Scenes and Legends (6)

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CHAPTER XVII.

"He sat upon a rock and bobbed for whale."—KENRICK.


ON the fourth Tuesday of November every year, there is a kind of market held at Cromarty, which for the last eighty years has been gradually dwindling in importance, and is now attended by only the children of the place, and a few elderly people, who supply them with toys and sweetmeats.  Early in the last century, however, it was one of the most considerable in this part of the country; and the circumstance of its gradual decline is curiously connected with the great change which has taken place since that period in the manners and habits of the people.  It flourished as long as the Highlander legislated for himself and his neighbour on the good old principle so happily described by the poet,


For why? because the good old rule
    Sufficed them, the simple plan,
That they should take who have the power,
    And they should keep who can.


and sunk into decay when he had flung down his broadsword, and become amenable to the laws of the kingdom.  The town of Cromarty, as may be seen by consulting the map, is situated on the extremity of a narrow promontory, skirted on three of its sides by the sea, and bordered on the fourth by the barren uninhabited waste described in a previous chapter.  And though these are insurmountable defects of situation for a market of the present day, which ought always to be held in some central point of the interior that commands a wide circumference of country, about a century ago they were positive advantages.  It was an important circumstance that the merchants who attended the fair could convey their goods to it by sea, without passing through any part of the Highlands; and the extent of moor which separated it by so broad a line from the seats of even the nearer clans, afforded them no slight protection when they had arrived at it.  For further security the fair was held directly beneath the walls of the old castle, in the gorge of a deep wooded ravine, which now forms part of the pleasure-grounds of Cromarty House.

    The progress of this market, from what it was once to what it is at present, was strongly indicative of several other curious changes which were taking place in the country.  The first achievement of commerce is the establishment of a market.  In a semi-barbarous age the trader journeys from one district to another, and finds only, in a whole kingdom, that demand for his merchandise which, when in an after period civilisation has introduced her artificial wants among the people, may be found in a single province.  So late as the year 1730, one solitary shopkeeper more than supplied the people of Cromarty with their few, everyday necessaries, of foreign manufacture or produce; I say more than supplied them, for in summer and autumn he travelled the country as a pedlar.  For their occasional luxuries and finery they trusted to the traders of the fair.  Times changed, however, and the shopkeeper wholly supplanted the travelling merchant; but the fair continued to be frequented till a later period by another class of traders, who dealt in various articles, the produce and manufacture of the country.  Among these were a set of dealers who sold a kind of rude harness for horses and oxen, made of ropes of hair and twisted birch; a second set who dealt in a kind of conical-shaped carts made of basket-work; and a third who supplied the house-builders of the period with split lath, made of moss-fir, for thatched roofs and partitions.  In time, however, the harness-maker, cart-wright, and house-carpenter of modern times, dealt by these artists as the shopkeeper had done by the market-trader.  The broguer, or maker of Highland shoes, kept the field in spite of the regular shoemaker half a century later, and disappeared only about five years ago.  The dealer in home-grown lint frequented it until last season; but the low wages, and sixteen-hour-per-day employment of the south country weaver, were gradually undermining his trade, and the steam-loom seems to have given it its deathblow.

    Prior to the Revolution, and as late as the reign of Queen Anne, Cromarty drove a considerable trade in herrings.  About the middle of July every year, immense bodies of this fish came swimming up the Moray Firth; and after they had spawned on a range of banks not more than eight miles from the town, quitted it for the main sea in the beginning of September.  In the better fishing seasons they filled the bays and creeks of the coast, swimming in some instances as high as the ferries of Fowlis and Ardersier.  There is a tradition that, shortly after the Union, a shoal of many hundred barrels, pursued by a body of whales and porpoises, were stranded in a little bay of Cromarty, a few hundred yards to the east of the town.  The beach was covered with them to the depth of several feet, and salt and casks failed the packers when only an inconsiderable part of the shoal was cured.  The residue was carried away for manure by the neighbouring farmers; and so great was the quantity used in this way, and the stench they caused so offensive, that it was feared disease would have ensued.  The season in which this event took place is still spoken of as the "har'st of the Herring-drove."

    About thirty years ago some masons, in digging a foundation in the eastern extremity of the town, discovered the site of a packing-yard of this period; and threw out vast quantities of scales which glittered as bright as if they had been stripped from the fish only a few weeks before.  Near the same place, there stood about twenty years earlier a little grotesque building two storeys in height, and with only a single room on each floor.  The lower was dark and damp, and had the appearance of a cellar or storehouse; the upper was lighted on three sides, and finished in a style which, at the period of its erection, must have led to a high estimate of the taste of the builder.  A rich cornice, designed doubtless on the notion of Ramsay, that good herrings and good claret are very suitable companions, curiously united bunches of grapes with clusters of herrings, and divided the walls from the ceiling.  The walls were neatly panelled, the centre of the ceiling was occupied by a massy circular patera, round which a shoal of neatly relieved herrings were swimming in a sea of plaster.  This building was the place of business of Urquhart of Greenhill, a rich herring merchant and landed proprietor, and a descendant of the old Urquharts of Cromarty.  But it was destined long to survive the cause of its erection.

    In a fishing season late in this period, two men of the place, who, like most of the other inhabitants, were both tradesfolks and fishermen, were engaged one morning in discussing the merits of an anker of Hollands which had been landed from a Dutch lugger a few evenings before.  They nodded to each other across the table with increasing heartiness and good-will, until at length their heads almost met; and as quaich after quaich was alternately emptied and replenished, they began to find that the contents of the anker were best nearest the bottom.  They were interrupted, however, before they had fully ascertained the fact, by the woman of the house tapping at the window, and calling them out to see something extraordinary; and, on going to the door, they saw a plump of whales blowing, and tumbling, and pursuing one another, in a long line up the bay.  A sudden thought struck one of the men: "It would be gran' fun, Charlie man," said he, addressing his companion, "to hook ane o' yon chiels on Nannie Fizzle's crook."  "Ay, if we had but bait," rejoined the other; "but here's a gay fresh codling on Nannie's hake, an' the yawl lies on the tap o' the fu' sea."  The crook—a chain about six feet in length, with a hook at one end, and a large ring at the other, and which, when in its proper place, hung in Nannie's chimney to suspend her pots over the fire—was accordingly baited with the cod, and fastened to a rope; and the two men, tumbling into their yawl rowed out to the cossmee.  Like the giant of the epigram they sat bobbing for whale, but the plump had gone high up the Firth; and, too impatient to wait its return, they hollowed to a friend to row out his skiff for them; and leaving their own at anchor, with the crook hanging over the stern, they returned to Nannies Fizzle's, where they soon forgot both the yawl and the whales.

    They were not long, however, in being reminded of both.  A person came bellowing to the window, "Charlie, Willie, the yawl! the yawl!" and, on staggering out, they saw the unfortunate yawl darting down the Firth with twice the velocity of a king's cutter in a fresh breeze.  Ever and anon she would dance, and wheel, and plunge, and then shoot off in a straight line.  Wonderful to relate! one of the whales had swallowed the crook; the little skiff was launched and manned; but the Hollands had done its work; one of the poor fellows tumbled over the thaft, the other snapped his oar—all was confusion.  Luckily, however, the rope fastened to the crook broke at the ring; and the yawl, after gradually losing way, began to drift towards the shore.  The adventure was bruited all over the town; and every one laughed at the whale-fishers except Nannie Fizzle, who was inconsolable for the loss of her crook.

    It was rumoured a few weeks after that the carcass of a whale had been cast ashore somewhere in the Firth of Beauly, near Redcastle, and the two fishermen set off together to the place, in the hope of identifying the carcass with the fish in which they had enfeoffed themselves at the expense of Nannie Fizzle.  The day of the journey chanced to be also that of a Redcastle market; and, as they approached the place, they were encountered by parties of Highlanders hurrying to the fair.  Most of them had heard of the huge fish, but none of them of the crook.  When the Cromarty men came up to the carcass, they found it surrounded by half the people of the fair, who were gazing, and wondering, and pacing it from head to tail, and poking at it with sticks and broadswords.  "It is our property every inch," said one of the men, coming forward to the fish; "we hooked it three weeks ago on the cossmee, but it broke off; and we have now come here to take possession.  It carried away our tackle, a chain and a hook.  Lend me your dirk, honest man," he continued, addressing a Highlander; "we shall cut out hook and chain, and make good our claim."  "O ay! nae doubt," said the Highlander, as he obligingly handed him the weapon; "but Hoch! it's no me that would like to eat her, for she maun be a filthy meat."  The crowd pressed round to witness the dissection, which ended in the Cromarty man pulling out the crook from among the entrails, and holding it up in triumph "Did I no tell you?" he exclaimed; "the fish is ours beyond dispute."  "Then," said a smart-looking little pedlar, who had just joined the throng, "ye have made the best o' this day's market.  I'se warrant your fishing worth a' the plaiding sold to-day."  The Highlanders stared.  "For what is it worth?" asked a tacksman of the place.  "Oh, look there! look there!" replied the pedlar, tapping the blubber with his elwand, "ulzie clear as usquebaugh.  I'se be bound it's as richly worth four hunder punds Scots as ony booth at the fair."  This piece of mischievous information entirely altered the circumstances of the case as it regarded the two fishermen; for the tacksman laid claim to the fish on his own behalf and the laird's, and, as he could back his arguments by a full score of broadswords, the men were at length fain to content themselves with being permitted to carry away with them Nannie Fizzle's crook.  I am afraid it is such of our naturalists as are best acquainted with the habits of the cetacea that will be most disposed to question the truth of the tradition just related.  But, however doubtful its foundation, a tradition it is.

