Home eBooks Index eBooks by Author Glossary Search eBooks

My Schools and Schoolmasters

The following is from My Schools and Schoolmasters by Hugh Miller:

Chapter V

A would-be patroness--Boyish games--First friendship--Visit to the Highlands--Geologizing in the Gruids--Ossian-worship

                                  "The wise
Shook their white aged heads o'er me, and said.
Of Such materials wretched men were made."


The report went abroad about this time, not without some foundation, that Miss Bond purposed patronizing me. The copy of my verses which had fallen into her hands--a genuine holograph--bore a-top a magnificent view of the Doocot, in which horrid crags of burnt umber were perforated by yawning caverns of Indian ink, and crested by a dense pine-forest of sap-green; while vast waves blue on the one side and green on the other, and bearing blotches of white lead a-top, rolled frightfully beneath. And Miss Bond had concluded, it was said, that such a genius as that evinced by the sketch and the "poem" for those sister arts of painting and poesy in which she herself excelled, should not be left to waste itself uncared for in the desert wilderness. She had published, shortly before, a work, in two slim volumes, entitled, "Letters of a Village Governess"--a curious kind of medley, little amenable to the ordinary rules, but a genial book notwithstanding, with more heart than head about it; and not a few of the incidents which it related had the merit of being true. It was an unlucky merit for poor Miss Bond. She dated her book from Fortrose, where she taught what was designated in the Almanac as the boarding-school of the place, but which, according to Miss Bond's own description, was the school of the "village governess." And as her tales were found to be a kind of mosaics composed of droll bits of fact picked up in the neighbourhood, Fortrose soon became considerably too hot for her. She had drawn, under the over-transparent guise of the niggardly Mrs. Flint, the skinflint wife of a "paper minister," who had ruined at one fell blow her best silk dress, and a dozen of good eggs to boot, by putting the eggs in her pocket when going out to a party, and then stumbling over a stone. And, of course, Mrs. Skinflint and the Rev. Mr. Skinflint, with all their blood-relations, could not be other than greatly gratified to find the story furbished up in the printed form, and set in fun. There were other stories as imprudent and as amusing--of young ladies caught eavesdropping at their neighbours' windows; and of gentlemen, ill at ease in their families, sitting soaking among vulgar companions in the public-house; and so the authoress, shortly after the appearance of her work, ceased to be the village governess of Fortrose, and became the village governess of Cromarty.

It was on this occasion that I saw, for the first time, with mingled admiration and awe, a human creature--not dead and gone, and merely a printed name--that had actually published a book. Poor Miss Bond was a kindly sort of person, fond of children, and mightily beloved by them in turn; and, though keenly alive to the ludicrous, without a grain of malice in her. I remember how, about this time, when, assisted by some three or four boys more, I had succeeded in building a huge house, full four feet long and three feet high, that contained us all, and a fire, and a great deal of smoke to boot, Miss Bond the authoress came, and looked in upon us, first through the little door, and then down through the chimney, and gave us kind words, and seemed to enjoy our enjoyment very much; and how we all deemed her visit one of the greatest events that could possibly have taken place. She had been intimate with the parents of Sir Walter Scott; and, on the appearance of Sir Walter's first publication, the "Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border," she had taken a fit of enthusiasm, and written to him; and, when in the cold paroxysm, and inclined to think she had done something foolish, had received from Sir Walter, then Mr. Scott, a characteristically warm-hearted reply. She experienced much kindness at his hands ever after; and when she herself became an author, she dedicated her book to him. He now and then procured boarders for her; and when, after leaving Cromarty for Edinburgh, she opened a school in the latter place, and got on with but indifferent success, Sir Walter--though straggling with his own difficulties at the time--sent her an enclosure of ten pounds, to scare, as he said in his note, "the wolf from the door." But Miss Bond, like the original of his own Jeanie Deans, was a "proud bodie;" and the ten pounds were returned, with the intimation that the wolf had not yet come to the door. Poor lady! I suspect he came to the door at last. Like many other writers of books, her voyage through life skirted, for the greater part of the way, the bleak lee-shore of necessity; and it cost her not a little skilful steering at times to give the strand a respectable offing. And in her solitary old age, she seemed to have got fairly aground. There was an attempt made by some of her former pupils to raise money enough to purchase for her a small annuity; but when the design was in progress, I heard of her death. She illustrated in her life the remark recorded by herself in her "Letters," as made by a humble friend:--"It's no an easy thing, Mem, for a woman to go through the world without a head," i.e., single and unprotected.

