My Schools and Schoolmasters
The following is from My Schools and Schoolmasters by Hugh Miller:
Swimming the Conon--Click-Clack the carter--Loch Maree--Fitting up a barrack--Highland characteristics
The restorative powers of a constitution which at this time it took much hard usage to injure, came vigorously into operation on my removal from the wet ditch and the ruinous hovel; and ere the close of winter I had got once more into my ordinary state of robust health. I read, wrote, drew, corresponded with my friend William Ross (who had removed to Edinburgh), re-examined the Eathie Lias, and re-explored the Eathie Burn--a noble Old Red Sandstone ravine, remarkable for the wild picturesqueness of its cliffs and the beauty of its cataracts. I spent, too, many an evening in Uncle James's workshop, on better terms with both my uncles than almost ever before--a consequence, in part, of the sober complexion which, as the seasons passed, my mind was gradually assuming, and in part, of the manner in which I had completed my engagement with my master. "Act always," said Uncle James, "as you have done in this matter. In all your dealings, give your neighbour the cast of the bauk--'good measure, heaped up and running over'--and you will not lose by it in the end." I certainly did not lose by faithfully serving out my term of apprenticeship. It is not uninstructive to observe how strangely the public are led at times to attach paramount importance to what is in reality only subordinately important, and to pass over the really paramount without thought or notice. The destiny in life of the skilled mechanic is much more influenced, for instance, by his second education--that of his apprenticeship--than by his first--that of the school; and yet it is to the education of the school that the importance is generally regarded as attaching, and we never hear of the other. The careless, incompetent scholar has many opportunities of recovering himself; the careless, incompetent apprentice, who either fails to serve out his regular time, or who, though he fulfils his term, is discharged an inferior workman, has very few; and further, nothing can be more certain than that inferiority as a workman bears much more disastrously on the condition of the mechanic than inferiority as a scholar. Unable to maintain his place among brother journeymen, or to render himself worthy of the average wages of his craft, the ill-taught mechanic falls out of regular employment, subsists precariously for a time on occasional jobs, and either, forming idle habits, becomes a vagabond tramper, or, getting into the toils of some rapacious task-master, becomes an enslaved sweater. For one workman injured by neglect of his school-education, there are scores ruined by neglect of their apprenticeship-education. Three-fourths of the distress of the country's mechanics (of course not reckoning that of the unhappy class who have to compete with machinery), and nine-tenths of their vagabondism, will be found restricted to inferior workmen, who, like Hogarth's "careless apprentice," neglected the opportunities of their second term of education. The sagacious painter had a truer insight into this matter than most of our modern educationists.
My friend of the Doocot Cave had been serving a short apprenticeship to a grocer in London during the latter years in which I had been working out mine as a stone-mason in the north country; and I now learned that he had just returned to his native place, with the intention of setting up in business for himself. To those who move in the upper walks, the superiority in status of the village shop-keeper over the journeyman mason may not be very perceptible; but, surveyed from the lower levels of society, it is quite considerable enough to be seen; even Gulliver could determine that the Emperor of Lilliput was taller by almost the breadth of a nail than any of his Court; and, though extremely desirous of renewing my acquaintanceship with my old friend, I was sensible enough of his advantage over me in point of position, to feel that the necessary advances should be made on his part, not on mine. I, however, threw myself in his way, though after a manner so fastidiously proud and jealous, that even yet, every time the recollection crosses me, it provokes me to a smile. On learning that he was engaged at the quay in superintending the landing of some goods, for, I suppose, his future shop, I assumed the leathern apron, which I had thrown aside for the winter at Martinmas, and stalked past him in my working dress--a veritable operative mason--eyeing him steadfastly as I passed. He looked at me for a moment; and then, without sign of recognition, turned indifferently away. I failed taking into account that he had never seen me girt with a leathern apron before--that, since we had last parted, I had grown more than half a foot--and that a young man of nearly five feet eleven inches, with an incipient whisker palpably visible on his cheek, might be a different-looking sort of person from a smooth-chinned stripling of little more than five feet three. And certainly my friend, as I learned from him nearly three years after, failed on this occasion to recognise me. But believing that he did, and that he did not choose to reckon among his friends a humble working man, I returned to my home very sad, and, I am afraid, not a little angry; and, locking up the supposed slight in my breast, as of too delicate a nature to be communicated to any one, for more than two years from this time I did not again cross his path.
