the sheep and the grouse. As we approached Bonar Bridge we observed a party of sportsmen on the moors. From the frequency of their fire we supposed they were having good sport; a horse with panniers on its back, which were fast being ladened with the fallen game, was following them at a respectful distance. Then we came to a few small houses, near which were large stacks of peat or turf, which was being carted away in three carts. We asked the driver of the first cart we overtook how far it was to Bonar Bridge, and he replied two miles. We made the same inquiry from the second, who said three miles, and the reply of the third was two and a half miles. As the distance between the first and the third drivers was only one hundred yards, their replies rather amused us. Still we found it quite far enough, for we passed through shower after shower.
Our eighteen-mile walk had given us a good idea of "Caledonia stern and wild," and at the same time had developed in us an enormous appetite when by two o'clock we entered the hotel facing Bonar Bridge for our dinner. The bridge was a fine substantial iron structure of about 150 feet span, having a stone arching at either end, and was of great importance, as it connected main roads and did away with the ferry which once existed there. As we crossed the bridge we noticed two vessels from Sunderland discharging coals, and some fallen fir-trees lying on the side of the water apparently waiting shipment for colliery purposes, apt illustrations of the interchange of productions. There were many fine plantations of fir-trees near Bonar Bridge, and as we passed the railway station we saw a rather substantial building across the water which we were informed was the "Puirshoose," or "Poor House."
Observing a village school to the left of our road, we looked through the open door; but the room was empty, so we called at the residence of the schoolmaster adjoining to get some reliable information about our further way, We found him playing on a piano and very civil and obliging, and he advised us to stay for the night at what was known as the Half-way House, which we should find on the hill road to Dingwall, and so named because it was halfway between Bonar and Alness, and nine miles from Bonar. Our road for the first two miles was close along Dornoch Firth, and the fine plantations of trees afforded us some protection against the wind and rain; then we left the highway and turned to the right, along the hill road. After a steep ascent for more than a mile, we passed under a lofty elevation, and found ourselves once more amongst the heather-bells so dear to the heart of every true Scot.
At this point we could not help lingering awhile to view the magnificent scene below. What a gorgeous panorama! The wide expanse of water, the bridge we had lately crossed and the adjoining small village, the fine plantations of trees, the duke's monument rising above the woods at Golspie, were all visible, but obscured in places by the drifting showers. If the "Clerk of the Weather" had granted us sunshine instead of rain, we should have had a glorious prospect not soon to be forgotten. But we had still three miles to walk, or, as the people in the north style it, to travel, before we could reach the Half-Way House, when we met a solitary pedestrian, who as soon as he saw us coming sat down on a stone and awaited us until we got within speaking distance, when he began to talk to us. He was the Inspector of Roads, and had been walking first in one direction and then in the other during the whole of the day. He said he liked to speak to everybody he saw, as the roads were so very lonely in his district. He informed us that the Half-Way House was a comfortable place, and we could not do better than stay there for the night.
We were glad when we reached the end of our nine-mile walk, as the day had been very rough and stormy. As it was the third in succession of the same character, we did not care how soon the weather took a turn for the better. The Half-Way House stood in a deserted and lonely position on the moor some little distance from the road, without another house being visible for miles, and quite isolated from the outer world. We entered the farmyard, where we saw the mistress busy amongst the pigs, two dogs barking at us in a very threatening manner. We walked into the kitchen, the sole occupant of which was a "bairn," who was quite naked, and whom we could just see behind a maiden of clothes drying before the fire. The mistress soon followed us into the house, and in reply to our query as to whether we could be accommodated for the night said, "I will see," and invited us into the parlour, a room containing two beds and sundry chairs and tables. The floor in the kitchen was formed of clay, the parlour had a boarded floor, and the mantelpiece and roof were of very old wood, but there was neither firegrate nor fire.
After we had waited there a short time, the mistress again made her appearance, with a shovel full of red-hot peat, so, although she had not given us a decided answer as to whether we could stay the night or not, we considered that silence gave consent, especially when seconded by the arrival of the welcome fire.
"You surely must have missed your train!" she said; but when we told her that we were pedestrian tourists, or, as my brother described it, "on a walking expedition," she looked surprised.
When she entered the room again we were sorting out our letters and papers, and she said, "You surely must be sappers!" We had some difficulty in making her understand the object of our journey, as she could not see how we could be walking for pleasure in such bad weather.
We found the peat made a very hot fire and did good service in helping to dry our wet clothing. We wanted some hot milk and bread for supper, which she was very reluctant to supply, as milk was extremely scarce on the moors, but as a special favour she robbed the remainder of the family to comply with our wishes. The wind howled outside, but we heeded it not, for we were comfortably housed before a blazing peat fire which gave out a considerable amount of heat. We lit one of our ozokerite candles, of which we carried a supply to be prepared for emergencies, and read our home newspaper, The Warrington Guardian, which was sent to us weekly, until supper-time arrived, and then we were surprised by our hostess bringing in an enormous bowl, apparently an ancient punch bowl, large enough to wash ourselves in, filled with hot milk and bread, along with two large wooden spoons. Armed with these, we both sat down with the punch-bowl between us, hungry enough and greedy enough to compete with one another as to which should devour the most. Which won would be difficult to say, but nothing remained except the bowl and the spoons and our extended selves.
We had walked twenty-seven miles, and it must have been weather such as we had experienced that inspired the poet to exclaim:
The west wind blows and brings rough
The east brings cold and wet together,
The south wind blows and brings much rain,
The north wind blows it back again!
The beds were placed end to end, so that our feet came together, with a wooden fixture between the two beds to act as the dividing line. Needless to say we slept soundly, giving orders to be wakened early in the morning.
(Distance walked twenty-seven miles.)
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