From some unexplained cause, Miss Bond's patronage never reached me. I am sure the good lady intended giving me lessons in both drawing and composition; for she had said it, and her heart was a kind one; but then her time was too much occupied to admit of her devoting an occasional hour to myself alone; and as for introducing me to her young-lady classes, in my rough garments, ever greatly improved the wrong way by my explorations in the ebb and the peat-moss, and frayed, at times, beyond even my mother's ability of repair, by warping to the tops of great trees, and by feats as a cragsman--that would have been a piece of Jack-Cadeism, on which, then or now, no village governess could have ventured. And so I was left to get on in verse and picture-making quite in the wild way, without care or culture.

My schoolfellows liked my stories well enough--better at least, on most occasions, than they did the lessons of the master; but, beyond the common ground of enjoyment which these extempore compositions furnished to both the "sennachie" and his auditors, our tracts of amusement lay widely apart. I disliked, as I have said, the yearly cock-fight--found no pleasure in cat-killing, or in teasing at nights, or on the street, the cross-tempered, half-witted eccentrics of the village--usually kept aloof from the ordinary play-grounds, and very rarely mingled in the old hereditary games. On the other hand, with the exception of my little friend of the cave, who, even after that disastrous incident, evinced a tendency to trust and follow me as implicitly as before, my schoolmates cared as little for my amusements as I did for theirs; and, having the majority on their side, they of course voted mine to be the foolish ones. And certainly a run of ill-luck followed me in my sports about this time, that did give some show of reason to their decision.

In the course of my book-hunting, I had fallen in with two old-fashioned military treatises, part of the small library of a retired officer lately deceased, of which the one entitled the "Military Medley," discussed the whole art of marshalling troops, and contained numerous plans, neatly coloured, of battalions drawn up in all possible forms, to meet all possible exigencies; while the other, which also abounded in prints, treated of the noble science of fortification according to the system of Vauban. I poured over both works with much perseverance; and, regarding them as admirable toy-books, set myself to construct, on a very small scale, some of the toys with which they specially dealt. The sea-shore in the immediate neighbourhood of the town appeared to my inexperienced eye an excellent field for the carrying on of a campaign. The sea-sand I found quite coherent enough, when still moistened by the waters of the receding tide, to stand up in the form of towers and bastions, and long lines of rampart; and there was one of the commonest of the Littorinidć--Littorina litoralis, that in one of its varieties is of a rich yellow colour, and in another of a bluish-green tint--which supplied me with soldiers enough to execute all the evolutions figured and described in the "Medley." The warmly-hued yellow shells represented Britons in their scarlet--the more dingy ones, the French in their uniforms of dirty blue; well-selected specimens of Purpura lapillus, just tipped on their backs with a speck of paint, blue or red, from my box, made capital dragoons; while a few dozens of the slender pyramidal shells of Turritella communis formed complete parks of artillery. With such unlimited stores of the matériel of war at my command, I was enabled, more fortunate than Uncle Toby of old, to fight battles and conduct retreats, assault and defend, build up fortifications, and then batter them down again, at no expense at all; and the only drawback on such a vast amount of advantage that I could at first perceive consisted in the circumstance, that the shore was exceedingly open to observation, and that my new amusements, when surveyed at a little distance, did greatly resemble those of the very young children of the place, who used to repair to the same arenaceous banks and shingle-beds, to bake dirt-pies in the sand, or range lines of shells on little shelves of stone, imitative of the crockery cupboard at home. Not only my school-fellows, but also some of their parents, evidently arrived at the conclusion that the two sets of amusements--mine and those of the little children--were identical; for the elder folk said, that "in their time, poor Francie had been such another boy, and every one saw what he had come to;" while the younger, more energetic in their manifestations, and more intolerant of folly, have even paused in their games of marbles, or ceased spinning their tops, to hoot at me from a safe distance. But the campaign went on; and I solaced myself by reflecting, that neither the big folk nor the little folk could bring a battalion of troops across a bridge of boats in the face of an enemy, or knew that a regular fortification could be constructed on only a regular polygon.