I was now my own master, and commenced work as a journeyman in behalf of one of my maternal aunts--the aunt who had gone so many years before to live with her aged relative, the cousin of my father, and the mother of his first wife. Aunt Jenny had resided for many years after this time with an aged widow lady, who had lived apart in quiet gentility on very small means; and now that she was dead, my aunt saw her vocation gone, and wished that she too could live apart, a life of humble independency, supporting herself by her spinning-wheel, and by now and then knitting a stocking. She feared, however, to encounter the formidable drain on her means of a half-yearly room-rent; and, as there was a little bit of ground at the head of the strip of garden left me by my father, which bordered on a road that, communicating between town and country, bore, as is common in the north of Scotland, the French name of the Pays, it occurred to me that I might try my hand, as a skilled mechanic, in erecting upon it a cottage for Aunt Jenny. Masons have, of course, more in their power in the way of house-building than any other class of mechanics. It was necessary, however, that there should be money provided for the purchase of wood for the roof, and for the carting of the necessary stones and mortar; and I had none. But Aunt Jenny had saved a few pounds, and a very few proved sufficient; and so I built a cottage in the Pays, of a single room and a closet, as my first job, which, if not very elegant, or of large accommodation, came fully up to Aunt Jenny's ideas of comfort, and which, for at least a quarter of a century, has served her as a home. It was completed before Whitsunday, and I then deliberated on setting myself to seek after employment of a more remunerative kind, with just a little of the feeling to which we owe one of the best-known elegiac poems in the language--the "Man was made to Mourn" of Burns. "There is nothing that gives me a more mortifying picture of human life," said the poet, "than a man seeking work." The required work, however, came direct in my way without solicitation, and exactly at the proper time. I was engaged to assist in hewing a Gothic gateway among the woods of my old haunt, Conon-side; and was then despatched, when the work was on the eve of being finished, to provide materials for building a house on the western coast of Ross-shire. My new master had found me engaged in the previous season, amid the wild turmoil of the barrack, in studying practical geometry, and had glanced approvingly over a series of architectural drawings which I had just completed; and he now sought me out in consequence, and placed me in charge of a small party which he despatched in advance of his other workmen, and which I was instructed to increase, by employing a labourer or two on arriving at the scene of our future employment.
We were to be accompanied by a carter from a neighbouring town; and on the morning fixed for the commencement of our journey, his cart and horse were early at Conon-side, to carry across the country the tools required at our new job; but of himself we saw no trace; and about ten o'clock we set off without him. Ascertaining, however, when about two miles on our way, that we had left behind us a lever useful in the setting of large stones, I bade my companion wait for me at the village of Contin, where we expected meeting the carter; and, returning for the tool, I quitted the high road on finding it, and, to save time, and avoid a detour of about three miles, struck across the country direct on the village. My way was, however, a very rough one; and in coming upon the Conon, which it was necessary I should ford--for by avoiding the detour I had missed the bridge--I found it tolerably heavy in flood. Save for the iron lever which I carried, I would have selected, as my point of crossing, one of the still deep pools, as much safer to a vigorous swimmer than any of the apparent fords, with their powerful currents, whirling eddies, and rough bottoms. But though the heroes of antiquity--men such as Julius CŠesar and Horatius Cocles--could swim across rivers and seas in heavy armour, the specific gravity of the human subject in these latter ages of the world forbids such feats; and, concluding that I had not levity enough in my framework to float across the lever, I selected, with some hesitation, one of the better-looking fords, and, with my trousers dangling from the iron beam on my shoulder, entered the river. Such was the arrowy swiftness of the current, however, that the water had scarce reached my middle when it began to hollow out the stones and gravel from under my feet, and to bear me down per force in a slanting direction. There was a foaming rapid just at hand; and immediately beyond, a deep, dark pool, in which the chafed current whirled around, as if exhausting the wrath aroused by its recent treatment among rocks and stones, ere recovering its ordinary temper; and had I lost footing, or been carried a little further down, I know not how it might have fared with me in the wild foaming descent that lay between the ford and the pool. Curiously enough, however, the one idea which, in the excitement of the moment, filled my mind, was an intensely ludicrous one. I would, of course, lose not only the lever in the torrent, but my trousers also; and how was I ever to get home without them? Where, in the name of wonder, should I get a kilt to borrow? I have oftener than once experienced this strange sensation of the ludicrous in circumstances with which a different feeling would have harmonized better. Byron represents it as rising in extreme grief: it is, however, I suspect, greatly more common in extreme danger; and all the instances which the poet himself gives in his note--Sir Thomas More on the scaffold, Anne Boleyn in the Tower, and those victims of the French Revolution "with whom it became a fashion to leave some mot as a legacy"--were all jokers rather in circumstances of desperate and hopeless peril than of sorrow. It is, however, in danger, us certainly as in grief, a joyless sort of mirth.
