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General History of the Highlands
Remarks on the Scenery of the Highlands
by Professor Wilson


In no other country does Nature exhibit herself in more various forms of beauty and sublimity than in the north of England and the Highlands of Scotland. This is acknowledged by all who, having studied their character, and become familiar with the feelings it inspires, have compared the effects produced on their minds by our own mountainous regions, with what they have experienced among the scenery of the Alps. There, indeed, all objects are on so vast a scale, that we are for a while astonished as we gaze on the gigantic; and all other emotions are sunk in an overwhelming sense of awe that prostrates the imagination. But on recovering from its subjection to the prodigious, that faculty everywhere recognises in those mighty mountains of dark forests, glittering glaciers, and regions of eternal snow —infinite all—the power and dominion of the sublime. True that all these are but materials for the mind to work on, and that to its creative energy Nature owes much of that grandeur which seems to be inherent in her own forms; yet surely she in herself is great, and there is a regality belonging of divine right to such a monarch as Mont Blanc.

Those are the very regions of sublimity, and if brought into immediate comparison with them in their immense magnitude, the most magnificent scenery of our own country would no doubt seem to lose its character of greatness. But such is not the process of the imagination in her intercourse with Nature. To her, sufficient for the day is the good thereof; and on each new glorious sight being shown to her eyes, she employs her God-given power to magnify or irradiate what she beholds, without diminishing or obscuring what she remembers. Thus, to her all things in nature hold their own due place, and retain for ever their own due impressions, aggrandized and beautified by mutual reaction in those visionary worlds, which by a thought she can create, and which, as they arise, are all shadowy representations of realities—new compositions in which the image of the earth we tread is reflected fairer or greater than any realities, but not therefore less, but more true to the spirit of nature. It is thus that poets and painters at once obey and control their own inspirations. They visit all the regions of the earth, but to love, admire, and adore; and the greatest of them all, native to our soil, from their travel or sojourn in foreign lands, have always brought home a clearer insight into the character of the scenery of their own, a profounder affection for it all, and a higher power of imaging its attributes in colours or in words. In our poetry, more than in any other, Nature sees herself reflected in a magic mirror; and though many a various show passes processionally along its lustre, displaying the scenery of "lands and seas, whatever clime the sun’s bright circle warms," among them all there are none more delightful or elevating to behold than those which genius, inspired by love, has framed of the imagery, which, in all her pomp and prodigality, Heaven has been pleased to shower, through all seasons, on our own beautiful island. It is not for us to say whether our native painters, or the "old masters," have shown the greatest genius in landscape; but if the palm must be yielded to them whose works have been consecrated by a reverence, as often, perhaps, superstitious as religions, we do not fear to say, that their superiority is not to be attributed in any degree to the scenery on which they exercised the art its beauty had inspired. Whatever may be the associations connected with the subjects of their landscapes—and we know not why they should be higher or holier than those belonging to innumerable places in our own land—assuredly in themselves they are not more interesting or impressive; nay, though none who have shared with us the spirit of the few imperfect sentences we have now written, will for a moment suppose us capable of instituting an invidious comparison between our own scenery and that of any other country, why should we hesitate to assert that our own storm-loving Northern Isle is equally rich in all kinds of beauty as the Sunny South, and richer far in all kinds of grandeur, whether we regard the forms or colouring of nature—earth, sea, or air—

"Or all the dread magnificence of heaven."

