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The Cruise of the Betsey
Chapter 1


The pleasant month of July had again come round, and for full five weeks I was free. Chisels and hammers, and the bag for specimens, were taken from their corner in the dark closet, and packed up with half a stone weight of a fine soft Conservative Edinburgh newspaper, valuable for a quality of preserving old things entire. And at noon on St. Swithin’s day (Monday the 15th) I was speeding down the Clyde in the Toward Castle steamer, for Tobermory in Mull. In the previous season I had intended passing direct from the Oolitic deposits of the eastern coast of Scotland, to the Oolitic deposits of the Hebrides. But the weeks glided all too quickly away among the ichthyolites of Caithness and Cromarty, and the shells and lignites of Sutherland and Ross. My friend, too, the Rev. Mr. Swanson of Small Isles, on whose assistance I had reckoned, was in the middle of his troubles at the time, with no longer a home in his parish, and not yet provided with one elsewhere; and I concluded he would have but little heart, at such a season, for breaking into rocks, or for passing from the too pressing monstrosities of an existing state of things, to the old lapidified monstrosities of the past. And so my design on the Hebrides had to be postponed for a twelve-month. But my friend, now afloat in his Free Church yacht, had got a home on the sea beside his island charge, which, if not very secure when nights were dark and winds loud, and the little vessel tilted high to the long roll of the Atlantic, lay at least beyond the reach of man’s intolerance, and not beyond the protecting care of the Almighty. He had written me that he would run down his vessel from Small Isles to meet me at Tobermory, and in consequence of the arrangement I was now on my way to Mull.

St Swithin’s day, so important in the calendar of our humbler meteorologists, had in this part of the country its alternate fits of sunshine and shower. We passed gaily along the green banks of the Clyde, with their rich flat fields glittering in moisture, and their lines of stately trees, that, as the light flashed out, threw their shadows over the grass. The river expanded into the estuary, the estuary into the open sea; we left behind us beacon, and obelisk, and rock-perched castle; -

"Merrily down we drop
Below the church, below the tower,
Below the lighthouse top;"

and, as the evening fell, we were ploughing the outer reaches of the Frith, with the ridgy table-land of Ayrshire stretching away green on the one side, and the serrated peaks of Arran rising dark and high on the other. At sunrise next morning our boat lay, unloading a portion of her cargo, in one of the ports of Islay, and we could see the Irish coast resting on the horizon to the south and west, like a long undulating bank of thin blue cloud; with the island of Rachrin - famous for the asylum it had afforded the Bruce when there was no home for him in Scotland- presenting in front its mass of darker azure. On and away! We swept past Islay, with its low fertile hills of mica-schist and slate; and Jura, with its flat dreary moors, and its far-seen gigantic paps, on one of which, in the last age, Professor Walker of Edinburgh set water a-boil with six degrees of heat less than he found necessary for the purpose on the plain below. The Professor describes the view from the summit, which includes in its wide circle at once the Isle of Skye and the Isle of Man, as singularly noble and imposing: two such prospects more, he says, would bring under the eye the whole island of Great Britain, from the Pentland Frith to the English Channel. We sped past Jura. Then came the Gulf of Coryvrekin, with the bare mountain island of Scarba overlooking the fierce, far-famed whirlpool that we could see from the deck breaking in long lines of foam, and sending out its waves in wide rings on every side, when not a speck of white was visible elsewhere in the expanse of sea around us. And then came an opener space, studded with smaller islands,- mere hill-tops rising out of the sea, with here and there insulated groupes of pointed rocks, the skeletons of perished hills, amid which the tides chafed and fretted, as if labouring to complete on the broken remains their work of denudation and ruin.

