A Music-Room—Duntuim Castle—Fladda of the Ocean—Holy StonesSchioch Maddie
Cave—Legend of McCrimmon—Water Kelpies—Brownies —Legends—The Kilt
Rock—Marine Forests—Flat-fishes—A Basaltic Coast—The Storr Rock—The
Ross-shire Coast—Legends of St. Mairuba —Sacrifices of Cattle—The
Need-Fire—Start for the Herring FishingStorms—King Haco's Fleet.
To those who make their home in the Isles, the
possession of a yacht, or, at least, of a good sailing-boat, becomes almost
a necessity. In the first place, all beauty lies along the sea-board; and
the visit to a neighbour even on the same island, which may entail a
wearisome land journey through dreary country, is often a short and
beautiful sail; when, instead of noisily jolting and grinding along a hard
road, you may glide silently through air and water—perhaps the only way in
which you can ever revel at ones in stillness and motion. Besides, to be
continually within sight of countless islands, and chains of blue hills,
without the means of exploring them, would be tantalizing indeed.
So it came to pass that the little fairy "Gannet"
flapped her white wings one sunny afternoon, and bade us sail with her over
the merry green waves to the opposite coast of Grieshernish, one of the few
sheltered nooks where the plantations have actually struggled up to treehood.
Here we found our chief amusement in a wonderful
music-room, wherein every conceivable variety of musical instrument had its
appointed place. Besides piano and harmonium, flute and guitar, there was
every variety of organ, from the finger-organ down to the most elaborate
grinder, with such an array of puppets as would have made the fortune of an
itinerant organist. Then there was every species of large mechanical
instrument, from a common musical-box up to a large self-acting organ, which
played all the favourite operas like a first-rate brass band. Another,
something similar, called a Euterpean, gave us more solemn music. Others
play reels and dance-music. Next come harp, violin, violoncello, bagpipes,
trumpet, cornet, piston, reed-pipe--every musical instrument you can
conceive down to a Jew's-harp. For aught I know, sackbut, psaltery, and
dulcimer may have been stowed away in some recess of that wonderful room. It
was a quaint fancy of one who had spent his best years on Indian plains, and
who had devised this method of shutting out sight and sound of the wild
storms and tempests that so often raved round his western home.
We returned to Uig in the evening, so well pleased with
the swift, lovely little yacht, that we determined to start at once for a
cruise round the coast--a cruise so delightful, that I am utterly at a loss
whether to award the palm of real enjoyment to yachting in the Hebrides, or
camping in the Himalayas.
Each day we sailed just so far as might seem pleasant,
gliding silently over the waters, rejoicing in the stillness of our
noiseless progress; no jarring sound of wheels; no straining engines, or
whirring steam; only the plash of wavelets when we anchored for the night,
in some quiet natural harbour, under the lee of some bluff headland, whence
we could row close in shore, among all the beautiful cliffs and caves,
landing on the small islands, to the astonishment of every species of
sea-fowl, and of colonies of rabbits, which last proved a very welcome
addition to our larder.
One favourite anchorage was just below Duntulm Castle;
in a clear, green bay, with a pleasant island on one side, where multitudes
of large, white-winged gannets make their home, and gathered wonderingly
round their namesake. They were sorely puzzled by our intrusion into thin,
their sanctum; and often, as we sat on the brink of the cliff where they had
built their nests, they would swoop past us again and again, flapping their
great wings within a foot of us, with wild angry cries, as if to drive us
Very pleasant it was in the early morning to land on
this little island; and though the smooth grassy slope was drenched with
heavy dew, to clamber up to the top, and find oneself overlooking a
recipithus rock-face, down into the clearest green depths of emerald- tinted
waters, only disturbed by the ripple where the top of some broken basalt
pillar rises above the surface.
The old castle stands on a great stack of clustering
pillars, jutting into the quiet bay. On either side, and in the background,
lie smooth green slopes, crowned with another range of reddish basalt. At
this early hour the quiet mists were still sleeping in the valley, and above
them towered the Quiraing in dark solid mass. Then, as the first rosy flush
touched the hill-top, the dewy vapours floated upward to greet the dawn, and
the closed flowers opened their cups, and all manner of happy winged insects
awoke to dance in the quivering sunlight. Everything was quiet and still,
and but for the querulous notes of the sea-birds, there was no sound save
. . . The murmuring surge,
That on th'
unnumbered idle pebbles chafes
and that melody never ceases, for there is not a grain
of sand within miles of Duntuim— only sharp shingly beach; so those who want
to bathe, and love to paddle about on the soft, yellow sand, must go to
Kilmaloig Bay, or to Loch Staffin.
Now, if you turn and look out to sea, there lies the
Long Island on the one hand, and on the other Loch Seaforth, and the wild
hills of Torridon, in Ross-shire. And much nearer you is the Island of
Fladdahuan—Fladda of the Ocean, one of those early Missionaries who here
built his cell and chapel. The island, as seen from here, is like some great
sea monster. For one large isle lies like a great solid head, while a long
line of smaller rocky knobs suggests the dorsal fin of some huge creature
swimming across the Minch.
The ruins of Fladda's chapel were long extant. On the
altar lay a round, bluish atone, which was always moist Should fishermen be
detained here by contrary winds, they first walked sunwise round the chapel,
then poured water on this stone Hindu-fashion, and a favourable breeze would
certainly spring up era long. The magic stone likewise cured diseases, and
the people swore solemn oaths by it.
There was a similar stone in the Isle of Arran, of a
green colour, and the size of a goose's egg. It was known as the atone of
St. Molingus, and was kept in custody of the Clan Chattan; and the popular
belief was, not only that it cured diseases, but that, if it were thrown at
an advancing foe, they would be terror-stricken, and retreat. It was also a
solemn thing to swear by.
I was strongly reminded of this Hebridean custom when,
wandering in the solemn shade of the great forests of Ceylon, in the
immediate neighbourhood of the ancient ruined city of Pollonarua, we were
shown, in the court of a village temple, a flat slab of stone, esteemed so
sacred, that the most hardened villain dares not perjure himself when
compelled to swear by it. He must lay thereon a flrnam—a coin less than a
farthing in value—and then take the required oath.
In these our Western Isles there were many varieties of
stones esteemed sacred—more especially such as were perforated; also various
crystals, such as those to which I alluded when speaking of the crystal
balls at Iona.
Curiously enough, the fisherman's lucky stone of St.
Fladda has its exact counterpart in Japan, where (near the Shrines of 1s6,
where the sacred black stone is held in such deep reverence) there is a
lonely place of pilgrimage called Futami-Sama—a dull promontory of grey
shingle, jutting into the sea, and pointing towards three isolated rocks. A
low wall forms the only enclosure, and within it stands a wooden altar,
whereon lie four big green stones. To these the fishers and other pilgrims
present their humble offerings—circles of twisted straw, a little rice, or
some odd little morsels of green pottery.
In the Torres Straits, likewise, the Turtle-giving
gods, and the Rain gods, are simply round painted stones. To the former,
offerings are invariably made by the fishers, while the Rain gods are
propitiated in times of drought by a libation of precious water.
To return to our post on the rock. The sleepers in the
yacht are now all astir, and as we look down on the picturesque sailors in
their blue jerseys and long scarlet knitted caps, all so busy, unfurling the
white sails, we know that there is a chance of a move before long. So we
hail the wee boat, that has been fetching the morning supply of milk, and
practise rowing, till a tune on the pipes announces that breakfast is ready.
Afterwards we sail slowly along the coast, starting
early while the sun is still in the east, lighting up the cliffs, and
keeping as near the shore as we dare, else we should lose all beauty. And
the slower the better, for every fresh turn shows us new, strange caves, or
masses of tall basaltic columns, sometimes cut across, as if by some giant
knife, showing a slanting section of all the pillars, but more frequently
overlaid with rich soil and green pasture, and above it all the
ever-changing masses of the Quiraing tower like grim fortifications.
Seen from this side, one can hardly believe that they
are not great masses of grey masonry, so utterly different are they from the
red or yellow basalt which composes the greater part of the seacoast for the
next few miles. A very wonderful formation is this basalt, with those
regular hexagonal columns, that look as though carefully chiselled according
to geometrical laws. Learned men tell us that it was once a red-hot fluid,
which, in cooling, crystallized in this manner, and they show us experiments
with chemical mud, which being allowed to cool, gradually assumes the same
forms, and give us miniatures of Staffa, and all this coast.
Very beautiful are these caves and rock masses, where,
on the slightest provocation, the green waves rush in with such sudden
swell, and dash right over them in wild white spray. This it is which makes
the danger of lingering too long in the pleasant nooks and caves, sheltered
from the open sea. You may chance to find, as you row confidingly out of
your little haven, that a sudden breeze has sprung up, fretting the white
sea-horses, and making them chafe and toss so angrily that your tiny boat
may find it hard work enough to return to the mother-craft.
