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Scotland's Book of Romance
Chapter III. The Cave by the Lochside


By the Funeral Road to Loch Moidart "The Galley of Clan ranald " - Among the Birch-woods - A Shelter from the Storm-A Night with Wat the Wanderer-Dawn at Loch Moidart.

A NEW land indeed : the wide green valley of Loch Moidart. So different was the look of this place from the rocky corries of Glenuig that we might easily have imagined that we had been wafted into another country. We had been travelling through wild and impressive scenery, but as we walked down into the glen on the south, we might have been stepping into the country of Surrey - a Surrey with its skyline exaggerated, and the green of its firs and larches more vivid. It was a friendly place we were coming to, a place that warmed the heart. A big island covered with trees lay in the loch, and we set out with renewed vigour on that long descent into the valley.

The sun was hot. It was good to reach the shade of some birch-woods where the bracken grew shoulder high. Above us on the left was a place that is called the Hillock of the Big Woods-a name which suggests that forest trees once grew there, trees which no doubt were used for building the Clanranald longboats, and it set me thinking of MacMhaigstir's poem, "The Galley of Clanranald," which has been called the finest sea poem in any language. To one who has had the Gaelic from his youth, it must bring a quickening of the heart, but even in an English translation you can feel the surge of its power. It opens with the blessing of the ship; then follows the blessing of the swords and the bows of yew-tree; next, the order to bring the galley to the place of setting out. When the rowers are seated at their oars, the son of Ranald of the Ocean calls for a boat song: "Let the boat's track gleam behind her in glory! ... Strain on your fir-shafts of grey hue . . . the smooth shafts so slender!" Sailing directions are given, a look-out man is ordered to the bow, and a man to the haulyards. A teller of the waters is set apart, for the sea is growing rough, and another man to bale out the green water that is breaking over them. The tempest reaches its height; the deep is "full of spectres, and horrid is the screeching to give ear to, that would drive to madness fifty warriors." They fight through the storm gallantly, and reach at last the good harbour where they cast anchor ... This is one of the poems of the golden age of Gaelic poetry, the eighteenth century, and was written by a man who followed the Prince throughout the 'Fortyfive, and afterwards lurked as a fugitive in the glen to which we were descending.

It was three o'clock before we halted for lunch. We dropped our packs on the moss beside a noisy mountain torrent. The very sight of water seemed always to awaken in Gillespie a desire to immerse himself in it, and before he touched food he had stripped off his clothes and was wading into a tiny pool, breaking out in low joyous chuckles as he stood beside the waterfall. I required no invitation to follow him, and I can recall few things so refreshing as the spray that lashed the skin like the needles of a showerbath. It even made me forget the pain which the descent from the summit had brought back to my feet, so that I had been compelled to keep slightly behind Gillespie to prevent him from noticing how badly I limped. After a rub down, it was the peak of physical bliss to lie back in the shadow of the birch trees and eat. Gillespie had had some sandwiches made up at the inn, and by the time we had finished them we had so blunted the edge of our hunger that the oat cakes and cheese I had laid out were untouched.

The pipe of tobacco I smoked there, lolling in shirt and trousers, is memorable. The sunlight came down into the birch-woods in a multitude of long insect-laden shafts that picked out the wild flowers and mosses and the grey crotal on the rocks, and dropped little pools of light on the gently stirring surface of the sea of bracken on the slope below. Through a gap in the trees I saw that the tide was ebbing, and gulls stalked on the mud and seaweed around the stepping-stones at Caolas, the little ford by which one may cross to the island of Shona at low water. The Scots pines on the island were in deep shadow. The air was unnaturally clear, for I could trace minutely the blue gullies on the mountains beyond. I lay back on the grass and closed my eyes. The sound of the waterfall pounding behind us was like the roll of a distant drum. Time seemed to have stood still. I was conscious only of being completely at peace with myself and with the world. The ghosts of the resolutions I am always making and breaking, the gibbering spook that follows me about in all my waking hours urging me to kick myself out of my habitual indolence: even these had buried their ugly heads. Perhaps it is good that we do not often have these experiences of perfect physical and mental happiness when one somehow or other feels attuned to the rhythms of the earth itself and shares with a deep intimacy the life of all created things. These swiftly-snatched moments of ecstasy are the more precious by their infrequent visits, for even an ecstasy dwindles into a bore when it is as familiar as a well-trousered penny-piece.

