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A Summer in Skye

LIFE is pleasant, but unfortunately one has got to die; vacation is delightful, but unhappily vacations come to an end. Mine had come to an end; and sitting in the inn at Portree waiting for the southward-going steamer, I began to count up my practical and ideal gains, just as in dirty shillings and half-crowns a cobbler counts up his of a Saturday night.

In the first place, I was a gainer in health. When I came up here a month or two ago I was tired, jaded, ill at ease. I put spots in the sun, I flecked the loveliest blue of summer sky with bars of darkness. I felt the weight of the weary hours. Each morning called me as a slave-driver calls a slave. In sleep there was no refreshment, for in dream the weary day repeated itself yet more wearily. I was nervous, apprehensive of evil, irritable—ill, in fact. Now I had the appetite of an ostrich, I laughed at dyspepsia; I could have regulated my watch by my pulse; and all the dusty, book-lettered, and be-cobwebbed chambers of my brain had been tidied and put to rights by the fairies. Wonder, Admiration, Beauty, Freshness. Soul and body were braced alike—into them had gone something of the peace of the hills and the strength of the sea. I had work to do, and I was able to enjoy work. Here there was one gain, very palpable and appreciable. Then by my wanderings up and down, I had made solitude for ever less irksome, because I had covered the walls of my mind with a variety of new pictures. The poorest man may have a picture-gallery in his memory which he would not exchange for the Louvre. In the picture-gallery of my memory there hung Blaavin, the Cuchullins, Loch Coruisk, Dunsciach, Duntuim, Lord Macdonald’s deer-forest, Glen Sligachan, and many another place and scene besides. Here was a gain quite as palpable and appreciable as the other. The pictures hung in the still room of memory, and to them I could turn for refreshment in dull or tedious hours; and carrying that still room with its pictures about with me wherever I went, I could enter and amuse myself at any time, whether waiting at a station for a laggard train, or sitting under a dull preacher on a hot Sunday afternoon. Then, again, I had been brought into contact with peculiar individuals, which is in itself an intellectual stimulus, in so far as one is continually urged to enter into, explore, and understand them. What a new variety of insect is to an entomologist, that a new variety of man is to one curious in men, who delight& to brood over them, to comprehend them, to distinguish the shades of difference that exist between them, and, if possible, sympathetically to be them. This sympathy enables a man in his lifetime to lead fifty lives. I don’t think in the south I shall ever find the counterparts of John Kelly, Lachlan Roy, or Angus-with-the-dogs. I am certain I shall never encounter a nobler heart than that which has beat for so long a term in the frame of Mr M’Ian, nor a wiser or humaner brain than the Landlord’s. Even to have met the tobacco-less man was something on which speculation could settle. Then, in the matter of gain, one may fairly count up the being brought into contact with songs, stories, and superstitions; for through means of these one obtains access into the awe and terror that lay at the heart of that ancient Celtic life which is fast disappearing now. Old songs illustrate the spiritual moods of a people, just as old weapons, agricultural implements, furniture, and domestic dishes, illustrate the material conditions. I delighted to range through that spiritual antiquarian museum, and to take up and examine the bits of human love, and terror, and hate, that lay fossilised there. All these things were gains: and waiting at Portree for the steamer, and thinking over them all, I concluded that my Summer in Skye had not been misspent; and that no summer can be misspent anywhere, provided the wanderer brings with him a quick eye, an open ear, and a sympathetic spirit. It is the cunningest harper that draws the sweetest music from the harp-string; but no musician that ever played has exhausted all the capacities of his instrument—there is more to take for him who can take.

