Walking into the interior of Skye is like walking into antiquity; the present is behind you, your face is turned toward Ossian. In the quiet silent wilderness you think of London, Liverpool, Edinburgh, or whatever great city it may be given you to live and work in, as of something of which you were cognisant in a former existence. Not only do you breathe the air of antiquity; but everything about you is a veritable antique. The hut by the road-side, thatched with turfs, smoke issuing from the roof, is a specimen of one of the oldest styles of architecture in the world. The crooked spade with which the crofter turns over the sour ground carries you away into fable. You remove a pile of stones on the moor, and you come to a flagged chamber in which there is a handful of human bones - whose, no one can tell.
Duntulm and Dunsciach moulder on their crags, but the song the passing milkmaid sings is older than they. You come upon old swords that were once bright and athirst for blood; old brooches that once clasped plaids; old churchyards with carvings of unknown knights on the tombs; and old men who seem to have inherited the years of the eagle or the crow. These human antiques are, in their way, more interesting than any other: they are the most precious objects of virtu of which the island can boast. And at times, if you can keep ear and eye open, you stumble on forms of life, relations of master and servant, which are as old as the castle on the crag or the cairn of the chief on the moor. Cash payment is not the "sole nexus between man and man." In these remote regions your servants' affection for you is hereditary as their family name or their family ornaments; your foster-brother would die willingly for you; and if your nurse had the writing of your epitaph, you would be the bravest, strongest, handsomest man that ever walked in shoe leather or out of it.
The house of my friend Mr M'Ian is set down on the shore of one of the great Lochs that intersect the island; and as it was built in smuggling times, its windows look straight down the Loch towards the open sea. Consequently at night, when lighted up, it served all the purposes of a lighthouse: and the candle in the porch window, I am told, has often been anxiously watched by the rough crew engaged in running a cargo of claret or brandy from Bordeaux. Right opposite, on the other side of the Loch, is the great rugged fringe of the Cuchullin hills; and lying on the dry summer grass you can see it, under the influence of light and shade, change almost as the expression of a human face changes. Behind the house the ground is rough and broken, every hollow filled, every knoll plumaged with birches, and between the leafy islands, during the day, rabbits scud continually, and in the evening they sit in the glades and wash their innocent faces.
A mile or two back from the house a glen opens into soft green meadows, through which a stream flows; and on these meadows Mr M'Ian, when the weather permits, cuts and secures his hay. The stream is quiet enough usually, but after a heavy day's rain, or when a waterspout has burst up among the hills, it comes down with a vengeance, carrying everything before it. On such occasions its roar may be heard a mile away. About a pistol-shot from the house the river is crossed by a plank bridge, and in fine weather it is a great pleasure to sit down there and look about one. The stream flows sluggishly over rocks, in the deep places of a purple or port-wine colour, and lo! behind you, through the arch, slips a sunbeam, and just beneath the eye there gleams a sudden chasm of brilliant amber. The sea is at ebb, and the shore is covered with stones and dark masses of sea-weed; and the rocks a hundred yards off - in their hollows they hold pools of clear sea-water in which you can find curious and delicately-coloured ocean blooms - are covered with orange lichens, which contrast charmingly with the masses of tawny dulse and the stone-littered shore on the one side, and the keen blue of the sea on the other. Beyond the blue of the sea the great hills rise, with a radiant vapour flowing over their crests.
Immediately to the left a spur of high ground runs out to the sea edge, - the flat top smooth and green as a billiard table, the sheep feeding on it white as billiard balls, - and at the foot of this spur of rock a number of huts are collected. They are halt lost in an azure veil of smoke, you smell the peculiar odour of peat reek, you see the nets lying out on the grass to dry, you hear the voices of children. Immediately above, and behind the huts and the spur of high ground, the hill falls back, the whole breast of it shaggy with birch-wood; and just at the top you see a clearing and a streak of white stony road, leading into some other region as solitary and beautiful as the one in which you at present are. And while you sit on the bridge in a state of half-sleepy contentment - a bee nuzzling in a bell-shaped flower within reach of your stick, the sea-gulls dancing silent quadrilles overhead, the white lightning flash of a rabbit from copse to copse twenty yards off - you hear a sharp whistle, then a shout, and looking round there is M'Ian himself standing on a height, his figure clear against the sky: and immediately the men tinkering the boat on the shore drop work and stand and stare, and out of the smoke that wraps the cottages rushes bonnetless, Lachian Dhu, or Donald Roy, scattering a brood of poultry in his haste, and marvelling much what has moved his master to such unwonted exertion.
My friend's white house is a solitary one, no other dwelling of the same kind being within eight miles of it. In winter, wind and rain beat it with a special spite; and the thunder of the sea creeps into your sleeping ears, and your dreams are of breakers and reefs, and ships going to pieces, and the cries of drowning men. In summer, it basks as contentedly on its green knoll; green grass, with the daisy wagging its head in the soft wind, runs up to the very door of the porch. But although solitary enough - so solitary, that if you are asked to dine with your nearest neighbour you must mount and ride - there are many more huts about than those we have seen nestling on the shore beneath the smooth green plateau on which sheep are feeding. If you walk along to the west, - and a rough path it is, for your course is over broken boulders, - you come on a little bay with an eagle's nest of a castle perched on a cliff, and there you will find a school-house and a half-a-dozen huts, the blue smoke steaming out of the crannies in the walls and roofs. Dark pyramids of peat are standing about, sheep and cows are feeding on the bits of pasture, gulls are weaving their eternal dances above, and during the day the school-room is murmuring like a beehive - only a much less pleasant task than the making of honey is going on within.
Behind the house to the east, hidden by the broken ground and the masses of birch-wood, is another collection of huts; and in one of these lives the most interesting man in the place. He is an old pensioner, who has seen service in different quarters of the world; and frequently have I carried him a string of pigtail, and shared his glass of usquebaugh, and heard him, as he sat on a stone in the sunshine, tell tales of barrack life in Jamaica ; of woody wildernesses filled with gorgeous undergrowth, of parasites that climbed like fluttering tongues of fire, and of the noisy towns of monkeys and parrots in the upper branches. I have heard him also severely critical on the different varieties of rum. Of every fiery compound he had a catholic appreciation, but rum was his special favourite - being to him what a Greek text was to Porson, or an old master to Sir George Beaumont. So that you see, although Mr M'Ian's house was in a sense solitary, yet it was not altogether bereaved of the sight and sense of human habitations. On the farm there were existing perhaps, women and children included, some sixty souls; and to these the relation of the master was peculiar, and perhaps without a parallel in the island.
When, nearly half-a-century ago, Mr M'Ian left the army and became tacksman, he found cotters on his farm, and thought their presence as much a matter of course as that limpets should be found upon his rocks. They had their huts, for which they paid no rent; they had their patches of corn and potato ground, for which they paid no rent. There they had always been, and there, so far as Mr M'Ian was concerned, they would remain. He had his own code of generous old-fashioned ethics, to which he steadily adhered; and the man who was hard on the poor, who would dream of driving them from the places in which they were born, seemed to him to break the entire round of the Commandments. Consequently the huts still smoked on the hem of the shore and among the clumps of birch-wood. The children who played on the green when he first became tacksman grew up in process of time, and married; and on these occasions he not only sent them something on which to make merry withal, but he gave them - what they valued more - his personal presence; and he made it a point of honour, when the ceremony was over, to dance the first reel with the bride. When old men or children were sick, cordials and medicines were sent from the house; when old man or child died, Mr M'Ian never failed to attend the funeral.
