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 13 of 28)
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Suggests a truth he little dreamt before
Man was not made to question, but adore !

* It was one of the doctrines of the Runic mythology, that the souls of the brave who
had died in battle, wandered among the heavens in light fleecy clouds, for some time
after death.

106 IONA.

I N A.

There are few persons, of even moderate sensibility, who can pace
the most humble village churchyard, without emotions and reflections
of a serious, not to say, sombre cast. The possession of health and the
enjoyment of youth cannot entirely veil the certainty of that fate, which,
though the common and inevitable lot of all, is, nevertheless, abhorrent
to each individual. Yet when we tread on the graves of the illustrious
dead of the patriot, poet, and philosopher of those who have bled in
their country's cause, humanized the heart, or delighted the imagination
we forget, for the moment, the consideration of SELF, in gratitude or
regret for those who lie beneath our feet.

But feelings of a still deeper hue, thoughts of intenser interest,
arise in the mind, as soon as we touch the sacred soil of lona. We
land, with some difficulty, on a rugged shore, and find ourselves in the
midst of ancient ruins, strewed over many a rood, on a low and lonely
isle, surrounded, in the distance, by misty mountains, shattered cliffs,
projecting rocks, and a boundless ocean canopied by almost perpetual
clouds and fogs and buffeted on all sides by violent storms and raging
tides. A locality more desolate, dreary, and isolated from the world,
can hardly be imagined ; yet it was here that holy men devoted their
lives, for more than a thousand years, to the preservation, exposition,
and diffusion of our divine religion, while harassed and encompassed by
" savage clans and roving barbarians." And not the inestimable bless-
ings of Christianity alone, but the cheering lights of literature, flowed
in every direction, from this sequestered rock in the ocean, to humanize
the neighbouring hordes and even distant nations. It is small triumph
to sceptics and scoffers that Columba and his descendants were tinctured
with the superstitions of their times; and that legendary tales and
miraculous interpositions became interwoven with the true, but obscure
history of this venerable institution.

We see here the ruins, fast mouldering to decay, of a monastery, a
convent, an abbey or cathedral, many buildings serving the purposes of
refectories, chapels, dwellings, &c. besides the " HOUSE APPOINTED FOR
ALL LIVING" the place of sepulture ! It is not probable that any of
these ruins saw the light before the twelfth century, and therefore the
graveyard may fairly take precedency of them all, in point of antiquity.
This part of the Holy Isle appears to have been inhabited beyond all
proportion to the population of lona and no wonder, when we find
that every petty king and tyrant chieftain, for hundreds of miles around,
were ambitious to have their bones deposited in the sacred soil of lona,

IONA. 107

doubtless with the hope that the arch-fiend might be deterred from
claiming acquaintance with his quondam friends, in such a sanctuary.
Little did the potentates, warriors, and mitred heads who sought sepul-
ture in lona, dream of the indignities to which they were ultimately
doomed ! Here the " storied urn and animated bust" have served for
floors and walls to pigsties, stables, and cow-houses, during centuries
and even now, when curiosity or shame has cleared away the rubbish
and filth from the tombs of the mighty dead, we find the impious ham-
mer and chisel at work, in daily defacing and dilapidating the rem-
nants of antiquity which time and barbarians had spared. While Mr.
MacLean, the CICERONE of lona, was enumerating the forty-eight
Scottish kings (from Fergus the Second (Anno 504) to Macbeth)
that lay entombed under our feet, an antiquary in the rear, deliberately
chipped the nose off a monarch, an abbot, or a chieftain, and pitched it
into his bag, for the museum at B 1.

Of the legendary lore connected with this sanctuary, it is not my
purpose to take much notice. St. Oran's Chapel is still standing, and
his tomb is shown by the antiquarian schoolmaster of the place. His
Satanic majesty having discovered that Columba was erecting a temple
here not exactly dedicated to his worship, caused the walls to tumble
down as fast as they were built up. Columba was advised, in a dream,
to bury a living man, as a propitiation to the cloven -footed king, and
St. Oran offered his sen-ices for that pious purpose. After twenty-
four hours inhumation, Columba was seized with a fit of curiosity or
compunction, and broke up the grave, to see how St. Oran fared. To
his astonishment, he found him alive and, with horror, heard, from
the lips of the victim, certain sceptical statements respecting the infernal
regions and other secrets of the prison-house, which were unfit for
mortal ears. As a summary mode of punishing, as well as of preventing
false doctrines and heresies, Columba soldered up the coffin of his friend
St. Oran, so effectually, that he never uttered a word on these subjects,

