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Scenes and Stories of the North of Scotland
Chapter IV. - Assynt in Sutherland


More than five and twenty years ago, my college friend Ian and I projected for ourselves a summer tour round the north-west and north of Scotland. The district was not entirely unknown to us, but we wished to explore it more thoroughly, and with that end in view we resolved to go on foot, We met at Golspie; spent the night at the picturesquely-situated hotel near Dunrobin Castle, and began our tramp together next morning.

The advantages of walking above all other methods of enjoying the beauties and glories of nature are well known and, I suppose, generally admitted. No doubt, in the case of a tour 011 foot, you may suffer from occasional fatigue; you may be covered with dust up to the knees, or soaked with rain through all garments, outer and inner alike ; you may spend weeks among mountains and valleys through which a demon express might run in a few hours ; and your modest speed lays you open to the companionship of clouds of midges, which dance up and down with delight in the sunshine, and playfully tickle your cheeks with their refined instruments of torture. Without question, these are in a sense drawbacks ; but how trifling they are! Most gladly would many of us bear each and all of them in their seasons to escape the inanities, vulgarities, and arrogancies of the modern trotting tourist. Moreover, see how much you gain by walking! You exercise and strengthen your limbs, absorbing; fresh air and health in the manner most truly natural; you talk with a congenial companion when and what you please, without noise, interruption, or discord; you can turn aside when you will to explore a tempting little glen, or visit the grim ruins of an old castle; you may lounge for an hour by the way-side to drink in one of nature’s wonderful pictures, or spend a little well-used time in making some rapid sketches; and, moreover, you may probe the mind of a passing-native for advice or information—both which are generally as hard to extract as they are worthless when secured. If these be not attractions sufficient, there are many more, high and humble alike. You may gather materials for a great book or lofty-toned lecture; you can enjoy a cold bath in loch or river or bay; you can break your journey anywhere or at any time to spend a day in fishing; and you can stand still to light a cigar without requiring to employ the hissing fumes of powder and phosphorus. In short, you are sole and absolute masters of yourselves, and may with impunity laugh to scorn the ways of humanity at large.

To any who may contemplate a tour through the Highlands on foot, I venture to offer two humble remarks. The first is a suggestion—the second a warning.

As we approached the end of our first day’s journey, my friend Ian complained that his feet were very hot and painful, if not already broken into blisters. Fortunately the latter suspicion turned out to be unfounded ; and we found a remedy for the existing evil on the morrow—one known to many, but here recorded for the benefit of the few. Be sure you carry in your knapsack a piece of good soap. Meantime I shall not recommend any in particular, but in view of a second edition I am open to offers from advertisers, any consideration I may ask being strictly moderate and reasonable. After starting in the morning, stop at the first burn by the wayside, take off your boots, plunge your feet—stockings and all—into the water, then rub them all over with the soap until the lather is like the foaming must,

“Round the white feet of laughing girls
Whose sires have marched to Rome.”

When you have pulled on your boots again, do not mind if the rich creamy froth oozes from the tops—(you bade the young ladies Good-bye before you left)—you will walk as on the softest wool for several hours. If by-and-by the feet become hot again, you may lift some water with your fingers and drop it into the sides of your boots, by which process the fermentation will at once be renewed. After a few days’ walking, the feet will require no thought or care whatever. On our second day’s march, Ian adopted this plan, and covered his thirty-five miles in perfect comfort.

My second remark must assume the form of a warning, and is specially intended for those who are students of the classics, if they are zealous in the pursuit of learning. The advice may also be useful to ardent and generous friends of the parties whom I have just described. What is the use of us in this world if we cannot give others the benefit of our experience? Here, of course, I ought to quote “footprints on the sands of time,” &c.; but I am merciful, and refrain. My counsel is very simple; it is simply this—Don’t carry in your knapsack an Analytical Hebrew Lexicon. Wae’s me! I did it—did it to oblige my friend, who was very shortly to face a college examination in that ancient tongue. The idea was that he might study a little in the calm of the evening, when the fatigues of the day were over, and that my help and that of the Lexicon might be useful to him. The experiment was not the success we expected. My views on the subject have undergone a change. After that time—in fact, more than a score of years ago —I made up my mind, upon careful consideration, never to undertake the same service again for Ian or anybody else. It may seem severe to say it, but I believe it was mistaken kindness on the part of Ian to give me the opportunity of showing that real kindness to him. Many and many a time did I groan in secret because of, not the load of my learning, but—which is a very different thing—my load of learning. On level ground I felt like a poor hunchback bearing a load I could not see, while, among big stones and lumpy heather, every jump and jolt sent inwards through my shoulder blades a strong sense of my personal virtue and benevolence. At the same time, I must not be unfair to my friend. His knapsack was less capacious than mine, and could not hold the Lexicon. Knowing this, Ian often offered to carry mine for me, but I would not hear of his doing so. The delight of piling up so much daily merit—for a whole fortnight, remember—was too sweet to be lightly thrown or bartered away. Must I here make a confession % Can it be that what I have said about my friend has been written to propitiate him, for he writes in London magazines, and wields a caustic pen ? In a few weeks he may be the critic of these pages ! Oh Ian ! I shall carry the Lexicon again for you; yes, I shall,—if you can find no one else.

