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Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland
Branch E. Strathdearn and the River Findhorn

Monaliagh Mountains; Sources of the Findhorn; Clach Sgoilte, 1.—Upper Part of Strathdearn, 2.—Interesting Walking Excursion, 3.—Dell of Dalmigavie; Rapidity of the Findhorn; Cullachy, 4.—The Streens, 5.—A Cattle-lifting Incident, 6. —Dulsic; Dunearn, 7.—Farness; The Divic, 8.—Dunphail, 9.—Relugas, 10.—Brig of Rannoch, 11.—The Esses, 12.—Heronry, 13—The Mead of St. John; Altyre; Family Records, 14.—Findhorn Floods; The Great Flood of 1829; its height, 15.

1. THE central districts of the southern division of Inverness-shire are distinguished by a group of lofty and rugged mountains, known under the general name of the Monaliagh Mountains (the grey, misty mountains), which are composed chiefly of granite and quartz rock, and contain -within their arms the sources of the rivers Spey, Dulnain, Findhorn, and Nairn, and of various streams which discharge their waters on the south side of Loch Ness.

These mountains rise in long ridges from an elevated base of dark heathy moor, and they possess but little of the abrupt serrated aspect of the west-coast hills ; their outlines being less decided, and their acclivities less broken. Extensive straths, or pastoral valleys, abounding in streams and herbage, lie em-bosomed among them, and support great herds of black cattle, for which the district has long been famed ; while the adjoining solitudes, which are wide, and rarely visited by the foot of man, continue still to be the retreats of great numbers of roe and red deer, and of grouse and ptarmigan. A scattered, but hardy, and very ancient Celtic race people the straths of this district, whose almost exclusive occupation is that of shepherds or drovers. The valleys of Killin (described in Route i. page 153) and of Strathdearn, are among the most interesting of these straths; and, as the tourist can very pleasantly spend a few days in exploring them, we shall in this place give an account of the latter, and conduct him along the whole of the river Findhorn, which, for variety and beauty of scenery, is unequalled in Scotland. It will be seen from the map that its course, on the whole, is remarkably straight, bearing nearly from S.W. to N.E., and parallel, to a considerable extent, with the strath and river Nairn. Its sources lie many miles to the westward of Freeburn (on the great Highland road), in the neighbourhood of which stage the road crosses its stream ; but, like mightier rivers, its true source is a subject of dispute: some maintaining that the parent rill comes from the mountains of Laggan, and not far from the head of the Spey ; while others regard the mossy springs that gush from a mountain nearer Stratherrick, or even the drops that ooze from a particular cloven rock, hence called "Clach Sgoilte," in the elevated opening, to be immediately alluded to, as the true sources of the Findhorn.

2. The tourist may enter Strathdearn, as the upper part of the valley is called, (the ancient name of the river being the "Earn,") from the western district of Stratherrick. Starting from the small inn at Whitebridge, on the Foyers river, and four miles above the falls, by a hill-path which leads along the Loch of Killin, and from the south end of the vale of that name, up a strait shelving strath running eastward, about twelve miles from Whitebridge, he reaches the summit of an elevated opening in the hills. Soon after, he approaches the isolated Clach Sgoilte, whence the infant streamlet of the Findhorn flows slowly for about a mile, and then descends for two miles and a half with considerable rapidity, when it is joined by the other more southerly branch of the river. The course of these united streams lies, for seven miles, to the shooting lodge of Coignafearn (belonging to ,Mackintosh of Mackintosh), through a strath appearing generally about 200 yards wide; the bottom, at times, level and smooth, at others more or less broken, covered with grass and heath, and a considerable quantity of juniper bushes. The hills rise in steep acclivities, and increase in height in the progress eastwards, being destitute of trees, with the exception of a few scattered birches, and they are rather of a verdant than heathy character. The valley winds a little so as to present itself in successive sections With the exception of two or three bothies, occupied by shepherds during the summer, and a more substantial cottage about a mile below the junction of the river (an accessory to the shooting-lodge of Coignafearn), no habitation is to be seen between Lord Lovat's shooting-lodge, at the end of Loch Kuhn, and that of Coignafearn, a distance of seventeen miles.

