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Scenes and Legends of The North of Scotland
Chapter VI


"Subtill muldrie wrocht mony day agone.”—Gavin Douglass.

As house after house in the old town of Cromarty was yielding its place to the sea, the inhabitants were engaged in building new dwellings for themselves in the fields behind. A second town was thus formed, the greater part of which has since also disappeared, though under the influence of causes less violent than those which annihilated the first. Shortly after the Union, the trade of the place, which prior to that event had been pretty considerable, fell into decay, and the town gradually dwindled in size and importance until about the year 1750, when it had sunk into an inconsiderable village. After this period, however, trade began to revive, and the town again to increase; and as the old site was deemed inconveniently distant from the harbour, it was changed for the present. The main street of this second town, which is still used as a road, and bears the name of the Old Causeway, is situated about two hundred yards to the east of the houses, and is now bounded by the fences of gardens and fields, with here and there an antique-looking, high-gabled domicile rising over it. A row of large trees, which have sprung up since the disappearance of the town, rims along one of the fences.

About the beginning of the last century, the Old Causeway presented an aspect which, though a little less rural than at present, was still more picturesque. An irregular line of houses thrust forward their gables on either side, like two parties of ill-trained cavalry drawn up for the charge;—some jutted forward, others slunk backward, some slanted sideways, as if meditating a retreat, others, as if more decided, seemed in the act of turning round. They varied in size and character, from the little sod-covered cottage, with round moor stones sticking out of its mud walls, like skulls in the famous pyramid of Malta, to the tall narrow house of three storeys, with its court and gateway. Between every two buildings there intervened a deep narrow close, bounded by the back of one tenement and the front of another, and terminating in a little oblong garden, fringed with a deep border of nettles, and bearing in the centre plots of cabbage and parsnips;—the latter being a root much used before the introduction of the potato. Here and there a gigantic ash or elm sprung out of the fence, and shot its ponderous arms over the houses. A low door, somewhat under five feet, and a few stone steps which descended from the level of the soil to that of the floor (for the latter was invariably sunk from one to three feet beneath the former), gave access to each of the meaner class of buildings. One little window, with the sill scarcely raised above the pavement, fronted the street, another, still smaller and equally low, opened to the close: they admitted through their unbevelled apertures and diminutive panes of brownish-yellow, a sort of umbery twilight, which even the level sunbeams, as they fell at eve or morn in long rules athwart the motty atmosphere within, scarce served to dissipate. An immense chimney, designed for the drying of fish, which formed the staple food of the poorer inhabitants, stretched from the edge of the window in the gable to near the opposite wall; and on the huge black lintel were inscribed, in rude characters, the name of the builder of the tenement, and that of his wife, with the date of the erection. The walls, naked and uneven, were hollowed in several places into little square recesses, termed bowels or boles; and at a height of not more than six feet above the floor, which was formed of clay and stone, and marvellously uneven, were the bare rafters varnished over with smoke.

The larger houses were built in a style equally characteristic of the age and country. A taste for ornamental masonry was considerably more prevalent in our Scottish villages about the beginning of the seventeenth century than at present. Palladio began to be studied about that period by a few architects of the southern parts of the kingdom; and some of our provincial builders had picked up from them an imperfect acquaintance with the old classical style of architecture : but as they could avail themselves of only a few of its forms, and knew nothing of its proportions, they became, all unwittingly, the founders of a kind of school of their own. And some of the houses of the old town were no bad specimens of this half Grecian half Gothic school. The high narrow gables, jagged like the teeth of a saw, the diminutive, heavily-framed windows, and chamfered rybats, remained unaltered; but there were stuck round the low doors, which still retained their Gothic proportions, imitations of Palladio’s simpler door-pieces; and huge Grecian cornices, more than sufficiently massy for halls twenty feet in height, with circular pateras designed in the same taste, and roughened with vile imitations of the vine and laurel, adorned the better rooms within. The closes leading to buildings of this superior class were lintelled at the entrance, and over each lintel there was fixed a tablet of stone, bearing the arms and name of the proprietor. A large house of this kind, on the eastern side of the street, was haunted, it was said, by a green lady, one of the old Scottish spectres, who flourished before the introduction of shrouds and dead linens ; and another on the opposite side, by a capricious brownie, who disarranged the pieces of furniture and the platters every night the domestics set them in order, and set them in order every night they were left disarranged. Directly in the middle of the street stood the town’s cross, over the low-browed entrance of a stone vault, furnished with seats, also of stone. The formidable jougs depended from one of the abutments. A little higher up was the jail, an antique ruinous structure, with stone floors, and a roof of ponderous grey slate. The manse, a mean-looking house of two low storeys, with very small windows, and bearing above the door the initials of the first Protestant minister of the parish, nearly fronted it: while the only shop of the place was situated so much lower down, that, like the houses of the earlier town, it was carried away by the sea during a violent storm from the north-east. There mingled with the other domiciles a due proportion of roofless tenements, with their red weather-wasted gables, and melancholy-looking unframed windows and doors; and, as trade decayed, even the more entire began to fall to pieces, and to show, like so many mouldering carcasses, their bare ribs through the thatch. Such was the old town of Cromarty in the year 1720.