I at length discovered however, that as a sea-shore is always a sloping plane, and the Cromarty beach, in particular, a plane of a rather steep slope, it afforded no proper site for a fortress fitted to stand a protracted siege, seeing that, fortify the place as I might, it could be easily commanded by batteries raised on the higher side. And so fixing upon a grassy knoll among the woods, in the immediate neighbourhood of a scaur of boulder clay, capped by a thick stratum of sand, as a much better scene of operations, I took possession of the knoll somewhat irregularly; and carrying to it large quantities of sand from the scaur, converted it into the site of a magnificent stronghold. First I erected an ancient castle, consisting of four towers built on a rectangular base, and connected by straight curtains embrasured a-top. I then surrounded the castle by outworks in the modern style, consisting of greatly lower curtains than the ancient ones, flanked by numerous bastions, and bristling with cannon of huge calibre, made of the jointed stalks of the hemlock; while, in advance of these, I laid down ravelins, horn-works, and tenailles. I was vastly delighted with my work: it would, I was sure, be no easy matter to reduce such a fortress; but observing an eminence in the immediate neighbourhood which could, I thought, be occupied by a rather annoying battery, I was deliberating how I might best take possession of it by a redoubt, when out started, from behind a tree, the factor of the property on which I was trespassing, and rated me soundly for spoiling the grass in a manner so wantonly mischievous. Horn-work and half-moon, tower and bastion, proved of no manner of effect in repelling an attack of a kind so little anticipated. I did think that the factor, who was not only an intelligent man, but had also seen much service in his day on the town links, as the holder of a commission in the Cromarty volunteers, might have perceived that I was labouring on scientific principles, and so deem me worthy of some tolerance on that account; but I suppose he did not; though, to be sure, his scold died out good-naturedly enough in the end, and I saw him laugh as he turned away. But so it was, that in the extremity of my mortification I gave up generalship and bastion-building for the time; though, alas! my next amusement must have worn in the eyes of my youthful compeers as suspicious an aspect as either.

My friend of the cave had lent me what I had never seen before--a fine quarto edition of Anson's Voyages, containing the original prints (my father's copy had only the maps); among the others, Mr. Brett's elaborate delineation of that strangest of vessels, a proa of the Ladrone Islands. I was much struck by the singularity of the construction of a barque that, while its head and stern were exactly alike, had sides that totally differed from each other, and that, with the wind upon the beam, outsailed, it was said, all other vessels in the world; and having the command of the little shop in which my Uncle Sandy made occasional carts and wheelbarrows when unemployed abroad, I set myself to construct a miniature proa, on the model given in the print, and succeeded in fabricating a very extraordinary proa indeed. While its lee side was perpendicular as a wall, its windward one, to which there was an outrigger attached, resembled that of a flat-bottomed boat; head and stern were exactly alike, so as to fit each for performing in turn the part of either; a moveable yard, which supported the sail, had to be shifted towards the end converted into the stern for the time, at each tack; while the sail itself--a most uncouth-looking thing--formed a scalene triangle. Such was the vessel--some eighteen inches long or so--with which I startled from their propriety the mimic navigators of a horse-pond in the neighbourhood--all very masterly critics in all sorts of barques and barges known on the Scottish coast. According to Campbell,

            "'Tws a thing beyond
Description wretched: such a wherry,
Perhaps, ne'er ventured on a pond,
         Or crossed a ferry."

And well did my fellows appreciate its extreme ludicrousness. It was certainly rash to "venture" it on this especial "pond;" for, greatly to the damage of the rigging, it was fairly pelted off, and I was sent to test elsewhere its sailing qualities, which were, as I ascertained, not very remarkable after all. And thus, after a manner so unworthy, were my essays in strategy and barque-building received by a censorious age, that judged ere it knew. Were I sentimental, which lucidly I am not, I might well exclaim, in the very vein of Rousseau, Alas! it has been ever the misfortune of my life that, save by a few friends, I have never been understood!

