Scotland's Book of Romance Chapter I - The Beach at
In Arisaig - A Stranger from
Argyll - I Explore the Prince's Cave - The Islets in Loch nan Uamh - I Set
Out for Moidart - The Black Loch among the Hills - I Arrive at Loch Ailort.
THE road begins at Arisaig;
and it was in low spirits that I watched the little Highland train steam
noisily away from the station and disappear among the trees. I had been
the only passenger to descend. The station-master, a strapping grey-eyed
girl in a blue uniform, had directed me to the beach in a shy and lilting
voice, and with a polite smile had left me alone on the platform. I am not
sure whether it was Kinglake who said that a man can have a more acute
feeling of loneliness in the crowded streets of London than on the
Egyptian desert; and though I have had a deep draught of the one and a
slight taste of the other, I have never known such a devastating pang of
loneliness as I felt that morning on the empty platform among the trees at
Arisaig. When the noise of the departing train had faded, the silence was
eerie. It was sharpened to an even keener pitch when the engine, now far
in the distance, hooted once like a prowling owl and went on its way
around the mountainsides. So intense, so prolonged, was the silence that
presently it seemed to become a living thing : you could almost detect its
pulse-beat in the clear hot air of that autumn morning. I can remember my
odd desire to talk to some human being, and, so far as I knew, the only
one within miles of me was the young station-mistress. I had nothing
particular to say to her, but I felt it would have been a relief to hear
the sound of a voice-any voice-breaking that interminable stillness. It
must have been reticence, I thought, that had made the girl turn on her
heel and go swinging down the platform out of sight. If I'd had the
Gaelic, the language she would have warmed to, she might have waited to
pass the time of day; but she appeared to be so self-sufficing, so serene
in the cool and shuttered hermitage of her own mind, that somehow or other
I did not care to intrude with the rough battering-ram of a Sassenach
tongue. And so I remained alone on the platform, feeling like a child cut
off from his companions, feeling infinitely far away from the green South
country and my pleasant, familiar, rhythmic life of work and books and
sleep, and a little daunted at the thought that I had more than two
hundred miles to cover alone on foot before I reached the end of my
journey. To travel hopefully may be better than to arrive, but I did not
think so then. I had lumped my rucksack, a dead weight, out of the
guard's-van ; it lay on the ground beside me; and I swung it on my
shoulders and set out along the road through trees towards the shore.
It was cheering, twenty
minutes later, to come upon two or three tiny cottages in a row, and to
see some children playing below the gable-end. So the stationmistress and
myself were not the only human beings in Arisaig ! The children stopped
their play and collected in a rigid group to stare at me, and I asked them
to put me on the path for the shore ; but though I repeated the question,
I could not get a word out of them. They drew a little closer together,
with the look of startled colts: I felt that at any moment they might toss
their shaggy heads and, with a whinny, gallop for shelter. A friendly
smile flickered for a moment on the face of the eldest girl. She put a
protecting arm round the shoulders of a little man of three in baggy
corduroys, and nodded to a boy in the rear of the group, who detached
himself and ran into the nearest cottage. Presently, a middle-aged woman
appeared at the door, and I asked her the best way down to Prince
Charlie's beach-the beach where he landed in the 'Forty-five.
Her sad dark eyes were a
little puzzled. "Prince Charlie's beach?" She shook her head. "I'm a
stranger here," she said; "but maybe Donald will know." She called into
the house in her soft Highland voice, and then, excusing herself, went
I slipped off my rucksack,
glad to be rid of the weight of it for a few moments, and dropped it on
the grass by the roadside; and I saw it was this the children had been
staring at. Perhaps they were a little surprised at first that I hadn't
come to sell things out of it at the cottage doors. They came a couple of
steps forward, still keeping in a compact group, still uttering not a
word, even among themselves. One boy ventured to draw yet a little nearer
to the rucksack, but was hastily pulled back and chided by the eldest
girl. I liked the look of the youngsters; they obviously were well cared
for; and their respectful and reticent manners were pleasant to see. When
I thought of the children near some big towns in the South, and of the
sharp-eyed little Edinburgh keelies, lovable in their way but with the
manners of unleashed demons, it seemed to me that the Gael in solitude
must be rather a fine fellow when he can breed youngsters like these.
