Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

A Summer in Skye

THE Landlord’s house had been enveloped for several days in misty rain. It did not pour straight down, it did not patter on door and window, it had no action as it has in the south,—which made it all the more tormenting, for in action there is always some sort of exhilaration; in any case you have the notion that it will wear itself out soon, that "it is too hot work to last long, Hardy." An immense quantity of moisture was held in the atmosphere, and it descended in a soft, silent, imperceptible drizzle. It did not seem so very bad when you looked out on it from the window, but if you ventured on the gravel you were wet to the skin in a trice. White damp vapours lay low on the hills across the Loch; white damp vapours lay on the rising grounds where the sheep fed; white damp vapours hid the tops of the larches which sheltered the house from the south-west winds. Heaven was a wet blanket, and everything felt its influence. During the whole day Maida lay dreaming on the rug before the fire. The melancholy parrot moped in its cage, and at intervals—for the sake of variety merely—attacked the lump of white sugar between the wires, or suspended itself, head downwards, and eyed you askance. The horses stamped and pawed in their stables. The drenched peacock, which but a few days before was never weary displaying his starry tail, read one a lesson on the instability of human glory. The desolate sea lapping the weedy piers of Tyre; Napoleon at St Helena, his innumerable armies, the thunders of his cannon that made capitals pale, faded away, perished utterly like a last year’s dream, could not have been more impressive. It sat on the garden seat, a mere lump of draggled feathers, and as gray as a hedge-sparrow. The Landlord shut himself up in his own room, writing letters against the departure of the Indian mail. We read novels, and yawned, and made each other miserable with attempts at conversation—and still the clouds hung low on hill, and rising ground, and large plantation, like surcharged sponges; and still the drizzle came down mercilessly, noiselessly, until the world was sodden, and was rapidly becoming sponge-like too.

On the fourth day we went upstairs, threw ourselves on our beds dead beat, and fell asleep, till we were roused by the gong for dinner. Thrusting my face hurriedly into a basin of cold water, tidying dishevelled locks, I got down when the soup was being taken away, and was a good deal laughed at. Somehow the spirits of the party seemed lighter; the despotism of rain did not weigh so heavily on them; I felt almost sportively inclined myself; and just at the conclusion of dessert, when wine had circulated once or twice, there was a flush of rosy light on the panes. I went at once to the window, and there was the sun raying out great lances of splendour, and armies of fiery mists lifting from the hills and streaming upwards, glorious as seraph bands, or the transfigured spirits of martyrdom. The westward-ebbing loch was sleek gold, the wet trees twinkled, every puddle was sun-gilt. I looked at the barometer and saw the mercury rising like hope in a man’s breast when fortune smiles on him. The curtains were drawn back to let the red light fully into the room. "I like to see that fiery smoke on the hills," said the Landlord, "it’s always a sign of fine weather setting in. Now it won’t do for you fellows to lie up here like beached boats doing nothing. You must be off after tiffin to-morrow. I‘ll give you letters of introduction, a dog-cart and a man, and in a week or so come back and tell me what you think of Duntulm and Quirang. You must rough it you know. You mustn’t be afraid of a shower, or of getting your feet wetted in a bog?’

And so next day after tiffin the Landlord sent us off into the wilds, as a falconer might toss his hawk into the air.

The day was fine, the heat was tempered by a pleasant breeze, great white clouds swam in the blue void, and every now and again a shower came racing across our path with a sunbeam at its heel. We drove past the village, past the huts that ran along the top of the cultivated hill-side, dropped down on Skeabost, and the stream with the island of graves, and in due time reached the solitary school-house at the junction of the roads. Turning to the left here, we drove along the east shore of Loch Snizort, up stages of easy ascent, and then, some four or five miles on, left the Parliamentary Road and descended on Kingsburgh. I pointed out to Fellowes the ruins of the old house, spoke to him of the Prince, Flora Macdonald, Dr Johnson, and Boswell. After sauntering about there for a quarter of an hour, we walked down to the present house with its gables draped with ivies, and its pleasant doors and windows scented with roses and honey-suckles. To the gentleman who then occupied the farm we bore a letter from the Landlord, but, on inquiring, found that he had gone south on business a couple of days previously. This gentleman was a bachelor, the house was tenanted by servants only, and of course at Kingsburgh we could not remain. This was a disappointment; and as we walked back to the dog-cart, I told my companion of a pleasant ten days I had wasted there three or four summers since. I spoke to him of the Kingsburgh of that time—the kindly generous Christian Highland gentleman; of his open door and frank greeting, warm and hospitable; of his Christianity, as open and hospitable as his door; of the plenteous meats and drinks, and the household pieties which ever seemed to ask a blessing. I spoke of the pleasant family, so numerous, so varied; the grandmother, made prisoner to an easy-chair, yet never fretful, never morose; who, on the lip of ninety, wore the smile of twenty-five; who could look up from her Bible—with which she was familiar as with the way to her bedroom—to listen to the news of the moment, and to feel interested in it; who, with the light of the golden city in her eyes, could listen and enter into a girl’s trouble about her white frock and her first dance. There is nothing keeps so well as a good heart; nothing which time sweetens so to the core. I spoke of Kingsburgh himself, guileless, chivalrous, hospitable; of his sisters, one a widow, one a spinster; of his brave soldier nephew from India; of his pretty nieces, with their English voices and their English wild-rose bloom—who loved the heather and the mist, and the blue Loch with the gulls sweeping over it, but him most of all; of his sons, deep in the Gorilla Book, and to whose stories, and the history of whose adventures and exploits grandmamma’s ears were ever open. I spoke too of the guests that came and went during my stay—the soldier, the artist, the mysterious man, who, so far as any of us knew, had neither name, occupation, nor country, who was without parents and antecedents—who was himself alone; of the games of croquet on the sunny lawn, of the picnics and excursions, of the books read in the cool twilight of the moss-house, of the smoking parliament held in the stables on rainy days, of the quiet cigar in the open air before going to bed. ‘Twas the pleasantest fortnight I ever remember to have spent; and before I had finished telling my companion all about it we had taken our seats in the dog-cart, and were pretty well advanced on the way to Uig.

