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Scottish Reminincenses
Chapter XIV


The Scottish School of Geology. Neptumst and Vulcanist Controversy. J. D. Forbes. Charles Maclaren. Hugh Miller. Robert Chambers. W. Haidinger. H. von Dechen. Ami Boud. The life of a field-geologist. Experiences of a geologist in the West Highlands. A crofter home in Skye. The Spar Cave and Coruisk. Night in Loch Scavaig.

As it has been in pursuit of geological investigation that I have been enabled to see so much of Scotland, I hope the reader will not think it inappropriate that a few of the pages of this volume of reminiscences should be devoted to some recollections of Scottish geologists, more especially of those with whom I have been personally acquainted, and to some illustrations of my own experiences of the life of a field-geologist in Scotland. Let me preface this chapter with a brief reference to the rise of the Scottish School of Geology.

The intellectual society for which Edinburgh was distinguished in the later decades of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth century, besides its brilliant company of literary men, included also some of the founders of modern science. To three of these men reference has already been made—Joseph Black, one of the pioneers of modern chemistry; James Hutton, the father of modern physical geology; and John Playfair, who first revealed to the general public the far-reaching scope of Hutton’s philosophy. With these illustrious men there was likewise associated Sir James Hall of Dunglass, who introduced experimental research as a potent method of testing geological speculation. A striking characteristic of this group of men was shown in their indifference to the opinion of the world outside, and to the making of converts to their views. It was not until some years after Hutton’s death in 1797 that his teaching was recognised as the initiation of a new school of thought, which bade fair to rival or even to supersede that of Werner at Freiberg, who was then attracting pupils from all parts of the world. This Scottish school, inasmuch as it laid great stress on the importance taken by the internal heat of the earth in geological history, came to be known as the Vulcanist.

While these men were at work in Scotland, by a curious irony of fate one of Werner’s most distinguished pupils returned to Edinburgh, and in 1804 was appointed to the Chair of Natural History in the University there. Robert Jameson, like the other disciples of the Saxon teacher, was fired with zeal to spread the doctrines of his master, and as these doctrines were diametrically opposed to those of Hutton, there began a lively controversy which for a number of years had its chief battlefield in the Scottish metropolis. Werner claimed that by far the most important part in the history of the earth had been taken by water. His system was accordingly known as the Neptunist. It is difficult now to realise the fierceness of this warfare. The rocks round Edinburgh were appealed to with equal confidence by both sides, and many a lively discussion arose upon them. After a good many years, however, Jameson came to see that his master’s theory offered but a partial explanation of the phenomena of nature, and that essentially the Vulcanists were right. He publicly recanted his early opinions, and the defection of their leading protagonist led to the extinction of the Scottish Neptunists. With the dying out of the fires of controversy, a kind of languor seems to have settled down upon the progress of geological science in Scotland. There was no longer an active resident school of geologists, and though many Scotsmen had acquired renown as geologists, it was mainly by work in other countries, rather than in their own. In an address which he gave to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1862, James David Forbes expressed himself as follows: ‘ It is a fact which admits of no doubt, that the Scottish Geological School, which once made Edinburgh famous, especially when the Vulcanist and Neptunian war raged simultaneously in the hall of this Society and in the class-rooms of the University, may almost be said to have been transported bodily to Burlington House [London]. Roderick Murchison, Charles Lyell, Leonard Horner, are Scottish names, and the bearers of them are Scottish in everything save residence. . . . Our younger men are drafted off as soon as their acquirements become known. ... Of all the changes which have befallen Scottish science during the last half-century, that which I most deeply deplore, and at the same time wonder at, is the progressive decay of our once illustrious Geological School. Centralisation may account for it in part, but not entirely.’ Notwithstanding this somewhat gloomy retrospect, there were still a few able men in Scotland, who continued to hold aloft the torch of geological progress. The illustrious Principal Forbes himself was widely known to the geological world for his researches on the glaciers of the Alps and of Norway, and on Earth-temperature. As one saw him in the street or in the class-room, he looked singularly fragile, and it was not easy to realise how such a seemingly frail body could have undergone the physical exertion required for his notable Alpine ascents. His tall spare figure might be seen striding from the University to the rooms of the Royal Society, of which for many years he was the active Secretary. His clear brown eyes wore a wistful expression, and his pale face and sunken cheeks showed how his well-chiselled features had been preyed on by serious illness. Round his long neck he always wore one of the large neckcloths then in vogue, and above this, when out of doors, he carried a thick muffler, from under which, as one passed him, one might hear now and then the cough that told of the malady from which he was suffering. In his own house, especially when showing some of the beautifully artistic water-colour drawings which he had made in the course of his wanderings, the thin, white, almost transparent, hands told the same tale of suffering. And yet, in spite of all these visible signs of increasing bodily feebleness, his mind remained to the last clear and bright, his memory, even for minute details, perfect, his interest in men and things, more particularly in scientific progress, as keen as ever, and his kindly helpfulness to those whom he could assist as prompt and effective as of old. He was one of the most beautiful and interesting personalities whom I have ever known.