"Donald will take you to
Prince Charlie's beach, sir," said the woman's voice behind me. "He knows
where it is - there's a cave there - it will be a mile from here." And
Donald himself came out of the cottage. He was pulling on a jacket,
apparently not wishing to insult a stranger by walking beside him in the
dishabille of a blue jersey. It seemed to be his Sunday jacket, too: which
I accepted as a double honour. He was a sturdy boy of twelve or thirteen,
with corduroy trousers reaching half-way between knee and ankle, and was
uncommonly agile in spite of his enormous iron-shod boots. When I turned
to the woman and thanked her she made a gesture of deprecation ; and since
she had mentioned that she was a stranger, it occurred to me to ask her
what part of the country she came from.
"Argyll," she said, almost
"And you've come to live in
Arisaig for good?"
"Oh, yes." Her husband, she
added, was a gamekeeper; and it struck me that she must find life a very
lonely thing in these parts. When I ventured to say so, she wrinkled her
brows and thought for a moment.
"It is very strange here,"
she replied slowly, "but I will get used to it. No, it is not too lonely -
the place I have lived in all my life would be more lonely than this. Ah,
it is the people here that are different, and so is the Gaelic. Yes, this
place is very strange, but I will get used to it," she repeated.
When I asked how long she
had been in Arisaig her reply startled me:
After five years this woman
still called herself a stranger!" But I will be going home for a week in
the Spring," she added, her eyes lighting up.
A little way down the road,
the boy - a trifle stiff and self-conscious in his Sunday jacket - took me
through a gateway and along a track which looked like a private avenue. My
guess about the avenue was correct, for presently on our right I saw a
long low white house with a veranda, set against a background of dark pine
trees and rolling brown hillside. Some washing stirred gently on a line
beside the house, and in the deep shadow of the veranda a white-faced
woman lay motionless on an invalid-chair.
"No, it is visitors who are
there-the big house will be further on, sir," Donald replied to my
question; and on the shoulder of a low hill less than a quarter of a mile
ahead I could see a large Scottish mansion-house of grey stone. "The laird
lives up there," said Donald in a slightly awed voice. "He is on the hills
to-day after a stag." He pointed to our left, in the direction the burn
was flowing. "Prince Charlie's beach is down this way. His cave is at the
beach-they call it prince Charlie's Cave."
We crossed a tiny
pocket-handkerchief of a field where some thin pale corn stood in stooks,
and followed the burn to the shore.
"I expect you're often down
here at the cave," I remarked, but he shook his head.
"I have only been once
"And you've lived here five
years!" I exclaimed.
He did not answer, but his
eyes strayed to the windows of the mansion-house that overlooked the
narrow valley. Evidently Donald and his friends did not think it fitting
that they should romp within view of the Laird, so I said no more. The
morning sun was hot in our faces, and I was glad I had left my rucksack up
on the roadside. The valley opened out, and the shadow of the birch trees
that thronged the slopes on either hand looked inviting. Ahead, a strip of
beach was moist with the tide and shimmered in the morning sun ; and Loch
nan Uamh, which means the Loch of the Caves, was hidden behind a thin veil
of mist. The boy beside me pointed. "That is where Prince Charlie came,
sir." And as if his mission were at an end, he dropped a few paces behind.
I drew in a long breath. So
this was where Prince Charles Edward Stuart first set foot on the mainland
of Scotland. I had come five hundred miles by train so that I could set
out on my travels from this place. My object was to go on foot over the
ground the Prince had covered in the 'Forty-five. I was to take my own
time on the road, I decided to loiter when I felt like loitering, to hurry
on when I was bored. And I had often tried to picture this beach to
myself, but I had never dreamt that I would experience the sudden glow
that came to me when I saw it for the first time on that September
morning. The depression I had felt at the railway station was forgotten.
