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Reminiscences of a Highland Parish
Staffa Tourists 50 Years Ago


UNTIL within the last fifty years the West Highlands was a land of mystery to the London summer tourist. Dr Johnson had indeed penetrated those fastnesses, and returned in safety to London, not only without having been robbed, or obliged to wear a kilt and live on whisky and oatmeal porridge, but with a most flattering account of the people, and describing the clergy and gentry as polite, educated, and hospitable. Sir Joseph Banks and Mr Pennant had brought into notice, and admirably delineated, the marvellous Island of Staffa, not far from Inchkenneth and Iona, both of which islands were visited by Johnson, and excited his enthusiasm,—the one for its Laird, and the other for its memories of early piety. But when Scott adopted the Highlands as the subject of romantic story and song, investing its scenery, its patriarchal history, its chiefs, clans, old traditions, and wild superstitions, with all the charm of his genius, then began a new era of comfort in every spot which his magic wand had touched. The "Lord of the Isles," and the "Lady of the Lake," became the pioneers of the tourist. Good roads took the place of the old bridle-paths winding among the heather. Coachesand-four bowled through wild passes where savage clans used to meet in deadly combat. Steamers foamed on every Loch and banished the water kelpies Perescopes were substituted for second sight. Waiters with white neckcloths and white towels received the travellers, where red deer used to sleep undisturbed. The eagles were banished from the mountains, and `Boots" reigned in the valleys.

Fifty years ago steamers had not mingled their smoke with the mists of the hills, and the Highlands had not become common as Vauxhall to the Londoners. It was then a land of distance and darkness. No part of Europe is so unknown now to the fireside traveller as the Hebrides were then to the English. With the "Foreign Bradshaw" and "Murray," any man now can so arrange his journey as to fix the day on which he will arrive, and the hour at which he will dine in any town from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. As he sits in his club in London, he notes the minute when his train will arrive at Moscow or Milan, and almost the day when his steamer will land him at New York, and when he can reach the Prairies of the far West, or gaze on the Falls of Niagara or St Anthony. The Hebrides are therefore now at his door. He dines one day in London, and sups the next beneath the shadow of Ben Lomond or Ben Cruachan. But at the time I speak of, the journey northward to Glasgow by coach or post-horses was tedious, tiresome, and expensive. When the Highlands proper were entered upon, at Dumbarton or Callender, then, between bad roads and peat-reeked pothouses, rude boats without comfort, and a crew innocent of English, with all the uncertainties of tides, squalls, heavy seas, and heavy rain, a tour among the islands of Scotland was far more hazardous than one now to India or America.

The continent of Europe was then still more difficult of access, and during the wars of Napoleon, was well-nigh inaccessible. Accordingly such persons as loved adventure and had time and money at their command, and who, above all, could obtain good letters of introduction, selected a Highland journey, with Staffa as its grand termination.

Alas for the hospitable Highland mansion which happened to be situated at a convenient resting-place for the tourist Era route to some spot of interest! There was then prevalent among southern tourists a sort of romantic idea of the unlimited extent of Highland hospitality, and of the means at its command. It was no unusual occurrence for the traveller to land at any hour of the day or night which winds, tides, or boatmen might determine; to walk up to the house of the Highland gentleman; to get a dinner, supper, and all, plentiful and comfortable; to retire to bed, without a thought where the family had packed themselves (so that the travelling party might have accommodation); and finally to obtain next day, or, if it rained, days after, carts, horses, boats, men, with baskets of provisions, crammed with roast fowls, cold lamb, cold salmon, grouse, milk, brandy, sherry, and bottles of whisky. The sheep-shearing, the hay cutting, or the reaping of crops might be put a stop to; what of that? they are so hospitable in the Highlands! And then these summer visitants bade farewell with shaking of hands and waving of handkerchiefs, and with the usual stereotyped hope expressed that, "should they ever come to England and visit Land's End, how glad," &c.—But the reception was nevertheless all put down to a habit of the country, a thing called Highland hospitality, something like speaking Gaelic, smoking tobacco, or wearing the kilt.

