The month of August is to the year what Sunday is to the week. During that month a section of the working world rests. Bradshaw is consulted, portmanteaus are packed, knapsacks are strapped on, steamboats and railway carriages are crammed, and from Calais to Venice the tourist saunters and looks about him. It is absolutely necessary that the Briton should have, each year, one month's cessation from accustomed labour. He works hard, puts money in his purse, and it is his whim, when August comes, by way of recreation, to stalk deer on Highland corries, to kill salmon in Norwegian fords, to stand on the summit of Mont Blanc, and to perambulate the pavements of Madrid, Naples, and St Petersburg. To rush over the world during vacation is a thing on which the respectable Briton sets his heart. To remain at home is to lose caste and self-respect. People do not care one rush for the Rhine; but that sacred stream they must behold each year or die. Of all the deities Fashion has the most zealous votaries. No one can boast a more extensive martyrology. Her worshippers are terribly sincere, and many a secret penance do they undergo, and many a flagellation do they inflict upon themselves in private.
Early in the month in which English tourists descend on the Continent in a shower of gold, it has been my custom, for several years back, to seek refuge in the Hebrides. I love Loch Snizort better than the Mediterranean, and consider Duntulme more impressive than the Drachenfels. I have never seen the Alps, but the Cuchullins content me. Haco interests me more than Charlemagne. I confess to a strong affection for those remote regions. Jaded and nervous with eleven months' labour or disappointment, there will a man find the medicine of silence and repose. Pleasant, after poring over books, to watch the cormorant at early morning flying with outstretched neck over the bright frith; pleasant, lying in some sunny hollow at noon, to hear the sheep bleating above; pleasant at evening to listen to wild stories of the isles told by the peat-fire; and pleasantest of all, lying awake at midnight, to catch, muffled by distance, the thunder of the northern sea, and to think of all the ears the sound has filled. In Skye one is free of one's century; the present wheels away into silence and remoteness; you see the ranges of brown shields, and hear the shoutings of the Bare Sarks.
The benefit to be derived from vacation is a mental benefit mainly. A man does not require change of air so much as change of scene. It is well that he should for a space breathe another mental atmosphere - it is better that he should get release from the familiar cares that, like swallows, build and bring forth under the eaves of his mind, and which are continually jerking and twittering about there. New air for the lungs, new objects for the eye, new ideas for the brain - these a vacation should always bring a man; and these are to be found in Skye rather than in places more remote. In Skye the Londoner is visited with a stranger sense of foreignness than in Holland or in Italy. The island has not yet, to any considerable extent, been overrun by the tourist.
To visit Skye is to make a progress into "the dark backward and abysm of time." You turn your back on the present and walk into antiquity. You see everything in the light of Ossian, as in the light of a mournful sunset. With a Norse murmur the blue Lochs come running in. The Canongate of Edinburgh is Scottish history in stone and lime; but in Skye you stumble on matters older still. Everything about the traveller is remote and strange. You hear a foreign language; you are surrounded by Macleods, Macdonalds, and Nicolsons; you come on gray stones standing upright on the moor - marking the site of a battle, or the burial-place of a chief. You listen to traditions of ancient skirmishes; you sit on ruins of ancient date, in which Ossian might have sung. The Loch yonder was darkened by the banner of King Haco. Prince Charles wandered over this heath, or slept in that cave. The country is thinly peopled, and its solitude is felt as a burden. The precipices of the Storr lower grandly over the sea; the eagle has yet its eyrie on the ledges of the Cuchullins. The sound of the sea is continually in your ears; the silent armies of mists and vapours perpetually deploy; the wind is gusty on the moor; and ever and anon the jags of the hills are obscured by swirls of fiercely-blown rain. And more than all, the island is pervaded by a subtle spiritual atmosphere. It is as strange to the mind as it is to the eye.
Old songs and traditions are the spiritual analogues of old castles and burying-places, and old songs and traditions you have in abundance. There is a smell of the sea in the material air; and there is a ghostly something in the air of the imagination. There are prophesying voices amongst the hills of an evening. The raven that flits across your path is a weird thing - mayhap by the spell of some strong enchanter, a human soul is balefully imprisoned in the' hearse-like carcass. You hear the stream, and the voice of the kelpie in it. You breathe again the air of old story-books; but they are northern, not eastern ones. To what better place, then, can the tired man go? There he will find refreshment and repose. There the wind blows out on him from another century. The Sahara itself is not a greater contrast from the London street than is the Skye wilderness.
The chain of islands on the western coast of Scotland, extending from Bute in the throat of the Clyde, beloved of invalids, onward to St Kilda, looking through a cloud of gannets toward the polar night, was originally an appanage of the crown of Norway. In the dawn of history there is a noise of Norsemen around the islands, as there is to-day a noise of sea-birds. There fought, as old sagas tell, Anund, the stanchest warrior that ever did battle on wooden leg. Wood-foot he was called by his followers. When he was fighting his hardest, his men used to shove toward him a block of wood, and resting his maimed limb on that, he laid about him right manfully. From the islands also sailed Helgi, half-pagan, half-Christian. Helgi was much mixed in his faith; he was a good Christian in time of peace, but the aid of Thor he was always certain to invoke when he sailed on some dangerous expedition, or when he entered into battle. Old Norwegian castles, perched on the bold Skye headlands, yet moulder in hearing of the surge.
The sea-rovers come no longer in their dark galleys, but hill and dale wear ancient names that sigh to the Norway pine. The inhabitant of Mull or Skye perusing the "Burnt Njal," is struck most of all by the names of localities - because they are almost identical with the names of localities in his own neighbourhood. The Skye headlands of Trotternish, Greshornish, and Vaternish, look northward to Norway headlands that wear the same or similar names. Professor Munch, of Christiania, states that the names of many of the islands, Arran, Gigha, Mull, Tyree, Skye, Raasay, Lewes, and others, are in their original form Norwegian and not Gaelic. The Hebrides have received a Norse baptism.
Situated as these islands are between Norway and Scotland, the Norseman found them convenient stepping-stones, or resting-places, on his way to the richer southern lands. There he erected temporary strongholds, and founded settlements. Doubtless, in course of time, the son of the Norseman looked on the daughter of the Celt, and saw that she was fair, and a mixed race was the result of alliances. To this day in the islands the Norse element is distinctly visible - not only in old castles, the names of places, but in the faces and entire mental build of the people. Claims of pure Scandinavian descent are put forward by many of the old families. Wandering up and down the islands you encounter faces that possess no Celtic characteristics; which carry the imagination to "Noroway ower the faem;" people with cool calm blue eyes, and hair yellow as the dawn; who are resolute and persistent, slow in pulse and speech; and who differ from the explosive Celtic element surrounding them as the iron headland differs from the fierce surge that washes it, or a block of marble from the heated palm pressed against it.
The Hebrideans are a mixed race; in them the Norseman and the Celt are combined, and here and there is a dash of Spanish blood which makes brown the cheek and darkens the eye. This southern admixture may have come about through old trading relations with the Peninsula - perhaps the wrecked Armada may have had something to do with it. The Highlander of Sir Walter, like the Red Indian of Cooper, is to a large extent an ideal being. But as Uncas does really wear war-paint, wield a tomahawk, scalp his enemies, and, when the time comes, can stoically die, so the Highlander possesses many of the qualities popularly ascribed to him. Scott exaggerated only; he did not invent. He looked with a poet's eye on the district north of the Grampians - a vision keener than any other for what is, but which burdens, and supplements, and glorifies - which, in point of fact, puts a nimbus around everything.
The Highlander stands alone amongst the British people. For generations his land was shut against civilisation by mountain and forest and intricate pass. While the large drama of Scottish history was being played out in the Lowlands, he was busy in his mists with narrow clan-fights and revenges. While the southern Scot owed allegiance to the Jameses, he was subject to Lords of the Isles, and to Duncans and Donalds innumerable; while the one thought of Flodden, the other remembered the "sair field of the Harlaw." The Highlander was, and is still so far as circumstances permit, a proud, loving, punctilious being: full of loyalty, careful of social distinction; with a bared head for his chief, a jealous eye for his equal, an armed heel for his inferior. He loved the valley in which he was born, the hills on the horizon of his childhood; his sense of family relationship was strong, and around him widening rings of cousinship extended to the very verge of the clan.
The Isles-man is a Highlander of the Highlanders; modern life took longer in reaching him, and his weeping climate, his misty wreaths and vapours, and the silence of his moory environments, naturally continued to act upon and to shape his character. He is song-loving, "of imagination all compact;" and out of the natural phenomena of his mountain region - his mist and rain-cloud, wan sea-setting of the moon, stars glancing through rifts of vapour, blowing wind and broken rainbows - he has drawn his poetry and his superstition. His mists give him the shroud high on the living heart, the sea-foam gives him an image of the whiteness of the breasts of his girls, and the broken rainbow of their blushes.
