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Scotland's Book of Romance
Chapter XVI. The Old House of Gask


I Meet a Road-mender from the Fraser Country - The Oliphants of Gask - The "Auld Hoose" - "The Land o' the Leal" - The Girl in the Motor-car - Down Strathearn and Past Carsbreck - "Jessie, the Flower o' Dunblane" - I Obey an Impulse and Make for Doune.

SOON after I had swung my pack upon my back at the door of the Salutation Hotel, I saw against the sky the huge red-brick building of Dewar's distillery. In the hotel the evening before, I had been told that the old man who had started the business used to hand out a religious tract with every "greybeard" of whiskey he sold. Little did he dream that his grandson would one day become a peer of the realm and would die leaving behind him, not a further litter of tracts, but several hundred yards of newspaper columns recording the most daringly witty after-dinner speeches of the Georgian epoch. I passed out of Perth through the suburb that rejoiced in the name Cherrybank, and followed the road to Crossgates; there I came to a low cottage with arched windows that gives it the look of a chapel. At this cottage, the main road goes to the left, but I branched off to the north of Dupplin Loch past a Roman camp, and before I drew level with the House of Gask I halted to talk to a tall fair-haired road-mender, a Shaw from the Fraser country near Beaufort. He had come south many years ago to Strathearn, he said, and it was a fine countryside ; he liked the people, but he missed the Gaelic. He brightened up when I told him I had travelled from the Great Glen and had been on the fringes of the Fraser land ; and when I switched round our talk to the 'Forty-five, he spoke about it intelligently.

"Some of my folk were out with Prince Charlie," he said, "though the 'chief stayed at home. You should have a look at the Auld House of Gask-the Laird's a fine man, he'll be pleased to show ye round." Thereupon I told him the story of how the Prince on his march from Perth had seen the ripe corn uncut in the fields of the Gask estate, and asked one of his attendants for an explanation. Laurence Oliphant of Gask had ordered his tenants to come out in support of their rightful king, but some of them had refused, and in his anger Oliphant had declared that no sickle should touch the corn until they came to their senses, nor must they feed their cattle upon it, although the beasts were now starving. The Prince's unexpected reply became the talk of Strathearn. Dismounting, he pulled a handful of the corn and gave it to his horse, saying that since he himself had broken the Laird's orders, the farmers could now begin to harvest their crops.

The road-mender laughed. "Fine do I ken the story," he said. "Ay, and it's true, and it wasna far from here it happened. Prince Charlie made himself a weel-liked young man. But I'm thinking it's no' many of the Gask tenants that hung back-for there was- no better lairds in Scotland than the Oliphants. Long after the trouble was past, and some landlords were clearing folk off their estates to make big farms, the wee men on Gask were permitted to bide on. They tell me some paid but three pounds a year in rent-ay, and when a woman was left a widow, she was given a cottage for the rest of her days. That's something like a laird!"

He scrambled hastily to his feet as a Rolls Royce swept up the long straight road between the trees, and he touched his hat. "That was the lady of Gask," he said; "ye'll find the Laird alone - he'll be glad to see ye." Since it was time to eat, I had my lunch on the grass beside him, and when we parted we shook hands; and I thanked him for the hint that I might venture to ask a stranger to let me see the ruins which had been the home of the Oliphants.

As I made my way towards the house, the skyline on the north was cut like a saw-edge by the tops of thousands of Scots pines, while on my left were old woods of larch and oak. Now and then, in a clearing of the trees, I could see the hills above Glen Almond, with Ben Lawers and Schiehallion in the north. Bracken and heather were thick by the roadside where I turned in to the avenue and went down to the mansion-house of Gask, a big square grey downright place with none of the decorative gewgaws that make hideous so many houses of the early nineteenth century. The manservant took my message, and the Laird himself approached, a youngish man in tweeds with a charming frankness of manner. He was not an Oliphant, he told me at once, but it was evident that he regarded the name with veneration, and he led me to the ruins of the Auld Hoose less than a hundred yards from the modern mansion. There is not much more left of it now than a crumbled wall with a turret room thatched with reeds from the Carse of Gowrie. The old road in front of it has disappeared, and the place is paved with stone slabs green with moss. Beyond a pool into which a burn tinkles there is an old brew-house with tall narrow windows, and some of the holly bushes and yew trees were there when the Prince himself paused to eat a late breakfast with Laurence Oliphant on Wednesday 11th September 1745. The Laird pointed out some of the larch trees that had grown from seeds sent to Gask by John, the "planting Duke" of Atholl. A little way through the woods stands a chapel and the old burial-ground of the Oliphants. Here the " auld laird " of the 'Forty-five was buried, and his famous grand-daughter, Lady Nairne, who wrote The Land o' the Leal and Caller Herrin', The Rowan Tree and The Hundred Pipers, as well as Jacobite songs like Charlie is my Darling and Will Ye no' Come Back Again? and Wha'll be King but Charlie, which begins with the line, " The news frae Moidart cam' yestreen." Below the chapel is the placid strath with the river Earn winding among green fields, and beyond are the Ochil Hills where the Water of May tumbles down from the heights-the May from which the sweetest trout in Scotland are taken, or so they said when I was a boy in the Ochils, and they always added with pride that Queen Victoria's first breakfast at Balmoral each year was an ashet of May trout.

