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Reminiscences of a Highland Parish
Preamble


THE Highlands of Scotland, like many greater things in the world,. may be said to be unknown, yet well-known. Thousands of summer tourists every year, and from every part of the civilised world, gaze on the romantic beauties of the Trosaclls and Loch Lomond, skirt the Hebrides from the Firth of Clyde to Oban, trundle through the wild gorge of Glencoe, chatter among the ruins of Iona, scramble over the wonders of Staffa, sail along the magnificent line of lakes to Inverness, reach the sombre Coolins, or disturb the silence of Coruisg. Pedestrians also, with stick and knapsack, search the more solitary wildernesses and glens of the mainland, from the Grampians to Ross-shire and Caithness. Sportsmen, too, have their summer quarters dotted over the moors, or scattered on the hill-sides and beside clear streams, with all the irregularity of the boulders of the great northern drift, but furnished with most of the luxuries of an English home. All these, it must be admitted, know something of the Highlands.

Tourists know the names of steamers, coaches, and hotels; and how they were cheated by boatmen, porters, and guides. They have a vague impression of misty mountains, stormy seas, heavy rains, difficult roads, crowded inns, unpronounceable Gaelic names, with brighter remembrances of landscapes whose grandeur they have probably never seen surpassed.

Pedestrians can recall lonely and unfrequented paths across broken moorlands undulating far away, like brown shoreless seas, through unploughed and untrodden valleys, where the bark of a shepherd's dog, and much more the sight of a shepherd's hut, were dearly welcomed. They can also recall panoramas from hill-tops or from rocky promontories, of lake and river, moor and forest, sea and island, of lonely keeps and ruined homesteads, and of infinite sheep-walks and silent glens which seemed to end in chaos. And these remembrances will flit before them like holy days of youth, and "hang about the beatings of the heart," refreshing and sanctifying it, amidst the din and worry of a city life.

Sportsmen, when they visit old shootings, hail from afar the well-known, hill-sides and familiar "ground." They can tell many miles off where the birds are scarce, or where, according to the state of the weather, they can be found. They have waded up to the shoulders in Highland lakes, nothing visible but hat swathed with flie, and hand wielding the lithe rod and line. They have trodden the banks and tried the pools of every famous stream, until the very salmon that are left know their features and their flies, and tremble for their cunning temptations. The whole scenery is associated in their memory with the braces that have been bagged, the stags which have been killed, or—oh, horrid memory!—missed, "when the herd was coming right towards us, and all from that blockhead Charlie, who would look if they were within shot." [The following are two authentic anecdotes of the manner in which such misses are sometimes brought about. A young English gentleman was very recently stationed on a good pass, while a crowd of gillics, with the usual unnatural shouting and screaming, "beat" the wood for his special benefit. An antlered monarch soon made for the pass. The young gentleman, by way of being very cool, lighted a cigar. The stag soon snuffed the tainted gale, and retreated to his covert—as a certain excellent Dean would do to his deanery—whence he refused again to issue forth. Another, a Highlander, a keen, perhaps a too keen sportsman, was stationed on a pass; a stag was speeding towards him, when a friend on the opposite edge of the corrie, wishing to give him (Inc warning, shouted out, "There he is near you!" "Where! where?" roared out the sportsman, in greatest excitement. Of course, while echo answered "where," he saw no more of the stag.] The keepers, and gillies, and beaters, and the whole tribe of expectants, are also well-known, as such ; and every furrowed face is to these sportsmen a very poem, an epic, a heroic ballad, a history of the past season of happiness, as well as a prophecy of the morrow, hoped for with a beating heart, which blames the night and -urges on the morn.

There are others, too, who may be expected to know something of the Highlands. Low-country sheep-farmers, redolent of wool; English proprietors, who, as summer visitants, occupy the old castle of some extinct patriarchal chief; Highland lairds, who are absentees save during the grouse season; geologists, who have explored the physical features of the land; and antiquaries, who have dipped into, or even studied profoundly, its civil and ecclesiastical antiquities.

Nevertheless, to all such, the Highlands may be as unknown in their real life and spirit as the scent of the wild bog-myrtle is to the accomplished gentleman who has no sense of smell; or as a Gaelic boat-song is to a Hindoo pundit.