I was evidently out-Francieing Francie; and the parents of my young friend, who saw that I had acquired considerable influence over him, and were afraid lest I should make another Francie of him, had become naturally enough desirous to break off our intimacy, when there occurred an unlucky accident, which served materially to assist them in the design. My friend's father was the master of a large trading smack, which, in war times, carried a few twelve-pounders, and was furnished with a small magazine of powder and shot; and my friend having secured for himself from the general stock, through the connivance of the ship-boy, an entire cannon cartridge, containing some two or three pounds of gunpowder, I was, of course, let into the secret, and invited to share in the sport and the spoil We had a glorious day together in his mother's garden: never before did such magnificent volcanoes break forth out of mole-hills, or were plots of daisies and violets so ruthlessly scorched and torn by the explosion of deep laid mines; and though a few mishaps did happen to over-forward fingers, and to eye-brows that were in the way, our amusements passed off innocuously on the whole, and evening saw nearly the half of our precious store unexhausted. It was garnered up by my friend in an unsuspected corner of the garret in which he slept, and would have been safe, had he not been seized, when going to bed, with a yearning desire to survey his treasure by candle-light; when an unlucky spark from the flame exploded the whole. He was so sadly burnt about the face and eyes as to be blind for several days after; but, amid smoke and confusion, he gallantly bolted his garret-door, and, while the inmates of the household, startled by the shock and the noise, came rushing up stairs, sturdily refused to let any of them in. Volumes of gunpowder reek issued from every crack and cranny, and his mother and sisters were prodigiously alarmed. At length, however, he capitulated--terms unknown; and I, next morning, heard with horror and dismay of the accident. It had been matter of agreement between us on the previous day, mainly in order to screen the fine fellow of a ship-boy, that I should be regarded as the owner of the powder; but here was a consequence on which I had not calculated; and the strong desire to see my poor friend was dashed by the dread of being held responsible by his parents and sisters for the accident. And so, more than a week elapsed ere I could muster up courage enough to visit him. I was coldly received by his mother, and, what vexed me to the heart, coldly received by himself; and suspecting that he had been making an ungenerous use of our late treaty, I took leave in high dudgeon, and came away. My suspicions, however, wronged him: he had stoutly denied, as I afterwards learned, that I had any share in the powder; but his friends deeming the opportunity a good one for breaking with me, had compelled him, very unwillingly, and after much resistance, to give me up. And from this period more than two years elapsed, though our hearts beat quick and high every time we accidentally met, ere we exchanged a single word. On one occasion, however, shortly after the accident, we did exchange letters. I wrote to him from the school-form, when, of course, I ought to have been engaged with my tasks, a stately epistle, in the style of the billets in the "Female Quixote," which began, I remember, as follows:--"I once thought I had a friend whom I could rely upon; but experience tells me he was only nominal. For, had he been a real friend, no accident could have interfered with, or arbitrary command annihilated, his affection," &c., &c. As I was rather an indifferent scribe at the time, one of the lads, known as the "copperplate writers" of the class, made for me a fair copy of my lucubration, full of all manner of elegant dashes, and in which the spelling of every word was scrupulously tested by the dictionary. And, in due course, I received a carefully engrossed note in reply, of which the manual portion was performed by my old companion, but the composition, as he afterwards told me, elaborated by some one else. It assured me he was still my friend, but that there were "certain circumstances" which would prevent us from meeting for the future on our old terms. We were, however, destined to meet pretty often in the future, notwithstanding; and narrowly missed going to the bottom together many years after, in the Floating Manse, grown infirm in her nether parts at the time, when he was the outed minister of Small Isles, and I editor of the Witness newspaper.

I had a maternal aunt long settled in the Highlands of Sutherland, who was so much older than her sister, my mother, that, when nursing her eldest boy, she had, when on a visit to the low country, assisted also in nursing her. The boy had shot up into a very clever lad, who, having gone to seek his fortune in the south, rose, through the several degrees of clerkship in a mercantile firm, to be the head of a commercial house of his own, which, though ultimately unsuccessful, seemed for some four or five years to be in a fair way of thriving. For about three of these the portion of the profits which fell to my cousin's share did not fall short of fifteen hundred pounds per annum; and on visiting his parents in their Highland home in the heyday of his prosperity, after an absence of years, it was found that he had a great many friends in his native district on whom he had not calculated, and of a class that had not been greatly in the habit of visiting his mother's cottage, but who now came to lunch, and dine, and take their wine with him, and who seemed to value and admire him very much. My aunt, who was little accustomed to receive high company, and found herself, like Martha of old, "cumbered about much serving," urgently besought my mother, who was young and active at the time, to visit and assist her; and, infinitely to my delight, I was included in the invitation. The place was not much above thirty miles from Cromarty; but then it was in the true Highlands, which I had never before seen, save on the distant horizon; and, to a boy who had to walk all the way, even thirty miles, in an age when railways were not, and ere even mail gigs had penetrated so far, represented a journey of no inconsiderable distance. My mother, though rather a delicate-looking woman, walked remarkably well; and early on the evening of the second day, we reached together my aunt's cottage, in the ancient Barony of Gruids. It was a low, long, dingy edifice of turf, four or five rooms in length, but only one in height, that, lying along a gentle acclivity, somewhat resembled at a distance a huge black snail creeping up the hill. As the lower apartment was occupied by my uncle's half-dozen milk-cows, the declination of the floor, consequent on the nature of the site, proved of signal importance, from the free drainage which it secured; the second apartment, reckoning upwards, which was of considerable size, formed the sitting-room of the family, and had, in the old Highland style, its fire full in the middle of the floor, without back or sides; so that, like a bonfire kindled in the open air, all the inmates could sit around it in a wide circle--the women invariably ranged on the one side, and the men on the other; the apartment beyond was partitioned into small and very dark bed-rooms; while, further on still, there was a closet with a little window in it, which was assigned to my mother and me; and beyond all lay what was emphatically "the room," as it was built of stone, and had both window and chimney, with chairs, and table, and chest of drawers, a large box-bed, and a small but well-filled bookcase. And "the room" was, of course, for the time, my cousin the merchant's apartment,--his dormitory at night, and the hospitable refectory in which he entertained his friends by day.