Directly behind the site of the old town, the ground, as described in a previous chapter, rises abruptly from the level to the height of nearly a hundred feet, after which it forms a kind of table-land of considerable extent, and then sweeps gently to the top of the hill. A deep ravine, with a little stream running through it, intersects the rising ground at nearly right angles with the front which it presents to the houses; and on the eastern angle, towering over the ravine on the one side, and the edge of the bank on the other, stood the old castle of Cromarty. It was a massy, time-worn building, rising in some places to the height of six storeys, battlemented at the top, and roofed with grey stone. One immense turret jutted out from the corher, which occupied the extreme point of the angle; and looking down from an altitude of at least one hundred and sixty feet on the little stream, and the struggling row of trees which sprung up at its edge, commanded both sides of the declivity, and the town below. Other turrets of smaller size, but pierced like the larger one with rows of little circular apertures, which in the earlier ages had given egress to the formidable bolt, and in the more recent, when the crossbow was thrown away for the petronel, to the still more formidable, bullet, were placed by pairs on the several projections that stood out from the main body of the building, and were connected by hanging bartisans. There is a tradition that some time in the seventeenth century a party of Highlanders, engaged in some predatory enterprise, approached so near the castle on this side, that their leader, when in the act of raising his arm to direct their march, was shot at from one of the turrets and killed, and that the party, wrapping up the body in their plaids, carried it away.

The front of the castle opened to the lawn, from which it was divided by a dry moat, nearly filled with rubbish, and a high wall indented with embrasures, and pierced by an arched gateway. Within was a small court, flagged with stone, and bounded on one of the sides by a projection from the main building, bartisaned and turreted like all the others, but only three storeys in height, and so completely fallen into decay that the roof and all the floors had disappeared. From the level of the court, a flight of stone steps led to the vaults below; another flight of greater breadth, and bordered on both sides by an antique balustrade, ascended to the entrance; and the architect, aware of the importance of this part of the building, had so contrived it, that a full score of loopholes in the several turrets and outjets which commanded the court, opened directly on the landing-place. Round the entrance itself there jutted a broad, grotesquely-proportioned moulding, somewhat resembling an old-fashioned picture-frame, and directly over it there was a square tablet of dark blue stone, bearing in high relief the arms of the old proprietors ; but the storms of centuries had defaced all the nicer strokes of the chisel, and the lady with her palm and dagger, the boars’ heads, and the greyhounds, were transformed into so many attenuated spectres of their former selves;— no unappropriate emblem of the altered fortunes of the house. The windows, small and narrow, and barred with iron, were thinly sprinkled over the front: and from the lintel of each there rose a triangular cap of stone, fretted at the edges, and terminating at the top in two knobs fashioned into the rude semblance of thistles. Initials and dates were inscribed in raised characters on these triangular tablets. The aspect of the whole pile was one of extreme antiquity. Flocks of crows and jays, that had built their nests in the recesses of the huge tusked cornices which ran along the bartisans, wheeled ceaselessly around the gables and the turrets, awakening with their clamorous cries the echoes of the roof. The walls, grey and weather-stained, were tapestried in some places with sheets of ivy; and an ash sapling, which had struck its roots into the crevices of the outer wall, rose like a banner over the half dilapidated gateway.

