Hugh Miller: Autobiography (2)

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CHAPTER IV.


Strange marble stones, here larger and there less,
And of full various forms, which still increase
In height and bulk by a continual drop,
Which upon each distilling from the top,
And falling still exactly on the crown,
There break themselves to mists, which, trickling down,
Crust into stone, and (but with leisure) swell
The sides, and still advance the miracle.—C
HARLES COTTON.


It is low water in the Firth of Cromarty during stream tides, between six and seven o'clock in the evening; and my Uncle Sandy, in returning from his work at the close of the day, used not unfrequently, when, according to the phrase of the place, "there was a tide in the water," to strike down the hillside, and spend a quiet hour in the ebb.  I delighted to accompany him on these occasions.  There are professors of Natural History that know less of living nature than was known by Uncle Sandy; and I deemed it no small matter to have all the various productions of the sea with which he was acquainted pointed out to me in these walks, and to be in possession of his many curious anecdotes regarding them.

    He was a skilful crab and lobster fisher, and knew every hole and cranny, along several miles of rocky shore, in which the creatures were accustomed to shelter, with not a few of their own peculiarities of character.  Contrary to the view taken by some of our naturalists, such as Agassiz, who hold that the crab—a genus comparatively recent in its appearance in creation—is less embryotic in its character, and higher in its standing, than the more ancient lobster, my uncle regarded the lobster as a more highly developed and more intelligent animal than the crab.  The hole in which the lobster lodges has almost always two openings, he has said, through one of which it sometimes contrives to escape when the other is stormed by the fisher; whereas the crab is usually content, like the "rat devoid of soul," with a hole of only one opening; and, besides, gets so angry in most cases with his assailant, as to become more bent on assault than escape, and so loses himself through sheer loss of temper.  And yet the crab has, he used to add, some points of intelligence about him too.  When, as sometimes happened, he got hold, in his dark narrow recess in the rock, of some luckless digit, my uncle showed me how that, after the first tremendous squeeze, he began always to experiment upon what he had got, by alternately slackening and straitening his grasp, as if to ascertain whether it had life in it, or was merely a piece of dead matter; and that the only way to escape him, on these trying occasions, was to let the finger lie passively between his nippers, as if it were a bit of stick or tangle; when, apparently deeming it such, he would be sure to let it go; whereas, on the least attempt to withdraw it, he would at once straiten his gripe, and not again relax it for mayhap half an hour.  In dealing with the lobster, on the other hand, the fisher had to beware that he did not depend too much on the hold he had got of the creature, if it was merely a hold of one of the great claws.  For a moment it would remain passive in his grasp; he would then be sensible of a slight tremor in the captured limb, and mayhap hear a slight crackle; and, presto, the captive would straightway be off like a dart through the deep-water hole, and only the limb remain in the fisher's hand.  My uncle has, however, told me that lobsters do not always lose their limbs with the necessary judgment.  They throw them off when suddenly frightened, without first waiting to consider whether the sacrifice of a pair of legs is the best mode of obviating the danger.  On firing a musket immediately over a lobster just captured, he has seen it throw off both its great claws in the sudden extremity of its terror, just as a panic-struck soldier sometimes throws away his weapons.  Such, in kind, were the anecdotes of Uncle Sandy.  He instructed me, too, how to find, amid thickets of laminaria and fuci, [21] the nest of the lump-fish, and taught me to look well in its immediate neighbourhood for the male and female fish, especially for the male; and showed me further, that the hard-shelled spawn of this creature may, when well washed, be eaten raw, and forms at least as palatable a viand in that state as the imported caviare of Russia and the Caspian.  There were instances in which the common crow acted as a sort of jackal to us in our lump-fish explorations.  We would see him busied at the side of some fuci-covered pool, screaming and cawing as if engaged in combating an enemy; and, on going up to the place, we used to find the lump-fish he had killed fresh and entire, but divested of the eyes, which we found, as a matter of course, that the assailant, in order to make sure of victory, had taken the precaution of picking out at an early stage of the contest.

    Nor was it with merely the edible that we busied ourselves on these journeys.  The brilliant metallic plumage of the seamouse (Aphrodita), steeped as in the dyes of the rainbow, excited our admiration time after time; and still higher wonder used to be awakened by a much rarer annelid, brown, and slender as a piece of rope-yarn, and from thirty to forty feet in length, which no one save my uncle had ever found along the Cromarty shores, and which, when broken in two, as sometimes happened in the measuring, divided its vitality so equally between the pieces, that each was fitted, we could not doubt, though unable to repeat in the case the experiment of Spallanzani, to set up as an independent existence, and carry on business for itself.  The annelids, too, that form for themselves tubular dwellings built up of large grains of sand (amphitrites), always excited our interest.  Two hand-shaped tufts of golden-hued setæ—furnished, however, with greatly more than the typical number of fingers—rise from the shoulders of these creatures, and must, I suspect, be used as hands in the process of building; at least the hands of the most practised builder could not set stones with nicer skill than is exhibited by these worms in the setting of the grains which compose their cylindrical dwellings—dwellings that, from their form and structure, seem suited to remind the antiquary of the round towers of Ireland, and, from the style of their masonry, of old Cyclopean walls.  Even the mason-wasps and bees are greatly inferior workmen to these mason amphitrites.  I was introduced also, in our ebb excursions, to the cuttle-fish and the sea-hare, and shown how the one, when pursued by an enemy, discharges a cloud of ink to conceal its retreat, and that the other darkens the water around it with a lovely purple pigment, which my uncle was pretty sure would make a rich dye, like that extracted of old by the Tyrians from a whelk which he had often seen on the beach near Alexandria.  I learned, too, to cultivate an acquaintance with some two or three species of doris, that carry their arboraceous, tree-like lungs on their backs, as Macduff's soldiers carried the boughs of Birnam wood to the Hill of Dunsinane; and I soon acquired a sort of affection for certain shells, which bore, as I supposed, a more exotic aspect than their neighbours.  Among these were, Trochus Zizyphinus, [22] with its flame-like markings of crimson, on a ground of paley brown; Patella pellucida, [23] with its lustrous rays of vivid blue on its dark epidermis, that resemble the sparks of a firework breaking against a cloud; and, above all, Cyprœa Europea, [24] a not rare shell further to the north, but so little abundant in the Firth of Cromarty, as to render the live animal, when once or twice in a season I used to find it creeping on the laminaria at the extreme outer edge of the tide-line, with its wide orange mantle flowing liberally around it, somewhat of a prize.  In short, the tract of sea-bottom laid dry by the ebb formed an admirable school, and Uncle Sandy an excellent teacher, under whom I was not in the least disposed to trifle; and when, long after, I learned to detect old-marine bottoms far out of sight of the sea-now amid the ancient forest-covered Silurians [25] of central England, and anon opening to the light on some hillside among the Mountain Limestones of our country—I have felt how very much I owed to his instructions.

    His facts wanted a vocabulary adequately fitted to represent them; but though they "lacked a commodity of good names," they were all founded on careful observation, and possessed that first element of respectability—perfect originality: they were all acquired by himself.  I owed more, however, to the habit of observation which he assisted me in forming, than even to his facts; and yet some of these were of high value.  He has shown me, for instance, that an immense granitic boulder in the neighbourhood of the town, known for ages as the Clach Malloch, or Cursed Stone, stands so exactly in the line of low water, that the larger stream-tides of March and September lay dry its inner side, but never its outer one;—round the outer side there are always from two to four inches of water; and such had been the case for at least a hundred years before, in his father's and grandfather's days—evidence enough of itself, I have heard him say, that the relative levels of sea and land were not altering; though during the lapsed century the waves had so largely encroached on the low flat shores, that elderly men of his acquaintance, long since passed away, had actually held the plough when young where they had held the rudder when old.  He used, too, to point out to me the effect of certain winds upon the tides.  A strong hasty gale from the east, if coincident with a spring-tide, sent up the waves high upon the beach, and cut away whole roods of the soil; but the gales that usually kept larger tides from falling during ebb were prolonged gales from the west.  A series of these, even when not very high, left not unfrequently from one to two feet water round the Clach Malloch, during stream-tides, that would otherwise have laid its bottom bare—a proof, he used to say, that the German Ocean, from its want of breadth, could not be heaped up against our coasts to the same extent, by the violence of a very powerful east wind, as the Atlantic by the force of a comparatively moderate westerly one.  It is not improbable that the philosophy of the Drift Current, and of the apparently reactionary Gulf Stream, may be embodied in this simple remark.