My aunt's family was one of solid worth. Her husband--a compactly-built, stout-limbed, elderly Highlander, rather below the middle size, of grave and somewhat melancholy aspect, but in reality of a temperament rather cheerful than otherwise--had been somewhat wild in his young days. He had been a good shot and a skilful angler, and had danced at bridals, and, as was common in the Highlands at the time, at lykewakes; nay, on one occasion he had succeeded in inducing a new-made widow to take the floor in a strathspey, beside her husband's corpse when every one else had failed to bring her up, by roguishly remarking, in her hearing, that whoever else might have refused to dance at poor Donald's death wake, he little thought it would have been she. But a great change had passed over him; and he was now a staid, thoughtful, God-fearing man, much respected in the Barony for honest worth and quiet unobtrusive consistency of character. His wife had been brought, at an early age, under the influence of Donald Roy's ring, and had, like her mother, been the means of introducing the vitalities of religion into her household. They had two other sons besides the merchant--both well-built, robust men, somewhat taller than their father, and of such character, that one of my Cromarty cousins, in making out his way, by dint of frequent and sedulous inquiry, to their dwelling, found the general verdict of the district embodied in the very bad English of a poor old woman, who, after doing her best to direct him, certified her knowledge of the household by remarking, "It's a goot mistress;--it's a goot maister;--it's a goot, goot two lads." The elder of the two brothers superintended, and partly wrought, his father's little farm; for the father himself found employment enough in acting as a sort of humble factor for the proprietor of the Barony, who lived at a distance, and had no dwelling upon the land. The younger was a mason and slater, and was usually employed, in the working seasons, at a distance; but in winter, and, on this occasion, for a few weeks during the visit of his brother the merchant, he resided with his father. Both were men of marked individuality of character. The elder, Hugh, was an ingenious, self-taught mechanic, who used in the long winter evenings to fashion a number of curious little articles by the fireside--among the rest, Highland snuff-mulls, with which he supplied all his friends; and he was at this time engaged in building for his father a Highland barn, and, to vary the work, fabricating for him a Highland plough. The younger, George, who had wrought for a few years at his trade in the south of Scotland, was a great reader, wrote very tolerable prose, and verse which, if not poetry, to which he made no pretensions, was at least quaintly-turned rhyme. He had, besides, a competent knowledge of geometry, and was skilled in architectural drawing; and--strange accomplishment for a Celt--he was an adept in the noble science of self-defence. But George never sought out quarrels; and such was his amount of bone and muscle, and such the expression of manly resolution stamped on his countenance, that they never came in his way unsought.

At the close of the day, when the members of the household had assembled in a wide circle round the fire, my uncle "took the Book," and I witnessed, for the first time, family-worship conducted in Gaelic. There was, I found, an interesting peculiarity in one portion of the services which he conducted. He was, as I have said, an elderly man, and had worshipped in his family ere Dr. Stewart's Gaelic translation of the Scriptures had been introduced into the county; and as he possessed in those days only the English Bible, while his domestics understood only Gaelic, he had to acquire the art, not uncommon in Sutherland at the time, of translating the English chapter for them, as he read, into their native tongue; and this he had learned to do with such ready fluency, that no one could have guessed it to be other than a Gaelic work from which he was reading. Nor had the introduction of Dr. Stewart's translation rendered the practice obsolete in his household. His Gaelic was Sutherlandshire Gaelic, whereas that of Dr. Stewart was Argyleshire Gaelic. His family understood his rendering better, in consequence, than that of the Doctor; and so he continued to translate from his English Bible ad aperturam libri, many years after the Gaelic edition had been spread over the country. The concluding evening prayer was one of great solemnity and unction. I was unacquainted with the language in which it was couched; but it was impossible to avoid being struck, notwithstanding, with its wrestling earnestness and fervour. The man who poured it forth evidently believed there was an unseen ear open to it, and an all-seeing presence in the place, before whom every secret thought lay exposed. The entire scene was a deeply impressive one; and when I saw, in witnessing the celebration of high mass in a Popish cathedral many years after, the altar suddenly enveloped in a dim and picturesque obscurity, amid which the curling smoke of the incense ascended, and heard the musically-modulated prayer sounding in the distance from within the screen, my thoughts reverted to the rude Highland cottage, where, amid solemnities not theatric, the red umbry light of the fire fell with uncertain glimmer upon dark walls, and bare black rafters, and kneeling forms, and a pale expanse of dense smoke, that, filling the upper portion of the roof, overhung the floor like a ceiling, and there arose amid the gloom the sounds of prayer truly God-directed, and poured out from the depths of the heart; and I felt that the stoled priest of the cathedral was merely an artist, though a skilful one, but that in the "priest and father" of the cottage there were the truth and reality from which the artist drew. No bolt was drawn across the outer door as we retired for the night. The philosophic Biot, when employed with his experiments on the second pendulum, resided for several months in one of the smaller Shetland islands; and, fresh from the troubles of France--his imagination bearing about with it, if I may so speak, the stains of the guillotine--the state of trustful security in which he found the simple inhabitants filled him with astonishment. "Here, during the twenty-five years in which Europe has been devouring herself," he exclaimed, "the door of the house I inhabit has remained open day and night." The interior of Sutherland was at the time of my visit in a similar condition. The door of my uncle's cottage, unfurnished with lock or bar, opened, like that of the hermit in the ballad, with a latch; but, unlike that of the hermit, it was not because there were no stores within to demand the care of the master, but because at that comparatively recent period the crime of theft was unknown in the district.