And I am compelled to acknowledge that the families who thus received and entertained strangers never looked on their doing so in that "light of common day" in which I cannot help placing these transactions. "What can the travellers do?" I remember well the lady of one of those hospitable houses saying when a large party of strangers had departed after a stay of several days; "there are no inns where they can put up, but those wretched holes. And then the travellers are so nice ! It is truly delightful to meet with such well-bred, intelligent ladies and gentlemen—I would put myself to much more trouble to enjoy their society." And the young ladies of the family would chime in and declare that they had "never met sweeter girls than those Smiths, especially Caroline, and that they were so vexed when they went away,-and as for the young men of the party!" Here all the ladies were unanimous. The host was equally friendly—"I don't grudge my wine a bit," he would say, "to Mr Smith. I never met a better educated, scholarly man, nor one better informed." This is really a true picture of the feelings at the time with which those English travellers were received; for very few penetrated those recesses except the higher classes, or "well-to-do gentry," who had time and money at their disposal, and who had sufficient culture to love scenery for its own sake, to appreciate the manners of the country, and cheerfully to accommodate themselves to its inconveniences.

One may be surprised to know how comforts were extemporised in those out-of-the -way places. The process was a very simple one. Large stores of groceries, and all the materials required for every after-dinner luxury except the dessert, were obtained periodically from Greenock or Glasgow. Bread was the chief difficulty; as baking wheaten bread, strange to say, was an art never practised by Highland families. But they had all sorts of delicious hot scones made of flour, or barley-meal, in addition to crisp oatmeal cakes, while a loaf was brought from Oban by her Majesty's Post once or twice a week. Every other kind of food was abundant. As a Highland farmer once remarked, in pointing to his plentiful board, "We growed all that on our ownselves!"

As the tourist voyages through the Sound of Mull he can hardly fail to notice Aros Castle—unless he be reading, as some do, amidst the noblest scenery, a green or yellow-backed shilling novel. Aros was the landing-place in those old days for parties going to visit Staffa. A narrow isthmus of two or three miles of road here connects the Sound with an inland arm of the sea, on the other side of Mull, which leads out past Inchkenneth and Ulva, to the islands of Staffa and Iona. When these famous localities had to be approached by boats from Oban, it was necessary to take the safe and sheltered passage of the Sound, rather than to run the risk, whether from dead calm or wild storm, of attempt-in- to sail outside of Mull with a bare rock only as the termination of the voyage. And here I am reminded—for all gossips, like Mrs Quickly, are ever tempted to digress in the telling of their story—of the "tricks upon travellers" which those Highland boatmen were sometimes tempted to perpetrate. Between Oban and Mull there are several bad "tideways" which, in certain combinations of wind and tide, are apt to produce a heavy sea of a most dangerous kind to all except very skilled boatmen; and sometimes putting even their skill to the severest test. One of the pilots of those famous wherries was nicknamed "Daring Callum," on account of the almost reckless boldness with which he undertook to steer his boat on the wildest days, when others, more prudent, would not venture to cross the stormy ferry to Mull. One of the fierce tideways on this passage was called "the dirks," from the figure of the waves which rose on every side, tossing their sharp heads in the sky. On one occasion when Callum was piloting a Staffa party through this wild and foaming tide, the spray of the waves flew over the bow and wet the passengers. A rival of Callum on board remarked in Gaelic to a companion, loud enough to be heard by Callum, "Bad steering that!" "Bad steering!" echoed Callum, with an angry growl; "there is no man living could carry a boat so dry through that wild sea; and if you think you can do it, come here and take the helm and try it!" The rival pilot thus challenged took the helm, and ordering the boat to be put about—after passing all the danger!—once more crossed the roaring tideway, which had thus necessarily to be crossed a third time before the boat could resume her voyage in the right direction! The poor passengers were of course ignorant of the cause of their prolonged misery amidst the salt sea foam. Nemesis at last overtook poor Callum;—for though he proved his superiority as a steersman on the occasion referred to, and survived his triumph thirty years, he was drowned at last.