Two of the ablest resident Scottish geologists were editors of leading Edinburgh newspapers —Charles Maclaren and Hugh Miller—and to both of them science was the recreation of such leisure hours as they could snatch from literary labour and political . controversy. Maclaren was the founder, and for a quarter of a century,- editor of the Scotsman, from which, as far back as 1845, he had retired to spend his later years in a delightful retreat on the southern outskirts of Edinburgh. His editorial task had been relieved by many a pleasant geological excursion among the rocks around that city, and he had worked out the volcanic history of the district with a minuteness, accuracy, and breadth of view which no one had attempted before him. After passing the results of his researches through the columns of his newspaper, he collected them into a small volume entitled Geology of Fife and the Lothians, which, though little known to the general reader, has long ago taken its place among the classics of Scottish geology.

Maclaren had acquired a command of clear, forcible English, and was a great admirer of good style in literature. I remember a conversation with him, in which he enlarged on the tendency of the age to pile up intensi-tives in description, both in ordinary conversation and in writing. The words ‘ awful ’ and ‘ awfully ’ were . then beginning to come into vogue in the familiar slang. He strongly objected to such tasteless misuse of terms, holding with Pope that expletives give but a feeble aid in composition. ‘Take my advice,’ he said, ‘after the experience of a long life, and be careful to strike out the word “very” in almost every place where you find it in your manuscript. You will discover that this excision will really strengthen your style, in the same proportion that the frequent repetition of the word would weaken it.’

Hugh Miller, as editor of the Witness newspaper, the accredited organ of the Free Church, was one of the living forces of Scotland during the last sixteen years of his life. He threw himself with great ardour into all the controversies, political and ecclesiastical, of the time, and his articles were read with eager interest from one end of the country to the other. His establishment - in the editorial chair, however, and the consciousness of the influence which his pen enabled him to wield over the minds of his fellow-countrymen, never led him to put into the background the fact that he had been a journeyman mason. His appearance on the streets was certainly most uneditorial. Above the middle height, strongly built, with broad shoulders, a shock of sandy hair, large bushy whiskers, and dressed in rough tweeds, with a shepherd’s plaid across his shoulder, he might have been taken for one of the hill-farmers who, on market days, come to Edinburgh from the uplands of the Lothians. He had the true 'Highlandman’s ling’—the elastic, springy and swift step of the mountaineer, accustomed to traverse shaking bog and rough moor. As he swung down the North Bridge, wielding a stout walking stick, looking straight before him, his eyes apparently fixed on vacancy and his lips compressed, one could hardly help turning to look after him and to wonder what manner of man he could be. His, however, was a familiar figure on the line of streets and roads that led from the Witness office to his home in Portobello. His fellow citizens were proud of him as one of their literary lions, who had also made for himself in science a name which was known all over the English-speaking world.

To Hugh Miller I owe much, and am glad of every opportunity of acknowledging my indebtedness. His Old Red Sandstone kindled in me, as it has done in so many others, an enthusiasm for the science to which he devoted his leisure hours, and an admiration for the well of English undefiled to be found in every page of his writing. He personally encouraged me in my earliest efforts at original observation. He introduced me to Murchison, and thus opened the way for my entry into the Geological Survey.

At the end of each summer we met at his house to talk over the results of our geological wanderings. The last note I had from him, written on 9th October, 1856, only a few weeks before his sudden and tragic end, asked me to ‘ drop in upon him on the evening of Saturday first, and have a quiet cup of tea.’ He added, ‘my explorations this season have been chiefly in the Pleistocene and the Old Red. I have now got boreal shells in the very middle of Scotland, about equally removed from the eastern and western seas. But the details of our respective explorations we shall discuss at our meeting.’ That discussion duly took place, and full of interest it was to me. He displayed on the table the shells he had gathered, and he looked forward with keen pleasure to the task of describing them, and showing the important bearing they had on the geological history of the country. It proved to be his last excursion, as that evening was also the last of our intercourse, for before the end of the year I followed him to his resting place, near to his great hero Chalmers, in the Grange Cemetery.

