Punctually at nine next morning there was a grating of wheels on the gravel, and Malcolm and his dog-cart were at the door. After a little delay I took my place on the vehicle and we drove off. Malcolm was a thick-set, good-humoured, red haired and whiskered little fellow, who could be silent for half a day if needed, but who could speak, and speak to the point, too, when required. When driving, and especially when the chestnut mare exhibited any diminution of speed, he kept up a running fire of ejaculations. "Go on," he would say, as he shook the reins, for the whip he mercifully spared, "what are you thinking about?" "Hoots! chit, chit, chit! I'm ashamed of you!" "Now then. Hoots!" and these reproaches seemed to touch the mare's heart, for at every ejaculation she made a dash forward as if the whip had touched her.
On the way from Grishornish to Dunvegan, about a couple of miles from the latter place, a road branches off to the right and runs away downward through the heathery waste; and about forty yards onward you come to a bridge spanning a gully, and into this gully three streams leap and become one, and then the sole stream flows also to the right with shallow fall and brawling rapid, the companion of the descending road. The road up to the bridge is steep, but it is steeper beyond, and at the bridge Malcolm jumped down and walked alongside with the reins in his hands. In the slow progression your eye naturally follows the road and the stream; and beyond the flank of a hill sloping gradually down to the purple gloom of undulating moorland, you catch a glimpse of a bit of blue sea, some white broken cliffs that drop down into it; and, leaning on these cliffs, a great green sunny strath, with a white dot of a house upon it. The glimpse of sea, and white cliffs, and stretch of sunny greenness is pleasant; the hill, which you have yet to climb, keeps the sun from you, and all around are low heathery eminences. You stare at the far-off sunlit greenness, and having satisfied yourself therewith, begin to examine the ground above and on either side of the bridge, and find it possessed of much pastoral richness and variety. The main portion is covered with heather, but near you there are clumps of ferns, and further back are soft banks and platforms of verdure on which kine might browse and ruminate, and which only require the gilding of sunshine to make them beautiful.
"What bridge is this?" I asked of Malcolm, who was still trudging alongside with the reins in his hand. "The Fairy Bridge" - and then I was told that the fairy sits at sunset on the green knolls and platforms of pasture chirming and singing songs to the cows; and that when a traveller crosses the bridge, and toils up the hill, she is sure to accompany him. As this was our own course, I asked, "Is the fairy often seen now?" "Not often. It's the old people who know about her. The shepherds sometimes hear her singing when they are coming down the hill; and years ago, a pedlar was found lying across the road up there dead; and it was thought that the fairy had walked along with him. But, indeed, I never saw or heard her myself - only that is what the old people say." And so in a modern dog-cart you are slowly passing through one of the haunted places in Skye!
I fancy Malcolm must have seen that this kind of talk interested me. "Did you ever hear, sir, about the Battle of the Spoiling of the Dikes down at Trompon Kirk, yonder?" and he pointed with his whip to the yellow-green strath which broke down in cliffs to the sea.
I answered that I never had, and Malcolm's narrative flowed on at once.
"You see, sir, there was a feud between the Macdonalds of the Mainland and the Macleods of Trotternish; and one Sunday, when the Macleods were in church, the Macdonalds came at full of tide, unknown to any one, and fastened their boats to the arched rocks on the shore - for it's a strange coast down there, full of caves and natural bridges and arches. Well, after they had fastened their boats, they surrounded the church, secured the door, and set it on fire. Every one was burned that Sunday except one woman, who squeezed herself through a window - it was so narrow that she left one of her breasts behind her - and escaped carrying the news. She raised the country with her crying and the sight of her bloody clothes. The people - although it was Sunday - rose, men and women, and came down to the burning church, and there the battle began. The men of Macleod's country fought, and the women picked up the blunted arrows, sharpened them on the stones, and then gave them to the men.
"The Macdonalds were beaten at last, and made for their boats. But by this time it was ebb of tide; and what did they see but the boats in which they had come, and which they had fastened to the rocky arches, hanging in the air! Like an otter, when its retreat to the sea is cut off, the Macdonalds turned on the men of Macleod's country and fought till the last of them fell, and in the sheughs of the sand their blood was running down red into the sea. At that time the tide came further in than it does now, and the people had built a turf dike to keep it back from their crops. Then they took the bodies of the Macdonalds and laid them down side by side at the foot of the dike, and tumbled it over on the top of them. That was the way they were buried. And after they had tumbled the dike they were vexed, for they minded then that the sea might come in and destroy their crops. That's the reason that the battle is called the Battle of the Spoiled Dikes."
