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Book of Scottish Story
Graysteel: a Traditionary Story of Caithness

In a beautiful valley in the highlands of Caithness, Les embosomed a small mountain tarn, called the Loch of Ranag. The hill of Bencheildl, which ascends abruptly from the water's edge, protects it on the north. On the south it is overlooked by a chain of lofty mountains, individually named Scarabine, Morven, and the Pap, which form a natural barrier betwixt Sutherland and Caithness. Morven, the highest in the range, is nearly two thousand feet above the level of the sea, and turns up conspicuously over the neighbouring summits, like a huge pyramid. The extensive wild lying between this magnificent chain of hills and Ranag, is clothed in the autumnal season with rich purple heather; and here the plover and the grouse, the denizens of the solitary waste, live unmolested, except by the murderous gun of the sportsman. Near the north edge of the loch to which we have just alluded, there is a small island, on which may be still seen the ruins of an old keep or castle. The last proprietor of this fortalice is said to have been a noted freebooter of the name of Graysteel, who kept the whole county in alarm by his predatory incursions from the Ord to Duncansbay Head, and. like Rob Roy and others of the same stamp, rigorously exacted "black mail." or protection money. Tradition also reports, that, besides being possessed of great bodily strength, he was an expert swordsman, and a person of such a jealous and tyrannical disposition, that none durst venture to hunt or shoot on his grounds, without being challenged to single combat ; and it may be added, that none whom he encountered trespassing in this way ever escaped alive out of his hands. It happened that one of the family of Rollo, while pursuing his sport in the direction, one day unfortunately encroached on the sacred property of the robber.

Being informed by some of his retainers that a stranger was hunting on the west side of the lake, Graysteel immediately sallied forth, and, running up towards the sportsman with menacing looks and gestures, gave him the accustomed challenge. Rollo saw he had no alternative but to give him combat, and being a high-spirited young man, he instantly drew his sword; and, although he defended himself for some time with great skill and courage, it is needless to say that he sank at last, mortally wounded, under the more powerful arm of his antagonist. The ruffian afterwards stripped the dead body of every thing that was of any value, and then threw it into the loch.

The account of this melancholy occurrence, as soon as it reached the family and relatives of the unfortunate youth, plunged them into the deepest distress; but none did it inspire with more poignant regret than the young laird of Durie, who was his bosom friend, and had just been affianced to his sister, a very beautiful and interesting girl of sixteen. The moment he heard of Rollo's tragical death, he determined to avenge it, although he knew he had little chance of surviving a personal encounter with such a desperado as Graysteel. Accordingly, having furnished himself with a good Highland broadsword, and without communicating his intention to any one, he set off for the residence of the freebooter. Nor was the route he had to take, any more than the occasion of the journey, agreeable. A trackless moor, of some miles in extent, lay between him and Ranag, so very bleak and barren, that, in the words of the poet,

The solitary bee
Flew there on restless wing,
Seeking in vain one blossom where to fix.

He had not gone far, however, when he was overtaken by a severe storm, which rendered it impossible for him to continue his journey. The wind, which blew at times with irresistible fury, dashed the rain in his face, mingled with hail, and howled like a maniac on the naked moor. Clouds of turbid vapour, issuing, as it were, from a vast furnace, hurried across the sky; and now and then the rolling of thunder, while it prognosticated a continuance of the storm, added not a little to its terrors. Driven by the wind, and battered by the rain, our traveller began anxiously to look around him for some place of shelter. At length, to his great joy, he espied, a few hundred yards distant, a small solitary cottage, situated on the edge of the moor. Thither he immediately directed his steps, and, on entering, found its sole occupant to be a poor aged widow, who lived upon the gratuitous bounty of the public. There was something, however, in her appearance, though bent down with years and infirmities, that spoke of better days. On a small stool beside her lay the Bible, which she seemed to have been just reading. She welcomed in the stranger with a look of much cheerfulness, and kindly offered him such accommodation for the night as her scanty means could afford. As the storm continued to rage with unabated violence, Durie gladly accepted the proffered hospitality; and, in the meantime, the venerable hostess did all in her power to make him comfortable, by putting an additional peal or two on the hearth, and furnishing him with something to eat. On examining the scanty furniture of the apartment, which was now more distinctly seen by the light of a blazing turf-fire, he observed, in one corner, a very uncommon-looking sword, with the appearance of which he was not a little struck. The hilt and blade were covered over with a variety of strange characters and fantastic devices, plainly indicating that it was of foreign manufacture, and belonged to a remote period. His curiosity was powerfully excited; and on asking the old woman how she came by such a magnificent weapon, she gave him the following particulars regarding it. The sword, which had originally belonged to a noble Saracen, was that of her deceased husband, who had been a volunteer in the regiment of Highlanders that had gone over to Holland under the command of Lord Reay. He had received it as a present from a Polish Jew, whose life he had saved in a moment of extreme danger. She, moreover, informed him that her husband, while on his deathbed, had strictly enjoined her not to sell or dispose of it in any way, but to preserve it as an heirloom of the family. On getting this account of the sword, Durie told the woman who he was, and the errand on which he was going, and begged of her to give him the use of it for a single day. After much entreaty, she at last agreed to give it, on the condition that it should be strictly returned.

The storm, which was short-lived in proportion to its violence, gradually died away towards morning ; and at the first peep of dawn our hero, who burned with impatience to measure weapons with the murderer of his friend, was up, and, with his enchanted sword firmly girt on his side, pursuing his solitary route across the moors. His spirits were now buoyant with hope; and he beheld with a feeling of sympathy the universal gladness which, after the late convulsion of its elements, was diffused over the face of nature. Already the "bird of the wilderness" sang blithely overhead, whilst the beams of a brilliant morning sun were beginning to dissipate the mists which lay thick and heavy upon the hills. Our traveller was not long in reaching the brow of . Benchieldt; and scarcely had he de-scended half way down the side fronting the castle, when he was met by Graysteel, who, as usual, challenged him for intruding on his grounds, and desired him to draw and defend himself. "Villain!" cried Durie, unsheathing his weapon, which flashed in his hand like the Scandinavian monarch's celebrated elfin swordó"villain! you wantonly slew my friend, and you shall this day atone for it with your heart's blood!"

The robber chief laughed scornfully at what he considered an empty bravado, and immediately made a thrust at his opponent, which the latter parried off with admirable dexterity. A desperate struggle now ensued. Graysteel fought with the fury of an enraged mastiff; but young Durie pressed upon him so hard with his never-failing blade, that he was obliged to give way, and at last received a mortal wound. After this, the hero of our tale went immediately home, and, having raised a body of stout followers, proceeded back to Ranag, took the castle, and nearly levelled it with the ground.

The denouement of our little story may be anticipated. After a decent period for mourning had elapsed, Durie led his beautiful bride to the hymeneal altar. Nor, in the midst of his happiness, did he forget his good friend, the old woman of the moor. The sword, which had proved so invaluable an auxiliary to him in the hour of need, he not only returned to her, but he took her under his protection, and kept her comfortable for the rest of her daysó

Joy seized her withered veins, and one bright gleam
Of setting life shone on her evening hours.
óJohn O'Groat Journal, 1836.

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