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Nether Lochaber
Chapter LXI


Overland from Balluchulish to Oban on a 'Pet Day' in February—Story of Clack Ruric— Castle Stalker: an Old Stronghold of the Stewarts of Appin—James IV.—Charles II.— Magpies—Dun-Mac-Uisneachan.

With all their tendency, in their every reference to the past, to become laudatores temporis acti, the sturdy upholders of the superiority of all that was, in comparison with anything and everything that is, our weather-wise octogenarian friends "here are all agreed that so summer-like a February [1878] month they never knew before. It is true that in making this admission they shake their heads sapiently, and hint that no good can come of such an unnatural commingling of the times and seasons. It will be well, they add, if before cuckoo day (mun d'tliig latlia na cuaig) we haven't to pay for it all in the shape of storm and cold at a time when these are as unseasonable and out of place as is summer calm and summer sunshine now. It was amusing to see these honest old croakers selecting the coziest nooks air chid gaoitlie's air aodain greine, as the Fingalian tale has it,—that is, at the back of the wind and in the face of the sun—and thoroughly enjoying the calm and sunshine at the very moment that they would impress upon us the unnaturalness and unseasonableness of it all. The first fortnight of February was, indeed, wonderfully fine; from the beginning of the month up to the evening of St. Valentine's Day, more like the close of April or early May than anything usually looked for while the sun is still in Aquarius. Driving overland to Oban on the 11th, and, by the ferries of Ballachulish, Shian, and Connel, a very beautiful drive it is, hardly to be equalled elsewhere even in the West Highlands; the day was so bright, and calm, and clear, that while mavis and merle, and hedge-accentor and chaffinch greeted us from copse and hedgerow with their rich and mellow song, the driver, sitting heside us, couldn't help observing as we passed by Appin House, "Na 'n robh chuag again a nis, bha 'n samhradh fhein ann!" "If we had but the cuckoo now, it would be summer its very self!" On the beach, a little above high-water mark, just under Appin House, and within an easy stone's cast of the public road, there is an immense spherical boulder of granite, to which there is attached a curious old story, which invests with additional interest an object deserving enough of attention for its own sake—for the sake, that is, of its huge size and almost perfect spherical form, this latter peculiarity, in the huge solid mass, making it the most remarkable thing of the kind on the mainland, at least of the West Highlands. The story of the Appin House boulder, or Clach Ruric as it is called, is, dropping minor and unessential details, to the following effect:—Long, long ago a Prince of Lochlin or Scandinavia, with a formidable fleet of war galleys, made a descent upon the Hebrides, killing and plundering everywhere with a ruthlessness known only, even in those days of rude lawlessness, to the Yikings of the north. Having thoroughly devastated the islands, Ruric—for such was the Prince's name— steered for the mainland of Morven, and took up his residence in the castle of Mearnaig, in Glensanda. In this stronghold, the ruins of which still exist, he resolved to pass the winter, with the intention of over-running and plundering the adjoining districts in the spring, and afterwards sailing homewards in the calm of summer seas, for his galleys were so deeply laden with booty that he feared to encounter the turbulence of the North Sea at any other season. In the early spring the cruel Northman was betimes astir, killing and plundering with but little opposition throughout the districts of Kingerloch, Sunart, and Ardgour, to the head of Lochiel. While of his numerous fleet a single galley showed more than a foot and a span (troidh agus reis were the words of the narrator) of gunwale unsuhmerged, Euric was unsatisfied, and to complete his ill-gotten freight he resolved on the plunder of the opposite district of Appin, the smoke of whose dwellings could he seen, and the lowing of whose numerous herds could he heard (when the summer morning was still and the Linnhe Loch was calm) hy the pirate prince from the battlements of the castle of Mearnaig. One morning Euric anchored his galleys in the Sound of Shuna, and landing, erected his tents on the green knoll now occupied by Appin House. "With this spot as his head-quarters, it was his intention to plunder the district north and south of him at his leisure, believing that he would meet with as little opposition here as he had already met with elsewhere. The inhabitants of Appin, however, were partly on their guard, and determined to resist, and if possible chastise, the invader. And first conveying their old men, women, and children, with their flocks and herds, into the fastnesses of the upland glens, they resolved to watch the movements of the Norsemen, ready to fall upon them whenever a favourable opportunity should offer. That same night, as some cattle herds, acting as scouts, were on the hill immediately above the tents of the invaders, one of them directed the attention of his companions to a huge granite boulder with so slight a hold of the hill crest, that, with some little labour, it might be let loose at any time—a terrible messenger of wrath—amongst the tents of the enemy below, whose shouts of laughter at that moment, and snatches of rude song, proved that they had feasted plentifully and had no apprehenson of immediate death or danger in any form. After much labour, the herdsmen managed so to dig about and undermine and loosen the boulder in its bed on the hill-face, that, on a given signal, their united strength sufficed to tilt it headlong over the steep, leaping and thundering on its terrible path. The largest trees in its course snapped before the boulder like reeds: when it came into momentary contact with a rock, the sparks flew heavenward as if from an exploded meteor ! In a dozen of bounds it reached the tents of the Norsemen, crushing, mangling, grinding into pulp or powder (a pronnadh agus a bruanadh, are the Gaelic words) everything it touched, and finally stopping where it now stands, to be long regarded by the people of the district with a feeling akin to superstitious awe, and to he known by the name of Clach Ruric. In the morning, the Norsemen could only know by the mangled fragments of their bodies that their Prince, with his two sons, and many of those next to him in power, had met with a terrible death. Before the Appin men could gather in sufficient force to attack them, the Norsemen unmoored their galleys, chanting the death-song of their chief as they unmoored, and set sail for Lochlin, never more to trouble the mainland of the West Highlands with their invasions. The venerable seanachie from whom we picked up this tradition, added that Castle Coefin, or Cyffin, in Lismore, is so called after a Danish prince of that name, who also was connected with Ruric's expedition, though in what manner he was unable to say.

