We were awakened at six o'clock in the morning, and after a good breakfast we left the Half-Way House (later the "Aultnamain Inn"), and well pleased we were with the way the landlady had catered for our hungry requirements. We could see the sea in the distance, and as we resumed our march across the moors we were often alarmed suddenly by the harsh and disagreeable cries of the startled grouse as they rose hurriedly from the sides of our path, sounding almost exactly like "Go back! - go back!" We were, however, obliged to "Go forward," and that fairly quickly, as we were already a few miles behind our contemplated average of twenty-five miles per day. We determined to make the loss good, and if possible to secure a slight margin to our credit, so we set out intending to reach Inverness that night if possible. In spite, therefore, of the orders given in such loud and unpleasant tones by the grouse, we advanced quickly onwards and left those birds to rejoice the heart of any sportsman who might follow.
Cromarty Firth was clearly visible as we left the moors, and we could distinguish what we thought was Cromarty itself, with its whitewashed houses, celebrated as the birthplace of the great geologist, Hugh Miller, of whom we had heard so much in the Orkneys. The original cause of the whitewashing of the houses in Cromarty was said to have been the result of an offer made by a former candidate for Parliamentary honours, who offered to whitewash any of the houses. As nearly all the free and independent electors accepted his offer, it was said that Cromarty came out of the Election of 1826 cleaner than any other place in Scotland, notwithstanding the fact that it happened in an age when parliamentarian representation generally went to the highest bidder.
We crossed the Strathrory River, and leaving the hills to our right found ourselves in quite a different kind of country, a veritable land of woods, where immense plantations of fir-trees covered the hills as far as the eye could reach, sufficient, apparently, to make up for the deficiency in Caithness and Sutherland in that respect, for we were now in the county of Ross and Cromarty.
Shortly afterwards we crossed over the River Alness. The country we now passed through was highly cultivated and very productive, containing some large farms, where every appearance of prosperity prevailed, and the tall chimneys in the rear of each spoke of the common use of coal. The breeding of cattle seemed to be carried on extensively; we saw one large herd assembled in a field adjoining our road, and were amused at a conversational passage of arms between the farmer and two cattle-dealers who were trying to do business, each side endeavouring to get the better of the other. It was not quite a war to the knife, but the fight between those Scots was like razor trying to cut razor, and we wished we had time to stay and hear how it ended.
Arriving at Novar, where there was a nice little railway station, we passed on to the village inn, and called for a second breakfast, which we thoroughly enjoyed after our twelve-mile walk. Here we heard that snow had fallen on one of the adjacent hills during the early hours of the morning, but it was now fine, and fortunately continued to be so during the whole of the day.
Our next stage was Dingwall, the chief town in the county of Ross, and at the extreme end of the Cromarty Firth, which was only six miles distant. We had a lovely walk to that town, very different from the lonely moors we had traversed earlier in the day, as our road now lay along the very edge of the Cromarty Firth, while the luxuriant foliage of the trees on the other side of our road almost formed an arch over our way. The water of the Firth was about two miles broad all the way to Dingwall, and the background formed by the wooded hills beyond the Firth made up a very fine picture. We had been fully prepared to find Dingwall a very pretty place, and in that we were not disappointed.
The great object of interest as we entered this miniature county town was a lofty monument fifty or sixty feet high,[Footnote: This monument has since been swept away.] which stood in a separate enclosure near a graveyard attached to a church. It was evidently very old, and leaning several points from the perpendicular, and was bound together almost to the top with bands of iron crossed in all directions to keep it from failing. A very curious legend was attached to it. It was erected to some steward named Roderick Mackenzie, who had been connected with the Cromarty estate many years ago, and who appeared to have resided at Kintail, being known as the Tutor of Kintail. He acted as administrator of the Mackenzie estates during the minority of his nephew, the grandfather of the first Earl of Cromarty, and was said to have been a man of much ability and considerable culture for the times in which he lived. At the same time he was a man of strong personality though of evil repute in the Gaelic-speaking districts, as the following couplet still current among the common people showed:
The three worst things in
Mists in the dog-days, frost in May, and the Tutor of Kintail.
