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Scenes and Legends of The North of Scotland
Chapter II

“ Consider it warilie; read aftiner than anis.”—Gavin Douglas.

The histories of single districts of country rarely ascend into so remote an antiquity as to be lost like those of nations in the ages of fable. It so happens, however, whether fortunately or otherwise, for the writer, that in this respect the old shire of Cromarty differs from every other in the kingdom. Sir Thomas Urquhart, an ingenious native of the district, who flourished about the middle of the seventeenth century, has done for it all that the chroniclers and senachies of England and Ireland have done for their respective countries; and as he united to a vigorous imagination a knowledge of what is excellent in character, instead of peopling it with the caco-demons of the one kingdom, or the resuscitated antediluvians of the other, he has bestowed upon it a longer line of heroes and demigods than can be exhibited by the annals of either. I avail myself of his writings on the strength of that argument which O’Flaherty uses in his Ogygia as an apology for the story of the three fishermen who were driven by tempest into a haven of Ireland fifteen days before the universal deluge. “ Where there is no room,” says this historian, “ for just disquisition, and no proper field of inquiry, we must rely on the common suffrages of the writers of our country; to whose opinions I voluntarily subscribe.”

Alypos, the forty-third in a direct line from Japhet, was the first, says Sir Thomas, who discovered that part of Scotland which has since been known by the name of Cromarty. He was contemporary with Rehoboam, the fourth king of Israel, and a very extraordinary personage, independent of his merits as a navigator. For we must regard him as constituting a link* which divides into ancestors and descendants—a chain that depends unbroken from the creation of Adam to the present times; and which either includes in itself, or serves to connect by its windings and involutions, some of the most famous people of every age of the world. His grandmother was a daughter of Calcido the Tyrian, who founded Carthage, and who must have lived several ages before the Dido of Virgil; his mother travelled from a remote eastern country to profit by the wisdom of Solomon, and is supposed by many, says Sir Thomas, to have been the queen of Sheba. Nor were his ancestors a whit less happy in their friends than in their consorts. There was one of them intimately acquainted with Nimrod, the founder of the Assyrian Empire, and the builder of Babel; another sat with Abraham in the door of his tent, sharing with him his feelings of sorrow and horror when the fire of destruction was falling on the cities of the plain; a third, after accompanying Bacchus in his expedition to the Indies, and receiving from him in marriage the hand of Thymelica his daughter, was presented with a rich jewel when passing through Syria, by Deborah, the judge and prophetess of Israel. The gem might have been still in the family had not one of his descendants given it to Penthesilea, that queen of the Amazons who assisted the Trojans against Agamemnon. Buchanan has expressed his astonishment that the chroniclers of Britain, instead of appropriating to themselves honourable ancestors out of the works of the poets, should rather, through a strange perversity, derive their lineage from the very refuse of nations: Sir Thomas seems to have determined not to furnish a similar occasion of surprise to any future historian. There were princes of his family who reigned with honour over Achaia and Spain, and a long line of monarchs who flourished in Ireland before the expedition of Fergus I.

The era of Alypos was one of the most important in the history of Britain. It was that in which the inhabitants first began to build cities, and to distinguish their several provinces by different names. It witnessed the erection of the city of York by one Elborak, a brother-in-law of Alypos, and saw the castle of Edinburgh founded by a contemporary chieftain of Scotland, who had not the happiness of being connected to him, and whose name has therefore been lost. The historian assigns, too, to the same age the first use of the term Olbion as a name for the northern division of the island—a term which afterwards, “by an Eolic dialect,” came to be pronounced Albion, or Albyn; and the first application of the name Sutors, from the Greek canigsg, preservers, to those lofty promontories which guard the entrance of the bay of Cromarty—a fact which Aik-man the historian recommends, with becoming gravity, to the consideration of Gaelic etymologists. Much of a similar character, as appears from Sir Thomas, could have been brought under their notice in the reign of Charles I., when, as he states in one of his treatises, the names of all places in the shire of Cromarty, whether promontories, fountains, rivers, or lakes, were of pure and perfect Greek. Since that time, however, many of these names have been converted into choice trophies of the learning and research of those very etymologists;—even the derivation of the term Sutors has been disputed, but by the partisans of languages less ancient than either Greek or Gaelic. The one party write the contested dissyllable Suitors, the other Soutars, and defend their different modes of spelling each by a different legend—a species of argument practised at one time with much ingenuity and success by the contending Orders of St. Dominic and Loyola.

