Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

Scenes and Stories of the North of Scotland
Chapter II. - The Black Rock, Ross-shire


On the eastern side of the County of Ross, and skirting the shores of the Cromarty Firth, lie the parishes of Kiltearn and Alness, both richly pastoral on their lower levels, both wildly mountainous in the inland regions above and behind. The length of their united coast line is not more than nine or ten miles, but their western boundaries, widening as they recede from the Firth, are lost far out of sight in the central solitudes of the county. The dividing line between these neighbour parishes is the river Aultgraat, which in Gaelic means the ugly or fearsome burn. That picturesque stream takes its rise in the dark waters of Loch Glass, which itself lies almost hidden beneath the northern shadows of the massive Ben Wyvis. Its early course, between the lower moorland slopes of that monarch mountain and the precipitous rocky sides of Ben Diollaide,—the Saddle mountain,—is tame and peaceful—here a rippling, gurgling current over a stony beach—there a drowsy crawl through a long, dark pool, edged by banks of heather and bog myrtle. By and by, a few miles from the loch, its career becomes more stirring and eventful. Approaching the outer edge of a wooded knoll, it suddenly stumbles in among rugged cliffs and giant boulders, which force the angry and reluctant torrent to bend aside abruptly to the left. Then, after a series of wild cascades, the last wildest and grandest of all, it siuks, panting and fuming, into the bottom of a deep ravine, one side clothed with lofty larch trees, the other with rugged, stony banks of heather. These are the picturesque, but little known, Falls of the Aultgraat, of which, in due course, we must speak in more detail. For several miles more, ever growing in volume, the river runs on, by the yellow cliffs and scars, through the meadows and fields, of the open Glen Glass. Then comes the singular and most impressive feature of its scenery—the great crisis in their history through which all its waters must pass—the chasm of the Black Rock. Let me here turn aside for a sentence or two to say that the name Black Rock is a most unsuitable one. Those who have never seen it will at once picture to themselves one solitary mass of rock, with some peculiar interest attached to it, instead of a long, deep, narrow ravine, as is the reality. Gorge, chasm, ravine,—any one of these is more truly descriptive of the awe-inspiring phenomenon, though none expresses at all adequately its quite unique features.

Glen Glass does not, like most others of the name, open outward to the sea, Three miles at least from the Cromarty Firth, the wide-spreading sides of the glen curve rapidly inward until the steep banks on either side press nearer and still nearer to the channel of the river. At length the unsuspecting waters come face to face with two lofty rocky portals, between which they must plunge whether they will or no; and then—farewell for a mile and a half to sunshine and calm and liberty ! The grim gateway, which never tells its secret to the waters as they come dancing along, closes in upon them at once, and forms the entrance to a chasm long and deep, between whose narrow and sunless walls the stream must fight its troubled way to the open sky and the song of birds and the bright flowers, which, as yet, are far away. At the further end, the lofty iron gates, much like those facing the glen above, unfold themselves amid a mass of foliage, and bid good speed to the waters as they start again on their race to the sea. The chasm from end to end lies in a deep depression, having a steep pine-covered wood on the one hand, and the sloping fields of a fine farm on the other. Both edges of the gorge, which here and there almost kiss each other at the surface, are clothed with trees and shrubs, and decked with brown heather and wild flowers; and no stranger would suspect even its presence until he stood upon the very brink, but for the hoarse, sullen roar of the imprisoned waters, deep down almost under his feet. The depth of the chasm varies at different points, but cannot be less, during greater part of its course, than one hundred and ten to one hundred and thirty feet, while the sides in many places are no more than seventeen feet apart. The simplest means of sounding the ravine is by the clear drop of a stone from the edge above to the water below; but there are very few places indeed, where a straight and unbroken fall can be secured.

Approaching the brink from the pathway, and throwing one’s arm round a sturdy branch, what do we see? Peering downward into the darkness, far, far beneath our feet, between the gruesome walls, we catch glimpses, in spots or streaks of flickering light, of the rushing, whirling, boiling torrent below. Though I venture to claim that [ know more of the chasm than most people, no words that come to me can describe the infinite freaks and .strange fortunes of the waters, “cribbed, cabined, and confined ” in this pit-like channel. Sometimes they rush forward straight and strong between two opposing ledges; sometimes they stumble, suddenly and at unawares, over an obstructing ridge; anon they whirl in serpent-like coils round and round a foaming caldron; yet again they plunge into a pit or tunnel in the rock to emerge again —no one knows where, and no one knows how. Very sad too and weary—ever sad and weary—are the burdens of song they bear. Heard from a distance, the voices of the chasm are but one low dull murmur, but, if you listen attentively, sympathetically, as you go along the pathway, you may catch at intervals every note in the whole gamut of sad passion and wild emotion. Now we hear a sulky roar, as of a wild beast crawling from his den; again, a weary sigh, as of a hapless hopeless lover; at times it seems an eerie wail as of an infant alone in the night; at times a wild dirge, sinking and swelling, as when the clan bewails its fallen chief. But while you look for glimpses of the waters, and hearken to their ever-changing music, do not forget to mark how wild and grand are the rocky walls of this deep dark rent in mother earth. They present every possible variety of form and combination to be found in the Old Red Conglomerate. Here, there is a sloping ledge as smooth as pudding-stone can ever be ; there, a bluff corner behind which the shadows are black as night. More frequently to be found than perhaps any other form is a scooped-out hollow like the valve of a gigantic shell, sometimes widening into bays, sometimes deepening into dripping caves. Mingling with these in such confusion and strange succession as cannot be told, are innumerable capes and corries, gulfs and groins, columns and buttresses, fissures and crevices—their variety and mystery adding fresh charm to each new reach of the channel that is visible to mortal eye. Clothing both sides of the chasm all along its course are shrubs, and grasses, and wild flowers of many a genus and hue, while many varieties of the matchless fern cling to the overhanging cliffs, and mock the almost irresistible longing to pluck them and carry off as treasure trove their exquisite and delicate fronds.

