Scotland's Book of Romance Chapter VIII. The Country
of the Camerons
On to Lochaber - I Lunch
with a Road-mender - The Lonely Glen - By the Shore of Loch Eil - The
Flesh-pots of Fort William - Around the Fire with Commercial Travellers -
In Quest of Ben Nevis -The Stranger and the Stuarts - Seven White Roses.
LINING this path were many
mossy blocks of granite, probably left over when the chapel was built; and
down beside the gate, a huge bell hung between stout pillars of stone, a
bell I would like to hear echoing among these hills as the country folk
gather for Mass.
Glenfinnan had saddened me;
but now, as I set out on the next stage of my journey, I was filled with a
quiet exultation. That cool grey chapel, with the brass tablet on the
wall, is the Prince's true memorial. If on his journey he glanced back, as
I did, at the point where a mound like a fairy-knoll shuts off Glenfinnan,
his last glimpse of that place would have been the tree-clad island at the
head of Loch Shiel and the sodden ground where he had raised the Royal
My way led eastward, and
after the hill-paths of Moidart it was an ordeal to tramp on a road again.
Thanks to Campbell, however, my shoes were now easier, and I made good
progress. There were pleasant glimpses to be had of the river, lined with
scraggy larches; and then the land opened out into a wide cauldron of
moorland. The West Highland line from Fort William to Mallaig runs close
to the road ; and I sat in the lee of a railway-bridge and ate my lunch of
oat cake, cheese, and dry dates, and talked to a road-mender, who gave me
some cold tea from his flagon. He was a big powerful man with a quiet
voice, but had little to say at the start, and sat staring into the blue
distance where the hills opened out at the head of Loch Eil. I made a
remark about the bad state of a thatched roof I had noticed, and he was
interested to hear that I lived in a seventeenth-century English cottage
with a roof thatched with straw.
"You have a man who can
make a thatch down there in England?" he said, and I told him that a
thatcher lived but a mile away from me, and that nearly all the cottages
in the district have thatched roofs.
"It is a hard trade to
learn," he remarked slowly. "It is like learning to be a piper."
"The Wisbeys of Langley
have been thatchers for generations," I explained, and I told how I liked
to watch Charles Wisbey splitting hazel-branches with a skill that looks
miraculous, and binding the great trusses of straw one upon another, and
teaching his boy the old craft.
"Ah, it is good to watch a
man who can do his work," said the road-mender. "But here there is nobody
who can make a thatch. They will put a tarpaulin over an old roof to keep
out the rain. If they want a thatcher here, they must send to Greenock -
it is a great expense. So you will see slates or tin on the new houses-not
so good as a thatch of heather."
There was a long silence,
and then I began to talk about road-mending. It was a quiet life working
on the road, he said, but cheerful in midsummer with motorcars passing on
their way to Mallaig. I was inquisitive enough to wonder whether he had
lived in this glen all his days, but there was something about him that
made it impossible for a stranger to ask him point blank about himself.
Our leave-taking was slightly formal; I felt I might have been a newly
joined member of his club, and we had lunched by chance at the same table.
The road-mender went back to fill a pot-hole with gravel, and I trudged on
towards Loch Eil.
The hills closed in, then
suddenly opened out into a great hollow glen, with a mountainside on the
south like the tawny flank of a lion. That glen, as I passed through it,
was overpowering in its bareness and solitude. I half-closed my eyes and
tried to imagine the friendly green English fields that lie on the fringe
of Essex and Hertfordshire ; I thought of a white cottage with latticed
windows, and a tall elm tree beside it, and an orchard with a hornbeam
hedge, and a pond with ducks and a few wildfowl ; but the familiar picture
made worse my loneliness. There may have been beauty of a kind in that
glen, but behind the beauty there was a shudder. You felt that if you
raised your voice the echo of it would roll for ever around that empty
place. I was glad when Loch Eil came into my view, and I shall always
think of it as a companionable sheet of water.