Another literary man in Edinburgh who had also made some interesting contributions to geology was Robert Chambers. He especially concerned himself with the later phases of geological history, more particularly the proofs that Britain had been overspread with ice, and that important changes of level had taken place along the coasts of Scotland and northern Norway. He was also generally believed to be the author of the famous Vestiges of Creation—a belief which was fully confirmed after his death. When he heard that I purposed to become a member of the Geological Survey he gave me, I remember, an account of a recent excursion which he had made with a party of the Survey in North Wales. ‘Being the oldest member of the company,’ he said, ‘I was voted into the chair, and had to carve. A leg of Welsh mutton was placed before me, from which I was kept supplying the demands of the geologists, until there was nothing left on the dish but a bare bone. So if you join the Survey, my young friend, you must be prepared for the development of a portentous appetite.’ The house of Robert Chambers in Edinburgh was one of the chief centres at which literary and scientific strangers met the intellectual society of the town. He was an excellent host. His fund of anecdote and reminiscence went back to near the beginning of the century. When no more than twenty years of age he had published a volume illustrative of the Waverley novels, followed next year by two volumes of Traditions of Edinburgh, which astonished Scott, who wondered where the boy could have picked up all the information.

Besides the geologists here enumerated there were others contemporary with them who did good service, but with whom my acquaintance was too slight to furnish me now with any personal reminiscences of them. Dr. John Fleming, author of the well-known Philosophy of Zoology, was trained as a Wernerian, and never quite adopted the views of modern geologists. I remember him as a tall rather grim figure, full of personal kindness, and gifted with keen critical power. He seemed never to be happier than when he had an opportunity of exercising that power in sarcastically demolishing the arguments of those to whom he was opposed. James Nicol, after he became -Professor in Aberdeen in 1853, devoted himself with much enthusiasm and success to the study of the Highland rocks, and I only met him occasionally at the meetings of the British Association, where his tall figure, his abundant sandy-coloured hair, and pronounced south-country accent, made him a prominent personage.

In the early decades of last century a few students from foreign countries were attracted to Scotland for the purpose of examining the rocks, which since the days of the Huttonian and Wernerian controversy had become famous on the Continent. In my journeys abroad I met three of these veterans, each of whom retained a vivid recollection of his stay in this country.

W. Haidinger, who was long at the head of the Austrian Geological Survey and Museum in Vienna, had established his reputation as an able mineralogist, and came to Scotland to study the various cabinets of minerals, public and private, to be found in the country. When I saw him in Vienna in 1869, he had retired from all official duties, and as he sat in his study, surrounded with his books and papers, presented a singularly picturesque appearance, not unlike that in which Faust is usually represented on the stage before transformation into youth by Mephistopheles. Enveloped in a long dressing gown, he sat in an easy chair, his white beard flowing down his breast, and his head covered with an equal exuberance of snowy hair (which, however, was said to be a wig), while his feet were encased in large warm slippers. He remembered well the various mineral collections he had studied in Scotland, and was interested in hearing about the places he had seen, and the survivors of the acquaintances he had made.

H. von Dechen came to Scotland in 1827, and travelled over a good deal of the country, of which he subsequently gave an account in one of the German scientific journals. I first met him in Bonn, where he had a large house commanding fine views up to the Siebenge-birge, which he had studied so minutely and described so carefully. His age, the number and excellence of his geological writings, and his friendly interest in the career of younger men made him the popular Nestor of Prussian geologists. The last time I met him was in Berlin on the occasion of the meeting of the International Geological Congress in 1885, of which he was president. There was one lady member present at his address, and the audience was amused by the formal courtesy with which he began—‘ Lady and Gentlemen.’

Ami Boue had an interesting history. He was descended from a French family which could trace its pedigree back for some 400 years. In the reign of Louis XIV, his ancestor, being Protestant, had to escape from Bordeaux in a barrel. Boue himself was born in Hamburg. His mother had been educated in Geneva, and French was the language she used in her family circle. His early education was also given in Geneva, but as the French armies had overrun Europe, and the family property in Hamburg consisted largely of houses, which might at any moment be destroyed in the political convulsions, it was considered desirable that Ami should have a profession to fall back upon, in case of any such catastrophe. He was accordingly sent to Edinburgh to study medicine. As he long after remarked to me, ‘I really went to Scotland to escape from Napoleon.’ But although, when Napoleon was finally crushed at Waterloo, the Hamburg property was saved, Boue determined to continue his medical studies and to take his degree, which he gained in 1817.

During his residence in Scotland he became greatly interested in geological pursuits, and travelled over a good deal of the country, examining its rocks. When he returned to the Continent, he settled for a time in Paris, where he wrote his Esquisse Geologique sur I'Ecosse— a most valuable treatise which in many respects was far in advance of its time. Subsequently, after wandering over much of Europe, he finally fixed his home in Austria.

Having occasion in some of my own early writings to refer appreciatively to Boues work, I one day received a letter written in broken English and in a minute, cramped calligraphy, the lines slanting obliquely across the page. To my astonishment the letter bore the signature Ami Boue. This was the beginning of a correspondence which lasted up to the time of his death. I paid him a visit in 1869, and spent some time with him at his pleasant country-house on the last spurs of the Alps near VOslau, where he had planted quinces, almond-trees, peaches, apples, and vines, and where I found his recollections of Edinburgh and Scotland as vivid as if he had only returned from that region a few years before.