The Clansman reached Portree Bay at eleven P.M., and I went on board at once and went to bed. When I awoke next morning, the engines were in full action, and I could hear the rush of the water past my berth. When I got on deck we were steaming down the Sound of Raasay; and when breakfast-time arrived, it needed but a glance to discover that autumn had come and that the sporting season was well-nigh over. A lot of sheep were penned up near the bows, amidships were piles of wool, groups of pointers and setters were scattered about, and at the breakfast-table were numerous sportsmen returning to the south, whose conversation ran on grouse-shooting, salmon fishing, and deer-stalking. While breakfast was proceeding you saw everywhere sun-browned faces, heard cheery voices, and witnessed the staying of prodigious appetites. Before these stalwart fellows steaks, chops, platefuls of ham and eggs disappeared as if by magic. The breakfast party, too, consisted of all orders and degrees of men. There were drovers going to, or returning from markets; merchants from Stornoway going south; a couple of Hebridean clergymen, one of whom said grace; several military men of frank and hearty bearing; an extensive brewer; three members of Parliament, who had entirely recovered from the fatigues of legislation; and a tall and handsome English Earl of some repute on the turf. Several ladies, too, dropped in before the meal was over. We were all hungry, and fed like Homer’s heroes. The brewer was a valiant trencher-man, and the handsome Earl entombed cold pie to an extent unprecedented in my experience. The commissariat on board the Highland steamers is plentiful and of quality beyond suspicion; and the conjunction of good viands, and appetites whetted by the sea-breeze, results in a play of knife and fork perfectly wonderful to behold. When breakfast was over we all went up stairs; the smoking men resorted to the hurricane deck, the two clergymen read, the merchants from Stornoway wandered uneasily about as if seeking some one to whom they could attach themselves, and the drovers smoked short pipes amidships, and talked to the passengers there, and when their pipes were out went forward to examine the sheep. The morning and forenoon wore away pleasantly—the great ceremony of dinner was ahead, and drawing nearer every moment— that was something—and then there were frequent stoppages, and the villages on the shore, the coming and going of boats with cargo and passengers, the throwing out of empty barrels here, the getting in of wool there, were incidents quite worthy of the regard of idle men leading for the time being a mere life of the senses. We stopped for a couple of hours in Broadford Bay—we stopped at Kyle-akin—we stopped at Balmacara; and the long-looked-for dinner was served after we had past Kyle-Rhea, and were gliding down into Glenelg. For some little time previously savoury steams had assailed our nostrils. We saw the stewards descending into the cabin with covered dishes, and at the first sound of the bell the hurricane deck, crowded a moment before, was left entirely empty. The captain took his seat at the head of the table with a mighty roast before him, the clergyman said grace—somewhat lengthily, I fear, in the opinion of most—the covers were lifted away by deft waiters, and we dined that day at four as if we had not previously breakfasted at eight, and lunched at one. Dinner was somewhat protracted; for as we had nothing to do after the ladies went, we sat over cheese and wine, and then talk grew animated over whisky-punch. When I went on deck again we had passed Knock, and were steaming straight for Armadale. The Knoydart hills were on the one side, the low shores of Sleat, patched here and there by strips of cultivation, on the other; and in a little we saw the larch plantations of Armadale, and the castle becoming visible through the trees on the lawn.

In autumn the voyage to the south is lengthened by stoppages, and frequently the steamer has to leave her direct course and thread long inland running lochs to take wool on board. These stoppages and wanderings out of the direct route would be annoying if you were hurrying south to be married, or if you were summoned to the deathbed of a friend from whom you had expectations ; but as it is holiday with you, and as every divergence brings you into unexpected scenery, they are regarded rather as a pleasure than anything else. At Armadale we stayed for perhaps half an hour, and then struck directly across the Sound of Sleat, and sailed up the windsings of Loch Nevis. When we reached the top there was an immense to-do on the beach; some three or four boats laden with wool were already pulling out towards the steamer, which immediately lay to and let off noisy steam; men were tumbling bales of wool into the empty boats that lay at the stony pier, and to the pier laden carts were hurrying down from the farm-house that stood remote. The wool boats came on either side of the steamer; doors were opened in the bulwarks, to these doors steam cranes were wheeled, and with many a shock of crank and rattle of loosened chain, the bales were hoisted on deck and consigned to the gloomy recesses of the hold. As soon as a boat was emptied, a laden one pulled out to take its place; the steam cranes were kept continually jolting and rattling, and in the space of a couple of hours a considerable amount of business had been done. On the present occasion the transference of wool from the boats to the hold of the steamer occupied a longer time than was usual; sunset had come in crimson and died away to pale gold and rose, and still the laden boats came slowly on, still storms of Gaelic execration surged along the sides of the ship, and still the steam cranes were at their noisy work. The whole affair, having by this time lost all sense of novelty, was in danger of becoming tiresome, but in the fading light the steward had lighted up the saloon into hospitable warmth and glow, and then the bell rang for tea. In a moment all interest in the wool boats had come to an end, the passengers hurried below, and before the tinklings of cup and saucer had ceased, the last bale of wool had been transferred from the boats alongside to the hold, and the Clansman had turned round, and was softly gliding down Loch Nevis.