Such are a few, feebly pictured, of the striking features of the chasm. But there come times—ever and anon, at wide intervals—when all these, well marked though they be, seem blotted, one might think irretrievably, out of existence. It is when winter snows, or autumn rains, have streamed down in glittering silver from the mountains round Glen Glass and have raised the Aultgraat into high flood. Then the surging waters, panting passionately for the ocean, rise half-way or sometimes more up the walls of the chasm, covering all its blackness out of sight, smothering all its varied voices in one continuous thunderous roar; and then they sweep down in the resistless rush of their tawny flood every loose boulder and tree stump which lies, and may long have lain, hidden in its many and mysterious recesses. Whither, you may ask, are these waifs and strays borne? Whither, as to their final destination, no man can tell; but in the first instance, they are swept out of the chasm and down to the centre of the open arena— the basement of that most lovely amphitheatre—where the Aultgraat emerges from its imprisonment. What a scene of picturesque beauty is that! The waters, wearied-looking after their long struggle in the cruel darkness, creep out, almost motionless, between two pillars of rock, whose capitals are real foliage, and whose feet are fringed with foam. Then they settle down to rest them in a broad brown pool, whose inner end is hidden from view among the jutting corners of rock, while its outer margin sweeps round in a graceful curve at our feet. What a change— so bright and happy—in the fortunes of the stream! A sweet, almost sacred, repose settles on its face as it breathes again the free air of heaven.. Pleased and patient, it suffers the strings of green leaves above to mirror themselves on its bosom. It delights to lap with a gentle kiss the feet of the brown rocks, which have stood off from one another to permit of its release. Let us now look round about and up above us. On every hand we are shut in by high, steep, and richly-wooded banks, which open widely and cheerfully to the sky. Near the chasm they have deep, shady recesses and clefts, the loved home and shelter of many varieties of fern and other wild flowers. The conglomerate pillars which overlook the pool are crowned with waving foliage, and the airy sprays stretch across and almost meet over the languid waters. Looking backward from the edge of the pool where we now stand, we cannot see, though we may guess, at what point the stream, starting on its career again, makes its escape among the trees. From out the chasm in seasons of high flood are tossed great boulders and shapeless masses of stone, which are piled up in rugged confusion beyond the margin of the great pool. A few small trees and shrubs and wild flowers lead a precarious life among the mammoth blocks, which seem the debris of some primeval quarry, or the unused material of some ancient temple. Over and among these masses we are permitted to-day—for we dare not be here in flood time—to wander as we will, and watch the waters play in their changing moods and manners, and guess as best we can whence these great stones came. Perhaps some of them were first torn from their parent strata away among the heights of Torridon and Gruinard on the Atlantic seaboard. Ploughed up it may be by glacial currents, or worn down from mountain sides, the larger blocks may have come hither a far journey ; while the smaller stones, washed away from field or heathery banks, lie now among roots and branches which almost seem as if they would dare to grow again. There they all lie, in one bleached, broken mass, and shall lie till the next great flood lifts and scatters them again.

Perhaps, while we sit here among the boulders, you may ask how the chasm of the Black Rock came to be formed ? There are two chief theories, differing widely in many respects, each of which can boast of at least one great name in its support. Being no geologist, my wisdom is to state both views as briefly and simply as I can, and let the reader choose which he considers most in accordance with evidence and common sense. Hugh Miller, the noble stone-mason of Cromarty in his early days, speaks of the chasm as a gigantic fault or fissure in the Conglomerate—first filled with boulder clay or some form of rocky debris, and afterwards, slowly but steadily, washed down and washed out by the raging river. Professor Geikie thinks the channel has been water-worn from first to last, from top to bottom, even out of the stern Conglomerate itself. Apparently the extreme hardness of the rock in the former case, and the scooped form of the walls in the latter, supply the main arguments on the respective sides. Under either theory, what a veteran world is this in which we live! How many ages have gone by since the unwearied Aultgraat began its strange task? It is doubtful if the attrition of the rocks has amounted all over to even one inch in several centuries. Who then can venture to prophesy backwards to the origin of the work? Having travelled in thought to the ages now far behind us, we may surely, without harming anyone, indulge in a little innocent speculation. Perhaps, in the far back days of the Olympian Court, old Mother Ge—the Earth—gave some offence to one of the assembled gods. Burning to avenge himself, the angry notable struck her a terrific blow with his battle axe, and the long, deep, lacerated wound remains to this day in the fearsome chasm of the Aultgraat. The trees and shrubs have done their best to hide their Mother’s sorrow; but the prying eyes of nineteenth-century travellers will not be cheated of their delights for nothing.

