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Byways of the Scottish Border
Through the Mountain Gate


St Mary's Loch
St Mary's Loch

WHEN the glare of summer sunshine and the rush of summer tourists is over, when the autumn winds are sighing through the woods, and the heavens and the hills are soft and grey, then is the time to see the "Dowie dens o’ Yarrow." In the end of October the coaches have ceased running, the tide of sightseers has ebbed, and nature is left, lonely, to her own still spirit of reflection. Then best can be summoned back in thought the scenes of bygone days—the deeds of dule and sorrow whose story seems so native to these grey and rounded hills, and to the loneliness of their wan waters. Then, too, the great cloud-shadows that slowly move along the mountain-sides complete the harmony of thought and scene.

The hills of Yarrow are peculiarly reminiscent of the past; and the memories that haunt their aspect, like thoughts in the sweet, sad face of his mistress, can only be read by the lover of them who wanders there in quiet. Here, each in his own time, have come the poets, to catch with their delicate instinct the subtle, sweet melancholy that lingers, like an old and nameless fragrance, amid these solitudes—the memory

Of old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago.

Here every summer, year after year, comes the quiet angler, most reflective of men, whose pleasure is not more in the lapse of the brook or the leap of the occasional trout, than in the old-world thoughts that rise to people his reverie at every turn of the stream. And here sometimes by the fire in one of the little inns, when the autumn dusk has fallen, the belated tourist, fingering through some old book of Border story, suddenly has the veil lifted, and catches a transient, far-off glimpse of the inner beauty of mediaeval life, woven of love and sorrow.

On foot and alone, or with a single congenial friend, is this storied and solitary valley-land best to be visited; for the spots are many where it is pleasant to linger and to leave the beaten track; and the pages of Hogg and Scott, the ballads of more ancient bards, the lines of Wordsworth, and the diary of Burns, with the fitful narrative of history, and the unchronicled local legends, form company enough. Nowhere, perhaps, is the wanderer better pleased to be left to his own reflections than among these lakes, and glens, and streams. They are the Provence of Scotland, and about them remain, still undisturbed, mellowed only by the lapse of time, rich memories of ancient Border chivalry.

When the traveller, brought by rail to the upland strath at the foot of the mountains, grasps his staff of stout hazel, and sets out from the steep street of Moffat town, he seems to be setting foot into the Past itself. On Moffat bowling-green it was, he remembers, that the meeting occurred between the Rev. John Home and James Macpherson, the Highland tutor, which led to the discovery and preservation of the works of Ossian, the Celtic Homer—a circumstance by itself suggestive of the pregnance of forgotten haps. Before the traveller, wrapt in mystery and sadness, lie the defiles among the hills, with the lonely road winding upward, to be lost in their recesses. And everywhere around, from the upland solitudes that climb into the blue, to the yellow vistas of late-shorn strath, the landscape is eloquent of a past that has filled many pages of history and poetry with a strange glamour of romance. Few trees are to be seen, and the only evidences of human presence are the humble shielings lodged at far intervals under the mountain-side. The foam-flecked Moffat Water, as it comes down beside the road, seems telling its own tale of silent tarns far up among the hills, and of glens known long ago in story. Its first feeding torrent on the right, indeed, the Craigieburn, opens at once into the remotest past an avenue of memories. The woods about it are believed to be a surviving portion of the ancient Ettrick Forest, itself part of the primeval Caledonian Forest. It was to this part of the Wood of Celyddon, or Caledon, that, in the sixth century, after the great tribal battle at Ardderyd, now Arthuret, near Carlisle, in which the Christian faction under Rydderch Hael and Kentigern were victorious, the actual Merlin, bard of the pagan British tribes, retired to mourn the fall of Gwenddolew, his chief. Here, the last of the northern Druids, he sang his song Avallenau, or The Apple Tree; he sang of himself, once a princely entertainer, now sleeping alone with shield on shoulder and sword on thigh in the forest; he sang of his sister Gwenddid, the delicately fair; and he sang of that other, Hwimleian—the "lovely nymph with pearly teeth, fair, sportive maid," who was to become the Vivien of our modern Arthurian romance. And over the hills, not many miles away, at Drummeizier, by the Tweed, he was finally stoned to death as a wizard by the shepherds of Meldred, and his body thrown upon a sharp stake in the stream. [The songs of Merlin may be found translated in Skene’s Four Ancient Books of Wales." See an interesting article on Merlin in the "Scottish Review" for October, 1892.] At a later day "Black Douglas of the Craigieburn" was a name of terror and power on the Borders. And in the latter part of last century, in the old house whose walls in time of flood are washed by the stream as it leaps down the mountain chasm, was born the fair, unfortunate Jean Lorimer, the "Chioris" to whom Burns wrote his "Lassie wi’ the lint-white locks," and eight other lyrics. Dr Currie states that Burns met her in these woods, which were a favourite haunt of his, and that a cottage in the wood was pointed out as the place where he visited her. But his first verses to her were written to express, not his own feelings, but the passion of a friend:

Sweet closes the evening on Craigieburn wood, 
And blithely awaukens the morrow;
But the pride of the spring in the Craigieburn wood
Can yield to me nothing but sorrow.

