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Scenes and Legends of The North of Scotland
Chapter XVI


"Like a timeless birth, the womb of fate
Bore a new death of unrecorded date,
And doubtful name"—Montgomery.

In the history of every community there are periods of comparative quiet, when the great machine of society performs all its various movements so smoothly and regularly, that there is nothing to remind us of its being in motion. And who has not remarked that when an unlooked-for accident sets it a-jarring, by breaking up some minor wheel or axis, there follows a whole series of disasters—pressing the one upon the other, with stroke after stroke. We live, perhaps, in some quiet village, and see our neighbours, the inhabitants, moving noiselessly around us— the young rising up to maturity, the old descending slowly to the grave. Death for a long series of years drafts out his usual number of conscripts from among only the weak and the aged; and there is no irregular impressment of the young and vigorous in the way of accident. Anon, however, there succeeds a series of disasters. One of the villagers topples over a precipice, one is engulfed in a morass, one is tom to pieces by the wheels of an engine, one perishes in fording a river, one falls by the hand of an enemy, one dies by his own. And then in a few months, perhaps, the old order of things is again established, and all goes on regularly as before. In the phenomena of even the inanimate world we see marks of a similar economy. Whoever has mused for a single half hour by the side of a waterfall, must have remarked that, without any apparent change in the volume of the stream, the waters descend at one time louder and more furious, at another gentler and more subdued. Whoever has listened to the howlings of the night wind, must have heard it sinking at intervals into long hollow pauses, and then rising and sweeping onwards, gust after gust. Whoever has stood on the sea-shore during a tempest, must have observed that the waves roll towards their iron barrier in alternate series of greater and lesser—now fretting ineffectually against it, now thundering irresistibly over. But between the irregularities of the inanimate world, and those of the rational, there exists one striking difference. We may assign natural causes for the alternate rises and falls of the winds and waters; but it is not thus in most instances with those ebbs and flows, gusts and pauses, which occur in the world of man. They set our reasonings at defiance, and we can refer them to only the will of Deity. We can only say regarding them, that the climax is a favourite figure iu the book of Providence;—that God speaks to us in His dispensations, and, in the more eloquent turns of His discourse, piles up instance upon instance with sublime and impressive profusion.

To the people of Scotland the whole of the seventeenth century was occupied by one continuous series of suffering and disaster. And though we can assign causes for every one of the evils which compose the series, just as we can assign causes for every single accident which befalls the villagers, or for the repeated attacks and intervening pauses of the hurricane, it is a rather different matter to account for the series itself. In flinging a die we may chance on any one certain number as readily as on any other; but it would be a rare occurrence, indeed, should the same number turn up some eight or ten times together. And is there nothing singular in the fact, that, for a whole century, a nation should have been invariably unfortunate in every change with which it was visited, and have met with only disaster in all its undertakings? There turned up an unlucky number at every cast of the die. Even when the shout of the persecutor, and the groans of his victim, had ceased to echo among our rocks and caverns, the very elements arrayed themselves against the people, and wasting famine and exterminating pestilence did the work of the priest and the tyrant. I am acquainted with no writer who has described this last infliction of the series so graphically, and with such power, as Peter Walker in his Life of Cargill. Other contemporary historians looked down on this part of their theme from the high places of society;—they were the soldiers of a well-victualled garrison, situated in the midst of a wasted country, and sympathized but little in the misery that approached them no nearer than the outer gate. But it was not thus with the poor Pedlar;—he was barred out among the sufferers, and exposed to the evils which he so feelingly describes.