3. We have been thus particular as to this little frequented route, as, from the descriptions of the remainder of the course of the Findhorn, and those of the Vale of Killin, pedestrians may be induced to explore the scenery of both, after that of the Falls of Foyers and Loch Ness, and to undertake an excursion of three or four days betwixt Inverness and Forres, by the valley of the Findhorn. A road has been formed, from the Highland road, as far as Coignafearn, which is ten or eleven miles west from Freeburn. From Coignafearn, to the north end of Killin, a distance of perhaps twenty miles, the foot track is rough, and not such as to be readily followed by a stranger, which, of course, is immaterial, except as it impedes his progress; on which account, as well as to avoid all risk from mist, it may be prudent for him to take a guide across the pass. The distance from Whitebridge to Freeburn will require fully twelve hours' walking. From the General's Hut, at Foyers, where the accommodation is better, the distance is five miles more.

4. At Coignafearn, the strath twists so that the succeeding compartment is screened from observation till entered upon. It continues, for about three miles a third of a mile in width, and seems as if blocked up at the lower end by an eminence clothed with a fir plantation : steep and lofty hills rise on all hands, so that this scene possesses a character of most perfect seclusion. It is called the Dell of Dalmigavie. The mountains are grand and imposing, from their massive bulk ; yet sweet and pleasing, from their simple configuration, regular surface, and smiling livery of purple and green. On the north side, the acclivities assume the most brilliant emerald tint. The Findhorn, in this and the upper part of its course, runs over a stony channel, only a few feet depressed beneath the surface of the adjacent ground, which is here quite level, and the stream is uniformly rapid. It is liable to sudden speats or inundations, rising at times so as to present a frightful front, several feet high, to the descending torrent, and sweeping along with such impetuosity as to endanger the lives of any persons who may then happen to be crossing the usual fords. The corn-fields and meadow-grass on the low grounds are also precariously situated; and the proprietors have been obliged, at considerable expense, to line the sinuosities of the river in many places with bulwarks of stone and turf. Below the central eminence above alluded to, the valley, for nearly two miles, contracts to the width of the sixth of a mile. The upper portions of the hills are here, for the most part, inaccessible ; and they are intersected by deep and steep ravines. On an elevated recess, on the north side, stands the farm-house of Daltomich ; and, further on, Glen Mazeran joins the valley on the same side. Below this, is seen the house of Dalmigavie (Mackintosh), five to six miles from Coignafearn, on an elevated terraced spot on the opposite side, graced with dwarf birch trees. Opposite to Dalmigavie, a road strikes across the hill to Farr in Strathnairn, whence it continued straight across the intermediate range to Inverness. The length of this road is about sixteen miles. Below Dalmigavie, the valley of the Findhorn, for six miles, to the Bridge above Corrybrough, (where the Highland road crosses,) is nowise interesting. The hills slope gently from the stream, and are covered with heather and grass; but the estate of Cullachy, immediately adjoining that of Dalmigavie to the cast, and fronting it, lays claim to be ranked as classic ground, from having been the patrimony and early residence of the distinguished statesman and orator, Sir James 'Mackintosh. It is now undergoing great improvement from the small farmers using extensively the primitive limestone which abounds in the hills.

5. Below the Bridge of Corrybrough the strath widens to a circumference of six or eight miles, presenting the aspect of having been once the bed of a great lake, which found two outlets, one by the lower basin of Loch Moy, and thence to the river Nairn, and the other through the mountains to the northeast of Freeburn, by the gorge called the Streens. Indeed, the present channel of the river is only about eighteen feet above the surface of Loch Moy; and the parallel terrace banks encircling the valley on all hands, point out the height at which the waters anciently stood.

The distance from Freeburn to Dulsie is about sixteen miles, and is passable only on foot. The scene, however, is worthy of the exertion required to explore it. Continuous chains of hills rise suddenly on either side of a winding stripe of level ground, and at times precipitous rocky mountains of blood-red granite jutting up in lofty cliffs, rise from the water's-edge, and confine, and so completely overshadow the river's course, that some of the hamlets on its banks are said to be scarcely ever visited by the sun's rays. There is not much wood; but the bottom of the valley is pleasingly chequered with cultivated and meadow land, so that the sense of seclusion and repose and the occasional stern character of the Streens is relieved by the traces of unpretending industry. [The Streens have recently been made accessible to carriages by a road formed by Lord Cawdor, the proprietor, for the use of his tenants, and which, proceeding from the village of Cawdor, is about nine miles long.]

