The farm which Mr M'Ian rented was, in comparison with many others in the island, of but moderate extent; and yet it skirted the seashore for a considerable distance, and comprised within itself many a rough hill, and many a green valley. The house was old-fashioned, was harled all over with lime, and contained a roomy porch, over which ivies clustered, a dining-room, a drawing-room, a lot of bedrooms, and behind, and built out from the house, an immense kitchen, with a flagged floor and a huge fire-place. A whole colony of turf-huts, with films of blue smoke issuing from each, were scattered along the shore, lending a sort of homely beauty to the wild picturesqueness. Beside the house, with a ruined summer-seat at one end, was a large carelessly-kept garden, surrounded by a high stone wall. M'Ian kept the key himself; and on the garden door were nailed ravens, and other feathered malefactors in different stages of decay. Within a stone's throw from the porch, were one or two barns, a stable, a wool-house, and other out-houses, in which several of the servants slept.
M'Ian was careful of social degree, and did not admit every one to his dining-room. He held his interviews with the common people in the open air in front of the house. When a drover came for cattle he dined solitarily in the porch, and the dishes were sent to him from M'Ian's table. The drover was a servant, consequently he could not sit at meat with my friend; he was more than a servant for the nonce, inasmuch as he was his master's representative, and consequently he could not be sent to the kitchen - the porch was therefore a kind of convenient middle place; neither too high nor too humble, it was, in fact, a sort of social purgatory. But Mr M'Ian did not judge a man by the coat he wore, nor by the amount of money in his purse. When Mr Macara, therefore, the superannuated schoolmaster, who might have been a licentiate of the Church thirty years before, had he not brought his studies in divinity to a close by falling in love, marrying, and becoming the father of a large family; or when Peter, the meek-faced violinist, who was of good descent, being the second cousin of a knight-bachelor on his mother's side, and of an Indian general on his father's - when these men called at the house, they dined - with obvious trepidation, and sitting at an inconvenient distance, so that a morsel was occasionally lost on its passage from plate to mouth - at M'Ian's own table; and to them the old gentleman, who would have regarded the trader worth a million as nothing better than a scullion, talked of the old families and the old times. M'Ian valued a man for the sake of his grandfather rather than for the sake of himself.
The shepherds, the shepherds' dogs, and the domestic servants, dined in the large kitchen. The kitchen was the most picturesque apartment in the house. There was a huge dresser near the small dusty window; in a dark corner stood a great cupboard in which crockery was stowed away. The walls and rafters were black with peat smoke. Dogs were continually sleeping on the floor with their heads resting on their outstretched paws; and from a frequent start and whine, you knew that in dream they were chasing a flock of sheep along the steep hill-side, their masters shouting out orders to them from the valley beneath. The fleeces of sheep which had been found dead on the mountain were nailed on the walls to dry. Braxy hams were suspended from the roof; strings of fish were hanging above the fire-place. The door was almost continually open, for by the door light mainly entered. Amid a savoury steam of broth and potatoes, the shepherds and domestic servants drew in long backless forms to the table, and dined innocent of knife and fork, the dogs snapping and snarling among their legs; and when the meal was over the dogs licked the platters.
Macara, who was something of a poet, would, on his occasional visits, translate Gaelic poems for me. On one occasion, after one of these translations had been read, I made the remark that a similar set of ideas occurred in one of the songs of Burns. His gray eyes immediately blazed up; he rushed into a Gaelic recitation of considerable length; and, at its close, snapping defiant fingers in my face, demanded, "Can you produce anything out of your Shakespeare or your Burns equal to that ?" Of course, I could not; and I fear I aggravated my original offence by suggesting that in all likelihood my main inability to produce a passage of corresponding excellence from the southern authors arose from my entire ignorance of the language of the native bard. When Peter came with his violin the kitchen was cleared after nightfall; the forms were taken away, candles stuck into the battered tin sconces, the dogs unceremoniously kicked out, and a somewhat ample ballroom was the result.
Then in came the girls, with black shoes and white stockings, newly-washed faces and nicely-smoothed hair; and with them came the shepherds and men-servants, more carefully attired than usual. Peter took his seat near the fire; M'Ian gave the signal by clapping his hands; up went the inspiriting notes of the fiddle and away went the dancers, man and maid facing each other, the girl's feet twinkling beneath her petticoat, not like two mice, but rather like a dozen; her kilted partner pounding the flag-floor unmercifully; then man and maid changed step, and followed each other through loops and chains; then they faced each other again, the man whooping, the girl's hair coming down with her exertions; then suddenly the fiddle changed time, and with a cry the dancers rushed at each other, each pair getting linked arm in arm, and away the whole floor dashed into the whirlwind of the reel of Hoolichan. It was dancing with a will, - lyrical, impassioned; the strength of a dozen fiddlers dwelt in Peter's elbow; M'Ian clapped his hands and shouted, and the stranger was forced to mount the dresser to get out of the way of whirling kilt and tempestuous petticoat.
Chief amongst the dancers on these occasions were John Kelly, Lachian Roy, and Angus-with-the-dogs. John Kelly was M'Ian's principal shepherd - a swarthy fellow, of Irish descent, I fancy, and of infinite wind, endurance, and capacity of drinking whisky. He was a solitary creature, irascible in the extreme; he crossed and re-crossed the farm I should think some dozen times every day, and was never seen at church or market without his dog. With his dog only was John Kelly intimate, and on perfectly confidential terms. I often wondered what were his thoughts as he wandered through the glens at early morning, and saw the fiery mists upstreaming from the shoulders of Blaavin; or when he sat on a sunny knoll at noon smoking a black broken pipe, and watching his dog bringing a flock of sheep down the opposite hill-side. Whatever they were, John kept them strictly to himself. In the absorption of whisky he was without a peer in my experience, although I have in my time encountered some rather distinguished practitioners in that art. If you gave John a glass of spirits, there was a flash, and it was gone. For a wager I once beheld him drink a bottle of whisky in ten minutes. He drank it in cupfuls, saying never a word. When it was finished, he wrapt himself in his plaid, went out with his dog, and slept all night on the hillside. I suppose a natural instinct told him that the night air would decompose the alcohol for him. When he came in next morning his swarthy face was a shade paler than was its wont; but he seemed to suffer no uneasiness, and he tackled to his breakfast like a man.
Lachlan Roy was a little cheery, agile, red squirrel of a man, and like the squirrel, he had a lot of nuts stowed away in a secret hole against the winter time. A more industrious little creature I have never met. He lived near the old castle of Dunsciach, where he rented a couple of crofts or so; there he fed his score or two of sheep, and his half dozen of black cattle; and from thence he drove them to Broadford market twice or thrice in the year, where they were sure to fetch good prices. He knew the points of a sheep or a stirk as well as any man in the island. He was about forty-five, had had a wife and children, but they had all died years before; and although a widower, Lachlan was as jolly, as merry-eyed and merry-hearted as any young bachelor shepherd in the country. He was a kindly soul too, full of pity, and was constantly performing charitable offices for his neighbours in distress.
A poor woman in his neighbourhood had lost her suckling child, and Lachlan came up to M'Ian's house with tears in his eyes, seeking some simple cordials and a bottle of wine. "Ay, it's a sad thing, Mr M'Ian," he went on, "when death takes a child from the breast. A full breast and an empty knee, Mr M'Ian, makes a desolate house. Poor Mirren has a terrible rush of milk, and cold is the lip to-day that could relieve her. And she's all alone too, Mr M'Ian, for her husband is at Stornoway after the herring." Of course he got the cordials and the wine, and of course, in as short a space of time as was possible, the poor mother, seated on an upturned creel, and rocking herself to and fro over her clasped hands, got them also, with what supplementary aid Lachlan's own stores could afford. Lachlan was universally respected; and when he appeared every door opened cheerfully. At all dance gatherings at M'Ian's he was certain to be present; and old as he was comparatively, the prettiest girl was glad to have him for a partner. He had a merry wit, and when he joked, blushes and titterings overspread in a moment all the young women's faces. On such occasions I have seen John Kelly sitting in a corner gloomily biting his nails, jealousy eating his heart. But Lachlan cared nothing for John's mutinous countenance - he meant no harm, and he feared no man.
