The vitrification of the rampart which on every side incloses the grassy area has been more variously, but less satisfactorily, accounted for than the green luxuriance within. It was held by Pennant to be an effect of volcanic fire, and that the walls of this and all our other vitrified strongholds are simply the crater-rims of extinct volcanoes,—a hypothesis wholly as untenable in reference to the hill-forts as to the lime-kilns of the country: the vitrified forts are as little volcanic as the vitrified kilns. Williams, the author of the "Mineral Kingdom," and one of our earlier British geologists, after deciding, on data which his peculiar pursuits enabled him to collect and weigh, that they are not volcanic, broached the theory, still prevalent, as their name testifies, that they are artificial structures, in which vitrescency was designedly induced, in order to cement into solid masses accumulations of loose materials. Lord Woodhouselee advocated an opposite view. Resting on the fact that the vitrification is but of partial occurrence, be held that it had been produced, not of design by the builders of the forts, but in the process of their demolition by a besieging enemy, who, finding, as he premised, a large portion of the ramparts composed of wood, had succeeded in setting them on fire. This hypothesis, however, seems quite as untenable as that of Pennant. Fires not unfrequently occur in cities, among crowded groups of houses, where walls of stone are surrounded by a much greater profusion of dry woodwork than could possibly have entered into the composition of the ramparts of a hill-fort; but who ever saw, after a city fire, masses of wall from eight to ten feet in thickness fused throughout? The sandstone columns of the aisles of the Old Greyfriars in Edinburgh, surrounded by the woodwork of the galleries, the flooring, the seating, and the roof, were wasted, during the fire which destroyed the pile, into mere skeletons of their former selves; but though originally not more than three feet in diameter, they exhibited no marks of vitrescency. And it does not seem in the least probable that the stonework of the Knock Farril rampart could, if surrounded by wood at all, have been surrounded by an amount equally great, in proportion to its mass, as that which enveloped the aisle-columns of the Old Greyfriars.
The late Sir George Mackenzie of Coul adopted yet a fourth view. He held that the vitrification is simply an effect of the ancient beacon-fires kindled to warn the country of an invading enemy. But how account, on this hypothesis, for ramparts continuous, as in the case of Knock Farril, all round the hill? A powerful fire long kept up might well fuse a heap of loose stones into a solid mass; the bonfire lighted on the summit of Arthur Seat in 1842, to welcome the Queen on her first visit to Scotland, particularly fused numerous detached fragments of basalt, and imparted, in some spots to the depth of about half an inch, a vesicular structure to the solid rock beneath. But no fire, however powerful, could have constructed a rampart running without break for several hundred feet round an insulated hill-top. "To be satisfied," said Sir George, "of the reason why the signal-fires should be kindled on or beside a heap of stones, we have only to imagine a gale of wind to have arisen when a fire was kindled on the bare ground. The fuel would be blown about and dispersed, to the great annoyance of those who attended. The plan for obviating the inconvenience thus occasioned which would occur most naturally and readily would be to raise a heap of stones, on either side of which the fire might be placed to windward; and to account for the vitrification appearing all round the area, it is only necessary to allow the inhabitants of the country to have had a system of signals. A fire at one end might denote something different from a fire at the other, or in some intermediate part. On some occasions two or more fires might be necessary, and sometimes a fire along the whole line. It cannot be doubted," he adds, "that the rampart was originally formed with as much regularity as the nature of the materials would allow, both in order to render it more durable, and to make it serve the purposes of defence." This, I am afraid, is still very unsatisfactory. A fire lighted along the entire line of a wall inclosing nearly an acre of area could not be other than a very attenuated, wire-drawn line of fire indeed, and could never possess strength enough to melt the ponderous mass of rampart beneath, as if it had been formed of wax or resin. A thousand loads of wood piled in a ring round the summit of Knock Farril, and set at once into a blaze, would wholly fail to affect the broad rampart below; and long ere even a thousand, or half a thousand, loads could have been cut down, collected, and fired, an invading enemy would have found time enough to moor his fleet and land his forces, and possess himself of the lower country. Again, the unbroken continuity of the vitrified line militates against the signal-system theory. Fire trod so closely upon the heels of fire, that the vitrescency induced by the one fire impinged on and mingled with the vitrescency induced by the others beside it. There is no other mode of accounting for the continuity of the fusion; and how could definite meanings possibly be attached to the various parts of a line so minutely graduated, that the centre of the fire kindled on any one graduation could be scarce ten feet apart from the centre of the fire kindled on any of its two neighboring graduations? Even by day, the exact compartment which a fire occupied could not be distinguished, at the distance of half a mile, from its neighboring compartments, and not at all by night, at any distance, from even the compartments farthest removed from it. Who, for instance, at the distance of a dozen miles or so, could tell whether the flame that shone out in the darkness, when all other objects around it were invisible, was kindled on the east or west end of an eminence little more than a hundred yards in length? Nay, who could determine,—for such is the requirement of the hypothesis,—whether it rose from a compartment of the summit a hundred feet distant from its west or east end, or from a compartment merely ninety or a hundred and ten feet distant from it? The supposed signal system, added to the mere beacon hypothesis, is palpably untenable.
The theory of Williams, however, which is, I am inclined to think, the true one in the main, seems capable of being considerably modified and improved by the hypothesis of Sir George. The hill-fort,—palpably the most primitive form of fortalice or stronghold originated in a mountainous country,—seems to constitute man's first essay towards neutralizing, by the art of fortification, the advantages of superior force on the side of an assailing enemy. It was found, on the discovery of New Zealand, that the savage inhabitants had already learned to erect exactly such hill-forts amid the fastnesses of that country as those which were erected two thousand years earlier by the Scottish aborigines amid the fastnesses of our own. Nothing seems more probable, therefore, than that the forts of eminences such as Craig Phadrig and Knock Farril, originally mere inclosures of loose, uncemented stones, may belong to a period not less ancient than that of the first barbarous wars of Scotland, when, though tribe battled with tribe in fierce warfare, like the red men of the West with their brethren ere the European had landed on their shores, navigation was yet in so immature a state in Northern Europe as to secure to them an exemption from foreign invasion. In an after age, however, when the roving Vikings had become formidable, many of the eminences originally selected, from their inaccessibility, as sites for hill-forts, would come to be chosen, from their prominence in the landscape, as stations for beacon-fires. And of course the previously erected ramparts, higher always than the inclosed areas, would furnish on such hills the conspicuous points from which the fires could be best seen. Let us suppose, then, that the rampart-crested eminence of Knock Farril, seen on every side for many miles, has become in the age of northern invasion one of the beacon-posts of the district, and that large fires, abundantly supplied with fuel by the woods of a forest-covered country, and blown at times into intense heat by the strong winds so frequent in that upper stratum of air into which the summit penetrates, have been kindled some six or eight times on some prominent point of the rampart, raised, mayhap, many centuries before. At first the heat has failed to tell on the stubborn quartz and feldspar which forms the preponderating material of the gneisses, granites, quartz rocks, and coarse conglomerate sandstones on which it has been brought to operate; but each fire throws down into the interstices a considerable amount of the fixed salt of the wood, till at length the heap has become charged with a strong flux; and then one powerful fire more, fanned to a white heat by a keen, dry breeze, reduces the whole into a semi-fluid mass. The same effects have been produced on the materials of the rampart by the beacon-fires and the alkali, that were produced, according to Pliny, by the fires and the soda of the Phoenician merchants storm-bound on the sands of the river Belus. But the state of civilization in Scotland at the time is not such as to permit of the discovery being followed up by similar results. The semi-savage guardians of the beacon wonder at the accident, as they well may; but those happy accidents in which the higher order of discoveries originate occur in only the ages of cultivated minds; and so they do not acquire from it the art of manufacturing glass. It could not fail being perceived, however, by intellects at all human, that the consolidation which the fires of one week, or month, or year, as the case happened, had effected on one portion of the wall, might be produced by the fires of another week, or month, or year, on another portion of it; that, in short, a loose incoherent rampart, easy of demolition, might be converted, through the newly-discovered process, into a rampart as solid and indestructible as the rock on which it rested. And so, in course of time, simply by shifting the beacon-fires, and bringing them to bear in succession on every part of the wall, Knock Farril, with many a similar eminence in the country, comes to exhibit its completely vitrified fort where there had been but a loosely-piled hill-fort before. It in no degree militates against this compound theory,—borrowed in part from Williams and in part from Sir George,—that there are detached vitrified masses to be found on eminences evidently never occupied by hill-forts; or that there are hill-forts on other eminences only partially fused, or hill-forts on many of the less commanding sites that bear about them no marks of fire at all. Nothing can be more probable than that in the first class of cases we have eminences that had been selected as beacon-stations, which had not previously been occupied by hill-forts; and in the last, eminences that had been occupied by hill-forts which, from their want of prominence in the general landscape, had not been selected as beacon-stations. And in the intermediate class of cases we have probably ramparts that were only partially vitrified, because some want of fuel in the neighborhood had starved the customary fires, or because fires had to be less frequently kindled upon them than on the more important stations; or, finally, because these hill-forts, from some disadvantage of situation, were no longer used as places of strength, and so the beacon-keepers had no motive to attempt consolidating them throughout by the piecemeal application of the vitrifying agent. But the old Highland mode of accounting for the present appearance of Knock Farril and its vitrified remains is perhaps, after all, quite as good in its way as any of the modes suggested by the philosophers.
