Recreations of Christopher North, Volume 2
by John Wilson
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Which is the dreariest, most desolate, and dismal of the Highland Lochs? We should say Loch Ericht. It lies in a prodigious wilderness, with which perhaps no man alive is conversant, and in which you may travel for days without seeing even any symptoms of human life. We speak of the regions comprehended between the Forest of Atholl and Ben-nevis, the Moor of Rannoch and Glen Spean. There are many lochs—and Loch Ericht is their griesly Queen. Herdsmen, shepherds, hunters, fowlers, anglers, traverse its borders, but few have been far in the interior, and we never knew anybody who had crossed it from south to north, from east to west. We have ourselves seen more of it, perhaps, than any other Lowlander; and had traversed many of its vast glens and moors, before we found our way to the southern solitude of Loch Ericht. We came into the western gloom of Ben Auler from Loch Ouchan, and up and down for hours dismal but not dangerous precipices that opened out into what might almost be called passes—but we had frequently to go back, for they were blind—contrived to clamber to the edge of one of the mountains that rose from the water a few miles down the loch. All was vast, shapeless, savage, black, and wrathfully grim; for it was one of those days that keep frowning and lowering, yet will not thunder; such as one conceives of on the eve of an earthquake. At first the sight was dreadful, but there was no reason for dread; imagination remains not longer than she chooses the slave of her own eyes, and we soon began to enjoy the gloom, and to feel how congenial it was in nature with the character of all those lifeless cliffs. Silence and darkness suit well together in solitude at noonday, and settled on huge objects make them sublime. And they were huge; all ranged together, and stretching away to a great distance, with the pitchy water, still as if frozen, covering their feet.

Loch Ericht is many miles long—nearly twenty; but there is a loch among the Grampians not more than two miles round, if so much, which is sublimer far—Loch Aven. You come upon the sight of it at once, a short way down from the summit of Cairngorm, and then it is some two thousand feet below you, itself being as many above the level of the sea. But to come upon it so as to feel best its transcendent grandeur, you should approach it up Glenaven—and from as far down as Inch-Rouran, which is about half-way between Loch Aven and Tomantoul. Between Inch-Rouran and Tomantoul the glen is wild, but it is inhabited; above that house there is but one other; and for about a dozen miles—we have heard it called far more—there is utter solitude. But never was there a solitude at once so wild, so solemn, so serene, so sweet! The glen is narrow; but on one side there are openings into several wider glens, that show you mighty coves as you pass on; on the other side the mountains are without a break, and the only variation with them is from smooth to shaggy, from dark to bright; but their prevailing character is that of pastoral or of forest peace. The mountains that show the coves belong to the bases of Ben-Aven and Ben-y-buird. The heads of those giants are not seen—but it sublimes the long glen to know that it belongs to their dominion, and that it is leading us on to an elevation that ere long will be on a level with the roots of their topmost cliffs. The Aven is so clear—on account of the nature of its channel—that you see the fishes hanging in every pool; and 'tis not possible to imagine how beautiful in such transparencies are the reflections of its green ferny banks. For miles they are composed of knolls, seldom interspersed with rocks, and there cease to be any trees. But ever and anon we walk for a while on a level floor, and the voice of the stream is mute. Hitherto sheep have been noticed on the hill, but not many, and red and black cattle grazing on the lower pastures; but they disappear, and we find ourselves all at once in a desert. So it is felt to be, coming so suddenly with its black heather on that greenest grass; but 'tis such a desert as the red-deer love. We are now high up on the breast of the mountain, which appears to be Cairngorm; but such heights are deceptive, and it is not till we again see the bed of the Aven that we are assured we are still in the glen. Prodigious precipices, belonging to several different mountains, for between mass and mass there is blue sky, suddenly arise, forming themselves more and more regularly into circular order, as we near; and now we have sight of the whole magnificence; yet vast as it is, we know not yet how vast; it grows as we gaze, till in a while we feel that sublimer it may not be; and then so quiet in all its horrid grandeur we feel too that it is beautiful, and think of the Maker.

This is Loch Aven. How different the whole region round from that enclosing Loch Ericht! There, vast wildernesses of more than melancholy moors—huge hollows hating their own gloom that keeps them herbless—disconsolate glens left far away by themselves, without any sign of life—cliffs that frown back the sunshine—and mountains, as if they were all dead, insensible to the heavens. Is this all mere imagination—or the truth? We deceive ourselves in what we call a desert. For we have so associated our own being with the appearances of outward things, that we attribute to them, with an uninquiring faith, the very feelings and the very thoughts, of which we have chosen to make them emblems. But here the sources of the Dee seem to lie in a region as happy as it is high; for the bases of the mountains are all such as the soul has chosen to make sublime—the colouring of the mountains all such, as the soul has chosen to make beautiful; and the whole region, thus imbued with a power to inspire elevation and delight, is felt to be indeed one of the very noblest in nature.