He was a Justice of the Peace; and when disputes arose amongst his own cotters, or amongst the cotters of others - when, for instance, Katy M'Lure accused Effie M'Kean of stealing potatoes when Red Donald raged against Black Peter on some matter relating to the sale of a dozen lambs when Mary, in her anger at the loss of her sweetheart, accused Betty (to whom said sweetheart had transferred his allegiance) of the most flagrant breaches of morality - the contending parties were sure to come before my friend; and many a rude court of justice I have seen him hold at the door of his porch. Arguments were heard pro and con, witnesses were examined, evidence was duly sifted and weighed, judgment was made, and the case dismissed; and I believe these decisions gave in the long run as much satisfaction as those delivered in Westminster or the Edinburgh Parliament-House. Occasionally, too, a single girl or shepherd, with whose character liberties were being taken, would be found standing at the porch-door anxious to make oath that they were innocent of the guilt or the impropriety laid to their charge. Mr M'Ian would come out and hear the story, make the party assert his or her innocence on oath, and deliver a written certificate to the effect that in his presence, on such and such a day, so and so had sworn that certain charges were unfounded, false, and malicious. Armed with this certificate, the aspersed girl or shepherd would depart in triumph. He or she had passed through the ordeal by oath, and nothing could touch them farther.
Mr M'Ian paid rent for the entire farm; but to him the cotters paid no rent, either for their huts or for their patches of corn and potato ground. But the cotters were by no means merely pensioners - taking, and giving nothing in return. The most active of the girls were maids of various degree in Mr M'Ian's house; the cleverest and strongest of the lads acted as shepherds, &c.; and these of course received wages. The grown men amongst the cotters were generally at work in the south, or engaged in fishing expeditions, during summer; so that the permanent residents on the farm were chiefly composed of old men, women, and children.
When required, Mr M'Ian demands the services of these people just as he would the services of his household servants, and they comply quite as readily. If the crows are to be kept out of the corn, or the cows out of the turnip-field, an urchin is remorselessly reft away from his games and companions. If a boat is out of repair, old Dugald is deputed to the job, and when his task is completed, he is rewarded with ten minutes' chat and a glass of spirits up at the house. When fine weather comes, every man, woman, and child is ordered to the hay-field, and Mr M'Ian potters amongst them the whole day, and takes care that no one shirks his duty. When his corn or barley is ripe the cotters cut it, and when the harvest operations are completed, he gives the entire cotter population a dance and harvest-home. But between Mr M'Ian and his cotters no money passes; by a tacit understanding he is to give them house, corn-ground, potato-ground, and they are to remunerate him with labour.
Mr M'Ian, it will be seen, is a conservative, and hates change; and the social system by which he is surrounded wears an ancient and patriarchal aspect to a modern eye. It is a remnant of the system of clanship. The relation of cotter and tacksman, which I have described, is a bit of antiquity quite as interesting as the old castle on the crag - nay, more interesting, because we value the old castle mainly in virtue of its representing an ancient form of life, and here is yet lingering a fragment of the ancient form of life itself. You dig up an ancient tool or weapon in a moor, and place it carefully in a museum: here, as it were, is the ancient tool or weapon in actual use. No doubt Mr M'Ian's system has grave defects: it perpetuates comparative wretchedness on the part of the cotters, it paralyses personal exertion, it begets an ignoble contentment; but on the other hand it sweetens sordid conditions, so far as they can be sweetened, by kindliness and good services. If Mr M'Ian's system is bad, he makes the best of it, and draws as much comfort and satisfaction out of it, both for himself and for others, as is perhaps possible.
Mr M'Ian's speech was as old-fashioned as he was himself; ancient matters turned up on his tongue just as ancient matters turned up on his farm. You found an old grave or an old implement on the one, you found an old proverb or an old scrap of a Gaelic poem on the other. After staying with him some ten days, I intimated my intention of paying a visit to my friend the Landlord - with whom Fellowes was then staying - who lived some forty miles off in the northwestern portion of the island. The old gentleman was opposed to rapid decisions and movements, and asked me to remain with him yet another week. When he found I was resolute he glanced at the weather-gleam, and the troops of mists gathering on Cuchullin, muttering as he did so, "Make ready my galley,' said the king, 'I shall sail for Norway on Wednesday.' 'Will you,' said the wind, who, flying about, had overheard what was said, 'you had better ask my leave first.'"
Between the Landlord and M'Ian there were many likenesses and divergences. Both were Skye-men by birth, both had the strongest love for their native island, both had the management of human beings, both had shrewd heads, and hearts of the kindest texture. But at this point the likenesses ended, and the divergences began. Mr M'Ian had never been out of the three kingdoms. The Landlord had spent the best part of his life in India, was more familiar with huts of ryots, topes of palms, tanks in which the indigo plant was steeping, than with the houses of Skye cotters and the processes of sheep-farming. He knew the streets of Benares or Delhi better than he knew the streets of London; and, when he first came home, Hindostanee would occasionally jostle Gaelic on his tongue. The Landlord too, was rich, would have been considered a rich man even in the southern cities; he was owner of many a mile of moorland, and the tides of more than one far-winding Loch rose and rippled on shores that called him master.
In my friend the Landlord there was a sort of contrariety, a sort of mixture or blending of opposite elements which was not without its fascination. He was in some respects a resident in two worlds. He liked motion; he had a magnificent scorn of distance: to him the world seemed comparatively small; and he would start from Skye to India with as much composure as other men would take the night train to London. He paid taxes in India and he paid taxes in Skye. His name was as powerful in the markets of Calcutta as it was at the Muir of Ord. He read the Hurkaru and the Inverness Courier. He had known the graceful salaam of the East, as he now knew the touched bonnets of his shepherds. And in living with him, in talking with him, one was now reminded of the green western island on which sheep fed, anon of tropic heats, of pearl and gold, of mosque and pinnacle glittering above belts of palm-trees. In his company you were in imagination travelling backwards and forwards. You made the overland route twenty times a day. Now you heard the bagpipe, now the monotonous beat of the tom-tom and the keen clash of silver cymbals. You were continually passing backwards and forwards, as I have said. You were in the West with your half-glass of bitters in the morning, you were in the East with the curry at dinner.
Both Mr M'Ian and the Landlord had the management of human beings, but their methods of management were totally different. Mr M'Ian accepted matters as he found them, and originating nothing, changing nothing, contrived to make life for himself and others as pleasant as possible. The Landlord, when he entered on the direction of his property, exploded every ancient form of usage, actually ruled his tenants; would permit no factor, middle-man, or go-between; met them face to face, and had it out with them. The consequence was that the poor people were at times sorely bewildered. They received their orders and carried them out, with but little sense of the ultimate purpose of the Landlord - just as the sailor, ignorant of the principles of navigation, pulls ropes and reefs sails and does not discover that he gains much thereby, the same sea-crescent being around him day by day, but in due time a cloud rises on the horizon, and he is in port at last.
