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Reminiscences of the Lews
Chapter XVII - Stornoway

AFTER all I have said of the Lews I must not forget its capital, Stornoway the magnificent, the London of the Hebrides; the city of merchants, the grand emporium in those northern climes of cod and ling, herrings and haddock. It beats the world, and Dublin Bay to boot, for the haddies, and everything for the herrings except Yarmouth and the Dutch coast. How cheery and pleasant it looks of a bright morning, with its white houses in a sort of amphitheatre round the bay, and up the rising ground above, flashing in the sun as you sail in; the castle standing well to the left, a good feature in the landscape, till they spoilt it by tacking on a wretched conservatory, Crystal Palace fashion, to it. Who the mischief ever saw a conservatory hanging on to a baronial castle, like a Chinese pagoda?

When first I knew this great capital it was a nasty place, redolent of anything but the sweets of Araby, badly lighted, wretchedly paved and roaded, with such mud and such holes ! But now it is very much improved. There is a nice pavement in many of the chief streets. It is lighted to a certain extent with gas. It is made now a Scotch burgh, and there is, I think, a corporation. The inhabitants and the proprietor fell out about the foreshores and the quays. Who was right or who was wrong I never could make out, but they settled it, I presume, to their mutual satisfaction; and the town certainly progresses, and is assuming every year a neater and cleaner appearance. I believe the inhabitants are very much indebted to that very excellent and systematically improving lady, Mrs. Percival, who is there, as she ever has been wherever her lot has been cast, as active as she is judicious and benevolent in all she. does. There is a Freemasons’ Hall, -a good room, in which many is the reel I have seen danced, and awful the quantity of toddy imbibed. Underneath the said hall is, or was, a billiard-table, at which the Stornowegians played their matches. So curious a specimen of what a table can be I never saw. It was not large; for, had it been, no human arm, with the strongest cue, could ever have pocketed a ball. Even as it was, but for a certain natural attraction in the pockets, large as they were, taking up a considerable portion of this table, this feat never could have been performed. The surface was not slate, but a sort of wooden ridge and furrow, with deep holes, covered over with very rough baize. The balls were very large, corresponding to the pockets. The only plan of making a hazard was to hit your ball very hard into one of these holes, out of which, if it had force and way enough, it made a sort of ricochet, and hopped over in the line of a pocket, which, if it only landed near enough, was sure to engulph it; for never had even Scylla and Charybdis such powers of suction as these pockets. It was rather a service of danger looking on at one of these matches; for the room not being very much larger than the table, if one of these cannon-balls in its bound cleared the pocket,. and took you in the pit of the stomach, which it sometimes did, it would have knocked you over, but for the wall, that brought you up standing. Dick Burnaby was a tremendous hand at this table, and, had the play been high, he might have ruined Stornoway; for he was a good player anywhere, but at this table invincible. Fortunately, “the tables” were the highest stake ever thought of, and I don’t think Dick’s play ever cost him much.

There was in Stornoway a very excellent school, both for boys and girls; and I was really astonished, though haying some experience in good schools, at the manner in which the children of both sexes acquitted themselves. The needlework of this school exceeded everything I ever saw, except the famous school of Clonakilty, I think, in the county Cork. For this school I believe the town to be indebted to Lady Matheson. There was also a corps of volunteer artillerymen. They said the practice was good, but I never attended. Unfortunately the privates were armed with very good carbines, with which, if they did not shoot deer themselves, they lent them to their friends in the country to do so. My watcher took a native with one of these weapons, which was traced to a corporal, I think, of the corps, a most respectable man, of course. With true Hebridean, perhaps usual, justice, they punished the poor set-on devil, and let off the real Simon Pure, because of his being highly connected; instead for that very reason punishing him the more severely; as an Irish judge hung a gentleman, precisely because the grand jury recommended him to mercy on the score that as such he ought not to suffer. They look well under arms; and may it be long before their prowess is tested.

