FAREWELL TO THE ISLES
Three Weeks alone in the Rock Wilderness—A Family of "Haavelinga "Yachtsmen_-Sligachan
Inn—The Cuchullins-.--Divers Tourists—Loch Corruisk—A Good Day's Deer
Stalking—Old Boar Hunt—A Whale Ashore—" Blocs Perches "—Giant Fossils on
Isle of Eigg—Legends of Clan Fights—The Grave of a Viking's Daughter—Old
Churchyards of Snizort, Nigg, &c.—Of Funeral Feasts—The Skye Railway
foreseen by Local Seers—Drive via Balmacarra and Loch Aish to Shiel House
Inn - Eilean Donan Castle—Glen Quoich—Fort Augustus—Castle Urquhart.
HOWEVER valuable to the storm-tossed mariner may be the soothing influence
of oil on the waters, we certainly needed none on our present cruise, for we
watched the smooth, glassy, unrippled surface of the water till we despaired
of ever getting out of harbour.
At last, however, the welcome breeze sprang up, and when the spirit of the
wind did awaken, it did so in good earnest, and we straightway returned to
Loch Staffin, where I had determined to have two or three weeks alone with
the rock-spirits of Quiraing.
It was very dismal to watch my playfellows sail away in the evening, but I
received a cordial welcome in the wee inn, though "inn" I should not call
the kindly farmhouse where I found myself in the position of an honoured
guest. My gentle landlord was most assiduous in his care, and being the only
creature who could speak a word of English, used anxiously to come and
interpret whatever information might be necessary, to the one fair spirit
who was my minister—namely, a strapping, cheery wench, Peggy Môr, who,
though of course utterly guiltless of English, was wonderfully "gleg at the
uptak." This was fortunate, as her master was generally absent all day. When
my intelligent giantess succeeded in understanding my various signs she
would pat and stroke me exultingly, uttering clicks and chuckles of
exceeding interest and delight.
Mine host was, in some way, responsible for all the lunatics in the
district, and being a man of a tender heart, could rarely resist the appeal
of any who were particularly anxious to leave the asylum, and find
occupation among his herdsmen. So it came to pass that various strange
beings haunted the neighbourhood, haaveling's as we call half-witted
creatures on the mainland. One in particular who herded the frye was engaged
in a ceaseless warfare with devils, and was for ever battling with invisible
foes, in order to protect himself and us. The raging waves were an especial
annoyance to him, and he attributed their noise to myriads of women roaring
It used to amuse me in the evenings to hear all the farm lads and lasses
gathered round the kitchen fire, "laughing and daffin' and lilting anti
quaffing," and after their simple supper of porridge and milk, singing all
manner of Gaelic songs and choruses, which were just sufficiently softened
by distance to lose their harshness; "low winding songs, with as little
beginning or end as the murmur of a brook," and well in keeping with the
wild sea and mountains round me.
Each day that promised a tolerable allowance of sunshine I went up to the
Rock Wilderness, getting a lift in "the cart," which was full of sweet fresh
straw, very needful, considering the character of the ground over which we
jolted. But on the whole, the rain had the best of it, and though a
waterproof rug and waterproof coat made me quite amphibious, my sketching
blocks lived under shadow of an umbrella which, alas! was rapidly giving up
the ghost. What was to be done
The problem was solved by the return of mine host from a distant cattle
market, whence he brought me a fairin'—.a roll of pale brown ribbon. It
matbered not that the poor umbrella was dark maroon; we sewed strips of
ribbon down each seam, and little patches of ribbon under every tear, and
when our masterpiece was finished, it not only defied wind and rain, but was
the admiration of all beholders—nay, more it proved a fruitful topic of
conversation, which is no mean praise in these parts!
Events were few and far between. In three weeks about three drowned tourists
arrived from Portree rid the Storr—pedestrians, of course—and one day, while
I sat painting on the shore, a very large English yacht came in, with a
steam-tug to take care of her. The owner having packed as many of his party
as could find room, into "the cart," went off to Quiraing. I was much amused
at noting the difference between the English sailors who manned this yacht
and those we had had to do with. The latter were grave thoughtful men,
content with the simplest fare, biscuit, herrings, and milk, and
appreciating the beauty of scenery as much as we did ourselves. These, like
a pack of wild boys, were intent only on the fun of foraging, and capturing
sheep, fowls, eggs, whatever they could lay hands on, and their verdict on
each place where they had halted was solely dependent on the commissariat.
Then I began to realize how curiously this contrast must have struck the
frugal old Highlanders, when first the Saxons came among them, and the grim
humour that prompted their retort to some English taunt—a retort which
became proverbial—"Show me a Southron, and I will show you a glutton!" Far
be it from me to apply such a term to these jolly tars.
Nevertheless, not one of them gave a glance at the strange scene their
master had come so far to look at, though they found considerable amusement
in watching my sketch of it, Three months later, when I embarked for India
at Southampton, a cheery voice wished me luck, and that I might get good
drawings, and looking up, I recognized one of these hearties, who took a
special interest in my comfort throughout the voyage.
When the time came that I must bid adieu to Quiraing, my friends at Uig,
true to the good old precept, "Welcome the coining, speed the parting,
guest," escorted me as far as Portree. My- next halting-point was Sligachan
Inn, which stands on the borders of Lord Macdonald's deer forest of Sconser.
The drive from Portree to Sligachan was over a heathery moor, a broad
expanse of rich browns and purples, with patches of vivid green, or dark
moss with darker peat stacks ready cut for winter fuel. Here and there a
broken sea-bank, and a rippling stream; and beyond, an ever-changing outline
of fine mountain forms, just appearing through the mist, then vanishing
The inn, though small, is comfortable enough, and affords shelter to a
wondrously varied multitude of tourists and travellers, members of the
Alpine Club, distinguished artists, statesmen, ecclesiastics, botanists,
geologists, yachting parties, pleasure-seekers of all sorts, drovers,
excisemen, down to that class of tourist who "does" Skye as a sort of
unpleasant duty, and confides to his friend "ow hawfully the 'orses gibbed
coming up these 'ideous, 'orrible 'ills," adding that if only Nature had
"put all the 'ills into the 'ollows, it would have been a much finer
country." Also giving him startling information of all sorts, such as that
"A gwilse is the female of a gwouse," and making, oh! such havoc of all
One of these southern gentlemen, whose presence had only been remarked by
his excessive silence, suddenly electrified his neighbours by springing
wildly towards the window, exclaiming, "There they are! There they are!