Such risk as this, I encountered at an exquisite spot
in Kilmaluoc Bay, so called in memory of St. Moluoc, whose lowly cell once
stood on the green shores of this quiet little harbour. As we rowed close in
shore, we discovered a place where the rock-face was riven, and showed light
within. There was just space for the little boat to float in, passing under
a low archway in the rock, when suddenly we emerged into an open space so
lovely that any scene-painter who could produce such a transformation-scene
for next Christmas would assuredly make his fortune.
We had floated into a circular basin, whose rocky sides
opened into several long deep caves, beneath whose shadow the water grew
dark and mysterious, of the deepest emerald tint, while beneath us lay a
clear, transparent aqua-marine, through whose lustrous depths we could,
plainly see our own shadows rest on the yellow sand far below. Tiny
jelly-fish, edged with lilac spots and long white fringe, floated beside the
delicate pink seaweeds in the clear green water; and as we looked upward to
the deep blue sky, we saw that the rock was crowned with heather, and ferns,
and tall grasses, changing from golden cream to silvery, as the light wind
rippled over them, though no breath of air stirred near us. And from every
cleft in the rock grow tall spikes of crimson fox-gloves (the folk's glove
of olden days), and clusters of blue-bells, and all manner of flowers, blue
and white and yellow.
There was not a sound to be heard save the swish, swish
of the dancing wavelets just outside. So perfectly did the rocks round us
deaden all noise, that when the yacht fired her little gun as a signal for
the immediate return of the boat, I still sat quietly painting, utterly
unconscious of any change, and it was not till we had floated clear of the
arch by which we had entered, and caught sight of the open sea, that we
realized anything being amiss. A heavy ground swell had set in, and the
yacht, not daring to lie where she was, was running before the wind, seeking
a safer harbour, and leaving us either to go ashore, or pull after her, as
might seem best to Norman Campbell, the trusty yachtsman, who was rowing me.
He being a strong muscular young fellow, and a thorough seaman, chose the
latter, and a stiff two miles' pull he had, before we came up with the
yacht, which had found a place where she could venture to lie to and wait
I fear Martin the skipper expended some forcible Gaelic
on my escort, but these Skye lads are used to gales of all sorts, and are
not easily ruffled; and when we anchored for the night in beautiful Loch
Staffin Bay, the most harmonious peace reigned among the crew, and the hours
were enlivened as usual by wild Gaelic songs and choruses, or by stories of
smuggling, in which the fathers and kinsfolk of the narrators generally took
a prominent part. For to have been a professional smuggler is considered
just as respectable as any other method of earning a livelihood.
Then we were told many wild legends of the coast, and
can bear witness how marvellously these gain in interest when the narrator
can point out the very spot where the weird spirit appeared, or the
miserable victim perished. And if divers caves will claim the same history,
well, you must try and believe it to be true of each in turn.
Take such a wild, wailing pibroch as McCrimmon's
Lament, which, whether played on the pipes in the early morning at a
Highland funeral, with an accompaniment of wild cries from the
sea-birds,---or else sung by a chorus of plaintive voices, while the little
waves splash against the ship, and the wind moans in fitful gusts—is about
the most wildly mournful of all Gaelic Laments.
It becomes positively thrilling when the singers pause,
and pointing to a dark yawning cavern, extending far under the land, tell
you that there, into that very cave, the bold piper marched, followed by his
faithful dog; that he ventured bravely on, resolved to explore the dark
passage, and that about a mile inland, where a deep hole is supposed to open
into the subterranean passage, his watchful friends still heard his
heart-stirring music, when suddenly it ceased, and soon an awful struggle
was heard, and McCriinmon's cry of anguish arose, telling of some awful
creature that was grappling with him in the darkness. Then the cries ceased.
Soon afterwards the miserable dog, which had been flayed alive, and had lost
even the power of howling, crept to the mouth of the cave to die. And since
that day no rash adventurer has been so foolhardy as to tempt the like fate.
I must confess to have been painfully dbillusonn4e on
hearing the same story told of the cave at Keil, in the Mull of Cantyre, and
of half a dozen different spots on the west coast. Nevertheless you
sometimes hear deliciously "creepy" stories, such legends as may well
inspire the fishers with an ill-defined, mysterious dread of certain spots.
Such is the tale that tells how on the shore of one of
those dim isles (either Barra or Tyree, I forget which) is the cave where
Ossian and his heroes sit spellbound in a long deep sleep. One day a bold
fisher discovered this very cave, and entering, beheld this grand band of
sleepers. Near them hung the magic horn, at the third blast of which, blown
by mortal lips, he knew they would all awaken. He was a brave man, who
scorned all fear, so he put his lips to the horn and blew such a shrill call
that the cormorants and the sea-mews came shrieking forth from the dark
recesses of the cavern. A strange indescribable dread took possession of
him; nevertheless he repeated the blast more loudly than before, and every
rock seemed to echo back the sound with strange spirit- laughter. Era its
tones had died away, he who seemed chief of the heroes, and was in truth
Ossian himself, stirred in his sleep and half awoke. He bade the rash
intruder cease, and turning on his side, slept once more. The terrified
fisher fled, and straightway sailed from the magic isle, and from that day
to this no man has ever been able to find the cave where the heroes of
Although the influence of the clergy and of the
schoolmaster is rapidly rooting out all traces of grey superstition, it
still has some hold in the more remote corners of the laud; and the
non-existence of kelpies and brownies and uris1s is by no means so clearly
proven, that a midnight encounter with them would be a thing to risk
lightly. The kelpies, as you know, are water-spirits which are always
malignant, and delight in causing the floods to rise rapidly and overwhelm
the unwary traveller, while their mocking cry rings in his drowning ears.
That the kelpies are "bye-ordinar" irreverent is
evident from the legend of the old kirkyard at Conan—a green dreamy hillock,
where autumn leaves float silently down from overshadowing boughs, a russet
covering for the grey mossy stones. Round the foot of the hillock rushes the
dark-brown river, once the favourite haunt of a kelpie. One wild night when
the storm was raging and the river was in spate, the song of the kelpie was
heard above the voice of the winds and waters, and those who heard it
trembled, for they knew that the kelpie sought human blood. Then in hot
haste a messenger rode up whose errand would brook no delay, and he urged
his horse to swim the stream, but the steed shrank back affrighted, and
strong hands drew back the foolhardy rider, and vowed he should not thus
court destruction. So they locked him up within the old chapel, and all
night long the wild tempest battled and raved. When the morning light dawned
they went to release him, that he might go on his way in safety, but they
found him dead, for the kelpie had entered the sanctuary, and had not even
dreaded the holy water, but seizing its victim, had held his face therein
till he was drowned. So you see it was a very irreverent kelpie indeed!
All over Scotland there are legends of these
water-goblins. Thus at Choil-a-chroin, "the wood of lamentation," near Loch
Vennachar, a beautiful pony once came playfully up to a merry group of
children, and suffered several of the little innocents to clamber on its
back. Then suddenly wheeling round, it galloped off with them, and plunged
into the cold waves, and the mothers wept and wailed greatly for the little
ones who might never return. This was the form in which it constantly
appeared to the Shetlanders.
Sometimes a kelpie would assume the form of a splendid
black horse, which would appear at the market in charge of some strange
uncanny-looking fellow. So fine a beast was sure to find a purchaser, and
for a while all would go well, only its strange love for water was noticed,
and it would prance and plunge with delight when a bucketful was thrown over
it. At last, on some distant expedition, it was sure to be overtaken by a
wild storm, and when the ford had swelled to a raging torrent, and its
master was compelled to trust to the good swimming of his steed, he
discovered too late that he was bestriding the awful kelpie, who would
plunge with him into the depths of the foaming waters, never to rise again.
We heard many a strange story, too, of those kindly
brownies, who used to do so many good turns to lighten the drudgery of farm
or household work, and take their payment in bowls of cream and other
delicacies, just as the glashans did in' the Isle of Man, or the pwaccas in
Wales, or as the gins still do in the faraway deserts of Scinde. In every
case the description of the creature is the same; he is like a dwarfish
human being, covered with long hair, and breathing heavily; having moreover
large eyes and great strength, which he willingly employs for any mortal to
whom he takes a fancy, working for him hard and faithfully year after year;
but nevertheless apt to be sullen and morose, and on slight provocation, to
depart for ever.
