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A Day in the Neighbourhood of Loch Skene
From Tait's Edinburgh Magazine


There are few in this world, where sorrow has greeted her mournful sovereignty, to whom the sombre sights and sounds of a sick chamber are unknown. All have more or less experienced the melancholy impressions produced by the death-like stillness, the shaded sadness, the strange indefinable mystery that reigns around the couch of a human but immortal sufferer, when the spiritual elasticity, the tumultuous buoyancy of heart, and the joyous restlesness of vigorous vitality, are only reminiscences of a past that may never have a corresponding future. We remember well, when afflicted with a grievous and depressing malady, with what anxiety we longed for the shut of day's garish eye, the silence of the distant jarring murmur of busy existence, which too vividly recalled the hours when a clear health pervaded our functions as we struggled with tense nerve and lightening eye among the animated throng of combatants on life’s dusty arena, or revelling in the luxurious consciousness of power to feel, to enjoy the beauties of nature’s scenery, we smiled on the laughing fields, sung with the warbling brooks, and, with eyes streaming with grateful tears, looked up to heaven and blessed the day that ever we were born. We loved the mild melancholy moonbeam that palely sat upon our emaciated fingers, the dim twilight of the pensive stars that symbolised the shade that rested on the half-lit landscape of thought, and the tingling silentness of solemn midnight that lulled the spirit into soft quietude and repose. But the day of deliverance was at hand. The pulse beat with a steadier throb, the disease slowly retreated, baulked of its prey, the faces of solicitous relations beamed sunnily with the light of hope, and immediately the eye of day was welcomed, the shutters, so long half-dosed, were thrown open for his smile, and the prospect of once more tasting the felicities of social intercourse, and conversing with scenes of beauty and sublimity immortalised in the memory of the heart, animated us with energetic joy, and robed the future in a vesture of glad enchantment. Pleased with our newly-recovered faculties, we resolved to enjoy the rapture of their healthy exercise. The alienation to which we had been subjected for a while unfitted us for the delights of human communion. We longed for the calm solitudes of nature, the suggestive loneliness of quiet pastoral regions, where, without restraint, we might lay open our whole soul to their genial expansive influences, and give unfettered expression to those extacies of gratitude that swelled the heart almost to bursting. The mind that has lost its equilibrium by struggling with the intangible abstractions of infinitude dislikes, at first, on the restoration of its faculties, to associate much with mankind. It still remained in the region where the disturbing forces first acted upon us during the whole of its self-oblivion, or what visions floated daily and nightly before its wild, framed eye; visions, the remembrance of whose Uvfees, fitful, and fantastic forms, imposes a kind of illusion on the realities of life even after we are consciously breathing, or moving, and acting among them. Things as they are in the work-day world appear insipid, flat, dull, and uninteresting. They have no power to awake the emotions of long slumbering sentiment. Uneasy, restless, and dissatisfied, we long for the wanton winds of heaven, as they sweep in joyful freedom, murmuring wild music along the tufted summits of sequestered hills—for the strange ravings of the impassioned torrent, “the hiss of homeless streams,” and all the wild and wayward melodies of the harp of nature.

We fly from the matter-of-fact scenes of ordinary life, to lose ourselves for a while amid the idealities of existence. Agitated by similar feelings, we resolved on a tour through the more interesting districts of the Scottish and English Borders. These localities had long been hallowed in imagination by the romantic and bewitching poetry of Scott, the wild and wizard ballads of the Ettrick Shepherd, the exquisitely true, touching, simple, and sweet strains of Wordsworth, and the weird "auld world” creations of the Border Minstrelsy. We had read many books of travels descriptive of the scenery of our native land; but in some of them these enchanting regions had been altogether overlooked, while in others they were dismissed with the briefest notice. Tourists unfortunately deprive themselves of much gratification, and the public of much useful and delightful information, by following too closely in the wake of stage coaches and railroads. Are Yarrow and Ettrick, St. Mary’s and Loch Skene, to be unvisited, because, forsooth, they do not happen to lie somewhere between Carlisle and Gretna Green, Cornhill and Kelso, or Belford and Berwick? No real lover of nature will refuse to leave the beaten track, and gladly weary himself out among her pathless solitudes, till he sinks down on the heath for his pillow, fanned to sleep by the lullaby winds, and curtained by the clouds of the open sky.

