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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XXXIX


Mountains—The Lochaber Axe, Ancient and Modern.

With occasional gales, by no means out of place or untimeous at this date [October 1873], with the sun already in its retrogression, almost half-way back through Scorpio, the weather is upon the whole mild and more autumn-like than was any portion of autumn proper itself. Winter, as yet, has hardly descended lower than the highest summits of our mountain ranges, and how beautiful in the golden after-glow, even at this season, are these same mountain peaks, impending over us like so many living presences! Tutelary divinities we sometimes fancy them, interested in all that belongs to the dwellers at their feet, with living hearts under their rocky ribs, loving us even as we love them, if we only knew it, and speaking to us in their own solemn and mysterious language, as at midnight, in our communings with the stars, we are startled now and again by the weird, inexplicable sighs and sounds, and deep-toned murmurings that seem to rise from glen and corry and frowning gorge—sounds of much meaning, doubtless, if one only knew the language, and could respond, as the sea seems to do, in the palpitation of its heaving waves, and the boom of its billows upon the beach. Pantheism and atheism are the very antithesis and antipodes of each other—errors both, just as blind credulity is the antithesis of stubborn unbelief—but, if forced to decide in favour of either, give us pantheism for choice, as the more poetical, at least, and pardonable error of the two; for the recognition of a Divine intelligence pervading and dwelling lovingly in all things is surely preferable to the cold and bloodless anti-creed that professes to have searched the universe for a God, but failed to find Him. For our own part, we have dwelt so long among the mountains, and within sight and sound of the sea, that we have learned to love them with a strange, undefinable affection, such as one bestows only on what is at once weird and mysterious, as well as intelligent and potent, and, upon the whole, beneficent and friendly. So impressed are we with this feeling at times, that we fear that, however weighty the advantages otherwise, a city life for us would nowr be irksome and unenjoyable, and anything like a lengthened sojourn in a mountainless land, far from the sight of ocean waves, well-nigh unendurable. There is some meaning, however wild and improbable it may seem at first sight, in the theory that accounts for the Egyptian pyramids as erected by a nomade people, who finally settled along the valley of the Nile, in remembrance of the mountains of their native land, and to serve instead of these mountains in making the astronomical observations for which the ancient Assyrians and Chaldeans were so famous. Be these things as they may, we dearly love the mountains by which our humble home is surrounded, whether basking in jubilant sunshine or wrapt in sorrowing cloud, whether robed in midsummer green, in autumnal purple, in brown and gold, or snow-covered and ice-bound to their base; what time the day is shortest, and the sun, almost shorn of his beams, shines but faint and far down at its farthest point of southern declination. It is recorded of Queen Marv, of sanguinary, or rather igneous memory, that so affected was she by the loss of Calais, that had been in the possession of England since the victory at Cressy under the gallant Edward III., upwards of two hundred years previously, that she declared in her last moments that, if her body was opened after death, the name of the lost city would be found written upon her heart; probably the nearest approach to anything like poetry to be found in any word or act of her dark and bigoted and wholly unhappy life. If such, things were possible—and the ancients, at least, believed they were—we should be apt to say the same in our own case of the mountain ranges and sea viev\s around us, with which we have held such intimate fellowship for upwards of twenty years.

