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In The Land of Rob Roy

By Nathaniel P. Willis

[From Willis's "Famous Persons and Places" we select an interesting description of some Scottish scenes which the works of Scott have rendered famous, including the home of Rob Roy and the lakes Lomond and Katrine, the latter the scene of the "Lady of the Lake." Passing many famous places on his way north, the traveller at length reached the "far-famed and much-boasted valley of Glencoe," which he describes in the chapter following.]

We passed the head of the valley near Tyndrum, where McDougal of Lorn defeated the Bruce, and were half-way up the wild pass that makes its southern outlet, when our Highland driver, with a shout of delight, pointed out to us a red deer, standing on the very summit of the highest mountain above us. It was an incredible distance to see any living thing, but he stood clear against the sky, in a relief as strong as if he had been suspended in the air, and with his head up, and his chest towards us, seemed the true monarch of the wild.

At Invarenden, Donald McPhee begged for the discharge of himself and his horse and cart from our service. He had come with us eighty miles, and was afraid to venture farther on his travels, having never before been twenty miles from the Highland village where he lived. It was amusing to see the curiosity with which he looked about him, and the caution with which he suffered the hostler at the inn to take the black mare out of his sight. The responsibility of the horse and cart weighed heavily on his mind, and he expressed his hope to "get her back safe," with an apprehensive resolution that would have become a knight-errant girding himself for his most perilous encounter. Poor Donald! how little he knew how wide is the world, and how very like one part of it is to another!

Our host of Invarenden supplied us with another cart to take us down to Tarbot, and having dined with a waterfall looking in at each of our two opposite windows (the inn stands in a valley between two mountains), we were committed to the care of his eldest boy, and jolted off for the head of Loch Lomond.

I have never happened to see a traveller who had seen Loch Lomond in perfectly good weather. My companion had been there every summer for several years, and believes it always rained under Ben Lomond. As we came in sight of the lake, however, the water looked like one sheet of gold leaf, trembling, as if by the motion of fish below, but unruffled by wind; and if paradise were made so fair, and had such waters in its midst, I could better conceive than before the unhappiness of Adam when driven forth. The sun was just setting, and the road descended immediately to the shore, and kept along under precipitous rocks, and slopes of alternate cultivation and heather, to the place of our destination. And a lovely place it is! Send me to Tarbot when I would retreat from the world. It is an inn buried in a grove at the foot of hills, and set in a bend of the lake-shore, like a diamond upon an "orbed brow;" and the light in its kitchen, as we approached in the twilight, was as interesting as a ray of the "first water" from the same. We had now reached the route of the cockney tourists, and while we perceived it agreeably in the excellence of the hotel, we perceived it disagreeably in the price of the wines, and the presence of what my friend called "unmitigated vulgarisms" in the coffee-room. That is the worst of England. The people are vulgar, but not vulgar enough. One dances with the lazzaroni at Naples, when he would scarce think of handing the newspaper to the "person" on a tour at Tarbot. Condescension is the only agreeable virtue, I have made up my mind.

Well--it was moonlight. The wind was south and affectionate, and the road in front of the hotel "fleck'd with silver," and my friend's wife, and the corresponding object of interest to myself, being on the other side of Ben Lomond and the Tweed, we had nothing for it after supper but to walk up and down with one another, and talk of the past. In the course of our ramble we walked through an open gate, and, ascending a gravel walk, found a beautiful cottage, built between two mountain streams, and ornamented with every device of taste and contrivance. The mild pure torrents were led over falls and brought to the threshold of bowers, and seats, and bridges, and winding paths were distributed up the steep channels in a way that might make it a haunt for Titania. It is the property, we found afterwards, of a Scotch gentleman, and a great summer retreat of the celebrated Jeffrey, his friend. It was one more place to which my heart clung in parting.