The feeling, however, though an inharmoniously toned, is not a weakening one. I laughed in the stream, but I did not yield to it; and, making a violent effort, when just on the edge of the rapid, I got into stiller water, and succeeded in making my way to the opposite bank, drenched to the arm-pits. It was in nearly the same reach of the Conon that my poor friend the maniac of Ord lost her life a few days after.
I found my companion in charge of the cart with our tools, baiting at an inn a little beyond Contin; but there was no sign of the carter; and we were informed by the innkeeper, to whom he was well known, that we might have to wait for him all day, and perhaps not see him at night. Click-Clack--a name expressive of the carter's fluency as a talker, by which he was oftener designated than by the one in the parish register--might no doubt have purposed in the morning joining us at an early hour, but that was when he was sober; and what his intention might be now, said the innkeeper, when in all probability he was drunk, no living man could say. This was rather startling intelligence to men who had a long journey through a rough country before them; and my comrade--a lad a year or two older than myself, but still an apprentice--added to my dismay by telling me he had been sure from the first there was something wrong with Click-Clack, and that his master had secured his services, not from choice, but simply because, having thoughtlessly become surety for him at a sale for the price of a horse, and being left to pay for the animal, he had now employed him, in the hope of getting himself reimbursed. I resolved, however, on waiting for the carter until the last moment after which it would be possible for us to reach our ultimate stage without perilously encroaching on the night; and, taking it for granted that he would not very soon join us, I set out for a neighbouring hill, which commands an extensive view, to take note of the main features of a district with which I had formed, during the two previous years, not a few interesting associations, and to dry my wetted clothes in the breeze and the sun. The old tower of Fairburn formed one of the most striking objects in the prospect; and the eye expatiated beyond from where the gneiss region begins, on a tract of broken hill and brown moor, uncheered by a single green field or human dwelling. There are traditions that, in their very peculiarity, and remoteness from the tract of ordinary intention, give evidence of their truth; and I now called up a tradition, which I owed to my friend the maniac, respecting the manner in which the Mackenzies of Fairburn and the Chisholms of Strathglass had divided this barren tract between them. It had lain, from the first settlement of the country, an unappropriated waste, and neither proprietor could tell where his own lands terminated, or those of his neighbour began; but finding that the want of a proper line of demarcation led to quarrels between their herdsmen when baiting in their summer shielings with their cattle, they agreed to have the tract divided. The age of land-surveyors had not yet come; but, selecting two old women of seventy-five, they sent them out at the same hour, to meet among the hills, the one from Fairburn Tower, the other from Erchless Castle, after first binding themselves to accept their place of meeting as the point at which to set up the boundary-stone of the two properties. The women, attended by a bevy of competent witnesses, journeyed as if for life and death; but the Fairburn woman, who was the laird's foster-mother, either more zealous or more active than the Chisholm one, travelled nearly two miles for her one; and when they came in sight of each other in the waste, it was far from the fields of Fairburn, and comparatively at no great distance from those of the Chisholm. It is not easy knowing why they should have regarded one another in the light of enemies; but at a mile's distance their flagging pace quickened into a run, and, meeting at a narrow rivulet, they would fain have fought; but lacking, in their utter exhaustion, strength for fighting and breath for scolding, they could only seat themselves on the opposite banks, and girn at one another across the stream. George Cruikshank has had at times worse subjects for his pencil. It is, I believe, Landor, in one of his "imaginary conversations," who makes a Highland laird inform Adam Smith that, desirous to ascertain, in some sort of conceivable degree, the size of his property, he had placed a line of pipers around it, each at such a distance from his nearest neighbour that he could barely catch the sound of his bagpipe; and that from the number of pipers required he was able to form an approximate estimate of the extent of his estate. And here, in a Highland tradition, genuine at least as such, are we introduced to an expedient of the kind scarce less ludicrous or inadequate than that which Landor must, in one of his humorous moods, have merely imagined.
