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Behold the Hebrides
The Highland Ferry
Memories of Wester Ross

OH! I do wish that you could witness an early silvern dawn at Applecross, when the wings of the wakeful whaups, that whistle in the hill-encircled bay and speed swiftly over the water’s face, are reflected in the mirrors of a shimmering sea. Little wonder that Mary Coleridge was enchanted with the image of the ‘Blue Bird,’ whose wings of palest blue were caught for a moment as it skimmed lightly across the cold, still lake, that lay silently beneath the hill. And I can picture the wonted ferryboat, as it sets out from the cool, gray shores of Wester Ross to meet the Sheila on its way to Kyle of Lochalsh from Stornoway.

Is it not wonderful to think that never once, since I stayed in Applecross as a child more than twenty years ago, have Murchadh MacRath and another Murdo, his life-long companion in oars, failed to meet the mail-steamer? And during all those years what stormy seas they have experienced together in that old, frail craft! It was on their ferryboat that I received my earliest instructions in seamanship at the age of three, when I used to accompany them in all weathers to meet the steamer on its way to Lewis in the evenings.

I remember, too, that MacRath, who by profession is a carpenter, made me a beautiful, little sailing-ship, which I tied to the stern of the ferryboat each time we put out to sea. But, mo chreach ! one day a great gale having arisen among the Coolins swept over the lonely Isle of Raasay, and over the Isle of the Seal, and drove a tempestuous sea before it that well-nigh swamped our ferryboat, and carried away my little sailing-ship, so that all my interest in the sea was gone.

Many wild seas has this clumsy craft survived, when the gray mists of Skye have fallen like a death-cold mantle over the kyles from Torridon to Knoydart, and the winds of the Minch have made their presence felt along the creeky, weather-beaten coast of Wester Ross.

I had ofttimes wished to break the journey on my way to Lewis, and to disembark at Applecross, the only place at which the mail-steamer calls between Lochalsh and Stornoway, so that I might renew the acquaintances of my childhood. And, so last autumn I sent a message by an earlier boat to say that I would come to Applecross on an appointed day. Luckily, my arrival fell due on what turned out to be a glorious afternoon. As we sailed past the mouth of Loch Carron and the Crowlin Isles, old Cailein Cameron, our venerable captain, sounded the steamer’s shrill whistle to warn the ferrymen that the Sheila would soon be rounding the headland and gliding into Applecross Bay. There, to be sure, the ferryboat awaited us; and, as the steamer moved slowly by, the accustomed rope was thrown to Murchadh, who lashed it to the seat below him with such agility and dexterity that in an instant we were alongside. Just think of it! he has been doing this, day in and day out, for more than thirty years; while his comrade has manipulated the oars to keep the ferryboat erect, and its bow in the proper direction. You really cannot imagine what skill and strength are entailed in getting alongside, when on dark, winter evenings and mornings the sea is rough, and the position of the ferryboat is indicated only by an oil lantern that at the stern bobs up and down as the boat is being rocked by heavy seas and howling winds. And I regret ever so much that my limited capacity denies me the opportunity of describing this incident more interestingly and graphically to you. At any rate, to properly appreciate the scene one would actually require to witness it in a storm.

My visit to Applecross last autumn was as the realisation of something I had dreamt of doing for years:. it was as a pilgrimage I had longed to make, and as a promise that, alas! had too long remained unfulfilled. So, when I descried afar off the place of my childhood, as it lay tucked away beneath the hills and in an almost forgotten corner of the sea, I at once resolved that I would leave no hamlet unvisited and no mountain-pass untravelled during my sojourn there. I can assure you, therefore, that it was with bated breath and with suppressed excitement that I stood aside until the mails were safely lowered by an overhanging derrick, and until the little rope-ladder was slung over the wale of the steamer, that I might descend into the ferryboat on which, as I have already related, I received my earliest sea-baptism.