Before dealing with incidents or stories connected with the Black Rock itself, here is one from each of the two parishes which meet between its banks.

Among the Highland clans long ago, there were frequent and sore disputes—often ending in bloodshed—as to questions of territories and boundaries. Not a few of these arose in spite of many efforts and varied methods, by which the interested parties sought to prevent their recurrence. One device which was sometimes practised —whether in Ross-shire or not, I am not certain—was as peculiar as it was cruel. The chiefs and leaders of two clans, many of them old men, met upon the marches of their respective lands. Each band took with them a number of growing; lads from their families. When the companies arrived at the spot from which they were to draw the frontier line, they stripped bare the hacks of the young men, and then, forming a procession of which these were the central line, lashed and scourged their stripling sons along every foot of the track as they went. Crawling along, pained and bleeding, under this process of torture, it was thought certain that every step of the march line must be cut deeply, indelibly, on the memories of the rising generation. When they, in their turn, came to be chiefs and leaders of the clans, they would still remember their bitter lesson, and the way in which it was taught them. Methinks I hear some kindly reader exclaim, “What a barbarous, hideous practice! What cruel wretches these chiefs and clansmen must have been! ”Not so fast, my good friend! Some of us, who do not yet care to be called old, know something on a small scale of the same system. What about those venerable appliances of education, the tawse and the cane? Are there none of them seen in schools now-a-days? Are they all in the Antiquarian Museums? I fear they are not; but my business now is with the past. Some of us know that by means of these sweet instruments of torture, an attempt at least was made—whether successful or not—to carve into us the difference between vulgar and proper fractions, and between a subject with its attributes and a predicate with its extensions. My own feeling is, that the system did not work very well; but of course I am only one among very many. At all events, it did not perfectly serve its purpose in the North, for in spite of it, quarrels often arose and grew serious. On one occasion a great dispute fell out between the Baron of Fowlis, the chief of the Munroes, on the one hand, and the Laird of Tulloch on the other—the question at issue being one of boundary. Let me digress for a moment to mention a curious circumstance about the Munroes of Fowlis. It is said that they first obtained a charter or deed securing them their lands on condition that at any time of the year they should on demand present the king with a snowball from Ben Wyvis. They are never likely to lose their possessions through any failure as to the condition, for I know that snow ball fights have taken place on Ben Wyvis on the very last days of July. But to return. The crucial point between Fowlis and Tulloch was whether a certain stone lay on the lands of the one or of the other. On an appointed day arbiters were chosen and witnesses called. The case proceeded in the rough and ready fashion common to such tribunals. At length, one of the men of Tulloch came forward, and boldly planting his feet close by the stone in dispute, exclaimed, “ The soil on which I stand belongs to Tulloch. For some reason or other, the Munroes doubted his testimony and suspected stratagem of some sort, so they threw him on the ground and stripped off his shoes. These articles were discovered to be thickly lined with earth within. Further inquiry and perhaps a little gentle torture elicited the confession that the earth had been taken that morning from Tulloch garden, so that he might be able to swear as he had done, and yet escape, as he hoped, the guilt of perjury. His punishment was as speedy as it was sharp. They dragged him to the fatal stone itself, and there—whether beside it or on it, we are not told— chipped off first one and then the other of his ears. He was spared the infliction of hearing the curses which followed him into disgrace. The Stone of the Ears still remains in the uplands of Kiltcarn.

The parish of Alness is most extensive; and even in its remoter regions there are glens which contain a fair sprinkling of crofter families. Nominally, the whole population is under the care of the parish minister; but most people know well that, at the time of the famous Disruption of 1843, the great mass of the people left the Establishment, and cast in their lot with the Free Church. The clergy who remained in the State Church were called "Moderates,” because, in the opinion of the people, they were chargeable with lukewarmness both as to Christian doctrine and Church principles. One of these was presented to the parish of Alness not long after the Disruption, and though his own congregation did not probably exceed a dozen, resolved to act upon the principle that he was everybody’s minister whether they would or no. Following out this idea, he began a systematic visitation, and called upon all and sundry, even upon those who might be called adversaries. It happened that one day he visited a Free Church elder, who was no friend of the “ Moderates.” The minister did his very best to be affable and conciliatory, but his reception was cold, and, in fact, little more than civil. At length, without any special intention in the act, he drew his snuff-box from his pocket, and invited the elder to make trial of its contents. A decided thaw set in immediately.

“Oh, ye tak’ snuff, do ye?” said the Free Kirk man, yielding to a gentle smile. .

“Oh, yes,” replied his visitor, somewhat afraid lest the admission might lead him into trouble. I take snuff: but what of that?”

“Weel,” said the elder, with a look of satisfaction to which probably the excellent snuff contributed its full share, that’s the first sign o’ grace I’ve seen aboot ye."