Lachlan Roy, being interpreted, means red Lachlan; and this cognomen not only drew its appropriateness from the colour of his hair and beard; it had, as I afterwards learned, a yet deeper significance. Lachlan, if the truth must be told, had nearly as fierce a thirst for strong waters as John Kelly himself, and that thirst on fair days, after he had sold his cattle at Broadford, he was wont plentifully to slake. His face, under the influence of liquor, became red as a harvest moon; and as of this physiological peculiarity in himself he had the most perfect knowledge, he was under the impression that if he drew rein on this side of high alcoholic inflammation of countenance he was safe, and on the whole rather creditably virtuous than otherwise. And so, perhaps, he would have been, had he been able to judge for himself, or had he been placed amongst boon companions who were ignorant of his weakness, or who did not wish to deceive him. Somewhat suspicious, when a fresh jorum was placed on the table, he would call out - "Donald, is my face red yet?". Donald, who was perfectly aware of the ruddy illumination, would hypocritically reply, "Hoot, Lachlan dear, what are ye speaking about? Your face is just its own natural colour. What should it be red for?" "Duncan, you scoundrel," he would cry fiercely at a later period, bringing his clenched fist down on the table, and making the glasses dance - "Duncan, you scoundrel, look me in the face! Thus adjured, Duncan would turn his uncertain optics on his flaming friend. "Is my face red yet, Duncan?" Duncan, too far gone for speech, would shake his head in the gravest manner, plainly implying that the face in question was not red, and that there was not the least likelihood that it would ever become red. And so, from trust in the veracity of his fellows, Lachlan was, at Broadford, brought to bitter grief twice or thrice in the year.
Angus-with-the-dogs was continually passing over the country like the shadow of a cloud. If he had a home at all, it was situated at Ardvasar, near Armadale; but there Angus was found but seldom. He was always wandering about with his gun over his shoulder, his terriers, Spoineag and Fruich, at his heels, and the kitchen of every tacksman was open to him. The tacksmen paid Angus so much per annum, and Angus spent his time in killing their vermin. He was a dead shot; he knew the hole of the fox, and the cairn in which an otter would be found. If you wanted a brace of young falcons, Angus would procure them for you ; if ravens were breeding on one of your cliffs, you had but to wait till the young ones were half-fledged, send for Angus, and before evening the entire brood, father and mother included, would be nailed on your barn door. He knew the seldom-visited loch up amongst the hills which was haunted by the swan, the cliff of the Cuchullins on which the eagles dwelt, the place where, by moonlight, you could get a shot at the shy heron.
He knew all the races of dogs. In the warm blind pup he saw, at a glance, the future terrier or staghound. He could cure the distemper, could crop ears and dock tails. He could cunningly plait all kinds of fishing tackle; could carve quaichs, and work you curiously-patterned dagger-hilts out of the black bog-oak. If you wished a tobacco-pouch made of the skin of an otter or a seal, you had simply to apply to Angus. From his variety of accomplishment he was an immense favourite. The old farmers liked him because he was the sworn foe of pole-cats, foxes, and ravens; the sons of farmers valued him because he was an authority in rifles and fowling pieces, and knew the warm shelving rocks on which bullet-headed seals slept, and the cairns on the sea-shore in which otters lived; and because if any special breed of dog was wanted he was sure to meet the demand. He was a little, thick-set fellow, of great physical strength, and of the most obliging nature; and he was called Angus-with-the-dogs, because without Spoineag and Fruich at his heels, he was never seen. The pipe was always in his mouth, - to him tobacco smoke was as much a matter of course as peat reek is to a turf-hut.
One day, after Fellowes had gone to the Landlord's, where I was to join him in a week or ten days, young M'Ian and myself waited for Angus-with-the-dogs on one of the rising grounds at a little distance from the house. Angus in his peregrinations had marked a cairn in which he thought an otter would be found, and it was resolved that this cairn should be visited on a specified day about noon, in the hope that some little sport might be provided for the Sassenach. About eleven A.M., therefore, on the specified day we lay on the heather smoking. It was warm and sunny; M'Ian had thrown beside him on the heather his gun and shot-belt, and lay back luxuriously on his fragrant couch, meerschaum in mouth, his Glengary bonnet tilted forward over his eyes, his left leg stretched out, his right drawn up, and his brown hands clasped round the knee. Of my own position, which was comfortable enough, I was not at the moment specially cognisant; my attention being absorbed by the scenery around, which was wild and strange. We lay on couches of purple heather, as I have said; and behind were the sloping birch-woods - birch-woods always remind one somehow of woods in their teens - which ran up to the bases of white cliffs traversed only by the shepherd and the shadows of hawks and clouds.
The plateau on which we lay ran toward the sea, and suddenly broke down to it in little ravines and gorges, beautifully grassed and mossed, and plumed with bunches of ferns. Occasionally a rivulet came laughing and dancing down from rocky shelf to shelf. Of course, from the spot where we lay, this breaking down of the hill-face was invisible, but it was in my mind's eye all the same, for I had sailed along the coast and admired it a couple of days before. Right in front flowed in Loch Eishart, with its islands and white sea-birds. Down in the right-hand corner, reduced in size by distance, the house sat on its knoll, like a white shell; and beside it were barns and outhouses, the smoking turf-huts on the shore, the clumps of birch-wood, the thread of a road which ran down toward the stream from the house, crossed it by a bridge a little beyond the turf-huts and the boat-shed, and then came up towards us till it was lost in the woods. Right across the Loch were the round red hills that rise above Broadford; and the entire range of the Cuchullins - the outline wild, splintered, jagged, as if drawn by a hand shaken by terror or frenzy. A glittering mesh of sunlight stretched across the Loch, blinding, palpitating, ever-dying, ever-renewed. The bee came booming past, the white sea-gull swept above, silent as a thought or a dream. Gazing out on all this, somewhat lost in it, I was suddenly startled by a sharp whistle, and then I noticed that a figure was crossing the bridge below. M'Ian got up; "That's Angus," he said; "let us go down to meet him;" and so, after knocking the ashes out of his pipe and filling it anew, picking up his gun and slinging his shot-belt across his shoulder, he led the way.
At the bridge we found Angus seated, with his gun across his knee, and Spoineag and Fruich coursing about, and beating the bushes, from which a rabbit would occasionally bounce and scurry off. Angus looked more alert and intelligent than I had ever before seen him - probably because he had business on hand. We started at once along the shore at the foot of the cliffs above which we had been lying half an hour before. Our way lay across large boulders which had rolled down from the heights above, and progression, at least to one unaccustomed to such rough work, was by no means easy. Angus and M'Ian stepped on lightly enough, the dogs kept up a continual barking and yelping, and were continually disappearing in rents and crannies in the cliffs, and emerging more ardent than ever.
At a likely place Angus would stop for a moment, speak a word or two to the dogs, and then they rushed barking at every orifice, entered with a struggle, and ranged through all the passages of the hollow cairn. As yet the otter had not been found at home. At last when we came in view of a spur of the higher ground which, breaking down on the shore, terminated in a sort of pyramid of loose stones, Angus dashed across the broken boulders at a run, followed by his dogs. When they got up, Spoineag and Fruich, barking as they had never barked before, crept in at all kinds of holes and impossible fissures, and were no sooner out than they were again in. Angus cheered and encouraged them, and pointed out to M'Ian traces of the otter's presence. I sat down on a stone and watched the behaviour of the terriers. If ever there was an insane dog, it was Fruich that day; she jumped and barked, and got into the cairn by holes through which no other dog could go, and came out by holes through which no other dog could come. Spoineag, on the other hand, was comparatively composed; he would occasionally sit down, and taking a critical view of the cairn, run barking to a new point, and to that point Fruich would rush like a fury and disappear. Spoineag was a commander-in-chief, Fruich was a gallant general of division. Spoineag was Wellington, Fruich was the fighting Picton. Fruich had disappeared for a time, and from the muffled barking we concluded she was working her way to the centre of the citadel, when all at once Spoineag, as if moved by a sudden inspiration, rushed to the top of the cairn, and began tearing up the turf with teeth and feet. Spoineag's eagerness now was as intense as ever Fruich's had been.
Angus, who had implicit faith in Spoineag's genius, climbed up to assist, and tore away at the turf with his hands. In a minute or so Spoineag had effected an entrance from the top, and began to work his way downwards. Angus stood up against the sky with his gun in readiness. We could hear the dogs barking inside, and evidently approaching a common centre, when all at once a fell tumult arose. The otter was reached at last, and was using teeth and claws. Angus made a signal to M'Ian, who immediately brought his gun to his shoulder. The combat still raged within, and seemed to be coming nearer. Once Fruich came out howling with a bleeding foot, but a cry from Angus on the height sent her in again. All at once the din of barking ceased, and I saw a black lurching object flit past the stones towards the sea. Crack went M'Ian's gun from the boulder, crack went Angus's gun from the height, and the black object turned half round suddenly and then lay still. It was the otter; and the next moment Spoineag and Fruich were out upon it, the fire of battle in their eyes, and their teeth fixed in its bloody throat. They dragged the carcase backwards and forwards, and seemed unable to sate their rage upon it. What ancient animosity existed between the families of otters and terriers? What wrong had been done never to be redressed?