Loch Lomond sat still for its picture in the morning, and after an early breakfast we took a row-boat, with a couple of Highlanders, for Inversnade, and pulled across the lake with a kind of drowsy delightfulness in the scene and air which I had never before found out of Italy. We overshot our destination a little to look into Rob Roy's cave, a dark den in the face of the rock, which has the look of his vocation; and then pulling back along the shore, we were landed, in the spray of a waterfall, at a cottage occupied by the boatman of this Highland ferry. From this point across to Loch Katrine is some five miles, and the scene of Scott's novel of Rob Roy. It has been "done" so often by tourists that I leave all particular description of the localities and the scenery to the well-hammered remembrance of readers of magazines, and confine myself to my own private adventures.

The distance between the lakes is usually performed by ladies on donkeys, and by gentlemen on foot, but being myself rather tender-toed with the gout, my companion started off alone, and I lay down on the grass at Inversnade to wait the return of the long-eared troop, who were gone across with an earlier party. The waterfall and the cottage just above the edge of the lake, a sharp hill behind, closely wooded with beech and fir, and, on a greensward platform in the rear of the house, two Highland lassies, and a laddie, treading down a stack of new hay, were not bad circumstances in which to be left alone with the witcheries of the great enchanter.

I must narrate here an adventure in which my own part was rather a discomfiture, but which will show somewhat the manners of the people. My companion had been gone half an hour, and I was lying at the foot of a tree, listening to the waterfall and looking off on the lake, and watching by fits the lad and lassies I have spoken of, who were building a haystack between them, and chattering away most unceasingly in Gaelic. The eldest of the girls was a tall, ill-favored damsel, merry as an Oread, but as ugly as Donald Bean; and after a while I began to suspect, by the looks of the boy below, that I had furnished her with a new theme. She addressed some remark to me presently, and a skirmish of banter ensued, which ended in a challenge to me to climb upon the stack. It was about ten feet high, and shelving outward from the bottom, and my Armida had drawn up the ladder. The stack was built, however, under a high tree, and I was soon up the trunk, and, swinging off from a low branch, dropped in the middle of the stack.

In the same instant I was raised in a grasp to which I could offer no resistance, and, with a fling to which I should have believed the strength of few men equal, thrown clear of the stack to the ground. I alighted on my back, with a fall of perhaps twelve feet, and felt seriously hurt. The next moment, however, my gentle friend had me in her arms (I am six feet high in my stockings), and I was carried into the cottage, and laid on a flock bed, before I could well decide whether my back was broken or no. Whiskey was applied externally and internally, and the old crone, who was the only inhabitant of the hovel, commenced a lecture in Gaelic, as I stood once more sound upon my legs, which seemed to take effect upon the penitent, though her victim was no wiser for it. I took the opportunity to look at the frame which had proved itself of such vigorous power, but, except arms of extraordinary length, she was like any other equally ugly, middle-sized woman. In the remaining half-hour before the donkeys arrived we became the best of friends, and she set me off for Loch Katrine with a caution to the ass-driver to take care of me, which that sandy-haired Highlander took as an excellent joke, and no wonder!

The long mountain glen between these two lakes was the home of Rob Roy, and the Highlanders point out various localities, all commemorated in Scott's incomparable story. The house where Helen McGregor was born lies a stone's throw off the road to the left, and Rob Roy's gun is shown by an old woman who lives near by. He must have been rich in arms by the same token, for, besides the well-authenticated one at Abbotsford, I have seen some dozen guns and twice as many daggers and shot-pouches which lay claim to the same honor. I paid my shilling to the old woman not the less. She owed it to the pleasure I had received from Sir Walter's novel.

The view of Loch Lomond back from the highest point of the pass is incomparably fine; at least when I saw it, for sunshine and temperature and the effect of the light vapors on the hills were at their loveliest and most favorable. It looks more like the haunt of a robber and his caterans, probably, in its more common garb of Scotch mist, but, to my eye, it was a scene of the most Arcadian peace and serenity. I dawdled along the five miles upon my donkey, with something of an ache in my back, but a very healthful and sunny freedom from pain and impatience at my heart. And so did not Baillie Nicol Jarvie make the same memorable journey.