When at last we went on our way, the sun seemed to be already low in the sky; and on reaching an open space several miles further on, we saw clouds blowing up from the west. It looked as if there was going to be one of these rapid changes of weather which to people with a roof overhead form part of the charm of the Highlands of Scotland. But to us there was precious little charm in the prospect of a wet evening ; and Gillespie, who was setting the pace, quickened his stride as we made along the Beallach nan Coisichean (the Walkers' Pass) by the side of Loch Moidart.

There was a stiff pull up the shoulder of a hummock of rock that rose sheer from the lochside. If the Clanranald men hauled the Prince's swivel-guns over it, they must have been hours at the job, but I think it more likely that the artillery was taken down to the water edge and transported up the loch in rowingboats. At any rate, I afterwards learned that the Prince himself got into a boat at this point and was rowed up towards Kinlochmoidart House. The rock is called the Plate Rock, because it was here that the Macdonalds hid the family plate and title-deeds when Cumberland's troops came to burn down Kinlochmoidart House after Culloden; and it was at this place that there occurred the only act of treachery known against any Moidart man in the 'Forty-five. One miserable shivering creature confessed to the Government soldiers that he knew where the plate was hidden, and he led them to the spot. For which his kinsfolk kicked him scornfully out of Moidart, and he never again dared to show his face in the district.

I was now quite certain in my own mind that we would not reach Acharacle that night : at least I knew that I myself could not, for my feet were paining me so acutely that soon I was no longer able to conceal the fact from Gillespie. If we had been walking over springy turf I would have slung the offending shoes over my shoulder, but the track was sharp with a multitude of small stones. Gillespie tried to induce me to hand over my pack for him to carry as well as his own, and it was only my wretched pride that made me hang doggedly on to it. I was beginning to wish I had never agreed to his coming with me, for there seemed to be every chance that I was landing him in a rather awkward hole. His friend at Acharacle - an Edinburgh man called Grant - was confidently expecting him that night, and there was about as much hope of getting word to Loch Shiel as there was of signalling to New York. I decided that Gillespie and I must presently separate : I would try to find shelter for the night in a cottage, while he went on alone. But he received the suggestion with a slow smile: "We'll see what happens ! You set the pace. There's no hurry."

It seemed to me, however, that there was very good reason to hurry. The clouds we had seen above the distant hills were now blowing blackly across the sky, and one or two big raindrops were beginning to fall. The air was stifling; and though we had not detected it in the exhilaration of our climb from Glenuig, the atmosphere all day must have been sultry. It was plain that a thunder storm was brewing, and the first crack came as we emerged from the birch-woods. This was followed by a sharp patter of rain around us. If we had not taken shelter beside a rock, we would have been wet to the skin in ten minutes. The thin rubber sheet I carried would have kept my shoulders and rucksack dry, but Gillespie had no covering, for he had packed his waterproof coat in one of his suitcases, which by this time was probably being taken off the Loch Shiel steamer at Acharacle, where his friend Grant would be standing on the jetty puzzled at the absence of their owner.

Soon the rain was seeking us out beside the rock, and rivulets were beginning to trickle down the face of it. It was doing us no good service to wait, for we saw we were in for a wetting anyhow, and decided to push on. I had stopped urging Gillespie to make for Acharacle by himself ; for in the darkness that was settling down, I doubted whether he would be able to find his way over the hills. Though a road of a kind was recorded on the map, it twisted so often that it would have been easy to go astray. I was beginning to feel wretched, and the pain in my feet did not help me to look at our plight with what is called a philosophic calm. Indeed, the only cheerful thing in that slowly blackening landscape was Gillespie himself, who began to sing and caper like a half-wit until I was forced to laugh, although I knew he was playing the fool merely to rally my spirits. But he suddenly stopped his antics and drew to a halt.

At the foot of the crags on our left there was a deep hollow under the rock, and from it a wisp of grey smoke curled out and was being quickly dissipated in the rain. We went forward to have a closer look.

"It's a tramp," cried Gillespie. "Come on." And he raced for the shelter of the overhanging rock, while I limped after him.