The promontories which bear this name are‘nearly equal in height, but when viewed from the west they differ considerably in appearance. The one, easy of access, crowned with a thick wood of pine, divided into corn-fields, and skirted at the base by a broad line of ash and elm, seems feminine in its character; while the other, abrupt, stem, broken into precipices, and tufted with furze, is of a cast as decidedly masculine. Two lovers of some remote age, had met by appointment in a field of Cromarty which commands a full view of the promontories in the aspect described. The young man urged his suit with the characteristic warmth of his sex—his mistress was timid and bashful. He accused her of indifference; and with all the fervour of a passion which converts even common men into poets, he exclaimed, pointing to the promontories, “ See, Ada! they too are lovers—they are hastening to embrace; and stern and rugged as that carle-hill of the north may seem to others, he is not reckoned so by his lady-hill of the south;—see how, with all her woods and her furrows, she advances to meet him.”— “And think you,” rejoined the maiden, entering into the poetry of the feeling, “that these tongueless suitors cannot express their mutual regards without the aid of language; or that that carle of the north, rude as he is, would once think of questioning the faith and affection of his advancing mistress, merely because she advances in silence?” Her reply, say the people who contend for the English derivation of the word, furnished the promontories with a name; and as those alchemists of mind who can transmute etymology into poetry have not been produced everywhere, few names have anecdotes equally pleasing connected with their origin. The other legend is of a different character, and has a merit peculiar to itself, to be amenable to any known law of criticism.

In some age of the world more remote than even that of Alypos, the whole of Britain was peopled by giants—a fact amply supported by early English historians and the traditions of the north of Scotland. Diocletian, king of Syria, say the historians, had thirty-three daughters, who, like the daughters of Danaus, killed their husbands on their wedding night. The king, their father, in abhorrence of the crime, crowded them all into a ship, which he abandoned to the mercy of the waves, and which was drifted by tides and winds till it arrived on the coast of Britain, then an uninhabited island. There they lived solitary, subsisting on roots and berries, the natural produce of the soil, until an order of demons, becoming enamoured of them, took them for their wives; and a tribe of giants, who must be regarded as the true aborigines of the country, if indeed the demons have not a prior claim, were the fruit of these marriages. Less fortunate, however, than even their prototypes the Cyclops, the whole tribe was extirpated a few ages after by Brutus the parricide, who, with a valour to which mere bulk could render no effectual resistance, overthrew Gog-Magog, and Termagol, and a whole host of others, with names equally terrible. Tradition is less explicit than the historians in what relates to the origin and extinction of the race, but its narratives of their prowess are more minute. There is a large and very ponderous stone -in the parish of Edderton, which a giantess of the tribe is said to have flung from the point of a spindle across the Dornoch Firth; and another within a few miles of Dingwall, still larger and more ponderous, which was thrown from a neighbouring eminence by a person of the same family, and which still bears the marks of a gigantic finger and thumb impressed on two of its sides. The most wonderful, however, of all their achievements was that of a lady, distinguished even among the tribe as the Cailliachmore, or great woman, who, from a pannier filled with earth and stones, which she carried on her back, formed almost all the hills of Ross-shire. "When standing on the site of the huge Ben-Vaichard, the bottom of the pannier is said to have given way, and the contents falling through the opening, produced the hill, which owes its great height and vast extent of base to the accident. Prior to the invasion of Brutus, the promontories of Cromarty served as work-stools to two giants of this tribe, who supplied their brethren with shoes and buskins. They wrought together; for, being furnished with only one set of implements, they could not carry on their trade apart; and these, when needed, they used to fling to each other across the opening of the firth, where the promontories are only about two miles asunder. In process of time the name Soutar, a shoemaker, was transferred by a common metonymy from the craftsmen to their stools— the two promontories; and by this name they have ever since been distinguished. Such are the etymological legends of the Sutors, opposed each to the other, and both to the scholarlike derivation of Sir Thomas ; which must be confessed, however, to have been at one time a piece of mere commonplace, though it has since become learning.

