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A Summer in Skye
A Smoking Parliament

ONE morning after our return, when breakfast was over, the Landlord, followed by Maida, carried the parrot into the sunshine in front of the house, and, sitting down on one of the iron seats, lighted a cheroot. As there was nothing on the cards on that special morning, we all followed him, and, lifting his cheroot-case, helped ourselves. The morning was warm and pleasant; and as no one had anything particular to say, we smoked in silence and were happy. The only one who was occupied was Fellowes. A newspaper had reached him by post the evening before, and with its pages he was now busy. Suddenly he burst out laughing, and read out from a half column of facetia how an Irishman was anxious to discover the opposite side of the street, and making inquiries at the passengers, was kept knocking about from one side of the thoroughfare to the other, like a ball in a racket-court. Pat was told that the opposite side of the street was "over there ;" and when he got "over there," to his sore bewilderment he discovered that the opposite side of the street, as if on purpose to torment him, had slipped anchor and flitted away to the side on which he had been making inquiries a few moments previously. We all laughed at Pat’s intellectual perplexity; and shutting up the paper Fellowes maintained, in the light cynical vein so common at present, that the hunt after the opposite side of the street was no bad image of the hunt after truth. "Truth is always ‘over there,’" he said; "and when you get ‘over there,’ running extreme peril from cab and dray in crossing, you find that it has gone back to the place from which you started. And so a man spends his life in chasing, and is as far on at the end of it as he was at the beginning. No man ever yet reached truth, or the opposite side of the street"

"What creatures those Irish are, to be sure I" said the Landlord, as he knocked a feather of white ash from the tip of his cheroot; "it would be a dull world without them. In India, a single Irishman at a station is enough to banish blue devils. The presence of an Irishman anywhere keeps away low spirits, just as a cat in a house keeps away rats and mice. Every station should wear an Irishman, as an amulet against despondency."

"I have lived a good deal both in Ireland and the Highlands," said Pen, "and the intellectual differences between the two races have often struck me as not a little curious. They are of the same stock originally, antiquaries say; and yet Ireland is a land of Goshen, overflowing with the milk and honey of humour, whereas in every quality of humour the Highlands are as dry as the Sahara. Jokes don’t usually come farther north than the Grampians. One or two are occasionally to be found in Ross-shire over there; but they are far from common, and their appearance is chronicled in the local prints just as the appearance of the capercailzie is chronicled. No joke has yet been found strong-winged enough to cross the Kyles. That‘s odd, is it not?"

"But have not the Highlanders wit ?"

"Oh yes, plenty of it, but rather of the strenuous than of the playful kind; their wit is born for the most part of anger or contempt ‘There she goes,’ sneered the Englishman, as Duncan marched past in his tartans at a fair.’ ‘There she lies,’ retorted Duncan, as he knocked the scorner over at a blow. ‘Coming from Hell, Lauchlan,’ quoth the shepherd, proceeding on a sacrament Sunday to the Free Church, and meeting his friend coming from the Church of the Establishment ‘Better than going to it, Rory,’ retorted Lauchlan, as he passed on.

Of that kind of rapid and sufficient retort, of the power of returning a blow swiftly and with interest, the Highlander is not in the least deficient. But he differs from the Irishman in this—that he has no eye for the pleasantly droll side of things; he has no fun in him, no sense of the genially comic. He laughs, but there is generally a touch of scorn in his laughter, and it is almost always directed against a man or a thing. The Irishman’s humorous sense puts a stitch in the torn coat, ekes the scanty purse, boils the peas with which he is doomed to limp graveyard. The bested Highlander can draw no amelioration of condition from such a source. The two races dine often scantily enough, but it is only the Irishman that can sweeten his potatoes with point. ‘They talk of hardships,’ said the poor Irish soldier as he lay down to sleep on the deck of the transport—’ They talk of hardships; but bedad this is the hardest ship I ever was in in my life.’ No Highlander would have said that. And I believe that the joke made the hard plank all the softer to the joker."

"And how do you account for this difference ?" "I can’t account for it. The two races springing from the same stock, I rather think it is unaccountable; unless, indeed, it be traceable to climatic influence, — the soft, green, rainy Erin producing riant and ebullient natures; the bare, flinty Highlands, hard and austere ones. There is one quality, however, in which your Highlander can beat the world, with the exception, perhaps, of the North American Indian."