Not far from Clach Ruric, on an island rock in the entrance to the Sound of Shuna, are the ruins of another castle, of a later date, however, and more recent interest than can be attached to the many strongholds of the Viking period perched on the rocks and promontories of this part of the West Highlands. This is Castle Stalker, or, in the language of the district itself, Caisteal-an-Stalcairc, the Castle of the Falconer or Fowler. The small rock-island on which it is built is Sgeir-an-Sgairbh (the sea-rock, or skerry of the cormorant), from very early times the gathering cry at once and rendevous of the Stewarts of Appin in all their maritime expeditions. Castle Stalker dates from about the beginning of the reign of James IV., for whose convenience and accommodation, when, as frequently happened, he extended his hunting expeditions to this district, it was built. Stewart of Appin, who was a great favourite with the king, was appointed hereditary keeper, and the castle continued in the possession of the family until, about the year 1645, the Mac Ian Stewart of that date, in a moment of drunken folly, made it over to his wily neighbour, Donald Campbell of the Airds, receiving in return the handsome and adequate equivalent of an eight-oared birlinn, or small wherry! Stewart, when sober, would have gladly cancelled so manifestly one-sided a barter-bargain at any sacrifice, but Campbell, having got possession, kept it; while the disgraceful transaction so stung the pride of the Stewarts that they practically deposed the Baotliaire (the silly one), as they nicknamed the chief, from his chieftainship, by unanimously electing his cousins of Invernahyle and Ardsheal to be their leaders in the subsequent wars of Montrose. For a short time during Montrose's ascendancy in the Highlands, and for a longer period towards the close of the reign of Charles II., Castle Stalker was again in the possession of the Stewarts; but at the Revolution the Campbells had it all their own way; they repossessed themselves of the castle, and it has remained theirs ever since. About forty years ago a gentleman of the family of A-ilein 'Ic Rob of Appin, who had amassed a considerable fortune in the West Indies, offered the then proprietor a largo sum for the bare rock and ruins of Castle Stalker, but the offer was refused.