One night in the month of August 1694, a cold east wind, accompanied by a dense sulphurous fog, passed over the country, and the half-filled corn was struck with mildew. It shrank and whitened in the sun, till the fields seemed as if sprinkled with flour, and where the fog had remained longest—for in some places it stood up like a chain of hills during the greater part of the night—the more disastrous were its effects. From this unfortunate year, till the year 1701, the land seemed as if struck with barrenness, and such was the change on the climate, that the seasons of summer and winter were cold and gloomy in nearly the same degree. The wonted heat of the sun was withholden, the very cattle became stunted and meagre, the moors and thickets were nearly divested of their feathered inhabitants, and scarcely a fly or any other insect was to be seen even in the beginning of autumn. November and December, and in some places January and February, became the months of harvest; and labouring people contracted diseases which terminated in death, when employed in cutting down the com among ice and snow. Of the scanty produce of the fields, much was left to rot on the ground, and much of what was carried home proved unfit for the sustenance of either man or beast. There is a tradition that a farmer of Cromarty employed his children, during the whole winter of 1694, in picking out the sounder grains of com from a blasted heap, the sole product of his farm, to serve for seed in the ensuing spring.

In the meantime the countiy began to groan under famine. The little portions of meal which were brought to market were invariably disposed of at exorbitant prices, before half the people were supplied; “and then,” says Walker, “there would ensue a screaming and clapping of hands among the women.” “How shall we go home,” he has heard them exclaim, “and see our children dying of hunger?—they have had no food for these two days and we have nothing to give them.” There was many “a black and pale face in Scotland;” and many of the labouring poor, ashamed to beg, and too honest to steal, shut themselves up in their comfortless houses, to sit with their eyes fixed on the floor till their very sight failed them. The savings of the careful and industrious were soon dissipated; and many who were in easy circumstances when the scarcity came on, had sunk into abject poverty ere it passed away. Human nature is a sad thing when subjected to the test of circumstances so trying. As the famine increased, people came to be so wrapped up in their own sufferings, that “wives thought not of their husbands, nor husbands of their wives, parents of their children, nor children of their parents.” “And their staff of bread,” says the Pedlar, “was so utterly broken, that when they ate they were neither satisfied nor nourished. They could think of nothing but food, and being wholly unconcerned whether they went to heaven or hell, the success of the gospel came to a stand.”

The pestilence which accompanied this terrible visitation broke out in November 1694, when many of the people were seized by “strange fevers, and sore fluxes of a most infectious nature,” which defied the utmost power of medicina “For the oldest physicians,” says Walker, “had never seen the like before, and could make no help.” In the parish of West Calder, out of nine hundred “ examinable persons” three hundred were swept away; and in Livingston, in a little village called the Craigs, inhabited by only six or eight families, there were thirty corpses in the space of a few days. In the parish of Resolis whole villages were depopulated, and the foundations of the houses, for they were never afterwards inhabited, can still be pointed out by old men of the place. So violent were the effects of the disease, that people, who in the evening were in apparent health, would be found lying dead in their houses next morning, “ the head resting on the hand, and the face and arms not unfrequently gnawed by the rats.” The living were wearied with burying the dead; bodies were drawn on sledges to the place of interment, and many got neither coffin nor winding-sheet. “I was one of four,” says the Pedlar, “who carried the corpse of a young woman a mile of way; and when we came to the grave, an honest poor man came and said—‘ You must go and help me to bury my son; he has lain dead these two days.' We went, and had two miles to carry the corpse, many neighbours looking on us, but none coming to assist.” “ I was credibly informed,” he continues, “that in the north, two sisters, on a Monday morning, were found carrying their brother on a barrow with bearing-ropes, resting themselves many times, and none offering to help them.” There is a tradition that in one of the villages of Resolis the sole survivor was an idiot, whose mother had been, of all its more sane inhabitants, the last victim to the disease. He waited beside the corpse for several days, and then taking it up on his shoulders carried it to a neighbouring village, and left it standing upright beside a garden wall.

