Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Bonnie Scotland
To John o' Groat's House

Unless for that modern knight-errant, the cyclist, speeding to achieve the quest of John o' Groat's House, the far northern Highlands seem as unduly neglected by tourists as the southern mountains of Wales. Yet across the Moray Firth, that half insulates the north end of Britain, lie charms and grandeurs none the less admirable for being somewhat out of the scope of tourist tickets. The best face of this region it turns to adventurers who brave the Hebridean seas; but also it has winning smiles and impressive frowns for those who on the east side follow the Highland line to its Pillars of Hercules.

The railway to the far north begins by running westward from Inverness to round the inner basin of the Moray Firth at Beauly, indeed a Beau lieu. Here, beside the ruins of a priory, is a seat of Lord Lovat, whose shifty ancestor, after Culloden, lurked for six weeks in a secret chamber of Cawdor Castle, but was finally run down in a hollow tree after adventures trying for the age of fourscore and four. The falls of Kilmorack make perhaps the finest point in a district full of attraction. Gilliechrist is noted for a grim story that does not go without question: in the church here a congregation of Mackenzies is said to have been burned alive, to the sound of the bagpipes, by their Christian enemies of Glengarry, a memory of ancient manners which Wordsworth laments as "withering to the root." One of Lord Lovat's hiding-places was an island in the river, that afterwards became a summer retreat of Sir Robert Peel ; and its romantic cottage was for a time the home of the two Sobieski or Allan brothers who made a mysterious claim to represent the Stuarts, and were treated with royal honours by some Scottish families. They were a stately pair, after a somewhat theatrical style, taking the part of silent Pretenders in the Highland dress, on which they published a sumptuous volume. In later years, when both were well-known figures in the Reading-room of the British Museum, they, or at least one of them, came down to lodgings in Pimlico, where I have heard pseudo-majesty calling for his boots from the upper floor like a dignified Fred Bayham.

All this part of the railway is set among varied beauty, as it bends away from the western mountains and curves about the heads of the deep eastern firths. Beyond Beauly, it crosses the neck of the peninsula called the Black Isle, on which stand the ex-cathedral city of Fortrose, and Cromarty on the deep inlet guarded by its cave-worn Sutors, where one can ferry over the mouth of this Cromarty Firth to the farther promontory, ended by one of Scotland's several "Tarbets," name denoting an isthmus or portage. Cromarty no longer exists as a separate and much-separated county, of which Macbeth seems to have been Maormor or satrap. Before the boundary

The River Glass near Beauly, Inverness-shire
The River Glass near Beauly, Inverness-shire

adjustment in our generation, several Scottish shires had outlying fragments islanded within their neighbours' bounds, an arrangement probably due to the intrigues of interested nobles ; but this one was all disjecta membra, the largest lying away up in the north-west corner of Ross, with which environing county Cromarty is now incorporated. The county town, at the point of the Black Isle, still flourishes in a modest way, after shifting its site so that the Cross had to be bodily removed. It has reared at least two notable sons, one that literary Cavalier Sir Thomas Urquhart, who so well translated Rabelais while a prisoner in the Tower, whence he published other ingenious works that but feebly represent his industry, for some hundreds of his manuscripts, lost at the battle of Worcester, went to such base uses as lighting the pipes of Roundhead troopers. The other was Hugh Miller, the stone-mason's apprentice, who rose to be an esteemed author, a geologist of note, and editor of the Witness, that full-toned organ that lifted with no uncertain sound the testimony of the Free Church.