Choosing the comparative safety of the inner passage, the travellers landed at Aros, crossed to the opposite side, and there took a boat—with four stout rowers, or a sail, in case of wind—for Staffa, which was thus reached in five or six hours.

The first time we visited the famous island was by this route; and though we have gone to it by steamer several times since then, yet the impression made by the first visit remains, and can never more be obliterated—neither, alas ! can the fear be renewed. We had time and quiet to enjoy the scene, without the screaming of steam-whistles or the impatient wrath of steam-engines, threatening to burst unless passengers rush on board at the fixed hour.

It was a glorious summer morning. We started about daybreak, with four Highland boatmen, capital rowers, capital singers of boat songs, and crack men when sail had to be carried.

We swept along the shore, and had full time to see and enjoy all the glories of the beach, its huge boulders, its deep black water shadowed by the beetling cliffs—with all the magnificent outlines of bold rugged headlands, fantastic rocks and ever-varying "giant-snouted crags;" with echoing caves, and secluded bays—until we at last glided into the great ocean, with its skyline broken by the Treshinish isles, the Dutchman's cap, and the more distant Tyree. A long glassy swell heaved in from the Atlantic; flocks of all kinds of birds swam and dived, and screamed around us. At length came Staffa in solemn silence, revealing its own stately grandeur of pillared cave and precipice. Alone and undisturbed we listened to the music of the ocean in that marvellous temple not built with hands. There were no human beings there but the boatmen, and they seemed as natural to the island as the limpets on its rocks, or the brown tangle which waved among the waters that laved its sides. To see Staffa thus was like visiting a great cathedral for worship;—to see it with a steamboat company is like visiting the same cathedral desecrated by a public meeting! But to return to Staffa tourists before steam-boat days. There were four "hospitable houses" situated in this Mull transit, where persons with letters of introduction always put up. One was Mr Maxwell's, "the factor" or "chamberlain" for the Duke of Argyle, his house being close to the old castle of Aros. The other, about a mile off, was Mr Stewart's, the kind-hearted proprietor of Achadashenaig—a name which no Englishman ever pretended to pronounce correctly. On the other side of Mull, and beneath Benmore, was Colonel Campbell's of Knock—a brave and distinguished old officer; and then, six miles nearer Staffa, was the most frequented of all, Ulva House, the residence of Mr M'Donald, the laird of Staffa—the very impersonation of Highland hospitality.

There was one small inn on the Sound, "the Shore House," which received all extras, including the servants of those who were accommodated at Aros, and the neighbouring house of Acha—&c. When the travelling season commenced, the telescopes of these houses were busy in reconnoitring the white sails of boats coming from Oban. There were three well-known "wherries," the "Iona," "Staffa," and "Fingal," whose rig was familiar from afar. "I think that is a Staffa party!" was a remark that roused the household, and caused a group to gather round the telescope, as the distant white speck was observed advancing towards the bay. By-and-by a flag was discovered fluttering from the peak. It was the sign of a party; but coming to which house? Aros, Acha, &c., or the inn?—or to cross the isthmus to Knock or Ulva? It was necessary to prepare for a possible invasion! The larder of Aros was therefore examined in case; bedrooms were put in order; innocent chickens, geese, ducks, or turkey poults killed; and preparations for every comfort set a-going. Mutton, lamb, fish, or game, were always ready. But the destination of the party could not possibly be discovered until at he door of Aros which was nearest the point, where all landed. Suddenly a group is seen approaching the door, near the old castle; paterfamilias and his wife leading; sons, daughters, and servants following; with the luggage borne on the shoulders of four boatmen. Then the official rap at the door. Nancy, the girl, is dressed in her best, and "looks both neat and comely." Host and hostess, backed l)y the young ladies of the family, are prepared with bow and courtesy, smile and welcome, to read the letter from the Duke of Argyle recommending Sir John This, or my friend Lord That, to the kind attention of his Grace's viceroy; and soon all are settled down in comfort to rest for a few days ere they begin the voyage to Staffa under their hosts' direction.