Our first day’s walk, from Golspie to Ardgay, was our shortest—only some seventeen miles, if I remember aright. From the second stage onward, our average was about twenty-four—a distance which became easier every day. The route we chose from Golspie—shorter far than the present railway line—lay first between level fields in high cultivation, then upward and still upward over a broad mass of mountain and moor, like an elephant’s back with its steep, sloping sides. Until Bonar Bridge is reached, there is not much either to attract or interest in the outward features of the country. Therefore I shall take the opportunity of gathering a few jottings from the human side of things.

A friend of mine, whose name without leave asked and granted I would not mention, is my authority for the particulars which follow ; and in that respect he has no superior in the northern counties. He had some occasion, many years ago, to examine carefully certain of the old ecclesiastical records of the parish of Creich, which lies at the inner end and on the northern shore of the Dornoch Firth. Among much that was valuable and interesting, he found also some entries which were quaint and amusing enough. These, very curiously, appear to have occurred chiefly in matters of finance. Here are a few specimens—not perhaps intended to serve the purpose to which I venture to put them.

In an old Kirk-Session record, there is reference made on one of the pages, to a “Collection for the Northern Infirmity,” but I forget the sum which had been contributed. Prosaic persons of “vinegar aspect,” as Shakespeare puts it, might be foolish enough to suggest that the last three letters should be ary; but such a correction would be to destroy all the suggestiveness of the entry, and put a damper on humour and speculation alike. Pushing it aside, we proceed to investigate the subject seriously. What is, par excellence, the Northern Infirmity? Is it pride, or craft, or greed, or some other unknown and equally pardonable weakness? Let the conscience of every clansman who reads this page give an answer. How strange too, that a collection should be the remedy! I have indeed heard of mental affections cured by material means. Many of us remember the question and answer:

“O dear, doctor, what will cure love!
The shaking of the hand, and the pulling off the glove;”

but the case before us is still more remarkable ; for here we have an “infirmity ” for which the cure is—not perhaps pounds, but at least shillings and pence. Yet here also we detect a touch of kinship between north and south. Did not a wealthy churchman, many years ago, seeking a cure for some of Scotland’s ecclesiastical ailments, ask the question, “Will siller (money) dae’t?” Here in Creich we find indications of a similar medicine ; let us hope that the remedy was ample and effectual.

The next entry which I shall quote is very mysterious. Perhaps it is too much to hope that, after so long a lapse of time, the true solution will ever be found. It runs as follows: “To 2 men chasing 1 woman for 3 days, 7s. 6d.” It is just possible that this may have been an episode in some case of discipline, but every logician knows that “may have been” is no evidence, but rather a treacherous quicksand. We therefore leave the whole case to the wisdom, individual or collective, of those who read this book, but regret that we cannot offer a prize for the best solution of the problem.

The third extract is at first sight the most remarkable of all. Here is a simple and significant money transaction: “To mending the minister’s preaching, Is. 6d.” In this case again, a wide vista opens for inquiry. We are left to conjecture as to those respects in which the minister’s preaching was defective, or had fallen into disrepair. The extract relates to times when ministers in the Highlands were surely “soond” enough in all conscience, that is to say, before innovations were invented, or Biblical criticism had ventured out of its den. This, however, is not the chief point to be noticed. It matters little, to us at least, what was wrong with the minister’s preaching; the great lesson for this generation is to notice how easily and cheaply it was put to rights. Let us suppose an advertisement on the same lines as the account before us: “Preachers cured of their defects and errors—only Is. 6d. per head.” Just imagine what a prospect! The modest sum of 75 would repair the preaching of a thousand ministers, in the Free Kirk or the Auld. But what—what is this? No wonder I feel angry now when a fairy imp on my shoulder hints that the word “tent” should follow “preaching,” and that the reference is to the outdoor pulpit used at Communion seasons. Does not orthodoxy compel us to object to this suggestion? We call know what mischiefs and miseries have arisen from words interpolated in ancient documents like these.