This end of Scotland, like the south-west, has been strongly Whig in its sympathies. Even its Highland clans were often led by their chiefs to support the Protestant succession. It was a Mackay who commanded for King William against Claverhouse; the Munroes did service to King George against the Pretender; and President Forbes of Culloden kept the Mackenzies, or many of them, from joining the prince, who at his mansion spent a last quiet night on Scottish soil. Hugh Miller tells us how the Cromarty folk watched the smoke of Culloden across the Firth, of their rejoicing for Cumberland's victory, and of their savage exultation over Lovat's head. Religious enthusiasm here was kin to that of the Covenanters. To the south, as we have seen, lies a belt of Catholicism; and some glens of the Highlands shelter knots of Episcopacy; but when the Gael does take to Presbyterianism, he likes it hot and strong. This was the diocese of the "Men," those inquisitorial elders who played such a severe part in church life of older days. The Free Church movement found great acceptation in the Highlands, so much so that in many parishes the Old Kirk has been almost deserted. And the Free Church in the far north is still largely officered by a school of ministers, who, fervidly rejecting the conclusions of criticism and latitudinarian liberality, are known as the "Highland host," by humorous inversion of a phrase that once applied to an instrument of the prelatical party. The recent broadening of this body's base has here been fiercely resisted, some congregations even coming to blows over Disruption principles. There was a time when the Sabbath could be said not to come above the Pass of Killiecrankie; but now the northern Highlands are the fastness of a Sabbatarianism that dies hard all over rural Scotland. In Ross, the late Queen Victoria had the unwonted experience of being refused horses for a Sunday journey by a postmaster incarnating the spirit of John Knox; then it is understood that Her Majesty gave directions he should in no way suffer for conscience' sake. There were "godly" lords in these parts, to whose influence Hugh Miller attributes this temper of faith; and here was the diocese of that "Black John," the "Apostle of the North," whose field-preachings stirred the bones of martyrs to old prelatic tyranny.

It is no wonder that Hugh Miller became a champion of the Free Church in its pristine glow. Alas ! his promising career was cut short by his own hand. It is believed that the trial of reconciling the Mosaic geology with advancing science proved too much for his brain. Had his lot been cast in our generation, divines of his own beloved communion would have taught him more accommodating interpretations, that might have helped to a longer lease of usefulness one of Scotland's many self-taught sons, whose Schools and Schoolmasters remains the best book on this countryside.

At Dingwall, the little county town of Ross, which, like the Devonshire Torrington, has been fondly thought to resemble Jerusalem in site, a short branch line turns westward to Strathpeffer, the Scottish Harrogate, thriving apace since it got a railway. Till then its clients were chiefly local, many of them seeking an antidote to more potent waters distilled hereabouts ; but now in the later part of the season it is crowded with visitors from both sides of the Border. Strathpeffer has varied advantages to bring patients all the way from London. It boasts the strongest sulphur water in the kingdom, also such an effervescing chalybeate spring as is rarer in Britain than in Germany; it has adopted peat baths, douches, and other balneological devices from the Continent; while a remarkably good climate helps it to distinction among northern spas. It is sheltered by mountains from the wet and windy west; then its show of flourishing crofts, originally granted to a disbanded Highland regiment, attests a genial summer; and beside the Pump-room Highland Eves tempt the drinkers with tantalising piles of strawberries, forbidden by the faculty as plum-pudding at Kissingen; but it is to be feared that British invalids are less docile to Kurgemass rules. The village lies in a valley begirt by charming scenery of "dwarf Highlands" about the course of the Conon and other streams. Hugh Miller worked here as a mason lad, and his "recollections of this rich tract of country, with its woods and towers and noble river, seem as if bathed in the rich light of gorgeous sunsets." The long summer evenings light up patches of heather over which is the way to such beauty spots as Loch Achilty, the Falls of Conon, and the Falls of Rogie, that have been compared to Tivoli. Close at hand is Castle Leod, famed for enormous Spanish chestnuts that give the lie to Dr. Johnson; and farther off are other ancient mansions, Brahan Castle, whose gardens were laid out by Paxton; Coul with its fine grounds, and the spectral ruin of Fairburn Tower. Above the village the wooded ridge of the Cat's Back leads to a noble view from green Knockfarril, where is perhaps the best of the "vitrified forts" so common in the far north. Rheumatic patients would once celebrate their cure by dancing a Highland fling before the Pump-room, a saltatory exercise said to have originated in the experience of a kilt among midges. To prove themselves sound in wind and limb, Sassenach visitors might ascend Ben Wyvis, the "Mount of Storms," a ten-miles tramp or pony ride. There is no difficulty on the way unless a bog at the bottom, that must be skirted in wet weather ; and the prospect from the top is rarely extensive in proportion to the trouble of reaching it: on a fine day may be seen the mountains of Argyll, of Braemar, of Sutherland, and of Skye, perhaps grandly half revealed through distant haze or thunderstorm.