Uig is distant from Kingsburgh about five miles; the road is high above the sea, and as you drive along you behold the northern headlands of Skye. the wide blue Minch, and Harris, rising like a cloud on the horizon; and if the day is finer you will enjoy the commerce of sea and sky, the innumerable tints thrown by the clouds on the watery mirror, the mat of glittering light spread beneath the sun, the gray lines of showers on the distant promontories, the tracks of air currents on the mobile element between. The clouds pass from shape to shape—what resembles a dragon one moment resembles something else the next; the promontory which was obscure ten minutes ago is now yellow-green in sunlight; the watery pavement is tesselated with hues, but with hues that continually shift and change. In the vast outlook there is utter silence, but no rest. What with swimming vapour, passing Proteus-like from form to form—obscure showers that run— vagrant impulses of wind — sunbeams that gild and die in gilding—the vast impressionable mimetic floor outspread,—the sight you behold when you toil up the steep road from Kingsburgh to Uig is full of motion. There is no rest in nature, they say; and the clouds are changing like opinions and kingdoms, and the bodies and souls of men. Matter is a stream that flows, a fire that burns, By a cunninger chemistry than ours, the atoms that composed the body of Adam could be arrested somewhere yet.

Just when you have reached the highest part of the road you come in view of the Bay of Uig. You are high above it as you drive or walk along, the ground is equally high on the other side, and about the distance of a mile inland, on a great sandy beach, the tide is rolling in long white lines that chase each other. On the deep water outside the tidal lines a yacht is rocking; there is a mansion-house with a flag-staff on the shore, and at the top of the bay are several houses, a church, and a school-house, built of comfortable stone and lime. When the Minch is angry outside, washing the headlands with spray, Uig is the refuge which the fisherman and the coaster seek. When once they have entered its rocky portals they are safe. The road now descends towards the shore; there is an inn midway, low-roofed, dimly lighted, covered with thatch—on the whole perhaps the most unpromising edifice in the neighbourhood. Here we pulled up. Already we had driven some twenty-five miles, and as we wished to push on to Duntulm that evening, we were anxious to procure a fresh horse. The keen air had whetted our appetites, and we were eager for dinner, or what substitute for dinner could be provided. Our driver unharnessed the horse, and we entered a little room, spotlessly clean, however, and knocked with our knuckles on the deal table. When the red-haired handmaiden entered, we discovered that the Dig bill of fare consisted of bread and butter, cheese, whisky, milk, and hard-boiled eggs—and a very satisfactory bill of fare we considered it too. There is no such condiment as hunger honourably earned by exercise in the open air. When the viands were placed before us we attacked them manfully. The bread and butter disappeared, the hard-boiled eggs disappeared, we flinched not before the slices of goats’-milk cheese; then we made equal division of the whisky, poured it into bowls of milk, and drank with relish. While in the middle of the feast the landlord entered—he wore the kilt, the only person almost whom I had seen wearing it in my sojourn in the island—to make arrangements relative to the fresh horse. He admitted that he possessed an animal, but as he possessed a gig and eke a driver, it was his opinion that the three should go together. To this we objected, stating that as we already had a vehicle and a driver, and as they were in no wise tired, such a change as he suggested would be needless. We told him also that we meant to remain at Duntulm for one night only, and that by noon of the following day we would be back at his hostelry with his horse. The landlord seemed somewhat moved by our representations, and just when victory was hanging in the balance the brilliant idea struck my companion that he should be bribed with his own whisky. At the rap on the deal table the red-haired wench appeared, the order was given, and in a trice a jorum of mountain dew was produced. This decided matters, the landlord laid down the arms of argument, and after we had solemnly drunk each other’s health he went out for the fresh horse, and in a quarter of an hour we were all right, and slowly descending the steep hill-road to Uig.

We drove through the village, where a good deal of building seemed going on, and then began to climb the hill-road that rose beyond it. Along the hill-side this road zig-zagged in such a curious manner, ran in such terraces and parallel lines, that the dog-cart immediately beneath you, and into which you could almost chuck a biscuit—the one machine heading east the other west—would take ten minutes before it reached the point to which you had obtained. At last we reached the top of the wavy ascent, passed through a mile or two of moory wilderness, in which we met a long string of women bringing home creels of peats, and then in the early sunset descended the long hill-side which led to Kilmuir. Driving along we had Mugstot pointed out to us—a plain white dwelling on our left in which Macdonald lived after he had vacated Duntulm, and while Armadale was yet building. About this place, too, the Parliamentary Road stopped. No longer could we drive along smoothly as on an English turnpike. The pathway now was narrow and stony, and the dog-cart bumped and jolted in a most distressing manner. During the last hour, too, the scenery had changed its character. We were no longer descending a hill-side on which the afternoon sun shone pleasantly. Our path still lay along the sea, but above us were high cliffs with great boulders lying at their feet; beneath us, and sloping down to the sea level, boulders lay piled on each other, and against these the making tide seethed and fretted. The sun was setting on the Minch, and the irregular purple outline of Harris was distinctly visible on the horizon. For some time back we had seen no house, nor had our path been crossed by a single human being. The solitariness and desolation of the scenery affected one. Everything around was unfamiliar and portentous. The road on which we drove was like a road in the " Faery Queen;" along which a knight, the sunset dancing on his armour, might prick in search of perilous adventure. The chin of the sun now rested on the Minch, the overhanging cliffs were rosy, and the rocky road began to seem interminable. At last there was a sudden turn, and there, on a little promontory, with shattered wall and loophole against the red light, stood Duntuim—the castle of all others that I most wished to see. Going down the rocky road, the uncomfortable idea crept into our minds that Duntulm, to whom we bore a letter of introduction from the Landlord, might—like the owner of Kingsburgh—have gone to the south on business. We could hardly have returned to Uig that night, and this thought made yet more rigid the wall of rosy cliff above us, and yet more dreary the seethe of the Minch amongst the broken boulders beneath. As suspense was worse than certainty, we urged on the Uig horse, and in a short time, with the broken castle behind us, drew up at the house. Duntulm had seen us coming, and when we alighted he was at the door, his face hospitable as a fire in winter time, and his outstretched hand the best evidence of good wishes. In a moment the bald red cliffs and the homeless seething of the Minch among the broken stones faded out of my memory. We mentioned our names, and proffered the letter of introduction. "There is no need;’ said he, as he thrust the epistle into his pocket, "civility before ceremony. Having come you are of course my guests. Come in. The letter will tell me who you are soon enough." And so we were carried into the little parlour till our bedrooms were got ready, and then we went up-stairs, washed our hands and faces, changed our clothes, and came down for tea. When we entered the parlour, the tea-urn was hissing on the table, and with our host sat a photographer—bearded as all artists at the present day are—who had been engaged during the afternoon on Flora Macdonald’s grave.