Our last quotation from these records is one on which perhaps the least said the better, for the subject is a painful one to all who know the doctrine of human frailty. Here is the entry, but for obvious reasons I suppress the name :“To----for additional sinning at the time of the communion.” What can be said of such a case? An old woman once said that the doctrine of human depravity was a “blessed doctrine, if we would only live up to it;” but here we have the difficulty solved in a practical manner which leaves nothing to be desired. It was once suggested to me that the word “sinning” should be “singing;” but the person who offered such a correction must have been a hot partizan of the offender, or a man ignorant of human nature, or perhaps both these in one.

By the Bridge of Bonar, we crossed southward out of Sutherlandshire into Ross-shire, and slept at Ardgay Inn, about a mile from the march between the two counties. Our aim in the first portion of our tour was to cross the northern portion of Ross-shire from the German Ocean to the Atlantic, and then to bend our steps northward along the entire west coast of Sutherland.

The first part of this programme was a stiff piece of work. The distance from Ardgay on the Dornoch Firth to Ullapool on Loch Broom is not less than thirty-five miles. For greater part of the way, we had no road whatever; and, with the exception of a few houses near to either end, there was not a spot where we could rest for the night.

Having duly observed the precept which promises to make one “healthy, wealthy, and wise,” we left Ardgay on a fine fresh morning early in July. Behind us, and beyond the winding reaches of the Dornoch Firth, the sun had risen from his bed far out in the German Ocean, and was spreading his warm brilliance lower and lower down upon the hillsides. He always paints from the sky downwards in the morning, and from the sea-level upwards in the evening. With joy we welcomed his growing light; and we hoped by-and-by, our journey ended, to see him draw his evening curtains about him over the Atlantic waves. For some miles we passed through a fertile strath, and then bending to the right, left the Kirk and Manse of Croick behind us, and sallied forth upon a wild wilderness of mountain and valley, beyond which—somewhere on this side of Canada—lay our destination for the night. What a day of stern and hard-won enjoyment we had ! In among piles of mountains we wended our way— here jauntily tripping down a narrow glen, there scrambling upon hands and feet over a projecting shoulder—at one time slipping and stumbling among the sliding debris of a scree, at another pitching and plunging among knee-deep banks of heather. For miles and miles not a trace of humankind was to be seen —not even a road to point the way on, or back, to human society. How cheerfully did we dispense among wilds so glorious, and under a sun so brilliant, with man and commerce and art and all their petty belongings! Nature, sternly beautiful, charmingly grand, wrapped us round body and soul in her sweet fellowship. Even life, save in the soft mosses and shaggy heather, seemed strangely absent. White masses of mist, as the sun mounted high, rose from their couches in the bays of the mountains, and fleecy fragments,

“Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost ridge that looks up at the sky,”

mounted up and hovered for a while over the spot where they had rested. These seemed for a time to have life and breath, but the growing sunshine melted them into the strong blue of noontide, and ere long they were gone. Nothing that appeared to live remained, save the coveys of grouse which rose at times on our approach and fluttered frantically away over the heather, or the drowsy wild-bee straggling here and there among the purple tufts. Most of all were we attracted and entranced by the majestic and ever-changing forms of the mountains. At every ascent and descent, at every bend to right and left, at every minute’s advance, changes grew before our eyes. Conical peaks became ridges, while ridges again mounted into cones; smooth shoulders dropped into frowning scars, and rounded summits became cleft into mitres; groups of mountain-tops scattered themselves into chains ; and slopes which seemed to meet and cross each other opened suddenly to disclose some sweet valley between. Every hillside and hollow had its rivulet or stream, each one bubbling or murmuring to its listening banks—all bustling onward and downward to their unknown destinies on the far-off coasts, while here and there the flickering face of a loch hid their waters from view for a while, as they rested from their rush and song.

Eight in the heart of the mountains, not long after mid-day, we had quite a little adventure. We arrived at a stage in our journey where we did not know in what direction to steer, whether straight forward over the sloping spur of a hill, or down toward the left into a broad green valley. We chose the latter course—chiefly I daresay because it looked like a glen in which we might find a human dwelling and ask for guidance. Perhaps we were also attracted by the sight of the majestic Ben Dearag—the red mountain—whose head, more than 3500 feet high, and the weighty epaulets on his shoulders closed up the glen toward the south. At length we came in sight of a cottage and outhouses nestling under a hillside, with varied patches of cultivated ground in front. No human beings were visible, except two young girls who were busily hoeing turnips in a field, and to them we resolved to make an appeal. We soon found that they knew no English, and the discovery was embarrassing to both parties. However, they laughed and we laughed ; and all four were the better of the outburst. Then I summoned up courage to try my Gaelic, and asked the way to Ullapool, in reply to which we received most copious directions. One of the girls pointed north, and then west, and then south, described curves with her hand in the air, directed her finger first to one side and then to the other of a long lofty hill, and all the while poured forth an eloquent torrent of Gaelic beneath which my scanty knowledge of the language was hopelessly submerged. As the best thing to do in the circumstances, we had another hearty and unanimous round of laughter.