It is curious to find this good brownie doing just the
same work in the far east as in these western isles; but this is only one of
many kindred superstitions. The people of Scinde have from time immemorial
been able to draw the milk from their neighbour's cows, just as well as any
Highland wife; their witches divine from sheep-bones, and take the form of
tigers and other beasts, just as easily as a Scottish witch transforms
herself into a hare or a stag. They tell wild stories of rakshas or demons
of the mountains, and of bhoots or ghosts of the dead; but those who have
tried to collect these legends say that there, as in our own Highlands, this
becomes year by year more difficult, for the old folk are dying off, and the
rising generation do not care to speak of these things, so that the old
stories are fast disappearing from the east as well as from the west.
In South Uist there is the valley of Glenslyte, haunted
by spirits called "Great Men," and formerly whoever entered this valley must
perforce repeat certain sentences, committing themselves to the guidance of
these beings: for should this ceremony be omitted, they believed they would
inevitably go mad, which (like the Chinese custom of beating gongs during an
eclipse to save the sun from extinction) involved a risk too great to run.
Till very lately there existed all manner of curious
methods for consulting oracles, such as sewing up a man in a cow's hide, and
leaving him for the night on some hill-top, that he might be made a
spirit-medium. The commonest sort of divination was practised by means of
the shoulder-blades of beasts slain in sacrifice, just as at the present day
the shepherds of Niolo in Corsica foretell coming events by the left
shoulder-blade of a goat or sheep.
And it is a matter of firm belief now, that charms
exist whereby a man can spoil his neighbour's barm (yeast), and a woman can
prevent cows from yielding their milk, and, by some invisible agency,
appropriate it for her own use. She can also by evil arts take away the milk
from nursing mothers. As to the superstitions connected with death, they are
still numberless. There are warnings in the flight of birds, the howling of
dogs, sights and sounds mysterious and undefined; and which are readily
construed into good or evil.
A hare or a fox crossing the path is held to be SQ sure
a token of evil, that educated men have been known to turn back, declaring
they could not travel after receiving such a sign of danger; and even in
civilized Morayshire and Perthshire I know one or two stalwart men who have
no hesitation in believing that certain poor harmless old wives are witches,
who have the power to take the form of those animals. One old wife lately
told us that there had been some talk lately about poaching hares. "But deed
she kent it was na auld Geordie, nor young Geordie either. For ye see, we're
afeared o' th' hares. On, gin ye wad kill a hare ye dinna ken wha ye wad be
kuhn' I Deed the half of them's witches!"
Nor is it very long since one of the gamekeepers (in
whom our Sassenach friends are wont to behold their ideal of a stalwart
Highlander) wounded a hare, and triumphantly told us that the next time he
saw a certain innocent old wife at the kirk her arm was in a sling, so
surely there remained no room for doubt as to her dealing in witchcraft! As
to the stories concerning second Bight (which answers to the clairvoyance of
the south), they are legion, and implicitly believed to this day. There is
scarcely a village in which some one has not been favoured by ghostly
apparitions from dead or living. Either the person seen has already died, or
else his doom is swiftly approaching.
Many are the tales concerning green-robed fairies, and
their spleen against any one presuming to wear their chosen colour,
especially on Friday, when they have double power, and when a genuine
Highlander will shrink from any allusion to them as being "no canny," or at
least to be made with marked respect, as to beings invisibly present, and
who need to be conciliated.
Why these creatures should be called Daoine Shi'ich, or
men of peace, I cannot imagine, unless from that curious feeling which
prompts so many races to propitiate evil demons who might harm them, rather
than serve the good who will do them no ill. For these men of peace are
spiteful creatures, jealous of human joys, and especially anxious to
abstract newborn babies (which they have only power to do before baptism),
leaving in their place their own cross- grained brats, with voracious
appetites, always "skirling "for meat. These are known as changelings; hence
the use of that name to describe a puny, unsatisfactory child.
Throughout the Isles it is supposed that idiots are
fairy children, and when (as is often the case) these poor creatures are
wizened and emaciated, while in face and character their utter childishness
blends with occasional touches of shrewd mother-wit, their parentage is
considered to be proven beyond doubt. The sorely- tried foster-mother has,
however, one remedy. She follows the ebbing tide, and when it is far out she
lays the screaming child on the shore, and there leaves it to yell by
itself. Its cries arc, however, not unheeded, for the fairies are on the
watch to protect it, and at the last moment will spirit away their noxious
offspring, and restore the stolen human child. Just as the waves approach
it, the mother returns, and, whether "skirling" or smiling, she must accept
as her own the creature she then finds.
Even on the mainland the faith in fairy lore is not by
any means extinct, as was recently proved to us when a lady in Banifehire
asked an old woman how she came to know of a rather unusual cure for some
illness. She replied that she had learnt that, and many other things, from a
wife who had been spirited away by the fairies, and had lived with them
underground for eight years. But having said thus much, the old lady
relapsed into a mysterious silence, and though much questioned as to the
manners and customs of the fairies and their guest, she refused to say
another word, for "Ou! it wasna safe to be talking o' the gude folk; maybe
they wad be spiriting her awa' next!"
The belief in all these weird and wondrous legends has
been greatly kept up by the old custom of story-telling round the peat fires
in the long winter evenings; but the ban of the Church now lies so heavily
on all that tends to encourage superstition, that the popular lore seems in
danger of dying out, or of being preserved only by such collectors as
Campbell of Islay, whose Gaelic mother tongue and local sympathies enable
him to "draw" every blue bonnet and white mutch that cross his path.
It is a matter of considerable difficulty now-a-days to
induce any of the younger generation to relate these old stories, partly
from the dread of being laughed at by unbelievers, who look on their legends
as being "just blethers," and still more because their solemn unimaginative
teachers try to put down all such foolish tales as utterly unworthy of wise
and Christian men, though at the same time, the schoolmasters labour hard to
store the minds of their pupils with an amount of Greek and Latin mythology
that would astonish most village schools in England. They little think what
exceeding interest there may be for learned men in this old Gaelic mythology
which is so fast dying out, and of its many strange analogies to the most
ancient legends of the far east.
There is scarcely one of these fables which has not its
twin brother in those of far-distant lands, and in these days when the
common origin of the Aryan races is a question so widely discussed, —when we
are told how strongly Gaelic is akin to Sanskrit, and when some maintain
that Ceylon and St. Kilda were alike peopled by a Celtic race which started
from a central point in Asia,—it is strange indeed to find that both these
islands have from time immemorial believed the same curious
traditions,—somewhat altered of course in their oral transmission from
generation to generation, but virtually the same.
In the Hebrides you will hear how John, the fisher's
son, leaped his horse over a strait to an island in the Sound of Barra,
where he slew a dragon with nine heads and rescued a beautiful princess.
Precisely such a nine-headed dragon as is minutely
described in these Gaelic legends, is found sculptured on temples in
Cambodia and India, where the old serpent-worship prevailed in the most
A parallel to the history of how the Hindu god, Indra,
slew the water monster, Vitra (as told in the Rig Veda), has been pointed
out in the Gaelic legend of how Fraoch killed a great serpent on the Ross of
The wildest tales of Ossian are found again in the old
Persian poets; and a thousand other instances might be adduced.
But all these curious coincidences between the customs
and traditions of the Eastern and Western world, have tempted us to wander
on till we have drifted off into a vague world of superstitions that have
carried us far away from the old Gaelic songs and legends, with which our
sailors whiled away the lovely summer evening.
It was late before the little yacht was ready for the
night, and her crew turned into their tiny cabin "for'ard." The evening
lights were so beautiful that we lingered on deck, hour after hour, scarcely
knowing how to turn away from so much loveliness. There had been a golden
sunset behind the Quiraing, which still stood out in rich purple against a
lemon-coloured sky—while the calm sea reflected both. Each changing tint of
the opal had rested by turns on all the islands and the hills ofi Torridon.
Now the clear moonlight gleamed on the water, and silvered the soft white
mists that half shrouded Ben Etra, even lending poetry to the little inn,
with its group of thatched byres and offices.
But the other side of the bay lay in its own deep
shadow, and it was not till we saw it in the early morning that we realized
how beautiful it was. Green banks sloped gently down to the water's edge,
crowned with perpendicular stacks of basalt, in three distinct masses. It is
from these basaltic columns that Loch Staffin, like Staffs, takes its name.
Nearer us, a great headland of rock and greenest grass rose abruptly, half
enclosing a shore of the smoothest yellow sand; while every mark and cleft
in the rock lay clearly mirrored below. The scene was irresistibly
suggestive of bathing; so, being by this time fully competent to pass as
"able-bodied sea- women," we rowed ourselves ashore, and vowed that no
bathing ground had ever been so charming; and that here must be our
head-quarters for the present.