Over a glass of port, I talked with my host about the auld laird, his son, and his grand-daughter. Laurence Oliphant was one of those who suffered deeply for his loyalty to the Stuarts; and nearly half a century after the 'Forty-five, when Charles himself was dead, the younger Oliphant in his old age still hoped that Prince Henry might one day become king. In the prayer book he gave his daughter Caroline, he followed the example of Lord Wemyss and many other Jacobites in pasting over the names of the reigning family with tiny slips of paper upon which were written the names of the Stuarts ; and when George III came to the throne, and many Scots Jacobites gave him their allegiance, Oliphant dismissed his Episcopalian chaplain for taking the oath. When his sight at last failed, he liked to have the newspaper read aloud to him, and if any reference was made to King George or his queen the reader was ordered always to use the initial letters K and Q.

All this was reported to George, who sent a message to the sturdy Jacobite: "Give my compliments - not the compliments of the king of England but those of the Elector of Hanover - to Mr. Oliphant, and tell him how much I respect him for the steadiness of his principles."

It was in this atmosphere that Caroline was brought up. She became the mistress of Gask, a tall dignified woman with dark eyes and aquiline features. At a ball in the South a Royal Duke fell in love with her, but she waited loyally until the day when Captain Nairne (a son of Lord Nairne of the 'Forty-five) would be able to marry her. That day was long in coming ; she was forty-one before her wedding, and had waited nearly twenty years; and since her husband had been appointed Assistant Inspector-General of Barracks in Scotland, the bride of forty-one and the bridegroom of fifty took up their residence in the state apartments at Holyroodhouse. When George IV paid his visit to Edinburgh, they moved out so that he could live there, and went to Caroline Cottage in Duddingston. It was during this visit of George IV that Sir Walter Scott drew up a memento pleading for a restoration of the honours forfeited in the 'Forty-five. The general pardon to those who had taken part in the Rising had been given in the Act of Indemnity nine months after the Prince left Scotland, but there had been an enormous list of exceptions : as well as those attainted, over eighty lairds had been named. Sir Walter induced the king to sponge clean the slate, and so Caroline Oliphant's husband became at last known by his father's title of Lord Nairne. By this time she was fifty-seven. A strange reserved woman, she kept her poems a secret even from her husband, and it was not until long after her songs had been sung in Scotland that the name of the author became known. When they were printed by an Edinburgh music-dealer, she signed them with false initials, and on her personal visits to him she dressed up as an old country lady. That was an age of anonymity in Scots literature : Sir Walter himself was denying the authorship of the Waverley novels ; Blackwood's Magazine was publishing articles and squibs that evoked many a wild guess at the dinner-tables of Edinburgh ; and Lady Anne Barnard was guarding the secret of " Auld Robin Gray." After Lord Nairne died, Caroline spent many weary years of travelling abroad for the health of her son, but returned in the end to Gask. Often she had sat in the room where I was talking with the Laird ; often she had looked down from these windows through the trees to Strathearn ; and on an autumn day, one hundred years after Prince Charles was the guest of her grandfather at Gask, she died and was buried at the chapel near the house.

