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Scotland's Book of Romance
Chapter XI. In the Mists of the Corrieyairack


I Leave for the Corrieyairack Pass - From Glen Tarff to Lagan a Bhainne - The Barrack-master's Daughter - A Shepherd in the Hills - The Summit of the Pass-Down to the Spey Valley - The House at Garvamore - Tea in the Kitchen - A Stormy Evening-The Light on the Hillside.

I FOUND without much difficulty the beginning of the track that led up into the hills. The sky was dull, and there was a drizzle of rain.

I was well aware that the Prince had gone up to the Corrieyairack from Aberchalder; but that was halfway back along the main road to Invergarry; and realising how tough was the journey ahead of me, I had not the fortitude to retrace my steps. I knew I was shirking my duty in taking this short cut up the mountainside: I knew that if I had been strong-minded I would have trudged back to Aberchalder and started from there; but an informal conference on the Canal bridge at Fort Augustus the previous afternoon had left me in a state of mind that was very near to a blue funk. The conference had begun by my falling into talk with the Old Kirk minister; by chance the U.F. minister had come along; and to complete the quorum, we had been joined by a man who was a Wee Free elder. It had amused me to think that I, a guest of Catholics, should have found myself thus hobnobbing with representatives of three different sects of Presbyterians. Anyhow, I had learned from them that the Corrieyairack was even a harder nut to crack than I had imagined. I had to climb two thousand five hundred feet before I reached the top of the pass; my destination was at least twenty-five miles down the desolate Spey valley; and if I ricked my ankle I might lie for days before my plight was discovered in that haunt of deer and moor-fowl. The picture of those grim fastnesses which had been painted to me on the Canal bridge, and the stories of the people who had lost their lives up there, had made me feel that my enterprise of crossing the Corrieyairack alone made Amundsen's dash to the South Pole seem rather small beer. I had heartened myself with the thought that the ordeal could not be so bad as my Presbyterian friends had suggested, and they had probably been pulling my leg just a little ; but at the same time I knew I had a stiff day's march ahead of me.

I took it easy on the first steep incline, and began to get my second wind. After twenty minutes of steady going I felt better, and settled down comfortably to the climb. It was a little staggering to think that General Wade had built a road up into the heart of these mountains. His task had needed courage. The Highland chiefs had been antagonistic, because these roads, built after the Rising of 'Fifteen, had been designed to make more easy the movement of Government troops whose job it was to keep a wary eye on the restless clans. Both then and later, the chiefs had protested against bridges being built over the rivers; they said it would make their people effeminate, for if the Highlands were cluttered up with bridges, folk would soon get out of the habit of plunging boldly up to the waist through their mountain streams. I thought of this when I came to the second burn. Wade had built a bridge across it, but the structure was now in ruins, and I found myself over the knees before I reached the other bank. I hear that a foot-bridge has recently been built across this burn (which must be a pretty furious little torrent when in spate) and I am glad to know that we modern " effeminates " can now cross it dry-foot.

For several miles the path followed high upon the west side of Glen Tarff. Down in the hollow, the brown river wound among birches. The contours on my map told me that I had already climbed over a thousand feet, and after a time I came to the mouth of a lovely green valley tucked among the hills. The rain had been drizzling since I had left Fort Augustus, but now it had stopped. The mist had risen a little, and when I had another look at my map I knew where I was. This was the famous Lagan a Bhainne. It was here that the Prince and his army, after crossing the moors above Aberchalder, joined the military road. I sat down on the parapet of the bridge which Wade had built in 1731, and slowly filled my pipe. It was some satisfaction to know that I was now more than halfway up the mountainside, although by the look of what ground I could see above me in the mist, the stiffest part of the climb was still to come.

It was in this green glen, I remembered, that the young military chaplain at Fort Augustus courted the daughter of the Barrack-master one hundred and fifty years ago. In letters to her bosom friend, Anne Macvicar described the love-making. At the start she referred to her admirer as Pastor Fido, and told of the "whimsical broken starts" of their conversation during those "bright silent noons and sweet evenings." Then she wrote of his illness: "What if he should walk off to the Elysian fields ... I think it were as well to take the female Quixote's way, and send him word that he may live if he pleases." And he did live; he married her six months later; and she became the famous Mrs. Grant of Laggan whose Letters from the Mountains gives such admirable pictures of Highland life in the eighteenth century. But for hundreds of years before the time of Mrs. Grant it was to this glen that the people of Kilcumein came to live every summer with their herds of cattle and goats. The lush grass fattened the animals, and their milk was made into cheese for the winter months. The people lived in huts of boughs and turf, and pipers played for the dancing that made these summer days in the shielings the happiest of the year. Here, too, the Governor of Fort Augustus had laid out a kitchen garden, and put it in charge of a man " versant in the raising of garden crops." A lonely life the poor fellow would have had to-day, with not a neighbour to yarn with between here and the outskirts of Fort Augustus ! I looked around in the drifting mist to try to pick out the hillock on which Prince Charles paused to have a meal, but gave it up as a bad job ; and knocking out the ashes of my pipe, I took to the path once more.