Moor of Rannoch, Perthshire and Argyllshire
Moor of Rannoch, Perthshire and Argyllshire

At Dingwall diverges also the branch line to Lochalsh, the ferry for Skye. This takes one through a real Highland country, where at Auchnasheen goes off the coach route to Loch Maree, which some judge the finest scene in Scotland. Less smiling than Loch Lomond, it lies more wildly among naked pyramids of quartz, Ben Slioch the most conspicuous point of them, but this lake has the same beauty of wooded islets at the lower end, where a group of half-drowned hillocks "form a miniature archipelago, grey with lichened stone, and bosky with birch and hazel." On one of these are the ruins of a chapel of the Virgin Mary, who was perhaps godmother to Loch Maree. Beyond it open the sea-inlets Torridon, Gairloch, and Loch Ewe; and the coast northwards by Ullapool and Loch Inver is pierced by deep fiords and overlooked by grand summits, worn down from Himalayan masses of old. On the road from Garve to Ullapool, beside the strath looking down to Loch Broom, an oasis of greenery enshrines the Measach Falls of Corriehalloch, a stream tumbling through a deep-bitten chasm, which some have pronounced the grandest Highland scene in the genre of that Black Rock ravine mentioned below. If we are ever to reach John o' Groat's House let us turn away from the transparent waters of this coast and from the gloomy glories of Skye. The sportsmen to whom these northern wilds are best known would not thank any guide of idle tourists, and such a guide must be pitied in his task of repeating epithets.

From Dingwall the railway holds up the side of the Cromarty Firth by a country of Munroes and Mackenzies, who have taken all the world for their province. A notable natural feature here is the chasm of the Black Rock, through which a stream from Loch Glass leaps in a series of cascades gouging out an open tunnel that sometimes is only a few yards wide at the top, whence one looks down upon waters foaming into gloomy linns, an American canon in miniature, its edges bristling like the Trossachs, its mouth thus described by Hugh Miller:—

"The river—after wailing for miles in a pent-up channel, narrow as one of the lanes of old Edinburgh, and hemmed in by walls quite as perpendicular, and nearly twice as lofty—suddenly expands, first into a deep, brown pool, and then into a broad, tumbling stream, that, as if permanently affected in temper by the strict severity of the discipline to which its early life had been subjected, frets and chafes in all its after course, till it loses itself in the sea. The banks, ere we reach the opening of the chasm, have become steep and wild and densely wooded, and there stand out on either hand giant crags, that plant their iron feet in the stream; here girdled with belts of rank, succulent herbs, that love the damp shade and the frequent drizzle of the spray; and there, hollow and bare, with their round pebbles sticking out from the partially decomposed surface, like the piled-up skulls in the great underground cemetery of the Parisians. . . . And over the sullen pool in front we may see the stern pillars of the portal rising from eighty to a hundred feet in height, and scarce twelve feet apart, like the massive obelisks of some Egyptian temple; while in gloomy vista within, projection starts out beyond projection, like column beyond column in some narrow avenue of approach to Luxor or Carnac. The precipices are green, with some moss or byssus, that, like the miner, chooses a subterranean habitat—for here the rays of the sun never fall; the dead mossy water beneath, from which the cliffs rise so abruptly, bears the hue of molten pitch; the trees, fast anchored in the rock, shoot out their branches across the opening, to form a thick tangled roof, at the height of a hundred and fifty feet overhead; while from the recesses within, where the eye fails to penetrate, there issues a combination of the strangest and wildest sounds ever yet produced by water: there is the deafening rush of the torrent, blent as if with the clang of hammers, the roar of vast bellows, and the confused gabble of a thousand voices."

