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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
XLIX. Visitors to Strathspey


It has been said that the Highlands were discovered by Sir Walter Scott. This is only in part true. Scott did more than any other man to make the Highlands known to the world, and by the magic of his genius he has invested the land and the people with imperishable interest and renown. But other great men had spoken of the Highlands before him. The English poet Wordsworth and his sister Dora visited the Trossachs in 1803, seven years before "The Lady of the Lake" was published, and had penetrated as far us Glencoe and the shores of Loch Leven, and it is to this journey that we owe the beautiful poems of ‘‘The Blind Highland Boy", "Stepping Westward," " The Solitary Reaper," and others. Still earlier, in 1773, the great English lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, made his famous tour to the Hebrides, by which he not only gave, as he believed, the death-blow to Macpherson and Ossian (though in this he was mistaken), but threw a flood of light on the character and customs of the Highland people. But neither of these came to Strathspey. Johnson travelled by the East coast, and Wordsworth by the West, and to both Strathspev was unknown and unvisited. Sir Walter, also, though he makes Glenmore the scene of one of his poems, and otherwise indicates some acquaintance with the country and its legends, never appears to have entered it. He was much in the Highlands of Perth and Argyll, but he never crossed Drumuachdhar. He could make the gallant Dundee say " There are hills beyond Pentland and streams beyond Forth," but he himself saw them only in imagination, or dim in the distance, like the worthy Bailie Nicol Jarvie. One of the earliest visitors of whom we have record was the penniless pilgrim Taylor, the "Water Poet" (1618). He gives the following description of a visit to Castle Grant (Hindlev’s "Taylor,’’ p. 56) :—‘‘From thence we went to a place called Balloch Castle, a fair and stately house, a worthy Gentleman being the owner of it, called the Laird of Grant, his wife being a gentlewoman honourably descended, being sister to the Right Honble. Earl of Athole, and to Sir Patrick Murray, Knight; she being both inwardly and outwardly plentifully adorned with the gifts of grace and nature; so that our cheer was more than sufficient, and yet much less than they could afford us. There stayed there, four days, four Earles, one Lord, divers Knights and gentlemen and their servantes, footmen and horses; in every meal, four long tables furnished with all varieties; our first and second course being three score dishes at one board, and after that always a banquet; and if I had not foresworn wine till I came to Edinburgh, I think I had there drunk my last." Another poet who visited the country was Aaron Hill. He was connected with the York Company, and was a frequent guest at Coulnakyle. Hill was one of the victims of Pope in the ‘‘Dunciad.’’ Some rather sharp letters passed between them, which led to a modification of the lines complained of. Hill’s name does not now appear, and the reference to him is rather complimentary than otherwise. Book II., 295 :_

"Then * * * essay’d; scarce vanish’d out of sight,
He buoys up instant, and returns to light;
He bears no tokens of the sabler streams,

And
mounts far-off among the swans of Thames.

But the noblest of our poet visitors was Robert Burns. Mr Henry Mackenzie, "The Man of Feeling," introduced Burns in the following letter :—

"EDINBURGH, 24th August, 1787.

MY DEAR Sir .JAMES,—This will be delivered lo you by the Bard of Ayrshire, Mr Burns, of whom you have heard a great deal, and with whom Louis was acquainted here. He is also charged with a Box directed for Miss Grant. I presume Miss Eliza, which came some time ago, in the English Stage Coach, and was omitted to be sent by McLaren. It consists of such light materials as poets sometimes present ladies with. Mr Burns is accompanied in his northern tour by Mr Nicol, with whom I have not the honour of being acquainted, but Louis, I presume, has a very feeling remembrance of him. You will find Burns not less uncommon in conversation than in his poetry, clever, intelligent and observant, with remarkable acuteness, and independence of mind, the last indeed to a degree that sometimes prejudices people against him, tho’ he has on the whole met with amazing patronage and encouragement. Louis will show him the Lions of Castle Grant and as he is all enthusiast about the fortia facta peatrum, let him not forget, as in the case of Lord Monboddo, to show him the large Gun. —Yours most affectionately,

"Henry MACKENZIE.

"Sir JAMES GRANT of GRANT, Baronet,

" Castle Grant, per favor of Mr Burns."

‘The Louis referred to in this letter was the Laird’s eldest son, of whom a sketch has been already given. Burns made a tour of twenty-two days, his furthest stretch being about ten miles beyond Inverness. In a letter to Rev. John Skinner, he says, we travelled "many miles through a wild country, among cliffs grey with eternal snows, and gloomy savage glens famous in Scottish music, till I reached Castle Grant, where I spent half a day with Sir James Grant and family." We may conceive how the heart of the bard would glow, as he passed places familiar to him by name, but which he had never seen before. First came Rothiemurchus, with its "Rant," which was one of his favourite tunes ; lower down Tullochgorm, famous for its Strathspey, and to him still more endeared by Skinner’s spirit-stirring song and, on the other side of the Spey, the woods of Abernethy, one of the haunts of Macpherson, the brave raider, whose death he has immortalised—

"Sae rantingly, sae wantonly, sae dantonly gaed he,
He play’d a tune, and danc’d it roun, aneath the gallows tree."