The mist made a view of the Great Glen impossible. It drifted up in spongy masses, making strange white shapes above the corries. The rain began to come down again, gentle and persistent, and I drew my waterproof sheet more closely around my shoulders. The loneliness became almost overpowering. I thought of the Highland army straggling up this steep track, hauling with infinite labour their baggage and swivel-guns; I thought of the Prince himself, climbing with that quick stride of his, so quick that the clansmen grumbled among themselves ; and indeed later on when a heel came off one of his shoes they nodded and said they hoped it would compel him to set a slower pace.

The track underfoot was now very rough; parts of it were almost overgrown with heather; and it grew steeper as I mounted. With my eyes on the ground I pegged upwards, and when I paused for a breather I saw something that gave me an unpleasant start. On a knoll above me, ghostly in the mist, there stood the figure of a man.

He had already seen me, for he was looking down at me, but he did not stir. At his side a dog sat motionless on its haunches. And then I laughed and waved to him. He had a shepherd's crook in his hand, and he came down to the path to meet me. He was a tall thin man, perhaps forty years of age, and when he spoke I knew that he was not a Gael.

"Not a very grand day for you," he said. "It's none too good for a man up here when there's mist on the hills."

We talked for a few minutes. "I've been lost more than once," he told me, "and had to sleep in a peathag. There's few folk climb over the pass at this time of year." He said he had come up to meet another shepherd who was living in a bothy up a glen some miles to the east, and he was handing over the sheepdog to him. I bent down and spoke to the dog, but he was stand-offish, a fine lean quick animal with a suspicious eye, and the shepherd had him on a piece of thick string in case he bolted back to his old home down at Cullachy.

The shepherd was casting anxious glances towards the east. "I wonder what's come over Rory," he remarked. "The mist looks gey bad over his way. It's no' quite so thick over to the west. The wind's blowing it up from Glen Roy. Look man - there's deer!"

The curtain of haze had lifted a little, and I was able to make out a herd of deer grazing on the side of a wide corrie. They were moving slowly upward into the wind, and then I saw the leader black against the skyline. "Have a look through my glass," said the shepherd. "They'll be rutting soon, and they'll be roaring like lions. I've seen more than one fight between stags in yon corrie."

But there must have been eyes in the herd that were as sharp as ours, for the beasts began to move more quickly. There was too much haze for me to get a perfect view; and while I was watching them go over the skyline, a voice hailed us loudly from out of the mist behind us.

"Man, Rory, I thought ye were wandered," cried the shepherd as a big dark broad-shouldered fellow leaped down on the track beside us.

"I was," grunted Rory, who seemed to be in an ill humour. "Damn the mist ! It's half-way up Geal Charn I've been, I'm thinking. I had to go right down to the burn, and follow it, or I'd never have found my way at all." His hat was sodden ; his overcoat, which was buttoned up to his neck, was wet with mist and rain, and the skirts of it were dripping, which showed that he had recently waded through water.

There was a long and rather awkward pause. He did not seem to understand what I, a stranger, was doing there, and he cast puzzled glances at me, and then put out his hand for the string to which the dog was tied.

"Better keep him close for a day or two, Rory," said the other shepherd. "If ye let him go, he'll be back home before ye cry knife. But he'll settle down wi' ye in the bothy by a day or two."

There was another pause. The shepherds stood staring thoughtfully at the ground. They did not seem to have anything particular to say to each other ; and to cover up the silence I told Rory I was going over the Corrieyairack and was heading for Laggan Bridge down in the Spey valley.

"Ah," he said, and relapsed into his sombre contemplation of a tuft of heather. "A bad day for it," he added.

"How's your meal lasting out ?" asked the other.

"Fine," said Rory. "Awell, I'm thinking I'll go."

