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Sketch Book of the North
The Glen of Gloom


Silence falls upon the gay deck of the floating palace, as, with quickly pulsing paddles, she throbs on amid the solitude of these dark waters under the mountains. Far away to the south behind, like silver in the sunshine, lies the open sea chased by the wind; but above the narrowing channel in front the rugged Bens, sombre and vast, frown down upon the invader. Purple-apparelled these Bens are now, as they lie like allied kings asleep after their battles with the storm-giants of the north. For the black waves in winter leap here savagely, and gnash their gleaming teeth against the mountainsides; the storm-winds roar in anger as they buffet the iron breasts of their captors; and the silent frost strains with his strong embrace to crack the great ribs of the Titans. But the everlasting hills live on, and the sunshine kisses them again and the summer rain weeps upon their scars, while their children, the dwellers about their feet, look up and learn to love them for their memories with a love strong as life itself. Many a Highland heart failed long ago on the march through the Egyptian desert when the pipes wailed out "Lochaber no more." These are the great mountains of Lochaber rising huge against the sky in front; and even the gay tourist, here on the sunny deck, feels a silence gather upon his heart as he is borne on under their shadows. The young bride by the companion-way nestles closer to her husband as, with grave blue eyes, she gazes upon the solemn loneliness of the hills.

But listen! Do you hear? Wild and sweet in the distance over the water comes the sound. It is the pipes, and they are playing "Flora Macdonald’s Lament." Yonder, down near the shore—you can make them out through the glass—a shooting party has picnicked, and they have brought the piper with them. How the colour deepens on the cheek of the old Highland gentleman here at the sound! He is just returning from many years’ residence abroad, and for the last hour, leaning over the deck-rail, he has been feasting his heart upon the sight of the mountains. "There is no music like that music," he exclaims, "over the water and among the hills." To a Highlander, indeed, the sound of the pipes is full of many memories, like "the sough of the south wind in the trees" of an autumn night. The folk on deck who are from the south will know something of it now perhaps. Yesterday, no doubt, some of them supposed the ragged vagabond who strutted and blew on a pier-head as the steamer passed, a specimen of the pibroch-players. They should see a chieftain’s own hereditary piper march on the castle terrace, cairngorm and silver gleaming about him, ribbons streaming on the wind, and tartans afloat!

And the steamer draws in to the little pier under the mountain, where the horses are waiting. A quiet and peaceful spot it is, with the clear green waves washing in among the shining, clinging mussels, to break upon the dark blue shingle. Only twice a day is the peaceful murmur of these waters broken upon by the coming of the great palace steamers, when there is a momentary stir and excitement, the gleam of white dresses as visitors come ashore, and the getting of the few mail-bags on board. But presently with churning paddles the steamer departs up the loch, leaving behind it on the dark waters a long trail of foam; the visitors stow themselves like clustering bees upon the high coaches that are in waiting; and the place falls a-dreaming again amid the coming and going of the tides.

The five horses in the foremost coach to-day are quite fresh, and as the steamer was half an hour late, they have grown restive under the reins. The driver now, however, after looking behind to see that all is secure, makes his whip crack like a rifle shot, and with prancing leader and gallant clatter of hoofs the cavalcade moves off. Above, the mountain-side, tufted with heather and bracken and dark with trees, overhangs the road, and from the high box-seat one might drop an acorn into the waves that wash the foot of the precipice forty feet below. After the throbbing deck of the great steamer and the oily smell of engines and cook’s galley, it is pleasant to be bowling along a firm road with the honey-scent of the heather in the air, and—yes, it is quite certain—the fragrance of peat smoke. For as the road turns inland the village opens to view, a double line of dark blue dwellings along the mountain foot. Cold, perhaps, these cottages look to a southern eye accustomed to warm red brick; but in winter, when the storms come roaring down the glens, and the hills are hidden, by falling snow, the hearths within, heaped with glowing sea-coal and peat, are cosy enough for all that. Then the brown fishermen, home from the herring harvest of the North Sea, talk over the year’s success as they mend their gear by the fireside, and swarthy fellows shut out by the snowdrifts from their work in the great slate quarries on the mountain, gather to hear the week-old news that has come by the trading steamer. Just now it is only women and children who come to the doors to see the coach go past.

The horses dash on at a gallop through the village and into the mouth of the great glen that opens, rugged and wild and dark, in front. Between the mountain walls of that deep and lonely pass reigns an awful silence now, broken only by the far-off cry of the curlew and the beating of the wild-bird’s wing. Unsought in the corries, the hazelnuts are ripening and the rowan clusters growing red; while along the misty precipices, the eagles, undisturbed, are teaching their young to fly. All here to-day is desolation, for hand of man has not tilled the spot since the terrible night, two hundred years ago, when the valley was swept with fire and sword, and a hundred hearths, the dwellings of its devoted clan, were buried in smoking ruins. Foul lies that dark deed at its perpetrators’ door, and its memory remains a blot upon their name. Gleams of sunshine lie golden on the steep mountainsides to-day, and the purple heather warms them with its bloom; but a storm was raging through the pass on that awful winter night, and snow lay thick upon the ground, when shriek and musketshot told that the unsuspecting clansmen were being murdered by their guests—guests, too, who, though soldiers, were their own neighbours and relations. Tottering old men and lisping children were butchered here then to avenge the baulked ambition of a cruel statesman; and heart-broken women, clasping helpless infants to their breasts, fled shrieking from their blood-stained hearths to perish amid the storm.

And the coach with its holiday occupants will drive at a gallop to the head of the glen, and some one will make a jest upon the bard’s choice of an abode when Ossian’s cave is pointed out, high up in the precipice face. But the heart of the young bride will fill with world-old pity as she sees, mouldering among the heather in the valley, the ruins of once happy homes; and when the coach comes down again there will be tears perhaps in her eyes as she gazes at the chieftain’s house, and is told how the rude soldiers, after shooting her brave old lord before her eyes, tore the gold wedding-ring with their teeth from the finger of MacIan’s wife, and thrust her out, trembling with age and grief, to die of her agony in the snow. For on the loch-shore at the entrance to the glen, the house of the chief stands yet, silent, haunted by its memories, amid the trees—

Where Sorrow broods in silence evermore
Among the shadows of eternal hills,
While at her feet sobs the unceasing sea.


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