John Macculloch.

The Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland, containing descriptions of their scenery and antiquities, with an account of the political history ... present condition of the people, &c. ... founded on a series of annual journeys between the years 1811 and 1821 ... in letters to Sir Walter Scott, bart (Volume 1) online

. (page 25 of 37)
Online LibraryJohn MaccullochThe Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland, containing descriptions of their scenery and antiquities, with an account of the political history ... present condition of the people, &c. ... founded on a series of annual journeys between the years 1811 and 1821 ... in letters to Sir Walter Scott, bart (Volume 1) → online text (page 25 of 37)
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before six, but after nine, and was then to be shod, and
saddled, and haltered ; and as the shoes were to be made,
the saddle to be borrowed from some one, two or three
miles off, and the halter from some one else. There is a
pleasing prospect in all these cases, a train of pithy re-
flections, by which you amuse the hours of waiting : cal-
culating at every hour that passes, in which of all the
coming bogs you are to spend the night, on which moun-
tain you will break your neck, or in which ford be
drowned : knowing* that the longest day is too short,
knowing that even the sun himself could not perform the
journey in view, in less than the time you have allotted
for it.

After walking three miles in search of the horse, and
waiting seven hours, he was found : but it was plain to
see that, even then, all was not right : Sandy Macdonald
" could not leave his harvest to-day," though he was
paid for it. Let no man imagine that he understands the
true nature of patience, till he has made a Highland tour,
on Highland ponies, and in Highland boats. I agreed
to go on alone and sleep at the King's house ; to wait for
his convenience. As usual, we were to start the next
morning at six : but the Highland six — to day it was
only nine. Even then, though the horse was ready, the
man was not. 1 departed alone, but was speedily lost
among rocks and bogs ; nothing was visible but the wide,
black, open, flat waste, all around ; and far away, the
blue hills of Perthshire rising- in the distant horizon.
Not even the mountain bee was on the wing to give life to
the scene ; nay, the very midges seemed to scorn the moor
of Rannoch : no water stirred, to indicate that something
yet moved or lived ; but the black pool stagnated among


the scanty and yellow rushes of the dark bog. The
heart-sinking stillness of this solitude, the more dreary
that it was so spacious, was undisturbed even by the
rustle of a breeze ; since there was not even a bush of
heath in which a breeze could have rustled, had it been
so inclined. I and the world were alone together, as
some one says ; always excepting the horse, who, very
sensibly refused to go any further. At length the guide
appeared, and soon found a track, which, in no long time,
neither man nor horse could follow ; for in no long time
there was no longer any track. What distance remained
between this and Loch Rannoch, I know not, and nobody
knows ; but at five o'clock, the guide, the patient, and
the horse, found themselves, severally, at the head of the
lake ; having spent eight hours of hard labour in tra-
versing twelve miles, as it is called. As to the horse, he
might as well have remained at Glenco. A ride, this was
not, by any figure of speech : I cannot even call it a walk ;
for half the space was traversed by jumping over bogs,
and holes, and ditches, and pits, which were generally so
wide as to demand much serious meditation. I may
fairly say that I jumped half the way from Glenco to
Loch Rannoch.

Pray imagine the moor of Rannoch ; for who can de-
scribe it. A great level (I hope the word will pardon
this abuse of it) 1000 feet above the sea, sixteen or twenty
miles long, and nearly as much wide, bounded by moun-
tains so distant as scarcely to form an apprehensible
boundary ; open, silent, solitary ; an ocean of blackness
and bogs, a world before chaos ; not so good as chaos,
since its elements are only rocks and bogs, with a few
pools of water, bogs of the Styx and waters of Cocytus,
with one great, long, sinuous, flat, dreary, black Acheron-
like, lake, Loch Lydog, near which arose three fir trees.


just enough to remind me of the vacuity of all the rest.
Not a sheep nor a cow ; even the crow shunned it, and
wheeled his croaking" flight far off to better regions. If
there was a blade of grass any where, it was concealed
by the dark stems of the black, black, muddy sedges, and
by the yellow, melancholy rush of the bogs.

