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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Appendices D


EXTRACTS from "The Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland, founded on a series of annual journeys between the years 1811 and 1821," by John MacCulloch, M.D., F.R.S., L.S.G.S., &c, vol. ii., page 280 et seq.:

"There is nothing worthy of notice between Loch Torridon and Gairloch;: but this inlet possesses considerable beauty in various parts, and more particularly in that angle occupied by Flowerdale. The very unsuspected ornament of this place, contrasted also as it is with all the surrounding wildness, almost carries us-back to the most polished regions of Perthshire. It is an interesting spot, independently of its beauty, as proving that nothing is wanting but taste and industry to render a thousand places on the west coast rivals to the most ornamental parts of the interior of Scotland, qualities which may exist in many persons besides Sir Hector Mackenzie, but which are wasted if the proprietors do not reside on their estates. Had there been as many Sir Hector Mackenzies as there are spots equal in capacity to Gairloch, the west coast of Scotland might have challenged any equal space in the world for judicious ornament, embellishing and improving Nature, as it now may for natural advantages.

"Loch Ewe is a deep and not a very wide inlet. The form of the land on each side is tame, and it is only at the extremity where the high mountains of the interior come into view that the outline has any character. But the view of Pol Ewe, from the anchorage, is picturesque; as the finely characterised mountains which surround Loch Maree form its conspicuous features. The rocky hills that surround this rude and strange valley are singularly wild. From Loch Maree, scarcely a mile distant from the sea-shore, the Ewe, a broad river, runs with a rapid course to the sea. Issuing from the lake, it first meanders gently through low grounds interspersed with wild groves of alder and birch and oak, enclosed by woody cliffs and irregular rough ground, which, on both hands,. rise up the intricate skirts of the high mountains that bound the lake and the valley together. Shortly, however, it is seen roaring through a steep and stony channel, deep below the surrounding land, which is now a rude heathy moor, with occasional patches of corn near the margin of the water. Hence, passing a salmon weir, the river forms a considerable cascade, falling into a dark rocky pool; immediately after which it joins the sea.

"The peculiar wildness of this valley is rendered more impressive by the crowded population, for which, considering its aspect, it is remarkable. We think little, in this country, of deserted and solitary rudeness and barrenness, since they are of such daily and incessant recurrence; but when inhabited they impress us forcibly, and apparently from an unacknowledged sympathy with those whose lot it is to reside in them. Besides the small tenants who occupy the numerous black houses about this waste, and whose peat stacks are even more conspicuous than their dwellings, there is here a large farm house, a slated inn, which is also the post-office, and a salmon fishery. From the post-office there is a weekly packet to Stornoway, so that Pol Ewe reminds us of that world, of which, in a few weeks cruising about these seas, we are very apt to lose sight. The river is noted, both for the abundance and the goodness of its salmon, and is rented by Berwick fishermen; the produce, here and elsewhere on this" coast, being carried across the country on horseback to the Murray Frith to be boiled for the London market, an arrangement which does not appear the best that could be devised, as it is a journey of two days. The river abounds equally in trout, as does also Loch Maree; so that, for brothers of the angle as well as for trading Berwickers, Pol Ewe is one of the most enticing places on the west coast.

"A fortunate discovery which I made of some Allium ursinum (wild garlick) gave zest for a week to our hashed mutton and our insipid broth. The sea-beet and the Crambe maritima served for ordinary greens, and sorrel was always at hand for a fricandeau a l'oseille. The Cotyledon luteum, very unexpectedly, proved to be a good substitute for spinach; but, best of all, and most abundant, were the Chenopodia, common on all these shores, which ensured us a never-failing supply.

"Loch Maree lies so completely out of the road, and so far beyond the courage,. of ordinary travellers, that, except by Pennant, I believe it has never been visited. The length is about fourteen miles, and the greatest breadth three, though in most parts it scarcely exceeds one; while, being bounded by high mountains, and having a very varied and irregular outline, its shores present a good deal of interesting scenery; the entire lake itself being displayed from many different points and under a great variety of aspects, so as to produce some of the finest specimens of this class of landscape in the Highlands. In point of style, it ranks rather more nearly with Loch Lomond than with any other of the southern lakes, though still very far inferior.

"The most accessible and the finest general views may be obtained from the rocky hills that bound the exit of the river. The mountain outline, which is grand and various, presents a greater diversity of form and character than any of the Scottish lakes; but Ben Lair * is always the principal feature, graceful, solid, and broad. The middle ground is a great source of variety; splendid and wild, an intermixture of rock and wood, more easily compared with some parts of Loch Cateran than with any other well-known scenery, yet still different. The winding and wooded course of the Ewe adds much to its liveliness, the bright reaches glittering as they emerge from among the trees and rocks through which the river forces its way.