“Sign of grace!” rejoined the minister, with no little surprise, but glad that a promising vein of conversation had at length been opened. “How do you make out that the habit of taking snuff is a sign of grace?”

“Nothing easier" said the elder, with a knowing twinkle in his eye. “Don’t you remember that in the temple of old all the snuffers were of pure gold, which denotes the best of all qualities?”

Was ever proof so cogent or conclusive? And yet, somehow, it fairly upset the gravity of the minister. Perhaps it was the breezy freshness of the logic which shook his sides with laughter. What a pity there is no record of the sequel of the interview!

But we must return to the Black Rock itself.

No one will wonder that legend and story have gathered thickly around scenes so impressive and mysterious. Never can I think of the Black Rock without waking into memory the image of the Lady of Balcony. Her tragic adventure and fate have been admirably told by Hugh Miller in his “Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland.” By all means read the story there, if you can lay your hands upon the volume. For the benefit of those who have not within reach Miller's full and graphic narrative, let me tell the story as briefly as I can. The Lady of Balcony, a property down by the shores of the Cromarty Firth, spent much of her time wandering to and fro on the banks of the Aultgraat.

The fear-haunted neighbourhood of the dark chasm possessed for her a peculiar fascination. Her companion in these rambles was a simple Highland girl, who was deeply attached to her mistress. One night, just as the sun was setting, the lady terrified her maid by proposing to enter the chasm not far above the great pool. In spite of all the girl’s entreaties and efforts to detain her, the mistress was determined to have her way, and shaking free of her maid, stepped downward through the brushwood by the dizzy brink of the gorge. Just then a tall stranger, dressed in green, came from behind, and, speaking in commanding tones, pressed his services upon the Lady, and led her down into the rocky shadows. A few moments before she disappeared, she flung her household keys upward to her maid. They struck a gigantic granite boulder—a traveller ages ago from the far west—and left upon its surface their deep and permanent impress. The poor girl, distracted with alarm and grief, returned to tell her sad story ; she saw her loved mistress no more.

One day, many years after, an angler named Donald, servant to a lady who lived near by, had been unusually successful in filling his basket with trout. Selecting so many to carry to his mistress, he hid a goodly number under a bush, intending to present them to his mother. On his return he found that the trout which he had left at the Black Rock were gone, but he could trace their scales among the weeds along the very brink. Being-brave, and at the same time angry and curious, he carefully followed the track, and after many a dangerous slip and dark turn found himself down close by the raging current. There, in a gloomy cavern, its entrance guarded by two dogs, he found the Lady of Balcony busily engaged in the homely duty of baking. Donald entered her strange abode, and after some conversation strongly urged her to make her escape; but such was the dread inspired by her mysterious gaoler, that she would not listen to any suggestion in the direction of such an attempt. At length Donald bade the Lady farewell, and prepared to leave the cavern. Springing back between the two dogs when the Lady flung a lump of leaven to each of them, he returned to the upper world again to tell of his strange adventure. Never since that hour has the Lady of Balcony been seen; but the natives often speak of her and her sad fate. Their story—perhaps their belief—is, that her cruel gaoler is none other than “ Black Donald ” himself, the Prince of Darkness ; and when they see the white mist rising over the tree-tops above the chasm, they whisper, as they toil in the neighbouring fields, that the Lady is busy at her old occupation in her cavern home.

Once upon a time—how long ago, I shall not say,—I formed one of a happy party—chiefly young people of both sexes—who visited the Black Rock. After spending some time by the black pool where the chasm terminates, we took the pathway which runs by its side all the way upward to the glen. Skirting the northern bank, the first object worthy of notice was the great boulder on which the keys of Balcony so decisively made their mark. We felt that it would be interesting to see and examine with one’s own eyes evidence—tangible, sensible, evidence, which might confirm the truth of the legend. If such evidence were abundant and valuable, we should have the means of convincing any persons who might be disposed to smile and shake their sceptical heads at the story. Alas, that so many now-a-days do not scruple to question what is venerable and sacred! To us thus pondering, two difficulties presented themselves. In the first place, we were on the wrong side of the chasm—or rather the boulder very stupidly was so, that is, for us; and none of us felt inclined to emulate the adventurous spirits who had climbed across upon trees where the branches met and mingled over the gloomy abyss. You may also if you like take it for granted that we did not make the attempt because we should have to leave the ladies behind, which would be neither pleasant nor polite. Such was our first difficulty. The other was of a kind which would have met us even if we had succeeded in crossing the chasm. At some time or other of which we have no record, some one, evidently very much stronger than any of us, had very thoughtlessly and indeed wickedly turned the boulder upside down. The consequence of course is that the deep moulds in which the keys imbedded themselves are now on the under side, and, alas! cannot be seen. This is very provoking, because it would be somewhat troublesome to reverse the boulder again. I am doubtful whether all our party could have done it without some effort. It has since occurred to me that the evil deed mav have been done by “Black Donald ” himself. Just suppose he were arrested by the local constable and taken to Dingwall, there to be tried for his theft of the Lady and her detention in so miserable a captivity. Think then of the story as the poor maid, with many sobs, might narrate it; and you will at once see the grounds of my suspicion. Trembling—perhaps for years—at the very thought of standing at the bar of the Sheriff Court, who could have so strong a motive as he for the concealment of marks which in skilful hands might lead to a verdict of “Guilty” against him? My conjecture, therefore, is that, with such a possibility before him, he some day or other put his shoulder to the boulder, tilted it over, and left it on the bed where it now rests. If any demur to this view, I have only to remind them how valuable a little speculation and hypothesis have often been in the advancement of science.