When tea was over we were carried into another room where were materials placed for the brewing of punch. Through the window I beheld spectral castle, the sea on which the light was dying, the purple fringe of Harris on the horizon. And seated there, in the remotest corner of Skye, amongst people whom I had never before seen, girt by walls of cliffs and the sounding sea, in a region, too, in which there was no proper night, I confess to have been conscious of a pleasant feeling of strangeness, of removal from all customary conditions of thought and locality, which I like at times to recall and enjoy over again. Into this feeling the strange country through which I had that day driven, the strange room in which I sat, the strange faces surrounding me, the strange talk, all entered; yet I am almost certain that it was heightened to no inconsiderable extent by the peculiar spirit bottle on the table. This bottle was pale green in colour, was composed of two hollow hemispheres like a sand-glass, the mouthpiece surmounting the upper hemisphere of course; and from the upper hemisphere to the lower sprang four hollow arms, through which the liquor coursed, giving the bottle a curiously square appearance. I had never seen such a bottle before, and I suppose till I go back to Duntulm I am not likely to see its like. Its shape was peculiar, and that peculiarity dove-tailed into the peculiarity of everything else. We sat there till the light had died out on the sea, and the cloud had come down on Harris, and then the candles were brought in.

But the broken tower of Duntulm still abode in my memory, and I began to make inquiries concerning it. I was told that it was long the seat of the Macdonalds, but that after the family had been driven out of it by the ghost of Donald Gorm, they removed to Mugstot. "Donald Gorm!" I said; "were they driven out by the restless spirit of the Donald who flouted Macleod at his own table at Dunvegan-who, when he was asked to show his dirk, held it up in the torch-light in the face of Macleod and of his gentlemen, with the exclamation, ‘Here it is, Macleod of Dunvegan, and in the best hand for pushing it home in the four and twenty islands of the Hebrides?" "They were driven away by the spirit of the same Donald," said our host "That chieftain had been stricken by a lingering yet mortal illness, and removed to Edinburgh, and placed himself under the care of the leeches there. His body lay on a sick-bed in Edinburgh, but his spirit roamed about the passages and galleries of the castle. The people heard the noises, and the slamming of doors, and the waving of tartans on the staircases, and did not know that it was the spirit of their sick master that troubled them. It was found out, however. The servants were frightened out of their wits by the unearthly voices, and the sounds of weeping, the waving of shadowy tartans, and the wringing of shadowy hands, and declared that they would no longer abide in the castle. At last a young man, from Kilmuir over there, said that if they would provide him with a sword and a Bible, and plenty to eat and drink, he would sit up in the hall all night and speak to the apparition. His offer was accepted, and he sat down to supper in the great hall with his sword drawn and his Bible open on the table before him. At midnight he heard doors open and close, and the sound of footsteps on the stairs, and before he knew where he was there was Donald Gorm, dressed in tartan as if for feast or battle, standing on the floor and looking at him. ‘What do you want with me, Donald?’ said the young man. ‘I was in Edinburgh last night; said the spirit, ‘and I am in my own castle to-night. Don’t be afraid, man; there is more force in the little pebble which you chuck away from you with your finger and thumb than there is in my entire body of strength. Tell Donald Gorm Og—("Donald’s son, you know," interpolated the photographer)—tell Donald Gorm Og to stand up for the right against might, to be generous to the multitude, to have a charitable hand stretched out to the poor. Woe’s me! woe’s me! I have spoken to a mortal, and must leave the castle to-night,’ and so the ghost of Donald vanished, and the young man was left sitting in the hall alone. Donald died in Edinburgh and was buried there; but after his death, as during his life, his spirit walked about here until the family was compelled to leave. It was a fine place once, but it has been crumbling away year by year, and is now broken and hollow like a witch’s tooth. The story I have told you is devoutly believed by all the fishermen, herdsmen, and milkmaids in the neighbourhood. I think Mr Maciver, the clergyman at Kilmuir, is the only person in the neighbourhood who has no faith in it." This ghost story the photographer capped by another, and when that was finished we went to bed.