Angus came forward at last, sent Spoineag and Fruich howling right and left with his foot, seized the otter by the tail, and then over the rough boulders we began our homeward march. Our progress past the turf huts nestling on the shore at the foot of the cliffs was a triumphal one. Old men, women, and brown half-naked children came out to gaze upon us. When we got home the otter was laid on the grass in front of the house, where the elder M'Ian came out to inspect it, and was polite enough to express his approval, and to declare that it was not much inferior in bulk and strength to the otters he had hunted and killed at the close of last century. After dinner young M'Ian skinned his trophy, and nailed and stretched the hide on the garden gate amid the dilapidated kites and ravens. In the evening, Angus, with his gun across his shoulder, and Spoineag and Fruich at his heels, started for that mysterious home of his which was supposed to be at Ardvasar, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Armadale Castle.
A visit to Loch Coruisk had for some little time been meditated; and in the evening of the day on which the otter was slain the boat was dragged from its shed down towards the sea, launched, and brought round to the rude pier, where it was moored for the night. We went to bed early, for we were to rise with the sun. We got up, breakfasted, and went down to the pier where two or three sturdy fellows were putting oars and rowlocks to rights, tumbling in huge stones for ballast, and carefully stowing away a couple of guns and a basket of provisions. In about an hour we were fairly afloat; the broad-backed fellows bent to their oars, and soon the house began to dwindle in the distance, the irregular winding shores to gather into compact masses, and the white cliffs, which we knew to be a couple of miles inland, to come strangely forward, and to overhang the house and the surrounding stripes of pasturage and clumps of birchwood. On a fine morning there is not in the whole world a prettier sheet of water than Loch Eishart. Everything about it is wild, beautiful, and lonely. You drink a strange and unfamiliar air. You seem to be sailing out of the nineteenth century away back into the ninth. You are delighted, and there is no remembered delight with which you can compare the feeling.
Over the Loch the Cuchullins rise crested with tumult of golden mists; the shores are green behind; and away out, towards the horizon, the Island of Rum - ten miles long at the least - shoots up from the flat sea like a pointed flame. It is a granite mass, you know, firm as the foundations of the world; but as you gaze the magic of morning light makes it a glorious apparition - a mere crimson film or shadow, so intangible in appearance you might almost suppose it to exist on sufferance, and that a breath could blow it away. Between Rum, fifteen miles out yonder, and the shores drawing together and darkening behind, with the white cliffs coming forward to stare after us, the sea is smooth, and flushed with more varied hues than ever lived on the changing opal - dim azures, tender pinks, sleek emeralds. It is one sheet of mother-of-pearl. The hills are silent. The voice of man has not yet awoke on their heathery slopes. But the sea, literally clad with birds, is vociferous. They make plenty of noise at their work, these fellows. Darkly the cormorant shoots across our track. The air is filled with a confused medley of sweet, melancholy, and querulous notes. As we proceed, a quick head ducks; a troop of birds sinks suddenly to reappear far behind, or perhaps strips off the surface of the water, taking wing with a shrill cry of complaint.
Occasionally, too, a porpoise, or "fish that hugest swims the ocean stream," heaves itself slowly out of the element, its wet sides flashing for a moment in the sunlight, and then heeling lazily over, sinks with never a ripple. As we approached the Strathaird coast, M'Ian sat high in the bow smoking, and covering with his gun every now and again some bird which came wheeling near, while the boatmen joked, and sang snatches of many chorused songs. As the coast behind became gradually indistinct, the coast in front grew bolder and bolder. You let your hand over the side of the boat and play listlessly with the water. You are lapped in a dream of other days. Your heart is chanting ancient verses and sagas. The northern sea wind that filled the sails of the Vikings, and lifted their locks of tarnished gold, is playing in your hair. And when the keel grates on the pebbles at Kilmaree you are brought back to your proper century and self - for by that sign you know that your voyage is over for the present, and that the way to Coruisk is across the steep hill in front.
The boat was moored to a rude pier of stones, very similar to the one from which we started a couple of hours before, the guns were taken out, so was also the basket of provisions, and then the party, in long-drawn straggling procession, began to ascend the hill. The ascent is steep and laborious. At times you wade through heather as high as your knee; at other times you find yourself in a bog, and must jump perforce from solid turf to turf. Progress is necessarily slow; and the sun coming out strongly makes the brows ache with intolerable heat. The hill-top is reached at last, and you behold a magnificent sight. Beneath, a blue Loch flows in, on the margin of which stands the solitary farm-house of Camasunary. Out on the smooth sea sleep the islands of Rum and Canna - Rum towered and mountainous, Canna flat and fertile. On the opposite side of the Loch, and beyond the solitary farm-house, a great hill breaks down into ocean with shelf and precipice. On the right Blaavin towers up into the mists of the morning, and at his base opens the desolate Glen Sligachan, to which Glencoe is Arcady. On the left, the eye travels along the whole south-west side of the island to the Sound of Sleat, to the hills of Knoydart, to the long point of Ardnamurchan, dim on the horizon. In the presence of all this we sink down in heather or on boulder, and wipe our heated foreheads; in the presence of all this M'Ian hands round the flask, which is received with the liveliest gratitude.
In a quarter of an hour we begin the descent, and in another quarter of an hour we are in the valley, and approaching the solitary farm-house. While about three hundred yards from the door a man issued therefrom and came towards us. It would have been difficult to divine from dress and appearance what order of man this was. He was evidently not a farmer, he was as evidently not a sportsman. His countenance was grave, his eye was bright, but you could make little out of either; about him there was altogether a listless and a weary look. He seemed to me to have held too constant communion with the ridges of Blaavin and the desolations of Glen Sligachan. He was not a native of these parts, for he spoke with an English accent. He addressed us frankly, discussed the weather, told us the family was from home, and would be absent for some weeks yet; that he had seen us coming down the hill, and that, weary of rocks and sheep and sea-birds, he had come out to meet us. He then expressed a wish that we would oblige him with tobacco, that is, if we were in a position to spare any: stating that tobacco he generally procured from Broadford in rolls of a pound weight at a time; that he had finished his last roll some ten days ago, and that till this period, from some unaccountable accident, the roll, which was more than a week due, had never arrived. He feared it had got lost on the way - he feared that the bearer had been tempted to smoke a pipe of it, and had been so charmed with its exquisite flavour that he had been unable to stir from the spot until he had smoked the entire roll out. He rather thought the bearer would be about the end of the roll now, and that, conscious of his atrocious conduct, he would never appear before him, but would fly the country - go to America, or the Long Island, or some other place where he could hold his guilt a secret. He had found the paper in which the last roll had been wrapt, had smoked that, and by a strong effort of imagination had contrived to extract from it considerable enjoyment. And so we made a contribution of bird's-eye to the tobacco-less man, for which he returned us politest thanks, and then strolled carelessly toward Glen Sligachan - probably to look out for the messenger who had been so long on the way.
"Who is our friend ?" I asked of my companion. "He seems to talk in a rambling and fanciful manner."
"I have never seen him before," said M'Ian; "but I suspect he is one of those poor fellows who, from extravagance, or devotion to opium or strong waters, have made a mull of life, and who are sent here to end it in a quiet way. We have lots of them everywhere."
"But," said I, "this seems the very worst place you could send such a man to - it's like sending a man into, a wilderness with his remorse. It is only in the world, amid its noise, its ambitions, its responsibilities, that men pick themselves up. Seabirds, and misty mountains, and rain, and silence are the worst companions for such a man."
"But then, you observe, sea-birds, and misty mountains, and rain, and silence hold their tongues, and take no notice of peccadilloes. Whatever may be their faults, they are not scandal-mongers. The doings in Skye do not cause blushes in London. The man dies here as silently as a crow; it is only a black-bordered letter, addressed in a strange hand, that tells the news; and the black-bordered epistle can be thrown into the fire - if the poor mother does not clutch at it and put it away - and no one be a bit the wiser. It is sometimes to the advantage of his friends that a man should go into the other world by the loneliest and most sequestered path."