Bou6 was singular in this respect, that he never thoroughly mastered any language. Although French was the tongue that in early life came most naturally to him, his French sometimes betrayed his German connections. In German he only acquired fluency after middle life, when he had settled in Vienna, and it was in German that all his later contributions to science were written. English he never learned to speak or write correctly.

But he was rather proud of what he thought to be his facility in that language, and all his letters to me, extending over a period of thirteen years, were written in broken English. As a specimen of the way in which he expressed himself, I may quote a sentence from a letter written by him on 21st November, 1870, during the calamitous Franco-German war. ‘The dreadful war-pre-occupations did take me all time for thinking at scientific matter, and now perhaps that distress will approach till nearer our abode! When you will know that I have very good and near parents in both armies and you perceive the possibility of parents killing themselves without recognizing themselves, nor having the opportunity to do so, you will understand that I have often headach when I ride the newspapers or hear from the quite useless slaughters, which have been provocated only by those men at the head of the human society.’

The life of a field-geologist, being spent to a large extent in the open air, brings him into contact with various classes of the people, to.whom his occupation is exceedingly mysterious. They see him marching up and down the face of a rocky declivity, chipping the rock here and there, putting the chips up to his eye, scrutinising them narrowly through his lens, which is popularly supposed to be an eye-glass for extremely short sight, then perhaps wrapping them up in paper and putting them in his pocket, or in a bag slung across his shoulder. They watch him taking out a map and marking down something upon it, or whipping out a note-book and writing in it, perhaps for so long a time that the patience of the watchers behind a neighbouring wall or hedge is nearly exhausted, when off he marches again, or comes back to the place he started from, as if he had left something behind him, or had hopelessly lost his way.

A member of the Geological Survey, whose \ daily avocation consists in such pursuits, is of course specially liable to become the victim of curiosity and suspicion. He carries his accoutrements about his person in such a manner that they do not attract notice, so that his object and actions become extremely puzzling to the country people among whom he has taken quarters for a time. He finds himself set down now for a postman, now for a doctor, for a farmer, a cattle dealer, a travelling showman, a country gentleman, a gamekeeper, a poacher, an itinerant lecturer, a gauger, a clergyman, a playactor, and often as a generally suspicious character. A member of the Survey, who afterwards became a University Professor, received and posted many a letter entrusted to him in the belief that he was the authorised bearer of Her Majesty’s mails. Another member, also subsequently Professor, was taken for a policeman in plain clothes, and could not for some time make out why a poor woman poured into his ears a long story about her son, who had been taken up for something that he had not done, and did quite unintentionally, and was quite justified in doing.

Gamekeepers are sometimes sorely at a loss what to make of the Geological Survey trespasser: afraid to challenge him lest he prove to be a friend of their master, and yet afraid to let him go his way for fear he be on poaching thoughts intent, though the absence of a visible gun piques their curiosity. One member of the staff, who had taken up his quarters in a coast town in Fife, was watched by the police on suspicion of having been concerned in a recent burglary. Another was stalked as a suspect who had been setting fire to farm buildings. A third was watched hammering by himself in the bed of a stream near Girvan, and as he gave vent to some strong expression when the obstinate boulder refused to part with a splinter, the onlooker on the other side of an adjoining hedge fled in terror to the village and reported that this strange man who had come among them was stark mad, and should not be left to go by himself. Sometimes the laugh goes distinctly against the geologist, as in the case of one of the most distinguished of the staff who, poking about to see the rocks exposed on the outskirts of a village in Cumberland, was greeted by an old woman as the ‘sanitary ’spector.’ He modestly disclaimed the honour, but noticing that the place was very filthy, ventured to hint that such an official would find something to do there. And he thereupon began to enlarge on the evils of accumulating filth, resulting, among other things, in an unhealthy and stunted population. His auditor heard him out, and then, calmly surveying him from head to foot, remarked: ‘Well, young man, all I have to tell ye is, that the men o’ this place are a deal bigger and stronger and handsomer nor you.’ She bore no malice, for she offered him a cup of tea, but, like Falstaff, he was ‘as crestfallen as a dried pear,’ and could not face her any longer.

