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A Summer in Skye
The Second Sight


THE Quirang is one of the wonderful sights of Skye, and if you once visit it you will believe ever afterwards the misty and spectral Ossian to be authentic. The Quirang is a nightmare of nature; it resembles one of Nat Lee’s mad tragedies; it might be the scene of a Walpurgis night; on it might be held a Norway witch’s Sabbath. Architecture is frozen music, it is said; the Quirang is frozen terror and superstition. ‘Tis a huge spire or cathedral of rock some thousand feet in height, with rocky spires or needles sticking out of it. Macbeth’s weird sisters stand on the blasted heath, and Quirang stands in a region as wild as itself. The country around is strange and abnormal, rising into rocky ridges here, like the spine of some huge animal, sinking into hollows there, with pools in the hollows—glimmering almost always through drifts of misty rain. On a clear day, with a bright sun above, the ascent of Quirang may be pleasant enough; but a clear day you seldom find, for on spectral precipices and sharp-pointed rocky needles, the weeping clouds of the Atlantic have made their chosen home. When you ascend, with every ledge and block slippery, every runnel a torrent, the wind taking liberties with your cap and making your plaid stream like a meteor to the troubled air, white tormented mists boiling up from black chasms and caldrons, rain making disastrous twilight of noon-day,—horror shoots through your pulses, your brain swims on the giddy pathway, and the thought of your room in the vapoury under world rushes across the soul like the fallen Adam’s remembrance of his paradise. Then you learn, if you never learned before, that nature is not always gracious; that not always does she out-stretch herself in low-lying bounteous lands, over which sober sunsets redden and heavy uddered cattle low; but that she has fierce hysterical moods in which she congeals into granite precipice and peak, and draws around herself and her companions the winds that moan and bluster, veils of livid rains. If you are an Englishman you will habitually know her in her gracious, if a Skye man in her fiercer, moods.

No one is independent of scenery and climate. Men are racy of the soil in which they grow, even as grapes are. A Saxon nurtured in fat Kent or Sussex, amid flats of heavy wheat and acorn-dropping oaks, must of necessity be a different creature from the Celt who gathers his sustenance from the bleak sea-board, and who is daily drenched by the rain-cloud from Cuchullin. The one, at his best, becomes a broad-shouldered, clear-eyed, ruddy-faced man, slightly obese, who meets danger gleefully, because he has had little experience of it, and because his conditions being hitherto easy, he naturally assumes that everything will go well with him ;—at worst, a porker contented with his mast. The other, take him at his best, of sharper spirit, because it has been more keenly whetted on difficulty; if not more intrepid, at least more consciously so; of sadder mood habitually, but wizen happy, happier, as the gloomier the cloud the more dazzling the rainbow ; — at his worst, either beaten down, subdued, and nerveless, or gaunt, suspicious, and crafty, like the belly-pinched wolf. On the whole, the Saxon is likely to be the more sensual; the Celt the more superstitious : the Saxon will probably be prosaic, dwelling in the circle of the seen and the tangible; the Celt a poet: while the anger of the Saxon is slow and abiding, like the burning of coal; the anger of the Celt is swift and transient, like the flame that consumes the dried heather: both are superior to death when occasion comes—the Saxon from a grand obtuseness which ignores the fact; the Celt, because he has been in constant communion with it, and because he has seen, measured, and overcome it. The Celt is the most melancholy of men; he has turned everything to superstitious uses, and every object of nature, even the unreasoning dreams of sleep, are mirrors which flash back death upon him. He, the least of all men, requires to be reminded that he is mortal. The howling of his dog will do him that service.