We have now nearly reached the limits assigned to our "Remarks on the Character of the Scenery of the Highlands;" and we feel that the sketches we have drawn of its component qualities—occasionally filled up with some details—must be very imperfect indeed without comprehending some parts of the coast, and some of the sea-arms that stretch into the interior. But even had our limits allowed, we do not think we could have ventured on such an attempt; for though we have sailed along most of the western shores, and through some of its sounds, and into many of its bays, and up not a few of its reaches, yet they contain such an endless variety of all the fairest and greatest objects of nature, that we feel it would be far beyond our powers to give anything like an adequate idea of the beauty and the grandeur that for ever kept unfolding themselves around our summer voyagings in calm or storm. Who can say that he knows a thousandth part of the wonders of "the marine" between the Mull of Cantire and Cape Wrath? He may have gathered many an extensive shore—threaded many a mazy multitude of isles—sailed up many a spacious bay—and cast anchor at the head of many a haven land-locked so as no more to seem to belong to the sea—yet other voyagers shall speak to him of innumerable sights which he has never witnessed; and they who are most conversant with those coasts, best know how much they have left and must leave for ever unexplored.

Look now only at the Linnhe Loch—how it gladdens Argyll! Without it and the Sound of Mull how sad would be the shadows of Morvern! Eclipsed the splendours of Lorn! Ascend one of the heights of Appin, and as the waves roll in light, you will see how the mountains are beautified by the sea. There is a majestic rolling onwards there that belongs to no land-loch—only to the world of waves. There is no nobler image of ordered power than the tide, whether in flow or in ebb; and on all now it is felt to be beneficent, coming and going daily, to enrich and adorn. Or in fancy will you embark, and let the Amethyst bound away "at her own sweet will," accordant with yours, till she reach the distant and long-desired loch.

"Loch-Sunart! who, when tides and tempests roar, Comes in among these mountains from the main, 'Twixt wooded Ardnamurchan's rocky cape And Ardmore's shingly beach of hissing spray; And while his thunders bid the sound of Mull Be dumb, sweeps onwards past a hundred bays Hill-shelter'd from the wrath that foams along The mad mid-channel,—All as quiet they As little separate worlds of summer dreams,— And by storm-loving birds attended up The mountain-hollow, white in their career As are the breaking billows, spurns the Isles Of craggy Carnich, and green Oronsay Drench'd in that sea-horn shower o'er tree-tops driven, And ivied stones of what was once a tower, Now hardly known from rocks—and gathering might In the long reach between Dungallan caves And point of Arderinis ever fair With her Elysian groves, bursts through that strait Into another ampler inland sea; Till lo! subdued by some sweet influence,— And potent is she, though so meek the Eve,— Down sinketh wearied the old Ocean Insensibly into a solemn calm,— And all along that ancient burial-ground (Its kirk is gone), that seemeth now to lend Its own eternal quiet to the waves, Restless no more, into a perfect peace Lulling and lull'd at last, while drop the airs Away as they were dead, the first-risen star Beholds that lovely Archipelago, All shadow'd there as in a spiritual world, Where time's mutations shall come never more!"

These lines describe but one of innumerable lochs that owe their greatest charm to the sea. It is indeed one of those on which nature has lavished all her infinite varieties of loveliness; but Loch Leven is scarcely less fair, and perhaps grander; and there is matchless magnificence above Loch Etive. All round about Ballahulish and Inverco the scenery of Loch Leven is the sweetest ever seen overshadowed by such mountains; the deeper their gloom, the brighter its lustre; in all weathers it wears a cheerful smile; and often while tip among the rocks the tall trees are tossing in the storm, the heart of the woods beneath is calm, and the vivid fields they shelter look as if they still enjoyed the sun. Nor closes the beauty there, but even animates the entrance into that dreadful glen—Glencoe. All the way up its river, Loch Leven would be fair, were it only for her hanging woods. But though the glen narrows, it still continues broad, and there are green plains between her waters and the mountains, on which stately trees stand single, and there is ample room for groves. The returning tide tells us, should we forget it, that this is no inland loch, for it hurries away back to the sea, not turbulent, but fast as a river in flood. The river Leven is one of the finest in the Highlands, and there is no other such series of waterfalls, all seen at once, one above the other, along an immense vista; and all the way up to the furthest there are noble assemblages of rocks—nowhere any want of wood—and in places, trees that seem to have belonged to some old forest. Beyond, the opening in the sky seems to lead into another region, and it does so; for we have gone that way, past some small lochs, across a wide wilderness, with mountains on all sides, and descended on Loch Treag,

"A loch whom there are none to praise, And very few to love,"

but overflowing in our memory with all pleasantest images of pastoral contentment and peace.