Laggan, the nearer of the two little cottages, farther on, was the scene of one of those lurid flashes of mirth that ever and anon flared across the life of the sad-fated peasant-bard, when, with "honest Allan Masterton," he strolled up from Dalwhinnie, and induced William Nicol, the Edinburgh schoolmaster, who was rusticating here, to "brew a peck o’ maut!" The scene, destined to be made immortal, can be imagined when the poet, glancing up during a pause in the mirth, beheld through the small knotted glass panes of the cottage window the silvery shape of the new moon drifting across the clear sky— 

It is the moon—I ken her horn,
That‘s blinking in the lift sae hie;
She shines sae bright to wile us hame,
But, by my sooth, she‘ll wait a wee!

And, still further on, the farm-house of Bodseck, where the road branches to the right, was the haunt of the Brownie chronicled by Hogg.

Memories like these add to the landscape that human interest which is the charm of old countries, and the lack of which makes to the reflective traveller the dulness of newer lands.

Within the pass the air itself seems lonely. On each hand rise the mountains, huge and dark against the sky, while the stillness is only broken by the distant rushing of the waters in their rocky bed below, and occasionally by the far, faint bleat of sheep. High on the hillsides, like silver threads, after the heavy rain, appear the slender torrents, each singing to itself, doubtless, its own quiet tune. And once and again sweep, wide and clear across the road, the waters of some swollen streamlet.

Details like these, as the shadows of the night begin to fall, become more and more expressive of the awe that dwells in the solitude of the hills; and amid such surroundings one ceases to marvel that the poetry of mountain lands is so generally cast in a plaintive key, for sombre and remote from boisterous mirth are the emotions that they stir within the heart.

Presently, as the road ascends higher and higher among the hills, mists begin to drift together, grey and silent like ghosts, in the glens; the air grows colder, and the solitude more desolate. The outer world is shut off behind, while in front the mountains, dark and threatening, guard the narrowing pass. The latter might almost serve for that passage to Elfland long ago followed by Thomas of Ercildoune with the Queen of Faerie, when, as the ballad tells,— 

They rade on and further on,
And they waded through rivers abune the knee, 
And they saw neither sun nor moon,
But they heard the roaring of the sea.

Even the last detail is all but fulfilled here, for from the recesses of a rugged ravine on the far left there comes through the gathering darkness the sullen roar of a waterfall. It is the famous "Grey Mare’s Tail," the highest waterfall in Scotland, pouring its torrent in an immemorial dirge beside the "Giant’s Grave." The cataract descends from the dark Loch Skene, on whose lonely islet the ern still builds her nest. Cataract and lake together are picturesquely described by Scott in his prelude to the second canto of "Marmion" :—

Yet him whose heart is ill at ease
Such peaceful solitudes displease.
He loves to drown his bosom’s jar
Amid the elemental war:
And my black Palmer’s choice had been
Some ruder and more savage scene
Like that which frowns round dark Loch Skene.
There eagles scream from isle to shore;
Down all the rocks the torrents roar;
O’er the black waves incessant driven,
Dark mists infect the summer heaven;
Through the rude barriers of the lake
Away its hurrying waters break,
Faster and whiter dash and curl,
Till down yon dark abyss they hurl.
Rises the fog-smoke white as snow,
Thunders the viewless stream below,
Diving as if condemned to lave
Some demon’s subterranean cave,
Who, prisoned by enchanter’s spell,
Shakes the dark rock with groan and yell.
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 one foamy wave,
And wheeling round the Giant’s Grave;
White as the snowy charger’s tail,
Drives down the pass of Moffatdale.

Notwithstanding its remote desolation, however, this region is by no means lacking in human memories which are stirring enough. Many a fugitive Covenanter has sought refuge amid its wild glens. In the sombre recesses of these hills, during the latter years of the doomed House of Stuart, the persecuted people, like hunted deer, held their conventicles; and at the door of the little Birkhill Inn, then merely a shepherd’s shieling by the road, tradition runs that four of them were shot by Claverhouse.

A solitary spot is that little dwelling of Birkhill, and the shepherd’s wife there has been sorely put to it more than once by later marauders than Dundee’s dragoons. They tell how a rough-handed tramp entered the humble doorway one summer afternoon, and, seeing only a single woman in possession, threatened to make free with the movable property. He was about to lay hands on one of the hanks of yarn that were hanging from the kitchen rafters, when Janet, the shepherd’s wife, stopped him with the sudden question, "My man, did onybody see ye come in here?" The fellow gruffly answered "No!" "Then," said the good woman, with ill-boding energy, "deevil a ane‘ll see ye gang oot. Lassie, bring me the axe!" The tramp at this intimation, they say, displayed an unusual amount of activity in disappearing up the road, and the worthy Janet made no endeavour to call him back. The inhabitants of so lonely a spot have need to be able to care for themselves.

Less and less grows the light as the road ascends, for the night falls fast among the mountains; and more and more impressive becomes the silence, as the rushing of the stream in the channel below diminishes towards its source. At last there is no sound but the gentle sigh once and again of the wind rising out of Yarrow—the summit of the pass has been reached. Presently the streams begin to run eastward with the road, and that sign declares that the first steps have been taken in the cradle-land of the Douglas.

