THE INNER HEBRIDES
Staffa—From Oban to Skye—Lismore—Mull—Legend of Castle Duart—Legend of
Lochbuy—Legend of Loch Awe—Isle of Canna--St. Michael's Eve— How observed in
Barra—Nordereys and Sudereys—Isle of Muck—Wild Boar of
Scotland—Wolves—Beavers--Isle of Rum—Scuir of Eigg—Proud Lords of the
Isles—The Isle of Mists.
visible from Iona, at a distance of about eight miles, lies Staffa—"the Isle
of Columns,"—so its name signifies in the Scandinavian dialect. An island
now as famous for its natural wonders, as Ions for its human associations,
though, strange to say, while the latter has from time immemorial been a
centre of attraction, first to the Pagan, and then to the Christian world,
the fame of Staffs dates back only for one century. It is just one hundred
years since its wonderful caves were first discovered by Sir Joseph Banks,
whose glowing descriptions drew thither a handful of geologists and men of
Now the name of the
Isle is a household word in the mouths of thousands of tourists who pour in
thither day by day, throughout the summer, and spend one little hour rushing
from cave to cave, disturbing the solemn echoes with their howling and
hooting, to the unspeakable disgust of the seals, and cormorants, and white
sea-mews, whose solitude is thus rudely invaded—to say nothing of the
feelings of the mighty Fingal, whose spirit is supposed still to haunt the
wondrous cavern that bears his name.
I need not say how eminently unsatisfactory to many
minds, must be such a mode of scampering over one of nature's most awe
inspiring works. But the only way in which it is possible for any one not
yachting to see it more leisurely, is by remaining at Iona, or IJiva, and
taking a boat thence for the day. And truly, it is well worth this exertion,
to know the inexpressible delight of standing alone within that glorious
cave, with no sound of jarring human voice to disturb the sacred silence of
that grand temple, "not made with hands," but reared by the great Creator
Himself. A wondrous Lane indeed, with the perfect symmetry of its countless
gigantic columns, and marvellous roof, formed (like the strange pavement
outside, and like the gallery on which we stand,) of the broken bases of
hexagonal pillars, which fit together in faultless honeycomb.
The colouring, too, is a marvel of beauty, for this
basalt combines every tint of rarest marble, that ever human skill brought
together, to decorate the costliest temple. Warm red and brown and richest
maroon tones prevail, but the whole gleams with green and gold lichen and
sea-weed, while here and there a mosaic of pure white lime has filtered
through, encrusting the pillars, which seem transformed to snowy alabaster.
Ever and anon, the innermost depths of the great
chancel, gleam with a sudden flash, as the clear green wave comes swelling
in, overflowing the causeway of broken pillars that forms so marvellous a
pavement, and breaking in pure white foam, which shows more dazzling against
the gloom of that sombre back-ground, and casting trembling reflecting
lights, which trickle and waver over every hidden crevice of roof, or
Quick as thunder-roar follows the lightning-flash, is
that white gleam succeeded by a booming sound, louder than the thunder
itself, yet mellow as the sweetest note of some huge organ, and wakening
echoes deeper and more sonorous than ever throbbed through dim cathedral
aisle ;—echoes which linger and repeat themselves on every side, and are but
hushed for one moment of awful silence while the exquisite green water
recedes, only to rush back again with renewed force, re-awakening that
thrillingly-solemn chorus, which, in ages long gone, earned for this cave
its old Gaelic name of Uaimh Minn, "the melodious cavern."
Altogether it is a scene of which no words can convey
the smallest idea, and as we pass suddenly from the glaring sunlight into
that cool deep shade, and look down into the wondrous depths of that world
of clear crystalline green, we cannot choose but believe that we have
invaded the chosen home of some pure spirit of the sea— some dainty Undine,
whose low musical notes we can almost think we discern, mingling with the
voice of the waves.