If I had been in a lighter mood just then, it would have been difficult to prevent myself from laughing. There we were, three human beings forgathered in the heart of the hills, with the mist cutting us off like a
prison wall from the rest of the world, and we hadn't a word in our mouths to utter to each other. We stood like three stunted old Scots pines that had clung there for half a century making no sound except when the wind had whistled through their branches. Abruptly I said good-bye, and went on my way up the path. I did not care to look back, but somehow I felt that the pair of them were still standing silent beside the track.' But perhaps I was wrong ; perhaps they were now chattering blithely enough, glad to be relieved of the presence of a stranger. But I was sorry for the dog; I wondered how he would take to his new life in the bothy after his warm fireside down in the shepherd's cottage at Cullachy.

When I reached the top of the pass the rain began to come down in dead earnest, and the mist closed in. I was feeling pretty tired, for I had been climbing steadily for nearly ten miles, and I would have given a lot to have been able to shed my wretched pack. I had been told that there was a well of fine clear water on the top, but although I was thirsty I had not the heart to hunt for it, and after another half mile or so the ground opened out and fell away in front of me. I almost raised a cheer, for I knew I had now come to the descent into the valley on the east.

It was a vast relief to go downhill, for it brought a different set of muscles into play. As I picked my way downward, however, the ground became steeper, until presently it had a cant like the roof of a house, and I found myself upon the traverses that Wade had built. Back and forward the track went in short zig-zags, and it was gashed by the channels of mountain-streams that gathered after every thunder-storm. Indeed, the road itself now formed the bed of an oozing burn, and at every step I went over the ankles in the spongy green moss. Wade had built a high wall to protect his road on its swift descent, and had dug a drain on the inside to keep the footway clear ; but the drain had long been choked, and the stones of the wall had been scattered. The only living thing I saw was a huge black bird which came out of the mist and was gone before I could blink, and when I reached the foot of the traverses I found myself suddenly below the margin of the mist.

The effect was rather impressive: it was as if I had pushed aside the flap of a tent and had stepped into the open air. I could look a long way down into the valley; and below hillsides that were blotched with black peat-hags I saw the river Spey like a bright white thread trailing upon a sombre carpet. I had to ford one of its tributaries, a burn that came from Geal Charn and then splayed out into a wide muddy delta, a hundred yards across, and as soft as porridge underfoot.

The fickle rain had again eased off a little ; and my heart was light as I descended to Meall Garbha, for I had come safely over the Corrieyairack, and there were no more heights over which the intolerable burden on my back had to be carried. I suppose it was this pleasant thought that made me slacken my stride, and I began to realise how hungry I was. The number of hours I had been on the way I did not dare to count. But as I looked down the wide bleak strath between these dark hills, with the bright Spey like a living thing in the hollow, the contrast with the softer contours of the Great Glen was so sharp that I felt as if I had left the monastery many days before and had now come into a new country. Slipping off my pack, I sat down on a stone and ate some food I had bought in the village of Fort Augustus, a couple of oranges that were nearly as dry as walnuts, and a handful of dates to finish with.

For long stretches the track itself was too rough to walk upon. The rains of two centuries had washed the road until nothing but loose stones have been left. It was difficult to visualise Edmund Burt galloping on horseback along these military roads for miles, as he said he did, for now the track looked as if cartloads of stones had been carelessly dumped into the bed of a dry burn. Within living memory this road must have been much better than it is to-day, for on the previous afternoon at Fort Augustus I had talked with an old man who had told me he was the last living person to have driyen over the Corricyairack in a dog-cart, and his passenger had been a young man called Hamilton who was years afterwards to command the British forces at Gallipoli. It must have been a brawny cob they had between the shafts that summer's day ! A hundred years before, a woman called the Hon. Mrs. Murray of Kensington was hauled up to the top of the pass by four stout horses, and the road was then so bad that she declared it would have knocked a lightly built carriage to pieces, and when Sir Ian Hamilton made the journey it must have been much worse. To-day it is impassable, except perhaps to a caterpillar of the Tank Corps, and I would not like to be the officer in charge.

Picking my way among the heather and the rushes at the roadside, I stepped out towards the south. Although mist floated thinly round the high tops, it was clear enough in the valley to see the tremendous panorama ahead of me. For a little while the sun shone, and the colours of the hillsides would have made the most lurid picture-postcard of Highland scenery look drab. But I came to the conclusion that the gods of these mountains were playing tricks with me, for before I had crossed Wade's big bridge over the river and come to the little old house at Garvamore which was once an inn, high black clouds were rolling up the strath, and raindrops were again beginning to fall. By this time I was long past caring about the wet, for I had begun the day by plunging over the knees through a burn, and the rain at the summit of the pass had penetrated through the thin waterproof sheet over my shoulders, so that almost every article of clothing I wore was soaked. It was, therefore, not so much for shelter against the rain as for a short breathing spell and a drink that I left the road and went over to knock on the door of the dismal-looking house. The place was inhabited, for I could see smoke rising from one of the chimneys.