Don't you see the red-deer?" at the same time pointing out a couple of
collie dogs which were quietly surveying the world from the brow of the
hill. After this failure the unhappy man once more relapsed into silence,
and made no further attempt to enliven the public.
But none of these conveyed to our ears so curious a sensation as when a
pretty young woman, who had been listening in much bewilderment to a
discussion about Oban, suddenly looked up, and with an expression of beaming
intelligence, exclaimed, "Well, to be sure! Why, I thought you were talking
of Oban in London!" Judge of our first feelings of mystification, and
congratulate us on our command of countenance, in that, as a vision of
Holborn Hill slowly presented itself to our minds, we contrived not to move
But though we take our quiet laugh at the Sassenach, perhaps be, in his
turn, may find his little joke at the expense of some of our northern
worthies, and may treasure up such speeches as that of a certain drover,
who, moved with indignation at finding himself supplied with a dessert-spoon
at second-course, shouted to the damsel in waiting to bring back his
soup-spoon, exclaiming, "Hoot! lassie, isna ma mouth just as big for pudding
as for kail!"
Many a good story has been told under that roof, and many a queer
long-winded discussion of every topic under heaven, overheard, with more or
less amusement, by people who, accustomed always to go on trotting round and
round their own social cabbage-leaf, here catch perhaps the only glimpse
they ever get of the existence of their fellows, whose diverse caste has run
them, likewise, into their several grooves. Here, however, for once, they do
just meet, and bring with them enough of their own individuality to make
them amusing studies for one another.
And of all this, you get full benefit, as the little inn boasts of only one
private sitting-room, and the occupant thereof is considered by the other
inmates exclusive indeed. I for one, had been so long alone with the Rocks
and the Peggy Môr, that I was not disposed to shun my species! Moreover, I
was fortunate enough to fall in with thoroughly pleasant companions, who,
arriving on the same day as myself, were likewise in no hurry to leave so
beautiful a spot. So we formed ourselves into a most agreeable coterie, and
found abundant pleasure, social and scenic, during the three happy weeks we
spent beneath the shadow of the dark Cuchullins.
Of those kindly companions, one, alas I may never more tread mountain crag.
Era two summers had passed, during which be had scaled many a cloud-capped
summit, he met his fate suddenly, as he had always himself predicted.
Wandering alone on the Maritime Alps, a falling mass of rock struck and
killed him in a moment. Some peasants brought tidings to Mentone of the
death of an unknown Englishman, and after a while it was known that this was
our friend of the Cuchullins, and that yet another of the companions of
these two short years had passed away from earth.
The inn stands on a flat peat moss, just where a brown trout- stream flows
down Glen Sligachan into a salt sea-lake of the same name. To the right of
the valley towers the mass of dark peaks, eight of which are upwards of 3000
feet in height. Of these, Scuir-na-Gillean, or the gillie's hill, claims
precedence. It earned its name in remote ages from a legend that two lads
had been killed while attempting to scale its dark crags, and till very
recently its summit was deemed inaccessible. Even to the most experienced
cragsman the ascent is no child's play, as has been recently but too well
proven, when a member of the Alpine Club met his death alone among these
cruel black rocks, his body being found next day at the foot of a precipice.
On the other side of the valley rises a ninth peak of similar height (Blabhein,
pronounced Blaven), also of a greenish black hyperstenite rock, known to
geologists as "Gabbro," its strangely serrated outliue cutting hard against
the sky, and its solemn gloom, like that of its dark kindred, generally
intensified by the deep cloud shadows resting on its summit.
Against it, in strong relief, stands Marekow, one of a group of conical
hills of red syenite and porphyry, whose steep sides are water-worn by the
torrents (true children of the storm) that rush down literally from the
clouds. These red hills seem like huge piles of disintegrated rock, pale
flesh colour, more curious than beautiful, though a brilliant green herbage
has managed to creep up the lower slopes, and glances with rainbow light
when touched by that "clear shining after rain" with which dwellers in a
hill country become so familiar. Their rounded forms (singularly free from
any deep glens or defined crags) are in curious contrast with the
deeply-furrowed ravines and corries which seam the dark massive pyramids of
black rock that tower on either side of the valley.
Another of these pink hills bears the name of Glamaig, whose shoulder,
Scuir-na-Mairi, or the crag of Mary, was so called in memory of a woman who
was there killed in attempting to rescue her cow.
At the head of the valley stands one cone whose name, Trodhu, recalls the
days when the old Norsemen overran the land, and left traces of their
presence all along the coast Such names as Skeabost, Orbost, Kirkabost,
flusbibost, Bornaskitag, Hungladder, Valtos, and many another seem to carry
us north to Scandinavian shores.
For this cone of Trodhu you must make, if you wish to look down on the
far-famed Loch Corruisk (literally "the Corrie of the water"). Three hours'
good walking or pony-riding should take you up beautiful Glen Sligachan, and
by a steep ascent to the shoulder of Trodhu, whence the view on a clear day
is magnificent. Wild lulls rise high on every side of you, their dark rocky
crests half veiled by wreaths of floating mist. Far below you lies black
Loch Duich, a small, intensely dark pool, often called the Dhu Lochnn, i. e.
the black Tarn.
It is connected by a streamlet with blacker Corruisk, whence a river,
perhaps a quarter of a mile long, rushes down the rocks into Loch Scavaig,
the most exquisitely transparent green sea-loch, on whose calm surface is
mirrored a dazzlingly white waterfall, that comes tumbling over the crags.
