AS many and as diverse are the roads that lead to the
Isles as are the roads that lead to Rome; but to my mind the roads to the
former suggest a complex network of ideas that far surpass, at all events
in enchantment and charm, the associations which we so religiously cherish
of the Eternal City. Without in any way appearing to diminish the
significance of Imperial Rome—its stupendousness, its power and greatness,
its incalculable contribution to western civilisation, and indeed to the
whole world where man has attained to any appreciable degree of economic
and social progress—! think that the Roman mind was essentially unromantic
and unimaginative, and lacked that fine feeling and delicacy in art and in
literature, in song and in story, that we recognise to be so pronounced a
characteristic of the Northern School.
I fancy that the difference, which I would fain
emphasise, may be more obvious when I say that the roads to Rome lead
through triumphal arches and citadels and forums of extraordinary
monumental grandeur to imperialism, and sometimes even to tyranny; while
the roads to the Isles guide one to a wildness and to a mysteriousness
where the soul of man is overawed by a deep sense of the unknown, of the
unseen, and of the everlasting.
I am convinced it is the sea that produces this
difference, because the people who live by the sea derive their vision
from it. So the roads to the Isles lead to and from the sea, whence comes
all the romance and mysticism of the western Gael.
It can at least be said of the Hebridean race that it
has inherited the best qualities of two peoples. From the Celts the it
received its tradition of moor-land and mountain: from the dauntless
Viking invaders, who infested every creek and bay of the Islands it
inherited something of the spirit of the sea; and from these wild Northmen
it also learnt the meaning of skilled seamanship.
I feel that the roads to the Isles do not go by Tummel
and Lochaber and Loch Rannoch, beautiful as these places may be, but by
Loch Alsh and the Sound of Raasay, by Lorn to Canna, Rum, and Eigg, by
Sleat and by Cuhullin’s Sound to Dunvegan, by the Minch, by the Stream of
the Blue Men (Sruth nam Fear Gorm) to the Shiant or ‘Sacred Isles,’
by East and West Loch Tarbert and the Sound of Harris, by Loch Maddy and
Loch Boisdale to Uist, by Loch Roag to Uig and Bernera and Carloway, by
Barra and by Benbecula, and by a thousand other routes!
In my life I experience an almost irresistible tendency
to move toward the west. I feel this impulse nearly everywhere I go—so
much so, in fact, that at sundown I like to face the west whence the
latest rays of the dying day steal upon me, and ere their departure fill
me with contentment and with a resignation. Never did I feel this peculiar
impulse more than during the recent war; and I can recollect as vividly as
though it had occurred yesterday how, during a brief respite in the
indescribable slaughter at the Battle of Menin Road, I found myself
dashing wildly westwards near the renowned Belgium Battery Corner, and
along a shell-strewn track where the crimson wounds of vanquished and
broken men glistened before the sun that at its setting silhouetted
against the western skyline the gaunt and naked ruins of Ypres la Morte.
And I can remember, too, that I paused for a moment near a shattered
and war-scarred poplar-tree; and there I thought of the vanity of earthly
things, and of the inestimable cruelty of man to man, until I was filled
with a secret shame and a genuine longing for a return to simpler things
and to simpler times, when men, having reflected at leisure on the utter
futility of organised murder on a gigantic scale, might be prepared to
hang their trumpets in the hall, and study war no more.
With the west I always associate a little hymn of the
days of my childhood at Ardgay. Fain would I ask you to turn it up in your
hymnary, and read it over once or twice. Here is its first verse:
Now the day is over,
Night Is drawing nigh;
Shadows of the evening
Steal across the sky.
Now the darkness gathers,
Stars begin to peep;
Birds and beasts and flowers
Soon will be asleep.
Did you ever read words more beautiful than these?
Their very simplicity makes an impression on the sensitive mind and
instantly fills one with the fragrant memories of that childhood when we
knew no guile, and when each day brought us everything but care and
sorrow. How grateful I am now, incidentally, that my father was
sufficiently old-fashioned to wish that his children should respect the
Sabbath Day and attend Sunday School! The old Scottish Sabbath will soon
be unknown among us if the usurping hand of selfishness and gain grasps
the nation any firmer, and destroys its vision so that it perishes. For
nothing but leanness in our souls can accrue from the realisation of what
are often our fondest desires.
But I fear that I am rather digressing from our roads
to the Isles. What is the explanation of this strange tendency to move
towards the west? Is it the vision of Tir-nan-Og? Is it the call of
the Land-of-the-Ever-Young? Is it the music that streams from the golden
harp of Mac lain Og, or is it the spirit of MacTalla, the Son of
the Hall, as he echoes down the ages?
The roads to the Isles have a charm that only the
romanticist can comprehend. I am thinking at the moment of a bridle-path
that runs between the great mountains of the Forest of Harris on the one
side, and a gleaming sunlit sea on the other, until it merges into a
heather and bracken-covered track far up on the hillside. It leads by a
whaling station to Bunamhuinneader and Amhuinnsuidhe—the river of the
Stranger and of the Warrior-Guest. Here a heathsprent path branches off to
the ferry for the Island of Soay, from which ‘Mary Rose’ was spirited away
to Tir-nan-Og. The main track—if it may be termed a track—continues
for another six or eight miles, and ultimately brings one down to the sea
in front of the Isle of Scarpa—an island simply teeming with spooks and
gnomes and weird things that only show themselves in the darkness.
Anyone who has never seen a fay or elf, and sincerely
wishes to do so, should certainly go along this island-road on a dark
night, and meander round the black eerie walls of Amhuinnsuidhe Castle and
he will readily be assured of the existence of the supernatural. Then the
Island of Taransay, which also is plainly discernible from this track, is
‘haunted’ in every sense of the word.
There are so many roads to the Isles, some known only
to the peat gatherer or to the cockle gatherer or to the fisher folks,
while others are no more than the beaten tracks of the mountain hare and
the timid, swift-footed deer. But they all have their poetry; and they are
visited by the curlew and the green-hooded adharcan, and the birds
that come in from the sea bringing with them something of their deep,
impenetrable habitat. These downy-winged strangers, the last fragments of
another age, are continually visiting among us. They know all the roads to
our Isles, and, as they pay us a call in passing, they add their little
contributions to what is already an environment of magic and of
And, lastly, I want to conduct you along an old
cart-track that winds round a pebbly shore. It is the final lap in the
road that leads to my particular Isle; and I use it because it is a
shortcut between my island-home and the pier at which the steamer calls.
Sometimes, however, it proves of little advantage to follow the cart-track
round the shore, especially if it is at the time of the traigh adhairt,
or spring tides, because the sea breaks right over the track and
strews it with stones and with boulders which make walking very difficult,
unless one ventures to go at the falling of the tide, when it is possible
to walk on a surface of hardened and water-rippled sand. In summer, when
the neap tides are prevalent, it is a joy to linger home by the shore.
But this shore-road can often be very wild even in
summer, particularly when there is a heavy swell on the Minch, for the
waves of a storm dash up to within a few inches of your feet and give you
such a cold, chilly sensation!
You can imagine what this road is like on a dark,
boisterous night, when he who may chance to use it is obliged to pause
every step or two until the flash of the lighthouse at Arnish sweeps
before his path, and enables him once again to take his bearings in the
But I love my old cart-track in spite of all its
disadvantages, because it possesses certain fascinations too. I can
picture myself now going along this shore-road to Sandwick in the cool of
a summer evening, with the scent in my nostrils of many peat fires and of
the smouldering of wood - shavings and of the
And I can see my dear cousin Mary waiting patiently at
her door to welcome me at my home-coming.