I rose early next morning, when the dew was yet heavy on grass and lichen, curious to explore a locality so new to me. The tract, though a primary one, forms one of the tamer gneiss districts of Scotland; and I found the nearer hills comparatively low and confluent, and the broad valley in which lay my uncle's cottage, flat, open, and unpromising. Still there were a few points to engage me; and the more I attached myself to them, the more did their interest grow. The western slopes of the valley are mottled by grassy tomhans--the moraines of some ancient glacier, around and over which there rose, at this period, a low widely-spreading wood of birch, hazel, and mountain ash--of hazel, with its nuts fast filling at the time, and of mountain ash, with its berries glowing bright in orange and scarlet. In looking adown the hollow, a group of the green tomhans might be seen relieved against the blue hills of Ross; in looking upwards, a solitary birch-covered hillock of similar origin, but larger proportions, stood strongly out against the calm waters of Loch Shin and the purple peaks of the distant Ben-Hope. In the bottom of the valley, close beside my uncle's cottage, I marked several low swellings of the rock beneath, rising above the general level; and, ranged along these, there were groups of what seemed to be huge boulder stones, save that they were less rounded and water-worn than ordinary boulders, and were, what groups of boulders rarely are, all of one quality. And on examination, I ascertained that some of their number, which stood up like broken obelisks, tall, and comparatively narrow of base, and all hoary with moss and lichen, were actually still connected with the mass of rock below. They were the wasted upper portions of vast dikes and veins of a grey, large-grained syenite, that traverse the fundamental gneiss of the valley, and which I found veined, in turn, by threads and seams of a white quartz, abounding in drusy cavities, thickly lined along their sides with sprig crystals. Never had I seen such lovely crystals on the shores of Cromarty, or anywhere else. They were clear and transparent as the purest spring water, furnished each with six sides, and sharpened a-top into six facets. Borrowing one of Cousin George's hammers, I soon filled a little box with these gems, which even my mother and aunt were content to admire, as what of old used, they said, to be called Bristol diamonds, and set in silver brooches and sleeve buttons. Further, within less than a hundred yards of the cottage, I found a lively little stream, brown, but clear as a cairngorm of the purest water, and abounding, as I soon ascertained, in trout, lively and little like itself, and gaily speckled with scarlet. It wound through a flat, dank meadow, never disturbed by the plough; for it had been a burying-ground of old, and flat undressed stones lay thick amid the rank grass. And in the lower corner, where the old turf-wall had sunk into an inconspicuous mound, there stood a mighty tree, all solitary, for its fellows had long before disappeared, and so hollow-hearted in its corrupt old age, that though it still threw out every season a mighty expanse of foliage, I was able to creep into a little chamber in its trunk, from which I could look out through circular openings where boughs once had been, and listen, when a sudden shower came sweeping down the glen, to the pattering of the rain-drops amid the leaves. The valley of the Gruids was perhaps not one of the finest or most beautiful of Highland valleys, but it was a very admirable place after all; and amid its woods, and its rocks, and its tomhans, and at the side of its little trouting stream, the weeks passed delightfully away.