Professor James Geikie supplies me with the following record of his experience when he was on the staff of the Survey: ‘One warm summer day I was laboriously forcing my way up a narrow ravine or “cleugh” in the hills south of Colmonel, in Ayrshire. The geology being somewhat complicated, it was necessary to use my hammer at almost every step, and for this purpose I had to keep the bed of the burn where the rocks were best seen. The cleugh was not only narrow and steep, but choked in places with blackthorn, so that progress was both slow and painful. Being far from the madding crowd, there was no reason why, under a broiling sun, I should affect a philosophical coolness which I was far from feeling, and it is probable, therefore, that from time to time I may have sought relief by addressing the obnoxious thorns in vehement language. At the head of the cleugh I came upon a tall farmer-looking man, who told me he had been watching my movements, and wondering who and what I was. When he heard I was trying to find out how the world was made, he expressed no astonishment, but showed keen interest as I pointed out the evidence of glacial work—striated rocks, morainic debris, and large erratics—all of which happened to be well displayed on the hill-side where we stood. As he seemed really anxious to know the meaning of the evidence, I explained it as well as I could, and then we parted. A few weeks afterwards I was dining with an old friend—the late Mr. Cathcart of Knock-dolian—who told me he was quite sure I must have been recently in his neighbourhood. “Only yesterday,” he said. “I met the old farmer of G ,” who had a strange tale to tell me. “Dod! Mr. Caithcart,” he began, “I ran across the queerest body the ither day. As I was cornin’ by the head o’ the cleugh I thocht I heard a wheen tinkers quarrellin’, but whan I lookit doon there was jist ae wee stoot man. Whiles he was chappin’ the rocks wi’ a hammer i whiles he was writin’ in a book, whiles fechtin’ wi’ the thorns, and miscain’ them for a’ that was bad. When he cam up frae the burn, him and me had a long confab. Dod! he tell’t me a’ aboot the stanes, and hoo they showed that Scotland was ance like Greenland, smoored in ice. A vary enterteenin’ body, Mr. Caithcart, but—an awfu’ leear.’” Among my own geological experiences in Scotland I may mention that on one of my excursions, when, with a large party of my students, I was passing along the seafront of a fishing village in Fife, I heard a stalwart matron ask her gossip at the next door, ‘Whae’s aucht them?’—that is, who owns them, or has charge of them? She evidently believed the company to be lunatic patients, but could not see any one among their number who seemed to her sane enough to be probably their keeper.

On another occasion in the same district I had been engaged for some days in geological exploration with a colleague, and had several times come upon a travelling show, which was slowly making its way through the country. On entering one of the little coast-towns we found that we were immediately behind this show, which, with its cavalcade of waggons, had preceded us by only a few minutes. The women were still standing at their doors, making remarks on the new arrival, when my companion and I came up. As we passed a couple of them, we heard the one remark to the other, ‘Na noo, arena thae twa daicent-lookin’ chiels to be play-actin’ blackguards!’

If, fifty years ago, the ongoings of a field-geologist gave rise to much curiosity and speculation in the lowlands, it may be imagined how strange his occupation would seem to the natives of the Highlands, especially among the Western Isles, and in districts where little English was spoken, and where, consequently, he might be the subject of audible remarks that he did not understand or could not reply to. When I first set foot in Skye, most of my rambles there had geological pursuits as their aim. The general character and succession of the rocks of the island had been made known by Macculloch in his classic Description of the Western Islands of Scotland. I found that he was still remembered by some of the older inhabitants, but less as a geologist than as a writer who had maligned them. In his four volumes of letters to Sir Walter Scott on The Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland—on the whole a somewhat tedious work, though often amusing and occasionally even brilliant—he had given an account of his experiences as a traveller and geologist in the Highlands. This account was angrily resented by the natives as exaggerated, and even untruthful. They had entertained him in their houses, furnished him with boats, carriages, men, and other assistance, and he repaid them by satirising their households and holding their manners and customs up to public ridicule. Old Mackinnon of Corriehatachan was so indignant that the next time he went to Glasgow after the publication of the book, he took the engraved portrait of its author to a crockery-dealer and commissioned a set of earthenware with Macculloch's likeness on each. These articles were distributed over Skye, and I have been told that some of them are still to be seen.

Subsequently Skye was visited in 1827 by Murchison and Sedgwick, who came to Strath. The familiar anecdote of the geologist who entrusted his bag of specimens to a dad to be carried some miles to his inn, and who found that the bag had been emptied and refilled with stones picked up near the door, is told of Hugh Miller, of Sedgwick and of Murchison. I was assured in Skye that the trick was played on Macculloch. But to contrive to escape from the apparently unnecessary. fatigue of carrying a heavy bag a long distance is so natural that we can believe it may have been carried out with all these worthies. I heard the anecdote in Skye, from the late Dr. Donald Mackinnon. But the most circumstantial account of it I have met with is that of Dr. Norman Macleod. ‘A shepherd, while smoking his cutty-pipe at a small Highland inn, was communicating to another in Gaelic his experiences of “mad Englishmen,” as he called them. “There was one,” said he, “ who once gave me his bag to carry to the inn by a short cut across the hills, while he walked by another road. I was wondering, myself why it was so dreadfully heavy, and when I got out of his sight I was determined to see what was in it. I opened it, and what do you think it was? But I need not ask you to guess, for you would never find out. It was,stones!” “Stones!” exclaimed his companion, opening his eyes, “Stones! well, well, that beats all I ever knew or heard of them ! and did you carry it?” “Carry it! Do you think I was as mad as himself? No! I emptied them all out, but I filled the bag again from the cairn near the house, and gave him good measure for his money”! ’

Another well-known story to the detriment of a geologist, is also claimed for Skye. I was assured that it was Sedgwick, who, when chipping a rock by the roadside as he went along on a Sunday, was stopped by a Strath man with the query, ‘ Do you know what you are doing ? ’ and, on answering that he was breaking a stone, was told, ‘ Ay, you are doing mair than that; you are breakin’ the Sabbath.’ But here, again, the remark is so obvious in a Sabbatarian country that it may have been made by independent censors on more occasions than one.