The. castle, for several years before its demolition, was tenanted by only an old female domestic, and a little girl whom she had hired to sleep with her. I have been told by the latter, who, at the time when I knew her, was turned of seventy, that two threshers could have plied their flails within the huge chimney of the kitchen ; and that in the great hall, an immense dark chamber lined with oak, a party of a hundred men had exercised at the pike. The lower vaults she had never the temerity to explore; they were dark and gousty, she said, and the slits which opened into them were nearly filled up with long rank grass. Some of her stories of the castle associated well with the fantastic character of its architecture, and the ages of violence and superstition which had passed over it. A female domestic who had lived in it before the woman she was acquainted with, and who was foolhardy enough to sleep in it alone, was frightened one night out of her wits, and never again so far recovered them as to be able to tell for what. At times there would echo through the upper apartments a series of noises, as if a very weighty man was pacing the floors; and “Oh,” said my informant, “if you could but have heard the shrieks, and moans, and long whistlings, that used to come sounding in the stormy evenings of winter from the chimneys and the turrets. Often have I listened to them as I lay a-bed, with the clothes drawn over my face.” Her companion was sitting one day in a little chamber at the foot of the great stair, when, hearing a tapping against the steps, she opened the door. The light was imperfect—it was always twilight in the old castle—but she saw, she said, as distinctly as ever she saw any thing, a small white animal resembling a rabbit, rolling from step to step, head over heels, and dissolving, as it bounded over the last step, into a wreath of smoke. On another occasion, a Cromarty shoemaker, when passing along the front of the building in a morning of summer, was horrified by the apparition of a very diminutive, greyheaded, greybearded old man, with a withered meagre face scarcely bigger than one’s fist, that seemed seated at one of the windows. On returning by the same path about half an hour after, just as the sun was rising out of the Firth, he saw the same figure wringing its hands over a little cairn in a neighbouring thicket, but he had not courage enough to go up to it.

The scene of all these terrors has long since disappeared ; the plough and roller have passed over its foimdations ; and all that it recorded of an ancient and interesting, though unfortunate family, with its silent though impressive narratives of the unsettled lives, rude manners, uncouth tastes, and warlike habits of our ancestors, has also perished. It was pulled down by a proprietor of Cromarty, who had purchased the property a few years before ; and, as he was engaged at the time in building a set of offices and a wall to his orchard, the materials it furnished proved a saving to him of several pounds. He was a man of taste, too, as well as of prudence, and by smoothing down the eminence on which the building had stood, and then sowing it with grass, he bestowed upon it, for its former wild aspect, so workmanlike an appearance, that one might almost suppose he had made the whole of it himself. Two curious pieces of sculpture were, by some accident, preserved entire in the general wreck. In a vaulted passage which leads from the modem house to the road, there is a stone slab about five feet in length, and nearly two in breadth, which once served as a lintel to one of the two chimneys of the great hall. It bears, in low relief, the figures of hares and deer sorely beset by dogs, and surrounded by a thicket of grapes and tendrils. The huntsman stands in the centre, attired in a sort of loose coat that reaches to his knees, with his horn in one hand, and his hunt-ing-spear in the other, and wearing the moustaches and peaked beard of the reign of Mary. The lintel of the second chimney, a still more interesting relic, is now in Kinbeakie Cottage, parish of Resolis: and a good lithographic print of it may be seen in the museum of the Northern Institution, Inverness ; but of it more anon. All the other sculptures of the castle, including several rude pieces of Gothic statuary, were destroyed by the workmen. An old stone dial which had stood in front of the gate, was dug up by the writer, out of a corner of the lawn, about twelve years ago, and is now in his possession. When entire, it indicated the hour in no fewer than nineteen different places, and though sorely mutilated and divested of all its gnomons, it is still entire enough to show that the mathematical ability of the artist must have been of no ordinary kind. It was probably cut under the inspection of Sir Thomas, who, among his other accomplishments, was a skilful geometrician.