6. But it is impossible to describe this scene in language more graphic than that used by the late Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, who may well be accounted the historian of Morayshire, and especially of the Findhorn.

"It was about this period, and (though it may surprise many) it was not much more than fifty years ago (prior to 1817), that Mr. R-, a gentleman of the low country of Moray, was awakened early in a morning by the unpleasant intelligence of the highlanders having carried off the whole of his cattle from a distant hill grazing in Brae Moray, a few miles above the junction of the rapid rivers Findhorn and Divie, and between both. He was an active man ; so that, after a few questions put to the breathless messenger, he lost not a moment in summoning and arming several servants: and, instead of taking the way to his farm, he struck at once across the country, in order to get, as speedily as possible, to a point where the rocks and woods, hanging over the deep bed of the Findhorn, first begin to be crowned by steep and lofty mountains, receding in long and misty perspective. This was the grand pass into the boundless wastes frequented by the robbers; and here Mr. R,- forded the river to its southern hank, and took his stand with his little party, well aware that, if he could not intercept his cattle here, he might abandon all further search after them.

"The spot chosen for the ambuscade was a beautiful range of scenery known by the name of the Streens. So deep is the hollow in many places, that some of the little cottages, with which its bottom is here and there sprinkled, have Gaelic appellations, implying that they never see the sun. There were then no houses near them; but the party lay concealed among some huge fragments of rock, shivered, by the wedging ice of the previous winter, from the summit of a lofty crag, that hung half across the narrow holm where they stood. A little way farther down the river, the passage was contracted to a rude and scrambling footpath, and behind them the glen was equally confined. Both extremities of the small amphitheatre were shaded by almost impenetrable thickets of birch, hazel, alder, and holly, whilst a few wild pines found a scanty subsistence for their roots in midway air, on the face of the crags, and were twisted and wreathed, for lack of nourishment, into a thousand fantastic and picturesque forms. The serene sun of a beautiful summer's day was declining, and half the narrow Laugh was in broad and deep shadow, beautifully contrasted by the brilliant golden light that fell on the wooded bank on the other side of the river.

"Such was the scene where Mr. R---! posted his party; and they had not waited long, listening in the silence of the evening, when they heard the distant lowing of the cattle, and the wild shouts of the reivers, re-echoed as they approached by the surrounding rocks. The sounds came nearer and nearer, and, at last, the crashing of the boughs announced the appearance of the more advanced part of the drove; and the animals began to issue slowly from amongst the tangled wood, or to rush violently forth, as the blows or shouts of their drivers were more or less impetuous. As they came out, they collected themselves into a group, and stood bellowing, as if unwilling to proceed farther. In rear of the last of the herd, Mr. R---l saw bursting singly from different parts of the brake, a party of fourteen Highlanders, all in the full costume of the mountains, and armed with dirk, pistols, and claymore; and two or three of them carrying antique fowling-pieces. Mr. R—l's party consisted of not more than ten or eleven; but, telling them to be firm, he drew them forth from their ambuscade, and ranged them on the green turf. With some exclamations of surprise, the robbers, at the shrill whistle of their leader, rushed forwards, and ranged themselves in front of their spoil. Mr. R,---l and his party stood their ground with determination, whilst the robbers appeared to hold a council of war. At last their chief, a little athletic man, with long red hair curling over his shoulders, and with a pale and thin but acute visage, advanced a little way before the rest. 'Mr. R--l,' said he, in a loud voice, and speaking good English, though in a Highland accent, `are you for peace or war I if for war, look to yourself; if for peace and treaty, order your men to stand fast, and advance to meet inc.' 'I will treat,' replied Mr. R---l: 'but can I trust to your keeping faith?' 'Trust to the honour of a gentleman!' rejoined the other, with an imperious air. The respective parties were ordered to stand their ground; and the two leaders advanced about seventy or eighty paces each towards the middle of the space, with their loaded guns cocked and presented at each other. A certain sum was demanded for the restitution of the cattle; Mr. R---l had not so much about him, but offered to give what money he had in his pocket, being a few pounds short of what the robber had asked. The bargain was concluded, the money paid, the guns uncocked and shouldered, and the two parties advanced to meet each other in perfect harmony. 'And now, Mr. R---l,' said the leader of the band, you must look at your beasts to see that none of them be awanting.' Mr. R—l did so. 'They are all here,' said he, `but one small dun quey.' 'Make yourself easy about her,' replied the leader: 'she shall be in your pasture before daylight to-morrow morning.' The treaty being thus concluded, the robbers proceeded up the glen, and were soon hid beneath its thick foliage; whilst Mr. R--l's people took charge of the cattle, and began to drive them homeward. The reiver was as good as his word. Next morning the dun quey was seen grazing with the herd. Nobody knew how she came there; but her jaded and draggled appearance bespoke the length and the nature of the night journey she had performed."