This loch is long and
narrow, and last century great shoals of herring came up every summer.
Fifty thousand pounds worth used to be taken from it each year, more than
is caught nowadays on all the west coast of Scotland. I saw a fringe of
yellow seaweed on the shore, and it was strange to think that one could
sail in a boat for seventy miles between the mountains, going east and
then south-west, and coming out at last into the Atlantic between
Ardnamurchan Point and the Island of Coll. But this very fact was a danger
to the Prince, for Government warships had been sent up the west coast
after him, and his movements were becoming known to those in authority.
In the Prince's time, so
bad was the road from Glenfinnan that the Highlanders took a whole day to
drag their baggage down the glen. There had been a lot of rain, and their
twenty swivel-guns had kept sticking in the mud, so they had been
compelled to bury a dozen of the heavier ones in a bog a mile from
Glenfinnan. Panting and weary, the little army drew to a halt at the head
of Loch Eil and settled down for the night.
I paused and looked around
me with interest. I have no idea where Charles slept that night; he way
have lain down beside his men among those tumbled rocks above the road.
But it is pretty certain that he was up at the peep of day, for there were
many plans to be made. They had not more than twenty saddlehorses in the
camp, and they were deficient in transport-ponies and baggage-wagons. At
about forty shillings each they bought as many "garrons" as they could
find in the surrounding district, and collected farm-carts from the
friendly Cameron crofters. Some of Locheil's men had been sent with
Macdonalds into Moidart to bring forward the remainder of the weapons that
had been landed from the Du Teillay, and these had not yet made up on the
It was while Charles was
here that a messenger arrived from the South with two vital pieces of
news. The first item caused a stir in the camp. There was a price upon the
Prince's head. King George was absent on one of his long visits in
Hanover, leaving a Council of Regency to look after the kingdom ; and even
before they knew definitely that the Prince had landed in Scotland, the
Lords of Regency had published a proclamation offering a reward of £30,000
"to such person and persons who should seize and secure the son of the
Pretender." It was a futile measure, and showed how little they understood
the temper of the country. The Prince himself treated the proclamation
with the contempt it deserved. He called it "a mean barbarous principal
among princes, and must dishonour them in the eyes of all men of honour."
But it angered his companions, and they urged him to issue a
counter-proclamation setting the same 'price on the head of King George.
Charles protested; he repeated that it was beneath the dignity of a
Christian prince ; but his friends were persistent. "Then let the price be
thirty shillings!" he said, trying to turn the matter aside with a laugh.
In the end he gave in. His old tutor, Sir Thomas Sheridan, wrote out the
proclamation, the Prince signed it, and it was sent off to Edinburgh to be
But the second piece of
news which the messenger brought was that Sir John Cope had left Edinburgh
on Saturday morning on his way to the North. They questioned him about the
proposed line of march, but the man could tell them nothing more. Few
things are more tearing to the nerves of a commander than to be informed
that the enemy is moving against him along an unknown road. Charles knew
one thing, however, and this braced his spirits. Cope's army was small,
and many of his soldiers were as raw as the two companies of Scots Royals
that had been so easily captured after the skirmish at High Bridge exactly
a week before. But whatever Cope's game was to be, the Prince was
determined to march towards Fort Augustus, and pick up on the way some
loyal Stewarts from Appin, the Macdonalds from Glencoe, and the Macdonells
of Glengarry, and to join the men who were coming to meet him from Glen
Urquhart and Glenmoriston.
