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Glimpses of Church and Social Life in the Highlands in Olden Times and Other Papers
Chapter IX. Mrs Grant of Laggan - Touching Incident of Last Centuary - The Queen's Visit to Ardverikie


INSEPARABLY connected with the parish of Laggan is the name of the celebrated Mrs Grant, whose ‘Letters from the Mountains,’ first published in 1806, became exceedingly popular, giving, as they do, not only graphic descriptions of many interesting spots in the district, but also delightful glimpses of the manners of the inhabitants and of the parties with whom she came in contact—ranging from the time when she was a bright-hearted girl of eighteen at Fort Augustus, down for many years after she became the wife of the worthy minister of Laggan. An interesting circumstance alluded to by Mrs Grant is the fact that she was among the last who met Dr Johnson on his celebrated journey, and she retained a lively recollection of the great lexicographer’s peculiar manner and costume. Born in Glasgow on 21st February 1755, Mrs Grant was the daughter of Mr Duncan M'Vicar, an officer in the British army, her mother being a granddaughter of Mr Stewart of Invernahyle, an ancient family in the county of Argyll. Alexander Stewart, Esq. of Invernahyle, the fine old Highland gentleman mentioned by Sir Walter Scott as the prototype of the Baron of Bradwardine in ‘ Waverley,’ and of whom he records many interesting anecdotes from personal acquaintance, was a granduncle of Mrs Grant, being the brother of her maternal grandmother. After spending a considerable portion of her youth in America, Mrs Grant, in 1768, returned to Scotland with her father, who in 1773 was appointed barrack-master at Fort Augustus. The office of chaplain to the garrison there was then held by Mr Grant, who in 1775 was presented to the parish of Laggan, and four years afterwards he and Miss M‘Vicar were united in marriage. “No sooner,” says Dr Longmuir, “do we hear the words ‘Manse of Laggan,’ than Mrs Grant, wife of the minister of this parish at the close of the last century, immediately occurs to the memory, with many pleasing and sad reminiscences of her regard for her husband, her love for her children, her grief for their loss, her admiration of her friends, every one of whom, though ‘merely tolerable, she decked with a thousand charms’; her lively description of her neighbours and their superstitions; her kindness to them in distress, ‘healing them all,’ as her husband averred, 'with sympathy and bark’; her distress at his death, and her sadness on leaving the cottage that, for twenty years, had been the abode of refinement and chequered happiness.” Here is a beautiful picture of the “lowly cottage” and its inmates, expressive of the feelings of the loving wife and mother on her return to Laggan after a short absence:—

“Dear lowly cottage! o’er whose humble thatch
The dewy moss has velvet verdure spread,
Once more, with trem’lous hands, thy ready latch
I lift, and to thy lintel bow my head.
Dear are thy inmates! beauty’s roseate smile,
And eye soft melting, hail my wished return;
Loud clamours infant joy; around meanwhile
Maturer breasts with silent rapture burn.
Within these narrow bounds I reign secure,
And duteous love and prompt obedience find;
Nor sigh to view my destiny obscure
(Where all is lowly, but each owner’s mind
Content), if pilgrims passing by our cell
Say, ‘With her sister Peace there
Virtue loves to dwell.’

Mrs Grant thus alludes to the superstitious dread once inspired by the belief that the Corry, or hollow in the mountain, in the parish of Laggan, where the Spey rises, was inhabited by a spirit of mischief:—

“Now wide and wild the dreary prospect shows,
Where stars with glimmering light illume the snows;
Through fleecy clouds a dubious lustre spread,
Where Corryarrick rears his lofty head.
Deep at his feet the dismal Corry lies,
Where dwells a spirit hid from human eyes,
Whose magic art the fatal blast unties ;
The fatal blast, incessant whirling round,
With horror fills the cavity profound :
The Demon, in the whirling drift disguised,
Has oft the unweeting stranger here surprised,
And many a grave is seen with foxglove crowned,
When spring appears with dewy locks unbound,
And many a plaintive ghost sad fancy forms,
And hears their hollow shriek amidst the storms.