It was not merely that this narrow shore, with a glimpse of the misty
sea-loch beyond and a rocky islet rising out of the placid water, looked
lovely beyond words: it was not that the morning itself was one of God's
best: it was something more than these things that quickened the blood.
How easy it is to talk drivel about Prince Charlie ! Almost enough
sentimental ink has been spilt about him to have floated the ship that
carried him back to France, and around his portrait saccharine tears hang
in cloudy crystals. He has been spattered with mud by truculent Whigs, and
white-washed by Jacobites. The unco guid have held up their white hands at
some of the stories about his later life, to find their knuckles rapped by
Stuart loyalists. And if one tries to steer a middle course, to be
judicious and level-headed, admitting faults and admiring virtues, how
desperately easy it is to be patronising! And, that odious trap avoided,
how easy to be merely dull ! I wonder if it is possible to be quite
unprejudiced in our opinions about any fellow-being. A glance, a gesture,
a word, some trivial impulsive act : so often we respond to these, or
recoil from them, and the essential outlines of the picture are blurred.
And the more one reads about Charles Edward Stuart in the records of men
who knew him personally, and in the writing of those who are entitled by
scholarship to an opinion, the more one finds it difficult to keep bigotry
behind the door. For example, it has been said that in dragging the
Highlanders of Scotland through a slough of blood, and leading them into
years of more brutal suppression than they had ever experienced, Charles
himself had nothing to lose and everything to gain. And the retort has
been that he would not have come to Scotland if he hadn't been confident
of saving his country from the Hanoverian usurper who was on the throne;
and if Charles had everything to gain, he had certainly one thing to lose,
and he was ready to lose it - his life. More than two centuries have
passed since he was born, and even today at the mention of his name wigs
are on the green. And this is a hearty compliment to pay to any man: at
least it is not paid to nincompoops or futile adventurers.
It was within sight of the
beach at Arisaig that the prince's first battle was fought. I venture to
think that it demanded more courage than any other battle he was engaged
in, for it was fought with his own friends. He had arrived at Eriskay on
23rd July 1'745 with a handful of companions. His only hope of raising any
army was among his loyal clans, but stern faces met him at every turn.
Unless French troops were landed to back them up, the chieftains declared
that a Rising would be, another fiasco like the 'Fifteen, with bloodshed
and bitterness to follow. They urged him to turn back to France-to go
"I am come home, sir,"
Charles had replied to one of them, and a few days later he cried: "If I
can get but six stout trusty fellows to join me, I would choose far rather
to skulk with them among the mountains of Scotland than return to France."
The situation was critical.
The Prince was on board the Du Teillay, which lay at anchor in the
sea-loch. The voyage from France had been nerve-racking. Their convoy had
been crippled in a fight off the Irish coast. At the first sight of a sail
on the horizon, they had been compelled to clap on canvas and alter their
course; and after dark, not a lantern did they dare to light except the
one at the compass. Off the Hebrides, they had been chased by a British
man-of-war. And now, at any moment, a King's ship might come around by
Ardnamurchan and block their only way of escape. On their arrival at
Borrodale, the party had given out to the country people that they were
smugglers, but now it was known that the Prince himself was in their
midst. A man of lesser fortitude would have ordered Monsieur Walsh to
weigh anchor and turn back to France. His own safety, however, had never
meant much to Charles. He had stood staunch under artillery-fire as a mere
boy at Gaeta after the besieging Spanish generals had scuttled to safety.
For years-and he was now twenty-four-he had prepared himself against the
day when he would come to Scotland to fulfil what he believed to be his
destiny, and he was inflamed with a conviction that the hour had come. He
was disguised as an ecclesiastic, and for the previous month he had
allowed his fair beard to grow. On the deck of the Du Teillay, he
stood looking into the gloomy faces of the Highlanders around him. If he
had not found it out before, he now saw the dourness of the Highlander.
How near he was to despair we may never know. With a sudden impulse, he
turned to a man who stood in silence on the fringe of the group, and
cried: "Will not you assist me?"