Accoutred as a pedestrian, in a shepherd’s dress, with a sturdy oaken stick as our only companion, and a petit sack with its complement of edibles, and potatoes to boot, which were found of essential service when far from the shielings of the hills, we set out with high expectations destined to be more than realised. We shall never forget the intensity of delicious emotion diffused through every fibre of our newly-invigorated frame when we found our limbs, for the first time for many months, promptly obeying the active dictates of a resuscitated volition; our lungs eagerly inhaling tho untainted breath of the morning; our eyes, of late dullness and dead, lustrously sparkling as they returned the sheen slied from the radiant beauties of the outer world; our eyes regaled with tho well-known, but long unheard, voices of the early birds, and our mind, with something like its former buoyancy aud vigour, going out in tumultuous joy to commune with the glorious universe. What a transition from the sad experiences of a melancholy illness! The suppressed whisper, and stealthy noiseless step of foreboding friends, were exchanged for the full choral swell of a happy creation; the white drapery, contrasting powerfully with the leaden gloom of our lonely chamber, for the curtain clouds of the sky hang round the roseate couch of Aurora, radiant with the crimson blush of the early day.

It is not our intention to fatigue the reader with a recital of the many singular rencontres we had with the simple-hearted inhabitants of these districts ; nor with a detail of the Varied emotions produced by each successive picture as it floated past in the beautiful pastoral panorama; but, selecting a few of those spots which struck us as most remarkable for classic interest, sublimity, or beauty, and which have left their image indelibly portrayed on our memory, we shall briefly describe their principal features, and expose those sentiments and impressions with which they will for ever be associated in our mental history.

Fancy us, then, refreshed, after a long day’s journey, by a night’s rest at the far-famed cottage of Lilly Shiel’s, awake with the earliest dawn—while the family are still in the arms of the drowsy god—striding vigourusly towards the scene which fancy had often depicted as the realization of our ideal of dark sublimity, where we hoped to dream away the remembrance of a work-day world amid the absorbing wild melody of the cataract, and the solemn meditative loneliness of Loch Skene. It was a bright, dewy morning in June. The few song-birds that frequent those scenes, “where flourished once a forest fair,” were trilling their matin music from the scattered grey birches, the ruddy mountain ash, and the gaunt, grim, black pines that still, in stunted dwarfishncss, relieve the solitary nakedness of the hills of Ettrick. The curlew’s scream, usually suggestive of musing melancholy, seemed no longer drear and dissonant. The grasshopper was pottering his monotonous contralto among the tall herbage of the valleys, and the industrious bee added his sonorous bass as he hummed happily away from the purple heath, already charged with the treasured sweets of the morning. The scattered flocks were lifting at intervals their tranquil bleat, which the herds, hung on the sides of the quiet hills, promptly returned, as they raised their mild, innocent gaze to welcome the glories of the reddening dawn. The sun presented a singular appearance, which we do not remember to have observed before. His gold seemed transmuted into silver. His flaming disc, like a circular map of molten argent, gradually rose above the tops of the mountains, whose soft, rich verdure glistened changefully, like the ever varying hues of shot silk, in his sheeny white rays, that filled the wholo surrounding atmosphere with a blinding lustre.