I spent some time, agreeably enough, beside the rude rampart of Knock Farril, in marking the various appearances exhibited by the fused and semi-fused materials of which it is composed,—the granites, gneisses, mica-schists, hornblendes, clay-slates, and red sandstones of the locality. One piece of rock, containing much lime, I found resolved into a yellow opaque substance, not unlike the coarse earthenware used in the making of ginger-beer bottles; but though it had been so completely molten that it had dropped into a hollow beneath in long viscid trails, it did not contain a single air-vesicle; while another specimen, apparently a piece of fused mica-schist, was so filled with air-cells, that the dividing partitions were scarcely the tenth of a line in thickness. I found bits of schistose gneiss resolved into green glass; the Old Red Sandstone basis of the Conglomerate, which forms the hill, into a semi-metallic scoria, like that of an iron-smelter's furnace; mica into a gray, waxy-looking stone, that scratched glass; and pure white quartz into porcellanic trails of white, that ran in one instance along the face of a darker-colored rock below, like streaks of cream along the sides of a burnt china jug. In one mass of pale large-grained granite I found that the feldspar, though it had acquired a vitreous gloss on the surface, still retained its peculiar rhomboidal cleavage; while the less stubborn quartz around it had become scarce less vesicular and light than a piece of pumice. On some of the other masses there was impressed, as if by a seal, the stamp of pieces of charcoal; and so sharply was the impression retained, that I could detect on the vitreous surface the mark of the yearly growths, and even of the medullary rays, of the wood. In breaking open some of the others, I detected fragments of the charcoal itself, which, hermetically locked up in the rock, had retained all its original carbon. These last reminded me of specimens not unfrequent among the trap-rocks of the Carboniferous and Oolitic systems. From an intrusive overlying wacke in the neighborhood of Linlithgow I have derived for my collection pieces of carbonized wood in so complete a state of keeping, that under the microscope they exhibit unbroken all the characteristic reticulations of the coniferae of the Coal Measures.
I descended the hill, and, after joining my friends at Strathpeffer,—Buchubai Hormazdji among the rest,—visited the Spa, in the company of my old friend the minister of Alness. The thorough identity of the powerful effluvium that fills the pump-room with that of a muddy sea-bottom laid bare in warm weather by the tide, is to the dweller on the sea-coast very striking. It is identity,—not mere resemblance. In most cases the organic substances undergo great changes in the bowels of the earth. The animal matter of the Caithness ichthyolites exists, for instance, as a hard, black, insoluble bitumen, which I have used oftener than once as sealing-wax; the vegetable mould of the Coal Measures has been converted into a fire-clay, so altered in the organic pabulum, animal and vegetable, whence it derived its fertility, that, even when laid open for years to the meliorating effects of the weather and the visits of the winged seeds, it will not be found bearing a single spike or leaf of green. But here, in smell, at least, that ancient mud, swum over by the Diplopterus and the Diplacanthus, and in which the Coccosteus and Pterichthys burrowed, has undergone no change. The soft ooze has become solid rock, but its odoriferous qualities have remained unaltered. I next visited an excavation a few hundred yards on the upper side of the pump-room, in which the gray fetid breccia of the Strath has been quarried for dyke-building, and examined the rock with some degree of care, without, however, detecting in it a single plate or scale. Lying over that Conglomerate member of the system which, rising high in the Knock Farril range, forms the southern boundary of the valley, it occupies the place of the lower ichthyolitic bed, so rich in organisms in various other parts of the country; but here the bed, after it had been deposited in thin horizontal laminae, and had hardened into stone, seems to have been broken up, by some violent movement, into minute sharp-edged fragments, that, without wear or attrition, were again consolidated into the breccia which it now forms. And its ichthyolites, if not previously absorbed, were probably destroyed in the convulsion. Detached scales and spines, however, if carefully sought for in the various openings of the valley, might still be found in the original laminae of the fragments. They must have been amazingly abundant in it once; for so largely saturated is the rock with the organic matter into which they have been resolved, that, when struck by the hammer, the impalpable dust set loose sensibly affects the organs of taste, and appeals very strongly to those of smell. It is through this saturated rock that the mineral springs take their course. Even the surface-waters of the valley, as they pass over it contract in a perceptible degree its peculiar taste and odor. With a little more time to spare, I would fain have made this breccia of the Old Red the subject of a few simple experiments. I would have ground it into powder, and tried upon it the effect both of cold and hot infusion. Portions of the water are sometimes carried in casks and bottles, for the use of invalids, to a considerable distance; but it is quite possible that a little of the rock, to which the water owes its qualities, might, when treated in this way, have all the effects of a considerable quantity of the spring. It might be of some interest, too, to ascertain its qualities when crushed, as a soil, or its effect on other soils; whether, for instance, like the old sterile soils of the Carboniferous period, it has lost, through its rock-change, the fertilizing properties which it once possessed; or whether it still retains them, like some of the coprolitic beds of the Oolite and Greensand, and might not, in consequence, be employed as a manure. A course of such experiments could scarce fail to furnish with agreeable occupation some of the numerous annual visitants of the Spa, who have to linger long, with but little to engage them, waiting for what, if it once fairly leave a man, returns slowly, when it returns at all.
In mentioning at the dinner-table of my friend my scheme of infusing rock in order to produce Spa water, I referred to the circumstance that the Belemnite of our Liasic deposits, when ground into powder, imparts to boiling water a peculiar taste and smell, and that the infusion, taken in very small quantities, sensibly affects both palate and stomach. And I suggested that Belemnite water, deemed sovereign of old, when the Belemnite was regarded as a thunderbolt, in the cure of bewitched cattle, might be in reality medicinal, and that the ancient superstition might thus embody, as ancient superstitions not unfrequently do, a nucleus of fact. The charm, I said, might amount to no more than simply the administration of a medicine to sick cattle, that did harm in no case, and good at times. The lively comment of one of the young ladies on the remark amused us all. If an infusion of stone had cured, in the last age, cattle that were bewitched, the Strathpeffer water, she argued, which was, it seems, but an infusion of stone, might cure cattle that were sick now; and so, though the biped patients of the Strath could scarce fail to decrease when they knew that its infused stone contained but the strainings of old mud, and the juices of dead unsalted fish, it was gratifying to think that the poor Spa might still continue to retain its patients, though of a lower order. The pump-room would be converted into a rustic, straw-thatched shed, to which long trains of sick cattle, affected by weak nerves and dyspepsia, would come streaming along the roads every morning and evening, to drink and gather strength.
The following morning was wet and lowering, and a flat ceiling of gray cloud stretched across the valley, from the summit of the Knock Farril ridge of hills on the one side, to the lower flanks of Ben-Wevis on the other. I had purposed ascending this latter mountain,—the giant of the north-eastern coast, and one of the loftiest of our second-class Scottish hills anywhere,—to ascertain the extreme upper line at which travelled boulders occur in this part of the country. But it was no morning for wading knee-deep through the trackless heather; and after waiting on, in the hope the weather might clear up, watching at a window the poorer invalids at the Spa, as they dragged themselves through the rain to the water, I lost patience, and sallied out, beplaided and umbrellaed, to see from the top of Knock Farril how the country looked in a fog. At first, however, I saw much fog, but little country; but as the day wore on, the flat mist-ceiling rose together, till it rested on but the distant hills, and the more prominent features of the landscape began to stand out amid the more general gray, like the stronger lines and masses in a half-finished drawing, boldly dashed off in the neutral tint of the artist. The portions of the prospect generically distinct are, notwithstanding its great extent and variety, but few; and the partial veil of haze, by glazing down its distracting multiplicity of minor points, served to bring them out all the more distinctly. There is, first stretching far in a southern and eastern direction along the landscape, the rectilinear ridge of the Black Isle,—not quite the sort of line a painter would introduce into a composition, but true to geologic character. More in the foreground, in the same direction, there spreads a troubled cockling sea of the Great Conglomerate. Turning to the north and west, the deep valley of Strathpeffer, with its expanse of rich level fields, and in the midst its old baronial castle, surrounded by coeval trees of vast bulk, lies so immediately at the foot of the eminence, that I could hear in the calm the rush of the little stream, swollen to thrice its usual bulk by the rains of the night. Beyond rose the thick-set Ben-Wevis,—a true gneiss mountain, with breadth enough of shoulders, and amplitude enough of base, to serve a mountain thrice as tall, but which, like all its cogeners of this ancient formation, was arrested in its second stage of growth, so that many of the slimmer granitic and porphyritic hills of the country look down upon it, as Agamemnon, according to Homer, looked down upon Ulysses.