    The woods on the lower slopes of the hill, when there was no access to the zones covered save at low ebb by the sea, furnished me with employment of another kind. I learned to look with interest on the workings of certain insects, and to understand some of at least their simpler instincts. The large Diadem Spider, which spins so strong a web, that, in pressing my way through the furze thickets, I could hear its white silken cords crack as they yielded before me, and which I found skilled, like an ancient magician, in the strange art of rendering itself invisible in the clearest light, was an especial favourite; though its great size, and the wild stories I had read about the bite of its cogener the tarantula, made me cultivate its acquaintance somewhat at a distance. Often, however, have I stood beside its large web, when the creature occupied its place in the centre, and, touching it with a withered grass stalk, I have seen it sullenly swing on the lines "with its hands," and then shake them with motion so rapid, that—like Carathis, the mother of the Caliph Vathek, [26] who, when her hour of doom had come, "glanced off in a rapid whirl, which rendered her invisible"—the eye failed to see either web or insect for minutes together.  Nothing appeals more powerfully to the youthful fancy than those coats, rings, and amulets of eastern lore, that conferred on their possessors the gift of invisibility.  I learned, too, to take an especial interest in what, though they belong to a different family, are known as the Water Spiders; and have watched them speeding by fits and starts, like skaters on the ice, across the surface of some woodland spring or streamlet—fearless walkers on the waters, that, with true faith in the integrity of the implanted instinct, never made shipwreck in the eddy or sank in the pool.  It is to these little creatures that Wordsworth refers in one of his sonnets on sleep:—


                   O sleep, thou art to me
A fly that up and down himself doth shove
Upon a fretful rivulet; now above,
Now on the water, vexed with mockery.


As shown, however, to the poet himself on one occasion, somewhat to his discomfort, by assuredly no mean authority—Mr James Wilson—the "vexed" "fly," though one of the hemipterous insects, never uses its wings, and so never gets "above" the water. Among my other favourites were the splendid dragon-flies, the crimson-speckled Burnet moths, and the small azure butterflies, that, when fluttering among delicate harebells and crimson-tipped daisies, used to suggest to me, long ere I became acquainted with the pretty figure of Moore, [27] or even ere the figure had been produced, the idea of flowers that had taken to flying. The wild honey bees, too, in their several species, had peculiar charms for me. There were the buff-coloured carders, that erected over their honey-jars domes of moss; the lapidary red-tipped bees, that built amid the recesses of ancient cairns, and in old dry stone walls, and were so invincibly brave in defending their homesteads, that they never gave up the quarrel till they died; and, above all, the yellow zoned humble-bees, that lodged deep in the ground along the dry sides of grassy banks, and were usually wealthier in honey than any of their cogeners, and existed in larger communities. But the herd-boys of the parish, and the foxes of its woods and brakes, shared in my interest in the wild honey bees, and, in the pursuit of something else than knowledge, were ruthless robbers of their nests.  I often observed, that the fox, with all his reputed shrewdness, is not particularly knowing on the subject of bees.  He makes as dead a set on a wasp's nest as on that of the carder or humble-bee, and gets, I doubt not, heartily stung for his pains; for though, as shown by the marks of his teeth, left on fragments of the paper combs scattered about, he attempts eating the young wasps in the chrysalis state, the undevoured remains seem to argue that he is but little pleased with them as food.  There were occasions, however, in which even the herd-boys met with only disappointment in their bee-hunting excursions; and in one notable instance, the result of the adventure used to be spoken of in school and elsewhere, under our breath and in secret, as something very horrible.  A party of boys had stormed a humble-bees' nest on the side of the old chapel-brae, and, digging inwards along the narrow winding earth passage, they at length came to a grinning human skull, and saw the bees issuing thick from out a round hole at its base—the foramen magnum.  The wise little workers had actually formed their nest within the hollow of the head, once occupied by the busy brain; and their spoilers, more scrupulous than Samson of old, who seems to have enjoyed the meat brought forth out of the eater, and the sweetness extracted from the strong, left in very great consternation their honey all to themselves.

    One of my discoveries of this early period would have been deemed a not unimportant one by the geologist.  Among the woods of the hill, a short half-mile from the town, there is a morass of comparatively small extent, but considerable depth, which had been laid open by the bursting of a waterspout on the uplands, and in which the dark peaty chasm remained unclosed, though the event had happened ere my birth, until I had become old and curious enough thoroughly to explore it.  It was a black miry ravine some ten or twelve feet in depth.  The bogs around waved thick with silvery willows of small size; but sticking out from the black sides of the ravine itself, and in some instances stretched across it from side to side, lay the decayed remains of huge giants of the vegetable world, that had flourished and died long ages ere, in at least our northern part of the island, the course of history had begun.  There were oaks of enormous girth, into whose coal-black substance one could dig as easily with a pickaxe as one digs into a bank of clay; and at least one noble elm, which ran across the little stream that trickled, rather than flowed, along the bottom of the hollow, and which was in such a state of keeping, that I have scooped out of its trunk, with the unassisted hand, a way for the water.  I have found in the ravine—which I learned very much to like as a scene of exploration, though I never failed to quit it sadly bemired—handfuls of hazel-nuts, of the ordinary size, but black as jet, with the cups of acorns, and with twigs of birch that still retained almost unchanged their silvery outer crust of bark, but whose ligneous interior existed as a mere pulp.  I have even laid open, in layers of a sort of unctuous clay, resembling fuller's earth, leaves of oak, birch, and hazel, that had fluttered in the wind thousands of years before ; and there was one happy day in which I succeeded in digging from out the very bottom of the excavation a huge fragment of an extraordinary-looking deer's horn.  It was a broad, massive, strange-looking piece of bone, evidently old-fashioned in its type; and so I brought it home in triumph to Uncle James, as the antiquary of the family, assured that he could tell me all about it.  Uncle James paused in the middle of his work; and, taking the horn in his hand, surveyed it leisurely on every side.  "That is the horn, boy," he at length said, "of no deer that now lives in this country.  We have the red deer, and the fallow deer, and the roe; and none of them have horns at all like that.  I never saw an elk; but I am pretty sure this broad, plank-like horn can be none other than the horn of an elk."  My uncle set aside his work; and, taking the horn in his hand, went out to the shop of a cabinet-maker in the neighbourhood, where there used to work from five to six journeymen.  They all gathered round him to examine it, and agreed in the decision that it was an entirely different sort of horn from any borne by the existing deer of Scotland, and that this surmise regarding it was probably just.  And, apparently to enhance the marvel, a neighbour, who was lounging in the shop at the time, remarked, in a tone of sober gravity, that it had lain in the Moss of the Willows  "for perhaps half a century."  There was positive anger in the tone of my uncle's reply.  "Half a century, Sir!!" he exclaimed; "was the elk a native of Scotland half a century ago?  There is no notice of the elk, Sir, in British history.  That horn must have lain in the Moss of the Willows for thousands of years!"  "Ah, ha, James, ah, ah," ejaculated the neighbour, with a sceptical shake of the head; but as neither he nor any one else dared meet my uncle on historical ground, the controversy took end with the ejaculation.  I soon added to the horn of the elk that of a roe, and part of that of a red deer, found in the same ravine; and the neighbours, impressed by Uncle James's view, used to bring strangers to look at them.  At length, unhappily, a relation settled in the south, who had shown me kindness, took a fancy to them; and, smit by the charms of a gorgeous paint-box which he had just sent me, I made them over to him entire.  They found their way to London, and were ultimately lodged in the collection of some obscure virtuoso, whose locality or name I have been unable to trace.

    The Cromarty Sutors have their two lines of caves—an ancient line hollowed by the waves many centuries ago, when the sea stood, in relation to the land, from fifteen to thirty feet higher along our shores than it does now; and a modern line, which the surf is still engaged in scooping out.  Many of the older caves are lined with stalactites, deposited by springs that, filtering through the cracks and fissures of the gneiss, find lime enough in their passage to acquire what is known as a petrifying, though, in reality, only an incrusting quality.  And these stalactites, under the name of "white stones made by the water," formed of old—as in that Cave of Slams specially mentioned by Buchanan and the Chroniclers, and in those caverns of the Peak so quaintly described by Cotton—one of the grand marvels of the place.  Almost all the old gazetteers sufficiently copious in their details to mention Cromarty at all, refer to its "Dropping Cave" as a marvellous marble-producing cavern; and this "Dropping Cave" is but one of many that look out upon the sea from the precipices of the southern Sutor, in whose dark recesses the drops ever tinkle, and the stony ceilings ever grow.  The wonder could not have been deemed a great or very rare one by a man like the late Sir George Mackenzie of Coul, well known from his travels in Iceland, and his experiments on the inflammability of the diamond; but it so happened, that Sir George, curious to see the sort of stones to which the old gazetteers referred, made application to the minister of the parish for a set of specimens; and the minister straightway deputed the commission, which he believed to be not a difficult one, to one of his poorer parishioners, an old nailer, as a means of putting a few shillings in his way.

