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The Land of Heather
Chapter IV. An Excursion


Carrying peat out of the bog

FOR the most part my stay in Drumtochty was uninterrupted by any trips that took me farther from the village than I could conveniently walk. The only jaunts of a more extended character were several visits to Perth and a three days' drive up into the Highlands. I hired a gray pony and a yellow dogcart from a farmer for this Highland journey, and started at eight o'clock on a Monday morning, feeling a good deal elated that the conveyance was in my sole possession without a driver to consider and to provide for. The cart, like nearly all British vehicles, was very high and heavy, and the wheels were typically British in their breadth of tires and general solidity.

I was only troubled by two things — firstly, because I had failed to ask before starting what the Scotch said to their horses when they wanted them to stop or go on ; secondly, because I was fearful that when I met a team I would bring on a collision by forgetting it was the custom in Britain to turn to the left, instead of to the right as with us. But the horse seemed to understand the intent of my commands, even if they were in words foreign to it, and the teams I met were so few and far between that my anxiety on their account was mainly wasted. I carried a pock (bag) full of grain for the horse, and a box full of provisions for myself. Noons I stopped for lunch by some roadside burn, whenever and wherever I took the fancy, and, after I had set the horse feeding, would get out my lunch box and find some convenient boulder for a seat, and dine in true gypsy fashion.

The earlier part of my journey was for many miles up the wide, pleasant valley of the Tochty, but at length I entered a crooked mountain canon, Glen Urtach by name, overshadowed by great craggy ridges on whose gentler declivities the brown heather clung. These mountains looked as if thunderbolts and tornadoes had made them their playground; for their sides were everywhere furrowed with deep jagged ravines, and their lower slopes were strewn with masses of loose rocks hurled down from above by the sudden storm floods. The natural wildness of the scene was further emphasized by the fact that the glen in all its extent of three or four miles contained but two houses, and these were nothing but lonely little cottages occupied by shepherds whose business it was to care for the moorland sheep.

Near the entrance to the glen were the grassy embankments of a Roman camp, but a feature of the valley that interested me more than this relic of the dim past was a great boulder about a mile beyond. It stood a little aside from the highway, and a much-used path leading to it was evidence that it had many visitors. What the attraction was, I could not have conjectured, had I not heard its story previously. It had a smooth, rounding top, and rose above the ground to a height of seven or eight feet. At its base lay three heavy stones, the largest about the size of a peck measure. It was a common custom among travellers who happened into Glen Urtach to try "saddling the mare" — that is, to attempt putting the stones up on the boulder. They slid off with surprising ease,, and few persons had the strength or cleverness to lodge all three. Still, it was allowable to boast, even if you only succeeded with the two smaller ones. That the sport was a popular one was attested by the battered whiteness of the top of the boulder.

Beyond Glen Urtach, I almost at once entered a second glen, the name of which I can spell a good deal better than I can pronounce it—Q-u-a-i-c-h. The valley here was not confined by mountains, as had been that I left behind, and though there were steep, rocky hills looking down at some remove, the near landscape was one of wide lowlands, girt about with gentle slopes of heathery moor. Presently I approached a small lake, and by its shore came on a strange little village — a huddled, irregular group of possibly twoscore dwellings. But many of these were roofless, and others had only remnants of roofs — a few gaunt timbers, it might be, with sometimes a bit of old thatch clinging to them. Not more than a half-dozen of the. houses were still lived in, and they too were partakers in the general ruin, and were patched and dishevelled to the last degree. Their roofs were of leaky thatch, with turf laid on thickly along the gable ends and ridgepoles, and the shaky walls were propped with frequent posts. Yet certain of the house fronts had redeeming touches in the form of flowering vines growing about the low doorways, and there was one, where the doorstone had been gone over recently with the tint of sky-blue chalk that is esteemed so attractive for the threshold among Scotch cottage-dwellers.

On the grass, near one of the houses, lay an old man taking care of a baby, and talking with a rosy-cheeked young woman who was standing in a neighboring doorway. I had hitched my horse and had been walking through the village, but now I stopped to converse with this group, and before I left was invited to step inside the dwelling. It had no second story, nor even a " loft," and the living rooms were only two, unless a third apartment, reserved for the cow, is counted. To keep the warmth from escaping, the low-raftered kitchen ceiling was pasted all over with many thicknesses of newspapers. Underfoot was a paving of great flat stones, with wide cracks and uncertain hollows between. In a pocket of the wall was a bunch of a bed, and conspicuous among the other scanty furnishings was a rack of crockery, with the kist (chest) containing the family supply of oatmeal beneath it. At one side of the room was a fireplace made of heavy stones, piled up so as to leave a depression in their midst, and the smoke went up a rude chimney of clay-daubed slabs hooding out from the wall. The wide chimney orifice began about four feet above the hearth, and when I put my head under and looked upward, I could see a bit of sky through the haze of smoke. That the wind and rain must have driven down freely at times was very apparent.