"The men of Macleod's country would regret the spoiling of the dikes, as Bruce the battle-axe with which, on the evening before Bannockburn, and in the seeing of both armies, he cracked the skull of the English knight who came charging down upon him."
Undiverted by my remark, Malcolm went on, "Maybe, sir, you have seen the Sciur of Eig as you came past in the steamer?"
"Yes, and I know the story. The Macdonalds were cooped up in a cave, and the Macleods ranged over the island and could find no trace of them. They then in high dudgeon returned to their boats, meaning to depart next morning. There was a heavy fall of snow during the night, was there not? and just when the Macleods were about to sail, the figure of a man, who had come out to see if the invaders were gone, was discerned on the top of the Sciur, against the sky line. The Macleods returned, and by the foot-prints in the snow they tracked the man to his hiding-place. They then heaped up heath and what timber they could procure, at the mouth of the cave, applied fire, and suffocated all who had therein taken shelter. Is that not it?"
"The Macdonalds first burned the church at Trompon down there. The bones of the Macdonalds are lying in the cave to this day, they say. I should like to see them."
"But don't you think it was a dreadful revenge? Eig was one of the safe places of the Macdonalds; and the people in the cave were chiefly old men, women, and children. Don't you think it was a very barbarous act, Malcolm?"
I don't know," said Malcolm; "I am a Macleod myself."
By the time I had heard the story of Lady Grange, who sleeps in the Trompon churchyard, we had toiled pretty well up the steep ascent. On our way we heard no fairy singing to the kine, nor did any unearthly figure accompany us. Perhaps the witchery of the setting sun was needed. By the time we reached the top of the hill the pyramidical forms of Macleod's Tables were distinctly visible, and then Malcolm took his seat beside me in the dog-cart.
Macleod's Tables, two hills as high as Arthur's Seat, flat at the top as any dining-table in the country - from which peculiar conformation indeed they draw their names - and covered deep into spring by a table-cloth of snow; Macleod's Maidens, three spires of rock rising sheer out of the sea, shaped like women, around whose feet the foamy wreaths are continually forming, fleeting, and disappearing - what magic in the names of rocky spire and flat-topped hill to him who bears the name of Macleod, and who can call them his own! What is modern wealth - associationless, without poetry, melting like snow in the hot hand of a spendthrift - compared to that old inheritance of land, which is patent to the eye, which bears your name, around which legends gather, - all vital to you as your great-grandmother's blue eyes and fair hair; as your great-grandfather's hot temper and the corrugation of his forehead when he frowned!
These bold landmarks of family possession must be regarded with peculiar interest by the family. They make the white sheet on which you - a shadow of fifty years or thereby - are projected by the camera obscura of fate. The Tables and the Maidens remain for ever bearing your name, while you - the individual Macleod - are as transitory as the mist wreath of the morning which melts on the one, or the momentary shape of wind-blown foam which perishes on the base of the other. The value of these things is spiritual, and cannot be affected by the click of the auctioneer's hammer, or the run-fling of the hour-glass sand on the lawyer's table after the title-deeds have been read and the bids are being made. Wealth is mighty, but it can no more buy these things than it can buy love, or reverence, or piety. Jones may buy the Tables and the Maidens, but they do not own him; he is for ever an alien: they wear the ancient name, they dream the ancient dream. When poverty has stripped your livery from all your servants, they remain faithful.
When an Airlie is about to die, with tuck of drum, they say, a ghostly soldier marches round the castle. Rothschild, with all his millions, could not buy that drummer's services. What is the use of buying an estate to-day? It is never wholly yours; the old owner holds part possession with you. It is like marrying a widow; you hold her heart, but you hold it in partnership with the dead. I should rather be the plainest English yeoman whose family has been in possession of a farm since the Heptarchy than be the richest banker in Europe. The majority of men are like Arabs, their tents are pitched here to-night and struck to-morrow. Those families only who have held lands for centuries can claim an abiding home. In such families there is a noble sense of continuity, of the unbroken onflowing of life. The pictures and the furniture speak of forefather and foremother. Your ancestor's name is on your books, and you see the pencil marks which he has placed against the passages that pleased him. The necklace your daughter wears heaved on the breast of the ancestress from whom she draws her smile and her eyes. The rookery that caws to-night in the sober sunset cawed in the ears of the representative of your house some half-dozen generations back - the very same in every respect, 'tis the individual rooks only that have changed. The full foliaged murmur of the woods shape your name, and yours only. As for these Macleods -
"That's Orbost, sir, the house under the hill," said Malcolm, pointing with his whip, and obviously tired of the prolonged silence, "and yonder on the left are the Cuchullins. The sea is down there, but you cannot see it from this. We'll be there in half an hour," and exactly in half an hour, with Macleod's Tables behind us, we passed the garden and the offices, and alighted on the daisied sward before the house.