"What quality is that ?"

"The quality of never exhibiting astonishment. The Highlander would as soon think of turning his back on his foe as of expressing astonishment at anything. Take a Highland lad from the wilds of Skye or Harris and drop him in Cheapside, and he will retain the most perfect equanimity. He will have no word of marvel for the crowds and the vehicles; the Thames Tunnel will not move him; he will look on St Paul’s without flinching. The boy may have only ridden in a peat-cart; but he takes a railway, the fields, hedges, bridges, and villages spinning past, the howling gloom of the tunnels, the speed that carries him in an hour over a greater extent of country than he ever beheld in his life even from his highest hill-top, as the merest matter of course, and unworthy of special remark."

"But the boy will be astonished all the same?"

"Of course he is. The very hair of his soul is standing on end with wonder and terror, but he will make no sign; he is too proud. Will he allow the Sassenach to triumph over him? If he did, he would not be his father’s son. He will not admit that earth holds anything which he has not measured and weighed, and with which he is not perfectly familiar. When Chingachgook groans at the stake in the hearing of his tormentors, the Highlander will express surprise."

"This disinclination to express astonishment, if it does exist to the extent you say amongst the Highlanders, must arise from a solitary mode of living. People up in these Western Islands live on the outskirts of existence, so to speak; and the knowledge that a big, bustling, important world exists beyond their horizon intensifies their individualism; as the poet said the bracing air of old St Andrews intensified his. They are driven in on themselves; they are always standing in an attitude of mental self-defence; they become naturally self-contained and self-sustained."

"To some extent what you say is true; but the main reason of the Highlander’s calmness and self-command in the presence of new and wonderful objects is pride. To express astonishment at the sight of an object implies previous ignorance of that object; and no Highlander worthy of the name will admit that he is ignorant of anything under the sun. To come back, however, to what we were speaking about a little while ago,—the differences between the Highlanders and the Irish—the light-hearted Irishman delights to ‘chaff’ and to be ‘chaffed;’ the intenser and more serious-hearted Highlander can neither do the one nor endure the other. The bit of badinage which an Irishman will laugh at and brush carelessly aside, stings the Highlander like a gadfly. When the Highlander is fencing, the button is always coming off his foil, and the point is in your arm before you know where you are. If you enter into a gay wit-combat with a Highlander, it is almost certain to have a serious ending—just as the old Highland wedding-feasts, beginning with pledged healths and universal three-times-three, ended in a brawl and half-a-dozen men dirked."

"Chaff, in common with shoddy, the adulteration of food, and the tailor-sweating system, is the product of an over-ripe civilisation. It is the glimmer on the head of the dead cod-fish—putridity become phosphorescent. It can only thrive in large cities. It is the offspring of impudence and loquacity. I am not astonished that the Highlander cannot endure it; it is out of his way altogether. He no more can use it as a weapon of offence or defence than David could wear the armour of Saul. Chaff grows in the crowded street, not in the wilderness. It is the one thing we have brought into perfection in these later days. It is a weed that grows lustily, because it is manured with our vices and our decomposed faiths. I don’t think the worse of the Highlander because he cannot chaff or endure being chaffed. A London cabman would slang Socrates into silence in a quarter of an hour."

"I suppose," said the Landlord, "when the Skye railway is finished we poor Highlanders will get our jokes from the South, as we get our tea and sugar. It’s a pity the Board of Directors did not mention that special import in their prospectus. The shares might have gone off more rapidly, Pen !"

"By the by:’ said Fellowes, turning to me, "you were speaking the other day of the curious distrust of Nature, which you consider the soul of all Celtic poetry and Celtic superstition, and you were inclined to attribute that distrust and fear to the austerities of climate and physical conformation, to the rain-cloud, and the precipice, the sea-foam, and the rock. I agree with you so far; but I think you lay too much stress on climatic influences and the haggardness of landscape. That quick sense of two powers—of Nature and Humanity, of man and a world outside of man—is the root of all poetry."