I returned to the inn at the hour from which, as I have said, it would be possible for us, and not more than possible, to complete our day's journey; and finding, as I had anticipated, no trace of Click-Clack, we set off without him. Our way led us through long moory straths, with here and there a blue lake and birch wood, and here and there a group of dingy cottages and of irregular fields; but the general scenery was that of the prevailing schistose gneiss of the Scotch Highlands, in which rounded confluent hills stand up over long-withdrawing valleys, and imposing rather from its bare and lonely expansiveness, than from aught bold or striking in its features. The district had been opened up only a few seasons previous by the Parliamentary road over which we travelled, and was at that time little known to the tourist; and the thirty years which have since passed have in some respects considerably changed it, as they have done the Highlands generally. Most of the cottages, when I last journeyed the way, were represented by but broken ruins, and the fields by mossy patches that remained green amid the waste. I marked at one spot an extraordinary group of oak-trees, in the last stage of decay, which would have attracted notice from their great bulk and size in even the forests of England. The largest of the group lay rotting upon the ground--a black, doddered shell, fully six feet in diameter, but hollow as a tar-barrel; while the others, some four or five in number, stood up around it, totally divested of all their larger boughs, but green with leaves, that, from the minuteness of the twigs on which they grew, wrapped them around like close-fitting mantles. Their period of "tree-ship"--to borrow a phrase from Cowper--must have extended far into the obscure past of Highland history--to a time, I doubt not, when not a few of the adjacent peat mosses still lived as forests, and when some of the neighbouring clans--Frasers, Bissets, and Chisholms--had, at least under the existing names (French and Saxon in their derivation), not yet begun to be. Ere we reached the solitary inn of Auchen-nasheen--a true Highland clachan of the ancient type, the night had fallen dark and stormy for a night in June; and a grey mist which had been descending for hours along the hills--blotting off their brown summits bit by bit, as an artist might his pencilled hills with a piece of India rubber, but which, methodical in its encroachments, had preserved in its advances a perfect horizontality of line--had broken into a heavy, continuous rain. As, however, the fair weather had lasted us till we were within a mile of our journey's end, we were only partially wet on our arrival, and soon succeeded in drying ourselves in front of a noble turf fire. My comrade would fain have solaced himself, after our weary journey, with something nice. He held that a Highland inn should be able to furnish at least a bit of mutton-ham or a cut of dried salmon, and ordered a few slices, first of ham, and then of salmon; but his orders served merely to perplex the landlord and his wife, whose stores seemed to consist of only oatmeal and whisky; and, coming down in his expectations and demands, and intimating that he was very hungry, and that anything edible would do, we heard the landlady inform, with evident satisfaction, a red-armed wench, dressed in blue plaiding, that "the lads would take porridge." The porridge was accordingly prepared; and, when engaged in discussing this familiar viand, a little before midnight--for we had arrived late--a tall Highlander entered the inn, dropping like a mill-wheel. He was charged, he said, with messages to the landlord, and to two mason lads in the inn, from a forlorn carter with whom he had travelled about twenty miles, but who, knocked up by the "drap drink" and a pair of bad shoes, had been compelled to shelter for the night in a cottage about seven miles short of Auchen-nasheen. The carter's message to the landlord was simply to the effect that the two mason lads having stolen his horse and cart, he instructed him to detain his property for him until he himself should come up in the morning. As for his message to the lads, said the Highlander, "it was no meikle worth gaun o'er again; but if we liked to buckle on a' the Gaelic curses to a' the English ones, it would be something like that."
We were awakened next morning by a tremendous hubbub in the adjoining apartment. "It is Click-Clack the carter," said my comrade: "oh, what shall we do?" We leaped up; and getting into our clothes in doubly-quick time, set ourselves to reconnoitre through the crannies of a deal partition, and saw the carter standing in the middle of the next room, storming furiously, and the landlord, a smooth-spoken, little old man, striving hard to conciliate him. Click-Clack was a rough-looking fellow, turned of forty, of about five feet ten, with a black unshaven beard, like a shoe-brush stuck under his nose, which was red as a coal, and attired in a sadly-breached suit of Aberdeen grey, topped by a brimless hat, that had been borrowed, apparently, from some obliging scare-crow. I measured him in person and expression; and, deeming myself his match, even unassisted by my comrade, on whose discretion I could calculate with more certainty than on his valour, I entered the apartment, and taxed him with gross dereliction of duty. He had left us to drive his horse and cart for a whole day, and had broken, for the sake of his wretched indulgence in the public-house, his engagement with our master; and I would report him to a certainty. The carter turned upon me with the fierceness of a wild beast; but, first catching his eye, as I would that of a maniac, I set my face very near his, and he calmed down in a moment. He could not help being late, he said: he had reached the inn at Contin not an hour after we had left it; and it was really very hard to have to travel a long day's journey in such bad shoes. We accepted his apology; and, ordering the landlord to bring in half a mutchkin of whisky, the storm blew by. The morning, like the previous night, had been thick and rainy; but it gradually cleared up as the day rose; and after breakfast we set out together along a broken footpath, never before traversed by horse and cart. We passed a solitary lake, on whose shores the only human dwelling was a dark turf shieling, at which, however, Click-Clack ascertained there was whisky to be sold; and then entered upon a tract of scenery wholly different in its composition and character from that through which our journey had previously lain.
