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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 Standard.

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 main body.

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 printed.

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 Breadalbane.

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 friends indeed!

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 out-by places."

"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 "Ben."

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 mounted.

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 number?"

"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 Devil won."

"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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