I declare that port is not a good wine to walk on, and the heat of the afternoon helped to make me drowsy. By the time I was a couple of miles from Gask I surrendered and lay down beneath an oak tree for half an hour's sleep. By the time I awoke, it was nearly four o'clock, and I decided it would be well to think of the place where I was to spend the night. I saw from my map that after I had crossed the Earn at Kinkell Bridge, there were several hamlets where I might possibly get a lodging; and then as my eye roved a little further, I noticed a name that made me blink-Gleneagles Hotel. Gleneagles, with its two hundred and fifty bedrooms, its garage for a hundred Rolls Royces and Bentleys, its American cocktail bar, its orchestra, its dining-room and its grill-room, its lifts and all the other expensive gewgaws and whig-maleeries that used to dazzle the eyes of Arnold Bennett. But I was just as dazzled as Arnold Bennett had been at the idea of lying for a night in the softest lap of luxury. So far as I could gather, the hotel was but a few hundred yards away from the route Prince Charles followed on his way to dine at Lord George Murray's house at Tullibardine. My only doubt was whether the hotel people would take in a dusty tramp like me; but I told myself that a dusty tramp was not much worse than an oily company-promoter, and his money just as good. It was worth having a shot at, anyhow. They could turn me away by swearing upon the beards of their board of directors that the hotel was full; but at least they could not refuse to serve me with a drink, and they could not prevent me from slowly sipping it in the depths of an armchair until the hour when the bars were closed. After that, if I refused to leave, they could certainly sling me down the front-door steps, and indeed would probably do so with vigour. But the whole enterprise had a romantic flavour; it had a then-and-now touch about it : the Prince sleeping in the heather among his shaggy-headed clansmen, as he did twice on his march to Edinburgh, and I sleeping among the scented darlings of a decadent plutocracy and all that sort of thing. But my whimsey was snatched from me, and in as romantic a manner as an entry into the Gleneagles Hotel or exit there from. For the first (and last) time in my journey, I was offered a lift by the owner of a private motor-car.

It was an extraordinarily attractive-looking young woman of about twenty who pulled up and spoke to me. She was in fact beautiful, with eyes of forget-me-not-blue, fair hair, and a complexion that Ouida and Bulwer Lytton used to call peaches-and-cream. She had a pleasant Scots voice, with nothing of a gurgling brogue about it; and if she had been educated in England-which I half suspected-she had certainly not been at one of those detestable English boardingschools where girls pick up ugly tricks of clipped pronunciation that turns a word like " same " into " sem." There was two guineas' worth of crest painted on the cream-coloured door of the car.

" Poor devil," she said, smiling. "You look all in."

Now, I call that a good way for a stranger to begin a conversation. I slung my pack into the back beside a black Labrador pup with pathetic amber-coloured eyes, and got into the front seat with my hat on my knees. The girl cast puzzled glances at the hat; it was a black Trilby, and, like myself, very dusty. I confess I detest black hats, except perhaps upon the heads of statesmen, barristers, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, one or two of my friends, and certain publishers. In particular I detest a black hat when it is sported by thrusting young careerists, of whom London is the chief ant-hill. I had bought this funereal hat of mine only because it was the lightest thing I could find in any shop : it weighed exactly three ounces, and could be sent through the post for two-pence; it was airy upon the head; it could be rolled into a ball and carried in the pocket ; and although you danced upon the thing, it would come up smiling. But there was no getting away from its colour. "Are you a parson on holiday?" asked the girl, with another glance at the hat.

I felt like embracing her; for she agreed with me about black hats. And I presently found that this can be as powerful a bond between two human beings as a common aversion to black cats, and a love of black dogs, like the one that was now licking the back of my neck and whimpering. "He wants to come in the front," said my charioteer, "and he knows he isn't allowed." But the Labrador pup decided to take the risk; with a sudden leap, he floundered over my shoulder and landed on my knees, obliterating the hat and obscuring most of my view. The girl frowned. "Well, just this once," she said, melting, and added firmly: "Never again!" We talked of the training of Labradors, and from Labradors we veered to sheepdogs which will round up sheep at the age of a few months because the herding of sheep is in their blood ; and all the time we were skimming up out of Strathearn, so that before I realised it we had passed the place where the old house of Tullibardine used to stand. This had been the seat of the Murrays who became Dukes of Atholl; and in the sixteenth century, if any stranger doubted the size of James IV's Great Michael, the largest ship afloat, he had only to go to Tullibardine and look, for there one of the Michael's shipwrights had planted a hawthorn hedge to record its dimensions.

We swept past the grounds of the Gleneagles Hotel, leaving behind my resolution to wallow in luxury, and came to the main road that runs down Strathallan. Past Blackford we went, a long village of small houses huddled together on both sides of the street, and over a hump-backed bridge. "Carsbreck," said my companion, pointing to the bleak wide hollow and the grey sheet of water where men congregate in frosty weather with their curling stones, their brooms, and their whiskey, and call the spree a Bonspiel. My companion looked at me with respect when I remembered to tell her that Bonspiel was a word used for a meeting of archers in the days when a Scots king was so worried about the popularity of football within his realm that he barred the game and ordered every boy at the age of thirteen to practise archery instead. In his youth, Prince Charles was expert with the cross-bow, and I am sorry to say he amused himself killing blackbirds and thrushes at the Villa Borghese at Rome; and I regret that he also played "Goff because it was a Scotch game," but I doubt if he had the patience to excel in that dull method of frittering away eternity which I wish had died with his ancestor James I.