To a great extent his climate has made him what he is. He is a child of the mist. His songs are melancholy for the most part; and you may discover in his music the monotony of the brown moor, the seethe of the wave on the rock, the sigh of the wind in the long grasses of the deserted churchyard. The musical instrument in which he chiefly delights renders most successfully the coronach and the battle-march. The Highlands are now open to all the influences of civilisation. The inhabitants wear breeches and speak English even as we. Old gentlemen peruse their Times with spectacles on nose. Young lads construe "Cornelius Nepos," even as in other quarters of the British islands. Young ladies knit, and practise music, and wear crinoline. But the old descent and breeding are visible through all modern disguises: and your Highlander at Oxford or Cambridge - discoverable not only by his rocky countenance, but by some dash of wild blood, or eccentricity, or enthusiasm, or logical twist and turn of thought - is as much a child of the mist as his ancestor who, three centuries ago, was called a "wilde man" or a "red shanks;" who could, if need were, live on a little oatmeal, sleep in snow, and, with one hand on the stirrup, keep pace with the swiftest horse, let the rider spur never so fiercely.
It is in the Isles, however, and particularly amongst the old Islesmen, that the Highland character is, at this day, to be found in its purity. There, in the dwelling of the proprietor, or still more in that of the large sheep farmer - who is of as good blood as the laird himself - you find the hospitality, the prejudice, the generosity, the pride of birth, the delight in ancient traditions, which smack of the antique time. Love of wandering, and pride in military life, have been characteristic of all the old families. The pen is alien to their fingers, but they have wielded the sword industriously. They have had representatives in every Peninsular and Indian battle-field. India has been the chosen field of their activity. Of the miniatures kept in every family more than one-half are soldiers, and several have attained to no inconsiderable rank. The Island of Skye has itself given to the British and Indian armies at least a dozen generals. And in other services the Islesman has drawn his sword.
Marshal Macdonald had Hebridean blood in his veins; and my friend Mr M'Ian remembers meeting him at Armadale Castle while hunting up his relations in the island, and tells me that he looked like a Jesuit in his long coat. And lads, to whom the profession of arms has been shut, have gone to plant indigo in Bengal or coffee in Ceylon, and have returned with gray hairs to the island to spend their money there, and to make the stony soil a little greener; and during their thirty years of absence Gaelic did not moulder on their tongues, nor did their fingers forget their cunning with the pipes. The palm did not obliterate the memory of the birch; nor the slow up-swelling of the tepid wave, and its long roar of frothy thunder on the flat red sands at Madras, the coasts of their childhood and the smell and smoke of burning kelp.
The important names in Skye are Macdonald and Macleod. Both are of great antiquity, and it is as difficult to discover the source of either in history as it is to discover the source of the Nile in the deserts of Central Africa. Distance in the one case appals the geographer, and in the other the antiquary. Macdonald is of pure Celtic origin, it is understood; Macleod was originally a Norseman. Macdonald was the Lord of the Isles, and more than once crossed swords with Scottish kings. Time has stripped him of royalty, and the present representative of the family is a Baron merely. He sits in his modern castle of Armadale amid pleasant larch plantations, with the figure of Somerlid - the half mythical founder of his race - in the large window of his hall.
The two families intermarried often and quarrelled oftener. They put wedding rings on each other's fingers and dirks into each other's hearts. Of the two, Macleod had the darker origin; and around his name there lingers a darker poetry. Macdonald sits in his new castle in sunny Sleat with a southern outlook - Macleod retains his old eyrie at Dunvegan, with its drawbridge and dungeons. At night he can hear the sea beating on the base of his rock. His "maidens" are wet with the sea foam. His mountain "tables" are shrouded with the mists of the Atlantic. He has a fairy flag in his possession. The rocks and mountains around him wear his name even as of old did his clansmen. "Macleod's country," the people yet call the northern portion of the island. In Skye song and tradition Macdonald is like the green strath with milkmaids milking kine in the fold at sunset, with fishers singing songs as they mend brown nets on the shore. Macleod, on the other hand, is of darker and drearier import - like a wild rocky spire of Quirang or Storr, dimmed with the flying vapour and familiar with the voice of the blast and the wing of the raven. "Macleod's country" looks toward Norway with the pale headlands of Greshornish, Trotternish, and Durinish. The portion of the island which Macdonald owns is comparatively soft and green, and lies to the south.
The Western Islands lie mainly out of the region of Scottish history, and yet by Scottish history they are curiously touched at intervals, Skye more particularly so. In 1263 when King Haco set out on his great expedition against Scotland with one hundred ships and twenty thousand men - an Armada, the period taken into consideration, quite as formidable as the more famous and ill-fated Spanish one some centuries later - the multitude of his sails darkened the Skye lochs. Snizort speaks of him yet. He passed through the Kyles, breathed for a little while at Kerrera, and then swept down on the Ayrshire coast, where King Alexander awaited him, and where the battle of Largs was fought.
This battle occupies the same place in early Scottish annals that Trafalgar or Waterloo occupies in later British ones. It stands in the dawn of Scottish history - resonant, melodious. Unhappily, however, the truth must be told - the battle was a drawn one, neither side being able to claim the victory. Professor Munch, in his notes to "The Chronicle of Man and the Sudreys," gives the following account of the combat, and of the negotiations that preceded it:-
"When King Hacon appeared off Ayr, and anchored at Arran, King Alexander, who appears to have been present himself at Ayr, or in the neighbourhood of the town, with the greater part of his forces, now opened negotiations, sending several messages by Franciscan or Dominican Friars for the purpose of treating for peace. Nor did King Hacon show himself unwilling to negotiate, and proved this sufficiently by permitting Eogan of Argyll to depart in peace, loading him, moreover, with presents, on the condition that he should do his best to bring about a reconciliation, - Eogan pledging himself; if he did not succeed, to return to King Hacon. Perhaps it was due to the exertions of Eogan, that a truce was concluded.
"In order to commence negotiations in a more formal manner, King Hacon now despatched an embassy, consisting of two bishops, Gilbert of Hamar, and Henry of Orkney, with three barons, to Alexander, whom they found at Ayr. They were well received, but could not get any definite answer, - Alexander alleging that, before proposing the conditions, he must consult with his councillors; this done, he should not fail to let King Hacon know the result. The Norwegian messengers, therefore, returned to their king, who meanwhile had removed to Bute. The next day, however, messengers arrived from King Alexander, bringing a list of those isles which he would not resign, - viz., Arran, Bute, and the Cumreys, (that is, generally speaking, the isles inside Kentire,) which implies that he now offered to renounce his claim to all the others. It is certainly not to be wondered at that he did not like to see those isles, which commanded the entrance to the Clyde, in the hands of another power. King Hacon, however, had prepared another list, which contained the names of all those isles which he claimed for the crown of Norway; and although the exact contents are not known, there can be no doubt that at least Arran and Bute were among the number.
"The Saga says that, on the whole, there was, after all, no great difference, but that, nevertheless, no final reconciliation could be obtained, - the Scotchmen trying only to protract the negotiations because the summer was past, and the bad weather was begun. The Scotch messengers at last returned, and King Hacon removed with the fleet to the Cumreys, near Largs, in the direction of Cuningham, no doubt with a view of being either nearer at hand if the negotiations failed, and a landing was to be effected, or only of intimidating his opponents and hastening the conclusion of the peace, as the roadstead in itself seems to have been far less safe than that of Lamlash or Bute. King Alexander sent, indeed, several messages, and it was agreed to hold a new congress a little farther up in the country, which shows that King Alexander now had removed from Ayr to a spot nearer Largs, perhaps to Camphill, (on the road from Largs to Kilbirnie,) where a local tradition states the king encamped. The Norwegian messengers were, as before, some bishops and barons; the Scotch commissaries were some knights and monks. The deliberations were long, but still without any result. At last, when the day was declining, a crowd of Scotchmen began to gather, and, as it continued to increase, the Norwegians, not thinking themselves safe, returned without having obtained anything.
"The Norwegian warriors now demanded earnestly that the truce should be renounced, because their provisions had begun to be scarce, and they wanted to plunder. King Hacon accordingly sent one of his esquires, named Kolbein, to King Alexander with the letter issued by this monarch, ordering him to claim back that given by himself and thus declare the truce to be ended, previously, however, proposing that both kings should meet at the head of their respective armies, and try a personal conference before coming to extremities; only, if that failed, they might go to battle as the last expedient. King Alexander, however, did not declare his intention plainly, and Kolbein, tired of waiting, delivered up the letter, got that of King Hacon back, and thus rescinded the truce. He was escorted to the ships by two monks. Kolbein, when reporting to King Hacon his proceedings, told him that Eogan of Argyll had earnestly tried to persuade King Alexander from fighting with the Norwegians. It does not seem, however, that Eogan went back to King Hacon according to his promise. This monarch now was greatly exasperated, and desired the Scottish monks, when returning, to tell their king that he would very soon recommence the hostilities, and try the issue of a battle.