Later in the day we had a lovely row all along the
coast to a wonderful headland known as the Kilt Rock, by reason of the many-coloured
strata of which it is composed. From the green sea upwards, layers of
oolitic limestone, oolitic freestone and shale, alternating with lines of
grass, lie horizontally; while rising vertically from these is a great mass
of red, brown, and yellow columnar basalt. So huge are these pillars, that
they quite dwarf those of Staffs; indeed Macculloch, whose sea-side geology
was generally accurate, calculates them at five or six times the magnitude
of those in the wonderful little Isle. On the top of this cliff lies an
extensive loch (Loch Mialt is the sound, though as to Gaelic spelling, he is
rash who ventures to attempt it 1)—a loch with reedy shores, haunted by
innumerable water-fowl. Hence the waters fall into the sea below, in
flashing spray—a clear fall of 300 feet.
As we rowed slowly along, in the warm bright sun (so
warm indeed, that the men's faces and arms—tough sailors though they
were—were all blistered with the heat), we looked up to the cliffs above,
and down into the waters beneath, with indescribable delight, so wonderful
is the contrast between those mighty rock walls, with the perfect stillness
of the exquisite green water, through the clear depths of which we peered
down into the marine forest, whence trees and shrubs, of every variety of
form and colour, stretched their branches upward to the light. There grow
giant brown sea-wares of many forms, some waving like graceful palms; others
tossing great arms aloft, like the patriarchs of this untrodden jungle. Some
have thick stems, and broad fleshy leaves of the richest golden brown, every
leaf ten or twelve feet long. Some are smooth and leathery, and others all
plaited, and fringed, and folded, and twisted, and crimped, as if the
laundry-maids of the sea had no other work to do but just to get them up.
Then we passed over others with large fan-like leaves; some that looked like
bunches of long pink or green ribbon; and countless varieties of delicate
pink, and lilac, and olive sea-flowers and sea-weeds, like floating
lace-work, woven in some fairy loom—more brilliant in this temperate sea,
than either in tropics or colder regions.
And in all this beautiful, luxuriant vegetation,
myriads of dainty sea creatures make their home. Every lace-like weed seems
beaded with black pearls, which are the smallest mussels that ever were
seen, each firmly moored to its anchorage by a silken cable. You cannot lift
up the tiniest plant, but you will find on it a score of living things,
whose delicacy of structure arrests your eye, even without the help of that
best of companions, a small magnifying-glass.
As to the wonders of the invisible life of the sea, as
shown by a good microscope—the almost invisible weeds, which give food and
beautiful homes to millions of our fellow-creatures, and the endless
varieties which float in every drop of water—that is a field of enjoyment
quite by itself. Only, be sure that next time you get the chance, you look
at some common oyster-spat through a good glass, for I think that (except
perhaps the purple bunches of grapes, which are only dust from the blossoms
of the marsh mallow,) no lifeless thing can be more beautiful.
But the most careless eye can scarcely look clown into
a sea whose depths teem with such exuberance of life, animal and vegetable,
without noticing something of the beauty that nestles under every leaf,
lodges under each root, hides in every crevice: thousands of creatures, each
of wonderful organism, building their curious nests of sand and glutinous
matter, floating on the warm surface of the water, or drifting lazily hither
and thither in the gentle current.
After passing the Kilt Rock, we came to what seemed to
me still more curious geological freaks. There were patches of many-coloured
rock; but in particular, just above the sea-level was along layer of pale
grey oolite, wherein at regular intervals were imbedded great round
boulders, like huge black cannon-balls. We landed at Lou Fern, a region of
black volcanic-looking rocks, some standing apart like quaint figures. One
statue of John Knox in a black gown was so unmistakable, that we pointed to
This bay is like one vast aquarium. I never before saw
so many living creatures in so small a space. Such multitudes of
sea-anemones of every colour, and tiny star-fish, and little silvery eels,
and shoals of fish no bigger than minnows. And then the countless varieties
of crabs! Poor little half-naked hermits, dwellers in other folk's houses;
and braver little creatures who are ready to fight life's battle for
themselves, though they are so delicate as to be almost transparent, and
their tender claws could scarcely nip the tiniest sea-anemone.
Sometimes a great big fellow (a parten, as we
northerners call him) would swim up from his rock-home under the sea-weeds,
and peer at us with his curious eyes, and then sink down again, faster than
he rose, to his hiding-place in the fairy garden, among corallines and
sea-weeds of every hue, crimson and gold and bronze—and lustrous metallic
greens and purples. Besides these, there were innumerable jelly-fish, from
the tiniest atoms of orange or red-currant jelly, to the great giants who
would overflow the largest jelly mould that ever was made. And such beauties
as they are! with their delicate rings and stars of lilac, and the fringe of
long sensitive fingers floating in graceful festoons.
The longer we looked, the more convinced we were, that,
in spits of Kingsley, we had really discovered for ourselves St. Brandan's
Fairy Isle. There it lay before us, just as he describes it," reflected
double in the still, broad silver sea "—that wonderful water-world, where
the water-babies, and all other little water-creatures, play hide and seek
in the great water-forests. There, just as he tells us, was the Isle, "full
of pillars, and its roots full of caves; and its pillars of black basalt,
with ribbons of many-coloured sandstone, all curtained and draped with
sea-weeds, the rocks covered with ten thousand sea-anemones of all beautiful
colours and patterns, just like the gayest flower-bed. And here and there
the soft white sand where the water-babies sleep every night, taking no heed
of the little flounders which wriggle about in the sand, or of the crabs
which he buried under it, and only peep out with the tips of their eyes."
Should you let your boat float in very shallow water,
where the smooth white sand is clearly seen through the exquisitely
crystalline water, you may chance to see sundry flat-fishes of various
kinds, burrowing in the sand, and only betraying their presence by an
occasional shuffling movement, as though they were ashamed of showing their
ugly twisted faces. Strange to say, the fishers of our Scottish east coast
have precisely the same legend as the Germans, to account for this
peculiarity in the flounder, namely, that it was doomed to have a crooked
face to all eternity as a punishment for having rudely mocked some other
fish, and made faces at it as it passed! The grotesque ugliness of
countenance thus immortalized is so fully appreciated by the people, that to
address a person as it dim skate" is a sort of climax of northern
Billingsgate! The skate, however, has an independent ugliness of its own,
and does not inherit it from any relationship to the crooked-faced flounder,
being, in fact, a sort of flat dog-fish, and symmetrical in its structure.
Indeed these fiat-fishes are very ugly—the whole family
of them I and the more we learn concerning them, the more are we puzzled to
account for the creation of this crooked generation. Why should a whole
family of creatures have come into existence, which, though shaped something
like a large coin, do begin life symmetrically, and for the first week of
their babyhood swim vertically, like other fishes, with two sides alike, and
an eye on either side of their head; and then, in a weak manner, as if tired
of being poised on edge like a shilling, tanible over on one side, and so
continue to the end of their days! Gradually the under side becomes bleached
to a dead white, and the upper side assumes the colour of the sand or mud on
which the fish most often rests—indeed it is said that some varieties of
these flat-fishes have the power of changing their colour at discretion, so
as exactly to match their surroundings.
But the strangest thing of all is how the symmetrical
baby-face acquires that queer twist, and the ludicrous "thrawn" eyes. It
seems that as soon as the fish takes to swimming on one side, in this absurd
fashion, the eye on the under side resents being kept burrowing in the sand,
so it deliberately starts on its independent travels, and first works its
way forward, on the under side, and then gradually travels upwards, looking
about it all the time, till it finds itself opposite the other eye, on the
opposite side of the fish. This, at least, is the course pursued by the
under eye in most cases. In one branch of this family, however, the
wandering eye prefers closing itself for awhile, and taking a short cut,
straight through the head, reappearing at the opposite side, thence to take
a fresh survey of the world. As its original mask and socket remain for
awhile apparently unchanged, these fishes appear at this stage to be
possessed of three eyes!
We spent an hour of delight in this beautiful natural
aquarium, peering into every bright shallow pool, in search of new wonders.
Then we turned inland, to a shady, quiet, happy nook among the silent grey
rocks, with their beautiful ferns and grasses, and wild thyme and
blue-bells—and here we enjoyed ourselves and our luncheon, as we could only
do on such a day and in such a scene.
After awhile, my companions went off to call at a large
farm, near to which are some remains of the old Fort of Dun Deirg, so called
in memory of Dargo, the Druid,—so the people say. I first inspected the
rough sheiling—.half natural boulders of rock, half loose stones—where the
salmon-fishers live; then idly, for lack of better occupation, wandered up a
long grassy slope called Rhuna Brathrain, the Brother's Hill, or, as some
say, Rhu-na-Bratan, the salmon's headland, from the fact that the beautiful
silvery fish love to lie in the clear green water below, which accordingly
yields the best fishing off the island.