"Broad is his breast, his shoulders larger spread, Though great Atrides overtops his head."
All around, as if topling, wave-like, over the outer edges of the comparatively flat area of Palaeozoic rock which composes the middle ground of the landscape, rose a multitude of primary hill-peaks, barely discernible in the haze; while the long withdrawing Dingwall Frith, stretching on towards the open sea for full twenty miles, and flanked on either side by ridges of sandstone, but guarded at the opening by two squat granitic columns, completed the prospect, by adding to its last great feature. All was gloomy and chill; and as I turned me down the descent, the thick wetting drizzle again came on; and the mist-wreaths, after creeping upwards along the hill-side, began again to creep down. When I had first visited the valley, more than a quarter of a century before, it was on a hot breathless day of early summer, in which, though the trees in fresh leaf seemed drooping in the sunshine, and the succulent luxuriance of the fields lay aslant, half-prostrated by the fierce heat, the rich blue of Ben-Wevis, far above, was thickly streaked with snow, on which it was luxury even to look. It gave one iced fancies, wherewithal to slake, amid the bright glow of summer, the thirst in the mind. The recollection came strongly upon me, as the fog from the hill-top closed dark behind, like that sung by the old blind Englishman, which
"O'er the marish glides, And gathers ground fast at the lab'rer's heel, Homeward returning."
But the contrast had nothing sad in it; and it was pleasant to feel that it had not. I had resigned many a baseless hope and many an idle desire since I had spent a vacant day amid the sunshine, now gazing on the broad placid features of the snow-streaked mountain; and now sauntering under the tall ancient woods, or along the heath-covered slopes of the valley; but in relation to never-tiring, inexhaustible nature, the heart was no fresher at that time than it was now. I had grown no older in my feelings or in my capacity of enjoyment; and what then was there to regret?
I rode down the Strath in an omnibus which plies between the Spa and Dingwall, and then walked on to the village of Evanton, which I reached about an hour after nightfall, somewhat in the circumstances of the "damp stranger," who gave Beau Brummel the cold. There were, however, no Beau Brummels in the quiet village inn in which I passed the night, and so the effects of the damp were wholly confined to myself. I was soundly pummelled during the night by a frightful female, who first assumed the appearance of the miserable pauper woman whom I had seen beside the Auldgrande, and then became the Lady of Balconie; and, though sufficiently indignant, and much inclined to resist, I could stir neither hand nor foot, but lay passively on my back, jambed fast behind the huge gneiss boulder and the edge of the gulf. And yet, by a strange duality of perception, I was conscious all the while that, having got wet on the previous day, I was now suffering from an attack of nightmare: and held that it would be no very serious matter even should the lady tumble me into the gulf, seeing that all would be well again when I awoke in the morning. Dreams of this character, in which consciousness bears reference at once to the fictitious events of the vision and the real circumstances of the sleeper, must occupy, I am inclined to think, very little time,—single moments, mayhap, poised midway between the sleeping and waking state. Next day (Sunday) I attended the Free Church in the parish, where I found a numerous and attentive congregation,—descendants, in large part, of the old devout Munroes of Ferindonald,—and heard a good solid discourse. And on the following morning I crossed the sea at what is known as the Fowlis Ferry, to explore, on my homeward route, the rocks laid bare along the shore in the upper reaches of the Frith.
I found but little by the way: black patches of bitumen in the sandstone of one of the beds, with a bed of stratified clay, inclosing nodules, in which, however, I succeeded in detecting nothing organic; and a few fragments of clay-slate locked up in the Red Sandstone, sharp and unworn at their edges, as if derived from no great distance, though there be now no clay-slate in the eastern half of Ross; but though the rocks here belong evidently to the ichthyolitic member of the Old Red, not a single fish, not a "nibble" even, repaid the patient search of half a day. I, however, passed some time agreeably enough among the ruins of Craighouse. When I had last seen, many years before, this old castle, the upper stories were accessible; but they were now no longer so. Time, and the little herdboys who occasionally shelter in its vaults, had been busy in the interval; and, by breaking off a few projecting corners by which the climber had held, and by effacing a few notches into which he had thrust his toe-points, they had rendered what had been merely difficult impracticable. I remarked that the huge kitchen chimney of the building,—a deep hollow recess which stretches across the entire gable, and in which, it is said, two thrashers once plied the flail for a whole winter,—bore less of the stain of recent smoke than it used to exhibit twenty years before; and inferred that there would be fewer wraith-lights seen from the castle at nights than in those days of evil spirits and illicit stills, when the cottars in the neighborhood sent more smuggled whiskey to market than any equal number of the inhabitants of almost any other district in the north. It has been long alleged that there existed a close connection between the more ghostly spirits of the country and its distilled ones. "How do you account," said a north country minister of the last age (the late Rev. Mr. M'Bean of Alves) to a sagacious old elder of his Session, "for the almost total disappearance of the ghosts and fairies that used to be so common in your young days?" "Tak my word for 't, minister," replied the shrewd old man, "it's a' owing to the tea; when the tea cam in, the ghaists an' fairies gaed out. Weel do I mind when at a' our neeborly meetings,—bridals, christenings, lyke-wakes, an' the like,—we entertained ane anither wi' rich nappy ale; an' whan the verra dowiest o' us used to get warm i' the face, an' a little confused in the head, an' weel fit to see amaist onything whan on the muirs on our way hame. But the tea has put out the nappy; an' I have remarked, that by losing the nappy we lost baith ghaists an' fairies."
Quitting the ruin, I walked on along the shore, tracing the sandstone as I went, as it rises from lower to higher beds; and where it ceases to crop out at the surface, and gravel and the red boulder-clays take the place of rock, I struck up the hill, and, traversing the parishes of Resolis and Cromarty, got home early in the evening. I had seen and done scarcely half what I had intended seeing or doing: alas, that in reference to every walk which I have yet attempted to tread, this special statement should be so invariably true to fact!—alas, that all my full purposes, should be coupled with but half realizations! But I had at least the satisfaction, that though I had accomplished little, I had enjoyed much; and it is something, though not all, nor nearly all, that, since time is passing, it should pass happily. In my next chapter I shall enter on my tour to Orkney. It dates one year earlier (1846) than the tour with which I have already occupied so many chapters; but I have thus inverted the order of time, by placing it last, that I may be able so to preserve the order of space as to render the tract travelled over in my narrative continuous from Edinburgh to the northern extremity of Pomona.
Recovered Health—Journey to the Orkneys—Aboard the Steamer at Wick—Mr. Bremner—Masonry of the Harbor of Wick—The greatest Blunders result from good Rules misapplied—Mr. Bremner's Theory about sea-washed Masonry—Singular Fracture of the Rock near Wick—The Author's mode of accounting for it—"Simple but not obvious" Thinking—Mr. Bremner's mode of making stone Erections under Water—His exploits in raising foundered Vessels—Aspect of the Orkneys—- The ungracious Schoolmaster—In the Frith of Kirkwall—Cathedral of St. Magnus—Appearance of Kirkwall—Its "perished suppers"—Its ancient Palaces—Blunder of the Scotch Aristocracy—The patronate Wedge—Breaking Ground in Orkney—Minute gregarious Coccosteus—True Position of the Coccosteus' Eyes—Ruins of one of Cromwell's Forts—Antiquities of Orkney—The Cathedral—Its Sculptures—The Mysterious Cell—Prospect from the Tower—Its Chimes—Ruins of Castle Patrick.
A twelvemonth had gone by since a lingering indisposition, which bore heavily on the springs of life, compelled me to postpone a long-projected journey to the Orkneys, and led me to visit, instead, rich level England, with its well-kept roads and smooth railways, along which the enfeebled invalid can travel far without fatigue. I had now got greatly stronger; and, if not quite up to my old thirty miles per day, nor altogether so bold a cragsman as I had been only a few years before, I was at least vigorous enough to enjoy a middling long walk, and to breast a tolerably steep hill. And so I resolved on at least glancing over, if not exploring, the fossiliferous deposits of the Orkneys, trusting that an eye somewhat practised in the formations mainly developed in these islands might enable me to make some amends for seeing comparatively little, by seeing well. I took coach at Invergordon for Wick early in the morning of Friday; and, after a weary ride, in a bleak gusty day, that sent the dust of the road whirling about the ears of the sorely-tossed "outsides," with whom I had taken my chance, I alighted in Wick, at the inn-door, a little after six o'clock in the evening. The following morning was wet and dreary; and a tumbling sea, raised by the wind of the previous day and night, came rolling into the bay; but the waves bore with them no steamer; and when, some five hours after the expected time, she also came rolling in, her darkened and weather-beaten sides and rigging gave evidence that her passage from the south had been no holiday trip. Impatient, however, of looking out upon the sea for hours, from under dripping eaves, and through the dimmed panes of streaming windows, I got aboard with about half-a-dozen other passengers; and while the Wick goods were in the course of being transferred to two large boats alongside, we lay tossing in the open bay. The work of raising box and package was superintended by a tall elderly gentleman from the shore, peculiarly Scotch in his appearance,—the steam company's agent for this part of the country.