In the stories which are told round the island peat-fires it is abundantly apparent that the Celt has not yet subdued nature. In these stories you can detect a curious subtle hostility between man and his environments; a fear of them, a want of absolute trust in them. In these stories and songs man is not at home in the world. Nature is too strong for him; she rebukes and crushes him. The Elements, however calm and beautiful they may appear for the moment, are malign and deceitful at heart, and merely bide their time. They are like the paw of the cat—soft and velvety, but with concealed talons that scratch when least expected. And this curious relation between man and nature grows out of the climatic conditions and the forms of Hebridean life. In his usual avocations the Islesman rubs clothes with death as he would with an acquaintance. Gathering wild fowl, he hangs, like a spider on its thread, over a precipice on which the sea is beating a hundred feet beneath. In his crazy boat he adventures into whirlpool and foam. He is among the hills when the snow comes down making everything unfamiliar, and stifling the strayed wanderer. Thus death is ever near him, and that consciousness turns everything to omen. The mist creeping along the hill-side by moonlight is an apparition. In the roar of the waterfall, or the murmur of the swollen ford, he hears the water spirit calling out for the man for whom it has waited so long. He sees death-candles burning on the sea, marking the place at which a boat will be upset by some sudden squall. He hears spectral hammers clinking in an outhouse, and he knows that ghostly artificers are preparing a coffin there. Ghostly fingers tap at his window, ghostly feet are about his door; at midnight his furniture cries out as if it had seen a sight and could not restrain itself. Even his dreams are prophetic, and point ghastly issues for himself or for others. And just as there are poets who are more open to beauty than other men, and whose duty and delight it is to set forth that beauty anew; so in the Hebrides there are seers who bear the same relation to the other world that the poet bears to beauty, who are cognisant of its secrets, and who make those secrets known. The seer does not inherit his power. It comes upon him at haphazard as genius or as personal beauty might come. He is a lonely man amongst his fellows; apparitions cross his path at noon-day; he never knows into what a ghastly something the commonest object may transform itself—the table he sits at may suddenly become the resting-place of a coffin; and the man who laughs in his cups with him may, in the twinkling of an eye, wear a death-shroud up to his throat. He hears river voices prophesying death, and shadowy and silent funeral processions are continually defiling before him. When the seer beholds a vision his companions know it; for "the inner part of his eyelids turn so far upwards that, after the object disappears, he must draw them down with his fingers, and sometimes employs others to draw them down, which he finds to be much the easier way." From long experience of these visions, and by noticing how closely or tardily fulfilment has trodden upon their heels, the seer can extract the meaning of the apparition that flashes upon him, and predict the period of its accomplishment. Other people can make nothing of them, but he reads them, as the sailor in possession of the signal-book reads the signal flying at the peak of the High Admiral. These visions, it would appear, conform to rules, like everything else. If a vision be seen early in a morning, it will be accomplished in a few hours,—if at noon, it will usually be accomplished that day,—if in the evening, that night,—if after candles are lighted, certainly that night. When a shroud is seen about a person it is a sure prognostication of death. And the period of death is estimated by the height of the shroud about the body. If it lies about the legs, death is not to be expected before the expiry of a year, and perhaps it may be deferred a few months longer. If it is seen near the head, death will occur in a few days, perhaps in a few hours. To see houses and trees in a desert place is a sign that buildings will be erected there anon. To see a spark of fire falling on the arms or breast of a person is the sign that a dead child will shortly be in the arms of those persons. To see a seat empty at the time of sitting in it is a sign of that person’s death being at hand. The seers are said to be extremely temperate in habit; they are neither drunkards nor gluttons; they are not subject to convulsions nor hysterical fits; there are no madmen amongst them; nor has a seer ever been known to commit suicide.

The literature of the second sight is extremely curious. The writers have perfect faith in the examples they adduce; but their examples are far from satisfactory. They are seldom obtained at first hand, they almost always live on hearsay; and even if everything be true, the professed fulfilment seems nothing other than a rather singular coincidence. Still these stories are devoutly believed in Skye, and it is almost as perilous to doubt the existence of a Skyeman’s ghost as to doubt the existence of a Skyeman’s ancestor. In "Treatises on the Second Sight," very curious tracts, compiled by Theophilus Insulanus, Rev. Mr Frazer, Mr Martin, and John Aubrey, Esq., F.R.S., and which hint that a disbelief in apparitions is tantamount to disbelief in the immortality of the soul, the following stories are related:-

"John Campbell, younger of Ardsliguish, in Ardnamorchuann, in the year 1729, returning home with Duncan Campbell, his brother, since deceased, as they drew near the house, in a plain surrounded with bushes of wood, where they intended to discharge their fusees at a mark, observed a young girl, whom they knew to be one of their domestics, crossing the plain, and having called her by name, she did not answer, but ran into the thicket. As the two brothers had been some days from home, and willing to know what happened in their absence, the youngest, John, pursued after, but could not find her. Immediately, as they arrived at home, having acquainted their mother they saw the said girl, and called after her, but she avoided their search, and would not speak to them; upon which they were told she departed this life that same day. I had this relation from James Campbell in Girgudale, a young man of known modesty and candour, who had the story at several times from the said John. Campbell."