As M'Ian had predicted, I could only move from his house if the weather granted permission and this permission the weather did not seem disposed to grant. For several days it rained as I had never seen it rain before; a waterspout, too had burst up among the hills, and the stream came down in mighty flood. There was great hubbuh at the house. Mr M'Ian's hay, which was built in large stacks in the valley meadows, was in danger, and the fiery cross was sent through the cotters. Up to the hay-fields every available man was despatched with carts and horses, to remove the stacks to some spot where the waters could not reach them; while at the bridge nearer the house women and boys were stationed with long poles, and what rudely-extemporised implements Celtic ingenuity could suggest, to intercept and fish out piles and trusses which the thievish stream was carrying away with it seaward. These piles and trusses would at least serve for the bedding of cattle. For three days the rainy tempest continued; at last, on the fourth, mist and rain rolled up like a vast curtain in heaven, and then again were visible the clumps of birch-wood, and the bright sea and the smoking hills, and far away on the ocean floor Rum and Canna, without a speck of cloud on them, sleeping in the coloured calmness of early afternoon. This uprising of the elemental curtain was, so far as the suddenness of the effect was concerned, like the uprising of the curtain of the pantomime on the transformation scene - all at once a dingy, sodden world had become a brilliant one, and all the newly-revealed colour and brilliancy promised to be permanent.
Of this happy change in the weather I of course took immediate advantage. About five o'clock in the afternoon my dog-cart was brought to the door; and after a parting cup with Mr M'Ian - who pours a libation both to his arriving, and his departing guest - I drove away on my journey to remote Portree, and to the unimagined country that lay beyond Portree, but which I knew held Dunvegan, Duntuim, Macleod's Tables, and Quirang. I drove up the long glen with a pleasant exhilaration of spirit. I felt grateful to the sun, for he had released me from rainy captivity. The drive, too, was pretty; the stream came rolling down in foam, the smell of the wet birch-trees was in the brilliant air, every mountain-top was strangely and yet softly distinct; and looking back, there were the blue Cuchullins looking after me, as if bidding me farewell!
At last I reached the top of the glen, and emerged on a high plateau of moorland, in which were dark inky tarns with big white water-lilies on them; and skirting across the plateau I dipped down on the parliamentary road, which, like a broad white belt, surrounds Skye. Better road to drive on you will not find in the neighbourhood of London itself! and just as I was descending, I could not help pulling up. The whole scene was of the extremest beauty - exquisitely calm, exquisitely coloured. On my left was a little lake with a white margin of water-lilies, a rocky eminence throwing a shadow half-way across it. Down below, on the sea-shore, was the farm of Knock, with white outhouses and pleasant patches of cultivation, the school-house, and the church, while on a low spit of land the old castle of the Macdonalds was mouldering. Still lower down and straight away stretched the sleek blue Sound of Sleat, with not a sail or streak of steamer smoke to break its vast expanse, and with a whole congregation of clouds piled up on the horizon, soon to wear their evening colours. I let the sight slowly creep into my study of imagination, so that I might be able to reproduce it at pleasure; that done, I drove down to Isle Oronsay by pleasant sloping stages of descent, with green hills on right and left, and along the roadside, like a guard of honour, the purple stalks of the foxglove.
The evening sky was growing red above me when I drove into Isle Oronsay, which consists of perhaps fifteen houses in all. It sits on the margin of a pretty bay, in which the cry of the fisher is continually heard, and into which the Clansman going to or coming from the south steams twice or thrice in the week. At a little distance is a lighthouse with a revolving light, - an idle building during the day, but when night comes, awakening to full activity, - sending now a ray to Ardnamurchan, now piercing with a fiery arrow the darkness of Glenelg. In Isle Oronsay is a merchant's shop, in which every conceivable article may be obtained. At Isle Oronsay the post-runner drops a bag, as he hies on to Armadale Castle. At Isle Oronsay, I supped with my friend Mr Fraser. From him I learned that the little village had been, like M'Ian's house, fiercely scourged by rains. On the supper-table was a dish of trouts. "Where do you suppose I procured these ?" he asked. "In one of your burns, I suppose." "No such thing; I found them in my potato-field." "In your potato-field! How came that about ?" "Why, you see the stream, swollen by three days' rain, broke over a potato-field of mine on the hill-side and carried the potatoes away, and left these plashing in pool and runnel. The Skye streams have a slight touch of honesty in them !" I smiled at the conceit, and expounded to my host the law of compensation which pervades the universe, of which I maintained the trouts on the table were a shining example. Mr Fraser assented; but held that Nature was a poor valuator - that her knowledge of the doctrine of equivalents was slightly defective - that the trouts were well enough, but no reimbursement for the potatoes that were gone.
Next morning I resumed my journey. The road, so long as it skirted the sea-shore, was pretty enough; but the sea-shore it soon left, and entered a waste of brown monotonous moorland. The country round about abounds in grouse, and was the favourite shooting-ground of the late Lord Macdonald. By the road-side his lordship had erected a stable and covered the roof with tin; and so at a distance it flashed as if the Koh-i-noor had been dropped by accident in that dismal region. As I went along, the hills above Broadford began to rise; then I drove down the slope, on which the market was held - the tents all struck, but the stakes yet remaining in the ground - and after passing the six houses, the lime-kiln, the church, and the two merchants' shops, I pulled up at the inn door, and sent the horse round to the stable to feed and to rest an hour.
After leaving Broadford the traveller drives along the margin of the ribbon of salt water which flows between Skye and the Island of Scalpa. Up this narrow sound the steamer never passes, and it is only navigated by the lighter kinds of sailing craft. Scalpa is a hilly island of some three or four miles in length, by one and a half in breadth, is gray-green in colour, and as treeless as the palm of your hand. It has been the birthplace of many soldiers. After passing Scalpa the road ascends; and you notice as you drive along that during the last hour or so the frequent streams have changed colour. In the southern portion of the island they come down as if the hills ran sherry - here they are pale as shallow sea-water. This difference of hue arises of course from a difference of bed. About Broadford they come down through the mossy moorland, here they run over marble. Of marble the island is full; and it is not impossible that the sculptors of the twentieth century will patronise the quarries of Strath and Kyle rather than the quarries of Carrara. But wealth is needed to lay bare these mineral treasures. The fine qualities of Skye marble will never be obtained until they are laid open by a golden pick-axe.
Once you have passed Scalpa you approach Lord Macdonald's deer forest. You have turned the flank of the Cuchullins now, and are taking them in rear, and you skirt their bases very closely too. The road is full of wild ascents and descents, and on your left, for a couple of miles or so, you are in continual presence of bouldered hill-side sloping away upward to some invisible peak, overhanging wall of wet black precipice, far-off serrated ridge that cuts the sky like a saw. Occasionally these mountain forms open up and fall back, and you see the sterilest valleys running no man knows whither. Altogether the hills here have a strange weird look. Each is as closely seamed with lines as the face of a man of a hundred, and these myriad reticulations are picked out with a pallid gray-green, as if through some mineral corrosion. Passing along you are strangely impressed with the idea that some vast chemical experiment has been going on for some thousands of years; that the region is nature's laboratory, and that down these wrinkled hillfronts she had spilt her acids and undreamed-of combinations. You never think of verdure in connexion with that net-work of gray-green, but only of rust, or of some metallic discoloration.
You cannot help fancying that if a sheep fed on one of those hill-sides it would to a certainty be poisoned. Altogether the sight is very grand, very impressive, and very uncomfortable, and it is with the liveliest satisfaction that, tearing down one of the long descents, you turn your back on the mountain monsters, and behold in front the green Island of Raasay, with its imposing modern mansion, basking in sunshine. It is like passing from the world of the gnomes to the world of men.
