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Reminiscences of a Highland Parish
Emigrant Ship


RETURNING from Iona on the loveliest summer evening which I ever beheld, we reached a safe and sheltered bay at the north end of the Island of Mull. I never saw a harbour so well defended from the violence of winds and waves. A long narrow island encircled it seawards, spreading its friendly wings over every vessel that comes to seek its covert from the storms of ocean or to await under its shelter for favourable weather to double the great headland beyond. On the right hand where we entered, the land rises up steep and abrupt from the shore. We sailed so close to the rocks, that the branches of the trees were bending over us. The fragrance of the birch was wafted on the breeze of summer, and a thousand Iittle birds, with their sweet notes, were sing-in; to us from amid the branches, bidding us welcome as we glided smoothly and gently past them. A glorious view presented itself to me wherever I turned my eye. I saw the lofty mountains of Ardriamurchan clothed in green to their very summits; Suanard, with its beautifully-outlined hills and knolls; the coast of Morven stretching away from us, rejoicing in the warmth of the summer evening.

When we neared the anchorage there was nothing to be seen but masts of ships, with their flags floating lazily in the gentle breeze—nor to be heard, except the sound of oars, and the murmur of brooks and streams, which, falling over many a rock, were pouring into the wide bay, now opening up before us. From side to side of the shore, on the one hand, there runs a street of white houses; and immediately behind them there rises up a steep and high bank, where the hazel, the rowan, and the ash grow luxuriantly, and so very close to the houses that the branches seem to bend over their tops. At the summit of this lofty bank the other portion of the small town is seen between you and the sky, presenting a view striking for its beauty and singularity.

The bay, however, presented the most interesting sight. There were in it scores of vessels of different sizes; many a small boat with its painters green oars; the gay birlinn with its snow-white sails, and the war-ship with its lofty masts and royal flag. But in the midst of them all I marked one ship which was to me of surpassing interest. Many little boats were pressing towards her, and I noticed that she was preparing to unmoor. There was one man in our boat who had joined us at the *back of Mull, and who had not during the whole day once raised his head, but who now was scanning this great ship with the keenest anxiety.

"Do you know," I asked, "what this ship is?"

"Alas!" said he, "'tis I who do - know her. Grieved am I to say that there are too many of my acquaintances in her. In her are my brothers, and many of my dearest friends, departing on a long, mournful voyage for North America. And sad is it that I have not what would enable me to accompany them."

We pulled towards the vessel; for I confess I felt strongly desirous of seeing these warm hearted men who, on this very day, were to bid a last farewell to the Highlands, in search of a country where they might find a permanent home for themselves and their families. It is impossible to convey to any one who was not present a true idea of the scene which presented itself on going on board. Never will it fade from my memory. They were here, young and old—from the infant to the patriarch. It was most overwhelming to witness the deep grief, the trouble of spirit, the anguish and brokenness of heart which deeply furrowed the countenances of the greater number of these men, here assembled from many an island and distant portion of the Hebrides.

I was, above all, struck with the appearance of one man, aged and blind, who was sitting apart, with three or four young boys clustered around him, each striving which could press most closely to his breast. His old arms were stretched over them; his head was bent towards them; his gray locks and their brown curly hair mingling, while his tears, in a heavy shower, were falling on them. Sitting at his feet was a respectably dressed woman, sobbing in the anguish of bitter grief; and I understood that a man who was walking backwards and forwards, with short steps and folded hands, was her husband. His eye was restless and unsettled, and his troubled countenance told that his mind was far from peace. I drew near to the old man, and in gentle language asked him if he, in the evening of his days, was about to leave his native land.

"Is it I, going over the ocean?" said he. "No! On no journey will I go, until the great journey begins which awaits us all; and when that comes, who will bear my head to the burial? You are gone; you are gone; to-day I am left alone, blind and aged, without brother, or son, or support. To-day is the day of my desolation, God forgive me! thou, Mary, my only child, with my fair and lovely grandchildren, art about to leave me! I will return to-night to the old glen; but it is a strange hand that will lead me. You, my beloved children, will not come out to meet the old man. I will no more hear the prattle of your tongues by the river-side, and no more shall I cry, as I used to do, though I saw not the danger, 'Keep back from the stream!' When I hear the barking of the dogs, no more will my heart leap upwards, saying, 'My children are coming.' Who now will guide me to the shelter of the rock, or read to me the holy book? And to-morrow night, when the sun sinks in the west, where will you be, children of my love? or who will raise the evening hymn with me?"