Ranald Macdonald's eyes lit
up. He had heard the Prince's arguments and the short gloomy replies of
the chieftains. He knew that little help could be expected from the
powerful island clans. It seemed that the end had come. And then: " Will
not you - even you - assist me?"
The words went home like
the stab of a dirk.
"I will, I will-though no
other man in the Highlands will draw a sword !" [No doubt John Home heard
the details of this incident in Moidart; Chambers, in quoting Home,
carelessly called Ranald a "youth," and subsequent historians have
followed suit. Ranald Macdonald, younger brother of Donald Macdonald of
Kinlochmoidart, was in fact a man of about forty at the time of the
A hot-headed fool: the
others in the group must have called him that under their breath. But the
cry of Ranald Macdonald set the heather on fire. One after another, the
Macdonald chieftains gave their word, and discretion went whistling down
the wind. An eagle, the royal bird of good omen, had hovered over the Du
Teillay at Eriskay : perhaps some fanciful Highland eye may now have
envisaged above the ship the form of the Fiery Cross that was to go
through the glens calling the loyal clans to arms. And so the Prince won
his first battle-a battle against despair in the hearts of those who
regarded him with passionate devotion.
This was the scene in my
mind as I stood on the shore looking out on the narrow loch. I am aware
that the spot most closely linked with the 'Forty-five is Glenfinnan,
where the Prince afterwards raised his standard and, to the paean of
pipes, Highland bonnets were tossed in the air in an ecstasy. But as I
lingered on the beach at Arisaig, where the Prince's long journey began,
the place seemed to hold all the glamour and the sorrow of those four
hundred and twenty-two days when the grandson of King James VII was among
his own folk. Forty-three years later, the old decrepit body of Charles
Edward Stuart was laid in a tomb at Rome, but his heart should have been
buried at Arisaig.
It was the voice of the boy
behind me that broke into my thoughts.
"Prince Charlie's cave is
up there, sir," he said, pointing to the rocks and birches of the steep
slope on our right.
It was not until after
Culloden, when Cumberland's troops were on his heels, that the Prince was
forced to take refuge in holes in the earth. Hunted from glen to glen and
from island to island, he was several times back at Arisaig among his
friends, the Macdonalds. It is strange that when he left Scotland for the
last time, a fugitive with £30,000 on his head, he embarked from this same
beach where he had first landed. But the wheel had an odd trick of coming
full circle with Charles Edward Stuart, and it was his destiny to die in
the same room in the old palazzo at Rome where he was born.
Donald was uncertain about
the exact position of the cave. We searched for nearly twenty minutes
before we found it; for a grey boulder, to which you must scramble over
steep rocks, perfectly conceals the entrance. To hunt for a cave is to
become a boy again. At the optimistic age of ten in Edinburgh, I have
helped others to rake Arthur's Seat from base to summit in search of a
cave where we might cower in candlelight and share a romantic crust. But
our luck was always out. The hollow under a red rock on the track over to
the Hunter's Bog was the best we could ever find. Even in the heart of
that little cavern, on Arthur's Seat, the wavering gleam of our candle was
drowned by daylight, and we needed the dusk of a winter's afternoon to
catch the authentic shudder of outlawry, while one of us guarded the
entrance with a toy pistol at full cock. I remembered that old eyrie at
Arthur's Seat as I lowered myself down into the entrance of the Prince's
cave at Arisaig. But here was certainly the genuine article. A deep
fissure in the rock-face opened out into a goodly chamber. The floor was
powdered with fine black soil. I lit a match, and caught sight of a
further opening at the distant end. Among the dust lay the stump of a
candle, the relic of some previous pilgrim. Lighting it, I went forward
and crawled down with difficulty into the inner cavern. This was high and
narrow, and the air was as cool as a well. Though the floor was hummocky,
a bed of bracken would have made as snug a couch as any wanderer could
wish for ; and when the Prince lay here after Culloden, his thoughts must
have gone back to many a wet night when he had shivered in an open corrie
among the mountains, Cumberland's troops at times within a musket-shot. I
rejoined my young companion in the dazzling sunlight, and we scrambled
down the slope to the beach below.