The next day, which was
Friday, saw him as far as Fassifern House, where he stayed the night. The
owner was John Cameron, a brother of Locheil. This Glasgow business man
had already tried to dissuade his brother from going near Charles. He had
reminded Donald that their father had spent thirty years in exile for a
foolish Jacobite dream. "If this Prince once sets his eyes upon you," he
had declared, "he will make you do whatever he pleases." You may hear in
Lochaber that he afterwards offered to lead the Camerons if Donald would
stay at home; the fact remains that by the time the Prince reached
Fassifern, John had prudently slipped away to his father-in-law's at
Donald Cameron of Locheil,
one of the finest men in Scotland, had devoted his life to the peace and
prosperity of his clan; he was now a man of fifty, and he knew what had
happened in the Highlands after the Rising of 'Fifteen. He had nothing but
contempt for the fashionable king-across-the-water romanticism; his
loyalty to the exiled James went as deep as a Gael's loyalty can go; but
when he had heard that Charles had arrived without an army, he had seen
disaster ahead, and had hurried to Borrodale to persuade him to go back to
France. John Cameron of Fassifern, however, had been right: the Prince had
won him over. The Macdonalds had made the Rising possible : Locheil's
assent had made it a certainty.
When I reached Fassifern,
the farmer's wife showed me over the old house. Since John Cameron had
declined to take a hand in the Rising, his estate was spared when the
Government troops were burning and pillaging, and Fassifern is one of the
few inhabited houses in Scotland where Charles is known to have spent a
night. I was taken to the. Prince's room, a tiny chamber with a window
that looks down on the waters of Loch Eil. The eye strays across to the
green fields on the opposite shore, and then sweeps up to the brown top of
Ceann Caol. No man will ever know the Prince's thoughts as he lay in this
small room. They say there is something eerie about the house, and that at
certain times the dogs act in a queer way. But as I was told about it with
reluctance, I will leave it at that. It would be a pity if this pleasant
whitewashed farmhouse, set snugly among beech trees and rhododendrons
beside the burn that gushes down from Druim Fada and slides over slabs of
grey rock to the lochside, should be called a haunted house.
A few miles from Fassifern,
I sat down by the roadside and opened my map ; and as I stared at it, a
wave of something very like horror crept over me. Here was a dilemma
indeed. A devilish awkward dilemma, which a pipe of tobacco did nothing to
solve. The gist of my trouble was this. From Fassifern the Prince sent on
the baggage with a strong guard of Camerons to Moy in the Great Glen; but
when the main body of his army came into view of the garrison at Fort
William, Charles decided to take a different route. At Ach-da-Shlighe -
which means the Field of the Two Ways-he climbed the hillside on the
north, coming down towards Moy through Glen Laragain. Little wonder I was
staring in perplexity at my map, for it was now half-past four in the
afternoon. Ahead of me there was a stiff climb over the pass between Meall
Banavie and the ridge of mountains beyond, and after that there was the
descent into the Great Glen. With luck, I would reach Moy by eight
o'clock; in other words, after sundown. What would happen if I failed to
find a lodging at the farmhouse? My map told me that if I kept to the
Prince's road I would have to walk another twenty miles before I came to a
village. To hunt for a night's lodging was one of the things I had been
prepared to face with good humour ; but now I foresaw myself trudging
along in the darkness hoping that each new bend in the road would bring
into view the blink of light from a cottage window.
I glanced up that grim
hillside, and then looked down the loch towards Fort William. The songs
the sirens sang to Ulysses were not more alluring than the tune Fort
William piped to me: it stole across the water, that music, with a dying
fall. I called myself a degenerate, a poor runt of a fellow; I told myself
I had sworn to walk over every yard in Scotland and England that Prince
Charles Edward Stuart had trod. Was this to be my first surrender?
It was. I rose, hitched up
my pack, smothered my protesting conscience, and set out in the direction
of Fort William. But as I trundled along by the lochside, I swore I would
return on the following day and pick up the Prince's route at the point
where I had so weakly given in to the risk of a night below a whin bush: I
would have taken a Highlander's oath upon a dirk if I'd had one, but my
pocket-knife served instead.