Suddenly, as I reached the summit, such a scene burst
on my astonished sight as left me fairly breathless with delight. The grassy
slope, as I might have guessed, ended in an abrupt precipice, and right at
my feet, far below, lay the clear calm sea, while from the shore, one huge
basalt needle stood up level with the hill whereon I stood. All along the
coast lay sunny bays, each inclosed by great masses of columnar basalt,
always crowned with rich green pasture.
Right before me towered the Storr, a mountain of the
same character as the Quiraing, rising almost perpendicularly from the sea,
to a height of two thousand feet. Its smooth surface is clothed with rich
green grass, while the rocky face which lies towards the sea is one mighty
mass of broken crag. In every direction are heaped confused piles of rock,
tossed about in forms gigantic and terrible, like the colossal ruins of some
stupendous city, or the burial-place of some race of giants; a place utterly
desolate and silent, where the spirits of the past may dwell undisturbed, in
unbroken solitude, and where the floating vapour-wreaths that cling to the
weird rock figures, seem like the ghostly winding-sheets of an army of
The autumn of 1872 added a new element of eerieness to
this unearthly scene, for here was found the body of a poor young
Englishman, who, wearying all too quickly of the cares and sorrows of earth,
selected this lonely spot as the most fitting to put an end to the young
life that weighed on him so heavily. His body was carried to Portree for
burial, for, in Scotland, even the rash dead, who has fallen by his own
hand, is not excluded from a resting- place in the kirkyard, but is laid,
with unbaptized infants, in the cold shade on the north side of the church,
to which he is carried head foremost, and is buried with his head to the
east,—whereas all other dead are laid with their feet towards the rising of
the sun. It seems, however, that such burials are liable to meet with
opposition from the fishers, not from any special fear of the kirkyard being
haunted, but from a belief that for seven years to come the herrings will
forsake the coast! In the present instance, whatever demur may have arisen,
the funeral was suffered to proceed, and I have not heard that the harvest
of the sea has suffered in consequence.
Still, the people do consider this a risk, and so, in
various cases where, for peace' sake, they have suffered suicides to be
buried in the kirkyard, they have returned secretly by night, dug up the
corpse, and buried it on the shore, at low water mark. In other instances
they have carried the body to the summit of some high mountain, out of sight
of the sea, in the hope that the herring might not be scared. Such burials
have occurred on the summit of Aird Dhubh, and also on a mountain bounding
Inverness and Ross-shire. The latter was done two years after the original
burial of a suicide on the shores of Loch Dhuig, in consequence of which the
herring had left the coast They were, however, appeased by this act, and
returned to the loch.
The herring also deserted Loch Carron and Loch Alsh for
some time after two men had drowned themselves in these waters. In each
case, the bodies had been washed ashore; after several years had elapsed,
the fishers agreed that strong measures were necessary, so they kindled a
great bonfire on the spot where each body had been found, as a sacrifice to
the insulted herring.
High above this wilderness of grand pinnacles and
tumbled crags, towers one gigantic rock-needle, poised as if in mid-air, on
the summit of a great grass-covered crag. This is par e-xcellence the Storr,
a mighty monolith which bears an extraordinary resemblance to the double
horn of a rhinoceros. Its height is 165 feet, its circumference at the base
240 feet, and as it cuts clear against the sky, like some vast minaret
pointing heavenward from its rock pedestal a thousand feet above the sea, it
becomes a landmark whereby the fishers may guide their course for many a
mile; the only wonder is that it should not ere this have been in some way
utilized as a vast natural lighthouse, a guide for the night as well as the
Beyond this magnificently wild scene lie the blue
Cuchullin and Sconser Hills, and the little Isle of Raasay, with the wild
coast of Applecross, Torridon, and Gairloch, as a background; and as I
looked down on the calm waters, a few brown sails of far-away herring boats
were all that recalled human life and toil.
Along the horizon lay soft, silvery grey clouds, all
reflected in the water, while from the clear blue overhead came such a
chorus of laverocks as seemed to bring floating back, pleasant memories of
sweet home-voices singing joyous songs, to the blithesome "bird of the
wilderness," soaring on dewy wing through downy clouds. When the larks had
vanished sunward, there followed a hush and stillness of unutterable
delight—a "silence more musical than any song," while the hot sunshine,
pouring its flood of light on earth and sea, enfolded all nature in a
dreamy, sleepy haze.
Looking forward to a delightful row homeward, I at last
came down from my beautiful crag, losing sight of the sea for half-an-hour.
To my dismay, I was met by my friends, who told inc that a sudden change in
the weather had set in, and on reaching the shore we found that a sharp
breeze had sprung up, and long heavy waves were beating violently on the
rocks. It was clearly impossible for the boat to carry us in such a sea. The
sailors, however, said that they could get her back to the yacht, if we
could go round by land.
It was a weary six miles' walk, and we were pretty well
tired already, but as there was no alternative, we just "set a stout heart
to a stey brae," and clambering once more to the top of the cliffs, found
there a tolerably level road, and faced the dull grey mist as cheerily as we
could. We could see nothing else on every side of us; and every sheep we met
was so magnified by the fog as to be suggestive of some ghostly monster. We
passed by the desolate loch, sacred to all manner of wild fowl, which rose
in wild alarm at our approach. Still, on and on, we trudged, through the
soaking mist, with an ever-changing escort of curlews and plovers, circling
round us with shrill angry whistle, till we were well past the homes of
their little ones. Then a fresh colony took up the chorus of remonstrance,
while the loveliest little baby peewits started almost from our feet, and
ran off to hide in the tail sedgy grasses.
At last we reached the little Inn at Stencholl, and
here my companions determined to spend the night; but as we were not
expected, and neither rooms nor supper were ready, I preferred going on
board to my own little cabin, so after getting good milk and scones, and a
thorough drying at Sandy M'Leod's blazing peat fire, a very few minutes'
rowing saw me safe on board the Gannet.
Next morning broke calm and beautiful. I went ashore,
and found my companions none the worse for our expedition, though not
inclined to repeat it. So I returned to our favourite bay, with its yellow
"Where, 'mid the hush of slumberous ocean's roar,
silver tissued waves
Creep languidly along the basking shore."
A group of many-coloured rough Highland cattle had
wandered down from the green hills, and were cooling themselves in the sea,
and nibbling sea weed; which I believe, in winter time, when other pasture
18 buried in snow, affords a livelihood to cattle' and sheep, and sometimes
even to deer. The sailors were filling our barrels at a spring of
deliciously cool water, gurgling up from a cleft in the rock.
Beyond the blue sea lay the beautiful Ross-shire coast,
every peak of the grand Torridon Hills standing out in clear relief. One in
particular, a great cone of pure-white crystalline quartz, glittered in the
sunlight as though covered with fresh snow. From Gairloch to beyond
Applecross that magnificent mountain range lay unclouded —a perfect sea of
peaks and cones and great shoulders—a grand tract of treeless deer-forest,
in whose jealously guarded precincts lie hidden deep rocky conies, as wildly
beautiful as, and practically far more inaccessible than, any Himalayan
pass. Verily the cup of Tantalus was a perfect joke to the woos of an artist
dwelling in a land of deer-stalkers, daily looking with ever-increasing
longing at the barrier of great brown hills which inclose the paradise, one
rapid glance at which still haunts his dreams, but where he may not again
dare to set foot, under penalty of instant expulsion by a whole army of
vigilant foresters, backed by grim laws of trespass.
To the southern ear this use of the word forest always
sounds a strange misnomer; and the raw Saxon who ventures to wonder at the
absence of trees is apt to be rather startled at first by such a posing
reply as "Trees! wha ever heard of trees in a forest I" Nevertheless, when,
for the satisfaction of our Sassenach friends, we refer them to their
beloved Dr. Johnson, we find he defines forest as a word descriptive of" any
untilled tract of ground." You see he had been in the north-country himself,
and-know all about it. If lack of tillage be all that is required to
constitute a forest, there is not much fear of those wild hills ever losing
their rank as such.
In those deep corries lie unnumbered treasures for
fern-lovers. The delicate parsley fern grows there in rich abundance; and
there are sheltered nooks by the sea where the tall Osmunda Regalia
"Fair ferns and flowers, and chiefly that tall fern
So stately, of the Queen Osmunda named."
That wild coast still keeps legends of its early
Christian days, and tells how, just twelve hundred years ago, St. Maelruhba,
who, like Columba, was descended from Niel of the Nine Hostages, King of
Ireland—and like him, too, was a most zealous convert to the new
faith—sailed over the sea from Bangor, and (A.D. 673) landing at Aber-crosen
(the mouth of the Crosen), now known as Applecross, there founded a church
and monastery, which received the name of Comaraich, the Sanctuary, and was
acknowledged as a haven of refuge for criminals and debtors, a privilege
which I believe it could claim to this day.