As our trio proceeded in such a saltatory and dis-
jointed manner, I had not much opportunity of talk with
Mr. Macdonald ; but if he thought he had caught a
Saxon, I knew full well that I had caught a Highland
Tartar. He talked of his harvest, and of the favour he
did me by coming, and of the time he should lose in re-
turning; with much more that, I well knew, was, in no
long time, to lead to some demand beyond his bargain.
This however was a point not to be argued in a bog :
I hoped that it would be reserved for terra firma. On
terra fir ma we at length found ourselves; some whisky
and a supper were ordered as an extra gratuity, and the
two guineas were presented, with all imaginable thanks
in addition. " I shall lose another day of the harvest,"
said Sandy Macdonald, " and I expect ye'll give me
another guinea." I could only request him to excuse
me, as he had named his own price, and as two guineas
was not a bad exchange for the two shillings he would
have gained by his harvest. He remained inflexible :
no, did not remain any thing ; but became insolent. At
length, finding his eloquence unavailing, " Then you
maun give me aght shillings for carrying your um-
brella." The knave had carried this in his hand for a
few miles, at his own desire. I went up stairs. In a
minute however he was at the door, swearing that he
would stay there all night, that 1 should have no supper,
and that I should not stir til! he was paid all his demand.
Accordingly, I betook myself to my little Horace ; listen-


ing to much objurgation and vituperation, both in Gaelic
and English : the former having a very ferocious sound,
but being, fortunately, a dead letter. But finding, after
an hour, that he made no impression on Saxon obstinacy,
he at length consoled himself by saying that I was not a
gentleman, but that he would take the money. I as-
sured him that he was right, that I was not a gentleman,
but an informer, and that instead of paying him, I would
lodge an information against him for letting horses on
hire without a license. I had learned this expedient
from your friend and mine, Daniell, who had been driven
to it on similar occasions. I thank thee Daniell for
teaching me that word ; for it was an astounding and
an unexpected blow: and like oil on the stormy sea in
the Naufragium of Erasmus, it caused the rage of the
mountaineer to fall at once to a moderate level; but not
till after he had protested that he had been once ruined
already by an information, and would be ruined again
rather than submit to a Sassanach. I need not tell you
that the man got his money and departed : vowing re-
venge against the next Saxon who should fall into his
clutches. It is not very wonderful that travellers in the
Highlands call the people extortioners : for, in the mat-
ter of horses, you will find nearly the same wherever
you go.




He who does not know what is the meaning of a "soft
day," must come to Fort William ; or he may go to In-
veraray, which will do as well. This is the usual friendly
salutation when it is raining what the Scots denominate
an even-down-pour, what the Americans call stoning rain,
what the Cornish very expressively term lashing, and
what is vulgarly denominated cats and dogs. Express-
ing- my dissent from the propriety of the Highland epithet,
after having been confined three days and three nights at
Mrs. Bell Mac Lauchlan's inn, by what is called a shower,
in these quarters, the Highlander said with a mixture of
fun and surliness, " If you want fine weather you had
better go back to England." If dew, as the poet says,
is the bridal of the earth and sky, the rains of Fort William
bear some resemblance to a Georgian wedding, where the
bride is taken, like a hostile garrison, at the sword's point.
I remember that when I was at Inveraray, I was told by
the ostler, with a knowing leer of the eye, that it would
certainly rain, as the clouds were coming from Fort
William. When at Fort William, they always deter-
mined when it was to rain by looking towards Inveraray.
Just so, the rain of Keswick comes from Wastdale, and
that of Wastdale comes from Keswick. Either, I be-
lieve, might say of the other, "The self-same heaven
that frowns on me, looks sadly too on Richmond." I
should like to know where the Inver is, where it does not
rain two months out of the three which pass by the name


of summer here ; but I never found the man who would
allow it could be fair any where when it was raining at
his own Inver.

Thus three years had passed ; and as it had rained, in
each of them, on all the days and weeks that I had been
within sight of Ben Nevis, I guessed, and perhaps truly
enough, that it had done nought else during my absence.
At length, in the fourth year, the shower ceased ; and, on
the 20th of August, as I looked out of the window of the
inn at Balahulish, at six o'clock in the morning, it was a
fine day. It was but twenty miles to the top of Ben
Nevis. To wait for the boiling of the kettle, to say no-
thing of the lighting of the fire and the awaking of Peggy,
and of the ostler, and of much more, was out of the ques-
tion ; so I stole my own horse, saddled him, roused the
ferryman, launched the ferry-boat, rode off" to Fort Wil-
liam, breakfasted, and by one o'clock was on the top of
the mountain. In half an hour, it snowed as if it had been
January ; and as it has probably been raining or snowing
there ever since, it is certain that I secured the only op-
portunity which occurred in the space of ten years, by
copying Csesar, or by recollecting* that valuable maxim
in Cordery which all shivering school boys remember.
By the same rule it was that a single vessel of a fleet
slipped her cable one morning, made her voyage to Smyr-
na, and returned, full of oranges, to find her comrades
still wind-bound in the Downs. The morality of this is
on the surface. We may all owe it deeper debts, if we
choose, than the sight of a shower of snow in August.