"Accordingly, King Hacon detached King Dugald, Alan M'Rory his brother, Angus of Isla, Murchard of Kentire, and two Norwegian commanders, with sixty ships, to sail into Loch Long, and ravage the circumjacent ports, while he prepared to land himself with the main force at Largs, and fight the Scottish army. The detachment does not appear to have met with any serious resistance, all the Scotch forces being probably collected near Largs. The banks of Loch Lomond and the whole of Lennox were ravaged. Angus even ventured across the country to the other side, probably near Stirling, killing men and taking a great number of cattle. This done, the troops who had been on shore returned to the ships. Here, however, a terrible storm, which blew for two days, (Oct. 1 and 2,) wrecked ten vessels; and one of the Norwegian captains was taken sick, and died suddenly.
"Also the main fleet, off Largs, suffered greatly by the same tempest. It began in the night between Sunday (Sept. 30) and Monday (Oct. 1,) accompanied by violent showers. A large transport vessel drifted down on the bow of the royal ship, swept off the gallion, and got foul of the cable ; it was at last cast loose and drifted toward the island; but on the royal ship it had been necessary to remove the usual awnings and covers, and in the morning (Oct. 1) when the flood commenced, the wind likewise turned, and the vessel, along with another vessel of transport and a ship of war, was driven on the main beach, where it stack fast, the royal ship drifting down while with five anchors, and only stopped when the eighth had been let go. The king had found it safest to land in a boat on the Cumrey, with the clergy, who celebrated mass, the greater part believing that the tempest had been raised by witch craft. Soon the other ships began to drift; several had to cut away the masts; five drifted towards the shore, and three went aground.
"The men on board these ships were now dangerously situated, because the Scotch, who from their elevated position could see very well what passed in the fleet, sent down detachments against them, while the storm prevented their comrades in the fleet from coming to their aid. They manned, however, the large vessel which had first drifted on shore, and defended themselves as well as they could against the superior force of the enemy, who began shooting at them. Happily the storm abated a little, and the king was not only able to return on board his ships, but even sent them some aid in boats; the Scotch were put to flight, and the Norwegians were able to pass the night on shore. Yet, in the dark, some Scots found their way to the vessel and took what they could.
"In the morning (Tuesday, Oct. 2,) the king himself, with some barons and some troops, went to shore in boats to secure the valuable cargo of the transport, or what was left of it, in which they succeeded. Now, however, the main army of the Scots was seen approaching, and the king, who at first meant to remain on shore and head his troops himself, was prevailed upon by his men, who feared lest he should expose himself too much, to return on board his ship. The number of the Norwegians left on shore did not exceed 1000 men, 240 of whom, commanded by the Baron Agmund Krokidans, occupied a hillock, the rest were stationed on the beach. The Scotch, it is related in the Saga, had about 600 horsemen in armour, several of whom had Spanish steeds, all covered with mail; they had a great deal of infantry, well armed, especially with bows and Lochaber axes.
"The Norwegians believed that King Alexander himself was in the army: perhaps this is true. We learn, however, from Fordun that the real commander was Alexander of Dundonald, the Stewart of Scotland. The Scotch first attacked the knoll with the 240 men, who retired slowly, always facing the enemy and fighting; but in retracing their steps down hill, as they could not avoid accelerating their movement as the impulse increased, those on the beach believed that they were routed, and a sudden panic betook them for a moment, which cost many lives; as the boats were too much crowded they sank with their load; others, who did not reach the boats, fled in a southerly direction, and were pursued by the Scotch, who killed many of them; others sought refuge in the aforesaid stranded vessel: at last they rallied behind one of the stranded ships of war, and an obstinate battle began; the Norwegians, now that the panic was over, fighting desperately.
"Then it was that the young and valiant Piers of Curry, of whom even Fordun and Wyntown speak, was killed by the Norwegian baron Andrew Nicholasson, after having twice ridden through the Norwegian ranks. The storm for a while prevented King Hacon from aiding his men, and the Scotch being tenfold stronger, began to get the upper hand; but at last two barons succeeded in landing with fresh troops, when the Scotch were gradually driven back upon the knoll, and then put to flight towards the hills. This done, the Norwegians returned on board the ships; on the following morning (Oct. 3) they returned on shore to carry away the bodies of the slain, which, it appears, they effected quite unmolested by the enemy; all the bodies were carried to a church, no doubt in Bute, and there buried. The next day, (Thursday, Oct. 4) the king removed his ship farther out under the island, and the same day the detachment arrived which had been sent to Loch Long. The following day, (Friday, Oct. 5,) the weather being fair, the king sent men on shore to burn the stranded ships, which likewise appears to have been effected without any hindrance from the enemy. On the same day he removed with the whole fleet to Lamlash harbour."
With what a curious particularity the Saga relates the events of this smokeless ancient combat - so different from modern ones, where "the ranks are rolled in vapour, and the winds are laid with sound" - and how Piers of Curry, "who had ridden twice through the Norwegian ranks," towers amongst the combatants! As the describer of battles, since the invention of gunpowder, Homer would be no better than Sir Archibald Alison. We have more explicit information as to this skirmish on the Ayrshire coast in the thirteenth century than we have concerning the battle of Solferino; and yet King Hacon has been in his grave these five centuries, and Napoleon III. and Kaiser Joseph yet live. And "Our Own Correspondent" had not come into the world at that date either.
After the battle Haco, grievously tormented by tempests, sailed for Norway, where he died. This was the last invasion of the Northmen, and a few years after the islands were formally ceded to Scotland. Although ceded, however, they could hardly be said to be ruled by the Scottish kings. After the termination of the Norway government, the Hebrides were swayed by the Macdonalds, who called themselves Lords of the Isles. These chieftains waxed powerful, and they more than once led the long-haired Islesmen into Scotland, where they murdered, burned, and ravaged without mercy. In 1411 Donald, one of those island kings, descended on the mainland, and was sorely defeated by the Earl of Mar at Harlaw, near Aberdeen. By another potentate of the same stock the counties of Ross and Moray were ravaged in 1456. In the Western Islands the Macdonalds exercised authentic sovereignty; they owned allegiance to the Scottish king when he penetrated into their remote dominions, and disowned it whenever he turned his back. The Macdonald dynasty, or quasi dynasty, existed till 1536, when the last Lord of the Isles died without an heir, and when there was no shoulder on which the mantle of his authority could fall.
How the Macdonalds came into their island throne it would be difficult, by the flickering rush-light of history, to discover. But wandering up and down the islands, myself and the narrator swathed in a film of blue peat-smoke, a ray of dusty light streaming in through the green bull's-eye in the window, I have heard the following account given: The branches of the Macdonald family, Macdonald of Sleat, Clanranald, who wears the white heather in his bonnet, the analogue of the white rose, and which has been dipped in blood quite as often, Keppoch, one of whose race fell at Culloden, and the rest, were descended from a certain Godfrey, King of Argyll.
This Godfrey had four sons, and one of them was named Somerlid, youngest, bravest, handsomest of all. But un-happily Somerlid was without ambition. While his brothers were burning and ravaging and slaying, grasping lands and running away with rich heiresses, after the fashion of promising young gentlemen of that era, the indolent and handsome giant employed himself in hunting and fishing. His looking-glass was the stream; his drinking. cup the heel of his shoe; he would rather spear a salmon than spear his foe; he burned no churches, the only throats he cut were the throats of deer; he cared more to caress the skins of seals and otters than the shining hair of women. Old Godfrey liked the lad's looks, but had a contempt for his peaceful ways, and, shaking his head, thought him little better than a ne'er-do-weel or a silly one. But for all that, there was a deal of unsuspected matter in Somerlid. At present he was peaceful as a torch or a beacon - unlit. The hour was coming when he would be changed; when he would blaze like a brandished torch, or a beacon on a hill-top against which the wind is blowing.
It so happened that the men of the Western Isles had lost their chief. There was no one to lead them to battle, and it was absolutely necessary that a leader should be procured. Much meditating to whom they should offer their homage they bethought themselves of the young hunter chasing deer on the Argylishire hills. A council was held; and it was resolved that a deputation should be sent to Somerlid to state their case, and to offer that if he should accept the office of chieftain, he and his children should be their chieftains for ever. In some half-dozen galleys the deputation set sail, and finally arrived at the court of old Godfrey. When they told what they wanted, that potentate sent them to seek Somerlid; and him they found fishing.