Here Farquhar paused, looked back, and shuddering saw His faithful dog first shrink in silent awe,

Then, howling, trembling fly with quickened pace,
To warn his master from the fatal place.
‘Shall I too fly? ’ he cried, ‘or trust the
Pow’r Who guards us in the dark and silent hour?

From whom commissioned blasts have leave to fly,
Or sleep within the curtains of the sky.
Strong in His strength these horrors I explore;
By Him protected, Farquhar fears no more."

The following lines, descriptive of the course of the Brounach, a small mountain brook flowing near the old manse of Laggan, give expression to the soothing effects of its placid murmurs on the overburdened heart of the sorely afflicted authoress, “when pining with anguish or sunk in despair.” “ Never, sure,” she says, “in a quarter of a mile’s course did a mountain brook assume such various aspects and speak such different languages” :—

“Rude stream that com’st dashing the wild rocks among,
And drown’st in thy tumults the pastoral song,
How oft thy hoarse clamours have softened my care,
When pining with anguish or sunk in despair!

When nature lay hushed in oblivious repose,
When nothing was waking but I and my woes;
When the stars all beheld me, with bright eyes of fire,
And bade me resign, and their Author admire ;

Then, where by my cottage thy turbulent course,
Like sorrow subsiding, diminished its force;
When the heart, overburdened, could seek for relief,
Thy murmurs how placid, how soothing to grief!

When morn in fresh beauty enlightened the skies,
When the sun was preparing in splendour to rise,
Among the smooth pebbles, in melody clear,
Smooth-gliding, thy waters more lucid appear.

But when, in the meadows, at evening’s soft hours,
On thy borders I wander ’midst verdure and flowers,
Where, hid in thy channel in whispers so sweet,
Thou art heard in a cadence for sympathy meet,

My musings, though pensive, are free from despair,
While soothing I feel the soft balm of the air ;
When, from thy low banks, they ascend to the sky,
My soul seems to follow the larks where they fly.

When the sun from the west, with a soft parting ray,
Irradiates thy stream where it mingles with Spey,
While, to seek the wide ocean, thy pure waters roll,
How sad, yet how tranquil, the calm of my soul!

The stream that with thee in the mountains arose,
In whose dark recesses your sources disclose,
Whose parting thy murmurs lament all the way,
Though forced from beside thee so early to stray,

Now again shall rejoin thee, and flow in one tide,
Nor part till to ocean together ye glide :
How blest, who arrive at that sea without shore,
Where currents rejoin to be sundered no more!”

Writing from Woodend, near Stirling, on 10th October 1803, to Mrs Smith of Jordanhill, Mrs Grant thus contrasts the “gentle and courteous cottagers” of her “ever dear Laggan” with the peasantry with whom she had come in contact south of the Grampians: “You will think it a romantic source of inquietude that, though my own fireside exhibits a scene of harmony and innocence, of ‘ power to chase all sadness but despair,’ I languish for the scenes of humble happiness that have been so long congenial as well as familiar to me. Gentle and courteous cottagers of my ever dear Laggan, where is your simplicity of Life? Where are your native undebased sentiments? Where your mutual kindness, your social affection, your reverence for virtue, your grateful respect to superiors, and your self-denial, fortitude, and unequal filial duty? Here am I grieved with the altered manners of a gross and sordid peasantry, who retain only the form they have inherited from their pious ancestors while the spirit is entirely evaporated; who, while they have advanced in the knowledge and practice of a species of coarse and tasteless luxury, are retrograde in everything valuable and estimable; who regard their superiors with envious ill-will, and their equals with selfish coldness; who neither look back to their ancestors nor forward to their successors, but live and labour merely for the individual. They, sure enough, are degenerated; but I have lived in a luxury of a superior kind, which has made me fastidious.”