A little further along the path we came to the spot whence of all others the most awe-inspiring glimpses of the chasm are to be obtained. Here the unearthly-looking fissure is narrower, deeper, and darker than anywhere else in its course. You may see, almost on your own level, the overhanging ledges under which rich beds of exquisite ferns find the shelter and moisture they need ; then rugged corners and caves of rock, which deeper and still deeper down are involved, and their shadows with them, in almost midnight darkness; and yet again, far off and down in the very bottom of the abyss one little gleam of trembling light—the only token that the river still lives and breathes below. Just over this spot, we came to the remains of a bridge which had once spanned the darkness, and by which the natives of the glen above passed to and from the nearest village. It is said that the last to cross that bridge was a foolhardy old woman, who was on her homeward way late at night. Her only company was the peat cart in which she sat, and the Highland sheltie which wearily dragged it along. So soon as her pony’s feet were on the bridge, she began to hear the timbers crackle and creak under her, and she lashed her steed to greater speed. She was only saved as by a single inch. Ere she fully reached the further end, the whole structure had crumbled into broken wreckage behind her, and the timbers crashed behind the wheels of her cart like splintering ice in a treacherous thaw. Surely hers was a case not less terrible, and even more true, than that of the immortal Tam O’ Shanter himself, when good old Meg and he just won the key-stane of the Brig o’ Doon..

Less than twenty yards further we halted to eugage in a juvenile sport which has many attractions, even for elderly visitors—that of hurling stones, the larger the better, into the chasm. Almost from the moment they leave the hand, they drop out of sight beneath the ledges in front of you; but you can hear them strike once, twice, thrice, sometimes four or five times, on each side alternately, and then sink with a sepulchral gulp into the torrent below. Once a strong Galloway dyke ran along for a good mile between the pathway and the fields. Now it is all gone—pitched piecemeal, and by thousands of hands, into the all-devouring jaws of the gorge. After scores of smaller stones had been thrown in, we looked all about us for larger material. At last we lit upon a broad, flat stone lying on the bank above the path, and two of us set about the work of dislodging it from its bed. A large group of expectant spectators awaited the result of our labours. In due time, as you shall presently see, the whole company, in greater or lesser degree, reaped the fruits of our toil. My comrade and I raised the stone between us, and—in a moment—dropped it like the proverbial hot potato. We were in horror and dismay. Right beneath the stone had been a powerful and populous nest of wasps, who now sallied forth and took the field in gallant style against the foe. A few critical moments, as in all great battles, ensued. The wasps were evidently under skilful leadership. A certain number— say, half-a-dozen, more or fewer—were told off to attack each lady and gentleman of the company, and they played their part well. Though they were my enemies on that occasion, I can now, after the heat and bitterness of the struggle are over, bear them witness that they did their duty bravely and zealously to the end. You will allow me to mention, with all modesty, that my comrade and I had the honour of being selected for special attention, and that by larger numbers than any of our friends. There may have been a reason for this—it may even have been because of some blue blood in our veins. But the engagement was over in less time than I have taken to describe it. Mankind, both male and female, fought wildly from the first, smiting their own noses and cheeks as frequently and impartially as those of the enemy. Then an unfortunate panic set in, and what might have been only a mild defeat became a rout. Never was there a more real and vivid illustration of the delicate Scotch proverb that a certain gentleman should take the hindmost. In a few brief moments, the whole army of the aggressors—for such we certainly had been—pursued by the now victorious garrison, fled in disorder and deshabille from the scene of confiict, leaving a scattered variety of hats, coats, shawls, handkerchiefs, and parasols dead upon the field. Even when one or two of us returned to gather up these lost remains, we were again assailed by skirmishers from the enemy’s host. We cannot pass from the historical record of such an engagement as this without a word or two as to the cause or causes of defeat. These were, in my opinion, two: first, the superior organization of the enemy; and, second, the fact that they were armed with weapons of precision. We had nothing but fingers, sticks, umbrellas, and articles of clothing; they were provided with instruments of war of which you may see full descriptions in books of natural history. These things made all the difference; and it is neither just nor fair for any man to throw out hints as to want of courage and the like in the face of the explanation which I have just given.

The Black Rock would not be ideally complete without the addition of a ghost story to its records. Such an attraction, though of a very harmless kind, I am happily able to supply, and at the same time to give the assurance that it will cost no one even an hour’s sleep. Permit me first of all to say that what follows is absolute fact, relating to actual persons then living ; and if the heroine, for such she was in my young eyes, should chance to see these pages, she is greatly changed for the worse if she will not, with a merry, ringing laugh, and a twinkle in her eye, forgive the writer for the liberty he takes in recording her doings.