For me this cavern has acquired a special interest,
since the day when one of my kinsmen narrowly escaped finding here a briny
grave, among the seals and cormorants. He had come by steamer, and landed in
its boat. Then had scrambled along from one basaltic pillar to another, till
he was far in the interior of the cave, when a terrified shout from those
outside, made him turn round, to see the whole mouth of the cave darkened by
one mighty green wave, pouring its volume of water towards the spot where he
There was not a second to lose, but by a quick flash of
inspiration, he remembered having, a moment before, observed one pillar so
detached from its fellows, that a man could clasp it; and springing to the
spot where it stood, he grasped it, with so firm a hold, that though the
rushing waters boiled and surged above his head, he was safe—and when the
wave receded, he was able to follow it, and rejoin the more cautious friends
who, pale with terror, were watching to see his drowned body floating on the
water. The steamboat authorities remonstrated with him for his imprudence,
but were quite pacified on his assuring them that he had no wish to do it
again! It seems that this occasional big wave is a well-known feature of
this sea, and one for which the wary are always on the alert. Although the
chief interest of the isle, naturally attaches to Fingal's Cave, there are
many others, whose beguiling beauty might well bid us linger awhile in each.
Such are "Mackinnon's" and the "Boat Cave"—the latter so called because it
can only be entered by a boat. But more curious than these, is that known as
the" Clam-shell," where the huge columns, instead of standing vertically,
lie bent like the curved ribs of a ship, showing at both ends of the pillars
the invariable honeycomb pattern, and telling of some strange and unwonted
influence, which must have affected the mass of molten basalt, and prevented
its assuming its regular upright form.
But it is time we passed on to other isles; else you
will never have patience to listen to the story of our further wandering.
From Iona we, of course, returned to Oban, that great centre of all the West
Coast steamers and coaches, thence starting at day-break for the Isle of
Skye, and a more exquisite fifteen hours' sail than this proved, could not
well be imagined. The sea was like glass, or oil, or whatever you can think
of, that is most smooth and mellow.
Each puny wave in diamonds rolled
O'er the calm
deep, where hues of gold
With azure strove, and green.
Every peak and shapely outline of island or mainland
lay before us in ethereal lilac. On the one side Ben Cruachan, without a
cloud, on the other, the wild beautiful ranges of Mull, while before us lay
the green isle of Lismore "the Great Garden" famous in the ecclesiastical
history of the Isles, as the ancient seat of the Bishops of Argyle, whose
Castle of Auchindoun crowned a high crag overlooking the island, and the
stormy waters of the Sound of Mull. The Cathedral of Lismore was dedicated
to St Muluag, a saint of the seventh century. The chief peculiarity is that
it seems to have consisted of only a choir and chantry, for there appears to
be no trace of nave or transepts.
Every rock, every inlet, every old castle has its own
tradition. Of one desert rock, a mile from Castle Duart, on the shore of
Mull, it is told how the chief of the Macleans, having married the Lady
Elizabeth, the daughter of Archibald, second Earl of Argyle, thereby
incurred the wrath of his own clan, who swore that the blood of the
Campbells should never rule over them. Rather than this, they would slay
both the lady and her little one.
The cowardly husband consented to remain passive. One
dark winter's night, they forced her into a small boat, and without pity for
her tears and cries, left her on this barren rock, which at high tide is
covered by the waves. Slowly the tide rose; and in her bitter anguish she
cried in vain in the darkness, and yet there was no voice that answered—no
friendly fisher had spread his nets near that treacherous rock. The
remorseless waves crept on and on, upping so gently over her white feet, and
silently stealing upward, till she stood knee-deep in the cold, icy
darkness; and still her straining ear could catch no sound of welcome oars.
Only the white sea-birds circled round, and mingled their sharp, piercing
cries with her own.
The cruel waters had reached her breast, as the first
flush of dawn streaked the east, when a tiny skiff came in sight. With
agonized effort she managed to attract attention. The fishers proved to be
some of Argyle's men, who, having thus rescued their lady from the very
brink of the grave, soon brought her safely to her father's castle. Here she
remained hidden till a solemn announcement of her death was sent by her
disconsolate husband, who of course had connived at the abduction of the
Presently he arrived, with his kinsmen and followers,
all clad in deepest dule, to mingle their lamentations with those of her
bereaved father. Argyle received them, also clad in black, and a solemn
feast was prepared in the great hail; when the door opened, and the lady
entered, superbly dressed, and calmly took her seat at the table. Maclean
sprang up aghast, and escaped as far as the castle gate, where the Lord of
Lorne, following, slew him as he fled. His kinsmen were made prisoners, and
detained as hostages for the safety of the infant, which had been saved by
its nurse, and was in due time restored to its mother.
