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Sketch Book of the North
Through the Pass


Rain is not to be heeded in the Highlands. It is the picturesque part of the weather here. The air grows fresher and sweeter in a shower, a richer fragrance comes out in the woods, and the true gloom and grandeur of the mountains can only be seen when the grey rain-veils are darkening and glittering among their glens. Even into the house steals the reviving freshness of the rain. The scent of the wet sweetbrier budding in the garden hedge enters at the open window; from the larch wood near, the grateful thrushes can be heard sending forth more liquid trillings; and the daffodils, hung like yellow jewels along the lawn, appear fairer and brighter in the shower. But better than wasting the day indoors it is to sally forth, strong-booted and roughly clad, breathe the freshness of the cool, new air, and start, staff in hand, for the hills themselves. It is worth while to defy the rain, for the road lies through woods dewy and dim as Keats dreamed for his "Endymion." In their deep-secluded ways sometimes may be seen the timid roedeer, and on the fragrant air be heard the amorous crooning of wild doves.

In another month the quiet dells among these woods will be purple with dewy hyacinths, and many a sequestered nook will be dim with the blue forget-me-not. Already the open meads are sprinkled with patins of buttercup-gold, and a modest spot of cream here and there, under some mossy bank, betrays a late primrose. As yet, however, the delicate broidery of summer has not carpeted the forest floors. Under the dark, low-hanging-branches of the spruce-firs—made a richer green by the rain—there is only a russet wealth of withered fern, with a warm depth of shadow such as Rembrandt loved to paint. Looking over a mossy old bridge parapet into the ferny dingle below, one can see the feathers’ grey larches powdered with sweet pink blossom, whose beauty few people know; and lower down, by the burn, the alders putting forth silky silver bud-tips—the "mouse’s ear" which is the angler’s sign that perch are to be caught. In open spaces where some forest-clearing has been done, the few silver-barked birches left standing begin to show a smir of green, their graceful drooping branches looking like trailing sprays of delicate maidenhair; whilst here and there a spot is lit up by the golden glory of the whin. The woods at this time of the year are full of life, for the cruel gun is silent, and many a happy home of bird and beast is hidden in the tangled undergrowth. In the elm-tops about the lodge behind by the river the rooks are giving each other much grandmotherly advice as to the rearing of broods. The cock pheasant’s crow is to be heard frequently in the covers, and sometimes, from his open feeding ground beside the path, a splendid bird rises suddenly with whirring wings, and sails royally away to more secluded fastnesses. Among the thick-leaved tangle of wild rhododendron on either hand blackbirds are fluttering joyously about their nests. Overhead, occasionally, passes the heavy, rushing flight of a wild pigeon. And more than once across a gleam of sunshine on the path runs a red squirrel, like a bit of living gold.

And while one treads on the brown, fallen needles of spruce and larch, the subtle forest scents fill the heart with many pleasant memories. Never are these forest scents richer than when brought out by a shower, and it is curious how vividly some faint perfume drifting on the air will recall the happy scenes of other days, memories that are themselves the pensive fragrance of old age.

Through these ducal woods, and amid such pleasant sights and sounds, some seventy years ago wandered the "Wizard of the North," gathering material for his work.

Fairer scenes a poet could not have chosen to gather inspiration from. Everyone may feel the eloquence of those northern hills in front, as everyone may enjoy the fragrance of the meadow violets: it needed a poet, however, to turn into speech the eloquence of the hills, as it needs a bee to turn into honey the fragrance of the flowers. Hither, therefore, fitly came Scott to his work; and over clachan and mountain alike he has woven the golden net of romance.

One may wander for miles through these woods and out beyond upon the old Highland road, with its low, mossy dykes, without meeting a single wayfarer. Only Nature herself, with gentle and sweet suggestion, speaks to him of the past or of the future. For the touch of the fresh cool air upon the face clears away all cobwebs of sordid thought, and braces the faculties for new endeavour. Here, too, may be witnessed many a matchless transformation scene. For presently the rain ceases, the grey mist melts into the lucent blue of the sky, and wet hill and woodland sparkle and glow in a flood of hot sunshine. Immediately the shallow trout burn that comes down to the stepping stones under the edge of the wood laughs gaily and dances over its peebles; the mountain in front becomes a great sapphire burning gloriously under the blue; the larks rise, true sun-worshippers, pouring forth rills of song, libations to their God, at heaven’s own gate; and from the twittering coppice flutter the vain chaffinches, with purple velvet heads, gold breasts, and silver-barred wings, to show themselves. Never do the vaunted birds of the tropics sing so joyously as the sweet hedge-warblers of Britain, and, ages before the alchymists came, thrush and robin and yellowhammer had found out Nature’s own philosopher’s-stone, and sang the praises of that sunshine which, like love and like human genius, turns all its touches into gold.

Steep as a wall in front rises the mountain barrier of the Highlands, its wooded and inaccessible shoulder projecting far into the loch. Only one passage is to be found through that rocky wall, and the road to it winds perilously round a little bay, between darkening precipice and lapping wave, before ascending the narrow and unseen defile. Daring would the assailant be who tried that steep and narrow path with a Highland foe above him! Scarcely more than a bridle-path, and steep as a staircase, it winds upwards between rugged mountain walls. A single clansman, posted with gun and claymore behind one of its jutting crags, might hold the road against a regiment. High and dark overhead against the sky rise sombre pines and immemorial holly-trees, which from their torn and shattered girth might be—

Seedlings of those that heavenward sprung
While yet the maiden moon was young

—ancient enough, at anyrate, to have looked down on many a Highland foray. No one need marvel that the Macgregors thought themselves safe when they had driven their spoil through the Pass of Balmaha. And glorious as well as welcome was the sight that met them when once actually through the defile. For away to the north, far as eye could range, ben beyond ben rose the fastnesses of their native mountains, silver waters flashing below round islands of fern, and the blue sky laughing above. Every glen had its memory, and every corrie was their inheritance, and even the traveller of the present day can know no more gorgeous spectacle than Ben Lomond after sunset burning in amethystine fire. For more reasons than one, therefore, might these rough old warriors rejoice when they had scaled the pass and beheld before them this wild but lovely vista of the country they called their home.


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