“The old castle of Cromarty,” says the statistical account of the parish (Sir John Sinclair’s), “was pulled down in the year 1772. Several urns, composed of earthenware, were dug out of the bank immediately around the building, with several coffins of stone. The urns were placed in square recesses formed of flags, and when touched by the labourers instantly mouldered away, nor was it possible to get up one of them entire. They were filled with ashes mixed with fragments of half-burned bones. The coffins contained human skeletons, some of which wanted the head ; while among the others which were entire, there was one of a very uncommon size, measuring seven feet in length.”

The old proprietors of the castle, among the other privileges derived to them as the chiefs of a wide district of country, and the system of government which obtained during the ages in which they flourished, were hereditary Sheriffs of Cromarty, and vested with the power of pit and gallows. The highest knoll of the southern Sutor is still termed the Gallow-hill, from its having been a place of execution ; and a low cairn nearly hidden by a thicket of furze, which still occupies its summit, retains the name of the gallows. It is said that the person last sentenced to die at this place was a poor Highlander who had insulted the Sheriff, and that when in the act of mounting the ladder, he was pardoned at the request of the Sheriff’s lady. At a remoter period the usual scene of execution was a little eminence in the western part of the town, directly above the harbour, where there is a small circular hollow still known to the children of the place as the Witch's Hole ; and in which, says tradition, a woman accused of witchcraft was burnt for her alleged crime some time in the reign of Charles II. The Court-hill, an artificial mound of earth, on which, at least in the earlier ages, the cases of the sheriffdom were tried and decided, was situated several hundred yards nearer the old town. Some of the sentences passed at this place are said to have been flagrantly unjust. There is one Sheriff in particular, whom tradition describes as a cruel, oppressive man, alike regardless of the rights and lives of his poor vassals ; and there are two brief anecdotes of him which still survive. A man named Macculloch, a tenant on the Cromarty estate (probably the same person introduced to the reader in the foregoing chapter), was deprived of a cow through the injustice of one of the laird’s retainers, and going directly to the castle, disposed rather to be energetic than polite, he made his complaint more in the tone of one who had a right to demand, than in the usual style of submission. The laird, after hearing him patiently, called for the key of the dungeon, and going out, beckoned on Macculloch to follow. He did so ; they descended a flight of stone steps together, and came to a massy oak door, which the laird opened ; when suddenly, and without uttering a syllable, he laid hold of his tenant with the intention of thrusting him in. But he had mistaken his man \ the grasp was returned by one of more than equal firmness, and a struggle ensued, in which Macculloch, a bold, powerful Highlander, had so decidedly the advantage, that he forced the laird into his own dungeon, and then locking the door, carried away the key in his pocket. The other anecdote is of a sterner cast :—A poor vassal had been condemned on the Court-hill under circumstances more than usually unjust; and the laird, after sentence had been executed on the eminence at the Witch's Hole, was returning homewards through the town, surrounded by his retainers, when he was accosted in a tone of prophecy by an old man, one of the Hossacks of Cromarty, who, though bedridden for years before, had crawled to a seat by the wayside to wait his coming up. Tradition has preserved the words which follow as those in which he concluded his prediction; but they stand no less in need of a commentary than the obscurest prophecies of Merlin or Thomas the Ehymer :—“Laird, laird, what mayna skaith i’ the brock, maun skaith i’ the stock.” The seer is said to have meant that the injustice of the father would be visited on the children.

The recollection of these stories was curiously revived in Cromarty in the spring of 1829 ; when a labourer employed in digging a pit on the eminence above the harbour, and within a few yards of the Witch's Hole, struck his mattock through a human skull, which immediately fell in pieces. A pair of shinbones lay directly below it, and on digging a little further there were found the remains of two several skeletons and a second skull. From the manner in which the bones were blended together, it seemed evident that the bodies had been thrown into the same hole, with their heads turned in opposite directions, either out of carelessness or in studied contempt. And they had, apparently, lain undisturbed in this place for centuries. A child, by pressing its foot against the skull which had been raised entire, crushed it to pieces like the other; and the whole of the bones had become so light and porous, that when first seen by the writer, some of the smaller fragments were tumbling over the sward before a light breeze, like withered leaves, or pieces of fungous wood.


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