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Sketch Book of the North
By the Blasted Heath


The barometer has fallen somewhat since last night, and there are ominous clouds looming here and there in the west; but the sky is clear blue overhead, the white road is dry and dazzling, and the sun as hot as could be wished. Out to the eastward the way turns along the top of the quaint fisher town, with its narrow lanes and throng of low thatched roofs, till at a sudden dip the little bridge crosses the river. Sweet Nairn! The river has given its name to the town. A hundred and forty years have passed since these clear waters, wimpling now in the sun, brought down from the western moors the life-blood of many a wounded Highlander fallen on dark Culloden. The sunny waters keep a memory still of the flight of the last Prince Charles.

Like a crow-flight eastward the road runs straight, having on the left, beyond the rabbit warren, the silver sand-beach and the sea, and on the right the fertile farm lands and the farther woods. The white line glistening on the horizon yonder, far along the coast to the east, is a glimpse of the treacherous hillocks of the Culbin shifting sands. They are shining now like silver in the calm forenoon; but, as if restless under an eternal ban, they keep for ever moving, and, when stirred by the strong sea-wind, they are wont yet to rise and rush and overwhelm, like the dust-storm of the Sahara. For two hundred years a goodly manor and a broad estate have lain buried beneath those wastes, and what was once called the Garden of Moray is nothing now but a desolate sea of sand. They say that a few years ago an apple-tree of the ancient manor orchard was laid bare for some months by a drift, that it blossomed and bore fruit, and again mysteriously disappeared. Curious visitors, too, in the open spaces where the black earth of the ancient fields is exposed, can still see the regular ridges and furrows as they were left by the flying farmers; and the ruts of cart-wheels two hundred years old are yet to be traced in the long-hidden soil. Flint arrowheads, bronze pins and ornaments, iron fish-hooks and spear-points, as well as numerous nails, and sometimes an ancient coin, are to be picked up about the mouldered sites of long-buried villages; but the manor of Kinnaird, the only stone house on the estate, lies yet beneath a mighty sandhill, as it was hidden by the historic storm which in three days overwhelmed nineteen farms, altered by five miles the course of a river, and blotted out a prosperous country-side. Pray heaven that yonder terrible white line by the sea may not rise again some night on its tempest wings to carry that ruin farther!

Over the firth, looking backward as the highway at last bends inland, the red cliffs of Cromarty show their long line in the sun, and, with the yellow harvest-fields above them, hardly fulfil sufficiently the ancient name of the "Black Isle." Not a sail is to be seen on the open firth, only the far-stretching waters, under the sunny sky, bicker with the "many-twinkling smile of ocean." Here, though, two miles out of Nairn, where the many-ricked farmhouses lie snug among their new-shorn fields, the road rises into the trim village of Auldearn.

Neat as possible are the little gardens before the cottages, bright yet with late autumn flowers. Yellow marigolds are glistening there within the low fences beside dark velvety calceolarias and creamy stocks; while the crimson flowers of tropeola cover the cottage walls up to the thatch, and some pale monthly roses still bloom about the windows. A peaceful place it is, and little suggestive of the carnage that it saw just a hundred years before Culloden. Yet here it was that in 1645 the great Montrose, fighting gallantly for the First Charles, drove back into utter rout the army of the covenanting Parliament. Over on the left, among sheepfolds and dry-dyke inclosures, lay his right wing with the royal standard; nearer, to the right, with their backs to the hill, stood the rest of his array with the cavalry; and here in the village street, between the two wings, his few guns deceived the enemy with a show of force. It was from the church tower, up there in front, that Montrose surveyed the position; and below, in the little churchyard and church itself, lie many of those who fell in the battle. They are all at peace now, the eastern Marquis and the western, Montrose and Argyle: long ago they fought out their last great feud, and departed.

The country about has always been a famous place for witches, and doubtless the three who fired Macbeth with his fatal ambition belonged to Auldearn. Three miles beyond the village the road runs across the Hardmuir where the awful meeting took place. It is planted now with pines, and the railway runs at less than a mile’s distance; but even when the road is flooded with sunshine, there is a gloom among the trees, and a strange feeling of eeriness comes upon the intruder on their solitude. On the left the gate opens into the wood, and the witches’ hillock lies at some distance out of sight. Utterly silent the place is! Not a breath of air is moving, and the atmosphere has become close and sultry. There is no path, for few people follow their curiosity so far. Dry ditches and stumps of old trees make the walking difficult; withered branches of the pines crackle suddenly sometimes under tread; and here and there the fleshy finger of a fungus catches the eye at a tree root.

And here is the hillock. On its bald and blasted summit it is that in the lurid corpse-light,

The weird sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about,

when Macbeth, approaching the spot with Banquo on their return to King Duncan at Forres, after victory in the west over Macdonald of the Isles, exclaims:

So foul and fair a day I have not seen!

and the hags, suddenly confronting the general, greet him with the triple hail of Glamis, Cawdor, and King. The blasted hillock was indeed a fit spot for such a scene: not a blade of grass grows upon it; the withered needles and cones of the pines lie about, wan and lifeless and yellow; and on one side, where the witches emptied their horrid caldron, and the contents ran down the hill, the earth is bare and scorched and black. Even the trees themselves which grow on the hillock are of a different sort from those on the heath around. Less than seven miles from the spot, the moated keep of Cawdor, where tradition says that the last awful prophecy was fulfilled by Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan, frowns yet among its woods.

But what is this? The air has grown suddenly dark; the gloom becomes oppressive; and in the close heat it is almost possible to imagine a smell of sulphur. A flash of lightning, a rush of wind among the tree-tops, and a terrible crash of thunder just overhead! A moment’s silence, a sound as if all the pines were shaking their branches together, a deluging downpour of rain, and the storm has burst. The spirits of the air are abroad, and the evil genius of the place is awake in demoniac fury. The tempest waxes terrific. The awful gloom among the trees is lit up by flash after flash of lightning; the cannon of thunder burst in all directions; and the rain pours in torrents. The ghastly hags might well revisit the scene of their orgies at such a moment. It is enough. The powers of the air have conquered. It is hardly safe, and by no means pleasant, to remain among the pines in such a storm. So farewell to the deserted spot, and a bee-line for the open country. To make up for the wetting, it is consoling to think that few enthusiasts have beheld so realistic a representation of the third scene of Macbeth.


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