Next morning we went out to inspect the old castle, and found it a mere shell. Compared with its appearance the night before, when it stood in relief against the red sky, it was strangely unimpressive; a fragment of a tower and a portion of flanking wall stood erect; there were traces of building down on the slope near the sea, but all the rest was a mere rubble of fallen masonry. It had been despoiled in every way; the elements had worn and battered it, the people of the district had for years back made it a quarry, and built out of it dwellings, out-houses, and dikes—making the past serve the purposes of the present. Sheep destined for the London market were cropping the herbage around its base—suggesting curious comparisons, and bringing into keener contrast antiquity and to-day. While we were loitering about the ruins the photographer came up, and under his guidance we went to visit Kilmuir churchyard, in which Flora Macdonald rests. We went along the stony road down which we had driven the night previously—the cliffs lately so rosy, gray enough now, and the seethe of the fresh sea amongst the boulders and shingle beneath rather exhilarating than otherwise. After a walk of about a couple of miles we left the road, climbed up a grassy ascent, and found the churchyard there, enclosed by a low stone wall. Everything was in hideous disrepair. The gate was open, the tomb-stones were broken and defaced, and above the grave of the heroine nettles were growing more luxuriously than any crop I had yet had the good fortune to behold in the island. Skye has only one historical grave to dress—and she leaves it so. On expressing our surprise to the photographer, he told us that a London sculptor passing that way, and whose heart burned within him at the sight, had offered at several dinner-tables in the district to execute a bronze medallion of the famous lady, gratis, provided his guests would undertake to have it properly placed, and to a have fitting inscription carved upon the pedestal. "The proposal was made, I know," said the photographer, "for the sculptor told me about it himself. His proposal has not been taken up, nor is it likely to be taken up now. The country which treats the grave of a heroine after that fashion is not worthy to have a heroine. Still,"—he went eyeing the place critically, with his head a little to one side—"it makes a picturesque photograph as it stands—perhaps better than if it were neat and tidy." We plucked a nettle from the grave and then returned to Duntulm to breakfast.

Shortly after breakfast our dog-cart was at the door, and followed by Duntulm and the photographer in a similar machine, we were on our way to Quirang. A drive of a couple of hours brought us to the base of the singular mountain. Tilting our vehicles, leaving the horses to roam about picking the short grass, and carrying with us materials for luncheon on the crest, we began the ascent. The day was fine, the sky cloudless, and in an hour we were toiling past the rocky spire of the needle, and in fifteen minutes thereafter, we reached the flat green plateau on the top. Here we lunched and sang songs, and made mock heroic speeches in proposing each other’s health. I had ascended the Quirang before in rain, and wind, and vapour, and could hardly recognise it now under the different atmospherical conditions. Then every stone was slippery, every runnel a torrent, the top of the needle lost in the flying mist, everything looking spectral, weird, and abnormal. On the present occasion, we saw it in fair sunlight; and what the basalt columns, the shattered precipices, the projecting spiry rocks lost in terror they gained in beauty. Reclining on the soft green grass—strange to find grass so girdled by fantastic crags—we had, through fissures and the rents of ancient earthquake, the loveliest peeps of the map-like under world swathed in faint sea azure. An hour, perhaps, we lay there; and then began the long descent. When we reached the dog-carts we exchanged a parting cup, and then Duntulm and the photographer returned home, and we hied on to Uig.

Arriving at Uig we dined—the bill of fare identical with that on the preceding day; the hardboiled eggs, only a shade harder boiled perhaps; and then having settled with the kilted landlord— the charge wondrously moderate—we got out our own horse, and with the setting sun making splendid the Minch behind us, we started for Portree. It was eleven P.M. before we reached the little town, the moon was shining clearly, a stray candle or two twinkling in the houses, and when we reached the hotel door the building was lighted up—it had been a fair day, the prices for cattle were good, and over whisky punch farmer and drover were fraternising.

Next morning, in the soft sky was the wild outline of the Cuchullins, with which we were again to make acquaintance. Somehow these hills never weary, you never become familiar with them, intimacy can no more stale them than it could the beauty of Cleopatra. From the hotel door I regarded them with as much interest as when, from the deck of the steamer off Ardnamurchan ten years ago, I first beheld them with their clouds on the horizon. While at breakfast in the public room, farmer and drover dropped in—the more fierythroated drinking pale ale instead of tea. After breakfast we were again in the dog-cart driving leisurely toward Sligachan—the wonderful mountains beyond gradually losing tenderness of morning hue and growing worn and hoary, standing with sharper edges against the light, becoming rough with rocky knob and buttress, and grayly wrinkled with ravines. When we reached the inn we found it full of company, bells continually jangling, half a dozen machines at the door, and a party of gentlemen in knickerbockers starting with rods and fishing-baskets. Here we returned the dogcart to the landlord, and began to address ourselves to the desolate glen stretching between the inn and Camasunary.

In Glen Sligachan, although you lose sight of the Cuchullins proper, you are surrounded by their outlying and far-radiating spurs. The glen is some eight miles in length, and is wild and desolate beyond conception. Walking along, too, the reticulations of the hills are picked out with that pale greenish tint, which I had noted as characteristic of the hills seen from Lord Macdonald’s deer forest, and which gives one the idea of the overflow of chemical fluids, of metallic corrosions and discolorations. There is no proper path, and you walk in the loose debris of torrents; and in Glen Sligachan, as in many other parts of Skye, the scenery curiously repels you, and drives you in on yourself. You have a quickened sense of your own individuality. The enormous bulks, their gradual recedings to invisible crests, their utter movelessness, their austere silence, daunt you. You are conscious of their presence, and you hardly care to speak lest you be overheard. You can’t laugh. You would not crack a joke for the world. Glen Sligachan would be the place to do a little bit of self-examination in. There you would have a sense of your own meannesses, selfishnesses, paltry evasions of truth and duty, and find out what a shabby fellow you at heart are—and looking up to your silent father-confessors, you would find no mercy in their grim faces. I do not know what effect mountains have on the people who live habitually amongst them, but the stranger they make serious and grave at heart. Through this glen we trudged silently enough, and when two-thirds of the distance had been accomplished, it was with a feeling of relief that a lake was descried ahead. The sight of anything mobile, of an element that could glitter and dimple and dance, took away from the sense of the stony eternities, gray and wrinkled as with the traces of long-forgotten passion, listening for ever, dumb for ever. After rounding the lake, which plashed merrily on its margin, and clambering over a long waste of boulder, we saw as we ascended a low flank of Blaavin, the Bay of Camasunary, the house, and the very boat which M’Ian had borrowed on the day we went to visit Loch Coruisk, below us. The tobacco-less man was nowhere visible, and I marvelled whether his messenger had yet returned from Broadford.