    The mishap of the whale-fishers was followed by a much greater mishap—the total failure of the herring fishery.  The herring is one of the most eccentric little fishes that frequents our seas.  For many years together it visits regularly in its season some particular firth or bay;—fishing villages spring up on the shores, harbours are built for the reception of vessels; and the fisherman and merchant calculate on their usual quantum of fish, with as much confidence as the farmer on his average quantum of grain.  At length, however, there comes a season, as mild and pleasant as any that have preceded it, in which the herring does not visit the firth.  On each evening, the fisherman casts out his nets on the accustomed bank, on each morning he draws them in again, but with all the meshes as brown and open as when he flung them out; in the following season he is equally unsuccessful; and, ere the shoal returns to its accustomed haunts, the harbour has become a ruin, and the village a heap of green mounds.  It happened thus, late in the reign of Queen Anne, with the herring trade of the Moray Firth.  After a busy and successful fishing, the shoal as usual left the Firth in a single night; preparations were made for the ensuing season; the season came, but not the herrings; and for more than half a century from this time Cromarty derived scarcely any benefit from its herring fishery.

    My town's-folk in this age—an age in which every extraordinary effect was coupled with a supernatural cause—were too ingenious to account for the failure of the trade by a simple reference to the natural history of the herring; and two stories relating to it still survive, which show them to have been strangely acute in rendering a reason, and not a little credulous in forming a belief.  Great quantities of fish had been caught and brought ashore on a Saturday, and the packers continued to work during the night; yet on the Sunday morning much still remained to be done.  The weather was sultry, and the fish were becoming soft; and the merchants, unwilling to lose them, urged on the work throughout the Sabbath.  Towards evening the minister of the parish visited the packers; and, as they had been prevented from attending church, he made them a short serious address.  They soon, however, became impatient; the diligent began to work, the mischievous to pelt him with filth; and the good man abruptly concluded his exhortation by praying that the besom of judgment would come and sweep every herring out of the Firth.  On the following Monday the boats went to sea as usual, but returned empty; on the Tuesday they were not more successful, and it was concluded that the shoal had gone off for the season; but it proved not for the season merely; for another and another season came, and still no herrings were caught.  In short, the prayer, as the story goes, was so fully answered, that none of the unlucky packers who had insulted the minister witnessed the return of the shoal.

    The other story accounts for its flight in a different and somewhat conflicting manner.  Tradition, who, as I have already shown, is even a more credulous naturalist than historian, affirms that herrings have a strong antipathy to human blood, especially when spilt in a quarrel.  On the last day of the fishing, the nets belonging to two boats became entangled; the crew that first hauled applied the knife to their neighbours' baulks and meshes, and, with little trouble or damage to themselves, succeeded in unravelling their own.  A quarrel was the consequence; and one of the ancient modes of naval warfare, the only one eligible in their circumstances, was resorted to—they fought leaning over the gunwales of their respective boats.  Blood was spilt, unfortunately spilt in the sea; the affronted herrings took their departure, and for more than half a century were not the cause, in even the remotest degree, of any quarrel which took place on the Moray Firth or its shores.  One of the combatants, who distinguished himself either by doing or suffering in this unlucky fray, was known ever after by the name of Andrew Bleed; and there are men still living who remember to have seen him.

    The failure of the herring trade was followed by that of Urquhart of Greenhill.  He is said to have been a shrewd industrious man, of great force of character, and admirably fitted by nature and habit, had he lived in better times, to have restored the dilapidated fortunes of his house.  During the reign of William he was adding ship to ship, and field to field, until about the year 1700, when he was possessed of nearly one-half the lands of the parish, and of five large vessels.  But it was his lot to speculate in an unfortunate age; and having, with almost all the other merchants of Scotland, suffered severely from the Union, the failure of the herring fishery completed his ruin.  He sank by inches; striving to the last, with a proud heart and a bitter spirit, against the evils which assailed him.  All his ships were at length either knocked down by the hammer of the auctioneer, or broken up by the maul of the carpenter, except one; and that one, the Swallow of Cromartie, when returning homewards from some port of the Continent, was driven ashore in a violent night-storm on the rocky coast of Cadboll, and beaten to pieces before morning.  It was with difficulty the crew was saved.  One of them, a raw young fellow, a much better herdsman than sailor, escaped to his friends, full of the wild scenes he had just witnessed, and set himself to relate to them the particulars of his voyage;—it was his first and his last.  Smooth water and easy sailing may be delineated in common language; he warmed, however, as the narrative proceeded.  He described the gathering of the tempest, the darkening of the night, the dashing of the waves, the howling of the winds, and the rolling of the vessel; but being unfortunately no master of climax, language failed him in the concluding scene, where there were rocks, and breakers, and midnight darkness, and a huge ship wallowing in foam, like a wounded boar in the toils of the hunters.  "Oh! " exclaimed the sailor herdsman, "I can think o' nae likening to that puir ship, and the awfu' crags and awfu' jaws, except the nowt i' the byre, when they break their fastenings i' the mirk night, and rout and gore, and rout and gore, till the roof-tree shakes wi' the brattle."  The people of the present age may not think much of the comparison; but it was deemed a piece of very tolerable humour in Cromarty in the good year 1715.  Greenhill's remark, when informed of the disaster, had more of philosophy in it.  "Aweel," said he, taking a deliberate pinch of snuff, and then handing the box to his informant, "I have lang warstled wi' the warld, and fain would I have got on the tap o't; but I may be just as weel as I am.  Diel haet can harm me now, if the laird o' Cadboll, honest man, doesna put me to the law for dinting the Swallow against his march-stanes."

    One other passage relating to the Greenhill branch of the family of the Urquharts, ere I take leave of it for the time.  It has produced, in a lady of Aberdeenshire, one of the most pleasing poetesses of our age and country—not, however, one of the most celebrated.  Her exquisite little pieces, combining with singular felicity the simplicity and pathos of the old ballad with the refinement and elegance of our classical poets, have been flung as carelessly into the world as the rich plumes of the birds of the tropics on the plains and forests of the south.  But they have not lain altogether unnoticed.  The nameless little foundlings have been picked out from among the crowd, and introduced into the best company on the score of merit alone.—The genealogist was of a different spirit from his relative; he would have inscribed his name on the face of the sun could he have but climbed to it;—but may not there be something to regret in even the more amiable extreme?  The prophecies of that sibyl who committed her writings to the loose leaves of the forest, were lost to the world on the first slight breeze.  I present the reader with a pleasing little poem of his descendant of the Urquharts, in which, though perhaps not one of the most finished of her pieces, he will find something better than mere finish.  It may not be quite new to him, having found its way into Macdiarmid's Scrap-Book, and several other collections of merit; but he may peruse it with fresh interest, as the production of a relative of Sir Thomas, who seems to have inherited all his genius, undebased by any mixture of his eccentricity.


ON HEARING A LIVELY PIECE OF MUSIC,

"THE WATERLOO WALTZ."


A moment pause, ye British fair,
    While pleasure's phantom ye pursue,
And say if dance and sprightly air
    Suit with the name of Waterloo.
        Dearly bought the victory,
        Chasten'd should the triumph be;
        'Midst the laurels she has won,
        Britain weeps for many a son.

Veil'd in clouds the morning rose,
    Nature seem'd to mourn the day
Which consigned before its close
    Thousands to their kindred clay.
        How unfit for courtly ball,
        Or the giddy festival,
        Was the grim and ghastly view
        Ere evening closed on Waterloo.

See the Highland warrior rushing,
    First in danger, on the foe,
Till the life-blood, stemless gushing,
    Lays the plaided hero low.
        His native pipe's heart-thrilling sound,
        'Mid war's infernal concert drown'd,
        Cannot soothe his last adieu,
        Nor wake his sleep on Waterloo.

Crashing o'er the cuirassier,
    See the foaming charger flying,
Trampling in his wild career,
    All alike, the dead and dying,
        See the bullets pierce his side,
        See, amid a crimson tide,
        Helmet, horse, and rider too,
        Roll on bloody Waterloo.

Shall sights like these the dance inspire,
    Or wake the jocund notes of mirth?
Oh, shiver'd be the recreant lyre
    That gave the base idea birth!
        Other sounds, I weep, were there,
        Other music rent the air,
        Other Waltz the warriors knew,
        When they closed at Waterloo.

Forbear, till time with lenient hand
    Has healed the wounds of recent sorrow,
And let the picture distant stand,
    The softening hue of years to borrow.
        When our race has pass's away,
        Hands unborn may wake the lay,
        And give to joy alone the view
        Of victory at Waterloo.