I lay back on the grass
near the shore, and lit a pipe of tobacco, and let the utter tranquility
of the place soak slowly into my bones. The gods had certainly granted me
a fortunate day for the start of my journey. As I lay smoking, I tried to
picture that strip of beach on a wild winter evening. With a gale
whistling among the birch trees that crowd the high ground on either hand,
and Atlantic rollers racing in between the islands of Rum and Coll,
tossing up the sea-weed on these dark rocks like wind-blown hair, it would
be a bleak spot to the eye of a stranger ; but on that September morning
the place was drenched in peace. The mist was now rising in the Sound of
Arisaig, revealing the islets that are scattered along the northern shore
of the sealoch, and below the mist the sea itself was as placid as a
gold-fish bowl. Two buzzards passed high overhead, moving slowly as though
the heat of the morning made flight a burdensome thing. I could hear no
sound except the sibilant purr of the Borrodale Burn that splashes down
fifteen hundred feet from a tiny loch perched like a bird's nest among the
hill-tops of Morar.
When I looked at my map I
found with surprise that Skye itself was less than a dozen miles away; and
the gulls on the rocks before me could, if the whim took them, alight on
the island of Rum in half an hour. Yet this little sea-loch seemed to be
shut away in a fold of the earth inexpressibly far from familiar places. I
looked out towards the Sound and tried to locate on my map the tiny
islands that came glimmering like ghosts from the rising mist. Their
Gaelic names sounded in my ear like unfamiliar music: Eilean nan Cabar;
and Am Fraoch-eilean with scattered islets near it; and Eilean an Sgurra
with its pinnacle of rock; and further out An Glas-eilean a bold fellow
with a group of satellites at his back. Donald helped me to arrive at
their meaning. The Island of Staves; Heather Island; the Island of the
Rock, and the Grey Island. Somehow or other, Gaelic names seem always to
fit their places like a garment, and for proof of the richness of the
Celtic imagination, a man has only to open a map of Scotland with a Gaelic
dictionary at his elbow. Nearly every name in the Highlands has its story,
and the pity is that some chiel with a note-book cannot creep back into
the centuries and pick up those that have been long forgotten.
Already it was nearly noon.
Where I was to sleep that night I had no idea, and I knew it was high time
I was moving. Food did not worry me, for I had some dry rations in my
pack. But I realised that to find a bed for the night was a riddle that
would have to be solved every day of my journey. Though the weather was
exquisite, the nights were sharp ; and a light rubber sheet, which I
carried to use as a cloak when it rained, was not the ideal covering for a
man compelled to spend a night among the heather. Later on in my journey,
when I had entered more populous districts, a room in an inn or a
farmhouse might not be very difficult to find ; but in this corner of
Scotland, to get a bed or even a couch might prove the devil's own
problem. If I had been tramping in these parts at the time when the poet
Leyden made his tour, a night's shelter would have been a simple matter. A
hundred years ago, between Loch Sunart and Loch Hourn, five or six
thousand folk lived on this coast-more than were to be counted in the
burgh of Lanark. But emigration has thinned down these people to a widely
scattered handful. If I failed to find a bed before darkness fell, I knew
I might be forced to pass the night without even the shelter of a
But there was a more
immediate problem: the route I was to follow. I was making for Moidart, to
which the prince had sailed from Arisaig in one of the Macdonald boats;
and I knew that if I could not make the passage by sea, there was nothing
for it but to tramp round on the shore. From the map I estimated that it
was about five miles across the Sound of Arisaig, but more like twenty by
road. Donald was watching me out of his big puzzled eyes.
"Is there any chance of
hiring a boat here, and a man to sail it ?" I asked.
