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Scenes and Legends of The North of Scotland
Chapter I


“Tradition is a meteor, which, if once it falls, cannot be rekindled.”—Johnson.

Extremes may meet in the intellectual as certainly as in the moral world. I find, in tracing to its first beginnings the slowly accumulated magazine of facts and inferences which forms the stock in trade on which my mind carries on its work of speculation and exchange, that my greatest benefactors have been the philosophic Bacon and an ignorant old woman, who, of all the books ever written, was acquainted with only the Bible.

When a little fellow of about ten or twelve years of age, I was much addicted to reading, but found it no easy matter to gratify the propensity; until, having made myself acquainted with some people in the neighbourhood who were possessed of a few volumes, I was permitted to ransack their shelves, to the no small annoyance of the bookworm and the spider. I read incessantly; and as the appetite for reading, like every other kind of appetite, becomes stronger the more it is indulged, I felt, when. I had consumed the whole, a still keener craving than before. I was quite in the predicament of the shipwrecked sailor, who expends his last morsel when on the open sea, and, like him too, I set myself to prey on my neighbours. Old greyheaded men, and especially old women, became my books ; persons whose minds, not having been preoccupied by that artificial kind of learning which is the result of education, had gradually filled, as they passed through life, with the knowledge of what was occurring around them, and with the information derived from people of a similar cast with themselves, who had been born half an age earlier. And it was not long before I at least thought I discovered that their narratives had only to be translated into the language of books, to render them as interesting as even the better kind of written stories. They abounded with what I deemed as true delineations of character, as pleasing exhibitions of passion, and as striking instances of the vicissitudes of human affairs—with the vagaries of imaginations as vigorous, and the beliefs of superstitions as wild. Alas ! the epitaph of the famous American printer may now be written over the greater part of the volumes of this my second library ; and so unfavourable is the present age to the production of more, that even that wise provision of nature which implants curiosity in the young, while it renders the old communicative, seems abridged of one-half its usefulness. For though the young must still learn, the old need not teach; the press having proved such a supplanter of the past-world schoolmaster, Tradition, as the spinning-wheel proved in the last age to the distaff and spindle. I cannot look back on much more than twenty years of the past; and yet in that comparatively brief space, I see the stream of tradition rapidly lessening as it flows onward, and displaying, like those rivers of Africa which lose themselves in the burning sands of the desert, a broader and more powerful volume as I trace it towards its source.

It has often been a subject of regret to me, that this oral knowledge of the past, which I deem so interesting, should be thus suffered to be lost. The meteor, says my motto, if it once fall, cannot be rekindled. Perhaps had I been as conversant, some five or ten years ago, with the art of the writer as with the narratives of my early monitors, no one at this time of day would have to entertain a similar feeling; but I was not so conversant with it, nor am I yet, and the occasion still remains. The Sibyline tomes of tradition are disappearing in this part of the country one by one; and I find, like Selkirk in his island when the rich fruits of autumn were dropping around him, that if I myself do not preserve them they must perish. I therefore set myself to the task of storing them up as I best may, and urge as my only apology the emergency of the case. Not merely do I regard them as the produce of centuries, and like the blossoms of the Aloe, interesting on this account alone, but also as a species of produce which the harvests of future centuries may fail to supply. True it is, that superstition is a weed indigenous to the human mind, and will spring up in the half-cultivated corners of society in every coming generation ; but then the superstitions of the future may have little in common with those of the past. True it is, that human nature is intrinsically the same in all ages and all countries; but then it is not so with its ever-varying garb of custom and opinion, and never again may it wear this garb in the curious obsolete fashion of a century ago.—Geologists tell us that the earth produced its plants and animals at a time when the very stones of our oldest ruins existed only as mud or sand; but they were certainly not the plants and animals of Linnseus or Buffon.

