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A Summer in Skye

IT may seem a bold thing to say that the memory of Alexander Smith is kept green by one book, but who that knows dare contradict? Nobody nowadays lingers over the florid passages of the once belauded A Life Drama, a poem which some were wont in the first flush of enthusiasm to place alongside of Keats’ best work. And what shall we say of Dreamthorp — that delightful volume of essays, the reading of which marked an era in the career of many a young writer of a former generation? It, too, has fallen on ill-fated days, though its admirers are admittedly much more numerous than those of A Life Drama. But, be the state of our literary education what it may, most of us are unswervingly loyal to A Summer in Skye.

Forty-seven years have passed since that charming book was first published, but it is still read and re-read with much of the old zest. One might almost say of A Summer in Skye what Smith so finely said of Edinburgh, "Nothing can stale its infinite variety." It is still along its own lines incomparably the best book on the subject. It still captivates heart and imagination, still sends hundreds every year "over the sea to Skye." Indeed, any tolerably well-educated person would as soon think of visiting Palestine without an intimate knowledge of the Bible as of visiting Skye without having read Smith’s classic. It is only the language of sober fact to say that A Summer in Skye has done for the misty Hebridean isle what Scott’s Lady of the Lake has done for the Trossachs, which is saying much. No Skye hotel-keeper or shop-keeper needs to be told that Smith’s book has been long one of his most valuable assets.

And yet, strange to say, the book that is most deeply imbued with the "spiritual atmosphere" of Skye—that sense of unfathomable mystery which seems to brood over the place, was written by one who was not a Skyeman, not even a Highlander. Smith was a Lowlander, born and bred, though, if the whole truth be told, his affinities, mental and moral, were rather with the men of the north. In him dwelt the Celtic imagination, and in his heart burned Celtic fires. It was late, however, in his comparatively short life ere these characteristics were fully matured. What hastened their ripening more than anything else was his happy marriage, in 1857, to a Skye lady, Flora Macdonald by name, and a blood relation of the renowned protectress of Prince Charles Edward. From that time till his death, ten years later, Smith’s love of Highlanders and things Highland amounted to infatuation. Skye became to him the dearest spot on earth. It braced his powers of thought and action, it enriched his poetic fancy, it warmed his heart. The romance and glamour of the "misty isle" became a permanent intellectual possession, and in A Summer in Skye we have the true genius loci of the island delineated by an unerring hand.

Let it be said at once that A Summer in Skye is not a guide-book summing up the hasty impressions of a scribbling hireling. It is not a colourless and fragmentary account of the people and history of Skye compiled in the interest of the tourist who only scampers through the island. It is something infinitely better—the outcome, one may say, of a unique combination of gifts and circumstances. The book may fitly be described as a prose poem—an idealisation of those aspects of Skye life, scenery, and history which appeal to the poetical and historical imagination. Smith is anything but systematic in the treatment of his theme. He wanders about and descants upon many subjects which have a very remote connection with Skye. For one thing, he is in no hurry, as he himself avows, to take us there. Nearly a hundred pages are taken up with painting a picture of historical, literary, and social Edinburgh; but what a picture! No more fascinating description of Scotland’s capital has ever been penned, and, in saying this, I do not, of course, forget Robert Louis Stevenson. Yes, Smith is discursive, but then we welcome discursiveness in an author who is always interesting, always full of life and colour, never obscure. Smith has the vigilant eye, the hearing ear, and the understanding heart, and how well he employs all three! Then, that bewitching style which carries you on in spite of yourself, who that has felt its spell can ever forget it? Smith was, indeed, a stylist of a high order, and the proof of it is nowhere shown more convincingly than in A Summer in Skye.

It is axiomatic that no one will discover the fascination of Skye who is devoid of the imaginative faculty and the historic sense. There is an indescribable charm about the isle of which the matter-of-fact, garrulous tourist knows nothing, and can know nothing. You cannot "do" Skye as you would "do" the sights of London or Paris. It is an inviolable condition that heart and mind must be attuned to the spirit of the place. Remember what a visit to this Hebridean isle means. "To visit Skye," says Smith with truth, "is to make a progress into ‘the dark backward and abysm of time.’ You turn your back on the present, and walk into antiquity. You see everything in the light of Ossian, as in the light of a mournful sunset." And as you read A Summer in Skye this impression is always uppermost. in a language and imagery of singular vividness Smith visualises, as far as this can be done through the medium of words, those features of Skye life and scenery which constitute its subtle and mysterious charm.

Furthermore, Smith shows in many a fascinating page how the wild grandeur and weirdness of Skye mountain, loch, and glen have left an indelible impress upon the character of the islanders. As Smith viewed the "monstrous peak" of Blaavin where the eagle has its eyrie, or traversed the solitary Glen Sligachan, or looked into the dark waters of Loch Coruisk, or gazed upon the awesome surroundings of this, the dreariest of Scottish lochs, there arose within him a haunting sense of the littleness and transitoriness of human life, and of its inscrutable mystery. And from many points of view he makes clear the intimate relationship subsisting between the prevailing austerity of the physical features of the island, and the sombre and superstitious note to be found in the typical Skyeman. No doubt, the changes of the last forty years have blunted the keen edge of Smith’s narrative, but when all allowances have been made, Skye remains substantially the same. However much the outward aspect of things may change, the romance and glamour do not, cannot pass away. Skye is still a region of hoary tradition, of Ossianic legend, of ghosts and fairies, and of the weirdly supernatural. Round the peat fire of a winter evening, you may still hear tales "full of witches and wizards; of great wild giants crying out, ‘Hiv! Haw Hoagraich! It is a drink of thy blood that quenches my thirst this night’; of wonderful castles with turrets and banqueting halls; of magic spells, and the souls of men and women dolefully imprisoned in shapes of beast and bird."