The cottage inn at the head of Loch Katrine was tenanted by a woman, who might have been a horse-guardsman in petticoats, and who kept her smiles for other cattle than the Sassenach. We bought her whiskey and milk, praised her butter, and were civil to the little Highlandman at her breast; but neither mother nor child were to be mollified. The rocks were bare around, we were too tired for a pull in the boat, and three mortal hours lay between us and the nearest event in our history. I first penetrated, in the absence of our Hecate, to the inner room of the sheiling. On the wall hung a broadsword, two guns, a trophy or two of deer's horns, and a Sunday suit of plaid, philibeg and short red coat, surmounted by a gallant bonnet and feather. Four cribs, like the berths in a ship, occupied the farther side of the chamber, each large enough to contain two persons; a snow-white table stood between the windows; a sixpenny glass, with an eagle's feather stuck in the frame, hung at such a height that, "though tall of my hands," I could just see my nose; and just under the ceiling on the left was a broad and capacious shelf, on which reposed apparently the old clothes of a century,--a sort of place where the gude-wife would have hidden Prince Charlie, or might rummage for her grandmother's baby linen.

The heavy steps of the dame came over the threshold, and I began to doubt from the look in her eyes whether I should get a blow of her hairy arm or a "persuader" from the butt of a gun for my intrusion. "What are ye wantin' here?" she speered at me, with a Helen-McGregor-to-Baillie-Nicol-Jarvie sort of an expression.

"I was looking for a potato to roast, my good woman."

"Is that a'? Ye'll find it ayont, then!" And pointing to a bag in the corner, she stood while I subtracted the largest, and then followed me to the general kitchen and receiving-room, where I buried my improvista dinner in the remains of a peat-fire, and congratulated myself on my ready apology.

What to do while the potato was roasting! My English friend had already cleaned his gun for amusement, and I had looked on. We had stoned the pony till he had got beyond us in the morass (small thanks to us if the dame knew it). We had tried to make a chicken swim ashore from the boat, we had fired away all my friend's percussion-caps, and there was nothing for it but to converse rigueur. We lay on our backs till the dame brought us the hot potato on a shovel, with oatcake and butter, and with this Highland dinner the last hour came decently to its death.

An Englishman with his wife and lady's maid came over the hills with a boat's crew, and a lassie who was not very pretty, but who lived on the lake, and had found the means to get "Captain Rob" and his men pretty well under her thumb. We were all embarked, the lassie in the stern-sheets with the captain, and ourselves, though we "paid the scot," of no more consideration than our portmanteaus. I was amused, for it was the first instance I had seen in any country (my own not excepted) of thorough emancipation from the distinction of superiors. Luckily, the girl was bent on showing the captain to advantage, and by ingenious prompting and catechism she induced him to do what probably was his custom when he could not better amuse himself, point out the localities as the boat sped on, and quote the Lady of the Lake with an accent which made it a piece of good fortune to have "crammed" the poem beforehand.

The shores of the lake are flat and uninteresting at the head, but towards the scene of Scott's romance they rise into bold precipices, and gradually become worthy of their celebrity. The Trosachs are a cluster of small, green mountains, strewn, or rather piled, with shrubs and mossy verdure, and from a distance you would think only a bird, or Ranald of the Mist, could penetrate their labyrinthine recesses. Captain Rob showed us successively the Braes of Balquidder, Rob Roy's birth- and burial-place, Benledi, and the crag from which hung, by the well-woven skirts of braid cloth, the worthy bailie of Glasgow; and, beneath a precipice of remarkable wildness, the half-intoxicated steersman raised his arm, and began to repeat, in the most unmitigated gutturals,--

"High o'er the south hung Benvenue,
Down to the lakes his masses threw,
Crags, knowls, and mounds confusedly hurl'd
The fragments of an earlier wurruld."

I have underlined it according to the captain's judicious emphasis, and in the last word have endeavored to spell after his remarkable pronunciation. Probably to a Frenchman, however, it would have seemed all very fine,--for Captain Rob (I must do him justice, though he broke the strap of my portmanteau) was as good-looking a ruffian as you would sketch on a summer's tour.