Columba may have been a very pious saint, but he appears to
have been but an indifferent patriot. Disgusted with Ireland, his native
land, he repaired to Oransay ; but finding that he was still in sight of
the Emerald Isle, he moved on, some ten or fifteen miles farther, to lona,
where he pitched his tent for good. As the large island of Islay lies
between Oransay and Ireland, I should have doubted whether St. Co-
lumba could see his native land from the place of his first expatriation,
had I not remembered that he was the first personage endowed with the
property of " SECOND SIGHT," (a fact which must be somewhat morti-
fying to our Caledonian brethren,) having " told the victory of Aidan

108 IONA.

over the Picts and Saxons on the very instant it happened*." Now
this faculty of second sight rendered it useless for its possessor to remove
from Oransay to lona ; for surely a dozen miles would not make much
difference in such a supernatural power. Be this as it may, the Hiber-
nian ex-patriot seems, on leaving his native shores, to have divested
himself of gallantry (hereditary in the Irish character) as w r ell as love
of country. So mortal a hatred had St. Columba to the fair sex, " that
he detested all cattle on their account, and would not permit a cow to
come within sight of his sacred walls." " Where there is a cow (says
he) there must be a woman (a curious kind of logic, by the way) ; and
where there is a woman there must be mischief." I confess I cannot
much revere the tenets of this propagator of Christianity, twelve cen-
turies ago, who excluded the fair sex from the benefit of his sermons
and doctrines ; for, by his own showing, they were much in need of
reformation in the year 565. The existence of a convent among these
ruins, however, shows that Columba either altered his mind, or that his
successors considered the fair sex as eligible tenants of this consecrated
ground. It is ciirious that the exiled cows took possession of the con-
vent vacated by the nuns, soon after the Reformation, as well as of
cathedral, chapels, and monastery ; and continued to defile these sanc-
tuaries till exorcised by the pen of Dr. Samuel Johnson !

His Britannic Majesty is head of the church, where St. Columba was
once the paramount authority ; and the Rev. Mr. Campbell is his Ma-
jesty's vicar, vicegerent, or minister for spiritual affairs in the Ionian
Isles. He has the cure of five hundred souls ; w r hile his brother, the
doctor, has the care of their bodies. The town or village consists of a
line of sordid huts along the beach, and near the ancient ruins. They
are all, apparently, of the same height and size, and, excepting the
manse, and the kirk, the Ionian peasant

" Sees no contiguous palace rear its head
To shame the meanness of his humble shed.' 5

He is not, therefore, tortured with envy or jealousy. Both the minister
and the doctor assured me that the inhabitants of lona are remarkably
happy and contented. Their wants are few, and these are supplied by
the air, the ocean, and the scanty soil of their rocky island. The chief
articles of importation are a cargo of tourists, twice a week, in summer,
to see the mouldering ruins of the isle their exports are little more than
variegated pebbles, sold by the children at sixpence a lot and legen-

* Pennant, vol. ii. p. 280 ; who expressly affirms that Columba (an Irishman) was
" the first on record who had the faculty of second tight,"

IONA. 109

dary talcs rehearsed by Donald MacLean, the village pedagogue, mysta-
gogue, and antiquary, at nearly the same rate. The whole island (which
is only three miles in length) is a labyrinth of rocks, and the shores, on
all sides, difficult of access. Yet here is a fine quarry of variegated
marble, which might be more easily brought to England than that from
the quarries of Carara but then it would not be Italian ! Along the
southern shore we observed numerous masses of red granite, as round
and smooth as polished marbles, though many of them are three or four
feet in diameter! There is no granite on the island; and these im-
mense and ponderous globes must have been rolled hither from other
islands, by the waves and tides of the ocean ! This circumstance may
convey some idea of the terrific force of the storms, and the tumultuous
agitations of the waters, among these Northern Cyclades ! It may also
convince every unprejudiced mind that the excavations of Staffa, Skye,
and other places, were the products of wintry storms and raging tides,
rather than original formations.