The village had once been prosperous and full of inhabitants, but the little farms of the old crofters were now a part of one large farm, or were growing up to heather. I was informed that the titled owner of the glen chose to " kill off" the villagers, in order to raise grouse. No doubt the fewer people and the less land under cultivation, the greater the area of moor, and the natural sequence would be more game and more pleasure for the aristocracy in their hunting; but my sympathies were with the crofters, and I found the village in its lonesome decay very melancholy.

I had been warned that the road up Glen Quaich was a "rough" one, and I resumed my journey with anticipations of discomfort. However, "rough" applied to a road means a good deal in an American's vocabulary, and it was an agreeable surprise to find that nowhere was the glen road otherwise than hard and smooth. Its only defect was its narrowness. Two teams could barely scrape past when they met, and usually one of them would draw well out by the roadside and stop to give the other as free right of way as possible. The road continued the full length of the loch, keeping to the levels near the shores. Then it turned aside and began a zigzag ascent up the steep slopes of a mountain. At length I reached a plateau of wild, rolling moorland that had no touch of human softening save the light streak of the unfenced highway winding through the brown heather. This road, like that in the valley, was macadamized, and the encroaching turf at the sides had recently been spaded out. Its tidiness was in curious contrast to the rudeness of the region it traversed. Everything was desolate and sombre — no houses, no trees, not even a bush—just great hills and deep valleys shorn down to turf and heather. On the hilltops and the steeper slopes the rugged rocks broke through. In the hollows were black bogs and dark pools, and I passed an occasional lonely little lake bordered with a rank growth of reeds. There were streams a-plenty, but they added no touch of brightness. Their pools and fretting shallows and foamy tumbles were almost lost in the boulders that strewed their courses, and they were unshaded and bare to the point of uncanniness. The only noticeable flower on the upland was the bell heather. It grew in scattered clumps and patches amid the common ling heather that would paint the hills a month later, but which as yet was only in bud. The heather did not cover in one solid mass the whole moor. Instead there was a constant intermitting with irregular areas of turf or rusty earth. The explanation was that every spring strips of heather were burnt off by the shepherds, an acre or so to a strip, to give the grass and the tender, new-starting heather a chance to furnish food for the sheep. But the fire was not allowed to spread beyond definite limits, for the gentry were very particular that the game birds should have plenty of shrubbery in which to build their nests.

As I journeyed through the moorland desolation I occasionally roused a peesweep (lapwing) into complaining crying or started up a family of grouse. All along were sheep, in couples and little groups, feeding on the thin grasses. They were long-haired sheep with black faces and curling horns. Each of the old sheep was apt to have a lamb with it and, in case such were near the road, the little one at my approach would slip around behind its mother and look out at me inquiringly from its safe retreat.

Once I passed a line of game covers — perhaps a dozen of them in all — stretching along over the moor eight or ten rods apart. Each cover was just a bank of sods about four feet wide and four high, with a little pile of sods a few paces in the rear for a seat. In the season the sportsmen, hidden by the covers, shot the birds as fast as the gamekeepers drove them up within range.

By the fire side

The weather was threatening, and the wind blew, and I felt the touch now and then of a stray drop of rain. I was therefore the more rejoiced when later in the day the roadway began perceptibly to descend; for as soon as I reached the lowlands, I was certain to find some village and a place to spend the night. 

Far on ahead I could see a deep valley, and beyond the valley a range of great blue mountains rising up and up till their summits were lost in the drifting gray cloud mists. The road kept taking steeper dips as I went on, and the little horse with the heavy cart pushing behind seemed quite disturbed in its mind, and dug in its heels, and crept down at a pace that would shame a snail. By and by I came to a final descent through a wood that was so slippery and so nearly perpendicular that I took pity on the horse and got out and walked. But no sooner had we arrived at the bottom of the hill than we emerged, as if by magic, into a neat little hamlet, so hedged about on every hand by great trees that it looked as if it had been built in a clearing of the primeval forest. The dwellings crowded along both sides of an oblong open of hard-beaten earth, where a few discouraged grasses grew. At one end of the broad street or common stood an old church, while a quarter of a mile distant at the other end was an ivied stone archway, with iron gates opening into a great park around a castle. The village was Kenmore, at the foot of Loch Tay, and the lake was close by, spreading away to the west in a narrow passage between the great hills and mountains that hemmed it in.

