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Reminiscences of the Lews
Chapter I - Introductory


AND so it’s all over; and, like the M’G-regor, I am landless — or, rather, shooting-quarterless. I must bid adieu to the home of twenty years, to seek another, and begin the world again—old, worn out almost, but tough still.

They might as well have let me linger out the two or three years the old legs would have carried me still, and left me and my doggies in peace. But that was not to be. I had spent years in turning a bad shooting into a good one; I had tried to civilise, as much as in my power lay, the district in which I lived. I was not hated by the surrounding inhabitants. But, then, I could not afford the vastly increased rent demanded for my own creation; and so I vacated my quarters for some more opulent successor. And sorrowful indeed was my departure, and the parting with the friends of those twenty years. The companions of the wild sports of those outlandish countries become your friends and associates; and you can venture to make them so, for the Highlander is a gentleman at heart, and never forgets his respect for you, so long as you respect yourself. Besides this, if you have ever killed a stag, a salmon, or an otter in his company, you stand well with him for the rest of your days. There were also other remembrances that bound us much to one another, which, though nothing to the world, were much to ourselves. As, then, keepers, and stalkers, and gillies wrung my hand as we drank the parting “morning” together, I felt there was truth in that grasp—nay, even in the tear that stood in the eye of some, and certainly in my own. It was agony, I own, to leave that desolate home; and when I reached the hill-top, from 'which I caught the first glimpse of that long-loved cottage, like the Highland woman, I sat me down and cried. But, as I said, it is over; and what is to be done through the long dreary days, now that I can no longer live upon the hopes and prospects of my annual migration to my wild home? I will try and recollect the past, and solace myself with giving some of its .reminiscences, collected from notes, and journals, and game-books kept during some twenty shooting seasons passed there. They will be truthful, for it is a land with too many charms, not only for my perhaps too partial recollection, but for every true sportsman, not to be able to bear criticism and truth; and those only who do not or cannot appreciate its true worth, will feel any soreness at the remarks I may at times make upon its failings.

My record, I fear will be dull, stale, and unprofitable; for, my occupation having gone, the heart to write has gone with it. And why is it that I love that far-off land so much? Certes, not for its beauty; for of all the dismal, dreary countries that man ventures to traverse, commend me to a great part of the Lews. I do not think that, if I wished to pick a monotonous drive, I could find anything to surpass that from the Butt of Lews through Stornoway, and for some distance on towards Harris. When the different hills of the Park, of Uig, and of Harris begin to open, the country gradually becomes more mountainous and beautiful. But all the northern portion of the island is one succession of peat, hags, and moss, studded with innumerable freshwater lochs. Of course, Lews being an island, or rather peninsula, you have always in the sea, when you see it, a noble feature; and therefore the western coast, with the broad Atlantic breaking on it, is a sight to see. The Minch, too, when the weather is fine and you can see the mainland hills, is beautiful.

But speaking of the interior portion of the northern part of the island, it presents no fine features, though you often get from it striking views of the outlines of the distant hills. My shooting-lodge was about seven miles from the commencement of the hills, and a more dismal, dreary little place you would never wish to behold. I do not think you would have found many people to live in it when first I took it. There was sorry accommodation for the quality, scarcely any far servants. It was under a hill, and it looked out on the peat stacks only, which were ranged where they were cut in the peat bog; for, with the greatest possible ingenuity, the builder of the mansion had managed that from no window except the skylight at the top of the house could you contrive to get even a glimpse of a rather pretty loch close by. All that separated you from the peat stacks was the high road to Harris. Certainly, then, our situation was not picturesque; and yet, lover of beautiful scenery as I am, and having at times sojourned in very lovely spots (once for years at the head of the upper lake of Killarney—and show me anything much fairer than Grheramene), I would rather own that little cottage on the roadside looking out on the peat-stacks, and live and die there, than pass my life on the Lake of Geneva, somewhere near Chillon, among a constant succession of fine sunsets. But then there is no accounting for tastes, and tastes are formed in odd ways. It is, however, time that I should get on to narrate how it was that I ever got to this queer little place.