Turning away from the sea, the line soon strikes it again at the ancient borough of Tain, on the Dornoch Firth. Near the head of the inlet we cross into Sutherland, and soon by the gorge of the Shin come to Lairg, port of the mail-cars that cruise into far corners of this county. The southern land, whose name tells how it was once counted part of nakeder Caithness, has truly northern features of mountains and open moors, lakes, "waters," "straths," and the "kyles" of its coast, those deep narrow sounds taking their Gaelic name from the same root as Calais. Three of its five sides are washed by the sea. The interior is chiefly given up to deer and sheep, with here and there an oasis of moorland farm, rescued from the heather as Holland from salt water, and only by ceaseless industry held against Nature's encroachments. Too much of the land, indeed, makes "a wilderness of brown and ragged moorland," whose "monotonous features" are "masses of wet rock and dark russet heather, black swamps, low and bare hills, and now and again the grey glimmer of a stream or tarn "among heights" dulled with hurrying showers and glittering out again to the sun."

The fish of its inland waters is one of Sutherland's richest harvests. Its lakes are legion; one large parish alone is said to contain hundreds of sheets; and the coming and going of anglers keeps up the good roads and fair inns of a thinly-populated region, from which have been swept away the traces of homes made desolate by the "Sutherland evictions." Loch Shin, running half across the county from Lairg, is the longest lake, about which man has waged feeble war with the sternness of Nature ; but the wildest scene is Loch Assynt, near the west coast, tapering among a group of grand mountains such as the Sutherlandshire Ben More and the three-peaked mass of Quinaig. This remote nook seems neglected by authors, yet a picturesque novelist might here find material for a second Legend of Montrose, whose last adventure brought him to be captured by Macleod of Assynt and confined in the Castle of Ardvreck. As for the features of the west coast, behind which rise so wildly weather-worn crags above glacier-planed glens and fiords, like those of Norway on a smaller scale, they are thus summed up by Mr. John Sinclair in his Scenes and Stories of the North of Scotland :

"The Gaelic word 'Assynt' is a compound and signifies 'out and in.' If so, like almost all place-names in the Highlands, it is most fitting and felicitous. Indeed it applies admirably, not only to the district so called, but to the entire west coast of Sutherland from the borders of Ross-shire to Cape Wrath itself. Looking, for instance, at the map, we can still see in the endless contortions of the shore, as we used to do when children, the figures and profiles of men and beasts—not one of them in any degree like to any other. There are brows flat and high on the headlands; eyes large and small in the lochs and tarns; noses Roman, Grecian, retroussé, on the rocky capes; bay-mouths wide and narrow, open and shut, drooping in sadness, curving upward in joy; chins which are impudent, and chins which are retiring; cheeks smooth and furrowed, shaven and bearded; and in all these you can clearly see, if you have any discernment at all, grumpy grandfathers and grinning fools, laughing children and scolding

The Isles of Loch Maree, Ross-Shire
The Isles of Loch Maree, Ross-Shire

dominies, gaping crocodiles and snarling monkeys, weeping maids and wistful lovers. The surface of the country inland from the shore is extremely varied, rugged, and wild, but full of interest and charm for healthy and buoyant natures. If you believe, as I for one do, that in order to see the beauties and taste the sweets of land and water there is needed not only sight but insight, which is something far more and better, you will find at every turn of the highway new matter of surprise and admiration. Island-studded bays like Badcall, picturesque retreats like Scourie; deeply indented lochs like Laxford, the 'Fiord of salmon'; distant views of a mountain-chain of peaks; long successions of rocky knolls crowned with brushwood and heather—these are a few of the elements which go to make up the panorama between Assynt and the Kyle of Durness. When at length you look down over the brindled cliffs of Cape Wrath ; when you behold its rugged masses of God-made masonry; when you hear the thunder-throb of the waves in its vaulted caverns; when you gaze to south and west and north over the hungry heaving sea, you can but look and marvel and adore."

The north coast, with its Cave of Smoo and its Kyles of Durness and of Tongue, is also grandly broken. The east shore, along which the railway runs to Helmsdale, is rather a strip of fields and woods. In the southeast corner lies Dornoch, which enjoys the distinction of being the smallest county town in the kingdom, literally a village, with a restored Cathedral as proof of city dignity, and on the site of its Episcopal palace a prison that has been closed for want of custom among the honest Highlanders. There has been little crime here since the last witch was burned on British soil in 1722 at Dornoch. What brings strangers to Dornoch, now that it has a railway branch, is its golf-links, extending for thousands of acres on the seashore; and this far-northern understudy of St. Andrews offers a remarkably good autumn climate, often mild up till Christmas. Not much bigger is Golspie, with its sea-girt pile of Dunrobin, seat of the ducal family that, owning most of Sutherland, and having incorporated the title and estate of Cromarty as well as the English peerages of Stafford and Gower, can hold up its head as the largest landowner in Britain. With a thousand or so people of its own, Golspie has a good hotel, from which strangers may visit the Dunrobin Glen and waterfall, the traces of gold-working that once promised to pay in this neighbourhood, and Ben Bhraggie conspicuously crowned by Chantrey's statue of the first Duke of Sutherland.