When we got to the top of the hill we had to descend the slope to Kilmaree; and as on my return from Loch Coruisk I had come down pleasantly under the guidance of M’Ian, I fancied, naturally enough, that I could act as guide on the present occasion. But there is a knack in descending hills as there is in everything else. First of all, I lost the narrow footpath at the top; then as we were bound to reach Loch Eishart, and as Loch Eishart lay below us distinctly visible, I led directly for it; but somehow we were getting continually on the wrong bank of a pestilent stream, which, through chasm and ravine, found its way to the sea by apparently the most circuitous of courses. This stream we forded a dozen times at the least, and sometimes in imminent danger of a ducking. It was now late in the afternoon, and the weather had changed. The tops of the hills began to be lost in mist, and long lines of sea fog to creep along the lower grounds. There was at intervals a slow drizzle of rain. Fetching a cunning circuit, as I supposed, we found the inevitable stream again in our front, and got across it with difficulty—happily for the last time. After we had proceeded about a hundred yards we came upon the lost pathway, and in fifteen minutes thereafter we were standing upon the shore of the Loch watching the flying scud of Atlantic mist, and the green waves rolling underneath with their white caps on.

The question now arose—By what means could we reach Mr M’Ian? There was no ferry at Kilmaree, but sundry boats were drawn up on the shore, and a couple were bobbing on the restless water at the stony pier. There were the boats certainly enough, but where were the boatmen? in the neighbourhood men could surely be obtained who, for a consideration, would take us across. We directed our steps to the lodge at Kilmaree, which seemed untenanted, and after some little trouble penetrated into the region of the offices and out-houses. Here we found a couple of men chopping sticks, and to them my companion—who as a man of business and learned in the law was the spokesman on such occasions—addressed himself. "You want to go over to Mr M’Ian’s tonight ?" said the elder, desisting from his task, and standing up with his axe in his hand. "Yes, we are particularly anxious to get across. Can you take us ?" "I don’t know; you see we are no ferrymen, an’ if we take you across we must leave our work." "Of course you must; but we‘ll pay you for your trouble." Here the two men exchanged a sentence or two of Gaelic, and then the elder wood-chopper asked, "Do you know Mr M’Ian ?" "Oh, yes, we know him very well." "Does he expect you this night?" "No; but we are anxious to see him, and he will be glad to see us." "I‘m no sure we can take you across," said the man hesitatingly; "you see the master is from home, an’ the wind is rising, an’ we‘re no ferrymen, an’ we‘ll need to borrow a boat, an’ "—here he hesitated still more—" it would cost you something." "Of course it will. What will you expect." "Wad you think ten shillings too much?" "No, we‘ll give you ten shillings," said Fellowes, clinching the bargain. "And," said I, coming in like a swift charge of lancers on a half-disorganised battalion, and making victory complete, "we’ll give you a glass of spirits at the house, too, when you get across." The men then threw down their axes, put on their jackets, which hung on nails on the walls, and talking busily in Gaelic, led the way to the little stony pier where the boats were moored.

"There ‘s a gale rising," said one of the men, as he pulled in a boat to the pier by a rope, "an’ it’ll no be easy taking you across, and still harder to get back ourselves." As, however, to this expression of opinion we made no response, the men busied themselves with getting the boat to rights, testing the rollock pins, rolling in stones for ballast, examining the sail and ropes, and such like matters. In a short time we took our seats, and then the men pulled slowly out to sea in the opposite direction from Mr M’Ian’s house, in order to catch the wind, which was blowing freshly inland. The course of the boat was then changed, the oars shipped, the sail shaken out, and away we went through the green seas with long lurches, the foam gathering up high at the bows, hissing along the sides, and forming a long white wake behind. The elder man sat with the rope of the sail in his hand, and taking a shrewd squint at the weather at intervals. When not so engaged, he was disposed to be talkative. "He‘s a fine gentleman, Mr M’Ian, a vera fine gentleman; an’ vera good to the poor." "I understand," I said, "that he is the most generous of mankind." "He is that; he never lets a poor man go past his door without a meal. Maybe, sir, ye‘ll be a friend o’ his?" "Yes, both of us are friends of his, and friends of his son’s too." "Maybe ye‘ll be a relation of his ?—he has many relations in the south country." "No," I said, "no relation, only a friend. Do you smoke ?" "Oh, yes, but I have forgot my spleuchan." "I can provide you with tobacco," I said, and so when his pipe was lighted he became silent.

We were now two-thirds across, and the white watery mists hung low on the familiar coast as we approached. Gradually the well-known objects became defined in the evening light—the clumps of birch-wood, the huts seated on the shore, the house, the cliffs behind on which the clouds lay half-way down. When we drew near the stony quay we noticed that we were the subjects of considerable speculation. It was but seldom that a boat stood across from the Strathaird coast, and by our glass we could see a group of the men-servants standing at the corner of the black kitchen watching our movements, and Mr M’Ian himself coming out with his telescope. When the keel grated on the pebbles we got out "Now, my men," said Fellowes, "come up to the house and have your promised glass of spirits!" To our astonishment the men declined; they could not wait, they were going back immediately. "But you must come," said my companion, who acted as purser, "for before I can pay you I must get Mr M’Ian to change me a sovereign. Come along." We climbed up to the house, and were welcomed by Mr M’Ian, father and son, in the ivy-covered porch. "By the way," said Fellowes, "I wish you to change me a sovereign, as we have ten shillings to pay these men." "Did the scoundrels charge that sum for bringing you over? It‘s extortion; five shillings is quite enough. Let me go and speak to them." "But," remonstrated Fellowes, "we don’t consider the charge immoderate: we made the bargain with them: and so anxious were we to be here that we would willingly have paid them double." "Don’t talk to me," cried M’Ian, as he put on his hat and seized his stick. "Why, you rascals, did you charge these gentlemen ten shillings for taking them across the Loch? You know you are well enough paid if you get half." "Sir," said the elder man respectfully, while both touched their bonnets, "we‘ll just take what you please; just anything you like, Mr M’Ian." "Don’t you see the mischief you do and the discredit you bring on the country by this kind of thing? Every summer the big lying blackguard Times is crammed with complaints of tourists who have been cheated by you and the like of you—although I don’t believe half the stories. These fools "—here the old gentleman made reference to us by a rapid backward chuck of his thumb—" may go home to the south and write to the newspapers about you." "The bargain the gentlemen made was ten shillings," said the man, "but if you think we have asked too much we‘ll take six. But it’s for your sake we‘ll take it, not for theirs." "They’re honest fellows these;" cried the old gentleman, as he poured the coins into the palm of the elder man; "Alick, bring them out a dram." The dram, prefaced by a word or two of Gaelic, to which Mr M’Ian nodded, was duly swallowed, and the men, touching their bonnets, descended to their boat. The old gentleman led the way into the house, and we had no sooner reached the porch than my companion remembered that he had left something, and ran down to fetch it. He returned in a little while, and in the course of the evening he gave me to understand that he had seen the boatmen, and fully implemented his promise.