After I had wandered about for an hour I made up my mind that, had I the choice, I should rather live at Orbost than at any other house in Skye. And yet, at Orbost, the house itself is the only thing that can reasonably be objected to. In the first place, it is one of those elegant expressionless houses in the Italian style with which one is familiar in the suburban districts of large cities, and as such it is quite out of keeping with the scenery and the spiritual atmosphere of the island. It is too modern, and villa like. It is as innocent of a legend as Pall Mall. It does not believe in ghost stories. It has a dandified and sceptical look; and as it has not taken to the island, the island has not taken to it. Around it trees have not grown well; they are mere stunted trunks, bare, hoary, wind-writhen. There is not a lichen or discoloration on its smoothly-chiselled walls; not a single chimney or gable has been shrouded with affectionate ivy. It looks like a house which has "cut" the locality, and which the locality has "cut" in return.
In the second place, the house is stupidly situated. It turns a cold shoulder on the grand broken coast; on the ten miles of sparkling sea on which the sun is showering millions of silver coins, ever a new shower as the last one disappears; on Rum, with a veil of haze on its highest peak; on the lyrical Cuchullins - for although of the rigidest granite, they always give one the idea of passion and tumult; on the wild headlands of Bracadale, fading one after another, dimmer and dimmer, into distance ; - on all this the house turns a cold shoulder, and on a meadow on which some dozen colts are feeding, and on a low strip of moory hill beyond, from which the cotters draw their peats, it stares intently with all its doors and windows. Right about face. Attention! That done, the most fastidious could object to nothing at Orbost, on the point of beauty at least The faces of the Skye people, continually set like flints against assaults of wind and rain, are all lined and puckered about the eyes; and in Skye houses you naturally wish to see something of the same weather-beaten look. Orbost, with its smooth front and unwinking windows, outrages the fitness of things.
Of the interior no one can complain; for on entering you are at once surrounded by a proper antiquity and venerableness. The dining-room is large and somewhat insufficiently lighted, and on the walls hang two of Raeburn's half-lengths - the possession of which are in themselves vouchers of a family's respectability - and several portraits of ladies with obsolete waists and head-dresses, and military gentlemen in the uniform of last century. The furniture is dark and massy; the mahogany drawing depth and colour from age and usage; the carpet has been worn so bare that the pattern has become nearly obliterated. The room was not tidy, I was pleased to see. A small table placed near the window was covered with a litter of papers; in one corner were guns and fishing-rods, and a fishing-basket laid near them on the floor; and the round dusty mirror above the mantelpiece - which had the curious faculty of reducing your size, so that in its depth you saw yourself as it were at a considerable distance - had spills of paper stuck between its gilded frame and the wall. From these spills of paper I concluded that the house was the abode of a bachelor who occasionally smoked after dinner - which, indeed, was the case, only the master of the house was from home at the time of my visit.
In the drawing-room, across the lobby, hooped ladies of Queen Anne's time might have sat and drunk tea out of the tiniest china cups. The furniture was elegant, but it was the elegance of an ancient beau. The draperies were rich, but they had lost colour, like a spinster's cheek. In a corner stood a buffet with specimens of cracked china. Curious Indian ornaments, and a volume of Clarissa Harlowe, and another volume of the Poetical Works of Mr Alexander Pope - the binding faded, the paper dim - lay on the central table. Had the last reader left them there? They reminded me of the lute - it may be seen at this day in Pompeii - which the dancing girl flung down in an idle moment. In a dusky corner a piano stood open, but the ivory keys had grown yellow, and all richness of voice had been knocked out of them by the fingerings of dead girls. I touched them, and heard the metallic complaint of ill-usage, of old age, of utter loneliness and neglect. I thought of Ossian, and the flight of the dark-brown years. It was the first time they had spoken for long. The room, too, seemed to be pervaded by a scent of withered rose leaves, but whether this odour lived in the sense or the imagination, it would be useless to inquire.
Orbost lies pleasantly to the sun, and in the garden I could almost fancy Malvolio walking cross-gartered - so trim it was, so sunnily sedate, so formal, so ancient-looking. The shadow on the dial told the age of the day, clipped box-wood ran along every walk. Trees, crucified to the warm brick walls, stretched out long arms on which fruit was ripening. The bee had stuck his head so deeply into a rose that he could hardly get it out again, and so with the leaves - as a millionaire with bank-notes - he impatiently buzzed and fidgeted. And then you were not without sharp senses of contrast: out of the sunny warmth and floral odours you lifted your eyes, and there were Macleod's Tables rising in an atmosphere of fable; and up in the wind above you, turning now and again its head in alert outlook, skimmed a snow-white gull, weary - as tailors sometimes are with sitting - of dancing on the surges of the sea.