The following lines, “On a Sprig of Heath,” are in Mrs Grant’s happiest manner:—

Gem of the heath! whose modest bloom
Sheds beauty o’er the lonely moor;
Though thou dispense no rich perfume,
Nor yet with splendid tints allure,
Oft hast thou decked, a favourite flower,
Both valour’s crest and beauty’s bower.

Flower of the wild! whose purple glow
Adorns the dusky mountain’s side,
Not the gay hues of Iris’ bow,
Nor garden’s artful, varied pride,
With all its wealth of sweets, could cheer
Like thee, the hardy mountaineer.

Flower of his heart! thy fragrance mild
Of peace and freedom seems to breathe :
To pluck thy blossoms in the wild,
And deck his bonnet with the wreath,
Where dwelt of old his rustic sires,
Is all his simple wish requires.

Flower of his dear-loved native land!
Alas! when distant, far more dear.
When he from some cold, foreign strand
Looks homeward through the blinding tear,
How must his aching heart deplore,
That home and thee he sees no more.”

Removing to Edinburgh a few years after the death of her husband, whom she survived for the long period of thirty-seven years, Mrs Grant continued to live in that city for nearly thirty years—namely, from 1810 until her death in 1838. During this lengthened period she “mixed extensively in the literary and other circles of Edinburgh, where her house was the resort of many eminent characters, both of her own and foreign countries. She continued all this time to maintain an extensive correspondence with her friends in England, Scotland, and America, and her letters, as may be supposed, contained many sketches of the literary and other society of the Scottish capital, and of the varied characters with whom she was brought into contact, as well as notices of the literature and general topics of the day.”

In a letter addressed to a friend, written from Edinburgh on 19th February 1821, Mrs Grant gives the following delightful glimpse of her life in Badenoch, and of the warm affection which, down to the close of her long and honoured life, she continued to cherish for “ the humble dwellers in the cottages of Laggan:”—

“I can scarcely believe that any one has more vivid enjoyment of the Scotch Novels and Wordsworth’s ‘Excursion’ than myself; for I am convinced there does not exist a person in decent station with a mind in any degree cultivated or capable of refinement who has had more intercourse with the lower classes. In the first place, I was assiduous in learning the language of the country where my lot was thrown. Long days have I knit my stocking or carried an infant from sheaf to sheaf, sitting and walking by turns on the harvest-field, attentively observing conversation which for the first years of my residence in the Highlands I was not supposed to understand. Seldom a day passed that I did not find two or three petitioners in the kitchen respectfully entreating for advice, medicine, or some petty favour. Often I sat down with them, and led them to converse, captivated with the strength and beauty of their expressions in their native tongue. It would not be easy to make you comprehend how often the duties of a Highland housewife subject her to the necessity of communion with her inferiors. Here, in Edinburgh, where all the pleasures and troubles of such intercourse might be supposed at an end, scarcely a week passes but some poor native of Laggan comes to entreat me to write a letter, or in some way interest myself in behalf of them or their children, and I never refuse. I cannot complain of the world; since I have embarked in it I have met with kindness, and even in some instances unhoped-for approbation: yet there is nothing that comes so cordially home to my heart as the murmurs of remembered affection, which through different channels reaches my ear from the humble dwellers in the cottages of Laggan.”

Mrs Grant’s life, for some years after she gave up writing for the public, had been in part devoted to an intellectual employment of another kind — the superintendence of the education of a succession of young persons of her own sex, who were sent to reside with her. From the year 1826, also, her means had been further increased by a pension of 50, which was granted to her by George IV., on a representation drawn up by Sir Walter Scott, and supported by Henry Mackenzie, Lord Jeffrey, and other distinguished persons among her friends in Edinburgh. In that representation they declared their belief that Mrs Grant had rendered eminent services to the cause of religion, morality, knowledge, and taste, and that her writings had “ produced a strong and salutary effect upon her countrymen, who not only found recorded in them much of national history and antiquities which would otherwise have been forgotten, but found them combined with the soundest and best lessons of virtue and morality.”