The upland streams, narrowed by the recent drought to tiny rivulets, forgot their wintry turbulence, and sung “a quiet tune,” as they gently curved round the splintered, wave-worn fragments of their rocky channels. The sides of the hills were striped by small cascades, gleaming like suspended crystal rods in the sunbeam, weeping so softly that “the sound but lulled the ear asleep,” chastened the exhilaration of the soul, and disposed to sweet, solemn meditation. “The feeling of the hour” was of a mixed character. There was much to elate, more to tranquillize. It was sunlit solitude, it was voiced loneliness. Surrounded by such a scene, on such a morning, we have often wondered since that no pious sentiments were awakened. We luxuriated in the free play of feeling and fancy. We revelled in the exulting transport of an almost spirituallized body; but the cloudless sun, the hymning birds, the warbling streams, and the tranquil smiling hills provoked no thought of Deity. How was this?

Singular to tell, it often happens that the fountain of religious sentiment is sealed during the period of mental aberration. The heart that wont to turn spontaneously towards the origin of all its blessedness becomes proud, self-centred, sullenly obdurate, and reserved. Every object is shunned that would suggest the idea of a present God. Oppressed with this cold dislike and dead insensibility, even here, amid the scenes that appeared the best fitted to revive our former sentiments of love and adoration, the frost of death still freezed up the genial current of tho spiritual affections. But the hour was at hand, the means were prepared, and amid the solitary wilds of Loch Skene we were again to experienco what the joyous dawn, with its mingled accompaniments, had failed to produce. Mending our pace, we rounded the tortoise-shaped hills that rise in unbroken succession between the Lowes and the entrance into the Pass of Moffatdale, and soon stood at the opening of the vista formed by the undulating mountains, clothed with verdure to their summits, that stretch away into the fertile plains of Dumfriesshire. From this point, which is regarded as the highest ground between Ettrick Forest and Moffatdale, the whole romantic scenery of tho defile is presented in varied beauty and diversified grandeur. During the former part of the morning we had been completely encircled by hills, which shut in tho view on all sides. A feeling of lassitude and ennui was beginning imperceptibly to take the edge off our enjoyment. It is a fact, that the same phase of beauty or sublimity which at first, and for a while, charms the senses and awakes the most delicious emotions, by being repeated in unbroken uniformity for several miles, gradually ceases to exercise its former influence, and the eye, wearied and sated by the constant presentment of the same unvaried objects, languidly longs for variety.

A tall black cliff cowering over a rifted cavern, a splintered rock heaving its gashed forehead to the sky, a rugged ravine torn by the kelpie’s scream, a fantastic cloud gambolling capriciously along the shaggy brows of a sullen mountain, or a distant prospect of green woods, of cultivated, calm, and placid plains, suddenly bursting on the eye in the midst of uniformity, freshens the feelings, revives the interest, stimulates the curiosity, feeds tho desire of novelty, and inspires a glow and an elasticity of spirits peculiarly sympathetic of a renovated life. Insensibly sinking under tho pressure of this fatiguing similarity of scene, the view from this spot provided exactly the stimulus required. We stopped to gaze for a while on the beautifully curved ranges of hills that flanked the pass, rolling their alternate waves towards tho welt watered and richly diversified landscape of the west, where the fashionable and picturesque village of Moffat invites, by its medicinal springs and sweet sequestered walks, the regards of the invalid.

Invigorated with this pleasing variety, we began trippingly to descend into the valley. A distant murmur was now perceptible, and, on reaching the table-land, the weltering waters, covered with foam, were seen flashing impetuously down the black, sinuous gorge of the mountain, as if, glad at their escape from the noise and fury of the cataract, hurrying happily away to smoother channels, and softer scenes in the quiet plains below. Striking off towards the right, we encountered an ascent of considerable difficulty. Pleased with the tumult of the waters, we selected our route by the banks of the descending current, and gradually climbed our way to the jutting crag that conceals the cataract. A multitude of strange sensations took possession of us as we tugged up the rugged acclivity, produced by the gradual increase of the wild music of the waters, as they raved wrathfully against the insensate rocks into the boiling cauldron. The sound, varying with the fitful breeze, was stilling the soul and inducing oblivion and entrancement, when, of a sudden, on rounding the projecting mass of intervening rock, the charger’s snowy tail whisking into our eyes a shower of blinding spray instantaneously aroused a new set of feelings and reflections.

