THE streams which descend from a
mountainous country are difficult to be passed, and when swollen
it is often
impossible for a considerable time to get across them, where no bridges
have been erected. Channels, which in summer are almost dry, become raging
torrents during winter, and continue full until the summer is advanced,
from the melting of the snow in the mountain hollows.
The heavy falls of rain, also, which
frequently take place, bring down the waters so suddenly as to cause great
damage, and they rush onwards with such rapidity that instances are
recorded of loss of life from being surprised by the impetuous flood; but
a Highlander can distinguish the peculiar noise of the coming stream
before it emerges from the mountains.
Water spouts occasionally burst in
the hills, when trees, corn, cattle, and houses, are carried away, gravel
and stones of enormous size being left on the fertile haughs, or meadow
land; and sometimes a new channel is formed for the stream, and where in
such case it
is the march or boundary of estates, disputes have arisen as to the
proprietorship of the dissevered portion of land.
On the broader rivers, where boats
are used, they have not unfrequently been swamped in the passage, and this
was more particularly the case in the olden time, when Curraghs, or small
vessels constructed of hides, stretched on a wicker frame work, or boats
formed from the massive trunks of trees were used, as was the case within
memory of man in Strathglas.
An ingenious contrivance is to be
seen at the castle of Ahergeldie, [While the cradle at Abergeldie
existed until recently, much of the danger and romance which survive in
the story and legends of the Highlands in connection with the fords and
ferries by which the crossing of the stream was effected has been swept
away by the onward march of civilization. Many of those ferries, deep and
rapid rivers, and innumerable smaller streams, subject to frequent and
sudden floods or spates, have long since been provided with the
requisite bridges and necessary roads leading thereto, chiefly provided
for by statute labour. The first result of this was the substitution of
carts and other wheeled vehicles instead of ponies for the internal
commercial intercourse of the people, and consequently partial disuse of
the fords. In more recent times still, the utilitarian spirit of the age
has provided, either at the public expense or by private generosity,
bridges almost wherever they were required. Thus all the glamour and
mystery connected with nearly every fordable Highland stream will
henceforth only exist as legends and traditions preserved in local
history.] in Braemar, where the passenger takes himself across the Dee in
a basket, or cradle, suspended from a rope passed from each bank of the
river; stilts are, also, sometimes used where the bottom is not rocky and
uneven, which seems a practice introduced from the south, where it is
quite common; but it being necessary for the Highlanders to ford the
streams without artificial assistance, great strength, fortitude, and
particular skill, are required to do so with safety.
If the river is very rapid, the
stones and pebbles are rolled violently along its rugged bed, which
renders the passage more dangerous; and as a means of strengthening his
resistance to the water, the Highlander will carry a heavy stone in his
plaid as ballast; but when two are in company, they are enabled by their
joint energies to ford deep and strong rivers, by grasping each other at
arms-length and using a strong stick in the other hand as a support. If
the ford admits it, the more who are thus locked together, gualibh ri
cheile, or shoulder to shoulder, as it is expressed, so much the better,
although their confidence often exposes parties to great danger.
A company returning from a funeral
in Strathglas, resolved to ford the river, a practice which the more
spirited Highlanders prefer, even when a bridge is nigh. It was then
greatly swollen, or in a spate, and they arranged themselves as usual
with the strongest men towards the stream; but when they reached the
middle, so insecure was their footing, that, afraid to proceed, and unable
to retreat, they came to a stand still.
Those who had accompanied them to
the water, and the others, who, having passed round by the bridge and
awaited their landing, beheld in anguish their imminent and helpless
situation, as they stood in the raging flood, which every moment
threatened to carry them off.
The cries of the friends of Ian môr,
who stemmed the torrent, were, that he should loose hold of his neighbour,
and seek to save his own life : advice to which the generous Celt
no ear. Some of the
weaker occasionally gave way, but were upheld by their companions: and a
short, thick-set fellow, Cailain dubh, or dark Cohn, who flanked the lower
end of the line, having fastened a heavy stone across his shoulders with
the rope that had been used to lower the coffin, firmly kept his feet,
until, towards nightfall, by cautious steps, they all got safely over!
Ian mòrs brogs, by the effect of
the gravel and water, had lost their soles and worked up to his knees; but
he and his friends were becomingly thankful that the coffin rope, to which
they owed their salvation, had been brought with them.
The Spean, through which the figure
in the illustration is passing, discharges in a rapid stream a great body
of water, and as the fords in most places are narrow, and bordered by
pools of great depth, it is a very dangerous river to those who may
attempt its passage. Some years ago a party, consisting of Mr. Fraser,
sheriff of Fort William, Mr. Mac Donald, of Inch, and their ladies, with
the author of these illustrations, were nearly lost by fording it in the
night. Since this mishap, the place has been pointed out as glac an t-Siorra,
the sheriffs pass.
The figure of the Highlander here
represented is taken from an old but sturdy fellow, called Mac Gillie
Mhantich, and it is very usual to ford the river in this manner; a plaid
being put around the woman, the ends are taken over the neck of the man,
who, provided with a stout staff, or as here shown, the Cromag, or Crook,
makes his way, with the female on his back, steadily through his watery
path. When there are two men, by grasping each other as before described,
a person can sit securely between them, the arms being put around their
necks. This way is more particularly suited to females in delicate health.
There is a Gaelic rann, or verse,
which celebrates the most fearless forders of their native streams in
"Mac Garranich, Mac Glasichs, Mac Uthich,
Triur s fhear a chuireas
An Amhuin an Alba,"
which signifies, that, The men of the Garry, the
Glass, and the Ewe, are the three best to cross any river in Britain.
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