The wind had changed during the night, and next morning broke forth gloriously—not a speck of vapour on the Cuchullins; the long stretch of Strathaird wonderfully distinct; the Loch bright in sunlight. When we got down to breakfast we found Mr M’Ian alone. His son, he said, had been on the hill since four o’clock in the morning gathering the lambs together, and that about noon he and his assistants would be branding them at the fank. When breakfast was over,—Fellowes, having letters to write, remained in-doors,—I and the old gentleman went out. We went up the glen, and as we drew near the fank we saw a number of men standing about, their plaids thrown on the turfen walls, with sheep-dogs couched thereupon; a thick column of peat-smoke rising up, smelt easily at the distance of half a mile; no sheep were visible, but the air was filled with bleatings,—undulating with the clear plaintive trebles of innumerable ewes, and the hoarser baa of tups. When we arrived we found the narrow chambers and cornpartments at one end of the fank crowded with lambs, so closely wedged together that they could hardly move, and between these chambers and compartments temporary barriers erected, so that no animal could pass from one to the other. The shepherds must have had severe work of it that morning. It was as yet only eleven o’clock, and since early dawn they and their dogs had coursed over an area of ten miles, sweeping every hill face, visiting every glen, and driving down rills of sheep toward this central spot. Having got the animals down, the business of assortment began. The most perfect ewes—destined to be the mothers of the next brood of lambs on the farm —were placed in one chamber; the second best, whose fate it was to be sold at Inverness, were placed in a congenes of compartments, the one opening into the other; the inferior qualities—shots, as they are technically called—occupied a place by themselves: these also to be sold at Inverness, but at lower prices than the others. The fank is a large square enclosure; the compartments into which the bleating flocks were huddled occupied about one half of the walled-in space, the remainder being perfectly vacant. One of the compartments opened into this space, but a temporary barrier prevented all egress. Just at the mouth of this barrier we could see the white ashes and the dull orange glow of the peat-fire in which some half-dozen branding irons were heating. When everything was prepared two or three men entered into this open space. One took his seat on a large smooth stone by the side of the peat-fire, a second vaulted into the struggling mass of heads and fleeces, a third opened the barrier slightly, lugged out a struggling lamb by the horns, and consigned it to the care of the man seated on the smooth stone. This worthy got the animal dexterously between his legs, so that it was unable to struggle, laid its head down on his thigh, seized from the orange glow of the smouldering peat-fire one of the red-hot heating irons, and with a hiss, and a slight curl of smoke, drew it in a diagonal direction across its nose. Before the animal was sufficiently branded the iron had to be applied twice or thrice. It was then released, and trotted bleating into the open space, perhaps making a curious bound on the way as if in bravado, or shaking its head hurriedly as if snuff had been thrown into its eyes. All day this branding goes on. The peat-fire is replenished when needed; another man takes his seat on the smooth stone; by two o’clock a string of women bring up dinner from the house, and all the while, young M’Ian sits on the turfen wall, note-book in hand, setting down the number of the lambs and their respective qualities. Every farmer has his own peculiar brand, and by it he can identify a member of his stock if it should go astray. The brand is to the farmer what a trade mark is to a manufacturer. These brands are familiar to the drovers even as the brands of wine and cigars are familiar to the connoisseurs in these articles. The operation looks a cruel one, but it is not perfectly clear that the sheep suffer much under it. While under the iron they are perfectly quiet,—they neither bleat nor struggle, and when they get off they make no sign of discomfort save the high bound or the restless shake of the head already mentioned—if indeed these are signs of discomfort—a conclusion which no sheep farmer will in anywise allow. In a minute or so they are cropping herbage in the open space of the fank, or if the day is warm, lying down in the cool shadows of the walls as composedly as if nothing had happened.

Leaning against the fank walls we looked on for about an hour, by which time a couple of hundred lambs had been branded, and then we went up the glen to inspect a mare and foal of which Mr M’Ian was specially proud. Returning in the direction of the house, the old gentleman pointed out what trenching had been done, what walls had been built in my absence, and showed me on the other side of the stream what brushwood he meant to clear next spring for potatoes, what fields he would give to the people for their crops, what fields he would reserve for his own use. Flowing on in this way with scheme and petty detail of farm work, he suddenly turned round on me with a queer look in his face. "Isn’t it odd that a fellow like me, standing on the brink of the grave, should go pottering about day after day thinking of turnips and oats, tups and ewes, cows and foals? The chances are that the oats I sow I shall never live to reap—that I shall be gone before the blossom comes on my potatoes."

The strangeness of it had often struck me before, but I said nothing.