Somerlid listened to their words with an unmoved countenance; and when they were done, he went aside a little to think over the matter. That done he came forward; "Islesmen," he said, "there's a newly-run salmon in the black pool yonder. If I catch him, I shall go with you as your chief; if I catch him not, I shall remain where I am." To this the men of the Isles were agreeable, and they sat down on the banks of the river to watch the result. Somerlid threw his line over the black pool, and in a short time the silvery mail of the salmon was gleaming on the yellow sands of the river bank. When they saw this the Isles-men shouted; and so after bidding farewell to his father, the elect of the thousands stepped into the largest galley, and with the others in his wake, sailed toward Skye a chief!
When was there a warrior like Somerlid? He spoiled and ravaged like an eagle. He delighted in battle. He rolled his garments in blood. He conquered island after island; he went out with empty galleys, and he returned with them filled with prey, his oarsmen singing his praises. He built up his island throne. He was the first Lord of the Isles; and from his loins sprung all the Lords of the Isles that ever were. He was a Macdonald, and from him the Macdonalds of Sleat are descended. He wore a tartan of his own, which only the Prince of Wales and the young Lord Macdonald, sitting to-day in Eton school, are entitled to wear. And if at any time I ventured to impugn the truth of this legend, I was told that if I went to Armadale Castle I should see the image of Somerlid in the great window of the hall. That was surely confirmation of the truth of the story. He must surely be a sceptical Sassenach who would disbelieve after witnessing that.
Although the Lords of the Isles exercised virtual sovereignty in the Hebrides, the Jameses made many attempts to break their power and bring them into subjection. James I penetrated into the Highlands, and assembled a Parliament at Inverness in 1427. He enticed many of the chiefs to his court, and seized, imprisoned, and executed several of the more powerful. Those who escaped with their lives were forced to deliver up hostages. In fact, the Scottish kings looked upon the Highlanders very much as they looked upon the borderers. In moments of fitful energy they broke on the Highlands just as they broke upon Ettrick and Liddesdale, and hanged and executed right and left.
One of the Acts of Parliament of James IV declared that the Highlands and Islands had become savage for want of a proper administration of justice; and James V made a voyage to the Islands in 1536, when many of the chiefs were captured and carried away. It was about this time that the last Lord of the Isles died. The Jameses were now kings of the Highlands and Islands, but they were only kings in a nominal sense. Every chief regarded himself as a sort of independent prince. The Highland chieftains appeared at Holyrood, it is true; but they drew dirks and shed blood in the presence; they were wanting in reverence for the sceptre; they brought their own feuds with them to the Scottish court, and when James VI attempted to dissolve these feuds in the wine cup, he met with but indifferent success. So slight was lawful authority in 1589 that the island of the Lewes was granted by the crown to a body of Fife gentlemen, if they would but take and hold possession - just as the lands of the rebellious Maories might be granted to the colonists at the present day.
Many a gallant ship of the Spanish Armada was wrecked on the shores of the Western Islands, on the retreat to Spain; and a gun taken from one of these, it is said, lies at Dunstaffnage Castle. In the Islands you yet come across Spanish names, and traces of Spanish blood; and the war ships of Spain that came to grief on the bleak headlands of Skye and Lewes, may have something to do with that. Where the vase is broken there still lingers the scent of the roses. The connexion between Spain and the Western Islands is little more than a mere accident of tempest. Then came the death of Elizabeth and the accession of James to the English throne; and the time was fast approaching when the Highlander would become a more important personage than ever; when the claymore would make its mark in British History.
At first sight it is a matter of wonder that the clans should ever have become Jacobite. They were in nowise indebted to the house of Stuart. With the Scottish kings the Highlands and Islands were almost continually at war. When a James came amongst the northern chieftains he carried an ample death-warrant in his face. The presents he brought were the prison key, the hangman's rope, the axe of the executioner. When the power departed from the Lords of the Isles, the clans regarded the king who sat in Holyrood as their nominal superior; but they were not amenable to any central law; each had its own chief - was self-contained, self-governed, and busy with its own private revenges and forays. When the Lowland burgher was busy with commerce, and the Lowland farmer was busy with his crops, the clansman walked his misty mountains very much as his fathers did centuries before; and his hand was as familiar with the hilt of his broadsword as the hand of the Perth burgher with the ellwand, or that of the farmer of the Lothians with the plough-shaft.
The Lowlander had become industrious and commercial; the Highlander still loved the skirmish and the raid. The Lowlands had become rich in towns, in money, in goods; the Highlands were rich only in swordsmen. When Charles's troubles with his Parliament began, the valour of the Highlands was wasting itself; and Montrose was the first man who saw how that valour could be utilised. Himself a feudal chief, and full of feudal feeling, when he raised the banner of the king he appealed to the ancient animosities of the clans. His arch-foe was Argyll; he knew that Campbell was a widely-hated name; and that hate he made his recruiting sergeant. He bribed the chiefs, but his bribe was revenge. The mountaineers flocked to his standard; but they came to serve themselves rather than to serve Charles.
The defeat of Argyll might be a good thing for the king; but with that they had little concern - it was the sweetest of private revenges, and righted a century of wrongs. The Macdonalds of Sleat fought under the great Marquis at Inverlochy; but the Skye shepherd considers only that on that occasion his forefathers had a grand slaying of their hereditary enemies - he has no idea that the interest of the king was at all involved in the matter. While the battle was proceeding, blind Allan sat on the castle walls with a little boy beside him; the boy related how the battle went, and the bard wove the incidents into extemporaneous song - full of scorn and taunts when the retreat of Argyll in his galley is described - full of exultation when the bonnets of fifteen hundred dead Campbells are seen floating in the Lochy - and blind Allan's song you can hear repeated in Skye at this day. When the splendid career of Montrose came to an end at Philiphaugh, the clansmen who won his battles for him were no more adherents of the king than they had been centuries before: but then they had gratified hatred; they had had ample opportunities for plunder; the chiefs had gained a new importance; they had been assured of the royal gratitude and remembrance; and if they received but scant supplies of royal gold, they were promised argosies.
By fighting under Montrose they were in a sense committed to the cause of the king; and when at a later date Claverhouse again raised the royal standard, that argument was successfully used. They had already served the house of Stuart; they had gained victories in its behalf: the king would not always be in adversity; the time would come when he would be able to reward his friends; having put their hands to the plough it would be folly to turn back. And so a second time the clans rose, and at Killiecrankie an avalanche of kilted men broke the royal lines, and in a quarter of an hour a disciplined army was in ruins, and the bed of the raging Garry choked with corpses. By this time the Stuart cause had gained a footing in the Highlands, mainly from the fact that the clans had twice fought in its behalf. Then a dark whisper of the massacre of Glencoe passed through the glens - and the clansmen believed that the princes they had served would not have violated every claim of hospitality, and shot them down so on their own hearthstones.
All this confirmed the growing feeling of attachment to the king across the water. When the Earl of Mar rose in 1715, Macdonald of Sleat joined him with his men; and being sent out to drive away a party of the enemy who had appeared on a neighbouring height, opened the battle of Sheriffmuir. In 1745, when Prince Charles landed in Knoydart, he sent letters to Macdonald and Macleod in Skye soliciting their aid. Between them they could have brought 2000 claymores into the field; and had the prince brought a foreign force with them, they might have complied with his request. As it was, they hesitated, and finally resolved to range themselves on the side of the Government. Not a man from Sleat fought under the prince. The other great branches of the Macdonald family, Clanranald, Keppoch, and Glengarry, joined him, however; and Keppoch at Culloden, when he found that his men were broken, and would not rally at the call of their chief, charged the English lines alone, and was brought down by a musket bullet.
The Skye gentlemen did not rise at the call of the prince, but when his cause was utterly lost, a Skye lady came to his aid, and rendered him essential service. Neither at the time, nor afterwards, did Flora Macdonald consider herself a heroine, (although Grace Darling herself did not bear a braver heart;) and she is noticeable to this day in history, walking demurely with the white rose in her bosom. When the prince met Miss Macdonald in Benbecula, he was in circumstances sufficiently desperate. The lady had expressed an anxious desire to see Charles; and at their meeting, which took place in a hut belonging to her brother, it struck Captain O'Neil, an officer attached to the prince, and at the moment the sole companion of his wanderings, that she might carry Charles with her to Skye in the disguise of her maid-servant. Miss Macdonald consented. She procured a six oared boat, and when she and her companions entered the hovel in which the prince lay, they found him engaged in roasting for dinner with a wooden spit the heart, liver, and kidneys of a sheep. They were full of compassion, of course; but the prince, who possessed the wit as well as the courage of his family, turned his misfortunes into jests. The party sat down to dinner not uncareless of state. Flora sat on the right hand, and Lady Clanranald, one of Flora's companions, on the left hand of the prince. They talked of St James's as they sat at their rude repast; and stretching out hands of hope, warmed themselves at the fire of the future.