But, alas! he does not seem to have been in the vein for song. Only, in his notes he has the significant entry, "Strathspey, rich and romantic,"

John Wilson, "Christopher North," visited Strathspey more than once. He was at Tomintoul in 1815, and again in August, 1816. He describes it as a "wild mountain village," and of one of the markets held when he was there he says, "Drinking, dancing, and swearing and quarrelling going on all the time." It was here that he had a fight with the Caird :-—

"A stalwart tinkler wright seemed he,
That weel could mend a pot or pan
And deftly he could throw the flee,
Or neatly weave the willow wan’."

Wilson crossed, on foot, from Tomintoul by Tomdow to Strathspey, and stayed over the Sunday with friends—the Misses Grant. On the Monday he ascended Cairngorm, in company with Mr Alex. Grant, and it is said he lost the MS. of one of his poems on the hill. This put him in a bad temper, to which he gave vent in a fierce magazine article. Tennant, Campbell, Garnett, and Newt refer to Strathspey in their books. The Honourable Mrs Murray’s "Guide to the Beauties of Scotland" describes a visit to Rothiemurchus (1799), and an ascent of Cairngorm, where she seems to have visited "Coire Meararad," which she calls "Margaret’s Coffin."

Mr John Ruskin, Professor Shairp, and Professor Blackie visited Strathspey, and have spoken of it in their characteristic way. Ruskin’s grand passage on the Rock of Craigellachie is often quoted. There are three kinds of visitors that may be referred to. First, Missionaries. Of this class "the Haldanes" may be named. During five summers, beginning with that of 1797, Mr James Haldane had devoted himself to long and laborious itinerancies for the purpose of preaching the Gospel." In 1802 and 1805 he visited Strathspey. He was then in the prime of manhood, wore a blue coat braided in front, with hair powdered and tied behind, and had a clear and powerful voice, with an earliest and impassioned delivery. At Aviemore he preached in the wood, in the midst of a snow storm. At Grantown and other places he held meetings, and made a deep impression on many. Mr Peter Grant, Baptist minister, gives the following account of Captain Haldane’s visit to Grantown ("Lives of the Haldanes," p. 344): —"The novelty of a field preacher, especially a gentleman, attracted multitudes. In a short time the whole country was astir I was young, and had little concern about my soul when Mr Haldane visited this place. All that I remember is having heard and seen himself and John Campbell preach at Grantown on a market day. They took their station a little out of the village, where a Church has been since built. Almost the whole market gathered to hear. At first they thought to drown his voice by laughing and sporting, but in a short time his powerful and commanding voice overcame all uproar, and a solemnity prevailed to the end of his discourse. Some have since acknowledged to me that they received their first impression (of religion) on that occasion. . . . Another circumstance not to be forgotten is that he induced my father-in-law to set up a Sabbath School, especially to teach the people to read the Scriptures in the Gaelic language." This is said to have been the first Sabbath School established in Strathspey.

Of the class of Sportsmen, Colonel Thornton—"Sporting Tour in the Highlands of Scotland, 1804 "—may be said to have been the pioneer. His preparations were most elaborate. Like Agricola, he invaded the country by sea and land, His stores were brought to Findhorn by a schooner, and from there carried inland; while he himself, taking Edinburgh, Glasgow, and the Lomonds in his way, met his stores at Raits, in Badenoch, which he made the centre of his operations. The Colonel was a man of catholic tastes. He shot, he fished, he hawked, he fared sumptuously in his tent with the gentry, and he not only kept a diary, but had an artist to illustrate his work with sketches of the country. Some of his feats in shooting and fishing were most remarkable. He tells us that the Duke of Hamilton, one of the best shots in Scotland, "had had good sport, having killed three brace of birds" in a day’s shooting. But he himself got far above this, 20 to 30 brace of grouse often falling to his gun; which, considering that he used a flint-lock gun generally with a single barrel, was very fair shooting. Colonel Thornton was wonderfully successful in fishing. In Loch Lornond, between five and eight in the morning, he killed five salmon, one of them being 42 pounds weight. His most remarkable exploits in Strathspey were in killing pike. In the Spey, near Aviemore, and in the Lochs of Pytoulish, Glenmore, and Alvie, he secured some monsters of extraordinary size. One of these is said by him to have been 5 feet 4 inches in length, and was calculated to weigh 48 lbs.! Colonel Thornton speaks of Mr Stewart, Pytoulish, as accompanying him in some of his expeditions, and a retainer of his, who had been present at the killing of the great pike of Loch Pytoulish, in his old age when working as threshing man at the Dell of Rothiemurchus, used to delight the youngsters by a thrilling account of the adventure. The sportsmen who have since invaded the country are beyond reckoning.