"That," said an acquaintance, pointing to the agent, "is a very extraordinary man,—in his own special walk, one of the most original-minded, and at the same time most thoroughly practical, you perhaps ever saw. That is Mr. Bremner of Wick, known now all over Britain for his success in raising foundered vessels, when every one else gives them up. In the lifting of vast weights, or the overcoming the vis inertiae of the hugest bodies, nothing ever baffles Mr. Bremner. But come, I must introduce you to him. He takes an interest in your peculiar science, and is familiar with your geological writings."
I was accordingly introduced to Mr. Bremner, and passed, in his company the half-hour which we spent in the bay, in a way that made me wish the time doubled. I had been struck by the peculiar style of masonry employed in the harbor of Wick, and by its rock-like strength. The gray ponderous stones of the flagstone series of which it is built, instead of being placed on their flatter beds, like common ashlar in a building, or horizontal strata in a quarry, are raised on end, like staves in a pail or barrel, so that at some little distance the work looks as if formed of upright piles or beams jambed fast together. I had learned that Mr. Bremner had been the builder, and adverted to the peculiarity of his style of building. "You have given a vertical tilt to your strata," I said: "most men would have preferred the horizontal position. It used to be regarded as one of the standing rules of my old profession, that the 'broad bed of a stone' is the best, and should be always laid 'below.'" "A good rule for the land," replied Mr. Bremner, "but no good rule for the sea. The greatest blunders are almost always perpetrated through the misapplication of good rules. On a coast like ours, where boulders of a ton weight are rolled about with every storm like pebbles, these stones, if placed on what a workman would term their best beds, would be scattered along the shore like sea-wrack, by the gales of a single winter. In setting aside the prejudice," continued Mr. Bremner, "that what is indisputably the best bed for a stone on dry land is also the best bed in the water on an exposed coast, I reasoned thus:—The surf that dashes along the beach in times of tempest, and that forms the enemy with which I have to contend, is not simply water, with an onward impetus communicated to it by the wind and tide, and a reactive impetus in the opposite direction,—the effect of the backward rebound, and of its own weight, when raised by these propelling forces above its average level of surface. True, it is all this; but it is also something more. As its white breadth of foam indicates, it is a subtile mixture of water and air, with a powerful upward action,—a consequence of the air struggling to effect its escape; and this upward action must be taken into account in our calculations, as certainly as the other and more generally recognized actions. In striking against a piece of building, this subtile mixture dashes through the interstices into the interior of the masonry, and, filling up all its cavities, has by its upward action, a tendency to set the work afloat. And the broader the beds of the stones, of course the more extensive are the surfaces which it has to act upon. One of these flat flags, ten feet by four, and a foot in thickness, would present to this upheaving force, if placed on end, a superficies of but four square feet; whereas, if placed on its broader base, it would present to it a superficies of forty square feet. Obviously, then, with regard to this aerial upheaving force, that acts upon the masonry in a direction in which no precautions are usually adopted to bind it fast,—for the existence of the force itself is not taken into account,—the greater bed of the stone must be just ten times over a worse bed than its lesser one; and on a tempestuous foam-encircled coast such as ours, this aerial upheaving force is in reality, though the builder may not know it, one of the most formidable forces with which he had to deal. And so, on these principles, I ventured to set my stones on end,—on what was deemed their worst, not their best beds,—wedging them all fast together, like staves in an anker; and there, to the scandal of all the old rules, are they fast wedged still, firm as a rock." It was no ordinary man that could have originated such reasonings on such a subject, or that could have thrown himself so boldly, and to such practical effect, on the conclusions to which they led.
Mr. Bremner adverted, in the course of our conversation, to a singular appearance among the rocks a little to the east and south of the town of Wick, that had not, he said, attracted the notice it deserved. The solid rock had been fractured by some tremendous blow, dealt to it externally at a considerable height over the sea-level, and its detached masses scattered about like the stones of an ill-built harbor broken up by a storm. The force, whatever its nature, had been enormously great. Blocks of some thirty or forty tons weight had been torn from out the solid strata, and piled up in ruinous heaps, as if the compact precipice had been a piece of loose brickwork, or had been driven into each other, as if, instead of being composed of perhaps the hardest and toughest sedimentary rock in the country, they had been formed of sun-dried clay. "I brought," continued Mr. Bremner, "one of your itinerant geological lecturers to the spot, to get his opinion; but he could say nothing about the appearance: it was not in his books." "I suspect," I replied, "the phenomenon lies quite as much within your own province as within that of the geological lecturer. It is in all probability an illustration, on a large scale, of those floating forces with which you operate on your foundered vessels, joined to the forces, laterally exerted, by which you drag them towards the shore. When the sea stood higher, or the land lower, in the eras of the raised beaches, along what is now Caithness, the abrupt mural precipices by which your coast here is skirted must have secured a very considerable depth of water up to the very edge of the land;—your coast-line must have resembled the side of a mole or wharf: and in that glacial period to which the thick deposit of boulder-clay immediately over your harbor yonder belongs, icebergs of very considerable size must not unfrequently have brushed the brows of your precipices. An iceberg from eighty to a hundred feet in thickness, and perhaps half a square mile in area, could not, in this old state of things, have come in contact with these cliffs without first catching the ground outside; and such an iceberg, propelled by a fierce storm from the north-east, could not fail to lend the cliff with which it came in collision a tremendous blow. You will find that your shattered precipice marks, in all probability, the scene of a collision of this character: some hard-headed iceberg must have set itself to run down the land, and got wrecked upon it for its pains." My theory, though made somewhat in the dark,—for I had no opportunity of seeing the broken precipice until after my return from Orkney,—seemed to satisfy Mr. Bremner; nor, on a careful survey of the phenomenon, the solution of which it attempted, did I find occasion to modify or give it up.
With just knowledge enough of Mr. Bremner's peculiar province to appreciate his views, I was much impressed by their broad and practical simplicity; and bethought me, as we conversed, that the character of the thinking, which, according to Addison, forms the staple of all writings of genius, and which he defines as "simple but not obvious," is a character which equally applies to all good thinking, whatever its special department. Power rarely resides in ingenious complexities: it seems to eschew in every walk the elaborately attenuated and razor-edged mode of thinking,—the thinking akin to that of the old metaphysical poets,—and to select the broad and massive style. Hercules, in all the representations of him which I have yet seen, is the broad Hercules. I was greatly struck by some of Mr. Bremner's views on deep-sea founding. He showed me how, by a series of simple, but certainly not obvious contrivances, which had a strong air of practicability about them, he could lay down his erection, course by course, inshore, in a floating caisson of peculiar construction, beginning a little beyond the low-ebb line, and warping out his work piecemeal, as it sank, till it had reached its proper place, in, if necessary, from ten to twelve fathoms water, where, on a bottom previously prepared for it by the diving-bell, he had means to make it take the ground exactly at the required line. The difficulty and vast expense of building altogether by the bell would be obviated, he said, by the contrivance, and a solidity given to the work otherwise impossible in the circumstances: the stones could be laid in his floating caisson with a care as deliberate as on the land. Some of the anecdotes which he communicated to me on this occasion, connected with his numerous achievements in weighing up foundered vessels, or in floating off wrecked or stranded ones, were of singular interest; and I regretted that they should not be recorded in an autobiographical memoir. Not a few of them were humorously told, and curiously illustrative of that general ignorance regarding the "strength of materials" in which the scientific world has been too strangely suffered to lie, in this the world's most mechanical age; so that what ought to be questions of strict calculation are subjected to the guessings of a mere common sense, far from adequate, in many cases, to their proper resolution. "I once raised a vessel," said Mr. Bremner,—"a large collier, chock-full of coal,—which an English projector had actually engaged to raise with huge bags of India rubber, inflated with air. But the bags, of course taxed far beyond their strength, collapsed or burst; and so, when I succeeded in bringing the vessel up, through the employment of more adequate means, I got not only ship and cargo, but also a great deal of good India rubber to boot." Only a few months after I enjoyed the pleasure of this interview with the Brindley of Scotland, he was called south, to the achievement of his greatest feat in at least one special department,—a feat generally recognized and appreciated as the most herculean of its kind ever performed,—the raising and warping off of the Great Britain steamer from her perilous bed in the sand of an exposed bay on the coast of Ireland. I was conscious of a feeling of sadness as, in parting with Mr. Bremner, I reflected, that a man so singularly gifted should have been suffered to reach a period of life very considerably advanced, in employments little suited to exert his extraordinary faculties, and which persons of the ordinary type could have performed as well. Napoleon,—himself possessed of great genius,—could have estimated more adequately than our British rulers the value of such a man. Had Mr. Bremner been born a Frenchman, he would not now be the mere agent of a steam company, in a third-rate seaport town.