    It so happened, however, that the nailer had lost his wife by a sad accident, only a few weeks before; and the story went abroad that the poor woman was, as the townspeople expressed it, "coming back."  She had been very suddenly hurried out of the world.  When going down the quay after nightfall one evening, with a parcel of clean linen for a sailor, her relative, she had missed footing on the pier edge, and, half-brained, half-drowned, had been found in the morning, stone dead, at the bottom of the harbour.  And now, as if pressed by some unsettled business, she used to be seen, it was said, hovering after nightfall about her old dwelling, or sauntering along the neighbouring street; nay, there were occasions, according to the general report, in which she had even exchanged words with some of the neighbours, little to their satisfaction.  The words, however, seemed in every instance to have wonderfully little to do with the affairs of another world.  I remember seeing the wife of a neighbour rush into my mother's one evening about
this time, speechless with terror, and declare, after an awful pause, during which she had lain half-fainting in a chair, that she had just seen Christy.  She had been engaged, as the night was falling, but ere darkness had quite set in, in piling up a load of brushwood for fuel outside the door, when up started the spectre on the other side of the heap, attired in the ordinary work-day garb of the deceased, and, in a light and hurried tone, asked, as Christy might have done ere the fatal accident, for a share of the brushwood.  "Give me some of that hag,[28]" said the ghost; "you have plenty—I have none."  It was not known whether or no the nailer had seen the apparition; but it was pretty certain he believed in it; and as the "Dropping Cave" is both dark and solitary, and had forty years ago a bad name to boot—for the mermaid had been observed disporting in front of it even at mid-day, and lights and screams heard from it at nights—it must have been a rather formidable place to a man living in the momentary expectation of a visit from a dead wife.  So far as could be ascertained—for the nailer himself was rather close in the matter—he had not entered the cave at all.  He seemed, judging from the marks of scraping left along the sides for about two or three feet from the narrow opening, to have taken his stand outside, where the light was good, and the way of retreat clear, and to have raked outwards to him, as far as he could reach, all that stuck to the walls, including ropy slime and mouldy damp, but not one particle of stalactite.  It was, of course, seen that his specimens would not suit Sir George; and the minister, in the extremity of the case, applied to my uncles, though with some little unwillingness, as it was known that no remuneration for their trouble could be offered to them.  My uncles were, however, delighted with the commission—it was all for the benefit of science; and, providing themselves with torches and a hammer, they set out for the caves.  And I, of course, accompanied them—a very happy boy—armed, like themselves, with hammer and torch, and prepared devotedly to labour in behalf of science and Sir George.

    I had never before seen the caves by torch-light; and though what I now witnessed did not quite come up to what I had read regarding the Grotto of Antiparos, or even the wonders of the Peak, it was unquestionably both strange and fine.  The celebrated Dropping Cave proved inferior—as is not unfrequently the case with the celebrated—to a cave almost entirely unknown, which opened among the rocks a little further to the east; and yet even it had its interest.  It widened, as one entered, into a twilight chamber, green with velvety mosses, that love the damp and the shade; and terminated in a range of crystalline wells, fed by the perpetual dropping, and hollowed in what seemed an altar-piece of the deposited marble.  And above, and along the sides, there depended many a draped fold, and hung many a translucent icicle.  The other cave, however, we found to be of much greater extent, and of more varied character.  It is one of three caves of the old coast line, known as the Doocot or Pigeon Caves, which open upon a piece of rocky beach, overhung by a rudely semicircular range of gloomy precipices.  The points of the semicircle project on either side into deep water—into at least water so much deeper than the fall of ordinary neaps, that it is only during the ebb of stream tides that the place is accessible by land; and in each of these bold promontories—the terminal horns of the crescent—there is a cave of the present coast-line, deeply hollowed, in which the sea stands from ten to twelve feet in depth when the tide is at full, and in which the surf thunders, when gales blow hard from the stormy north-east, with the roar of whole parks of artillery.  The cave in the western promontory, which bears among the townsfolk the name of the "Puir Wife's Meal Kist," has its roof drilled by two small perforations—the largest of them not a great deal wider than the blow-hole of a porpoise—that open externally among the cliffs above; and when, during storms from the sea, the huge waves came rolling ashore like green moving walls, there are certain times of the tide in which they shut up the mouth of the cave, and so compress the air within, that it rushes upwards through the openings, roaring in its escape as if ten whales were blowing at once, and rises from amid the crags overhead in two white jets of vapour, distinctly visible, to the height of from sixty to eighty feet.  If there be critics who have deemed it one of the extravagances of Goethe that he should have given life and motion, as in his famous witch-scene in "Faust," to the Hartz crags, they would do well to visit this bold headland during some winter tempest from the east, and find his description perfectly sober and true:


See the giant crags, oh ho!
How they snort and how they blow!


    Within, at the bottom of the crescent, and where the tide never reaches when at the fullest, we found the large pigeon cave which we had come to explore hollowed for about a hundred and fifty feet in the line of a fault.  There runs across the opening the broken remains of a wall erected by some monopolizing proprietor of the neighbouring lands, with the intention of appropriating to himself the pigeons of the cavern; but his day, even at this time, had been long gone by, and the wall had sunk into a ruin.  As we advanced, the cave caught the echoes of our footsteps, and a flock of pigeons, startled from their nests, came whizzing out, almost brushing us with their wings.  The damp floor sounded hollow to the tread; we saw the green mossy sides, which close in the uncertain light, more than twenty feet overhead, furrowed by ridges of stalactites, that became whiter and purer as they retired from the vegetative influences; and marked that the last plant which appeared as we wended our way inwards was a minute green moss, about half an inch in length, which slanted outwards on the prominence of the sides, and overlay myriads of similar sprigs of moss, long before converted into stone, but which, faithful in death to the ruling law of their lives, still pointed, like the others, to the free air and the light.  And then, in the deeper recesses of the cave, where the floor becomes covered with uneven sheets of stalagmite, and where long spear-like icicles and drapery like foldings, pure as the marble of the sculptor, descend from above, or hang pendent over the sides, we found in abundance magnificent specimens for Sir George.  The entire expedition was one of wondrous interest; and I returned next day to school, big with description and narrative, to excite, by truths more marvellous than fiction, the curiosity of my class-fellows.

    I had previously introduced them to the marvels of the hill; and during our Saturday half-holidays some of them had accompanied me in my excursions to it.  But it had failed, somehow, to catch their fancy.  It was too solitary, and too far from home, and, as a scene of amusement, not at all equal to the town-links, where they could play at "shinty [29]" and "French and English," almost within hail [30] of their parent's homesteads.  The very tract along its flat, moory summit, over which, according to tradition, Wallace had once driven before him in headlong rout a strong body of English, and which was actually mottled with sepulchral tumuli, still visible amid the heath, failed in any marked degree to engage them; and though they liked well enough to hear about the caves, they seemed to have no very great desire to see them.  There was, however, one little fellow, who sat in the Latin form—the member of a class lower and brighter than the heavy one, though it was not particularly bright either—who differed in this respect from all the others.  Though he was my junior by about a twelvemonth, and shorter by about half a head, he was a diligent boy in even the Grammar School, in which boys were so rarely diligent, and, for his years, a thoroughly sensible one, without a grain of the dreamer in his composition.  I succeeded, however, notwithstanding his sobriety, in infecting him thoroughly with my peculiar tastes, and learned to love him very much, partly because he doubled my amusements by sharing in them, and partly, I daresay—on the principle on which Mahomet preferred his old wife to his young one—because "he believed in me."  Devoted to him as Caliban in the Tempest to his friend Trinculo—"I showed him the best springs, I plucked him berries, and I with my long nails did dig him pig-nuts."  His curiosity on this occasion was largely excited by my description of the Doocot Cave; and, setting out one morning to explore its wonders, armed with John Feddes's hammer, in the benefits of which my friend was permitted liberally to share, we failed, for that day at least, in finding our way back.

    It was [31] on a pleasant spring morning that, with my little curious friend beside me, I stood on the beach opposite the eastern promontory, that, with its stern granitic wall, bars access for ten days out of every fourteen to the wonders of the Doocot; and saw it stretching provokingly out into the green water.  It was hard to be disappointed, and the caves so near.  The tide was a low neap, and if we wanted a passage dry-shod, it behoved us to wait for at least a week; but neither of us understood the philosophy of neap-tides at the period.  I was quite sure I had got round at low water with my uncles not a great many days before, and we both inferred, that if we but succeeded in getting round now, it would be quite a pleasure to wait among the caves inside until such time as the fall of the tide should lay bare a passage for our return.  A narrow and broken shelf runs along the promontory, on which, by the assistance of the naked toe and the toe nail, it is just possible to creep.  We succeeded in scrambling up to it; and then, crawling outwards on all fours—the precipice, as we proceeded, beetling more and more formidable from above, and the water becoming greener and deeper below—we reached the outer point of the promontory; and then doubling the cape on a still narrowing margin—the water, by a reverse process, becoming shallower and less green as we advanced inwards—we found the ledge terminating just where, after clearing the sea, it overhung the gravelly beach at an elevation of nearly ten feet.  Adown we both dropped, proud of our success; up splashed the rattling gravel as we fell; and for at least the whole coming week—though we were unaware of the extent of our good luck at the time—the marvels of the Doocot Cave might be regarded as solely and exclusively our own.  For one short seven days—to borrow emphasis from the phraseology of Carlyle—"they were our own, and no other man's."