By this time an old man had appeared at the cottage door, and was watching us with evident curiosity and interest. He seemed to be asking himself “for what strange cause" Ian and I had

“Sought those wilds traversed by few,
Without a pass from Roderick Dhu,”

or some other authority. My friend suggested that we should try him ; but I argued that, if the younger generation knew no English, it was hopeless to expect such an attainment in a man far advanced in years. Still, we resolved to make the experiment, for we were desperate. If we found no one to set us on the right route again, it was impossible to say where we might be landed, or what might happen, if we were overtaken by darkness. So we approached the cottage and, greeting the old man, I asked him,

“Have you any English?”

The corners of his mouth rose perceptibly; his eyes twinkled slily between their half-closed lashes, and he startled us with the reply,

“Hoot s, maun, ’a hae nae Gaulic!”

Of course we were delighted, and soon found ourselves on the best of terms with the old man. We told him of the difficulty we had with the girls, and we had his fullest sympathy. In fact, it is well for his good name that I cannot now recall the highly spiced language he used regarding them because of ignorance for which, poor lassies ! they were not to blame. Our friend was a shepherd from the Scotch side of the Cheviot Hills, and he soon told us his story. Thirty years before, a wealthy sheep farmer had induced him to come north and tend the flocks over a wide “run” in these wilds; but it was very evident that he had not been, and never would be, naturalized in central Ross. It grieves me to tell that he was as blind as a mole to the glories of the mountain scenery around him, and that he frankly avowed his determination never to defile his lips with a single word of “their abominable Gaulic.” Even his young dogs, though Highlanders by birth, were named after the “Tyne” and the “Tweed.” We enjoyed a long crack with the shepherd, and before we parted he gave us sufficient directions for the way. The truth was, we should not have come down that glen at all; but we were pleased rather than otherwise with the little episode into which our blunder had led us.

For about ten miles from the shepherds cottage onwards, the route was fearfully rough, and not a little toilsome. Again and again we were glad to sit down and rest our limbs on some flat stone and smoke a pipe the while. The Lexicon did not help or console me in the smallest degree, nor did his high culture do anything for my friend. Only bone and muscle were of any value. To these trackless, weary, rugged miles, one might almost apply the words of the Australian poet,

“Education and English polish are very unsaleable stuff,
The men we want in Melbourne must be sent out here in the rough.”

Happily, whether like men “in the rough” or in a polished state, we reached at last a “made” road, and found ourselves only eight miles from Ullapool. It was now near six o’clock, and we span along merrily to our destination in less than two hours. The sun had made better speed than we had done, for when we came in sight of the sea, he was travelling far down the western sky, but still looking out upon us from between purple folds of cloud above and ragged golden banks below. Before seeking the hospitality of friends, we washed our faces and hands, first in the briny Atlantic, and then in a noisy streamlet, which would perhaps not have been so merry if it had known that it was rushing on to near burial in the ocean. How soundly we slept that night, serenaded by soft murmurs from the Atlantic surges! Not less cheerfully did we rise with the lark next morning to resume our journey.

The western shores of Sutherlandshire are deeply indented, extremely tortuous in their windings, and peculiarly rugged in contour. They form a base-line to scenery wilder and grander than anywhere else in Scotland, except among the Cuchullin hills in Skye. So much may be said of that entire seaboard from the borders of Ross-shire on the south to the storm-lashed cliffs of Cape AVrath on the north. But the neplus ultra of that scenery lies in a wide circuit round Loch Assynt, which we reached from Ullapool after a walk of twenty-four miles. Take a stroll from the hotel at Inchnadamph a few miles to the southward, and when you turn your face toward the setting sun, what a panorama do you behold !