The rain had ceased, but the evening was gloomy and chill; and the Orcades, which, on clearing the Caithness coast, came as fully in view as the haze permitted, were enveloped in an undress of cloud and spray, that showed off their flat low features to no advantage at all. The bold, picturesque Hebrides look well in any weather; but the level Orkney Islands, impressed everywhere, on at least their eastern coasts, by the comparatively tame character borne by the Old Red flagstones, when undisturbed by trap or the primary rocks, demand the full-dress auxiliaries of bright sun and clear sky, to render their charms patent. Then, however, in their sleek coats of emerald and purple, and surrounded by their blue sparkling sounds and seas, with here a long dark wall of rock, that casts its shadow over the breaking waves, and there a light fringe of sand and broken shells, they are, as I afterwards ascertained, not without their genuine beauties. But had they shared in the history of the neighboring Shetland group, that, according to some of the older historians, were suffered to lie uninhabited for centuries after their first discovery, I would rather have been disposed to marvel this evening, not that they had been unappropriated so long, but that they had been appropriated at all. The late member for Orkney, not yet unseated by his Shetland opponent, was one of the passengers in the steamboat; and, with an elderly man, an ambitious schoolmaster, strongly marked by the peculiarities of the genuine dominie, who had introduced himself to him as a brother voyager, he was pacing the quarter-deck, evidently doing his best to exert, under an unintermittent hot-water douche of queries, the patient courtesy of a Member of Parliament on a visit to his constituency. At length, however, the troubler quitted him, and took his stand immediately beside me; and, too sanguinely concluding that I might take the same kind of liberty with the schoolmaster that the schoolmaster had taken with the Member, I addressed to him a simple query in turn. But I had mistaken my man; the schoolmaster permitted to unknown passengers in humble russet no such sort of familiarities as those permitted by the Member; and so I met with a prompt rebuff, that at once set me down. I was evidently a big, forward lad, who had taken a liberty with the master. It is, I suspect, scarce possible for a man, unless naturally very superior, to live among boys for some twenty or thirty years, exerting over them all the while a despotic authority, without contracting those peculiarities of character which the master-spirits,—our Scots, Lambs, and Goldsmiths,—have embalmed with such exquisite truth in our literature, and which have hitherto militated against the practical realization of those unexceptionable abstractions in behalf of the status and standing of the teacher of youth which have been originated by men less in the habit of looking about them than the poets. It is worth while remarking how invariably the strong common sense of the Scotch people has run every scheme under water that, confounding the character of the "village schoolmaster" with that of the "village clergyman," would demand from the schoolmaster the clergyman's work.
We crossed the opening of the Pentland Frith, with its white surges and dark boiling eddies, and saw its twin lighthouses rising tall and ghostly amid the fog on our lee. We then skirted the shores of South Ronaldshay, of Burra, of Copinshay, and of Deerness; and, after doubling Moul Head, and threading the sound which separates Shapinshay from the Mainland, we entered the Frith of Kirkwall, and caught, amid the uncertain light of the closing evening, our earliest glimpse of the ancient Cathedral of St. Magnus. It seems at first sight as if standing solitary, a huge hermit-like erection, at the bottom of a low bay,—for its humbler companions do not make themselves visible until we have entered the harbor by a mile or two more, when we begin to find that it occupies, not an uninhabited tract of shore, but the middle of a gray straggling town, nearly a mile in length. We had just light enough to show us, on landing, that the main thoroughfare of the place, very narrow and very crooked, had been laid out, ere the country beyond had got highways, or the proprietors carts and carriages, with an exclusive eye to the necessities of the foot-passenger,—that many of the older houses presented, as is common in our northern towns, their gables to the street, and had narrow slips of closes running down along their fronts,—and that as we receded from the harbor, a goodly portion of their number bore about them an air of respectability, long maintained, but now apparently touched by decay. I saw, in advance of one of the buildings, several vigorous-looking planes, about forty feet in height, which, fenced by tall houses in front and rear, and flanked by the tortuosities of the street, had apparently forgotten that they were in Orkney, and had grown quite as well as the planes of public thoroughfares grow elsewhere. After an abortive attempt or two made in other quarters, I was successful in procuring lodgings for a few days in the house of a respectable widow lady of the place, where I found comfort and quiet on very moderate terms. The cast of faded gentility which attached to so many of the older houses of Kirkwall,—remnants of a time when the wealthier Udallers of the Orkneys used to repair to their capital at the close of autumn, to while away in each other's society their dreary winters,—reminded me of the poet Malcolm's "Sketch of the Borough,"—a portrait for which Kirkwall is known to have sat,—and of the great revolution effected in its evening parties, when "tea and turn-out" yielded its place to "tea and turn-in." But the churchyard of the place, which I had seen, as I passed along, glimmering with all its tombstones in the uncertain light, was all that remained to represent those "great men of the burgh," who, according to the poet, used to "pop in on its card and dancing assemblies, about the eleventh hour, resplendent in top-boots and scarlet vests," or of its "suppression-of-vice sisterhood of moral old maids," who kept all their neighbors right by the terror of their tongues. I was somewhat in a mood, after my chill and hungry voyage, to recall with a hankering of regret the vision of its departed suppers, so luxuriously described in the "Sketch,"—suppers at which "large rounds of boiled beef smothered in cabbage, smoked geese, mutton hams, roasts of pork, and dishes of dog-fish and of Welsh rabbits melted in their own fat, were diluted by copious draughts of strong home-brewed ale, and etherealized by gigantic bowls of rum punch." But the past, which is not ours, who, alas, can recall! And, after discussing a juicy steak and a modest cup of tea, I found I could regard with the indifferency of a philosopher, the perished suppers of Kirkwall.
I quitted my lodgings for church next morning about three-quarters of an hour ere the service commenced; and, finding the doors shut, sauntered up the hill that rises immediately over the town. The thick gloomy weather had passed with the night; and a still, bright, clear-eyed Sabbath looked cheerily down on green isle and blue sea. I was quite unprepared by any previous description, for the imposing assemblage of ancient buildings which Kirkwall presents full in the foreground, when viewed from the road which ascends along this hilly slope to the uplands. So thickly are they massed together, that, seen from one special point of view, they seem a portion of some magnificent city in ruins,—some such city though in a widely different style of architecture, as Palmyra or Baalbec. The Cathedral of St. Magnus rises on the right, the castle-palace of Earl Patrick Stuart on the left, the bishop's palace in the space between; and all three occupy sites so contiguous, that a distance of some two or three hundred yards abreast gives the proper angle for taking in the whole group at a glance. I know no such group elsewhere in Scotland. The church and palace of Linlithgow are in such close proximity, that, seen together, relieved against the blue gleam of their lake, they form one magnificent pile; but we have here a taller, and, notwithstanding its Saxon plainness, a nobler church, than that of the southern burgh, and at least one palace more. And the associations connected with the church, and at least one of the palaces ascend to a remoter and more picturesque antiquity. The castle-palace of Earl Patrick dates from but the time of James the Sixth; but in the palace of the bishop, old grim Haco died, after his defeat at Largs, "of grief," says Buchanan, "for the loss of his army, and of a valiant youth his relation;" and in the ancient Cathedral, his body, previous to its removal to Norway, was interred for a winter. The church and palace belong to the obscure dawn of the national history, and were Norwegian for centuries before they were Scotch.
As I was coming down the hill at a snail's pace, I was overtaken by a countryman on his way to church. "Ye'll hae come," he said, addressing me, "wi' the great man last night?" "I came in the steamer," I replied, "with your Member, Mr. Dundas." "O, aye," rejoined the man; "but I'm no sure he'll be our Member next time. The Voluntaries yonder, ye see," jerking his head, as he spoke, in the direction of the United Secession chapel of the place, "are awfu' strong and unco radical; and the Free Kirk folk will soon be as bad as them. But I belong to the Establishment; and I side wi' Dundas." The aristocracy of Scotland committed, I am afraid, a sad blunder when they attempted strengthening their influence as a class by seizing hold of the Church patronages. They have fared somewhat like those sailors of Ulysses who, in seeking to appropriate their master's wealth, let out the winds upon themselves; and there is now, in consequence, a perilous voyage and an uncertain landing before them. It was the patronate wedge that struck from off the Scottish Establishment at least nine-tenths of the Dissenters of the kingdom,—its Secession bodies, its Relief body, and, finally, its Free Church denomination,—comprising in their aggregate amount a great and influential majority of the Scotch people. Our older Dissenters,—a circumstance inevitable to their position as such,—have been thrown into the movement party: the Free Church, in her present transition state, sits loose to all the various political sections of the country; but her natural tendency is towards the movement party also; and already, in consequence, do our Scottish aristocracy possess greatly less political influence in the kingdom of which they own almost all the soil, than that wielded by their brethren the Irish and English aristocracy in their respective divisions of the empire. Were the representation of England and Ireland as liberal as that of Scotland, and as little influenced by the aristocracy, Conservatism, on the passing of the Reform Bill, might have taken leave of office for evermore. And yet neither the English nor Irish are naturally so Conservative as the Scotch. The patronate wedge, like that appropriated by Achan, has been disastrous to the people, for it has lost to them the great benefits of a religious Establishment, and very great these are; but it threatens, as in the case of the sons of Carmi of old, to work more serious evil to those by whom it was originally coveted,—"evil to themselves and all their house." As I approached the Free Church, a squat, sun-burned, carnal-minded "old wee wifie," who seemed passing towards the Secession place of worship, after looking wistfully at my gray maud, and concluding for certain that I could not be other than a Southland drover, came up to me, and asked, in a cautious whisper, "Will ye be wantin' a coo?" I replied in the negative; and the wee wifie, after casting a jealous glance at a group of grave-featured Free Church folk in our immediate neighborhood, who would scarce have tolerated Sabbath trading in a Seceder, tucked up her little blue cloak over her head, and hied away to the chapel.