Orbost stands high above the sea, and if you wish thoroughly to enjoy yourself you must walk down the avenue to the stone seat placed on the road which winds along the brow of the broken cliffs, and which, by many a curve and bend, reaches the water level at about a quarter of a mile's distance, where there is a boat-house, and boats lying keel uppermost or sideways, and a stretch of yellow sand on which the tide is flowing, creamy line after creamy line. From where you sit the ground breaks down first in a wall of cliff, then in huge boulders as big as churches, thereafter in bushy broken ground with huts perched in the coziest places, each hut swathed in the loveliest films of blue smoke; and all through this broken ground there are narrow winding paths along which a cow is always being gingerly driven, or a wild Indian-looking girl is bringing water from some cool spring beneath. Here you can quietly enjoy the expanse of dazzling sea, a single sail breaking the restless scintillations; far Rum asleep on the silver floor; and, caught at a curious angle, the Cuchullin hills - reminding you of some stranded iceberg, splintered, riven, many-ridged, which the sun in all his centuries has been unable to melt In the present light they have a curiously hoary look, and you can notice that in the higher corries there are long streaks of snow.
On the right, beyond the boat-house, a great hill, dappled with brown and olive like a seal's back, and traversed here and there by rocky terraces, breaks in precipices down to the sea line; and between it and the hill on which you are sitting, and which slopes upward behind, you see the beginning of a deep glen, in its softness and greenness suggesting images of pastoral peace, the bringing home of rich pails by milkmaids, the lowing of cattle in sober ruddy sunsets. "What glen is that, Malcolm ?" "Oh, sir, it just belongs to the farm." "Is there a house in it?" "No, but there's the ruins of a dozen." "How's that?" "Ye see, the old Macleods liked to keep their cousins and second cousins about them; and so Captain Macleod lived at the mouth of the glen, and Major Macleod at the top of it, and Colonel Macleod over the hill yonder. If the last trumpet had been blown at the end of the French war, no one but a Macleod would have risen out of the churchyard at Dunvegan. If you want to see a chief now-a-days, you must go to London for him. Ay, sir, Dun Kenneth's prophecy has come to pass - 'In the days of Norman, son of the third Norman, there will be a noise in the doors of the people, and wailing in the house of the widow; and Macleod will not have so many gentlemen of his name as will row a five-oared boat around the Maidens!' The prophecy has come to pass, and the Tables are no longer Macleod's - at least one of them is not."
After wandering about Orbost we resumed our seats in the dog-cart, and drove to Dunvegan Castle. As we drew near Dunvegan we came down on one of those sinuous sea-lochs which - hardly broader than a river - flow far inland, and carry mysteriousness of sight and sound, the gliding sail, the sea-bird beating high against the wind, to the door of the shepherd, who is half a sailor among his bleating flocks. Across the sea, and almost within hail of your voice, a farm and outhouses looked embattled against the sky. Along the shore, as we drove, were boats and nets, and here and there little clumps and knots of houses. People were moving about on the roads intent on business. We passed a church, a merchant's store, a post-office; we were plainly approaching some village of importance; and on the right hand the chestnuts, larches, and ashes which filled every hollow, and covered every rolling slope, gave sufficient indication that we were approaching the castle.
In the centre of these woods we turned up a narrow road to the right along which ran a wall, and stopped at a narrow postern door. Here Malcolm rang a bell - the modern convenience grating somewhat on my preconceived notions of an approach to the old keep; if he had blown a horn I daresay I should have felt better satisfied - and in due time we were admitted by a trim damsel. The bell was bad, but the brilliant garden into which we stepped was worse - soft level lawns, a huge star of geraniums, surrounded at proper distances by half-moons and crescents of calceolarias rimmed with lobelias. The garden was circled by a large wall, against which fruit-trees were trained. In thinking of Dunvegan my mind had unconsciously become filled with desolate and Ossianic images, piled and hoary rocks, the thistle waving its beard in the wind, flakes of sea spray flying over all - and behold I rang a bell as if I were in Regent Street, and by a neat damsel was admitted into a garden that would have done no discredit to Kensington! After passing through the garden we entered upon a space of wild woodland, containing some fine timber, and romance began to revive. Malcolm then led me to an outhouse, and pointed out a carved stone above the doorway, on which were quartered the arms of the Macleods and Macdonalds. "Look there," said he, "Macleod has built the stone into his barn which should have been above his fire-place in his dining-room."