Away to the south-west there rise sheer up from the long sweeping undulations of a great plateau the pyramidal peaks of Coulmore and Coulbeg—twin sisters which rear their storm-beaten heads more than 2500 feet in air. Between and behind them lies a third mountain-top, Stack Polly, somewhat lower and quainter in form than the other two. In bird’s eye view, they must form a triangle whose three sides are exactly equal in length. Now turn and look straight to the westward. Lo ! there are two lofty cone-like mountains, not yet worn down into pyramids. The more westerly is Suilven, 2400 feet high, its summit carved into a deep saddle-back; the other to the east is Canisp, or Canisb, nearly 2800 feet high, the loftiest of all the five. Now, all these mountains are not simply of similar, but of the same formation, and they have their wonderful history more or less legibly scribbled on their cheeks. Suffer me to tell it in a few brief sentences : it is well worth turning; aside to tell and to hear.

The under-lying formation on which all this district rests is gneiss, which spreads out, like the sea after a storm, in long, low waves, with damp, mossy hollows and shallow tarns between. Over this Hat-lying gneiss there is built up layer upon layer of Old Red Sandstone of the Cambrian system, not less than four or five thousand feet thick. In process of time, long, long ages gone by, this solid table-land of sandstone has been ploughed up and washed away, no one knows whither, by glacial currents, but the mountain masses which I have named refused to yield, and have stood their ground ever since. These sturdy giants have seen all the thick beds of rock swept clean away from between them, yet have themselves survived the icy floods. You can see on their sides the layers of Cambrian rock like tiers of masonry ; and if you run your eye from one to another, and from that to another again, you can observe that the lines on each are on a level with those of its neighbours, because once upon a time they were parts of one continuous bed. The process in all probability occupied much the same number of years as the slow and patient detrition of the Black Rock chasm, so that if you feel yourself competent to name a figure in the one case, you may venture to do the same in the other as well. These stately cones and pyramids, with their frosted heads, lie like a cluster of beads to the south of Loch Assynt, but they do not exhaust the mountain glories of the district. To the east and north of the loch, lofty and imposing heights crowd in upon its shores. Of these, three mighty monarchs of rock command the attention of the traveller, and demand special notice.

Enthroned above the eastern end of the loch sits the double-headed Ben More, 3200 feet high, like Saul among the people as compared even with the giants around him. Further to the north rises the grim Glasven, 2500 feet high, with tiny lochs nestling close under its beetling sides. To the west again, over against these two, lies the huge, shapeless mass of Quinaig, in many respects the most wonderful of them all. If it were possible to look down upon Quinaig, as the eagle does, from the upper sky, we should see her three summits beneath us like the famous triple symbol of the Isle of Man. The highest spur is 2600 feet high ; the other two are very little lower and viewed from beneath look not less lofty. The mountain, like another Janus, presents one face to Loch Assynt, lying at its feet in the sunshine, another to Lochs Cairnbawn and Glencoul, which crouch low beneath its northern and eastern shadows. Ben Quinaig is of the same formation as the five heights which run southward to meet the Ross-shire mountains, but she differs from them in that she wears a white cap of quartz, which sparkles bravely in the sunlight.

Amid this galaxy of great peaks, often wreathed in whirling vapour, lies Loch Assynt, like a long leaf tapering at either end, its waters rich in the noble trout, and its shores fringed with the graceful mountain-loving-birch. Near its eastern end stand the picturesque ruins of Ardvreck, or Advrock, Castle, the “bannered home” for many a clay of the brave Macleods, and in later years a stronghold of the Mackenzies. Many a fight and feud have these now lonely walls seen ; many a romance lies buried in the story they refuse to tell. But I shall return presently to these old haunts of chivalry and cruelty.

On our arrival at the homely hotel of Inchnadamph, we had abundant food, first for the wants of the outer man, then for the higher exercises of reflection and converse. Our minds and hearts were filled with the inspiration of the gorgeous scenery around us. No wonder, therefore, that I must add a word of confession. This was the second evening on which the precious Lexicon was allowed undisturbed repose. Ian did not seem at all guilty or ashamed when, at bedtime, I mischievously showed him a small corner peeping out of my knapsack.

During a stroll after our hearty evening repast, we took the road which skirts the northern shore of Loch Assvnt. The fast-declining sun was throwing slanting bands of gorgeous light down upon the glistening waters. We reached by-and-by the ruins of Edderaehalda, huge, ungainly, roofless, with double gables and a hideous chimney stalk. The Mackenzies built it for a residence nearly two centuries ago, but it was destroyed by fire some fifty years later, No one knows who the incendiary was, but he almost deserves a monument to his memory. The only pity is that, when he set about the destruction of the ungainly mass, he was not able to sweep its very remains out of sight. No wonder that Quinaig every day frowns down upon them in his anger. By way of contrast, how attractive are the stately ruins of Ardvrock, looking us straight in the face as we cross the narrow neck of the peninsula on which they stand! It was without doubt the scene of