"O father," said his daughter, creeping close to him, "do not break my heart!"

"Art thou here, Mary?" said he. "Where is thy hand? Come nearer to me. My delight of all the women in the world. Sweet to me is thy voice. Thou art parting with me. I do not blame thee, neither do I complain. Thou hast my full sanction. Thou hast the blessing of thy God. As was thy mother before thee, be thou dutiful. As for me, I will not long stand. To-day I am stripped of my lovely branches, and light is the breeze which will lay low my old head. But while I live, God will uphold me! He was ever with me in every trial, and He will not now forsake me. Blind though I be, yet blessed be His name! He enables me to see at His own right hand my best Friend, and in His countenance I can see gentleness and love. At this very moment He gives me strength. His promises come home to my heart. Other trees may wither; but the `Tree of Life' fades not. Are you all near me? Listen," said he, "we are now about to part. You are going to a land far away; and probably before you reach it I shall be in the lofty land where the sun ever shines, and where, I trust, we shall all meet again; and where there shall be no partings, nor removals. No. Remember the God of your fathers, and fall not away from any one good habit which you have learned. Evening and morning, bend the knee. Evening and morning, raise the hymn, as we were wont to do. And you, my little children, who were as eyes and as a staff unto me—you, who I thought would place the sod over me—must I part with you? God he my helper!"

I could not remain longer. The little boat which was to bear the old man to the shore had cone to the side of the ship. Those who were waiting on him informed him of this. I fled; I could not witness the miserable separation.

In another part of the vessel there was a company of men, whom I understood from their dress and language to belong to the Northern Islands. They were keenly and anxiously watching a boat which was corning round the point, urged alike by sails and oars. Whenever they saw her making for the ship, they shouted out: "It is he himself! Blessings on his head!" There was one person among them who seemed more influential than the others. When he observed this boat, he went to the captain of the ship, and I observed that the sailors who were aloft among the masts and spars were ordered to descend, and that the preparations for immediate sailing were suspended. The boat approached. An aged, noble-looking man who was sitting in the stern rose up, and although his head was white as the snow, he ascended the side of the ship with a firm vigorous step, dispensing with any assistance. The captain saluted him with the utmost respect. He looked around him, and quickly noticing the beloved group who had been watching for him, he walked towards them. "God be with you!" he said to them, as they all rose up, bonnet in hand, to do him reverence. He sat down among them. For a while he leaned his head on the staff which was in his hand, and I observed that great tears were rolling down his face—one of the most pleasant faces I had ever looked on. They all grouped around him, and some of the children sat at his feet. There was something in the appearance of this patriarchal man which could not fail to draw one towards him. Such goodness and gentleness surrounded him that the most timid would be encouraged to approach him; and, at the same time, such lofty command in his eye and brow as would cause the boldest to quail before him.

"You have come," said they, "according to your promise; you never neglected us in the day of our need. To-night we are to become wanderers over the face of the ocean, and before the sun will rise over those hills we shall be for ever out of their sight. We are objects of pity to-day—day of our ruin!"

"Let me not hear such language," said the minister. "Be manly; this is not the time for you to yield. Place your confidence in God: for it is not without His knowledge that you go on this journey. It is through His providence that all things are brought to pass: but you speak as if you were to travel beyond the bounds of the kingdom of the Almighty, and to go whither His Fatherly care could not extend unto you. Alas! is this all your faith?"

"That is all true," answered they; "but the sea —the great wide ocean?"

"The sea!" said he, "why should it cast down or disquiet you? Is not God present on the great ocean as on the land? Under the guidance of His wisdom, and the protection of His power, are you not as safe on the wide ocean as you ever were in the most sheltered glen? Does not the God who made the ocean go forth on its proud waves? Not one of them will rise against you without His knowledge. It is He who stills the raging of the sea. He goeth forth over the ocean in, he chariots of the wind as surely as He is in the heavens above. Oh, ye of little faith, wherefore do ye doubt?"