    The first few hours were hours of sheer enjoyment.  The larger cave proved a mine of marvels; and we found a great deal additional to wonder at on the slopes beneath the precipices, and along the piece of rocky sea-beach in front.  We succeeded in discovering for ourselves, in creeping, dwarf bushes, that told of the blighting influences of the sea-spray; the pale yellow honeysuckle, that we had never seen before, save in gardens and shrubberies; and on a deeply-shaded slope that leaned against one of the steeper precipices, we detected the sweet-scented woodroof of the flower-plot and parterre, with its pretty verticillate leaves, that become the more odoriferous the more they are crushed, and its white delicate flowers.  There, too, immediately in the opening of the deeper cave, where a small stream came pattering in detached drops from the over-beetling precipice above, like the first drops of a heavy thunder-shower, we found the hot, bitter scurvy grass, with its minute cruciform flowers, which the great Captain Cook had used in his voyages; above all, there were the caves with their pigeons—white, variegated, and blue—and their mysterious and gloomy depths, in which plants hardened into stone, and water became marble.  In a short time we had broken off with our hammers whole pocketfuls of stalactites and petrified moss.  There were little pools at the side of the cave, where we could see the work of congelation going on, as at the commencement of an October frost, when the cold north wind ruffles, and but barely ruffles, the surface of some mountain lochan or sluggish moorland stream, and shows the newly-formed needles of ice projecting mole-like from the shores into the water.  So rapid was the course of deposition, that there were cases in which the sides of the hollows seemed growing almost in proportion as the water rose in them; the springs, lipping over, deposited their minute crystals on the edges; and the reservoirs deepened and became more capacious as their mounds were built up by this curious masonry.  The long telescopic prospect of the sparkling sea, as viewed from the inner extremity of the cavern, while all around was dark as midnight—the sudden gleam of the sea-gull, seen for a moment from the recess, as it flitted past in the sunshine—the black heaving hulk of the grampus, as it threw up its slender jets of spray, and then, turning downwards, displayed its glossy back and vast angular fin—even the pigeons, as they shot whizzing by, one moment scarce visible in the gloom, the next radiant in the light—all acquired a new interest, from the peculiarity of the setting in which we saw them.  They formed a series of sun-gilt vignettes, framed in jet; and it was long ere we tired of seeing and admiring in them much of the strange and the beautiful.  It did seem rather ominous, however, and perhaps somewhat supernatural to boot, that about an hour after noon, the tide while there was yet a full fathom of water beneath the brow of the promontory, ceased to fall, and then, after a quarter of an hour's space, began actually to creep upwards on the beach.  But just hoping that there might be some mistake in the matter, which the evening tide would scarce fail to rectify, we continued to amuse ourselves, and to hope on.  Hour after hour passed, lengthening as the shadows lengthened, and yet the tide still rose.  The sun had sunk behind the precipices, and all was gloom along their bases, and double gloom in their caves; but their rugged brows still caught the red glare of evening.  The flush rose higher and higher, chased by the shadows; and then, alter lingering for a moment on their crests of honeysuckle and juniper, passed away, and the whole became sombre and grey.  The sea-gull sprang upwards from where he had floated on the ripple, and hied him slowly away to his lodge in his deep-sea stack; the dusky cormorant flitted past, with heavier and more frequent stroke, to his whitened shelf high on the precipice; the pigeons came whizzing downwards from the uplands and the opposite land, and disappeared amid the gloom of their caves; every creature that had wings made use of them in speeding homewards; but neither my companion nor myself had any; and there was no possibility of getting home without them.  We made desperate efforts to scale the precipices, and on two several occasions succeeded in reaching mid-way shelves among the crags, where the sparrowhawk and the raven build; but though we had climbed well enough to render our return a matter of bare possibility, there was no possibility whatever of getting farther up: the cliffs had never been scaled before, and they were not destined to be scaled now.  And so, as the twilight deepened, and the precarious footing became every moment more doubtful and precarious still, we had just to give up in despair.  "Wouldn't care for myself," said the poor little fellow, my companion, bursting into tears, "if it were not for my mother; but what will my mother say?"  "Wouldn't care neither," said I, with a heavy heart; "but it's just back water, and we'll get out at twall."  We retreated together into one of the shallower and drier caves, and, clearing a little spot of its rough stones, and then groping along the rocks for the dry grass that in the spring season hangs from them in withered tufts, we formed for ourselves a most uncomfortable bed, and lay down in one another's arms.  For the last few hours mountainous piles of clouds had been rising dark and stormy in the sea-mouth: they had flared portentously in the setting sun, and had worn, with the decline of evening, almost every meteoric tint of anger, from fiery red to a sombre thundrous brown, and from sombre brown to doleful black.  And we could now at least hear what they portended, though we could no longer see.  The rising wind began to howl mournfully amid the cliffs, and the sea, hitherto so silent, to beat heavily against the shore, and to boom, like distress-guns, from the recesses of the two deep-sea caves.  We could hear, too, the beating rain, now heavier, now lighter, as the gusts swelled or sank; and the intermittent patter of the streamlet over the deeper cave, now driving against the precipices, now descending heavily on the stones.

    My companion had only the real evils of the case to deal with, and so, the hardness of our bed and the coldness of the night considered, he slept tolerably well; but I was unlucky enough to have evils greatly worse than the real ones to annoy me.  The corpse of a drowned seaman had been found on the beach about a month previous, some forty yards from where we lay.  The hands and feet, miserably contracted, and corrugated into deep folds at every joint, yet swollen to twice their proper size, had been bleached as white as pieces of alumed sheep-skin; and where the head should have been, there existed only a sad mass of rubbish.  I had examined the body, as young people are apt to do, a great deal too curiously for my peace; and, though I had never done the poor nameless seaman any harm, I could not have suffered more from him during that melancholy night, had I been his murderer.  Sleeping or waking, he was continually before me.  Every time I dropped into a doze, he would come stalking up the beach from the spot where he had lain, with his stiff white fingers, that stuck out like eagle's toes, and his pale, broken pulp of a head, and attempt striking me; and then I would awaken with a start, cling to my companion, and remember that the drowned sailor had lain festering among the identical bunches of sea-weed that still rotted on the beach not a stone-cast away.  The near neighbourhood of a score of living bandits would have inspired less horror than the recollection of that one dead seaman.

    Towards midnight the sky cleared and the wind fell, and the moon, in her last quarter, rose red as a mass of heated iron out of the sea.  We crept down, in the uncertain light, over the rough slippery crags, to ascertain whether the tide had not fallen sufficiently far to yield us a passage; but we found the waves chafing among the rocks just where the tide-line had rested twelve hours before, and a full fathom of sea enclasping the base of the promontory.  A glimmering idea of the real nature of our situation at length crossed my mind.  It was not imprisonment for a tide to which we had consigned ourselves; it was imprisonment for a week.  There was little comfort in the thought, arising, as it did, amid the chills and terrors of a dreary midnight; and I looked wistfully on the sea as our only path of escape.  There was a vessel crossing the wake of the moon at the time, scarce half a mile from the shore; and, assisted by my companion, I began to shout at the top of my lungs, in the hope of being heard by the sailors.  We saw her dim bulk falling slowly athwart the red glittering belt of light that had rendered her visible, and then disappearing in the murky blackness, and just as we lost sight of her for ever, we could hear an indistinct sound mingling with the dash of the waves—the shout, in reply, of the startled helmsman.  The vessel, as we afterwards learned, was a large stone-lighter, deeply laden, and unfurnished with a boat; nor were her crew at all sure that it would have been safe to attend to the midnight voice from amid the rocks, even had they had the means of communication with the shore.  We waited on and on, however, now shouting by turns, and now shouting together; but there was no second reply; and at length, losing hope, we groped our way back to our comfortless bed, just as the tide had again turned on the beach, and the waves began to roll upwards higher and higher at every dash.

    As the moon rose and brightened, the dead seaman became less troublesome; and I had succeeded in dropping as soundly asleep as my companion, when we were both aroused by a loud shout.  We started up and again crept downwards among the crags to the shore; and as we reached the sea the shout was repeated.  It was that of at least a dozen harsh voices united.  There was a brief pause, followed by another shout; and then two boats, strongly manned, shot round the western promontory, and the men, resting on their oars, turned towards the rock, and shouted yet again.  The whole town had been alarmed by the intelligence that two little boys had straggled away in the morning to the rocks of the southern Sutor, and had not found their way back.  The precipices had been a scene of frightful accidents from time immemorial, and it was at once inferred that one other sad accident had been added to the number.  True, there were cases remembered of people having been tide-bound in the Doocot Caves, and not much the worse in consequence; but as the caves were inaccessible during neaps, we could not, it was said, possibly be in them; and the sole remaining ground of hope, was that, as had happened once before, only one of the two had been killed, and that the survivor was lingering among the rocks, afraid to come home.  And in this belief, when the moon rose and the surf fell, the two boats had been fitted out.  It was late in the morning ere we reached Cromarty, but a crowd on the beach awaited our arrival; and there were anxious-looking lights glancing in the windows, thick and manifold; nay, such was the interest elicited, that some enormously bad verses in which the writer described the incident a few days after, became popular enough to be handed about in manuscript, and read at tea-parties by the elite of the town.  Poor old Miss Bond, who kept the town boarding-school, got the piece nicely dressed up, somewhat on the principle upon which Macpherson translated Ossian; and at our first school examination—proud and happy day for the author!— it was recited with vast applause, by one of her prettiest young ladies, before the assembled taste and fashion of Cromarty.