The story went that the tutor had a quarrel with a woman who appeared to have been quite as strong-minded as himself. She was a dairymaid in Strathconon with whom he had an agreement to supply him with a stone of cheese for every horn of milk given by each cow per day. For some reason the weight of cheese on one occasion happened to be light, and this so enraged the tutor that he drove her from the Strath. Unfortunately for him the dairymaid was a poetess, and she gave vent to her sorrow in verse, in which it may be assumed the tutor came in for much abuse. When she obtained another situation at the foot of Ben Wyvis, the far-reaching and powerful hand of the tutor drove her from there also; so at length she settled in the Clan Ranald Country in Barrisdale, on the shores of Loch Hourn on the west coast of Inverness-shire, a place at that time famous for shell-fish, where she might have dwelt in peace had she mastered the weakness of her sex for demanding the last word; but she burst forth once more in song, and the tutor came in for another scathing:
Though from Strathconon with its cream
you've driven me,
And from Wyvis with its curds and cheese;
While billow beats on shore you cannot drive me
From the shell-fish of fair Barrisdale.
These stanzas came to the ear of the tutor, who wrote to Macdonald of Barrisdale demanding that he should plough up the beach, and when this had been done there were no longer any shell-fish to be found there.
The dairymaid vowed to be even with the tutor, and threatened to desecrate his grave. When he heard of the threat, in order to prevent its execution he built this strange monument, and instead of being buried beneath it he was said to have been buried near the summit; but the woman was not to be out-done, for after the tutor's funeral she climbed to the top of the pinnacle and kept her vow to micturate there!
As our time was limited, we were obliged to hurry away from this pleasantly situated town, and in about four miles, after crossing the River Conon, we entered Conon village, where we called for refreshments, of which we hastily disposed. Conon was quite an agricultural village, where the smithy seemed to rival the inn in importance, as the smiths were busy at work. We saw quite a dozen ploughs waiting to be repaired in order to fit them to stir up the soil during the ploughing season, which would commence as soon as the corn was cleared off the land. Here we observed the first fingerpost we had seen since leaving John o' Groat's, now more than a hundred miles distant, although it was only an apology for one, and very different from those we were accustomed to see farther south in more important but not more beautiful places. It was simply an upright post with rough pieces of wood nailed across the top, but we looked upon it as a sign that we were approaching more civilised regions.
The gentry had shown their appreciation of this delightful part of the country by erecting fine residences in the neighbourhood, some of which we passed in close proximity. Just before crossing over the railway bridge we came to a frightful figure of a human head carved on a stone and built in the battlement in a position where it could be seen by all. It was coloured white, and we heard it was the work of some local sculptor. It was an awful-looking thing, and no doubt did duty for the "boggard" of the neighbourhood. The view of the hills to the right of our road as we passed along was very fine, lit up as they were by the rays of the evening sun, and the snow on Ben Wyvis in the distance contrasted strangely with the luxuriant foliage of the trees near us, as they scarcely yet showed the first shade of the autumn tints.
About four miles farther on we arrived at a place called the Muir of Ord, a rather strange name of which we did not know the meaning, reaching the railway station there just after the arrival of a train which we were told had come from the "sooth." The passengers consisted of a gentleman and his family, who were placing themselves in a large four-wheeled travelling-coach to which were attached four rather impatient horses. A man-servant in livery was on the top of the coach arranging a large number of parcels and boxes, those intolerable appendages of travel. We waited, and watched their departure, as we had no desire to try conclusions with the restless feet of the horses, our adventures with the Shetland pony in the north having acted as a warning to us.
Shortly afterwards we crossed a large open space of land studded with wooden buildings and many cattle-pens which a man told us was now the great cattlemarket for the North, where sales for cattle were held each month - the next would be due in about a week's time, when from 30,000 to 35,000 sheep would be sold. It seemed strange to us that a place of such importance should have been erected where there were scarcely any houses, but perhaps there were more in the neighbourhood than we had seen, and in any case it lay conveniently as a meeting-place for the various passes in the mountain country.
We soon arrived at Beauly, which, as its name implied, was rather a pretty place, with its houses almost confined to the one street, the Grammar School giving it an air of distinction. Our attention was attracted by some venerable ruins at the left of our road, which we determined to visit, but the gate was locked. Seeing a small girl standing near, we asked her about the key, and she volunteered to go and tell the man who kept it to come at once. We were pressed for time, and the minutes seemed very long as we stood awaiting the arrival of the key, until at last we decided to move on; but just as we were walking away we saw an old man coming up a side street with the aid of a crutch and a stick.
