James Johnson.

The recess, or Autumnal relaxation in the Highlands and Lowlands; being the home circuit versus foreign travel, a serio-comic tour to the Hebrides online

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Online LibraryJames JohnsonThe recess, or Autumnal relaxation in the Highlands and Lowlands; being the home circuit versus foreign travel, a serio-comic tour to the Hebrides → online text (page 11 of 28)
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as a preparatory for a heaven in another world. It appears to me that
every class of society, and every individual should be allowed time and
opportunity on the Sabbath day, to attend public worship, and that the
remainder of the Sabbath should be unfettered by any law or regulation
that prevents innocent relaxation and amusement of mind or body.
Rest, religion, and recreation, seem to be the ends and objects of Sunday.
In conclusion, I sincerely hope that every city, town, and village, in
England, may always present, on a Sunday afternoon, the Presbyterian
silence, gloom, and solitude of their Caledonian neighbours but, from
a widely different cause : not from the shrinking of the inhabitants
into the dark recesses of their barred and bolted prisons, with the auste-
rity of monks in their cells but from the rushing forth of old and
young into the pure atmosphere of the country, there to offer up the best
incense to their Creator in heaven, by enjoying the blessings which he
has scattered for them on earth.



The bay of Oban is canopied with smoke the hissing steam is sup-
pressed the revolving wheels dash backward the foam and the Staffa
boat, darting forward, between Kerrara and Dunolly, directs her prow

" The mighty Sound,

Where thwarting tides, with mingled roar,
Part Mull's dark hills from Morven's shore."

We are now in a Strait, scarcely less renowned in song or story than
the far-famed Hellespont. In Aros and Ardtornish, we have Sestos and
Abydos in Edith and Ronald, we have Hero and Leander. But
Sir Walter committed a sad mistake, when he failed to make the Lord
of the Isles swim across the Sound, while the Maid of Lorn was, by
whatever impulse

" led

To where a turret's airy head,

Slender and steep, and battled round,

O'erlook'd dark Mull."

If truth must be told, Lord Ronald's love was rather too cold to hazard
a two hours' dip in the Hebridean Hellespont while Lady Edith ap-
pears to have directed much more of her attention to a

" lonely bark

That oft had shifted helm and sail
To win its way against the gale "

to a slender skiff, in fact, (fraught with the royal Bruce and the lovely
Isabel,) which was pitching, bows under, and beating against a surly
north-wester, between Mull and Morven than to the ships of Ronald
which, unmoored from Aros, and covered with streamers

" Onward their merry courses keep

Through whistling breeze and foaming deep."

The scenery of the Sound of Mull is certainly grand and imposing ;
but I cannot agree with the immortal Wizard of the North that, " in
fine weather, a grander and more impressive scene, both from its natural
beauties and associations with ancient history and tradition, can hardly
be imagined." I conceive that the scenery of Loch Linhie and Loch
Eil is superior.

Sir Walter has certainly availed himself of his undoubted right (poeti-
cal license) when he likens the tides rushing from the estuaries on each
side of the Sound of Mull, to hostile armies meeting in direful conflict,
while their broken spears fly into the air, during the horrid concussion


" With eve the ebbing currents boil'd

More fierce from strait and lake ;
And midway through the channel met
Conflicting tides that foam and fret,
And high their mingled billows jet,
As spears that in the battle set.

Spring upward as they break."

It seems to be an established canon of poetry that, into the composi-
tion of a simile, there should enter as little as possible of similitude.
Homer, Virgil, Milton, and hundreds of poets, have placed this rule
beyond all dispute, and therefore I shall not venture to gainsay its

While passing the rock on which Ardtornish Castle once stood, and
which is now a low jutting point that would not, for a moment, arrest
a mariner's attention, the little HIGHLANDER (the Staffa steamer, in
1832) doffed its cap, and every part of its clanking machinery was
silent as the grave. Old stockings, rope-yarns, cords, nails, and every
species of materiel which the steamer could produce, were put in re-
quisition to make the engine play but all in vain ! As there was a
gentle breeze from the east, the sails were loosened from the yards ; half
of them flowed in streamers on the winds, and the remainder were so
Ao/y, as not to offer even " passive resistance" to the gentlest gale. It
was very fortunate for us that a fair wind wafted us forward towards
Tobermorey; for the HIGHLANDER lay a helpless logon the water, with-
out engine to propel, or sails to guide us through the darksome Sound
of Mull!*