So talking, we passed the farm-house, which, with the exception of a red-headed damsel, who thrust her head out of a barn to stare, seemed utterly deserted, and bent our steps towards the shore of the Loch. Rough grass bordered a crescent of yellow sand, and on the rough grass a boat lay on its side, its pitchy seams blistering in the early sunshine. Of this boat we immediately took possession, dragged it down to the sea margin, got in our guns and provisions, tumbled in stones for ballast, procured oars, and pushed of. We had to round the great hill which, from the other side of the valley, we had seen breaking down into the sea ; and as we sailed and looked up, sheep were feeding on the green shelves, and every now and again a white smoke of sea - birds burst out clangorously from the black precipices.
Slowly rounding the rocky buttress, which on stormy days the Atlantic fillips with its spray, another headland, darker still and drearier, drew slowly out to sea, and in a quarter of an hour we had passed from the main ocean into Loch Scavaig, and every pull of the oars revealed another ridge of the Cuchullins. Between these mountain ramparts we sailed, silent as a boatful of souls being conveyed to some Norse hades. The Cuchullins were entirely visible now; and the sight midway up Loch Scavaig is more impressive even than when you stand on the ruined shore of Loch Coruisk itself - for the reason, perhaps, that, sailing midway, the mountain forms have a startling unexpectedness, while by the time you have pulled the whole way up, you have had time to master them to some extent, and familiarity has begun to dull the impression. In half an hour or so we disembarked on a rude platform of rock, and stepped out on the very spot on which, according to Sir Walter, the Bruce landed:
"Where a wild stream with headlong
Comes brawling down a bed of rock
To mingle with the main."
Picking your steps carefully over huge boulder and slippery stone, you come upon the most savage scene of desolation in Britain. Conceive a large lake filled with dark green water, girt with torn and shattered precipices; the bases of which are strewn with ruin since an earthquake passed that way, and whose summits jag the sky with grisly splinter and peak. There is no motion here save the white vapour steaming from the abyss. The utter silence weighs like a burden upon you: you feel an intruder in the place. The hills seem to possess some secret; to brood over some unutterable idea which you can never know. You cannot feel comfortable at Loch Coruisk, and the discomfort arises in a great degree from the feeling that you are outside of everything - that the thunder-splitten peaks have a life with which you cannot intermeddle. The dumb monsters sadden and perplex. Standing there, you are impressed with the idea that the mountains are silent because they are listening so intently. And the mountains are listening, else why do they echo our voices in such a wonderful way? Shout here like an Achilles in the trenches. Listen! The hill opposite takes up your words, and repeats them one after another, and curiously tries them over with the gravity of a raven. Immediately after, you hear a multitude of skyey voices.
"Methinks that there are spirits among the peaks."
How strangely the clear strong tones are repeated by these granite precipices! Who could conceive that Horror had so sweet a voice! Fainter and more musical they grow; fainter, sweeter, and more remote, until at last they come on your ear as if from the blank of the sky itself. M'Ian fired his gun, and it reverberated into a whole battle of Waterloo. We kept the hills busy with shouts and the firing of guns, and then M'Ian led us to a convenient place for lunching. As we trudge along something lifts itself off a rock - 'tis an eagle. See how grandly the noble creature soars away. What sweep of wings! What a lord of the air! And if you cast up your eyes you will see his brother hanging like a speck beneath the sun. Under M'Ian's guidance, we reached the lunching-place, unpacked our basket, devoured our bread and cold mutton, drank our bottled beer, and then lighted our pipes and smoked - in the strangest presence. Thereafter we bundled up our things, shouldered our guns, and marched in the track of ancient Earthquake towards our boat. Embarked once again, and sailing between the rocky portals of Loch Scavaig, I said, "I would not spend a day in that solitude for the world. I should go mad before evening."
"Nonsense," said M'Ian. "Sportsmen erect tents at Coruisk, and stay there by the week - capital trout, too, are to be had in the Loch. The photographer, with his camera and chemicals, is almost always here, and the hills sit steadily for their portraits. It's as well you have seen Coruisk before its glory has departed. Your friend, the Landlord, talks of mooring a floating hotel at the head of Loch Scavaig full of sleeping apartments, the best of meats and drinks, and a brass band to perform the newest operatic tunes on the summer evenings. At the clangour of the brass band the last eagle will take his flight for Harris."
"The Tourist comes, and poetry flies before him as the red man flies before the white. His Tweeds will make the secret top of Sinai commonplace some day."
In due time we reached Camasunary, and drew the boat up on the rough grass beyond the yellow sand. The house looked deserted as we passed. Our friend of the morning we saw seated on a rock, smoking, and gazing up Glen Sligachan, still looking out for the appearance of his messenger from Broadford. At our shout he turned his head and waved his hand. We then climbed the hill and descended on Kilmaree. It was evening now, and as we pulled homewards across the rosy frith, I sat in the bow and watched the monstrous bulk of Blaavin, and the wild fringe of the Cuchulhins bronzed by sunset. M'Ian steered, and the rowers, as they bent to their work, sang melancholy Gaelic songs. It was eleven at night by the time we got across, and the hills we had left were yet cutting, with dull purple, a pale yellow sky; for in summer in these northern latitudes there is no proper night, only a mysterious twilight of an hour and a sparkle of short-lived stars.
Broadford Fair is a great event in the island. The little town lies on the margin of a curving bay, and under the shadow of a somewhat celebrated hill. On the crest of the hill is a cairn of stones, the burying-place of a Scandinavian woman, tradition informs me, whose wish it was to be laid high up there, that she might sleep right in the pathway of the Norway wind. In a green glen at its base stands the house of Corachatachin, breathing reminiscences of Johnson and Boswell. Broadford is a post town, containing a lime kiln, an inn, and perhaps three dozen houses in all. It is a place of great importance. If Portree is the London of Skye, Broadford is its Manchester. The markets, held four times a year, take place on a patch of moorland, about a mile from the village. Not only are cattle sold, and cash exchanged for the same, but there the Skye farmer meets his relations, from the brother of his blood to his cousin forty times removed. To these meetings he is drawn, not only by his love of coin, but by his love of kindred, and - the Broadford Mail and the Portree Advertiser lying yet in the womb of time - by his love of gossip also. The market is the Skye-man's exchange, his family gathering, and his newspaper. From the deep sea of his solitude he comes up to breathe there, and, refreshed, sinks again.
This fair at Broadford I resolved to see. The day before the market the younger M'Ian had driven some forty stirks from the hill, and these, under the charge of John Kelly and his dog, started early in the afternoon that they might be present at the rendezvous about eight o'clock on the following morning, at which hour business generally began. I saw the picturesque troop go past - wildly beautiful brutes of all colours, - black, red, cream-coloured, dun and tan; all of a height, too, and so finely bred that, but for difference of colour, you could hardly distinguish the one from the other. What a lowing they made! how they tossed their slavering muzzles! how the breaths of each individual brute rose in a separate wreath! how John Kelly shouted and objurgated, and how his dog scoured about! At last the bellowings of the animals - the horde chanting after that fashion their obscure "Lochaber no " - grew fainter and fainter up the glen, and finally on everything the wonted silence settled down.
Next morning before sunrise M'Ian and I followed in a dog-cart. We went along the glen down which Fellowes and I had come; and in the meadows over which, on that occasion, we observed a troop of horses galloping through the mist of evening, I noticed, in the beamless light that preceded sunrise, hay coops by the river side, and an empty cart standing with its scarlet poles in the air. In a field nearer, a couple of male black-cocks with a loud whirr-rr were knocking their pugnacious heads together. Suddenly, above the hill in front the sun showed his radiant face, the chill atmosphere was pierced and brightened by his fires, the dewy birch-trees twinkled, and there were golden flickerings on the pools of the mountain stream along whose margin our road ascended. We passed the lake near which the peat-girls had laughed at us; I took note of the very spot on which we had given Bare-legs a shilling, and related the whole story of our evening walk to my companion as we tooled along.
A mile or two after we had passed the little fishing village with which I had formerly made acquaintance, we entered on a very dismal district of country. It was precisely to the eye what the croak of the raven is to the ear. It was an utter desolation in which nature seemed deteriorated, and at her worst. Winter could not possibly sadden the region; no spring could quicken it into flowers. The hills wore but for ornament the white streak of the torrent; the rocky soil clothed itself in heather to which the purple never came. Even man, the miracle-worker, who transforms everything he touches, who has rescued a fertile Holland from the waves, who has reared a marble Venice out of salt lagoon and marsh, was defeated there. Labour was resultless - it went no further than itself - it was like a song without an echo. A turf-hut with smoke issuing from the roof, and a patch of green round about, which reminded you of the smile of an ailing child, and which would probably ripen, so far as it was capable of ripening, by November, was all that man could wrest from nature.