Darkness was drawing down
when I went past the ruins of Inverlochy Castle and came into the little
grey town of Fort William, the town which is still known to some old
Highlanders as the "Garrison" and which has borne so many other names in
its recent history, Inverlochy, Maryburgh, Gordonsburg, Duncansburgh. Has
any other town in Europe, except perhaps. St. Petersburg, come popping up
so often and so blandly with a new name? It was called Fort William in
honour of William III, that little shrewd unpleasant king whose painted
wax effigy is perched on a foot-stool beside his queen in a turret-room in
Westminster Abbey-a quaint relic of the days when the principal object in
the funeral procession of an English monarch was a kind of Madame Tussaud
exhibit which revealed to the gaping public in the streets the life-like
figure and features of the royal corpse.
I had hoped to find a
lodging in some cottage where I might learn a little about the
countryside. But a march of eighteen miles on a purgatorial road had
knocked the curiosity out of me. When I saw the open door of a hotel in
the main street I lurched wearily into it and climbed the carpeted stair.
I knew nothing about the hotels in Fort William, so this was a shot in the
dark. But I was in luck's way, for while I was scratching my name in the
register I mentioned to the proprietress that I had come from Acharacle,
and her eye brightened. "Not Not the Campbells?..." she began. "Why,
they're cousins of mine !" My heart responded with a thump. I was among
I dropped the pack from my
back, and somebody picked it up ; somebody else took my hat and stick; and
from nowhere there floated to me one of the largest and most flavoursome
tumblers of whiskey-and-soda I have ever consumed. Twenty minutes later I
lay dreaming in a hot bath of astounding depth. I had no idea that such a
hotel existed in this distant corner of Lochaber. From railway posters and
leaflets, I had dimly gathered that Gleneagles had cornered all the good
chefs in Scotland, and from truculent newspaper articles I had derived the
impression that luxury in a hotel was not to be found north of the
Highland line. But by the time I was half-way through dinner, which was
accompanied by a more than adequate burgundy, I realised that there are
flesh-pots to be found beyond the confines of Egypt.
Afterwards, in the
smoking-room, I found myself in the middle of six or eight commercial
travellers. Some of them were sitting at small tables making up their
orders for the day. I know little or nothing about commercial travellers,
but I had not been in this group for an hour before I came to the
conclusion that they are a shockingly maligned race of men. Perhaps the
stage and the comic papers are partly responsible for this. On the stage,
the stock figure of a commercial traveller is one who bounces about with
his chest out, browbeating people into buying things they don't want. But
as I listened to the talk of these men around me, I could not imagine them
browbeating a fly. Most of them were obviously rivals in trade; I think
they all came from Glasgow, and they seemed to cover the inner isles and
western mainland. They all spoke well of the shopkeepers they dealt with,
although they admitted that a Highland shopkeeper needed careful
handling-Scots canniness was not confined to the Lowlands and Border
country, they said. The folk in the little general stores in distant glens
had the quaintest notion about business and bookkeeping, and some of them
were as slow and suspicious as they were honest.
"There's good and bad among
them," said a young fellow of twenty-five with a pale, eager, nervous
face. "But I'd rather work in the Highlands any day than go down into
Ayrshire. A hard life up here? Ay, it's a hard life, and bad in winter.
Some of the roads are fearful, and when there's frost after a fall of snow
ye've got to look out. Last winter my Cowley skidded on the ice, and I
spent a night in a ditch Loch Cluanie way. Oh, ay, we've all got cars
nowadays - except John there. John'll no' touch a car. His firm's fought
him about it for six years, but they haven't beat him yet."
"And they never will," said
John, his ruddy face wrinkling in a smile as he ran his fingers through
his short white hair. "A railway train for me, and I can hire for the
"John's the richest
traveller on the road," explained the other, with an ostentatious wink.
"He's got the Highlands in his waistcoat pocket. When are ye going to
retire, John, and give us a look in? If only ye drove a car, John, ye'd
put the rest of us clean out of business."
"Mebby I would," admitted
John, with a chuckle. "But I'll die in a railway train - or in one of
these dawmed damp beds ye sometimes get in the out-by places. Lord sakes,
I mind of a damp bed I got two winters ago-I'd sooner sleep in a peat-bog.