A lovely, transparent autumn night arched above us, a young moon and single star by her side, when we reached Arisaig. By this time the ladies had retired, and those of the gentlemen who remained on deck were wrapped in plaids, each shadowy figure brought out more keenly by the red tip of a cigar. The entrance into Arisaig is difficult, and the Clansman was put on half steam. The gentlemen were requested to leave the hurricane-deck, and there the captain stationed himself, while a couple of men were sent to the bows, and three or four stationed at the wheel. Slowly the large vessel moved onward, with low black reefs of rocks on either side, like smears of dark colour, but perfectly soft and tender in outline; and every here and there we could see the dark top of a rock peering out of the dim sea like a beaver’s head. From these shadowy reefs, as the vessel moved on, the sea-birds were awaked from their slumbers, and strangely sweet, and liquid as flute-notes, were their cries and signals of alarm. Every now and again, too, with a sort of weary sigh, a big wave came heaving in, and broke over the dark reefs in cataracts of ghostly silver; and in the watery trouble and movement that followed, the moon became a well of moving lights and the star a quivering sword-blade. The captain stood alone on the hurricane deck, the passengers leaned against the bulwarks watching rock and sea, and listening to the call and re-call of disturbed mews, when suddenly there was a muffled shout from the outlook at the bows, the captain shouted "Port! port! hard !" and away went the wheel spinning, the stalwart fellows toiling at the spokes, and the ship slowly falling off. After a little while there was another noise at the bows, the captain shouted "starboard!" and the wheel was rapidly reversed. We were now well up the difficult channel; and looking back we could see a perfect intricacy of reefs and dim single rocks behind, and a fading belt of pallor wandering amongst them, which told the track of the ship—a dreadful place to be driven upon on a stormy night, when the whole coast would be like the mouth of a wounded boar—black tusks and churning foam. After a while, however, a low line of coast became visible, then a light broke upon it; and after a few impatient turns of the paddles we beheld a dozen boats approaching, with lights at their bows. These were the Arisaig boats, laden with cargo. At sight of them the captain left the hurricane deck, the anchor went away with a thundering chain, the passengers went to bed, and between asleep and awake, I could hear half the night the trampling of feet, the sound of voices, and the jolt of the steam-cranes, as the Arisaig goods were being hoisted on deck and stowed away.