My cousin William, the merchant, had, as I have said, many guests; but they were all too grand to take any notice of me. There was, however, one delightful man, who was said to know a great deal about rocks and stones, that, having heard of my fine large crystals, desired to see both them and the boy who had found them; and I was admitted to hear him talk about granites, and marbles, and metallic veins, and the gems that lie hid among the mountains in nooks and crannies. I am afraid I would not now deem him a very accomplished mineralogist: I remember enough of his conversation to conclude that he knew but little, and that little not very correctly: but not before Werner or Hutton could I have bowed down with a profounder reverence. He spoke of the marbles of Assynt--of the petrifactions of Helmsdale and Brora--of shells and plants embedded in solid rocks, and of forest trees converted into stone; and my ears drank in knowledge eagerly, as those of the Queen of Sheba of old when she listened to Solomon. But all too soon did the conversation change. My cousin was mighty in Gaelic etymology, and so was the mineralogist; and while my cousin held that the name of the Barony of Gruids was derived from the great hollow tree, the mineralogist was quite as certain that it was derived from its syenite, or, as he termed it, its granite, which resembled, he remarked, from the whiteness of its feldspar, a piece of curd. Gruids, said the one, means the place of the great tree; Gruids, said the other, means the place of the curdled stone. I do not remember how they settled the controversy; but it terminated, by an easy transition, in a discussion respecting the authenticity of Ossian--a subject on which they were both perfectly agreed. There could exist no manner of doubt regarding the fact that the poems given to the world by Macpherson had been sung in the Highlands by Ossian, the son of Fingal, more than fourteen hundred years before. My cousin was a devoted member of the Highland Society; and the Highland Society, in these days, was very much engaged in ascertaining the right cut of the philabeg, and in determining the chronology and true sequence of events in the Ossianic age.

Happiness perfect and entire is, it is said, not to be enjoyed in this sublunary state; and even in the Gruids, where there was so much to be seen, heard, and found out, and where I was separated by more than thirty miles from my Latin--for I had brought none of it from home with me--this same Ossianic controversy rose like a Highland fog on my horizon, to chill and darken my hours of enjoyment. My cousin possessed everything that had been written on the subject, including a considerable amount of manuscript of his own composition; and as Uncle James had inspired him with the belief that I could master anything to which in good earnest I set my mind, he had determined that it should be no fault of his if I did not become mighty in the controversy regarding the authenticity of Ossian. This was awful. I liked Blair's Dissertation well enough, nor did I greatly quarrel with that of Kames; and as for Sir Walter's critique in the Edinburgh, on the opposite side, I thought it not only thoroughly sensible, but, as it furnished me with arguments against the others, deeply interesting to boot. But then there succeeded a vast ocean of dissertation, emitted by Highland gentlemen and their friends, as the dragon in the Apocalypse emitted the great flood which the earth swallowed up; and, when once fairly embarked upon it, I could see no shore and find no bottom. And so at length, though very unwillingly--for my cousin was very kind--I fairly mutinied and struck work, just as he had begun to propose that, after mastering the authenticity controversy, I should set myself to acquire Gaelic, in order that I might be able to read Ossian in the original. My cousin was not well pleased; but I did not choose to aggravate the case by giving expression to the suspicion which, instead of lessening, has rather grown upon me since, that as I possessed an English copy of the poems, I had read the true Ossian in the original already. With Cousin George, however, who, though strong on the authenticity side, liked a joke rather better than he did Ossian, I was more free; and to him I ventured to designate his brother's fine Gaelic copy of the poems, with a superb head of the ancient bard affixed, as "The Poems of Ossian in Gaelic, translated from the original English by their author." George looked grim, and called me infidel, and then laughed, and said he would tell his brother. But he didn't; and as I really liked the poems, especially "Temora" and some of the smaller pieces, and could read them with more real pleasure than the greater part of the Highlanders who believed in them, I did not wholly lose credit with my cousin the merchant. He even promised to present me with a finely bound edition of the "Elegant Extracts," in three bulky octavo volumes, whenever I should have gained my first prize at College; but I unluckily failed to qualify myself for the gift; and my copy of the "Extracts" I had to purchase for myself ten years after, at a book-stall, when working in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh as a journeyman mason.