A tall man with a large greying moustache came to the door. His hat was on the back of his head, and he wore cloth gaiters and strong-smelling tweeds - tweeds that seemed to exhale the quintessence of all the tweeds in Scotland. When I told him I was prepared to barter my very soul for a glass of milk or a dish of tea, he asked me to come in to the fire. My heart sang paeans of joy as I collapsed into a chair and lay steaming before a brisk blaze of logs.

The man introduced me to his sister, a grey-haired woman with tired eyes and a sweet resigned expression ; and in spite of my protests, she began to lay a clean cloth upon the table and to set out what was obviously her best china. She brought bread and bramble jam, thick oat cakes and cheese, and a large dish of butter; and while the tea was infusing, I looked around me. The room was big, the full width of the house; and the ceiling, which was the bare floor-boards of the room above, was very high. The fireplace had once been an open one, but now it was bricked in, with a black grate in the middle. On either side there were innumerable shelves, which contained enough gear to fit out the hardware department of a small general store : it was evident that the master of the house was a handy man, and could not only mend his own boots, glaze his own windows, plaster his own walls, but could also physic both himself and his cow, and supply enough candles to light a village. The shepherd's sister lifted the tea-pot from the hob and poured out the strong dark brew. As I drew my chair into the table, I saw an almanac on the wall, and beside it a picture of Lady Seafield which had been cut from an old copy of The Tatler. Why Lady Seafield? I wondered whether this brother and sister had come from Castle Grant way, but when I mentioned the picture- on the wall they cast a quick glance at each other and were silent.

"It is Lady Seafield, isn't it?" I asked.

"Ay," said the man, "it's the Countess."

But not another word could I get out of either of them on the subject, and I began to talk about the house they lived in:

"Did General Wade build it?"

"So they say," murmured the man. "It's old enough."

And he moved out of the kitchen, while his sister busied herself at the dresser.

It was a homely place, and I was thankful I had been invited to enter; for I felt sure it was here-or in the stone hut Wade had built upon the same foundations-that the Prince stayed the night after his march over the Corrieyairack. The evening before at Aberchalder, the Highlanders had slaughtered twenty of their cows for food, and had driven a herd of eighty over the Pass. They now killed some more of the beasts and cooked the flesh on spits over their camp fires. They had no salt and no bread, and many of them had no more than a handful of oatmeal left. It was perhaps in the very room where I sat drinking tea that the Prince had been compelled to curb the impatience of some of the chiefs. They had learned earlier in the day from a man called Macpherson and some others who had deserted from Cope's army that the Government forces were not marching to meet them but had made a sudden decision to veer off in the direction of Inverness. If the Prince had not been firm, the Highlanders would have been off to join battle, but Charles was as wise in keeping them in hand as Cope himself was in scuttling from the Highlanders.

It is a little late in the day to white-wash Sir John Cope. For years after the 'Forty-five he was a figure of derision in Scotland. The truth about him seems to be that he was one of those unfortunates who have many of the gifts that make for success but have not the ultimate gift of achieving it; and in Cope's hands things certainly had a way of going wrong. He has been blamed for his flight to Inverness, and if he had waited to fight the Highlanders he would have been blamed because his army had been cut to pieces. He knew his force was inadequate-it was smaller than the Highland army-and a number of his men were undisciplined, whereas the clansmen had a traditional discipline of their own. He had no dragoons, and only four fieldpieces, with one old man and three invalids from the Edinburgh garrison to handle them. Because the situation had demanded it, he had gathered an army hastily together and had hurried north, blindly hoping that he would collect recruits on the way. As he said himself in a letter to the Lord President, " I have lugged along with me about zoo arms, not thinking it possible to come thro' so many friends country without meeting some hands to put them into." And he adds: " But not one as yet." This was written from Ruthven after the Dalwhinnie conference with his officers at which he decided to avoid fighting a losing battle. From Ruthven he made two forced marches and reached Inverness, having been seventeen hours in the saddle on the second day. It is incorrect to say that he was afterwards court-martialled for his conduct during the campaign : he appeared before a Board of Enquiry, the members of which exonerated him from any "misconduct or misbehaviour," and indeed the Board blamed the rabble under his command for the unholy mess they made later at Prestonpans. But the Battle of Gladsmuir is another story.