I was up early next morning. The sky was clear, the wind blowing on shore, and the bright, living, rejoicing sea came seething in on the rocky intricacies through which we slowly sailed. Skye was perfectly visible, the nearer shores dark and green; farther back the dim Cuchullins, standing in the clouds. Eig rose opposite, with its curiously-shaped sciur; Muck lay ahead. The Clansman soon reached the open sea, and we began to feel the impulse of the Atlantic. By the time the passengers began to appear on deck the ship was lurching heavily along towards the far-stretching headland of Ardnamurchan. It was difficult to keep one’s feet steady—more difficult to keep steady one’s brain. Great glittering watery mounds came heaving on, to wash with unavailing foam the rocky coast; and amongst these the steamer rolled and tossed and groaned, its long dark pennon of smoke streaming with the impulse of the sea. The greater proportion of the passengers crawled amidships—beside the engines and the cook’s quarters, which were redolent with the scent of herrings frying for a most unnecessary breakfast—for there the motion was least felt. To an unhappy landsman that morning the whole world seemed topsy-turvy. There was no straight line to be discovered anywhere; everything seemed to have changed places. Now you beheld the steersman against the sky on the crest of an airy acclivity, now one bulwark was buried in surge, now the other, and anon the sheep at the bows were brought out against a foamy cataract. But with all this turmoil and dancing and rolling, the Clansman went swiftly on, and in due time we were off the Ardnamurchan lighthouse. Here we rolled and tossed in an unpleasant manner,—the smitten foam springing to the top of the rocks and falling back in snowy sheets,—and seemed to make but little progress. Gradually, however, the lighthouse began to draw slowly behind us, slowly we rounded the rocky buttress, slowly the dark shores of Mull drew out to sea, and in a quarter of an hour, with dripping decks and giddy brains, we had passed from the great bright heave and energy of the Atlantic to the quiet waters of Loch Sunart; and, sheltered by Mull, were steaming towards Tobermory.

The first appearance of Tobermory is prepossessing; but further acquaintance is if possible to be eschewed. As the Clansman steams into the bay, the little town, with its half circle of white houses, backed by hill terraces on which pretty villas are perched, and flanked by sombre pine plantations, is a pleasant picture, and takes heart and eye at once. As you approach, however, your admiration is lessened, and when you go ashore quite obliterated. It has a "most ancient and fish-like smell," and all kinds of refuse float in the harbour. Old ocean is a scavenger at Tobermory, and is as dirty in his habits as Father Thames himself. The houses look pretty and clean when seen from the steamer’s deck, but on a nearer view they deteriorate and become squalid, and several transform themselves into small inns, suggestive of the worst accommodation and the fiercest alcohol. The steamer is usually detained at Tobermory for a couple of hours, and during all that time there is a constant noise of lading and unlading. You become tired of the noise and tumult, and experience a sense of relief when steam is got up again, and with much backing and turning and churning of dirty harbour water into questionable foam, the large vessel works its way through the difficult channel, and slides calmly down the Sound of Mull.

Gliding down that magnificent Sound, the "Lord of the Isles" is in your memory, just as the "Lady of the Lake" is in your memory at Loch Katrine. The hours float past in music. All the scenes of the noble poem rise in vision before you. You pass the entrance to the beautiful Loch Aline; you pass Ardtornish Castle on the Morven shore, where the Lords of the Isles held their rude parliaments and discussed ways and means; while opposite, Mull draws itself grandly back into lofty mountains. Further down you see Duart Castle, with the rock peering above the tide, on which Maclean exposed his wife—a daughter of Argyle’s—to the throttling of the waves. After passing Duart, Mull trends away to the right, giving you a space of open sun-bright sea, while on the left the Linnhe Loch stretches toward Fort-William and Ben Nevis. Straight before you is the green Lismore—long a home of Highland learning—and passing it, while the autumn day is wearing towards afternoon, you reach Oban, sheltered from western waves by the island of Kerrera.