From the rarity of fair weather and a cloudless sky
at Fort William, and because the distance to the top of
Ben Nevis is considerable, and the ascent laborious, it is
not often visited. Measuring it as well as I could by
pacing, I found it about eight miles; the path on the



mountain, which is very circuitous, amounting to about
six, out of which there are two of a very steep and labo-
rious ascent. The perpendicular height is more than
4000 feet ; but it is exceeded, geometrically, by Ben Muic
Dbu, and, I believe, by others of the mountains of Mar.
But it must be remembered that Ben Nevis (the Hill of
Heaven) is a much more independent mountain ; and that,
on the west side at least, it rises, almost immediately, from
a plain which is nearly on a level with the sea. Hence
it is, in reality, still the highest mountain in Scotland,
though not the most elevated ground ; while its effect to
the eye is far more striking than that of any other: all
the rival elevations, either springing from high land, or
being entangled among other hills so as to lose their con-
sequence. Its form is, at the same time, heavy and grace-
less; particularly from Inverlochy and Loch Eil, where
the eye takes in the whole. That form is also very pecu-
liar, as if one mountain had been placed on another; and
this effect, as of a casual and posterior addition, is ren-
dered still more striking by the difference in outline and
character between the two portions. This appearance,
so remarkable to the ordinary spectator, is easily ex-
plained by the geologist ; who finds that the lower portion
is formed of granite and schistose rocks, and that the
upper is a mass of porphyry.

Doubtless, the ascent of Ben Nevis is considered a
mighty deed; and, in consequence, there are various
names inscribed on the cairn within the plain; while
some had been written on scraps of paper, and enclosed
in bottles which had been drained of their whisky by the
valiant who had reached this perilous point of honour.
Such is the love of fame, " that the clear spirit doth raise,"
to carve its aspiring initials on desks, and to scratch them
on the win«lows of inns. Is there a man so unworthy of


a name, were it even MacgufFog or Bumfit, as not to desire
that it should be heard of hereafter; even did it prove no
more than that its owner had emptied a whisky bottle on
Ben Nevis. If I read names here that none but the god-
mothers and gossips had ever heard of, and none but the
sexton would ever hear of again, there was not one of
them all who did not feel a secret satisfaction in thinking
to himself, " nomenque erit indelebile nostrum;" in re-
flecting that some future Mac Jock or Mac Taw would
read that Angus Mac Lehose or Dugal Mac Breeks had
been able to scratch his name here on a slate with a horse-
shoe nail. But we must not enquire too curiously into
this folly ; and when we are inclined to sneer at those
who are now inscribing their unheard-of names on the
tombs or barracks of Pompeii, we must remember how
grateful we are to those, who, probably with no other or
greater ambition, scratched their own, two thousand years
ago, on the statue of Memnon.

Some of the rarer alpine plants grow on Ben Nevis ;
conveniently situated for the botanist, as they lie chiefly
near the sides of the path by which the upper portion is
accessible. But the summit itself is utterly bare, and
presents a most extraordinary and unexpected sight.
If any one is desirous to see how the world looked on the
first day of creation, let him come hither. Nor is that
nakedness at all hyperbolical ; since the surfaces of the
stones are not even covered with the common crustaceous
lichens ; two or three only of the shrubby kinds being
barely visible. It is an extensive and flat plain, strewed
with loose rocks, tumbled together in fragments of all
sizes, and, generally, covering the solid foundation to a
considerable depth. While these black and dreary ruins
mark the power of the elements on this stormy and ele-
vated spot, they excite our surprise at the agencies that



could thus, unaided by the usual force of gravity, have
ploughed up and broken into atoms, so wide and so level
a surface of the toug-hest and most tenacious of rocks.
Certainly Nature did not intend mountains to last for
ever; when she is so fertile in expedients as to lay plans
for destroying" a mountain so apparently unsusceptible of
ruin as Ben Nevis.