This fall, commonly called the “Grey Mare’s Tail,” is the highest in Scotland, descending from a precipice nearly 300 feet in height. The rocks round it are rugged, black, stern, and splintered, surmounted by a few tufts of coarse peat, hanging in matted abigginess over their dark brows, that contrast strangely with the foamy whiteness of the cataract, or the misty clouds of powdery spray that perpetually ascend from the vexed waters of the abyss. Cora Linn, Foyers, and Lowdore are, in our opinion, not to be compared with the Grey Mare’s Tail. None of them possess the same bewildering power, the same ragged grandeur, the same utter solitude, or the same combination of all that can produce that deep silent awe which usurps the soul on the contemplation of the mysterious, undefinable solemnities of nature. In the others we think there is too much scope for the eye; as the wide range of objects that immediately, in considerable diversity, surround you, prevents that fixity of attention which is necessary to the absorption of the soul in the grandeur of one majestic object. Here, sitting opposite the cataract, you are deep down in a chasm of the mountains, with rude rocks rising on all aides perpendicularly to the sky, where a small blue patch alone can be seen, canopying the shaded vault, which the sunbeams, even at noon, penetrate with a sickly light, scarcely relieving the dim, dark gloom of the cavern; the leaping flood breaking over the torn ledge in a sheet of foam, dispersing in its descent dense clusters of snowy pearls, or long strings of diamonds, emitting faintly prismatic hues, and dancing through the mist and darkness into the roaring hell below. With these the eye is filled, while no sound falls on the ear but the incessant dash of the tormented waters thundering and surging away through the gashed mountain, or the wild affrighted scream of the curlew, as, for a moment arrested on the wing, she glances her fearful eye into the savage scene, and then hies precipitately to her silent fastness.

Here is loneliness, here is solitude; but it is a loneliness we love, a solitude we covet. The hum, the buzz, the shock of men never can be encountered here. The world is excluded. We are alone with nature. She converses with us; she unrolls her mysterious stores, and makes her strange secrets known. The solitary, the unknown of a city, feels his loneliness oppressive, distressful, melancholy; he would fain recognise one countenance, meet one responsive eye. In despair, he scans the features of the stranger multitude that rush heedlessly past him in endless succession down the stream of busy existence, and though all are members of the same family and heirs of the same ultimate destiny, they have no interest in him, and if his name were blotted out from the register of life, would drop no tear over his new-closed grave. Dreariness, desolation possess his soul, and drive him where he least wants to go, into the recesses of his own being.

How totally the reverse of all this is felt by the solitary traveller among the wilds of nature. His eye never rests on an object with which he cannot commune; and even silence has a voice for his ear, sweet, soothing, solemn, and sublime. Embosomed in the absolute solitude we have described, we made no effort to think; our inner man lay exposed to all the influences of the place. At first, we were exclusively engaged with the object before us. We seemed identified for a while in dreaming bewilderment with the thundering waters. But the eternal hiss, the perpetual dash, the motionless contemplation of continual motion in the flood, and of everlasting stability in the rocks, induced by degrees a feeling of utter abstraction from all the sights and sounds by which we were surrounded.