The contrast in colour between these lochs is most striking; the fresh water
so sombre, like darkest indigo—the salt water so wondrously green. On the
latter float a few brown and red specks, veiled with the faintest thread of
blue smoke, which tells that the fishers have kindled fires on board their
boats, and are cooking their midday meal of fresh herrings. A. little apart
from these, flutters a tiny white sail no bigger than a fairy's wing, which
proves to be a yacht just anchoring in the bay-. And beyond Loch Scavaig
lies the great blue sea, from which rise the shapely hills of Rum, and the
lower shores of Canna and other isles.
Beautiful, however, as is such a day of glorious sunshine, when we feel the
mere fact of existence to be bliss unspeakable, there is no denying that
fine dry weather is certainly not the time to see these hills in their
glory. We thought ourselves singularly fortunate in having selected a
perfect day for our first visit to the corns of the waters, little thinking
how a few days of sunshine would inevitably have parched and scorched the
rocks, and dried up every trickling stream and tiny waterfall. We started,
having our minds thoroughly imbued with Scott's description of this scene,
"so rude, so wild,—yet so sublime in barrenness"; where
"..... all is rock at random thrown,
Blaek waves, bare rocks, and banks of stone."
At the summit of the ridge below Trodhu we paused, breathless with delight
at the glory of the panorama outspread before us. There, as is customary, we
turned the ponies loose, an amount of trust which these wise creatures never
betray. This done, we started for a long and fatiguing scramble down the
steep hillside, fairly awed by our solemn expectations, which intensified as
we neared the ridge whence we might overlook those black mysterious waters.
Once there! . 0 bitter disappointment I This weird and wonderful scene, of
whose barren grandeur we had read such descriptions in poetry and prose—and
had seen such exaggerated pictures, beginning with Turner's far-famed
drawing, where overhanging cliffs are shown overshadowing the black water;
is this Corruisk. This the peerless loch whose stillness and solitude poets
have sung, as though no other spot of earth could show such leaden-hued
waters, embosomed in such a wilderness of rugged rock mountains, whose black
pinnacles seem to pierce the heavens, towering far above the masses of
floating clouds which for ever hang around their summits I We looked for
such grim solemnity as should befit the chosen home of Spirit-Giants, and we
beheld only a little dark tarn, with grassy shore, surrounded by hills— very
steep certainly, but not very impressive, and all of much the same height,
running in a slightly jagged line across a cloudless blue sky; while every
detail of and rock and every tuft of grass stood out clearly revealed in the
calm sunshine. Not a wreath of friendly mist was there to lend mystery to
the scene, but far up the valley a party of odious tourists were making the
sad hills echo their vulgar shouts.
We stood mute with disappointment—and if we had not been too tired, I think
we should have gone straight back to the brow of the hill. However, by
degrees a few clouds stole up, and some hill-tops were partially veiled, and
dark crags stood out in relief— and as the sun moved westward, long shadows
from the great rocks fell athwart the weary land. The shouting snobs were
gone, and nature's still small voice spoke for herself.
Then we began to realize what that scene might be, under dark effects of
storm and thunder—at the outgoings of morning and evening—or in the clear
starlight. So we determined to come back, and try a second impression. And
the second led to a third; and the third to a fourth; and the oftener we
went, the better we loved that wild ride through Glen Sligachan, and the
dark valley where the deep, blue-black tame gleam like black diamonds beside
the emerald sea-loch. Often we halted, just to listen to the intensely
solemn silence, broken only by faint whispers of the breeze that just fanned
the light mists in the corries, or the rippling murmur of the quiet brooklet,
as it flashed here and there in the sunlight. And sometimes when a jarring
human voice rang harshly in our ears, disturbing those perfect harmonies, we
did feel—oh, such sympathy 1—with the grand old Indians, who believed that
the lonely stillness of their tranquil lakes was especially sacred to the
Great Spirit, and that His wrath would sink the canoe of any rash mortal who
dared to lift up his voice while on the waters.
Once in the days of the early settlers, a white woman had occasion to cross
Jake Saratoga, and the Indians, ere they started, warned her of the danger
that one rash word might bring. It was a calm, cloudless sky, and the canoe
sped like an arrow athwart the smooth waters. Suddenly, when in the middle
of the lake, the strong-minded woman determined to prove to these simple
folk the folly of their belief. So, like the shouting snobs of Corruisk, she
lifted up her voice in a wild cry that woke every echo of the hills. The
Indians were filled with consternation. They uttered no word, but straining
every nerve, rowed on in frowning silence. They reached the shore in safety,
and the soul-less woman triumphed. But the Mohawk chief looked upon her with
scorn. "The Great Spirit is merciful," he said. "He knows that the white
woman cannot hold her peace!"
The apparent size of the corrie is strangely deceptive. It is almost
impossible to make the eye realize that the loch can be a mile in length;
and yet we know that it is nearly four, and that a grassy valley lies at the
further end, where the black rocks seem to close in so precipitously. Well
do the red deer know how to prize that oasis in the rock-wilderness—truly
green pastures beside still waters. Yet not even hers does "the antlered
monarch of the waste" reign in peace. Once, at least, this little glen was
the scene of as good a day's sport as ever fell to the lot of solitary
It was before the days of cartridges and breechloaders, when men were liable
to have their sport spoilt and their tempers ruffled by the failure of a
damp cap. In the present instance, the irritating cause was the lack of that
small essential; for, after a long and tiring walk across the hills, the
sportsman suddenly bethought him that he had forgotten to replenish his
store. In vain were his pockets turned out, in hopes of finding hidden
treasure in some corner. All his search only produced five caps; short
allowance, you must confess, with which to start on a long day's stalking.
However, he pushed on, and made for the head of Corruisk. Judge of his
dismay when he beheld five stags quietly feeding by the stream that trickles
through the green valley! All through the long day he stalked them, one by
one; and at midnight returned home, with one cap in his pocket, having
bagged the four fine heads, each with a single shot, while the fifth was so
poor as not to be worth having. Next day the foresters went in search of
their prizes, and found them in spots so inaccessible, that they had to cut
them up where they lay, and bring them down piecemeal, as no pony could
possibly carry such a burden on such ground.