Of the five sons and seven daughters of Mrs Grant’s marriage, four died in early life before their father; and with the exception of John Peter, for many years a Writer to the Signet in Edinburgh, who edited her correspondence and the memoir of her life, published in 1845, all predeceased their venerated and famous mother. The following is the inscription on the tombstone erected to her memory, beside that of her husband, in the churchyard of Laggan:—

“Sacred to the Memory of Mrs ANNE GRANT,
WIDOW OF THE REV. JAMES GRANT, MINISTER OF THIS PARISH,
WHO DIED IN EDINBURGH, 7TH NOVEMBER 1838,
AGED 83.
Her writings illustrate the associations and scenes of her eventful life.

Her eminent virtues adorned its relations. Her Christian faith and fortitude sustained its many severe afflictions in humble submission to the will of God.

Her numerous family of twelve children, for whom she made most meritorious and successful exertions, was, by the will of a mysterious Providence, all cut off before herself, except him who now records this memorial of his love and veneration.

Her mortal remains are interred in the burying-ground of Saint Cuthbert’s Parish, Edinburgh.”

An affecting incident of last century, upon which a touching Gaelic ballad connected with Laggan was founded, is thus related by the Rev. Mr Sinton, now of Dores, in the ‘Celtic Magazine ’ for May 1887: “The cattle at Blargie, in Upper Badenoch, being let loose on a sunny day in early spring, became frantic with delight of their novel and unexpectedly acquired freedom, and betook themselves to the hills, heedless of consequences. The herd—a young man named Macdonald—followed them as far as Drumuachdar, which extends between Dalwhinnie and Dalnacardoch. While he traversed that solitary and sterile tract, the weather, then proverbially fickle, changed terribly. A blinding snowstorm set in, and the unfortunate lad never more found his way home. Among those who set out in quest of the lost herd was his leman (or true-love), who is said to have composed her lover’s elegy. The catastrophe was a favourite theme with the milkmaids of Laggan and Kingussie for many years.” Mr Sinton gives fragmentary portions of the original in the ‘Celtic Magazine,’ which have been thus beautifully translated by the late Principal Shairp of St Andrews:—

“O wae on Loch Laggan!
That bonnie spring day
Lured my lad and his herd
To the desert away;

Then changed ere night fell
To a demon its form,
And hugged him to death
In the arms of the storm.

Drumuachdar’s dark moor
I have wandered in pain,
The herd I have found,
Sought the herdsman in vain.

But my gentle Macdonald
Lay stretched where he fell,
His head on the willow,
His feet in the well.

The folk with their dirks
Cutting birches so nigh thee,
O why did none chance
In that hour to pass by thee?

Had I but been there
Ere the death-chill had bound thee,
With a dry ample plaid
To fold warmly around thee ;

And a quaich of pure spirit
Thrice passed through the reek,
To bring warmth to thy heart
And the glow to thy cheek ;

A bright fire on the floor,
Without smoke or ashes,
In a well-woven bothy
Theeked o’er with green rashes.

Not thus, O not thus,
But all lonely thy dying!
Yet the men came in crowds
Where in death thou wast lying.

There was weeping and wail
In the crags to the west of thee,
As the race of two grandsires
Came lorn and distressed for thee.

Thy kindred and clansmen
Were mingling their grief,
In the kiln as they laid thee
And waited the chief.

Till Cluny arrived,
His proud head bending low,
Till Clan Vourich arrived,
Each man with his woe.

Till Clan-Ian arrived
To swell the great wail,—
They three that were oldest
And best of the Gael.

With them came too Clan Tavish,
The hardiest in fight;
There, too, were his brothers,
Heart-sick at the sight.

And thy one little sister,
In life’s early bloom,
Was there, too, her beauty
O’ershadowed with gloom.