On the hillside, above the Black Rock, stands a small castellated mansion-house, and near by it a farmhouse with its steading and other out-buildings. At the back of the farm premises lies a small mill pond, with a row of ploughmen’s cottages upon one side and their cabbage gardens upon the other. In the big-house, more than thirty years ago, lived a middle-aged medical man, who had retired from the army in shattered health. His companion in this Highland retreat was an only daughter, still in the brightness of her teens, whom we shall call Miss Maxwell. She it was who acted the chief part in the scenes I have now to describe. She was moved to design and execute her pranks by impulses which can easily be understood. A daughter of the regiment, accustomed to the gay life of London West, and naturally brimful of life and fun, the monotonous quiet of her new home, within hearing of the weary sobbing and sighing of the Anltgraat, was more than she could endure. Her pent-up energy and bounding spirits must have vent in some form or other. Even riding and fishing were not sufficient, though good enough in their way. At length she found a measure of relief in some lively adventures, in which she sustained the double role of author and actor. Late one evening, as darkness was falling on the Black Rock woods and the Firth beyond, one or two of the ploughmen stood by their cottage doors ready to wish each other good night, and retire to rest. Suddenly, in the gardens on the opposite side of the pond, a strange apparition presented itself, and attracted their wondering gaze. It was a tall, white, stately figure, above middle height, with no head which could be distinguished from the body, yet crowned with four short, thick horns of the same pure snow colour as the drapery below. To and fro among the plots of carrots and cabbages, and sometimes on the grassy bank beside the sluice, walked the unearthly-looking visitor with silent and dignified step. The strange being seemed wholly wrapped up in thought and reverie of his or her own. Very soon all the waking inmates of the cottages were at their doors and at their wits’ end besides. No one dared to cry, Who are you? or, Where do you come from? nor did anyone attempt to approach or disturb the stately stranger. By and by, as midnight drew near, the fairy-like figure slipped away in the deepening darkness, and was no more seen. What sleep there was that night in the ploughmen’s cottages, I cannot tell; but the vision over the mill pond was all the talk of the fields next day. On two points there was entire unanimity of opinion—the absolute objective reality of the figure, and the “uncanny,” if not unearthly, nature of the visitation ; but beyond these all was uncertainty and conjecture. If I remember aright, no solution of the mystery was found until, a week or two after, another startling occurrence took place.

Once more “the shades of night were falling fast,” or had already fallen, for the “witching hour” of midnight was not far off, when the farmer was aroused from sleep and told that the grieve, or farm steward, wished to see him. Not a little wondering what this might mean, the master hurried to the door.

“Well, John, what’s the matter now?” was naturally the first question.

“Please, sir, ’am sorry to trouble ye, but ’am wantin’ ye to come oot to the west field,” said the grieve timidly, for he did not wish to make his fearful disclosure too abruptly. The master, however, was impatient.

“What for? Can’t you tell, man? Out with it, and be done with it.”

“Well, sir, it’s my own belief that the devil is on Mettle, an’ ye maun jist come an’ see for yersel.”

So the murder was out! Mettle was a strong, useful gray mare, which had been left, along with the other horses, in a grass field over night. Evidently there was something in the wind, and inquiry must be made; so the farmer prepared to accompany his servant, the former being not a little tickled and curious, the latter filled with misgiving and somewhat hurt that his master showed such coolness, not to say levity, of manner. Just as they were about to start from the farm-house, John appeared to hang back, as if reluctant to go. It appears he had a suggestion to make, for when the farmer asked him to come along, he modestly gave the advice, “Please, sir, ye’d better take the gun wi’ ye.”

With a scornful laugh the master refused to do anything of the kind, and they made off in all haste for the scene of mystery. Certainly, the farmer did not expect to see what he did. There, in very deed and truth, was his good mare Mettle, sometimes walking quickly, sometimes trotting slowly, round the field, and on her back a long graceful figure dressed in purest white. Apparently the farmer, like a certain great writer, did not believe in ghosts because he had seen so many of them. With irreverent daring, he approached the fair vision ; and, alas ! the mystery was all too soon dispelled.

“How do you do, Mr B-? What a jolly night it is! I hope you were not very much frightened. Say you’re not angry with me, do; there's a good man!"

Need I say that it was the voice of Miss Maxwell, who jumped down from her unpaid-for seat, and heartily shook hands with the farmer. There was more of the ring of laughter than the rasping tones of anger as they left the field together. I believe the sprightly girl was forgiven on the spot, though I should not wonder if one or two words of serious counsel were edged in. This much is certain, there was not a particle of hypocrisy among the ploughmen that night. They felt very foolish, and being honest men, they looked exactly as they felt. Perhaps one of them dreamt about ghosts and guns. Next day everyone knew that Miss Maxwell was the performer in the first scene as well. The strange form she had then assumed was easily explained. Draping herself in white, she had taken a chair and turned it upside down upon her head. Over the four feet, as they stuck up in the air, she flung another sheet. Then to produce the horns, she threw up a stone, and let it fall right in between the legs of the chair. Thus did the mystery of those formidable objects come into being. The bold pranks of a lovely, but very lively, young lady are among those things which are not always dreamt of in our philosophy.”