7. At Dulsie, the old military road proceeding from Fort-George through Strathspey and Braemar crosses the Findhorn by a romantic bridge. The scenery here is of the wildest and most picturesque character, softened, however, by the graceful foliage of birch woods which environ the river's bank.

Dulsie Bridge is about two miles distant from the small inn of Farness, at the junction of the parliamentary roads leading from Nairn and Forres to Strathspey. This inn is, by the lattor road, sixteen miles distant from Forres. The tourist, however, should deviate from the beaten path, and keep as close as he can to the southern bank of the river, which, though long and winding, is replete with scenes alternating in the abruptest manner with features of terrific grandeur, and softest sylvan beauty. The whole country for several miles eastward is composed of a highly crystalline porphyritic granite, displaying, in some instances, faces of a hard columnar rock, which confine the waters of the Findhorn to a deep, narrow, and irregular channel; and in other places giving rise (from a tendency in their masses to exfoliate and decompose) to open holms and smooth grassy banks. All the varieties of hardwood, characteristic of the course of Scottish rivers, are seen in rich profusion on both sides of the stream; while the adjoining hills, especially on the north side of the river, also exhibit a few scattered remnants of the ancient pine forests, which formerly covered the country. Towards the east, the eye is attracted by the bright light green masses of the oak and birchen copses of Tarnaway and Relugas, which form the outer fringes of the more sombre pine woods.

About a mile below Dulsie, a beautiful sequestered holm, adjoining the house and policies of Farness (Dougal), greets the traveller, encircled with terraced banks and birchen bowers; and in the centre of it rises a small cairn, with an ancient sculptured tablet, about eight feet high, and half as broad, standing at one end of it, and having a rude cross, and many Runic knots still discernible on its surface. Tradition calls it the stone of memorial of a Celtic princess, who perished in the adjoining river while attempting to ford it on horseback with her lover, a Dane. More likely it was the cross of an early Christian hermit.

8. Immediately behind this spot, the high promontory of Farness rises nearly 200 feet above the river, the direct course of which it has shifted, and confined to a deep winding chasm of at least three miles' circuit. A pathway cut in the face of the rock conducts the visitor through this extraordinary opening, down which the river plunges in almost one continued cataract; its craggy sides being set off, and divided into many magnificent studies for the pencil, by clumps of native pine and oak trees, which stretch along the summit and crevices of the rocks. On emerging from the chasm at the lower end, we hail with fresh delight the more open reaches of the river, spread out before the eye for several miles, adorned with sunny banks and waving woods, and displaying also an uncommonly beautiful succession of alluvial terraces, corresponding with one another on the opposite sides of the river, and which rise successively above one another, until they seem to meet in the flat-topped Dunmore of Dulsie. Proceeding downwards, the traveller passes the church and manse of Ardclach; and below these, the granite bridge of Farness; and five miles farther down, the bridge of Daltulich, where we again meet another branch of the Nairn road. About a mile below this bridge it is joined, on the south, by its tributary, the Divie, which is the conduit of the Dorback, flowing out of Lochindorbh, and of the numerous streams that fall from Brae Moray and the adjoining heights.

9. The scenery along the Divie, for a stretch of six or seven miles, from the spot where it leaps into its glen, in a wild waterfall, to its junction with the Findhorn, is exquisitely beautiful. The estate of Dunphail, belonging to Mr. Cumming Bruce, M.P., stretches nearly to its upper extremity; and below the junction of the Dorback, on a beautiful terraced holm, surrounded by an ampitheatre of wooded banks, intersected by extensive pleasure walks, and graced by fine old trees, the proprietor has erected his splendid mansion in the Venetian style. The ruins of the old castle, shooting up from a wood-embowered elevation in the grounds, form a peculiar feature of this charming spot.