I was sitting one morning in June, 1850, at Borthwick Brae with F. M. and R. M., when Snowie’s list of shootings came in. Among the advertisements was one of some shooting in the Lews and in Harris. Long, long ago my old friend, the late Sir Ronald Ferguson, a grand old soldier and a first-rate sportsman, recommended me to go and try those parts, as being alone compatible with my pocket and my views of boundless space to roam over. I had often tried to get those two men, F. M. and R. M., to join and take some country in those far Hebrides, but I was perpetually laughed at for talking about what did not exist, and answered with the slang of the day about imaginary things, “which it is Harris.” Throwing the paper over to F., I exclaimed, “Now will you believe?—Look thereI” And lo! there were three shootings in the Lews advertised (which, with Harris, forms that island dignified with the name of the Long Island), with a reference for further information to a gentleman in Edinburgh. The spaces seemed large, the rents small. Accordingly, instanter the phaeton was ordered to the door; to the nearest station we drove, and were in Edinburgh in time to find our gentleman at home. He was perfectly fair. “You had better go and judge for yourselves. If you expect to get Highland grouse-shootings, you won’t. If you can walk, you may kill some few brace daily. You will get plenty of stalking, but the deer do not run large, and their heads are small, and might be stolen out of the mainland heads and not missed. You are not to expect fine Highland streams and large salmon. You will only find small streams, but plenty of fish in them, though not large. But, as I said, go and judge for yourselves. The next steamer for Stornoway sails on Thursday, and if you can get down to Glasgow to-morrow you will catch the Mary Jane, and get to Stornoway on Saturday. Stay there a week, fish as much as you like, and make any inquiries you please. Look at our game-books and judge for yourselves; but if you take anything there and afterwards don’t like it, don’t say you were done.” Accordingly we took that straightforward gentleman’s advice; and I have often and often thought of his words when experience taught how perfectly accurate they were. We went back home for a few traps and our fishing-rods, and started for Glasgow the next morning, whence we sailed in the Mary Jam northward, ho!

Reader, are you fond of the sea? Do you love dancing in a cockle-shell over the blue sea-lochs of the north-western coast of Scotland? If so, sail or steam from Dumbarton to Stornoway ; and if you have the steamer a good deal to yourself, without too many passengers— children in particular—without too many sheep or cattle, or any other incumbrance, and with fine weather (all things of not very frequent occurrence), if you do not enjoy it, stop at Glasgow the rest of your life. Down the Clyde by Arran, and round the Mull of Cantire, with a strong tide and half a gale of wind meeting each other; and across to Islay, and then up the Sound of Jura, and so on to Oban; then through the sound of dark Mull, into quiet Tobermory, round Ardnamurcan Point with a good south-wester and the Atlantic tumbling in upon you, to Egg and Rum. Fetch up at Armadale, and look into the sea-loch opposite to you, running up into the mainland. Then onward up the Narrows of Skye, diverging now and then into some of those sea lochs on the mainland side of your course, amongst the most beautiful—if not the most beautiful— scenery in Europe. Then proceed, softly rippling your way round those glorious Chucullin Hills that, as you pass, ever assume some fresh fantastic grouping, until you reach that safest harbour of refuge, Portree, into which I have at times been pitched by the most fearful of squalls. There dine, fortify yourself with a strong sneaker of good cold whisky-and-water, aiblins two, light your pipe, and then across the Minch to fair, soft Gairloch; round into Ullapool and other lochs along the coast; then into Loch Inver the magnificent; and if you are not satisfied with it, and the Sugar-loaf Mountain, and the Assynt Hills in the distance, you are a man hard to please. Then set your head straight for the Long Island, and tumble across the Minch again with a good mild northeaster, if there is such a thing, into Stornoway; and having taken a look at its quiet harbour and its nice white-looking amphitheatre of a town, turn in; and if, as I said before, you are not satisfied with what you have seen, and also with visions of salmon and sea-trout, and deer and grouse, as you lie your head on your pillow, go home to your friends at once, and never again venture to pollute the fair North with your presence.


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