I have driven across Lord Macdonald's deer forest in sunshine and in rain, and am constrained to confess that, under the latter atmospherical condition, the scenery is the more imposing. Some months ago I drove in the mail-gig from Sligachan to Broadford. There was a high wind, the sun was bright, and consequently a great carry and flight of sunny vapours. All at once, too, every half-hour or so, the turbulent brightness of wind and cloud was extinguished by fierce squalls of rain. You could see the coming rain-storm blown out on the wind toward you like a sheet of muslin cloth. On it came racing in its strength and darkness, the long straight watery lines pelting on road and rock, churning in marsh and pool. Over the unhappy mail-gig it rushed, bidding defiance to plaid or waterproof cape, and wetting every one to the skin. The mail jogged on as best it could through the gloom and the fury, and then the sunshine came again, making to glisten, almost too brightly for the eye, every rain-pool on the road. In the sunny intervals there was a great race and hurry of towered vapour, as I said; and when a shining mass smote one of the hill-sides, or shrouded for a while one of the more distant serrated crests, the concussion was so palpable to the eye that the car felt defrauded, and silence seemed unnatural. And when the vast mass passed onward to impinge on some other mountain barrier, it was singular to notice by what slow degrees, with what evident reluctance the laggard skirts combed off.
All these effects of rain and windy vapour I remember vividly, and I suppose that the vividness was partly due to the lamentable condition of a fellow-traveller. He was a meek-faced man of fifty. He was dressed in sables, his swallow-tailed coat was thread-bare, and withal seemed made for a smaller man. There was an uncomfortable space between the wrists of his coat and his black-thread gloves. He wore a hat, and against the elements had neither the protection of plaid nor umbrella. No one knew him, to no one did he explain his business. To my own notion he was bound for a funeral at some place beyond Portree. He was not a clergyman - he might have been a schoolmaster who had become green-moulded in some out-of-the-way locality. Of course one or two of the rainy squalls settled the meek-faced man in the thread-bare sables. Emerging from one of these he resembled a draggled rook, and the rain was pouring from the brim of his pulpy hat as it might from the eaves of a cottage. A passenger handed him his spirit-flask, the meek-faced man took a hearty pull, and returning it, said plaintively, "I'm but poorly clad, sir, for this God-confounded climate." I think often of the utterance of the poor fellow: it was the only thing he said all the way; and when I think of it, I see again the rain blown out towards me on the wind like a waving sheet of muslin cloth, and the rush, the concussion, the up-break, and the slow reluctant trailing off from the hill-side of the sunny cloud. The poor man's plaintive tone is the anchor which holds these things in my memory.
The forest is of course treeless. Nor are deer seen there frequently. Although I have crossed it frequently, only once did I get a sight of antlers. Carefully I crept up, sheltering myself behind a rocky haunch of the hill to where the herd were lying, and then rushed out upon them with a halloo. In an instant they were on their feet, and away went the beautiful creatures, doe and fawn, a stag with branchy head leading. They dashed across a torrent, crowned an eminence one by one and disappeared. Such a sight is witnessed but seldom; and the traveller passing through the brown desolation sees usually no sign of life. In Lord Macdonald's deer forest neither trees nor deer are visible.
When once you get quit of the forest you come on a shooting-box, perched on the sea-shore; then you pass the little village of Sconser; and, turning the sharp flank of a hill, drive along Loch Sligachan to Sligachan Inn, about a couple of miles distant. This inn is a famous halting-place for tourists. There are good fishing streams about, I am given to understand, and through Glen Sligachan you can find your way to Camasunary, and take the boat from thence to Loch Coruisk, as we did. It was down this glen that the messenger was to have brought the tobacco to our peculiar friend. If you go you may perhaps find his skeleton scientifically articulated by the carrion crow and the raven. From the inn door the ridges of the Cuchullins are scen wildly invading the sky, and in closer proximity there are other hills which cannot be called beautiful. Monstrous, abnormal, chaotic, they resemble the other hills on the earth's surface, as Hindoo deities resemble human beings.
The mountain, whose sharp flank you turned after you passed Sconser, can be inspected leisurely now, and is to my mind supremely ugly. In summer it is red as copper, with great ragged patches of verdure upon it, which look by all the world as if the coppery mass had rusted green. On these green patches cattle feed from March to October. You bait at Sligachan, - can dine on trout which a couple of hours before were darting hither and thither in the stream, if you like, - and then drive leisurely along to Portree while the setting sun is dressing the wilderness in gold and rose. And all the way the Cuchullins follow you; the wild irregular outline, which no familiarity can stale, haunts you at Portree, as it does in nearly every quarter of Skye.
Portree folds two irregular ranges of white houses, the one range rising steeply above the other, around a noble bay, the entrance to which is guarded by rocky precipices. At a little distance the houses are white as shells, and as in summer they are all set in the greenness of foliage the effect is strikingly pretty; and if the sense of prettiness departs to a considerable extent on a closer acquaintance, there is yet enough left to gratify you so long as you remain there, and to make it a pleasant place to think about when you are gone. The lower range of houses consists mainly of warehouses and fish-stores; the upper, of the main hotel, the two banks, the court-house, and the shops. A pier runs out into the bay, and here, when the state of tide permits, comes the steamer, on its way to or from Stornoway and unlades. Should the tide be low the steamer lies to in the bay, and her cargo and passengers come to shore by means of boats.
She usually arrives at night; and at low tide, the burning of coloured lights at the mast-heads, the flitting hither and thither of busy lanterns, the pier boats coming and going with illumined wakes, and ghostly fires on the oar-blades, the clatter of chains and the shock of the crank hoisting the cargo out of the hold, the general hubbub and storm of Gaelic shouts and imprecations make the arrival at once picturesque and impressive. In the bay the yacht of the tourist is continually lying, and at the hotel door his dog-cart is continually departing or arriving. In the hotel parties arrange to visit Quirang or the Storr, and on the evenings of market-days, in the large public rooms, farmers and cattle dealers sit over tumblers of smoking punch and discuss noisily the prices and the qualities of stock.
Besides the hotel and the pier, the banks, and the court-house already mentioned, there are other objects of interest in the little island town - three churches, a post-office, a poor-house, and a cloth manufactory. And it has more than meets the eye - one of the Jameses landed here on a visitation of the Isles, Prince Charles was here on his way to Raasay, Dr Johnson and Boswell were here; and somewhere on the green hilt on which the pretty church stands, a murderer is buried - the precise spot of burial is unknown, and so the entire hill gets the credit that of right belongs only to a single yard of it. In Portree the tourist seldom abides long; he passes through it as a fortnight before he passed through Oban. It does not seem to the visitor a specially remarkable place, but everything is relative in this world. It is an event for the Islesman at Dunvegan or the Point of Sleat to go to Portree, just as it is an event for a Yorkshireman to go to London.
When you drive out of Portree you are in Macleod's country, and you discover that the character of the scenery has changed. Looking back, the Cuchullins are wild and pale on the horizon, but everything around is brown, softly-swelling, and monotonous. The hills are round and low, and except when an occasional boulder crops out on their sides like a wart, are smooth as a seal's back. They are gray - green in colour, and may be grazed to the top. Expressing once to a shepherd my admiration of the Cuchullins, the man replied, while he swept with his arm the entire range, "There's no feeding there for twenty wethers!" here, however, there is sufficient feeding to compensate for any lack of beauty.