As Oban is a little OMUTZ, so Tobermorey is a little OBAN. It has
its little island to defend the harbour, and its two entrances for the
facility of navigation. The arrival of the Staffa steamer, twice a week,
is an event in the capital of Mull, and creates no trifling sensation and
bustle. The principal inn soon overflows ; and, in the struggle for beds,
he who is least successful is most fortunate. Our ejectment into the
streets threw us into the comfortable house of Mrs. Cuthbertson, seated
on an eminence, and commanding a most romantic prospect. The
gentle eastern breeze did not waft us an hour too soon into Tobermorey ;
for we had scarcely got housed, before a tremendous storm of " thunder,

* The crazy HIGHLANDER is replaced now by the STAFFA. a new vessel, of the same
size as those which navigate the Caledonian Canal. Autumn, 1833.


lightning, and of rain," that would have done honour to the caldron of
the Weird Sisters, converted the Sound into a sheet of foam ; illumi-
nated, from time to time, the adjacent Alpine scenery and would have
" drench'd the steeples, drown'd the clocks," of Tobermorey had there
been any there to drench or drown ! In this dire conflict of the ele-
ments, the opposing mountains of Mull and Morven found their tongues,
echoing and re-echoing the deafening peals across the Sound, with that
awful sublimity that is witnessed on Lake Leman, when Jura and the
Dent de Morgle answer joyously to the crashing thunder that bursts over
their summits, in the midnight tempest. BEN-MORE seemed, on this
occasion, to be in one of his most noisy, as well as thirsty moods. Many
a deep draught did he swallow from the teeming clouds that rolled
round his lofty head and many a boisterous toast did he send across
" Mull's dark Sound," to his neighbour MORVEN, after each explosion
of heaven's artillery, pledging, or seeming to pledge, his old friend, in
the well-known language of the mountains :

" Then surely you'll be your pint stoup,
And surely I'll be mine
And we'll tak' a right gude waly waucht
For auld lang syne."

But even thirsty BEN himself was soon " brimfu'," and the copious
libations from the clouds began to fall, untasted, from his lips, and roll
in impetuous torrents down his rugged sides.

Meantime, in despite of the elemental war that howled over their
heads, a dozen of tourists gathered round the festive board, while the
mountain dew circulated briskly, and hilarity prevailed till midnight.


Morpheus, like the world in general, is prodigal of his offers to those
who need not his assistance but shuns the couch of the fevered brain,
the grief- stricken heart, the aching head, and the distempered imagina-
tion, where balmy sleep would be more precious and welcome than the
gems of Golcondah ! There is a music familiar to the ears of most
travellers, produced by the falling of the waves on the shingly beach,
the tangled rocks, and the golden sands, exhibiting a vast variety of
notes, according to the nature of the locality, and inviting to repose.
To the tourist, whose limbs are tired by salutary exercise on mountain
and moor, no opiate is necessary to induce the soundest sleep ; and,
unfortunately, those, whose vigils are occasioned by moral ills, can
rarely procure an " oblivious antidote," for the troubled mind. I won-


der, however, that the variety of note and the somniferous powers of
what may be called the wild music of the beach, has not been noticed
by poets and descriptive tourists. Virgil, indeed, alludes to the plea-
sures he often derived from

" Fresh whispers of the southern breeze,

And gentlest dashings of the calmest seas.''

But the music of the beach deserves a gamut for itself, and has, in fact,
been dressed in crotchets by a jovial character, long deceased, but still
remembered by old sojourners on the shores of India Mr. WYNOX. I
have been lulled to repose by it on many a coast from the East and
West Cliffs of Brighton, to the hoarse resounding caverns of the Pent-
land Firth from the dreary shores of Labrador, to the silvery beaches
of the Chiaja and Chiaveri, Avhere the notes are often as soft as Italian
vespers from the boisterous roar of the Southern Atlantic, falling on
the yellow sands of the Cape, to the thunders of the surf on the burning
shores of the Carnatic. How often, when assailed by three of the worst
miseries of a tropical life the hot land-wind, the prickly heat, and the
blood-thirsty musquito have I pitched my tent, or rather my palan-
quin, just above high-Avater mark on the beach of Madras shut in the
weather-ports, opened the lee-scuttles, and gone to sleep, under a lullaby
from three lines of breakers, curling, foaming, and dashing, with a noise
like that of Niagara, along five hundred miles of coast. The spray
from this tremendous surf, cools and quenches the scorching Sirocco,
which rolls towards the ocean immense clouds of burning dust and sand,
inimical alike to animal and vegetable life.

