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Weird Tales - Scottish
Legend of the Dropping Well

By Hugh Miller

“Mop.—Is it true, think you?
Aut.—Very true ;—why should I carry lies abroad?”
Winter’s Tale.

In perusing in some of our older Gazetteers the half page devoted to Cromarty, we find that, among the natural curiosities of the place, there is a small cavern termed the Dropping Cave, famous for its stalactites and its petrifying springs. And though the progress of modern discovery has done much to lower the wonder, by rendering it merely one of thousands of the same class,—for even among the cliffs of the hill in which the cavern is perforated, there is scarcely a spring that has not its border of coral-like petrifactions, and its moss and grass and nettle-stalks of marble;—the Dropping Cave may well be regarded as a curiosity still. It is hollowed, a few feet over the beach, in the face of one of the low precipices which skirt the entrance of the bay. From a crag which overhangs the opening there falls a perpetual drizzle, which, settling on the moss and lichens beneath, converts them into stone; and on entering the long narrow apartment within, there may be seen by the dim light of the entrance a series of springs, which filter through the solid rock above, descending in so continual a shower, that even in the sultriest days 119 of midsummer, when the earth is parched and the grass has become brown and withered, we may hear the eternal drop pattering against the rough stones of the bottom, or tinkling in the recess within, like the string of a harp struck to ascertain its tone. A stone flung into the interior, after rebounding from side to side of the rock, falls with a deep hollow plunge, as if thrown into the sea. Had the Dropping Cave been a cavern of Greece or Sicily, the classical mythology of these countries would have tenanted it with the goddess of rains and vapour.

The walk to the cave is one of the most agreeable in the vicinity of the town, especially in a fine morning of midsummer, an hour or so after the sun has risen out of the Firth. The path to it has been hollowed out of the hill-side by the feet of men and animals, and goes winding over rocks and stones— now in a hollow, now on a height, anon lost in the beach. In one of the recesses which open into the hill, a clump of forest-trees has sprung up, and, lifting their boughs to the edge of the precipice above, cover its rough iron features as if with a veil; while, from the shade below, a fine spring, dedicated in some remote age to “Our Ladye,” comes bubbling to the light with as pure and copious a stream as in the days of the priest and the pilgrim. We see the beach covered over with sea-shells and weeds, the cork buoys of the fishermen, and fragments of wrecks. The air is full of fragrance. Only look at yonder white patch in the hollow of the hill; ’tis a little city of flowers, a whole community of one species—the meadow-sweet. The fisherman scents it over the water, as he rows homeward in the cool of the evening, a full half-mile from the shore. And see how the hill rises above us, roughened with heath and fern and foxglove, and crested a-top with a dark wood of fir. See how the beeches which have sprung up on the declivity recline in nearly the angle of the hill, so that their upper branches are only a few feet from the soil ; reminding us, in the midst of warmth and beauty, of the rough winds of winter and the blasting influence of the spray. The insect denizens of the heath and the wood are all on wing; see, there is the red bee, and there the blue butterfly, and yonder the burnet-moth with its wings of vermilion, and the large bird-like dragon-fly, and a thousand others besides, all beautiful and all happy. And then the birds. But why attempt a description? The materials of thought and imagination are scattered profusely around us ; the wood, the cliffs, and the spring—the flowers, the insects, and the birds—the shells, the broken fragments of wreck, and the distant sail—the sea, the sky, and the opposite land— are all tones of the great instrument, Nature, which need only to be awakened by the mind to yield its sweet music. And now we have reached the cave.

The Dropping Cave ninety years ago was a place of considerable interest; but the continuous shower which converted into stone the plants and mosses on which it fell, and the dark recess which no one had attempted to penetrate, and of whose extent imagination had formed a thousand surmises, constituted some of merely the minor circumstances that had rendered it such. Superstition had busied herself for ages before in making it a scene of wonders. Boat men, when sailing along the shore in the night-time, had been startled by the apparition of a faint blue light, which seemed glimmering from its entrance: the mermaid had been seen sitting on a rock a few yards before it, singing a low melancholy song, and combing her long yellow hair with her fingers; and a man who had been engaged in fishing crabs among the rocks, and was returning late in the evening by the way of the cave, almost shared the fate of its moss and lichens, when, on looking up, he saw an old grey-headed man, with a beard that descended to his girdle, sitting in the opening, and gazing wistfully on the sea.