About three miles out of Portree you come upon a solitary-looking school-house by the wayside, and a few yards farther to a division of the roads. A finger-post informs you that the road to the right leads to Uig, that to the left to Dunvegan. As I am at present bound for Dunvegan, I skirr along to the left, and after an hour's drive come in sight of blue Loch Snizort, with Skeabost sitting whitely on its margin. Far inland from the broad Minch, like one of those wavering swords which mediaeval painters place in the hands of archangels, has Snizort come wandering; and it is the curious mixture of brine and pastureland, of mariner life and shepherd life, which gives its charm to this portion of the island. The Lochs are narrow, and you almost fancy a strong lunged man could shout across. The sea-gull skims above the feeding sheep, the shepherd can watch the sail of the sloop, laden with meal, creeping from point to point. In the spiritual atmosphere of the country the superstitions of ocean and moorland mingle like two odours.
Above all places which I have seen in Skye, Skeabost has a lowland look. There are almost no turf-huts to be seen in the neighbourhood; the houses are built of stone and lime, and are tidily white-washed. The hills are low and smooth; on the lower slopes corn and wheat are grown; and from a little distance the greenness of cultivation looks like a palpable smile - a strange contrast to the monotonous district through which, for an hour or so, you have driven. As you pass the inn, and drive across the bridge, you notice that there is an island in the stony stream, and that this island is covered with ruins. The Skye-man likes to bury his dead in islands, and this one in the stream at Skeabost is a crowded cemetery. I forded the stream, and wandered for an hour amongst the tombs and broken stones. There are traces of an ancient chapel on the island, but tradition does not even make a guess at its builder's name or the date of its erection. There are old slabs, lying sideways, with the figures of recumbent men with swords in their hands, and inscriptions - indecipherable now - carved on them. There is the grave of a Skye clergyman who, if his epitaph is to be trusted, was a burning and a shining light in his day - a gospel candle irradiating the Hebridean darkness.
I never saw a churchyard so mounded, and so evidently over-crowded. Here laird, tacksman, and cotter elbow each other in death. Here no one will make way for a new-comer, or give the wall to his neighbour. And standing in the little ruined island of silence and the dead, with the river perfectly audible on either side, one could not help thinking what a picturesque sight a Highland funeral would be, creeping across the moors with wailing pipe-music, fording the river, and his bearers making room for the dead man amongst the older dead as best they could. And this sight, I am told, may be seen any week in the year. To this island all the funerals of the country-side converge. Standing there, too, one could not help thinking that this space of silence, girt by river noises, would be an eerie place by moonlight. The broken chapel, the carved slabs lying sideways, as if the dead man beneath had grown restless and turned himself, and the head-stones jutting out of the mounded soil at every variety of angle, would appal in the ink of shadow and the silver of moonbeam. In such circumstances one would hear something more in the stream as it ran past than the mere breaking of water on stones.
After passing the river and the island of graves you drive down between hedges to Skeabost church, school, post-office, and manse, and thereafter you climb the steep hill towards Bernesdale and its colony of turf-huts; and when you reach the top you have a noble view of the flat blue Minch, and the Skye headlands, each precipitous, abrupt, and reminding you somehow of a horse which has been suddenly reined back to its haunches. The flowing lines of those headlands suggest an onward motion, and then, all at once, they shrink back upon themselves, as if they feared the roar of breakers and the smell of the brine. But the grand vision is not of long duration, for the road descends rapidly towards Taynlone Inn. In my descent I beheld two bare-footed and bare-headed girls yoked to a harrow, and dragging it up and down a small plot of delved ground.
Sitting in the inn I began to remember me how frequently I had heard in the south of the destitution of the Skye people and the discomfort of the Skye hut. During my wanderings I had the opportunity of visiting several of these dwellings, and seeing how matters were transacted within. Frankly speaking, the Highland hut is not a model edifice. It is open to wind, and almost always pervious to rain. An old bottomless herring-firkin stuck in the roof usually serves for chimney, but the blue peat-reek disdains that aperture, and steams wilfully through the door and the crannies in the walls and roof. The interior is seldom well-lighted - what light there is proceeding rather from the orange glow of the peat-fire, on which a large pot is simmering, than from the narrow pane with its great bottle-green bull's-eye. The rafters which support the roof are black and glossy with soot, as you can notice by sudden flashes of firelight. The sleeping accommodation is limited, and the beds are composed of heather or ferns. The floor is the beaten earth, the furniture is scanty; there is hardly ever a chair - stools and stones, worn smooth by the usage of several generations, have to do instead.
One portion of the hut is not unfrequently a byre, and the breath of the cow is mixed with the odour of peat-reek, and the baa of the calf mingles with the wranglings and swift ejaculations of the infant Highlanders. In such a hut as this there are sometimes three generations. The mother stands knitting outside, the children are scrambling on the floor with the terrier and the poultry, and a ray of cloudy sunshine from the narrow pane smites the silver hairs of the grandfather near the fire, who is mending fishing-nets against the return of his son-in-law from the south. Am I inclined to lift my hands in horror at witnessing such a dwelling? Certainly not. I have only given one side of the picture. The hut I speak of nestles beneath a rock, on the top of which dances the ash-tree and the birch. The emerald mosses on its roof are softer and richer than the velvets of kings. Twenty yards down that path you will find a well that needs no ice in the dog-days. At a little distance, from rocky shelf to shelf, trips a mountain burn, with abundance of trout in the brown pools. At the distance of a mile is the sea, which is not allowed to ebb and flow in vain; for in the smoke there is a row of fishes drying; and on the floor a curly-headed urchin of three years or thereby is pommeling the terrier with the scarlet claw of a lobster. Methought, too, when I entered I saw beside the door a heap of oyster shells. Within the hut there is good food, if a little scant at times; without there is air that will call colour back to the cheek of an invalid, pure water, play, exercise, work.
That the people are healthy, you may see from their strong frames, brown faces, and the age to which many attain; that they are happy and light-hearted, the shouts of laughter that ring round the peat-fire of an evening may be taken as sufficient evidence. I protest I cannot become pathetic over the Highland hut. I have sat in these turfen dwellings, amid the surgings of blue smoke, and received hospitable welcome, and found amongst the inmates good sense, industry, family affection, contentment, piety, happiness. And when I have heard philanthropists, with more zeal than discretion, maintain that these dwellings are a disgrace to the country in which they are found, I have thought of districts of great cities which I have seen, - within the sound of the rich man's chariot wheels, within hearing of multitudinous Sabbath bells - of evil scents and sights and sounds; of windows stuffed with rags; of female faces that look out on you as out of a sadder Inferno than that of Dante's; of faces of men containing the de'bris of the entire decalogue, faces which hurt you more than a blow would: of infants poisoned with gin, of children bred for the prison and the hulks. Depend upon it there are worse odours than peat smoke, worse next-door neighbours than a cow or a brood of poultry; and although a couple of girls dragging a harrow be hardly in accordance with our modern notions, yet we need not forget that there are worse employment for girls than even that. I do not stand up for the Highland hut; but in one of these smoky cabins I would a thousand-fold rather spend my days than in the Cowgate of Edinburgh, or in one of the streets that radiate from Seven Dials.