The boy shook his head. The
laird had a motorboat, he said, but the Laird was up in the hills to-day,
and he wouldn't be back until evening. That settled it. While the Prince
had gone by boat, a party of Clanranald men had made the journey to
Moidart on foot, and on foot to Moidart I must go. Knocking the ashes out
of my pipe and folding up the map, I turned and headed back towards the
road. It occurred to me to ask the boy in which direction Borrodale House
lay, for there the Prince had stayed for a week with Angus Macdonald, a
cousin of Flora Macdonald.
He had been entertained as
royally as the farmhouse could afford. A guard of a hundred men had been
provided. The news of the Prince's arrival had gone round like wildfire;
and the district was shaken with enthusiasm. The doors of Borrodale House
were thrown open. Men and women, young and old, were allowed to crowd in
to see the Prince. The man who was the 'first officer to be commissioned
in the Highland army was present and has described the scene. "H.R.H.
drank the grace drink in English," he says; and when he proposed the
King's health in Gaelic, the Prince turned to him and asked him to repeat
the words slowly - Deoch slainte an Righ - so that he should never forget
them. . . . But one's mind passes quickly to another picture. Ten months
later Cumberland's troops had left the house of hospitality a blackened
ruin, and Angus Macdonald was an outlaw in his own glens.
"That is Borrodale House,"
replied Donald in answer to my question, pointing to the long low house
which I had passed on the way down to the shore. I had not realised that I
had been looking at the site of the old Macdonald home. The place had been
rebuilt in quieter days. Now dark pine trees stood behind it. The midday
sun beat fiercely upon the white walls. The windows had been closed to
shut out the heat, and the line of washing hung limp in the still air.
Oddly enough, the sunlight gave the place a forlorn look. The only hint of
life was the white-faced woman who lay on her chair in the deep shadow of
The road from Borrodale to
Moidart was execrably rough. I tried to keep to the grass at the side, but
found it difficult to stride unevenly from tussock to tussock with a pack
on my back, so in the end I held grimly to the road-metal. In places the
surface was like the dry channel of a burn ; and since this was the only
road from Fort William to Mallaig - not merely the bridlepath to some
deserted hamlet - it struck me as rather medieval. The roadway follows the
West Highland railway line, now leaping across a bridge above it, now
suddenly ducking underneath, so that the two tracks wind together around
these hillsides like twisted skeins of wool. The little railway station,
as I passed it, was as silent as a mortuary chapel, and I smiled when I
remembered the mood of gloom that had come over me on that narrow
platform. At the brow of the hill I glanced back and caught sight of the
stationmistress, a solitary figure, crossing the line. Was she married or
single : how did she fill the long days of summer and the winter evenings:
what did she think of the roaring Central Station in Glasgow, if she had
ever seen it ? I shall never know now.
There are few things in
this world more stimulating than to begin a journey on foot. Each day the
setting out is a trumpet-call mustering a happy squadron of sensations:
but on the first morning, these sensations are rallied with a pleasure
that is doubly sharpened by their novelty. There is the weight of the pack
on your back: you wonder how soon that Old Man of the Sea is going to
settle snugly on your haunches. You decide in the first mile that you
should have lightened it a trifle. Yet it was a wrench to have left behind
that volume of Dunbar, particularly when you agree with W. P. Ker that
"Dunbar is my poet" - and a volume of Scott's Journal, that most perfect
of bedside and wayside books, now so portable, thanks to Nelson. The mind
goes back to those hours of indecision when you weighed an extra pair of
shoes against the Oxford Book of Verse, and a woollen jersey against
Humphry Clinker. I recalled the pangs that had attended my final choice:
Thackeray's Four Georges because I wanted to read it for either the
seventh or eighth time, and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land because I always
open it with a thrill of expectation and the hope that at last I may be
able to make head or tail of it, and the little old thin green Heinemann
edition of Hamlet, for I find that Hamlet has a knack of being most
urgently desired when it is not available. And after toying with these I
had in the end replaced on my shelves the Dunbar, the Scott, the "Q" and
the Smollett, leaving regrets with each; and according to the
kitchen-scales, my pack was the lighter by three pounds two ounces.