But if the Corric of the Waters has thus its tale to tell of the kingly red
deer, Loch Scavaig has older legends of the days when its shores were
haunted by fierce wild boars. On the edge of the loch there is a cave
wherein the chief of the Mackinnons once found shelter when separated from
his followers by the luck of the chase. He kindled a fire, and proceeded to
cook some of his venison on the embers. In one hand he held a large bone,
off which he was cutting slices ready for dressing, when a rustle on the dry
sea-weed in the mouth of the cave made him look up to see a dark creature
rushing at him with gaping jaws and wicked tusks. He recognized a savage
wild boar, and, having no choice between absence of body and presence of
mind, he made good use of the latter.
Holding the bone upright in his hand, he awaited the charge of the grizzly
brute, and 'dashed his arm down its throat, the cross- bone, of course,
holding the terrible jaws open, and leaving him full time to despatch the
foe with his hunting-knife. To this feat the Mackinnons of the present day
owe their crest, which is a boar's head, open-mouthed—apparently choked by a
This description of his cutting slices ready for dressing, points to a
common manner of preparing food in those wild days by simply squeezing the
meat between two flat stones, or two battens of wood till all the blood was
forced out. Of course there were many cases when kindling a fire would have
been inconvenient, and when its smoke would have betrayed the presence of
one who sought concealment, whereas this told no tales, and involved no
tedious process of kindling with flint and steel.
This story of Mackinnon's crest must remind Oxonians of the kindred legend
telling how a student of Queen's College was wandering in Shotover Wood, and
reading a volume of Aristotle, when a fierce wild boar charged him
open-mouthed. The electrified student had no alternative but to thrust
Aristotle down the boar's throat, which most effectually choked him; in
memory of which exploit, the boar's head, borne into hall with all due pomp,
still graces the Christmas dinner at Queen's.
In recent times, Loch Scavaig rarely knows any excitement greater than a
visit from a shoal of herrings, or an occasional yacht. Seven years ago,
however, a great event occurred! A whale, sixty feet long, swam
unsuspiciouslyright up the loch, and there found himself so entangled and
perplexed by the great black rocks, that he ran right ashore, and for two
whole days wriggled and flopped about in the vain struggle to escape,
lashing the sea and overturning huge stones in his despair, and all the time
roaring (so say the fishers) like an enraged hull, awakening the ghostly
echoes of dark Corruisk, and disturbing the Sabbath calm of its misty
Not till the third day did the poor brute-cease to battle with his rocky
prison, when he was espied by an amazed English tourist, who forthwith swam
to the spot and climbed on to the whale's back, whence he was shaken off by
its last dying struggle. Then the natives assembled, and having finally
despatched him, set to work in a fever of excitement to carry off the
blubber from this heaven-sent prize. Small indeed was the portion of this
royal fish that was left for Her Majesty, but many a lowly home was
gladdened through the winter nights by the unwonted supply of oil, although
so vast a quantity was suffered to escape, that the troubled sea all round
was smoothed and calmed for many days. It was long enough after this
dissection, before any one gifted with a sense of smell could again venture
near that beautiful sea loch.
One very striking geological feature of this district is the prevalence of
the class of rocks known to Alpine travellers as roehe8 moutonnęe8 and blocs
perchę8, that is to say, long swelling surfaces of bare, granulated rock, in
form like the outline of a great stranded whale, whereon lie poised huge
detached boulders of rock of totally different formation. These vast rounded
slopes of gritty chocolate- coloured sandstone are almost always quite bare,
even the kindly lichen failing to obtain a resting-place thereon.
All along the margin of the lakes, and indeed everywhere on the lower slopes
of these hills, these rounded red masses appear, invariably lying in a
transverse position to the general direction of the valley; telling of a
time, far hidden in the remotest mist of ages, when mighty glaciers lodged
in every ravine of those dark mountain ranges, and thence slowly descended
to the valleys with sure though imperceptible progress—grinding and
smoothing the rugged rocks as they passed over them, and bearing on their
cold ice-waves huge boulders of fallen rock, weighing perhaps fifty tons or
more. Many such still lie in the valleys; gigantic masses which, from their
formation, must evidently have been carried hither from far-distant points.
These boulders, of every size, from the least to the greatest, lie scattered
in every glen, as though the giants of the mountain had been pelting their
pigmy foes in the lower world.
Constantly we find these erratic blocks perched on the very edge of the
rounded rock, as though the ice-wave had had no power to carry them further;
and so ever since, through the storms and hurricanes of centuries untold,
they have remained there, poised, as if waiting for some new motive force to
send them crashing down the hill.
Although the action of the glaciers has planed these swelling forms to such
apparent smoothness, you need but step upon them to find that they are in
truth all grooved with continuous minute lines; the result of which is, that
so far from being slippery, they are in reality so rough to the foot as to
afford a perfectly secure hold, and a most agreeable surface on which to
walk. A few days after returning to the mainland, I heard the Archbishop of
York make very striking reference to these glacial marks, as illustrating
the gradual moulding of human character and the ineffaceable traces of daily
life on the far distant future; and straightway there rose before me a
vision of Corruisk in antediluvian days!
Strange indeed are the pictures that suggest themselves when, from time to
time, Mother Earth reveals to us hints of the marvellous geological changes
through which, in her long life, she has had to pass. Phases of poverty and
of wealth, of burning heat and bitter cold. Imagine days when British
coal-fields were forests of waving palms and giant tree-ferns, rich and
beautiful as a tropical jungle. Days, too, when these isles were peopled
with such monstrous reptiles as those which haunt the dreams of our
children, after a day at the Crystal Palace—creatures whose remains have
been found even on yonder blue Isle of Eigg.