I find some of these circumstances of terror embodied in verse by the provincial poet whom I have quoted in an early chapter as an authority regarding the Cromarty tradition of Wallace; and now, as then, I will avail myself of his description :—

“When round the lonely shore
The vex’d waves toil’d with deafning roar,
And Midnight, from her lazy wain,
Heard wild winds roar and tides complain,
And groaning woods and shrieking sprites
Strange sounds from thence, and fearful lights,
Had caught the sailor’s ear and eye,
As drove his storm-press’d vessel by.
More fearful still, Tradition told
Of that dread cave a story old—
So very old, ages had pass’d
Since he who made had told it last.
*T was thus it ran :—Of strange array
An aged man, whose locks of gray,
Like hill stream, flow’d his shoulders o’er,
For three long days on that lone shore
Sat moveless as the rocks around,
Moaning in low unearthly sound ;
But whence he came, or why he stay'd,
None knew, and none to ask essay’d.
At length a lad drew near and spoke,
Craving reply. The figure shook
Like mirror’d shape on dimpling brook,
Or shadow flung on eddying smoke—
And the boy fled. The third day pass’d—
Fierce howl’d at night the angry blast
Brushing the waves; wild shrieks of death
Were heard these bristling cliffs beneath,
And cries for aid. The morning light
Gleam’d on a scene of wild affright.
Where yawns the cave, the rugged shore
With many a corse lay cover’d o’er,
And many a gorgeous fragment show’d
How fair the bark the storm subdued.”

There was a Cromarty mechanic of the last age, named Willie Millar, who used to relate a wonderful adventure which befell him in the cave. Willie was a man of fertile invention, fond of a good story, and zealous in the improvement of bad ones ; but his zeal was evil spoken of—the reformations he effected in this way being regarded as little better than sinful, and his finest inventions as downright lying. There was a smithy in the place, which, when he had become old and useless, was his favourite resort. He would take up his seat on the forge each evening, regularly as the evening came, and relate to a group of delighted but too incredulous youngsters, some new passage in his wonderful autobiography; which, though it seemed long enough to stretch beyond the flood, received new accessions every night. So little, indeed, had he in common with the small-minded class who, possessed of only a limited number of narratives and ideas, go over and over these as the hands of a clock pass continually over the same figures, that, with but one exception in favour of the adventure of the cave, he hardly ever told the same story twice.

There was a tradition current in Cromarty, that a townsman had once passed through the Dropping Cave, until he heard a pair of tongs rattle over his head on the hearth of a farmhouse of Navity, a district of the parish which lies fully three miles from the opening; and Willie, who was, it seems, as hard of belief in such matters as if he himself had never drawn on the credulity of others, resolved on testing the story by exploring the cave. He sewed sprigs of rowan and wych-elm in the hem of his waistcoat, thrust a Bible into one pocket and a bottle of gin into the other, and providing himself with a torch, and a staff of buckthorn which had been cut at the full of the moon, and dressed without the assistance of iron or steel, he set out for the cave on a morning of midsummer. It was evening ere he returned—his torch burnt out, and his clothes stained with mould and slime, and soaked with water.