    About the time of the Rebellion, or a little after, the trade of the place began to recover itself much through the influence of a vigorous-minded man, a merchant of the period.  Urquhart of Greenhill had sunk with the sinking trade of the country; his townsman, William Forsyth, enjoyed the advantage of being born at least forty years later, and rose as it revived.  The nature of the business which the latter pursued may be regarded as illustrating, not inaptly, the condition of society in the north of Scotland at the time.  It was of a miscellaneous character, as became the state of a country so poor and so thinly peopled, and in which, as there was scarce any division of labour, one merchant had to perform the part of many.  He supplied the proprietors with teas, wines, and spiceries; with broad-cloths, glass, Delft ware, Flemish tiles, and pieces of japanned cabinetwork; he furnished the blacksmith with iron from Sweden, the carpenter with tar and spars from Norway, and the farmer with flax-seed from Holland.  He found, too, in other countries, markets for the produce of our own.  The exports of the north of Scotland, at this period, were mostly malt, wool, and salmon.  Almost all rents were paid in kind or in labour—the proprietors retaining in their hands a portion of their estates, termed demesnes or mains, which was cultivated mostly by their tacksmen or feuars as part of their proper service.  Each proprietor, too, had his storehouse or girnal—a tall narrow building, the strong-box of the time—which, at the Martinmas of every year, used to be filled from gable to gable with the grain-rents paid him by his tenants, and the produce of his own farm.  His surplus cattle found their way south under charge of the drovers of the period; but it proved a more difficult matter to dispose to advantage of his surplus corn, mostly barley, until some one, more fertile in speculation than the others, originated the scheme of converting it into malt, and exporting it into England and Flanders.  And to so great an extent was this trade carried on about the middle of the last century, that in the town of Inverness the English under Cumberland found almost every second building a malt-barn.

    It is quite according to the nature of the herrings to resume their visits as suddenly and unexpectedly as they have broken them off, though not until after a lapse of so many seasons, that the fishermen have ceased to watch for their appearance in their old haunts, or to provide the tackle necessary for their capture; and in this way a number of years are sometimes suffered to pass after the return of the fish, ere the old trade is re-established.  It was a main object with William Forsyth to guard against any such waste of opportunity on the part of his town's-people; and representing the case to the more intelligent gentlemen of the district, and some of the wealthier merchants of Inverness, he succeeded in forming them, for the encouragement of the herring fishery, into a society, which provided a yearly premium of twenty merks Scots for the first barrel of herrings caught every season in the Moray Firth.  The sum was small but as money at the time was greatly more valuable than now, it proved a sufficient inducement to the fishermen and tradespeople of the place to fit out, about the beginning of autumn every year, a few boats that swept over the various fishing banks for the herrings; and there were not many seasons in which some one crew or other did not catch enough to entitle them to the premium.  At length, however, their tackle wore out, and Mr. Forsyth, in pursuance of his scheme, provided himself, at some little expense, with a complete drift of nets, which were carried to sea each season by a crew of boatmen, and the search kept up.  His exertions, however, could only merit success, without securing it.  The fish returned for a few seasons in considerable bodies, and the fishermen procuring nets, several thousand barrels were caught; but they soon deserted the Firth as entirely as before.  It was at the period of this second return that the "Herring Fishery," according to Goldsmith, "employed all Grub Street;" and "formed the topic of every coffee-house, and the burden of every ballad."  The sober English of the times of George II. had got sanguine on the subject, and hope had broken out into poetry.  They were "to drag up oceans of gold from the bottom of the sea, and to supply all Europe with herrings on their own terms;" but their expectations outran the capabilities of the speculation; "they fished up very little gold" that the essayist "ever heard of, nor did they furnish the world with herrings."  Their herring fishery turned out in short to be a mere herring fishery, and not even that for any considerable length of time.

    Sir John Sinclair marks the autumn of the year 1770 as a season in which the herring fishery of Caithness suddenly doubled its amount.  "From that time," he adds, "the fishery gradually increased for a few years, but afterwards fell off again, and did not revive with spirit until the year 1788."  During the short period in which it was plied with success, it was prosecuted by several crews of Cromarty fishermen; and their first visit to the coast of this northern county, I find connected with a curious anecdote of the class whose extreme singularity gives in some measure evidence of their truth.  Invention generally loves a beaten track—it has its rules and its formulas, beyond which it rarely ventures to expatiate; but the course of real events is narrowed by no such contracting barrier; the range of possibility is by far too extensive to be fully occupied by the anticipative powers of imagination; and hence it is that true stories are often stranger than fictions, and that their very strangeness, and their dissimilarity from all the models of literary plot and fable, guarantee in some measure their character as authentic.

    The hill of Cromarty is skirted, as I have said, by dizzy precipices, some of them more than a hundred yards in height; and one of these, for the last hundred and fifty years, has borne the name of the Caithness-man's Leap.  The sheer descent is broken by projecting shelves, covered with a rank vegetation, and furrowed by deep sloping hollows, filled at the bottom with long strips of loose débris, which, when set in motion by the light foot of the goat, falls rattling in continuous streams on the beach.  The upper part of the precipice is scooped out by a narrow and perilous pathway, which, rising slantways from the shore, along the face of the neighbouring precipices, makes an abrupt turn on the upper edge of the "leap," and then gains the top.  Immediately above, on a sloping acclivity, covered for the last century by a thick wood, there was a little field, the furrows of which can still be distinctly traced among the trees, and which, about the time of the Revolution, was tenanted by a wild young fellow, quite as conversant with his fowling-piece as with his plough.  He was no favourite with such of the neighbouring proprietors as most resembled himself; the game-laws in Scotland were not quite so stringent at that period as they are now, but game had its value; and sheriffs and barons, addicted to hunting and the chase, who had dungeons in their castles, and gibbets on their Gallow Hills, neither lacked the will nor the power to protect it.  And so the tacksman of the the little field found poaching no safe employment; but the dangers he incurred had only the effect common in such cases, of imparting to his character a sort of Irish-like recklessness—a carelessness both of his own life and the lives of others.  He had laid down his little field with peas, and was seriously annoyed, when they began to ripen, by the town's boys—mischievous little fellows—who, when on their fishing excursions, would land in a little rocky bay, immediately below the pathway, and ascending the cliffs, carry away his property by armfuls at a time.  The old northern pirates were scarcely more obnoxious to the early inhabitants of Scotland than the embryo fishermen to the man of the gun: nay, the man of the gun was himself scarcely more obnoxious to the proprietors.  There was no possibility of laying hold of the intruders; a few minutes were sufficient on the first alarm, to bring them from the top to the bottom of the cliffs—a few strokes of the oar set them beyond all reach of pursuit—and he saw that, unless he succeeded in terrifying them into honesty with his gun, they might go on robbing him with impunity until they had left nothing behind them to rob.  Matters were in this state when a Caithness boat, laden with timber, moored one morning in the bay below, and one of the crew, a young fellow of eighteen, after climbing the pathway on an excursion of discovery, found out the field of peas.  The farmer, on this unlucky morning, had been rated and collared by the laird for shooting a hare, and, very angry, and armed with the gun as usual, he came up to his field, and found the Caithness-man employed in leisurely filling his pockets.  He presented his piece and drew the trigger, but the powder flashed in the pan.  "The circumstance of being shot," says the ingenious author of Cyril Thornton, "produces a considerable confusion in a man's ideas."  The ideas of the Caithness-man became confused in circumstances one degree less trying; for starting away with the headlong speed of a hare roused out of her form, instead of following the windings of the path, he shot right over the precipice at the abrupt angle.  Downwards he went from shelf to shelf—now tearing away with him a huge bush of ivy—now darting along a stream of débris—now making somersets in mid-air over the perpendicular walls of rock which alternate with the shelving terraces.  The fear of the gun precluded every other fear; he reached the beach unharmed, except by a few slight sprains and a few scratches, and bolting up, tumbled himself into the boat, and dived for shelter under the folds of the sail.  The farmer had pursued him to the top of the rock, and had turned the angle just in time to see him dash over; when, horror-struck at so terrible an accident, for he had intended only to shoot the man, he flung away his gun and ran home.  Years and generations passed away; the good King William was succeeded by the good Queen Anne, and Anne by the three Georges, successively; the farmer and all his contemporaries passed to the churchyard—his very fields were lost in the thickets of a deep wood;—the story of the Caithness-man had become traditional—elderly men said it had happened in their grandfather's days, and pointing out to the "leap," they adverted to the name which the rock still continued to bear, as proofs that the incident had really occurred—incredible as it might seem that a human creature could possibly have survived such a fall.  Ninety years had elapsed from the time, ere the Cromarty fishermen set out on their Caithness expedition.  In the first year of the enterprise one of their fleet was storm-bound in a rocky bay, and the crew found shelter in a neighbouring cottage.  There was a spectral-looking old man seated in a corner beside the fire.  On learning they had come from Cromarty, he seemed to shake off the apathy of extreme age, and began to converse with them; and they were astonished to learn from his narrative that they had before them the hero of the "leap," at that time in his hundred and eighth year.


 
CHAPTER XVIII.
 


He whom my restless gratitude has sought
So long in vain."—T
HOMSON.