The disposition of land and water on this coast suggests the idea that the Western Highlands, from the line in the interior whence the rivers descend to the Atlantic, with the islands beyond to the outer Hebrides, are all parts of one great mountainous plain, inclined slantways into the sea. First, the long withdrawing valleys of the main land, with their brown mossy streams, change their character as they dip beneath the sea-level, and become salt water lochs. The lines of hills that rise over them jut out as promontories, till cut off by some transverse valley, lowered still more deeply into the brine, and that exists as a kyle, minch, or sound swept twice every tide by powerful currents. The sea deepens as the plain slopes downward; mountain-chains stand up out of the water as larger islands, single mountains as smaller ones, lower eminences as mere groupes of pointed rocks; till at length, as we pass outwards, all trace of the submerged land disappears, and the wide ocean stretches out and away its unfathomable depths. The model of some alpine country raised in plaster on a flat board, and tilted slantways at a low angle into basin of water, would exhibit on a minute scale an appearance exactly similar to that presented by the western coast of Scotland and the Hebrides. The water would rise along the hollows, longitudinal and transverse, forming sounds and lochs, and surround, island-like, the more deeply submerged eminences. But as an examination of the geology of the coast, with its promontories and islands, communicates a different idea. These islands and promontories prove to be of very various ages and origin. The outer Hebrides may have existed as the inner skeleton of some ancient country contemporary with the main land, and that bore on its upper soils the productions of perished creations, at a time when by much the larger portion of the inner Hebrides, - Skye, and Mull, and the Small Isles,-existed as part of the bottom of a wide sound, inhabited by the Cephalopoda and Enaliosaurians of the Lias and the Oolite. Judging from its components, the Long Island, like the Lammermoors and the Grampians, may have been smiling to the sun when the Alps and the Himalaya Mountains lay buried in the abyss; whereas the greater part of Skye and Mull must have been, like these vast mountain-chains of the Continent, an oozy sea-floor, over which the ligneous productions of the neighbouring lands, washed down by the streams, grew heavy and sank, and on which the belemnite dropped its spindle and the amnonite its shell. The idea imparted of old Scotland to the geologist here,-of Scotland, proudly, aristocratically, supereminently old,-for it can call Mont Blanc a mere upstart, and Dhawalageri, with its twenty-eight thousand feet of elevation, a heady fellow of yesterday, is not that of a land settling down by the head like a foundering vessel, but of a land whose hills and islands, like its great aristocratic families, have arisen from the level in very various ages, and under the operation of circumstances essentially diverse.

We left behind us the islands of Lunga, Luing, and Seil, and entered the narrow Sound of Kerrera, with its border of Old Red conglomerate resting on the clay-slate of the district. We had passed Esdaile near enough to see the workmen employed in the quarries of the island so extensively known in commerce for their roofing slate, and several small vessels beside them, engaged in loading; and now we had got a step higher in the geological scale, and could mark from the deck the peculiar character of the conglomerate, which, in cliffs washed by the sea, when the binding matrix is softer than the pebbles which it incloses, roughens, instead of being polished, the the action of the waves, and which, along the eastern side of the Sound here, seems as if formed of cannon-shot of all sizes embedded in cement. The Sound terminates in the beautiful bay of Oban, so quiet and sheltered, with its two island breakwaters in front,-its semicircular sweep of hill behind,-its long white-walled village, bent like a bow, to conform to the inflection of the shore,- its mural precipices behind, tapestried with ivy,-it rich patches of green pasture,-its bosky dingles of shrub and tree,-and, perched on the seaword promontory, its old, time-eaten keep. "In one part of the harbour of Oban," says Dr. James Anderson, in his "Practical Treatise on Peat Moss", (1794), "where the depth of the sea is about twenty fathoms, the bottom is found to consist of quick peat, which affords no safe anchorage." I made inquiry at the captain of the steamer regarding this submerged deposit, but he had never heard of it. There are, however, many such on the coasts of both Britain and Ireland. We staid at Oban for several hours, waiting the arrival of the Fort-William steamer; and, taking out hammer and chisel from my bag, I stepped ashore to question my ancient acquaintance the Old Red conglomerate, and was fortunate enough to meet on the pier-head, as I landed, on of the best of companions for assisting in such work, Mr. Colin Elder of Isle Ornsay,-the gentleman who had so kindly furnished my friend Mr. Swanson with an asylum for his family, when there was no longer a home for them in Small Isles. "You are much in luck," he said, after our first greeting: "one of the villagers, in improving his garden, has just made a cut for some fifteen or twenty yards along the face of the precipice behind the village, and laid open the line of junction between the conglomerate and the clay-slate. Let us go and see it."