Situated in the midst of this plain, whence nothing-
but clouds and sky are visible, the sensation is that of
being on a rocky shore in the wide ocean ; and we almost
listen to hear its waves roar, and watch as if for the break-
ing- of the surge, as the driving rack sweeps along its mar-
gin. As the clouds began to close in around, curling and
wheeling- over head, and hurrying up in whirlwinds from
the deep and dark abysses which surround it, a poetical
imagination might have imaged itself on the spot where
Jupiter overthrew the Titans ; the bulk, the apparent
freshness, and the confusion of the fragments, resembling a
shower of rocks just discharged by a supernatural power
from the passing storm. The wild and strange sublimity of
this scene is augmented by the depth of the surrounding
precipices, whence the eye looks down into interminable
vacancy, on the mists that are sailing in mid air, or into
the rugged depths of chasms, black as night, impenetrable
to the eye or to the light of day. The distant view pre-
sents no interest. The whole is a heap of mountains ;
but so remote and so depressed, from the altitude of this
station, that scarcely any marked feature is to be seen ;
and the effect, on the east side in particular, resembles a
congregation of mole-hills.

I had not time, however, to walk round the whole
plain before there came on as dense and bitter a storm of
snow as I ever experienced : so that what else remains
of Ben Nevis, must be told by some more fortunate person.


I was not, however, alone, since I bad with me what is
commonly called a guide; a lad who had volunteered his
services, and whose good humour had secured him the
place which his talents in pilotage would not have com-
manded. I had gained too much experience in guides
not to know that, for the purpose commonly understood by
that term, they were, generally, either useless or mischie-
vous ; and had long been accustomed to trust to my organ
of geography, as well as to another organ, of not much
less use. The event here did not belie my theory ; for
when my guide found himself in a whirlwind of fog and
snow, so thick that we could scarcely see each other, and
without prospect of any thing- better, he began to cry ;
lamenting that he should never see his mother again, and
reproaching himself for having undertaken the office. I
might have been angry and alarmed both, and with good
reason; nor did 1 think him too much punished with
half an hour of despair. Feeling safe also, there was
something ludicrous in a terror which 1 knew to be un-
founded, and which was rendered much more amusing by
the mixture of Gaelic and English in which it was ex-
pressed, and the extraordinary gestures of the unhappy
animal, who vowed that if ever he lived to get home, he
would never guide a gentleman again. He would even
surrender his five shillings, if I would show him the way
down the hill. In truth, it might have been a very se-
rious adventure to both of us, had there not been a
piece of philosophy in the world of which my friend had
never heard. There was but one way down from this
wide plain, scarcely visible at any time; while every
point of the surface was exactly like every other, and the
whole was surrounded by precipices, which we might
have stepped over without being aware of it ; landing in
mid air, like the eagles, to whom night would, in any case.


have probably left us for a supper. I had observed the
bearing of this path at first, and therefore, taking out the
compass, walked boldly on ; while my guide followed,
crying, and wondering where all this was to terminate.
But to express his astonishment and rapture when 1 found
the very track, close to the edge of the deepest precipice,
is impossible. I thought that he would have fallen on
his knees and worshipped me and the compass; nor did
I succeed in making him understand how, though it
would show the way to Fort William, it could equally
direct him to Inverness.

It was intensely cold, and my pilot, who had squatted
down on a stone in the snow, till we could venture to
proceed over this dangerous descent, lamented that he
had not his Bpaxa?, if indeed the braccae of Diodorus were
breeches, and not a coat or vi^aistcoat; which seems to be
the real fact; since, according to Aulus Gellius, the
braccee covered the whole body. The ava^vp)^ was proba-
bly the very trews of our own Gael, as his a-dyo<; must have
been the plaid : and if the xitSv was a jacket or upper
coat of any kind, then the whole dress is really as well
described as we could desire, even to the itXivGloi, or little
tiles, or squares, if we may so translate this word, which
formed the checquer, and rendered the whole dress so
■naTaTcXriMTty})^. The virgatum sagulum of Virgil is equally a
tartan plaid : and, according to Propertius, the Gaul
Virdomarus had striped braccae. You see how anxious
I am for the honour of the Gael, by recurring to this
subject on the top of Ben Nevis in a snow-storm ; and,
I ought to add, for that of Diodorus, to whom I did not
do full justice. But when I said there, that the ancient
Highlanders did not esteem their own dress as we esteem
it now, I might also have quoted the authority of Mrs.
Gilderoy, that was to have been ; who boasts that her


lover " never wore a Highland plaid, but costly silken
clothes :" and that he was a Cateran, need not be told,
since the lady never wanted for " cow nor ewe," and the
hero " never annoyed those who paid their cess" to him.