It fared worse, however, with another infant chief of
these turbulent Macleans, whose young life was forfeited as a sure revenge
on his father. The story runs that Maclean of Lochbuy went forth on a grand
hunting expedition, taking with him his wife and only child, the latter
being still in the arms of his nurse. The deer, hotly pursued by the hounds,
came swiftly up the glen, but turning aside by the narrow pass, guarded only
by one of Maclean's vassals, they burst past him, and escaped. The chief, in
dire wrath, caused the man to be instantly stripped and flogged in presence
of the clan, a degradation which the hot Highland blood could not brook.
Before that day was done, the insult was amply avenged,
for tb forester, burning with rage, watched his opportunity, and in a moment
snatched the heir of Loehbuy from the arms of the nurse, and, bounding from
rock to rock with the speed of a red deer, he reached an almost inaccessible
crag overhanging the sea which boiled below.
The screams of the agonized mother, the anguish of the
father, were as music and balm to the triumphant Highlander, who laughed
aloud as he held the shrieking child outstretched above the waters. In mad
despair Maclean craved forgiveness, and prayed for the life of his only
little one. At length Allastair relented, and made conditions with his
chief. He agreed to restore the child, provided Maclean would bare his own
back to the cord, and submit to be publicly scourged, as he had been, in
presence of his clansmen.
To their grief and indignation the chief consented, and
calmly underwent the penalty that must for ever degrade him in their eyes,
hoping thereby to save his child. Then turning once more to the pinnacle
where Allastair still stood high in mid-air, he bade him fulfil his promise
and restore the child. With a burst of fiendish laughter the vassal held the
child aloft, and crying aloud "Avenged! avenged !" he sprang from the cliff,
still grasping the infant. In another second the raging waters had closed
above him, and sucked him down into some deep basaltic cavern, whence, says
the legend, neither wave nor storm ever brought back the body of man or
child, to the wailing mother, who day after day, through long years,
wandered wearily, seeking for her little one in every crevice of those cruel
Beautiful Ben Cruachan has also his own legend to tell,
concerning the formation of Loch Awe—a story handed down by a long line of
Gaelic bards, from the days of Ossian himself, even to the present time. He
tells how, in by-gone ages, the Caitleach Vera or Bern, the aged daughter of
Griannan, the Mountain of the Sun, kept ceaseless vigil on his summit. To
her charge had been committed a certain spring on the top of the highest
crag, and her duty it was each night, to seal up the mouth of the fountain,
laying thereon a mystic stone, carved with strange symbols, ere the sun's
last ray had kissed the mountain-top.
For many long ages she had done her work faithfully,
and prosperity blessed the fertile lands around. But in an evil hour, Vera
was overcome by the gentlest of all insidious foes. When the wild deer
gathered around her, waiting to be milked, one refractory hind darted away
from the herd, and Vera followed her, over moor and moss, till her aged
limbs were woary; so on returning to her seat beside the fountain, she laid
her down to rest in the sunny noontide, and a sweet dreamy sleep stole over
The day wore on—the
shadows of evening crept up the mountainside. Vainly did the sun's last rays
gleam on the sleeper. The fountain still lay unsealed, and the murmuring of
its waters only lulled her into deeper slumber. The darkness closed around,
and with it came a mighty tempest, but still Vera slept. Three times the sun
rose and set, ere she awoke from that strange deep dream- world. Starting
up, she remembered her duty, and sought to seal the fountain with the mystic
stone. But instead of its quiet waters, a ragiiig torrent now poured down
the mountain-side, and all the flood-gates of heaven seemed open ; while
crashing thunder rolled amid the hills.
Then, as she glanced downward to the valley of Lorn,
hitherto the greenest and most fertile land in all Argyle, she beheld only a
raging sea of dark, stormy waters; and Vera the Aged trembled, for she knew
what mischief, her ill-timed sleep had wrought. Even to this day, the waters
lie in the valley; and in wild wintry squalls they can still rage as madly
as when first they flooded the land; and the fisher, whose frail boat has
battled with those black waves, will tell you that at such times Loch Awe is
But when the great lake, with its green islands and
overhanging birches, lies bathed in peaceful sunlight, shepherd and fisher
alike confess that Vera's sleep was no dire evil after all. One little
island in the midst of those broad waters has for centuries been dear to the
hearth of the people. They call it Inishail; and here in olden days an order
of Cistercian nuns found a calm retreat, and solemn chaunts and litanies
rose from that old chapel, and floated upward through the sunlit air.