The sacred black stones of lona, on which great oaths (no doubt includ-
ing coronation ones) were taken, never to be broken till convenient are
all gone. " What the peculiar power of this talisman was, in giving a
conscience to him who was well aware that he had none of his own, is
neither related nor to be guessed." But, in all countries, and among
all classes, the devil, who is the father of oaths, has furnished a formula
for each, adapted to the manners and habits of the swearers.

Of the three hundred and sixty crosses that once stood on lona, only
two or three remain, and they are tottering, like the tower and walls of
the abbey itself ! The synod of Argyll ordered sixty of them to be
thrown into the sea ! So then we have had reformers in all ages of
crosses as well as rotten boroughs. The synod of Argyll may find
precedents in mobs as well as in monarchies. The early Christians
destroyed pagan temples and if the synod burnt the library of lona,
there was a much larger library burnt on the banks of the Nile by cer-
tain Moslem REFORMERS. There is doubtless an organ of REFORMA-
TIVENESS in the human brain, though the phrenologists have not yet
given it a local habitation or a name. The Egyptians reformed or de-
formed the Hindoos the Greeks the Egyptians. The Romans demo-
lished Etruria, and were reformed, in turn, by pope and pagan. The
ancient noblesse of France were reformed by the sans-culottes the sans-
culottes by the sabre-men the Bourbons by the Orleans.

The miracles with which the biographers of Columba have adorned
the saint, appear sufficiently ridiculous to modern ears. A halo of
light encircled his head when at the altar he could turn water into
wine conversed with angels and exorcised the devil out of a milk-


pail. He contrived a spit which caught deer and other game, of itself,
when fixed in the woods. " Yet (says a writer who bears no great
respect for antiquity) when divested of that which belongs to the piety
and credulity of the age, we imagine that we can discover the features
of a character truly apostolic a fervent and unwearied piety, united to
an industry in pursuing his mission that knew no repose and to an
undaunted courage, which the condition of the ferocious and lawless
people whom he attempted to convert, rendered indispensable." His
religious labours were not limited to Scotland and Ireland. Northum-
berland became the scene of the pious toils of monks from lona. Many
of the religious establishments of England were, for centuries, provided
with teachers or monks from this remote spot. These monks un-
dertook voyages to the surrounding islands and Norwegian seas, for the
purpose of propagating the Gospel. lona was, in short, the PALESTINE
of the North the ROME of Ireland and Scotland*.

But the steamer has now made several gyrations along the shore,
and sounded the signal for embarkation, before we could tear ourselves
from the ruins of lona. The sun was declining in the western horizon
the towering mountains of Mull were purple with his rays the
breakers were roaring over many a sunken and projecting rock the
sea fowl's mournful scream re-echoed along the steep and rugged cliffs
of Mull but no trace of man or animal was seen in any direction. A
more dreary, desolate, or dangerous coast can scarcely be found or ima-

Instead of returning by Tobermorey and the Sound of Mull, we swept
our course along the southern shore of the island, among sunken and
projecting rocks against which the breakers were furiously foaming.
No steamer should take this route, except in very clear weather. Pas-
sengers are anxious to return to Oban this way, because it is nearer,
and saves a night at Tobermorey. But they are unacquainted with the
dangers of this navigation.


Ruins, in some countries, indicate prosperity, in others, decay. In
Egypt, Greece, and Italy, they record the decline and fall of great em-
pires in England, Scotland, and Wales, they mark abolition of feudal

* Is it not remarkable that Boswell, that worst of Ciceroni, did not take the great
lexicographer to Staffa, when he was here within ten miles of the greatest curiosity in
the Hebrides ?


tyranny, the establishment of popular freedom, and the consolidation of
national strength. The lawless power formerly dispersed among petty
chiefs is now concentrated in the legal magistrate. The elegant villa
has succeeded to the frowning castle where the wild deer roamed, the
corn now r waves the sound of the hammer has drowned the war-cry of
the henchman.