There runs along the west coast of Scotland, from the island of Rum to the immediate neighbourhood of Cape Wrath, a formation, laid down by Macculloch, in his Geological Map of the Kingdom, as Old Red Sandstone, but which underlies formations deemed primary--two of these of quartz rock, and a third of that unfossiliferous limestone in which the huge Cave of Smoo is hollowed, and to which the Assynt marbles belong. The system, which, taken as a whole--quartz-rock, lime, and sandstone--corresponds bed for bed with the Lower Old Red of the east coast, and is probably a highly metamorphic example of that great deposit, exhibits its fullest development in Assynt, where all its four component beds are present. In the tract on which we now entered, it presents only two of these--the lower quartz-rock, and the underlying red sandstone; but wherever any of its members appear, they present unique features--marks of enormous denudation, and a bold style of landscape altogether its own; and, in now entering upon it for the first time, I was much impressed by its extraordinary character. Loch Maree, one of the wildest of our Highland lakes, and at this time scarce at all known to the tourist, owes to it all that is peculiar in its appearance--its tall pyramidal quartz mountains, that rise at one stride, steep, and well-nigh as naked as the old Pyramids, from nearly the level of the sea, to heights on which at midsummer the snows of winter gleam white in streaks and patches; and a picturesque sandstone tract of precipitous hills, which flanks its western shore, and bore at this period the remains of one of the old pine forests. A continuous wall of gneiss mountains, that runs along the eastern side of the lake, sinks sheer into its brown depths, save at one point, where a level tract, half-encircled by precipices, is occupied by fields and copsewood, and bears in the midst a white mansion-house; the blue expanse of the lake greatly broadens in its lower reaches; and a group of partially submerged hillocks, that resemble the forest-covered ones on its western shores, but are of lower altitude, rise over its waters, and form a miniature archipelago, grey with lichened stone, and bosky with birch and hazel. Finding at the head of the loch that no horse and cart had ever forced their way along its sides, we had to hire a boat for the transport of at least cart and baggage; and when the boatmen were getting ready for the voyage, which was, with the characteristic dilatoriness of the district, a work of hours, we baited at the clachan of Kinlochewe--a humble Highland inn, like that in which we had passed the night. The name--that of an old farm which stretches out along the head or upper end of Loch Maree--has a remarkable etymology: it means simply the head of Loch Ewe--the salt-water loch into which the waters of Loch Maree empty themselves by a river little more than a mile in length, and whose present head is some sixteen or twenty miles distant from the farm which bears its name. Ere that last elevation of the land, however, to which our country owes the level marginal strip that stretches between the present coast-line and the ancient one, the sea must have found its way to the old farm. Loch Maree (Mary's Loch), a name evidently of mediŠval origin, would then have existed as a prolongation of the marine Loch Ewe, and Kinlochewe would have actually been what the compound words signify--the head of Loch Ewe. There seems to be reason for holding that, ere the latest elevation of the land took place in our island, it had received its first human inhabitants--rude savages, who employed tools and weapons of stone, and fashioned canoes out of single logs of wood. Are we to accept etymologies such as the instanced one--and there are several such in the Highlands--as good, in evidence that these aboriginal savages were of the Celtic race, and that Gaelic was spoken in Scotland at a time when its strips of grassy links, and the sites of many of its seaport towns, such as Leith, Greenock, Musselburgh, and Cromarty, existed as oozy sea-beaches, covered twice every day by the waters of the ocean?
It was a delightful evening--still, breathless, clear--as we swept slowly across the broad breast of Loch Maree; and the red light of the sinking sun fell on many a sweet wild recess, amid the labyrinth of islands purple with heath, and overhung by the birch and mountain-ash; or slanted along the broken glades of the ancient forest; or lighted up into a blush the pale stony faces of the tall pyramidal hills. A boat bearing a wedding party was crossing the lake to the white house on the opposite side, and a piper stationed in the bows, was discoursing sweet music, that, softened by distance, and caught up by the echoes of the rocks, resembled no strain I had ever heard from the bagpipe before. Even the boatmen rested on their oars, and I had just enough of Gaelic to know that they were remarking how very beautiful it was. "I wish," said my comrade, "you understood these men: they have a great many curious stories about the loch, that I am sure you would like. See you that large island? It is Island-Maree. There is, they tell me, an old burying-ground on it, in which the Danes used to bury long ages ago, and whose ancient tomb-stones no man can read. And yon other island beside it is famous as the place in which the good people meet every year to make submission to their queen. There is, they say, a little loch in the island, and another little island in the loch; and it is under a tree on that inner island that the queen sits and gathers kain for the Evil One. They tell me that, for certain, the fairies have not left this part of the country yet." We landed, a little after sunset, at the point from which our road led across the hills to the sea-side, but found that the carter had not yet come up; and at length, despairing of his appearance, and unable to carry off his cart and the luggage with us, as we had succeeded in bringing off cart, horse, and luggage on the previous day, we were preparing to take up our night's lodging under the shelter of an overhanging crag, when we heard him coming soliloquizing through the wood, in a manner worthy of his name, as if he were not one, but twenty carters. "What a perfect shame of a country!" he exclaimed--"perfect shame! Road for a horse, forsooth!--more like a turnpike stair. And not a feed of corn for the poor beast; and not a public-house atween this and Kinlochewe; and not a drop of whisky: perfect, perfect shame of a country!" On his coming up in apparently very bad humour, we found him disposed to transfer the shame of the country to our shoulders. What sort of people were we, he asked, to travel in such a land without whisky! Whisky, however, there was none to produce: there was no whisky nearer, we told him, than the public-house at the sea-side, where we proposed spending the night; and, of course, the sooner we got there the better. And after assisting him to harness his horse, we set off in the darkening twilight, amid the hills. Rough grey rocks, and little blue lochans, edged with flags, and mottled in their season with water-lilies, glimmered dim and uncertain in the imperfect light as we passed; but ere we reached the inn of Flowerdale in Gairloch, every object stood out clear, though cold, in the increscent light of morning; and a few light streaks of cloud, poised in the east over the unrisen sun, were gradually exchanging their gleam of pale bronze for a deep flush of mingled blood and fire.