Not that the reptiles had it all to themselves. Gigantic elephants and
kindred creatures roamed through the forests and there left their bones,
which, after countless ages, have been dug up in the streets of London and
of Oxford by puny bipeds, who little dreamt that they had built their cities
on the very site of the great mammoth cemeteries.
Poor Mother Earth suggests far more sudden alternations of heat and cold in
her northern regions, where not only are the perfectly- preserved carcases
of woolly elephants found embedded in the ice- cliffs, but huge buried
forests, such as those in North Greenland, where now no shrub can brave the
cold, but where, in the very heart of the glaciers, fir-trees, oaks, elms,
laurels, plantains, and magnolias have been dug up—not their branches and
trunks only, but even leaves and cones, all perfectly preserved. It seems as
if Greenland and Siberia are now passing through the same course of
treatment to which Britain was subjected so many ages ago; possibly their
shores may some day be considered as the temperate zone, when our isles have
attained some condition as yet undreamt of!
Sometimes we varied our route up Glen Sligachan by invading the Hart o'
Corrie, a deep, dark gorge running into the very heart of the Cuchullins,
which rise on every side in mighty crags—ashcoloured, seamed with a green
mineral that is well-nigh black, and streaked with tremulous lines of white,
that tell of rushing waters.
No sound of living thing is there, save the cry of the muir-fowl startled by
our approach from their sanctuary in the rich blossoming heather; yet there
was once an awesome night when these rocks echoed the shouts of warriors,
and the cries of the dying; and a great boulder of red rock, known as "the
Bloody Stane," still marks the spot where a fierce battle was fought by the
MacAllisters, the Macdonalds, and the MacLeods, whose lands still meet at
this very spot, so each clan buried its dead on its own ground. This it is
which makes the place so eerie in the moonlight, for, as every Highlander
knows, the fairies fashion their bows and arrows from the ribs of men buried
where the lands of three lairds meet.
Many a fierce clan-feud have these silent hills witnessed, as some still
testify by the names they bear. Thus one dark spur overhanging Corruisk is
known as Strona Stree, or the Hill of Strife, the possession of its bare and
rugged crags having been hotly contested by jealous chiefs. And at the back
of this range lies the Corry-na-Criech, or Corry of the Fight, a deep, (lark
gorge, where the MacLeods surprised the Macdonalds in the act of dividing
the spoil gathered in a foray on their own homes. Then followed quick
revenge, and the red rocks were dyed of a deeper hue with the life-blood of
many a sturdy clansman.
In some of the marshy pools in these valleys we found a very rare, but very
ugly plant growing abundantly, namely, the jointed pipewort, so called
because of its stalk being jointed and set at seven or eight angles; its
roots are coral-like. The plant is indigenous to North America, and its only
British homes are at this spot, the neighbouring Isle of Coil, and a few
small islets near.
It is also found at Connemara in Ireland. To botanists
its rarity makes its existence here a point of considerable interest,
otherwise its insignificance would fail to attract notice.
The expeditions to Corruisk always involved a stiff
day's work, generally of twelve hours, of which eight were spent on the
road, going and returning. Moreover, it was such a road as was not pleasant
after dusk, even for such sure-footed ponies as those we rode, so that we
always had reluctantly to leave off work just when the lights were most
beautiful; and our faithful, sturdy gilhie, Donald, took good care that we
should not outstay what he considered the right time. The height of artistic
pleasure would be to visit Corruisk with such a tent as that in which I
spent the following summer, amid loftier, but scarcely more beautiful
Our homeward ride was always a delight, as we watched
every changing effect of sunset and gloaming pass over beautiful Blaven and
its dark brethren. There was something eerie in the companionship of our own
shadows, lying right across the valley, on the opposite hillside, as if some
silent Spirit of the Mountain were haunting our footsteps. Sometimes they
fell far below us, and rested in ghostly stillness on the white vapours that
lay there, hushed in deathlike silence, motionless as "the mist that seeps
on a waveless sea." And far overhead the solemn mountains towered, —the red
cones of Marekow and Glamaig, glowing ruddier and more golden in the light
of the setting sun, and Blaven rearing his dark crest against a pale green
sky—a marvellous confused mass of crags, ashy-grey as the heron's wing, and
cutting black in strange serrated outline against the clear frosty heaven.
Many a time since then have the words of the "city
poet"2 come floating back to my mind, with the same great longing once more
to return to that beautiful wild valley—
"O wonderful mountain of Blaven!
How oft since our parting hour
You have roar'd with the wintry torrents,
You have gloom'd through the thunder-shower.
Blaven, rocky Blaven!
Row I long to be with you again.
To see lash'd
gulf and gully
Smoke white in the windy rain.
To see in the scarlet
The mist-wreaths perish with heat,
The wet rock slide with a
Right down to the cataract's feet;
While toward the
Where the sea-birds flutter and skin,
flaps o'er a sleek ocean floor
Of tremulous mother-of-pearl."
It was always an amusing lottery, on returning in the
evening to the little inn, to ascertain who were the fresh arrivals, as many
of our Southern friends came there for a few days, and looked upon a chance
meeting in Skye much as if we had met in Kamschatka.
I had been fortunate in securing a tiny attic which
possessed the only window with a view of the Cuchullins, so I could see them
at all hours and seasons, in beautiful moonlight, and before dawn. Then when
I saw a clear pale sky, I knew what was coming, and went away down the shore
of the little bay, to watch the fiery finger touch the peaks, while their
perfect image lay mirrored at my feet in the calm sea-loch. Gradually the
fire spread, till the whole mass gleamed crimson in the clear frosty air,
and the cloudless sky was a faint lemon-colour, and deep purply shadows lay
on the brown peat-moss. By the time that all this beauty had faded to the
"light of common day," it was time to feel how chilling was the air, and
turn breakfastward, with some compassion for the sleepers, who came so far
in search of beauty, and invariably missed the cream of it.
