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Behold the Hebrides
Roads to the Isles
The Home of 'Mary Rose'

AS many and as diverse are the roads that lead to the Isles as are the roads that lead to Rome; but to my mind the roads to the former suggest a complex network of ideas that far surpass, at all events in enchantment and charm, the associations which we so religiously cherish of the Eternal City. Without in any way appearing to diminish the significance of Imperial Rome—its stupendousness, its power and greatness, its incalculable contribution to western civilisation, and indeed to the whole world where man has attained to any appreciable degree of economic and social progress—! think that the Roman mind was essentially unromantic and unimaginative, and lacked that fine feeling and delicacy in art and in literature, in song and in story, that we recognise to be so pronounced a characteristic of the Northern School.

I fancy that the difference, which I would fain emphasise, may be more obvious when I say that the roads to Rome lead through triumphal arches and citadels and forums of extraordinary monumental grandeur to imperialism, and sometimes even to tyranny; while the roads to the Isles guide one to a wildness and to a mysteriousness where the soul of man is overawed by a deep sense of the unknown, of the unseen, and of the everlasting.

I am convinced it is the sea that produces this difference, because the people who live by the sea derive their vision from it. So the roads to the Isles lead to and from the sea, whence comes all the romance and mysticism of the western Gael.

It can at least be said of the Hebridean race that it has inherited the best qualities of two peoples. From the Celts the it received its tradition of moor-land and mountain: from the dauntless Viking invaders, who infested every creek and bay of the Islands it inherited something of the spirit of the sea; and from these wild Northmen it also learnt the meaning of skilled seamanship.

I feel that the roads to the Isles do not go by Tummel and Lochaber and Loch Rannoch, beautiful as these places may be, but by Loch Alsh and the Sound of Raasay, by Lorn to Canna, Rum, and Eigg, by Sleat and by Cuhullin’s Sound to Dunvegan, by the Minch, by the Stream of the Blue Men (Sruth nam Fear Gorm) to the Shiant or ‘Sacred Isles,’ by East and West Loch Tarbert and the Sound of Harris, by Loch Maddy and Loch Boisdale to Uist, by Loch Roag to Uig and Bernera and Carloway, by Barra and by Benbecula, and by a thousand other routes!

In my life I experience an almost irresistible tendency to move toward the west. I feel this impulse nearly everywhere I go—so much so, in fact, that at sundown I like to face the west whence the latest rays of the dying day steal upon me, and ere their departure fill me with contentment and with a resignation. Never did I feel this peculiar impulse more than during the recent war; and I can recollect as vividly as though it had occurred yesterday how, during a brief respite in the indescribable slaughter at the Battle of Menin Road, I found myself dashing wildly westwards near the renowned Belgium Battery Corner, and along a shell-strewn track where the crimson wounds of vanquished and broken men glistened before the sun that at its setting silhouetted against the western skyline the gaunt and naked ruins of Ypres la Morte. And I can remember, too, that I paused for a moment near a shattered and war-scarred poplar-tree; and there I thought of the vanity of earthly things, and of the inestimable cruelty of man to man, until I was filled with a secret shame and a genuine longing for a return to simpler things and to simpler times, when men, having reflected at leisure on the utter futility of organised murder on a gigantic scale, might be prepared to hang their trumpets in the hall, and study war no more.

With the west I always associate a little hymn of the days of my childhood at Ardgay. Fain would I ask you to turn it up in your hymnary, and read it over once or twice. Here is its first verse:

Now the day is over,
Night Is drawing nigh;
Shadows of the evening
Steal across the sky.
Now the darkness gathers,
Stars begin to peep;
Birds and beasts and flowers
Soon will be asleep.

Did you ever read words more beautiful than these? Their very simplicity makes an impression on the sensitive mind and instantly fills one with the fragrant memories of that childhood when we knew no guile, and when each day brought us everything but care and sorrow. How grateful I am now, incidentally, that my father was sufficiently old-fashioned to wish that his children should respect the Sabbath Day and attend Sunday School! The old Scottish Sabbath will soon be unknown among us if the usurping hand of selfishness and gain grasps the nation any firmer, and destroys its vision so that it perishes. For nothing but leanness in our souls can accrue from the realisation of what are often our fondest desires.

But I fear that I am rather digressing from our roads to the Isles. What is the explanation of this strange tendency to move towards the west? Is it the vision of Tir-nan-Og? Is it the call of the Land-of-the-Ever-Young? Is it the music that streams from the golden harp of Mac lain Og, or is it the spirit of MacTalla, the Son of the Hall, as he echoes down the ages?

The roads to the Isles have a charm that only the romanticist can comprehend. I am thinking at the moment of a bridle-path that runs between the great mountains of the Forest of Harris on the one side, and a gleaming sunlit sea on the other, until it merges into a heather and bracken-covered track far up on the hillside. It leads by a whaling station to Bunamhuinneader and Amhuinnsuidhe—the river of the Stranger and of the Warrior-Guest. Here a heathsprent path branches off to the ferry for the Island of Soay, from which ‘Mary Rose’ was spirited away to Tir-nan-Og. The main track—if it may be termed a track—continues for another six or eight miles, and ultimately brings one down to the sea in front of the Isle of Scarpa—an island simply teeming with spooks and gnomes and weird things that only show themselves in the darkness.

Anyone who has never seen a fay or elf, and sincerely wishes to do so, should certainly go along this island-road on a dark night, and meander round the black eerie walls of Amhuinnsuidhe Castle and he will readily be assured of the existence of the supernatural. Then the Island of Taransay, which also is plainly discernible from this track, is ‘haunted’ in every sense of the word.

There are so many roads to the Isles, some known only to the peat gatherer or to the cockle gatherer or to the fisher folks, while others are no more than the beaten tracks of the mountain hare and the timid, swift-footed deer. But they all have their poetry; and they are visited by the curlew and the green-hooded adharcan, and the birds that come in from the sea bringing with them something of their deep, impenetrable habitat. These downy-winged strangers, the last fragments of another age, are continually visiting among us. They know all the roads to our Isles, and, as they pay us a call in passing, they add their little contributions to what is already an environment of magic and of fulfilment.

And, lastly, I want to conduct you along an old cart-track that winds round a pebbly shore. It is the final lap in the road that leads to my particular Isle; and I use it because it is a shortcut between my island-home and the pier at which the steamer calls. Sometimes, however, it proves of little advantage to follow the cart-track round the shore, especially if it is at the time of the traigh adhairt, or spring tides, because the sea breaks right over the track and strews it with stones and with boulders which make walking very difficult, unless one ventures to go at the falling of the tide, when it is possible to walk on a surface of hardened and water-rippled sand. In summer, when the neap tides are prevalent, it is a joy to linger home by the shore.

But this shore-road can often be very wild even in summer, particularly when there is a heavy swell on the Minch, for the waves of a storm dash up to within a few inches of your feet and give you such a cold, chilly sensation!

You can imagine what this road is like on a dark, boisterous night, when he who may chance to use it is obliged to pause every step or two until the flash of the lighthouse at Arnish sweeps before his path, and enables him once again to take his bearings in the darkness.

But I love my old cart-track in spite of all its disadvantages, because it possesses certain fascinations too. I can picture myself now going along this shore-road to Sandwick in the cool of a summer evening, with the scent in my nostrils of many peat fires and of the smouldering of wood - shavings and of the tangle-seaweed.

And I can see my dear cousin Mary waiting patiently at her door to welcome me at my home-coming.

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