 
CHAPTER V.


                                                           The wise
Shook their white aged heads o'er me, and said,
Of such materials wretched men were made.—B
YRON.


THE report went abroad about this time, not without some foundation, that Miss Bond purposed patronizing me.  The copy of my verses which had fallen into her hands—a genuine holograph—bore a-top a magnificent view of the Doocot, in which horrid crags of burnt umber were perforated by yawning caverns of Indian ink, and crested by a dense pine-forest of sap-green; while vast waves blue on the one side and green on the other, and bearing blotches of white lead a-top, rolled frightfully beneath.  And Miss Bond had concluded, it was said, that such a genius as that evinced by the sketch and the "poem" for those sister arts of painting and poesy in which she herself excelled, should not be left to waste itself uncared for in the desert wilderness.  She had published, shortly before, a work, in two slim volumes, entitled, "Letters of a Village Governess"—a curious kind of medley, little amenable to the ordinary rules, but a genial book notwithstanding, with more heart than head about it; and not a few of the incidents that it related had the merit of being true.  It was an unlucky merit for poor Miss Bond.  She dated her book from Fortrose, where she taught what was designated in the Almanac as the boarding-school of the place, but which, according to Miss Bond's own description, was the school of the "village governess."  And as her tales were found to be a kind of mosaics composed of droll bits of fact picked up in the neighbourhood, who had ruined at one fell blow her best silk dress, and a dozen of good eggs to boot, by putting the eggs in her pocket when going out to a party, and then stumbling over a stone.  And, of course, Mrs Skinflint and the Rev. Mr Skinflint, with all their blood relations, could not be other than greatly gratified to find the story furbished up in the printed form, and set in fun.  There were other stories as imprudent and as amusing—of young ladies caught eavesdropping at their neighbours' windows; and of gentlemen, ill at ease in their families, sitting soaking among vulgar companions in the public-house; and so the authoress, shortly after the appearance of her work, ceased to be the village governess of Fortrose, and became the village governess of Cromarty.

    It was on this occasion that I saw, for the first time, with mingled admiration and awe, a human creature—not dead and gone, and merely a printed name—that had actually published a book.  Poor Miss Bond was a kindly sort of person, fond of children, and mightily beloved by them in turn; and, though keenly alive to the ludicrous, without a grain of malice in her.  I remember how, about this time, when, assisted by some three or four boys more, I succeeded in building a huge house, full four feet long and three feet high, that contained us all, and a fire, and a great deal of smoke to boot, Miss Bond the authoress came, and looked in upon us, first through the little door, and then down through the chimney, and gave us kind words, and seemed to enjoy our enjoyment very much; and how we all deemed her visit one of the greatest events that could possibly have taken place.  She had been intimate with the parents of Sir Walter Scott; and, on the appearance of Sir Walter's first publication, the "Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border," she had taken a fit of enthusiasm, and written to him; and, when in the cold paroxysm, and inclined to think she had done something foolish, had received from Sir Walter, then Mr Scott, a characteristically warm-hearted reply.  She experienced much kindness at his hands ever after; and when she herself became an author, she dedicated her book to him.  He now and then procured boarders for her; and when, after leaving Cromarty for Edinburgh, she opened a school in the latter place, and got on with but indifferent success, Sir Walter—though struggling with his own difficulties at the time—sent her an enclosure of ten pounds, to scare, as he said in his note, "the wolf from the door."  But Miss Bond, like the original of his own Jeanie Deans, was a "proud bodie"; and the ten pounds were returned, with the intimation that the wolf had not yet come to the door.  Poor lady!  I suspect he came to the door at last.  Like many other writers of books, her voyage through life skirted, for the greater part of the way, the bleak lee-shore of necessity; and it cost her not a little skilful steering at times to give the strand a respectable offing.  And in her solitary old age, she seemed to have got fairly aground.  There was an attempt made by some of her former pupils to raise money enough to purchase for her a small annuity; but when the design was in progress, I heard of her death.  She illustrated in her life the remark recorded by herself in her "Letters," as made by a humble friend:—"It's no an easy thing, Mem, for a woman to go through the world without a head," i.e., single and unprotected.

    From some unexplained cause, Miss Bond's patronage never reached me.  I am sure the good lady intended giving me lessons in both drawing and composition; for she had said it, and her heart was a kind one; but then her time was too much occupied to admit of her devoting an occasional hour to myself alone; and as for introducing me to her young-lady classes, in my rough garments, ever greatly improved the wrong way by my explorations in the ebb and the peat-moss, and frayed, at times, beyond even my mother's ability of repair, by warping to the tops of great trees, and by feats as a cragsman—that would have been a piece of Jack-Cadeism, on which, then or now, no village governess could have ventured.  And so I was left to get on in verse and picture-making quite in the wild way, without care or culture.

    My schoolfellows liked my stories well enough—better at least, on most occasions, than they did the lessons of the master; but, beyond the common ground of enjoyment which these extempore compositions furnished to both the "sennachie" and his auditors, our tracts of amusement lay widely apart.  I disliked, as I have said, the yearly cock-fight—found no pleasure in cat-killing, or in teasing at nights, or on the street, the cross-tempered, half-witted eccentrics of the village—usually kept aloof from the ordinary play-grounds, and very rarely mingled in the old hereditary games.  On the other hand, with the exception of my little friend of the cave, who, even after that disastrous incident, evinced a tendency to trust and follow me as implicitly as before, my schoolmates cared as little for my amusements as I did for theirs; and, having the majority on their side, they of course voted mine to be the foolish ones.  And certainly a run of ill-luck followed me in my sports about this time, that did give some show of reason to their decision.

    In the course of my book-hunting, I had fallen in with two old-fashioned military treatises, part of the small library of a retired officer lately deceased, of which the one entitled the "Military Medley," discussed the whole art of marshalling troops, and contained numerous plans, neatly coloured, of battalions drawn up in all possible forms, to meet all possible exigencies; while the other, which also abounded in prints, treated of the noble science of fortification according to the system of Vauban.  I poured over both works with much perseverance; and, regarding them as admirable toy-books, set myself to construct, on a very small scale, some of the toys with which they specially dealt.  The sea-shore in the immediate neighbourhood of the town appeared to my inexperienced eye an excellent field for the carrying on of a campaign.  The sea-sand I found quite coherent enough, when still moistened by the waters of the receding tide, to stand up in the form of towers and bastions, and long lines of rampart; and there was one of the commonest of the LittorinidæLittorina littoralis, [32] that in one of its varieties is of a rich yellow colour, and in another of a bluish-green tint—which supplied me with soldiers enough to execute all the evolutions figured and described in the "Medley."  The warmly-hued yellow shells represented Britons in their scarlet—the more dingy ones, the French in their uniforms of dirty blue; well-selected specimens of Purpura lapillus, [33] just tipped on their backs with a speck of paint, blue or red, from my box, made capital dragoons; while a few dozens of the slender pryamidal shells of Turritella communis [34] formed complete parks of artillery.  With such unlimited stores of the matériel of war at my command, I was enabled, more fortunate than Uncle Toby of old, to fight battles and conduct retreats, assault and defend, build up fortifications, and then batter them down again, at no expense at all; and the only drawback on such a vast amount of advantage that I could at first perceive consisted in the circumstance, that the shore was exceedingly open to observation, and that my new amusements, when surveyed at a little distance, did greatly resemble those of the very young children of the place, who used to repair to the same arenaceous banks and shingle-beds, to bake dirt-pies in the sand, or range lines of shells on little shelves of stone, imitative of the crockery cupboard at home.  Not only my school-fellows, but also some of their parents, evidently arrived at the conclusion that the two sets of amusements—mine and those of the little children—were identical; for the elder folk said, that "in their time, poor Francie had been such another boy, and every one saw what he had come to"; while the younger, more energetic in their manifestations, and more intolerant of folly, have even paused in their games of marbles, or ceased spinning their tops, to hoot at me from a safe distance.  But the campaign went on; and I solaced myself by reflecting, that neither the big folk nor the little folk could bring a battalion of troops across a bridge of boats in the face of an enemy, or knew that a regular fortification could be constructed on only a regular polygon.