In thought we wandered far from the present, but, strange to say, naturally lapsed into meditation on the past. The future was totally excluded. The genius of the place was retrospection. He swept the chords of the spiritual harp that lay bared to his potent touch, but no new strange melody broke on the oar. The music seemed familiar. It was an echo of the strains we had heard in other and departed years. It awoke the memories that slumbered in the cells of mind. The visions of infancy floated past us with all their joyous recollections, the spring-time of life again stood clad in its glittering illusions; the family circle seemed still unbroken; a mother’s smile played on our ruddy cheek, and a father’s voice, like solemn music, spoke in kindest accents, with warnings and sage counsels. The companions of our early years rose from their lonely graves, “ where pearls lie deep, or where we often walked when the sombre hues of evening steeped the saddened landscape, and wept and I prayed. We spoke to them; they smiled and spoke again. The world, that late had seemed a wintry wilderness where our fairest flowers had faded, now rose, at the command of the magician, into the happy valley, robed in the joyousness of a sunny spring. Love an object, memory and imagination will make it immortal; the being loved can never die, the heart’s affection is eternal as itself, and can bestow perpetuity on all its objects. What a provision against the ills of this scene of evanescence and transition. We have a power against which death strives in vain, a power to immortalize the beings that we love, a power to rescue the victim from the grave, a power to retain the image we adore, to converse with those with whom we delighted to commune, to live to dwell for ever by their side; once united, the tie never can be severed. The union of hearts knows not, and never shall know, disruption. An object loved “is a thing of joy for ever.”

Awaking from our long trance, we started up in half unconsciousness, with difficulty recalling our situation and our purposes. The illusions of the past still lingered around. The cadence of the fall met our ear as if for the first time. Its voice seemed to have been entirely hushed during our reverie; and now that the spell was broken, it again drew breath, and rushed wildly as before into its rocky receptacle. The day was advancing; we wished to remain, but the aspect of the heavens warned us away, and Loch Skene was yet unvisited.

The rocks rising round the basin of the linn, as we have already said, are almost perpendicular. They present nothing to assist the traveller in his ascent but a thin brittle projection here and there, which frequently yields and crumbles into fragments the instant it is laid hold of and unless he be unusually agile and dexterous, he will often be in extreme danger of losing his life. We have known many instances in which this attempt was attended with the most perilous results. Several times we clutched a ledge of slaty rock, which gave way, and it was only after a desperate struggle, in which every muscle of the system was strung to its utmost, that we could regain our former footing. Never did we feel more forcibly that

“Facilis descends Averno,
Sed revocare gradn, hoc opus et difficile est.”

Seated at last on a level with the brink of the cataract, we leisurely surveyed the boiling waters, that seemed urged on by some remorseless demon in a fierce fit of uncontrollable frenzy through the fractured rocks. Scott, to whom the whole of the district was familiar from his earliest days, assigns this wild spot as the most congenial to his “Mysterious Man of Woe”:—

“And well that palmer's form and mien
Had suited with the stormy scene,
Just on the edge, straining his ken
To view the bottom of the den,
Where, deep, deep down, and far within
Toils with the rocks the roaring linn;
Then, issuing forth ctae foaming wave,
And wheeling round the Giant's Grave,
White as the snowy charger’s tail,
Drives down the pass of Moffat Dale."

We soon grew dizzy, and retiring from the edge of the fall, we sat down to rest our wearied powers for a little, and then turning northwards, proceeded along the banks of the stream for nearly a mile, while a scene of unusual grandeur and sublimity was gradually disclosing its imposing features. The spot is unimaginably wild and lonely. The sun had been languishing for some time, and now straggled ineffectually with a dull leaden sky that hung in unvaried uniformity over the smooth deep waters of the loch, lying sadly under the combined frown of the louring heavens and the gloomy mountains. There was nothing to remind us of the pastoral beauty of St. Mary's. Large tracts clad with heath, patches of dangerous morass, and white cannach scattered in all directions; gigantic rocks rising wildly on the sides and summits of the mountains that completely enclose the lake, and cast a perpetual shadow on the stunted vegetation of the valley, a solitary isle rearing its black, bleak crest above the dull sullen waters, and the occasional cry of some feathered inhabitant of loneliness, and the apparent absence of any outlet, complete the picture of utter desolation.