Such were the sufferings of the people of Scotland in the seventeenth century, and such the phenomena of character which the sufferings elicited. We ourselves have seen nearly the same process repeated in the nineteenth, and with nearly the same results. The study of mind cannot be prosecuted in quite the same manner as the study of matter. We cannot subject human character, like an earth or metal, to the test of experiments which may be varied or repeated at pleasure; on the contrary, many of its most interesting traits are developed only by causes over which we have no control. But may we not regard the whole world as an immense laboratory, in which the Deity is the grand chemist, and His dispensations of Providence a course of experiments? We are admitted into this laboratory, both as subjects to be acted upon and as spectators; and, though we cannot in either capacity materially alter the course of the exhibition, we may acquire much wholesome knowledge by registering the circumstances of each process, and its various results.

In the year 1817 a new and terrible pestilence broke out in a densely-peopled district of Hindostan. During the twelve succeeding years it was “ going to and fro, and walking up and down,” in that immense tract of country which intervenes between British India and the Russian dominions in Europe. It passed from province to province, and city to city. Multitudes, “ which no man could number,” stood waiting its approach in anxiety and terror; a few solitary mourners gazed at it from behind. It journeyed by the highways, and strewed them with carcases. It coursed along the rivers, and vessels were seen drifting in the current with their dead. It overtook the caravan in the desert, and the merchant fell from his camel. It followed armies to the field of battle, struck down their standards, and broke up their array. It scaled the great wall of China, forded the Tigris and the Euphrates, threaded with the mountaineer the passes of the frozen Caucasus, and traversed with the mariner the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean. Vainly was it deprecated with the rites of every religion, exorcised in the name every god. The Brahmin saw it rolling onwards, more terrible than the car of Juggernaut, and sought refuge in his temple; but the wheel passed over him, and he died. The wild Tartar raised his war-cry to scare it away, and then, rushing into a darkened comer of his hut, prostrated himself before his idol, and expired. The dervish ascended the highest tower of his mosque to call upon Allah and the prophet; but it grappled with him ere he had half repeated his prayer, and he toppled over the battlements. The priest unlocked his relics, and then, grasping his crucifix, hied to the bedside of the dying; but, as he doled out the consolations of his faith, the pest seized on his vitals, and he sunk howling where he had kneeled. And alas for the philosopher ! silent and listless he awaited its coming; and had the fountains of the great deep been broken up, and the proud waves come rolling, as of old, over wide-extended continents, foaming around the summit of the hills, and prostrating with equal ease the grass of the field and the oak of the forest, he could not have met the inundation with a less effective resistance. It swept away in its desolating progress a hundred millions of the human species.

In the spring of 1831 the disease entered the Russian dominions, and in a few brief months, after devastating the inland provinces, began to ravage the shores of the Baltic. The harbours, as is usual in the summer season, were crowded with vessels from every port of Britain : and the infection spread among the seamen. To guard against its introduction into this country, a rigid system of quarantine was established by the Government; and. the Bay of Cromarty was one of the places appointed for the reception of vessels until their term of restriction should have expired. The whole eastern coast of Britain could not have afforded a better station; as, from the security and great extent of the bay, entire fleets can lie in it safe from every tempest, and at a distance of more than two miles from any shore.

On a calm and beautiful evening in the month of July 1831, a little fleet of square-rigged vessels were espied in the offing, slowly advancing towards the bay. They were borne onwards by the tide, which, when flowing, rushes with much impetuosity through the narrow opening, and, as they passed under the northern Sutor, there was seen from the shore, relieved by the dark cliffs which frowned over them, a pale yellow flag dropping from the mast-head of each. As they advanced farther on, the tide began to recede. The foremost was towed by her boats to the common anchoring-ground; and the burden of a Danish song, in which all. the rowers joined, was heard echoing over the waves with a cadence so melancholy, that, associating in the minds of the town’s-people with ideas of death and disease, it seemed a coronach of lamentation poured out over the dead and the expiring. The other vessels threw out their anchors opposite the town;—groups of people, their countenances shaded by anxiety, sauntered along the beach; and children ran about, shouting at the full pitch of their voices that the ships of the plague had got up as far as the ferry. As the evening darkened, little glimmering lights, like stars of the third magnitude, twinkled on the mast-heads from whence the yellow flags had lately depended; and never did astrologer experience greater dismay when gazing at the two comets, the fiery and the pale, which preceded those years of pestilence and conflagration that wasted the capital of England, than did some of the people of Cromarty when gazing at these lights.