After travelling three or four days, I beheld on the other side of a long, blue, river-like loch, the house of the Landlord. From the point at which I now paused, a boat could have taken me across in half an hour, but as the road wound round the top of the Loch, I had yet some eight or ten miles to drive before my journey was accomplished. Meantime the Loch was at ebb and the sun was setting. On the hill-side, on my left as I drove, stretched a long street of huts covered with smoky wreaths, and in front of each a strip of cultivated ground ran down to the road which skirted the shore. Potatoes grew in one strip or lot, turnips in a second, corn in a third, and as these crops were in different stages of advancement, the entire hill-side, from the street of huts downward, resembled one of those counterpanes which thrifty housewifes manufacture by sewing together patches of different patterns.
Along the road running at the back of the huts a cart was passing; on the moory hill behind, a flock of sheep, driven by men and dogs, was contracting and expanding itself like quicksilver. The women were knitting at the hut doors, the men were at work in the cultivated patches in front. On all this scene of cheerful and fortunate industry, on men and women, on turnips, oats, and potatoes, on cottages set in azure films of peat-reek, the rosy light was striking - making a pretty spectacle enough. From the whole hill-side breathed peace, contentment, happiness, and a certain sober beauty of usefulness. Man and nature seemed in perfect agreement and harmony - man willing to labour, nature to yield increase. Down to the head of the Loch the road sloped rapidly, and at the very head a small village had established itself. It contained an inn, a school-house, in which divine service was held on Sundays; a smithy, a merchant's shop - all traders are called merchants in Skye - and, by the side of a stream which came brawling down from rocky steep to steep, stood a corn mill, the big wheel lost in a watery mist of its own raising, the door and windows dusty with meal. Behind the village lay a stretch of black moorland intersected by drains and trenches, and from the black huts which seemed to have grown out of the moor, and the spaces of sickly green here and there, one could see that the desolate and forbidding region had its colonists, and that they were valiantly attempting to wring a sustenance out of it.
Who were the squatters on the black moorland? Had they accepted their hard conditions as a matter of choice, or had they been banished there by a superior power? Did the dweller in those outlying huts bear the same relation to the villagers, or the flourishing cotters on the hill-side, that the gipsy bears to the English peasant, or the red Indian to the Canadian farmer? I had no one to inform me at the time; meanwhile the sunset fell on these remote dwellings, lending them what beauty and amelioration of colour it could, making a drain sparkle for a moment, turning a far-off pool into gold leaf, and rendering, by contrast of universal warmth and glow, yet more beautiful the smoke which swathed the houses. Yet after all the impression made upon one was cheerless enough. Sunset goes but a little way in obviating human wretchedness. It fires the cottage window, but it cannot call to life the corpse within; it can sparkle on the chain of a prisoner, but with all its sparkling it does not make the chain one whit the lighter. Misery is often picturesque, but the picturesqueness is in the eyes of others, not in her own. The black moorland and the banished huts abode in my mind during the remainder of my drive.
Everything about a man is characteristic, more or less; and in the house of the Landlord I found that singular mixture of hemispheres which I had before noticed in his talk and in his way of looking at times. His house was plain enough externally, but its furniture was curious and far-brought. The interior of his porch was adorned with heads of stags and tusks of elephants. He would show you Highland relics, and curiosities from sacked Eastern palaces. He had the tiny porcelain cup out of which Prince Charles drank tea at Kingsburgh, and the signet ring which was stripped from the dead fingers of Tippoo Saib.
In his gun-room were modern breech-loaders and revolvers, and matchlocks from China and Nepaul. On the walls were Lochaber axes, claymores, and targets that might have seen service at Inverlochy, hideous creases, Afghan daggers, curiously-curved swords, scabbards thickly crusted with gems. In the library the last new novel leaned against the "Institutes of Menu." On the drawing-room table, beside carte-de-visite books, were ivory card-cases wrought by the patient Hindoo artificer as finely as we work our laces, Chinese puzzles that baffled all European comprehension, and comical squabfaced deities in silver and bronze. While the Landlord was absent, I could fancy these strangely assorted articles striking one with a sense of incongruity: but when at home, each seemed a portion of himself. He was related as closely to the Indian god as to Prince Charles's cup. The ash and birch of the Highlands danced before his eyes, the palm stood in his imagination and memory.
And then he surrounded himself with all kinds of pets, and lived with them on the most intimate terms. When he entered the breakfast-room his terriers barked and frisked and jumped about him; his great black hare-hound, Maida, got up from the rug on which it had been basking and thrust its sharp nose into his hand; his canaries broke into emulous music, as if sunshine had come into the room; the parrot in the porch clambered along the cage with horny claws, settled itself on its perch, bobbed its head up and down for a moment, and was seized with hooping-cough. When he went out the black hare-hound followed at his heel; the peacock, strutting on the gravel in the shelter of the larches, unfurled its starry fan; in the stable his horses turned round to smell his clothes and to have their foreheads stroked: melodious thunder broke from the dog-kennel when he came: and at his approach his falcons did not withdraw haughtily, as if in human presence there was profanation; they listened to his voice, and a gentler something tamed for a moment the fierce cairngorms of their eyes. When others came near they ruffled their plumage and uttered sharp cries of anger.
After breakfast it was his habit to carry the parrot out to a long iron garden-seat in front of the house - where, if sunshine was to be had at all, you were certain to find it - and placing the cage beside him, smoke a cheroot. The parrot would clamber about the cage, suspended head downwards would take crafty stock of you with an eye which had perhaps looked out on the world for a century or so, and then, righting itself, peremptorily insist that Polly should put on the kettle, and that the boy should shut up the grog. On one special morning, while the Landlord was smoking and the parrot whooping and whistling, several men, dressed in rough pilot cloth which had seen much service and known much darning, came along the walk and respectfully uncovered. Returning their salutation, the Landlord threw away the end of his cheroot and went forward to learn their message.
The conversation was in Gaelic: slow and gradual at first, it quickened anon, and broke into gusts of altercation; and on these occasions I noticed that the Landlord would turn impatiently on his heel, march a pace or two back to the house, and then, wheeling round, return to the charge. He argued in the unknown tongue, gesticulated, was evidently impressing something on his auditors which they were unwilling to receive, for at intervals they would look in one another's faces, - a look plainly implying, "Did you ever hear the like ?" and give utterance to a murmured chit, chit, chit of dissent and humble protestation. At last the matter got itself amicably settled, the deputation - each man making a short sudden duck before putting on his bonnet - withdrew, and the Landlord came back to the parrot, which had, now with one eye, now with another, been watching the proceeding. He sat down with a slight air of annoyance.
"These fellows are wanting more meal," he said, "and one or two are pretty deep in my books already."
"Do you, then, keep regular accounts with them ?"
"Of course. I give nothing for nothing. I wish to do them as much good as I can. They are a good deal like my old ryots, only the ryot was more supple and obsequious."
"Where do your friends come from?" I asked. "From the village over there," pointing across the narrow blue loch. "Pretty Polly! Polly!"
The parrot was climbing up and down the cage, taking hold of the wires with beak and claw as it did so.
"I wish to know something of your villagers. The cotters on the hill-side seem comfortable enough, but I wish to know something of the black land and the lonely huts behind."
"Oh," said he, laughing, "that is my penal settlement - I'll drive you over tomorrow." He then got up, tossed a stone into the shrubbery, after which Maida dashed, thrust his hands into his breeches' pocket for a moment, and marched into the house.