"Mr Anderson assured me, that upon the 16th of April 1746, (being the day on which his Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland obtained a glorious victory over the rebels at Culloden,) as he lay in bed with his spouse towards the dawning of the day, he heard very audibly a voice at his bed-head inquiring if he was awake; who answered he was, but then took no further notice of it. A little time thereafter, the voice repeated, with greater vehemence, if he was awake. And he answering, as formerly, he was, there was some stop, when the voice repeated louder, asking the same question, and he making the same answer,. but asking what the voice had to say; upon which it replied, The prince is defeated, defeated, defeated! And in less than forty-eight hours there-after an express carried the welcome tidings of the fact into the country."

"Captain Macdonald of Castletown (allowed by all his acquaintances to be a person of consummate integrity) informed me that a Knoydart man (being on board of a vessel at anchor in the sound of the Island Oransay) went under night out of the cabin to the deck, and being missed by his company, some of them went to call him down; but not finding him, concluded that he had dropt from the ship’s side. When day came on, they got a long line furnished with hooks, (from a tenant’s house close by the shore,) which having cast from the ship’s side, some of the hooks got hold of his clothes, so that they got the corpse taken up. The owner of the long line told Captain Macdonald that for a quarter of a year before that accident happened, he himself and his domestics, on every calm night, would hear lamentable cries at the shore where the corpse was landed; and not only so, but the long lines that took up the corpse being hung on a pin in his house, all of them would hear an odd jingling of the hooks before and after going to bed, and that without any person, dog, or cat touching them; and at other times, with fire light, see the long lines covered over with lucid globules, such as are seen drop from oars rowing under night."

The foregoing are examples of the general superstitions that prevail in the islands ; those that follow relate to the second sight.

"The Lady Coll informed me that one M’Lean of Knock, an elderly reputable gentleman, living on their estate, as he walked in the fields before sunset, he saw a neighbouring person, who had been sick for a long time, coming that way, accompanied by another man ; and, as they drew nearer, he asked them some questions, and how far they intended to go. The first answered they were to travel forward to a village he named, and then pursued his journey with a more than ordinary pace. Next day, early in the morning, he was invited to his neighbour’s interment, which surprised him much, as he had seen and spoke with him the evening before; but was told by the messenger that came for him, the deceased person had been confined to his bed for seven weeks; and that he departed this life a little before sunset, much about the time he saw him in a vision the preceding day."

"Margaret Macleod, an honest woman advanced in years, informed me that when she was a young Woman in the family of Grishornish, a dairy-maid, who daily used to herd the calves in a park close to the house, observed, at different times, a woman resembling herself in shape and attire, walking solitarily at no great distance from her; and being surprised at the apparition, to make further trial, she put the back part of her garment foremost, and anon the phantom was dressed in the same manner, which made her uneasy, believing it portended some fatal consequence to herself. In a short time thereafter she was seized with a fever, which brought her to her end; but before her sickness, and on her deathbed, declared this second sight to several."

"Neil Betton, a sober, judicious person, and elder in the session of Diurinish, informed me, as he had it from the deceased Mr Kenneth Betton, late minister in Trotternish, that a farmer in the village of Airaidh, on the west side of the country, being towards evening to quit his work, he observed a traveller coming towards him as he stood close to the highway; and, as he knew the man, waited his coming up; but when he began to speak with him, the traveller broke off the road abruptly to the shore that was hard by; which, how soon he entered, he gave a loud cry; and, having proceeded on the shore, gave a loud cry at the middle of it, and so went on until he came to a river running through the middle of it, which he no sooner entered than he gave a third cry, and then saw him no more. On the farmer’s coming home he told all that he had heard and seen to those of his household: so the story spread, until from hand to hand it came to the person’s own knowledge, who, having seen the farmer afterwards, inquired of him narrowly about it, who owned and told the same as above. In less than a year thereafter, the same man, going with two more to cut wattling for creels, in Coillena-Skiddil, he and they were drowned in the river where he heard him give the last cry."