He pointed with his stick towards the cathedral, so we retraced our steps and awaited his arrival with the key. A key it certainly was, and a large one too, for it weighed 2 lbs. 4 ozs. and the bore that fitted the lock was three-quarters of an inch in diameter. It was the biggest key we saw in all our long journey. We listened to all the old man had to tell us about the cathedral, the building of which begun in the year 1230. It measured 152 feet in length and about 24 feet in breadth, but was ruined in the time of Cromwell. He showed us what he described as the Holy Water Pot, which was quite near the door and had some water in it, but why the water happened to be there the old man could not explain. The front gable of the nave was nearly all standing, but that at the back, which at one time had contained a large window, was nearly all down. The old font was in the wall about half-way down the cathedral; the vestry and chapter house were roofless. The grave-stones dated from the year 1602, but that which covered the remains of the founder was of course very much older. Beauly was formerly a burial-place of the ancient Scottish chieftains, and was still used as the burial-ground of the Mackenzies, the name reminding us of our friends at the "Huna Inn." Rewarding our guide and the bairn who had returned with him for their services, we walked quickly away, as we had still twelve miles to walk before reaching Inverness.
After crossing the bridge over the River Beauly we had the company for about a mile of a huge servant-girl, a fine-looking Scotch lassie, with whom we ventured to enter into conversation although we felt like dwarfs in her presence. She told us she had never been in England, but her sister had been there in service, and had formed a bad opinion of the way the English spent their Sundays. Some of them never went to church at all, while one young man her sister knew there actually whistled as he was going to church! It was very different in Scotland, where, she said, all went to church and kept holy the Sabbath day. She evidently thought it a dreadful offence to whistle on Sundays, and we were careful not to offend the susceptibilities of the Scots, and, we may safely say, our own, by whistling on the Lord's day. Whistling was, however, an accomplishment of which we were rather proud, as we considered ourselves experts, and beguiled many a weary mile's march with quicksteps - English, Scotch, Welsh, and Irish - which we flattered ourselves sounded better amongst the hills of the Highlands of Scotland even than the sacred bagpipes of the most famous Scotch regiments.
We thanked our formidable-looking friend for her company and, presenting her with a John o' Groat's buckie, bade her farewell. When she must have been a distance away we accelerated our pace by whistling "Cheer, Boys, Cheer!" one of Charles Russell's songs. We could not keep it up for long, as we were not only footsore, but sore in every joint, through friction, and we were both beginning to limp a little when we came to a junction in the roads. Here it was necessary to inquire about our way, and seeing a farm quite near we went to it and asked a gentleman who was standing in the yard which way we should turn for Inverness and how far it was. He kindly directed us, and told us that town was nine miles distant, but added, "I am just going there in my 'machine,' which will be ready directly, and will be glad to give you a lift." This kind offer formed one of the greatest temptations we had during our long journey, as we had already walked thirty miles that day, and were in a pitiable condition, and it was hard to say "No." We thanked the gentleman heartily, and explained why we could not accept it, as we had determined to walk all the way to Land's End, and with an effort both painful and slow we mournfully took our way. We had only travelled a short distance when he overtook us with a spirited horse and a well-appointed conveyance, bidding us "Good night" as he passed.
We had a painful walk for the next three miles, and it was just at the edge of dark when we called for tea at the "Bogroy Inn." We were shown into the parlour by the mistress herself, a pleasant elderly lady, very straight, but very stout, and when my brother complimented her on her personal appearance, she told him that when she first came into that neighbourhood thirty-five years ago she only weighed eleven stone, but six years since she weighed twenty-two stone; now, she rather sorrowfully added, "I only weigh seventeen stone!" She evidently thought she had come down in the world, but she was an ideal landlady of the good old sort, for she sent us some venison in for our tea, the first we had ever tasted, and with eggs and other good things we had a grand feast. Moreover, she sent her daughter, a prepossessing young lady, to wait upon us, so we felt ourselves highly honoured.
As we were devouring the good things provided we heard some mysterious tappings, which we were unable to locate. My brother suggested the house might be haunted, but when the young lady entered the room again we discovered that the tappings were outside the house, on the shutters which covered the windows, for every one in the Highlands in those days protected their lower windows with wooden shutters. The tappings were accompanied by a low whistle, by which we could see the young lady was visibly affected, until finally she left the room rather hurriedly, never to appear again; nor did we hear the tappings any more, and the requiem we sung was:
If she be not fair for me,
What care I how fair she be?
We were sorry to leave the "Bogroy Inn," as the mistress said she would have been glad of our further patronage, but we had determined to reach Inverness as a better place to stay over the week end. With great difficulty we walked the remaining six miles under the trees, through which the moon was shining, and we could see the stars twinkling above our heads as we marched, or rather crawled, along the Great North Road. On arriving at Inverness we crossed the bridge, to reach a house that had been recommended to us, but as it was not up to our requirements we turned back and found one more suitable across the water. Our week's walk totalled 160 miles, of which thirty-nine had been covered that day.
(Distance walked thirty-nine miles.)
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