10. Below the pleasure-grounds of Dunphail, the glen narrows, and the river Divie again, plunging into a wild rocky channel, with a rapid inclination towards the Findhorn, sweeps along the property of Reluas, another holding of an ancient branch of the Cumings, lately purchased by Mr. MacKillican. All that art, guided by good taste, could accomplish in embellishing and exposing to view the natural beauties of this estate, has been done for it. The old mansion-house, also, which stands on an eminence, a little way from the Findhorn, has been greatly enlarged, and finished off after the Italian fashion; and behind it is a steep conical hill, called the Dun of Relugas, on the summit of which are the remains of a vitrified fort, communicating with similar signal-stations on both the adjoining valleys.

11. Returning to the course of the Findhorn, we observe, just before its junction with the Divie, that it falls into a narrow strait among the rocks by a running cataract, over which the Earls of Moray were wont, till recent times, to keep up a rustic wooden bridge for the use of the district. From Randolph, the great head of their house, who himself used to pass here with a large troop of horsemen when on his way to and from his castle of Tarnaway, the spot is still called the "Brig of Rannoch," and is connected with several memorable transactions. It was, in particular, above this strait that the desperate skirmish of "The Lost Standard" was fought between Randolph and the Cumings, about the year 1340.

12. The river now plunges into a rocky channel, which is surmounted by brushwood, and fir and birch clad slopes, and skirted by large trunks of old oak and pine trees ; and behind the house of Logic (Cumming), a winding pathway conducts the stranger, beneath which he sees the river toiling among hard rocks of grey gneiss, traversed by many curiously twisted veins of a flesh-coloured granite, till at last (two miles on) he finds himself suddenly emerge from these rough and irregular primitive masses, and encompassed with scenery spread out before him in gently undulating ridges, and adorned with thick masses of coppice wood, fir, and birch; and through which the Find-horn, taking several long and magnificent sweeps, called the Esses, glides on, a broad and stately stream. It is here, then, that we quit the true alpine district, and enter on the soft sandstone plains of Moray, the forest and castle of Tarnaway, the seat of the Earl of Moray, appearing on the northern bank. [Tarnaway is remarkable for its fine old hall, roofed with black oak, and capable of containing 1000 men under arms.—(See Route iii.)]

13. Proceeding downwards along the stream, we soon reach the splendid drives of Altyre (Sir W. Gordon Cumming), which have been formed at great expense, but completely unfold to our view every favourable point commanding the adjoining unrivalled scenery. The river, broad and deep, rolls beneath high banks, the soft floetz rocks of which it has cut into shelving cliffs, their summits and edges being crowned with large sized trees. Beyond, the low grounds of Moray, enriched by the copious waters of the Findhorn, extend in long perspective towards the sea, which is in turn bounded by the beautiful outlines of the Sutherland and Caithness mountains. On the left a row of very old trees overhanging the water, and skirting the edge of a small meadow of a peculiarly lonely and sequestered character, have, from time immemorial, furnished a retreat to a great number of herons, who have literally encased the branches with their enormous nests. These stately birds, which, when absent from their nests, are always either hovering above the river's course, or patiently sitting on its brink watching their fishy prey, add an indescribable grace to the scene; while the wooded cliffs, opposite their resting-trees, afford ample opportunity to the passing traveller of leisurely studying their interesting and amusing habits.

14. A little way below the heronry the cliff scenery ceases; and a high gravel bank, receding from the river's side towards the east, but again approaching it about half-a-mile off, gives room to a beautiful semicircular space, called the Mead of St. John, from a small religious house which anciently stood on it. Through this fairy green, the Altyre pleasure-walks have been continued; and they are here further adorned with broad shrubberies, and shaded by large wide-spreading oaks. Several roads diverge from this neighbourhood, leading through the adjoining woods to the mansion-house of Altyre, which lies about a mile and a-half to the eastward, embosomed amid "tall ancestral trees." The house and offices have all been fitted up in the very picturesque and pleasing style of modern Italian architecture; and the grounds and gardens (which have been laid out with the greatest taste) vie with the richest examples of park scenery in this country. Sir William Cumming's domains are still, indeed, in every way befitting the dignity of the ancient Earls of Badenoch, whom he represents, though unaccompanied by the great extent of territory over which they ruled with unrestricted sway. The records of his family have been preserved with much care and regularity; and some of their charters, and extracts of the Baron Court-books of Altyre, which have been published, contain many interesting and curious traits of ancient manners.