The traditions of this part of the country, and of perhaps every other, may be divided into three great classes. Those of the first and simplest class are strictly local; they record real events, and owe their chief interest to their delineations of character. Those of the second are pure inventions. They are formed mostly after a set of models furnished perhaps by the later bards, and are common—though varying in different places according to the taste of the several imitators who first introduced them, or the chance alterations which they afterwards received—to almost every district of Scotland. The traditions of the third and most complex class are combinations of the two others, with in some instances a dash of original invention, and in others a mixture of that superstitious credulity which can misconceive as ingeniously as the creative faculty can invent. The value of stories of the first class is generally in proportion to their truth, and there is a simple test by which we may ascertain the degree of credit proper to be attached to them. There is a habit of minute attention almost peculiar to the common people (in no class, at least, is it more perfect than in the commonest), which leads them to take a kind of micro: scopic survey of every object suited to interest them; and hence their narratives of events which have really occurred are as strikingly faithful in all the minor details as Dutch paintings. Not a trait of character, not a shade of circumstance, is suffered to 'escape. Nay more, the dramatis personae of their little histories are almost invariably introduced to tell their own stories in their own language. And though this be the easiest and lowest style of narrative, yet to invent in this style is so far from being either low or easy, that with the exception of Shakspere, and one or two more, I know not any who have excelled in it. Nothing more common than those faithful memories which can record whole conversations, and every attendant circumstance, however minute; nothing less so than that just conception of character and vigour of imagination, which can alone construct a natural dialogue, or depict, with the nice pencil of truth, a scene wholly fictitious. And thus though any one, even the weakest, can mix up falsehoods with the truths related in this way, not one of a million can make them amalgamate. The iron and clay, to use Bacon’s illustration, retain their separate natures, as in the feet of the image, and can as easily be distinguished.

The traditions of the second class, being in most instances only imperfect copies of extravagant and ill-conceived originals, are much less interesting than those of the first; and such of them as are formed on the commoner models, or have already, in some shape or other, been laid before the public, I shall take the liberty of rejecting. A very few of them, however, are of a superior and more local cast, and these I shall preserve. Their merit, such as it is, consists principally in their structure as stories—a merit, I am disposed to think, which, when even at the best, is of no high order. I have observed that there is more of plot and counter-plot in our commonest novels and lowest kind of plays, than in the tales and dramas of our best writers; and what can be more simple than the fables of the Iliad and the Paradise Lost!—From the third class of traditions I trust to derive some of my choicest materials. Like those of the first, they are rich in character and incident, and to what is natural in them and based on fact, there is added, as in Epic poetry, a kind of machinery, supplied either by invention or superstition, or borrowed from the fictions of the bards, or from the old classics. In one or two instances I have met with little strokes of fiction in them, of a similar character with some of even the finest strokes in the latter, but which seem to be rather coincidences of invention, if I may so express myself, than imitations.—There occurs to me a story of this class which may serve to illustrate my meaning.

In the upper part of the parish of Cromarty there is a singularly curious spring, termed Sludach, which suddenly dries up every year early in summer, and breaks out again at the close of autumn. It gushes from the bank with an undiminished volume until within a few hours before it ceases to flow for the season, and bursts forth on its return in a full stream. And it acquired this peculiar character, says tradition, some time in the seventeenth century. On a very warm day of summer, two farmers employed in the adjacent fields were approaching the spring in opposite directions to quench their thirst. One of them was tacksman of the farm on which the spring rises, the other tenanted a neighbouring farm. They had lived for some time previous on no very friendly terms. The tacksman, a coarse, rude man, reached the spring first, and taking a hasty draught, he gathered up a handful of mud, and just as his neighbour came up, flung it into the water. “ Now,” said he, turning away as he spoke, “ you may drink your fill.” Scarcely had he uttered the words, however, when the offended stream began to boil like a caldron, and after bubbling a while among the grass and rushes, sunk into the ground. Next day at noon the heap of grey sand which had been incessantly rising and falling within it, in a little conical jet, for years before, had become as dry as the dust of the fields ; and the strip of white flowering cresses which skirted either side of the runnel that had issued from it, lay withering in the sun. What rendered the matter still more extraordinary, it was found that a powerful spring had burst out on the opposite side of the firth, which at this place is nearly five miles in breadth, a few hours after the Cromarty one had disappeared. The story spread; the tacksman, rude and coarse as he was, was made unhappy by the forebodings of his neighbours, who seemed to regard him as one resting under a curse ; and going to an elderly person in an adjoining parish, much celebrated for his knowledge of the supernatural, he craved his advice. “Repair,” said the seer, “to the old hollow of the fountain, and as nearly as you can guess, at the hour in which you insulted the water, and after clearing it out with a clean linen towel lay yourself down beside it and abide the result.” He did so, and waited on the bank above the hollow from noon until near sunset, when the water came rushing up with a noise like the roar of the sea, scattering the sand for several yards around ; and then, subsiding to its common level, it flowed on as formerly between the double row of cresses. The spring on the opposite side of the firth withdrew its waters about the time of the rite of the cleansing, and they have not since re-appeared ; while those of Sludach, from that day to the present, are presented, as if in scorn, during the moister seasons, when no one regards them as valuable, and withheld in the seasons of drought, when they would be prized. We recognise in this singular tradition a kind of soul or Naiad of the spring, susceptible of offence, and conscious of the attentions paid to it; and the passage of the waters beneath the sea reminds us of the river Alpheus sinking at Peloponnesus to rise in Sicily.