After the refreshment of a few hours' sleep and a tolerable breakfast, we set out for the scene of our labours, which lay on the sea-shore, about two miles further to the north and west; and were shown an out-house--one of a square of dilapidated offices--which we might fit up, we were told, for our barrack. The building had been originally what is known on the north-western coast of Scotland, with its ever-weeping climate, as a hay-barn; but it was now merely a roof-covered tank of green stagnant water, about three-quarters of a foot in depth, which had oozed through the walls from an over-gorged pond in the adjacent court, that in a tract of recent rains had overflowed its banks, and not yet subsided. Our new house did look exceedingly like a beaver-dam, with this disadvantageous difference, that no expedient of diving could bring us to better chambers on the other side of the wall. My comrade, setting himself to sound the abyss with his stick, sung out in sailor style, "three feet water in the hold." Click-Clack broke into a rage: "That a dwelling for human creatures!" he said. "If I was to put my horse intil't, poor beast! the very hoofs would rot off him in less than a week. Are we eels or puddocks, that we are sent to live in a loch?" Marking, however, a narrow portion of the ridge which dammed up the waters of the neighbouring pool whence our domicile derived its supply, I set myself to cut it across, and had soon the satisfaction of seeing the general surface lowered fully a foot, and the floor of our future dwelling laid bare. Click-Clack, gathering courage as he saw the waters ebbing away, seized a shovel, and soon showed us the value of his many years' practice in the labours of the stable; and then, despatching him for a few cart-loads of a dry shell-sand from the shore, which I had marked by the way as suitable for mixing with our lime, we had soon for our tank of green water a fine white floor. "Man wants but little here below," especially in a mason's barrack. There were two square openings in the apartment, neither of them furnished with frame or glass; but the one we filled up with stone, and an old unglazed frame, which, with the assistance of a base and border of turf, I succeeded in fitting into the other, gave at least an air of respectability to the place. Boulder stones, capped with pieces of mossy turf, served us for seats; and we had soon a comfortable peat fire blazing against the gable; but we were still sadly in want of a bed: the fundamental damp of the floor was, we saw, fast gaining on the sand; and it would be neither comfortable nor safe to spread our dried grass and blankets over it. My comrade went out to see whether the place did not furnish materials enough of any kind to make a bedstead, and soon returned in triumph, dragging after him a pair of harrows which he placed side by side in a snug corner beside the fire, with of course the teeth downwards. A good Catholic, prepared to win heaven for himself by a judicious use of sharp points, might have preferred having them turned the other way; but my comrade was an enlightened Protestant; and besides, like Goldsmith's sailor, he loved to lie soft. The second piece of luck was mine. I found lying unclaimed in the yard an old barn-door, which a recent gale had blown from off its hinges; and by placing it above the harrows, and driving a row of stakes around it into the floor, to keep the outer sleeper from rolling off--for the wall served to secure the position of the inner one--we succeeded in constructing, by our joint efforts, a luxurious bed. There was but one serious drawback on its comforts: the roof overhead was bad, and there was an obstinate drop, that used, during every shower which fell in the season of sleep, to make a dead set at my face, and try me at times with the water torture of the old story, mayhap half a dozen times in the course of a single night.