What other region in all the world like that of the Lakes in the north of England! And yet how the true lover of nature, while he carries along with him its delightful character in his heart, and can so revive any spot of especial beauty in his imagination, as that it shall seem in an instant to be again before his very eyes, can deliver himself up, after the lapse of a day, to the genius of some savage scene in the Highlands of Scotland, rent and riven by the fury of some wild sea-loch! Not that the regions do not resemble one another, but surely the prevailing spirit of the one— not so of the other—is a spirit of joy and of peace. Her mountains, invested, though they often be, in gloom—and we have been more than once benighted during day, as a thundercloud thickened the shadows that for ever sleep in the deepest dungeons of Helvellyn— are yet—so it seems to us—such mountains as in nature ought to belong to "merry England." They boldly meet the storms, and seen in storms you might think they loved the trouble; but pitch your tent among them, and you will feel that theirs is a grandeur that is congenial with the sunshine, and that their spirit fully rejoices in the brightness of light. In clear weather, verdant from base to summit. how majestic their repose! And as mists slowly withdraw themselves in thickening folds up along their sides, the revelation made is still of more and more of the beautiful—amble fields below, then coppice woods studded with standard trees—enclosed pastures above and among the woods—broad breasts of close-nibbled herbage here and there adorned by rich dyed rocks, that do not break the expanse —till the whole veil has disappeared; and, lo the long lofty range, with its wavy line, rising and sinking so softly in the blue serenity, perhaps, of an almost cloudless sky. Yet though we have thus characterised the mountains by what we have always felt to be the pervading spirit of the region, chasms and ravines, and cliffs and precipices, are there; in some places you see such assemblages as inspire the fear that quakes at the heart, when suddenly struck in the solitude with a sense of the sublime; and though we have called the mountains green—and during Spring and Summer, in spite of frost or drought, they are green as emerald—yet in Autumn they are many-coloured, and are girdled with a glow of variegated light, that at sunset sometimes seems like fire kindled in the woods.

The larger Vales are all serene and cheerful; and among the sylvan knolls with which their wide levels, highly cultivated, are interspersed, cottages, single or in groups, are frequent, of an architecture always admirably suited to the scenery, because in a style suggested not by taste or fancy, which so often disfigure nature to produce the picturesque, but resorted to for sake of the uses and conveniences of in-door life, to weather-fend it in storms, and in calm to give it the enjoyment of sunshine. Many of these dwellings are not what are properly called cottages, but statesmen’s houses, of ample front, with their many roofs, overshadowed by a stately grove, and inhabited by the same race for many generations. All alike have their suitable gardens, and the porches of the poorest are often clustered with roses; for everywhere among these hills, even in minds the most rude and uncultivated, there is a natural love of flowers. The villages, though somewhat too much modernised in those days of improvement—and indeed not a few of them with hardly any remains now of their original architecture—nothing old about them but the church tower, perhaps the parsonage—are nevertheless generally of a pleasing character, and accordant, if not with the great features of nature, which are unchanged and unchangeable, with the increased cultivation of the country, and the many villas and ornamented, cottages that have risen and are rising by every lake and river side. Rivers indeed, properly so called, there are none among these mountains; but every vale, great and small, has at all times its pure and undefiled stream or rivulet; every hill has its hundreds of evanescent rills, almost every one its own perennial torrent flowing from spring, marsh, or tarn; and the whole region is often alive with waterfalls, of many of which, in its exquisite loveliness, the scenery is fit for fairy festivals—and of many, in its horrid gloom, for gatherings of gnomes revisiting "the glimpses of the moon" from their subterraneous prisons. One lake there is, which has been called "wooded Winandermere, the river lake;" and there is another—Ulswater—which you might imagine to be a river too, and to have come flowing from afar; the one excelling in isles, and bays, and promontories, serene and gentle all, and perfectly beautiful; the other, matchless in its majesty of cliff and mountain, and in its old forests, among whose hoary gloom is for ever breaking out the green light of young generations, and perpetual renovation triumphing over perpetual decay. Of the other lakes —not river-like——the character may be imagined even from that we have faintly described of the mountains; almost every vale has its lake, or a series of lakes; and though some of them have at times a stern aspect, and have scenes to show almost of desolation, descending sheer to the water’s edge, or overhanging the depth that looks profounder in the gloom, yet even these, to ayes and hearts familiar with their spirit, wear a sweet smile which seldom passes away. Witness Wastwater, with its huge single mountains, and hugest of all the mountains of England, Scawfell, with its terrific precipices—which, in the accidents of storm, gloom, or mist, has seemed, to the lonely passer-by, savage in the extreme—a howling or dreary wilderness—but in its enduring character, is surrounded with all quiet pastoral imagery, the deep glen in which it is embedded being, in good truth, the abode of Sabbath peace. That hugest mountain is indeed the centre from which all the vales irregularly diverge; the whole circumjacent region may be traversed in a week; and though no other district of equal extent contains such variety of the sublime and beautiful, yet the beautiful is so prevalent that we feel its presence, even in places where it is overpowered; and on leaving "The Lakes," our imagination is haunted and possessed with images, not of dread, but of delight.