On the little isle of Croulin, near Applecross, was
Maelruhba's oratory—and other memorials of his missionary wanderings remain
in various parts of the country, where he is remembered as Malruba, Malru,
Mourie, or Mares. He was patron saint of the south-eastern half of Skye, the
remainder of the isle being under the care of St. Columba. To him were
dedicated the churches of Kilmoray in Brackadale, Kilrnaree in Strath, and
Aski-Mairuby, commonly called Killashig. The parish of Kilarrow in Islay was
also his, and though its church has wholly disappeared, a few carved slabs
still mark the old kirkyard.
In his honour beautiful Loch Maree is said to have
changed its ancient name as an arm of Loch Ewe. The farm of Kinloch Ewe, at
the head of the fresh-water Loch Maree, still retains the original name,
though now some miles distant from its salt-water godmother; a fact which,
taken in connection with the different levels of these lakes, seems to point
to some very curious topographical change.
One of the many islands on Loch Marco, commonly called
Eilean Mowrie, or Mairuba's Isle, became a favourite retreat of the saint;
and his tiny chapel, burial-ground, and small well, are still held by the
people in such veneration, that they resort thither to bathe, and drink, and
hang up rags and other offerings on the bushes. An oak tree close to the
well is studded with hundreds of nails, by which scraps of clothing of
patients were attached to it, and a number of pence and halfpence were
driven sideways into the bark, which gradually closed over them.
Tradition tells that in pagan days there was a very
sacred temple on this Isle, and till very recently this Holy Well retained
the property of curing madness, at such times as the waters were full.
Should they be low, it was a sign that the spirit of the well was
unpropitious, and the waters had no such power. The well, which is now dry,
lies near the shores of the lake.
It is a pleasant little heathery isle, and on its
highest ground, in a thicket of - oak and holly, rowan and juniper,
dog-roses and honeysuckle, are the ruins of a very small chapel in a
circular enclosure—a very low wall almost buried by earth and turf. It is
supposed that this was the original place of Pagan worship, and that the
saint tried to Christianize it, by there placing his chapel. But his
disciples probably only deemed him an incarnation of their deity, for to
this day the people of the neighbourhood call him the god Mourie. Around the
chapel there are many moss-grown graves—plain unhewn stones. Only two bear
any sort of carving, namely, two well-defined crosses on flat slabs, which
are otherwise untouched by the hand of the stone-cutter.
These mark the graves of a Norwegian princess and her
lover, to whose sad history the well owes its healing power. The lady had
come to Inch Maree to meet him at the chapel of the saint who was to bestow
on them the blessing of Holy Church. The bridegroom had promised that on
arriving at Poolewe he would hoist a white flag to tell of his safety. But
alas! by way of a hateful practical joke, he ran up a black flag, and his
true love, never doubting that he was dead, then and there went "clean
demented." She lived a few years as a sorrowing lunatic, and when she died,
and was buried on the Isle, the waters became endowed with miraculous
powers. Her heart-broken lover did not long survive her, and soon was laid
at her feet. The stones lie end to end, pointing eastward.
Violent lunatics seem to have bad rather a rough time
of it. The approved method of conveying them was very much like that of
leading a mad bull to the slaughter. A strong rope was fastened round his
waist, and a couple of powerful men taking each end, two led the way, and
the others followed. Thus "in stays" he was led to the loch, placed in the
boat, and rowed round the island, being at intervals jerked into the water.
They were then led to the holy tree, into which they drove a nail, or a
coin, and fastened a rag. Thence passing to the little well, they drank of
its sacred waters, and made a second offering, after which they were rowed
thrice sunwise round the loch, in which they were made to bathe three times.
This ceremony was repeated daily for several weeks, by
which time the feverish madness was often pretty well cured; and so firmly
did the people believe in the power of St. Maree (Malruba), that his name
was the most solemn oath by which they swore. All went well, till one evil
day, when, alas! a farmer from Letter- Ewe, whose favourite dog had gone
mad, brought it here to drink. The dog was cured, but the angry and very
unsympathetic spirit of the well departed for ever. The man whose
presumption wrought this mischief himself went mad; but he tested the waters
in vain; their virtue had gone from them, never to return, nor have they
ever again risen to their former level. Whether this miracle had any
connection with certain deep drainage cuttings made at that time, I leave
sceptics to determine. Happily the waters of the lake are still available,
for the pilgrims who continue to visit the lake, though less frequently and
more secretly than of yore.
Malruba is said to have been slain near Conan Bridge,
on the 21st April, A.D. 722, and his body was carried to his monastery at
Aber-crosen, beside the sea, where a grey stone, in a thicket of braiitbles,
marks his tomb.
There, in the centre of an old circle of stones, is a
noted perforated stone, "quherein the people tryed tire entering of their
head." It is similar to one in the Druidic circle on Mauchrie Moor in Arran.
Perhaps Mauehrie and Mourie were originally identical— the inference is
rather in favour of the worship here offered having been to "Mourie, the
demon," than to" Mairuba, the saint" (Such perforated stones, we know, were
often deemed sacred. We noticed one at Kil-Couslan in Cantyre. Small ones
were strung on a red thread, and worn as amulets, or were tied to the key of
the stable- doors to prevent witches from riding the horses at night. And
the most notable of all perforated stones was that through which lovers
plighted their troth, at the Standing Stones of Stennis.)
So we must assume that Maelruhba, like other early
Celtic saints, strove to engraft Christianity on earlier superstitions.
Zealous as be was in teaching the people, he does not
seem to have been altogether successful, for in the year 1656 we find the
ecclesiastical authorities endeavouring to stop the annual sacrifice of
bulls on the 25th of August to St. Mourie, "whoever he might be, saint or
demon." This recipient of dubious honour was, in fact, poor Mairuba himself.
The people also carried milk to the tops 'of the high mountains, and there
poured it out upon the rocks as an oblation. The Presbytery records that not
only were the people of Appilcross accustomed TO SACRIFICE BULLS to St.
Mourie as they call him, but also "Miurie has his monuments and remembrances
in the parishes of Loch Carron, Loch Alse, Kintaile, Contan, Fottertie, and
The Presbytery was much troubled at the impossibility
of checking these heathenish offerings, which they found were also made at
Gairloch and Loch Mouric, 4nd so late as 1678 the records tell of the custom
of "sacrificing of beests in ane heathenish manner" on the 25th of August,
on the island of St. Rufus, commonly called Ellan Moury, in Lochew. Again,
they tell of "the Tie Mourie, Quherein are monuments of Idolatrie," where "Mourie
his devilans" receive worship.
Evidently Mourie's worshippers were not ashamed of
their evil deeds, for the records add, "They 0107158 thease titles, and
recsaves the sacrifices and offerings upon the accompi of Mourie his poore
It 18 noted in the Presbytery record, that Hector
Mackenzie, as also his sons Johne-Murdoch and Duncan, and Kenneth his
grandson, had thus sacrificed a bull, for the recovering of the health of
Cirstane Mackenzie, spouse to the said Hector, who was "formerlie sicke and
valetudinarie." Consequently "The brithren, taking to their consideratione
the abhominationes within the parochin of Gairloch, in sacrificing of beasts
upon the 25 August, as also in pouring of milk upon hills as oblationes,
desire the minister to have searchers and tryers in everie corner of the
countrey, especiallie about the Loch Mourie." These were to summon all
offenders to appear before the Presbytery, and to warn "such as heve boats
about the loch, not to transport themselves or uthers to the lie of Mourie,
without warrand from the minister for lawful ends."
"And for theme that comes from forren eountreyi8, that
the ministers of Garloch and Loch Carron informe themselves of the names of
theme, and the places of their residence."
The dubious hereditary honour of these propitiatory
sacrifices was accorded to various Christian saints in various parts of the
British Isles. Reginald do Coldingham tells how in 1164, a bull, the marvel
of the parish for its strength and ferocity, was dragged to the Kirche of
Cuthbricht (Kirkcudbright), and offered as an alms and oblation to St.
Another writer tells how, in 1589, he witnessed the
accustomed sacrifice of a bullock to St. Beyno, patron saint of Clynnog in
Strange hints of the ancient faith also reveal
themselves dimly through the traditions which relate to the principal
churches dedicated to St. Michael (just as on some old palimpsest the
curious scholar discerns faint traces of the characters first inscribed
thereon, and but partially erased by the later scribe). In Southern Italy,
as in Armorica, the churches of St. Michael were generally erected beside
some healing fountain, and some tradition of a sacred mystic bull, blends
with the legend of the Archangel.