EARLY in the month of April 1734, three Cromarty boatmen, connected with the custom-house, were journeying along the miserable road which at this period winded between the capital of the Highlands and that of the kingdom.  They had already travelled since morning more than thirty miles through the wild highlands of Inverness-shire, and were now toiling along the steep side of an uninhabited valley of Badenoch.  A dark sluggish morass, with a surface as level as a sheet of water, occupied the bottom of the valley; a few scattered tufts of withered grass were mottled over it, but the unsold, sooty-coloured spaces between were as bare of vegetation as banks of sea-mud left by the receding tide.  On either hand, a series of dreary mountains thrust up their jagged and naked summits into the middle sky.  A scanty covering of heath was thrown over their bases, except where the frequent streams of loose debris which had fallen from above, were spread over them; but higher up, the heath altogether disappeared, and the eye rested on what seemed an endless file of bare gloomy cliffs, partially covered with snow.

    The evening, for day was fast drawing to a close was as melancholy as the scene.  A dense volume of grey cloud hung over the valley like a ceiling, and seemed descending along the cliffs.  There was scarcely any wind, but at times descending wreath of vapour would come rolling into a lower region of the valley, as if shot out from the volume above; and the chill bleak air was filled with small specks of snow, so light and fleecy that they seemed scarcely to descend, but, when caught by the half perceptible breeze, went sailing past the boatmen in
long horizontal lines.  It was evident there impended over them one of those terrible snow-storms which sometimes overwhelm the hapless traveller in these solitudes; and the house in which they were to pass the night was still nearly ten miles away.

    The gloom of evening, deepened by the coming storm, was closing around them as they entered one of the wildest recesses of the valley, an immense precipitous hollow scooped out of the side of one of the hills; the wind began to howl through the cliffs, and the thickening flakes of snow to beat against their faces.  "It will be a terrible night, lads, in the Moray Firth," said the foremost traveller, a broad-shouldered, deep-chested, strong-looking man, of about five feet eight; "I would ill like to hae to beat up through the drift along the rough shores o' Cadboll.  It was in just such a night as this, ten year ago, that old Walter Hogg went down in the Red Sally."—"It will be as terrible a night, I'm feared, just where we are, in the black strath o' Badenoch," said one of the men behind, who seemed much fatigued; "I wish we were a' safe i' the clachan."—"Hoot, man," said Sandy Wright, the first speaker, "it canna now be muckle main than sax miles afore us, an' we'll hae the tail of the gloaming' for half an hour yet.  But, gude safe us! what's that?" he exclaimed, pointing to a little figure that seemed sitting by the side of the road, about twenty yards before him; "it's surely a fairy!"  The figure rose from its seat, and came up, staggering apparently from extreme weakness, to meet them.  It was a boy scarcely more than ten years of age.  "O my pair boy!" said Sandy Wright, "what can hae taken ye here in a night like this?"—"I was going to Edinburgh to my friends," replied the boy, "for my mother died and left me among the freme; but I'm tired, and canna walk farther; and I'll be lost, I'm feared, in the yowndrift."—"That ye winna, my pair bairn," said the boatman, "if I can help it; gi'es a haud o' your han'," grasping, as he spoke, the extended hand of the boy; "dinna tine heart, an' lean on me as muckle's ye can."  But the poor little fellow was already exhausted, and, after a vain attempt to proceed, the boatman had to carry him on his back.  The storm burst out in all its fury; and the travellers, half suffocated, and more than half blinded, had to grope onwards along the rough road, still more roughened by the snow-wreaths that were gathering over it.  They stopped at every fiercer blast, and turned their backs to the storm to recover breath; and every few yards they advanced, they had to stoop to the earth to ascertain the direction of their path, by catching the outline of the nearer objects between them and the sky.  After many a stumble and fall, however, and many a groan and exclamation from the two boatmen behind, who were well-nigh worn out, they all reached the clachan in safety about two hours after nightfall.

    The inmates were seated round an immense peat fire, placed, according to the custom of the country, in the middle of the floor.  They made way for the travellers; and Sandy Wright, drawing his seat nearer the fire, began to chafe the hands and feet of the boy, who was almost insensible from cold and fatigue.  "Bring us a mutchkin o' brandy here," said the boatman, "to drive out the cauld frae our hearts; an', as supper canna be ready for a while yet, get me a piece bread for the boy.  He has had a narrow escape, pair little fellow; an' maybe there's some that would miss him, lanerly as he seems.  Only hear how the win' roars on the gable, an' rattles at the winnocks and the door.  It's an awful' night in the Moray Firth."

    "It's no gude," continued the boatman, as he tendered a half glass of the brandy and a cake of bread to his protégé, "it's no guide to be ill-set to boys.  My own loon, Willie, that's the liftenant now, taught me a lesson o' that.  He was a wild roytous laddie, fu' o' droll mischief, an' desperately fond o' doos an' rabbits.  He had a doo's nest out in the Crookburn Wood; but he was muckle in the dread o' fighting Rob Moffat, the gamekeeper; an', on the day it was ripe for harrying, what did he do but set himself to watch Rob, at his house at the Mains?  He saw him setting off to the hill, as he thought, wi his gun an' his twa dogs; an' then awa sneaks he to the burn, thinking himsel' out o' Rob's danger.  He could climb like a cat, an' so up he clam to the nest; an' then wi' his bonnet in his teeth, an' the twa doos in his bonnet, he drapped down frae branch to branch.  But, as ill luck would hae it, the first thing he met at the bottom was muckle Rob.  The cankered wretch raged like a madman, an' laying hold on the twa birds by the feet, he dawded them about Willie's face till they were baith massacred.  It was an ill-hearted cruel thing; an', had I been there, I would hae tauld him sae on the deafest side o' his head, lang though he be.  Willie cam' hame wi' his chafts a' swelled an' bluidy, an' the greet, puir chield, in his throat, for he was as muckle vexed as hurt.  He was but a thin slip o' a callant at the time; but he had a high spirit, an', just out o' the healey, awa he went in young Captain Robinson's lugger, an' didna come near the place, though he sent his mither pennies now an' then by the Campvere traders, for about five years.  Weel, back he cam' at last, a stalwart young fallow o' sax feet, wi' a grip that would spin the bluid out at the craps o' a chield's fingers; an' we were a' glad to see him!  'Mither,' said he, 'is fighting Rob Moffat at the Mains yet?'  'O ay!' quo' she.  'Weel, then, I think I'll call on him in the morning,' says he, 'an' clear aff an old score wi' him;' an' his brow grew black as he spoke.  We baith kent what was working wi' him; an', after bedtime, his mither, puir body, gaed up a' the length o' the Mains to warn Rob to keep out o' the way.  An' weel did he do that; for, for the three weeks that Willie stayed at hame wi' us, not a bit o' Rob was to be seen at either kirk or market.—Puir Willie! he has not fighting enough sinsyne."

    Sandy Wright shared with the boy his supper and his bed; and, on setting out on the following morning, he brought him along with him, despite the remonstrances of the other boatmen, who dreaded his proving an incumbrance.  The story of the little fellow, though simple, was very affecting.  His mother, a poor widow, had lived for the five preceding years in the vicinity of Inverness, supporting herself and her boy by her skill as a seamstress.  As early as his sixth year he had shown predilection for reading; and, with the anxious solicitude of Scottish mother, she had wrought late and early to keep him at school.  But her efforts were above her strength, and, after a sore struggle of nearly four years, she at length sank under them.  "Oh!" said the boy to his companion, "often would she stop in the middle of her work, and lay her hand on her breast, and then she would ask me what would I do when she would be dead—and we would both greet.  Her fingers grew white and sma', and she couldna sit up at nights as before; but her cheeks were redder and bonnier than ever, and I thought that she surely wouldna die;—she has told me that she wasna eighteen years older than mysel'.  Often, often when I waukened in the morning, she would be greeting' at my bedside; and I mind one day, when I brought home the first prize from school, that she drew me till her, an' told me wi' the tear in her ee, that the day would come, when her head would be low, that my father's gran' friends, who were ashamed o' her because shoe was poor, would be proud that I was connected wi' them.  She soon couldna hold up her head at all, and if it wasna for a neighbour woman, who hadna muckle to spare, we would have starved.  I couldna go to the school, for I needed to stay and watch by her bedside, and do things in the house; and it vexed her more that she was keeping me from my learning, than that hersel' was sae ill.  But I used to read chapters to her out of the Bible.  One day when she was very sick, two neighbour women came in, and she called me to her and told me, that when she would be dead I would need to go to Edinburgh, for I had no friends anywhere else.  Her own friends were there, she said, but they were poor, and couldna do muckle for me; and my father's friends were there too, and they were gran' and rich, though they wadna own her.  She told me no to be feared by the way, for that Providence kept every bit o't, and He would make folk to be kind to me; and then she kissed me, and grat, and bade me go to the school.  When I came out she was lying wi' a white cloth on her face, and the bed was all white.  She was dead; and I could do nothing but greet a' that night; and she was dead still.  I'm now travelling to Edinburgh, as she bade me, and folk are kind to me just as she said; and I have letters to show me the way to my mother's friends when I reach the town for I can read write."  Such was the narrative of the poor boy.