The critical reader will probably remark that this is a pretty con-
siderable digression from Tobermorey to Madras. But let him analyze
the train of his own ideas, and he will find that they digress as much
as this, every minute in the hour. In mental operations, TIME and DIS-
TANCE go for nothing analogy and association for every thing. The
mind shifts its magic scene from the Clyde to the Ganges, in the same
space of time that it would flit across the narrow rivulet or ravine which
separates the statue of John Knox from the venerable cathedral of

The roar of the surge impelled by the tempest against the rugged cliffs
of Mull, vibrated on some chord in the organ of memory, which instantly
responded in the long-forgotten music of the surf. Let metaphysicians
explain the matter better if they can.

Be this as it may; the howling of the winds, the pelting of the rains,
the peals of thunder, the flashes of lightning, the dashings of the waves,
and the clatterings of the windows, combined to tranquillize the mind,
and lull the tired traveller to profound repose.


The usual and the expected sequence of such a commotion of the
elements did not take place ; and the morning was lowering, squally, and
wet. Although the machinery of the Highlander was tinkered during
the night, the weather presented no temptations for a voyage to Stafra,
and I preferred an excursion to BEN-MORE, whence, in the intervals of
the showers, I had a magnificent view of the Hebridean Cyclades. I saw
the steamer pitching and rolling round the bluff promontory of Mull
half of the passengers landing on the west side of the island and the
more adventurous spirits prosecuting their voyage to Fingal's Cave.

If the view from Ben-More be one of sublimity, the appearance of
Mull itself is singularly dreary and barren. Though a mighty mass
of trap rock, which, in other situations, might prove fertile, Mull is too
much exposed to storms and rains to retain soil on its surface. The
laird of the island has deserted the narrow and grey tower of his fore-
fathers, and built himself a modern mansion in its vicinity. He has
converted his five hundred Caterans into five thousand sheep, to the
great benefit and peace of Mull. Instead of dining on salt fish and
kail, like his ancestors, (except when they creached a cow from their
neighbours,) the laird has settled down into a quiet " KILL-HIS-OWN-
MUTTON GENTLEMAN," regaling himself on lamb and turnips, with
good Ferintosh toddy. Instead of leading the clan of MacLeans to
murder the clan of MacDonalds, he drives his flocks of sheep to Tober-
morey, to be slaughtered by the ruthless butchers of Glasgow.

It was here that the great lexicographer was asked by the haughty
chief, whether he was a Johnston of Glenco, or of Ardnamurchan ?
and, on being answered that the stranger was of neither clan, the laird
of Mull roughly remarked that Samuel Johnson, of Lichfield, must be
a bastard. The times are wonderfully changed in half a century ! The
author of Rasselas and the Rambler is now as well known in the
mansion of the MacLeans, as the author of Waverley and Don Roderick !

Mull is not without its miracles. Dr. MacCulIoch tells us that he
saw whiskey turn into ice on the summit of Ben-More, during a hail-
storm, in the month of August, 1812 ! This is pretty well. But the fol-
lowing is still better, and on the same authority. When the inhabitants
of Tobermorey fished up a cannon from the wreck of the Florida (one of
the Spanish Armada ships that sunk in the harbour) they found an iron
gun so hot that they could not continue to scrape off the rust ! " The
iron guns were deeply corroded ; but, on scraping them, they became so
hot that they could not be touched. It is now proved that what the
Highlanders could not explain, and no one chose to believe, in 1740, is
a fact. The year 1812 has demonstrated that burning hot iron may be
fished up from the bottom of a deep sea." Vol. iv. p. 244.


I wish Dr. MacCulloch had been a little more particular, when he
authenticates the foregoing fact, by ocular demonstration. " I will not
pretend that I was more ready to believe than those I have blamed,
when I accidentally met with the same appearance (burning hot iron
fished up from the bottom of the sea) and was the first to discover and
explain the cause." Ib.

Returning to Tobermorey, I amused myself by drawing up a short
catalogue of the more prominent and characteristic features of this
romantic country a plan which I had often found useful in impressing
images more firmly on the tablet of memory. On referring to these
notes, some weeks afterwards, I was not a little astonished to find that
some bogle or goblin of the mountains had made free with my pocket-
book, and by docking the longer lines, and tagging on the odds and ends
to the shorter sentences, had given to the whole something of the form
of verse, and even something of the sound of rhyme ! To those who are
sceptical as to the existence of fairies, in these northern regions, or their
mischievous interference with the sober notes of Sassenach travellers, the
following curious and authentic instance of transmutation of prose into
poetry (if indeed the term poetry be allowed) may not prove uninterest-


Land of grey rock and drifting rain,
Of clamorous brook and boisterous main,
Of treacherous squall and furious gale,
That bend the mast or rend the sail
Land of green pine and harebell blue,
Of furze and fern of various hue ;
Of deep ravine, and cavern hoar,
Of jutting crag, and dangerous shore.