"Of course it is. To the Celt, Nature is malign, evil-disposed, cruel; and his poetry is dreary as the strain of the night wind. To a Wordsworth, on the other hand, Nature is merciful and tranquil, deep-thoughted and calm; and as a consequence his poetry is temperate and humane, cool as a summer evening after the sun has set, and— with all reverence be it spoken—sometimes tiresomely hortatory."

"Preaching is generally dull work, I fear; and Nature’s sermons, even when reported by Wordsworth, are as dull as some other sermons which I have heard and read."

"But what I was going to say was, that the sense of malevolence in Nature which you claim as the central fact of Celtic song and superstition, is not so much the result of harsh climates and wild environments as it is a stage in the mental progress of a race. At one stage of progress, all races fear Nature alike. The South-Sea Islander, whose bread-fruit falls into his mouth, fears Nature just as much as the Greenlander, who hunts the white bear on the iceberg and spears the walrus in the foam. When once man has got the upper hand of Nature, when he has made her his slave, when her winds sit in his sails and propel his ships, when she yields him iron whereby she is more firmly bound to his service, when she gives him coal wherewith to cook food and to mitigate the rigours of her winters—when man has got that length, the aboriginal fear dies out of his heart, the weird Celtic bard goes, and Wordsworth comes. Even in the Lowlands, scraps of verses still exist—relics of long past time, and shuddering yet with an obsolete terror—which are as full of a sense of the malevolence of Nature as any Highland song or tune you could produce."

"Let me hear one or two."

"Well, here is one which has been occasionally quoted, and which you have in all likelihood come across in your reading:

‘Says Tweed to Till,
What gars ye tin sac still?
Says Till to Tweed,
Though ye rin wi’ speed,
An’ I rin slaw,
For ae man that ye droon,
I droon twa."

"Yes, it is very striking, and hits the nail on the head exactly. Sir Walter quotes it somewhere, I think. I have little doubt that these rhymes suggested to Scott his Voices of the River in the ‘Lay,’ which is not that of the kelpie, a creature in the river, but of the river itself, in spiritual personation."

"That may be, or it may not. But nowhere, that I know of, does that sense of an evil will, and an alienation from man in nature, find a profounder and more tragic, if withal a playful, half-humorous expression than in this curious little Border fragment, unless, indeed, it be beaten by this from Forfarshire. Of the Dean stream, wherein, while it was yet golden time with me, I slew many a fine trout, there existed then a local rhyme of much less artistic and literary completion than that relating the colloquy between Till and Tweed, but, as I think, in its rudeness if anything even more gruesome and grim—

‘The dowie Dean,
It rins it lean,
An’ every seven year it gets ean."

"What a hideous patois," quoth the Landlord, "your Forfarshire people must talk! I can’t say I understand a word of your rhymes. Perhaps you will be good enough to translate"

Fellowes laughed. "I’ll do my best,—

‘The dowie (quietly dismal) Dean,
It rins it lean, (its lane, lone, solitary,)
An’ every seven year it gets can, (ane, one.)’

There it is now, in Scotch and English, for you. What specially strikes me in this rhyme is its quiet power of awe, its reflex of the passionless calm, which, in scorn of contrast with the ‘fever and fret’ and flux of human feeling, is the specially frightful thing in Nature. No need for the Dean to trouble itself to employ kelpies: it runs quietly, gloomily on, feeding its fine red trout, and sure that by the serene law of the case when the hour comes the man will, and will drop to his moist doom, with no trouble given. ‘It gets ean’ when the said ‘ean’ is due; and never having been disappointed, it runs on ‘dowie,’ and not disturbing itself, as certain of its food in season. This it plainly reckons on, somewhat as year after year we look for strawberries and new potatoes. Then, the ‘It rins it lean,’ by itself, solitary, sullen, morose, as it were, and in the deeps of its moody pools, meditating periodical unsocial mischiefs, past and to come. For haggard, imaginative suggestion, unless it be in the ‘Twa Corbies,’ I don’t know where we can quite equal this. Beside this primal poetry of man’s spiritual instinct of terror our later verse-developments are the merest nothings."

While I kept repeating over to myself the rude triplet which was new to me, and creeping as best I could into its fell significance, Pen said— "And I suppose, in point of fact, that your gloomy hermit and murderer of a stream did get ‘ean’ every seven years. Don’t you think only sean’ in seven years a somewhat scant allowance? Most streams are as well supplied, I rather think."