Gradually, however, as we proceeded, the aspect of the country changed, it began to exhibit traces of cultivation; and before long, the red hill with the Norwegian woman's cairn atop, rose before us, suggesting Broadford, and the close of the journey. In a little while the road was filled with cattle, driven forward with oath and shout. Every now and then a dog-cart came skirring along, and infinite was the confusion, and dire the clangour of tongues, when it plunged into a herd of sheep or skittish "three-year-olds." At the entrance to the fair, the horses were taken out of the vehicles, and left, with a leathern thong fastened round their fore-legs, to limp about in search of breakfast. On either side of the road stood hordes of cattle, the wildest-looking creatures, with fells of hair hanging over their eyes, and tossing horns of preposterous dimensions. On knolls, a little apart, women with white caps and wrapped in scarlet tartan plaids, sat beside a staked cow or pony, or perhaps a dozen sheep, patiently waiting the advances of customers. Troops of horses neighed from stakes. Sheep were there, too, in restless throngs and masses, continually changing their shapes, scattering hither and thither like quicksilver, insane dogs and men flying along their edges. What a hubbub of sound! what lowing and neighing! what bleating and barking! Down in the hollow ground tents had been knocked up since dawn; there potatoes were being cooked for drovers who had been travelling all night; there also liquor could be had. To these places, I observed, contracting parties invariably repaired to solemnise a bargain.
At last we reached the centre of the fair, and there stood John Kelly and his animals, a number of drovers moving around them and examining their points. By these men my friend was immediately surrounded, and much chaffering and bargain-making ensued; visits to one of the aforesaid tents being made at intervals. It was a strange sight that rude primeval traffic. John Kelly kept a sharp eye on his beasts. Lachlan Roy passed by, and low was his salute, and broad the smile on his good-natured countenance. I wandered about aimlessly for a time, and began to weary of the noise and tumult. M'Ian had told me that he would not be able to return before noonday at earliest, and that all the while he would be engaged in bargain-making on his own account, or on the account of others, and that during those hours I must amuse myself as best I could. As the novelty of the scene wore off, I began to fear that amusement would not be possible. Suddenly lifting my eyes out of the noise and confusion, there were the solitary mountain tops, and the clear mirror of Broadford Bay, the opposite coast sleeping green in it with all its woods; and lo! the steamer from the south sliding in with her red funnel, and breaking the reflection with a track of foam, and disturbing the far-off morning silence with the thunders of her paddles. That sight solved my difficulty for me in a moment. I thought of Dr Johnson and Boswell. "I shall go," I said, "and look at the ruins of the House of Corachatachin, that lies in the green glen beneath the red hill, on the top of which the Norse woman is buried;" and so saying I went.
To me, I confess, of all Hebridean associations, Dr Johnson's visit is the pleasantest. How the doctor ever got there is a matter for perpetual wonder. He liked books, good cheer, club-life, the roar of Fleet Street, good talk, witty companions. One cannot imagine what attractions the rainy and surge-beaten islands possessed for the author of the "Vanity of Human Wishes." Wordsworth had not yet made fashionable a love for mountain and lake, and the shapes of changing cloud. Scott had not yet thrown the glamour of romance over the northern land, from the Sark to the Fitful Head. For fine scenery Johnson did not care one rush. When Boswell in the fulness of his delight pointed out "an immense mountain," the doctor sincerely sneered, "an immense protuberance." He only cared for mountains in books, and even in books he did not care for them much. The rain-cloud, which would put Mr Ruskin into ecstasies, could only suggest to the moralist the urgent necessity of an umbrella or a coach.
Johnson loved his ease; and a visit to the Western island, was in his day a serious matter - about as serious as a visit to Kamtschatka would be in ours. In his wanderings he was exposed to rain and wind, indifferent cookery, tempestuous seas, and the conversation of persons who were neither witty nor learned - who were neither polished like Beauclerk, nor amusing like Goldsmith - and who laughed at epigram as Leviathan laughs at the shaking of the spear. I protest, when I think of the burly doctor travelling in these regions, voluntarily resigning for a while all London delights, I admire him as a very hero. Boswell commemorates certain outbreaks of petulance and spleen; but, on the whole, the great man seems to have been pleased with his adventure. Johnson found in his wanderings beautiful and high-bred women, well-mannered and cultivated men - and it is more than probable that, if he were returning to the islands to-day, he would not find those admirable human qualities in greater abundance.
What puzzles me most is the courage with which the philosopher encountered the sea. I have, in a considerable steamer more than once, shivered at the heavy surge breaking on Ardnamurchan; and yet the doctor passed the place in an open boat on his way to Mull, "lying down below in philosophical tranquillity, with a greyhound at his back to keep him warm," while poor Bozzy remained in the rain above, clinging for dear life to a rope which a sailor gave him to hold, quieting his insurgent stomach as best he could with pious considerations, and sadly disturbed when a bigger wave than usual came shouldering onward, making the boat reel, with the objections which had been taken to a particular providence - objections which Dr Hawkesworth had lately revived in his preface to "Voyages to the South Seas."
Boswell's journal of the tour is delicious reading; full of amusing egotism; unconsciously comic when he speaks for himself, and at the same time valuable, memorable, wonderfully vivid and dramatic in presentment when the "Majestic Teacher of Moral and Religious Wisdom" appears. What a singular capacity the man had to exhibit his hero as he lived, and at the same time to write himself complacently down an ass! It needed a certain versatility to accomplish the feat, one would think. In both ways the most eminent success attends him. And yet the absurdity of Boswell has all the effect of the nicest art. Johnson floats, a vast galleon, in the sea of Boswell's vanity; and in contrast with the levity of the element in which it lives, its bulk and height appear all the more impressive. In Skye one is every now and again coming on the tract of the distinguished travellers. They had been at Broadford - and that morning I resolved I should go to Broadford also.
Picking my steps carefully through the fair - avoiding a flock of sheep on the one side, and a column of big-horned black cattle on the other, with some difficulty getting out of the way of an infuriated bull that came charging up the road, scattering everything right and left, a dozen blown drovers panting at its heels - I soon got quit of the turmoil, and in half an hour passed the lime-kiln, the dozen houses, the ten shops, the inn, and the church, which constitute Broadford, and was pacing along the green glen which ran in the direction of the red hills. At last I came to a confused pile of stones, near which grew a solitary tree whose back the burden of the blast had bent, and which, although not a breath of wind was stirring, could no more regain an upright position than can a round-shouldered labourer on a holiday.
That confused pile of stones was all that remained of the old house of Corachatachin. I wandered around it more reverently than if it had been the cairn of a chief. It is haunted by no ghost. So far as my knowledge extends, no combat ever took place on the spot. But there Boswell, after Dr Johnson had retired to rest, in company with some young Highland bloods - ah, me! their very grandchildren must be dead or gray by this! - brewed and quaffed five gigantic bowls of punch, with what wild talk we can fancy; and the friend of the "Majestic Teacher of Moral and Religious Wisdom" went to bed at five in the morning, and awoke with the headache of the reprobate. At noon the doctor burst in with the exclamation, "What, drunk yet?" "His tone of voice was not that of severe upbraiding," writes the penitent Bozzy, "so I was relieved a little." Did they fancy, these young men, as they sat that night and drank, that a hundred years after people would write of their doings ? - that the odour of their punch-bowls would outlive themselves? No man knows what part of his life will be remembered, what forgotten. A single tear, hurriedly brushed away mayhap, is the best thing we know of Xerxes. Picking one's steps around the ruin, one thought curiously of the flushed faces which death has cooled for so long.
When I got back to the fair about noon, it was evident that a considerable stroke of business had been done. Hordes of bellowing cattle were being driven towards Broadford, and drovers were rushing about in wonderful manner, armed with tar-pot and stick, and smearing their peculiar mark on the shaggy hides of their purchases. Rough-looking customers enough these fellows, yet they want not means. Some of them came here this morning with £500 in their pocket-books, and have spent every paper of it, and this day three months they will return with as large a sum. As I advanced, the booths ranged along the side of the road - empty when I passed them several hours before - were plentifully furnished with confections, ribbons, and cheap jewellery, and around these fair-headed and scarlet-plaided girls swarmed thickly as bees round summer flowers.