“Many a wassail wild and deed of blood;"

but now there is not a cat to mew, nor a cock to crow, in the fortress of the Clan Macleod. The castle was originally three storeys high, and was surmounted by a lofty circular tower. In 1650, the famous Marquis of Montrose was taken prisoner by Neil Macleod, the Chief of Assynt, and imprisoned within these walls. He had been signally defeated at Fearn, in the east of Ross-shire, and so his singular career of victory came to an end. Accompanied by a young officer named Sinclair, Montrose fled into the mountainous wilds of Sutherland, and there suffered many privations. It is even said that at one time his hunger was so great that lie was fain to eat his gloves. After a short confinement in Ardvrock, Macleod surrendered his prisoner to the authorities, who had offered a handsome reward for his capture. The only recompense which the Chief of Assynt received wTas forty bolls of oatmeal. Surely the prize was worth a richer reward.

Dark and wild as are the ruins of Ardvrock, there is a singular subtle charm in their loneliness. Do not the wasting walls and crumbling corners seem to say, “We have no part or lot in this age; let us alone to sink down and die; then perhaps Mother Earth will cover our graves with grassy sod? We cannot tell our secrets; they are not for modern ears. The clan is broken; the chiefs and bards are gone; the days of romance and glory are past, and we are fain to follow.” Somehow we love even the evidences of age on these blighted battlements ; the very wounds and scars inflicted by the hand of time delight both the eye and the heart. On the evening of our visit, every aspect of nature invited us to linger and enjoy. To the west rose the fast-purpling hills between us and the sea; at our feet lay the calm loch, with a heaven on its face looking up to its birthplace above; northward, the nearer faces of Quinaig mounted upward to the heavens—the sun painting rainbows of colour on their scars; behind us, the steep sides of a narrow, craggy glen sloped upward to the ponderous swelling mass of Ben More standing aloof as in proud disdain from the society of meaner mountains and of men.

We returned to our hotel through multitudinous mists of midges; and were thankful to escape within doors. On the road in front, two gallant pipers strode to and fro, discoursing sweet music, and evidently proud of their gifts. We thought it might be said of them in flexible French, as some one said of someone else, that they played fort bien and at the same time bien fort. We had material enough for many a fantastic dream in the sights and sounds, the fights and fairies, the men and midges, of which our waking hours had been full. If in Assynt anyone is troubled with night-mare, the thought of these mighty mountain-masses creeping over him and crushing him down to the earth’s centre would surely make his misery tolerably, or if you like, intolerably, complete. Some such idea as this once moved the fond pupil of a geologist to poetry. He greatly loved and admired his teacher, and thus expressed his devotion:

“Where shall we our great Professor inter,
That in peace may rest his bones?
If we hew him a rocky sepulchre,
He’ll rise and break the stones,
And examine each stratum that lies around,
For he’s quite in his element underground.”

The Gaelic word “Assynt” is a compound, and signifies “out and in.” If so, like almost all place-names in the Highlands, it is most fitting and felicitous. Indeed it applies admirably, not only to the district so called, but to the entire west coast of Sutherland from the borders of Ross-shire to Cape Wrath itself. Looking for instance at the map, we can still see in the endless contortions of the shore, as we used to do when children, the figures and profiles of men and beasts—not one of them in any degree like to any other. There are brows flat and high on the headlands; eyes large and small in the lochs and tarns; noses Roman, Grecian, retrousse, on the rocky capes; bay-mouths wide and narrow, open and shut, drooping in sadness, curving upward in joy; chins which are impudent, and chins which are retiring; cheeks smooth and furrowed, shaven and bearded ; and in all these you can clearly see, if you have any discernment at all, grumpy grandfathers and grinning fools, laughing children and scolding dominies, gaping crocodiles and snarling monkeys, weeping maids and wistful lovers. The surface of the country inland from the shore is extremely varied, rugged, and wild, but full of interest and charm for healthy and buoyant natures. If you believe, as I for one do, that in order to see the beauties and taste the sweets of land and water and sky there is needed not only sight but insight, which is something far more and better, you will find at every turn of the highway new matter of sunrise and admiration. Island-studded bays like Badcall; picturesque retreats like Scourie; deeply-indented lochs like Laxford—the “Fiord of salmon;” distant views of a mountain-chain of peaks; long successions of rocky knolls crowned with brushwood and heather: these are a few of the elements which go to make up the panorama between Assynt and the Kyle of Durness. When at length you look down over the brindled cliffs of Cape Wrath ; when you behold its rugged masses of God-made masonry; when you hear the thunder-throb of the waves in its vaulted caverns; when you gaze to south and west and north over the hungry heaving sea; you can but look and marvel and adore. You are indeed made of inferior mettle if you do not find your surprise grow into an inspiring wonder and your admiration into a solemn ecstasy.