By the time his kilt was thoroughly cooled, and that
he had vowed never to wear one again, the storm
cleared away, and we returned by the road of Glen
Nevis : his spirits so elated, that he frisked about like a
goat, and would, I believe, have followed me all over the
world, as he besought me to let him attend me through
the Highlands.

The descent from Ben Nevis by the glen is not incon-
venient, and it is wild and romantic. It is said that
Cameron of Glen Nevis holds his lands by the tenure of
an unfailing snow-ball when demanded. He is certainly
not likely to fail in his rent; but as this is said in other
places also, I know not if it is a truth or a popular tale.
There are the remains of a vitrified fort in this neighbour-
hood which stands enumerated in the list latiely given,
and requires no further remarks ; and my guide also
pointed out a rocking stone, which is poised in a very
unusual manner on the flat and bare ground near the

The peculiar magnitude and situation of Ben Nevis,
serve to account for the singularly rainy climate of Fort
William, as they do for the violence of the winds. I was
informed by a seaman long engaged in this coasting
trade, that he had seen one of the small sloops blown out
of the water and laid on the beach ; nor, from what I had
seen, did I doubt his report. The situation of the town
is wild and rude ; and, in general, the surrounding coun-
try is very bare of wood. The margin of the western
branch of Loch Eil, and the elevated land immediately
west of the canal, afford the most picturesque views of


Ben Nevis ; the casfle of Inverlochy always forming an
interesting object in the landscape. The town is suf-
ficiently respectable, in appearance, and is the capital of
this part of the country ; while it is the port of a country
coasting- trade, and the center of a fair for sheep and
cattle. The loss of the garrison has probably contributed
to diminish the means and employment of the inhabitants ;
and it remains to be seen whether, and what, it will gain
by the opening of the Caledonian canal. The operations
required in constructing this work formed a source of
wealth for a considerable period, and something of this
must still adhere. The town contains all such trades
and shops as are required for rural consumption ; and,
the latter, in an abundance which impresses strangers
with a notion of a more dense surrounding population
than they are able to discover. A casual visitor might
indeed wonder how all these shopkeepers exist, unless
they have agreed to live on gingerbread kings and carra-
way comfits, and to buy all their pins and tape from each
other ; forgetting-, or ignorant of, the distances whence
the people resort to have their wants supplied.

In one respect, Fort William possesses the distin-
guishing marks of a capital : idleness. This is precisely
the consequence which the Highlanders themselves say
is produced by the building of Highland villages. Per-
haps it is more conspicuous because more condensed :
while social or gregarious idleness is more prominent
than the solitary doing of nothing; being active instead
of passive. It is the agere nihil instead of the nihil agere.
To lounge about the streets, impede the way, and to be
busily and offensively idle, is a Scottish fashion : and to
those therefore who are well acquainted with the High
Street or the Gallowgate, Fort William will not appear
very new. To Londoners, it may be new to see the


single street of which it consists, crowded with idle men
walking about with their hands in their pockets, or col-
lected in groups to yawn together or converse in mono-
syllables; except when roused to louder talk by an occa-
sional sojournment to a whisky house. Even the rain of
Fort William has no effect on these coteries, which stand
under the torrents that are showering down on them, un-
heeding, undiscomposed; less concerned than the very
ducks, which quack remonstrance against the sky, and
not even retiring into their own ever-open doors. My
very guide, whose respect and confidence the compass
had secured, lamented the bad example and the want of
employment, complained that his own morals were in
danger, and was willing to attend me for any thing or
nothing, if he could but escape from Fort Williatn.

Iftheprojectof building Highland towns is to be pur-
sued, as certain politicians seem still to wish, it would be
convenient to discover some better employment for the
people than that of loitering about in the rain with their

Online LibraryJohn MaccullochThe Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland, containing descriptions of their scenery and antiquities, with an account of the political history ... present condition of the people, &c. ... founded on a series of annual journeys between the years 1811 and 1821 ... in letters to Sir Walter Scott, bart (Volume 1) → online text (page 25 of 37)