Land of the pibroch and the plaid ;
Land of the henchman and the raid;
Land of the chieftain and the clan,
Of haughty laird and vassal-man,
Of Cull, of Gael, of Catheran.
Land of tall cliff and lonely dell,
The eagle's perch, the outlaw's cell ;
Land of the brave, the fair, the good ;
Land of the onslaught, foray, feud ;
Land of the ptarmigan and roe ;
Land where Glenlivat's fountains flow,
Sparkling and bright as " Mountain dew,"
The heart to warm, the strength renew.


Land of the long, long wintry night,
The dancing, streaming boreal light ;
The misty morn, the brightening noon,
The dewy eve, the radiant moon:
Land of the sprightly reel and glee ;
The wraith, the fairy, the banshee ;
Land where the patriot loves to roam
Far distant from his native home ;
And yet, on every foreign strand,
Still sighing for his native land !

Land of basaltic rock and cave,
Where tempests howl and surges rave ;
Where Fingal sat, and Ossian sung,
While Staffa's echoing caverns rung
With feats achiev'd by heroes' arms,
With tragic tales, and war's alarms.
With lover's vows, and lady's charms.

Land of the heathery hill and moor,
Of rude stone cot, and cold clay floor;
Of barefoot nymph, and tartan'd boor.

Land of the KIRK, austere and pure,
From pope and prelacy secure,
With pastor grave, and flock demure.
Land of the metaphysic strife,
Where mortal's lot in future life
Is settled by presumptuous man,
Who dares the Almighty's ways to scan !

Land of the eagle's airy nest,
On Glencoe's cliffs, or Nevis' crest;
Land of the lochs that winding sweep
Bound mountain's base and headland steep.
Land of the tottering Keep and Tower,
O'er moat that frown, o'er surge that lower :
Land of the thousand isles that sleep
Twixt lowering cloud and murmuring deep :
Land of the thousand barksthat ride
O'er curling wave or confluent tide ;
And, without aid of oar or sail,
Urge their fleet course 'gainst tide or gale.

Land of the streams and lakes that feed
The myriads of the scaly breed ;
Land of the pedagogue and school,
Of book -worm lore, and logic rule.
Land where the zealot's bosom glows
With fires might melt St. Bernard's snows ;
Yet, where wild sceptics disavow
The laws proclaim'd on Sinai's brow,


And those revealed to Israel's bands

Ere scatter'd through earth's distant lands !

Land where the torrents leap from high,
And o'er their rocky barriers fly-
In sheets of foam, with thund'ring roar,
Down through the dark ravine to pour :

Land but the signal's given to weigh ;

The winds and tides brook no delay.
Bleak Mull, farewell ! I must away.

Whether the foregoing lines embody the more prominent charac-
teristic features of the interesting land through which I am travelling,
and in a form which may assist the memory, by recalling strong images
impressed on the sensorium, I must leave to the judgment as well as
indulgence of the reader; always remembering, in charity, the trick
which the goblin played me among the mountains of Morven, by trans-
muting prose into rhyme.


Why are the Scotch bagpipes more deafening and dissonant than
those of the Irish ? We may as well ask, why are the mountains
higher, the storms louder, the rivers swifter, and the climate colder, in
the one country than in the other ? Habit and early association is
everything. To a Highlander, the pibroch is more melodious and
exhilarating than is a Cremona to an Italian, the sackbut to a Jew, the
harp to a Welshman, or the bugle to the huntsman. It incites him to
love, war, or industry, according to the mood or the exigency of the
moment. It prompts him to charge with the bayonet, slash with the
claymore, spring forward in the dance, climb the precipitous mountain
in quest of the deer, or ply the tough oar on the lake in search of her-
rings. It rekindles the fire'of old friendship and old feuds ; it makes
the whiskey circulate round in bumpers, to the tune of " Auld lang syne,"
and the dirk fly from its scabbard at the mention of a foeman's name.
It soothes the recollection of past misfortunes ; it feeds the hope of
better times ; and it blunts the sting of present penury.

All these, and many other services, the pibroch still performs; leaving
out of sight its ancient and most honourable office, (now, alas ! in abey-
ance,) of " gathering the clan," when its chief determined to sweep off
the herds of a neighbouring glen, cut the throats of a hostile sept, or
resist the laws of a reigning sovereign.