Some readers may very naturally be disposed to ask, with a sneer of contempt, what precise loss any human being incurs from want of this knowledge? The opinion may be most reasonably held and expressed that the summer tourist, the wandering pedestrian, or the autumnal sportsman, have probably taken out of the Northern wilderness all that was worth bringing into the Southern Canaan of civilised life; and that as much gratitude, at least, is due for what is forgotten as for what is remembered.
Perhaps those readers may be right. And if so, then, for their own comfort as well as for mine, I warn them that if they have been foolish enough to accompany me thus far, they should pity me, hid inc farewell, and wish inc a safe deliverance from the mountains.

Is there any one, let me ask, who reads these lines, and yet dislikes peat-reek? any one who puts his fingers in his ears when he hears the bagpipe—the real war-pipe—begin a real pibroch? any one who dislikes the kilt, the Gaelic, the clans, and who does not believe in Ossian? any one who has a prejudice to the Mac, or who cannot compreIiend why one Mac should prefer a Mac of his own clan to the Mac of any other clan? any one who smiles at the ignorance of a Highland parson who never reads a London review, who never heard about one in ten of the "schools of modern thought," and who believes, without any mental suffering, that two and two make four? any one who puts his glass to his eye during prayer in a Highland church, and looks at his fellow-traveller with a sneer while the peasants sing their psalms? any one who, when gazing on a Highland landscape, descants to his local admirers upon some hackneyed Swiss scene they never saw, or enumerates a dozen Swiss Horns, the Wetter Horn, Schreckhorn, or any other horn which has penetrated into his brain? Forbid that any such terribly clever and well-informed cosmopolitans should "lose ten tickings of their watch" in reading these reminiscences!

One other class sometimes found in society, I would especially beseech to depart; I mean Highlanders ashamed of their country. Cockneys are bad enough, but they are sincere and honest in their idolatry of the Great Babylon. Young Oxonians or young barristers, even when they become slashing London critics, are more harmless than they themselves imagine, and after all inspire less awe than Ben Nevis, or than the celebrated agriculturist who proposed to decompose the mountain with acids, and scatter the debris as a fertiliser over the Lochaber moss. But a Highlander, who was nurtured on oatmeal porridge and oatmeal cakes; who in his youth wore home-spun cloth, and was innocent of shoes and stockings; who blushed in his first attempts to speak the English language; who never saw a nobler building for years than the little church in the glen; and who owes all that makes him tolerable in society to the Celtic blood which flows in spite of him through his veins;—for this man to be proud of his English accent, to sneer at the ever-lasting hills, the old church and its simple worship, and to despise the race which has never disgraced him—faubh I Peat-reek is frankincense in comparison with him; let him not be distracted by any of my reminiscences of the old country. "Leave them, I beseech of thee!"

I ask not how old or how young those are who remain; I care not what their theory of political economy or their school of modern philosophy may be; I am indifferent as to their evening employment, whether it be darning stockings, sitting idle round the winter fire in the enjoyment of repose, or occupying, as Sinvalids, their bed or their chair. If only they are charitable souls, who hope all things, and are not easily provoked; who would like to get a peep into forms of society, and to hear about customs differing greatly from what they have hitherto been acquainted with, or to have an easy chat about a country less known, perhaps, than any other in Europe,--then shall I gladly unfold to them my reminiscences of a people worth knowing about and loving, and of a period in history that is passing, if, indeed, it has not already passed away.