Our barrack fairly fitted up, I set out with my comrade, whose knowledge of Gaelic enabled him to act as my interpreter, to a neighbouring group of cottages, to secure a labourer for the work of the morrow. The evening was now beginning to darken; but there was still light enough to show me that the little fields I passed through on my way resembled very much those of Liliput, as described by Gulliver. They were, however, though equally small, greatly more irregular, and had peculiarities, too, altogether their own. The land had originally been stony; and as I showed, according to the Highland phrase, its "bare bones through its skin"--large bosses of the rock beneath coming here and there to the surface--the Highlanders had gathered the stones in great pyramidal heaps on the bare bosses; and so very numerous were these in some of the fields, that they looked as if some malignant sorcerer had, in the time of harvest, converted all their shocks into stone. On approaching the cottage of our future labourer, I was attracted by a door of very peculiar construction that lay against the wall. It had been brought from the ancient pine forest on the western bank of Loch Maree, and was formed of the roots of trees so curiously interlaced by nature, that when cut out of the soil, which it had covered over like a piece of network, it remained firmly together, and now formed a door which the mere imitator of the rustic might in vain attempt to rival. We entered the cottage, and plunging downwards two feet or so, found ourselves upon the dunghill of the establishment, which in this part of the country usually occupied at the time an ante-chamber which corresponded to that occupied by the cattle a few years earlier, in the midland districts of Sutherland. Groping in this foul outer chamber through a stifling atmosphere of smoke, we came to an inner door raised to the level of the soil outside, through which a red umbry gleam escaped into the darkness; and, climbing into the inner apartment, we found ourselves in the presence of the inmates of the mansion. The fire, as in the cottage of my Sutherlandshire relative, was placed in the middle of the floor: the master of the mansion, a red-haired, strongly-built Highlander, of the middle size and age, with his son, a boy of twelve, sat on the one side; his wife, who, though not much turned of thirty, had the haggard, drooping cheeks, hollow eyes, and pale, sallow complexion of old age, sat on the other. We broke our business to the Highlander through my companion--for, save a few words caught up at school by the boy, there was no English in the household--and found him disposed to entertain it favourably. A large pot of potatoes hung suspended over the fire, under a dense ceiling of smoke; and he hospitably invited us to wait supper, which, as our dinner had consisted of but a piece of dry oaten cake, we willingly did. As the conversation went on, I became conscious that it turned upon myself, and that I was an object of profound commiseration to the inmates of the cottage. "What," I inquired of my companion, "are these kind people pitying me so very much for?" "For your want of Gaelic, to be sure. How can a man get on in the world that wants Gaelic?" "But do not they themselves," I asked, "want English?" "O yes," he said, "but what does that signify? What is the use of English in Gairloch?" The potatoes, with a little ground salt, and much unbroken hunger as sauce, ate remarkably well. Our host regretted that he had no fish to offer us; but a tract of rough weather had kept him from sea, and he had just exhausted his previous supply; and as for bread, he had used up the last of his grain crop a little after Christmas, and had been living, with his family, on potatoes, with fish when he could get them, ever since.
Thirty years have now passed since I shared in the Highlander's evening meal, and during the first twenty of these, the use of the potatoe--unknown in the Highlands a century before--greatly increased. I have been told by my maternal grandfather, that about the year 1740, when he was a boy of about eight or nine years of age, the head-gardener at Balnagown Castle used, in his occasional visits to Cromarty, to bring him in his pocket, as great rarities, some three or four potatoes; and that it was not until some fifteen or twenty years after this time that he saw potatoes reared in fields in any part of the Northern Highlands. But, once fairly employed as food, every season saw a greater breadth of them laid down. In the North-western Highlands, in especial, the use of these roots increased from the year 1801 to the year 1846 nearly a hundredfold, and came at length to form, as in Ireland, not merely the staple, but in some localities almost the only food of the people; and when destroyed by disease in the latter year, famine immediately ensued in both Ireland and the Highlands. A writer in the Witness, whose letter had the effect of bringing that respectable paper under the eye of Mr. Punch, represented the Irish famine as a direct judgment on the Maynooth Endowment; while another writer, a member of the Peace Association--whose letter did not find its way into the Witness, though it reached the editor--challenged the decision on the ground that the Scotch Highlanders, who were greatly opposed to Maynooth, suffered from the infliction nearly as much as the Irish themselves, and that the offence punished must have been surely some one of which both Highlanders and Irish had been guilty in common. He, however, had found out, he said, what the crime visited actually was. Both the Irish and Highland famines were judgments upon the people for their great homicidal efficiency as soldiers in the wars of the empire--an efficiency which, as he truly remarked, was almost equally characteristic of both nations. For my own part, I have been unable hitherto to see the steps which conduct to such profound conclusions; and am content simply to hold, that the superintending Providence who communicated to man a calculating, foreseeing nature, does occasionally get angry with him, and inflict judgments upon him, when, instead of exercising his faculties, he sinks to a level lower than his own, and becomes content, like some of the inferior animals, to live on a single root.