We have sometimes been asked, whether the north of England or the Highlands of Scotland should be visited first; but, simple as the question seems, it is really one which it is impossible to answer, though we suspect it would equally puzzle Scotchman or Englishman to give a sufficient reason for his wishing to see any part of any other country, before he had seen what was best worth seeing in his own. His own country ought to be, and generally is, dearest to every man. There, if nothing forbid, he should not only begin his study of nature, but continue his education in her school, wherever it may happen to be situated, till he has taken his first degree. We believe that the love of nature is strong in the hearts of the inhabitants of our island. And how wide and profound may that knowledge of nature be, which the loving heart has acquired, without having studied her anywhere hut within the Four Seas! The impulses that make us desire to widen the circle of our observation, are all impulses of delight and love; and it would be strange indeed, did they not move us, first of all, towards whatever is most beautiful belonging to our own land. Were it otherwise, it would seem as if the heart were faithless to the home affections, out of which, in their strength, spring all others that are good; and it is essential, we do not doubt, to the full growth of the love of country, that we should all have our earliest imaginative delights associated with our native soil. Such associations will for ever keep it loveliest to our eyes ; nor is it possible that we can ever as perfectly understand the character of any other; but we can afterwards transfer and transfuse our feelings in imagination kindled by our own will; and the beauty, born before our eyes, among the banks and braes of our childhood, and then believed to be but there, and nothing like it anywhere else in all the world, becomes a golden light, "whose home is everywhere," which if we do not darken it, will shine unshadowed in the dreariest places, till ‘‘ the desert blossom like the rose."

For our own parts, before we beheld one of "the beautiful fields of England," we had walked all Scotland thorough, and had seen many a secret place, which now, in the confusion of our crowded memory, seem often to shift their uncertain ground; but still, wherever they glimmeringly re-appear, invested with the same heavenly light in which long ago they took possession of our soul. And now that we are almost as familiar with the fair sister-land, and love her almost as well as Scotland’s self, not all the charms in which she is arrayed—and they are at once graceful and glorious—have ever for a day withdrawn our deeper dreams from the regions where,

"In life’s morning march when our spirit was young,"

unaccompanied but by our own shadow in the wilderness, we first heard the belling of the red deer and the eagle’s cry.

In those days there was some difficulty, if not a little danger, in getting in among some of the noblest regions of our Alps. They could not be traversed without strong personal exertion; and a solitary pedestrian excursion through the Grampians was seldom achieved without a few incidents that might almost have been called adventures. It is very different now; yet the Genius Loci, though tamed, is not subdued; and they who would become acquainted with the heart of the Highlands, will have need of some endurance still, and must care nothing about the condition of earth or sky. Formerly, it was not possible to survey more than a district or division in a single season, except to those unenviable persons who had no other pursuit but that of amusement, and waged a weary war with time. The industrious dwellers in cities, who sought these solitudes for a while to relieve their hearts from worldly anxieties, and gratify that love of nature which is inextinguishable in every bosom that in youth has beat with its noble inspirations, were contented with a week or two of such intercommunion with the spirit of the mountains, and thus continued to extend their acquaintance with the glorious wildernesses, visit after visit, for years. Now the whole Highlands, western and northern, may be commanded in a month. Not that any one who knows what they are will imagine that they can be exhausted in a lifetime. The man does not live who knows all worth knowing there; and were they who made the trigonometrical survey to be questioned on their experiences, they would be found ignorant of thousands of sights, any one of which would be worth a journey for its own sake. But now steam has bridged the Great Glen, and connected the two seas. Salt water lochs the most remote and inaccessible, it has brought within reach of a summer day’s voyage. In a week a joyous company can gather all the mainland shores, leaving not one magnificent bay uncircled; and, having rounded St Kilda and

"the Hebride Isles,
Placed far amid the melancholy main,"

and heard the pealing anthem of waves in the cave-cathedral of Staffa, may bless the bells of St Mungo’s tolling on the first Sabbath. Thousands and tens of thousands, who but for those smoking sea-horses, had never been beyond view of the city spires, have seen sights which, though passing by almost like dreams, are not like dreams forgotten, but revive of themselves in memory and imagination; and, when the heart is weary with the work of the hand, quicken its pulses with a sudden pleasure that is felt like a renovation of youth.