Gillespie's guess was correct. It was a tramp's fire, for the startled face of a man shot up from behind a low rampart of sacking hung on sticks. He had a fair bushy beard which grew high on his cheeks, and he wore one of those small narrow-peaked cloth caps that you sometimes see in the photographs of our grandfathers. The hollow below the crag went quite three or four yards into the rock, and a fire of birchwood was spluttering in the furthest corner. The smoke clung to the sloping roof as it wavered upward, and its smell was homely. I looked down at the tramp, who was throwing aside some sacking and scrambling to his feet. He had deep-set blue eyes which were friendly enough after he had recovered from his surprise at our hasty assault on his lodgings. I saw that he wore an old short fawn-coloured overcoat, very much tattered at the button-holes and sleeves, and the knees of his trousers had been often and ingeniously patched, but his boots were good, his face and hands were clean, and his soft Highland voice, as he told us to sit down on a pile of bracken, had no suspicion of a mendicant whine. However, I thought it unlikely that he would refuse a shilling for a share of his fire for half an hour.

There is often something amusing in the ill-luck story of a tramp who has been for years on the road. His story no doubt changes with the locality he is in and the person he is begging from; and I have even overheard one of them assume a rolling Irish brogue when he perceived it was an Irishman whose withers he was trying to wring. The real old-timer hates the gipsies and the tinkers, for they are the aristocracy of the road; and I remember how a certain lovable mahogany-faced rascal who from his early youth had been familiar with the whole art and craft of "sleeping rough" once spun me a story of persecution by gipsies so vivid in detail that it was worth the florin which in my glow of admiration I handed over to him. When our tramp in the cave began to talk I saw that he had a similar gift of the gab; and though he had not yet touched upon his tragic lack of food and money, I suspected that if we sheltered beside him for very long, it was much more than a humble shilling we would be in honour bound to bestow upon him on parting. I could even see ourselves paying his railway-fare from Fort William to Perth or some other distant town where he had a starving wife and family living in a hovel, both family and hovel having sprung miraculously into existence in the twinkling of one of his innocent blue eyes. He was such a gentlemanly tramp, I decided, that he might even try to assure us he was not a real tramp at all, which would of course make the climax of his story the more heart-rending. While I happen to like tramps, the genuine old-fashioned tramps, I am not sorry for them. They are on the whole an honest lot - if not by inclination, certainly in practice - for their healthy fear of the county police is almost as great as their terror at having to do a job of work. In country districts they are seldom refused food, and indeed often get it from cottages where the pantry is emptier than the hanging pantechnicons which they call pockets. True, on many a cold night they sleep in the open, but they have so mastered the knack of it that discomfort is reduced to a minimum, and they can usually find shelter in some poorhouse or "Union" if they are prepared to pay for bed and breakfast with a few hours' work next morning. While the idea of settling down in some "cushie job" is seldom absent from their minds, few of them could bear for one month the monotony of opening their eyes each morning on the same old scene. The excuses they offer for their descent into vagabondage are often as untrue as they are ingenious ; and since our tramp in the cave seemed a cut above the average, I wondered how he would explain why he had taken to the road. When I put the question to him, he looked at me steadily for a moment, then shook his head and laughed. No ; he would not be telling the gentlemen that at all He poked at the fire with a stick. "Yess, a bit of green birch makes a grand blaze," he said. "It's the only wood that burns wet. You ken the best wood to burn when you're in my" - he seemed to fumble for a word - "when you're in my circumstances," he added, and you could almost hear him smacking his lips at the euphemism. Then he pulled from his pocket a couple of printed leaflets and with a little gesture of pride handed one to each of us. I leant towards the fire and with interest looked at the first page. In large bold type was printed:

SONGS
BY
WAT THE WANDERER

The other three pages contained effusions written to the tunes of well-known Scottish melodies. "I am Wat," announced the man, and he told us that he himself had made the songs and could sing them too.

"I didn't know you were a bard! " said Gillespie, with a laugh. "Look here, you must sing us one of these before we go. Do you make a decent living at the job?"

"It is no living at all," he said, his chubby bearded cheek resting on his hand as he stared into the fire. "But it is good enough when you do not think about it..."