Next in degree to the pleasure I have enjoyed in collecting these traditions, is the satisfaction which I have felt in contemplating the various cabinets, if I may so speak, in which I found them stored up according to their classes. For I soon discovered that the different sorts of stories were not lodged indiscriminately in every sort of mind—the people who cherished the narratives of one particular class frequently rejecting those of another. I found, for instance, that the traditions of the third class, with all their machinery of wraiths and witches, were most congenial to the female mind; and I think I can now perceive that this was quite in character. Women, taken in the collective, are more poetical, more timid, more credulous than men. If we but add to these general traits one or two that are less so, and a few very common circumstances ; if we but add a judgment not naturally vigorous, an imagination more than commonly active, an ignorance of books and of the world, a long-cherished belief in the supernatural, a melancholy old age, and a solitary fireside—we have compounded the elements of that terrible poetry which revels among skulls, and coffins, and enchantments, as certainly as Nature did when she moulded the brain of a Shakspere. The stories of the second class I have almost never found in communion with those of the third ; and never heard well told—except as jokes. To tell a story avowedly untrue, and to tell it as a piece of humour, requires a very different cast of mind from that which characterized the melancholy people who were the grand depositories of the darker traditions: they entertained these only because they deemed them mysterious and very awful truths, while they regarded open fictions as worse than foolish. Nor were their own stories better received by a third sort of persons, from whom I have drawn some of my best traditions of the first class, and who were mostly shrewd, sagacious men, who, having acquired such a tinge of scepticism as made them ashamed of the beliefs of their weaker neighbours, were yet not so deeply imbued with it as to deem these beliefs mere matters of amusement. They did battle with them both in themselves and the people around them, and found the contest too serious an affair to be laughed at. Now, however (and the circumstance is characteristic), the successors of this order of people venture readily enough on telling a good ghost story, when they but get one to tell. Superstition, so long as it was living superstition, they deemed, like the live tiger in his native woods, a formidable, mischievous thing, fit only to be destroyed ; but now that it has perished, they possess themselves of its skin and. its claws, and store them up in their cabinets.

I have thus given a general character of the contents of my departed library, and the materials of my proposed work. My stories form a kind of history of the district of country to which they belong—hence the title I have chosen for them ; and, to fill up some of those interstices which must always be occurring in a piece of history purely traditional, I shall avail myself of all the little auxiliary facts with which books may supply me. The reader, however, need be under no apprehension of meeting much he was previously acquainted with ; and, should I succeed in accomplishing what I have purposed, the local aspect of my work may not militate against its interest. Human nature is not exclusively displayed in the histories of only great countries, or in the actions of only celebrated men; and human nature may be suffered to assert its claim on the attention of the beings who partake of it, even though the specimens exhibited be furnished by the traditions of an obscure village. Much, however, depends on the manner in which a story is told ; and thus far I may vouch for the writer. I have seriously resolved not to be tedious, unless I cannot help it; and so, if I do not prove amusing, it will be only because I am unfortunate enough to be dull. I shall have the merit of doing my best—and what writer ever did more? I pray the reader, however, not to form any very harsh opinion of me for at least the first four chapters, and to be not more than moderately critical on the two or three that follow. There is an obscurity which hangs over the beginnings of all history—a kind of impalpable fog—which the writer can hardly avoid transferring from the first openings of his subject to the first pages of his book. He sees through this haze the men of an early period “like trees walking;” and, even should he believe them to be beings of the same race with himself, and of nearly the same shape and size—a belief not always entertained—it is impossible for him, from the atmosphere which surrounds them, to catch those finer traits of form and feature by which he could best identify them with the species. And hence a necessary lack of interest.


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