"I see the bull's head of Macleod and the galley of Macdonald - were the families in any way connected?"
"Oftener by a bloody dirk than by a gold marriage ring. But with all their quarrellings they intermarried more than once. Dunvegan was originally a stronghold of the Macdonald."
"Indeed! and how did the Macleods get possession?"
"I'll tell you that," said Malcolm. "Macdonald of Dunvegan had no son, but his only daughter was married to Macleod of Harris, and a young chief was growing up in Macleod's castle. The Macdonalds, knowing that when the old man was dead, they would have no one to lead them to battle, were pondering whom they should elect as chief and, at the same time, Macleod's lady was just as anxiously pondering by what means her son should sit in Dunvegan. Well, while all this thinking and scheming was going on secretly in Skye and Harris, Macdonald, wishing to visit Macleod, ordered his barge and rowers to be in readiness and pushed off. Macleod, hearing that his father-in-law was coming, went out in his barge to meet him half-way, and to escort him to his castle with all honour. Macleod's barge was bigger and stronger than Macdonald's, and held a greater number of rowers; and while his men were pulling, the chief sat in the stern steering, and his wife sat by his side. When they got into mid-channel a heavy mist came down, but still the men pulled, and still Macleod steered. All at once Macleod found that he was running straight on his father-in-law's barge, and just when he had his hand on the helm to change the course and avoid striking, his wife gripped him hard and whispered in his ear, 'Macleod, Macleod, there's only that barge betwixt you and Dunvegan.' Macleod took the hint, steered straight on, struck and sunk Macdonald's barge in the mist, and sailed for Dunvegan, which he claimed in the name of his son. That is the way, as the old people tell, that Macleod came into possession here."
Then we strolled along the undulating paths, and at a sudden turn there was the ancient keep on its rock, a stream brawling down close at hand, the tide far withdrawn, the long shore heaped with dulse and tangle, and the sea-mews above the flag-staff, as the jackdaws fly above the cathedral towers in England. It was gray as the rock on which it stood - there were dark tapestries of ivy on the walls, but at a first glance it was disappointingly modern-looking. I thought of the mighty shell of Tantallon looking towards the Bass, and waving a matted beard of lichens in the sea wind, and began to draw disadvantageous comparisons. The feeling was foolishness, and on a better acquaintance with the building it wore off. Dunvegan is inhabited, and you cannot have well-aired sheets, a well-cooked dinner, and the venerableness of ruin. Comfort and decay are never companions.
Dunvegan reminds one of a fragment of an old ballad, encumbered with a modern editor's introductory chapter, historical disquisitions, critical comments, explanatory and illustrative notes, and glossarial index. The dozen or so of rude stanzas - a whole remote passionate world dwelling in them as in some wizard's mirror - is by far the most valuable portion of the volume, although, in point of bulk, it bears no proportion to the subsidiary matter which has grown around it. Dunvegan is perhaps the oldest inhabited building in the country, but the ancient part is of small extent One portion of it, it is said, was built in the ninth century. A tower was added in the fifteenth, another portion in the sixteenth, and the remainder by different hands, and at irregular intervals since then. No inconsiderable portion is unquestionably modern.
The old part of the castle looks toward the sea, and entrance is obtained by a steep and narrow archway - up which, perhaps, came Macleod of Harris after he sunk the barge of his father-in-law in the misty Minch. In a crevice in the wall, which forms one side of this entrance, a well was recently discovered; it had been built up - no man knows for how long - and when tasted, the water was found perfectly sweet and pure. In the old days of strife and broil it may have cooled many a throat thirsty with siege. The most modern portion of the building, I should fancy, is the present frontage, which, as you approach it by the bridge which solidly fills up the ravine, is not without a certain grandeur and nobility of aspect. The rock on which the castle stands is surrounded on three sides by the sea; and fine as the old pile looked at ebb of tide, one could fancy how much its appearance would be improved with all that far-stretching ugliness of sand and tangle obliterated, and the rock swathed with the azure and silence of ocean. To sleep in a bed-room at Dunvegan in such circumstances, must be like sleeping in a bed-room in fairy-land. You might hear a mermaid singing beneath your window, and looking out into the moonlight, behold, rising from the glistening swells, the perilous beauty of her breasts and hair.
After viewing the castle from various points, we boldly advanced across the bridge and rang the bell. After waiting some little time, we were admitted by a man who - the family at the time being from home - seemed the only person in possession. He was extremely polite, volunteered to show us all over the place, and regretted that in the prolonged absence of his master the carpets and furniture in the "drawring-room" had been lifted. The familiar English patois sounded strange in the castle of a Macleod! On his invitation we entered an unfurnished hall with galleries running to left and right, and on the wooden balustrades of one of these galleries the great banner of Macleod was dispread - a huge white sheet on which the arms and legend of the house were worked in crimson. Going up stairs, we passed through spacious suites of rooms, carpetless, and with the furniture piled up in the centre and covered with an awning - through every window obtaining a glimpse of blue Loch and wild Skye headland.