The fair was running its full career of bargain-making, and consequent dram-drinking, rude flirtation, and meeting of friend with friend; when up the middle of the road, hustling the passengers, terrifying the cattle, came three misguided young gentlemen - medical students, I opined, engaged in botanical researches in these regions. But too plainly they had been dwellers in tents. One of them, gifted with a comic genius - his companions were desperately solemn - at one point of the road threw back the collar of his coat, after the fashion of Sambo when he brings down the applauses of the threepenny gallery, and executed a shuffle in front of a bewildered cow. Crummje backed and shied, bent on retreat. He, agile as a cork, bobbed up and down in her front, turn whither she would, with shouts and hideous grimaces, his companions standing by the while like mutes at a funeral. The feat accomplished, the trio staggered on, amid the scornful laughter and derision of the Gael.
In a little while I encountered M'Ian, who had finished his business and was anxious to be gone. "We must harness the horse ourselves," he said, "for that rascal, John Kelly, has gone off somewhere. He has been in and out of tents ever since the cattle were sold, and I trust he won't come to grief. He has a standing quarrel with the Kyle men, and may get a broken head." Elbowing our way through the crowd, we reached the dog-cart, got the horse harnessed, and were just about to start, when Lachlan Roy, his bonnet off, his countenance inflamed, came flying up. "Maister Alic, Maister Alic, is my face red yet ?" cried he, as he laid his hand on the vehicle. "Red enough, Lachlan; you had better come with us, you may lose your money if you don't." "Aw, Maister Alic dear, don't say my face is red - it's no red, Maister Alic - it 's no vera red," pled the poor fellow. "Will you come with us, or will you not?" said M'Ian, as he gathered up the reins in his hand and seized the whip. At this moment three or four drovers issued from a tent in the neighbourhood, and Lachlan heard his name shouted. "I maun go back for my bonnet. It wouldna do to ride with gentlemen without a bonnet ;" and he withdrew his hand. The drovers shouted again, and that second shout drew Lachlan towards it as the flame draws the moth. "His face will be red enough before evening," said M'Ian, as we drove away.
After we had driven about a quarter of an hour, and got entirely free of the fair, M'Ian, shading his eyes from the sun with a curved palm, suddenly exclaimed, "There's a red dog sitting by the road-side a little forward. It looks like John Kelly's." When we got up, the dog wagged its tail and whined, but retained its recumbent position. "Come out," said M'Ian. "The dog is acting the part of a sentinel, and I daresay we shall find its master about." We got out accordingly, and soon found John stretched on the heather, snoring stertorously, his neck-tie unloosened, his bonnet gone, the sun shining full on the rocky countenance of him. "He's as drunk as the Baltic," said M'Ian; "but we must get him out of this. Get up, John." But John made no response. We pinched, pulled, and thumped, but John was immovable. I proposed that some water should be poured on his face, and did procure some from a wet ditch near, with which his countenance was splashed copiously - not to its special adornment. The muddy water only produced a grunt of dissatisfaction. "We must take him on his fighting side," said M'Ian, and then he knelt down and shouted in John's ear, "Here's a man from Kyle says he's a better man than you." John grunted inarticulate defiance. "He says he'll fight you any day you like." "Tell him to strike me, then," said John, struggling with his stupor. "He says he'll kick you." Under the insult John visibly writhed. "Kick him," whispered M'Ian, "as hard as you can. It's our only chance." I kicked, and John was erect as a dart, striking blindly out, and when he became aware against whom he was making such hostile demonstrations his hands dropped, and he stood as if he had seen a ghost. "Catch him," said M'Ian, "his rage has sobered him, he'll be drunk next moment; get him into the dog-cart at once." So the lucid moment was taken advantage of, he was hoisted into the back seat of the vehicle, his bonnet was procured - he had fallen asleep upon it - and placed on the wild head of him; we took our places, and away we started, with the red dog trotting behind. John rolled off once or twice, but there was no great harm done, and we easily got him in again. As we drove down the glen toward the house we set him down, and advised him to dip his wildly-tangled head in the stream before he went home.
During the last few weeks I have had opportunity of witnessing something of life as it passes in the Skye wildernesses, and have been struck with its self-containedness, not less than with its remoteness. A Skye family has everything within itself. The bare mountains yield mutton, which possesses a flavour and delicacy unknown in the south. The copses swarm with rabbits; and if a net is set over-night at the Black Island, there is abundance of fish to breakfast. The farmer grows his own corn, barley, and potatoes, digs his own peats, makes his own candles; he tans leather, spins cloth shaggy as a terrier's pile, and a hunchbacked artist in the place transforms the raw materials into boots or shepherd garments. Twice every year a huge hamper arrives from Glasgow, stuffed with all the little luxuries of housekeeping - tea, sugar, coffee, and the like. At more frequent intervals comes a ten-gallon cask from Greenock, whose contents can cunningly draw the icy fangs of a north-easter, or take the chill out of the clammy mists.
"What want they that a king should have?"
And once a week the Inverness Courier, like a window suddenly opened on the roaring sea, brings a murmur of the outer world, its politics, its business, its crimes, its literature, its whole multitudinous and unsleeping life, making the stillness yet more still. To the Islesman the dial face of the year is not artificially divided, as in cities, by parliamentary session and recess, college terms, vacations short and long, by the rising and sitting of courts of justice; nor yet, as in more fortunate soils, by imperceptible gradations of coloured light - the green flowery year deepening into the sunset of the October hollyhock; the slow reddening of burdened orchards; the slow yellowing of wheaten plains. Not by any of these, but by the higher and more affecting element of animal life, with its passions and instincts, its gladness and suffering; existence like our own, although in a lower key, and untouched by solemn issues; the same music and wail, although struck on rude and uncertain chords. To the Islesman the year rises into interest when the hills, yet wet with melted snows, are pathetic with newly-yeaned lambs, and it completes itself through the successive steps of weaning, fleecing, sorting, fattening, sale, final departure, and cash in pocket.
The shepherd life is more interesting than the agricultural, inasmuch as it deals with a higher order of being; for I suppose - apart from considerations of profit - a couchant ewe, with her young one at her side, or a ram, "with wreathed horns superb," cropping the herbage, is a more pleasing object to the aesthetic sense than a field of mangel-wurzel, flourishing ever so gloriously. The shepherd inhabits a mountain country, lives more completely in the open air, and is acquainted with all the phenomena of storm and calm, the thunder-smoke coiling in the wind, the hawk hanging stationary in the breathless blue. He knows the faces of the hills, recognises the voices of the torrents as if they were children of his own, can unknit their intricate melody as he lies with his dog beside him on the warm slope at noon, separating tone from tone, and giving this to rude crag, that to pebbly bottom. From long intercourse, every member of his flock wears to his eye its special individuality, and he recognises the countenance of a "wether" as he would the countenance of a human acquaintance. Sheep-farming is a picturesque occupation: and I think a multitude of sheep descending a hill-side, now outspreading in bleating leisure, now huddling together in the haste of fear - the dogs, urged more by sagacity than by the shepherd's voice, flying along the edges, turning, guiding, changing the shape of the mass - one of the prettiest sights in the world.
The milking of the cows is worth going a considerable distance to see. The cows browse about on the hills all day, and at sunset they are driven into a sort of green oasis, amid the surrounding birch-wood. The rampart of rock above is dressed in evening colours, the grass is golden green; everything - animals, herds, and milkmaids are throwing long shadows. All about, the cows stand lowing in picturesque groups. The milkmaid approaches one, caresses it for a moment, draws in her stool, and in an instant the rich milk is hissing in the pail. All at once there arises a tremendous noise, and pushing through the clumps of birch-wood down towards a shallow rivulet which skirts the oasis, breaks a troop of wild-looking calves, attended by a troop of wilder-looking urchins armed with sticks and the branches of trees. The cows low more than ever, and turn their wistful eyes; the bellowing calves are halted on the further side of the rivulet, and the urchins stand in the water to keep them back. An ardent calf, however, breaks through the cordon of urchins, tumbles one into the streamlet, climbs the bank amid much Gaelic exclamation, and ambles awkwardly toward his dam. Reaching her, he makes a wild push at the swollen udder, drinks, his tail shaking with delight; while she, turning her head round, licks his shaggy hide with fond maternal tongue. In about five minutes he is forced to desist, and with a branch-bearing urchin on each side of him, is marched across the rivulet again. One by one the calves are allowed to cross, each makes the same wild push at the udder, each drinks, the tail ecstatically quivering; and on each the dam fixes her great patient eyes, and turning licks the hide, whether it be red, black, brindled, dun, or cream-coloured.