Day after day vessels from the Baltic came sailing up the bay, and the fears of the people, exposed to so continual a friction, began to wear out. The first terror, however, had been communicated to the nearer parishes, and from them to the more remote; and so on it went, escorted by a train of vagabond stories, that, like felons flying from justice, assumed new aspects at every stage. The whole country talked of nothing but Cholera and the Quarantine port. Such of the shopkeepers of Cromarty as were most in the good graces of the countrywomen who came to town laden with the produce of the dairy and hen-cot, and return with their little parcels of the luxuries of the grocer, experienced a marked falling away in their trade. Occasionally, however, a few of the more courageous housewives might be seen creeping warily along our streets; but, in coming in by the road which passes along the edge of the bay, they invariably struck up the hill if the wind blew from off the quarantine vessels, and, winding by a circuitous route among the fields and cottages, entered the town on the opposite side. A lad who ran errands to a neighbouring burgh, found that few of the inhabitants were so desperately devoted to business as to incur the risk of receiving the messages he brought them; and, from the inconvenient distance at which he was held by even the less cautious, he entertained serious thoughts of providing himself with a speaking-trumpet. Our poor fishermen, too, fared but badly in the little villages of the Firth where they went to sell their fish. It was asserted on the very best authority, by the villagers, that dead bodies were flung out every day over the sides of the quarantine vessels, and might be seen, bloated by the water and tanned yellow by disease, drifting along the surface of the bay. Who could eat fish in such ciicumstances? There was one person, indeed, who remarked to them, that he might perhaps venture on eating a haddock or whiting; but no man in his senses, he said, would venture on eating a cod. He himself had once found a bunch of furze in the stomach of a fish of this species, and what might not that throat contrive to swallow that had swallowed a bunch of furze! The very fishermen themselves added to the general terror by their wild stories. They were rowing homewards one morning, they said, in the grey uncertain light which precedes sunrise, along the rough edge of the northern Sutor, when, after doubling one of the rocky promontories which jut into the sea from beneath the crags of the hill, they saw a gigantic figure, wholly attired in white, winding slowly along the beach.

It was mucli taller than any man, or as Cowley would perhaps have described it, than the shadow of any man in the evening; and at intervals, after gliding round the base of some inaccessible cliff, it would remain stationary for a few seconds, as if gazing wistfully upon the sea. No one who believed this apparition to be other than a wreath of vapour, entertained at the time the slightest doubt of its portending the visitation of some terrible pestilence, which was to desolate the country.

About eighty or a hundred years ago the port of Cromarty was occupied, as in 1831, by a fleet performing quarantine. Of course none of the town’s-people recollected the circumstance; but a whole host of traditions connected with it, which had been imparted to them by their fathers, and had lain asleep in the recesses of some of their memories for a full half century, were awakened at this time, and sent wandering over the town, like so many ghosts. Some one had heard it told that a crew of Cromarty fishermen had, either in ignorance or contempt of the quarantine laws, boarded one of the vessels on this occasion; and that aboard they were compelled to remain for six tedious weeks, exposed to the double, but very unequally appreciated hardship of getting a great deal to drink and very little to eat. Another vessel had, it was said, entered the bay deeply laden ; bnt every morning, for the time she remained there, she was seen to sit lighter on the water, and when she quitted it on her return to Flushing, she had scarcely ballast enough aboard to render the voyage practicable. Gin and tobacco were rife in Cromarty for twelve months thereafter. A third vessel carried with her into the bay the disease to guard against which the quarantine had been established ; and opposite the place where the fleet lately lay, there are a few little mounds on a patch of level sward, still known to children of the town as the Dutchmen’s graves. About fifty years ago, when the present harbour of Cromarty was in building, a poor half-witted man, one of the labourers employed in quarrying stone, was told one day by some of his companions, that a considerable sum of money had been deposited in this place with the bodies. In the evening he stayed on some pretext in the quarry until the other workmen had gone home, and then repairing to the graves, with his shovel and pickaxe he laid one of them open ; but, instead of the expected treasure, he found only human bones and wasted fragments of woollen cloth. Next morning he was seized by a putrid fever, and died a few days after. Miss Seward tells a similar story in one of her letters; but in the case of the Cromarty labourer no person suffered from his imprudence except himself; whereas, in the one narrated by Miss Seward, a malignant disease was introduced into a village near which the graves were opened, which swept away seventy of the inhabitants.