Loch Etive, between the ferries of Connel and Bunawe, has been seen by almost all who have visited the Highlands—but very imperfectly; to know what it is, you must row or sail up it, for the banks on both sides are often richly wooded, assume many fine forms, and are frequently well embayed, while the expanse of water is sufficiently wide to allow you from its centre to command a view of many of the distant heights. But above Bunawe it is not like the same loch. For a couple of miles it is not wide, and it is so darkened by enormous shadows that it looks even less like a strait than a gulf—huge overhanging rocks on both sides ascending high, and yet felt to belong but to the bases of mountains that sloping far back have their summits among clouds of their own in another region of the sky. Yet are they not all horrid; for nowhere else is there such lofty heather—it seems a wild sort of brushwood; tall trees flourish, single or in groves, chiefly birches, with now and then an oak—and they are in their youth or their prime—and even the prodigious trunks, some of which have been dead for centuries, are not all dead, but shoot from their knotted rind symptoms of life inextinguishable by time and tempest. Out of this gulf we emerge into the Upper Loch, and its amplitude sustains the majesty of the mountains, all of the highest order, and seen from their feet to their crests. Cruachan wears the crown, and reigns over them all—king at once of Loch Etive and of Loch Awe. But Buachaille Etive, though afar off, is still a giant, and in some lights comes forwards, bringing with him the Black Mount and its dependents, so that they all seem to belong to this most magnificent of all Highland lochs. "I know not," says Macculloch, "that Loch Etive could bear an ornament without an infringement on that aspect of solitary vastness which it presents throughout. Nor is there one. The rocks and bays on the shore, which might elsewhere attract attention, are here swallowed up in the enormous dimensions of the surrounding mountains, and the wide and ample expanse of the lake. A solitary house, here fearfully solitary, situated far up in Glen Etive, is only visible when at the upper extremity; and if there be a tree, as there are in a few places on the shore, it is unseen; extinguished as if it were a humble mountain flower, by the universal magnitude around." This is finely felt and expressed; but even on the shores of Loch Etive there is much of the beautiful; Ardmatty smiles with its meadows, and woods, and bay, and sylvan stream; other sunny nooks repose among the grey granite masses; the colouring of the banks and braes is often bright; several houses or huts become visible no long way up the glen; and though that long hollow—half a day's journey—till you reach the wild road between Inveruran and King's House—lies in gloom, yet the hillsides are cheerful, and you delight in the greensward, wide and rock-broken, should you ascend the passes that lead into Glencreran or Glencoe. But to feel the full power of Glen Etive you must walk up it till it ceases to be a glen. When in the middle of the moor, you see far off a solitary dwelling indeed—perhaps the loneliest house in all the Highlands—and the solitude is made profounder, as you pass by, by the voice of a cataract, hidden in an awful chasm, bridged by two or three stems of trees, along which the red-deer might fear to venture—but we have seen them and the deer-hounds glide over it, followed by other fearless feet, when far and wide the Forest of Dalness was echoing to the hunter's horn.

We have now brought our Remarks on the Scenery of the Highlands to a close, and would fain have said a few words on the character and life of the people; but are precluded from even touching on that most interesting subject. It is impossible that the minds of travellers through those wonderful regions, can be so occupied with the contemplation of mere inanimate nature, as not to give many a thought to their inhabitants, now and in the olden time. Indeed, without such thoughts, they would often seem to be but blank and barren wildernesses, in which the heart would languish, and imagination itself recoil; but they cannot long be so looked at, for houseless as are many extensive tracts, and therefore at times felt to be too dreary even for moods that for a while enjoyed the absence of all that might tell of human life, yet symptoms and traces of human life are noticeable to the instructed eye almost everywhere, and in them often lies the spell that charms us, even while we think that we are wholly delivered up to the influence of "dead insensate things." None will visit the Highlands without having some knowledge of their history; and the changes that have long been taking place in the condition of the people will be affectingly recognised wherever they go, in spite even of what might have appeared the insuperable barriers of nature.