More than fifty years ago, there lived in the neighbourhood of this stern, stormy headland one who because of her robust Christian character was called “the woman of the great faith.” Perhaps the religious element in her nature was, like the beautiful seaweed,

“Nursed by the ocean and rocked by the storms.”

On one occasion, when travelling southward on the top of a stage-coach, she entered into friendly conversation with a gentleman, who soon discovered that his companion was no ordinary woman. At length he took the liberty of asking whence she had come and whither she was going. Choosing for the nonce to answer in a spiritual and allegorical sense, she gave the beautiful reply, “I have come from Cape Wrath, and I am going to the Cape of Good Hope.”

During our journey from Cape Wrath along the north coast toward Caithness, my friend Ian and I spent one memorable night under the roof of a well-to-do and hospitable farmer. It grieves me to say that his extensive sheep ground was once dotted over with the loved homes of many families, long since burnt out, or driven out, or perhaps both, from their native straths and hillsides. These things were done in the dark eviction days of Sutherland. Even the natural tokens of their presence there at one period have been carefully and purposely swept out of sight. Only here and there a few stones or groups of grassy ridges indicate where crofter dwellings once stood. An old woman; who had so been driven from hearth and home, once revisited the scenes of her early and happy life. On her return from Sutherland again, she was asked by some old neighbours what she had seen. Filled with grief and fired with indignation, her reply was very significant, “I saw the raven’s nest in your old home, and dogs kennelled in the ministers study.” Happily, in Sutherland at least, these days are long gone by—never, I trust, to return again. That policy of eviction was little in accordance with worldly wisdom—not to say justice or humanity.

When Ian and I approached the commodious farmhouse, we suspected at once that something unusual was going on. When the front door was opened, we could at once see and hear that the house was full of company. On making this discovery, our immediate impulse was to leave our cards and proceed upon our way. We had an inn four miles behind us to which we might return, and another only thirty miles before us (it was now sunset) to which we might push forward. However, we were not allowed to do either the one or the other. On being informed by the servant, the farmer himself at once appeared and insisted that we should join the company and stay over night. Some shift or other would be made to provide us with sleeping room.

Well, stay the night we did, and it was a night! The company numbered from twenty to thirty, and a kindlier, happier, merrier thirty—not to speak of winsomeness, beauty, and the like—I had never met before and have never met since. Music, dancing, supper, and parlour pastimes stole away the hours unawares and it was early morning before anyone thought of retiring. At length we wished each other a good sleep all round—oh ! what irony on the part of certain persons—and departed to our several chambers.

Ian and I occupied a small bedroom together, while two young gentlemen from Caithness shared the next adjoining. We could hear each other's voices through the wall. All of us were brimming over witli excitement.

When my friend and I had closed the door, we sat down to calm ourselves and discuss the events of the evening. Possibly the ladies also came in for a share of comment, but that I do not distinctly remember. All at once— probably about 2 a.m.—we were startled by a wild, prolonged howl of pain from the next room. How loud and shrill! methinks I can hear it even now ! It must have pierced every chamber and corner even of that commodious house. Most probably it awoke all the sheep dogs outside and set them a howling also in sympathy or defiance, for such is their wont in such a crisis. What could it mean? Burglary, murder, suicide, sudden insanity, toothache, assault and battery, which was it, or what? We sprang together to our door only to find— that we could not open it. Had an earthquake twisted the side-posts or lintel? We shouted to ask what was the matter, but heard no voice in reply—only a faint, far-off ripple of sound likethe giggling of mermaids sporting in the loch. At length our friends shouted through the wall that they, too, were helpless; they could not open their door. Ere long, however, we discovered the reason. Wicked hands—how true it is that there is much human nature in us all!—had fastened the handles of the two doors together with rope; and therefore it was no wonder that for a time we tugged and pulled in vain. At length we were victorious ; we forced our door open a little, a knife did the rest, and we rushed into our friends’ room, ready for ambulance work or any other form of aid which might be needed. Then, in a few hasty, breathless words, we heard from the lips of the sufferer himself the whole sad story. It was simply this. Before we retired, some of the young ladies had visited our rooms, had folded down the sheets, and had strewed our beds with sharp prickly whins, chopped up small and delicately sprinkled all over. After we had said good night, one of the young gentlemen next door, rapidly undressing and having almost reached a nude condition, had thrown back the upper coverings and sprung in with a leap and bound—to his pain and sorrow and shame. Despairing and forbearing, I shall not attempt to describe either his condition or his feelings ; happily for me, I did not share in either, except by way of weeping sympathy. Any readers who are themselves devoid of all imagination must just be content and pass on.