At the dilapidated stone jetty there awaited me my hostess. Gaelic is her language; and Gaelic it was that we spoke all the way round the tree-fringed shore to her home about half-a-mile away. And all the old scenes and stories recurred instantly to my mind, for no sooner had I put my foot again on this Gaelic-land than I remembered those wild, wintry nights and days of my infancy, when the sea chafed and harassed our ferryboat, and dashed so angrily over the causeway that I had to be wrapped in a big seaman’s oilskins, and borne in two strong arms to my usual seat in the stern of the ferryboat. You see, I was particularly headstrong when about four years of age, and often went to meet the steamer at great personal risk; though I was far too young then to understand the meaning of danger.

Oh! these were grand experiences, now that I reflect upon them.

With Applecross I always associate three strangely different things—nests and echoes and peace. It was here that my old father drew my attention to a bird’s nest, the first I had ever seen or heard of. I recall plainly now that it was the nest of a missel-thrush, and that it lay neatly concealed in a thicket of briar and hazel, to which we took our bearings from a rowan-tree by the roadside. What wonderful creatures I thought birds were that day! How did they build such beautiful nests, and how did they lay such pretty eggs? I kept on inquiring as my father dragged me home along the shore in a state of healthy exhaustion. I may add that this was the first of many happy nesting ploys, and that, when we arrived home after our exciting discovery, I was made to sit up on a chair where I might listen attentively to a well-meant lecture on the cruelty of stealing little birds’ eggs, and otherwise molesting them at nesting-time.

Then, echoes! It was in Applecross Bay that I first heard MacTalla, the Son of the Hall, for I used to shout daily across the sea to Skye; and a wonderful echo was sent back from the mountain track that led over high hills and above the sea to Lonban and Cuaig. I can assure you that at three and a half years of age I was sufficiently precocious to marvel at MacTalla!

And, lastly, peace! It was in this quiet, unobtrusive place that I first became conscious of something which I afterwards learnt to call peace. I can remember as plainly as though it were yesterday how one sunny, spring forenoon, while I sat alone on the bosky margin of the bay among periwinkles and wild hyacinths and delicate wood - anemones and primroses, which grew in such large clusters that I easily could have made a complete couch of them, it dawned upon me that between the lapping of the tiny wavelets which, as it were, frittered away their time on the pebbly, dulse-covered shore, and the intermittent music of the woods, where mavises. and blackbirds sang their melodies of spring, there was a something which had never been explained to me. And that something I afterwards realised to be peace and quietude.

Often have I thought since how much men’s hearts cry out for peace and quietude, and for a return to simpler and less irritating conditions of life. There is so little peace in our lives: and so few of us would be content to live in an environment which lacks the rush and bustle, that are so essentially indispensable to a materialistic age.

But we must return for a moment to the scene of our ferryboat, so that I may give you my latest impression of Applecross. One early, autumn morning, as the Sheila sailed quietly into the inky-black bay, I was awakened from my sea-sleep to find that the Minch had been crossed during the night. The trailing mists were retreating in close formation before the rising sun that gleamed on Raasay, and rekindled the old memories of bygone days at Dun Caan and Brochel, those ancient fortresses that once were the scene of feasting and revelry and Highland hospitality to whomsoever might chance to approach them.

And away in the honey-scented Bealach nam Bo, the Pass of the Cattle, where the newly-wakened wagtail hopped about the stony edges of the bickering brook in search of his morning-meal, and where the yellow-hammer piped for his ‘little bit of bread and no cheese,’ the flickering rays of dawning light had put darkness on every star. And I thought of the days of eld, when the fierce and bellicose caterans dashed down the Pass on their cattle-lifting raids, and banqueted in the nighttime by a faggot-fire, that scared away the evil spirits, and cast a warm and inviting glow upon their heathery tablecloth.

Time was when the Pass of the Cattle was notorious for the clashing of claymores and the spreagh of sheep and oxen: but on this particular morning there was no sound of any life in the bealach except for the cry of the peewit, and the anxious bark of a collie that was collecting sheep on a shadowy hill-side, whither, as yet, the dawn had scarcely penetrated.

Oh! there is nothing in the world like a vivid imagination: and few things are finer and more sacred than the longing in a man’s heart to be wandering along the leaf and timber shaded byways and the wild, open highways of the land that he loves, where the wind blows fresh and free through his hair, where the raindrops that trickle down his cheeks and over his lips are stronger and sweeter than red wine, and where the song of ilka bird is a music that cheers his wayfarings and gladdens his days.

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