"Some of the inhabitants of Harris sailing round the Isle of Skye, with a design to go to the opposite mainland, were strangely surprised with an apparition of two men hanging down by the ropes that secured the mast, but could not conjecture what it meant. They pursued the voyage; but the wind turned contrary, and so forced them into Broadford, in the Isle of Skye, where they found Sir Donald Macdonald keeping a sheriff’s court, and two criminals receiving sentence of death there. The ropes and masts of that very boat were made use of to hang those criminals."

Such are some of the stories laboriously gathered together and set down in perfect good faith by Theophilus Insulanus. It will be seen that they are loosely reported, are always at second or third hand, and that, if the original teller of the stories could be placed in the witness-box, a strict cross-examination would make sad havoc with him and them. But although sufficiently ridiculous and foolish in themselves, they exemplify the strange ghostly atmosphere which pervades the western islands. Every one of the people amongst whom I now live believes in apparitions and the second sight. Mr M’Ian has seen a ghost himself, but he will not willingly speak about it. A woman gifted with the second sight dwells in one of the smoking turf huts on the shore. At night, round a precipitous rock that overhangs the sea, about a hundred yards from the house, a light was often seen to glide, and evil was apprehended. For years the patient light abode there. At last a boy, the son of one of the cotters, climbing about the rock, missed his footing, fell into the sea and was drowned, and from that hour the light was never more visible. At a ford up amongst the hills, the people tell me doleful cries have been heard at intervals for years. The stream has waited long for its victim, but I am assured that it will get it at last. That a man will yet be drowned there is an article of faith amongst the cotters. But who? I suspect I am regarded as the likely person. Perhaps the withered crone down in the turf hut yonder knows the features of the doomed man. This prevailing superstitious feeling takes curious possession of one somehow. You cannot live in a ghostly atmosphere without being more or less affected by it. Lying a-bed you don’t like to hear the furniture of your bedroom creak. At sunset you are suspicious of the prodigious shadow that stalks alongside of you across the gold-green fields. You become more than usually impressed by the multitudinous and unknown voices of the night. Gradually you get the idea that you and nature are alien; and it is in that feeling of alienation that superstition lives.

Father M’Crimmon and I had been out rabbit shooting, and, tired of the sport, we sat down to rest on a grassy knoll. The ghostly island stories had taken possession of my mind, and as we sat and smoked I inquired if the priest was a believer in ghosts generally and in the second sight in particular. The gaunt, solemn-voiced, melancholy-eyed man replied that he believed in the existence of ghosts just as he believed in the existence of America—he had never seen America, he had never seen a ghost, but the existence of both he considered was amply borne out by testimony. "I know there is such a thing as the second sight," he went on, "because I have had cognisance of it myself. Six or seven years ago I was staying with my friend Mr M’Ian, as I am staying now, and just as we were sipping a tumbler of punch after dinner we heard a great uproar outside. We went out and found all the farm-servants standing on the grass and gazing seawards. On inquiry, we learned that two brothers, M’Millan by name, who lived down at Stonefield, beyond the point yonder, fishermen by trade, and well versed in the management of a boat, had come up to the islands here to gather razor-fish for bait. When they had secured plenty of bait, they steered for home, although a stiff breeze was blowing. They kept a full sail on, and went straight on the wind. A small boy, Hector, who was employed in herding cows, was watching the boat trying to double the point. All at once he came running into the kitchen where the farm. servants were at dinner. ‘Men, men,’ he cried, ‘come out fast; M’Millan’s boat is sinking—I saw her heel over.’ Of course the hinds came rushing out bareheaded, and it was the noise they made that disturbed my friend and myself at our punch. All this we gathered in less time than I have taken to tell you. We looked narrowly seaward, but no boat was to be seen. Mr M’Ian brought out his telescope, and still the sea remained perfectly blue and bare. Neither M’Ian nor his servants could be brought to believe Hector’s story—they thought it extremely unlikely that on a comparatively calm day any harm could befall such experienced sailors. It was universally agreed that the boat had rounded the point, and Mr M’Ian rated the herd-boy for raising a false alarm. Hector still persisting that he had seen the boat capsize and go down, got his ears soundly boxed for his obstinacy, and was sent whimpering away to his cows, and enjoined in future to mind-his own business. Then the servants returned to their dinner in the kitchen, and, going back with me to our punch, which had become somewhat cold, Mr M’Ian resumed his story of the eagle that used to come down the glen in the early mornings and carry away his poultry, and told how he shot it at last and found that it measured six feet from wing-tip to wing-tip.

