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Nether Lochaber
Chapter LVII


Caught in a Squall on Loch Le\en—Potatoes and Herrings: How to cook them—A day in Glen Nevis—A visit to Uaimh Shomhairle, or Samuel's Cave—The Cave-Men.

The reader may remember that we concluded our last with a hopeful and jubilant note, believing that really fine weather— a long track of it, perhaps—was just at hand. We much regret having to Say that our meteorological vaticinations proved utterly incorrect. It still rains [July 1877], not constantly, indeed, but with sufficient persistence to make everybody miserable, and to reduce our hopes of a good harvest almost to zero. Yesterday, for example, we had occasion to cross the Loch in our boat. It was a nice bright day enough at starting, with a fresh breeze from N.W., which carried us along at racing pace. All of a sudden the heavens became black and threatening; a terrible squall almost capsized us ere we had time to sing out to our companion to let go " everything by the run." He did, fortunately, let go just in time, and grasping an oar ourselves, and calling on him to take another, we had her head turned to the wind and waves as quietly but as quickly as possible. Thus we held her, just like a horse by the reins, while the squall lasted, and cunningly took advantage of its drift to get to the Appin shore. We managed to reach it, but in very sorry plight, as you shall hear. With the squall had come rain, literally the heaviest we ever saw, which drenched us to the skin; every drop big enough to fill as it fell the largest of thimbles, and driven by the squall, remember, it fell with the force of a spent bullet. As "drookit" and drenched we landed, and crawled with all the miserable, and woebegone, and shambling gait of the really and thoroughly through-and-through wet, you would have laughed in the teeth of all the rain had you only met us; and we much douht if any one who did not know us would just then have heen disposed to appraise ourselves and our whole belongings at the value of a much bigger coin of the realm than a shabby florin. And this is just the sort of weather it continues to be. You cannot depend upon it for an hour. It is sunshine and blue above just for five minutes; it is all of a sudden gloomy and black as Erebus, and raining so multitudinously that you are fain to draw the skirts of your coat anyhow over your head and run for the nearest shelter. When we are to have better weather let the meteorologists, who ought to know, say.

There is an old and frequent proverb, though rarely heard now-a-days, to the effect that "there goes reason to the roasting of eggs," the meaning of which, as we apprehend it, is that the smallest culinary operation is of importance, and should be gone about with judgment and care. If the proverb, however, in its actual words, as a mere popular saw, is very much forgotten, it is a good sign of our time that its spirit at least is in this our own day claiming no little attention, as the establishment of "cookery classes," and the praiseworthy attempts to disseminate culinary lore amongst the people, abundantly testify. It has been said that the man who makes two blades of grass to grow where only one blade grew before is a benefactor to his species, and equally so, would we venture to assert, is he a benefactor to the human race who shows how any single article of food, usually cooked and served in an unsatisfactory and tasteless fashion, may, with no extra expense and little extra trouble, be made palatable and savoury.

The other day, landing from our boat, we went into a cottar's house close by the sea, in a neighbouring district, just as the gudewife was preparing the family dinner. A pot of new potatoes was boiling on the fire, and as she knew that it would take us still some time to get home, she very good-naturedly invited us to wait a little and take a share with herself and her hushand of the dinner about to he served, a bit of hospitality as frankly accepted as it was kindly offered. Looking now and again into the "boiling potato pot", and listening with inclined ear to the sound, actually musical in such a case, of its boil and bubbling, she was ready at the proper instant to snatch it off the fire, and, carrying it to a corner of the kitchen, she poured off the water, and immediately re-hung it over the fire again, shortening the chain by which it was suspended by a link or two, that the fire might not, now that it was waterless, have too much effect upon it. She then got some half-dozen fresh herrings, caught early that morning—herrings large, and beautiful, and silvery scaled as a salmon—and drying them nicely with a cloth, she placed them flat-wise side by side on the top of the potatoes in the pot, the lid of which she was careful to make fit tightly by means of a coarse kitchen towel, which served at once to cover the contents, and to cause the lid to fit so tightly that all the steam was effectually retained. Tor the time being, in short, the pot by this ready expedient may he said to have been hermetically sealed. During a quarter of an hour, perhaps, and while the gentleman and ourselves carried on a lively conversation, the wife kept an attentive eye on the pot, never once lifting the lid, however, but from time to time raising or lowering a link of the chain as in her judgment was necessary. All being ready at last, she took the pot off the fire, and set it on a low stool in the middle of the floor. She then lifted the lid and the cloth, and the room was instantly filled with a savoury steam that made one's mouth water merely to inhale it. Occupying each a low chair, we were invited to fall to, to eat without knife, or fork, or trencher, just with our fingers out of the pot as it stood. It was a little startling, but only for a moment. After a word of grace we dipped our hand into the pot, and took out a potato hot and mealy, and with the other we took a nip out of the silvery flank of the herring nearest us. It was a mouthful for a king, sir! We have in our day a thousand times dined well and heartily both at home and abroad, but we greatly question if we ever enjoyed a dinner half so much as that. The savouriness of that potato and herring feast will haunt us till our dying day. What struck us was simply this: A new potato and fresh herring as usually served is something terribly insipid; as we got it that day it was a meal for an emperor. We actually felt inclined to lick our fingers after every mouthful, than which surely there could be no higher praise of any food whatever. Let such of our readers as have the opportunity just try a potato and herring cooked in the manner stated, eating it digitally, with their own proper fingers, and they will thank us, if they are honest, for bringing so savoury and delicious a dish to their knowledge.