From the wooded knoll to the left, as we entered the village of Portnacroish, we heard some notes that,' harsh as they were, delighted us, for we had not heard them for many years; and the reader will perhaps smile when we confess delight in association with what was neither more nor less than the chattering of a pair of magpies! Knowing that it must be magpie chattering and nothing else, though the lively confabulators were for the moment invisible, we got out of our conveyance, and on reaching an open glade we got sight of a pair of these beautiful birds perched on the topmost bough of an old ash tree; and so busy were they in the discussion of what must have been a matter of grave and immediate importance, that the usually shy and wary birds did not notice our approach till we were quite close upon them, when, with a scream of alarm and an indignant flirt of their tails, they glided in graceful curve, rather than flew, over the tree tops and disappeared. So rare has the magpie become in Lochaber and the immediately surrounding districts, that a sight of a pair of these handsome and sagacious birds delighted us exceedingly. We had little difficulty in concluding that their lively chattering on that bright and beautiful morning was about no less important a matter than the propriety of at once putting their house in order and setting about the labours of incubation. If there were any truth in popular superstition, that particular day ought to have afterwards turned out a disagreeable one to us; for had we not seen two magpies together, and what is more, did we not go out of our way to see them, when we might have easily passed on unseen of them, as they were invisible to us? In the south of Scotland the old pyet rhyme is something like this—

"One's joy,
Two's grief,
Three a wedding,
Four death.'

In the old sgeulachd the Gaelic rhyme is of similar import—

In our own case, on that particular occasion, the superstition could not have been more completely falsified by the event, for, maugre the magpies, our trip to Oban was in its every circumstance as agreeable and pleasant as it could well be. What a pity it is that these beautiful birds, whose favourite residence, too, if they were only permitted to live in peace, is the immediate vicinity of human dwellings, should be of su'ch evil repute that gamekeepers everywhere consider themselves justified in accomplishing their utter destruction by every means in their power. Their utter destruction we have said; and it is only as to their total extirpation that we would venture on a word of expostulation with gamekeepers and their employers. It is true that the magpie is an enemy to winged game, being a cunning and persistent nest-robber, an adroiter sucker of eggs than the proverbial " grandmother" herself. That the gamekeeper should therefore dislike them is the most natural thing in the world, and that, in gamekeeper's own phrase, they should " be kept down " is proper enough. But we cannot agree that it is necessary that the bird should be utterly destroyed. Here and there on a wide estate an occasional pair of magpies might surely be tolerated for the sake of their beauty and amusingly lively manners, and on the divine principle of "live and let live." For our own part, in approaching a gentleman's residence, the sight of a pair of these birds flitting about " the old ancestral elms " always intensifies our respect for the place and the owner.

Crossing Loch Creran, by the Ferry of Shian, we are in Bender-loch—classic ground, and archoeologically the most interesting spot, perhaps, in all the West Highlands. "Everything here is beautiful," says Dr. Macculloch. "The distance between the ferries of Shian and Connel is but five miles; but it is a day's journey for a wise man." About half-way is Dim-Mac-Ulsneachain(the Fort of the Son of Uisneach), one of the most interesting of our vitrified forts, qua such, and supposed to be the Beregonium of Hector Boethius, and the site of the still older Selma, the "Hall of Swords" of Ossianic song. That it was a place of importance long before the time of the Dalriad Scots seems very certain ; and, leaving Macpherson's "Ossian" altogether out of the question, there occur in the old Fingalian ballads, and tales of the Feinne, about the antiquity of which there has never been dispute; numberless local references which seem in a very remarkable manner to point to this spot as the principal stronghold in Scotland (for they were of Ireland also) of the Fingalians at one period, and that the most important, perhaps, in their history. "Within a short distance of Dun-Mac-Uisneachain, and commanding it, is a steep, rocky eminence of considerable height, called Dunvallary or Dunvallanry, the etymology of which may be Dun-bhaU'-n-ru/h, the Fortified Place of the King's Town; or Dlni-bhaiV n \'fhrith, the Fort of the Town on the verge of the Hunting Forest. Stretching away towards Connel and Loch Etive is the wide moorland flat of Achnacree, which, with its numerous cairns, Druidical circles, monoliths, and other relics of the olden time, may very well be the ancient "plains of Lora;" Lora itself, frequently mentioned in Ossianic poetry, and meaning Luath shruth, the loud, swift current, par excellence, meeting us face to face, so to speak, in the turbulently impetuous rapids of Connel.


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