Isolated from every sight and sound that could remind us we had a brother-man, and awed by the augustness of the solitude that sat throned upon the scene, the stilled thoughts rose reverentially and slowly to the idea of Deity in whose presence we felt lost, absorbed, annihilated, mingling with the infinite, with the Great Spirit that fills the “wide waste” and dwells amid “the city full." Neither the glories of the morning around sweet St. Mary’s, nor the varied grandeur of the fall, had availed to produce one religious sentiment. But resistless was the “majesty of darkness,” that now covered this solitary place, to inspire an overwhelming consciousness that we stood in the temple of Nature’s God.

Abstracting ourselves from our age and interests, we rose, amid the stillness that reigned, into the period of the divine solitude in the anterior eternity where we saw the Deity existing alone, engaged solely in the calm contemplation of His own infinite perfections, while the universe was yet unvoiced and unpeopled. Then no angels hymned His praise, circling His throne, rejoicing; then no pomp of worlds gemmed the sky; then no blazing orbs wheeled through the tracts of immensity. All was silence and all was solitude, and yet all was voiced and all was full. The universe was empty, and yet the universe was filled; for God was alone, and the universe was filled with God. We stood on the utmost line that bounds imagination’s flight into unepoched, motionless duration in the past, and thence, casting our eye on the solitary Infinite, as if we had been the only being existing apart from Himself, we contemplated His glorious perfections, His underived sufficiency, His absolute blessedness in Himself. The feeling was but one of dreariness, for the fountain of all beauty and good was the alone object of thought. Boundless love—love, measureless as immensity, was revealed, and in its amplitude we were swallowed up.

When thus engaged, we sank insensibly on our knees upon the heath, and, far from human eye or ear, caused our adorations and prayers to ascend on the wings of the mountain winds to the throne of the Eternal. That was a moment of divinest rapture never to be obliterated from the volume of our spiritual experience. The remembrance of Loch Skene has been a check to many an unhallowed thought, to many an unholy imagination, to many an impious project. We never can forget our solemn vows, our self-dedication, our complete surrender of soul, body, and spirit to the service of God, on the altar of the lonely wild.

We subsequently visited York Cathedral, one of the proudest fanes of these islands; not Its vaulted roofs, “its long-drawn aisles", its “dim religions light,” evoked no sentiments so awful, so solemn, so memorable as the temple of Loch Skene. We had often before admired the noble simplicity of worship practised by onr Druidical fathers, but not till that day had we learnt fully to appreciate their choice of the altar and the temple that Nature had provided for the worshippers of her God. Of the ancient Germans it is finely laid, “Nee colubere parietibus deos, neque in ul-lam humani oris speciem assimil&re, ex magnitndine eretostiam arbitrantur; lnoos ac nemoro consecrant; deorumque nominibus appellant secretum illud, quod soli reverentii vident.” It is more than probable that on this very spot the Covenanters of the southern districts of Scotland frequently assembled on Sabbath.

It is pleasant to think that perhaps these waters have been used in holy baptists, that these wilds have echoed with the “grave sweet melody” of sacred song, that this very turf has been pressed by the knee of many a persecuted saint of whom the world was not worthy. These recollections invest the place with an aspect of peculiar sacredness. Infidels and atheists! we invite you here; and, through grace from on high, we believe you will return to the world sadder, perhaps, but wiser men. None but those who have finally and hopelessly sealed up their hearts against the sentiments of piety can stand surrounded with such scenes and associations without involuntarily exclaiming, “The Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.”

We rose slowly from the posture of devotion, looked somewhat dreamily around, and, ere we were aware, the re-action of our powers, that had been kept so long on the stretch, suddenly commenced, and away we sprang, with the speed of an arrow, across the bogs and fens, climbed, with incredible velocity, the intervening hills, descended, with inconceivable rapidity, the most frightful precipices, and, dashing down the sloping sides of the mountains guarding the pass, found ourselves, in a state of utter exhaustion, slowly pursuing our way to Moffat, which we reached at a late hour, after having spent a day that shall never he forgotten in the annals of our moral and religious history.


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