Next morning we drove across to the village, and pretty enough it looked as we alighted. The big water-wheel of the mill whirred industrious music, flour flying about the door and windows. Two or three people were standing at the merchant's shop. At the smithy a horse was haltered, and within were brilliant showers of sparks and the merry clink of hammers. The sunshine made pure amber the pools of the tumbling burn, and in one of these a girl was rinsing linen, the light touching her hair into a richer colour. Our arrival at the inn created some little stir. The dusty miller came out, the smith came to the door rubbing down his apron with a horny palm, the girl stood upright by the burn-side shading her eyes with her hand, one of the men at the merchant's shop went within to tell the news, the labourers in the fields round about stopped work to stare.
The machine was no sooner put to rights and the horses taken round to the stable than the mistress of the house complained that the roof was leaky, and she and the Landlord went in to inspect the same. Left alone for a little, I could observe that, seeing my friend had arrived, the people were resolved to make some use of him, and here and there I noticed them laying down their crooked spades, and coming down towards the inn. One old woman, with a white handkerchief tied round her head, sat down on a stone opposite, and when the Landlord appeared - the matter of the leaky roof having been arranged - she rose and dropped courtesy. She had a complaint to make, a benefit to ask, a wrong to be redressed. I could not, of course, understand a word of the conversation, but curiously sharp and querulous was her voice, with a slight suspicion of the whine of the mendicant in it, and every now and then she would give a deep sigh, and smooth down her apron with both her hands. I suspect the old lady gained her object, for when the Landlord cracked his joke at parting the most curious sunshine of merriment came into the withered features, lighting them up and changing them, and giving one, for a flying second, some idea of what she must have been in her middle age, perhaps in her early youth, when she as well as other girls had a sweetheart.
In turn we visited the merchant's shop, the smithy, and the mill; then we passed the schoolhouse - which was one confused murmur, the sharp voice of the teacher striking through at intervals - and turning up a narrow road, came upon the black region and the banished huts. The cultivated hill-side was shining in sunlight, the cottages smoking, the people at work in their crofts - everything looking blithe and pleasant; and under the bright sky and the happy weather the penal settlement did not look nearly so forbidding as it had done when, under the sunset, I had seen it a few evenings previously.
The houses were rude, but they seemed sufficiently weather-tight. Each was set down in a little oasis of cultivation, a little circle in which by labour the sour land had been coaxed into a smile of green; each small domain was enclosed by a low turfen wall, and on the top of one of these a wild goat-looking sheep was feeding, which, as we approached, jumped down with an alarmed bleat, and then turned to gaze on the intruders. The land was sour and stony, the dwellings framed of the rudest materials, and the people - for they all came forward to meet him, and at each turfen wall the Landlord held a levée - especially the older people, gave one the idea somehow of worn-out tools. In some obscure way they reminded one of bent and warped oars, battered spades, blunted pickaxes. On every figure was written hard, unremitting toil. Toil had twisted their frames, seamed and puckered their leathern faces, made their hands horny, bleached their grizzled locks. Your fancy had to run back along years and years of labour before it could arrive at the original boy or girl. Still they were cheerful-looking after a sort, contented, and loquacious withal.
The man took off his bonnet, the woman dropped her courtesy, before pouring into the Landlord's ear how the wall of the house wanted mending, how a neighbour's sheep had come into the corn, had been driven into the corn out of foul spite and envy it was suspected, how new seed would be required for next year's sowing, how the six missing fleeces had been found in the hut of the old soldier across the river, and all the other items which made up their world. And the Landlord, his black hound couched at his feet, would sit down on a stone, or lean against the turf wall and listen to the whole of it, and consult as to the best way to repair the decaying house, and discover how defendant's sheep came into complainant's corn, and give judgment, and promise new seed to old Donald, and walk over to the soldier's and pluck the heart out of the mystery of the missing fleeces. And going in and out amongst his people, his functions were manifold. He was not Landlord only - he was leech, lawyer, divine. He prescribed medicine, he set broken bones, and tied up sprained ankles; he was umpire in a hundred petty quarrels, and damped out wherever he went every flame of wrath. Nor, when it was needed, was he without ghostly counsel. On his land he would permit no unbaptized child; if Donald was drunk and brawling at a fair, he would, when the inevitable headache and nausea were gone, drop in and improve the occasion, to Donald's much discomfiture and his many blushes; and with the bed-ridden woman, or the palsied man, who for years had sat in the corner of the hut as constantly as a statue sits within its niche - just where the motty sunbeam from the pane with its great knob of bottle-green struck him - he held serious conversations, and uttered words which come usually from the lips of a clergyman.
We then went through the cottages on the cultivated hill-side, and there another series of levées were held. One cotter complained that his neighbour had taken advantage of him in this or the other matter: another man's good name had been aspersed by a scandalous tongue, and ample apology must be made, else the sufferer would bring the asperser before the sheriff. Norman had borrowed for a day Neil's plough, had broken the shaft, and when requested to make reparation, had refused in terms too opprobrious to be repeated. The man from Sleat who had a year or two ago come to reside in these parts, and with whom the world had gone prosperously, was minded at next fair to buy another cow - would he therefore be allowed to rent the croft which lay alongside the one which he already possessed?
To these cotters the Landlord gave attentive ear, standing beside the turf dike, leaning against the walls of their houses, sitting down inside in the peat smoke - the children gathered together in the farthest corner, and regarding him with no little awe. And so he came to know all the affairs of his people - who was in debt, who was waging a doubtful battle with the world, who had money in the bank; and going daily amongst them he was continually engaged in warning, expostulation, encouragement, rebuke. Nor was he always sunshine: he was occasionally lightning too. The tropical tornado, which unroofs houses and splits trees, was within the possibilities of his moods as well as the soft wind which caresses the newly-yeaned lamb. Against greed, laziness, dishonesty, he flamed like a seven-times heated furnace. When he found that argument had no effect on the obstinate or the pig-headed, he suddenly changed his tactics, and descended in a shower of chaff which is to the Gael an unknown and terrible power, dissolving opposition as salt dissolves a snail.
The last cotter had been seen, the last levée had been held, and we then climbed up to the crown of the hill to visit the traces of an old fortification, or dun, as the Skye people call it. These ruins, and they are thickly scattered over the island, are supposed to be of immense antiquity - so old, that Ossian may have sung in each to a circle of Fingalian chiefs. When we reached the dun - a loose congregation of mighty stones, scattered in a circular form, with some rude remnants of an entrance and a covered way - we sat down, and the Landlord lighted a cheroot. Beneath lay the little village covered with smoke. Far away to the right, Skye stretched into ocean, pale headland after headland. In front, over a black wilderness of moor, rose the conical forms of Macleod's Tables, and one thought of the "restless bright Atlantic plain" beyond, the endless swell and shimmer of watery ridges, the clouds of sea birds, the sudden glistening upheaval of a whale and its disappearance, the smoky trail of a steamer on the horizon, the tacking of white-sailed craft. On the left, there was nothing but moory wilderness and hill, with something on a slope flashing in the sunshine like a diamond. A falcon palpitating in the intense blue above, the hare-hound cocked her ears and looked out alertly, the Landlord with his field-glass counted the sheep feeding on the hill-side a couple of miles off. Suddenly he closed the glass, and lay back on the heather, puffing a column of white smoke into the air.
"I suppose," said I, "your going in and out amongst your tenants to-day is very much the kind of thing you used to do in India ?"