And there stood his old mother
Wringing her hands,
Her grey locks down-streaming,
Unloosed from their bands.

And the lass of his love
Came riving her hair,
The look of her face
Wild and wan with despair.

O what crying and weeping
That doleful day fills
The hollows and heights
Of Drumuachdar’s dark hills!”

From 21st August to 17th September 1847 the Queen, the Prince Consort, and the Royal Family occupied the beautiful residence of Ardverikie (close to Loch Laggan), then the property of Cluny Macpherson, of which her Majesty has given the following interesting sketch:—

“Ardverikie, Loch Laggan, Saturday, August 21.

“Alas! a very wet morning. We were ready long before nine o’clock, but had to wait, as our carriages were not ready. At last we all landed at Fort William, where there was a great gathering of Highlanders, in their different tartans, with Lord Lovat and Mr Stuart Mackenzie at their head. We got into our carriage with Charles and the two children; there was a great crowd to see us off. We went by a very wild and lonely road, the latter part extremely fine, with mountains and streams that reminded us of Glen Tilt. We changed horses only once, and came at length in sight of Loch Laggan. It is a beautiful lake (small in comparison to what we have seen) surrounded by very fine mountains: the road by its side is extremely pretty. We saw Lord Abercorn’s house of Ardverikie long before we came to it. At Laggan there is only a small inn, and at the end of the lake, a ferry. Here, in spite of the pouring rain, were assembled a number of Highlanders, with Macpherson of Cluny (always called Cluny Macpherson) and three dear little boys of his,8 Davidson of Tulloch, and others, with Lord Abercorn in full Highland dress. We stepped out of our carriage and stood upon the floating bridge, and so crossed over in two or three minutes. We then drove on, in our pony-carriages, to Ardverikie, and arrived there in about twenty minutes. It is quite close to the lake, and the view from the windows, as I now write, though obscured by rain, is very beautiful, and extremely wild. There is not a village, house, or cottage within four or five miles : one can only get to it by the ferry, or by rowing across the lake. The house is a comfortable shooting-lodge, built of stone, with many nice rooms in it. Stags’ horns are placed along the outside and in the passages; and the walls of the drawingroom and ante-room are ornamented with beautiful drawings of stags by Landseer.

“There is little to say of our stay at Ardverikie; the country is very fine, but the weather was most dreadful.

“On the 28th, about five o’clock, Albert drove me out across the ferry, along the Kingussie road, and from here the scenery was splendid : high bold hills, with a good deal of wood; glens, with the Pattock, and a small waterfall; the meadows here and there, with people making hay, and cottages sprinkled sparingly about, reminded us much of Thuringen. We drove to the small farm, where Colonel Macpherson now lives, called Strathmashie, and back again, 16 miles in all. We were delighted with the scenery, which is singularly beautiful, wild and romantic,—with so much fine wood about it, which greatly enhances the beauty of a landscape.”

“Loch Laggan, admiring,
I gaze on thy charms,
Which thy hills, bold-aspiring,
Enfold in their arms,

With their cloud-turbaned brows,
And their birch-mantled breast;
While the clear Pattach flows
To the beam of the west.

New charms, as I gaze,
Still unfold on my sight,
While the white wavy haze
Wraps Ardverikie’s height;

And thy calm bosom shows,
Clear-reflected, each steep,
While the dark purple glows
In thy waters so deep.

Yon old, mould’ring Fort,
On thy green island’s side,
Where Fergus held court,
May extinguish our pride ;

For the bright flow’ret’s bloom
From each crevice fresh springs,
While defaced in the tomb
Lies the grandeur of kings.

May our heart, like thy bosom,
Reflect Heaven’s face;
And our life, like thy blossom,
Prove fragrant of grace ;

And murmur, sweet Pattach,
In mem’ry’s fond ear,
‘May your days, like my water,
Flow useful and clear.’"


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