    Throughout the whole of the journey, Sandy Wright was as a father to him.  He shared with him his meals and his bed, and usually for the last half dozen miles of every stage, he carried him on his back.  On reaching the Queensferry, however, the boatman found that his money was wellnigh expended.  I must just try and get him across, thought he, without paying the fare.  The boat had reached the middle of the ferry, when one of the ferrymen, a large gruff-looking fellow, began to collect the freight.  He passed along the passengers one after one, and made a dead stand at the boy.  "Oh!" said Sandy Wright, who sat by him, "dinna stop at the boy;—it's a puir orphan; see, here's my groat."  The ferryman still held out his hand.  "It's a puir orphan," reiterated the boatman; "we found him bewildered, on the bursting out o' the last storm, in a dismal habitless glen o' Badenoch, an' we've taken him wi' us a' the way, for he's going to seek his friends at Edinburgh; surely yell no grudge him a passage?"  The ferryman, without deigning him a reply, plucked off the boy's bonnet; the boatman instantly twitched it out of his hand.  "Hoot, hoot, hoot!" he exclaimed, "the puir fatherless and motherless boy!—We'll no do that?"  "Take tent, my man," he added, for the ferryman seemed doggedly resolved on exacting the hire; "take tent; we little ken what may come o' oursel's yet, forbye our bairns."  By—, boatman, or whatever ye be," said the ferryman, "I'll hae either the fare or the fare's worth, though it should be his jacket;" and he again laid hold on the boy, who began to cry.  Sandy Wright rose from his seat in a towering passion.  "Look ye, my man," said he, as he seized the fellow by the collar with a grasp that would have pulled a bull to the ground, "little hauds me from pitching ye out owre the gunwale.  Only crook a finger on the poor thing, an' I'll knock ye down, man, though ye were as muckle as a bullock.  Shame! shame ye for a man!—ye hae nae main natural feeling than a sealchie's bubble" [Sea-nettle].  The cry of shame! shame! was echoed from the other passengers, and the surly ferryman gave up the point.

    "An' now, my boy," said the boatman as they reached the West Port, "I hae business to do at the Customhouse, an' some money to get; but I maun first try and find out your friends for ye.  Look at the letters and tell me the street where they put up."  The boy untied his little bundle, which contained a few shirts and stockings, a parcel of papers, and a small box.—"What's a' the papers about?" inquired the boatman; "an' what hae ye in the wee box?"  "My mither," said the boy, "bade me be sure to keep the papers, for they tell of her marriage to my father; and the box hands her ring.  She could have got money for it when she was sick and no able to work, but she would sooner starve, she said, than part wi' it; and I widna like to part wi' it, either, to ony bodie but yoursel'—but if ye would take it?"  He opened the box and passed it to his companion.  It contained a valuable diamond ring.  "No, no, my boy," said the boatman, "that widna do; the ring's a bonny ring, an' something bye ordinar, though I be no judge; but, blessings on your heart! tak ye care o't, an' part wi't on no account to ony bodie;—Hae ye found out the direction?"  The boy named some place in the vicinity of the Cowgate, and in a few minutes they were both walking up the Grassmarket.

    "O, yonder's my aunt!" exclaimed the boy, pointing to a young woman who was coming down the street; "yonder's my mither's sister;" and away he sprang to meet her.  She immediately recognised and welcomed him; and he introduced the boatman to her as the kind friend who had rescued him from the snow-storm and the ferryman.  She related in a few words the story of the boy's parents.  His father had been a dissipated young man of good family, whose follies had separated him from his friends; and the difference he had rendered irreconcilable by marrying a low-born but industrious and virtuous young woman, who, despite of her birth, was deserving of a better husband.  In a few years he had sunk into indigence and contempt; and in the midst of a wretchedness which would have been still more complete had it not been for the efforts of his wife, he was seized by a fever, of which he died.  "Two of his brothers," said the woman, "who are gentlemen of the law, were lately inquiring about the boy, and will, I hope, interest themselves in his behalf."  In this hope the boatman cordially acquiesced.  "An' now, my boy," said he, as he bade him farewell, "I have just one groat left yet;—here it is; better in your pocket than wi' the gruff carle at the ferry.  It's an honest groat, anyhow; an' I'm sure I wish it luck."

    Eighteen years elapsed before Sandy Wright again visited Edinburgh.  He had quitted it a robust, powerful man of forty-seven, and he returned to it a greyheaded old man of sixty-five.  His humble fortunes, too, were sadly in the wane.  His son William, a gallant young fellow, who had risen in a few years, on the score of merit alone, from the forecastle to a lieutenancy, had headed, under Admiral Vernon, some desperate enterprise, from which he never returned: and the boatman himself, when on the eve of retiring on a small pension from his long service in the Customhouse, was dismissed without a shilling, on the charge of having connived at the escape of a smuggler.  He was slightly acquainted with one of the inferior clerks in the Edinburgh Customhouse, and in the slender hope that this person might use his influence in his behalf, and that that influence might prove powerful enough to get him reinstated, he had now travelled from Cromarty to Edinburgh, a weary journey of nearly two hundred miles.  He had visited the clerk, who had given him scarcely any encouragement, and he was now waiting for him in a street near Brown Square, where he had promised to meet him in less than half an hour.  But more than two hours had elapsed; and Sandy Wright, fatigued and melancholy, was sauntering slowly along the street, musing on his altered circumstances, when a gentleman, who had passed him with the quick hurried step of a person engaged in business, stopped abruptly a few yards away, and returning at a much slower pace, eyed him steadfastly as he repassed.  He again came forward and stood.  "Are you not Mr. Wright?" he inquired.  "My name, sir, is Sandy Wright," said the boatman, touching his bonnet.  The face of the stranger glowed with pleasure, and grasping him by the hand, "Oh, my good kind friend, Sandy Wright!" he exclaimed, "often, often, have I inquired after you, but no one could tell me where you resided, or whether you were living or dead.  Come along with me—my house is in the next square.  What! not remember me; ah, but it will be ill with me when I cease to remember you!  I am Hamilton, an advocate—but you will scarcely know me as that."

    The boatman accompanied him to an elegant house in Brown Square, and was ushered into a splendid apartment, where there sat a Madonna-looking young lady engaged in reading.  "Who of all the world have I found," said the advocate to the lady, "but good Sandy Wright, the kind brave man who rescued me when perishing in the snow, and who was so true a friend to me when I had no friend besides."  The lady welcomed the boatman with one of her most fascinating smiles, and held out her hand.  "How happy I am," she said, "that we should have met with you!  Often has Mr. Hamilton told me of your kindness to him, and regretted that he should have no opportunity of acknowledging it."  The boatman made one of his best bows, but he had no words for so fine a lady.

    The advocate inquired kindly after his concerns, and was told of his dismissal from the Customhouse.  "I'll vouch!" he exclaimed, "it was for nothing an honest man should be ashamed of."  "Oh only a slight matter, Mr. Hamilton," said the boatman; an' troth I couldna' weel do other than what I did though I should hae to don't o'er again.  Captain Robinson o' the Free Trade was on the coast o' Cadboll last har'st, about the time o' the Equinoxal, unlading a cargo o' Hollands, whan on cam' the storm o' the season, an' he had to run for Cromarty to avoid shipwreck.  His loading was mostly out, except a few orra kegs that might just make his lugger seizable if folk gied a wee owre strict.  If he could but show, however, that he had been at the Isle o' Man, an' had been forced into the Firth by mere stress o' weather frae his even course to Flushing, it would set him clear out o' our danger.  I had a strong liking to the Captain, for he had been unco kind to my poor Willie, that's dead now; an' when he tauld our officer that he had been at Man, an' the officer asked for proof, I contrived to slide twa Manks baubees intil his han', an' he held them out just in a careless way, as if he had plenty mair proof besides.  Weel, this did, an' the puir chield wan off; but hardly was he down the Firth when out cam' the haill story.  Him they coudna harm, but me they could; an' after muckle ill words, (an' I had to bear them a', for I'm an auld failed man now,) instead o' getting retired on a pension for my forty years' service, I was turned aff without a shilling.  I have an acquaintance in the Customhouse here, Mr. Scrabster the clerk; an' I came up ance errand to Edinburgh in the hope that he might do something for me; but he's no verra able I'm thinking, an' I'm feared no verra willing; an' so, Mr. Hamilton, I just canna help it.  My day, o' coorse o' nature, canna be verra lang, an' Providence, that has aye carried me through as yet, winna surely let me stick now."—"Ah no, my poor friend!" said the advocate.  "Make up your mind, however, to stay for a few weeks with Helen and me, and I'll try in the meantime what my little influence may be able to do for you at the Customhouse."