Afraid that he was preparing to become maudlin about himself, I changed the subject by asking what part of the Highlands he was brought up in.

"Ach, I am not a Hielander at all," he declared. "I come from the Borders, but I have been in the Hielands for a long time. No, I have not the Gaelic just a wee bit I have picked up from the country folk."

From his talk and manner, and his perky pride in his songs, I had been sure he was a Highlander; but my ear had not been fine enough to detect that he had acquired that soft lilt in his voice and many of his phrases from long contact with Gaelic-speaking people. He told us he had once ventured back into the Border country, but had done badly there : it was the Highland folk that liked his songs. At the big houses, too, the gentry were good to him, he said, and his eyes twinkled. "The gentry do not think much of my songs," he declared, chuckling quietly to himself.

"Not the English gentry that come about in the autumn ! When the English shooters are in the Hielands, they call me into the big house to sing to them. As soon as I'm gone, ach, they are all laughing at me, but I don't heed that if I've had a dram and some siller. It's the poor folk, the Hieland folk, that like my songs, they are aye glad to see Wat back at their door."

He flung some birch-wood logs and chips on the fire from a pile in the corner, and glanced out at the pelting rain. Gillespie asked him what he did in the winter.

"Oh, it is no life for a man," he said lugubriously. "It is fine enough in summer, but in the winter I keep to the West Country. It's warmer here, you don't get the snow so bad. I have a bit hut in Argyll where I bide. It's in the winter I make my songs-it's fine to listen to the storm when you are making a sad song in your head!" He wriggled back from the heat of the fire, squatting against the rock, elbows on knees, his face between his fists.

"I suppose we'd better wait till that confounded rain eases off," remarked Gillespie, and at this Wat sat up.

"Then there is time to sing you a new song I am making," he said, and looked at us for approval. Raising himself on one knee, he pulled from his pocket a little note-book with a black shiny cover. "It is a very sad song, but you will hear it, as much as I have made," he announced, cocking his head with self-importance. And out of his round little mouth that peeped from his thick beard, he began to sing.

He had a soft tuneful voice; but the shudder of emotion he put into it almost turned the affair into a burlesque of himself and of all his singing brethren of the road. Because of his earnestness, I felt a little ashamed of my desire to laugh, and I did not dare catch Gillespie's eye, for the singer was watching us eagerly in the firelight to note the effect of his ballad upon us. He was (as it were) trying it out on the dog, and I found the role of an appreciative dog a difficult one to sustain. Nor was the situation improved by the words of his song. He had fitted some verses to the air of "Wandering Willie," and had taken himself for the hero. He drooled and mourned about Wandering Wattie, who had no wife, no bairns, no bield of a rooftree, nothing but the bleak moorland on which to lay his head ; and when he got a little husky in the third verse, it was the voice of Leslie Henson I heard, Leslie at the top of his form, Leslie leaning over the footlights on the point of side-slipping into one of those falsetto squawks that bring down the house in a pandemonium of delighted applause. Indeed, to bring down the house was the only thing Gillespie and I could do to prevent us from wounding our friend to the heart. We thudded on the ground with our walking-sticks, and assured him that his new song would go down like honey in farm kitchens. As for Wat, he was charmed. He stuffed his little shiny note-book back in his pocket and rubbed his hands. "I'll send it to the People's Friend," he said confidently. "I have had a song before this printed in the People's Friend," And he added with satisfaction that he would send a copy to Steenie: it would make Steenie envious. Steenie, we learned, was a rival of his, though their beats were different. Steenie kept to the country north-west of the Great Glen, selling his songs from door to door, while Wat's country was south of it, including Lorne and Kintyre. He was explaining this to us, when the words were taken out of his mouth by a crack of thunder, and our little hollow under the rock was lit up by the lightning that glimmered above the hills of Ardnamurchan.

"That looks bad," said Gillespie with concern.

"It's a wild night we're in for," Wat agreed. "Is it far you're going, gentlemen ?"

"Loch Shiel," Gillespie told him. "But I don't suppose we'll manage it to-night now. Is there a cottage hereabouts where they'd take us in ? My friend's feet are giving him absolute gyp, so we can't go far."

 Yes, there is a shepherd on the hill," said Wat. "He would take you in."

"How far?"

"About four miles."