And now, by way of further preamble to my reminiscences, let me take a bird's-eye view of the parish. It is not included, by Highland ecclesiastical statists, among what are called the large parishes. I have no correct knowledge of the number of square miles, of arable acres, or of waste land, which it contains; but science and the trigonometrical survey will, it is presumed, give those details in due time. When viewed, as passing tourists view it, from the sea, it has nothing remarkable about it; and if it is pronounced by these same tourists to be uninteresting, and "just the sort of scenery one would like to pass when dining or sleeping," I won't censure the judgment. A castled promontory, a range of dark precipices supporting the upland pastures, and streaked with white waterfalls, which are lost in the copse at their base, form a picture not very imposing when compared with "what one sees everywhere." A long ridge of hill rising some two thousand feet above the sea, its brown sides, up to a certain height, chequered with green stripes and patches of cultivation; brown heather-thatched cottages, with white walls; here and there a mansion, whose chimneys are seen above the trees which shelter it:---these are the chief features along its seaboard of many miles. But how different is the whole scene when one lands! New beauties reveal themselves, and every object seems to change its size, appearance, and relative position. A rocky wall of wondrous beauty, the rampart of the old upraised beach which girdles Scotland, runs along the shore ; the natural wild wood of ash, oak, and birch, with the hazel copse, clothes the lower hills and shelters the herds of wandering cattle; lonely sequestered bays are everywhere scooped out into beautiful harbours; points and promontories seem to grow out of the land, and huge dykes of whinstone fashion to themselves the most picturesque outlines; clear streams everywhere hasten on to the sea; small glens, perfect gems of beauty, open up entrances into deep dark pools, hemmed in by steep banks hanging with ivy, honeysuckle, rowan-trees, and ferns; while on the hill-sides scattered cottages, small farms, and shepherds' huts, the signs of culture and industry, give life to the whole scene. Ruins there are too, which show us that whatever faults belonged to the Church before the Reformation, she excelled the Church of the present day in the greater number and the greater beauty of her parish churches. [Since writing the above I have been struck by a sarcastic and pithy remark in Dr Johnson's tour:—"It has been, for many years, popular to talk of the lazy devotion of the Romish clergy, and the sleepy laziness of men that erected churches. We may indulge our superiority with a new triumph by comparing it with the fervid activity of those who suffer them to fall." A great change has happily come over the Highlands since the time when these words were written—a period when, as the doctor informs us, there were some parishes in the far north without churches, and the people had to assemble in private houses for worship, owing to the selfish greed of those who appropriated the lands belonging to the old Church, and cared nothing for the new. No such cases can now be found!] There are few sights which more rebuke the vulgar Church parsimony of these later days, or which imbue us with more grateful and generous feelings towards the missionaries of an earlier and more difficult time, than the faith and love which reared so many chapels on distant islands, and so many beautiful and costly fabrics in savage wildernesses, among a people who were too rude to appreciate such works, or the spirit which originated them. These old Highland Church extensionists were not stimulated by party rivalry, public meetings, or newspaper articles. Their praise could not have been from men. How they got the means and money we know not, but this we believe, that

"They dreamt not of a perishable home
Who thus could build!"

But to view the parish in all its outward aspect, we must ascend to the top of

"I name not its name, lest inquisitive tourist
Hunt it, and make it a lion, and get it at last into guide-books."

The upward path soon leaves the cultivated settlements, passes several streams, winds across tracks of moorland, and at last reaches the shielings of Corrie Borodale. One cannot imagine a sweeter spot than this in which to repose before attempting the ascent of the hill proper. A stream, clear as a diamond, and singing its hill-song, takes a sweep, and folds within its embrace a bay of emerald grass, surrounded with blooming heather. Here and there appear small groups of ruins, mere gatherings of stones, to mark where man once built his temporary home. Before sheep-farming was introduced generally into the Highlands, about seventy or eighty years ago, the young cattle ranged at large over the hills, clambering as far up as any grass grew, and at mid-summer the milch-cows also were removed to the upland pastures, as is still the habit in Norway, and probably in other mountainbus countries. The .greenest, grassiest, and most sheltered nooks were always chosen for these summer residences, or shielings, as they were called. Bothies, rude but substantial, were built for the family, and various enclosures for calves, lambs, and kids surrounded them. Each family had such a number of sheep as sufficed for their own need as to food and clothing. The whole household flitted to the shieling with great glee. The men, however, remained there only for a few days, to see that bothy and pen were all right and tight. They returned to the strath, or homestead, to attend to the crops and to the peats, to thatch the houses, to set matters generally in order for the winter season. The women and the young folks remained at the shieling for a period of twelve or fourteen weeks, their chief care being to gather as much butter and cheese as could be effected without starving the calves or lambs; and the housewife who succeeded in combining the "filling of the milk-pail" with the "rearing of the calf," was celebrated in song and story. The never-failing distaff filled up the intervals of unemployed time with the aged; but the young had abundant leisure, which they seem to have bestowed on mirth and enjoyment; and among the comparatively few songs of the Gaelic Muse which are truly blithe and joyous —for generally she is in sad and sombre mood—the shieling songs occupy a prominent place. They depict a life of simple and genuine happiness. Thus it is that when one rests in such a green oasis, his fancy again peoples the waste with the herd-lads "calling the cattle home," and with the blithe girls at the milking ; he sees again the life among the huts, and hears the milking songs and innocent glee; and when awakened from his reverie by bleating sheep—the only living tenants of the pastures—he is not disposed to admit the present time to he an improvement on the past.