    A fortnight passed away very agreeably to the boatman.  Mrs. Hamilton, a fascinating young creature of very superior mental endowments, was delighted with his character and his stories:—the latter opened to her a new chapter in her favourite volume—the book of human life; and the advocate, a man of high talent and a benevolent heart, seemed to regard him with the feelings of an affectionate son.  At length, however, he began to weary sadly of what he termed the life of a gentleman, and to sigh after his little smoky cottage, and "the puir auld wife."  "Just remain with us one week longer," said the advocate, "and I shall learn in that time the result of my application.  You are not now quite so active a man as when you carried me ten miles through the snow, and frightened the tall ferryman, and so I shall secure for you a passage in one of the Leith traders."  In a few days after, when the boatman was in the middle of one of his most interesting stories, and Mrs. Hamilton hugely delighted, the advocate entered the apartment, his eyes beaming with pleasure, and a packet in his band.  This is from London," he said, as he handed it to the lady; it intimates to us, that 'Alexander Wright, Customhouse boatman,' is to retire from the service on a pension of twenty Pounds per annum."—But why dwell longer on the story?  Sandy Wright parted from his kind friends, and returned to Cromarty, where he died in the spring of 1769, in the eighty-second year of his age.  "Folk hae aye to learn," he used to say, "an', for my own pairt, I was a saxty-year-auld scholars afore I kept the meaning o' the verse, 'Cast thy bread on the waters, and thou shalt find it after many days.'"


 
CHAPTER XIX.

"I'll give thee a wind."—SHAKSPERE.


FOR about thirty years after the failure of the herring fishery, the population of the town of Cromarty gradually decreased.  Many of the young men became sailors and went into foreign parts, from whence few of them returned.  One of their number, poor Lieutenant Wright, the boatman's son, served in the unfortunate expedition of Vernon, and left his bones under the walls of Carthagena; another, after sailing round the world with Anson, died on his passage homewards when within sight of the white cliffs of England; a third was barbarously murdered on the high seas by the notorious Captain James Lowrie.  Such of the town's-people as had made choice of the common mechanical professions, plied their respective trades in the fishing towns of the north of Scotland; and I have seen, among old family papers, letters of these emigrants written from Lerwick, Kirkwall, and Stornoway.  As the population gradually decreased in this way, house after house became tenantless and fell into decay; until the main street was skirted by roofless tenements, and the town's cross, which bears date 1578, was bounded by a stone wall on the one side, and a hawthorn hedge on the other.

    The domestic economy of the people, who still continue to inhabit the town, differed considerably from what it had been when their circumstances were more prosperous.  There was now no just division of labour among them—working people of all the different denominations encroaching each on the bounds of the others' profession.  Fishermen wrought as labourers, tradesfolk as fishermen, and both as farmers.  In the latter part of spring every year, and the two first months of summer, the town's-people spent their evenings in angling with rods and hand-lines in their boats, or from the rocks at the entrance of the bay; towards the end of July they formed themselves into parties of eight or ten, and sailed to Tarbat Ness, a fishing station of the Moray Firth, where they remained for several weeks catching and storing up fish for winter.  At night they converted their sails into tents, ranged in the manner of an encampment, at the edge of the little bay where they moored their boats.

    The long low promontory of Tarbat Ness forms the north-eastern extremity of Ross-shire.  Etymologists derive its name from the practice which prevailed among mariners in this country during the infancy of navigation, of drawing their light shallops across the necks of such promontories instead of sailing round them.  On a moor of this headland there may be traced the vestiges of an encampment, which some have deemed Roman, and others Danish; and there is a cave among the low rocks by which it is skirted, which, according to tradition, communicates with another cave on the coast of Caithness.  The scenery of Tarbat Ness is of that character which Addison regarded as the most sublime; but it has something more to recommend it than a mere expansiveness, like that predicated by the poet, in which no object, tree, house, or mountain, contracts the view of the vast arch of heaven or the huge circle of earth.  Instead of a low plain bounded by the sky, there is here a wide expanse of ocean encircling a narrow headland—brown, sterile, solitary, edged with rock, and studded with fragments of stone.  On the one hand, the mountains of Sutherland are seen rising out of the sea like a volume of blue clouds; on the other, at a still greater distance, the hills of Moray stretch along the horizon in a long undulating strip, so faintly defined in the outline that they seem almost to mingle with the firmament.  Instead, however, of contracting the prospect, they serve but to enhance, by their diminished bulk, the immense space in which they are included.  Space—wide, interminable space—in which he who contemplates it finds himself lost, and is oppressed by a sense of his own littleness, is at all times the circumstance to which the prospect owes most of its power; but it is only during the storms of winter, when the firmament in all its vastness seems converted into a hall of the tempest, and the earth in all its extent into a gymnasium for contending elements, that the scene assumes its full sublimity and grandeur.  On the north a chain of alternate currents and whirlpools howl, toss, and rage, as if wrestling with the hurricane; on the east the huge waves of the German ocean come rolling against the rocky barrier, encircling it with a broad line of foam, and join their voices of thunder to the roar of current and whirlpool; cloud after cloud sweeps along the brown promontory, flinging on it their burdens as they pass; the sea-gull shrieks over it as he beats his wings against the gale; the distant hills seem blotted from the landscape; occasionally a solitary bark, half enveloped in cloud and spray, with its dark sails furled to the yards, and its topmasts lowered to the deck, comes drifting over the foam; and the mariner, anxious, afraid, and lashed to the helm, looks wistfully over the waves for the headlands of the distant haven.

    A party of Cromarty tradesfolk, who had prosecuted the fishing on the promontory of Tarbat Ness for part of the summer and autumn of 1738, had been less successful that season than most of their neighbours, and had lingered for several days on the station after the tents of the encampment had been struck, and the boats had sailed for home.  At length, however, a day was fixed for their return, but when it arrived the wind had set in strongly from the south-west; and, instead of prosecuting their voyage, they were compelled to haul up their boat to the site of the encampment.  The storm continued for more than two weeks, accompanied by heavy showers, which extinguished their fire, and so saturated the cover of their tent, that the water dropped on their faces as they lay folded in the straw and blankets with which they had covered the floor.  Their provisions too, except the salted fish, which they had secured in barrels, began to fail them; and they became exceedingly anxious for a change of wind.  But the storm seemed to mock at their anxiety; night after night were they awakened by the rain pattering against the sail, and when they raised its edge every succeeding morning, they saw the sea whitened by the gale, and clouds laden with water rolling heavily from the south-west.

    Not more than a mile from the tent there stood an inhabited cottage.  The solitary tenant, an elderly woman, still known to tradition as Stine Bheag o' Tarbat, was famous at this time as one in league with Satan, and much consulted by seafaring men when windbound in any of the neighbouring ports.  And her history, as related by her neighbours, formed, like the histories of all the other witches of Scotland, a strange medley of the very terrible and the very ludicrous.  A shipmaster, who had unwittingly offended her, had moored his vessel one evening within the rocky bay of Portmahomack, a haven of Tarbat; but on going on deck next morning, he found that the vessel had been conveyed during the night over the rocks and the beach, a broad strip of meadow, two corn-fields, and a large moor, into a deep muddy ditch; and there would she have lain till now had he not found means to conciliate the witch, who on the following night transported her to her former moorings.  With all this power, however, it so happened, that only a few weeks after a farmer of the parish, whom she had long annoyed in the shape of a black beetle, succeeded in laying hold of her as she hummed round his bonnet, and confined her for four days in his snuff-box.

    Shortly before the arrival of the Cromarty men, a small sloop had been weather-bound for a few days in a neighbouring port, and the master applied to Stine for a wind.  Part of his cargo consisted of foreign spirits; and on taking leave of the witch he brought with him two empty bottles, which he promised to fill, and send to her by the ship-boy.  It was evening, however, before he reached the vessel; the boy would not venture on carrying the bottles by night to the witch's cottage; and on the following morning they were forgotten in the hurry of sailing.  The wind blew directly off the land, from what the master deemed the very best point of the compass the vessel scudded down the Firth before it under a tight sail it freshened as the land receded, and the mainsail was lowered reef after reef, until as the evening was darkening it had increased into a hurricane.  The master stood by the helm, and in casting an anxious glance at the binnacle, to ascertain his course, his eye caught the two bottles of Stine Bheag.  "Ah, witch!" he muttered, "I must get rid of thee;" and taking up one of the bottles he raised his arm to throw it over the side, when he was interrupted by a hoarse croaking above-head, and on looking up saw two ravens hovering round the vane.  The bottle was replaced.  An immense wave came rolling behind in the wake of the vessel; it neared; it struck the stern, and, rushing over the deck, washed everything before it, spars, coops, cordage; but only the bottles were carried overboard.  In the moment they rose to the surface the ravens darted upon them like sea-gulls on a shoal of coal-fish; and the master, as the vessel swept along, could see them bearing the bottles away.  The hurricane gradually subsided into a moderate breeze, and the rest of the voyage was neither rough nor unprosperous; but the ship-master, it was said, religiously determined never again to purchase a wind.  And the Cromarty men, who had heard the story, were so much of the master's opinion, that it was not until the second week afters the wind had set so stiffly into the south-west, and when all their provisions were expended, that they resolved on risking a visit to Stine Bheag.