In a central part of the churchyard of Nigg there is a rude undressed stone, near which the sexton never ventures to open a grave. A wild apocryphal tradition connects the erection of this stone with the times of the quarantine fleet. The plague, as the story goes, was brought to the place by one of the vessels, and was slowly flying along the ground, disengaged from every vehicle of infection, in the shape of a little yellow cloud. The whole country was alarmed, and groups of people were to be seen on every eminence, watching with anxious horror the progress of the little cloud. They were relieved, however, from their fears and the plague by an ingenious man of Nigg, who, having provided himself with an immense bag of linen, fashioned somewhat in the manner of a fowler’s net, cautiously approached the yellow cloud, and, with a skill which could have owed nothing to previous practice, succeeded in enclosing the whole of it in the bag. He then secured it by wrapping it up carefully, fold after fold, and fastening it down with pin after pin ; and as the linen was gradually changing, as if under the hands of the dyer, from white to yellow, he consigned it to the churchyard, where it has slept erer since. But to our narrative.

The cholera was at length introduced into Britain, and shortly after into Ireland; not, however, at any of the quarantine ports, but at places where scarcely any precautions had been taken to exclude it, or any danger apprehended; much in the manner that a beleaguered garrison is sometimes surprised at some unnoticed bastion, or untented angle, after the main points of attack have withstood the utmost efforts of the besiegers. It had previously been remarked that the disease traversed the various countries which it visited, at nearly the same pace with the inhabitants. In Persia, where there is little trade, and neither roads nor canals to facilitate intercourse, it was a whole year in passing over a distance of somewhat less than three hundred leagues; while among the more active people of Russia, it performed a journey of seven hundred in less than six months. In Britain it travelled through the interior with the celerity of the mail, and voyaged along the coasts with the speed of the trading vessels; and in a few weeks after its first appearance, it was ravaging the metropolis of England, and the southern shores of the Firth of Forth. It was introduced by some south country fishermen into the town of Wick, and a village of Sutherlandshire, in the month of July 1832 ; and from the latter place in the following August, into the fishing villages of the peninsula of Easter Ross. It visited Inverness, Nairn, Avoch, Dingwall, Urquhart, and Rosemarkie, a few weeks after.

I shall pass hurriedly over the sad story of its ravages. Were I to dwell on it to the extent of my information, and I know only a little of the whole, the reader might think I was misanthropically accumulating into one gloomy heap all that is terrible in the judgments of God, and all that is mean and feeble in the character of man. The pangs of the rack, the boot, the thumbscrew—all that the Dominican or the savage has inflicted on the heretic or the white man, were realized in the tortures of this dreadful disease. Utter debility, intense thirst, excruciating cramps of the limbs, and an unimpaired intellect, were its chief characteristics. And the last was not the least terrible. Amid the ruins of the body, from which it was so soon to part, the melancholy spirit looked back upon the past with regret, and on the future with terror. Or even if the sufferer amid his fierce pain “laid hold on the hope that faileth not;” with what feelings must he have looked around the deserted cottage, when the friends in whom he had trusted proved unfaithful—or, more melancholy still, on the affectionate wife or the dutiful child struck down by the bedside in agonies as mortal as his own.