I have seen in 'the museum of the Northern Institution a very complete collection of stone battle-axes, some of which were formed little earlier than the last age by the rude natives of America and the South Sea Islands; while others, which had been dug out of the cairns and tumuli of our own country, witnessed to the unrecorded feuds and forgotten battle-fields of twenty centuries ago. I was a good deal struck by the resemblance which they bore to each other—a resemblance so complete, that the most practised eye could hardly distinguish between the weapons of the old Scot and those of the New Zealander. Both seemed to have selected the same rude materials, employed the same imperfect implements, and wrought after the same uncouth model. But man in a savage state is the same animal everywhere, and his constructive powers, whether employed in the formation of a legendary story or of a battle-axe, seem to expatiate almost everywhere in the same rugged track of invention. For even the traditions of this first stage may be identified, like its weapons of war, all the world over. Mariner, in his account of the Tonga Islands, tells us that the natives pointed out to him a perforated rock, in the hollow of which, they said, one of their gods, when employed in fishing, entangled his hook, and that, pulling lustily to disengage it, he pulled up the whole island (one of the largest of the group) from the bottom of the sea. Do not this singular story, and the wild legend of Ben-Vaichard, though the product of ages and countries so widely separated, belong obviously to the same rude stage of invention

There may be some little interest in tracing the footprints of what I may term the more savage traditions of a country in the earlier pages of its history, and in marking how they blend with its imperfect narratives of real but ill-remembered events, on the one hand, and its mutilated imitations of the masterpieces of a classical literature, on the other. The fabulous pages of English history furnish, when regarded in this point of view, a not uninteresting field to the legendary critic. They are suited to remind him of those huts of the wild Arab, composed of the fragments of ruined grandeur which the traveller finds amid the ruins of Palmyra or Balbec, and in which, as he prosecutes his researches, he sees the capital totter over the architrave, the base overtop the capital, masses of turf heaped round the delicate volute, which emulated in granite the curled tresses of a beautiful female, and the marble foliage of the acanthus crushed by the rude joist which bends under a roof of clay and rushes. Perhaps the reader may indulge me in a few brief remarks on this rather curious subject.

Diocletian, the Syrian king of the English legend, is, as Buchanan justly remarks, a second Danaus, and owes his existence to the story of his prototype; but the story of the marriages of his daughters with an order of demons, which, according to that historian, the English have invented through a pride of emulating the Gauls and Germans, who derive their lineage from Pluto, does not appear to me to be so legitimately traced to its original. The oldest of all the traditions of Britain seem to be those which describe it as peopled at some remote era by giants;—they are the broken vestiges, it is possible, of those incidents of Mosaic history which are supposed to be shadowed out in the fables of the giants of Grecian mythology, or they are perhaps mutilated remains of the fables themselves. It seems more probable, however, that they should have originated in that belief, common to the vulgar of all countries, that the race of men is degenerating in size and prowess with every succeeding generation, and that at some early period their bulk and strength must have been gigantic. Judging of them from their appearance, they must have been known in a very early age—an age as early perhaps as that of the stone battle-axe; and what more probable than that they should have attracted the notice of the chroniclers, who would naturally consult tradition for the materials of their first pages? But tradition, though it records the achievements of the giants, is silent respecting their origin. A first link would therefore be wanting, which could only be supplied by imagination; and as, like every other class of writers, the chroniclers would find it easier to imitate than to invent, it is not difficult to conceive how, after having learned in their cloisters that in an early age of the world the sons of God had contracted marriages with the daughters of men, and that heroes and giants were the fruit of the connexion—they should blend a legend imitative of the event with the stories of the giants of Britain. Their next employment, for it would be too bold an attempt to link so terrible a tribe to the people of their own times, would be to show how this tribe became extinct, and the manner in which the country was first peopled with men like themselves.