The glen around me was
green with birch-woods. Every forty or fifty yards the trees came huddling
down close to the road, making a long splash of shadow in front of me.
Each shadow was a cool oasis, and I found myself slyly shortening my step
so that I could taste the coolness for as long as possible. On either
hand, gritty peaks of rock jutted high out of the trees and stood sharp
and grey against the sky. According to my map, Loch nan Uamh was less than
a mile away, but so shut in was this glen that I might have been a day's
journey from the sea. Too soon for comfort I came out into the open, and
pegged on in the heat. When the road wound southward again, and Loch nan
Uamh once more came into view, I would fain have scrambled down to the
shore and waded out after the ebbing tide to wallow like a duck in the
shallow water. Not a breath of air was stirring. I remembered Barrie's
remark about the great Professor Stuart Blackie : when all Edinburgh was
sweltering in heat, fanning itself behind its venetian blinds, the
Professor would swing along Princes Street in his Highland plaid, carrying
his own breeze with him. I wished then that I was striding out at the
tail-end of Blackie's breeze ; and when my road crossed a noisy burn, I
halted on the hump-backed bridge, and realised that I was not only hot but
A thought struck me : since
there was no shelter anywhere, it would be pleasant below this bridge. In
a trice I was over the fence and crawling below the stone arch. It was as
cool as a cellar there, and the shadow on the clear brown water was
soothing to the eyes after miles of bright sun. With the stone vault above
me, I ate my luncheon like a crouching hermit in his cell. But my likeness
to a hermit began and ended with the vault. There was no nibbling at a
tough ascetic crust. Though oat-cakes and cheese, dried dates and an
apple, may not call up a picture of the Carlton Grill, I will wager that
even the worshippers of Bacchus had never entered upon their orgies with a
sharper zest. And I could have trolled a stave or so to old Bacchus
himself as I drank the cool water that tumbled down from a hill-loch
above. I look back with a fleshly joy, on that banquet below the bridge,
just as I look back with horror on the miles that followed it.
Before luncheon I had
accepted the roughness of the road with equanimity. But now, before I had
gone a mile, I was cursing it from the depths of a full heart. I have said
that the road in places was like the dry bed of a stream ; gradually it
began to resemble the redhot bricks over which Eastern priests are said to
walk with unbaked soles. Vague discomfort became positive pain ; and
though I trudged on, hoping that it would improve, I was wincing at every
step. I made slowly round the long shoulder of Ben Chaorach, and when at
last a clump of trees showed up on the roadside, I crawled among them,
and, pulling off my shoes, leaned back in relief against my rucksack.
There was a little loch
below me, less than a mile in length, and I spent half an hour in
contemplating it. From my map I saw that it was called Loch Dubh, or the
Black Loch, and the reason for the name was obvious. Glancing back in the
way I had come, I could discern an inlet of the sea, and it was as clear
and blue as the sky overhead. But though the sunlight lay full upon the
quiet loch-water below me, it was as black as a well. On the opposite
hillside, there were graceful trees in orderly platoons like little green
soldiers set ready for a children's game. Whether they had been planted in
that formation, or whether the woods had been thinned by some forester
with a mathematician's soul, I do not know; but below a skyline that had
been drawn by the slap-dash hand of nature, their neat effect was bizarre.
My eyes wandered again to the west, where a sharp peak pricked over the
edge of the horizon, and a little to the north of it I made out mountains
which must have been on the island of Rum. The pictures on every side of
me were lovely ones; but I was in no mood to appreciate their glories.
Before going further, I decided to replace my shoes with an old pair I had
in my pack.
The ones I had been wearing
were new; they had been made and fitted in London, with much palaver, by a
man who should have known his job; and I began to wonder whether their
newness, rather than the stony road, was the cause of my discomfort. I
shoved my hand into my rucksack, and then in bewilderment emptied out its
contents on the grass : underclothes, books, spare shirt, cardigan,
woollen scarf, pyjamas, flannel trousers, two pairs of socks, shaving
tackle, soap, tooth-brush, and a small box of food. But shoes ? Not even
the tag of a lace. Yet I could have sworn I had packed an extra pair, and
I realised that they must have been left behind with the rest of my kit in
Edinburgh. There was nothing for it but to bite the bullet. With gloom in
my soul, I laced on the instruments of torture and went up the hill,
brooding upon things like thumb-screws and the rack.