I found several things worthy of notice in the chance section to which I was thus introduced. The conglomeratae lies unconformably along the edges of the slate strata, which present under it an appearance exactly similar to that which they exhibit under the rolled stones and shingle of the neighbouring shore, where we find them laid bare beside the harbour for several hundred yards. And, mixed with the pebbles of various character and origin of which the conglomerate is mainly composed, we see detached masses of the slate, that still exhibit on their edges the identical lines of fracture characteristic of the rock, which they received, when torn from the mass below, myriads of ages before. In the incalculably remote period in which the conglomerate base of the Old Red Sandstone was formed, the clay-slate of this district had been exactly the same sort of rock that is is now. Some long anterior convulsion had upturned its strata; and the sweep of water, mingled with broken fragments of stone, had worn smooth the exposed edges, just as a similar agency wears the edges exposed at the present time. Quarries might have been opened in this rock, as now, for a roofing slate, had there been quarriers to open them, or houses to roof over: it was in every respect as ancient a looking stone then as in the present late age of the world. There are no sermons that seem stranger or more impressive to one who has acquired just a little of the language in which they are preached, than those which, according to the poet, are to be found in stones: a bit of fractured slate, embedded among a mass of rounded pebbles, proves voluble with idea of a kind almost too large for the mind of man to grasp. The eternity that hath passed is an ocean without a further shore, and a finite conception may in vain attempt to span it over. But from the beach, strewed with wrecks, on which we stand to contemplate it, we see far out towards the cloudy horizon many a dim islet and many a pinnacled rock, the sepulchres of successive eras, - the monuments of consecutive creations: the entire prospect is studded over with these landmarks of a hoar antiquity, which, measuring out space from space, constitute the vast whole a province of time; nor can the eye reach to the open shoreless infinitude beyond, in which only God existed: and-as in a sea-scene in nature, in which headland stretches dim and blue beyone headland, and islet beyond islet, the distance seems not lessened, but increased, by the crowded objects-we borrow a larger, not a smaller idea of the distant eternity, from the vastness of the measured periods that occur between.