One of the finest glens in all the West Highlands is Glen Nevis, which, opening out in the direction of the old Castle of Inverlochy, extends eastwards and inland, the valley gradually narrowing into glen and gorge as you proceed, for nine or ten miles, presenting at every turn and standpoint throughout its many windings a succession of the most striking and beautiful pictures imaginable, so striking and startling at times, and new at least in some of their details, that a genuine lover of mountain scenery wishes that he could devote an entire day to every separate mile of its extent, rather than have to hurry through it all in something like half a dozen hours, which is the way the thing is usually done. It is like being dragged, as happened to us once, by a nervous and impatient lady friend of ours, at a sort of half trot through a picture gallery, where, if you had your own way, you would gladly lounge and linger till the custodier of the place, perhaps, came respectfully to hint that the afternoon was far advanced, and that shutting-up time was at hand. With the entrance to Glen Nevis, as far as the raansion-house, we had long been familiar, and once at least we had a bird's-eye glance into the glen proper itself, from the summit of Dundearduil, which we had approached from the south in order to examine its curious and still inexplicable vitrifications. It was not, however, till Friday last, that we had an opportunity of thoroughly exploring the glen through all its windings, and coming with little difficulty to the conclusion already expressed, that of all our West Highland glens, it is, perhaps, the most beautiful and (Glencoe always apart) the most deserving of a thorough and leisurely examination. We were fortunate in having hit upon a highly favourable day—not too bright, for glaring sunshine and unclouded brightness amongst mountain scenery is a great mistake—and no less fortunate in our companions, each one of them blessed with eyes that, open, could really see, and hearts that, duly appealed to, could truly feel; who knew full well what they had come to do, and from first to last did it admirably. Rarely, we should say, has the noble glen exposed its stern grandeur and innumerable beauties under favourable skies, to the glad and earnest gaze of more intelligently appreciative spectators; and more rarely still, perhaps, have the splendid falls of the Nevis borne burden to peals of honester or merrier laughter than we indulged in as over the well-plenished luncheon basket we fortified ourselves for the ascent of the upper gorges,—a somewhat "stiff" climb, but neither really difficult nor dangerous. When we say that at Glen Nevis House our party was joined by Mr. Macpherson —-fear a ghlinne e fHn, the goodman of the glen himself, as the Highlanders say—who kindly accompanied us throughout, and to whom every foot of the glen was as familiar as the floor of his own dining-room, many of our readers will understand how really pleasant and enjoyable, ceeteris paribus, must have been our upland wanderings on that delightful day.