Here, too, many a solemn funeral procession earns
rowing up the lake, while women's voices wailed shrill coronachs, and the
pipes played wild pibrocha and laments. For from many a distant valley the
dead were brought, that they might sleep within sound of holy prayer and
psalm. Here, even to this day, new generations are laid beside their
fathers, but the boat that bears them comes and goes in silence; for some of
the "unco guid" fear that the bagpipes are wicked, so the old pathetic music
has been put down, and no sound now breaks the stillness, save the shrill
cries of the beautiful oystercatchers, or the liquid whistle of the curlew.
But wild flowers innumerable lend their honeyed fragrance to this sweet and
quiet spot, where a tremulous cloud of blue-bells veils each nameless grave,
their dainty cups scarce stirred by the faint breezes, which seem as though
they loved to linger here.
A silent, lonely resting-place is this little island of
the dead, floating on the clear, blue waters; while the great hills watch on
every side, in grand shadowy masses, as if guarding that store-house of most
Beautiful as we may deem this lovely lake, its creation
was a cause of bitter grief to poor old Cailleach Vera, who straightway
forsook her home on Ben Cruachan, and passed over to the Emerald Isle, where
a hilly range at Lough Crew still bears her name. Here she busied herself in
piling a great number of cairns of all sizes, which remain to this day. In
an evil hour, however, she contrived to break her neck, and several Irish
traditions record her burial near one of these great tumuli. One of the most
curious Dolmens in County Meath is commonly known as her house, while a
roughly-hewn stone seat, quaintly engraven with mystic lines and circles, is
shown as her chair.
As we sail onward, legends seem to multiply. A wild
tale was told us of the little Island of Canna, lying on the other side of
Rum. On the top of a high rock, quite detached from the Isle, are the nuns
of a small castle, to which the sole access is by a dangerous, almost
precipitous path among the crags. This is
"Canna's tower, that, steep and grey,
falcon-nest o'erhangs the bay."
From these giddy turrets a fair woman looked and
watched through many weary years for the help that never came. One of the
cruel Ocean Lords had brought her from foreign shores, and being madly
jealous of her beauty, chose this grim fortress as a cage meet for his
lovely captive; and many a time the boatmen passing near her prison saw her
weeping on the castle wall, or heard a plaintive song in some strange
unknown tongue. Even to this day they whisper how the fishers who pass by
that grey crag in the moonlight have heard low music of a lute, and the sad
heart,-broken cry of a woman.
When Pennant visited this island in the middle of last
century he was much struck by the multitude of horses, in proportion to the
few scattered herds of sheep; and also noticed a quaint old trace of
sun-worship, like that practised in Iona, namely, that on the Eve of St.
Michael the people assembled at the Cladha, or grave-yard, where every lad
mounted his horse without saddle, taking some lass en croupe. He might take
his neighbour's wife if he pleased, but not his own. The couples then rode
in procession from the village to an old stone cross, doubtless originally a
pro-Christian menhir, round which they rode thrice sunwise, afterwards
returning to the village inn, where the lass treated her swain, and all
present shared a huge oat cake, made in the form of a quadrant of a circle,
and daubed with milk and eggs. The cake was so large as to consume two pecks
of meal. Of the origin of this quaint custom, the people knew nothing, save
its antiquity. The identical ceremony was also observed in the Long Island,
and North and South Uist, of all which St. Michael was patron saint. The
festival was called "the Oda." After making the sunwise turns, the day was
devoted to horse-racing of the most primitive type.
Even on lone St. Kilda, this singular custom was long
kept up. The Rev. Kenneth Macaulay, writing in A.D. 1764, tells that he
found this people possessed of ten little ponies, and St. Michael's Day was
celebrated by bare-backed races, without stirrup or bridle —after which all
the people ate "large loaves" dedicated to the Saint!
Strange to say, in the small Isle of Barra, immediately
to the south of South Uist, the same custom is still practised, not on St.