In surveying the remains of Highland castles, one is at some loss to
conjecture the use for which they were designed. They could have had
no accommodations for the luxuries of peace they possessed slender
defence against the assaults of war. There is no moat or drawbridge
no barbican or tower to defend the gate no loop-hole through which
to annoy the assailants. Excepting the naked and scarped rock, on the
diminutive island, just large enough for the castle or tower, there was
nothing to prevent the enemy from undermining the foundation of the
wall ; or setting fire to the door, and walking into the stronghold. In
fact, Sir Walter Scott has given an instance of this kind of storming a
chieftain's citadel, in one of his novels. From the narrow and rude
square tower, of two or three stories, up to the royal residence of
DUNSTAFFNAGE, there is little appearance of there ever having been
COMFORT in these gloomy mansions of the great or even STRENGTH.
There is no indication of the walls having ever been plastered and a
siege or blockade must have been out of the question, since these fortifi-
cations rarely possess a well to slake the thirst of the besieged. They
seem to have been constructed rather as defences against wolves or wild
boars, than as castles to resist the attacks of armed men.

No doubt, however, they answered all the military purposes for which
there was any need ; and as for luxury or pomp these were articles in
which the Highland chieftains had little dealings. To those who have
surveyed the remains of antiquity in England, Wales, and on the Con-
tinent, the dwarfish scale of the Highland castles appears very striking.
The walls of Kenilworth would, I think, contain the whole of the Cale-
donian castles, north of the Clyde. Still their ruins add greatly to the
interest of the landscape. Indeed the most romantic country in the
world soon tires the eye, where the ruins and records of man do not
mingle with the scenery, and excite historical reflections. Switzerland
and Italy present remarkable contrasts in this respect. The eye is
delighted, for a season, in the former ; but the mind finds more per-
manent objects of contemplation in the latter. Scotland combines both
kinds of interest. Her romantic mountains and glens feast the organs
of vision the historical records and legendary tales of her ruins, streams,
and vales, afford ample provision for the intellectual repast.

The situation of Dunstaffnage is far from interesting, being a low


tongue of land ; but it commands many fine views over Loch Finnhie
and Loch Etive. We wandered round the walls of this ancient palace
of Scotch monarchs, where a single brass gun is planted, by way of
keeping up some claim to regal power. We penetrated into some of the
state apartments, at the risk of falling through the floors into masses of
rubbish below. A single family occupies a nook of the quadrangle
and a miserable abode it is ! Recesses in the walls, with stinking straw,
instead of fragrant heather, form the wretched beds on which its shiver-
ing inmates recline.

It must, in honesty, be confessed, that one of our objects in visiting
Dunstaffnage, was to see the place where the " fatal stone," on which
the Scottish kings were crowned, so long enjoyed its royal prerogatives.
Our curiosity may be pardoned, when it is considered that this same
stone formed Jacob's pillow, when he slept on the plains of Luz, as is
proved by the inscription of our English Edward, who bore off this
trophy from the banks of Loch Finnhie :

" Si quid habent veri velchronica cana fidesve,
Clauditur hac cathedra nobilis ille Lapis,
Ad caput cximius JACOB quondam patriarcha
Quein posuit," &c.

From Syria, this hard but proud pillow was brought to Egypt from
Egypt to Spain from Spain to Ireland, by Simon Brek, who was
crowned on it, seven hundred years before the birth of Christ. On it
the kings of Ireland were enthroned, and there it had the singular pro-
perty of emitting sounds indicative of the propriety of the election a
convincing proof (if proof was wanted) that the BALLOT will never
ensure secrecy, since the very stones can speak on such occasions ! It
was destined that, wherever this stone might be placed, a Scot should
reign. FERGUS the First, therefore, brought it with him to Scotland,
three hundred years before the Christian era, and there it maintained
its talismanic character, giving heavenly sanction to the kings of Cale-
donia, till " king Edward Longshanks" forcibly removed it to West-
minster, where it may now be seen for the trifling sum of eighteen pence.
The ancient prophecy was completely fulfilled at the time of the UNION,
by the coronation of James the Sixth, and tended very much, no doubt,
to reconcile the Scotch to that happy event.

" Ni fallat fatum, Scoti quocunque locatum
Invenient lapiiiem, regnare tuenlur ibidem."