"No good." Gillespie shook his head.

"It's bad feet you've got?" said Wat, touching one of my shoes with a sympathetic hand. "You should put crotal on your feet. It grows on the rocks, and you rub it into a powder. Man, it's good for the feet." I told him I was afraid it was a little late in the day to apply his remedy, and besides crotal couldn't improve ill-fitting shoes.

"Isn't there any cottage nearer than the shepherd's?" asked Gillespie.

Wat scratched his head. "Ay, but they wouldn't take you in-they have no room. The shepherd's is the only place." He cast little curious glances at us. "You're welcome to bide here for the night."

Gillespie turned to me. "What do you think?"

The rain was still coming down hard. Trickles of water that had been drip-dropping over the mouth of our shelter had now increased to steady rivulets. Steam was rising from Gillespie's jacket on the side that was next the fire, and I had pulled mine off and was drying it. The four miles to the shepherd's cottage meant an hour's walk, without taking into account either the gathering darkness or my lameness. It would have been folly to arrive there like a pair of drowned rats when we could stay where we were; and I said so.

Wat's eyes lit up. "That is good," he said, with a nod; "I can sing you some more songs." If anything would have induced me to change my mind, it was this; but to my relief, he set about making some tea, pushing aside the blazing logs, and setting a pan of water on the red embers. He told us he had some food, enough for us all, but he mentioned the matter diffidently, as though he doubted in his mind whether we would care to touch anything of his: at least, I could think of no other reason for his hesitation. "There's a wee shop along the lochside," he said, and his voice tailed off vaguely.

To go to the shop for food, I felt, would have hurt his feelings, and Gillespie seemed to think the same, for he replied that it wasn't worth a wetting. Our assurance that we would add our food to his and all share alike got us out of the difficulty, though I had a slight revulsion at the idea of eating stuff that he had handled. I took from my rucksack the cardboard box with what rations I had left over from the last two days, oat cakes, a hunk of cheese, some apples, and dates. But my eyes opened when Wat set about preparing his contribution to the meal. He moved aside the water to make room on the embers for a flat pan, into which he dropped a lump of butter. Bacon and sausages followed, clean and fresh-looking, and soon our little cavern was filled with the appetising smell of frying. From a packet he tilted a small handful of tea-leaves into the water, which was now beginning to boil, and kept turning over the food in the pan; giving each piece of bacon a little friendly pat with the fork as he did so. When he produced half a loaf of bread he apologised for its staleness, but added that it was more wholesome so. The tea was potent stuff, and there was barely enough milk in Wat's half-mutchkin bottle to go round, and Gillespie and I ate our bacon and sausages from the point of our penknives, but nothing detracted from our good appetite. Afterwards, we lay back with pipes alight - Wat did not smoke - and listened to the rain and the waves which the wind was beginning to drive up on the rocks thirty yards away. When there came a lull in the storm, I thought it was beginning to blow over, but presently the thunder and lightning started again, this time much nearer at hand. One flash, brighter than the others, made the surface of Loch Moidart look like a sheet of white flame, while a crack of thunder seemed to split the very hillside above us, and went rolling up among the mountains on either side of the glen. The storm brought home to us the folly of trying to go further that night.

By nine o'clock the rain eased off. Wat announced that he had an errand down the loch which would take about half an hour, and when he returned he was carrying under his arm a roll of sacking and some old newspapers. He assured us that a sheet of paper spread between the sacking would make a warm covering for us, and he scooped some bracken from his own bed, and made up ours on either side of the fire. Half an hour later, with my pack as a pillow, I crawled under the improvised coverlet and fell into a sound sleep.