After a night spent at an attractive whitewashed hotel fronting on the common, I went on, keeping to the south side of the loch, and travelling westward. It was a doubtful day of mingled sunshine and light showers. The mountains round about brightened and darkened in a continual change of drifting light and shadows. Their higher peaks were always cloud-capped, and made one feel as if the occasional showers that came misting down their slopes were manufactured and sent out from the hidden summits. The lake, with its wooded borders and its mountain setting, was very beautiful. Along the steep shores I came on frequent thatched cottages that were as forlorn and as rude in their surroundings as those I had seen the day before in Glen Quaich. Some of the gardens connected with these cots were on the most precipitous slopes imaginable, and as the rows without exception ran the steep way of the hill, I thought the owners would almost need the aid of a ladder to climb up and down them.

Toward noon I left the lake and took a road that slanted up the hills, and a mile or two of climbing brought me out on the barren wastes of the heights. The moors were of the same deserted brownness as those I had crossed the previous day, with the same dull reaches of heather, the craggy ridges and unshaded streams, and the scattered groups of sheep. I saw many depressions where peat had recently been cut. These cuttings were always in marshy hollows, but the hollows were by no means confined to the valleys. Often they were on the highest parts of the moor. The peat holes were rarely more than three or four feet deep, and except for the dark, ragged banks that bordered them, they were hardly noticeable in the moorland landscape. All about the cavities the peat bricks lay drying. Some of them had evidently only been dug out a day or two, and looked like oblongs of stiff black mud. They were as full of water as a sponge, and would lie spread on the heath for a month before they would be sufficiently dry to be carted to the farmhouses.

My day's journey came to an end when, in the late afternoon, I reached a village named Amulree. Its most conspicuous building was a small church crowning a bare knoll and having round about a tiny churchyard crowded with graves. From here I could see a lonely treeless schoolhouse a quarter of a mile out on the moor where two roads met. The rest of the village consisted of a small hotel and half a dozen houses reposing in a valley where an old stone bridge spanned a little river. It seemed about as much lost to the world as it well could be ; yet the hotel had many visitors in summer, attracted by the fishing that was to be had in the stream. Just then the only fishermen lodgers were four cigarette-smoking young men with very high white collars, and other things to match. I did not think the fish would suffer much at their hands.

On the borders of Amulree I visited one of the rude, thatched farmhouses that were common in the region, and which was of especial interest because it was a typical, old-fashioned cotter's house. As I entered the yard two dogs hanging about the doorway barked at me menacingly; but an old woman came out and quieted them, and when I mentioned that I was from America, she invited me in, only would I wait outside until she could "redd up the hoose"?

Near the doorway was a tub turned bottom upward, and on that I sat down and looked about.. The view was not very inspiring, for it was mainly comprised in a rough, sloping yard, and a group of dismal little stone sheds. Several of the sheds were roofless and half fallen, and the farm tools got along in corners and under the shreds of roof still left, as best they could. The house was soon made presentable, and I went in. It was a long, low building with three rooms, "a but, a ben, and a byre." Translated, that means a kitchen, a best room, and a cow stable. The kitchen occupied the middle, between the other two apartments, and was a combination workroom, sitting room, bedroom, and pantry. "Ben the hoose" served likewise as a sleeping room, and also as a storeroom and parlor, while the byre was put to double use as a cow stable and henhouse.

The kitchen had been cleared of the pots and pans and odds and ends that had no doubt been lying around handy all over the floor previous to my unexpected advent, and in so far was not wholly characteristic. It was a rickety apartment, much confined in both height and breadth, and with no ceiling save some boards laid loosely on the beams overhead. The crooked timbers of the framework bulged out into the room here and there, and the stones of the floor were so rough, and had such cracks and crevices between, that there was need of practice to keep one's balance on them. As for getting chairs or tables to sit level on such a floor, that was simply impossible. But what seemed to me the least desirable feature of the kitchen was its odor, — and no wonder it had an odor, for there was the cow stable just beyond a thin, shaky partition. On the hearth was a great basket of eggs which my hostess would presently carry out to a grocer's cart that visited the vicinity once a week, selling store wares and picking up small produce in exchange. The woman and her brother were the only dwellers in the house. They had quite an extended farm, chiefly devoted to sheep-raising, and in spite of the lack of comforts in the house and the dilapidation of the buildings, it would not be surprising if these farm folk had a good bit of money laid aside.

This visit to the cotter's house at Amulree was the most interesting incident of the latter part of my excursion. The experiences of the final day were largely a repetition of those already related, and I have only to add that my leisurely travelling, with its various stops and asides, brought me back to the shoemaker's cottage in Drumtochty about sunset.

Puttin' oot the dung


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