After lighting the torch, he said, and taking a firm grasp of the staff, he plunged fearlessly into the gloom before him. The cavern narrowed and lowered as he proceeded ; the floor, which was of a white stone resembling marble, was hollowed into cisterns, filled with a water so exceedingly pure that it sparkled to the light like spirits in crystal, and from the roof there depended clusters of richly embossed icicles of white stone, like those which, during a severe frost, hang at the edge of a waterfall. The springs from above trickled along their channelled sides, and then tinkled into the cisterns, like rain from the eaves of a cottage after a thunder-shower. Perhaps he looked too curiously around him when remarking all this; for so it wai, that at the ninth and last cistern he missed his footing, and, falling forwards shattered his bottle of gin against the side of the cave. The liquor ran into a little hollow of the marble, and, unwilling to lose what he regarded as very valuable, and what certainly had cost him some trouble and suffering to procure (for he had rowed half way across the Firth for it in terror of the customhouse and a cockling sea), he stooped down and drank till his breath failed him. Never was there better Nantz; and, pausing to recover himself, he stooped and drank, again and again. There were strange appearances when he rose. A circular rainbow had formed round his torch ; there was a blue mist gathering in the hollows of the cave ; the very roof and sides began to heave and reel, as if the living rock were a Flushing lugger riding on the ground-swell; and there was a low humming noise that came sounding from the interior, like that of bees in a hawthorn thicket on an evening of midsummer. Willie, however, had become much less timorous than at first, and, though he could not well account for the fact, much less disposed to wonder. And so on he went.

He found the cavern widen, and the roof rose so high that the light reached only the snowy icicles which hung meteor-like over his head. The walls were formed of white stone, ridged and furrowed like pieces of drapery, and all before and around him there sparkled myriads of crystals, like dewdrops in a spring morning. The sound of his footsteps was echoed on either hand by a multitude of openings, in which the momentary gleam of his torch was reflected, as he passed, on sheets of water and ribs of rock, and which led, like so many arched corridors, still deeper into the bowels of the hill. Nor, independently of the continuous humming noise, were all the sounds of the cave those of echo. At one time he could hear the wind moaning through the trees of the wood above, and the scream of a hawk as if pouncing on its prey; then there was the deafening blast of a smith’s bellows, and the clang of hammers on an anvil; and anon a deep hollow noise resembling the growling of a wild beast. All seemed terribly wild and unnatural; a breeze came moaning along the cave, and shook the marble drapery of the sides, as if it were formed of gauze or linen; the entire cave seemed turning round like the cylinder of an engine, till the floor stood upright and the adventurer fell heavily against it ; and as the torch hissed and sputtered in the water, he could see by its expiring gleam that a full score of dark figures, as undefined as shadows by moonlight, were flitting around him in the blue mist which now came rolling in dense clouds from the interior. In a moment more all was darkness, and he lay insensible amid the chill damps of the cave.

The rest of the adventure wonderfully resembled a dream. On returning to consciousness, he found that the gloom around him had given place to a dim red twilight, which flickered along the sides and roof like the reflection of a distant fire. He rose, and grasping his staff staggered forward. “It is sunlight,” thought he, “ I shall find an opening among the rocks of Eathie, and return home over the hill.” Instead, however, of the expected outlet, he found the passage terminate in a wonderful apartment, so vast in extent, that though an immense fire of pine-trees, whole and unbroken from root to branch, threw up a red wavering sheet of flame many yards in height, he could see in some places neither the walls nor the roof. A cataract, like that of Foyers during the long-continued rains of an open winter, descended in thunder from one of the sides, and presenting its broad undulating front of foam to the red gleam of the fire, again escaped into darkness through a wide broken-edged gulf at the bottom. The floor of the apartment appeared to be thickly strewed with human bones, half-burned and blood-stained, and gnawed as if by cannibals; and directly in front of the fire there was a low tomb-like erection of dark-coloured stone, full twenty yards in length, and roughened with grotesque hieroglyphics, like those of a Runic obelisk. An enormous mace of iron, crusted with rust and blood, reclined against the upper end; while a bugle of gold hung by a chain of the same metal from a column at the bottom. Willie seized the bugle, and winded a blast till the wide apartment shook with the din; the waters of the cataract disappeared, as if arrested at their source; and the ponderous cover of the tomb began to heave and crackle, and pass slowly over the edge, as if assailed by the terrific strength of some newly-awakened giant below. Willie again winded the bugle; the cover heaved upwards, disclosing a corner of the chasm beneath; and a hand covered with blood, and of such fearful magnitude as to resemble only the conceptions of Egyptian sculpture, was slowly stretched from the darkness towards the handle of the mace. Willie’s resolution gave way, and, flinging down the horn, he rushed hurriedly towards the passage. A yell of blended grief and indignation burst from the tomb, as the immense cover again settled over it; the cataract came dashing from its precipice with a heavier volume than before; and a furious hurricane of mingled wind and spray that rushed howling from the interior, well-nigh dashed the adventurer against the sides of the rock. He succeeded, however, in gaining the passage, sick at heart and nearly petrified with terror; a state of imperfect consciousness succeeded, like that of a feverish dream, in which he retained a sort of half conviction that he was lingering in the damps and darkness of the cave, obstinately and yet unwillingly; and, on fully regaining his recollection, he found himself lying across the ninth cistern, with the fragments of the broken bottle on the one side, and his buckthorn staff on the other. He could hear from the opening the dash of the advancing waves against the rocks, and on leaping to the beach below, found that his exploratory journey had occupied him a whole day.