There is one custom in Stornoway that I must allude to. Whenever any one has lived some time there and is about to leave it, be he a native or a foreigner, if he is popular, he is invited to a farewell festival, not a dinner with speeches, &c., but a festival, and so lugubrious a one I never witnessed. A funeral is far livelier, particularly if it be given in the Freemasons’ Hall, as it frequently is. The inviters are all seated on the benches round reaching up towards the roof. In the centre, or rather before the benches, sits the invited by himself in a high-backed chair, like a culprit. Nobody says a word—nobody laughs—every one looks as solemn and glum as at a Quaker’s meeting till they go mad. In solemn silence do the entertainers imbibe their grog. At last on a signal given or word spoken, the Benchers arise, and in a tone more awfully solemn, and more peculiarly grating even than the old intonation of a psalm, without organ or key-pipe, they drawl out “Auld Lang Syne,” till one almost goes melancholy mad. I know I nearly did—more particularly when I remembered how in days of yore, at Cambridge, we used to give it out from Barnes’s Rooms, in the Old Trinity Tower, myself sometimes leading the voices, till one night we roused old Bishop Watson, the then Master of Trinity, from his slumbers, and he sent the porter to bid us dismiss our company and depart in peace.

Pardon me, my dear reader, but you know my desperate, digressive spirit: I must bring in here a little story of that memorable evening. My dear old friend—the best, the pleasantest, and the cleverest man of the day, the soundest lawyer in England,—was among the party. He demurred to the porter’s summons, and sent, through him, his compliments to the Bishop, to say he protested against this interference with the liberty of the subject. The porter returns with an order to the recusant to attend the Bishop personally and immediately. E. goes and appears before his lordship. Interrogated as to the reason of this extraordinary uproar at such an undue season of the night,

“No uproar at all, my lord,” retorts E., “only a few lovers of liberty assembled together, and we have been singing ‘ Scots wha ha’e wi Wallace bled.’”

The Bishop, who was a scholar and a wag— “Then, Mr. --, as you are so very fond of liberty, please to translate AEschines’ oration on the Crown.”

This my poor friend did so beautifully, that the Bishop, whenever he saw him, always inquired when the friends of liberty met again, that he might have the pleasure of reading his translation of Demosthenes on the same subject.

After this story, can any one wonder at my sensations at hearing that fine old song so murdered ? and one felt inclined to roar out, “ Hold hard, for anybody’s sake, and let me teach you how to sing ! ” But you can’t disturb a Scotchman’s gravity. It ain’t in him to be cheery; and, barring Burns, I don’t think Scotland ever produced but three real cheery coves—Willie that “brewed the peck o’ maut,” and Rob and Allan that “came to pree.” As it is, Heaven defend me from ever again assisting at a Stornoway soiree.

To be sure, there were blither entertainments in that celebrated capital. When the castle was lighted up, the rooms and corridors, and staircases decked out—above all, that beautiful ball- and music-room thrown open, which used to remind me so of Almack’s in its palmy days when I was a boy, and the Redouten-Saal at Vienna—it was a pretty sight to see. Well did the hostess, the Queen of the Isle, do the honours of her ball. All Stornoway was there, dancing with that grim determination Scotchmen alone can put on such festive occasions. And how they do dance ! In that very extraordinary, and when well done, beautiful dance, a Scotch reel—the dexterity and neatness with which the evolutions and steps are performed, has oftentimes perfectly astonished me; as close-packed almost as herrings in a tub, they never jostle one another, or get into any mess. I have seen more confusion, more sprawling about, in a London ball-room—aye, and less manners too—than in many a Scotch dance in a barn. And not only in their own national dance is it that they so excel; but see them dance a French contredanse, waltz, galop, or polka, and there is none of that rough horseplay work you so often see in England.

What is it in the Highlander that makes him generally so well-bred and civil-mannered a gentleman? It must be the remains of the clan education; for though, from the complete revolution of property that has been progressing for years, and still, alas ! progresses, clanship is gone, or fast going—yet still a McKenzie claims kindred with high Kintail, and must not disgrace his name. Supposing you lived near to a small provincial town in England or Ireland, and invited all the respectability of the town—the doctors, the lawyers, the hotelkeepers, and the exciseman, together with the chief of the respectable shopkeepers—to a ball, and gave them before supper plenty of the refreshments I have elsewhere spoken of, an excellent supper, plenty of champagne, and all sorts of liquor—I rather think after supper the dancing would be uproarious, and many of the company decidedly the worse for drink. Indeed I have seen very fine balls of this description in fine English provincial towns, where some of the company had to be ejected; but I never saw anything disagreeable occur at any of these Stornoway balls. Though they liquored handsomely, they carried it like gentlemen, and only danced the harder and the better. It is this quality that enables the Highlander, wherever he is, and whatever his success in life, to rise to it. There is a quiet sort of dignity about him that always sets him at his ease. He may be pompous—he may swell about in his tartan hose and philabeg, as if the room was not large enough for him; but he is never vulgar. “II ne vous agace pas les nerfs," like your genuine English snob; or the clipping-the-King’s-English Hibernian. The Stornowegian ladies are exceedingly well-mannered, gentle creatures; but then Scotchwomen, as a rule, are nice, and they really do love dancing for dancing sake; and you used to see their eyes glisten again as Thomas McKay, Sir M.’s piper, blew up the pipes for the Eeel of Tulloch. I believe he would have warmed up even the givers of the farewell soiree I lately spoke of with that reel.