"I suppose it is best that I should take an interest in these things," went on the old gentleman. "Death is so near me that I can hear him as if it were through a crazy partition. I know he is there. I can hear him moving about continually. My interest in the farm is the partition that divides us. If it were away I should be with him face to face."

Mr M’Ian was perhaps the oldest man in the island, and he did not dislike talking about his advanced age. A man at fifty-five, perhaps, wishes to be considered younger than he really is. The man above ninety has outlived that vanity. He is usually as proud of the years he has numbered as the commander of the battles he has won, or the millionaire of the wealth he has acquired. In respect of his great age, such a one is singular amongst his fellows. After a little pause Mr M’Ian flowed on:

"I remember very well the night the century came in. My regiment was then lying in the town of Galway in Ireland. We were all at supper that evening at the quarters of Major M’Manus, our commanding officer. Very merry we were, singing songs and toasting the belles we knew. Well, when twelve o’clock struck the major rose and proposed in a flowing bowl the health of the stranger—the nineteenth century—coupled with the hope that it would be a better century than the other. I‘m not sure that it has been a whit better, so far at least as it has gone. For thirty years I have been the sole survivor of that merry table."

"Sixty-five years is a long time to look back, Mr M’Ian."

The old gentleman walked on laughing to himself. "What fools men are—doctors especially. I was very ill shortly after with a liver complaint, and was sent to Edinburgh to consult the great doctors and professors there. They told me I was dying; that I had not many months to live. The fools! they are dead, their sons are dead, and here I am, able to go about yet. I suppose they thought that I would take their stuffs."

By this time we had reached the house. Mr M’Ian left his white hat and staff in the porch: he then went to the cupboard and took out a small spirit case in which he kept bitters cunningly compounded. He gave Fellowes and myself—Fellowes had finished his letters by this time—a tiny glassful, took the same amount himself. We then all went out and sat down on a rocky knoll near the house which looked seaward, and talked about Sir John Moore and Wellington till dinner time.

We stayed with the M’Ians for a couple of days, and on the third we drove over to Ardvasar to catch the steamer there that afternoon on its way to Portree.

As we drove slowly up the glen, my companion said, "That old gentleman is to my mind worth Blaavin, Coruisk, Glen Sligachan, and all the rest of it. In his own way he is just as picturesque and strange as they are. When he goes, the island will have lost one of its peculiar charms."

"He is a thorough Islesman," said I; "and for him Blaavin forms as appropriate a background as the desert for the Arab, or the prairie for the Pawnee Indian. When he dies it will be like the dying of the last eagle. He is about the end of the old stock. The younger generation of Skyemen will never be like their fathers. They have more general information than their elders, they have fewer prejudices, they are more amenable to advice, much less stubborn and self-willed—but they are by comparison characterless. In a few years, when they will have the island in their own hands, better sheep will be produced I have no doubt, finer qualities of wool will be sent south, grand hotels will be erected here and there—but for all that Skye will have become tame: it will have lost that unpurchaseable something—human character; and will resemble Blaavin shorn of its mist-wreaths."

When we reached the top of the glen, and dropped down on the Parliamentary Road near the lake of water lilies, we held our way to the right, toward the point of Sleat. We passed the farm of Knock, the white outhouses, the church and school-house, the old castle on the shore, and driving along, we could pleasantly depasture our eyes on the cultivated ground, with a picturesque hut perched here and there; the towering masses of the Knoydart hills and the Sound of Sleat between. Sleat is the best wooded, the sunniest, and most carefully cultivated portion of the island; and passing along the road the traveller is struck with signs of blithe industry and contentment. As you draw near Armadale Castle you can hardly believe that you are in Skye at all. The hedges are as trim as English hedges, the larch plantations which cover the faces of the low hills that look towards the sea are not to be surpassed by any larch plantations in the country. The Armadale home farm is a model of neatness, the Armadale porter-lodges are neat and white; and when, through openings of really noble trees, you obtain a glimpse of the castle itself a handsome modern-looking building rising from sweeps of closely-shaven lawn, you find it hard to believe that you are within a few miles of the moory desolation that stretches between Isle Oronsay and Broadford. Great lords and great seats, independent of the food they provide the imagination, are of the highest practical uses to a country. From far Duntuim Macdonald has come here and settled, and around him to their very tops the stony hills laugh in green. Great is the power of gold. Drop a sovereign into the hat of the mendicant seated by the wayside and into his face you bring a pleasant light. Bestow on land what gold can purchase, Labour, and of the stoniest aridity you make an emerald.

Ardvasar is situated about the distance of a mile from the Armadale plantations, and counts perhaps some twenty houses. A plain inn stands by the wayside, where refreshments may be procured; there is a merchant’s shop filled with goods of the most miscellaneous description; in this little place also resides a most important personage—the agent of the Messrs Hutcheson, who is learned in the comings and goings of the steamers. On our arrival we learned from the agent that the steamer on the present occasion would be unusually late, as she had not yet been sighted between Ardnamurchan and Eig. In all probability she would not be off Ardvasar till ten P.M. It is difficult to kill time anywhere; but at this little Skye clachan it is more difficult than almost anywhere else. We fed the horse, and returned it and the dog-cart to Mr M’Ian. We sat in the inn and looked aimlessly out of the window; we walked along the ravine, and saw the stream sleeping in brown pools, and then hurrying on in tiny waterfalls; we watched the young barbarians at play in the wide green in front of the houses; we lounged in the merchant’s shop; we climbed to the top of eminences and looked seaward, and imagined fondly that we beheld a streak of steamer smoke on the horizon. The afternoon wore away, and then we had tea at the inn. By this the steamer had been visible for some little time, and had gone in to Eig. After tea we carried our traps down to the stony pier and placed them in the boat which would convey us to the steamer when she lay to in the bay. Thereafter we spent an hour in watching men blasting a huge rock in a quarry close at hand. We saw the train laid and lighted, the men scuttling off, and then there was a dull report, and the huge rock tumbled quietly over in ruins. When we got back to the pier, passengers were gathering: drovers with their dogs—ancient women in scarlet plaids and white caps, going on to Balmacara or Kyle—a sailor, fresh from China, dressed in his best clothes, with a slate-coloured parrot in a wicker cage, which he was conveying to some young people at Broadford. On the stony pier we waited for a considerable time, and then Mr Hutcheson’s agent, accompanied by some half dozen men, came down in a hurry; into the boat we were all bundled, drovers, dogs, ancient women, sailor, parrot, and all, the boat shoved off, the agent stood up in the bow, the men bent to their oars, and by the time we were twenty boat-lengths from the pier the Clansman had slid into the bay opposite the castle and lay to, letting off volumes of noisy steam.