After dinner Charles equipped himself in the attire of a maid-servant. His dress consisted of a flowered linen gown, a light-coloured quilted petticoat, a white apron, and a mantle of dun camlet, made after the Irish fashion, with a hood. They supped on the sea-shore; and while doing so a messenger arrived with the intelligence that a body of military was in the neighbourhood in quest of the fugitive, and on hearing this news Lady Clanranald immediately went home. They sailed in the evening with a fair wind, but they had not rowed above a league when a storm arose, and Charles had to support the spirits of his companions by singing songs and making merry speeches. They came in sight of the pale Skye headlands in the morning, and as they coasted along the shore they were fired on by a party of Macleod militia. While the bullets were falling around, the prince and Flora lay down in the bottom of the boat. The militia were probably indifferent marksmen; at all events no one was hurt.
After coasting along for a space, they landed at Mugstot, the seat of Sir Alexander Macdonald. Lady Macdonald was a daughter of the Earl of Eglinton's, and an avowed Jacobite; and as it was known that Sir Alexander was at Fort Augustus with the Duke of Cumberland, they had no scruple in seeking protection. Charles was left in the boat, and Flora went forward to apprise Lady Macdonald of their arrivaL Unhappily, however, there was a Captain Macleod, an officer of militia, in the house, and Flora had to parry as best she could his interrogations concerning Charles, whose head was worth £30,000. Lady Macdonald was in great alarm lest the presence of the prince should be discovered. Kingsburgh, Sir Alexander's factor, was on the spot, and the ladies took him into their confidence. After consultation, it was agreed that Skye was unsafe, and that Charles should proceed at once to Raasay, taking up his residence at Kingsburgh by the way.
During all this while Charles remained on the shore, feeling probably very much as a Charles of another century did, when, shrouded up in oak foliage, he heard the Roundhead riding beneath. Kingsburgh was anxious to acquaint him with the determination of his friends, but then there was the pestilent captain on the premises, who might prick his ear at a whisper; and whose suspicion, if once aroused, might blaze out into ruinous action. Kingsburgh had concerted his plan, but in carrying it into execution it behoved him to tread so lightly that the blind mole should not hear a footfall. He sent a servant down to the shore to inform the strange maid-servant with the mannish stride that he meant to visit her, but that in the meantime she should screen herself from observation behind a neighbouring hill. Taking with him wine and provisions, Kingsburgh went out in search of the prince.
He searched for a considerable time without finding him, and was about to return to the house, when at some little distance he observed a scurry amongst a flock of sheep. Knowing that sheep did not scurry about after that fashion for their own amusement, he approached the spot, when all at once the prince started out upon him like another Meg Merrilees, a large knotted stick in his fist. "I am Macdonald of Kingsburgh," said the visitor, "come to serve your highness." "It is well," said Charles, saluting him.; Kingsburgh then opened out his plan, with which the prince expressed himself satisfied. After Charles had partaken of some refreshment, they both started towards Kingsburgh House.
The ladies at Mugstot were all this while in sad perplexity, and to that perplexity, on account of the presence of the captain of militia, they could not give utterance. As Kingsburgh had not returned, they could only hope that he had succeeded in finding the prince, and in removing him from that dangerous neighbourhood. Meanwhile dinner was announced, and the captain politely handed in the ladies. He drank his wine, paid Miss Macdonald his most graceful compliments, for a captain - if even of militia only - can never, in justice to his cloth, be indifferent to the fair. It belongs to his profession to be gallant, as it belongs to the profession of a clergyman to say grace before meat. We may be sure, however, that his roses of compliment stung like nettles. He talked of the prince, as a matter of course - the prince being the main topic of conversation in the Islands at the period - perhaps expressed a strong desire to catch him. All this the ladies had to endure, hiding, as the way of the sex is, fluttering hearts under countenances most hypocritically composed.
After dinner, Flora rose at once, but a look from Lady Macdonald induced her to remain for yet a little. Still the gallant captain's talk flowed on, and he must be deceived at any cost. At last Miss Flora was moved with the most filial feelings. She was anxious to be with her mother, to stay and comfort her in these troublous times. She must really be going. Lady Macdonald pressed her to stay, got the gallant captain to bring his influence to bear, but with no effect. The wilful young lady would not listen to entreaty. Her father was absent, and at such a time the claim of a lone mother on a daughter's attention was paramount. Her apology was accepted at last, but only on the condition that she should return soon to Mugstot and make a longer stay. The ladies embraced each other, and then Miss Macdonald mounted, and attended by several servants rode after Prince Charles, who was now some distance on the road to Kingsburgh. Lady Macdonald returned to the captain, than whom seldom has one - whether of the line or the militia - been more cleverly hoodwinked.
Miss Macdonald's party, when she rode after the prince and Kingsburgh, consisted of Neil M'Eachan, who acted as guide, and Mrs Macdonald, who was attended by a male and female servant. They overtook the prince, and Mrs Macdonald, who had never seen him before, was anxious to obtain a peep of his countenance. This Charles carefully avoided. Mrs Macdonald's maid, noticing the uncouth appearance of the tall female figure, whispered to Miss Flora that she "had never seen such an impudent-looking woman as the one with whom Kingsburgh was talking," and expressed her belief that the stranger was either an Irishwoman, or a man in woman's clothes. Miss Flora whispered in reply, "that she was right in her conjecture - that the amazon was really an Irishwoman, that she knew her, having seen her before." The abigail then exclaimed, "Bless me, what long strides the jade takes, and how awkwardly she manages her clothes !" Miss Macdonald, wishing to put an end to this conversation, urged the party to a trot. The pedestrians then struck across the hills, and reached Kingsburgh House about eleven o'clock, - the equestrians arriving soon after.
When they arrived there was some difficulty about supper, Mrs Macdonald of Kingsburgh having retired to rest. When her husband told her that the prince was in the house, she got up immediately, and under her direction the board was spread. The viands were eggs, butter, and cheese. Charles supped heartily, and after drinking a few glasses of wine, and smoking a pipe of tobacco, went to bed. Next morning there was a discussion as to the clothes he should wear; Kingsburgh, fearing that his disguise should become known, urged Charles to wear a Highland dress, to which he gladly agreed. But as there were sharp eyes of servants about, it was arranged that, to prevent suspicion, he should leave the house in the same clothes in which he had come, and that he should change his dress on the road. When he had dressed himself in his feminine garments and come into the sitting-room, Charles noticed that the ladies were whispering together eagerly, casting looks on him the while. He desired to know the subject of conversation, and was informed by Mrs Macdonald that they wished a lock of his hair. The prince consented at once, and laying down his head in Miss Flora's lap, a lock of yellow hair was shorn off - to be treasured as the dearest of family relics, and guarded as jealously as good fame. Some silken threads of that same lock of hair I have myself seen. Mr M'Ian has some of it in a ring, which will probably be buried with him. After the hair was cut off, Kingsburgh presented the prince with a new pair of shoes, and the old ones - through which the toes protruded - were put aside, and considered as only less sacred than the shred of hair. They were afterwards bought by a Jacobite gentleman for twenty guineas - the highest recorded price ever paid for that article.
Kingsburgh, Flora, and the prince then started for Portree, Kingsburgh carrying the Highland dress under his arm. After walking a short distance Charles entered a wood and changed his attire. He now wore a tartan short coat and waistcoat, with philabeg and hose, a plaid, and a wig and bonnet. Here Kingsburgh parted from the prince, and returned home. Conducted by a guide, Charles then started across the hills, while Miss Macdonald galloped along the common road to Portree to see how the land lay, and to become acquainted with the rumours stirring in the country.
There was considerable difficulty in getting the prince out of Skye; a Portree crew could not be trusted, as on their return they might blab the whereabouts of the fugitive. In this dilemma a friend of the prince's bethought himself that there was a small boat on one of the neighbouring Lochs, and the boat was dragged by two brothers, aided by some women, across a mile of boggy ground to the sea-shore It was utterly unseaworthy - leaky as the old brogues which Kingsburgh valued so much - but the two brothers nothing fearing got it launched, and rowed across to Raasay.
When the news came that the prince was at hand, Young Raasay, who had not been out in the rebellion, and his cousin, Malcolm Macleod, who had been, procured a strong boat, and with two oarsmen, whom they had sworn to secrecy, pulled across to Skye. They landed about half a mile from Portree, and Malcolm Macleod, accompanied by one of the men, went towards the inn, where he found the prince and Miss Macdonald. It had been raining heavily, and before he arrived, Charles was soaked to the skin. The first thing the prince called for was a dram; he then put on a dry shirt, and after that he made a hearty meal on roasted fish, bread, cheese, and butter. The people in the inn had no suspicion of his rank, and with them he talked and joked. Malcolm Macleod had by this time gone back to the boat, where he waited the prince's coming.