In most cases in the rooms the family pictures were left hanging, some fine, others sorry daubs enough, yet all interesting as suggesting the unbroken flow of generations. Here was Rory More, who was knighted in the reign of James VI. Here was the Macdonald lady, whose marriage with the Macleod of that day was the occasion of the arms of the families being united on the sculptured stone which we saw built above the door of the barn outside. Here was a haughty-looking young man of twenty-five, and yonder the same man at sixty, grim, wrinkled, suspicious-looking - resembling the earlier portrait only in the pride of eye and lip. Here were Macleod beauties who married and became mothers in other houses; yonder were beauties from other castles who became mothers here, and grew gray-haired and died, leaving a reminiscence of their features in the family for a generation or two. Here was the wicked Macleod, yonder the spendthrift in whose hands the family wealth melted, and over there the brave soldier standing with outstretched arm, elephants and Indian temples forming an appropriate background. The rooms were spacious, every window affording a glorious sea view; but from their unfurnished and dismantled condition there arose a sort of Ossianic desolation, which comfortless as it must have been to a permanent dweller, did not fail to yield a certain gloomy pleasure to the imagination of the visitor of an hour.
Passing up and down stairs in the more ancient portion of the castle, the man in possession showed us the dungeons in which the Macleods immured their prisoners. I had fancied that these would have been scooped out of the rock on which the castle stood. Whether such existed I cannot say; but by candle-light I peered into more than one stony closet let into the mighty wall - the entrance of which the garments of the lady must have swept every night as she went to bed - where the captured foemen of the family were confined. Perhaps the near contiguity of the prisoner, perhaps the sweeping of garments past the dungeon door, perhaps the chance-heard groan or clank of manacle, constituted the exquisite zest and flavour of revenge. Men keep their dearest treasures near them; and it might be that the neighbourhood of the wretch he hated - so near that the sound of revel could reach him at times - was more grateful to Macleod than his burial in some far-away vault, perhaps to be forgotten. Who knows! It is difficult to creep into the hearts of those old sea-kings. If I mistake not, one of the dungeons is at present used as a wine cellar. So the world and the fashion of it changes! Where the Macleod of three centuries ago kept his prisoner, the Macleod of to-day keeps his claret. From which of its uses the greatest amount of satisfaction has been derived would be a curious speculation.
By a narrow spiral stair we reached the most interesting apartment in Dunvegan - the Fairy Room, in which Sir Walter Scott slept once. This apartment is situated in the ancient portion of the building, it overlooks the sea, and its walls are of enormous thickness. From its condition I should almost fancy that no one has slept there since Sir Walter's time. In it, at the period of my visit, there was neither bedstead nor chair, and it seemed a general lumber room. The walls were hung with rusty broadswords, dirks, targes, pistols, Indian helmets; and tunics of knitted steel were suspended on frames, but so rotten with age and neglect that a touch frayed them as if they had been woven of worsted. There were also curved scimitars, and curiously-hafted daggers, and two tattered regimental flags - that no doubt plunged through battle smoke in the front of charging lines - and these last I fancied had been brought home by the soldier whose portrait I had seen in one of the modern rooms. Moth-eaten volumes were scattered about amid a chaos of rusty weapons, cruses, and lamps. In one corner lay a huge oaken chest with a chain wound round it, but the lid was barely closed, and through the narrow aperture a roll of paper protruded docketed in clerkly hand and with faded ink - accounts of - from 1715 till some time at the close of the century - in which doubtless some curious items were imbedded. On everything lay the dust and neglect of years. The room itself was steeped in a half twilight.
The merriest sunbeam became grave as it slanted across the corroded weapons in which there was no answering gleam. Cobwebs floated from the corners of the walls - the spiders which wove them having died long ago of sheer age. To my feeling it would be almost impossible to laugh in the haunted chamber, and if you did so you would be startled by a strange echo as if something mocked you. There was a grave-like odour in the apartment. You breathed dust and decay.
Seated on the wooden trunk round which the chain was wound, while Malcolm with his hand thrust in the hilt of a broadsword, was examining the notches on its blade, I inquired,
"Is there not a magic flag kept at Dunvegan? The flag was the gift of a fairy, if I remember the story rightly."