We have no intention of entering on anything like a minute or photographic description of Glen Nevis, for which, indeed, half-a-dozen Nether Lochaber columns would hardly suffice; we can only hurriedly glance at what most instantly and indelibly struck us in the day's excursion. First of all, we were all struck by the exceeding pellucidity and crystal clearness of the waters of the Nevis. Nowhere else did we ever see a mountain stream so beautifully transparent. Standing on the brink of any selected pool, many feet in depth, you distinguished the smallest pea-sized pebble, its veins, scratches, and striations, as distinctly as if you had it on the palm of your hand, under a lens, and within less than a foot focus of your eyeball! And all this remarkable pellucidity, observe, not in one particular pool, or in any one particular stretch of the river, but throughout all its beautiful windings. Another remarkable feature of the glen is the manner in which its natural birch woods grow. They occupy a pretty broad belt almost halfway up the mountains, leaving a still broader belt between themselves and the river banks comparatively bare and treeless. In all the other Highland glens with which we have any acquaintance, whatever of wood there is always begins, as seems most natural, at the river banks, where it is thickest and most luxuriant, growing away and upwards on either side to a greater or less altitude, according to the nature of the soil and the shelter to be had from the prevailing winds. And speaking of winds, this is the place to observe that of all our glens Glen Nevis is perhaps the stormiest, the wind in a gale not blowing steadily, but in fitful gusts and whirlwind-wise, striking in from the corries right and left, and meeting in the centre with a force and fury unimaginable by non-residenters. How do you know, the reader may ask, for it was calm and quiet enough during your visit on Friday. True, and yet we failed not to notice a very striking proof of the storminess at times of Glen Nevis notwithstanding. As you pass the forester's house at Auchreoch, lift up your eyes, and please observe how carefully, how thoroughly, closely, compactly, and painstakingly it is thatched ; and observe further and over all a network of wire as thick and strong as that used in our overland telegraphy, and to the end of each wire as it almost reaches the ground in front and at the hack of the house, please notice suspended a large stone, water-worn boulders from the river below, each of a hundredweight or more, and you will not fail, we think, to understand how we so confidently decided that Glen Nevis at times must be an exceedingly stormy place. If you assert that other Highland glens may be quite as stormy in the season of storms, we shall not contradict you; what we do say is this, that never did a house-roof speak to us so eloquently of furious and frequent storm and whirlwind as did the roof of that house at Auchreoch, and a very good house it is, and a very pretty place to the bargain. A little beyond Auchreoch, and to the left of the path, there is a bit of wild and rugged rock scenery well worth attention. Here and there, .over the face of what seems the hard impenetrable rock, many trees grow and flourish as if through the very heart of the granite. The explanation of course is, that the rock which seems so homogeneous and solid at a distance is in reality fissured and fractured in all directions, and that in these fissures the trees find soil and food enough to sustain a wonderfully luxuriant growth and opulence of foliage for such a situation. About a mile further up the glen, we separated from our companions for a while, we having determined to cross the Nevis at this point in order to visit Naimh Shomhairle, or Samuel's Cave, the entrance to which was pointed out to us by Mr. Macpherson in the face of the opposite steep. To get across the river we had to strip until in a state of almost jpuris naturalibus, and even then it was somewhat dangerous, a single false step might have been attended by very serious consequences. With a little circumspection and care, however, we got safely over, and half-dressed and barefooted we climbed the rock like a chamois, and in less than ten minutes we were standing at the mouth of the celebrated cave. Samuel's Cave is in fact two caves, the outer and smaller one, with a broad portal that admits abundant light and air, forming a sort of vestibule or antechamber to the inner cave. Provided with one or two old newspapers and some wax vestas, we improvised a couple of rude torches which we carried with us as we crept through a narrow opening by which alone access is obtained into the inner antrum. Lighting one of these torches, which answered our purpose quite well enough, we explored the cave at leisure, closely scrutinising the walls and roof as high as we could reach, in the hope of perhaps finding some scratch or sculptures, however rude, to prove that the place had been inhabited in the times of the "cave-men." Nothing of the kind, however, was discernible. The cave in its every part is exceedingly damp and cold, with green, slimy roof and walls, where not even the hardiest wild beast of mountain or forest would think of taking up its abode, far less any human being with the faintest notion of the value of warmth and comfort. There are scores of lesser caves and fissures in the rocks around where one would elect to live by reason of their dryness, in preference to the big and pretentious Samuel's Cave, which, as a mere cave, is perhaps interesting enough, and not unworthy of a visit; otherwise it is a "sell," in exploring which no one can spend more than the shortest five minutes to any good purpose. In the times of civil wars and clan feuds it is conceivable that one or more outlawed and " broken" men might find the outer cave a secure and not altogether unpleasant place of shelter to pass a night in where no better might be. As a place also to hide one's more valuable goods and chattels in an emergency, the cave may at times have had its value and use. It never, depend upon it, was inhabited for any length of time by any human being. A week of it would kill the stoutest, robustest savage that ever trod the Caledonian wilds. An additional proof, if additional proofs are wanting, that Samuel's Cave can never have been "inhabited" in any proper sense of that term, or even much frequented for any purpose whatever, is to he found in the fact that there is not a vestige of a path either from the river hank below or from the hill above leading towards it. Had it at any time been much in use for any purpose, there must have been a path leading to it either from above or from below, and some traces at least, however faint, of such a path, must still exist. We searched and searched, above and below, and round and round, and no trace or vestige at all of such a path could we find. Go, good reader, and see the cave by all means when you have the opportunity; it is a fair enough cave as caves go ; but take our word for it that the attempt to invest the vast dark, damp, slimy antrum with any archa3ological interest is the greatest delusion in the world.


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