When the calves have been across the rivulet and back again, and the cows are being driven away to their accustomed pasturage, a milk-maid approaches with her pail, and holding it up, gives you to drink, as long ago Rebecca gave to drink the servant of Abraham. By this time the grass is no longer golden green; the red light has gone off the rocky ramparts, and the summer twilight is growing in the hollows, and in amongst the clumps of birch-wood. Afar you hear the noise of retiring calves and urchins. The milk-maids start off in long procession with their pails and stools. A rabbit starts out from a bush at your feet, and scurries away down the dim field. And when, following, you descend the hill-side toward the bridge you see the solemn purple of the Cuchullins cutting the yellow pallor of evening sky - perhaps with a feeling of deeper satisfaction you notice that a light is burning in the porch of Mr M'Ian's house.
"The fold," as the milking of the cows is called, is pretty enough; but the most affecting incident of shepherd life is the weaning of the lambs - affecting, because it reveals passions in the fleecy flocks, the manifestation of which we are accustomed to consider ornamental in ourselves. From all the hills men and dogs drive the flocks down into a fold, or fank, as it is called here, consisting of several chambers or compartments. Into these compartments the sheep are huddled, and then the separation takes place. The ewes are returned to the mountains, the lambs are driven away to some spot where the pasture is rich, and where they are watched day and night. Midnight comes with dews and stars; the lambs are peacefully couched. Suddenly they are restless, ill at ease, goaded by some sore unknown want, and seem disposed to scatter wildly in every direction; but the shepherds are wary, the dogs swift and sure, and after a little while the perturbation is allayed, and they are quiet again. Walk up now to the fank. The full moon is riding between the hills, filling the glens with lustres and floating mysterious glooms. Listen! you hear it on every side of you, till it dies away in the silence of distance - the fleecy Rachel weeping for her children! The turf walls of the fank are in shadow, but something seems to be moving there. As you approach, it disappears with a quick short bleat, and a hurry of tiny hooves. Wonderful mystery of instinct! Affection all the more affecting that it is so wrapt in darkness, hardly knowing its own meaning. For nights and nights the creatures will be found haunting about those turfen walls seeking the young that have been taken away.
But my chief delight here is my friend, Mr M'Ian. I know that I described him when I first saw him in his own house; but knowing him better now, as a matter of course I can describe him better. He would strike one with a sense of strangeness in a city, and among men of the present generation; but here he creates no surprise - he is a natural product of the region, like the red heather, or the bed of the dried torrent. He is master of legendary lore. He knows the history of every considerable family in the island; he circulates like sap through every genealogical tree; he is an enthusiast in Gaelic poetry, and is fond of reciting compositions of native bards, his eyes lighted up, and his tongue moving glibly over the rugged clots of consonants. He has a servant cunning upon the pipes; and, dwelling there this summer, I heard Ronald wandering near the house, solacing himself with their music: now a plaintive love-song, now a coronach for chieftain borne to his grave, now a battle march, the notes of which, melancholy and monotonous at first, would soar into a higher strain, and then hurry and madden as if beating time to the footsteps of the charging clan.
I am the fool of association; and the tree under which a king has rested, the stone on which a banner was planted on the morning of some victorious or disastrous day, the house in which some great man first saw the light, are to me the sacredest things. This slight, gray, keen-eyed man - the scabbard sorely frayed now, the blade sharp and bright as ever - gives me a thrill like an old coin with its half-obliterated effigy, a Druid stone on a moor, a stain of blood on the floor of a palace. He stands before me a living figure, and history groups itself behind by way of background. He sits at the same board with me, and yet he lifted Moore at Corunna, and saw the gallant dying eyes flash up with their last pleasure when the Highlanders charged past. He lay down to sleep in the light of Wellington's watch-fires in the gorges of the Pyrenees; around him roared the death-thunders of Waterloo. There is a certain awfulness about very old men; they are amongst us, but not of us. They crop out of the living soil and herbage of to-day, like rocky strata bearing marks of the glacier or the wave. Their roots strike deeper than ours, and they draw sustenance from an earlier layer of soil. They are lonely amongst the young; they cannot form new friendships, and are willing to be gone. They feel the "sublime attractions of the grave"; for the soil of churchyards once flashed kind eyes on them, heard with them the chimes at midnight, sang and clashed the brimming goblet with them; and the present Tom and Harry are as nothing to the Tom and Harry that swaggered about and toasted the reigning belles seventy years ago.
We are accustomed to lament the shortness of life; but it is wonderful how long it is notwithstanding. Often a single life, like a summer twilight, connects two historic days. Count back four lives, and King Charles is kneeling on the scaffold at Whitehall. To hear M'Ian speak, one could not help thinking in this way. In a short run across the mainland with him this summer, we reached Culloden Moor. The old gentleman with a mournful air - for he is a great Jacobite, and wears the Prince's hair in a ring - pointed out the burial-grounds of the clans. Struck with his manner, I inquired how he came to know their red resting-places. As if hurt, he drew himself up, laid his hand on my shoulder, saying, "Those who put them in told me." Heavens, how a century and odd years collapsed, and the bloody field - the battle-smoke not yet cleared away, and where Cumberland's artillery told the clansmen sleeping in thickest swathes - unrolled itself from the horizon down to my very feet! For a whole evening he will sit and speak of his London life; and I cannot help contrasting the young officer, who trod Bond Street with powder in his hair at the end of last century, with the old man living in the shadow of Blaavin now.
Dwellers in cities have occasionally seen a house that has the reputation of being haunted, and heard a ghost story told. City people laugh when these stories are told, even although the blood should run chill the while. But in Skye one is steeped in a ghostly atmosphere; men walk about here gifted with the second sight. There has been something weird and uncanny about the island for some centuries. Douglas, on the morning of Otterbourne, according to the ballad, was shaken with superstitious fears: -
"But I hae dream'd a dreary dream -
Beyond the Isle of Skye,
I saw a dead man win a fight,
And I think that man was I."
Then the whole country is full of stories of the Norwegian times and earlier - stories it might be worth Dr Dasent's while to take note of, should he ever visit the Hebrides. Skye, more particularly, is haunted of legends. It is as full of noises as Prospero's Island. One such legend, concerning Ossian and his poems, struck me a good deal. Near Mr M'Ian's place is a ruined castle, a mere hollow shell of a building, Dunscaich by name, built in Fingalian days by the chieftain Cuchullin, and so called by him in honour of his wife. The ruin stands on a rocky headland bearded by gray-green lichens. It is quite desolate, and but seldom visited. The only sounds heard there are the whistle of the salt breeze, the bleat of a strayed sheep, the cry of wheeling sea-birds.
M'Ian and myself sat one summer day on the ruined stair. Loch Eishart lay calm and bright beneath, the blue expanse broken only by a creeping sail. Across the Loch rose the great red hill, in the shadow of which Boswell got drunk, on the top of which is perched the Scandinavian woman's cairn; and out of the bare heaven, down on the crests of the Cuchullins, flowed a great white vapour which gathered in the sunlight in mighty fleece on fleece. The old gentleman was the narrator, and the legend goes as follows: The castle was built by Cuchullin and his Fingalians in a single night. The chieftain had many retainers, was a great hunter, and terrible in war. With his own arm he broke battalions; and every night at feast the minstrel Ossian sang his exploits. Ossian, on one occasion, wandering among the hills, was attracted by strains of music which seemed to issue from a round green knoll on which the sun shone pleasantly. He sat down to listen, and was lulled asleep by the melody. He had no sooner fallen asleep than the knoll opened, and he beheld the under-world of the fairies. That afternoon and night he spent in revelry, and in the morning he was allowed to return. Again the music sounded, again the senses of the minstrel were steeped in forgetfulness; and on the sunny knoll he awoke, a gray-haired man, for into one short afternoon and evening had been crowded a hundred of our human years.
In his absence the world had been entirely changed, the Fingalians were extinct, and the dwarfish race whom we now call men were possessors of the country. Longing for companionship, and weary of singing his songs to the earless rocks and sea waves, Ossian married the daughter of a shepherd, and in process of time a little girl was born to him. Years passed on, his wife died, and his daughter, woman grown now, married a pious man - for the people were Christianised by this time - called, from his love of psalmody, Peter of the Psalms. Ossian, blind with age, and bearded like the cliff yonder, went to reside with his daughter and her husband. Peter was engaged all day in hunting, and when he came home at evening and the lamp was lighted, Ossian, sitting in a warm corner, was wont to recite the wonderful songs of his youth, and to celebrate the mighty battles and hunting feats of the big-boned Fingalians - and in these songs Cuchullin stood with his terrible spear upraised, and his beautiful wife sat amid her maids plying the distaff.