Some of the loveliest water I have ever seen in my life (and I am rather an amateur at that element to look at) lies deep down at the bases of these divine Trosachs. The usual approaches from lake to mountain (beach or sloping shore) are here dispensed with; and straight up from the deep water rise the green precipices and bold and ragged rocks, overshadowing the glassy mirror below with tints like a cool corner in a landscape of Ruysdael's. It is something (indeed, on a second thought, exceedingly) like Lake George; only that the islands in this extremity of Loch Katrine lie closer together, and permit the sun no entrance except by a ray almost perpendicular. A painter will easily understand the effect of this,--the loss of all that makes a surface to the water, and the consequent far depth to the eye, as if the boat in which you shot over it brought with it its own water and sent its ripple through the transparent air. I write currente calamo, and have no time to clear up my meaning, but it will be evident to all lovers of nature.

Captain Rob put up his helm for a little fairy green island, lying like a lapful of green moss on the water, and, rounding a point, we ran suddenly into a cove sheltered by a tree, and in a moment the boat grated on the pebbles of a natural beach perhaps ten feet in length. A flight of winding steps, made roughly of roots and stones, ascended from the water's edge.

"Gentlemen and ladies!" said the captain, with a hiccup, "this is Ellen's Isle. This is the gnarled oak" (catching at a branch of a tree as the boat swung astern), "and--you'll please to go up them steps, an' I'll tell you the rest in Ellen's bower."

The Highland lassie sprang on shore, and we followed up the steep ascent, arriving breathless at last at the door of a fanciful bower, built by Lord Willoughby d'Eresby, the owner of the island, exactly after the description in the Lady of the Lake. The chairs were made of crooked branches of trees and covered with deer-skins, the tables were laden with armor and every variety of weapon, and the rough beams of the building were hung with antlers and other spoils of the chase.

"Here's where she lived!" said the captain, with the gravity of a cicerone at the Forum, "and noo, if ye'll come out, I'll show you the echo!"

We followed to the highest point of the island, and the Highlandman gave a scream that showed considerable practice, but I thought he would have burst his throat in the effort. The awful echo went round, "as mentioned in the bill of performance," every separate mountain screaming back the discord till you would have thought the Trosachs a crew of mocking giants. It was a wonderful echo, but, like most wonders, I could have been content to have had less for my money.

There was a "small silver beach" on the mainland opposite, and above it a high mass of mountain.

"There," said the captain, "gentlemen and ladies, is where Fitz-James blew'd his bugle, and waited for the 'light shallop' of Ellen Douglas; and here, where you landed and came up them steps, is where she brought him to the bower, and the very tree's still there,--as you see'd me tak' hold of it,--and over the hill, yonder, is where the gallant gray giv' out, and breathed his last, and (will you turn round, if you please, them that likes?) yonder's where Fitz-James met Red Murdoch that killed Blanche of Devon, and right across this water swum young Greme that disdained the regular boat, and I s'pose on that lower step set the old Harper and Ellen many a time a-watching for Douglas,--and now, if you'd like to hear the echo once more----"

"Heaven forbid!" was the universal cry; and, in fear of our ears, we put the bower between us and Captain Rob's lungs, and followed the Highland girl back to the boat.

From Ellen's Isle to the head of the small creek, so beautifully described in the "Lady of the Lake," the scenery has the same air of lavish and graceful vegetation, and the same features of mingled boldness and beauty. It is a spot altogether that one is sure to live much in with memory. I see it as clearly now as then.

The whiskey had circulated pretty freely among the crew, and all were more or less intoxicated. Captain Rob's first feat on his legs was to drop my friend's gun-case and break it to pieces, for which he instantly got a cuff between the eyes from the boxing dandy that would have done the business for a softer head. The Scot was a powerful fellow, and I anticipated a row; but the tremendous power of the blow and the skill with which it was planted quite subdued him. He rose from the grass as white as a sheet, but quietly shouldered the portmanteau with which he had fallen, and trudged on with sobered steps to the inn.

We took a post-chaise immediately for Callender, and it was not till we were five miles from the foot of the lake that I lost my apprehensions of an apparition of the Highlander from the darkening woods. We arrived at Callender at nine, and the next morning at sunrise were on our way to breakfast at Stirling.

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