"We are leaving our native land," said they.

"You are indeed leaving the place of your birth," he replied, "the island where you were nourished and reared. You are certainly going on a long journey, and it need not be concealed that there are hardships awaiting you, but these do not come unexpectedly on you: you may be prepared to meet them. And as to leaving our country, the children of men have no permanent hold of any country under the sun. We are all strangers and pilgrims; and it is not in this world that God gives any of us that home from which there is no departure."

"That is undoubtedly true," said they; "but we go as 'sheep without a shepherd' — without a guide to consult in our perplexities. Oh, if you had been going with us!"

"Silence!" said he. "Let me not hear such language. Are you going farther from God than you were before? Is it not the same Lord that opened your eyelids to-day and raised you from the slumber of the night, who rules on the other side of the world? Who stood by Abraham when he left his country and his kindred? Who showed himself to Jacob when he left his father's house, and slept in the open field? Be ashamed of yourselves for your want of trust. Did you say you were as 'sheep without a shepherd?' Is there any, even the youngest of your children, who cannot repeat these words: `The Lord 's my shepherd, I'll want not?' Has not the Great Shepherd of the sheep said: 'Fear not; for I am with thee. Be not dismayed: for I am thy God?' Has He not said: `When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee?' There are not, perhaps, houses of worship so accessible to you where you are going, as they were in your native land : nor are ministers of religion so numerous. But remember you the day of the Lord. Assemble yourselves under the shelter of the rock, or under the shade of the tree. Raise up together the songs of Zion, remembering that the gracious presence of God is not confined to any one place; that, by those who sincerely seek Him in the name of Christ, He is to be found on the peak of the highest mountain, in the strath of the deepest glen, or in the innermost shade of the forest, as well as in the midst of the great city, or in the most costly temple ever reared by man's hands. You are all able to read the Holy Word. Had it been otherwise, heavy indeed would be my heart, and very sad the parting. I know you have some Bibles with you; but you will to-day accept from me each a new Bible, one that is easily carried and handled; and you will not value them the less that your names are written in them by the hand which sprinkled the water of baptism on the most of you—which has often since been raised up to Heaven in prayer for you, and which will continue to be raised for you with good hope through Christ until death shall disable it. And you, my little children, the precious lambs of my flock, now about to leave me, I have brought for you also some slight memorials of my great love to you. May God bless you!"

"Oh," said they, "how thankful are we that we have seen you once more, and that we have again heard your voice!"

The people of the ship were now generally gathering round this group, and even the sailors, though some of them did not understand his language, perceived that it was in matters pertaining to the soul he was engaged. There was so much earnestness, warmth, and kindliness in his appearance and voice, that they stood reverently still; and I saw several of them hiding the tears which rolled down those cheeks that had been hardened by many a storm.

The reverend man uncovered his head, and stood up. Every one perceived his purpose. Some kneeled down, and those who stood cast their eyes downwards, when in a clear strong voice he said, "Let us pray for the blessing of God." Hard indeed would be the heart which would not melt, and little to be envied the spirit which would not become solemnised while the earnest, warm-hearted prayer was being offered up by this good man, who was himself raised above the world. Many a poor faint-hearted one was encouraged. His words fell like the dew of the evening, and the weak, droop-in-branches were strengthened and refreshed.

While they were on their knees, I heard heavy sighings and sobbings, which they strove hard to smother. But when they rose up I saw through the mist of the bitter tears which they were now wiping off, the signs of fresh hope beaming from their eyes. He opened the Book of Psalms, and the most mournful, the most affecting in every way, yet at the same time the most joyful sacred song which I ever heard was raised by them all. The solemn sound reached every ship and boat in the harbour. Every oar rested. There was perfect silence; a holy calm as they sang a part of the 42d Psalm.

"O why art thou cast down, my soul?
Why, thus with grief opprest,
Art thou disquieted in me?
In God still hope and rest:
For yet I know I shall Him praise,
Who graciously to me
The health is of my countenance,
Yea, mine own God is He."


 


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