In the early part of this chapter mention was made of the Falls of the Aultgraat, some four miles above the Black Rock ; but they deserve much fuller notice. They are, so far as I can judge, the most picturesque falls in the northern counties, with the possible exception of Glomak in Kintail, which, I am almost ashamed to say, 1 have not yet seen. There are two reasons why they are as yet comparatively unknown, and have, therefore, hitherto received but scanty public appreciation. In the first place, they are situated in that same glen out of which the Aultgraat passes into the dingy defile of the Black Rock, and they, of course, suffer from this proximity to a great sight. A visit to the famous chasm is enough for most people in one day, and they will scarcely thank you for telling them that there is another object of attraction four miles further up the river. Moreover, the road up the glen is on the north side, from which the falls cannot be seen to any advantage; while the track up the south side means serious work. It involves some rough climbing, and the difficult, if not dangerous, crossing of a mountain torrent, over which there is no bridge whatever. This candid mention of the somewhat arduous nature of the journey may deter some who are not fit for it, which is good; it will, I hope, stimulate many more to make the attempt, which will be still better. All that is wanted is a fair measure of activity and courage, which will meet with ample reward. Never yet have I heard from any who have really seen them, a different opinion of the falls from that which I have expressed above.

Having frequently acted as guide, I can, from some experience, describe the route by the south side of the river. The road, which you may join a little way above the upper end of the Black Bock, soon descends into the bottom of the glen. Take care that you quit the highway opposite a deserted house among trees by the riverside. Thence you skirt the banks of the stream among straggling bushes and shrubs, having on the right a level field, and behind it a steep, gravelly cliff, along the face of which the road wends its upward way to a plateau above. By and by, you arrive at a very remarkable suspension bridge, by which you must cross the river. Two rude pillars of stone stand on opposite sides of the noisy, bustling stream. These are crowned by rough woodwork, over which are stretched in long graceful bend threads of wire such as are used for ordinary fencing. From these again are suspended a few narrow planks of wood, which form the footway ; and so the wonderful structure is complete. Even the wind may sway it to and fro at pleasure. Might I here make a suggestion to the “authorities”—I need not name them—one which might tend to the saving of precious human life. It is this, that a weighing machine with the usual slot apparatus be erected at the near end of the bridge, because there are certain parties not of the spare order who, for their own sakes, should not be permitted to cross at all, especially if they be suspected of any suicidal tendencies; while only a limited number, say, one and a half, even of those who are of lighter capacity, should be allowed to venture at a time. Those who are fond of swing motion, lateral or perpendicular, may indulge their fancy to their hearts’ content, and at their own risk, just over the middle of the stream.

When last I crossed this remarkable bridge, there were two of our party, young gentlemen, left behind, but plain directions had been given them how to follow. However, to make assurance doubly sure, we scratched a few words of further guidance on a piece of paper—the characters being Greek—and stuck them on the wire at one end of the bridge, where they could hardly fail to attract the notice of our friends. Later on, these young gentlemen did overtake us, but protested that they had never seen anything of the message. There are only two rational explanations of this circumstance. The one affects not perhaps the character, but at all events the cult are, of the individuals in question. They were students at the “Toun’s College” of Edinburgh. What if, notwithstanding their university training, they could not decipher the Greek letters—I have seen as much where you would not expect it—and therefore destroyed the paper to prevent the discovery of their ignorance and incapacity? Please do not tell either the retired B— or the busy B— of the Greek chair in Edinburgh! It would be a pity to burden them with so sorrowful a supposition. The second hypothesis relates to the inhabitants of the glen, and is of a more favourable and cheering nature. The question is, what became of the paper? Perhaps some native, say, a herd boy, thirsting after the heights of human knowledge, had discovered the precious fragment, and carried it off in triumph. Had it been vulgar, every-day English, he would never have fingered the worthless thing; but the temptation of Greek—was it not the language of Sophocles and Demosthenes?—may have been too much for his virtue. Who can for a moment doubt, if this be true, that the future prospects of classical scholarship in the Highlands—at all events in Glen Glass—are very bright indeed?

From the rustic suspension bridge, the path struggles onward by the river side among trees and shrubs and heathery grass—its margin sprinkled with many-coloured flowers, between ferny banks and burrows both above and below. Then the track, now becoming uncertain, slants upward over broken banks to the well-defined site of an old farm, which I can well remember as the happy home of a decent and industrious crofter family. Only the sheep now ’wander among the fallen stones ; perhaps the deer visit them in the stress of winter. It is a case of "old homes and new tenants."’ Well did a speaker some years ago say, “When Christ asked, How much more then is a man better than a sheep? he sowed the seed of a whole harvest of revolutions.” Soon after passing the deserted croft, we reached the edge of a wild, deep ravine, through which roared and tumbled a sprightly mountain torrent, ever gabbling over the story of its descent from Ben Wyvis. Here all must encounter the difficulty of the journey. If there has been much recent rain, you had better be content with the Black Rock, for this stream will be quite impassable; but if the weather has been fairly dry for a time, you may run your chance of getting over. As to the method, there is nothing for it but to spring from stone to stone over the rushing currents between them, and reach at length the opposite bank. If you dip one foot, or even both, in the water, and that be all your mishap, you are fortunate ; worse cases have occurred.