It was up in . . . well, I'll no' say where it was, but ye ken the place
fine. Jimmie Hendry was there too - ye mind poor old Jimmie? We were
snowed up," he explained to me, "and there was only one bed to be had. We
got into it together, but in half an hour I said to Jimmie, 'This bed's
damp.' And it was too. `Ach, the bed's right enough,' Jimmie said. I had
some whiskey in my bag, so I got up and had a good dram, and put on my
underclothes. I tried to make Jimmie take a drop of whiskey, but he was a
firm teetotaller and he wouldnae touch it. Man, I could feel poor Jimmie
shaking wi' cold the long night through. I got a chill that lasted a
month, but Jimmie was dead in a fortnight. That's what ye've got to risk
when ye're a commercial in the Highlands."
There was a dance in the
town that night, following a swimming gala which had taken place in the
late afternoon. The gala was an annual affair, it seemed, and the
competitors had to swim across Loch Linnhe. The first man to come ashore
at the Fort William pier was the local hero for the next twelve months ;
and while we sat talking in the smoking-room, he was no doubt sunning
himself before the admiring eyes of the local belles to the lilt of
scraping fiddles. Two of the younger travellers got up from the fire
rather reluctantly, with the remark that they had promised to put in an
appearance at the dance, and soon the others began to trickle off to bed.
The last nightcap was drunk, the last good-night exchanged, and I found
myself nodding alone before the red embers in the grate. Tired out, I
crawled upstairs. A few minutes before I slept, I remember, I got up on
one elbow and said to myself: "Here I am at Fort William, under the very
shadow of Ben Nevis - and I haven't seen the mountain . . ."
I was wrong, of course,
quite wrong. I had seen Ben Nevis; it had been in full view for the last
five miles of my journey, and I had not realised it. When I went out next
morning after breakfast I perceived that the huge grey mound I had seen on
the south-east must indeed have been the Ben itself.
I was profoundly
disappointed. One has a right to expect the king of British mountains to
be a majestic spectacle, but Nevis is merely a hump on the ground - a big
hump certainly, but still a hump. Give me Ben Lawers, viewed from the
south shore of Loch Tay, and I am ready to worship, for it not only seems
to tower into the clouds, but it looks immeasurably far away, almost a
fitting nut for an Everest Expedition to crack. Ben Lawers is like a proud
Highland chief standing at bay with a "tail" of foothills defending him;
but as I looked up at Ben Nevis I felt that a clever boy with a catapult
could flip a pebble over the top. And when a little bright-eyed man, who
saw me staring, told me proudly that he had driven an old motor-bike to
the summit, my admiration went out to the machine rather than to the
mountain. And yet the Fort Williamites are proud of their
hill-ridiculously proud. It is odd to read in the record of the Tour which
Pennant made in the eighteenth century that there was then considerable
doubt whether Nevis was really the highest mountain in Britain. In Fort
William, they have no doubt about it to-day. An Englishman, quoting the
poet Southey, once remarked to a shopkeeper in the main street that the
greatest Ben of all was not Nevis-it was Ben Jonson. " Not at all,"
declared the shopkeeper. " Ye're wrong. Ben Nevis has it easy! " I warn
travellers not to be facetious in Fort William at the expense of the
But my disappointment was
soon swallowed up by my delight in the tiny West Highland Museum in the
centre of the town. These two or three rooms are full of Jacobite relics,
among which an enthusiast can browse for days. One of the first things
that caught my eye were the trews-or long hose-that Prince Charlie wore in
Scotland. The cloth is tough and hard, like the stuff used for the kilts
of Highland regiments until the end of last century, when the modern soft
cloth was adopted. The tartan of the Prince's trews is that of plain black
stripes on a red background. In the 'Forty-five, many of the officers were
mounted, so the trews were a more suitable garment than the kilt-a curious
reversal of the habits of the ancient Caledonians, against whom the Romans
fought, for they wore trews on foot and a kind of kilt if they were
I saw that I was not alone
in the Museum. A short man with quick small black eyes was staring at some
letters from the Cluny Charter Chest, and he moved over and peered eagerly
at the Prince's trews.