By the time the head of
Loch Ailort hove into view, the pain had dulled somewhat: or perhaps it
was that I had come to regard it as an essential part of me, like the
weight of the pack on my shoulders and the grip of the ash-stick in my
hand. I can remember how heartened I was to see a solitary house on the
roadside. Slowly I drew nearer to it, a square stone house, with a grey
slate roof, and I wondered what kind of folk lived there. Perhaps they
could tell me where I might find shelter for the night. Perhaps, on the
other hand, there was nobody at home, and I would hammer on the door in
vain. As I limped towards it, my hopes went up and down like the contour
of the road over which I had been tramping since noon. And then I drew
level with the house, and halted.
That was a blessed moment.
Above the door was a sign-board, and it told me that the place was an inn.
An inn ! I stared at the sign, almost terrified that it was a dangling
mirage and would melt before my eyes.
"Hullo," said a voice.
I turned. At the corner
stood a young man, with a briar pipe in his mouth. He was tall,
bare-headed, fair, and he wore light grey flannel trousers, a tweed
jacket, and old and comfortable-looking shoes-shoes at which I shot a
covert glance of envy. "Walking?" he said affably, moving the pipe to the
other corner of his mouth.
"Trying to," I admitted,
inwardly liking him because he had not used the detestable verb to hike.
"Can one stay at this place?"
"Rather! I'm staying here
myself for the night."
There was something
charmingly open about this stranger. It was the first thing that struck
me; and within decent limits it is an engaging quality both in life and in
letters. They say you can never really know a Macrimmon, unless you are a
Macrimmon yourself, and only a Macrimmon can understand the dark reserve
that is the spiritual inheritance of that kingly race of pipers. But there
was no reserve of any kind about the young man with whom I chatted on the
road outside the inn. He dumped my rucksack in the porch for me, and went
in to fix me up with a bedroom, then rejoined me at the door. During the
next fifteen minutes I learned that his name was Gillespie, that he had
been educated in Edinburgh, where his people lived, and that he had a job
in a Chartered Accountant's office in London - a job he told me he was
very lucky to have because the head of the firm, who was a relative,
loathed the sight of him. He was nearing the end of a fortnight's holiday
which he had spent messing about - as he put it - in the Highlands, and
from the vigour of his talk, I was sure that he had messed about
energetically. Having freely opened the ship's log, as it were, for my
inspection, he proceeded to tell me about his next port of call. "I'm
going down Loch Shiel to-morrow," he said. "I've to meet a man at
Acharacle for a couple of days' fishing, then home."
I pricked up my ears at the
mention of Loch Shiel, and said that I too was heading for there, but
intended to walk across Moidart.
"Across Moidart?" he
repeated, puzzled. "Why?"
His candour about himself
was disarming, and I explained that I was travelling on foot over the road
Charles Edward Stuart followed in the 'Forty-five.
"Prince Charlie ! Lord,
one's always bumping up against Prince Charlie in this countryside. I met
an Australian in the train to-day who has a brooch the Prince gave Flora
Macdonald. Fact. He said he got it in Australia from a man called Graham.
Queer, meeting you, just after that. . . . You said something about
Edinburgh just now. You weren't at school there, by any chance? . . .
Heriot's? I was at Watson's. Remember those old snow-fights in the
Meadows?" His eyes twinkled. "D'you know, at some time or other, I've
probably hit you on the ear with a snowball! Fancy meeting in this
God-forsaken place a chap you've once winged with a snowball!" The jingle
of a bell interrupted him. "Tea!" said Gillespie cheerfully. "Want a wash
first? Then come on, you damned Herioter." And turning with a friendly
gesture, he led the way indoors.
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