There is but one way in which anything probable can be acquired concerning the origin of a people who have no early history; but the process is both difficult and laborious. There is another sufficiently easy, which barely reaches the possible, and which the historians of eight hundred years ago would have deemed the more eligible of the two. Instead of setting themselves to ascertain those circumstances by which the several families of men are distinguished, or to compare the language, character, and superstitions of the people of their own country with those of the various tribes of the Continent, they would apply for such assistance as the imitator derives from his copy, to the histories of other kingdoms. From their connexion with the Latin Church they would be conversant with Roman literature, and acquainted with the story of AEneas as related by the historians, and amplified and adorned by Virgil. And thus, what may be termed the third link of their history, has come to bear a discernible resemblance to the early history of Rome. The occasion of the wanderings of Brutus resembles that of the expatriation of Tydeus, or rather that of the madness of AEdipus, but he is the AEneas of England notwithstanding. His history is a kind of national epic. Cornseus is his Achates. He finds hostile Rutulians, headed by a Tumus, in the giants and their leader; and Britain is both his Italy and his Trinacria, though, instead of fleeing from the Cyclops, he conquers them.

The legend of Scotland may also be regarded as a national epic. It is formed on the same model with the story of Brutus, but it has the merit of being a somewhat more skilful imitation, and there is'nothing outrageously improbable in any of its circumstances. Galethus, its hero, is the AEneas of Scotland. He was the son of Cecrops, the founder of Athens, and, like Romulus, made himself famous as a captain of robbers before he became the founder of a nation. Having repeatedly invaded Macedonia and the neighbouring provinces of Greece, he was in imminent danger of being overpowered by a confederacy of the states he had injured, when, assembling his friends and followers, he retreated into Egypt, at- a time when that kingdom was ravaged from its southern boundary to the gates of Memphis by an army of Ethiopians. Assuming on the sudden a new character, he joined his forces to those of Pharaoh, gave battle to the invaders, routed them with much slaughter, pursued them into Ethiopia, and after a succession of brilliant victories over them, compelled them to sue for peace. On his return he was presented by the king with the hand' of his daughter Scota, and made general in chief of all the forces of the kingdom. Disgusted, however, by the cruelties practised on the Israelites, and warned by Moses and an oracle of the judgments by which these cruelties were to be punished, he fitted out a fleet, and, accompanied by great numbers of Greeks and Egyptians, set sail from the river Nile with the intention of forming a settlement on the shores of the Mediterranean. After a tedious voyage he arrived at a port of Numidia, where no better success awaited him than was met with by AEneas in the scene of his first colony. Again putting to sea, he passed the Pillars of Hercules, and after having experienced in the navigation of the straits dangers similar to those which appalled Ulysses when passing through the Straits of Messina, he landed in that part of Spain which has ever since been known by the name of Portugal. He found in this country a second Tiber in the river Munda, and a fierce army of Rutulians in the inhabitants. But his good fortune did not desert him. He vanquished his enemies in one decisive battle, dispossessed them of their fairest provinces, built cities, instituted laws, conquered and colonized Ireland, and, dying after a long and prosperous reign, left his kingdom to his children. Prior to his decease, his subjects, both Greeks and Egyptians, were termed Scots, from their having sunk their original designations in that name, out of courtesy to their Queen Scota—a name afterwards transferred to Albyn by a colony from Ireland, who took possession of it a few ages subsequent to the age of Galethus. Such is the fable of what may be regarded both as the historic epic of Scotland, and as the most classical of all the imitations of the AEneid which were fabricated during the middle ages.