Twice I awoke in the night : the first time, I sat up with a start wondering where I was, but settled down again when I heard the slow breathing of the other two; the second time, a whaup on the marsh a little way up the loch sent its whooping call across the water. The fire was out, except for one little red eye that still glowed in the darkness. I did not know what the hour was, but I felt completely refreshed and wakeful, and had an odd longing for a cigarette-a thing I never smoke. Slipping on my shoes, I crept out without disturbing the others. Wat was sighing uneasily in his sleep, as though the final verse of his new song was running in his head and the rhymes were refusing to come right, but Gillespie's breath was as steady as a healthy pulse. Outside, the rain had stopped, and everything was very quiet. I could distinguish the Isle of Shona, a dark mass upon the water. In the opposite direction, dawn was beginning to break, there was a pale streak over the hills around Glen Moidart, and the clouds were slightly tinged with red. My ear, keyed up to the silence, began to detect many tiny sounds that I had not heard on waking: the soft gush of little streams in the woods behind me, the faint rustle of leaves, a curious ticking noise which stopped and went on again like a hesitating clock, and the soft wash of the receding tide on the mud flats below me. I could make out the winding channel of the river Moidart where the whaup that had wakened me was probably feeding. As I crawled back to the warmth of my bed, after my glimpse of the ending of the night and the beginning of day, I was grateful to the whaup for his timely summons.

It was bright daylight when I woke again. Wat was twisting pieces of newspaper into little balls, and piling dry twigs on them, to light the fire. The air was chilly - more chilly than when I had emerged before dawn -and I was glad to get into the open and beat my hands to restore some warmth to my blood. Soon Wat had what he called "a fine lowe" - one of the few Lowland words I had heard on his tongue - and was boiling some water he had taken from a burn in the birchwoods. He warned us that the tea would taste earthy with the spate, and there was no milk to subdue the flavour, but the hot drink was welcome-and so indeed was the remainder of his bacon which he fried for our breakfast. Our united larder was cleaned bare to the last crumb by the time we had finished; and I unfolded my map, and traced out the road over the hills to Loch Shiel. Gillespie asked me about our plans.

It was a little difficult to decide. The pain had quite gone from my feet. But I knew very well that before I had covered many miles, my shoes would be giving me the old familiar twinges. I was bound to be a drag upon my companion, and it seemed to me that it would be well if he went on alone at his own pace to join his friend at the inn at Acharacle.

There was another thing. Acharacle was not my destination. From Kinlochmoidart, Prince Charles Edward Stuart had crossed the hill on the Acharacle road, but had struck down to Dalilea on the lochside. Thus, for me to go to Acharacle at all would take me several miles west of my fixed route ; in addition, it would make my day's march a good deal longer, and to no purpose.

"I was hoping you'd come on to Acharacle," said Gillespie, when I put this to him. "There's supposed to be a comfortable pub there, and you'd like Grant -he's a good chap. You'd have a lot in common - he's in the book-trade. You could come out fishing, and quack about books with him all day. Hang it, it would give your feet a rest, and maybe you could get these damned shoes attended to-stretched or something ... What about it?"

He paused in the act of stuffing back into his haversack the cardigan he had worn under his jacket during the night.

"No good," I told him. "You'd better push on alone. They'll be sending out a search-party if you don't turn up soon. Besides, as I've said, Acharacle's a good many miles off my route. It's Dalilea I'm making for, on this side of Loch Shiel." I opened the map and pointed to it. "Acharacle's right round on the south side of the loch, miles away."

"I'm sorry," said Gillespie. "I dare say you're right. I was hoping you'd come along with me, but I suppose you may as well stick to your route. Damn Prince Charlie and all his Highlanders!" He strapped
up his haversack and got to his feet. "Look here, it was fine of you letting me come. You'll ring me up in London one day? You've got my address. I'll be going back on Monday or Tuesday, though I don't suppose you'll be south for another month or so. Well, good luck."

Wat and he went off together, Wat carrying my shoes which he was taking to a man who might be able to soften them with grease; and rain was falling when he returned with them half an hour later. Over these shoes a London shoemaker had made purring noises which were no doubt meant to express a craftsman's pride, but the lovely brown leather was now black with hot lard. The shoes certainly felt easier when I hauled them on, but I knew that the test would come after I had walked a few miles. I said I would wait with Wat until the shower blew over; and it was in fact nearly noon before the steady downfall of rain ceased and I said good-bye to him. I had had good reason to revise my first impression of the man who grandiloquently called himself Wat the Wanderer ; and when we shook hands, far from having to listen to a hard-up story, I had some difficulty in persuading him to accept a few shillings for my board and lodging. I am writing these lines in winter, with snow on the ground, and I hope that Wat is now as snug in his "bit hut" in Argyll as we were on that September night beside him in his hollow below the rock on the shore of Loch Moidart.


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