Michael's Day, Sept. 29th, but on Sept. 25th, a day sacred to St. Barr, the
patron saint of the isle, albeit ignored in the Romish Calendar. To him are
dedicated two small chapels at Ku-Bar, and, on this festival, the people
(who are almost all Roman Catholics) first meet to hear mass in the chapel
at Borve, on the other side of the Island, and then they mount their rough
ponies, every man taking up some woman behind him, and so they ride across
the Isle, and go thrice sunwise round the ruined chapels. Instead of the
girls standing treat at the inn, in the modernized fashion of Canna, these
Barra lassies are expected to provide a lot of wild carrots, as a delicate
attention to their escorts.
The green island of Canna yields sweet pasture to
lowing herds of kine; and calm pictures of pastoral life meet you at every
turn, telling the every-dey story of many a quiet life, begun, continued,
and ended on this lonely sea-girt rock. Those who have dwelt among its
people tell of their generous kindliness to the strangers, but never fail to
wonder at the strange under-tone of melancholy which seems to pervade the
whole character of all these islanders, as though a life-long communing with
mists and waves had enfolded their spirits in a silent chill, such as comes
over even the unimaginative and the full-fed, when wandering on some barren
moor, with cold, grey, spiritual mists floating on every side.
Perhaps these people of Canna grow weary of "the
ever-sounding and mysterious main," for from time immemorial they have laid
their dead on the furthest point inland, where only a distant murmur of the
sea can reach them. A little rugged kirkyard it is; a field of rank waving
grass, dotted with grey rocks, carried thither from the shore, to mark the
resting-place of the sleepers; while a broken cross of yellow sandstone,
guards this lone God's-acre. it is one of those stones that tells, perhaps,
of ancient superstitions, for on it are carved divers emblems of unknown
meaning; amongst others, a camel, the sole instance in which that Eastern
treasure appears in. Scottish sculpture. There also remain some traces of a
church, once dedicated to St. Columba.
The present population of the Isle is under three-score
persons. Pennant, writing in 1776, says he found here 220 souls, of whom all
but four families were Roman Catholic. The parish minister and the priest
both resided on Eigg, but came occasionally across the stormy seas to visit
their flock on Canna, and these, with praiseworthy moderation, attended the
ministrations of whichever chanced to come.
Then, as now, there was famine in the land, for though
the Isles looked green, the people were in such dire want "that numbers had
for a long time had neither bread nor meal for their poor babes. Fish and
milk was their sole subsistence at this time—the first, a precarious diet,
for their stock of fi-hooks was almost exhausted." He had brought ribbons as
gifts, but felt that a few dozen fishhooks, or a few pecks of meal, would
have been of far greater value.
Every ledge of this rocky coast is the abode of
countless seabirds. All along the face of the crags they make their
home--they float on the waters, and they glide in mid-air, with ceaseless,
yet varying cry. White gulls and grey gulls; kittiwakes and sea- swallows;
black-headed gulls and snowy gannets; cormorants innumerable, with black
glistening plumage, and long necks that rise snake-like from the water; and,
quaintest of all, the little puffins with their thick scarlet beaks, peeping
out from the old rabbit-holes, or teaching their fluffy infants their first
lessons in a life on the ocean wave.
We were now rounding the Point of Ardnamurchan, a
bluff, windworn headland, against which a heavy surge continually beats, the
strong tides here keeping up a ceaseless turmoil, though the sea all around
be calm, as it was this day. This is the most westerly point of Scotland,
and in olden times an imaginary line from this point divided the Hebrides
into two sovereignties, those to the north being Nordereys, the others
Sudercys. When the land was divided into Episcopates, the latter were
assigned to the Bishop of Man. Hence the title "Sodor and Man." The
Nordereys were subject to the ecclesiastical government of Iona, and now
form part of the Bishopric of Argyle and The Isles.
We next passed the low green pasture lands, which form
the Isle of Muck, or Mouach, the Isle of swine, once probably the haunt of
the wild boar, which has bequeathed its name to many a hill and valley. I
should rather have said the wild sow. The boar has namesakes of its own, as
Beinn-an-tuirc, but the sow has Scuir-naMouach, Sloch-Muick, the swine's
pass, Muckerach, Stron-na-Muich, Ben Muich Dhli, Glen Muick, Loch Muick,
Dun-a-muc, Muckairn There are also two other isles known as Eilan-na-Muck,
to say nothing of the Boar of Badenoch and the Sow of Athol on the Highland
line! while in Ireland we find Muck Island and Port Muck, near Belfast, and
the Abbey of Muck-a-more, the great sow, near Antrim, and Muck-ross on the
lake of Killarney.