Mounting the steep slope now in front, you reach a grassy path along the hill side, and can hear the roar of the falls a little way in advance, and see the wooded knoll under which they hide from vulgar gaze. At length, with the ponderous mass of Ben Wyvis full in view, we reach our journey’s end. There are two series of cascades which must be seen separately, for both are not visible from any one point. In the first, the river, after a peaceful and happy childhood, creeps in between two rugged, rocky knolls, and as it does so, finds a wild succession of ugly boulders and out-jutting ledges and obstructing masses in its path. Over these, or under them, or between them, the undaunted stream pours its broken waters, till brown rock and grey ledge and dark pool and yellow cascade meet in a confused medley of colour and form and sound, which sinks down into an inky pool below. Thence again the black waters, with ragged threads of white upon their crawling surface, slink away toward the right behind a bushy spur of rock. In this wild fall and stealthy flight, the river, which came to meet us face to face between the opposing rocks above, has turned abruptly, right in front of us, and crept out of sight to prepare for its second and far grander descent. No one who has an eye to the wild and picturesque will, by uttering any complaint, make true the words of the poet:

“Nature, disturbed,
Is deemed vindictive to have changed her course.”

Now we must make a wide circuit and steep descent to a far lower level. Here we cautiously step along a narrow ledge of rough conglomerate covered with heather, ferns, and blaeberries until we arrive right in front of the second—which is the most impressive, series of cascades. How shall I describe what we now behold? We sit or kneel on the brink of a perpendicular rough wall, over which we dare scarcely look; and the great, black, ovalshaped basin between that wall and the cataracts opposite lies some fifty feet below us. The chief and most interesting cascade is right in front of us, and we can scan its course from top to bottom. Up against the western sky is a brown, mossy bank crowned with crested fir trees between whose red, naked stems we can watch the ever-changing light of the declining sun. Beneath that bank is a gravelly scar of yellow and orange on whose overhanging face some green plants and mountain flowers cling to a precarious life. A little to the left, right up against the scar, stands a sharp, rocky spur, painted over with trailing green, the same behind which we saw the upper waters disappear. Its head is adorned with fresh foliage, and its base sinks imperceptibly into a broad, mural precipice below.

From behind that sharp spur, which the floods have almost made an island, the chastened waters, modest alike in manner and dimensions, creep quietly out into the light, and then! what a fate seems to await their coming! If the weather be fine, and if as a consequence the volume of water be small, we behold a most curious phenomenon. The water takes a spring from the top as if it would drop sheer down without a break into the sullen pool beneath. But no! that is not its fate! It slips instead down the rocky face into a cup-like hollow, and for a space disappears out of sight. But the cup is bottomless, for the stream has bored it through, and the waters pour down the rock again into another dark basin. What looked like the rim of a cup becomes a brown collar tied over the snowy neck of the cascade. Again we look for the waters. There is no visible trace of them on the face of the rock; but when we carefully observe the surface of another black basin still lower down, we can see by their bubbling and coiling that the adventurous waters have entered it from behind or beneath. In this resting-place also, they tarry for a little time; then, pouring over the rim, they fall in a broad band of yellow and white, edged with a glittering lace of dewdrops, into the unknown depths of the creeping black pool below.

A little to the left of this singular fall, there is a slanting fissure in the rock, which extends all the way from a gap in the rocky spur above to the surface of the dark basin beneath. In the dry weeks of high summer, a tiny thread of water, all but broken here and there, trickles from top to bottom, while a broad band of blackened rock by its side shows that in stormy weather the thread becomes a long thick white tassel, and deserves the name of cascade on its own account.

If the Aultgraat be in high flood, how different is all this scene! The upper series of cascades becomes one tremendous broad rush of wriggling, curling, wrestling torrent, out of whose chaotic, foaming surface scarcely an inch of rock dare show itself. From their spring high up between the projecting knolls to the hungry-looking depths of the upper pool, the waters toss up wreath after wreath of gauzy spray to make brilliant rainbows in the sunlight. At the same time the nether fall hides all its mysterious and fantastic features in one breathless, headlong rush of creamy white, while the long slanting fissure almost rivals in volume of water the main body of the cataract. Dashing furiously down with headlong speed, the fevered waters stir and lash the jet black pool into a seething, fermenting, whirling mass of foam. At such a time, the stream—baited into fury, agitated beyond measure—rages down the whole glen, and has not even recovered its temper or natural calm when it plunges into the later sorrows of the Black Rock chasm.

Everything attractive which can be gathered into the highest levels of the picturesque is to be found around these falls. You have mountain and moor, wood and water, cascade and cliff, rocky ridges and flowery banks, sleeping pools and impetuous currents. You behold nature, not tamed and trimmed into squares of grain or root crops, not with her fair face lacerated by roads and railways, but above all rule save that of her own fascinating variety. Of these striking falls and their framework of surrounding scenery, you may well say :

“Nature here Wanton’d as in her prime and played at will Her virgin fancies.”


Return to Book Index Page