In the Free Church pulpit I recognized an old friend, to whom I introduced myself at the close of the service, and by whom I was introduced, in turn, to several intelligent members of his session, to whose kindness I owed, on the following day, introductions to some of the less accessible curiosities of the place. I rose betimes on the morning of Monday, that I might have leisure enough before me to see them all, and broke my first ground in Orkney as a geologist in a quarry a few hundred yards to the south and east of the town. It is strange enough how frequently the explorer in the Old Red finds himself restricted in a locality to well nigh a single organism,—an effect, probably, of some gregarious instinct in the ancient fishes of this formation, similar to that which characterizes so many of the fishes of the present time, or of some peculiarity in their constitution, which made each choose for itself a peculiar habitat. In this quarry, though abounding in broken remains, I found scarce a single fragment which did not belong to an exceedingly minute species of Coccosteus, of which my first specimen had been sent me a few years before by Mr. Robert Dick, from the neighborhood of Thurso, and which I at that time, judging from its general proportions, had set down as the young of the Coccosteus cuspidatus. Its apparent gregariousness, too, quite as marked at Thurso as in this quarry, had assisted, on the strength of an obvious enough analogy, in leading to the conclusion. There are several species of the existing fish, well known on our coasts, that, though solitary when fully grown, are gregarious when young. The coal-fish, which as the sillock of a few inches in length congregates by thousands, but as the colum-saw of from two and a half to three feet is a solitary fish, forms a familiar instance; and I had inferred that the Coccosteus, found solitary, in most instances, when at its full size, had, like the coal-fish, congregated in shoals when in a state of immaturity. But a more careful examination of the specimens leads me to conclude that this minute gregarious Coccosteus, so abundant in this locality that its fragments thickly speckle the strata for hundreds of yards together—(in one instance I found the dorsal plates of four individuals crowded into a piece of flag barely six inches square)—was in reality a distinct species. Though not more than one-fourth the size, measured linearly, of the Coccosteus decipiens, its plates exhibit as many of those lines of increment which gave to the occipital buckler of the creature its tortoise-like appearance, and through which plates of the buckler species were at first mistaken for those of a Chelonian, as are exhibited by plates of the larger kinds, with an area ten times as great; its tubercles, too, some of them of microscopic size, are as numerous;—evidences, I think,—when we take into account that in the bulkier species the lines and tubercles increased in number with the growth of the plates, and that, once formed, they seem never to have been affected by the subsequent enlargement of the creature,—that this ichthyolite was not an immature, but really a miniature Coccosteus. We may see on the plates of the full-grown Coccosteus, as on the shells of bivalves, such as Cardium echinatum, or on those of spiral univalves, such as Buccinum undatum, the diminutive markings which they bore when the creature was young; and on the plates of this species we may detect a regular gradation of tubercles from the microscopic to the minute, as we may see on the plates of the larger kinds a regular gradation from the minute to the fall-sized. The average length of the dwarf Coccosteus of Thurso and Kirkwall, taken from the snout to the pointed termination of the dorsal plate, ranges from one and a-half to two inches; its entire length from head to tail probably from three to four. It was from one of Mr. Dick's specimens of this species that I first determined the true position of the eyes of the Coccosteus,—a position which some of my lately-found ichthyolites conclusively demonstrate, and which Agassiz, in his restoration, deceived by ill-preserved specimens, has fixed at a point considerably more lateral and posterior, and where eyes would have been of greatly less use to the animal. About a field's breadth below this quarry of the Coccosteus minor,—if I may take the liberty of extemporizing a name, until such time as some person better qualified furnishes the creature with a more characteristic one,—there are the remains, consisting of fosse and rampart, with a single cannon lying red and honeycombed amid the ruins, of one of Cromwell's forts, built to protect the town against the assaults of an enemy from the sea. In the few and stormy years during which this ablest of British governors ruled over Scotland, he seems to have exercised a singularly vigilant eye. The claims on his protection of even the remote Kirkwall did not escape him.
The antiquities of the burgh next engaged me; and, as became its dignity and importance, I began with the Cathedral, a building imposing enough to rank among the most impressive of its class anywhere, but whose peculiar setting in this remote northern country, joined to the associations of its early history with the Scandinavian Rollos, Sigurds, Einars, and Hacos of our dingier chronicles, serve greatly to enhance its interest. It is a noble pile, built of a dark-tinted Old Red Sandstone,—a stone which, though by much too sombre for adequately developing the elegancies of the Grecian or Roman architecture, to which a light delicate tone of color seems indispensable, harmonizes well with the massier and less florid styles of the Gothic. The round arch of that ancient Norman school which was at one time so generally recognized as Saxon, prevails in the edifice, and marks out its older portions. A few of the arches present on their ringstones those characteristic toothed and zig-zag ornaments that are of not unfamiliar occurrence on the round squat doorways of the older parish churches of England; but by much the greater number exhibit merely a few rude mouldings, that bend over ponderous columns and massive capitals, unfretted by the tool of the carver. Though of colossal magnificence, the exterior of the edifice yields in effect, as in all true Gothic buildings,—for the Gothic is greatest in what the Grecian is least,—to the sombre sublimity of the interior. The nave, flanked by the dim deep aisles, and by a double row of smooth-stemmed gigantic columns, supporting each a double tier of ponderous arches, and the transepts, with their three tiers of small Norman windows, and their bold semi-circular arcs, demurely gay with toothed or angular carvings, that speak of the days of Rolf and Torfeinar, are singularly fine,—far superior to aught else of the kind in Scotland; and a happy accident has added greatly to their effect. A rare Byssus,—the Byssus aeruginosa of Linnaeus,—the Leprasia aeruginosa of modern botanists,—one of those gloomy vegetables of the damp cave and dark mine whose true habitat is rather under than upon the earth, has crept over arch, and column, and broad bare wall, and given to well nigh the entire interior of the building a close-fitted lining of dark velvety green, which, like the Attic rust of an ancient medal, forms an appropriate covering to the sculpturings which it enwraps without concealing, and harmonizes with at once the dim light and the antique architecture. Where the sun streamed upon it, high over head, through the narrow windows above, it reminded me of a pall of rich green velvet. It seems subject, on some of the lower mouldings and damper recesses, especially amid the tombs and in the aisles, to a decomposing mildew, which eats into it in fantastic map-like lines of mingled black and gray, so resembling Runic fret-work, that I had some difficulty in convincing myself that the tracery which it forms,—singularly appropriate to the architecture,—was not the effect of design. The choir and chancel of the edifice, which at the time of my visit were still employed as the parish church of Kirkwall, and had become a "world too wide" for the shrunken congregation, are more modern and ornate than the nave and transepts; and the round arch gives place, in at least their windows, to the pointed one. But the unique consistency of the pile is scarce at all disturbed by this mixture of styles. It is truly wonderful how completely the forgotten architects of the darker ages contrived to avoid those gross offences against good taste and artistic feeling into which their successors of a greatly more enlightened time are continually falling. Instead of idly courting ornament for its own sake, they must have had as their proposed object the production of some definite effect, or the development of some special sentiment. It was perhaps well for them, too, that they were not so overladen as our modern architects with the learning of their profession. Extensive knowledge requires great judgment to guide it. If that high genius which can impart its own homogeneous character to very various materials be wanting, the more multifarious a man's ideas become, the more is he in danger of straining after a heterogeneous patch-work excellence, which is but excellence in its components, and deformity as a whole. Every new vista opened up to him on what has been produced in his art elsewhere presents to him merely a new avenue of error. His mind becomes a mere damaged kaleidoscope, full of little broken pieces of the fair and the exquisite, but devoid of that nicely reflective machinery which can alone cast the fragments into shapes of a chaste and harmonious beauty.