I finished my tea. The grey-haired woman with the sweet resigned expression refused to accept any money, so I put a shilling on the corner of the dresser, and with it left much more than a shilling's worth of gratitude. When I got out of doors I found that the rain was coming down in dead earnest. At a rough guess I had covered almost twenty miles since morning. But my tactics had been bad ; for I had rushed the early part of the climb, and had been too leisurely in the valley. The hour was now half-past five; I judged from the black clouds above the strath that there would not be more than another hour of daylight; and I knew I had six or seven miles to go before I would reach Laggan Bridge. [Dr. W. B. Blaikie was of the opinion that Prince Charles Edward left Wade's road at Garvamore and travelled to Laggan on the north bank of the river. I am aware of no reason for this belief. Before leaving Garvamore, the Prince, learning that Cope was on his way to Inverness, decided to strike south. It would be strange had he turned back from the inn, where he spent the night, and made a detour by the rough path on the north bank, when Wade's road lay open before him.] I knew, besides, there was no inn at that thinly scattered hamlet, and I had no idea where I was to spend the night. My outlook was not exactly a jovial one as I took to the road in the teeth of the driving rain.

The sticky grip of wet clothes is an unkindly thing, and it is particularly loathsome at the fag end of a long day. I tried to raise my spirits by extolling my good fortune, in that this was the first thorough drenching I had had since the start of my journey at Arisaig; and I told myself that an occasional wetting was good for a man. I said: what could be more jolly than tramping through rain with a defiant gesture to the lachrymose heavens? And truly it is pleasant to do so when one is sustained by the vision of a hot bath and dry linen and a leisurely meal in the candle-light of an old room. But I had the hope of no such sweet aftermath. So far as I knew, Laggan Bridge consisted of a kirk, a manse, a village shop, and three or four houses, and even if I found a lodging in one of them I was doubtful whether there would be an unsoaked stitch of clothing in my pack. The wind was rising; it drove the rain heavily up the strath, so that the road was soon speckled with pools of water, and the hue of the bright river below was changed to an inky black.

Past Shirramore I went, where I saw a tiny loch beyond the trees ; then down to Shirrabeg, where a conical pine-clad hill jutted high on the west, with what looked like a disused chapel near the foot. It was getting quickly dark, and in the twilight I perceived that the road forked. To the left there was a rough track that seemed to go down steeply into dark meadows, so I took the other. I knew that Laggan Bridge could not be many miles away now, but I was past caring how far it was, or even where it was, for I had reached that state of mind and body when a man walks blindly forward like an automaton. I was not so much tired as numb with fatigue, and the pack on my back seemed to have become part of me. I knew by the feel of the road underfoot that it had been newly made : anyhow, it was a road, and a road must lead to somewhere. And then ahead of me in the quickly gathering darkness I saw the lights of a motor-car sweeping past, and I concluded that I must be approaching the main road that runs up the valley on the south of the Monadhliath Mountains. I was glad to reach it, for as I turned east towards Laggan Bridge I was in the shelter of trees on a steep hillside, and it was good to escape from the lash of the wind and rain. I could not have told whether I walked one mile or five before I saw lights high on my right hand. As I climbed up the path, I had a vague impression of a long low house set upon a knoll, with pines at the side, and I knocked on the door in the darkness of a wooden porch.

Many minutes seemed to pass before at last it was opened. There was no light in the hall behind, and I could not tell whether I was speaking to a man or a woman. I asked if I might be directed to Laggan Bridge.

"Laggan Bridge," repeated a pleasant voice: it was a woman who spoke. "It's a good half-mile from here."

And then a light was brought, and I was asked to step in out of the rain. There was a tall man in the background; I took him to be a farmer and the woman with the pleasant voice to be his wife. She was peering at me with compassionate eyes, and I suppose I must have cut a pretty poor figure with the rain dripping from me in little trickles that splashed upon the clean linoleum of the hall.

"It's not a night to go looking for shelter," she announced when I asked if there was a cottage in Laggan where I might find a lodging. "It's here you can stop, and welcome." But for the man in the background I might have been tempted to embrace my Samaritan with the compassionate eyes. "Come away in and get off your wet things," she said without further delay. "I've got a young gentleman lodger already. You'll be company for him. There's mince and stovers on for supper. I'll get the other young gentleman's dressing-gown and slippers. He'll no' mind-he's an engineer."


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