It is believed by some lea%ed authorities that swine
were held sacred by our ancestors. We know for a fact that they were so
amongst the Gauls, and that they had the run of the sacred oak-groves of the
Druids, where they found a plentiful supply of acorns, and were treated with
all possible respect.
A curious hint of some strange reverence for this
ungainly creature has been brought to light, by the discovery in a tumulus
at Beregonium, near Oban, of an urn, in which were stored precious bones and
teeth, which Professor Owen has pronounced to be unmistakably, those of a
pig! It is quite possible that our ancestors had adopted this symbolism from
the ancient Scandinavian mythology; from which, also, they had borrowed the
custom of gracing the Christmas or Yule festival with the wild boar's head.
Whether a lingering feeling of the homage due to the
wild boar had anything to do with its use as an ecclesiastical decoration, I
leave others to decide; certain it is that among the records of the old
cathedral at St. Andrew's (anciently called Muckross, the sow's headland),
it is stated that in A.D. 1520 a gigantic boar was killed, which had slain
both men and cattle. The tusks were sixteen inches in length, and were
attached to the high altar. Probably, however, their position had no deeper
reason than the caprice of some reverend Niinrod, just as in the far east,
we see the beautiful ibex horns and other trophies of the chase, nailed up
upon the hill temples, by the Pahari sportsmen.
We had left behind us in Cantyre one noted haunt of
these grim old tuskers, namely, Beinn-an-tuire, the hill of the wild boar,
where Diarmid, Fingal's mightiest hunter, slew a terrible beast which had
long ravaged the land. But Connan of the little soul was jealous of
Diarmid's fame, and sought to compass his death. Now, Diarmid, like
Achilles, was only vulnerable in the heel. Therefore Connan, with fair words
of praise, bade him measure the length of the boar. Diarrnid was barefooted,
but he measured from snout to tail, and the bristles bent beneath his foot.
But Connan bade him measure backwards, and a venomous bristle pierced his
heel, so that he died.
Then all the mighty hunters cried out in their grief,
because Diarmid, the swift of foot and the sure of aim, lay dead. And his
beautiful wife, Griana, the golden-haired daughter of the Sun, heard that
evil had befallen him, and she hastened to his aid. But as she hurried on,
it chanced that one drew a bow at a venture, and the arrow pierced her
heart, so that she fell mortally stricken. Then they carried her to the side
of Diarmid, and laid the Beautiful and the Mighty in one grave. And all the
heroes stood around in grief, and Fingal, leaning on his spear, wept
bitterly in silence. And Diarmid'a hounds gathered close round his bier, and
large tears fell from their soft faithful eyes, because they had loved
Diarmid with exceeding love.
Speaking of the wild boar, it is interesting to
remember that all those places in the English lakes in which the word Greys
occurs, as Gryesdale-tarn, near Helvellyn, Gryesfell, Grasmere, and also
such names as Eversley, Evershot, and Eveishaw (derived from eofer, the wild
boar), bear testimony to his presence there in olden days, though he has
long since passed away, together with the wolves and the beavers, both of
which have likewise bequeathed their names to some of their old haunts, such
as Wolferton near Sandringham, Wolferlow in Hereford, and Wolvesey near
Winchester, where the Welsh used to pay their annual tribute of wolves'
The beavers have left many a trace of their favourite
retreats in the midland counties, where we find such names as Bevercoates,
Beverstone, and Beverley, which are all said to mark the beaver's haunts.
So, we are told, do sundry Welsh names, such as Nant Francon, Llyn-y-Afrange,
and Barn-yr-Afrande, that is, the broad- tailed, which being interpreted,
are the beaver's dale, the beaver's pool, and the beaver's dam. Curious, is
it not, to think that these shy, strange creatures should once have been 80
abundant in Scotland, that their fur was a considerable- article of trade,
the duty to be levied thereon being among the items recorded in the Acts of
Parliament of David I., King of Scotland.
As to the wolves, it is said that the last of that
grisly race was slain in 1680 by the spear of Sir Ewen Cameron.