But let us up to that green spot beside the ravine; then to the left along the rocks, then to the right till past the deep "peat-bogs," and finally straight up to the Cairn. When we have taken breath, let us look around. This is the very high altar of the parish, and I maintain that all the glories which can be seen from a parish rightfully belong to the parish itself, and are a part of its own rich inheritance.

Let us first look northward. Almost at our feet is a chain of small lakes, round whose green shores, unseen from the Cairn, because immediately beneath it, a prosperous tenantry once lived, of whom no trace remains, except those patches of ruins which mark their once happy homesteads.

Opposite to the spectator, and rising abruptly from the valley, is a range of hills, broken into wild scaurs and clothed with copse; while beyond these, ridge on ridge rise, like a mighty ocean sea, heaving in gigantic billows onward towards Ben Reshiepol, until lost to sight beyond the head of Loch Shiel and among the braes of Lochaber.

Sweeping the eye from the north to the west, what a glorious spectacle! The chain of lakes beneath ends in the lovely Loch Sunart, with its beauteous bays and wooded islets. Over its farther shore, and above picturesque hills, the more distant Hebrides rear their heads out of the ocean.

Along the horizon northwards are seen the Scur of Eigg lifting its gigantic pillar, and the dark lines of Rum; westwards the islands of Coll and Tiree, with gleams of the ocean between. The long dark moorland ascent by which we have reached the hill-top, now carries the eye down to the sea; that sea is a strait, worming itself for more than twenty miles between the mainland where we stand, and the island of Mull, which gathers up its hills into a cluster of noble peaks about its centre, with Bentealbh (Bentalve) and Benmore towering over all. A low isthmus right opposite, opens up an arm of the sea beyond Mull, with noble headlands, beneath which the man who would see Staffa aright should himself sail out to the ocean with only a Highland crew; for not from crowded steamer can he fully understand that pillared island and its cathedral cave.

Let us glance to the east—the eye following the Sound of Mull—and our panorama is completed. How nobly the Sound, dotted with vessels, opens up past Ardtornish and Duart Castles, ere it mingles with the broader waters that sweep in eddying tides past the Slate Isles, past Jura, Scarba, on to Islay, until they finally spread out into the roll and roar of the shoreless Atlantic! In that eastern distance may be seen some white smoke that marks Oban, and over it Ben Cruachan, the most beautiful of our west Highland mountains, accompanied by its gray companions, "the shepherds of Etive Glen."

I back this view from the highest hill in the parish, for extent and varied beauty, against any view in Europe! It is the Righi of Argyle-shire; and, given only—what, alas! is not easily obtained—a good day, good with "gorgeous cloud-land," good with lights and shadows, the bright blue of the northern sky; (more intense than that of the Italian,) mingling with the sombre dark of the northern hills, dark even when relieved in autumn by the glow of the purple heather—given all this, and I know not where to find a more magnificent outlook over God's fair earth. No reminiscences of the outer world so haunt my memory as those so often treasured up from that gray cairn; and however frequently I have returned from beholding other and more famous scenes, this one has ever appeared like a first love, more beautiful than them all.

As we descend from the hill, the minister—how oft has he gone with me there'.—tells us stories worth hearing, and as he alone can tell them, stories of a pastor's life, "from perils in the wilderness, and perils of waters, and perils of the sea;" stories of character, such as the lonely hills and misty moors alone can mould; stories of combats among the wild and primitive inhabitants of the olden time; and stories, too, of the early invaders of the land from Denmark and Norway, sea-kings, or pirates rather, whose names yet linger where they fell in battle, as at Corrie Borrodale, Corrie Lundie, and Eas Stangadale.

But we have reached "the manse;" and from thence I must start with my "Reminiscences of a Highland Parish."


 


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