"Yes;" said Malcolm, making a cut at an imaginary foeman, and then hanging the weapon up on the wall; "but it is kept in a glass case, and never shown to strangers, at least when the family is from home."
"How did Macleod come into possession of the flag, Malcolm?"
"Well, the old people say that one of the Macleods fell in love with a fairy, and used to meet her on the green hill out there. Macleod promised to marry her; and one night the fairy gave him a green flag, telling him that, when either he or one of his race was in distress, the flag was to be waved, and relief would be certain. Three times the flag might be waved; but after the third time it might be thrown into the fire, for the power would have gone all out of it. I don't know, indeed, how it was, but Macleod deserted the fairy and married a woman."
"Is there anything astonishing in that? Would you not rather marry a woman than a fairy yourself."
"Maybe, if she was a rich one like the woman Macleod married:" said Malcolm with a grin. "But when the fairy heard of the marriage she was in a great rage whatever. She cast a spell over Macleod's country, and all the women brought forth dead sons, and all the cows brought forth dead calves. Macleod was in great tribulation. He would soon have no young men to fight his battles, and his tenants would soon have no milk or cheese wherewith to pay their rents. The cry of his people came to him as he sat in his castle, and he waved the flag, and next day over the country there were living sons and living calves. Another time; in the front of a battle, he was sorely pressed, and nigh being beaten, but he waved the flag again, and got the victory, and a great slaying of his enemies."
"Then the flag has not been waved for the third and last time?"
"No. At the time of the potato failure, when the people were starving in their cabins, it was thought that he should have waved it and stopped the rot. But the flag stayed in its case. Macleod can only wave it once now; and I'm sure he's like a man with his last guinea in his pocket - he does not like to spend it But maybe, sir, you would like to climb up to the flag-staff and see the view."
We then left the haunted chamber, passed through the dismantled room in which the portraits hung, and ascended the narrow spiral stair - the walls of which, whether from sea damp, or from a peculiarity of the lime used in building, were covered with a glistering scurf of salt - and finally emerged on the battlemented plateau from which the flagstaff sprang. The huge mast had fallen a month or two previously, and was now spliced with rope and propped with billets of wood. A couple of days before the catastrophe, a young fellow from Cambridge, Malcolm told me, had climbed to the top - lucky for the young fellow it did not fall then, else he and Cambridge had parted company for ever.
From our airy perch the outlook was wonderfully magnificent. From the breast of the hill which shut out everything in one direction, there rolled down on the castle billow on billow of many-coloured foliage. The garden through which we had passed an hour before was but a speck of bright colour. The little toy village sent up its pillars of smoke. There was the brown stony beach, the boats, the ranges of nets, the sinuous snake-like Loch, and the dark far-stretching promontories asleep on the sleekness of summer sea. With what loveliness of shining blue the sea flowed in everywhere, carrying silence and the foreign-looking bird into inland solitudes, girdling with its glory the rock on which the chief's castle had stood for ten centuries, and at the door of the shepherd's shealing calling on the brown children with the voices of many wavelets, to come down and play with them on crescents of yellow sand!
Driving homeward I inquired, "Does the Laird live here much?" "No, indeed," said Malcolm; "he lives mainly in London."
And thereupon I thought how pleasant it must be for a man to escape from the hollow gusty castle with its fairy flag which has yet to be waved once, its dungeons, its haunted chambers, its large gaunt rooms, with portraits of men and women from whom he has drawn his blood, its traditions of revenge and crime - and take up his abode in some villa at breezy Hampstead, or classic Twickenham, or even in some half-suburban residence in the neighbourhood of Regent's Park. The villa at Hampstead or Twickenham is neat and trim, and when you enter on residence, you enter without previous associations. It is probably not so old as yourself. The walls and rooms are strange, but you know that you and they will become pleasantly acquainted by and by. Dark family faces do not lower upon you out of the past; the air of the room in which you sit is not tainted with the smell of blood spilt hundreds of years ago.
You and your dwelling are not the sole custodiers of dreadful secrets. The shadows of the fire-light on the twilight walls do not take shapes that daunt and aifright. Your ancestors no longer tyrannise over you. You escape from the gloomy past, and live in the light and the voices of to-day. You are yourself - you are no longer a link in a blood-crusted chain. You enter upon the enjoyment of your individuality, as you enter upon the enjoyment of a newly-inherited estate. In modern London you drink nepenthe, and Dunvegan is forgotten. Were I the possessor of a haunted, worm-eaten castle, around which strange stones float, I should fly from it as I would from a guilty conscience, and in the whirl of vivid life lose all thoughts of my ancestors. I should appeal to the present to protect me from the past I should go into Parliament and study blue-books, and busy myself with the better regulation of alkali works, and the drainage of Stoke Pogis. No ancestor could touch me then.