"The first day of creation was not more beautiful. July, the June of this country, was in its full glory. A few thin silvery clouds rested on the clear blue sky, and the sun shed a flood of light over the bright surface of the lake, which reflected every rock and every tree that hung over the glassy surface. Even the line of the shore was undistinguishable, except when the casual passage of a gentle air, descending from the hills, ruffled for a moment the bright expanse; when the gay vision vanished, till again, as the breeze passed off across the water, it collected its scattered fragments, reappearing in all its former brilliancy, and. rivalling its original. Even the dark firs assumed a look of spring, and the barren and cold grey cliffs of Ben Lair seemed to rejoice in the bright sunshine. While the warm brown and glowing purple of the heath, now in full blossom, tinged the faces of the nearer hills with that richness of colour known only to these mountainous regions, every summit, as it retired, assumed a purpler and a bluer tone, till the last peaks emulated the misty azure of the sky into which they melted, as if they had belonged rather to the fields of air than to the earth below.

"No one can know the full value of summer who has not known it in a land of mountains; no one can feel, who has not felt it among the hills, the joy with which the sun can fill the mind, as it fills the atmosphere; the sense of beauty, of bounding, exuberant happiness in which it wraps our very existence as it does the landscape; giving to every feature, to the wildest mountain summit and the gloomiest valley, to the barest rock and the lowliest flower, charms to which all the glories of the richest cultivated country are insipid and tame.

"The northern margin of Loch Maree presents a great variety of close shore scenery, consisting of rocky and wooded bays and creeks rising into noble overhanging cliffs and mountains; and it displays also the finest general views of the lake. The effect of Sleagach, seen at once from its base to its summit, is perhaps more striking than that of any mountain in Scotland. Where the skirts of Ben Lair descend steep into the water, the scenes are often peculiarly original as well as grand. In one place in particular, the remains of a fir forest, in a situation almost incredible, produce a style of landscape that might be expected in the Alps, but not among the more confined scope and tamer arrangements of Scottish mountains. Immediately from the water's edge, a lofty range of grey cliffs rises to a great height, so steep as almost to seem perpendicular, but varied by fissures and by projections covered with grass and wild plants. Wherever it is possible for a tree to take root, there firs of ancient and noble growth, and of the most wild and beautiful forms, are seen rising above each other, so that the top of the one often covers the root of the succeeding, or else thrown out horizontally in various fantastic and picturesque modes. Now and then some one more wild and strange than the others, or some shivered trunk or fallen tree, serves to vary the aspect of this strange forest, marking also the lapse of ages and the force of the winter storms which they so long have braved.

"The eastern extremity of the lake becomes insipid, terminating in a range of meadows, through which the stream winds its sluggish way. But beyond, all is rude and savage, displaying a chaos of wild mountains and a succession of white precipices and spiry snow-white crags, bright, cold, and dreary, and giving a character of polar sterility to the landscape, as if no living being, not even vegetable life, could here find home or refuge. Evening arrived as we reached this end of the lake, for not a breeze had blown to aid us. The long shadows of the mountains were now stretching across the water, and a vast and broad body of shade on the western hills gave a repose to the scene, so deep and so solemn, that even the liquid sound which followed the dip of the oars seemed an intrusion on the universal hush of nature. No living object was seen or heard, and even the occasional passage of the bee that winged its evening way home to its mountain abode in the heath, disturbed a silence that appeared never before to have been interrupted. The last crimson at length vanished from the sharp rocky summits of the eastern hills, and all became alike wrapped in one gentle hue of tranquil grey. But it was the summer twilight of a northern July, and night was now but one long and lovely evening.

"It was with some difficulty that we explored our nocturnal way through the labyrinth of islands in the centre of this lake; as they are little raised above the water, and covered with scattered firs and with thickets of birch, alder, and holly, while they are separated by narrow and tortuous channels. The features of the whole are so exactly alike that no part can be distinguished from another. Inch Maree has been dedicated to a saint of that name, and it still contains a burial-place, chosen, it is said, like all those which are found in islands, to prevent depredations from the wolves of ancient days. This theory, however, seems disputable, because the extirpation of this animal is an event of considerable antiquity, and many of these burial-grounds seem of comparatively modern times. Mere also there was a sacred well, in which, as in St Fillan s, lunatics were dipped, with the usual offerings of money; but the well remains, and the practice has passed away. Although now midnight, the heat was so great as to be almost oppressive, exceeding seventy degrees, an occurrence not very uncommon in these Highland valleys in summer. But the hot breeze served to fill our sails, and, by midnight, had brought us back to the river; nor were we sorry to find, some time after, on board of our vessel, the dinner which we had not calculated on deferring to the morning of a following day.

 


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