    One of them, a tall robust young fellow, named Macglashan, accompanied by two others, after collecting all the placks and boddles of the party—little pieces of copper coin, with the head of Charles II. on one side, and the Scotch thistle on the other—set out for the hovel of the witch.  It was situated on the shore of a little sandy bay, which opens into the Dornoch Firth, and formed one of a range, four in number, three of which were now deserted.  The roof of one had fallen in; the two others, with their doors ajar, the casements of the windows bleached white by the sea winds, and with wreaths of chickweed mantling over the sloping sides, and depending from the eaves, seemed very dwellings of desolation.  From the door and window of the inhabited hovel, which joined to the one which had fallen, and which in appearance was as ruinous and weather-beaten as either of the other two, there issued dense volumes of smoke, accompanied by a heavy oppressive scent, occasioned apparently by the combustion of some marine vegetable.  The range had been inhabited about ten years before by a crew of fishermen and their families; one of them the husband, another the son of Stine Bheag.  The son had unluckily chanced to come upon her when she was engaged in some of her orgies, and telling his father of what he had seen, they deliberated together, it was said, on delating her as a witch before the presbytery of Tain; but ere they came to a full determination they unluckily went to sea.  Stine was not idle;—there arose a terrible hurricane, and the boat was driven on a quicksand, where she was swallowed up with all her crew.  The widows, disturbed by supernatural sights and noises, deserted their cottages soon after, and Stine Bheag became the sole tenant of the range.

    Macglashan walked up to the door, which hung half open, and tapped against it, but the sound was lost in a loud crackling noise, resembling a ceaseless discharge of pocket pistols, which proceeded from the interior.  He tapped a second time, but the crackling continued, and, despairing of making himself heard, he stooped and entered.  The apartment was so filled with smoke, that for the first few seconds he could only distinguish a red glare of light upon the hearth, and a small patch of sky, which appeared of a rusty-brown colour through the dense volume which issued out at the window.  The hag sat on a low stool beside the wall, and fronting the fire, into which at intervals she flung handfuls of dried sea-weed, of that kind (Fucus nodosus) which consists of chains of little brown bladders filled with air, and which is used in the making of kelp.  As the bladders, one after one, expanded and burst with the heat, she continued to mutter a Gaelic rhyme.  The thick smoke circled round her as she bent over the fire, and when the flame shot up through the eddies, Macglashan could see her long sharp features, but when it sunk her eyes were alone visible.  Her grizzled hair escaped from a red coif, and fell over her shoulders, round which there was wrapped a square of red tartan, held on by a large silver brooch.  The imagination of a poet could scarcely have invested one of the ancient sibyls with more circumstances of the wild and terrible, or have placed her in a scene of a character so suited to her own.  "Sad weather this," said Macglashan;—the hag started at the unexpected address, and rising up gazed at the intruder with a mixed expression of anger and surprise.  "I come," he continued, "from the point, where I and my companions have been windbound for the last fortnight, and half starved with cold and hunger to boot.  Could you not favour us with a breeze that would serve for Cromarty?"  Without waiting a reply, he thrust into her hand the joint contribution of the crew.  She spread out her palm to the light, looked at the coins, then at Macglashan, and shook her head.  "For that!!" she said contemptuously.  He shook his head in turn. "Bad times, mother, bad times; not a rap more among us; but we will not forget you should we once reach home."  "Then send one of your companions," said the witch, for your lugged water-stoup."—"Ay, an' so you know of them, and of the stoup," muttered Macglashan;--"Jock, Sandy, this way, lads."  The two men entered the apartment.  "Run, Sandy," continued the young fellow, "for the muckle stoup," and drawing in a huge settle of plank which stood in the middle of the floor, he seated himself, all unbidden, before the fire of Stine Bheay.

    The place was darkened, as I have said, with smoke, but at intervals the flames glanced on the naked walls of turf and stone, and on a few rude implements of housewifery which were ranged along the sides, together with other utensils of a more questionable form and appearance.  A huge wooden trough, filled with water, from whence there proceeded a splashing bubbling noise, as if it were filled with live fish, occupied one of the comers; and was sentinelled by a black cat, that sat purring on a stool beside it, and that on every louder splash rose from her seat, and stretched her neck over the water.  A bundle of dried herbs; a table bearing the skeleton of some animal, round part of which a kind of red clay had been moulded, as if by a statuary; a staff, with the tail of a fish fastened to one end, and the wings of a raven to the other; and a large earthen vessel, like that in which Hercules sailed to release Prometheus, with a white napkin tied in the manner of a sail to a stick, which served for a mast, were ranged along the wall.  As Macglashan surveyed the apartment, Stine seemed lost in a reverie, with her head bent, and her eyes fixed upon the fire; but as if struck by a sudden thought, she started into a more erect posture, and regarded him with a malignant scowl, clutched her hands into a hill of dried weed, and flung a fresh heap on the fire, which for a few seconds seemed extinguished.  "Od, mother," said the young fellow, nothing appalled by the darkness, "ye lead a terrible lonely life of it here; were I in your place I would die of sheer longing in less than a fortnight."  "Lonely," muttered the hag, who seemed in no communicative mood; "how ken ye that?"  As she spoke the croak of a raven was heard from the chimney, accompanied by the flutter of wings.  "Ug, ug!" ejaculated Macglashan companion; "let's out, Mac, and see what's keeping Sandy."  "Nay, here he comes," said the other; and as he spoke Sandy entered with the stoup.  "And now," said Stine, rising and laying hold of it, lye maun out, an' bide at the rock yonder till I call."

    Macglashan and his companions waited for nearly half an hour; night was fast falling, and the ruinous cottages, as the twilight darkened round them, assumed a more dismal appearance.  From the window of the inhabited one there glimmered a dull red light, which was repeatedly eclipsed, as if by the shadows of persons passing between the window and the fire.  At length the door opened, and the sharp harsh voice of Stine Bheag was heard calling from the entrance.  Macglashan stepped up to her, and received the stoup, stoppled with a bunch of straw.  "Set off," said she, as she delivered it, "on the first blink of to-morrow; but as ye love life, touch not the wisp till ye reach Cromarty."  Macglashan promised a strict observance of the injunction, and, taking his leave, set out with his companions for the tent.

    The wind lowered during the night, and when early next morning Macglashan raised the edge of the sail, the wide extent of the Moray Firth presented a surface as glassy as that of a mirror; though it still heaved in long ridges, on which the reflection of the red light that preceded sunrise, danced and flickered like sheets of flame.  He roused his companions; the tent was struck, the boat launched, the thwarts manned; and before the sun had risen, the whole party were toiling at the oar.  A light breeze from the north-east began to ruffle the surface of the water; it increased into a brisk gale, and the boat, with both her sails set, was soon scudding before it.  The ancient towers of Baloney, the still more ancient towers of Cadboll, Hilton with its ruinous chapel, and Shandwick with its sculptured obelisk, neared and then receded, as she swept along the shore; and the sun was yet low in the sky, when, after passing the steep overhanging precipices of the hill of Nigg, she opened the bay of Cromarty.  "What in the name of wonder," asked one of the crew, "can Stine Bheag hae put in the stoup?"  "Rax it this way," said another; "we would better be ony gate than in Cromarty should the minister come to hear of it; I'm thinking Mac had as weel fling out the wisp here as on the shore."—"Think you so?" said Macglashan, "then send the stoup this way."  He drew out the stopple, and flung it over his head into the sea; but in the next moment, when half-a-dozen necks were stretched out to pry into the vessel, which proved empty, the man stationed at the bows roared out, "For heaven's sake, lads, mind your haulyards! lower, lower, a squall from the land! we shall back-fill and go down like a mussel-shell."  The crew clustered round the sails, and had succeeded in lowering them, when the squall struck the boat ahead with the fury of a tornado, and almost forced her out of the water.  The thwarts were manned, but ere the rowers had bent to the first stroke, the oars were wrested out of their hands by the force of the hurricane.  The bay around them was agitated as if beaten by rods; the wind howled in one continuous gust, without pause or intermission; and a cloud of spray which arose from the waves, like a sheet of drift from a field of snow, swept over them in so dense a volume, that it hid the land and darkened the heavens.  As the boat drifted before the tempest, the bay receded, the cliffs, the villages, the castles, were passed in hasty succession, and before noon the crew had landed at Tarbat Ness, where they found Stine Bheag sitting on the shore, as if waiting their arrival.

    "Donnart deevils, what tak's ye here?" was the first salutation of the witch. "Ah, mother, that cursed wisp!" groaned out Macglashan.  "Wisp!—Look ye, my frack young man, your weird may have hemp in it, an' sae ye may tempt salt water when ye like; but a' the ither drookit bodies there have nae such protection.  An' now ye may tak' the road, for here maun your boat gizzen till the drift o' Januar be heapit oure her gunwale."  "Ah, mother!" said Macglashan, "what could we do on the road? and home were but a cold home without either our fish or our winbread.  Od, it were better for us to plenish the old bothies at the bay, and go and live wi' yoursel'; but ye must just try and put another wisp in the stoup."  To this she at length consented; and on the following morning the party arrived in Cromarty without any new adventure.  The one detailed did not become history until many years after, when it was related by Macglashan.  He was probably well enough acquainted with the tenth book of Homer's Odyssey to know of that ill-improved gift bestowed on Ulysses by old king Æolus, when


"The adverse winds in leathern bags be braced,
 Compressed their force, and locked each struggling blast,
 Securely fettered by a silver thong."


 
CHAPTER XX.