The guide implored Charles to go off at once, pointed out that the inn was a gathering place for all sorts of people, and that some one might penetrate his disguise - to all this the prince gave ready assent; but it rained still, and he spoke of risking everything and waiting where he was all night. The guide became yet more urgent, and the prince at last expressed his readiness to leave, only before going he wished to smoke a pipe of tobacco. He smoked his pipe, bade farewell to Miss Macdonald, repaid her a small sum which he had borrowed, gave her his miniature, and expressed the hope that he should yet welcome her at St James's. Early in the dawn of the July morning, with four shirts, a bottle of brandy tied to one side of his belt, a bottle of whisky tied to the other, and a cold fowl done up in a pocket-handkerchief, he, under the direction of a guide, went down to the rocky shore, where the boat had so long been waiting. In a few hours they reached Raasay.
In Raasay the prince did not remain long. He returned to Skye, abode for a space in Strath, dwelling in strange places, and wearing many disguises - finally, through the aid of the chief of the Mackinnons, he reached the mainland. By this time it had become known to the Government that the prince had been wandering about the island, and Malcolm Macleod, Kingsburgh, and Miss Macdonald were apprehended. Miss Macdonald was at first confined in Dunstaffnage Castle, and was afterwards conveyed to London. Her imprisonment does not seem to have been severe, and she was liberated, it is said, at the special request of Frederick Prince of Wales. She and Malcolm Macleod returned to Scotland together. In 1750 Flora married Allan Macdonald, young Kingsburgh, and on the death of his father in 1772 the young people went to live on the farm. Here they received Dr Johnson and Boswell.
Shortly after, the family went to America, and in 1775 Kingsburgh joined the Royal Highland Emigrant Regiment. He afterwards served in Canada, and in 1790, finally returned to Skye on half-pay. Flora had seven children, five sons and two daughters, the Sons after the old Skye fashion becoming soldiers, and the daughters the wives of soldiers. She died and was buried in the churchyard of Kilmuir. To the discredit of the Skye gentlemen - in many of whom her blood flows - the grave is in a state of utter disrepair. When I saw it two or three months ago it was covered with a rank growth of nettles. These are untouched. The tourist will deface tombstones, and carry away chips from a broken bust, but a nettle the boldest or the most enthusiastic will hardly pluck and convey from even the most celebrated grave. A line must be drawn somewhere, and Vandalism draws the line at nettles - it will not sting its own fingers for the world.
O Death! O Time! O men and women of whom we have read, what eager but unavailing hands we stretch towards you! How we would hear your voices, see your faces, but note the wafture of your garments! With a strange feeling one paces round the ruins of the House of Cornchatachin, thinking of the debauch held therein a hundred years ago by a dead Boswell and young Highland bloods, dead too. But the ruin of the old house of Kingsburgh moves one more than the ruin of the old house of Corrichatachin. On the shore of Loch Snizort - waters shadowed once by the sails of Haco's galleys - we stumble on the latter ancient site. The outline of the walls is distinguished by a mere protuberance on the grassy turf; and in the space where fires burned, and little feet pattered, and men and women ate and drank, and the hospitable board smoked, great trees are growing.
To this place did Flora Macdonald come and the prince - his head worth thirty thousand pounds - dressed in woman's clothes; there they rested for the night, and departed next morning. And the sheets in which the wanderer slept were carefully put aside, and years after they became the shroud for the lady of the house. And the old shoes the prince wore were kept by Kingsburgh till his dying day, and after that a "zealous Jacobite gentleman" paid twenty guineas for the treasure. That love for the young Ascanius! - the carnage of Culloden, and noble blood reddening many scaffolds, could not wash it out. Fancy his meditations on all that devotion when an old besotted man in Rome - the glitter of the crown of his ancestors faded utterly away out of his bleared and tipsy eyes! And when Flora was mistress of it, to the same place came Boswell, and Johnson with a cold in his head. There the doctor saluted Flora, and snivelled his compliments, and slept in the bed the prince occupied. There Boswell was in a cordial humour, and, as his fashion was, "promoted, a cheerful glass." And all these people are ghosts and less. And, as I write, the wind is rising on Loch Snizort, and through the autumn rain the yellow leaves are falling on the places where the prince and the doctor and the toady sat.
One likes to know that Pope saw Dryden sitting in the easy-chair near the fire at Will's Coffee-house, and that Scott met Burns at Adam Ferguson's. It is pleasant also to know that Doctor Johnson and Flora Macdonald met. It was like the meeting of two widely-separated eras and orders of things. Fleet Street, and the Cuchullins with Ossianic mists on their crests, came face to face. It is pleasant also to know that the sage liked the lady, and the lady liked the sage. After the departure of the prince the arrival of Dr Johnson was the next great event in Hebridean history. The doctor came, and looked about him, and went back to London and wrote his book. Thereafter there was plenty of war; and the Isles-men became soldiers, fighting in India, America, and the Peninsula. The tartans waved through the smoke of every British battle, and there were no such desperate bayonet charges as those which rushed to the yell of the bagpipe.
At the close of the last and the beginning of the present century, half the farms in Skye were rented by half-pay officers. The Army List was to the island what the Post-office Directory is to London. Then Scott came into the Highlands with the whole world of tourists at his back. Then up through Skye came Dr John M'Culloch - caustic, censorious, epigrammatic - and dire was the rage occasioned by the publication of his letters - the rage of men especially who had shown him hospitality and rendered him services, and who got their style of talk mimicked, and their household procedures laughed at for their pains. Then came evictions, emigrations, and the potato failure. Everything is getting prosaic as we approach the present time. Then my friend Mr Hutcheson established his magnificent fleet of Highland steamers. While I write the iron horse is at Dingwall, and he will soon be at Kyleakin - through which strait King Haco sailed seven centuries ago. In a couple of years or thereby Portree will be distant twenty-four hours from London - that time the tourist will take in coming, that time black-faced mutton will take in going.
Wandering up and down the Western Islands, one is brought into contact with Ossian, and is launched into a sea of perplexities as to the genuineness of Macpherson's translation. That fine poems should have been composed in the Highlands so many centuries ago, and that these should have existed through that immense period of time in the memories and on the tongues of the common people, is sufficiently startling. The Border Ballads are children in their bloom compared with the hoary Ossianic legends and songs. On the other hand, the theory that Macpherson, whose literary efforts when he did not pretend to translate are extremely poor and meagre, should have, by sheer force of imagination, created poems confessedly full of fine things, with strong local colouring, not without a weird sense of remoteness, with heroes shadowy as if seen through Celtic mists: poems, too, which have been received by his countrymen as genuine, which Dr Johnson scornfully abused, and which Dr Blair enthusiastically praised, which have been translated into every language in Europe; which Goethe and Napoleon admired; from which Carlyle has drawn his "red son of the furnace," and many a memorable sentence besides; and over which, for more than a hundred years now, there has raged a critical and philological battle, with victory inclining to neither side - that the poor Macpherson should have created these poems is, if possible, more startling than their claim of antiquity.
If Macpherson created Ossian, he was an athlete who made one surprising leap and was palsied ever afterwards; a marksman who made a centre at his first shot, and who never afterwards could hit the target. It is well enough known that the Highlanders, like all half-civilised nations, had their legends and their minstrelsy; that they were fond of reciting poems and runes; and that the person who retained on his memory the greatest number of tales and songs brightened the gatherings round the ancient peat-fires as your Sydney Smith brightens the modern dinner. And it is astonishing how much legendary material a single memory may retain. In illustration, Dr Brown, in his "History of the Highlands," informs us that "the late Captain John Macdonald of Breakish, a native of the Island of Skye, declared upon oath, at the age of seventy-eight, that he could repeat, when a boy between twelve and fifteen years of age, (about the year 1740,) from one to two hundred Gaelic poems, differing in length and in number of verses; and that he learned them from an old man about eighty years of age, who sang them for years to his father when he went to bed at night, and in the spring and winter before he rose in the morning."