Sir Thomas has recorded nothing further of his ancestor Alypos, than that he followed up his discovery of Cromarty by planting it with a colony of his countrymen, who, though some of his ancestors had settled in Portugal several ages before, seem to have been Greeks. Of sixteen of his immediate descendants, it is only known that they were born, and that they married—some of them finding honourable consorts in Ireland, some in Greece, and one in Italy. The wife of that one was a sister of Marcus Coriolanus—a daughter of Agesilaus the Spartan, a daughter of Simeon Breck, the first crowned king of the Irish Scots, a daughter of Alcibiades, the friend and pupil of Socrates, and a niece of Lycurgus the lawgiver, were wives to some of the others. Never was there a family that owed more to its marriages.

Nomaster, the son-in-law of Alcibiades, disgusted by the treatment which that great but ambitious statesman had received from his country, took leave of Greece, and, “ after many dangerous voyages both by sea and land, he arrived at the harbour Ochoner, now called Cromarty.” It owed its more ancient name to Bestius Ochoner, one of the sixteen immediate descendants of Alypos, and the father, says the genealogist,, of the Irish O’Connors; the name which it now bears is derived by Gaelic etymologists from the windings and indentations of its shores. Nomaster, immediately on his landing, was recognised by the colonists as their legitimate prince, and he reigned over them till his death, when he was succeeded by his son Astorimon, a valiant and accomplished warrior, in whom the genius and heroism of his grandfather seem to have been revived. And the events of his time were suited to find employment. For in this age an immense body of Scythians, after voyaging along the shores of Europe in quest of a settlement, were incited by the great natural riches of the country to make choice of Scotland; and, pouring in upon its western coasts, they dispossessed the natives of some of their fairest provinces. But the little territory of Astorimon, though one of the invaded, was not one of the conquered provinces. The Scythians, under Ethus their general, intrenched upon an extensive moor, which now forms the upper boundary of the parish of Cromarty; and the grandson of Alcibiades drew out his forces to oppose them. A battle ensued, in which the Scythian general was killed in single combat by Astorimon; and his followers, dispirited by his death, and unable to contend with an army trained to every evolution of Greek and Roman discipline, were routed with immense slaughter. The Scythians afterwards became famous as the Picts of Scottish history; and Ethus, their leader, is reckoned their first king. Sir Thomas, to the details of this battle, which he terms the great battle of Farna, has added, that “the trenches, head-quarters, and castrametation” of the invading army can still be traced on a moor of Cromarty.

This moor, which formed a few years ago an unappropriated common, but which was lately divided among the proprietors whose lands border on it, has evidently at some remote period been a field of battle. It is sprinkled over with tumuli and little heathy ridges resembling the graves of a churchyard. The southern shore of the Cromarty Firth runs almost parallel to it for nearly fourteen miles; and upon a hill in the parish of Resolis, which rises between it and the firth, and which is separated from it by a deep valley, there are the vestiges of Danish encampments. And there is perhaps scarcely an eminence in Scotland on which in the early ages an invading army could have encamped with more advantage than on this hill, or a moor upon which the invaders could have been met with on more equal terms than on the moor adjacent. The eminence is detached on the one side from the other rising grounds of the country by a valley, the bottom of which is occupied by a bog, and it commands on the other an extensive bay, in which whole fleets may ride with safety; while the neighbouring moor is of great extent, and has few inequalities of surface. Towards its eastern boundary, about six miles from the town of Cromarty, there is a huge heap of stones, which from time immemorial has been known to the people of the place as The Grey Cairn, a name equally descriptive of other lesser cairns in its vicinity, but which with the aid of the definite article serves to distinguish it. Not more than thirty years ago the stones of a similar cairn of the moor were carried away for building by a farmer of the parish. There were found on their removal human bones of a gigantic size, among the rest a skull sufficiently capacious, according to the description of a labourer employed by the farmer, to contain “two lippies of beer.”