Nor need I linger in detail over the sequel of my story. Springing, each one of us, into a fair proportion of our clothing, we sallied out most valiantly into the lobbies and staircases. There all the rest of the company were already gathered, and were discussing, in groups here and there, the sad fate of the young man. As the same doom was benevolently intended for us, Ian and I joined the party of revenge. Our weapons were towels well soaked in the ewers of water, and with these we laid about us vigorously; but I shall not go into further detail. Very soon the lobbies were empty and dark, and we retired from the field of battle. Before dawn the house had sunk into stillness; and that same morning, long ere the sun peeped over the hills to see if we were coming, we were off and away on our tramp toward Caithness.

Perhaps it was well for us, on the night of the adventure just recorded, that an excellent minister, who once lived in this quarter of the world, was no longer in the body. He might perchance have heard of our doings, and come in upon us in the midst of our revelry. I can conceive of no excuse we could have given, unless we followed the example of our first father Adam, and laid the blame on the other sex. No one could deny that the ladies had of their own accord provoked the engagement. Well, this worthy old man was a sworn enemy to dancing. In this intense antipathy he had perhaps some reason after all, for in his day and parish the practice really seems to have become an abuse. The natives, especially the young people, met frequently, sometimes almost every night, in each other’s houses, and danced until morning dawned. This custom prevailed even when there was no special occasion, such as a marriage or a ball, for the revelry.

One night the minister heard some sounds about the house, and, on going to find out what they were, discovered that some one had assisted his two servant girls out of a garret window, and that they were off, without leave asked or obtained, to the dancing. What was to be done? It vexed the old minister sorely to think that some even of his own household should be act and part in such scenes. Fortunately, that important functionary the beadle, or church-officer, always in his own esteem the second—or including the laird the third— man in the parish, was within easy reach. Probably he was also minister’s man, and lived above the stable or in a cottage near by. To him his master fully confided the story of his grief. In the same breath he ordered George, for that was the beadle’s name, to proceed at once to the scene of wild gaiety and bring the lasses home without fail and without delay. The faithful servant started on his midnight errand with the very best intentions as to doing his master’s behests, but, alas! for the frailty of human nature, even in a beadle! When George entered the festive gathering to seek the wandering sheep, he probably thought it would be no great sin to tarry a little and see the fun. As often happens in such cases, this delay was his undoing. The stirring notes of the fiddle or bagpipe were more than he could resist. The old Adam awoke within him, and what was the result? Flinging off his coat he plunged into the giddy whirl, and soon forgot manse, minister, errand, and—what was worst of all—his own high office, in the frantic wildness of his enjoyment.

Meantime the minister, waiting and longing for the return of George and the erring ones, at last grew impatient at the delay, and perhaps even suspicious as to its cause. Thus it came to pass that, unable to bear the suspense any longer, he himself issued forth into the night, and, under a strong sense of duty, found his way to the scene of action. Here I regret to say that authentic details are wanting, but a little sober imagination will not lead us far wrong. Now, now, my gentle reader, don't you begin to picture the good old minister casting aside his upper garment like the beadle, and himself tripping the “ light fantastic toe.” No such tiling ; lie was double proof against so worldly a temptation ; and I cannot betray his good name even to make the story more symmetrically complete. No, no ; when he entered there must have been an abrupt hush, a sudden paralysis of flying feet, an utter breakdown of laughter and joke. Would not the fiddle subside with a squeak, or the pipes die out in a wail ? Even the wild orgies of Alloway Kirk did not more suddenly cease, when Tam o’ Shanter commended the exertions of Cutty Sark.

Finally, when the revellers were scattered, we can picture the funeral-like procession home—the minister stalking on in front, sad indeed, but so far satisfied— the beadle and maids, silent and cowed, but probably not less wicked in heart than before.

My friend and I tramped on our wandering way along the north coast of Sutherland, and at length entered the county of Caithness. After a brief stay in Thurso, we paid a visit—neither the first nor last for either of us— to John o’ Groat’s, the Land’s End of the mainland of Scotland. Thence we walked to the busy port of Wick, where we bade each other farewell, though only for a time. Memory contains many more scenes and incidents of our happy walking tour, but these must, for the present at least, be held in retentis.

“Long, long be my heart with such memories filled!
Like the vase in which roses have once been distilled :
You may break, you may ruin the vase if you will,
But the scent of the roses will hang round it still.”


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