"Time and Tide Have washed away, like weeds upon the sands, Crowds of the olden life's memorials; And 'mid the mountains you as well might seek For the lone site of fancy's filmy dreams. Towers have decay'd and moulder'd from the cliffs, Or their green age, or grey, has help'd to build New dwellings sending up their household smoke From treeless places once inhabited But by the secret sylvans. On the moors The pillar-stone, reared to perpetuate The fame of some great battle, or the power Of storied necromancer in the wild, Among the wide change on the heather-bloom By power more wondrous wrought than his, its name Has lost, or fallen itself has disappear'd; No broken fragment suffer'd to impede The glancing ploughshare. All the ancient woods Are thinn'd and let in floods of daylight now, Then dark and dern as when the Druids lived. Narrow'd is now the red-deer's forest reign; The royal race of eagles is extinct. But other changes than on moor and cliff Have tamed the aspect of the wilderness; The simple system of primeval life, Simple but stately, hath been broken down; The clans are scatter'd, and the chieftain's power Is dead, or dying—but a name—though yet It sometimes stirs the desert; to the winds The tall plumes wave no more—the tartan green With fiery streaks among the heather-bells Now glows unfrequent; and the echoes mourn The silence of the music that of old Kept war-thoughts stern amid the calm of peace. Yet to far battle plains still Morven sends Her heroes, and still glittering in the sun, Or blood-dimm'd, her dread line of bayonets Marches with loud shouts straight to victory. A soften'd radiance now floats o'er her glens; No rare sight now upon her sea-arm lochs The sail oft-veering up the solitude; And from afar the noise of life is brought Within the thunders of her cataracts. These will flow on for ever; and the crests, Gold-tipt by rising and by setting suns, Of her old mountains inaccessible Glance down their scorn for ever on the toils That load with harvests now the humbler hills, Now shorn of all their heather bloom, and green Or yellow as the gleam of lowland fields. And bold hearts in broad bosoms still are there, Living and dying peacefully; the huts Abodes are still of high-soul'd poverty; And underneath their lintels beauty stoops Her silken-snooded head, when singing goes The maiden to her father at his work Among the woods, or joins the scanty line Of barley-reapers on their narrow ridge, In some small field among the pastoral braes. Still fragments dim of ancient poetry In melancholy music down the glens Go floating; and from shieling roof'd with boughs, And turf-wall'd, high up in some lonely place Where flocks of sheep are nibbling the sweet grass Of mid-summer, and browsing on the plants On the cliff mosses a few goats are seen Among their kids, you hear sweet melodies Attuned to some traditionary tale, By young wife sitting all alone, aware From shadow on the mountain horologe Of the glad hour that brings her husband home Before the gloaming, from the far-off moor Where the black cattle feed; there all alone She sits and sings, except that on her knees Sleeps the sweet offspring of their faithful loves."

We love the people too well to praise them—we have had too heartfelt experience of their virtues. In castle, hall, house, manse, hut, hovel, shieling—on mountain and moor, we have known, without having to study their character. It manifests itself in their manners, and in their whole frame of life. They are now, as they ever were, affectionate, faithful, and fearless; and far more delightful surely it is to see such qualities in all their pristine strength—for civilisation has not weakened, nor ever will weaken them—without that alloy of fierceness and ferocity which was inseparable from them in the turbulence of feudal times. They are now indeed a peaceful people; severe as are the hardships of their condition, they are, in the main, contented with it; and nothing short of necessity can dissever them from their dear mountains. We devoutly trust that there need be no more forced emigration—that henceforth it will be free—at the option of the adventurous—and that all who will, when the day cometh, may be gathered to their fathers in the land that gave them birth. Much remains to be done not only to relieve but enlighten; yet Christian benevolence has not been forgetful of their wants; schools and churches are arising in remote places; and that they are in good truth a religious as well as a moral people is proved by the passionate earnestness with which, in their worst destitution, they embrace every offer of instruction in the knowledge that leads to everlasting life. The blessing of Heaven will lie on all such missions as these; and the time will come when we shall be able to contemplate, without any pain, the condition of a race who, to use the noble language of one, though often scornful and sarcastic overmuch, yet at heart their friend, "almost in an hour subsided into peace and virtue, retaining their places, their possessions, their chiefs, their songs, their traditions, their superstitions and peculiar usages—even that language and those recollections which still separate them from the rest of the nation. They retained even their pride, and they retained their contempt of those who imposed that order on them, and still they settled into a state of obedience to that government, of which the world produces no other instance! It is a splendid moral phenomenon, and reflects a lustre on the Highland character, whether of the chiefs or the people, which extinguishes all past faults, and which atones for what little remains to be amended. A peculiar political situation was the cause of their faults; and that which swept away the cause, has rendered the effects a tale of other times."



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