Mournful memories of bygone glory linger here about the springs of Yarrow. The air itself seems sighing for the memory of "Douglas! Douglas! tender and true." [These words, familiar to most readers as the refrain of a modern song, occur in the famous old Scottish poem, "The Houlate," believed to be written by Sir Richard Holland, a  partisan of the Douglases, during the reign of James II.] Yet long, long it is since the valley used to rise and follow that chivalrous race of king-makers, long since the hoofs of the Douglas steeds rang here in haugh and dene, and long since the vespers floated up the dale from the bells of St Mary’s Kirk. Close by these springs of Yarrow the monks of Melrose in ancient times had a chapel, and at Chapeihope farm near, silent now in the darkness, the ring of carbines once and the shriek of a woman proclaimed a terrible deed, when the Flower of Yarrow of her day, who had waited ten years for her lover, saw him torn from her side at the bridal moment, and shot for his subscription to the Covenant. The pitiful story has been woven by Hogg into his "Brownie of Bodsbeck."

Still another Covenanting reminiscence remains near the spot. On the hillside at Riskenhope the youthful Renwick, last of those to suffer death for the cause of the Covenant in Scotland, preached one of his last sermons in 1688. The spot and its memory have been described in vigorous verse by Professor Blackie :—

Mark well yon white house ‘mid the trees;
There, chased from glen to glen
By bloodhounds of a despot race,
Young Renwick found a sheltering place,
With looks of love and deeds of grace, 
From simple, plaided men.

Up we clomb, and down we slid,
Sheer to a mountain brook; 
Where on a sloping grassy mound 
The people sate in circle round, 
And pulpit free the brave youth found,
To preach from holy book.

Mark well that stump, where once there grew 
A thorn, a goodly tree;
Even there he stood, and ‘gan to sing 
A powerful psalm, on faithful wing, 
Most like to David, shepherd-king, 
Ruddy and fair to see.

So preached the fair-faced boy, and knew
His preaching meant a deed; 
When in his ear the fierce halloo 
Sounded of Clavers and his crew, 
Who all God’s people did pursue
To death with murtherous speed.

These are some of the tragic episodes which, accumulated during the centuries, enrich with their sorrowful memory every mile of Scottish soil.

The mountains on each hand have become only great black shadows in the darkness; but when the mists lift, and the wind, blowing soft and heavy out of the east, drives back the curtain of rain, a steady light, the promise of all comfort, appears shining among trees far in front. Meanwhile, low on the right, rushing dim and sullen in the darkness, lies the "wan water" of which the ballads speak. It is the Loch o’ the Lowes—an eerie sight enough, with its bodeful lapping and its drifting streaks of foam. The rush of a descending stream makes itself heard under the road among the shadows, and once or twice a few drops of rain are scattered from the edge of some trailing cloud; then a path turns off to the right, and there, on the narrow neck of land between this upper sheet of water and St Mary’s Loch, glows the welcome light of Tibbie Shiel’s Inn.

And bright, after the outside darkness, seems the pleasant fire and lamplight in the little low-roofed room to which the guest is ushered; and hospitable sound the voices that come along the clean stone passage from the kitchen. Many a famous angler has been housed under this humble roof; for the loch and its streams are historic fishing-ground. Here, many a time, has come the great Christopher North—not the "musty, fusty Christopher" Tennyson has called him, but the large-souled poet, who could land a salmon or a sea-trout as well as he could draw tears and laughter with a Border tale. Here "the Shepherd" and he have foregathered for many a hearty supper after long, quiet days by the loch side; and the cosy parlour was the scene of at least one of the famous Noctes. And here it was, on the morning after one of these great carousals, that Tibbie was startled by the Professor shouting to her to "bring in the loch," as he was "here at the back o’ Jeems, and unco dry." The ancient hostess, a celebrity in her time, is now no more (many a bit of sententious wisdom she would impart as she sat in her latter days by the ingle neuk); [Tibbie, whose married name was Richardson, had been in her youth in the household of the Ettrick Shepherd’s mother. She knew the poet well, and was wont to say of him that he "was a gey sensible man, for a’ the nonsense he wrat."] but a comely lass, fresh-coloured and kindly-voiced, does for the stranger the first hospitalities of Yarrowdale.

In the inn at this time of year the visitor may find perhaps a single guest or so beside himself—some solitary angler who, wandering the countryside, rod in hand, for a week, has exhausted his stock of news and literature, and who, over the pipe of peace by the evening fire, is glad to fraternise with new-corners from the outer world. And for the viands— never, surely, was a meal so welcome as supper here after the "caller" air of the hills; and the steaming tea and smoking ham and eggs, with the thick white scones and fragrant butter, disappear with startling rapidity. Afterwards, when the house has gone to rest, it is pleasant to lie in the little recessed bed (for parlour and bedroom are the same thing), and watch, before falling asleep, the red fire sink on the hearth, hearing nothing but the gentle pressure of the wind sometimes against the deep-set casement, and conscious that the first steps have been taken in the land of Border Story.


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