Above Helmsdale, the Ord ridge makes the Caithness frontier, round the end of which winds what is literally a highroad into our northernmost county, described by Pennant as more terrible than the Penmaenmawr track that used to be the bugbear of travellers to Ireland. The road has been improved, but the railway is here forced away from the sea, seeking an entry into Caithness farther inland. The southern part of this county is still Highland, where the train runs on miles and miles over unbroken stretches of heather ; then farther north these fall away into a windy expanse of hollows and ridges, in which Nature would seem to have come short of material for ending off our island with picturesque effect; the central part has even been called the most forlorn wilderness in Britain. Caithness, like other countrysides, has been "improved" in our time; but still it shows wide, cheerless prospects of bog and waste, with peat stacks more frequent than trees, and scattered, turf-walled houses having their thatch bound on by straw ropes and weighted down by stones to keep them from being blown away. Verses signed by the well-known initials, "J. S. B.," set in a frame of honour at John o' Groat's House, describe the bareness and bleakness of these poor fields, fenced by

Flagstones and slates in a row
Where hedges are frightened to grow;


Shrubs in the flap of the breeze,
Sweating to make themselves trees.

The most flourishing production of Caithness appears to be the flagstones, layers of mud and fish bones pressed together ages ago, which its quarries send forth to pave more genial regions. Its waters, too, grow a valuable crop, as one may know who has ever seen the multitudinous herring-fishing fleet set sail from Wick in the long summer twilight. Angling can be had in a chain of some dozen lochs drained by the Thurso river that runs through the county from south to north, at the mouth of which over 2500 salmon were once netted in one haul. In the south, if heather were edible, the folk should be fat; and below darkly naked cones, we find glens such as Berriedale, in parts rich as well as romantic, like a miniature Switzerland of which Morven is the Matterhorn.

Here again we have a duodecimo edition of Highlands and Lowlands bound together. In the north-east the people are tall and sturdy, with plain marks of Scandinavian origin, like their sters and dales. On the south and west rather, we find clans bearing such names as Mackay, Sutherland, Keith, and Gunn, the last certainly a Norse tribe who can wear only an adopted tartan. Most illustrious of all were the Sinclairs, that held the now dwindled Earldom of Caithness, one of those Norman families settling themselves so masterfully all over Scotland. From this farthest point of the kingdom, hundreds of them followed their Earl to Flodden, and hardly one came back to tell the tale of that "Black Monday," since when, it is said, no Sinclair will cross the Ord ridge on a Monday. Another sore loss fell on the clan a century later, when a certain Colonel Sinclair, heedless of what foreign enlistment regulations had then taken shape, led a regiment of his clan to serve Gustavus Adolphus against Norway, but, attacked by Norwegian peasants in a narrow gorge, more than half of them were crushed beneath rocks hurled down from above, as the French soldiers in Tyrol, or the Turks in defiles of the Kurdish Dersim. The monument on the spot records the death of fourteen hundred kindly Scots, which appears an exaggeration; but it is said that not a score escaped with their lives. Many other grim and gory tales might be told of this race, as some are in Mr. John Sinclair's book above mentioned. The shells of castles fringing these shores have as often as not had a Sinclair lord at one period or other, like Castle Sinclair, almost crumbled away, while the older Girnigo, on to which it was built, still stoutly defies the weather. Today the most outstanding branch of the family is that of Thurso, first distinguished in a new field by Sir John Sinclair's Statistical Account of Scotland, and by his improvements in the county; then by the author of Holiday House, and by more than one dignitary of the English Church. This family is notable for stature as well as