"This septennial victim was in my boyhood considered by the natives as the toll exacted by, and fated due of the river; and I have heard the old people reckon back, over ‘Jock Tamson that was drowned i’ the year —, coming hame fou frae the fair;’ ‘Wull Smith,’ fou of course, also, who, fresh from ‘the spring roup of grass parks at the Hatton in the year —,‘ was unexpectedly treated to more water than he needed for his purposes of grog; and so on. The old inhabitant would then conclude with a grave—’It‘s weel kent the burn ‘s nae canny;’ and a confident prediction, with half a shudder in his voice, that ‘ye‘ll see it winna be lang noo till it maun get anither.’ Any sceptic was at once silenced with—’ Weel-a-weel—say yer say o‘t the noo, and jist bide till ye see. But dinna ye be daunerin’ doon ‘t yersel’, neist nicht ye‘re fou, or maybe, my braw man, ye ‘II no see. I ‘m no saying but ye‘ll mak’ a bonny corp, giff ye downa swall wi’ the burn-water, yer stamack nae bein’ used to ‘t"

"Your theory is correct," said the Landlord, turning to Fellowes, "that the fear of Nature is common to all races, and that as each race advances in civilisation the terror dies out. The kelpie, for instance, always lives near a ford — bridge the stream, and the kelpie dies. Build a road across a haunted hill, and you banish the fairies of the hill for ever. The kelpie and the fairy are simply spiritual personations of very rude and common dangers—of being carried away by the current when you are attempting to cross a river—of being lost when you are taking a short cut across hills on which there is no track. Abolish the dangers, and you at the same time abolish those creatures, Fear and Fancy."

"Rhymes like these are the truest antiques, the most precious articles of virtu. What is the brooch or ring that the fair woman wore, the brogues in which the shepherd travelled, the sword or shield with which the warrior fought, compared with a triplet like that, which is really an authentic bit of the terror that agitated human hearts long ago?"

But while we were discussing the Dean flowing on solitarily, every gurgle silenced with expectation as the hour drew near when its seven years’ hunger would be appeased, Pen and the Landlord had drifted away to the subject of the Skye railway—this summer and the last a favourite subject of discussion in the Island.

"You are a great friend of the railway?"

"Of course I am," said the Landlord. "I consider the locomotive the good wizard of our modern day. Its whistle scares away filth, mendicancy, and unthrift; ignorance and laziness perish in the glare of its red eyes. I have seen what it has done for the Hindoo, and I know what it will do for the Islesman. We hold India by our railways to-day rather than by our laws or our armies. The swart face of the stoker is the first sign of the golden age that has become visible in my time."

"What benefits do you expect the railway will bring with it to Skye?"

"It will bring us in closer contact with the South. By the aid of the railway we shall be enabled to send our stock to the southern markets more rapidly, more cheaply, and in better condition, and as a consequence we will obtain better prices. By aid of the railway the Islands will be opened up, our mineral treasures will be laid bare, our marbles will find a market, the Skye apple and the Skye strawberry will be known in Covent Garden, our fisheries will flourish as they have never flourished before. The railway will bring southern capital to us, and humane southern influences. The railway will send an electric shock through the entire Island. Everybody’s pulse will be quickened; the turf-hut will disappear; and the Skyeman will no longer be considered a lazy creature: which he is not—he only seems so because he has never found a proper field for the display of his activities. There are ten chances to one that your Skye lad, if left in Skye, will remain a fisherman or a shepherd; but transplant him to Glasgow, Liverpool, or London, and he not unfrequently blossoms into a merchant prince. There were quick and nimble brains under the shock heads of the lads you saw at my school the other day, and to each of these lads the railway will open a career great or small, or, at all events, the chance of one."

When the Landlord had ceased speaking, a boy brought the post-bag and laid it down on the gravel. It was opened, and we got our letters— the Landlord a number of Indian ones. These he put into his coat pocket. One he tore open and read. "Hillo, Pen I" he cried, when he got to the end, "my emigrants are to be at Skeabost on Thursday; we must go over to see them." Then he marched into the house, and in a little time thereafter our smoking parliament dissolved.

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