Judging from the sculptures of St. Magnus, the stone-cutter seems to have had but an indifferent command of his trade in Orkney, when there was a good deal known about it elsewhere. And yet the rudeness of his work here, much in keeping with the ponderous simplicity of the architecture, serves but to link on the pile to a more venerable antiquity, and speaks less of the inartificial than of the remote. I saw a grotesque hatchment high up among the arches, that, with the uncouth carvings below, served to throw some light on the introduction into ecclesiastical edifices of those ludicrous sculptures that seem so incongruously foreign to the proper use and character of such places. The painter had set himself, with, I doubt not, fair moral intent, to exhibit a skeleton wrapped up in a winding-sheet; but, like the unlucky artist immortalized by Gifford, who proposed painting a lion, but produced merely a dog, his skill had failed in seconding his intentions, and, instead of achieving a Death in a shroud, he had achieved but a monkey grinning in a towel. His contemporaries, however, unlike those of Gifford's artist, do not seem to have found out the mistake, and so the betowelled monkey has come to hold a conspicuous place among the solemnities of the Cathedral. It does not seem difficult to conceive how unintentional ludicrosities of this nature, introduced into ecclesiastical erections in ages too little critical to distinguish between what the workman had purposed doing and what he had done, might come to be regarded, in a less earnest but more knowing age, as precedents for the introduction of the intentionally comic and grotesque. Innocent accidental monkeys in towels may have thus served to usher into serious neighborhoods monkeys in towels that were such with malice prepense.
I was shown an opening in the masonry, rather more than a man's height from the floor, that marked where a square narrow cell, formed in the thickness of the wall, had been laid open a few years before. And in the cell there was found depending from the middle of the roof a rusty iron chain, with a bit of barley-bread attached. What could the chain and bit of bread have meant? Had they dangled in the remote past over some northern Ugolino? or did they form in their dark narrow cell, without air-hole or outlet, merely some of the reserve terrors of the Cathedral, efficient in bending to the authority of the Church the rebellious monk or refractory nun? Ere quitting the building, I scaled the great tower,—considerably less tall, it is said, than its predecessor, which was destroyed by lightning about two hundred years ago, but quite tall enough to command an extensive, and, though bare, not unimpressive prospect. Two arms of the sea, that cut so deeply into the mainland on its opposite sides as to narrow it into a flat neck little more than a mile and a half in breadth, stretch away in long vista, the one to the south, and the other to the north; and so immediately is the Cathedral perched on the isthmus between, as to be nearly equally conspicuous from both. It forms in each, to the inward-bound vessel, the terminal object in the landscape. There was not much to admire in the town immediately beneath, with its roofs of gray slate,—almost the only parts of it visible from this point of view,—and its bare treeless suburbs; nor yet in the tract of mingled hill and moor on either hand, into which the island expands from the narrow neck, like the two ends of a sand-glass; but the long withdrawing ocean-avenues between, that seemed approaching from south and north to kiss the feet of the proud Cathedral,—avenues here and there enlivened on their ground of deep blue by a sail, and fringed on the lee—for the wind blew freshly in the clear sunshine—with their border of dazzling white, were objects worth while climbing the tower to see. Ere my descent, my guide hammered out of the tower-bells, on my special behalf, somewhat, I daresay, to the astonishment of the burghers below, a set of chimes handed down entire, in all the notes, from the times of the monks, from which also the four fine bells of the Cathedral have descended as an heirloom to the burgh. The chimes would have delighted the heart of old Lisle Bowles, the poet of
"Well-tun'd bell's enchanting harmony."
I could, however, have preferred listening to their music, though it seemed really very sweet, a few hundred yards further away; and the quiet clerical poet,—the restorer of the Sonnet in England, would, I doubt not, have been of the same mind. The oft-recurring tones of those bells that ring throughout his verse, and to which Byron wickedly proposed adding a cap, form but an ingredient of the poetry in which he describes them; and they are represented always as distant tones, that, while they mingle with the softer harmonies of nature, never overpower them.
"How sweet the tuneful bells responsive peal!
* * * * *
And, hark! with lessening cadence now they fall, And now, along the white and level tide They fling their melancholy music wide! Bidding me many a tender thought recall Of happy hours departed, and those years When, from an antique tower, ere life's fair prime, The mournful mazes of their mingling chime First wak'd my wondering childhood into tears!"
From the Cathedral I passed to the mansion of Old Earl Patrick,—a stately ruin, in the more ornate castellated style of the sixteenth century. It stands in the middle of a dense thicket of what are trying to be trees, and have so far succeeded, that they conceal, on one of the sides, the lower story of the building, and rise over the spring of the large richly-decorated turrets. These last form so much nearer the base of the edifice than is common in our old castles, that they exhibit the appearance rather of hanging towers than of turrets,—of towers with their foundations cut away. The projecting windows, with their deep mouldings, square mullions, and cruciform shot-holes, are rich specimens of their peculiar style; and, with the double-windowed turrets with which they range, they communicate a sort of high-relief effect to the entire erection, "the exterior proportions and ornaments of which," says Sir Walter Scott, in his Journal, "are very handsome." Though a roofless and broken ruin, with the rank grass waving on its walls, it is still a piece of very solid masonry, and must have been rather stiff working as a quarry. Some painstaking burgher had, I found, made a desperate attempt on one of the huge chimney lintels of the great hall of the erection,—an apartment which Sir Walter greatly admired, and in which he lays the scene in the "Pirate" between Cleveland and Jack Bunce, but the lintel, a curious example of what, in the exercise of a little Irish liberty, is sometimes termed a rectilinear arch, defied his utmost efforts; and, after half-picking out the keystone, he had to give it up in despair. The bishop's palace, of which a handsome old tower still remains tolerably entire, also served for a quarry in its day; and I was scarce sufficiently distressed to learn, that on almost the last occasion on which it had been wrought for this purpose, one of the two men engaged in the employment suffered a stone, which he had loosed out of the wall, to drop on the head of his companion, who stood watching for it below, and killed him on the spot.
The Bishop's Palace at Orkney—Haco the Norwegian—Icelandic Chronicle respecting his Expedition to Scotland—His Death—Removal of his Remains to Norway—Why Norwegian Invasion ceased—Straw-plaiting—The Lassies of Orkney—Orkney Type of Countenance—Celtic and Scandinavian—An accomplished Antiquary—Old Manuscripts—An old Tune-book—Manuscript Letter of Mary Queen of Scots—Letters of General Monck—The fearless Covenanter—Cave of the Rebels—Why the tragedy of "Gustavus Vasa" was prohibited—Quarry of Pickoquoy—Its Fossil Shells—Journey to Stromness—Scenery—Birth-place of Malcolm, the Poet—His History—One of his Poems—His Brother a Free Church Minister—New Scenery.
The "upper story" of the bishop's palace, in which grim old Haco died,—thanks to the economic burghers who converted the stately ruin into a quarry,—has wholly disappeared. Though the death of this last of the Norwegian invaders does not date more than ten years previous to the birth of the Bruce, it seems to belong, notwithstanding, to a different and greatly more ancient period of Scottish history; as if it came under the influence of a sort of aerial perspective, similar to that which makes a neighboring hill in a fog appear as remote as a distant mountain when the atmosphere is clearer. Our national wars with the English were rendered familiar to our country folk of the last age, and for centuries before by the old Scotch "Makkaris," Barbour and Blind Harry, and in our own times by the glowing narratives of Sir Walter Scott,—magicians who, unlike those ancient sorcerers that used to darken the air with their incantations, possessed the rare power of dissipating the mists and vapors of the historic atmosphere, and rendering it transparent. But we had no such chroniclers of the time, though only half an age further removed into the past,
"When Norse and Danish galleys plied Their oars within the Frith of Clyde, And floated Haco's banner trim Above Norweyan warriors grim, Savage of heart and large of limb."
And hence the thick haze in which it is enveloped. Curiously enough, however, this period, during which the wild Scot had to contend with the still wilder wanderers of Scandinavia in fierce combats that he was too little skilful to record, and which appears so obscure and remote to his descendants, presents a phase comparatively near, and an outline proportionally sharp and well-defined to the intelligent peasantry of Iceland. Their Barbours and Blind Harries came a few ages sooner than ours, and the fog, in consequence, rose earlier; and so, while Scotch antiquaries of no mean standing can say almost nothing about the expedition or death-bed of Haco, even the humbler Icelanders, taught from their Sagas in the long winter nights, can tell how, harassed by anxiety and fatigue, the monarch sickened, and recovered, and sickened again; and how, dying in the bishop's palace, his body was interred for a winter in the Cathedral, and then borne in spring to the burying-place of his ancestors in Norway. The only clear vista on the death of Haco which now exists is that presented by an Icelandic chronicler: to which, as it seems so little known even in Orkney that the burying-place of the monarch is still occasionally sought for in the Cathedral, I must introduce the reader. I quote from an extract containing the account of Haco's expedition against Scotland, which was translated from the original Icelandic by the Rev. James Johnstone, chaplain to his Britannic Majesty's Envoy Extraordinary at the court of Denmark, and appeared in the "Edinburgh Magazine" for 1787.