The memory of the visits of these early geological pioneers had faded away when I came to Skye. It seemed that no geologist since their day had been seen in Strath, so that the appearance of a lad wandering about alone and, as it looked, aimlessly, with a hammer in his hand and a bag over his shoulder, gave rise to much wonderment and conjecture among the crofters. They knew me by the name of Gille na Clack, or the 'Lad of the Stones,’ and came in the end to see that I was harmless. But now and then they would express their convictions or their pity. Once, when passing some huts on the shore of Loch Slapin, I stopped to break off a fragment from a projecting rock in front of them. As usual, I looked at the chip with my lens, and, having satisfied myself as to the nature of the rock, was resuming my walk, when I heard two old crones at their doors speaking of me. I knew very little Gaelic, but I caught up the emphatic remark that closed the conversation—‘As a cheill.’ When I returned to Kilbride I asked the tutor of the family the meaning of the expression, and learnt that it was, *He’s wrong in the head.’

One of my earliest excursions from Kilbride led me to the island of Pabba, which lies like a flat green meadow in front of Broadford Bay. Hugh Miller had described to me its richly fossiliferous Liassic shales, and I went with the determination to spend some time on the island, and make a good collection of its fossils. The only habitation in the place was one small hut, tenanted by Charles Mackinnon and his family, who looked after the cattle sent across from the farm of Corrie.“v Coming with the recommendation of their master, I was cordially welcomed. But the resources of the island were slender. My sleeping quarters were a heap of heather in a corner of the upper floor of a barn, while for my dining-room I had the use of the ‘ ben ’ or inner room in Charles’ hut. The food consisted chiefly of potatoes, oat-cakes, milk, and tea, with an occasional herring or an egg. After a day’s work along the shore, I would spend the evening in the hut, labelling and wrapping up my specimens, while Mackinnon, who knew a little English, sat by the side of the peat fire, and gave me his company. We had been engaged in this way for some time the first evening, when the door opened, and his wife looked in. After watching me for a few moments arranging my bits of stone, she made a remark in Gaelic which drew an angry reproof from her ‘goodman,’ who ordered her to go away. With some difficulty I drew from him the admission that the poor woman had only said ‘if she wassna kennin’ ye had sense, she wad be thinking ye wass a terrible eediot.’

When it was time to retire for the night, my hostess would take a live peat between the tongs in one hand and a candle in the other, and sally out into the night, then up an outside stair, without any rail, to my barn, where she lit the candle, and left me. I shall never forget the moaning of the wind through the open louver-boards that served for windows, the gusts that swept through the place and nearly blew out the candle, and the shrieking of the sea-fowl, like the agonised cries of drowning seamen. But the heather was soft, the blankets warm, and with youth on one’s side one slept soundly till the morning.

At my departure I pressed my kind host and hostess to accept remuneration for. their services, but they rejected the notion almost with indignation. At last Charles was persuaded to let me send him some remembrance when I got back to the south country. He said he would prefer a book, and when asked to choose his book, he timidly enquired whether he might have ‘ Josaiphus.' Although his knowledge of English was scanty, he used to read English books aloud to his children, but I am afraid that much of what he read must have been unintelligible both to him and to them. However, I procured and sent him an illustrated copy of Josephus, which, I was told, he used to show with pride as the largest book on his-shelf.

A more distant excursion took me to the extreme north-eastern part of Skye. After spending some time on the shore of Loch Staffin and making a collection of the well-preserved fossils to be obtained there, I started late one afternoon for the hamlet of Lonfern, in which my friends at the Manse of Snizort, told me I would get a warm welcome at Mrs. Nicolson’s, if I mentioned that I came from them. The distance was only a few miles, but there was much to interest me by the way, so that the gloaming had set in, and still no sign could be seen of the hamlet. At last I came upon a man returning from the hill with a creel of peats on his back, and asked him the path to Lonfern, when a conversation ensued, which may here be given as an illustration of crofter inquisitiveness.

‘Lonfern! Are you gaun to Lonfern? And where hae ye come frae?’

‘I have come this evening from Loch Staffin.’

‘Frae Loch Staffin! and ye’ll be a mar-chant?’

‘No, I’m not a merchant.’

‘Not a marchant! and what is’t that ye’ll be carryin’ in your bag?’