There are two periods favourable to observation--an early and a late one. A fresh eye detects external traits and peculiarities among a people, seen for the first time, which disappear as they become familiar; but it is not until after repeated opportunities of study, and a prolonged acquaintanceship, that internal characteristics and conditions begin to be rightly known. During the first fortnight of my residence in this remote district, I was more impressed than at a later stage by certain peculiarities of manner and appearance in the inhabitants. Dr. Johnson remarked that he found fewer very tall or very short men among the people of the Hebrides than in England: I was now struck by a similar mediocrity of size among the Highlanders of Western Ross; five-sixths of the grown men seemed to average between five feet seven and five feet nine inches in height, and either tall or short men I found comparatively rare. The Highlanders of the eastern coast were, on the contrary, at that period, mayhap still, very various of stature--some of them exceedingly diminutive, others of great bulk and height; and, as might be seen in the congregations of the parish churches removed by but a few miles, there were marked differences in this respect between the people of contiguous districts--certain tracts of plain or valley producing larger races than others. I was inclined to believe at the time that the middle-sized Highlanders of the west coast were a less mixed race than the unequally-sized Highlanders of the east: I at least found corresponding inequalities among the higher-born Highland families, that, as shown by their genealogies, blended the Norman and Saxon with the Celtic blood; and as the unequally-sized Highland race bordered on that Scandinavian one which fringes the greater part of the eastern coast of Scotland, I inferred that there had been a similar blending of blood among them. I have since seen, in Gustav Kombst's Ethnographic Map of the British Islands, the difference which I at this time but inferred, indicated by a different shade of colour, and a different name. The Highlanders of the east coast Kombst terms "Scandinavian-Gaelic;" those of the west, "Gaelic-Scandinavian-Gaelic,"--names indicative, of course, of the proportions in which he holds that they possess the Celtic blood. Disparity of bulk and size appears to be one of the consequences of a mixture of races; nor does the induced inequality seem restricted to the physical framework. Minds of large calibre, and possessed of the kingly faculty, come first into view, in our history, among the fused tribes, just as of old it was the mixed marriages that first produced the giants. The difference in size which I remarked in particular districts of the Scandinavian-Gaelic region, separated, in some instances, by but a ridge of hills or an expanse of moor, must have been a result of the old clan divisions, and is said to have marked the clans themselves very strongly. Some of them were of a greatly more robust, and some of a slimmer type, than others.
I was struck by another peculiarity in the west coast Highlanders. I found the men in general greatly better-looking than the women, and that in middle life they bore their years much more lightly. The females seemed old and haggard at a period when the males were still comparatively fresh and robust. I am not sure whether the remark may not in some degree apply to Highlanders generally. The "rugged form" and "harsher features," which, according to Sir Walter, "mark the mountain band," accord worse with the female than with the male countenance and figure. But I at least found this discrepancy in the appearance of the sexes greatly more marked on the west than on the eastern coast; and saw only too much reason to conclude that it was owing in great part to the disproportionately large share of crushing labour laid, in the district, in accordance with the practice of a barbarous time, on the weaker frame of the female. There is, however, a style of female loveliness occasionally though rarely exemplified in the Highlands, which far transcends the Saxon or Scandinavian type. It is manifested usually in extreme youth--at least between the fourteenth and eighteenth year; and its effect we find happily indicated by Wordsworth--who seems to have met with a characteristic specimen--in his lines to a Highland girl. He describes her as possessing as her "dower," "a very shower of beauty." Further, however, he describes her as very young.
I was, besides, struck at this time by finding, that while almost all the young lads under twenty with whom I came in contact had at least a smattering of English, I found only a single Highlander turned of forty with whom I could exchange a word. The exceptional Highlander was, however, a curiosity in his way. He seemed to have a natural turn for acquiring languages, and had derived his English, not from conversation, but, in the midst of a Gaelic-speaking people, from the study of the Scriptures in our common English version. His application of Bible language to ordinary subjects told at times with rather ludicrous effect. Upon inquiring of him, on one occasion, regarding a young man whom he wished to employ as an extra labourer, he described him in exactly the words in which David is described in the chapter that records the combat with Goliath, as "but a youth, and ruddy, and of a fair countenance;" and on asking where he thought we could get a few loads of water-rolled pebbles for causewaying a floor, he directed us to the bed of a neighbouring rivulet, where we might "choose us," he said, "smooth stones out of the brook." He spoke with great deliberation, translating evidently his Gaelic thinking, as he went on, into scriptural English.
Chapter XIII--The Brothers Fraser--Flora of the Northern Hebrides--Diving in the Gareloch--Sabbaths in Flowerdale woods--Causes of Highland distress