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Sketch Book of the North
A Highland Morning


Breakfast is over—a Highland breakfast. Full justice has been done to the pleasant porridge and warm creamy milk, the fresh herrings that were alive in Loch Fyne a few hours ago, salmon from the splash-nets at Eriska, fragrant coffee, excellent home-made scones, and rich butter, tasting of the cloverfield. The day is superb, and no one will spend more of it indoors than he can help; besides, the boat will be almost afloat now, and it will take a little time to bale her out. Bring the lines, then, with their gaudy red and yellow flies—it may be that a mackerel or two are to be caught in the loch; a novel of William Black’s, "The Princess of Thule" or "MacLeod of Dare," and a pocketful of good cigars. It is hardly nine o’clock, yet the sun is dazzling and hot in the doorway. There is just enough air moving to bring up the fresh smell of the seaweed stirred by the rising tide. The white sandy road is almost dry again after the rain. which has fallen in the night, and as the kine, after their morning milking, are turned into the clover-field alongside, the foremost will hardly move from the gate to allow the others to enter, but bury their muzzles at once in the fresh, wet grass. The sea lies flashing and sparkling in the morning sunshine, and on the dark Kingairloch Mountains opposite, here and there the silver streak of a torrent still shows the effects of the morning shower. A sunny quiet fills the air. The faint screaming and splashing of gulls and sea-swallows far out over some shoal of fishes, and the sound of the oars in the rowlocks of the distant boat can be distinctly heard, while the leisurely movements of the horse and cart going down the road a quarter of a mile away are quite distinguishable. The driver is whistling pleasantly; the tune is "Ho ro mo nighean donn." The last mists are leaving the mountain sides, and everything promises a hot day. Even the soft white clouds far up in the sky are every moment growing fainter, and already the thin shimmer of heat is ascending from the dry stone dyke beside the road. The brambles on the other side of the dry, grassy ditch show profuse clusters of bright red fruit, but there are no ripe berries to be seen—the children pluck them long before they are black. The scarlet hips, too, shine bravely on the sprays of hedgebrier, the tips of whose leaves are just beginning to turn brown. A small blue butterfly flickers across the road, and, rising at the dyke, is lost in a moment against the blue of the sky; while a silent humble-bee comes along, alights on the last empty bell of a seeded foxglove, and immediately tumbles out again disgusted, to continue his researches further on. Over the hedge there, on the other side of the road, the oats seem yellow enough to cut, and among them are still in flower a few yellow Marguerites. The hill beyond glows purple yet with the heather, although its full bloom is past. Here and there plants of it are flowering close to the dyke by the roadside. It is the small sort, the kind the bees frequent, for they can get into it,—the bell heather flowers earlier, and is over now.

But here is our boat; she is already afloat, the mainsail and jib are hoisted, there is just enough wind to carry her against the tide, and Appin and Castle Stalker, the ruined stronghold of the Stewarts of Appin, are slowly hidden by the point behind. On the right is the green island of Lismore, low lying and fertile, with few houses visible upon it, only the slate roof of Lady Elphinstone’s lodge flashes in the sunlight like a crystal, while beyond and above tower the dark mountains of Morvern. To the south in the offing lie the islands of Easdale and Luing, famous for their slates.

Down we drift, past the Black Isle, to the narrows of Eriska. The tide is still running in towards Loch Creran, and the passage, which otherwise would have been difficult among the eddies and currents, is easily and quickly made. An immense volume of water must pour to and fro through that narrow channel to fill the loch at every tide. At these times the current rushes like a mill-race. We are inside presently, and as the air is very warm, and a pleasant little bay with a sandy beach lies close at hand on Eriska, there could be no better opportunity for a bathe.

No sooner said than done. The boat is anchored a little way from the beach, where through the clear green water the sandy bottom can be seen some few fathoms below, and one after another enjoys a header from the bow, or slips gently over the stern. Pleasant as Arcady and utterly secluded is the spot; not even the crack of a gamekeeper’s fowling-piece is to be heard on shore. But what is this—that jig-jig-jigging of engines? A small steam yacht is coming into the loch, and—gracious goodness! there are ladies on board.

To cover, all three, behind the boat, hang on by the gunwale, and trust in Providence to keep the yacht at a respectable distance. One has no ambition at such moments to court the suffrages even of the most delectable society. But the danger moves past, and though the fair ones on deck do smile at the phenomenal movements of our boat, and the ominous absence of occupants, who is a whit the worse? They will laugh with us rather than at us should we meet.

The breeze has freshened a little now, and will be enough to carry us up the loch amongst the currents and against the outflowing tide. Yonder is the ferry-boat crossing from Shian. It has a waggonette and horses on board, and the long sweeps carry it over but slowly. The long low island there, with its few stunted bushes, is seldom visited, and remains a favourite haunt of the graceful sea-swallows. Two months ago every grassy ledge upon its sides would have its couple of sea-swallow’s eggs. See yonder, just beyond the rocky point, swimming quietly about, with watchful, intelligent eyes, there is the black head of a seal.

As the boat gets round the end of Craigailleach, on the low neck of land across which the road winds from Connal, the ruin of the ancient castle of Barcaldine comes into sight. In the days of which Sir Walter Scott speaks in his "Lord of the Isles," when against the Bruce in Artornish Castle "Barcaldine’s arm was high in air," there was scantier cultivation around the site of that black stronghold. The shrub ivy was not waving then from its beacon turret, and the retainers whose thatched cottages are still scattered among the fields around were rather caterans and pirates than peaceful crofters. Now, however, as Mr. William Freeland puts it—

The freebooters, reiving and killing,
No longer swoop down from their glens,
But delve by the bothie and shieling,
Or shepherd their flocks on the bens.

The mountains in front seem to rise higher as we approach, and to cast a deeper silence on the narrowing water and motionless woods at their base. Barcaldine House, as secluded and delightful a spot as any in the Highlands, with its old-fashioned gardens and vineries, lies hidden among these woods. Far up on the purple hillside at the head of the loch is a lonely burying place. A stone dyke guards the little enclosure of quiet graves. The spot is visible for many a mile around, and its presence ever in sight must have a tender and solemn effect in keeping alive the memory of the dead. Every day, as the crofter toils in his little field or the shepherd takes the hill with his dogs, his eyes will turn to it, and he will think of wife or child who lie in that still peaceful place, asleep under the calm sunshine and among the heather. Only sometimes will it be hidden—when the soft, white, trailing mists come down and weep their gentle tears upon the spot. Directly in front, away beyond and above the other mountains, towers Ben Cruachan, a monarch among the peers. And below, on the shore of the loch appears the long, low-roofed cottage, half covered a month ago with crimson tropeolum, and half smothered among its roses, where lives the author of the humorous and valuable "Notes from Benderloch." Here is our destination. Let down the mainsail, let go the jib, and we will run ashore. It is not yet noon, and there are many hours before us to spend in the beautiful Barcaldine woods.


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