The adventure of Willie Millar formed at one time one of the most popular traditions of Cromarty. It was current among the children not more than eighteen years ago, when the cave was explored a second time, but with a very different result, by a boy of the school in which the writer of these legends had the misfortune of being regarded as the greatest dunce and truant of his time. The character of Willie forms the best possible commentary on his story — the character of the boy may perhaps throw some little light on his. When in his twelfth year, he was by far the most inquisitive little fellow in the place. His curiosity was insatiable. He had broken his toys when a child, that he might see how they were constructed ; and a watch which the owner had thoughtlessly placed within his reach, narrowly escaped sharing a similar fate. He dissected frogs and mice in the hope of discovering the seat of life ; and when one day found dibbling at the edge of a spring, he said he was trying to penetrate to the source of water. His schoolmaster nicknamed him “The Senachied for the stories with which he beguiled his class-fellows of their tasks were without end or number; the neighbours called him Philosopher, for he could point out the star of the pole, with the Great Bear that continually walks round it; and he used to affirm that there might be people in the moon, and that the huge earth is only a planet. Having heard the legend of Willie Millar, he set out one day to explore the cave; and when he returned he had to tell that the legend was a mere legend, and that the cave, though not without its wonders, owed, like the great ones of the earth, much of its celebrity to the fears and the ignorance of mankind.

In climbing into the vestibule of the recess, his eye was attracted by a piece of beautiful lace work, gemmed by the damps of the place, and that stretched over a hollow in one of the sides. It was not, however, a work of magic, but merely the web of a field-spider, that from its acquaintance with lines and angles, seemed to have discovered a royal road to geometry. The petrifying spring next attracted his notice. He saw the mosses hardening into limestone —the stems already congealed, and the upper shoots dying that they might become immortal. And there came into his mind the story of one Niobe, of whom he had read in a school-book, that, like the springs of the cave, wept herself into stone ; and the story, too, of the half-man half-marble prince of the Arabian tale. “Strange,” thought the boy, “that these puny dwarfs of the vegetable kingdom should become rock and abide for ever, when its very giants, the chestnut trees of Etna and the cedars of Lebanon, moulder away in the deep solitude of their forests, and become dust or nothing.” Lighting his torch, he proceeded to examine the cavern. A few paces brought him to the first cistern. He found the white table of marble in which it is hollowed raised knee-height over the floor, and the surface fretted into little cavities by the continual dropping, like the surface of a thawing snow-wreath when beaten by a heavy shower. As he strided over the ledge, a drop from above extinguished his torch ;—he groped his way back and rekindled it. He had seen the first cistern described by the adventurer; and of course all the others, with the immense apartment, the cataract, the tomb, the iron mace, and the golden bugle, lay in the darkness beyond. But, alas ! when he again stepped forward, instead of the eight other hollows he found the floor covered with one continuous pool, over which there rose fast-contracting walls and a descending roof; and though he pressed onward amid the water that splashed below,’ and the water that fell from above,— for his curiosity was unquenchable, and his clothes of a kind which could not be made worse,—it was only to find the rock closing hopelessly before him, after his shoulders had at once pressed against the opposite sides, and the icicles had passed through his hair. There was no possibility of turning round, and so, creeping backwards like a crab, he reached the first cistern, and in a moment after stood in the lighted part of the cave. His feelings on the occasion were less melancholy than those of the traveller who, when standing beside the two fountains of the Nile, “ began in his sorrow to treat the inquiry concerning its source as the effort of a distempered fancy.” But next to the pleasure of erecting a system, is the pleasure of pulling one down ; and he felt it might be so even with regard to a piece of traditionary history. Besides, there was a newly-fledged thought which had come fluttering round him for the first time, that more than half consoled him under his disappointment. He remembered that when a child no story used to please him that was not both marvellous and true,—that a fact was as nothing to him disunited from the wonderful, nor the wonderful disunited from fact. But the marvels of his childhood had been melting away, one after one—the ghost, and the wraith, and the fairy had all disappeared; and the wide world seemed to spread out before him a tame and barren region, where truth dwelt in the forms of commonplace, and in these only. He now felt for the first time that it was far otherwise ; and that so craving an instinct, instead of perishing for lack of sustenance, would be fed as abundantly in the future by philosophy and the arts, as it had been in the past by active imaginations and a superstitious credulity.

