DOMHNUL MAC MHATHAIN, the Son of the Wolf, is
his name. For untold generations his ancestors—all of them the sons and
daughters of wolves— have inhabited that quiet hillside at the head of
Loch Odhairn, where for eons the tall, weather-denuded mountain crags,
that frown angrily on every side, have thrown their dark, unfleeting
shadows into the deep, silent loch that lies some hundreds of feet below.
But Donald, though also the Son of the Wolf; is by nature as unlike a wolf
as anyone you ever cast eyes upon.
Wild days had fallen on Loch Odhairn: the fierce,
pitiless gales of a March equinox had sorely distressed the crofting
township of Ghrabhair. Owing to their violence the drystane gable of his
home had begun to take on a list in an outward direction; while the cow,
his aged mother’s only unfailing source of sustenance, had developed a
severe cold through undue exposure.
You see, the thatch of the byre was so sadly in need of
attention that the poor creature was being constantly soaked by the ‘black
rains,’ which came pouring through the roof, that in places lay open to
the dull, leaden sky.
However, when Donald returned home to Loch Odhairn on
vacation, he set to and repaired both the thatch of the byre and the
sloping gable of his mother’s dwelling-house in
preparation for the severities of a Hebridean winter; but, clever as he
was, for the cow’s cough he could suggest no remedy.
At length it was arranged that the advice of one,
Murchadh Mor, would be sought. Now Murchadh lived at Eishken, a lodge that
is situated near the western shore of Loch Shell, and can only be reached
by a ten-mile track that leads up among airy mountains and through
heathery and bracken-shaggy glens, until it loses itself in an almost
limitless moor, whose network of lakes and ponds have earned for the
parish the appropriate name of Lochs.
And, so, with a guide in the person of a local herdboy,
who, like the lawless MacGregors at the time of the proscription, was
nameless by day (having oft-times poached on the hills over against
‘Harris), Donald and I set out across the moors for Eishken one glorious
summer afternoon. Oh, that I could really describe to you our journey, as
we tramped for hours through long heather and among cairns and screes and
erratic boulders, only occasionally finding traces of an elfin track here
and there, or, maybe, the telltale spoor of the fawns that concealed
themselves in the inaccessible fastnessed of the mountain crags, until we
had passed beyond the ken of their scent!
At times our guide, expert though he was in the evasive
art of intruding upon what are wrongly held to be the private preserves of
others, blundered severely. On two occasions we found ourselves knee-deep
in the midst of a perilous bog; and once we ascended a knoll to find that
below us a long, narrow loch stretched for half a mile to the right and to
the left of us. Had it not been for the gille, whom we caught
poaching salmon, and who took us to be the fishing-tenants, we certainly
should have been denied the use of his flat-bottomed coble as a ready
means of transport to the other side of this loch.
On our arrival at Eishken we were met by Murchadh Mor,
the general factotum of the lodge and an authority on all ailments
appertaining to cows. An abrupt conversation in Gaelic ensued, as the
result of which Murdo left us, and returned shortly afterwards with a
bottle containing a home-made admixture that had never failed to cure the
cough of an Eishken cow.
‘Cha ghabh mi luach—I will take no value!’
interjected Murdo, when he observed Donald fumbling in his pockets for
some coins, which the latter had really as little intention of giving in
payment for the dose as Murdo had of accepting.
It was now late in the afternoon; and before leaving
Eishken we were ushered into a room in the ‘big house,’ where a sumptuous
meal of scones and tea and venison was prepared for us. You can imagine
our embarrassment when, having devoured about a pound of venison each, a
shy kitchen-maid appeared on the scene with a second supply! Our young
herdboy had never in all his days eaten so much food at a single sitting.
Nor indeed had I!
By this time, we were just a little fearful lest
darkness should fall ere we had re-discovered the elfin track and the
tell-tale spoor, that had led us over many a hill and dale to Eishken.
And, as we came away, we paused momentarily on the old,
rustic bridge which spanned an impetuous brook, that we might take a
farewell glance at Eishken.
The tide was low in Loch Shell, where on a rocky,
wrack-covered reef a couple of gray seals, that glistened before the
setting sun, anxiously watched the slow movements of a lugsail that, as it
were, hung limply in the very centre of the windless loch.
And, as we stepped out in the direction of home, far
behind us we left the Clisham bathed in the clear, piercing rays of a
spilling sunset that gave to the eyried Mountains of Harris a semblance
like unto the rose-red city of Petra.
At dusk we again found ourselves on the elfin track.
And we could hear the cooing of the rock-pigeons, and the whisperings of
the hill-wind, and the murmurings of the waters that crept into Loch
Seaforth—that blue lagoon, where everything was encircled by the sweet
poetry of a falling day and of a rising moon.