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Sketch Book of the North
A Highland Reel


Much study, truly, becomes a weariness of the flesh. After a long day’s seculsion over a desk and books the cobwebs begin to gather about one’s brain, and stronger and stronger grows the longing to look upon the face of one’s fellows. There are fair faces, too, to look upon, and bright-lipped laughter to listen to not far away, and the shriek of a fiddle or the skirl of the pipes is all that is needed to set light footsteps tripping on a broad barn floor. Down with pamphlet and pen, therefore; on with a heavy coat in case of rain, and out into the roaring night.

A heavy "carry" is tearing across the sky, but the air is fresh and clear; and see, away below through the darkness, by the lochside, shining hospitable and bright, are the lights of Gartachraggan. Away, then, by the steading, where the patient beasts are stirring in their byres, and a breath is caught of the rich warm mash preparing for their evening meal. Away through the whin-haughs, where the owls answer each other with silvery hootings, again and again overhead there is heard the creaking wing of a belated hawk beating to and fro. How the wind sighs in the naked hedges, with a louder whisper where the thick-leaved, holly-trees are set! One would almost linger under the soft shelter of the wood, where the air is rich with the fragrance of the undergrowth, and the stillness gives a feeling of pleasant security by contrast with the roar and sough of the storm in the treetops far above. The stones of the dry dyke here are covered close with the clinging tendrils of a small-leaved ivy, and wild strawberry and wild geranium in summer star with white and pink the mossy crannies. A pleasant spot, therefore, it is then to linger in, to watch the red squirrel frolic on the road and the chaffinch build his mossy home overhead. But to-night one’s thoughts are otherwise. It is cold, and the south wind is roaring in the wood, hustling the withered leaves to limbo. Down the hill, therefore, at a blithesome pace, jousting and jesting with the storm, till a glimpse of the realm of Oberon is caught below--the foam-swept loch with its lonely islets, seen by the fitful gleam of stars. Life comes back to the jaded heart on such a night, as the fresh wind lifts the hair and clears the brain. There is war in the heavens overhead, and the scream can be heard of wild-duck entangled in the driving clouds; but in the heart there is only laughter, born of the comradeship of "rude Boreas." Whew! Draw in here to the shelter till the rain-blast sweeps over. It whistles like arrowy sleet through the branches overhead, and the great limbs roar and struggle in the contest. The bole of the giant ash itself heaves and groans with the effort. But the strong tree has grappled before with the Titan, and the wrestlings of eighty winters have but given it a deeper grip of the soil. And so the blast blows over, the air clears, and close at hand, a ruddy blaze among the trees, are seen the gleaming windows of the farm.

What a kindly welcome is this! No ordinary "How d’ye do?" and touch of listless fingers, but a heartiness honest as its own broad vowels. The good folk here live close to the soil, and continually touch the real facts of life. Ennui and cynicism, those soul-cankers of the dwellers in towns, have never found their way to these homesteads by the lochside, and sweet and whole-hearted as the breath of their own hay-ricks are the greetings of these hospitable folk. For the frank grasp that will ease world-cares go to the kindly sea-captain, or the hand that has held a plough. Years have gathered on the heads of the farmer and his wife since first their ploughshares turned the lochside soil, but still they are fresh and hale, and the frost of years that has silvered their hair has touched them no whit besides. Meanwhile, there has grown around them a brave and comely brood—sons stalwart as the ark-builders of old, and daughters—ah! Look not too long upon these, good youth, or thou art undone (though that might not be the worst thing that could happen thee). For there is choice and difference among them; the hair of one dark as the starling’s wing, another’s bright with russet gold; eyes blue as the summer skies, eyes dark as the woodland wells; cheeks of fair soft peach-bloom, and cherry lips ripe and red. Beware!

Into the parlour? No!—the kitchen is the place. A carpeted parlour can be seen at any time, but such a kitchen only in such a spot. The great fire blazing in the chimney roars defiance to the storm outside, and flashes its warm light upon wall and rafter. Lamps shine bright as silver in their sconces, and plate-racks and harness-steels gleam in the wall’s recesses. Not a speck stains the purity of the stone floor, and the massy tables and chairs of honest deal are white as driven snow. Into the kitchen, then, and ask for the goodman’s health, and whether the ploughing has gone forward well, whether the collie that went amissing has turned up yet, and what was done with the tramp who threatened the ploughman’s wife.

But, listen! the neighbours are coming already, and in the lull of the wind surely that was the sound of the pipes! How the girls’ eyes sparkle and their colour rises! What tempting access of witchery!—wait a little, take care, keep hold of your heart! Perhaps their sweethearts are coming. The pipes stop at the door, there is a sound of laughter, a moment’s pause, and then a new invasion of brave lads and comely lasses, bringing in with them the earth-smelling wind of the night. Fresh-voiced as the spring thrashes, it is an inspiration to look at and listen to these sons and daughters of the hills.

First of all, for the Highlands are hospitable, something must be eaten. The table in a trice is heaped with tempting array; all the produce of the farm itself and none the less delicious for the fair hands that have placed it there.

Then, hey, presto! the scene is changed. A space has been cleared in the barn, and lamps hung from the rafters and on the walls light it up in gipsy fashion, casting fantastic shadows into the far corners behind the great heaps of warm corn-straw. A skirl of the pipes, and in a moment partners are chosen. Then more than one secret slips out to the curious eye, for much there is to be read in the language of a blush and a look. The lads stand back to back, two and two, and their partners face them, and as the music takes to the air, featly they trip it in the merry figure-of-eight. Presently, opposite their neighbours’ partners, comes the chance for spirit and agility, and many a wild capering step is done by the lads with arm in air and a whirl of the tartans, while the lasses, more modest, with downcast look, hold back their skirts daintily as they foot it with toe and heel. Faster and faster the music gathers, faster flies the dance with its changing step, with the threading of eights and the Highland fling, while cheeks take flame, eyes flash wildly, and the barn floor shakes the rhythm. More and more breathless grow lasses and lads, but no one will yield to stop, till at last, with a wild whoop, they fling themselves all at once upon the straw, and the music slowly runs out.

Again and again it will be renewed, with the wilder "Reel o’ Hulochan" for a change, or some wonderful old-fashioned country dance; and only some time in the morning, long after the old folk have gone to bed, will the merry party break up, tired but delighted, to go home in twos and threes along the hills.


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