A third class who may be mentioned are visitors who come for health or pleasure. Amongst these we have had many men of distinction. President Grant, of the United States, came to see the land of his fathers. Admiral Hobart Pasha, whose first wife was a daughter of Dr Grant of Kinchirdy, whom he won when he commanded the "Bulldog" in the Mediterranean, in 1847, twice visited Strathspey, and was once (1849) the writer’s guest for a week. Dr James Martineau has for several years made his summer home at Polchar, Rothiemurchus, and his friends Jowett, Harrison, and Swinburne visited him there in 1873. The beloved Dr John Brown (" Rab and his Friends") spent a month at Coulnakyle in 1874 Mr Robert D. Holt, of Liverpool, held the Dell Shootings for fifteen years, and during that time Mr Herbert Spencer and other eminent men were guests at the Dell. Mr Spencer was fond of fishing. One season, when he came north, he told Mr Holt that he had been studying the habits of the salmon and that he had discovered they, fishers, were all wrong as to their fly-hooks. They should be reversed in form as to the head, and he showed, with some pride, some flies which he had got made in this new shape. Mr Holt smiled, but said nothing. Next day Mr Spencer got the best water, and at luncheon he was asked as to his luck. Alas he had not had a single rise, while Mr Holt had got two nice fish. No more word was heard of the philosopher’s new style of salmon flies. Mr John Bright was also a keen fisher, and used often to visit at Tulchan, in the time of Mr Bass. in 1886 he came to our parish to see his brother-in-law, Mr Duncan Maclaren, Edinburgh, then staying at Achnagonain. It was a red-letter day on which I met him. I had seen Mr Bright many years before in Sutherland, and had correspondence with him, but this was the first time it had been my privilege to be together with him in private. Mr Maclaren was very deaf, and the burden of conversation fell upon Mr Bright. He was in high spirits, and talked of many things, but chiefly on Scottish subjects. He had interested himself in behalf of the widow of a Scottish literary man, whose case I had brought before him, and this led to his speaking of the minor Scottish poets. He said he should like to see a book with short biographies and specimens of these poets. I mentioned that something of the kind was being done in a London newspaper that claimed to be the organ of the Democracy. On this he said that the strongest thing he knew in English poetry on Democracy was in Shelley. He thought he could give the passage. He began, but failed at first. Pausing a moment, he began again, and then went on without stop or stumble to the end. It was grand to see the "old man eloquent" declaiming this favourite passage. His eye kindled, his cheek flushed, his voice gained force and richness, he seemed ten years younger than when he started.

"THE MASQUE OF ANARCHY."

"Men of England, heirs of glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty mother,
Hopes of her and one another!

"Rise, like lions after slumber,
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you!

"What is freedom? Ye can tell
That which slavery is too well,
For its very name is grown
To an echo of your own.

"‘Tis to work and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs, as in a cell,
For the tyrants use to dwell.

"So that ye for them are made,
Loom and plough and sword and spade,
With or without your own will, bent
To their defence and nourishment.

"‘Tis to see your children weak
With their mothers pine and peak,
When the winter winds are bleak—
They are dying whilst I speak."

And so on for several stanzas. Mr Bright spoke also very fairly, of the Church Question (Scotland), and his last word, when bidding good-bye, was-—-" Disestablishment or no, be tolerant, be tolerant."

Queen Victoria passed through the east end of our parish on her return journey from the romantic visit to Grantown in September, 1860. In "Leaves from the Journal of our Life in the Highlands," Her Majesty has the following entry:—-"We passed over the Spay by the Bridge of Spay. It continued provokingly rainy, the mist hanging very low on the hills, which, however, did not seem to be very high, but were pink with heather. . . . The first striking feature in this country is the Pass of Daidhu, above which the road winds—a steep corrie with green hills. We stopped at a small inn, with only one house near it. Further on we came to a very steep hill, also to a sort of pass, called Glen Bruin, with slate hills evidently of slate formation. Here we got out and walked down the hill, and over the Bridge of Bruin, and partly up another lull, the road winding amazingly after this—up and down lull." Had the day been favourable, Her Majesty might have seen to the east the Haughs of Cromdale, and at the head of the gorge John Roy’s cave; and passing along the shoulder of Sgor-gao-thaidh she might have obtained a splendid view of the country to the west, with Ben Nevis dimly visible in the far distance. The Bridge of Bruin is the eastern boundary of the parish, and a little beyond there is a dark gorge, with a very fine example of water-worn rocks, where

"Deep, deep down, and far within,
Toils with the rocks the roaring linn."


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