Moor and Mountain, Ross-shire
Moor and Mountain, Ross-shire

wisdom. I forget whether it was Catherine Sinclair's father or brother who was said to have three dozen feet of daughters ; and when he put down a new pavement— probably from his own quarries—opposite his house in Edinburgh, it was readily nicknamed the "Giant's Causeway." The main branch of the Sinclairs, whose titles at one time, says Sir Walter, might have wearied a herald when they were not so rich as many an English yeoman, is represented near Edinburgh by the ruins of Rosslyn Castle and the monuments of that beautiful chapel—

Where Rosslyn's chiefs uncoffined lie
Each baron for a sable shroud
Sheathed in his iron panoply.

The railway, forking for the only Caithness towns, Wick and Thurso, with their ports Pulteneytown and Scrabster, does not give a fair view of the county. Its most impressive features, as at our other Land's End, are to be looked for in its rim of brown cliffs, tight-packed layers of flagstones, their faces "etched out in alternate lines of cornice and frieze," here dappled by hardy vegetation, there alive with clamorous sea-fowl. Like the granite, slate, and serpentine edges of Cornwall, these sandstone rocks have been carved by wind and water into boldest shapes of capes and bays, dark caverns, funnels, overhanging shelves and gables, swirling "pots" and foaming reefs, isolated stacks lashed by every tide, broken teeth bored and filled by every storm, and the deep chasms here called geos, that sometimes lead down to beaches rich in fine and rare shells, for one, "John o' Groat's Buckie," akin to the cowries of the tropics. In the damp crevices, also, grow rare herbs such as that "Holy Grass" found by Robert Dick of Thurso, one of Mr. Smiles's "discoveries" in the species of self-helped naturalists. More truly than of Cornwall, it may be said that Caithness seldom grows wood enough to make a coffin. Where Cornwall comes short of Caithness is in the numerous castles, not all of them left to decay, that on the verge of those northern precipices might often be confounded with Nature's own ruins. It was only about the beginning of the eighteenth century that such strongholds could be deserted for snugger mansions. Here, in 1680, was the scene of our last private war, when the head of the Breadalbane Campbells invaded Caithness with a small army, that overcame the Sinclairs, it is said, by the wily stratagem of causing to be stranded on their coast a ship freighted with whisky to drown the enemy's prudence and resolution.

Traces of older inhabitants are very frequent in Caithness, its moors thickly strewn with hut circles, standing stones, tumuli, and those curious underground excavations known as "Picts' Houses," which appear to have been dwellings rather than burial-places. One usual feature of such burrows is the cells and passages fitting a smaller race than our noble selves, who must crawl on hands and knees in grimy explorations not likely to be undertaken by the general tourist. Hence there is reason to suppose that Scotland and other countries have been inhabited by a stunted race of aborigines, like the dwarfish Ainos of Yesso or the pygmies who turn up in various parts of Africa. Mr. David MacRitchie, an antiquary who has paid special attention to so-called Pictish remains, is doughty champion of a theory which connects the dimly historic Picts or Pechts and the legendary Fians with the whole fabulous family of fairies, elves, goblins, brownies, pixies, trolls, or what not, who are represented as dwarfish and subterranean, issuing forth from their retreats to hold varied relations of service or mischief with ordinary men. The name of the Fians, belonging to Ireland as well as to the Scottish Highlands, and fitly represented in the dark doings of Fenians, may point to Finland, where small Laplanders still exist in flesh and blood. The "good people," who long haunted Highland and Lowland glens,—but it seems they cannot abide the scratching of steel pens or the squeaking of slate pencils,— were apt to be tiny, of retiring habits, and in the way of disappearing underground. So the fairies may have been real enough, for all the scorn of that " self-styled science of the so-called nineteenth century." Scott, who seems well disposed to the theory, tells us of stunted, servile clans, such as the M'Couls, who were hereditary Gibeonites to the Stewarts of Appin. In our own time Hebridean herds have been found encamped inside beehive hillocks of turf such as opened to take in the captives of fairy adventure. As for the objection that such beings sometimes appeared as giants rather than dwarfs, it will be remembered how a similar transformation came quite easy to Alice in Wonderland, how omne ignotum pro magnifies is very apt to hold true in a misty climate, and how visions of the spiritual in this country have often had an origin disturbing to the senses—

Wi' tippenny we'll fear nae evil,
Wi' usquebaugh we'll face the devil.