About fifteen years ago, a Cromarty fisherman was returning from Inverness by a road which for several miles skirts the upper edge of the moor, and passes within a few yards of the cairn. Night overtook him ere he had half completed his journey; but, after an interval of darkness, the moon, nearly at full, rose over the eminence on his right, and restored to him the face of the country—the hills which he had passed before evening, but which, faint and distant, were sinking as he advanced, the wood which, bordering his road on the one hand, almost reached him with its shadow, and the bleak, unvaried, interminable waste, which, stretching away on the other, seemed lost in the horizon. After he had entered on the moor, the stillness which, at an earlier stage of his journey, had occasionally been broken by the distant lowing of cattle, or the bark of a shepherd’s dog, was interrupted by only his own footsteps, which, from the nature of the soil, sounded hollow as if he trod over a range of vaults, and by the low monotonous murmur of the neighbouring wood. As he approached the cairn, however, a noise of a different kind began to mingle with the other two; it was one with which his profession had made him well acquainted—that of waves breaking against a rock. The nearest shore was fully three miles distant, the nearest cliff more than five, and yet he could hear wave after wave striking as if against a precipice, then dashing upwards, and anon descending, as distinctly as he had ever done when passing in his boat beneath the promontories of Cromarty. On coming up to the cairn, his astonishment was converted into terror.—Instead of the brown heath, with here and there a fir seedling springing out of it he saw a wide tempestuous sea stretching before him; with the large pile of stones frowning over it, like one of the Hebrides during the gales of the Equinox. The pile appeared as if half enveloped in cloud and spray, and two large vessels, with all their sheets spread to the wind, were sailing round it.

The writer of these chapters had the good fortune to witness at this cairn a scene which, without owing anything to the supernatural, almost equalled the one described. He was, like the fisherman, returning from Inverness to Cromarty in a clear frosty night in December. There was no moon, but the whole sky towards the north was glowing with the Aurora Borealis, which, shooting from the horizon to the central heavens, in flames tinged with all the hues of the rainbow, threw so strong a light, that he could have counted every tree of the wood, and every tumulus of the moor. There is a long hollow morass which runs parallel to the road for nearly a mile;—it was covered this evening by a dense fleece of vapour raised by the frost, and which, without ascending, was rolling over the moor before a light breeze. It had reached the cairn, and the detached clump of seedlings which springs up at its base.—The seedlings rising out of the vapour appeared like a fleet of ships, with their sails dropping against their masts, on a sea where there were neither tides nor winds;—the cairn, grey with the moss and lichens of forgotten ages, towered over it like an island of that sea.

But I daresay I have imparted to the reader more of the fabulous history of Cromarty than he will well know how to be grateful for. One other remark, however, in better language, and a more vigorous style of thinking than my own, and I shall have done;—it may show that Sir Thomas, however unique as a man, forms, as a historian, only one of a class.

“The last century,” says the philosophic Gibbon, “abounded with antiquarians of profound learning and easy faith, who, by the dim light of legends and traditions, of conjectures and etymologies, conducted the great-grandchildren of Noah from the tower of Babel to the extremities of the globe. Of these judicious critics,” continues the historian, “one of the most entertaining was Olaus Rudbeck, professor in the university of Upsal. Whatever is celebrated either in history or fable, this zealous patriot ascribes to his country. From Sweden, the Greeks themselves derived their alphabetical characters, their astronomy, and their religion. Of that delightful region (for so it appeared to the eyes of a native), the Atlantis of Plato, the country of the Hyperboreans, the Garden of the Hesperides, the Fortunate Islands, and even the Elysian fields, were all but faint and imperfect, transcripts. A clime so profusely favoured by nature could not long remain desert after the flood. The learned Rudbeck allows the family of Noah a few years to multiply from eight to about twenty thousand persons. He then disperses them into small colonies to replenish the earth and to propagate the human species. The Swedish detachment (which marched, if I am not mistaken, under the command of Askenos,. the son of Gomer, the son of Japhet, distinguished itself by more than common diligence in the prosecution of this great work. The northern hive cast its swarms over the greater part of Europe, Africa, and Asia; and (to use the author’s metaphor), the blood circulated from the extremities to the heart.”

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