Over the lower bed of conglomerate, which here, as on the east coast, is of great thickness, we find a bed of gray stratified clay, containing a few calcareo-argillaceous nodules. The conglomerate cliffs to the north of the village present appearances highly interesting to the geologist. Rising in a long wall within the pleasure-grounds of Dunolly Castle, we find them wooded atop and at the base; while immediately at their feet there stretches out a grassy lawn, traversed by the road from the village to the castle, which sinks with a gradual slope into the existing sea-beach, but which ages ago must have been a sea-beach itself. We see the bases of the precipices hollowed and worn, with all their rents and crevices widened into caves; and mark, at a picturesque angle of the rock, what must have been once an insulated sea-stack, some thirty or forty feet in height, standing up from amid the rank grass, as at one time it stood up from amid the waves. Tufts of fern and sprays of ivy bristle from its sides, once roughened by the serrated kelp-weed and the tangle. The Highlanders call it M’Dougall’s Dog-stone, and say that the old chieftains of Lorne made use of it as a post to which to fasten their dogs,-animals wild and gigantic as themselves, - when the hunters were gathering to rendezvous, and the impatient beagles struggled to break away and begin the chace on their own behalf. It owes its existence as a stack - for the precipice in which it was once included has receded from around it for yards - to an immense boulder in its base, - by far the largest stone I ever saw in an Old Red conglomerate. The mass is of a rudely rhomboidal form, and measures nearly twelve feet in the lineof its largest diagonal. A second huge pebble in the same detached spire measures four feet by about three. Both have their edges much rounded, as if, ere their deposition in the conglomerate, they had been long exposed to the wear of the sea; and both are composed of an earthy amygdaloidal trap. I have stated elsewhere (("Old Red Sandstone," Chapter X11), that I had scarce ever seen a stone in the Old Red conglomerate which I could not raise from the ground; and ere I said so I had examined no inconsiderable extent of this deposit, chiefly, however, along the eastern coast of Scotland, where its larger pebbles rarely exceed two hundredweight. How account for the occurrence of pebbles of so gigantic a size here? We can but guess at a solution, and that very vaguely. The islands of Mull and Kerrera form, in the present state of things, inner and outer breakwaters between what is now the coast of Oban and the waves of the Atlantic; but Mull, in the times of even the Oolite, must have existed as a mere sea-bottom; and Kerrera, composed mainly of trap, which has brought with it to the surface patches of the conglomerate, must, when the conglomerate was in forming, have been a mere sea-bottom also. Is it not possible, that when the breakwaters were not, the Atlantic was; and that its tempests, which in the present time can transport vast rocks for hundreds of yards along the exposed coasts of Shetland and Orkney, may have been the agent here in the transport of these huge pebbles of the Old Red conglomerate? "Rocks that two or three men could not lift," say the Messrs Anderson of Inverness, in describing the storms of Orkney, " are washed about even on the tops of cliffs which are between sixty and a hundred feet above the surface of the sea when smooth; and detached masses of rock, of an enormous size, are well known to have been carried a considerable distance between low and high-water mark," "A little way from the Brough," says Dr Patrick Neill, in his "Tour through Orkney and Shetland, "we saw the prodigious effects of a late winter storm: many great stones, one of them of several tons weight, had been tossed up a precipice twenty or thirty feet high, and laid fairly on the green sward." There is something farther worthy of notice in the stone of which the two boulders of the Dog-stack are composed. No species of rock occurs more abundantly in the embedded pebbles of this ancient conglomerate than rocks of the trap family. We find in it trap-porphyries, greenstones, clinkstones, basalts, and amygdaloids, largey mingled with fragments of the granitic, clay-slate, and quartz rocks. The Plutonic agencies must have been active in the locality for periods amazingly protracted; and many of the masses protruded at a very early time seem identical in their composition with rocks of the trap family, which in other parts of the country we find referred to much later eras. There occur in this deposit rolled pebbles of a basalt which in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh would be deemed considerably more modern than the times of the Mountain Limestone, and in the Isle of Skye, considerably more modern than the times of the Oolite.

The sun-light was showering its last slant rays on island and loch, and then retreating upwards along the higher hills, chased by the shadows, as our boat quitted the bay of Oban, and stretched northwards, along the end of green Lismore, for the Sound of Mull. We had just enough of day left as we reached mid sea, to show us the gray fronts of the three ancient castles, - which at this point may be at once seen from the deck, - Dunolly, Duart, and Dunstaffnage; and enough left us as we entered the Sound, to show, and barely show. the Lady Rock, famous in tradition, and made classic by the pen of Campbell, raising its black back amid the tides, like a belated porpoise. And then twilight deepened into night, and we went snorting through the Strait with a stream of green light curling off from either bow in the calm, towards the high dim land, that seemed standing up on both sides like tall hedges over a green lane. We entered the Bay of Tobermory about midnight, and cast anchor amid a group of little vessels. An exceedingly small boat shot out from the side of a yacht of rather diminutive proportions, but from tantly rigged for her size, bearing an outrigger astern. The water this evening was full of phosphoric matter, and it gleamed and sparkled around the little boat like a northern aurora around a dark cloudlet. There was just light enough to show that the oars were plied by a sailor-like man in a Guernsey frock, and that another sailor-like man, - the skipper, mayhap, - attired in a cap and pea-jacket, stood in the stern. The man in the Guernsey frock was John Stewart, sole mate and half the crew of the Free Church yacht Betsey; and the skipper-like man in the pea jacket was my friend the minister of the Protestants of Small Isles. In five minutes more I was sitting with Mr. Elder beside the little iron stove in the cabin of the Betsey; and the minister, divested of his cap and jacket, but still looking the veritable skipper to admiration, was busied in making us a rather late tea.