"King Haco," says the chronicler, "now in the seven and fortieth year of his reign, had spent the summer in watchfulness and anxiety. Being often called to deliberate with his captains, he had enjoyed little rest; and when he arrived at Kirkwall, he was confined to his bed by his disorder. Having lain for some nights, the illness abated, and he was on foot for three days. On the first day he walked about in his apartments; on the second he attended at the bishop's chapel to hear mass; and on the third he went to Magnus Church, and walked round the shrine of St. Magnus, Earl of Orkney. He then ordered a bath to be prepared, and got himself shaved. Some nights after, he relapsed, and took again to his bed. During his sickness he ordered the Bible and Latin authors to be read to him. But finding his spirits were too much fatigued by reflecting on what he had heard, he desired Norwegian books might be read to him night and day: first the lives of saints; and, when they were ended, he made his attendants read the Chronicles of our Kings, from Holden the Black, and so of all the Norwegian monarchs in succession, one after the other. The king still found his disorder increasing. He therefore took into consideration the pay to be given to his troops, and commanded that a merk of fine silver should be given to each courtier, and half a merk to each of the masters of the lights, chamberlain, and other attendants on his person. He ordered all the silver-plate belonging to his table to be weighed, and to be distributed if his standard silver fell short.... King Haco received extreme unction on the night before the festival of St. Lucia. Thorgisl, Bishop of Stravanger, Gilbert, Bishop of Hainar, Henry, Bishop of Orkney, Albert Thorleif and many other learned men, were present; and, before the unction, all present bade the king farewell with a kiss.... The festival of the Virgin St. Lucia happened on a Thursday; and on the Saturday after, the king's disorder increased to such a degree, that he lost the use of his speech; and at midnight Almighty God called King Haco out of this mortal life. This was matter of great grief to all those who attended, and to most of those who heard of the event. The following barons were present at the death of the king:—Briniolf Johnson, Erling Alfson, John Drottning, Ronald Urka, and some domestics who had been near the king's person during his illness. Immediately on the decease of the king, bishops and learned men were sent for to sing mass.... On Sunday the royal corpse was carried to the upper hall, and laid on a bier. The body was clothed in a rich garb, with a garland on its head, and dressed out as became a crowned monarch. The masters of the lights stood with tapers in their hands, and the whole hall was illuminated. All the people came to see the body, which appeared beautiful and animated; and the king's countenance was as fair and ruddy as while he was alive. It was some alleviation of the deep sorrow of the beholders to see the corpse of their departed sovereign so decorated. High mass was then sung for the deceased. The nobility kept watch by the body during the night. On Monday the remains of King Haco were carried to St. Magnus Church, where they lay in state that night. On Tuesday the royal corpse was put in a coffin, and buried in the choir of St. Magnus Church, near the steps leading to the shrine of St. Magnus, Earl of Orkney. The tomb was then closed, and a canopy was spread over it. It was also determined that watch should be kept over the king's grave all winter. At Christmas the bishop and Andrew Plytt furnished entertainments, as the king had directed; and good presents were given to all the soldiers. King Haco had given orders that his remains should be carried east to Norway, and buried near his fathers and relatives. Towards the end of winter, therefore, that great vessel which he had in the west was launched, and soon got ready. On Ash Wednesday the corpse of King Haco was taken out of the ground: this happened the third of the nones of March. The courtiers followed the corpse to Skalpeid, where the ship lay, and which was chiefly under the direction of the Bishop Thorgisl and Andrew Plytt. They put to sea on the first Saturday in Lent; but, meeting with hard weather, they steered for Silavog. From this place they wrote letters to Prince Magnus, acquainting him with the news, and then sailed for Bergen. They arrived at Laxavog before the festival of St. Benedict. On that day Prince Magnus rowed out to meet the corpse. The ship was brought near to the king's palace, and the body was carried up to a summer-house. Next morning the corpse was removed to Christ's Church, and was attended by Prince Magnus, the two queens, the courtiers, and the town's people. The body was then interred in the choir of Christ's Church; and Prince Magnus addressed a long and gracious speech to those who attended the funeral procession. All the multitude present were much affected, and expressed great sorrow of mind."
So far the Icelandic chronicle. Each age has as certainly its own mode of telling its stories as of adjusting its dress or setting its cap; and the mode of this northern historian is somewhat prolix. I am not sure, however, whether I would not prefer the simple minuteness with which he dwells on every little circumstance, to that dissertative style of history characteristic of a more reflective age, that for series of facts substitutes bundles of theories. Cowper well describes the historians of this latter school, and shows how, on selecting some little-known personage of a remote time as their hero,
"They disentangle from the puzzled skein In which obscurity has wrapped them up, The threads of politic and shrewd design That ran through all his purposes, and charge His mind with meanings that he never had, Or, having, kept concealed."
I have seen it elaborately argued by a writer of this class, that those wasting incursions of the Northmen which must have been such terrible plagues to the southern and western countries of Europe, ceased in consequence of their conversion to Christianity; for that, under the humanizing influence of religion, they staid at home, and cultivated the arts of peace. But the hypothesis is, I fear, not very tenable. Christianity, in even a purer form than that in which it first found its way among the ancient Scandinavians, and when at least as generally recognized nationally as it ever was by the subjects of Haco, has failed to put down the trade of aggressive war. It did not prevent honest, obstinate George the Third from warring with the Americans or the French: it only led him to enjoin a day of thanksgiving when his troops had slaughtered a great many of the enemy, and to ordain a fast when the enemy had slaughtered, in turn, a great many of his troops. And Haco, who, though he preferred the lives of the saints, and even of his ancestors, who could not have been very great saints, to the Scriptures, seems, for a king, to have been a not undevout man in his way, and yet appears to have had as few compunctions visitings on the score of his Scottish war as George the Third on that of the French or the American one. Christianity, too, ere his invasion of Scotland, had been for a considerable time established in his dominions, and ought, were the theory a true one, to have operated sooner. The Cathedral of St. Magnus, when he walked round the shrine of its patron saint, was at least a century old. The true secret of the cessation of Norwegian invasion seems to have been the consolidation, under vigorous princes, of the countries which had lain open to it,—a circumstance which, in the later attempts of the invaders, led to results similar to those which broke the heart of tough old Haco, in the bishop's palace at Kirkwall.
From the ruins I passed to the town, and spent a not uninstructive half-hour in sauntering along the streets in the quiet of the evening, acquainting myself with the general aspect of the people. I marked, as one of the peculiar features of the place, groups of tidily-dressed young women, engaged at the close-heads with their straw plait,—the prevailing manufacture of the town,—and enjoying at the same time the fresh air and an easy chat. The special contribution made by the lassies of Orkney to the dress of their female neighbors all over the empire, has led to much tasteful dressing among themselves. Orkney, on its gala, days, is a land of ladies. What seems to be the typical countenance of these islands unites an aquiline but not prominent nose to an oval face. In the ordinary Scotch and English countenance, when the nose is aquiline it is also prominent, and the face is thin and angular, as if the additional height of the central feature had been given it at the expense of the cheeks, and of lateral shavings from off the chin. The hard Duke-of-Wellington face is illustrative of this type. But in the aquiline type of Orkney the countenance is softer and fuller, and, in at least the female face, the general contour greatly more handsome. Dr. Kombst, in his ethnographic map of Britain and Ireland, gives to the coast of Caithness and the Shetland Islands a purely Scandinavian people, but to the Orkneys a mixed race, which he designates the Scandinavian-Gaelic. I would be inclined, however,—preferring rather to found on those traits of person and character that are still patent, than on the unauthenticated statements of uncertain history,—to regard the people as essentially one from the northern extremity of Shetland to the Ord Hill of Caithness. Beyond the Ord Hill, and on to the northern shores of the Frith of Cromarty, we find, though unnoted on the map, a different race,—a race strongly marked by the Celtic lineaments, and speaking the Gaelic tongue. On the southern side of the Frith, and extending on to the Bay of Munlochy, the purely Scandinavian race again occurs. The sailors of the Danish fleet which four years ago accompanied the Crown Prince in his expedition to the Faroe Islands were astonished when, on landing at Cromarty, they recognized in the people the familiar cast of countenance and feature that marked their country folk and relatives at home; and found that they were simply Scandinavians like themselves, who, having forgotten their Danish, spoke Scotch instead. Rather more than a mile to the west of the fishing village of Avoch there commences a Celtic district, which stretches on from Munlochy to the river Nairne; beyond which the Scandinavian and Teutonic-Scandinavian border that fringes the eastern coast of Scotland extends unbroken southwards through Moray, Banff, and Aberdeen, on to Forfar, Fife, the Lothians, and the Mearns. These two intercalated patches of Celtic people in the northern tract,—that extending from the Ord Hill to the Cromarty Frith, and that extending from the Bay of Munlochy to the Nairne,—still retaining, as they do, after the lapse of ages, a sharp distinctness of boundary in respect of language, character, and personal appearance, are surely great curiosities. The writer of these chapters was born on the extreme edge of one of these patches, scarce a mile distant from a Gaelic-speaking population; and yet, though his humble ancestors were located on the spot for centuries, he can find trace among them of but one Celtic name; and their language was exclusively the Lowland Scotch. For many ages the two races, like oil and water, refused to mix.