A word about this said piper, for he is worthy of it, and was a great ally of mine. He was a slim, handsome fellow, as many— perhaps most—pipers are. He had one of the best figures I ever saw, with a quick, ready, glancing eye, that could take any humour it pleased; I never saw a more naturally graceful creature. He was a universal favourite : as for the women, I never saw one, young or old, that did not turn to have a look at him as he passed, and the more they looked at him the more they liked him. There is some old song ringing in my ear that I have heard sung somewhere—

“Oh wasna he a Roguie, a Roguie, a Roguie,
The piper frae Dundee.”

Now, don’t mistake, or fancy that “roguie means a rogue—ee roguie ” means a good, dear, insinuating, pleasant, light-hearted, devil-may-care kind of boy—something like Juan before the women spoilt him, and he became too bad. But then my, piper had more good qualifications than his pipes and his good looks : he was a Jack-of-all-trades, and I believe there was nothing he could not do. Of his fishing powers I have already slightly alluded to. He was a surprising fisherman. To look at his ordinary cast before you, you thought he was sniggling or dibbling a fly at a chub; but he always twitched it up so that it was as straight as a poplar, and woe betide the fish that rose at it. Watch him when he was fishing and no one looking on, and he would send his fly as far as any one I ever saw—barring only, as I always say, old Daice. He was by way of looking after the Gremsta, having his domicile close to it, when the family were away and he was not piping at the castle—and he had permission occasionally to kill a fish for his table. This permission, it is believed, he used very much as the Clerk of Copmanhurst used his to kill an occasional buck in merry Sherwood. As you went up the river, or to the best casts on the different lochs, you would often descry a light, tall, airy figure, with something uncommonly like a fishing-rod in his hand, flitting away from your pet cast. He had the two best otter terriers in the island, and a handy little gun; and certainly the Gremsta was not burthened with many of the said amphibia. Men did say (but that might be calumny) that he was a first-rate stalker, and the head of the Gremsta lochs was not very far from Kenrai-sort Forest, and Fordmore was a great place for deer; and as it was his duty to be often at said Fordmore, to guard that fine salmon-cast and pass for deer, it was of course his further duty to look after said deer; and if he occasionally looked after one for himself, where was the harm? As if one would not have done so for oneself. I should, for a certainty.

There was one great qualification, too, that, this piper had. He was a.wonderful cook; and, as he was generally selected as the servant to accompany the gentlemen who went stalking to Kenraisort when there was only a bothy there, and before Morsgail was built, his fame as an artist was widely spread. He concocted the most delicious stews. I could not conceive how or where he learnt his art, but at last discovered his plan. He stewed or heated up the contents of one of Hogarth’s, or some one else’s, tins of preserved meat, in Harvey’s sauce. He boiled potatoes wonderfully. He scored and toasted sea-trout to perfection, basting them the while with butter, and peppering and salting them well; and he did venison steaks (the only way to eat red deer venison) to perfection. You may judge he was a keen sportsman, and somehow we cottoned; but he had the queerest, though not the pleasantest, way of expressing his approval of any of your proceedings I ever rememember. I had been sent to Kenraisort to kill a stag, and the weather, as is not unfrequent in the Lews, had been of that atrocious character that shin-burning—while reading and re-reading the two or three books one had—was the only order of the days one had to pass inside that bothy. Besides, the wind was foul: the Harris lochs, Washermit, Scoorst, and Uhlevat, were over their banks, and not fishable. Three days of this pleasant weather had passed over, when, on the fourth morning, which seemed worse even than the three preceding, Angus McLean, the Kenraisort stalker, came to say the wind was changed, and that we must try for the stag, as he was wanted at the castle. I obeyed orders, rather against the grain, only I had not pluck enough to say nay. We sallied forth on one of the worst Lewisian mornings, which is saying .a great deal, of my experience. Blinding hailstorms; squalls that you had to hold on not to be blown over—and Heaven knows where, for we were on the high ridge of the point over Loch Langavat. Daring the occasional gleams of light that break out by fits and starts in those bad days, and were signs of their not improving, we got sight of a stag lying on a ledge of rock, sheltered by another by his side, with his head stretched out, and thus lying snug. Stir we could not, and were obliged at once to take to the lying-on-your-face-and-stomach position, which was remarkably pleasant where we were. We lay there more than an hour, and I am glad now we did, for I learnt what squalls could be. I thought Loch Langavat would empty itself bodily over the top of Rohneval Hill. Had I not seen what I did see, I could never have believed it. At the expiration of an hour, or more, I rebelled, and swore to Angus that lie there any longer.