"The Devil himself was in them!" he said abruptly, and turned away. I was
tempted to ask him if he was referring to the breeks, but he swung back
and glared at me. "Do you know anything about the Stewarts?" he demanded.
I fobbed him off with a
remark about the Stewart kings being gentlemen, even if some of them were
fools, adding that James VI was probably the only cad among the lot, and
he was certainly no fool.
"The Devil was in their
blood," declared the man. "The Devil's chequers were on their
coat-of-arms, and the Devil dogged them to the end."
I admitted that the Devil
seemed to have dogged Prince Charlie, and at this the man snapped his
white restless fingers. As I looked into his bright eyes, I thought he
must be slightly crazed.
"I'm a Stewart myself," he
said, moistening his lips, "and I know what I'm talking about. You don't
believe in destiny, I suppose? No, I thought not. But you're wrong!" He
stared in silence through the window for a few moments, his eyes half
closed, and then pointed to the Prince's clothes in the cabinet at our
side. " The young man who wore these never had a chance," he went on. "The
Devil saw to that. If Charles Edward had won in 1745, there would have
been less of the Devil's work done in this land to-day."
"Perhaps you're right," I
murmured, and began to edge away.
And then he laughed.
"Have you ever thought how
the number seven kept cropping up with Prince Charles?" he asked.
I couldn't understand what
he was driving at, but it was soon made plain.
"Seven!" he repeated.
"Didn't you know that it was his unlucky number? You've heard of the
Association of Seven ? A few years before the 'Fortyfive, seven Jacobites
in Scotland made a band to support the king across the water. Then the
Prince landed here with seven companions. It was seven Macdonalds who
first agreed to help him, and if they hadn't done so there would have been
no Rising. You see how the number seven keeps turning up? After Culloden,
the Seven Men of Glenmoriston swore they would die rather than yield to
the Butcher Cumberland. But I'm not finished, my friend ! Read in your
history books and you'll find that the seventh Steward of the kingdom
became the first Stewart king. There were seven Stewarts on the throne
before Queen Mary, and if Charles Edward had become king he'd have made
another cycle of seven. He'd have been spared his miserable end if he had
fallen at Culloden-and then he would have been the seventh Royal Stewart
to die a violent death. Do you believe now that seven was his unlucky
"It looks like it," I
confessed, now quite certain that the stranger was slightly crazed. I
wondered whether he also believed that Bacon wrote Shakespeare; but I had
no chance to put the question to him, for he snapped his fingers again.
"You may smile, my friend,"
he said, "but I know why seven was his fateful number. It was the fateful
number of all the Stewarts ! Are there not seven letters in the name
Stewart? Count the letters in Charles. Seven again ! What were his
Christian names ? Charles Edward Lewis John Casimir Sylvester Maria-seven
once more ! Coincidence, you say? It is no coincidence. There was a number
seven on the Prince's dice-he was dicing against the Devil himself-and the
"Just a moment " I began,
but he glanced at his watch, a gold hunter with a crest on the lid.
"I wish you good-bye," he
said, and, turning on his heel, he hurried from the room. Slightly dazed
with the odd encounter, I watched him go at a quick walk across the square
below and step into a waiting car. With some curiosity, I asked the
attendant who the stranger was, but the man shook his head.
"I mind he came here two
months ago," he said, and tapped his forehead meaningly.
I spent several happy hours
in that little Museum, which contains relics that surely deserve a better
shrine, but I could not forget the dark eyes of the stranger, and his
earnest voice, and the superstitious nonsense he had talked. When I sat
down to my solitary luncheon in the hotel dining-room, I wished I could
have called him back to show him the bowl of white roses on the table in
front of me. I wonder what dark omen he would have seen in it ! For I
counted the roses, and by an odd coincidence there were seven . . .
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