There is a story about Carsbreck which I believe still lingers in local tradition. From Blackford there was a loch that filled the strath as far as the bridge of Kinbuck, and since it had the finest trout in the country
it was preserved for the use of the king. His queen, the "Fair Queen Helen," was drowned when the royal fishing boat was upset. She was the most popular lady in the land, and for many days the king mourned for her. One evening he was standing at Kinbuck near the foot of the loch when he cried out to his attendants that he knew how he could recover the body of the queen. He collected a great army of workers, and drained off the water, so that only the deep hollow at Carsbreck remained to mark the loch. Near Blackford they found the queen's body, and over it they raised a mound. This mound, they say, is to be seen by the riverside two miles below Blackford, and the river Allan was called after the Fair Queen Helen. I was in a romantic mood that afternoon, and I told the story to my companion as if it were gospel truth ; and I hope she took my word for it.

At Greenloaning, a pleasant hamlet, the traveller is vigorously reminded by advertisements that the Gleneagles Hotel exists, and indeed on this road one is not permitted to forget it. Many a motorist, I am sure, on his journey northward must turn in to the hotel in spite of himself, so strong is the steam-hammer of suggestion. Past Balhaldie we went, in the 'Forty-five the home of William Drummond, a Jacobite of the 'Fifteen who spent the remainder of his days hanging near the coat-tails of the Old Chevalier in Rome. He was a worthless fellow, this Drummond, whose real name was Macgregor, and he was never happier than when he was in the middle of some stupid intrigue. If he was not a traitor to the cause, he did a lot of harm, and seemed to be incapable of telling the truth when a childish lie would give him vent for his spleen against better men who despised him. The road from Balhaldie to Dunblane is grey and desolate, with lonely groups of Scots pines near the battlefield of Sheriff muir; and one wonders what was in the Prince's thoughts as he passed near the tragic hillside in the evening of Wednesday 11th September 1745.

As we came down the strath, clouds had concealed the sun. The barren-looking countryside had taken on a black look which accentuated the steely gleam in the sky above the Touch Hills ten miles to the south. Soon we were below the high building of the school for the sons of sailors, soldiers, and airmen ; and then down we went past low white-washed cottages into the town of Dunblane.

In Dunblane, the place I wanted most of all to see was Balhaldie Close where Charles remained for two nights as the guest of Alexander Drummond, and I asked my companion if she would like to see it before she continued her journey to Stirling. I believe I made an excellent guide that afternoon in a town I had never seen before. Without difficulty we found Balhaldie Close, an old Scots house with its walls washed in pink "caum" and a high crow-stepped gable facing the street. It was not until then that I ventured to confess the object of my walk across Scotland, and I tried to describe my journey while we drank tea at the inn which was once the home of Jessie Tennant, a young woman whose memory is preserved in that saccharine song, "Jessie, the Flower o' Dunblane."

After my companion had said good-bye, I strolled alone through the streets of the town. In the seventeenth century, a facetious Englishman called Richard Franck rode through Scotland with his nose in the air and wrote scathingly about the "pittiful pedling corporation of dirty Dumblane." He said there was little trade in this place, "except now and then a truck with a brandy-man, a tobacco-merchant or a brewsterwife ; for ale, tobacco, and strong waters are the staple of the town." As for the women, he declared, they even pawned their petticoats-one of them pawned her husband's breeches-to pay their reckoning in the innumerable ale-houses. I think Franck must have been badly snubbed by one of the "Cummers of Dunblane"; anyhow, I found it a clean and attractive little place, with a gem of a cathedral that looks down over the housetops in the valley of the Allan Water. When Archbishop Laud came here and looked at the ruins of this cathedral, a bystander remarked that it had been a brave kirk before the Reformation. "Reformation?" cried Laud, as his eye travelled over the roofless nave and broken masonry. "No-Deformation!" Within recent years it has been lovingly restored. I had looked forward to seeing in one of the aisles a Celtic cross which is at least a thousand years old ; but the place was closed, and I wandered back to the inn where I had left my pack. It occurred to me to halt in Dunblane for the night. I was feeling depressed, at a loose end; I wondered how I would spend the hours until bedtime, for I felt too restless to read. I knew what was wrong with me; I was missing my cheerful companion. I did not even know her name, where she had come from, or her destination; I only knew that she had driven off in the direction of Stirling; and had left me to kick about Dunblane alone. With a sudden impulse, I slung my pack on my back and headed along a street called Springfield Terrace which took me to a road that went rolling westward among green hillocks.

The country opened out as I strode towards the sun that hung above the horizon. On either hand were woods, with low hills on the south shutting off the valley of the Teith and Forth, and in the north I could see the mountains above Glen Artney. One hour and ten minutes later, I stood in the twilight below the battlements of Doune Castle, listening to two rivers swishing and muttering among the stones as their waters joined in the darkness of the dell below.


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