"But although Hector got his ears boxed it turned out that he had in all probability spoken the truth. Towards the evening of next day the M’Millan sisters came up to the house to inquire after the boat, which had never reached home. The poor girls were in a dreadful state when they were told that their brothers’ boat had left the islands the previous afternoon, and what Hector the cow-herd averred he had seen. Still there was room for hope; it was possible that Hector was mistaken, it was possible that the M’Millans might have gone somewhere, or been forced to take shelter somewhere—and so the two sisters, mustering up the best heart they could, went across the hill to Stonefield when the sun was setting, and the sea a sheet of gold leaf, and looking as it could never be angry or have the heart to drown anything.

"Days passed, and the boat never came home, nor did the brothers. It was on Friday that the M’Millans sailed away on the fresh breeze, and on the Wednesday following the bay down there was a sorry sight. The missing sailors were brave, good-looking, merry-hearted, and were liked along the whole coast; and on the Wednesday I speak of no fewer than two hundred and fifty boats were sailing slowly up and down, crossing and re-crossing, trawling for the bodies. I remember the day perfectly. It was dull and sultry, with but little sunshine; the hills over there (Blaavin and the others) were standing dimly in a smoke of heat; and on the smooth pallid sea the mournful multitude of black boats were moving slowly up and down, across and back again. In each boat two men pulled, and the third sat in the stern with the trawling-irons. The day was perfectly still, and I could hear through the heated air the solemn pulses of the oars. The bay was black with the slowly-crawling boats. A sorry sight," said the good priest, filling his second pipe from a tobacco pouch made of otter’s skin.

"I don’t know how it was," went on the Father, holding his newly-filled pipe between his forefinger and thumb; "but looking on the black dots of boats, and hearing the sound of their oars, I remembered that old Mirren, who lived in one of the turf huts yonder, had the second sight; and so I thought I would go down and see her. When I got to the hut, I met Mirren coming up from the shore with a basket full of whelks, which she had been gathering for dinner. I went into the hut along with her, and sat down. ‘There’s a sad business in the bay to-day,’ said I. ‘A sad business,’ said Mirren, as she laid down her basket. ‘Will they get the bodies?’ Mirren shook her head. ‘The bodies are not there to get; they have floated out past Rum to the main ocean.’ ‘How do you know ?’ ‘Going out to the shore about a month ago I heard a scream, and, looking up, saw a boat off the point, with two men in it, caught in a squall, and going down. When the boat sank the men still remained in it—the one entangled in the fishing-net, the other in the ropes of the sails. I saw them float out to the main sea between the two wines,’—that‘s a literal translation," said the Father, parenthetically. "You have seen two liquors in a glass—the one floating on the top of the other? Very well; there are two currents in the sea, and when my people wish to describe anything sinking down and floating between these two currents, they use the image of two liquors in a wine-glass. Oh, it‘s a fine language the Gaelic, and admirably adapted for poetical purposes,—but to return. Mirren told me that she saw the bodies float out to sea between the two wines, and that the trawling boats might trawl for ever in the bay before they would get what they wanted. When evening came, the boats returned home without having found the bodies of the drowned M’Millans. Well," and here the Father lighted his pipe, "six weeks after, a capsized boat was thrown on the shore in Uist, with two corpses inside,—one entangled in the fishing-net, the other in the ropes of the sails. It was the M’Millans’ boat, and it was the two brothers who were inside. Their faces were all eaten away by the dog-fishes; but the people who had done business with them in Uist identified them by their clothes. This I know to be true," said the Father emphatically, and shutting the door on all argument or hint of scepticism. "And now, if you are not too tired, suppose we try our luck in the copses down there? ‘Twas a famous place for rabbits when I was here last year."


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