All through the interior, too, how many hundreds of miles of roads now intersect regions not long ago deemed impracticable! — firm on the fen, in safety flung across the chasm—and winding smoothly amidst shatterings of rocks, round the huge mountain bases, and down the glens once felt as if interminable, now travelled almost with the speed of the raven’s wing!

In the Highlands now, there is no terra incognita. But there are many places yet well worth seeing, which it is not easy for all men to find, and to which every man must be his own guide. It is somewhat of a selfish feeling, indeed, but the pride is not a mean one, with which the solitary pedestrian sits down to contemplate some strange, or wild, or savage scene, or some view of surpassing sweetness and serenity, so far removed from the track of men, that he can well believe for a time that his eyes have been the first to behold it, and that for them alone it has now become a visible revelation. The memory of such places is sometimes kept as a secret which we would not communicate but to a congenial friend. They are hallowed by those mysterious "thoughts that, like phantoms, trackless come and go ;" no words can tell another how to find his way thither; and were we ourselves to seek to return, we should have to trust to some consciousness mysterious as the instinct of a bird that carries it through the blind night to the place of its desire.

It is well to have in our mind the conception of a route; but without being utterly departed from—nay, without ceasing to control us within certain bounds—it admits of almost any degrees of deviation. We have known persons apparently travelling for pleasure who were afraid to turn a few miles to the right or the left, for fear of subjecting themselves to the reproach of their own conscience for infirmity of purpose. They had "chalked out a route," and acted as if they had sworn a solemn oath to follow it. This is to be a slave among the boundless dominions of nature, where all are free. As the wind bloweth wherever it listeth, so move the moods of men’s minds, when there is nought to shackle them, and when the burden of their cares has been dropt, that for a while they may walk on iii, and feel that they too have wings.

"A voice calls on me from the mountain depths,
And it must be obeyed."

The voice was our own—and yet though but whisper from the heart, it seemed to come from the front of yon distant precipice—sweet and wild as an echo.

On rising at dawn in the shieling, why think, much less determine, where at night we are to lay down our head? Let this be our thought:

"Among the hills a hundred homes have I:
My table in the wilderness is spread:
In these lone spots one honest smile can buy
Plain fare, warm welcome, and a rushy bed."

If we obey any powers external to our own minds, let them be the powers of Nature—the rains, the winds, the atmosphere, sun, moon and stars. We must keep a look out— 

"To see the deep, fermenting tempest brewed,
In the grim evening sky;"

that next day we may cross the red rivers by bridges, not by fords ; and if they roll along unbridged, that we may set our face to the mountain, and wind our way round his shoulder by sheep-tracks, unwet with the heather, till we behold some great strath, which we had not visited but for that storm, with its dark blue river streaked with golden light,—for its source is in a loch among the Eastern Range; and there, during the silent hours, heather, bracken, and greensward rejoiced in the trembling dews.

There is no such climate for all kinds of beauty and grandeur as the climate of the Highlands. Here and there you meet with an old shepherd or herdsman, who has beguiled himself into a belief, in spite of many a night’s unforeseen imprisonment in the mists, that he can presage its changes from fair to foul, and can tell the hour when the long-threatening thunder will begin to mutter. The weather-wise have often perished in their plaids. Yet among a thousand uncertain symptoms, there are a few certain, which the ranger will do well to study, and he will often exult on the mountain to feel that "knowledge is power." Many a glorious hour has been won from the tempest by him before whose instructed eye— beyond the gloom that wide around blackened all the purple heather—" far off its coming shone." Leagues of continuous magnificence have gradually unveiled themselves on either side to him, as he has slowly paced, midway between, along the banks of the River of Waterfalls; having been assured by the light struggling through the mist, that it would not be long till there was a break-up of all that ghastly dreariment, and that the sun would call on him to come forth from his cave of shelter, and behold in all its pride the Glen afronting the Sea.


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