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Sketch Book of the North
Loch Lomond Ice-Bound

There could hardly be a greater contrast than that between the fog-laden atmosphere of Queen-street Station, Glasgow, on a winter morning, and the frosty, bracing air of the country outside. Ever since the train emerged from the murky gloom of the long city tunnel into the open freedom of the frost-covered fields, the sense of exhilaration has been increasing. Sounds of laughter from the compartments before and behind bespeak the high spirits of the occupants; while at every roadside station along the Clyde valley fresh parties of pleasure-seekers, their cheeks red and eyes bright with the cold, have added to the freight, and swelled the merriment. The ice on Loch Lomond is "bearing," and the clash of skates is in the air.

Slowly at last the train, crammed by this time with skaters of both sexes and all ages, pants into the station at Balloch Pier. Before it has stopped, the doors of the carriages swing open, and an eager crowd swarms out upon the platform. It is impossible to descend the face of the stone pier, so all impatiently hasten back to the shore; there is a scramble over a wire fence, a stampede across a well-trodden stubble-field to the loch, and then the stream of enthusiasts disperses in all directions to don the necessary foot-gear. Different indeed is the scene now from what it was in summer! Then the clear water glistened and twinkled in the sunshine, the white sail of a boat slowly moved across the dark green of a distant island, and the mountains beyond rose, purple and grey, into a fleckless sky; while one of the little loch steamers at the pier blew clouds of steam noisily from its funnel, as it took on board its gay crowd of tourists. Now no lapse of water is to be heard upon the peebles, not a whisper moves among the frosted fretwork of the trees, the landscape everywhere is draped and lifeless, the loch itself is a level sheet of snow; and far up yonder, above the dark narrows where the waters are still unfrozen, Ben Lomond raises his shoulder, ermine-clad, into a darkling heaven. The twin steamers, too, lie prisoned in the ice, crusted white, and motionless as Lot’s wife.

If Nature herself, however, is crystallised into silence and stillness, there is both movement and sound of another sort about. Here at a run over the field to the ice comes a schoolboy, as eager as if the whole day were not before him, his wooden skates clashing together as he stumbles on the mole-hills. Further off a young man and a maiden are transacting in orthodox fashion the idyll of the ice, she seated on what has ordinarily been a mooring post and holding out a dainty boot, while he, kneeling devotedly in the snow, buckles on her skate. All along the shore, on every hillock that affords a seat, are groups of eager enthusiasts, busy with straps and buckles; and the shrill whirring sound of the ice tells that many of the new-corners are already moving over it.

But the last refractory screw-nut is adjusted: Mercury has buckled on his wings; and yonder, two miles away, lies Inch Murren. Each winter, when the loch is frozen, the first person who crosses on foot to the island receives a pair of deer antlers as a trophy; and often, before the ice is very strong, the efforts of some bold skater to win the horns are exciting enough. Since the trophy was won this year, [1882, I think.] however, thousands of pleasure-seekers have crossed the loch; venders of hot coffee and biscuits have established themselves on the shore of the island, under the ruined keep; and a rink of curlers has taken possession of the little bay. Where the deer came down to drink in summer, there mingles now the crackling roar of heavy stones hurled along the ice, with shrieks of vulgar laughter as some conspicuous skater comes to grief. The cries of the curlers themselves are loud and puzzling enough. At the near end of the rink the leader, a stout, grizzled countryman, shouts with many explanatory gestures to the player at the far end to "Tak’ a wick aff the fore stane, and lie in front to gaird." The person addressed, evidently a clergyman (for on the ice social distinctions are forgotten), sends his cheese-shaped block of granite "birling" towards his instructor, and, as it comes along, the cries of the players stationed on either side of the rink with brushes to "Soup her Up," and their vigorous efforts to smooth the path before it, are exciting as well as amusing, until the stone comes crashing in at last among the others round the mark.

The "roaring game" is perhaps more interesting to the player than to the onlooker, but the enthusiasm it excites and the exertion it requires are exactly suited to the season, and prepare its votaries to enjoy most heartily the traditional "curler’s dinner" of corned beef and greens.

One soon grows tired of the noise and stir around this oasis of the ice. Indeed, the laughter and the movement seem almost sacrilege in a place where so lately the autumn leaves dropped silently into the clear brown water below, where the plash of a trout made stillness felt, and the solitude was unbroken by the step of man. Away, then, from the coffee-stands and the curling-rink, from the shouting of the shinty-players, and the fragrance of intolerable cigarettes! The loch is frozen all the way to Luss; last night’s wind has swept every particle of snow from the surface; and to the little loch village, out of sight in the bay ahead, stretch seven miles of ice, smooth as black glass. Easily as thought the skates curl over the keen ice. The air is clear, cold, and bracing, with just a faint odour of the shore woods upon it; and curve after curve on the "outside edge" adds, every moment, to the exhilarating sense of power and the conscious poetry of motion. It is a new and strange sensation, this flight for miles over ice whose surface has till now known no invasion. One feels as an astronomer must, when exploring new depths of Heaven—

Or like stout Cortez, when, with eagle eyes,
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Lonely and far stretches the level realm of ice away northward to the dark narrows of the loch, where, under the steep dark sides of the mountains, the water is too deep to freeze. To terrible tragedy have the black depths under foot been witness. Here it was that Sir James Colquhoun, returning from a hunting party on one of the islands, in his boat, deep-laden with deer, was caught by a sudden squall on the loch and drowned, and it was long before the hidden depths gave up their prey. For the waters that lie motionless now in their icy prison are given to rise and rage at a moment’s warning; and many are the fair pleasure freights they have swallowed. Across these waters, too, in the days when might was right, and the Highlands lived by helping themselves, have not the boats of the Red Macgregor swept down by night from the narrows to pillage and burn? For the Rob Roy country lies opposite among the mountains.

But away! away! this is the joyous motion of a bird, and the miles fly under foot without effort. It is seven miles from Balloch; and the fatigue of the distance has been trifling. A point of land, covered with trees, runs out into the loch, and a mile beyond lies Luss. Another turn, and a little bay is discovered, most like, in all the world, a miniature scene from fairyland. The glassy ice sleeps on the crusted shore; birch and beech and hazel hang motionless around, a delicate tracery of snow; not a squirrel moves; the silence is perfect. The spot is under the spell of the Frost King. Not altogether, though, for a robin flutters down with a twitter from a shaken spray, and, proud of his scarlet breast, hops bravely out upon the ice.

At hand, however, appears the chimney of the inn, and—inspiring sight!—there is smoke rising from it. The air of the loch is appetizing, and, as it is now almost five o’clock, something more solid than a sandwich seems desirable. Unbuckle the skates, therefore, and, following the windings of that narrow lochside road among the trees, let us awaken the hospitality of mine host. It will be dark before we start for home; but the sky is clear, there will be a full moon, and, under the scintillations of the frosty stars, it will be a merry party that skims back over the ice by night to Balloch.

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