But neither Mr. MacRitchie, in his Fians, Fairies,

and Picts and other writings, nor any of his brother ethnologists, has much to tell us about John o' Groat, whose house is the shrine of so many cyclists, wheeling piously from the Land's End, a road of more than nine hundred miles at the shortest, through hundreds of villages, scores of towns, and dozens of cities or places of fame. All that way they come to see a low grassy mound and a flagstaff in front of an hotel, a mile or two west from the pointed stacks of Duncansbay Head. The story goes that this John was a Dutchman by descent, whose family, split into eight branches, kept up meeting for an annual feast; then to avoid squabblings for precedence, John hit on the idea of an octagonal table in an eight-sided house, with eight doors and eight windows, in which, let us trust, his kinsmen were not at sixes and sevens. Here we may have some hint of such a contest for chieftainship as is not unknown among Highland clans, else the folk-lorists must find this a hard text to expound. Three, seven, and nine are all mystic numbers; five is time-honoured in the East, as four in the Western world; two and ten have a practical importance; six bears with it a sense of satisfaction, as do a dozen or a score; thirteen and fourteen fit themselves to legend and superstition ; even four-and-twenty blackbirds have been sagely interpreted as the hours of the day and night ; but what can one say of eight in tale or history? It might take a mathematician to make a myth here. Maybe the points of the compass, doubled for the sake of emphasis, are at the bottom of it. Perhaps there is some political allusion to James VI.'s Octavian board of administrators. Or may some printer, short of copy, not

Crags near Poolewe, Ross-shire
Crags near Poolewe, Ross-shire

have tried his hand at composing an octavo legend? Possibly the story is more or less true, in which the Scotticised Dutchman is further stated to have flourished as owner of a ferry to the Orkneys. The suggestion that his fare was a groat must give way before the fact of Groat being apparently a real Dutch name. Nor is it "past dispute" that here geese are bred from barnacles, as asserted by sundry authors, among them that tourist of Cromwell's time, Richard Franck, who seems to have made his way so far, and gives us much quaint information about divinity, scenery, and fishing, spoilt by a most affected style, by slap-dash spelling of names, and by an evident "scunner" at his model Izaak Walton.

One thing seems certain, that John o' Groat was a humbug if he gave out this non-existent house of his for the northernmost point of our mainland, as stiff-kneed cyclists fondly reckon. That honour properly belongs to Dunnet Head, the lofty line of red cliffs stretching to the east of Thurso Bay, hollowed out by billows that shake the lighthouse on the farthest point, from which one looks to the Orkneys over the "still vexed" Pentland Firth. I wonder if that modern John o' Groat be still to the fore, who some twenty years ago was presented with a testimonial for his constancy in carrying across the mail during the lifetime of a generation. He belonged to a school of ancient mariners who had the knack of smelling their way about the sea, whereas our modern Nelsons, it seems, don't know where they are till they have gone down into their cabin and worked out a sum. I once crossed with this "skeely skipper," and was much struck by his method of navigation. A thick fog came on half-way across a tide that races at ten miles an hour ; then to clear his inner light, he had up a glass of grog, through which he took frequent observations. Every now and again he stopped the engines and bawled out into the fog without any response; but when at last a muffled hail came back, we were within a hundred yards of Scrabster Pier. On another occasion, he is said to have hit it off still more closely, carrying away the pier-head as a proof of his straight-steered course.

But here we must turn back, lest a darkless summer day tempt us to cross to Orkney, and on to the much-battered Shetlands by the stepping-stone of the Fair Isle, whose name, like that of the foreign Faroe Isles, denotes not beauty but sheep. This muggy and windy archipelago, indeed, is hardly Scottish ground, but an ex-Danish possession, held in pledge by us for a princess's dowry that seems like to be paid on the Greek Calends. Its people indignantly decline to be called Scotchmen. And though our Thule has grand and fine features of its own, too often wrapped in fog, they are hardly such as go to make up the character of Bonnie Scotland.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus