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Sketch Book of the North
An Island Picnic

Seven o’clock, and a glorious morning! sun is shining brightly on the coral-clustered rowan-tree outside, and the sky already is dazzling blue. A gentle air, too, just stirs the muslin curtain of the window left open overnight. With it comes in the scent of honey and the hum of bees at work in the garden below. No morning is this for laziness and a late breakfast. The impulse to be abroad is born in the sunshine; and a few minutes serve, after a hurried toilet, to snatch a towel, bound down stairs, and go tramping across the heather to the well-known pool.

A magnificent day indeed it promises to be. The wreathing night-mists have already risen from the Bens, and the loch below gleams like melted sapphire round sylvan island and far-set promontory. Everywhere the mountains are clad in purple, and from the moor-bloom spreading its springy carpet underfoot rises a fragrance that fills air and heart alike with delight. And the river pool—never was found more delightful bathing-place. Hidden deep between overhanging banks of heather in flower, with a clean brown ledge of rock to dive from, the depth of dark, clear water, like amber wine, sparkles with foambells, and the waterfall tosses from the rock above great showers of silver spray. No more invigorating plunge could be had. For a moment, as he breasts the brown depths, the bather feels something of the salmon’s exultant pride; and a dip like that sets one off high-hearted for the day.

Breakfast is a delight after such an appetiser; and fresh eggs and thin oatcakes, creamy porridge, golden marmalade, and all the wealth of Highland fare, disappear with startling despatch. There is no time to be wasted, either, for Archie was to have the boat ready at half-past nine, and there is a Highland half-mile of road between the house and the loch. Archie would by no means scruple about expressing his candid, and perhaps not very complimentary, opinion if the party chanced to be late; and there is a kind of unwritten law in the house that the old servant is to be humoured as much as possible. So already the ladies are concerning themselves with the making and packing of sandwiches, the due stowage of cold provender, jellies, fruit, milk, &c., and the apportioning to each his load. For the luncheon is to be, bonâ fide, a true Robinson Crusoe affair, no servants interfering; and each man must make himself useful.

"‘Deed, and ye’re no that late, efter a’ !" is Archie’s magnanimous reply to a deprecating remark of his mistress on reaching the lochside. The sunshine has evidently thawed his usual crustiness. "Aye mem," he replies further, "it’ll be a fine mornin’, a very fine mornin’; the hills is quite clear." After which deliverance he holds the boat steady alongside the little wooden landing-place, while provisions, kettles, &c., are stowed away in the bow; and his grey eyes twinkle with pleased humour under their shaggy brows when the heir of the house whispers some bit of sly badinage in his ear. "Aye he iss a fine lad that, a fine lad!" the old fellow will be saying to himself when the boat has been pushed off, and he watches from the pier the stalwart object of his remark bestirring himself to haul up the sail.

There is just enough breeze to curl the water gently; and when the snowy sheet is hoisted the boat bends away gracefully before it, leaving a swirling track of foam and eddies in her wake. When the morning is so fine as this there is little fear of danger; but on these Highland lochs one never can foretell the moment when a sudden gust may come down from some hillside corrie; and cool nerves and a steady hand are needed to control sheet and tiller. The man who loses his wits on an emergency, who cannot slacken out sail or bring the boat’s head up to the wind when a squall strikes her, is no fit pilot for these waters, and many a fair freight has gone to the bottom from such an one holding the helm. A strong and ready hand is in charge to-day, however, and "black care" is a thing impossible on board, as the little craft goes bounding out upon the bosom of the loch.

And fair as a romance is the scene—the clear lake winding away among the mountains, its surface broken only by bosky islets that float in their own reflections, while the sunny air is full of the awe and silence of the Bens.

The only spot in all the scene where silence reigns not is on board the little boat herself; and a continuous ripple of merry chat and joyous laughter floats away astern with her foam. From wild little islets passed by the way come breaths of pinewood and of heather in bloom, faint and delicious as the gales which drifted leeward of old from home-bound spice-argosies of the East. But the bright eyes on board are an inspiration themselves, independent of the sunshine and the pure and scented air; and the gladness of youth has broken forth—the contagion of happy and hopeful hearts. A sweet strain of melody floats once and again from the bow, where the singing throats are:

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing!

—the Skye Boat Song, a farewell to Prince Charlie, that old-time idol of the Highland hearts. A sad melody it is amid its sweetness, as are all the old Jacobite songs, with their breathing of hopes that were never to be fulfilled; and somehow, strains like that come to the ear with more real tenderness when sung as to-day by clear young voices among their native mountains.

Too soon, almost, the boat’s keel grates upon the island beach—the strip of silver shingle under the green-fringing trees. One would fain have prolonged especially the last part of the voyage, through the straits between the islands—straits like the miniature narrows of fairy land, between whose near and bosky shores the fragile shallop of Oberon and Titania might almost be expected to appear, flying a web of the woodland gossamers for its sail. But other attractions enough lie within the island greenwood. There are delicate groups of birches to be sketched by those who have brought block and colours. In the rivulet dells some of the young ladies have been promised the discovery of the much-sought hart’s-tongue fern. And for those who wish to recall to fancy the place’s romance of the past, there are the remains of a ruined monastery to explore. But the merriest party of all, perhaps, is that retained for the preparation of luncheon; and it is wonderful in how short a time those dainty-fingered damsels have the tasteful display of linen and crystal and silver spread on a grassy plot, the clumsy-handed males being retained, after the fashion of the knights-errant of old, for the opening of baskets and boxes, and the seeking of leaves wherewith to decorate fruit salvers, napkins, and the tablecloth’s centre.

A merry meal it is, too, which follows, al fresco—"all in the greenwood free"—with the contortions of carvers on their knees, the popping of corks, and continual little explosions of mysterious laughter from the various groups perched on cloaks and rugs wherever a seat-hold offers round the roots of some gnarled oak or ash. Never more gallant do young men appear than when attending the wants of their fair comrades amid such a scene; and thrice happy is he who has such an opportunity of laying siege to the heart that he desires.

Then away again over the island they go, in parties of two and three; and the flutter of a light dress is to be seen and the joyous ripple of merry laughter to be heard in many a nook and dell hitherto invaded only by the antlered and timid deer. Many a pleasant word is spoken and many a heart mayhap lightened of its care on such an afternoon; for the anxieties of civilised life come not to a sylvan retreat like this, and it is impossible to be aught but joyous-spirited when the surroundings are all of gladness.

But hark! they have caught a piper on the mainland, and have brought him over, and there is to be a dance on the grass. Yonder he goes, under the edge of the trees, pouring forth "hurricanes of Highland reels." A brave sound that, setting the blood on fire and making it impossible to sit still. And merrily go the twinkling feet on the greensward—"figures of eight," and Reel o’ Tulloch, Highland Schottische and Highland Fling. Wilder and faster grows the music, as the piper catches the spirit of the scene, and faster and faster the dancers foot it, with swirling tartans and flying skirts, till, at a final blast of the screaming chanter, the last partners throw themselves panting on the grass. Then a cup of tea makes a kindly refreshment and prevents heated throats from catching cold, and the boat has to be got ready, and the furniture of the feast stowed away. Afterwards, as the clear young moon begins to sparkle in the sky, the sail is once more set and the prow pointed for home. And if the wind fails, and some rowing has to be done, the exercise is good for keeping off the chill; and with song after song floating out across the water under the stars, a fitting end is made of a day without regrets.

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