All this enchantment is artistically reflected in the pages of A Summer in Skye. That the average Skyeman, a generation ago, was amazingly superstitious, is patent to all who have read Father M’Crimmon’s story, surely one of the most perfect examples of the literature of the second sight. No one after perusing that eerie tale can have any difficulty in appreciating Smith’s remark that "it is almost as perilous to doubt the existence of a Skyeman’s ghost, as to doubt the existence of a Skyeman’s ancestor."

For deep and sympathetic insight, Smith’s sketches of Skye character are unsurpassed. A keen observer of the islanders, both at work and at play, he has set forth their outstanding traits in a series of masterly portraits. How sharply does the venerable form of Mr M’Ian stand out before us! Then there is Father M’Crimmon, "the gaunt, solemn-voiced, melancholy-eyed" priest who believed in the existence of ghosts, just as he believed in the existence of America; and John Kelly, the taciturn shepherd whose performances in the consumption of strong drink amazed everybody, and probably himself; and Lachlan Roy, who knew "the points of a sheep or a stirk as well as any man in the island"; and the phlegmatic Angus-with-the-dogs, ever a lover of the canine species, "the sworn foe of polecats, foxes, and ravens," and "an authority on rifles and fowling-pieces."

And if we turn from individual to social life, what a wonderfully vivid picture is that of the uproarious scene in Mr M’Ian’s kitchen on the winter evening when the farm lads and lassies "dashed into the whirlwind of the reel of Hoolichan and M’Ian clapped his hands and shouted, and the stranger was forced to mount the dresser to get out of the way of whirling kilt and tempestuous petticoat." There is an undercurrent of sadness in the Skyeman, but there are times when he gives rein to mirth and jollity like the rest of us; and it is a merit of Smith that he depicts the one side with as much fidelity as the other.

A Summer in Skye is full of piquant descriptions of humble life, and of customs that have now practically died out. The account of the patriarchal relations which subsisted between Mr M’Ian and his tenants, and the pen portrait of the landlord who was not only landlord but leech, lawyer, and divine as well, are among the most delightful things in the book. One can hardly imagine that such primitive social conditions should have prevailed in our midst so recently, but prevail they did. Smith, by the way, does not bemoan the lot of the Skye cotter. In their turfen dwellings, "amid surgings of blue smoke," he found health, contentment, piety, and industry. "Depend upon it," he says, "there are worse odours than peat-smoke, worse next-door neighbours than a cow or a brood of poultry."

Again, who can fail to be impressed by the realism of the description of Broadford Fair? How skilfully every detail is brought within the range of the mental vision! As we read we seem to see those hardy Skye farmers assembled on the moorland, with the Cuchullins standing like silent sentinels in the background, and the far-stretching waters of Broadford Bay in front. There they are, those brawny men, with their cattle, and their sheep, and their horses, bargaining and discussing the news of the island since last they forgathered, their voices, stentorian though they are, almost drowned by the bellowing of animals, and the general bustle and commotion. But why attempt to recall a scene which is engraven on the memory of every admirer of A Summer in Skye, unless it be to enlist the interest of those who have never read that charming book?

No one could desire a more competent or enthusiastic guide to what is of literary and historical interest in Skye than Smith. To him, the pleasantest of all Hebridean associations was the visit of Dr Johnson and James Boswell. When attending Broadford Fair he must needs leave the hubbub for a time and view the ruins of Corachatachin House in the vicinity. Arrived at the spot, he recalls the "debauch held therein a hundred years ago by a dead Boswell and young Highland bloods." Deeply moved he is, too, by the ruin of the old house of Kingsburgh, to which on a memorable occasion came Flora Macdonald and the fugitive Prince Charles arrayed in female attire. Kilmuir churchyard, in an unkempt grave of which lie the remains of the heroic Flora, stirs poignant feelings. "Skye," he exclaims, "has only one historical grave to dress —and she leaves it so." But it is when he gazes upon the castle of Dunvegan, hallowed by the memories of a thousand years, that his historical imagination gets full play. And yet the sight of this ancient home of the Chief of the Macleods is not wholly an unmixed pleasure, for every step he takes within its spacious rooms seems to startle a ghost. A sense of fear creeps over him which reaches its climax in the Fairy Room, where he cannot laugh lest he should hear strange echoes as if something mocked him.

Smith was passionately fond of Skye scenery, and he has sung its praises in many a purple passage. He is rapturous over the magnificent view from the top of the fantastically-shaped Quirang. The pyramidal rocks known as Macleod’s Tables fascinate him no less, and give rise to moralisings on the paltriness of modern wealth compared to an old inheritance of land "which is patent to the eye, which bears your name, around which legends gather." He surveys Loch Coruisk, "the most savage scene of desolation in Britain," with fear and trembling. As for the glories of the Cuchullins, in sunshine and in shadow, who has painted them half so effectively as Smith? And who that has spent a day in wild Glen Sligachan, that veritable via dolorosa, can fail to appreciate the force of Smith’s impression? I cannot refrain from quoting a portion:

"In Glen Sligachan . . . 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."

We lay down A Summer in Skye with unfeigned regret. It is a book which lives long in the memory. No one who has watched the mists settle on Blaavin, who has paced the lonely ridges of the Cuchullins, who has trembled at the sight of dark Coruisk, who has felt the eeriness of Glen Sligachan, who has listened to the noise of many waters below hoary Dunvegan, can fail to appreciate its intrinsic worth.

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