Akin to these traces of the old pagan superstitioné was
the custom of sacrificing a bull as an offering,to the earth spirits, in
time of any grievous cattle-plague. The latest instance on record of this
offering having actually been made occurred at Dallas, in Morayshire, on my
father's estate, somewhere about A.D. 1850. A murrain having decimated the
herd of a small farmer, he proceeded to kindle the Need-fire with all
ceremony; then, having dug a pit, he therein sacrificed an ox to some spirit
This Need-fire, or Fire-churn--that is to say, fire
kindled by friction of dry wood—was deemed a charm against all manner of
disease, but especially against cattle-plague.
Though the ceremony of producing it varied in detail,
it has been practised by nearly all Indo-European races. That which was
procured from striking metal was considered worthless.
Among the various accounts of Highland customs, which
in the year 1830 were spoken of as still quite common, was the kindling of
this Need-fire in any case of murrain, or cattle disease. A small booth was
erected near some river or loch, in which divers wooden posts, upright and
horizontal, were placed: the horizontal timber was provided with several
spokes, by means of which it was rapidly turned round, till, by its friction
with the other posts, it became ignited.
The men who turned the spokes were obliged to divest
themselves of any metal they might have about them, in conformity with that
curious feature in all magic, or fairy lore, which makes the presence of
steel or iron utterly neutralize all spiritual influences.
In all the Celtic fairy tales, we find that the touch
of a dirk deprives the "good folk" of all power, so that to lay cold steel
on one fairy-bound, would release him from the spell. Therefore it was,
doubtless, that the Druids cut their sacred mistletoe with golden sickles;
and for the same' reason, their descendants to this present day go forth on
May morning to gather ivy and other plants, which must not be cut by any
knife. (It is worthy of note that the same superstition exists among the
Africans of the Gold Coast, who, to this day, deem it necessary when
consulting their Fetish, to remove their knives, and any other ornament of
steel or iron.)
The Need-fire having been kindled, all other fires
about the farm were put out, and relighted from this one, and all the cattle
were made to smell it; sometimes the sick animals were made to stand over
the fire for a quarter of an hour with their tongues out. According to the
original custom, the sacrifice of a heifer was necessary to the salvation of
Sir James Simpson told me of two occasions on which
this ceremony was observed within the memory of the present and past
generation; one was at Biggar in Lanarkshire, the other near Torphichen in
West Lothian, within twenty miles of Edinburgh; at the latter, a near
relative of Sir James was present. In each case an unhappy cow was buried
alive as a sacrifice to the Spirit of the Murrain, in the hope that the rest
of the flock might thereby be saved!
I am told that there have been various instances in the
present century in which bulls have been sacrificed in England. One such
case was the offering of a calf in Cornwall, in the year 1800, to arrest a
murrain; and the Rev. J. Evans, describing Wales in the year 1812, says that
whenever a violent disease broke out among the horned cattle, the farmers of
the district joined to give up a bullock to be offered as a ransom for the
herds. It was led to the top of a precipice and thence cast down; the
ceremony being known as "casting a captive to the devil."
Somewhat similar is the annual sacrifice in Brittany of
an ox, a cow, a calf, and a sheep, which, being gaily adorned with flowers
and ribbons, are led in procession round the church with music of drums and
fifes, and flags flying. These animals are then sold for the benefit of St.
Nicodeinus, to induce him to protect all other flocks and herds in the
In olden days it was currently believed that this
offering of a life for a life, was equally efficacious in the case of human
beings, as in that of animals. Hence we read strange stories of witchcraft,
whereby men or women sought to redeem their own lives by the sacrifice of
another human life, or else when they "laid their sickness" on some
animal—cat, dog, or sheep; and it was firmly believed that this modern
scapegoat would straightway vanish and never again be seen.
Again, at the Stones of Canine in Brittany there is a
great autumn pilgrimage (or pardon) in honour of St. Carnely. All the
peasants assemble to crave his blessing on their cattle. After church
service they march in procession to his holy fountain, and then round the
village. In dead silence, they slowly march round the church, and kneel
before the image of St. Carnely, which stands between two oxen. Then
silently and solemnly they go back to the Holy Well, where they kneel,
drink, bathe their faces, and then raise their hands heavenward, that the
holy water may trickle down their arms.
When there is sickness in a herd, all the cattle of a
homestead are assembled by night, and driven to Carnac slowly, in strict
silence, often from long distances. They are driven processionally round the
church, then thrice sunwise round the Holy Well, where they are sprinkled
with its sacred water. They are then led home, but not a word must be
spoken, or the charm is broken.
Near the stones there is a green hillock crowned with a
small chapel, and dedicated to St. Michael. But on the summit of this hill
there is an ancient tumulus, on which every Midsummer Eve the people kindle
a great bonfire. It is called tan-licol (the fire of the sun), and is
intended for the good of the cattle, which are made to pass through the
smoke and across the fires. In excavating near the foot of this hillock, a
small old Roman bronze bull was found, and the peasants at once exclaimed,
"Voila is Saint Carnely!"
As regards the kindling of the Need-fire, Shaw, the
historian of Morayshire, writing at the end of last century, mentions having
frequently been present at this fire-making, and adds that a great cauldron
was set on this forced fire (teine eigin), wherein juniper was boiled, and
the bree sprinkled on the cattle. Juniper was also burnt in the cattle
stalls, that its fumes might keep away the witches. Possibly it may have
acted as a disinfectant.
It was also customary to burn juniper before the cattle
on New Year's Day, and to adorn the cow-byres with sprigs of rowan, i. e.
mountain ash, which must be tied above the door, with a red thread, as it is
well known that
"Rowan-tree and Red thread
Mak' the witches tyne
Any person curious in these matters may still discover
in our midst many lingering traces of quaint old Paganisms. I confess that
to me, in these days of humdrum common-sense, they have a charm like that of
some wild-berry wine—a gamey flavour in short, recalling the days when the
mainland, and probably even these islands, were covered with dense primeval
forests, wherein wild deer, and wild men, and stately Druid priests, found
home and shelter, and where our ancestors worshipped Baal, the sun-god, with
strange, mysterious rites, mostly connected with fire and with the gathering
of sacred plants; where, on the great Festivals of the Sun, the priests
kindled fire by friction, and all the people carried it to their cottages,
where it was never suffered to go out, but, as now, smouldered on, night and
day, except when purposely extinguished to make room for the new Holy Fire.
From these dreamy legends of the distant hills I was
roused by the sound of footsteps, which in that silent spot was somewhat of
a rarity. Looking up, I perceived that there was a gathering of the fisher
folk, for from every side of the hills I could see groups of people
approach, all making for this very spot, till two or three hundred had
assembled; and I found that all the fisher lads were to start in the
afternoon for the herring fishery on the east coast, and their sweethearts
and wives, and old fathers and mothers, and little brothers and sisters, had
all come down to see them off.
At first it was a scene of very cheery greetings, for
many of them live far apart, and rarely "foregather." But as the hour for
parting drew near, it became sadder and sadder, and the amount of kissing
and crying told pretty plainly how well they knew the dangers and perils
that might arise within the two or three months that the fishing would last.
For many a sad fireside has its own sore history of the Caller Herrin', and
can tell too sad a tale of why "wives and mithers, 'maist deepairin', Ca'
them lives o' men."
And though the sea to-day was literally without a
ripple, we were reminded of its angrier moods by the great masts and ribs of
an unhappy ship with which the whole bay was strewed, she having been dashed
to pieces on these rocks some time previously.
For old ocean has not forgotten what merry games it
played in olden days, when the Norwegian galleys that had swept down so
proudly on the Scottish shore were dashed to pieces by the wild storms on
these Western Isles, and when
"On Lorn and Mull and Skye
The hundred ships of
In a thousand fragments
And his own royal galley, shorn and shattered, could
hardly reach that bleak Orcadian coast where the brave Norseman only
purposed to spend the winter, but where it had been decreed that he should
sleep his last sleep, amid stern warriors and drowned fishers.
Such of his fleet as had weathered the storm, stood
right away for Norway, so the king had but a little band around him when his
last sickness overtook him. When he knew that he was nigh unto death he
arose, and being taken to St. Magnus' Kirk, he made a BUflW18C turn round
the shrine of the sainted ErI Magnus. A few nights later he died. His body,
richly apparelled, and crowned with flowers, was laid in a hail lighted with
great tapers, and thence borne to St. Magnus' Kirk, and buried near the
shrine of the great yarl.
But Haco's dying command had been that he should be
carried back to Norway and laid beside his fathers. So in the spring, his
body was taken on board that great ship of oak, with the twenty banks of
oars, and all the dragons' heads carved and gilt; the same ship in which he
had sailed so gallantly from his own land. After many days the great ship
reached Bergen, and all the royal family came forth to meet the funeral
train, and with them all Haco's warriors, and a vast concourse of people who
came to witness his buried in Christ Kirk. So there the brave sea-king was
laid in the year of grace 1263. But the men of the Isles, while they mourned
the death of their valiant foe, rejoiced in the mighty bulwark of hidden
reefs and breakers that had proved so sure a defence against the invader.
This day, however, the clear sunshine and calm sea gave
no hint of any danger being in store. One by one the heavily-laden boats
started; some with as many as thirty lads on board; half of whom would help
to man the Ross-shire boats, and then fish the coast wherever the shoals
might lead them. Fine strapping young fellows they were, for the most
part,—lads of whom the sobbing lasses on the shore might well be proud. They
reminded me of an islander's comment on a certain Scriptural biography. "On!
she was a stout lad, Sampson; sure she cam' frae Skye!"
Away they sailed over the smooth waters; and though
their rich brown sails were hoisted, it needed all their rowing power as
well, to make a fair start. So we wished them luck with all our hearts, and
"Weel might the keel row, that earns the bairnie's
Stornoway is one of the chief stations in the Outer
Hebrides where boats congregate for the early herring fishery. They come
over from the mainlar4d, or the Inner Isles, to where they know the fish
will first appear, and all along the Lews, Loch Boisdale, and Barra there an
regular stations, where the treasures of the deep are. landed to be cured
and packed for market.
Perhaps as many as 1500 boats may assemble at these
ports, each boat averaging a crew of six men and perhaps a boy, making
10,000 souls; the fish-curers, gutters, and labourers amounting to fully
20,000 more. A vast multitude are these" toilers of the sea," and in a good
season they are well remunerated. For instance, in the spring of 1870, the
May and June fisheries realized £120,000.
After this, the shoals move onward to the east
coast—and the boats must follow wherever they lead as far probably as
Aberdeen, where, in general, they are at once hired by the fish-curers, for
whom they work. But, as a sample of the changes and chances which affect the
trade, I may mention that during the French and Prussian war they found, on
reaching their destination, that the usual immense export of herrings to the
Baltic was an impossibility, so the majority of the boats could get no
engagement at all; some of those already working, found no market for their
silvery ware, and had to throw them back into the sea. And so, in the height
of the fishing season, the boats returned home poorer than they started,
many of those passing through the Caledonian Canal on their return to the
Isles being unable even to pay the lock dues.
In 1882 they had equally hard luck; not for lack of
market, but for lack of fish, for the herring were capricious, and played a
winning game at hide and seek—a point noted in the report of the Highland
Railway, which, under this head, notes a falling off of freight to the value
of £1243 in the half-year. It also notes the total failure of the sprat
fishery, usually so good at Inverness and along the east coast, the total
tonnage being only 49 tons, compared with 1841 tons the previous year, which
implies a loss to the railway of freight of upwards of £2100!
Among the men who still lingered on the shore were
several who in old days had accompanied one of my brothers' in dangerous
bird's-nesting expeditions, when their strong arms had helped to lower him
by ropes over cliffs and rocky ledges where the osprey and golden eagle had
made their nests. These men one by one came up, in their kind rough way,
each with some loving word to tell of "him that's awa' "(as they say) —and
for who3e sake I found such genuine kindness wherever I wandered on these
wild coasts. Kind hearts they are in truth. Leal to those whom they deem
'worthy of honour. And, as we have well proven, in times of trouble, and in
the hour of death, they can be gentle and tender, watching by a sick-bed
with a patient unwearied love passing the love of woman. All honour be to
such true metal, in however rough a mould it may be cast.
THE SUNDAY WAR
The beginning of June 1883 furnishes a very remarkable
study of sundry characteristics of the Isles. Towards the close of May the
Hebridean shores were visited by vast shoals of herring. The fishers from
the east coast, ever on the alert, captured such enormous quantities that
the market was glutted, and the fish-curers were positively unable to take
them off their hand. On Saturday, June 2nd, two steamers were loaded at
Stornoway (Isle of Lewis) with fresh and kippered herring, and despatched to
the railway terminus at Strome Ferry (Islo of Skye), whence a special Sunday
train was to convey these "perishable goods" to Inverness to catch the south
This, however, was not to be. The men of Lewis, now
effectually stirred up by sundry agitators to the consideration of their
"grievances," could not spare time to secure their share of the bountiful
Heaven-sent supply. They were busy preparing for a great "demonstration" at
Stornoway, at which all their wrongs—real and imaginary—were set forth 'at
full length, and thus two precious days were wasted, while the east-coast
boats were reaping an abundant harvest. The next day was Saturday, which
comes so near Sunday that they could not think of launching their boats till
Monday (by which time the herring would probably be gone). So they stayed on
land bewailing their poverty, and letting the remedy slip away from their
Equally remarkable was the scene enacted at Strome
Ferry on the arrival of the fish-laden steamers at about 1 a.m. on Sunday
morning. The railway servants, numbering about a dozen men, at once
commenced to transfer the fish to the railway wag.ons, but soon learnt that
the fishers had resolved to put a stop to such "Sabbath desecration."
Whether this determination was a spontaneous outburst of genuine Puritanism,
or whether it was inspired by jealousy of the more energetic men who had
reaped their neglected harvest, is hard to say, but it is certain that they
acted in obedience to some general summons, for this Company's servants had
scarcely begun their work, when a body of about fifty fishers from the
immediate neighbourhood assembled, and announced their resolution to prevent
this unlawful Sabbath work.
As their words were ignored, they seized the man in
charge of the steam crane, dragging him violently away, and effectually
stopping its work. Later, the railway porters endeavoured to discharge the
cargo by hand, whereupon the fishers pushed the waggons away, and, their
numbers being now augmented to about 150 men, mostly armed with stout
sticks, they fairly drove the railway men off the pier,—not without a very
serious scrimmage. All the morning fresh boat-loads of these rigid
Sabbatarians continued to arrive from all parts of the coast, evidently
deeming their own action a display of most righteous zeaL Entreaties,
remonstrances, arguments were all in vain. A small body of police arrived
from Dingwall in the forenoon, but found themselves quite unable to cope
with the Puritanic mob, who could see no Sabbath-breaking in their own act
of rowing across Loch Carron to molest peaceful railway servants in the
discharge of their duty! It is said that two hundred men crossed the bill
from Lochaish district, and spent the night signalling by fires to the men
in boats on the loch. So the fishers held their ground and guarded the pier
till midnight, when, the Sabbath being ended, they allowed work to proceed,
and the fish finally readied the London market, considerably deteriorated in
Were this principle to be faithfully carried out, it is
obvious that the men of the Outer Isles must give up all thought of fishing
for the market on Friday and Saturday, as their cargoes would be left to
decay at Strome Ferry!
After all this excitement we may safely assume that the
Sabbatarian party did not obey the injunction to labour on the first of the
"six days," and that Monday's shoals did not suffer at their hands I Indeed
the greater part of the week was devoted to arranging a plan of action for
the following Saturday night, when the rioters were resolved to muster in
much larger numbers, and so put an effectual stop to this "Sabbath breaking"
by the railway authorities.
These, however, took active measures for the repression
of such interference. A body of about two hundred police was brought
together from various district8, so far south as Lanark, and assembled at
Stronie Ferry. A detachment of troops was also despatched from Edinburgh to
Fort George, where a special train was in readiness to convey them to the
scene of action, should their presence be required.
Late on Saturday night the Sabbatarian party mustered
in force, and great excitement prevailed. Happily the clergy of the
district, who had hitherto been absent at the General Assembly in Edinburgh,
arrived in time to counsel the people to disperse without creating any
further disturbance; and their words, combined with the awe inspiring
presence of so large a Police force, induced the crowd to return to their
boats about midnight.
About ten of the ringleaders were arrested, and were
treated as martyrs to the good cause.
A few (lays later a large meeting was held on the
sea-shore at Strome Ferry, presided over by a considerable number of the
clergy and elders of the Free Church from neighbouring districts, to
demonstrate that Sunday work is contrary to the established law of Scotland,
which orders that the Sabbath shall be kept free from work. Parallels were
drawn between the demonstration at Strome Ferry and the action of Nehemiah
(chap. xiii. 15), and resolutions were passed to resist to the uttermost all
attempts to authorize any such evil-doing in their midst. It was resolved
that funds should be collected for the defence of the young men who had been
apprehended. One of the .reverend speakers declared "that he could
authoritatively say, on behalf of many in Inverness and the north generally,
that they approved of the stand the men had made against the work carried on
at Strome on Sunday. He knew that it would not be allowed to go on in any
other place except there, and the company was taking advantage of the people
of the district."