The longest delay during the passage is at Oban, but then we had dinner there, which helped to kill the time in a pleasant way. The Clansman had received a quantity of cargo at Tobermory, at Loch Aline a flock of sheep were driven on board, goods were taken in plentifully at other places in the Sound at which we touched, and when we had received all the stuffs waiting for us at Oban, the vessel was heavily laden. The entire steerage deck was a bellowing and bleating mass of black cattle and sheep, each "parcel" divided from the other by temporary barriers. The space amidships was a chaos of barrels and trunks and bales of one kind or another, and amongst these the steerage passengers were forced to dispose themselves. Great piles of wooden boxes containing herring were laid along the cabin deck, so that if a man were disposed to walk about it behoved him to take care of his footsteps. But who cared! We were away from Oban now, the wind was light, the sun setting behind us, and the bell ringing for tea. It was the last meal we were to have together, and through some consciousness of this the ice of reserve seemed to melt, and the passengers to draw closer to each other. The Hebridean clergymen unbent; the handsome earl chatted to his neighbours as if his forehead had. never known the golden clasp of the coronet; the sporting men stalked their stags over again; the members of Parliament discussed every subject except the affairs of the nation; the rich brewer joked; the merchants from Stornoway laughed immoderately; while the cattle-dealers listened with awe. Tea was prolonged after this pleasant fashion, and then, while the Stornoway merchants and the cattle-dealers solaced themselves with a tumbler of punch, the majority of the other passengers went up stairs to the hurricane deck to smoke.. What a boon is tobacco to the modern Englishman ! It stands in place of wife, child, profession and the interchange of ideas. With a pipe in your mouth indifference to your neighbour is no longer churlish, and silent rumination becomes the most excellent companionship. The English were never very great talkers, but since Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the Virginian weed they have talked less than ever. Smoking parliaments are always silent—and as in silence there is wisdom, they are perhaps more effective than the talking ones. Mr Carlyle admired those still smoke-wreathed Prussian assemblies of Frederick’s, and I am astonished that he does not advocate the use of the weed in our English Witenagemote. Slowly the night fell around the smokers, the stars came out in the soft sky, as the air grew chill, and one by one they went below. Then there was more toddy-drinking, some playing at chess, one or two attempts at letter-writing, and at eleven o’clock the waiters cleared the tables, and began to transform the saloon into a large sleeping apartment.

I climbed up to my berth and fell comfortably asleep. I must have been asleep for several hours, although of the lapse of time I was of course unconscious, when gradually the horror of nightmare fell upon me. This horror was vague and formless at first, but gradually it assumed a definite shape. I was Mazeppa, they had bound me on the back of the desert-born, and the mighty brute, maddened with pain and terror, was tearing along the wilderness, crashing through forests, plunging into streams, with the howling of wolves close behind and coming ever nearer. At last, when the animal cleared a ravine at a bound, I burst the bondage of my dream. For a moment I could not understand where I was. The sleeping apartment seemed to have fallen on one side, then it righted itself, but only to fall over on the other, then it made a wild plunge forward as if it were a living thing and had received a lash. The ship was labouring heavily, I heard the voices of the sailors flying in the wind, I felt the shock of solid, and the swish of broken seas. In such circumstances sleep, for me at least, was impossible, so I slipped out of bed, and, steadying myself for a favourable moment, made a grab at my clothes. With much difficulty I dressed, with greater difficulty I got into my boots, and then I staggered on deck. Holding on by the first support, I was almost blinded by the glare of broken seas. From a high coast against which the great waves rushed came the steady glare of a lighthouse, and by that token I knew we were "on" the Mull of Cantyre. The ship was fuming through a mighty battle of tides. Shadowy figures of steerage passengers were to be seen clinging here and there. One—a young woman going to Glasgow as a housemaid, as she afterwards told me—was in great distress, was under the impression that we were all going to the bottom, and came to me for comfort I quieted her as best I could, and procured her a seat. Once when the ship made a wild lurch, and a cloud of spray came flying over the deck, she exclaimed to a sailor who was shuffling past wearing a sou’wester and canvas overalls, "O sailor, is‘t ever sae bad as this ?" "As bad as this," said the worthy, poising himself on the unsteady deck, "as bad as this ! Lod, ye sud jist a seen oor last vi’age. There was only three besides mysel o’ the ship’s crew able to haud on by a rape." Delivering himself of this scrap of dubious comfort, the sailor shuffled onward. Happily the turmoil was not of long duration. In an hour we had rounded the formidable Mull, had reached comparatively smooth water, and with the lights of Campbelton behind, the pallid glare of furnaces seen afar on the Ayrshire coast, and the morning beginning to pencil softly the east, I went below again, and slept till we reached Greenock.

Firth of Clyde

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