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Behold the Hebrides
Hebridean Stepping-Stones

WHENEVER I see stepping-stones I always reflect back hundreds, or, perhaps, thousands of years to the days when they were first placed there by early man, who laboured without the assistance of anything in the nature of ‘mechanical advantage.’ And then I think of the generations of traders that have crossed them during the centuries, and how little the actual stones and their surroundings have changed since first they felt the weight of human feet.

But all stepping-stones, as we can readily understand, do not necessarily maintain their usefulness. The little township which now uses them may decay and sink into forgetfulness, for its inhabitants may one day be obliged to migrate, if their resources begin to dwindle and disappear owing, perhaps, to geological and climatic considerations. And so they are tempted to seek fresh pastures elsewhere.

Then, again, the stepping-stones placed originally near the mouth of a river may eventually betake themselves some distance upstream because of the eternal erosion and transportation of epigene denuding agents; or, maybe, the river deepens its channel or alters its course. Similarly, the watershed may be influenced by such changes as may cause the river to be what is technically known as a ‘misfit.’

Likewise, too, the estuary of a river may contract in area by continual deposition or by land emergence, both of which movements would affect appreciably the distance to which the ocean tides advance inland or recede seaward.

The point I am eager to bring out is, that if there are stepping-stones, such changes are bound to influence them; and thus stepping-stones are often left derelict, and fall into desuetude through the fact that they thus become inconvenient as a crossing-place.

But I am thinking of stepping-stones that throughout the ages have maintained their usefulness, and are likely to do so for ages to come, because they are situated near the head of a great sea-loch that penetrates far into the heart of the Forest of Harris, where improvements in transport are as physically impossible as they are unnecessary.

No great concourse of people treads over these stepping-stones. They are known only to the mountain stag that drinks by them at break of day, and to the occasional wayfarer among the Isles. But I feel certain that they are older than the broad, wide steps that lead up to the Palace of Persepolis!

It is here that the Isleswomen cross on their way to and from the shieling; it is here that they linger to talk of the things that interest them; it is here, too, that the herdmaid, wending her way homewards in the cool and quiet of the evening, puts down her milk-pails and rests for a while.

Then at the island stepping-stones the folks of the neighbouring crofts are wont to meet and hold open-air ceilidhs, at which the women either knit or spin.

But the stepping-stones can really be useful at times, particularly if they cross at a point where a mountain-stream rushes down to the sea, because the Isleswoman labours on washing-day where a plentiful supply of clean fresh water is readily available, and where she can conveniently light a peat fire to boil her pots. The heathery moor around her serves as a drying and bleaching ground, and adds a fragrance to her labour. It is at the stepping-stones, too, that the wool is thoroughly washed before being made into the famous Harris tweed.

But it is at nightfall that I would convey you to my Hebridean stepping-stones, for in the darkening, as you can imagine, each ripple of the stream is tinged with the golden glint of the moon’s rays; or, perhaps, a star - sprent heaven casts a reflection on the still and quiet pools like the twinkle of many lanterns. And far out into the western sea—towards Tir-nan-Og, the Land-of-the-ever-Young, and the land to which ‘Mary Rose’ was spirited away— the latest embers of the dying day are seen like the ‘Merry Dancers’ that skip and frolic ere their departure.

Around one on every side loom the great, majestic mountains of Harris—those mountains where dwell the real Celtic elves and heroes; and, perchance, while you saunter idly along, the stillness is pierced by the haunting cry of the oyster-catcher that hurries past, or by the vesper-hymn of a curlew on the far hillside.

O, that you could come with me to my stepping-stones in the Forest of Harris and hear the night-bird call!

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