When the summer night was closing the Clansman steamed out of Armadale Bay. Two or three ladies were yet visible on the deck. Wrapped in their plaids, and with their dogs around them, drovers were smoking amidships; sportsmen in knickerbockers were smoking on the hurricane deck; and from the steerage came at intervals a burst of canine thunder from the leashes of pointers and setters congregated there. As the night fell the air grew cold, the last lady disappeared, the sportsmen withdrew from their airy perches, amidships the pipe of the drover became a point of intense red. In the lighted cabin gentlemen were drinking whisky punch, and discussing, as their moods went, politics, the weather, the fluctuations in the price of stock, and the condition of grouse. Among these we sat; and my companion fell into conversation with a young man of an excited manner and a restless eye. I could see at a glance that he belonged to the same class as my tobacco-less friend of Glen Sligachan. On Fellowes he bestowed his entire biography, made known to him the name of his family—which was, by the way, a noble one — volunteered the information that he had served in the Mediterranean squadron, that he had been tried by a court martial for a misdemeanour of which he was entirely guiltless, and had through the testimony of nefarious witnesses been dismissed the service. While all this talk was going on the steward and his assistants had swept away the glasses from the saloon table, and from the oddest corners and receptacles were now drawing out pillows, sheets, and blankets. In a trice everything became something else; the sofas of the saloon became beds, the tables of the saloon became beds, beds were spread on the saloon floor, beds were extemporised near the cabin windows. When the transformation had been completed, and several of the passengers had coiled themselves comfortably in their blankets, the remainder struggling with their boots, or in various stages of dishabille, the ex-naval man suddenly called out Steward!"

That functionary looked in at the saloon door in an instant.

"Bring me a glass of brandy and water."

It’s quite impossible, Mr —," said the steward; " the spirit-room is shut for the night. Besides, you have had a dozen glasses of brandy and water to-day already. You had better go to bed, sir."

"Didn’t I tell you," said the ex-naval man, addressing Fellowes, who had by this time got his coat and vest off; "didn’t I tell you that the whole world is in a conspiracy against me? It makes a dead set at me. That fellow now is as great a foe of mine as was the commodore at Malta."

Fellowes made no reply, and got into bed. I followed his example. The ex-naval man sat gloomily alone for a while, and then with the assistance of the steward he undressed and clambered into a cool berth beside one of the cabin windows. Thereafter the lights were turned low.

I could not sleep, however; the stifling air of the place, in which there lived a faint odour of hot brandy and water, and the constant throb throb of the engines, kept me awake. I turned from one side to the other, till at last my attention was attracted by the movements of my strange friend opposite. He raised his head stealthily and took covert survey of the saloon; then he leant on his elbow; then he sat upright in his berth. That feat accomplished, he began to pour forth to some imaginary auditor the story of his wrongs.

He had not gone on long when a white night-capped head bounced up in a far corner of the dim saloon. "Will you be good enough," said the pale apparition in a severe voice, "to go to sleep? It‘s monstrous, sir, that you should disturb gentlemen at this hour of the night by your nonsensical speeches."

At the sight and the voice the ex-naval man sank into his berth as suddenly as an alarmed beaver sinks into his dam, and there was silence for a time.

Shortly, from the berth, I saw the ex-naval man’s head rising as stealthily as the head of a blackcock above a bunch of rushes. Again he sat up in bed, and again to the same invisible auditor he confided his peculiar griefs.

"Confound you, sir." "What do you mean, sir?" and at the half-dozen white apparitions confronting him the ex-naval man again dived.

In about ten minutes the head opposite began again to stir. Never from ambush did Indian warrior rise more noiselessly than did the ex-naval man from his blankets. He paused for a little on his elbow, looked about him cautiously, got into a sitting position, and began a third harangue.

" What the devil !" "This is intolerable !" "Steward, steward!" "Send the madman on deck ;" and the saloon rose en masse against the disturber of its rest. The steward came running in at the outcry, but the ex-naval man had ducked under like a shot, and was snoring away in simulated slumber as if he had been the Seven Sleepers rolled into one.

That night he disturbed our rest no more, and shortly after I fell asleep.

A fierce trampling on deck, and the noise of the crane hoisting the cargo from the deep recesses of the hold awoke me. I dressed and went above. The punctual sun was up and at his work. We were off a strip of sandy beach, with a row of white houses stretching along it, and with low rocky hills behind the houses. Some half-dozen deeply-laden shore boats were leaving the side of the steamer. Then a cow was brought forward, a door was opened in the bulwarks, and the animal quietly shoved out. Crummie disappeared with a considerable plunge, and came to the surface somewhat scant of breath, and with her mind in a state of utter bewilderment. A boat was in readiness; by a deft hand a coil of rope was fastened around the horns, the rowers bent to their task, and Crummie was towed ashore in triumph, and on reaching it seemed nothing the worse of her unexpected plunge.

The noisy steam was then shut off; from the moving paddles great belts of pale-green foam rushed out and died away far astern; the strip of beach, the white houses with the low rocky hills behind, began to disappear, and the steamer stood directly for Portree, which place was reached in time for breakfast. We then drove to the Landlord’s, and on alighting I found my friend John Penruddock marching up and down on the gravel in front of the house.


Previous Page | Index | Next Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus