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McIan's Highlanders At Home
Signal for the Boat


Signal for the Boat

ONE of the great inconveniences of a Highland and insular life, is the necessity in traversing the country for crossing rivers, lochs, and arms of the sea. The state of the weather renders this frequently impossible for some length of time; rivers become swollen, lochs and seas are in tempestuous agitation during a great part of the winter, the inhabitants of remote places consequently suffering at times considerable privation from the stoppage of regular communication with the mainland or more favoured localities. Should the weather, however, be favourable for a passage, it is necessary to apprise the Fear a bhata, or Boatman, on the opposite side, which may be a mile or more distant, that his services are required by some weary traveller, anxious to reach his destination. The hoisting a flag on a tall pole conspicuously fixed, might well answer the purpose of a signal, but a more ready and natural expedient is practised in the Highlands. Turf is found plentifully in almost every part of the country, with which a fire is speedily got up, the smoke giving the necessary notice.

In these days of universal improvement, the Highlanders doubtless avail themselves of the use of chemical matches in the most remote districts, but when this valuable article is not at hand, a light is procured as in former times, from a neighbouring cottage, or a live peat may be carried from some distance. It is otherwise obtained by the sparks elicited from flint and steel, the back of a dirk, a sword, or the flash of the powder from the lock of a pistol or gun. Those who possessed a lens have used it during the warm days of summer to raise a fire by the well known concentration of the sunís rays.

There was much agreeable excitement in journeying through the West Highlands in days of yore. It was then incumbent on the tourist to engage a boat with able rowers to transport him from isle to isle or across the numerous lochs or inlets of the ocean; horses and guides were also to be procured, and in these ways a considerable amount of money was left among the Highlanders, while the intercourse was in other respects beneficial.

It is quite otherwise now that steam boats ply all around. In these the travellers generally embark at Glasgow when bound to the west and north, and they are carried to the far-famed Staffa, the venerated lona, the Caledonian canal, and other places, where they are allowed an hour or two to land and examine the natural and antiquarian curiosities, which offer themselves to notice, and thus they pass through the country, without perhaps leaving a shilling behind. The poor Highlanders feel the loss of this source, whence a seasonable accession to their scanty means was often obtained.

The boat fire is always made on the same spot, that it may not be mistaken. It is generally kindled on a projecting point of land, and when the smoke is seen ascending, the people on the opposite side announce it to the ferryman, "Smuid suas!" the smoke is up, on which the boat puts off to convey the awaiting passengers across their watery way. The smoke, which it is desirable to render dense, is seen from a great distance when the day is fine, but in wet and foggy weather the mist which overhangs the water is embarrassing.

At night the brightness of the fire will render it the obvious means of giving signal for a boat. "The warning flame" was the primitive telegraph by which aid was requested and danger indicated, and the same means are yet employed in military operations. The proper distribution and management of "Bail fires" were regulated by Scottish Parliament, and the proper time for the immortal Bruceís descent upon Carrick for the recovery of his kingdom, was indicated by the kindling of a fire in a. certain place.

An affecting tale, in which we find the use of fire, as the only mode of conveying information, is preserved in the islands of the west.

St. Kilda, or Hirta, as it is called by the natives, is the farthest inhabited islet in this range, and it has only one place where a landing can be effected, while it is exposed to the unopposed fury of the Atlantic Ocean. The people live chiefly on the sea fowl which abound among the rocks, and with the feathers their little rent is paid. To procure these birds the greatest perils are encountered, and loss of life is often the result of the adventurous toils.

A boat had gone on one occasion to a precipitous rock at some distance from St. Kilda, in search of the usual game, when unfortunately the boat was dashed to pieces, while the crew got safe upon the rugged isle. The storm increased, and here were the forlorn men exposed to its severity with no means of escape, or any hope of relief from their grieving friends, who could do nothing for their rescue or ascertain their fate. In these afflicting circumstances the unfortunate men lighted as many fires as there were survivors, and at night, when these beacons were seen, and the number reckoned, night by night, the people of St. Kilda knew, by this device, how many had been saved, and until the weather moderated so that assistance could be sent to take them off their sea-girt prison, they contrived to subsist on such fowl and fish as could be procured.

The artist has sketched a man and woman, waiting the arrival of the boat for which they have raised the smoke, the well-known signal, which has been obeyed. In cold weather the fire is agreeable, if the party has long

to wait, and there is usually a quantity of fuel prepared for use, as necessary for the working of this Celtic Trajectus, which is sometimes maintained at the expense of the landed proprietor or surrounding gentlemen.


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