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Sketch Book of the North
At the Foot of Ben Ledi


Sit here in the stern of the boat, and let her drift out on the glassy waters of the loch. After the long sultry heat of the day it is refreshing to let one’s fingers trail in these cool waters, and to watch the reflection of the hills above the darkening in the crystal depths below. Happy just now must be the speckled trout that dwell in the loch’s clear depths; and when the fiery-flowering sun is ablaze in the zenith there are few languishing mortals who will not envy the cool green domain of the salmon king. But now that the sunset has died away upon the hills, like "the watch-fires of departing angels," a breath of air begins mysteriously to stir along the shore, and from the undergrowth about the streamlet that runs close by into the loch, blackbird and water-ousel are sending forth more liquid pipings. The cuckoos, that all day long have been calling to each other across loch and strath, now with a more restful "chuck! chu-chu, chuck!" are flitting, grey flakes, from coppice to coppice, preparatory to settling for the night. The blackcocks’ challenge, "kibeck, kibeck, kibeck!" can still be heard from their tourney-ground on the moraine at the moor’s edge; and from the heath above still comes the silvery "whorl-whorl-whorl" of the grouse. These sounds can be heard far off in the stillness of the dusk.

But listen to this mighty beating of the waters, and look yonder! From the shadow of the hazels on the loch’s margin comes the royal bird of Juno, pursuing his mate. In his eager haste he has left the water, and with outstretched neck, beating air and loch into foam with his silver wings, he rushes after her. She, with the tantalising coyness of her sex, has also risen from the water, and, streaming across the loch, keeps undiminished the distance between herself and her pursuer. At this, finding his efforts vain, he gives up the chase, subsiding upon the surface with a force which sends the foam-waves curling high about his breast. Disdainfully he turns his back upon the fair, and, without once inclining his proud black beak in her direction, makes steadily for the shore. This, however, does not please the lady. She turns, looks after her inconstant lover, and, meeting with no response, begins slowly to sail in his direction. Suddenly again at this, with snowy pinions erect, neck curved gallantly back, and the high waves curling from his breast, he surges after her, ploughing up the loch into shining furrows. Again the coy dame flees, and again and again the same amorous manoeuvres will be gone through; and when night itself falls, the splendid birds will still be dallying over their long-certain courtship. No plebeian affair is the mating of these imperial denizens of the loch. Seldom do mortals witness even this wooing of the swans.

More commonplace, though not, perhaps, less happy, are the three brown ducks and their attentive drake, which having, one after another, splashed themselves methodically on the flat stone by the margin of the lake, now swim off in a string for home. Young trout are making silver circles in the water as they leap at flies under the grassy bank; and the keen-winged little swallows that skim the surface sometimes tip the glassy wave with foot or wing.

Before the daylight fades there are beautiful colours to be seen on shore. The fresh young reeds that rise at hand like a green mist out of the water deepen to a purple tint nearer the margin. The march dyke that comes down to the shallows is covered with the red chain-mail of a small-leaved ivy; and the gean-tree beside it, that a week or two ago raised into the blue sky creamy coral-branches of blossom, still retains something of its fragile loveliness. On the stony meadow beyond, the golden whinflower is fading now, but is being replaced by the paler yellow splendour of the broom. The rich blush-purple of some heathy banks betrays the delicate blossom of the blaeberry, and patches of brown show where the young bracken are uncurling their rusty tips.

And silent and fair on the mountain descends the shadowy veil of night. Darkening high up there against the sapphire heaven, the dome-topped hill, keeping watch with the stars, has treasured for twenty centuries strange memories of an older world. Whether or not, in the earth’s green spring, it served as a spot of offering for some primeval race no man now can tell. But long before the infant Christ drew breath among the far-off Jewish hills, grave Druid priests ascended here to offer worship to their Unknown God. On the holy eve of the First of May the concourse gathered from near and far, and as the sun, the divine sign-manual set in the heavens, arose out of the east, they welcomed his rising with an offering of fire. From sea to sea across dim Scotland, from the storm-cloven peaks of Arran to the sentinel dome of the Bass, could be seen this mountain summit; and from every side the awed inhabitants, as they looked up and beheld the clear fire-jewel glittering on Ben Ledi’s brow, knew that Heaven had once more favoured them with the sacred gift of flame. For the light on the mountaintop was understood to be kindled by the hand of God, as were the altar fires of the Chaldean seers on the hills of the East of old; every hearth in the land had been quenched, and the people waited for the new Bal-tein, or Baal-fire from Heaven, for another year. Rude these people may have been—though that is by no means certain; but few races on earth have had a nobler place of worship than this altar-mountain, which they called the Hill of God.

The climber on Ben Ledi to-day passes, near the summit, the scene of a sad, more modern story. On the shoulder of the mountain lies a small, dark tarn. It is but a few yards in width, yet once it acted a part in a terrible tragedy. Amid the snows of winter, and under a leaden heaven, a funeral party was crossing the ridge, when there was a crash; the slow wail of the pipes changed into a shriek of terror; and a hundred mourners, with the dead they were carrying, sank in the icy waters to rise no more. That single moment sufficed to leave sixty women husbandless in Glen Finglas below. No tablet on that wind-swept moor records the half-forgotten disaster; only the eerie lapping of the lochlet’s waves fills the discoverer with strange foreboding; and at dusk, it is said, the lonely ptarmigan may be seen, like souls of the departed, haunting the fatal spot.

On a little knoll at the mountain foot, where the Leny leaves Loch Lubnaig, lies the little Highland burial-place to which the clansmen were bearing their dead comrade. Only a low stone wall now remains round the few quiet graves; but here once stood the chapel of St. Bride, and from the Gothic arch of its doorway Scott, in his "Lady of the Lake," describes the issuing of a blithesome rout, gay with pipe-music and laughter, when the dripping messenger of Roderick Dhu rushed up and thrust into the hand of the new-made groom the Fiery Cross of the Macgregors—

The muster place is Lanrick mead;
Speed forth the signal! Norman, speed!

Well did the poet paint the parting of bride and groom; and to-day on the mossy stones of the little burial-place are to be read the wistful words of many who have bid each other since then a last good-bye. Surely the arcana of earth’s divinest happiness is only opened by the golden key of love. Sweet, indeed, must be that companionship which unclasps not with resignation even when sunset is fading upon the hills of life and the shadows are coming in regretful eyes, but would fain stretch forth its yearnings through the pathways of a Hereafter. Simple and lacking excitement may be the lives of the folk who dwell under these hills, but something of the sublime surely is latent in hearts whose hopes extend beyond a time when heaven and earth shall have passed away.


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