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Sketch Book of the North
Where the Clans Fell


What richer picture could the eye desire than this sunlit glory of harvest colour amid the Highland mountains? The narrow sea-loch itself below gleams blue as melted sapphire under the radiant and stainless sky; around it, on the rising slopes, the cornfields, rough with fruitful stooks, spread their yellow ripeness in the sun; amid them shine patches of fresh soft green where the second clover has been cut; while above hang the sheltering woods, like dark brown shadows; and, over all, the surrounding hills, bloom-spread as for a banquet of the gods, raise their purple stain against the blue. Only far off, above the dim mountains of amethyst in the north, lies a white argosy of clouds, like some convoy of home-bound Indiamen becalmed on a summer sea.

There has been no sound for an hour but the whisper of the warm autumn wind that the farmer loves for winnowing his grain, the drone of velvety bee sometimes in the blue depth of a hare-bell, and the crackle of the black broom-pods bursting in the heat. The furry brown rabbits that pop prudently out of sight in the mossy bank are silent as shadows; the red squirrel that runs along the dyke top and disappears up a tree makes no chatter; and even the shy speckled mavis that bobs bright-eyed across the path is voiceless, for among the birds this is the silent month.

Less and less, as the narrow road rises through the fir woods, grows the bit of blue loch seen far behind under the branches, and the little clachan in the warm hollow over the brow of the hill is shut from the world on every side by the deep and silent forests of fragrant pine. Wayside flowers are seeding on the time-darkened thatch of these sequestered dwellings. There the wallflower clings with branches of narrow pods, and the spikes of the field-mustard ripen beside the golden bullets of the ox-eyed daisy. On a chair at the door of one of the cottages an ancient granny is sunning herself, counting with feeble fingers the stitches on her glancing knitting wires. A frail old body she is, set here, neat and comfortable, by some loving hand to enjoy, it may be, the sunshine of her last autumn on earth. Withered and wrinkled are her old cheeks with the cares of many a winter, and it seems difficult to recall the day when she was a ripe-lipped, merry reaper in the corn-fields; but under her clean, white mutch the grey old eyes are undimmed yet as they watch, heedful and lovingly, the movements of the little maid tottering about her knee. Where are her thoughts as she sits there alone, hour after hour, in the silent sunshine? Is she back in the dusk among the sweet-scented hay-ricks, listening with fluttering heart to the whispers of her rustic lover? Is it a sunny doorway where she sits crooning for happiness over the baby on her knee? the little one that is all her own—and his. Or is it a winter night as she kneels in the flickering light by the bedside, feeling the rough, loving hand relax its grasp, while she sees the shadow pass across the wistful face, and knows with breaking heart that she is alone? These are the peaceful scenes of peasant life; alas that they should ever be darkened by the shadow of the sword!

Granny can speak no English, or she might have something to say of the great disaster that befel the clans on the moor close by in her father’s time. For not far beyond the little clachan the road emerges on the open heath, and there, where the paths cross, lies the great, grey boulder on which the terrible duke stood to survey the field just before the battle. Not even then was he aware how nearly his birthday carousals of the night before, at Nairn, had been surprised and turned into another slaughter of Prestonpans. So perilously sometimes does the sword of Damocles tremble over an unconscious head. His troops, well rested and provisioned, were fresh as that April morning itself, while the poor clansmen in the boggy hollow yonder to the right, divided in their councils, and famishing for treacherous lack of bread, were exhausted by the fruitless twenty-four mile surprise march of the night. Yet they came on, these clansmen, half an hour later, like lions; plunging through the bog, sword in hand, in the face of the regulars’ terrific blaze of musketry, cutting Cumberland’s first line to pieces, and rushing on the second line to be blown to atoms at sword’s length.

The yellow corn is being shorn to-day where the clans were mowed down then. Here was spilt the best blood of the Highlands. Close by, the brave Keppoch, crying out as he charged alone before the eyes of his immovable Macdonalds that the children of his tribe had forsaken him, threw his sword in the air as a bullet went through his heart. At the tall tree to the west fell Cameron of Lochiel; and in the little valley beyond, the defeated Prince Charles, as he fled, paused a moment to bid his army a bitter farewell. The road here at the cornfield’s edge dips a little yet, where the fatal bog once lay, and ten yards to the left still springs the Dead Men’s well, to which so many poor fellows crawled during the awful succeeding night to allay the tortures of their thirst before they died. Here the gigantic MacGillivray, leader that day of the clan M’Intosh, fell dead as, with his last strength, he bore to the spring a little wounded boy whom he had heard at his side moaning for water.

A better fate the bravery of these men deserved, misguided though they might be, for the victors gave no quarter to wounded or prisoners; and the soul shudders yet at thought of the horrors that followed the battle. It was not enough that disabled men should be clubbed and shot, and barns full of them burned to ashes; but to this day in many a quiet glen lie the remains of hamlets ruined in cold blood, and tales are told of the dark vengeance taken by the victorious soldiery upon defenceless women, little children, and old men. Well was it, perhaps, for those who had fallen that they lay here at rest under the heather— they could not know the cruel fate of wife or child. To other lips was left the wail for "Drummossie; oh! Drummossie." At rest they were, these hot and valiant hearts, plaided and plumed as warriors wish to lie in their long bivouac under the open heaven. Not the first nor the last of their race, either, were they to fall, scarred with the wounds of war; for, less than a mile away, under the lichened cairns of Clava, do not the ashes rest of the chiefs their ancestors, slain in some long-forgotten battle of the past, and waiting, like these, for the sound of the last reveille?

Here, on each side of the road, can still be made out the trenches where the dead were buried, according to their tartans it is said; and, while the rest of the moor is purple with heather, these sunken places alone are green. On the edge of the cornfield rises a stone, inscribed "Field of the English; they were buried here"; and at the end of each trench on the moor stands a rude slab bearing the name of its tribe. A singular pathos attends two of these stones, on which is written, not M’Intosh or Stewart or Fraser, but "Mixed Clans."

Round the oval moorland of the battle rise thick fir-woods now, dark and mournful. Sometimes the winds of the equinox, as they roar through these, recall the deadly rolling musketry of long ago. But the air to-day scarcely whispers in the tree-tops, and sunshine and silence sleep upon the resting-place of the gallant dead. Only some fair, white-clad girls, who have come up from Inverness to read the battle inscription on the great boulder-cairn, are plucking a spray of heather from the Camerons’ grave.


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