Oban, which, during winter, is a town of deserted hotels, begins to get busy by the end of June. Yachts skim about in the little bay; steamers, deep-sea and coasting, are continually arriving and departing; vehicles rattle about in the one broad, and the many narrow streets; and in the inns, boots, chamber-maid, and waiter are distracted with the clangour of innumerable bells. Out of doors, Oban is not a bad representation of Vanity Fair. Every variety of pleasure-seeker is to be found there, and every variety of costume. Reading parties from Oxford lounge about, smoke, stare into the small shop windows, and consult "Black's Guide." Beauty, in light attire, perambulates the principal street, and taciturn Valour in mufti accompanies her. Sportsmen in knickerbockers stand in groups at the hotel doors; Frenchmen chatter and shrug their shoulders; stolid Germans smoke curiously-curved meerschaum pipes; and individuals who have not a drop of Highland blood in their veins flutter about in the garb of the Gael, a hundredweight of cairngorms throwing a prismatic glory around their persons."
All kinds of people, and all kinds of sounds are there. From the next street the tones of the bagpipe come on the ear; tipsy porters abuse each other in Gaelic. Round the corner the mail comes rattling from Fort William, the passengers clustering on its roof; from the pier the bell of the departing steamer urges passengers to make haste; and passengers who have lost their luggage rush about, shout, gesticulate, and not unfrequently come into fierce personal collision with one of the tipsy porters aforesaid. A more hurried, nervous, frenzied place than Oban, during the summer and autumn months, it is difficult to conceive. People seldom stay there above a night. The old familiar faces are the resident population. The tourist no more thinks of spending a week in Oban than he thinks of spending a week in a railway station. When he arrives his first question is after a bedroom; his second, as to the hour at which the steamer from the south is expected.
And the steamer, be it said, does not always arrive at a reasonable hour. She may be detained some time at Greenock; in dirty weather she may be "on" the Mull of Cantyre all night, buffeted by the big Atlantic there; so that he must be a bold man, or a man gifted with the second sight, who ventures anything but a vague guess as to the hour of her arrival at Oban. And the weather is dirty; the panes are blurred with raindrops; outside one beholds an uncomfortable sodden world, a spongy sky above, and midway, a gull sliding sideways through the murky atmosphere. The streets are as empty now as they will be some months hence. Beauty is in her own room crying over "Enoch Arden,' and Valour, taciturn as ever, is in the smoking saloon. The Oxford reading party - which, under the circumstances, has not the slightest interest in Plato - attempts, with no great success, to kill the time by playing at pitch-and-toss. The gentlemen in the Highland dress remain indoors - birds with fine feathers do not wish to have them draggled - and the philabeg and an umbrella would be a combination quite too ridiculous. The tipsy porter is for the time silent; but from the next street the bagpipe grows in volume and torture. How the sound of it pains the nervous ear of a man half-maddened by a non-arriving steamer and a rainy day at Oban! Heavily the hours creep on; and at last the Clansman does steam in with wet decks - thoroughly washed by Atlantic brine last night - and her hundred and fifty passengers, two-thirds of whom are sea-sick.
I do not, however, proceed with the Clansman. I am waited for at Inverness; and so, when the weather has cleared, on a lovely morning, I am chasing the flying dazzle of the sun up the lovely Linnhe Loch; past hills that come out on one and recede; past shores that continually shift and change; and am at length set down at Fort William in the shadow of Ben Nevis.
When a man goes to Caprera, he, as a matter of course, brings a letter of introduction to Garibaldi - when I went to Fort William, I, equally as a matter of course, brought a letter of introduction to Long John. This gentleman, the distiller of the place, was the tallest man I ever beheld out of an exhibition - whence his familiar sobriquet - and must, in his youth, have been of incomparable physique. The German nation has not yet decided whether Goethe or Schiller is the greater poet - the Highlander has not yet decided whether "Long John" or "Talisker" is the finer spirit. I presented my letter and was received with the hospitality and courteous grace so characteristic of the old Gael. He is gone now, the happy-hearted Hercules - gone like one of his own drams! His son distils in his stead - but he must feel that he is treading in the footsteps of a greater man. The machinery is the same, the malt is of quality as fine, but he will never produce whisky like him who is no more. The text is the same, but Charles Kean's Hamlet will never be like his father's.
I saw Inverlochy Castle, and thought of the craven Argyle, the gallant Montrose, the slaughtered Campbells. I walked up Glen Nevis; and then, one summer morning, I drove over to Bannavie, stepped on board a steamer, and was soon in the middle of the beautiful Loch Lochy.
And what a day and what a sail that was! What a cloudless sky above! What lights and shadows as we went! On Fort Augustus we descended by a staircase of locks, and while there I spent half an hour in the museum of Roualeyn Gordon Cumming. We then entered Loch Ness - stopped for a space to visit the Fall of Foyers, which, from scarcity of water, looked "seedy" as a moulting peacock; saw further on, and on the opposite shore, a promontory run out into the lake like an arm, and the vast ruin of Castle Urquhart at the end of it like a clenched fist - menacing all and sundry. Then we went on to Inverness, where I found my friend Fellowes, who for some time back had been amusing himself in that pleasant Highland town reading law. We drove out to Culloden, and stood on the moor at sunset. Here the butcher Cumberland trod out romance. Here one felt a Jacobite and a Roman Catholic. The air seemed scented by the fumes of altar-incense, by the burning of pastiles. The White Rose was torn and scattered, but its leaves had not yet lost their odours. "I should rather have died," I said, "like that wild chief who, when his clan would not follow him, burst into tears at the ingratitude of his children, and charged alone on the English bayonets, than like any other man of whom I have read in history."
"He wore the sole pair of brogues in the possession of his tribe," said my companion. "I should rather have died like Salkeld at the blowing in of the Delhi gate."
|To Next Chapter|