A pleasing remembrance of many of these visitors remained for life in the memories of their hosts, and in cases not a few, the visitors retained a grateful and equally long remembrance of their Highland friends. I remember well how the "factor" at Aros used to enumerate the names of those who had impressed him by their manners, their knowledge, their scholarship, or their wit. He was himself an excellent classic, and the visit of an Oxford or Cambridge man was always a delight to him. He had stories of many then beginning their travels, whose names have since become famous in the world. But he frankly confessed that Torn Sheridan, who accompanied the Lord Lorne of the day, was out of sight the pleasantest fellow he had ever met with. The visit was memorable from the number of bottles of old port which were consumed, and the late hours which for a series of nights were spent amidst songs and shouts of laughter. The factor declared that he could not have survived another week of Tom, whose stories and witticisms became a large literary property to him in after years, and were often told after dinner to his guests.

When Walter Scott was expected to visit Mull, an intense anxiety was felt as to which of the houses would have the privilege of entertaining him. Scott was then known as the poet, not as the novelist; and was touring it in the Highlands with his young and most engaging wife. The factor, who was an enthusiast in ballad poetry, was sorely grieved when he saw the party pass his door on their way to Ulva House. But on Scott's return the factor had the happiness of having him under his roof for an evening. "Ha!" exclaimed Scott, on their meeting, "what puts a Maxwell and a Scott in this part of the world? We should meet, lad, on the Border!" That evening was also memorable in the history of Staffa parties.

I must not omit to record in passing the lines written by Scott, in the album of Ulva, on the Laird of Staffa—or "Staffa," as he was always called :-

"Staffa! king of all good fellows,
Well betide thy hills and valleys;
Lakes and inlets, steeps and shallows;
Mountains which the gray mist covers,
Where the chieftain spirit hovers,
Pausing as its pinions quiver,
Stretched to quit this land for ever!
May all kind influence rest above thee,
On all thou lov'st, and all who love thee!
For warmer heart'twixt this and Jaffa,
Beats not than in the breast of Staffa!"


I quote from memory. But whoever possesses now that Ulva album must be able to select from its pages some memorial lines which would have some interest. *

Occasionally some rare specimens of the Cockney make their appearance in those parts. One instance of the credulity of the species may be mentioned, although to believe it seems to demand an almost equal amount of credulity in the reader. A London citizen presented himself at Aros. On entering the room where the family were assembled, he paused, and looked around him with an expression of wonder; then, apologising for his intrusion, he begged permission to return with his travelling companion, just for five minutes, to see the house. The landlady of "The Shore House," the small inn where the astonished visitor "put up," heard him say to his friend as he addressed him in breathless haste, "I say, Dick, you must come with me instantly. I have got permission to bring you. We are quite mistaken about the people here, I assure you, — confoundedly mistaken! You will not believe me until you see it with your own eyes, but I was in a regular well-built gentleman's house, with carpets, furniture, a pianoforte, actually, and the girls dressed in nice white gowns!" It is a fact that these same travellers had brought red cloth, beads, and several articles of cutlery, to barter with the natives! They seemed to have consulted Cook's Voyages as the only reliable book of information how to deal with savages.

I have often to crave the reader's indulgence for inflicting my "auld-lang-syne" gossip on him. But these old travelling days belong to a past never to return; and those old kind-hearted hosts who made the tour easy and agreeable to many a happy family, and to many an invalid in search of health, have all passed away, and have left no representatives in their once hospitable homes. I like to record their names even in the most evanescent form.


 


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