If one asked us where he could get coals, we should without hesitation be disposed, were it but to keep the well-known proverb in countenance, to direct him to Newcastle-on-Tyne. If he consulted us as to where he could best procure a serviceable and trustworthy sword-blade of finest workmanship and highest value, we should probably direct him to Damascus or Toledo. If slings and slingers, we should send him to the Balearic' Isles; if bows and arrows, and how to use them with perfectest dexterity, to the Parthians; and in so advising the anxious inquirer for coals, or the warlike weapons in question, we should probably be disposed to feel that we had advised him wisely and well. And suppose one wanted a "Lochaber axe," where would he most naturally look for it but in Lochaber? And yet, in all Lochaber there is probably at this moment not a single specimen of a weapon at one time so common and so peculiar to the district as to have been called after it. The Secretary of the Eoyal Institution of a seaport city of England wrote us lately, begging us to procure for them a Lochaher axe, to be placed in a collection of shafted weapons in their museum. He wrote as if he thought there need be no difficulty about the matter; living as we do in Lochaber, he seemed to think that we could lay our hands upon such a weapon as easily as upon a tuft of heather or a twig of birch. "We were, of course, obliged to write him in reply that neither in Lochaber proper, nor, so far as we knew, in any of the neighbouring districts, was there to be found a single specimen of the formidable weapon in question. There should be a good many Lochaber axes in the country however, though not in Lochaber. "We wonder if such a thing as a "Jeddart staff" could bo had to-day in its proper locality? We recollect that during Her Majesty's first visit to Scotland in 1842, when she was received by such a splendid gathering of the Clans at Dunkeld, there was a company of a hundred men, commanded by the Honourable Captain James Murray, brother of Lord Glen-lyon, the biggest men that could be got in Athole and the surrounding districts, all armed with Lochaber axes, and a very fine sight they were as they poised and swung about their ponderous and terrible weapons. We were then but a boy at school, just entering upon our teens, but the appearance of these kilted giants, with their dreadful battle-axes, is as fresh and vivid as if, since that bright and beautiful September noon, hardly thirty days had elapsed, instead of upwards of thirty years. We doubt, however, if the Lochaber axe, so called, as seen at Dunkeld on the occasion referred to, and as usually shown in our collections of weapons, is at all a true representative of the ancient arm so formidable in many a dour conflict in the hands of the Camerons, Macmartins, Macmillans, and Macphees of Lochielside, Glenarkaig, and Glen-lochy, and of the Macdonalds of the Braes, and Mackenzies of Lochlevenside. The weapon as now shown is decidedly too big, too ponderous and unwieldy ever to have been used in actual fight. Only a Clan Samson or Clan Goliath, and all of them of ancestral stature and strength, could hope to wield such an arm in the heat and hurry of conflict with anything like dexterity and ease. Like the immense two-handed | Wallace " style of sword that is sometimes shown to you as having been the favourite weapon of some celebrated warrior of the middle ages and subsequent centuries, but which it is simply impossible that any mere man could ever have wielded with effect in actual fight, the modern Lochaber axe is too gigantic for use, and must have been manufactured, a big pattern of a lesser weapon, merely for parade and show. That a weapon of the kind, however, once existed, and was a favourite arm with the men of Lochaber, is unquestionable, and a truly formidable weapon it must have been. With a crescent axe face to cut with, it had a hook at the back by which horsemen could be caught hold of and dragged from their saddles, to be despatched at leisure as they lay helpless u pon the ground. The shaft was necessarily of considerable length, about six feet, of ash or other tough wood, and of no greater girth than a common hay-fork handle. The shaft of the modern weapon, however, is between seven and eight feet long, and of a girth that an ordinary hand does not suffice to grasp. The axe proper, too, or head of the arm usually shown as a Lochaber axe, is nearly twice the weight of that of the older and more business-like weapon. An Indian tomahawk with a six-foot shaft, or a mediaeval knight's battle-axe with a six-foot handle, such as that with which the Bruce cleft the skull of Henry de Boune at Bannockburn, would probably be nearer to the pattern of the original Lochaber axe than the ridiculously big and cumbrous modern article. You remember the scene in Scott's Lord of the Isles—

''Of Hereford's high blood he came,
A race renown'd for knightly fame.
He burn'd before his Monarch's eye,
To do some deed of chivalry.
He spurr'd his steel, he couched his lance,
And darted on the Bruce at once.
"As motionless as rocks, that bide
The wrath of the advancing tide,
The Bruce stood fast.
Each breast beat high,
And dazzled was each gazing eye.
The heart had hardly time to think,
The eyelid scarce had time to wink,
While on the King, like flash of flame,
Spurr'd to full speed the warhorse came!
The partridge may the falcon mock,
If that slight palfrey stand the shock;
But, swerving from the knight's career,
Just as they met, Bruce shunn'd the spear.
Onward the baffled warrior bore
His course—but soon his course was o'er!
High in his stirrups stood the King,
And gave his battle-axe the swing.
Right on De Boune, the whiles he pass'd,
Fell that stern dint—the first—the last!
Such strength upon the blow was put,
The helmet crush'd like hazel nut;
The axe shaft, with its brazen clasp,
Was shiver'd to the gauntlet grasp.
Springs from the blow the startled horse,
Drops to the plain the lifeless corse.
First of that fatal field, how soon,
How sudden fell the fierce De Boune!"

A real Lochaber axe-head we have seen, never the complete weapon properly shafted, though surely real and genuine specimens of the old and famous war-aim must be found in some of our museums. At what period the Lochaber axe ceased to be carried as a battle-arm by the Highlanders it is impossible to say; probably soon after the general introduction of fire-arms into the northern half of the kingdom, for it was certainly not used in the '45, nor, so far as we know, in the '15, nor even in the wars of Montrose; so that for upwards of two hundred years at least it has not been used in actual combat.


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