The wild and shrill notes of the pibroch are capable of expressing,
perhaps of exciting, the more fierce and tumultuous emotions of the


mind, the more rapid and energetic actions of the body. These qua-
lities would render it the favourite music of a rude and martial people,
living in a barbarous age, and inhabiting a rugged, savage, but romantic

To the supersensitive tympanum of an Italian ear, the loud notes of
the pibroch would be as painful and horror-thrilling as the scream of
the eagle to the lamb it had pounced upon in Glencoe, or the roar of
the lion to the startled fawn in the forests of the Sunderbunds.


" Fair StafFa ! proudly on her crystal throne
She sits with marble crown and pillar'd zone,
And, for the homage of obsequious slaves,
Lists the rough music of the foamy waves
Stern flatterers they !"

Mother earth must have been in a highly architectural mood when
she heaved forth from her huge basalt-foundry, or volcanic caldron,
those myriads of pillars which compose, sustain, ajid surround the most
majestic temple ever erected by the hand of nature ; and compared with
which, the gloomy and gigantic caverns of Elephanta and Salsette,
hewn out of the native rock, and dedicated to unknown gods, are puny
and abortive imitations !

" Where, as to shame the temples deck'd
By skill of earthly architect,
Nature herself, it seem'd, would raise
A minster to her Maker's praise!
Not for a meaner use ascend
Her columns, or her arches bend;
Nor for a theme less solemn tells
That mighty surge that ebbs and swells;
And still, between each awful pause,
From the high vault an answer draws,
In varied tone, prolong'd and high,
That mocks the organ's melody."

It was natural for the poet to imagine this mighty cavern as a temple
formed by nature; but for whose worship ? It is more appropriate to
NEPTUNE than the temple whose ruins still stand in solitary grandeur
amid the desolate plains of Psestum. The floor of this majestic edifice
is a liquid mirror, reflecting, in calin weather, the various forms and
tints of the basaltic and stalactitic vault above, putting to shame the
tesselated and variegated floors of ancient Greece or modern Rome;


while, at other times, the gentle undulations that sweep along the innu-
merable and multiform projecting columns, broken into various lengths,
on each side, re-echoed and reverberated from the roof and walls of this
stupendous edifice, produce a wild and harmonious music, corresponding
with the mysterious and awful character of the place. But when the
southern tempest agitates the surrounding ocean, and impels the high
and impetuous surges, in rapid succession, through the yawning portal
of the cavern, then the terrific encounter of billow and rock the one
assailing, the other repelling the gigantic struggles of conflicting
elements, imprisoned in the dark womb of Staffa, shake the whole isle
to its centre, by violent concussions, and explosions resembling the
loudest thunders, at the instant when the roaring wave strikes against
the inmost recesses of the cavern, and, repulsed by vault and pillars,
rvishes back, a defeated deluge of foam, till rallied by its successors in
the reiterated assault.

Perhaps on the whole surface of the earth, there is not a more sublime \
or awful sight than that of a storm at Staffa in a dark night, accom-
panied by thunder, lightniiig, and rain. The war of elements above,
below, and around, might well cause man to tremble, when the solid
rocks beneath his feet, the whole island itself, vibrate like a pendulum,
and appear in imminent danger of being swept away and buried beneath
the waves ! This is no ideal, or even exaggerated picture. The
wretched inhabitants were frightened from Stafl'a by the rocking of the
island in the stormy wintry nights, and the groans and howlings that
issued from the caves, as the surges waged their war of extermination
against the tottering and fractured columns ; conveying the idea, and
inducing a belief in the minds of the ignorant peasants, that evil spirits
were incarcerated in the caverns, or buried beneath the foundations of
the island ! -

Such a scene would have afforded ample scope for the pen of a Byron ;
but who would venture to paint the portentous scene that here presented
itself, thousands of years before Fingal or Ossian was born-^wheh con-
vulsed and struggling nature poured out, from the burning bowels of
the earth, a flood of molten rock, that instantly converted the Hebridean
ocean into a boiling caldron, filled the atmosphere, from Iceland to
the Pillars of Hercules, with clouds of steam that, condensing, fell in
cataracts over the affrighted Atlantic, and joined the opposing cliffs
of Caledonia and Hibernia, by a gigantic bridge of crystallised basalt

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Online LibraryJames JohnsonThe recess, or Autumnal relaxation in the Highlands and Lowlands; being the home circuit versus foreign travel, a serio-comic tour to the Hebrides → online text (page 11 of 28)