‘My bag is full of stones.’

‘Full of stones? Ochan, ochan! d’ye tell me that? Stones in your bag. And what wull ye be doin’ wi’ the stones?’

‘Well, I mean to take them south and look at them all very carefully.’

‘Lookin’ at stones! Well, well! And have ye no stones in your ain countrie?’

‘O yes, plenty of them; but they are not the same as you have in Skye. But will you not tell me how I am to go to reach Lonfern.’ ‘To Lonfern! Ow ay, to be sure, the way to Lonfern. But what use are the stones to you?’

‘Well, I told you, I wished to have samples Qf the Skye stones beside me.’

'To think o’ a man keepin’ stones to look at them! But are they worth onvthin’? Can you make onythin’ oot o’ them?’

‘Yes to me they are worth a great deal, for they show me what Skye was like long, long ago. But it is getting dark now, and I really must push on to Lonfern, if you will point out the track.’

‘Ay, ay; well, well, that’s queer enough. To think that ye wud be cornin’ all the way frae the south country to pick up a wheen stanes at Loch Staffin. And I’ll warrant the bag’s heavy too. So it is, whatever’ (gently lifting it from my back).

‘Well, my friend, I must say good night, if you won’t help me to find Lonfern.’

‘Ow ay, but I wull that. D’ye see thae twa peat-stacks. Weel then, ye’ll be keepin’ round by them to the burn, and ye’ll be coming to the wood plank across the burn, and ye’ll cross over there, and then ye’ll be keepin’ straught on by the side o’ the dyke, and in a wee while you will be seein’ Lonfern forenenst you.’

*Thank you, thank you, and good night.’

‘Gude nicht, and I’m wussin’ ye safe hame wi’ that bag.’

I had been told by my Snizort friends that Jessie Nicolson’s cottage could easily be found, for it was the largest of the row that formed the hamlet. But by the time I arrived there, the darkness had settled down, so that only by stooping, in order to get the outline of the roofs against the western sky, could one judge of the relative size of the huts. At last I selected what seemed to be the right one, and knocked at the door. There was no answer for a time, and while waiting I could hear, to the left hand, under the same roof, the heavy breathing and crunching noises of the cows. After a second knock, the door was eventually opened, and the figure of an elderly woman appeared against the faint light of a candle in the room to the right hand. I asked if this was Mrs. Nicolson’s. Instead of answering, she began to pass her hand over my face, neck, and shoulders. Not knowing whether she might be deaf and dumb, I shouted out that I had come from-the Manse of Snizort. At the sound of these words, she took me by the arm and almost dragged me into the room svith the light. ‘Frae the Manse o’ Snizort, are ye?’ she exclaimed. ‘And very welcome here.’ Planting me down by the side of the peat fire, which she raked together and stacked up with more fuel, she plied me with questions as to how they all were at the manse, and at every additional detail of news, her joy seemed to increase. By degrees her family of well-grown sons and daughters began to assemble, and to every one I was introduced afresh as from the Manse of Snizort, and had to answer a similar round of questions. Meanwhile the old lady, from a handsome brass-bound chest of drawers (perhaps a marriage gift from her friends at Snizort) which stood on one side of the room, took out a tablecloth of beautiful snow-white linen, and spread it on the table. One of the sons had come in from the bay with a fresh salmon, which, cut up into steaks, formed part of an excellent supper, enlivened with much talk, wherein the Manse of Snizort and its inmates played a large part.

In this same room there were two beds, one of which was spread afresh for me, while the other was occupied by one of the sons. My experience among the crofters had accustomed me to peat-reek, but its pungency this evening surpassed anything I had previously undergone. After the family had retired, and I had lain down between the soft white sheets, it was some time before the smarting of the closed eyelids would allow of sleep.

The architecture of one of these houses is of the simplest kind. On one side of the door is the division reserved for the cattle. On the other is the part occupied by the human inmates, which in the smallest huts may consist of a single room. Where there are more rooms than one, they are joined on to each other, with only a thin wattled or blanket partition between them. There is no separate passage, so that from the innermost room it is necessary to pass through the others to reach the outside. The doors between the rooms often consist only of a blanket hung across the opening, and pushed aside when one wishes to enter or to leave. On the morning following my arrival I was awakened by the footsteps of some one passing through my room, and noticed a female skirt disappearing beyond the blanket. In a few moments the eldest daughter of the house entered bearing a tray laden with bottles and glasses, which she brought up to my bedside, in order that, as she said, I might ‘ taste something before I got up.’ Not being used to such a matutinal habit, I declined her offer with my best thanks. But she grew quite serious over my refusal, assuring me that my tasting would give me an appetite. In vain I maintained that at breakfast time she would see that I stood in no need of any help of that kind. She only the more ran over the choice of good appetising things she had brought me. ‘Some whusky nate? some whusky and wahtter? some whusky and milk? some acetates?’ This last I conjectured to be a decoction of bitter roots in whisky, often to be found on Highland sideboards in the morning. Seeing that a persistent refusal would have displeased her, I consented at last to have some milk and whisky, but I did not discover that the draught in any way improved my breakfast.