    I at length discovered however, that as a sea-shore is always a sloping plane, and the Cromarty beach, in particular, a plane of a rather steep slope, it afforded no proper site for a fortress fitted to stand a protracted siege, seeing that, fortify the place as I might, it could be easily commanded by batteries raised on the higher side.  And so fixing upon a grassy knoll among the woods, in the immediate neighbourhood of a scaur of boulder clay, capped by a thick stratum of sand, as a much better scene of operations, I took possession of the knoll somewhat irregularly; and carrying to it large quantities of sand from the scaur, converted it into the site of a magnificent stronghold.  First I erected an ancient castle, consisting of four towers built on a rectangular base, and connected by straight curtains embrasured a-top.  I then surrounded the castle by outworks in the modern style, consisting of greatly lower curtains than the ancient ones, flanked by numerous bastions, and bristling with cannon of huge calibre, made of the jointed stalks of the hemlock; while, in advance of these, I laid down ravelins, horn-works, and tenailles.  I was vastly delighted with my work: it would, I was sure, be no easy matter to reduce such a fortress; but observing an eminence in the immediate neighbourhood which could, I thought, be occupied by a rather annoying battery, I was deliberating how I might best take possession of it by a redoubt, when out started, from behind a tree, the factor of the property on which I was trespassing, and rated me soundly for spoiling the grass in a manner so wantonly mischievous.  Horn-work and half-moon, tower and bastion, proved of no manner of effect in repelling an attack of a kind so little anticipated.  I did think that the factor, who was not only an intelligent man, but had also seen much service in his day on the town links, as the holder of a commission in the Cromarty volunteers, might have perceived that I was labouring on scientific principles, and so deem me worthy of some tolerance on that account; but I suppose he did not; though, to be sure, his scold died out good-naturedly enough in the end, and I saw him laugh as he turned away.  But so it was, that in the extremity of my mortification I gave up generalship and bastion-building for the time; though, alas! my next amusement must have worn in the eyes of my youthful compeers as suspicious an aspect as either.

    My friend of the cave had lent me what I had never seen before—a fine quarto edition of Anson's Voyages, containing the original prints (my father's copy had only the maps); among the others, Mr Brett's elaborate delineation of that strangest of vessels, a proa of the Ladrone Islands.  I was much struck by the singularity of the construction of a barque that, while its head and stern were exactly alike, had sides that totally differed from each other, and that, with the wind upon the beam, out-sailed, it was said, all other vessels in the world; and having the command of the little shop in which my Uncle Sandy made occasional carts and wheelbarrows when unemployed abroad, I set myself to construct a miniature proa, on the model given in the print, and succeeded in fabricating a very extraordinary proa indeed.  While its lee side was perpendicular as a wall, its windward one, to which there was an outrigger attached, resembled that of a flat-bottomed boat; head and stern were exactly alike, so as to fit each for performing in turn the part of either; a moveable yard, which supported the sail, had to be shifted towards the end converted into the stern for the time, at each tack; while the sail itself—a most uncouth-looking thing—formed a scalene triangle.  Such was the vessel—some eighteen inches long or so—with which I startled from their propriety the mimic navigators of a horse-pond in the neighbourhood—all very masterly critics in all sorts of barques and barges known on the Scottish coast.  According to Campbell,


                           'Twas a thing beyond
Description wretched; such a wherry,
Perhaps, ne'er ventured on a pond,
         Or crossed a ferry.


And well did my fellows appreciate its extreme ludicrousness.  It was certainly rash to "venture" it on this especial "pond"; for, greatly to the damage of the rigging, it was fairly pelted off, and I was sent to test elsewhere its sailing qualities, which were, as I ascertained, not very remarkable after all.  And thus, after a manner so unworthy, were my essays in strategy and barque-building received by a censorious age, that judged ere it knew.  Were I sentimental, which luckily I am not, I might well exclaim, in the very vein of Rousseau.  Alas! it has been ever the misfortune of my life that, save by a few friends, I have never been understood!

    I was evidently out-Francieing Francie; and the parents of my young friend, who saw that I had acquired considerable influence over him, and were afraid lest I should made another Francie of him, had become naturally enough desirous to break off our intimacy, when there occurred an unlucky acccident, which served materially to assist them in the design.  My friend's father was the master of a large trading smack, which, in war times, carried a few twelve-pounders, and was furnished with a small magazine of powder and shot; and my friend having secured for himself from the general stock, through the connivance of the ship-boy, an entire cannon cartridge, containing some two or three pounds of gunpowder, I was, of course, let into the secret, and invited to share in the sport and the spoil.  We had a glorious day together in his mother's garden: never before did such magnificent volcanoes break forth out of molehills, or were plots of daisies and violets so ruthlessly scorched and torn by the explosion of deep-laid mines; and though a few mishaps did happen to over-forward fingers, and to eye-brows that were in the way, our amusements passed off innocuously on the whole, and evening saw nearly the half of our precious store unexhausted.  It was garnered up by my friend in an unsuspected corner of the garret in which he slept, and would have been safe, had he not been seized, when going to bed, with a yearning desire to survey his treasure by candle-light; when an unlucky spark from the flame exploded the whole.  He was so sadly burnt about the face and eyes as to be blind for several days after; but, amid smoke and confusion, he gallantly bolted his garret-door, and, while the inmates of the household, startled by the shock and the noise, came rushing up stairs, sturdily refused to let any of them in.  Volumes of gunpowder reek issued from every crack and cranny, and his mother and sisters were prodigiously alarmed.  At length, however, he capitulated—terms unknown; and I, next morning, heard with horror and dismay of the accident.  It had been matter of agreement between us on the previous day, mainly in order to screen the fine fellow of a ship-boy, that I should be regarded as the owner of the powder; but here was a consequence on which I had not calculated; and the strong desire to see my poor friend was dashed by the dread of being held responsible by his parents and sisters for the accident.  And so, more than a week elapsed ere I could muster up courage enough to visit him.  I was coldly received by his mother, and, what vexed me to the heart, coldly received by himself; and suspecting that he had been making an ungenerous use of our late treaty, I took leave in high dudgeon, and came away.  My suspicions, however, wronged him: he had stoutly denied, as I afterwards learned, that I had any share in the powder; but his friends deeming the opportunity a good one for breaking with me, had compelled him, very unwillingly, and after much resistance, to give me up.  And from this period more than two years elapsed, though our hearts beat quick and high every time we accidentally met, ere we exchanged a single word.  On one occasion, however, shortly after the accident, we did exchange letters.  I wrote to him from the school-form, when, of course, I ought to have been engaged with my tasks, a stately epistle, in the style of the billets in the "Female Quixote," which began, I remember, as follows:—"I once thought I had a friend whom I could rely upon; but experience tells me he was only nominal.  For, had he been a real friend, no accident could have interfered with or arbitrary command annihilated, his affection," &c., &c.  As I was rather an indifferent scribe at the time, one of the lads, known as the "copperplate writers" of the class, made for me a fair copy of my lucubration, full of all manner of elegant dashes, and in which the spelling of every word was scrupulously tested by the dictionary.  And, in due course, I received a carefully engrossed note in reply, of which the manual portion was performed by my old companion, but the composition, as he afterwards told me, elaborated by some one else.  It assured me he was still my friend, but that there were "certain circumstances" which would prevent us from meeting for the future on our old terms.  We were, however, destined to meet pretty often in the future, notwithstanding; and narrowly missed going to the bottom together many years after, in the Floating Manse, [35] grown infirm in her nether parts at the time, when he was the outed minister of Small Isles, and I editor of the Witness newspaper.

   I had a maternal aunt long settled in the Highlands of Sutherland, who was so much older than her sister, my mother, that, when nursing her eldest boy, she had, when on a visit to the low country, assisted also in nursing her.  The boy had shot up into a very clever lad, who, having gone to seek his fortune in the south, rose, through the several degrees of clerkship in a mercantile firm, to be the head of a commercial house of his own, which, though ultimately unsuccessful, seemed for some four or five years to be in a fair way of thriving.  For about three of these the portion of the profits which fell to my cousin's share did not fall short of fifteen hundred pounds per annum; and on visiting his parents in their Highland home in the heyday of his prosperity, after an absence of years, it was found that he had a great many friends in his native district on whom he had not calculated, and of a class that had not been greatly in the habit of visiting his mother's cottage, but who now came to lunch and dine, and take their wine with him, and who seemed to value and admire him very much.  My aunt, who was little accustomed to receive high company, and found herself, like Martha of old, "cumbered about much serving," urgently besought my mother, who was young and active at the time, to visit and assist her; and, infinitely to my delight, I was included in the invitation.  The place was not much above thirty miles from Cromarty; but then it was in the true Highlands, which I had never before seen, save on the distant horizon; and, to a boy who had to walk all the way, even thirty miles, in an age when railways were not, and ere even mail gigs had penetrated so far, represented a journey of no inconsiderable distance.  My mother, though rather a delicate-looking woman, walked remarkably well; and early on the evening of the second day, we reached together my aunt's cottage, in the ancient Barony of Gruids.  It was a low, long, dingy edifice of turf, four or five rooms in length, but only one in height, that, lying along a gentle acclivity, somewhat resembled at a distance a huge black snail creeping up the hill.  As the lower apartment was occupied by my uncle's half-dozen milk-cows, the declination of the floor, consequent on the nature of the site, proved of signal importance, from the free drainage which it secured; the second apartment, reckoning upwards, which was of considerable size, formed the sitting-room of the family, and had, in the old Highland style, its fire full in the middle of the floor, without back or sides; so that, like a bonfire kindled in the open air, all the inmates could sit around it in a wide circle—the women invariably ranged on the one side, and the men on the other; the apartment beyond was partitioned into small and very dark bed-rooms; while, further on still, there was a closet with a little window in it, which was assigned to my mother and me; and beyond all lay what was emphatically "the room," as it was built of stone, and had both window and chimney, with chairs, and table, and chest of drawers, a large box-bed, and a small but well-filled bookcase.  And "the room" was, of course, for the time, my cousin the merchant's apartment,—his dormitory at night, and the hospitable refectory in which he entertained his friends by day.