Immediately below Cothall, where a high limestone rock closes in the Mead of St. John, the river Findhorn entirely quits its rocky channel, and flows on to the sea, through alluvial banks of gravel, sand, and clay, among which it frequently shifts its course, and injures the adjoining cultivated lands. Within a short distance from Forres, it is crossed on the line of the main post-road betwixt Aberdeen and Inverness by a very handsome and massive suspension-bridge, and two miles beyond it empties itself into a wide embouchure, or bay, from which its waters are again ushered through a narrow passage into the open sea at the port of Findhorn.--(See Route iii. for a description of Forres and its neighbourhood.)

15. In order to complete the sketch of the Findhorn's course, now presented to our readers, we have only to advert a little more fully to a character of its waters, already hinted at, which is their great liability to sudden and extraordinary floods, called speats. The Findhorn is, perhaps, in this respect, the most dangerous river in Scotland. The frequent falls of its bridges, and the injuries done almost every year to the low grounds near its mouth, sufficiently attest this ; while, in former days, the most distressing accidents were constantly occurring along its fords. Its great length, the mountainous character of the country through which it flows, and the narrowness of its rocky bed, are the causes of this sudden and dangerous rise of its waters. Many disastrous floods are on record ; but several proofs concur in establishing, that the greatest of these, since the country was inhabited, occurred between the 2d and 4th of August, in the year 1829.

The previous summer had been a remarkably dry one, especially in Morayshire. An accumulation of vapours appears to have taken place to the north-east of the British Isles, and a storm of wind and rain, commencing at the Orkneys, seems to have been impelled across the Moray Firth, and to have discharged itself on the Cairngorm and Monaliagh mountains, the first high ground which it met. On the coast but few indications of the coming deluge were perceived, except vast columns of clouds hurrying to the southward. After these, however, were broken on the mountains, the whole atmosphere became surcharged with moisture, which descended in a small, penetrating rain, almost as fine as dew, but so continuous, that, at Huntly Lodge, where accurate observations were taken, in the course of twenty-four hours, 34 inches of rain fell; which, as compared with the average of all the years from 1821 to 1828 inclusive, is equal to one-sixth part of the whole annual allowance of rain for these years.

The loss of human life on this occasion was, on the whole, very inconsiderable; but the value and quantity of land destroyed, of houses overturned, and of valuable timber torn up by the roots, along the Findhorn and the other rivers affected by the flood, extending over a line of from 500 to 600 miles, exceeded all calculation. Some idea, however, of the awful effects produced by this impetuous torrent of water may be formed from the fact, that in the Findhorn (as related in the very interesting and complete account of the flood published by Sir Thomas Dick Lauder), it rolled along masses of rod: of from six to eight tons' weight; that in the Streens it rose from fifteen to twenty-five feet above its ordinary level; forty feet at Dulsie Bridge; and at the more open space where the Farness Bridge stands, it overtopped the parapets twenty-seven feet above its usual bed. The height of the parapet of Daltulich Bridge, above the common line of the stream, is forty-four feet, of which the flood rose thirty-one feet; and at the gorge below, on the Relugas property, the water actually ascended over the very tops of the rocks, forty-six feet beyond its usual height, and inundated the level part of Rannoch-haugh, which lies over them, to the depth of four feet, making a total perpendicular rise at this point of no less than fifty feet. In the rapids of the Esses, on the Logic property, the flood also stood at this last-mentioned height; but below the estate of Sluie, the quantity of water was more easily ascertained by its destructiveness to the fields, mills, and other buildings along its banks, than by its depth. Of the beautiful bridge of Findhorn, near Forres, consisting of one arch of ninety-five feet, and two others of seventy-five feet span each, no trace was left but a fragment of the northern land-breast and part of the inclined approach from the south. All the salmon pools in the river were changed or filled up; and the water was so long impregnated with sand and mud, that the fish did not return for a long time in such number- as they were wont to do.

But our limits forbid our pursuing this subject any farther.

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