The late Dr Stuart, minister of Luss, knew "an old Highlander in the Isle of Skye, who repeated to him for three successive days, and during several hours each day, without hesitation, and with the utmost rapidity, many thousand lines of ancient poetry, and would have continued his repetitions much longer if the doctor had required him to do so." From such a raging torrent of song the doctor doubtless fled for his life. Without a doubt there was a vast quantity of poetic material existing in the islands. But more than this, when Macpherson, at the request of Home, Blair, and others, went to the Highlands to collect materials, he undoubtedly received Gaelic MSS. Mr Farquharson, (Dr Brown tells us,) Prefect of Studies at Douay College in France, was the possessor of Gaelic MSS., and in 1766 he received a copy of Macpherson's "Ossian," and Mr M'Gillivray, a student there at the time, saw them (Macpherson's "Ossian" and Mr Farquharson's MSS.) frequently collated, and heard the complaint that the translations fell very far short of the energy and beauty of the originals; and the said Mr M'Gillivray was convinced that the MSS. contained all the poems translated by Macpherson, because he recollected very distinctly having heard Mr Farquharson say, after having read the translations, "that he had all these poems in his collection."
Dr Johnson could never talk of the matter calmly. "Show me the original manuscripts," he would roar. "Let Mr Macpherson deposit the manuscript in one of the colleges at Aberdeen where there are people who can judge; and if the professors certify the authenticity, then there will be an end of the controversy." Macpherson, when his truthfulness was rudely called in question, wrapped himself up in proud silence, and disdained reply. At last, however, he submitted to the test which Dr Johnson proposed. At a bookseller's shop he left for some months the originals of his translations, intimating by public advertisement that he had done so, and stating that all persons interested in the matter might call and examine them. No one, however, called; Macpherson's pride was hurt, and he became thereafter more obstinately silent and uncommunicative than ever. There needed no such mighty pother about the production of manuscripts. It might have been seen at a glance that the Ossianic poems were not forgeries - at all events that Macpherson did not forge them. Even in the English translation, to a great extent, the sentiments, the habits, the modes of thought described are entirely primeval; in reading it, we seem to breathe the morning air of the world. The personal existence of Ossian is, I suppose, as doubtful as the personal existence of Homer; and if he ever lived, he is great, like Homer, through his tributaries. Ossian drew into himself every lyrical runnel, he augmented himself in every way, he drained centuries of their songs; and living an oral and gipsy life, handed down from generation to generation, without being committed to writing and having their outlines determinately fixed, the authorship of these songs becomes vested in a multitude, every reciter having more or less to do with it. For centuries the floating legendary material was reshaped, added to, and altered by the changing spirit and emotion of the Celt.
Reading the Ossianic fragments is like visiting the skeleton of one of the South American cities; like walking through the streets of disinterred Pompeii or Herculaneum. These poems, if rude and formless, are touching and venerable as some ruin on the waste, the names of whose builders are unknown: whose towers and walls, although not erected in accordance with the lights of modern architecture, affect the spirit and fire the imagination far more than nobler and more recent piles; its chambers, now roofless to the day, were ages ago tenanted by life and death, joy and sorrow; its walls have been worn and rounded by time, its stones channelled and fretted by the fierce tears of winter rains; on broken arch and battlement every April for centuries has kindled a light of desert flowers; and it stands muffled with ivies, bearded with mosses, and stained with lichens by the suns of forgotten summers. So these songs are in the original - strong, simple, picturesque in decay; in Mr Macpherson's English they are hybrids and mongrels. They resemble the Castle of Dunvegan, an amorphous mass of masonry of every conceivable style of architecture, in which the ninth century jostles the nineteenth.
In these poems not only do character and habit smack of the primeval time, but there is extraordinary truth of local colouring. The Iliad is roofed by the liquid softness of an lonian sky. In the verse of Chaucer there is eternal May and the smell of newly-blossomed English hawthorn h'edges. In Ossian, in like manner, the skies are cloudy, there is a tumult of waves on the shore, the wind sings in the pine. This truth of local colouring is a strong argument in proof of authenticity. I for one will never believe that Macpherson was more than a somewhat free translator. Despite Gibbon's sneer, I do "indulge the supposition that Ossian lived and Fingal sung;" and, more than this, it is my belief that these misty phantasmal Ossianic fragments, with their car-borne heroes that come and go like clouds on the wind, their frequent apparitions, the "stars dim-twinkling through their forms," their maidens fair and pale as lunar rainbows, are, in their own literary place, worthy of every recognition. If you think these poems exaggerated, go out at Sligachan and see what wild work the pencil of moonlight makes on a mass of shifting vapour. Does that seem nature or a madman's dream? Look at the billowy clouds rolling off the brow of Blaavin, all golden and on fire with the rising sun!
Wordsworth's verse does not more completely mirror the Lake Country than do the poems of Ossian the terrible scenery of the Isles. Grim, and fierce, and dreary as the night-wind is the strain, for not with rose and nightingale had the old bard to do; but with the thistle waving on the ruin, the upright stones that mark the burying-places of heroes, weeping female faces white as sea-foam in the moon, the breeze mourning alone in the desert, the battles and friendships of his far-off youth, and the flight of the "dark-brown years." These poems are wonderful transcripts of Hebridean scenery. They are as full of mists as the Hebridean glens themselves. Ossian seeks his images in the vapoury wraiths. Take the following of two chiefs parted by their king: "They sink from their king on either side, like two columns of morning mist when the sun rises between them on his glittering rocks. Dark is their rolling on either side, each towards its reedy pool." You cannot help admiring the image; and I saw the misty circumstance this very morning when the kingly sun struck the earth with his golden spear, and the cloven mists rolled backwards to their pools like guilty things.
That a large body of poetical MSS. existed in the Highlands we know; we know also that, when challenged to do so, Macpherson produced his originals; and the question arises, Was Macpherson a competent and faithful translator of these MSS? Did he reproduce the original in all its strength and sharpness? On the whole, perhaps Macpherson translated the ancient Highland poems as faithfully as Pope translated Homer, but his version is in many respects defective and untrue. The English Ossian is Macpherson's, just as the most popular English Iliad is Pope's. Macpherson was not a thoroughly-equipped Gaelic scholar; his most popular English Iliad is Pope's. Macpherson version is full of blunders and misapprehensions of meaning, and he expressed himself in the fashionable poetic verbiage of his day. You find echoes of Milton, Shakespeare, Pope, and Dryden, and these echoes give his whole performance a hybrid aspect. It has a particoloured look; is a thing of odds and ends, of shreds and patches; in it antiquity and his own day are incongruously mixed - like Macbeth in a periwig, or a ruin decked out with new and garish banners. Here is Macpherson's version of a portion of the third book of Fingal:
"Fingal beheld the son of Starno: he remembered Agandecca. For Swaran with the tears of youth had mourned his white-bosomed sister. He sent Ullin of Songs to bid him to the feast of shells. For pleasant on Fingal's soul returned the memory of the first of his loves!
"Ullin came with aged steps, and spoke to Starno's son. 'O thou that dwellest afar, surrounded like a rock with thy waves! Come to the feast of the king, and pass the day in rest. Tomorrow let us fight, O Swaran, and break the echoing shields.' 'To-day,' said Starno's wrathful son, 'we break the echoing shields: to-morrow my feast shall be spread; but Fingal shall lie on earth.' 'To-morrow let the feast be spread,' said Fingal, with a smile. 'To-day, O my sons, we shall break the echoing shields. Ossian, stand thou near my arm. Gaul, lift thy terrible sword. Fergus, bend thy crooked yew. Throw, Fillan, thy lance through heaven. Lift your shields like the darkened moon. Be your spears the meteors of death. Follow me in the path of my fame. Equal my deeds in battle.'
"As a hundred winds on Morven; as the streams of a hundred hills; as clouds fly successive over heaven; as the dark ocean assails the shore of the desert; so roaring, so vast, so terrible the armies mixed on Lena's echoing heath. The groan of the people spread over the hills; it was like the thunder of night when the clouds burst on Cona, and a thousand ghosts shriek at once on the hollow wind. Fingal rushed on in his strength, terrible as the spirit of Trenmore, when in a whirlwind he comes to Morven to see the children of his pride. The oaks resound on their mountains, and the rocks fall down before him. Dimly seen as lightens the night, he strides largely from hill to hill. Bloody was the hand of my father when he whirled the gleam of his sword. He remembered the battles of his youth. The field is wasted in the course.
"Ryno went on like a pillar of fire. Dark is the brow of Gaul. Fergus rushed forward with feet of wind. Fillan, like the mist of the hill. Ossian, like a rock, came down. I exulted in the strength of the king. Many were the deaths of my arm! dismal the gleam of my sword! My locks were not then so gray; nor trembled my hands with age. My eyes were not closed in darkness; my feet failed not in the race.
"Who can relate the deaths of the people, who the deeds of mighty heroes, when Fingal, burning in his wrath, consumed the sons of Lochlin? Groans swelled on groans from hill to hill, till night had covered all. Pale, staring like a herd of deer, the sons of Lochlin convene on Lena."