    My aunt's family was one of solid worth.  Her husband—a compactly-built stout-limbed, elderly Highlander, rather below the middle size, of grave and somewhat melancholy aspect, but in reality of a temperament rather cheerful than otherwise—had been somewhat wild in his young days.  He had been a good shot and a skilful angler, and had danced at bridals, and, as was common in the Highlands at the time, at lykewakes; nay, on one occasion he had succeeded in inducing a new-made widow to take the floor in a strathspey, beside her husband's corpse when every one else had failed to bring her up, by roguishly remarking, in her hearing, that whoever else might have refused to dance at poor Donald's death-wake, he little thought it would have been she.  But a great change had passed over him; and he was now a staid, thoughtful, God-fearing man, much respected in the Barony for honest worth and quiet unobtrusive consistency of character.  His wife had been brought, at an early age, under the influence of Donald Roy's ring, and had, like her mother, been the means of introducing the vitalities of religion into her household.  They had two other sons besides the merchant—both well-built, robust men, somewhat taller than their father, and of such character, that one of my Cromarty cousins, in making out his way, by dint of frequent and sedulous inquiry, to their dwelling, found the general verdict of the district embodied in the very bad English of a poor old woman, who, after doing her best to direct him, certified her knowledge of the household by remarking, "It's a goot mistress;—it's a
goot maister;—it's a goot, goot two lads."  The elder of the two brothers superintended, and partly wrought, his father's little farm; for the father himself found employment enough in acting as a sort of humble factor for the proprietor of the Barony, who lived at a distance, and had no dwelling upon the land.  The younger was a mason and slater, and was usually employed, in the working seasons, at a distance; but in winter, and, on this occasion, for a few weeks during the visit of his brother the merchant, he resided with his father.  Both were men of marked individuality of character.  The elder, Hugh, was an ingenious, self-taught mechanic, who used in the long winter evenings to fashion a number of curious little articles by the fireside—among the rest, Highland snuff-mulls, with which he supplied all his friends; and he was at this time engaged in building for his father a Highland barn, and, to vary the work, fabricating for him a Highland plough.  The younger, George, who had wrought for a few years at his trade in the south of Scotland, was a great reader, wrote very tolerable prose, and verse which, if not poetry, to which he made no pretensions, was at least quaintly-turned rhyme.  He had, besides, a competent knowledge of geometry, and was skilled in architectural drawing; and—strange accomplishment for a Celt—he was an adept in the noble science of self-defence.  But George never sought out quarrels; and such was his amount of bone and muscle, and such the expression of manly resolution stamped on his countenance, that they never came in his way unsought.

    At the close of the day, when the members of the household had assembled in a wide circle round the fire, my uncle "took the Book," and I witnessed, for the first time, family-worship conducted in Gaelic.  There was, I found, an interesting peculiarity in one portion of the services which he conducted.  He was, as I have said, an elderly man, and had worshipped in his family ere Dr Stewart's Gaelic translation of the Scriptures had been introduced into the county; and as he possessed in those days only the English Bible, while his domestics understood only Gaelic, he had to acquire the art not uncommon in Sutherland at the time of translating the English chapter for them, as he read, into their native tongue; and this he had learned to do with such ready fluency, that no one could have guessed it to be other than a Gaelic work from which he was reading.  Nor had the introduction of Dr Stewart's translation rendered the practice obsolete in his household.  His Gaelic was Suther-landshire Gaelic, whereas that of Dr Stewart was Argyleshire Gaelic.  His family understood his rendering better, in consequence, than that of the Doctor; and so he continued to translate from his English Bible ad aperturam libri, [36] many years after the Gaelic edition had been spread over the country.  The concluding evening prayer was one of great solemnity and unction.  I was unacquainted with the language in which it was couched; but it was impossible to avoid being struck, notwithstanding, with its wrestling earnestness and fervour.  The man who poured it forth evidently believed there was an unseen ear open to it, and an all-seeing presence in the place, before whom every secret thought lay exposed.  The entire scene was a deeply impressive one; and when I saw, in witnessing the celebration of high mass in a Popish cathedral many years after, the altar suddenly enveloped in a dim and picturesque obscurity, amid which the curling smoke of the incense ascended, and heard the musically-modulated prayer sounding in the distance from within the screen, my thoughts reverted to the rude Highland cottage, where, amid solemnities not theatric, the red umbry light of the fire fell with uncertain glimmer upon dark walls, and bare black rafters, and kneeling forms, and a pale expanse of dense smoke, that, filling the upper portion of the roof, overhung the floor like a ceiling, and there arose amid the gloom the sounds of prayer truly God-directed, and poured out from the depths of the heart; and I felt that the stoled priest of the cathedral was merely an artist, though a skilful one, but that in the "priest and father" of the cottage there were the truth and reality from which the artist drew.  No bolt was drawn across the outer door as we retired for the night.  The philosopic Biot, [37] when employed with his experiments on the second pendulum, resided for several months in one of the smaller Shetland islands; and, fresh from the troubles of France—his imagination bearing about with it, if I may so speak, the stains of the guillotine—the state of trustful security in which he found the simple inhabitants filled him with astonishment.  "Here during the twenty-five years in which Europe has been devouring herself," he exclaimed, "the door of the house I inhabit has remained open day and night."  The interior of Sutherland was at the time of my visit in a similar condition.  The door of my uncle's cottage, unfurnished with lock or bar, opened, like that of the hermit in the ballad, with a latch; but, unlike that of the hermit, it was not because there were no stores within to demand the care of the master, but because at that comparatively recent period the crime of theft was unknown in the district.

    I rose early next morning, when the dew was yet heavy on grass and lichen, curious to explore a locality so new to me. The tract, though a primary one, forms one of the tamer gneiss districts of Scotland; and I found the nearer hills comparatively low and confluent, and the broad valley in which lay my uncle's cottage, flat, open, and unpromising. Still there were a few points to engage me ; and the more I attached myself to them, the more did their interest grow. The western slopes of the valley are mottled by grassy tomhans [38]—the moraines of some ancient glacier, around and over which there rose, at this period, a low widely-spreading wood of birch, hazel, and mountain ash—of hazel, with its nuts fast filling at the time, and of mountain ash, with its berries glowing bright in orange and scarlet.  In looking adown the hollow, a group of the green tomhans might be seen relieved against the blue hills of Ross; in looking upwards, a solitary birch-covered hillock of similar origin, but larger proportions, stood strongly out against the calm waters of Loch Shin and the purple peaks of the distant Ben Hope.  In the bottom of the valley, close beside my uncle's cottage, I marked several low swellings of the rock beneath, rising above the general level; and, ranged along these, there were groups of what seemed to be huge boulder stones, save that they were less rounded and water-worn than ordinary boulders, and were, what groups of boulders rarely are, all of one quality.  And on examination, I ascertained that some of their number, which stood up like broken obelisks, tall, and comparatively narrow of base, and all hoary with moss and lichen, were actually still connected with the mass of rock below.  They were the wasted upper portions of vast dikes [39] and veins of a grey, large-grained syenite, [40] that traverse the fundamental gneiss of the valley, and which I found veined, in turn, by threads and seams of a white quartz, abounding in drusy cavities, [41] thickly lined along their sides with sprig crystals.  Never had I seen such lovely crystals on the shores of Cromarty, or anywhere else.  They were clear and transparent as the purest spring water, furnished each with six sides, and sharpened a-top into six facets.  Borrowing one of Cousin George's hammers, I soon filled a little box with these gems, which even my mother and aunt were content to admire, as what of old used, they said, to be called Bristol diamonds, and set in silver brooches and sleeve buttons.  Further, within less than a hundred yards of the cottage, I found a lively little stream, brown, but clear as a cairngorm of the purest water, and abounding, as I soon ascertained, in trout, lively and little like itself, and gaily speckled with scarlet.  It wound through a flat, dank meadow, never disturbed by the plough; for it had been a burying-ground of old, and flat undressed stones lay thick amid the rank grass.  And in the lower corner, where the old turfwall had sunk into an inconspicuous mound, there stood a mighty tree, all solitary, for its fellows had long before disappeared, and so hollow-hearted in its corrupt old age, that though it still threw out every season a mighty expanse of foliage, I was able to creep into a little chamber in its trunk, from which I could look out through circular openings where boughs once had been, and listen, when a sudden shower came sweeping down the glen, to the pattering of the rain-drops amid the leaves.  The valley of the Gruids was perhaps not one of the finest or most beautiful of Highland valleys, but it was a very admirable place after all; and amid its woods, and its rocks, and its tomhans, and at the side of its little trouting stream, the weeks passed delightfully away.

