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Sketch Book of the North
A Lochside Strath

Hardly more than twenty miles from the populous heart of Glasgow lies a parish of which no notice is to be found in the guide-books. No show-place is supposed to be there, and no tourist route runs through it, and so, though almost within hearing of the hum of a great city, the strip of country between mountain and loch remains all but as primitive in its rustic simplicity as it was a hundred years ago. A century ago, indeed, the district may have been better known than it is to-day, if notoriety be regarded as a distinction; for every corrie in the hillsides and every burnside hollow, where a little wooding afforded concealment, appears then to have been the scene of illicit distilling operations, and the raids of the excise and military in search of "sma’ stills" were both frequent and famous. With this exception the parish has been allowed to slumber on in happy obscurity since the days of the old clan feuds and the cattle-liftings of its neighbours, the wild Macgregors.

Nevertheless, unknown though it may be, and unfrequented by "the Sassenach" as in the days of Rob Roy himself, this quiet loch shore has a history stirring enough and memories of its own. Situated just on the old Highland line, the district must frequently at all periods have been the scene of warlike episodes. Regarding the tastes and pursuits of its ancient inhabitants there remains small doubt: Langside is only one of the spots at which have been chronicled the transactions of "the wild Macfarlane’s plaided clan." The memorial of a peaceful enough enterprise, it is true, remains crystallised in the name of the parish—the parish of St. Ronan’s Cell, as it reads translated. Midway, it is said, on his journey from Kilmarnock in Ayrshire to Kilmaronaig on Loch Etive, that famous missionary priest of the early Church thought it worth his while to tarry a space in the district in order to teach the rude inhabitants peace. But, to judge by the later events of history, the task would seem to have had but doubtful results. The prevailing names, at the present hour, of the people in the district—Galbraith, Macfarlane, McKean—recall the circumstances of less orderly times. In the stalwart farmers’ sons guiding the plough and feeding the cattle about the steadings there to-day, one sees the lineal descendants of clansmen who once held their own on the lochside by the primitive coir a glaive—the title of the strong arm. To keep these turbulent vassals in order the Earls of Lennox found it necessary to hold three castles in the neighbourhood. This loch shore it was which witnessed the failure of Argyle’s ill-advised attempt at rebellion in 1685. Here, barring his progress, beyond the streamlet in the clachan of the parish, the Protestant Earl, after his long march among the western lochs, first came within sight of the Royal troops. Here, that night, his camp fires were left burning to deceive his opponents; and it was on the hills behind that the insurgent party finally lost their way, broke up, and dispersed amid the bogs and the darkness.

A romantic story of that most romantic of episodes, the Rebellion of 1745, also belongs to the district. The most powerful family in the strath at that time, as, indeed, it had been for generations, was one of the name Buchanan. This family owned two mansions and estates at no great distance from each other, and from the larger of these they took their familiar title, Buchanans of the Ross. Whether the head of the house of that date had personally taken part in the Jacobite rising, or had incurred suspicion of Jacobite sympathies, need not be inquired into, but, upon the final overthrow of the Stuart cause in the spring of 1746, it can be understood that he, in common with others in his position, was willing enough to demonstrate his loyalty to the Government of King George. The opportunity for doing so which occurred to him, however, involved a breach of laws which above all others were held inviolably sacred by the Highlanders—the laws of hospitality. The tradition of the district has to be relied upon for the story. By this tradition it would appear that among the fugitives upon whose head a price was set, after Culloden, was the Marquis of Tullibardine, eldest son of the Duke of Athole. Being hard pressed by the search-parties which were everywhere scouring the country, this nobleman, it is said, betook himself to Buchanan of the Ross, with whom he had been upon terms of friendship, and besought temporary asylum. This favour Buchanan granted readily enough, and apparently in all good faith; but no sooner was the unfortunate refugee secure under his roof than he intimated the fact to the nearest military post. The natural consequence was an immediate visit of the soldiery and the arrest of the fugitive. Here the story becomes uncanny. The victim of misplaced confidence was being dragged across the threshold, when, it is said, recovering from surprise at the unheard-of treachery, his Highland rage and indignation reached the blazing point, and, turning upon his host, he hurled out the imprecation, "There’ll be Murrays on the braes of Athole when there’s ne’er a Buchanan at the Ross!" This was the last of the Marquis, so far as the district was concerned, but it was by no means, in the eyes of the dwellers there, the last of his "curse." Strangely enough, and whether in fulfilment of the fierce prophecy or not, only a few decades had passed when the race at the Ross, so far as the male line was concerned, actually died out, and, as if to complete the result, upon two occasions since then the estates have passed to other hands through female heirs.

In the early decades of the present century the master of the place was an Edinburgh advocate, a Mr. Hector Macdonald, and under his hospitable roof again and again was entertained no less a guest than the author of "Waverley." It is not difficult to understand, apart from the congenial society of his host, Scott’s attraction to the house. The natural beauty of the place, if nothing else, must have been a continual delight to one so keenly alive as he was to the interest of woodland and loch. The district around the house itself, and the mountains before him, besides, were teeming with memories—every glen the home of a romance. In Ross Priory, at any rate, he frequently stayed, and from the local legends and colour with which his residence supplied him he selected the materials for some of the most famous episodes in "Rob Roy" and "The Lady of the Lake." The use he made of it, indeed, has invested the whole district with a new interest. All the neighbourhood, strath and glen, glows with the reflected splendour of his thought, a "light that never was on sea or land"; and with the clear wind blowing fresh from mountain and loch something seems mingled of the wholesome mental health and vigour of "the Wizard’s" work. The place has changed but little since last he visited it, and the wanderer by the loch’s margin may, with the atmosphere of the past still about him, indulge in all the pleasures of reverie and recollection undisturbed. At the present day hardly a sound is to be heard there but the lapse of wavelets on the pebbly beach, and the sighing of the wind through the branches of the immemorial oaks. Occasionally, on a summer evening, when the air is still, the far-off beat of paddles comes faintly across the lake, as the steamer threads its passage among the islands. But for the rest of the time the call sometimes of the peacocks on the lawn before a storm, and, at night, the harsh cry of wild-fowl making flight for the marshes at the river’s mouth, form the only addition to the harmony of the wind and the waters.

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