The cabin, - my home for the greater part of the three following weeks, and that of my friend for the greater part of the previous twelvemonth, - I found to be an apartment about twice the size of a common bed, and just lofty enough under the beams to permit a man of five feet eleven to stand erect in his nightcap. A large table, lashed to the floor, furnished with tiers of drawers of all sorts and sizes, and bearing a writing desk bound to it a-top, occupied the middle space, leaving just room enough for a person to pass between its edges and the narrow coffin-like beds in the sides, and space enough at its fore-end for two seats in front of the stove. A jealously-barred skylight opened above; and there depended from it this evening a close lanthorn-looking lamp, sufficiently valuable, no doubt, in foul weather, but dreary and dim on the occasions when all one really wished from it was light. The peculiar furniture of the place gave evidence to the mixed nature of my friend’s employment. A well-thumbed chart of the Western Islands lay across an equally well-thumbed volume of Henry’s "Commentary." There was a Polyglot and a spy-glass in one corner, and a copy of Calvin’s "Institutes," with the latest edition of "The Coaster’s Sailing Directions," in another; while in an adjoining state-room, nearly large enough to accommodate an arm-chair, if the chair could have but contrived to get into it, I caught a glimpse of my friend’s printing-press and his case of types, canopied overhead by the blue ancient of the vessel, bearing in stately six-inch letters of white bunting, the legend, "FREE CHURCH YACHT." A door opened which communicated with the forecastle; and John Stewart, stooping very much to accommodate himself to the low-roofed passage, thrust in a plate of fresh herrings, splendidly toasted, to give substantiality and relish to our tea. The little rude forecastle, a considerably smaller apartment than the cabin, was all a-glow with the bright fire in the coppers, itself invisible: we could see the chain-cable dangling from the hatchway to the floor, and John Stewart’s companion, a powerful-looking, handsome young man, with broad bare breast, and in his shirt sleeves, squatted full in front of the blaze, like the household goblin described by Milton, or the "Christmas Present" of Dickens. Mr. Elder left us for the steamer, in which he prosecuted his voyage next morning to Skye; and we tumbled in, each to his narrow bed, - comfortable enough sort of resting-places, though not over soft; and slept so soundly, that we failed to mark Mr. Elder’s return for a few seconds, a little after daybreak. I found at my bedside, when I awoke, a fragment of rock which he had brought from the shore, charged with Liasic fossils; and a note he had written, to say that the deposit to which it belonged occurred in the trap immediately above the village-mill; and further, to call my attention to a house near the middle of the village, built of a mouldering red sandstone which had been found in situ in digging the foundations. I had but little time for the work of exploration in Mull, and the information thus kindly rendered enabled me to economize it.

The village of Tobermory resembles that of Oban. A quiet bay has its secure island-breakwater in front; a line of tall, well-built houses, not in the least rural in their aspect, but that seem rather as if they had been transported from the centre of some stately city entire and at once, sweeps round its inner inflection like a bent bow; and an amphitheatre of mingled rock and wood rises behind. With all its beauty, however, there hangs about the village an air of melancholy. Like some of the other western-coast villages, it seems not to have grown piecemeal, as a village ought, but to have been made wholesale, as Frankenstein made his man; and to be ever asking, and never more incessantly than when it is at its quietest, why it should been made at all? The remains of the Florida, a gallant Spanish ship, lie off its shores, a wreck of the Invincible Armada, "deep whelmed," according to Thomson,

"What time,
Snatched sudden by the vengeful blast,
The scattered vessels drove, and on blind shelve,
And pointed rock that marks th’ indented shore,
Relentless dashed, where loud the northern main
Howls through the fractured Caledonian isles."

Macculloch relates, that there was an attempt made, rather more than a century ago, to weigh up the Florida, which ended in the weighing up of merely a few of her guns, some of them of iron greatly corroded; and that, on scraping them, they became so hot under the hand that they could not be touched, but that they lost this curious property after a few hours’ exposure to the air. There have since been repeated instances elsewhere, he adds, of the same phenomenon, and chemistry has lent its solution of the principles on which it occurs; but in the year 1740, ere the riddle was read, it must have been deemed a thoroughly magical one by the simple islanders of Mull. It would seem as if the guns, heated in the contest with Drake, Hawkins, and Frobisher, had again kindled, under some supernatural influence, with the intense glow of the lost battle.

