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Behold the Hebrides
'She is far from the land...'
An Unbroken Romance of Lewis

IT is now many months since Seonaid Iseabal MacGregor MacDonald left her island-home for the land of the lone pine-tree trail—and now ‘mountains divide us, and a waste of seas.’ I wonder if she ever recalls how, in the heyday and sunshine of a Hebridean summer, we tramped across the vast machair lands and over the moors with their bell-heather and clucking grouse; while down by the sea the rolling breakers spilled in sheets of froth and foam upon the golden hue of sweeping sands, and the boom of the summer surf thundered rapturously in the western crevasses of Tolsta Chaolais, and sent, like fiery darts, its salten sprays through the fleeting sunlight.

I wonder if she remembers that noontide of azure skies, which on the wide-flung horizon bent down to kiss the sea; or that eventide in Dalmore, when the reef-softened eddies of the limitless Atlantic swirled noiselessly about our feet, as we watched the sunset that glowed across more than twice ten hundred miles of sea, toward the land where she now dwells.

What an immensity of water and prairie now separates us!

By this time Seonaid Iseabal will have become a real American citizen; and, maybe, she seldom reflects on shieling days, or on the peat-perfumed croft by the sea, where her loved ones still hold on. And, perhaps, too, she has forgotten how the night encircled us near Gearranan; and how we groped among the mist-obscured rocks of the labyrinthed valley where the owls hide during the daytime, until we found the zig-zag track of the wild mountain-goat, by which we ascended the face of the tall, perpendicular crags to the moor above. How overjoyed we were that night when we could again take our bearings by the pilot-lamp that on the quay, a mile or so distant, gleamed in the soft night-silence of Loch Carloway, and shot its rays through the thickest darkness with a freshness as of falling snow!

And does she ever find time in her new surroundings to recall our visits to Barvas, or those ploys at Dun Carloway and Breascleit and Callernish, when on holiday at the house of lain MacDhomhnuill in Carloway? lain’s goodwife is a MacChoinnich from the district of Lewis known as Point, or Eye; and we eagerly looked forward to our stay with her each autumn. You see, there was no nonsense about our Carloway friends: we did pretty well as we liked when there; and we could never feel that we had outstayed our welcome, for, whenever we were inclined to visit Carloway, their home was always open to us.

(I have already told you that there is no time in Lewis: Stornoway does not really begin to waken up till about 10.30 P.M., at which hour the mail steamer is due to arrive from Kyle and Applecross.) And does Seonaid ever think of the times when we clambered up the crazy gang-ways of those handsome ships of the Antrim Iron Ore Company, that call at Stornoway on their way to and from Middlesborough? or of those boisterous nights when, having seen the green and yellow lights, that bobbed and flickered far out at sea, we hurried to the harbour to welcome the incoming mail steamer, which had just crossed the Minch in a storm that would have bent and broken in smithereens the largest and the strongest trans-Atlantic liner?

Oh, God, there is a thrill about the sea, and an uncanniness about those who go down to it, whether in large or in small ships!

Seonaid was called Iseabal after her great aunt and my aunt, Iseabal MacGregor, a little, sprightly creature who lived on Cnoc Sandwick for more than four score years. Iseabal was a spirit clad in a tartan shawl that half a century ago had been sent to her all the way from India by her military brother. Threadbare it had become; but she wore it faithfully until her death. And Iseabal was beloved of all the countryside, for in wind and in storm, in sunshine and in rain, she visited the poor and the sick in their affliction.

But, ochoin a righ!  Seonaid is as fair as the fairest Viking maid, true as the truest Lewiswoman. And her eyes are blue; and they sparkle like bright sunshine that dances on a scintillating sea.

And her speech is more silvern than any silence is golden, because she has a most beautiful accent. (If you wish to hear English spoken as it ought to be spoken, you must visit out-of-the-way places in the Highlands and Islands.) But Seonaid’s Gaelic is particularly beautiful too!

And how long ago it seems since Ruairaidh and I used to watch at the window for her, so that, when she came in sight, we might dash across the sands of Sandwick Bay to meet her, as she wended her way at dusk by the old shore road, where, with a vesper-like cadence, the waves whispered croons and lullabies among the rich sea-spoil of brown and crimson seawrack!

And, as I sit here in the sombre stillness of this wintry room, wrapped in the warm plaid that she gave me ere her departure— a plaid with MacGregor tartan on one side and MacDonald on the other—! can almost feel the darkness that enshrouds her Gaelic land, and hear the night-wind that creeps over Steinish and the moor and machair of Melbost. And I am certain that at this very moment there steals around the lonely croft of Mairi, her mother, the lilting and the crooning of the softest sea-music.

I feel sure, too, that in her new dwelling-place Seonaid will often remember old Lewis, and that the pine-tree trail will be enriched by the wild tradition that she has taken with her from her native isle— a tradition of the outlawed MacGregors and of the lawless Lords of the Isles.

These perpetual emigrations from the Highlands and Islands are draining the arterial blood of the nation, and are leaving its manhood and its womanhood destitute and impotent and broken-hearted.

‘She is far from the land . . .‘; but in her passing westward she has left with me a frankincense of sweet, forgotten things.

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