Still we sail onwards, startling the sea-birds, which
float in busy, noisy crowds, wherever the herring lead them, and scarcely
deign to rise from the water at our approach. From the very bows of the ship
they float upwards in white and grey clouds, and hover around us for a few
seconds with angry cries, then once more returning to the herring shoals,
they recommence fishing in good earnest.
Behind the green shores of Muick (the Eilan-na-Muchel
as its people call it), rise the purple, pyramidal peaks of Rum or Roninthe
wildest and most beautiful island of the group, known ecclesiastically as
"The Parish of Small Isles," which consists of Muck, Eigg, Rum, and Canna.
The two highest rocky cones are known as Haskeval and Haleval. Green pasture
lands, and purple heather, clothe those deep mountain-sides, where bleating
flocks pick their dangerous way among the grey crags. But to-day all is
bathed in a soft lilac haze, veiling such small detail; and the beautiful
hills stand out in grand simple form, all reflected faultlessly in the
glassy sea, which, except in the wake of our vessel, is literally without a
ripple. A few fishing-boats, with rich brown sails, vainly crave one little
breeze to speed them on their way. Sorely must their patience be tried with
such long waiting, and we need not wonder if they watch us speeding onward
with something of the feeling of the old boatman, who for the first time saw
a steamer working against wind and tide, and as he watched her red chimney
pouring forth its volume of black smoke, cried out, "Get a.wa' wi' your
deil's reek; I'm just sailing as it pleases the breath o' God!"
If it had not been for the "Dell's reek" we should have
made but little progress on this calm glorious day. As it was, new beauties
revealed themselves at every turn. On the one hand lay Loch Moidart, opening
into the mainland. Here stand the ruins of Castle Tyrim, burnt by Clanranald,
its own laird, when starting to fight at Sheriff-muir, to prevent the
Campbells from gaining possession of it.
Then comes the Scuir of Eigg, a huge rocky mass of
porphyry lowering like some stupendous Tower of Babel, from a mighty rampart
of dark trap rock and columnar basalt, the latter inclining to slender
columns, few exceeding one foot in diameter. Somo of these have fallen;
others are broken across and form a curious pavement of honeycomb pattern.
Hugh Miller tells us that this whole mass overlies a vast forest of petrited
trees, an extinct species of pine, now lying below the encroaching waves,
but still telling its own mysterious story of the broad greenwood that
flourished here before that strange columnar cliff had been upheaved, and
cooled and split into those tall pillars—a forest haunted by hideous
reptiles, which have bequeathed their fossil remains to gladden the
geologists of the nineteenth century. Now, not one twig exists to whisper of
the old forest, and the great fort of the giants towers in naked majesty
above the low grassy island. Its height is, I believe, 1340 feet.
Here a terrible deed of vengeance was once enacted.
Some of the Macleods landed on this island of the Macdonalde, and, being too
marked in their attentions to the daughters of the clan, were seized, bound
hand and foot, and then turned adrift in a boat to perish. A kindly wind,
however, wafted them safely to Skye. Their version of the story roused the
wrath of Macleod, who collected a very strong body of men, and sailed to the
island to take summary vengeance.
The terrified inhabitants, knowing themselves powerless
to meet such a force, concealed themselves so effectually, that Macleod
returned to his galleys, thinking that his victims had taken refuge in the
Long I8IaIRL One unhappy man, however, ventured from his hiding-place, and
was immediately espied, and tracked through the snow to a cave, the entrance
to which was partly concealed by a stream of water falling over it. This,
the Macleods now turned into a new channel, and gathering a vast heap of
turf and fern at the mouth of the cave, made such a bonfire as suffocated
all the luckless islanders-200 in number—and their bleached bones lay here
for many a long day. Sir Walter Scott was barbarous enough to carry off a
skull, to the great annoyance of his sailors, who vowed that the wearisome
calms which kept the vessel stationary for so long, were all in consequence
of this sacrilege.
These old Highlanders were swift in their revenge, and
I don't fancy the hot blood is altogether quenched yet. It is not so very-
long since the duty of forgiveness being urged on a dying man, he was
reminded in Whose bands vengeance must lie. "Ay," said the would-be
penitent, "it is too sweet a morsel for mortal man." I Weel, weel," he
added, "I'll forgive him." But (turning to his son), "De'il take ye, Donald,
gin ye forgie him." It was the same spirit that inspired one of another
race, who being asked on his death-bed whether he could forgive all his
foes, sank back with a grim smile of satisfaction, murmuring, " Je n'en ai
There is another great cave in this neighbourhood,
where in the days of persecution after 1745, a large body of Roman Catholics
used to meet for public worship, a huge ledge of rook acting as pulpit and
altar—a wild temple indeed, with the ceaseless voice of the restless wind
and waves murmuring solemn litanies on every side.
We neared Skye in the beautiful evening light, first
coasting along the Peninsula of Sleat, which seemed fertile and well wooded,
the latter being by no means a common feature in these islands. We caught a
glimpse of Armadale, the home of the Macdonald; Lords of the Isles—proud
chiefs who carried the sense of their sovereignty with them, wherever their
wanderings might lead them. One chief, best known as Donald Gorm, having
found his way to Ireland, was hidden to the Lord-Lieutenant's table, and
entering late, took a vacant seat near the door. His host sent to ask him to
come to the head of the table; but the chieftain's reply, more proud than
courteous, was, to "tell the earle, that wherever Macdonald sits, that is
the head of the table."
Macdonald made the same speech to Macleod of Dunvegan,
on whose shores he was driven by stress of weather, during one of the
interminable feuds of these two houses He claimed hospitality from his foe,
and was welcomed. But seeing on the table a boar's head, which he held to be
an evil omen, he seated himself below the salt, in the midst of his own men,
and when Macleod bade him come up beside him, made this same reply. This
passed off well enough, but later, a quarrel arose as to the merits of their
respective dirks and the strong right hand which wielded them; then a
whispered caution from a Macleod lass to a Macdonald sweetheart, made the
chief decide not to sleep in the castle, but remain with his men in the barn
prepared for them, whence at midnight they silently sallied forth and took
refuge under a great rock; soon they beheld a broad sheet of flame from the
old barn lighting up sea and sky, the dry heather prepared for their couch
having done its work well, as fuel to kindle that treacherous "lowe." And
while the Macleods rejoiced over their own vile misdeeds, the Macdonalds
marched calmly back to their galley, with their pipes playing, and with a
shout of defiance, the blazing and crackling of that inhospitable roof
lighting them on their way.
We were now passing through the Sound of Sleat, and the
warm flush of sunset lighted up the wild beauty of Knoydart and Glenelg,
"the glen of beauty;" and gleamed on the waters of Loch Nevis, and dark Loch
Hourn, the lakes of heaven and of hell. Now we are in the channel of Kyle
Rhea," Straits of the King," which separates Skye from the mainland; it is
but half a mile across, and lies under the shadow of Ben na Caillach, "the
old wife's hill," which looms dark and huge above us.
Then comes another narrow channel, Kyle Akin, Straits
of Haco, and we pass the islands of Scalpa and Raasay, and all this time we
are drawing nearer and nearer to the great shadowy Cuchullins, the most
beautiful mountain mass in all Scotland, and never seen to greater advantage
than on such a night as this, when the broad moonlight gleams upon the
water, making midnight clear as neon. Indeed, in this sweet summer time it
can hardly be said that there is any night at all, for often I have seen the
last faint flush of the gloaming, still tinting the west, when the first
mysterious shimmer of the dawn began to tinge the eastern skies;
"And east and west, without a breath,
Mixt their dim
lights, like Life and Death,
To broaden into boundless day."
We were scarcely weary of watching this ever-changing
loveliness, when at four in the morning we reacliad Portree--or rather
Portrigh —the King's Port, the harbour having been so named in honour of
King Haco, or as some say, only in recent times, in memory of James V., who
landed here while on one of his romantic tours of exploration.
As to the island itself, Pennant says its name comes
from the Norwegian Ski, a mist, and that it was called Eilan Skianach, the
cloudy island, by reason of the floating mists and clouds that so constantly
rest on its high peaks. Others declare the name of Skye to be derived from "Skianach,"
i. e. "winged," because the headlands of Waternish and Trotternish were
supposed to give something of the form of wings to the body of the island.
It certainly is curious that this, the largest island of Scotland, should be
so deeply indented by countless sea-lochs, that no part of it exceeds four
miles in distance from the ocean; indeed very few places are more than two
miles from the sea-board.
We found comfortable quarters at the Hotel, and began
our life in Skye by such a sleep as I trust you may enjoy this night.