I would not, but must try a shot. He consented to my wriggling myself a little further, which I did, and got a very little more above my friend. The case seemed hopeless. I had nothing to shoot at, with any hope of success, but the backbone towards the shoulders; but I felt that human nature could not hold on much more, and that I should shortly be blown over into Loch Langavat, or what remained of it, and thence over Rohneval. I was utterly reckless, so I took a short aim, for the blinding drift was too much for a long one, and pulled. To my great astonishment, as well as that of Angus, off his ledge rolled my friend, as dead as a herring. He was a very good stag, an old one, with the quaintest head I ever shot—one very thick, long horn, another short, stumpy, but very thick one. The gralloch, as you may imagine, did not occupy a very long time, and we ran home as fast as we could. We had not been more than two hours away. The piper greeted me on my return with kind condolences on the weather and on my endurances, and proposed the hottest of toddies at once, for which he, with great forethought, had the kettle already boiling; and he went on discoursing on the uselessness of disturbing ground such a day. “But I’ve got him, piper.” He started and stared, as I once saw him do on the only occasion I ever knew him lose a salmon, and turned round to Angus for confirmation of my assertion. On Angus nodding assent, he said nothing, but at once gave me a lounder between the shoulders that I believe at the time restored the proper circulation of my blood, and sent it from the head to the extremities, but which I shall not easily forget. I once experienced another. After Christinas festivities at the Castle, I had to start .early one morning by the steamer for England, and Thomas, who had been my attendant, saw me and my traps on board. Whether the tip exceeded, or did not come up to, his expectation, or whether he had had an unusually strong morning, I don’t know; but he gave me a second parting lounder, and, though I know not what sea-sickness is, I was qualmish the whole passage.

One more trait, and I have done with this king of pipers. I arrived late one Saturday evening at the Castle, after fishing in the Rock pool at Laxay, and had round my bonnet a very good casting line, with a rough red Welsh buzzy fly—a capital one for fish late on in the season, particularly for the last arrival of fish fresh from the sea, with sea-hue on them, fair in colour, but just ready for spawning. (N.B. I always returned them to the river when I caught them.) The fly was also very good for the large red fish who came up early, but who never spawn, or never meant spawning, this year. They seldom rose, but, when they did, fought like demons, and, when killed, made capital kippers. Of course piper was in attendance, and I told him of my success, for I had had very good sport. There was no time for talking much, as I had barely time to dress for dinner. I had taken my cast of flies off my bonnet, and, as I thought, hung them on the looking-glass; but a pleasant party and other avocations made me forget all about it; and I went away early Monday morning with my bonnet, but not my flies. I missed the cast much, but forgot them again till my next visit to the Castle, when my piper asked me if I had not lost a cast of flies ; on which, on my replying in the affirmative, he produced the missing one. I shall never forget his demure face, for the fishing season was now over, and the piper could dress a fly. Of course I gave him two or three good flies in return for my buzz, for it was the best I had; all I said was, “Keep it to yourself.” “May be, I won’t,” was the reply; and I never saw any one else with the buzz.

There is one very busy time of the year in Stornoway, and that is during the herring season, commencing generally early in May, and continuing through that month and through June; sometimes through part of July. At. that particular season herring-boats rendezvous at Stornoway from all quarters; and it is a very pretty sight to watch of a fine May or June evening the herring-boat fleet go out for their fishing. They return in the morning, of course, with varied success. The fishing boats come from all quarters—from France and the Baltic even. Of course the majority are English and Scotch. A great many live in these boats; many also for the time lodge in the town, where they are taken in and done for.