It is only by letting these varied aspects of the
hills sink through your eye's into your imagination, that you really get
into the spirit of the place, and of those remote days when Cuchullin and
Diarmid, Ossian and Fingal dwelt among these wilds, with their beautiful
wives, and stalwart sons and daughters, brave vassals and trusty hounds,
whose adventures in chase and war have been the theme of the islemen ever
since. Gradually they have taken colour from the poetic imaginations of a
people nurtured among stormy mountains and dreary moorlands—wild mists and
rocks, with wilder seas around—the legends becoming more and more shadowy
and weird as they were transmitted front one generation to another, till
sea-foam and drifting vapour—wraiths and spirits of earth, sea, and air,
became so interwoven with each heroic deed, and the whole so magnified by
the mists of ages, that they have taken the form of dreamy legends. Such
legends as those of Ossian, whose first appearance in the civilized world
occasioned a turmoil among men who had not cared to note for themselves, how
the commonest story of the present day becomes fraught with poetic imagery
when heard from the lips of these untutored children of the mist; keenly
sensitive as they are to all spiritual influences, whether of faith or of
mere superstition. A people, moreover, who, from the dawn of life, always
live more or less in memory of the "steadfast doom of death; "—whose chief
anxiety is to stint themselves of luxuries during life, that they may
provide fair linen for their winding-sheet, and a funeral feast for those
who shall carry them to their grave.
One of the legends of these Red Hills tells of a
strange burial on one of these misty summits, which bears the name of Ben-na-Cailliach,
the mountain of the aged woman. For, just as the old granite-faced pyramids
of the East received the ashes of mighty kings, so this great, bare pyramid
of unhewn red granite is sacred to the memory of an old Viking's daughter,
whose spirit could not brook to sleep beneath green turf, so she bade her
people carry her to the top of the mountain "that she might sleep right in
the pathway of the Norway wind." It was a hard task, and a steep and
difficult ascent, but the command of the dead must be obeyed. So there they
laid her, alone in the starlight, and the wild winds and storms have for
long ages raved and battled around that lonely cairn.
The love of the bleak north land seems ever to have
retained its hold on the hearts of such of its sons and daughters as were
drawn southward. The north of Skye has its tradition of how an invading
Norwegian force became so friendly with the Skye men, that they invited the
island chief to sail back to Norway with them, which he did, and there wooed
and won the king's daughter, who returned to Skye as his bride. But the love
of home was too strong, and in her ceaseless yearning for the land she had
forsaken, she drooped and died. But with her latest breath, she bade her
lord promise that she should be buried at the northern point of Stronvoualin
with her face raised, looking towards Norway.
You will find numerous cairns as you wander ovea
these'steep hill-paths, each one marking where some funeral procession has
halted; for many a long and weary tramp will the Highlanders take, sooner
than suffer the dead to be laid in unloved ground, and all alike have the
same longing to be buried at the old home, and sleep with kindred dust. So
when a man dies, his old Bible and dirk, blue bonnet and plaid, are laid on
his coffin, and his friends gather round, while a few last words of reverent
prayer are uttered; then, shouldering their heavy burden, they start for the
far-away kirkyard, while the wild pibroch echoes through the misty hills.
(In olden days it would have been the wilder coronach, but this is now a
memory of the past, and I grieve to say that even the pibrochs are being
fast silenced by modern bigotry.) At every spot where the coffin has rested,
a cairn of loose stones is heaped up, and each future passer-by is expected
to add a stone in reverence for the dead.
Strangely enough, such cairns also mark the spot where
malefactors have perished, or have been buried, and each passer-by flings a
stone in token of abhorrence of their crime, or, as some folks say, to
appease the unquiet spirit, which the old Celts believed was doomed to hover
near the unhallowed spot. Whichever is the true meaning, the custom is still
kept up. It is curious to remember that in Egypt, Syria, Ceylon, and some
other lands, cairns are likewise heaped, with strangely diverse
meaning—either in honourable memory of the dead, or iii abhorrence of some
evil action. The difference seems to be, that in the former case the stone
is laid carefully, in the latter it is thrown contemptuously.
Such a funeral procession as I have described, you may
chance to see winding its way through these wild glens towards Skeabost,
where a rocky river runs between low, green hills into a blue sea- loch,
both bearing the same name—Snizort. On an island in the stream stands just
such a ruined kirk as those in Mull and C.ntyre, with the same old carved
stones and rank grass—old knights with their swords, mossy inscriptions,
some stones broken, others upheaved. The place was known in olden (lays as "Sauct
CoIm's kirk in Snesfurd. in Trouterness." It is a bonnie resting- place; but
the frequent influx of new sleepers, and the rushing and babbling of the
divided waters, take away from the perfect peace and silence—and the feeling
of being alone with generations long since forgotten, which lend such a
charm to those quiet tombs among the green bent hills.
There s'no bridge to connect the island with the banks
of the river, so the funeral processions from either side of the country
must ford the stream, and sometimes they find it in spate, and have to wait
for hours--it may be days—before they can lay their clansman beneath the
sod. Happily they are rarely in any hurry, and as they find no lack of
creature comforts in the tidy village, the usual approved method of keeping
up their spirits is rarely iiglected ! Nor need we wonder if, returning from
the little inn through the gloaming or in the moonlight, strange eerie tales
gather round the Island of the Dead—of weird phantoms riding on dark
storm-clouds, or bright spirits on the moonbeam, connecting it with the
World of Shadow.
Numerous as are these ancient burial-grounds, they are
not all held in equal favour. In Easter Ross, for instance, where every
green bay along the coast has its quiet kirkyard beside the sea, though the
old church itself has generally mouldered away, you will notice a strange
predominance of very small graves, and may naturally suppose that child-life
in Ross-shire is at an unusually low ebb. The truth of the matter is, that
some peculiar sanctity is attached by the people to the kirkyard of Nigg, to
which they will carry their dead from distances of forty miles, and the
little graves by the lone sea-side are for the most part those of unbaptized
children, who are not deemed worthy to be carried so far, or laid beside
Christian dust in the much-esteemed ground of Nigg. This, however, implies a
superstitious reverence for baptism which a genuine Highlander will
indignantly disclaim; only in the strictest confidence would such a
confession be unwillingly made.