To these songs Peter of the Psalms gave attentive ear, and, being something of a penman, carefully inscribed them in a book. One day Peter had been more than usually successful in the chase, and brought home on his shoulders the carcass of a huge stag. Of this stag a leg was dressed for supper, and when it was picked bare, Peter triumphantly inquired of Ossian, "In the Fingalian days you sing about, killed you ever a stag so large as this one?" Ossian balanced the bone in his hand, then sniffing intense disdain, replied, "This bone, big as you think it, could be dropped into the hollow of a Fingalian blackbird's leg." Peter of the Psalms, enraged at what he considered an unconscionable crammer on the part of his father-in-law, started up, swearing that he would not peril his soul by preserving any more of his lying songs, and flung the volume in the fire: but his wife darted forward and snatched it up, half-charred, from the embers.
At this conduct on the part of Peter, Ossian groaned in spirit and wished to die, that he might be saved from the envies and stupidities of the little people whose minds were as stunted as their bodies. When he went to bed he implored his ancient gods - for he was a sad heathen, and considered psalm-singing no better than the howling of dogs - to resuscitate, if but for one hour, the hounds, the stags, and the blackbirds of his youth, that he might confound and astonish the unbelieving Peter. His prayers done, he fell on slumber, and just before dawn a weight upon his breast awoke him. He put forth his hands and stroked a shaggy hide. Ossian's prayers were answered, for there, upon his breast, in the dark of the morning, was couched his favourite hound. He spoke to it; called it by name, and the faithful creature whimpered and licked his hands and face. Swiftly he got up and called his little grandson, and they went out with the hound. When they came to the top of a little eminence, Ossian said to the child, "Put your fingers in your ears, little one, else I will make you deaf for life." The boy put his fingers in his ears, and then Ossian whistled so loud that the whole sky rang as if it had been the roof of a cave. He then asked the child if he saw anything. "Oh, such large deer!" said the child. "But a small herd by the trampling of it," said Ossian; "we will let that herd pass." Presently the child called out, "Oh, such large deer!" Ossian bent his ear to the ground to catch the sound of their coming, and then, as if satisfied, he let slip the hound, who speedily overtook and tore down seven of the fattest.
When the animals were skinned and dressed, Ossian groped his way toward a large lake, in the centre of which grew a wonderful bunch of rushes. He waded into the lake, tore up the rushes, and brought to light the great Fingalian kettle, which had lain there for more than a century. Returning to his quarry, a fire was kindled, the kettle containing the seven carcasses was placed thereupon; and soon a most savoury smell, like a general letter of invitation, flew abroad on all the winds. When the animals were stewed after the approved fashion of his ancestors, Ossian sat down to his repast. Now as since his sojourn with the fairies, and the extermination of the Fingalians, he had never enjoyed a sufficient meal, it was his custom to gather up the superfluous folds of his stomach by wooden splints, nine in number. As he now fed and expanded, splint after splint was thrown away, as button after button burst on the jacket of the feasting boy in the story-book, till at last, when the kettle was emptied, he lay down on the grass perfectly satisfied, and silent as the ocean when the tide is full.
Recovering himself, he gathered all the bones together - set fire to them, and the smoke which ascended made the roof of the firmament as black as the roof of the turf-hut at home. "Little one," then said Ossian, "go up to the knoll and tell me if you see anything." "A great bird is flying hither," said the child; and immediately the great Fingalian blackbird alighted at the feet of Ossian, who at once caught and throttled it. The fowl was carried home, and was in the evening dressed for supper. After it was devoured, Ossian called for the stag's thigh-bone which had been the original cause of quarrel, and before the face of the astonished and convicted Peter of the Psalms, dropped it into the hollow of the blackbird's leg. Ossian died on the night of his triumph, and the only record of his songs is the volume which Peter in his rage threw into the fire, and from which, when half-consumed, it was rescued by his wife.
"But," said I, when the old gentleman had finished his story, "how came it that the big-boned Fingalians were extirpated during the hundred years that Ossian was asleep amongst the fairies?"
"Well," said the old gentleman, "a woman was the cause of that, just as a woman is the cause of most of the other misfortunes that happen in the world. I told you that this castle was built by Cuchullin, and that he and his wife lived in it. Now tallest, bravest, strongest, handsomest of all Cuchullin's warriors was Diarmid, and many a time his sword was red with the blood of the little people who came flocking over here from Ireland in their wicker and skin-covered boats. Now, when Diarmid took off his helmet at feast, there was a fairy mole right in the centre of his forehead, just above the eyes and between his curling locks; and on this beauty spot no woman could look without becoming enamoured of him.
One night Cuchulun gave a feast in the castle; the great warrior was invited; and while he sat at meat with his helmet off, Cuchullin's wife saw the star-like mole in the centre of his forehead, and incontinently fell in love with him. Cuchullin discovered his wife's passion, and began secretly to compass the death of Diarmid. He could not slay him openly for fear of his tribe; so he consulted an ancient witch who lived over the hill yonder. Long they consulted, and at last they matured their plans. Now, the Fingalians had a wonderful boar which browsed in Gasken - the green glen which you know leading down to my house - and on the back of this boar there was a poisoned bristle, which, if it pierced the hand of any man, the man would certainly die. No one knew the secret of the bristle save the witch, and the witch told it to Cuchullin. One day, therefore, when the chief and his warriors were sitting on the rocks here about, the conversation was cunningly led to the boar. Cuchullin wagered the magic whistle which was slung around his neck, that the brute was so many handbreadths from the snout to the tip of the tail. Diarmid wagered the shield that he was polishing - the shield which was his mirror in peace, by the aid of which he dressed his curling locks, and with which he was wont to dazzle the eyes of his enemies on a battle day - that it was so many handbreadths less.
The warriors heard the dispute and were divided in opinion; some agreeing with Cuchullin, others agreeing with Diarmid. At last it was arranged that Diarmid should go and measure the boar; so he and a number of the warriors went. In a short time they came back laughing and saying that Diarmid had won his wager, that the length of the boar was so many handbreadths, neither more nor less. Cuchullin bit his white lips when he saw them coming; and then he remembered that he had asked them to measure the boar from the snout to the tail, being the way the pile lay; whereas, in order to carry out his design, he ought to have asked them to measure the boar against the pile. When, therefore, he was told that he had lost his wager, he flew into a great rage, maintained that they were all conspiring to deceive him, that the handbreadths he had wagered were the breadths of Diarmid's own hands, and declared that he would not be satisfied until Diarmid would return and measure the boar from the tip of tail to the snout.
Diarmid and the rest went away; and when he reached the boar he began measuring it from the tail onward, his friends standing by to see that he was measuring properly, and counting every handbreadth. He had measured half way up the spine, when the poisoned bristle ran into his hand. 'Ah,' he said, and turned pale as if a spear had been driven into his heart. To support himself, he caught two of his friends round the neck, and in their arms he died. Then the weeping warriors raised the beautiful corpse on their shoulders and carried it to the castle, and laid it down near the drawbridge. Cuchullin then came out, and when he saw his best warrior dead he laughed as if a piece of great good fortune had befallen him, and directed that the corpse should be carried into his wife's chamber.
"But Cuchullin had cause to repent soon after. The little black-haired people came swarming over from Ireland in their boats by hundreds and thousands, but Diarmid was not there to oppose them with his spear and shield. Every week a battle was fought, and the little people began to prevail; and by the time that Ossian made his escape from the fairies, every Fingalian, with the exception of two, slept in their big graves - and at times the peat digger comes upon their mighty bones when he is digging in the morasses."
"And the two exceptions?" said I.
"Why, that's another story," said M'Ian, "and I getting tired of legends. Well, if you will have it, the two last Fingalians made their escape from Skye, carrying with them the magic whistle which Cuchullin wore around his neck, and took up their abode in a cave in Ross-shire. Hundreds of years after a man went into that cave, and in the half twilight of the place saw the whistle on the floor, and lifted it up. He saw it was of the strangest workmanship, and putting it to his lips he blew it. He had never heard a whistle sound so loudly and yet so sweetly. He blew it a second time, and then he heard a voice, 'Well done, little man; blow the whistle a third time;' and turning to the place from which the sound proceeded, he saw a great rock like a man leaning on his elbow and looking up at him. 'Blow it the third time, little man, and relieve us from our bondage!' What between the voice, and the strange human-looking rock, the man got so terrified that he dropped the whistle on the floor of the cave, where it was smashed into a thousand pieces, and ran out into the daylight. He told his story; and when the cave was again visited, neither he nor his companions could see any trace of the broken whistle on the floor, nor could they discover any rock which resembled a weary man leaning on his elbow and looking up."
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