In the villages of Ross the disease assumed a more terrible aspect than it had yet presented in any other part of Britain. In the little village of Portmahomack one-fifth of the inhabitants were swept away ; in the still smaller village of Inver, one-half. So abject was the poverty of the people, that in some instances there was not a candle in any house in a whole village ; and when the disease seized on the inmates in the night-time, they had to grapple in darkness with its fierce agonies and mortal terrors, and their friends, in the vain attempt to assist them, had to grope round their beds. The infection spread with frightful rapidity. At Inver, though the population did not much exceed a hundred persons, eleven bodies were committed to the earth, without shroud or coffin, in one day; in two days after they had buried nineteen more. Many of the survivors fled from the village, and took shelter, some in the woods, some among the hollows of an extensive tract of sand-hills. But the pest followed them to their hiding-places, and they expired in the open air. Whole families were found lying dead on their cottage floor. In one instance, an infant, the only survivor, lay grovelling on the body of its mother—the sole mourner in a charnel-house of the pestilence. Rows of cottages, entirely divested of their inhabitants, were set on fire and burned to the ground. The horrors of the times of Peter Walker were more than realized. Two young persons, a lad and his sister, were seen digging a grave for their father in the churchyard of Nigg; and then carrying the corpse to it on a cart, no one venturing to assist them. The body of a man who died in a cottage beside the ferry of Cromarty, was borne to a hole, hurriedly scooped out of a neighbouring sand-bank, by his brother and his wife. During the whole of the preceding day, the unfortunate woman had been seen from the opposite shore, flitting around the cottage like an unhappy ghost; during the whole of the preceding night had she watched alone by the dead. The coffin lay beside the door ; the corpse in the middle of the apartment.— Never shall I forget the scene which I witnessed from the old chapel of St. Regulus on the evening of the following Sabbath.

It was one of those lovely evenings which we so naturally associate with ideas of human enjoyment; when, from some sloping eminence, we look over the sunlit woods, fields, and cottages, of a wide extent of country, and dream that the inhabitants are as happy as the scene is beautiful. The sky was without a cloud, and the sea without a wrinkle. The rocks and sandhills on the opposite shore lay glistening in the sun, each with its deep patch of shadow resting by its side; and the effect of the whole, compared with the aspect which it had presented a few hours before, was as if it had been raised on its groundwork of sea and sky from the low to the high relief of the sculptor. There were boats drawn up on the beach, and a line of houses .behind; but where were the inhabitants? No smoke rose from the chimneys; the doors and windows were fast closed; not one solitary lounger sauntered about the harbour or the shore; the inanity of death and desertion pervaded the whole scene. Suddenly, however, the eye caught a little dark speck moving hurriedly along the road which leads to the ferry. It was a man on horseback. He reached the cottages of the boatmen, and flung himself from his horse; but no one came at his call to row him across. He unloosed a skiff from her moorings, and set himself to tug at the oar. The skiff flew athwart the bay. The watchmen stationed on the shore of Cromarty moved down to prevent her landing. There was a loud cry passed from man to man; a medical gentleman came running to the beach, he leapt into the skiff, and laying hold of an oar as if he were a common boatman, she again shot across the bay. A case of cholera had just occurred in the parish of Nigg. I never before felt so strongly the force of contrast. There is a wild poem of the present age which presents the reader with a terrible picture of a cloak of utter darkness spread over the earth, and the whole race of man perishing beneath its folds, like insects of autumn in the chills of a night of October. There is another modem poem, less wild, but not less sublime, in which we see, as in a mirror of a magician, the sun dying in the heavens, and the evening of an eternal night closing around the last of our species. I trust I am able in some degree to appreciate the merits of both; and yet, since witnessing the scene which I have so feebly attempted to describe, I am led to think that the earth, if wholly divested of its inhabitants, would present a more melancholy aspect, should it still retain its fertility and beauty, than if wrapped up in a pall of darkness, surrounded by dead planets and extinguished suns.


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