The morning was showery; but it cleared up a little after ten, and we landed to explore. We found the mill a little to the south of the village, where a small stream descends, all foam and uproar, from the higher grounds along a rocky channel half-hidden by brushwood; and the Liasic bed occurs in an exposed front directly over it, coped by a thick bed of amygdaloidal trap. The organisms are numerous; and, when we dig into the bank beyond the reach of the weathering influences, we find them delicately preserved, though after a fashion that renders difficult their safe removal. Originally the bed must have existed as a brown argillaceous mud, somewhat resembling that which forms in the course of years under a scalp of muscles; and it has hardened into a mere silt-like clay, in which the fossils occur, not as petrifactions, but as shells in a state of decay, except in some rare cases in which a calcareous nodule has formed within or around them. Viewed in the group, they seem of an intermediate character between the shells of the Lias and Oolite. One of the first fossils I disinterred was the Gryphaea obliquata, - a shell characteristic of the Liasic formation; and the fossil immediately after, the Pholadomya aequalis, - a shell of the Oolitic one. There occurs in great numbers a species of small Pecten, - some the specimens scarce larger than a herring scale; a minute Ostrea, a sulcated Terebratula, an Isocardia, a Pullastra, and groupes of broken serpulae in vast abundance. The deposit has also its three species of Ammonite, existing as mere impressions in the clay;; and at least two species of Belemnite, - one of the two somewhat resembling the Belemnites abbreviatus, but smaller and rather more elongated; while the other, of a spindle form, diminishing at both ends, reminds one of the Belemnites minimus of the Gault. The Red Sandstone in the centre of the village occurs detached, like this Liasic bed, amid the prevailing trap, and may be seen in situ beside the southern gable of the tall, deserted-looking house at the hill-foot, that has been built of it. It is a soft, coarse-grained, mouldering stone, ill fitted for the purposes of the architect; and more nearly resembles the New Red Sandstone of England and Dumfriesshire than any other rock I have yet seen in the north of Scotland. I failed to detect in it aught organic.

We weighed anchor about two o’clock, and beat gallantly ou.... the Sound, in the face of an intermittent baffling wind and a heavy swell from the sea. I would fain have approached nearer the precipices of Ardnamurchan, to trace along their inaccessible fronts the strange reticulations of trap figured by Macculloch; but prudence and skipper forbade our trusting even the docile little Betsey on one of the most formidable lee shores in Scotland, in winds so light and variable, and with the swell so high. We could hear the deep roar of the surf for miles, and see its undulating strip of white flickering under stack and cliff. The scenery here seems rich in legendary association. At one tack we bore into Bloody Bay, on the Mull coast, - the scene of a naval battle between two island chiefs; at another, we approached, on the mainland, a cave inaccessibe save from the sea, long the haunt of a ruthless Highland pirate. Ere we rounded the headland of Ardnamurchan, the slant light of evening was gleaming athwart the green acclivities of Mull, barring them with long horizontal lines of shadow, where the trap terraces rise step beyond step, in the characteristic stair-like arrangement to which the rock owes its name; and the sun set as we were bearing down in one long tack on the Small Isles. We passed the Isle of Muck, with its one low hill; saw the pyramidal mountains of Rum looming tall in the offing; and then, running along the Isle of Eigg, with its colossal Scuir rising between us and the sky, as if it were a piece of Babylonian wall, or of the great wall of China, only vastly larger, set down on the ridge of a mountain, we entered the channel which separates the island from one its dependencies, Eilean Chaisteil, and cast anchor in the tideway about fifty yards from the rocks. We were now at home, - the only home which the proprietor of the island permits to the islanders’ minister; and, after getting warm and comfortable over the stove and a cup of tea, we did what all sensible men do in their own homes when the night wears late, - got into bed.


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