"It's a strange old place, Dunvegan," said Malcolm, as we drove down by the Fairy Bridge, "and many strange things have happened in it. Did you ever hear, sir, how Macdonald of Sleat - Donald Gorm, or Blue Donald, as he was called - stayed a night with Macleod of Dunvegan at a time when there was feud between them ?"
"No: but I shall be glad to hear the story now."
"Well," Malcolm went on, "on a stormy winter evening, when the walls of Dunvegan were wet with the rain of the cloud and the spray of the sea, Macleod, before he sat down to dinner, went out to have a look at the weather. 'A giant's night is coming on, my men,' he said when he came in, 'and if Macdonald of Sleat were at the foot of my rock seeking a night's shelter, I don't think I could refuse it.' He then sat down in the torch-light at the top of the long table, with his gentlemen around him. When they were half through with their meal a man came in with the news that the barge of Macdonald of Sleat - which had been driven back by stress of weather on its way to Harris - was at the foot of the rock, and that Macdonald asked shelter for the night for himself and his men. 'They are welcome,' said Macleod; 'tell them to come in.'
"The man went away, and in a short time Macdonald, his piper, and his body guard of twelve, came in wet with the spray and rain, and weary with rowing. Now on the table there was a boar's head - which is always an omen of evil to a Macdonald - and noticing the dish, Donald Gorm with his men about him sat at the foot of the long table, beneath the salt, and away from Macleod and the gentlemen. Seeing this, Macleod made a place beside himself, and called out, 'Macdonald of Sleat, come and sit up here!' 'Thank you,' said Donald Gorm, 'I'Il remain where I am; but remember that wherever Macdonald of Sleat sits that's the head of the table.' So when dinner was over the gentlemen began to talk about their exploits in hunting, and their deeds in battle, and to show each other their dirks. Macleod showed his, which was very handsome, and it was passed down the long table from gentleman to gentleman, each one admiring it and handing it to the next, till at last it came to Macdonald, who passed it on, saying nothing. Macleod noticed this, and called out, 'Why don't you show your dirk, Donald; I hear it's very fine?' Macdonald then drew his dirk, and holding it up in his right hand, called out, 'Here it is, Macleod of Dunvegan, and in the best hand for pushing it home in the four and twenty islands of the Hebrides.'
"Now Macleod was a strong man, but Macdonald was a stronger, and so Macleod could not call him a liar; but thinking he would be mentioned next, he said, 'And where is the next best hand for pushing a dirk home in the four and twenty islands?' 'Here,' cried Donald Gorm, holding up his dirk in his left hand, and brandishing it in Macleod's face, who sat amongst his gentlemen biting his lips with vexation. So when it came to bed-time, Macleod told Macdonald that he had prepared a chamber for him near his own, and that he had placed fresh heather in a barn for the piper and the body guard of twelve. Macdonald thanked Macleod, but remembering the boar's head on the table, said he would go with his men, and that he preferred for his couch the fresh heather to the down of the swan. 'Please yourself, Macdonald of Sleat,' said Macleod, as he turned on his heel.
"Now it so happened that one of the body guard of twelve had a sweetheart in the castle, but he had no opportunity of speaking to her. But once when she was passing the table with a dish she put her mouth to the man's ear and whispered, 'Bid your master beware of Macleod. The barn you sleep in will be red flame at midnight and ashes before the morning.' The words of the sweetheart passed the man's ear like a little breeze, but he kept the colour of his face, and looked as it he had heard nothing. So when Macdonald and his men got into the barn where the fresh heather had been spread for them to sleep on, he told the words which had been whispered in his ear.
"Donald Gorm then saw the trick that was being played, and led his men quietly out by the back door of the barn, down to a hollow rock which stood up against the wind, and there they sheltered themselves. By midnight the sea was red with the reflection of the burning barn, and morning broke on gray ashes and smouldering embers. The Macleods thought they had killed their enemies; but fancy their astonishment when Donald Gorm with his body guard of twelve marched past the castle down to the foot of the rock, where his barge was moored, with his piper playing in front - ' Macleod, Macleod, Macleod of Dunvegan, I drove my dirk into your father's heart, and in payment of last night's hospitality I'll drive it to the hilt in his son's yet."
"Macleod of Dunvegan must have been a great rascal," said I; "and I hope he got his deserts."
"I don't know, indeed," said Malcolm; "but if Donald Gorm caught him he could hardly miss." He then added, as if in deprecation of the idea that any portion of ignominy was attachable to him, "I am not one of the Dunvegan Macleods; I come from the Macleods of Raasay."
|To Next Chapter|