It is not every day one meets with so genuine a Highlander as my cousin the merchant; and though he failed to inspire me with all his own Ossianic faith and zeal, there were some of the little old Celtic practices which he resuscitated pro tempore in his father's household, that I learned to like very much. He restored the genuine Highland breakfasts; and, after hours spent in busy exploration outside, I found I could as thoroughly admire the groaning table, with its cheese, and its trout, and its cold meat, as even the immortal Lexicographer himself. Some of the dishes, too, which he revived, were at least curious. There was a supply of gradden-meal prepared-- i.e., grain dried in a pot over the fire, and then coarsely ground in a handmill--which made cakes that, when they had hunger for their sauce, could be eaten; and on more than one occasion I shared in a not unpalatable sort of blood-pudding, enriched with butter, and well seasoned with pepper and salt, the main ingredient of which was derived, through a judicious use of the lancet, from the yeld cattle of the farm. The practice was an ancient, and by no means unphilosophic one. In summer and early autumn there is plenty of grass in the Highlands; but, of old at least, there used to be very little grain in it before the beginning of October; and as the cattle could, in consequence, provide themselves with a competent supply of blood from the grass, when their masters, who could not eat grass, and had little else that they could eat, were able to acquire very little, it was opportunely discovered that, by making a division in this way of the all-essential fluid, accumulated as a common stock, the circumstances of the cattle and their owners could be in some degree equalized. With these peculiarly Highland dishes there mingled others not less genuine--now and then a salmon from the river, and a haunch of venison from the hill-side--which I relished better still; and if all Highlanders live but as well in the present day as I did during my stay with my aunt and cousins, they would be rather unreasonable were they greatly to complain.

There were some of the other Highland restorations effected by my cousin that pleased me much. He occasionally gathered at night around the central Ha' fire a circle of the elderly men of the neighbourhood, to repeat long-derived narratives of the old clan feuds of the district, and wild Fingalian legends; and though, of course, ignorant of the language in which the stories were conveyed, by taking my seat beside Cousin George, and getting him to translate for me in an under tone, as the narratives went on, I contrived to carry away with me at least as much of the clan stories and legends as I ever after found use for. The clan stories were waxing at the time rather dim and uncertain in Sutherland. The county, through the influence of its good Earls and its godly Lords Reay, had been early converted to Protestantism; and its people had in consequence ceased to take liberties with the throats and cattle of their neighbours, about a hundred years earlier than in any other part of the Scotch Highlands. And as for the Fingalian legends, they were, I found, very wild legends indeed. Some of them immortalized wonderful hunters, who had excited the love of Fingal's lady, and whom her angry and jealous husband had sent out to hunt monstrous wild boars with poisonous bristles on their backs,--secure in this way of getting rid of them. And some of them embalmed the misdeeds of spiritless diminutive Fions, not very much above fifteen feet in height, who, unlike their more active companions, could not leap across the Cromarty or Dornoch Firths on their spears, and who, as was natural, were very much despised by the women of the tribe. The pieces of fine sentiment and brilliant description discovered by Macpherson seemed never to have found their way into this northern district. But, told in fluent Gaelic, in the great "Ha'," the wild legends served every necessary purpose equally well. The "Ha'" in the autumn nights, as the days shortened and the frosts set in, was a genial place; and so attached was my cousin to its distinctive principle--the fire in the midst--as handed down from the "days of other years," that in the plan of a new two-storied house for his father, which he had procured from a London architect, one of the nether rooms was actually designed in the circular form; and a hearth like a millstone, placed in the centre, represented the place of the fire. But there was, as I remarked to Cousin George, no corresponding central hole in the room above, through which to let up the smoke; and I questioned whether a nicely plastered apartment, round as a band-box, with the fire in the middle, like the sun in the centre of an Orrery, would have been quite like anything ever seen in the Highlands before. The plan, however, was not destined to encounter criticism, or give trouble in the execution of it.

On Sabbaths my cousin and his two brothers attended the parish church, attired in the full Highland dress; and three handsome, well-formed men they were; but my aunt, though mayhap not quite without the mother's pride, did not greatly relish the exhibition; and oftener than once I heard her say so to her sister my mother; though she, smitten by the gallant appearance of her nephews, seemed inclined rather to take the opposite side. My uncle, on the other hand, said nothing either for or against the display. He had been a keen Highlander in his younger days; and when the inhibition against wearing tartan and the philabeg had been virtually removed, in consideration of the achievements of the "hardy and dauntless men" who, according to Chatham, conquered for England "in every quarter of the globe," he had celebrated the event in a merrymaking, at which the dance was kept up from night till morning; but though he retained, I suspect, his old partialities, he was now a sobered man; and when I ventured to ask him, on one occasion, why he too did not get a Sunday kilt, which, by the way, he would "have set," notwithstanding his years, as well as any of his sons, he merely replied with a quiet "No, no; there's no fool like an old fool."

Chapter VI--Cousin George and Cousin William--Excursion with Cousin Walter--Painful accident--Family bereavements--Links between the present and the past

Copyright © Scotland from the Roadside 2019