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Sketch Book of the North
An Arran Ride


"Hamish will just be putting the mare in the cart to drive over the ladies, so the need is not so great for hurrying."

The arrangement of the crofter’s wife is hospitably meant, if somewhat ominously expressed. Conveyance of any kind, moreover, will be most acceptable to the two ladies of our party after their long ramble on seashore and moorland; and the more primitive it prove, the more fittingly will it end the memories of the day. "Meanwhile ‘the need is not so great for hurrying.’" Repeats one of the two slyly, out of hearing of her hostess, and, pulling off her gloves, proceeds to gather pleasure from the blazing chimneyful of peat. Leaning back in the warm light, she stirs the white feathery ash with a dainty boot, and discovers, to the boot’s cost and her own surprise, that the whiteness of the peat conceals a glow of burning red. It is a peculiarity of the Highland character as of the Highland fuel, this fire within the grey exterior, needing only a touch or a breath to show itself.

The light ash of the peat, they say, flies everywhere about a shieling. But it is a cleanly thing. It leaves no tarnish, at any rate, on the snowy wood dresser or its high rack of shining delf. The tall old-fashioned mahogany case-clock in the corner, an heirloom much valued, may have absorbed more of the powder, perhaps, than conduces to regular intestinal working; but the open iron creuzie or cresset lamp hanging quaintly, though now unused, from the high mantelshelf, is kept clear enough for lighting yet if need were; and maybe the hams and "kippered" fish hanging from hooks in the blackened rafters are rather improved in flavour by the condiment.

But look here. With true Highland hospitality preparations for tea have been surreptitiously advanced, and the fresh, wholesome-looking daughter of the house and her mother lift into the middle of the earthen floor the table ready caparisoned with cloth of snow, glittering cups and knives, heaped sugar-bowl, and beaker of rich yellow cream. A lissome flower of the moors is this crofter maid. The oatmeal which she has been baking is not more soft and fair than the skin of the comely lass, and, as she smiles reply in lifting the toasted oat-farles from the flat iron "girdle" swung over the fire, it needs no poet to notice that her eyes are bits of summer sea and her mouth a damask bud. The toasted farles of oat-cake from her hand send forth an ambrosial smell which, with the fragrance of the new-made tea, is irresistible to hungry folk, and no pressing Highland exhortation is needed to set visitors of both sexes to the attack of the viands.

Not till every one has again and again declared sheer inability to pursue the attack further does the announcement come that "the mare is in the cart." A chair, therefore, is presently carried out, and the whole party of four mount into the rough vehicle among the straw. Hereupon follow a hand-shaking and repetition of hospitable invitations to return which begin to become almost embarrassing, before Hamish starts at his horse’s head upon the moor track.

A long, memorable day it has been, amid the warm sunshine and the bright seabreeze—a day to do the heart good and to tire the limbs royally; the morning draught of brave mountain air and life on the white moorland road before the inn; the forenoon ramble, rod in hand, on the warm gorsepath by the river; luncheon in quaint-flavoured, wit-haunted company by the blue Kilbrannan Sound, with nothing to interrupt but the beat of sudden outflying wings sometimes about the warm cliff crannies overhead, and, on the beach below, the soft caressing murmur of the secret-telling sea; the afternoon drive to the far hill-clachan, where the turf roofs were tied down with heather ropes, where the brown women were carrying sea-wrack to manure their fields, and where, as a back-sound to the quaint-turned Highland speech, was heard the thud-thud of the swinging flails; and, last of all, the return at evening by the high moorland path, with the amethyst fire dying out on Ben Ghoil in the east, and, in the west, the sunset heavens aflame with saffron and rose, and the sea a living splendour of generous wine.

Now it is night, and the air comes cooler over the moor. No air is like Arran air at night, with its vague herb-perfumes adrift, for stirring old memories and desires in the heart and new ambitions in the blood. Upon its clear breath old designs, old possibilities long forgotten, come back again to make life and hope. By it the vapours of worldly wisdom are blown aside, the cloud-wrack care of intervening years is lifted, and one walks again clear-hearted for a time in the April valley of his youth. Night anywhere has charms for those who think, but night upon the moors possesses an influence peculiarly its own. The primeval heath, wild and undesecrated by the hand of man, lies under "the splendid-mooned and jewelled night," shadowy and mystic with the silence of the ages. Abroad upon the moor at such an hour seem to brood the imaginings of an older world, and the grey stone circles standing gaunt yet upon the Arran wilds are hardly needed to suggest the memory that along these wilds, once upon a time, wound processions of bearded Druids, to practise under the starry influences rites of a faith now long forgotten. At intervals upon the moor they appear, these grey menhirs and circles. Inscrutable as the Egyptian sphinx they stand with sealed lips, strange monuments of a buried past. For tens of centuries they have seen the dusks gather and the stars swim overhead, but no rising sun has wakened them from their silence, and still they keep the stony secret of their origin, though they could not keep the ashes of the dead committed to their charge.

Meanwhile Hamish makes way steadily, though by tortuous windings. None but a native bred on the spot could conduct a vehicle safely by night across these moors. Where unaccustomed eyes can make out no sign whatever of a track, and where a single mistake would send one wheel floundering into a peat-hag and the other spinning in the air, or capsize the whole equipage into the miry abysses of a bog, Hamish leads confidently on, with no worse result than the jolting of a rugged road. The mare is a sturdy beast of the small sure-footed Arran breed, now dying out, and she pulls away gallantly among rocks and heath-tufts that would bring any other sort of horse to quick disaster. It takes her master all his time to keep up with her on the rough ground, and he has breath left for no more than an occasional "Ay, ay," or "‘Deed, yes, Sir!" in the true Arran accent. English is evidently the less familiar language to him; his remarks to the mare, sotto voce, are in Gaelic.

All last month after nightfall tufts and sheets of flame were to be seen among the darkness of the hills; for in March they burn the heather on the sheep-farms to let the young herbage come up, and the conflagrations which appear then as pillars of smoke by day become pillars of fire by night. But in April the moorland birds have begun to build their nests, and the hills are left to them in darkness and in peace. The only light to be seen from the cart is that in the window of the croft far behind, which will be kept aglow by thoughtful hands as a guide till Hamish’s return after moonset. Over the brow of the moor, however, the shining lights of the clachan at the mountain foot before long come into sight, and away to the right, tremulous with silver and shadows, the sheen of the moonlight can be made out on the sea. Rapidly now the path descends, plunging presently through lanes of high thorn hedges where the stars are all but shut out overhead. The rush of a river is heard, the wheels grate harshly on the gravel, there is a sudden and vigorous splashing of hoofs, and the mare has passed the ford. Then a half-mile of climb uphill on a good road, and Hamish stands still with his charge at the door of the inn.


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