The implied disrespect to the poor babies reminds me
of a speech made by the old grave-digger at Nairn, in a year of sad
mortality among the little ones. A friend seeing him at work asked," Wed,
John, hae ye had a gude season 1" "Hoot na!" was the answer; "just a heap of
ama' trash!" You perceive that being paid so much per foot for his work, his
profits varied with the stature of all corners.
Happily for the survivors, the old customs of
extravagant funeral feasts are now well-nigh among the things of the past.
Such feasting, for instance, as has been recorded at the funeral of one of
the Lords of the Isles in Iona, when nine hundred cows, each valued at three
marks, were consumed I Or that of Sir William Hamilton, which cost Ł5000,
equal to two years of his salary as Lord Justice Clerk. Or, again, that of
the Mackintosh, in 1704, when cooks and confectioners were brought from
Edinburgh—no easy matter in those days—and extravagant feasting was
continued for a whole month, waiting the arrival of the chief mourner, who
had to be sought and found in the south of England. Indeed one account says
that the body lay in state at Dalcross Castle for upwards of two months,
during which open house, in the widest acceptation of the term, was kept,
claret flowing incessantly ! When at length the funeral day arrived, the
procession extended for four miles, the first man having reached the
churchyard of Petty before the last had left the castle!
Such profusion marks the same strange law of
hospitality which forbade a Highland chief to question his unbidden guest as
to his business until the expiration of a year, should he choose to stop so
long. Hence the Gaelic sentence which describes the house of a chief as "the
point to which the road of every stranger leads." Not that the chief had any
monopoly of this unbounded liberality. The poorest of these islanders were
so ready to entertain strangers and load them with the best they had to
give, that in olden days we hear of unprincipled persons from the mainland
frequenting the Hebrides for no other purpose than that of sponging on their
neighbours; and when the first householder whom they honoured with a visit
had been eaten out of house and home, he took them on to his next neighbour,
where they remained and repeated the process.
Perhaps the quaintest illustration of a hospitable
board literally groaning under the weight of good things heaped upon it, was
a great dinner given to Argyle by M'Eachin, in Cantyre, whereat every
creature he could possibly lay hands on, was roasted whole and set on the
table "standing on its stumps!" There was an ox, a goat, a sheep, a stag, a
roe, hares, rabbits, and all manner of poultry, and many another good thing,
cooked in such fashion as might well have given Soyer a dream of Bedlam!
At length the sad day came, when we were compelled to
bid adieu to beautiful Skye—its mountains, and its kindly people. We took
the coach to dreary Broadford, where visitors are now landed by steamers
from Strome Ferry, the new railway terminus. Just imagine the snorting iron
horses having found their way even to these wilds (solitudes no longer), and
making those grand misty summits echo back their hideous shriek and whistle.
The poet's nightmare of seeing a railway "bridge the Hebrides" has well-nigh
been rendered a vulgar fact, and his wail over the great Saxon invasion
keeps ringing in our ears—
"Land of Bees and Glens and Corrie,
rivers, ocean floods!
Have we lived to see this outrage
Strange to them the train—but stranger
The mixed throng it bubbles
Strand and Piccadilly emptied
On the much -enduring North!"
All of which is very fine theoretically; but
practically it must be confessed that a luxurious railway coupe has some
advantages over a crowded coach; and as to our brethren of the city, I only
hope they may all carry away as sunny memories of Skye as have clung to me.
To them above all others, the four-and-twenty hours which transport them
from the heart of London to the farthest limits of these wild hills should
be a concentrated essence of delight —and no British railway could possibly
lie through scenes more beautiful than does the new Skye line.
The old folk will tell you that the railway is no new
idea to them, for, just as the making of the Caledonian Canal had long been
foretold by seers, who beheld ships with great white sails passing to and
fro, where other men could see only broom and heather,—so, more than two
hundred years ago, Coignoch Oig, the prophet of Brahan in Ross-shire (many
of whose prophecies have already been strangely verified), foretold that a
day was coming when every stream in this wild region would be bridged, when
a white house should stand on every hill, and balls of fire would pass
rapidly up and down Strathpeffer!
More especially, for the last thirty years have they
expected the railway, for it was about that time, "just thirty years syne,"
that the folk travelling by the coach, between Loch Carron and Strome Ferry
(by the old road, which ran very near where the railway now PCs), were
startled one dark winter night by seeing a great light coming towards them,
and as it drew nearer they saw that it was a huge dark coach with fiery
lamps—they could see no horses; only a great glare of flames and sparks, and
it rushed past them at a place where there was no road, and vanished among
the mountains. After this, the mysterious coach was seen at frequent
intervals for two or three years—till at last the coachman could no longer
stand the constant strain on his nerves, and gave up running at night.
This is the story that you may hear from any old "cailliach"
as she sits in the gloaming, crooning her old songs by the light of the red
peat fire, or spinning her endless yarns to the group of barelegged and
bare-armed lassies, whose bright eyes glitter in the ruddy light as they
press around her, or cling closer onA to another, as the interest of the
story becomes more thrilling. Presently the lads will join them, for the
day's work is done, and "e'en brings a' hame" to the pleasant fireside.
And already we look back to "the old coaching days" as
to a dream of the past! Yet there are people still living who remember when
the coaches first began to run regularly north of Aberdeen, and what a grand
thing that was thought! Nay, more; there are many gentlemen who can vividly
recollect going from here to London in a sailing smack, as the simplest and
least troublesome route. How often I have heard my father describe such
voyages, and the annoyance of being becalmed for days together! Then came
the coasting steamers; a grand improvement, and many a merry run we have had
in them between London and Moray. Now all these are things of the past. You
breakfast one morning in sight of the great Skye hills, and the next finds
you at Euston Square—a process so simple, that life becomes one incessant
railway journey, for ever whirling to and fro!