There is one very singular class of persons attached to the fishing boats, and that is the fish cleaners, or rather gutters. They are mostly females. They do not live on board the boats, though some are attached to them; they never go out fishing with them. The fleet generally returns in the morning after fishing all night, and then begins the cleaners’ work. There are along the different quays which are attached to the different houses of some of the chief fish merchants, temporary sheds established, and in these the fish-curing commences, and very expeditiously is it carried on. Herring gutting is no clean, pleasant, or savoury occupation; but it is very expeditious. With bare arms, feet, and legs, and not the greatest quantity of coarse clothing, these ladies set to work, and the expedition with which they prepare a herring for salting would rather astonish the most expert of London oyster openers when there were oysters to open. Their work got through, they breakfast or dine, and then commence the most elaborate toilet. Among them you will often remark exceedingly handsome women, of that dark, Spanish type that you sometimes see in the. Highlands and the western parts of Ireland, only I never could make out why. When dressed up in their garments of many colours, rich and gaudy, as they lounge listlessly about the town, they form a strange contrast with the rest of the population. They seem, like Portobello and Musselburg fishwomen, a race of themselves. They often have that dark, flashing, glistering eye that speaks what they might be if offended ; and as they say they never leave their knives behind them, on giving the slightest offence, you might in a twinkling find yourself made a herring of. But I never saw or heard of anything among them but the most orderly and respectable behaviour.

There is one particular attending this herring season by no means pleasant. The refuse of the fish remains about the quays, sheds, and curing-houses, and is carted away as manure, and very excellent it is for the fields in the neighbourhood of Stornoway; but the odours of that great capital are not, or were not, improved by the process; and for preference I should not go to town for the season, were I a Lewisian, at that particular time of the year.

The herring season was the stirring season of Stornoway, which at other times was not exceedingly animating. I had many friends there, who were always most kind and hospitable, too much almost for one unaccustomed to their mode of life. Stornoway is not given to early rising, and when I come to describe life there, this will be accounted for.

Whatever Scotch breakfasts are in the Lowlands and in the grand Highland counties, certainly in the far north I can’t say much for them. To make a good breakfast you must have good provisions; and in Stornoway, unless imported, they are not first-rate. And whatever people may say, salt-fish, and ling, and cod, and Scotch ham and eggs, are not exactly appetisant; and so I presume the Hebridean thinks, for he is never in a hurry for his breakfast. Wise man ! he knows what it is going to be. Therefore you seldom see it before ten, and then, in order to prepare for it, you are, before setting down, invited to some bitters— i. e., a stiff glass of whisky with something in it, bitter and detestable enough to set your teeth on edge, and which does so astonish your poor little stomach that nothing it can possibly partake of for the rest of the day can do so again. Having got through the meal as best you can, towards eleven, or perhaps earlier, you proceed to make your calls of either kindness, pleasure, or what not. Wherever you go, and particularly among your friends, you are asked to take some refreshment. Now, refreshment means one (at laste, your honour) glass of whisky, neat if you like, or with as little water as you like. To refuse would be a deadly affront, never to be forgiven. Now, supposing your acquaintance to be large—mine was (for Soval being on the highroad to Harris, I might as well have taken out a license, and put up my arms on a sign-board, for every one going the road rested himself there)—you took in a good deal of refreshment between twelve and four or five o’clock, when dinner took place, to which you sat down with a sort of whisky appetite—that is to say, none at all. You got breathing time during dinner; for the true Highlander, like the English labourer, eats his dinner first and drinks his liquor afterwards. After dinner two tumblers of toddy are the general allowance. But the tumblers are large, and therefore two glasses of whisky are required in order that the miller should not be drowned; and, as a new fashion has been introduced— that rum improves the taste of the toddy— round goes the rum-bottle. Mind, you don’t diminish the whisky, but you add a glass of rum. This makes a decidedly strong caulker, of which two are enough under ordinary circumstances. About seven or so, you go up-stairs to tea, and rest on your oars a little till about eight. Then one or two people drop in, and, of course, one refreshment takes place, shortly after which you sit down to long running whist, and Lord! how well these Stornowegians play ! They never forget a card, or make a mistake; fortunately they play low, or you would be ruined. Not that you might not play with them in the dark for guinea points and a pony on the rubber ; but they play so infinitely better than ordinary mortals, after such a day’s refreshment as I have been describing, can possibly do, that the side must lose where one of the partners is a southerner, not accustomed to it. During the rubber one or two, or more, refreshments at least take place. About ten comes in some sort of supper—I don’t mean a good devil or a broil, but a something to eat; and afterwards follows unlimited toddy till you retire for the night, with such very confused notions that unless you are a Stornowegian, or well broken into the ways of the place, you would, as quoth the Baron of Bradwardine, be decidedly pronounced “tametsi ebrius.” Now, this sort of life is all very well for once in a way, but for a continuance would give any one but a Lewisian delirium tremens. So it will be imagined I eschewed Stornoway, except on occasions when I could not help myself.

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