The path which, immediately after losing itself on the beach where it passes the cave, rises by a kind of natural stair to the top of the precipices, continues to ascend till it reaches a spring of limpid water, which comes gushing out of the side of a bank covered with moss and daisies, and which for more than a century has been known to the townspeople by the name of Fiddler’s Well. Its waters are said to be medicinal, and there is a pretty tradition still extant of the circumstance through which their virtues were first discovered, and to which the spring owes its name.

Two young men of the place, who were much attached to each other, were seized at nearly the same time by consumption. In one the progress of the disease was rapid—he died two short months after he was attacked by it; while the other, though wasted almost to a shadow, had yet strength enough left to follow the corpse of his companion to the grave. The name of the survivor was Fiddler—a name still common among the seafaring men of the town. On the evening of the interment he felt oppressed and unhappy; his imagination was haunted by a thousand feverish shapes of open graves with bones mouldering round their edges, and of coffins with the lids displaced ; and after he had fallen asleep, the images, which were still the same, became more ghastly and horrible. Towards morning, however, they had all vanished ; and he dreamed that he was walking alone by the sea-shore in a clear and beautiful day of summer. Suddenly, as he thought, some person stepped up behind, and whispered in his ear, in the voice of his deceased companion, “ Go on, Willie; I shall meet you at Stormy” There is a rock in the neighbourhood of Fiddler’s Well, so called, from the violence with which the sea beats against it when the wind blows strongly from the east. On hearing the voice he turned round, and seeing no one, he went on, as he thought, to the place named, in the hope of meeting his friend, and sat down on a bank to wait his coming; but he waited long—lonely and dejected; and then remembering that he for whom he waited was dead, he burst into tears. At this moment a large field-bee came humming from the west, and began to fly round his head. He raised his hand to brush it away; it widened its circle, and then came humming into his ear as before. He raised his hand a second time, but the bee would not be scared off; it hummed ceaselessly round and round him, until at length its murmurings seemed to be fashioned into words, articulated in the voice of his deceased companion. “Dig, Willie, and drink!” it said; “Dig, Willie, and drink!” He accordingly set himself to dig, and no sooner had he torn a sod out of the bank than a spring of clear water gushed from the hollow; and the bee taking a wider circle, and humming in a voice of triumph that seemed to emulate the sound of a distant trumpet, flew away. He looked after it, but as he looked the images of his dream began to mingle with those of the waking world; the scenery of the hill seemed obscured by a dark cloud, in the centre of which there glimmered a faint light; the rocks, the sea, the long declivity, faded into the cloud ; and turning round he saw only a dark apartment, and the faint beams of morning shining in at a window. He rose, and after digging the well, drank of the water and recovered. And its virtues are still celebrated; for though the water be only simple water, it must be drunk in the morning, and as it gushes from the bank ; and with pure air, exercise, and early rising for its auxiliaries, it continues to work cures.

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