"Exactly. I know these fellows, every man of them - and they know me. We get on very well together. I know everything they do. I know all their secrets, all their family histories, everything they wish, and everything they fear. I think I have done them some good since I came amongst them."
"But," said I, "I wish you to explain to me your system of penal servitude, as you call it In what respect do the people on the cultivated hillside differ from the people in the black ground behind the village?"
"Willingly. But I must premise that the giving away of money in charity is, in nine cases out of ten, tantamount to throwing money into the fire. It does no good to the bestower: it does absolute harm to the receiver. You see I have taken the management of these people into my own hands. I have built a school-house for them - on which we will look in and overhaul on our way down - I have built a shop, as you see, a smithy, and a mill. I have done everything for them, and I insist that, when a man becomes my tenant, he shall pay me rent. If I did not so insist I should be doing an injury to myself and to him. The people on the hill-side pay me rent; not a man Jack of them is at this moment one farthing in arrears. The people down there in the black land behind the village, which I am anxious to reclaim, don't pay rent They are broken men, broken sometimes by their own fault and laziness, sometimes by culpable imprudence, sometimes by stress of circumstances. When I settle a man there I build him a house, make him a present of a bit of land, give him tools, should he require them, and set him to work. He has the entire control of all he can produce. He improves my land, and can, if he is industrious, make a comfortable living. I won't have a pauper on my place: the very sight of a pauper sickens me."
"But why do you call the black lands your penal settlement?"
Here the Landlord laughed. "Because, should any of the crofters on the hill-side, either from laziness or misconduct, fall into arrears, I transport him at once. I punish him by sending him among the people who pay no rent. It's like taking the stripes off a sergeant's arm and degrading him to the ranks; and if there is any spirit in the man he tries to regain his old position. I wish my people to respect themselves, and to hold poverty in horror."
"And do many get back to the hill- side again ?" "Oh, yes! and they are all the better for their temporary banishment. I don't wish residence there to be permanent in any case. When one of these fellows gets on, makes a little money, I have him up here at once among the rent-paying people. I draw the line at a cow."
"When a man by industry or by self-denial has saved money enough to buy a cow, I consider the black land is no longer the place for him. He is able to pay rent, and he must pay it. I brought an old fellow up here the other week, and very unwilling he was to come. He had bought himself a cow, and so I marched him up here at once. I wish to stir all these fellows up, to put into them a little honest pride and self-respect"
"And how do they take to your system?"
"Oh, they grumbled a good deal at first, and thought their lines were hard; but discovering that my schemes have been for their benefit, they are content enough now. In these black lands, you observe, I not only rear corn and potatoes, I rear and train men, which is the most valuable crop of all. But let us be going. I wish you to see my scholars. I think I have got one or two smart lads down there."
In a short time we reached the school-house, a plain, substantial-looking building, standing midway between the inn and the banished huts. As it was arranged that neither schoolmaster nor scholar should have the slightest idea that they were to be visited that day, we were enabled to see the school in its ordinary aspect. When we entered the master came forward and shook hands with the Landlord, the boys pulled their red fore-locks, the girls dropped their best courtesies. Sitting down on a form I noted the bare walls, a large map hanging on one side, the stove with a heap of peats near it, the ink-smeared bench and the row of girls' heads, black, red, yellow, and brown, surmounting it, and the boys, barefooted and in tattered kilts, gathered near the window. The girls regarded us with a shy, curious gaze, which was not ungraceful; and in several of the freckled faces there was the rudiments of beauty, or of comeliness at least. The eyes of all, boys as well as girls, kept twinkling over our persons, taking silent note of everything. I don't think I ever before was the subject of so much curiosity. One was pricked all over by quick-glancing eyes as by pins.
We had come to examine the school, and the ball opened by a display of copy books. Opening these, we found pages covered with "Emulation is a generous passion," "Emancipation does not make man," in very fair and legible handwriting. Expressing our satisfaction, the schoolmaster bowed low, and the prickling of the thirty or forty curious eyes became yet more keen and rapid. The schoolmaster then called for those who wished to be examined in geography - very much as a colonel might seek volunteers for a forlorn hope - and in a trice six scholars, kilted, of various ages and sizes, but all shock-headed and ardent, were drawn up in line in front of the large map. A ruler was placed in the hand of a little fellow at the end, who, with his eyes fixed on the schoolmaster and his body bent forward eagerly, seemed as waiting the signal to start off in a race. "Number one, point out river Tagus." Number one charged the Peninsula with his ruler as ardently as his great-grandfather in all probability charged the French at Quebec. "Through what country does the Tagus flow ?" "Portugal" "What is the name of the capital city ?" "Lisbon." Number one having accomplished his devoir, the ruler was handed on to number two, who traced the course of the Danube, and answered several questions thereanent with considerable intelligence.
Number five was a little fellow; he was asked to point out Portree, and as the Western Islands hung too high in the north for him to reach, he jumped at them. He went into the North Sea the first time, but on his second attempt he smote Skye with his ruler very neatly. Numbers three, four, and six acquitted themselves creditably - number four boggling a little deal about Constantinople - much to the vexation of the schoolmaster. Slates were then produced, and the six geographers - who were the cream of the school, I daresay - were prepared for arithmetical action. As I was examiner, and had no desire to get into deep waters, the efforts of my kilted friends were, at my request, confined to the good old rule of simple addition. The schoolmaster called out, ten or eleven ranks of figures, and then cried add. Six swishes of the slate-pencil were heard, and then began the arithmetical tug of war. Each face was immediately hidden behind a slate, and we could hear the quick tinkle of pencils. All at once there was a hurried swish, and the red-head, who had boggled about Constantinople, flashed round his slate on me with the summation fairly worked out. Flash went another slate, then another, till the six were held out. All the answers corresponded, and totting up the figures I found them correct. Then books were procured, and we listened to English reading. In a loud tone of voice, as if they were addressing some one on an opposite hill-side, and with barbarous intonation, the little fellows read off about a dozen sentences each. Now and again a big word brought a reader to grief, as a tall fence brings a steeple-chaser; now and again a reader went through a word as a hunter goes through a hedge which he cannot clear - but, on the whole, they deserved the commendation which they received. The Landlord expressed his satisfaction, and mentioned that he had left at the inn two baskets of gooseberries for the scholars. The schoolmaster again bowed; and although the eyes of the scholars were as bright and curious as before, they had laid their heads together, and were busily whispering now.
The schools in Skye bear the same relationship to the other educational establishments of the country that a turf-hut bears to a stone-and-lime cottage. These schools are scattered thinly up and down the Island, and the pupils are unable to attend steadily on account of the distances they have to travel, and the minor agricultural avocations in which they are at intervals engaged. The schoolmaster is usually a man of no surpassing intelligence or acquirement; he is wretchedly remunerated, and his educational aids and appliances, such as books, maps, &c., are defective. But still a turf-hut is better than no shelter, and a Skye school is better than no school at all. The school, for instance, which we had just visited, was an authentic light in the darkness. There boys and girls were taught reading, writing, and ciphering - plain and homely accomplishments it is true, but accomplishments that bear the keys of all the doors that lead to wealth and knowledge. The boy or girl who can read, write, and cast up accounts deftly, is not badly equipped for the battle of life; and although the school which the Landlord has established is plain and unostentatious in its forms and modes of instruction, it at least, with tolerable success, teaches these. For the uses made of them by the pupils in after life, the pupils are themselves responsible.
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