    My cousin William, the merchant, had, as I have said, many guests; but they were all too grand to take any notice of me.  There was, however, one delightful man, who was said to know a great deal about rocks and stones, that, having heard of my fine large crystals, desired to see both them and the boy who had found them; and I was admitted to hear him talk about granites, and marbles, and metallic veins, and the gems that lie hid among the mountains in nooks and crannies.  I am afraid I would not now deem him a very accomplished mineralogist: I remember enough of his conversation to conclude that he knew but little, and that little not very correctly: but not before Werner or Hutton could I have bowed down with a profounder reverence.  He spoke of the marbles of Assynt—of the petrifactions of Helmsdale and Brora—of shells and plants embedded in solid rocks, and of forest trees converted into stone; and my ears drank in knowledge eagerly, as those of the Queen of Sheba of old when she listened to Solomon.  But all too soon did the conversation change.  My cousin was mighty in Gaelic etymology, and so was the mineralogist; and while my cousin held that the name of the Barony of Gruids was derived from the great hollow tree, the mineralogist was quite as certain that it was derived from its syenite, or, as he termed it, its granite, which resembled, he remarked, from the whiteness of its feldspar, a piece of cord.  Gruids, said the one, means the place of the great tree; Gruids, said the other, means the place of the curdled stone.  I do not remember how they settled the controversy; but it terminated, by an easy transition, in a discussion respecting the authenticity of Ossian—a subject on which they were both perfectly agreed.  There could exist no manner of doubt regarding the fact that the poems given to the world by Macpherson had been sung in the Highlands by Ossian, the son of Fingal, more than fourteen hundred years before.  My cousin was a devoted member of the Highland Society; and the Highland Society, in these days, was very much engaged in ascertaining the right cut of the philabeg, and in determining the chronology and true sequence of events in the Ossianic age.

    Happiness perfect and entire is, it is said, not to be enjoyed in this sublunary state; and even in the Gruids, where there was so much to be seen, heard, and found out, and where I was separated by more than thirty miles from my Latin—for I had brought none of it from home with me—this same Ossianic controversy rose like a Highland fog on my horizon, to chill and darken my hours of enjoyment.  My cousin possessed everything that had been written on the subject, including a considerable amount of manuscript of his own composition; and as Uncle James had inspired him with the belief that I could master anything to which in good earnest I set my mind, he had determined that it should be no fault of his if I did not become mighty in the controversy regarding the authenticity of Ossian.  This was awful.  I liked Blair's Dissertation well enough, nor did I greatly quarrel with that of Kames; and as for Sir Walter's critique in the Edinburgh, on the opposite side, I thought it not only thoroughly sensible, but, as it furnished me with arguments against the others, deeply interesting to boot.  But then there succeeded a vast ocean of dissertation, emitted by Highland gentlemen and their friends, as the dragon in the Apocalypse emitted the great flood which the earth swallowed up; and, when once fairly embarked upon it, I could see no shore and find no bottom.  And so at length, though very unwillingly—for my cousin was very kind—I fairly mutinied and struck work, just as he had begun to propose that, after mastering the authenticity controversy, I should set myself to acquire Gaelic, in order that I might be able to read Ossian in the original.  My cousin was not well pleased; but I did not choose to aggravate the case by giving expression to the suspicion which, instead of lessening, has rather grown upon me since, that as I possessed an English copy of the poems, I had read the true Ossian in the original already.  With Cousin George, however, who, though strong on the authenticity side, liked a joke rather better than he did Ossian, I was more free; and to him I ventured to designate his brother's fine Gaelic copy of the poems, with a superb head of the ancient bard affixed, as "The Poems of Ossian in Gaelic, translated from the original English by their author."  George looked grim, and called me infidel, and then laughed, and said he would tell his brother.  But he didn't; and as I really liked the poems, especially "Temora" and some of the smaller pieces, and could read them with more real pleasure than the greater part of the Highlanders who believed in them, I did not wholly lose credit with my cousin the merchant.  He even promised to present me with a finely bound edition of the "Elegant Extracts," in three bulky octavo volumes, whenever I should have gained my first prize at College; but I unluckily failed to qualify myself for the gift; and my copy of the "Extracts" I had to purchase for myself ten years after, at a book-stall, when working in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh as a journeyman mason.

    It is not every day one meets with so genuine a Highlander as my cousin the merchant; and though he failed to inspire me with all his own Ossianic faith and zeal, there were some of the little Celtic practices which he resuscitated pro tempore in his father's household that I learned to like very much.  He restored the genuine Highland breakfasts; and, after hours spent in busy exploration outside, I found I could as thoroughly admire the groaning table, with its cheese, and its trout, and its cold meat, as even the immortal Lexicographer himself.  Some of the dishes, too, which he revived, were at least curious.  There was a supply of gradden-meal prepared—i.e., grain dried in a pot over the fire, and then coarsely ground in a hand-mill—which makes cakes that, when they had hunger for their sauce, could be eaten; and on more than one occasion I shared in a not unpalatable sort of blood-pudding, enriched with butter, and well seasoned with pepper and salt, the main ingredient of which was derived, through a judicious use of the lancet, from the yeld cattle [42] of the farm.  The practice was an ancient, and by no means unphilosophic one.  In summer and early autumn there is plenty of grass in the Highlands; but, of old at least, there used to be very little grain in it before the beginning of October; and as the cattle could, in consequence, provide themselves with a competent supply of blood from the grass, when their masters, who could not eat grass, and had little else that they could eat, were able to acquire very little, it was opportunely discovered that, by making a division in this way of the all- essential fluid, accumulated as a common stock, the circumstances of the cattle and their owners could be in some degree equalized.  With these peculiarly Highland dishes there mingled others not less genuine—now and then a salmon from the river, and a haunch of venison from the hill-side—which I relished better still; and if all Highlanders live but as well in the present day as I did during my stay with my aunt and cousins, they would be rather unreasonable were they greatly to complain.

    There were some of the other Highland restorations affected by my cousin that pleased me much.  He occasionally gathered at night around the central Ha' fire a circle of the elderly men of the neighbourhood, to repeat long-derived narratives of the old clan feuds of the district, and wild Fingalian legends; and though, of course, ignorant of the language in which the stories were conveyed, by taking my seat beside Cousin George, and getting him to translate for me in an under tone, as the narratives went on, I contrived to carry away with me at least as much of the clan stories and legends as I ever after found use for.  The clan stories were waxing at the time rather dim and uncertain in Sutherland.  The county, through the influence of its good Earls and its godly Lords Reay, had been early converted to Protestantism; and its people had in consequence ceased to take liberties with the throats and cattle of their neighbours, about a hundred years earlier than in any other part of the Scotch Highlands.  And as for the Fingalian legends, they were, I found, very wild legends indeed.  Some of them immortalized wonderful hunters, who had excited the love of Fingal's lady, and whom her angry and jealous husband had sent out to hunt monstrous wild boars with poisonous bristles on their backs,—secure in this way of getting rid of them.  And some of them embalmed the misdeeds of spiritless diminutive Fions, not very much above fifteen feet in height, who, unlike their more active companions, could not leap across the Cromarty or Dornoch Firths on their spears, and who, as was natural, were very much despised by the women of the tribe.  The pieces of fine sentiment and brilliant description discovered by Macpherson seemed never to have found their way into this northern district.  But, told in fluent Gaelic, in the great "Ha'," the wild legends served every necessary purpose equally well.  The "Ha'" in the autumn nights, as the days shortened and the frosts set in, was a genial place; and so attached was my cousin to its distinctive principle—the fire in the midst—as handed down from the "days of other years," that in the plan of a new two-storied house for his father, which he had procured from a London architect, one of the nether rooms was actually designed in the circular form; and a hearth like a millstone, placed in the centre, represented the place of the fire.  But there was, as I remarked to Cousin George, no corresponding central hole in the room above through which to let up the smoke; and I questioned whether a nicely plastered apartment, round as a band-box, with the fire in the middle, like the sun in the centre of an Orrery, would have been quite like anything ever seen in the Highlands before.  The plan, however, was not destined to encounter criticism, or give trouble in the execution of it.

    On Sabbaths my cousin and his two brothers attended the parish church, attired in the full Highland dress; and three handsome, well-formed men they were; but my aunt, though mayhap not quite without the mother's pride, did not greatly relish the exhibition; and oftener than once I heard her say so to her sister my mother; though she, smitten by the gallant appearance of her nephews, seemed inclined rather to take the opposite side.  My uncle, on the other hand, said nothing either for or against the display.  He had been a keen Highlander in his younger days; and when the inhibition against wearing tartan and the philabeg had been virtually removed, in consideration of the achievements of the "hardy and dauntless men" who, according to Chatham, conquered for England "in every quarter of the globe," he had celebrated the event in a merrymaking, at which the dance was kept up from night till morning; but though he retained, I suspect, his old partialities, he was now a sobered man; and when I ventured to ask him, on one occasion, why he too did not get a Sunday kilt, which, by the way, he would "have set," notwithstanding his years, as well as any of his sons, he merely replied with a quiet "No, no; there's no fool like an old fool."



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