Were it not for the supernatural powers and properties of JACOB'S
pillow, which every Cockney will surely run to see in Westminster
Abbey, it was hardly necessary for Scottish kings to send to the Emerald


Isle for stones, which was very like " carrying coals to Newcastle." At
the period when this coronation ceremony was in vogue perhaps till a
much later period I imagine it would have been difficult for an aspir-
ant to the crown of Scotland, to find any thing else than a stone to be
crowned upon at least in the Western Highlands. Even now the
vicinity of Dunstaffnage presents abundant materials for the manufac-
ture of Jacob's pillows. Indeed some niineralogical wits (if wit and
mineralogy be ever found in conjunction) have hinted that the sacred
stone in Westminster Abbey is nothing more than a piece of the iden-
tical rock on which the old castle of Dunstaffnage is built ! Be this as
it may, I think Fergus the First would have proved a benefactor to both
countries, if he had brought over a cargo of the mercurial imagination of
the Irish, to mix with and enliven the grave judgment and calculating
wisdom of the Scotch, since the tertium quid thence resulting would
have formed an amalgam, capable of being moulded into models of man,
that might bear comparison with that headstrong animal, John Bull,
whose body and soul are an olla podrida of all races, European, Asiatic,
Australian, and Carribbean.

The sulky urchin who guarded this dreary ruin positively refused us
admittance, because it was the Sabbath. There was no great difficulty
in forcing the door, but the angry janitor followed us with savage
frowns through the mouldering apartments that still exist.

When we began to scale the wall that separates the ruins of Dunstaff-
nage from the roofless mausoleum of its quondam royal tenants, the
young dragon growled, in an unknown tongue, with most menacing
gestures, as if we were going to disturb the ashes of the mighty dead.
We disturbed nothing but a covey of partridges. There is little to de-
tain the stranger in this lonely and melancholy scene : no " storied
urn or animated bust" no " long-drawn aisle or fretted vault" no-
thing, in fact, but tottering walls of a chapel and cemetery inclosing

" long flat stones,

With nettles skirted and with moss o'ergrown."

We hastened from the spot, but not too soon. Jet-black clouds were
rising portentous in the north-west, zig-zagged, occasionally, with bril-
liant scintillations of electric fire, and ominously advancing in direct
opposition to the wind. We had not, indeed, got half a mile from
DunstafTnage, when a storm " of thunder, lightning, and of rain," that
would have gladdened the hearts of the Weird Sisters, came pouring
down from the mountains of Morven, as if invoked by the goblin guar-
dian of the castle, to hurl vengeance on the heads of the Sassenachs
who had trodden, with profane step, on the sanctuary of departed kings !

We quickly took shelter in a wretched-looking hut, built of rude


stones, and thatched with heather. We found the interior much more
comfortable than we expected. A good peat fire was blazing on the
hearth, over which was suspended a pot of broth ; while around tire
chimney hung more than a dozen of well-smoked salmon and other fish.
A female, and six staring, rather than smiling children, made instant
accommodations for the Sassenachs, including two ladies. Pewter and
wooden platters were soon rattling on the clean deal table, and the ladle
was baling out the broth, in the twinkling of an eye, for the drenched
strangers. Delight was pictured in every countenance of the Highland
group, as well as of the guests ; and never did I spend so happy a half
hour beneath the sculptured domes of the great, as under the hos-
pitable roof of this Highland hut ! There was no interchange of ideas
through the medium of that language which was conferred on man to
conceal his thoughts ; but through that language of nature, which is
expressed in the eye, and needs not the chattering, false, and obsequious
tongue, to give utterance to the feelings of the heart. The poor family
could not speak a word of English, nor we of Erse, to manifest the plea-
sure of the hostess and the gratitude of her guests yet every thing went
on in harmony and good nature !

The storm subsided the clouds cleared away and the sun shone
forth in splendour. Half a crown put into the hand of a young bare-
footed girl turned pleasure into pain. The poor mother was evidently
in extreme distress for language and means to show her sense of the gift
to her child. After several ochs ! ohs ! and exclamations unintelligible
to us, a long knife was brandished at the throat of an enormous salmon
in the chimney, which, in half a minute more, would have been broiling
on the fire for us, had I not seized the hand of our kind hostess, and
made her understand that we were amply supplied with provender from
the broth-pot for the remainder of our journey.

I mention the above little incident, of which I could recount many
parallel instances, where I found that the " march of intellect" and the
selfishness of refinement had not yet affected the springs of ancient
Highland hospitality.

I shall probably be believed when I say that I could have had ample
introductions to the better classes of society in Scotland ; but many will
doubt my wisdom, in not taking a single letter of recommendation to the

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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 13 of 28)