On the present occasion, we were not oppressed by the
encroachments of civilization. Our route lay by Kyle Akin, or Kyle Hakin
(the Straits of Haco), where we had to cross Loch Aish by ferry. Happily the
weather was calm and dry, else the crossing in a small open boat might have
been unpleasant. The scramble of young natives to secure a fair share of our
luggage and our coin was some- thing startling to behold, in Britain.
Close to Kyle Akin are the ruins of Castle Moil, an
old square keep, whose solid and substantial walls seem to form part of the
rock on which they stand, overhanging the water. It was built by the
daughter of a Norwegian king (or, some say, by a Scottish dame, known as
Saucy Mary), who exacted a toll from all vessels passing through the Kyles;
and kept a strong chain stretched from shore to shore as a toll-bar, the
chain being fastened with iron rings to the rocks on either side.
We drove on vid Balmacarra and Loch Alsh till we
reached Dornie Ferry, where, with one honourable exception (and he was an
American), we found every man connected with the ferry hopelessly drunk, in
honour of a cattle show. Some were surly; some were cheery; others
helplessly imbecile, having attained the same pleasant stage as that worthy
Londoner, who, returning borne at an advanced hour of the morning "shligh
thy shober," plumed himself on being particularly early, having passed the
great tower of Westminster just as Big Ben was striking one, and what was
more, "it had struck one sheveral tmes".
Being thus forcibly detained, we consoled ourselves by
sketching the old castle of Eilean Donan, which stands on an island in Loch
Duich. It was built on the site of an old vitrified fort, by Alexander II.,
to overawe the Danes and Norwegians; and the first constable of the castle
was one Kenneth Matheson, whose descendants were known as MacKennich, the
sons of Kenneth. Hence sprang the Mackenzies of Seaforth. Since then the old
castle has been twice consumed and twice rebuilded. In the last instance it
was taken for Prince Charlie by a farner who held that all stratagems are
fair in love and war. So he feigned sore distress at the prospect of stormy
weather, and induced the governor to lend him some hands to help in rapidly
garnering the harvest. No cloud on the political 8k7 threatened danger in
that quarter, and the unwary governor sent a detachment of his men to turn
their swords into sickles. In their absence, a strong body of Kint.ail men
surprised the enfeebled remnant, and captured their stronghold.
Then the last Earl of Seaforth rallied all the men of
Kintail to fight in the Stuart cause, and as the pipes struck up their
heart- stirring notes, the enthusiasm knew no bounds, and the crags around
re-echoed the wild shouts that rose, as one and all started up to dance on
the old leaden roof, ore they went forth to join the Prince. That defiant
war-dance was the last merry-making of these brave lads. A few days later, a
wail of grief and woe resounded from every hill and valley, for news of
battle and of defeat had been brought by the foe, who came to burn the
castle (A.D. 1719), and to tell how that gallant band had shed their hearts'
blood for their King on Sherriffmuir.
When we had waited fully a couple of hours, our
American friend thought some of his men might be made to work; and though
they presented the lively appearance of inebriated owls, they made a start;
and under pressure of startlingly strong language, did succeed in getting
across. It was, however, 10 p.m. before we reached Shiel House Inn, which
stands at the head of Loch Duich —a blue sea loch—fringed with golden
sea-weed. The house is a pleasant one to halt at. Behind it rise the Seven
Sisters of Kintail, a group of grassy, cone-shaped hills, bearing so strong
a family likeness as to have earned this name. Next day we had a lovely walk
up Mam Rataghan, to see the sun set once more behind the far distant
Cuchullins, and as we turned to descend, a wondrous effect of storm and
rainbow swept over the peaks of Kintail.
About a mile from Shiel House is a subterranean cave,
close to the road, into which (if you are curious to see what was probably
the dwelling of some old Pict) you may crawl. Once inside, you will find a
chamber eight feet high, paved and lined with large flag-stones, and with a
stone roof of long slabs, resting on cross rafters, also of stone.
We greatly regretted not having left a day to see the
Falls of Glomak, by far the highest in Scotland, and within a very beautiful
ride of Glen Shiel. However, we were bound to push onwards to lovely Glen
Quoich, where the pleasant weeks slipped by all too quickly. Very charming
were the long glorious days on dark Loch Houm, and pleasant too the social
evenings in the sunniest of sunny homes, when the deer-stalkers and fishers
returned in the gloaming to tell of their day's sport, and to dream away
happy hours in a paradise of roses and fair women, lulled by melodious
voices, which seemed to glide away on each moonlight ripple, as the tiny
wavelets of the blue loch plashed against the trim, well- mown lawn.
A beautiful drive down Glen Garry brought us to old
Invergarry Castle, and so to Fort Augustus, still called by the Highlanders
Kill Chuimein, in memory of that Cuming the Fair who twelve hundred years
ago held the bishopric of the Isles as seventh Bishop of Iona, but known to
the Sassenach only by the name of the grey old fort, which has so recently
been demolished, that on its site might be erected a new Roman Catholic
Thence taking passage by the steamer, we sailed up
beautiful Loch Ness, taking a farewell look at Castle Urquhart, once an ol*I
holding of the Clan Cumming, and in later days one of the royal forts of
Scotland, besieged by Edward I. in 1303. Many a hard tussle with the English
did it witness, but for the last three hundre1 years there has been no
mention or it in any chronicle of fight or fray. It is now a picturesque
ruin, rising from the loch on a rocky promontory.
The Highlanders call these grey ruins Strone Castle,
and believe that two mysterious vaulted cells are hollowed in the rock
below. The one contains a countless treasure of gold; but in the other a
fearful pestilence is sealed up, which, if once released, would stalk forth
in irresistible might and depopulate the land, having first slain the rash
hand that opened its prison door. So the dread of liberating so dire a
scourge has even subdued the covetous craving for gold, and the
treasure-chamber remains inviolate.
A few hours later found us once more in the capital of
the Highlands, and the thought of our six months in the Hebrides was even as
the memory of a pleasant dream.