So writes Macpherson. I subjoin a more literal and faithful rendering of the passage, in which, to some extent, may be tasted the wild-honey flavour of the original:
"Fingal descried the illustrious son of
And he remember'd the maiden of the snow:
When she fell, Swaran wept
For the young maid of brightest cheek.
"Ullin of songs (the bard)
To bid him to the feast upon the shore.
Sweet to the king of the great mountains
Was the remembrance of his first-loved maid.
"Ullin of the most aged step came
And thus address'd the son of Starn:
'Thou from the land afar, thou brave,
Like, in thy mail and thy arms,
To a rock in the midst of the billows,
Come to the banquet of the chiefs;
Pass the day of calm in feasting;
To-morrow ye shall break the shields
In the strife where play the spears.'
"'This very day,' said the son of
Starn, 'this very day
I shall break in the hill the spear;
To-morrow thy king shall be low in the dust,
And Swaran and his braves shall banquet.'
"'To-morrow let the hero
Smiling said the king of Morven;
'To-day let us fight the battle in the hill,
And break the mighty shield.
Ossian, stand thou by my side;
Gall, thou great one, lift thy hand
Fergus, draw thy swift-speeding string,
Fillan, throw thy matchless lance;
Lift your shields aloft
As the moon in shadow in the sky;
Be your spears as the herald of death.
Follow, follow me in my renown;
Be as hosts (as hundreds) in the conflict.'
"As a hundred winds in the oak of
As a hundred streams from the steep-sided mountain;
As clouds gathering thick and black;
As the great ocean pouring on the shore,
So broad, roaring, dark and fierce,
Met the braves, a-fire, on Lena.
The shout of the hosts on the shoulders (bones) of the mountains
"Was as a torrent in a night of
When bursts the cload on glenny Cona,
And a thousand ghosts are shrieking loud
On the viewless crooked wind of the cairns.
"Swiftly the king advanced in his
As the spirit of Treninore, pitiless spectre,
When he comes in the whirl-blast of the billows
To Morven, the land of his loved sires.
The oak resounds on the mountain,
Before him falls the rock of the hills;
Through the lightning-flash the spirit is seen -
His great steps are from cairn to cairn.
"Bloody, I wee; was my sire in the
When he drew with might his sword;
The king remember'd his youth,
When he fought the combat of the glens.
"Ryno sped as the fire of the
Gloomy and black was Gall, (wholly black;)
Fergus rush'd as the wind on the mountain;
Fillan advanced as the mist on the woods;
Ossian was as a pillar of rock in the combat.
My soul exulted in the king,
Many were the deaths and dismal
'Neath the lightning of my great sword in the strife.
"My locks were not then so gray,
Nor shook my hand with age.
The light of my eye was unquench'd,
And ave unwearied in travel was my foot.
"Who will tell of the deaths of the
Who the deeds of the mighty chiefs?
When kindled to wrath was the king;
Lochlin was consumed on the side of the mountain.
Sound on sound rose from the hosts,
Till fell on the waves the night.
Feeble, trembling, and pale as (hunted) deer,
Lochlin gather'd on heath-clad Lena." *
* For this translation I am indebted to my learned and accomplished friend the Rev. Mr Macpherson of Inverary.
To English readers the sun of Ossian shines dimly through a mist of verbiage. It is to be hoped that the mist will one day be removed - It is the bounden duty of one of Ossian's learned countrymen to remove it.
It is not to be supposed that the Ossianic legends are repeated often now around the island peat-fires; but many are told resembling in essentials those which Dr Dasent has translated to us from the Norse. As the northern nations have a common flora, so they have a common legendary literature. Supernaturalism belongs to their tales as the aurora borealis belongs to their skies. Those stories I have heard in Skye, and many others, springing from the same roots, I have had related to me in the Lowlands and in Ireland. They are full of witches and wizards; of great wild giants crying out, "Hiv! Haw Hoagraich! It is a drink of thy blood that quenches my thirst this night;" of wonderful castles with turrets and banqueting halls; of magic spells, and the souls of men and women dolefully imprisoned in shapes of beast and bird. As tales few of them can be considered perfect; the supernatural element is strong in many, but frequently it breaks down under some prosaic or ludicrous circumstance: the spell exhales somehow, and you care not to read further. Now and then a spiritual and ghastly imagination passes into a revolting familiarity and destroys itself.
In these stories all times and conditions of life are curiously mixed, and this mixture shows the passage of the story from tongue to tongue through generations. If you discover on the bleak Skye shore a log of wood with Indian carvings peeping through a crust of native barnacles, it needs no prophet to see that it has crossed the Atlantic. Confining your attention merely to Skye - to the place in which the log is found - the Indian carvings are an anachronism; but there is no anachronism when you arrive at the idea that the log belongs to another continent, and that it has reached its final resting-place through blowing winds and tossing waves.
These old Highland stories, beginning in antiquity, and quaintly ending with a touch of the present, are lessons in the science of criticism. In a ballad the presence of an anachronism, the cropping out of a comparatively modern touch of manners or detail of dress, does not in the least invalidate the claim of the ballad to antiquity - provided it can be proved that before being committed to writing it had led an oral existence. Every ballad existing in the popular memory takes the colour of the periods through which it has lived, just as a stream takes the colour of the different soils through which it flows. The other year Mr Robert Chambers attempted to throw discredit on the alleged antiquity of Sir Patrick Spens from the following verse
"Oh, laith, laith were our guid Scots
To weet their cork-heel'd shoon;
But lang ere a' the play was o'er,
They wat their heads abune," -
cork-heeled shoes having been worn neither by the Scots lords, nor by the lords of any other nation, so early as the reign of Alexander III, at which period Sir Patrick Spens sailed on his disastrous voyage. But the appearance of such a comparatively modern detail of personal attire throws no discredit on the antiquity of the ballad, because in its oral transmission each singer or reciter would naturally equip the Scots lords in the particular kind of shoes which the Scots lords wore in his own day. Anachronism of this kind proves nothing, because such anachronism is involved in the very nature of the case, and must occur in every old composition which is frequently recited, and the terms of which have not been definitely fixed by writing. In the old Highland stories to which I allude, the wildest anachronisms are of the most frequent occurrence; with the most utter scorn of historical accuracy all the periods are jumbled together; they resemble the dance on the outside stage of a booth at a country fair before the performances begin, in which the mailed crusader, King Richard III, a barmaid, and a modern "swell" meet, and mingle, and cross hands with the most perfect familiarity and absence from surprise. And some of those violations of historical accuracy are instructive enough, and throw some light on the cork-heeled shoes of the Scots lords in the ballad.
In one story a mermaiden and a General in the British army are represented as in love with each other and holding clandestine meetings. Here is an anachronism with a vengeance, enough to make Mr Robert Chambers stare and gasp. How would he compute the age of that story? Would he make it as old as the mermaiden or as modern as the British General? Personally, I have not the slightest doubt that the story is old, and that in its original form it concerned itself with certain love passages between a mermaiden and a great warrior. But the story lived for generations as tradition, was told around the Skye peat-fires, and each relater gave it something of his own, some touch drawn from contemporary life. The mermaiden remains of course, for she is sui generis; search nature and for her you can find no equivalent - you can't translate her into anything else. With the warrior it is entirely different; he loses spear and shield, and grows naturally into the modern General with gilded spur, scarlet coat, and cocked hat with plumes. The same sort of change, arising from the substitution of modern for ancient details, of modern equivalents for ancient facts, must go on in every song or narrative which is orally transmitted from generation to generation.
Many of these stories, even when they are imperfect in themselves, or resemble those told elsewhere, are curiously coloured by Celtic scenery and pervaded by Celtic imagination. In listening to them, one is specially impressed by a bare, desolate, woodless country; and this impression is not produced by any formal statement of fact; it arises partly from the paucity of actors in the stories, and partly from the desert spaces over which the actors travel, and partly from the number of carrion crows, and ravens, and malign hillfoxes which they encounter in their journeyings, The "hoody," as the crow is called, hops and flits and croaks through all the stories. His black wing is seen everywhere. And it is the frequent appearance of these beasts and birds, never familiar, never domesticated, always outside the dwelling, and of evil omen when they fly or steal across the path, which gives to the stories much of their weird and direful character.
The Celt has not yet subdued nature. He trembles before the unknown powers. He cannot be sportive for the fear that is in his heart. In his legends there is no merry Puck, no Ariel, no Robin Goodfellow, no half-benevolent, half - malignant Brownie even. These creatures live in imaginations more emancipated from fear. The mists blind the Celt on his perilous mountain-side, the sea is smitten white on his rocks, the wind bends and dwarfs his pine wood; and as Nature is cruel to him, and as his light and heat are gathered from the moor, and his most plenteous food from the whirlpool and the foam, we need not be surprised that few are the gracious shapes that haunt his fancy.
|To Next Chapter|