There are few meals in the world more enjoyable than a true Highland breakfast. It presupposes, however, good health, a good digestion, and freedom from the daily visits of the penny post. The porridge and cream at the beginning provide a sensible substratum on which the later viands can be built up. Even if you confine your efforts to only one or two of these viands, the variety of the whole table, redolent of the hillside and the moor, and so unlike the typical morning repast of ordinary southerners, imparts a sense of plenty and freedom, and renews the longing to be out once more in the glen or on the mountain. Christopher North, who more than most men appreciated the merits of this repast, used to say, after having made a good meal, ‘now is the time to pitch in a few eggs.’

Johnson, too, who liked good living, admitted that the Scots, both Lowland and Highland, excel the English in breakfast. ‘If an epicure/ he says, ‘could remove by a wish, in quest of sensual gratification, wherever he had supped, he would breakfast in Scotland.

The breakfast at Lonfern was worthy of the supper of the evening before. When I had to address myself to my journey to Portree those kindly folk gathered round me with expressions of the most affectionate interest, as if I had been an old friend instead of an unknown stranger. They would not hear of my starting off by myself. It was a walk of eighteen miles, they said, and the track was rough, and in many places not easy to find. Besides, there was a high cliff on the left hand, and if mist came on I might fall over into the sea, several hundred feet below, and there were deep slacks (ravines) to cross, and many burns which might be swollen, together with other dangers which were duly detailed. So one of the sons must accompany me all the way, and carry my bag. To refuse the escort would have given offence; so we parted with the heartiest good wishes on both sides, and I had unlooked for companionship through the moors and boggy tracts that lie between the edge of the sea-washed precipices and the steep hillsides of Trotternish.

During my earlier visits to Skye, the Admiralty survey of the surrounding seas and coasts was in progress, under the direction of Captain Wood, R.N. He used to be a welcome guest at Kilbride, and he sometimes took the house party on board his gunboat for a sail down Loch Slapin. On one of these occasions we visited the Spar Cave, and, with the help of the sailors and Bengal lights, we saw that famous cavern more completely than perhaps it had ever been seen before. But its glory was gone. A couple of generations of Sassenach tourists, aided by the hammers, candles, and torches of ignorant Celts, had defaced the place beyond belief, shorn it of the beauty of its white crystalline pillars, and left it mangled and smoke-streaked. In the course of centuries, if left undisturbed, ‘ Nature, softening and concealing, and busy with a hand of healing,’ would doubtless repair the damage. But the ruthless iconoclast should in the meantime be debarred access to the grotto, until the ‘ sweet benefit of time ’ has renewed the former glories of the place.

We went on to Loch Scavaig, landed at the head of that gloomy fjord, and walked over to Coruisk. I have often been there since, but have never a second time witnessed a sight which was provided for us by the tars of the gunboat. As everybody knows, who has been to this most sombre of Scottish lakes, the declivities around the water are dotted over with boulders of all sizes, left there by the glacier which once filled the basin of Loch Coruisk and passed down Loch Scavaig out to sea. Some of these blocks of stone stand perched in the most perilous positions, on steep slopes and on the edge of cliffs, whence from a little distance it seems as if a mere touch would suffice to send them bounding into the lake below. Their number and situation evidently interested the sailors, who, as a change from their usual boating and sounding for the marine survey, dashed off for the nearest hill, along the profile of which the boulders lay in especial abundance. We had not noticed at first in which direction the men moved, when our attention was attracted by a thundering noise from the hill in question, followed by a loud splash in the lake below. The tars had found some of the perched blocks capable of being moved, and no doubt they dislodged as many as they could. But, fortunately for the sake of geologists, they could not succeed with the larger and finer boulders, which still remain where the melting ice allowed them to rest.

In recent years, while the ‘Aster’ has been cruising along these coasts, it has several times anchored for the night at the head of Loch Scavaig, and a more impressive anchorage can hardly be imagined. The precipices on either side plunge almost perpendicularly into the water, and mount upwards, crag over crag, into the far black, splintered crests and pinnacles that surround Coruisk. The tints of sunset flame along these peaks, while the evening shadows creep slowly upwards, and deepen into such darkness below that one cannot tell where land and water meet. The sea, though tidal, may be motionless as the calmest lake. '1 he stillness is only broken by the hoarse roar of the torrents that tumble in white cascades through rifts in the black rocks. In the long summer nights the northern sky remains full of light, and even at midnight the striking outlines of the surrounding mountains stand out sharp and clear against it. Now and then a sea-gull may circle slowly past and disappear in the gloom, but for the most part there is little sign of life at these hours.


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