Implore his aid, for Proteus only knows
The secret cause and cure of all thy woes,
But first the wily wizard must be caught,
For unconstrain'd he nothing tells for naught,
Nor is with prayers, or bribes, or flattery bought,
Surprise him first, and with strong fetters bind."—G
EORGIO.


OF all the old mythologic existences of Scotland—half earth, half air—there was none with whom the people of Cromarty were better acquainted than with the mermaid.  Thirty years have not yet gone by since she has been seen by moonlight sitting on a stone in the sea, a little to the east of the town; and scarce a winter passed, forty years earlier, in which she was not heard singing among the rocks, or seen braiding up her long yellow tresses on the shore.  Like her contemporaries the river-wraiths and fairies—like the nymphs and deities, too, of the Greeks and Romans—she was deemed scarcely less material than the favoured individuals of our own species, who, in the grey of the morning or at the close of evening, had marked her sitting on some desert promontory, or frolicking amid the waves of some solitary arm of the sea.  But it is not so generally known, that though in some respects less potent even than men—than at least the very strong and very courageous—she had a power through her connexion with the invisible world over human affairs, and could control and remodel even the decrees of destiny.  A robust, fearless man might treat her, it is said, as Ulysses did Circe, or Diomedes Venus; but then, more potent than these goddesses, she could render all his future undertakings either successful or unfortunate, or, if a seafaring man, could either bury him in the waves or protect him from their fury.  It is said, too, that like the Proteus of classical mythology (and the coincidence, if merely such, is at least a curious one), she never exerted this power in a good direction except when compelled to it.  She avoided in the daytime shores frequented by man, and when disturbed by him in her retreats, escaped into her native element; but if he succeeded in seizing and overpowering her, she always purchased her release by granting him any three wishes he might form, connected with either his own fortunes or those of his friends.  Her strength, however, was superior to that of most men; and, if victorious in the struggle, she carried the unfortunate assailant with her into the sea.

    It is now nearly a hundred and twenty years since honest John Reid, the Cromarty shipmaster, was positively the most unhappy man in the place.  He was shrewd, sensible, calculating, good-humoured, in comparatively easy circumstances, and at this time in his thirtieth year.  The early part of his life had been spent abroad; he had voyaged over the wide Pacific, and traded to China and both the Indies; and to such purpose—for he was quite the sort of person one would most like to have for one's grandfather—that in about fourteen years after sailing from Cromarty a poor ship-boy, he had returned to it with money enough to purchase a fine large sloop, with which he engaged in the lucrative trade carrying on at this period between Holland and the northern ports of Scotland.  His good luck still followed him; nor was be of the class who are ingenious in discovering imaginary misfortunes.  What is more, too, he was of so cool a temperament, that when nature rendered him capable of the softer passion at all, it seemed as if she had done so by way of after-thought, and contrary to her original intention.  And yet, John Reid, with all his cool prudence, and his good humour and good fortune to boot, was one of the unhappiest men in the place—and all this because he had been just paying his addresses to one of its prettiest girls.

    He had first seen Helen Stuart when indulging in a solitary walk on the hill of Cromarty, shortly after his return from the Indies.  Helen was fully twelve years younger than himself, slightly but elegantly formed, with small regular features, and a complexion in which the purest white was blended with the most exquisite red.  Never before had the sailor seen a creature half so lovely; he thought of her all the evening after, and dreamed of her all the night.  But there was no corresponding impression on the other side; the maiden merely remembered that she had met in the wood with the newly-arrived shipmaster and described him to one of her companions as a strongly-built man of barely the middle size, broad-shouldered and deep-chested, with a set of irregular, good-humoured features, over which a tropical sun had cast its tinge of the deepest bronze.  Helen was a village heiress, with a good deal of the pride of beauty in her composition, and a very little of the pride of wealth, and, with what was perhaps as unfavourable to the newly-formed passion of Reid as either, a romantic attachment to that most perfect man of the imagination, the maid's husband—a prince in disguise, the Admirable Crichton in a revised edition, or the hero of an old ballad.

    This dangerous, though shadowy rival of the true lover, who assumes in almost every feminine mind a shape of its own, was in the present instance handsome as Helen herself, with just such a complexion and such eyes and hair; and, excelling all men in fine clothes, fine speeches, and fine manners, he excelled them in parts, and wealth, and courage too.  What had the robust, sunburned sailor of thirty to cast into the opposite scale?  Besides, Helen, though she had often dreamed of courtship, had never seriously thought of marriage; and so, partly for the sake of her ideal suitor, partly through a girlish unwillingness to grapple with the realities of life, the real suitor was rejected.  Grave natures, says Bacon, are ever the most constant in their attachments.  Weeks and months passed away, and still there was an uneasy void in the mind of the sailor, which neither business nor amusement could fill—a something which differed from grief, without affecting him less painfully.  He could think and dream of only Helen Stuart.  Her image followed him into Holland among the phlegmatic Dutchmen, who never break their hearts for the sake of a mistress, and watched beside him for many a long hour at the helm.  He ever saw her as as he had first seen her on the hill; there were trees in the background, and the warm mellow flush of a setting sun, while in front there tripped lightly along a sylph-looking creature, with bright happy eyes, and cheeks glowing with crimson.

    He had returned from one of his voyages late in April, and had risen, when May-day arrived, ere the first peep of daylight, in the hope of again meeting Helen among the woods of the hill.  Were he but to see her, barely see her, he could be happy, he thought, for months to come; and he knew she would be gathering May-dew this morning, with all her companions, on the green slopes of Drieminory.  Morning rose upon him as he sauntered eastward along the edge of the bay; the stars sunk one by one into the blue; and on reaching a piece of rocky beach that stretches along the brow of the hill, the sun rose all red and glorious out of the Firth, and flung a broad pathway of flame across the waters to the shore.  The rocks, the hill, the little wavelets which came toppling against the beach, were tinged with the orange light of morning; and yet, from the earliness of the hour, and the secluded character of the scene, a portion of terror might well have mingled with one's quieter feelings of admiration when in the vicinity of a place so famous for the wild and the wonderful as the Dropping-Cave.  But of the cave more anon.  Darkness and solitude are twin sisters, and foster nearly the same emotions; but they failed this morning to awaken a single fear in the mind of the shipmaster, sailor as he was, and acquainted, too, with every story of the cave.  He could think of only Helen Stuart.

    An insulated pile of rock, roughened with moss and lichens, which stands out of the beach like an old ruinous castle, surmounted by hanging bartisans and broken turrets, conceals the cave itself, and the skerries abreast of it, from the traveller who approaches them from the west.  It screened them this morning from the view of the shipmaster, as, stepping lightly along the rough stones, full of impossible wishes and imaginings, he heard the low notes of a song.  He looked round to ascertain whether a boat might not be passing, or a shepherd seated on the hill; but he could see only a huge overgrown seal that had raised its head over the waves, and seemed listening to the music with its face towards the east.  On turning, however, the edge of the cliff, he saw the musician, apparently a young girl, who seemed bathing among the cliffs, and who was now sitting half on the rock, half in the water, on one of the outer skerries, opposite the cave.  Her long yellow hair fell in luxuriant profusion on her snowy shoulders, and as she raised herself higher on the cliff, the sun shone on the parts below her waist with such dazzling brightness, that the sailor raised his hands to his eyes, and a shifting speck of light, like the reflection of a mirror, went dancing over the shaded roughnesses of the opposite precipice.  Her face was turned towards the cave, and the notes of her song seemed at times to be answered from it in a chorus, faint and low indeed, but which could not, he thought, be wholly produced by echo.

    Reid was too well acquainted with the beliefs of the age not to know that he looked upon the mermaid.  And were he less a lover than he was, he would have done nothing more.  But, aware of her strange power over the destinies of men, he only thought that now or never was his opportunity for gaining the hand of Helen.  "Would that there were some of my lads here to see fair play!" he muttered, as, creeping amid the crags, creeping and availing himself of every brake that afforded the slightest cover, he stole towards the shelf on which the creature was seated.  She turned round in the moment he had gained it the last note of her song lengthened into a shriek; and with an expression of mingled terror and surprise, which clouded a set of the loveliest features, she attempted to fling herself into the water; but in the moment of the attempt, the brawny arms of the shipmaster were locked round her waist.  Her arms clasped his shoulders in turn, and with a strength scarcely inferior to that exerted by the snake of India when struggling with the tiger, she strove to drag him to the edge of the rock but though his iron sinews quivered under her grasp like the beams of his vessel when straining beneath a press of canvas, he thought of Helen Stuart, and bore her down by main force in the opposite direction.  A fainter and a still fainter struggle ensued, and she then lay passive against the cliff.  Never had Reid seen aught so beautiful—and he was convinced of it, lover as he was—as the half-fish half-woman creature that now lay prostrate before him.

    "Man, what with me?" she said, in a tone of voice which, though sweet as the song of a bird, had something so unnatural in it that it made his blood run cold.  "Wishes three," he replied, in the prescribed formula of the demonologist, and then proceeded to state them.  His father, a sailor like himself, had been drowned many years before; and the first wish suggested to him by the circumstance was, that neither he himself nor any of his friends should perish by the sea.  The second—for he feared lest Helen, so lady-looking a person, and an heiress to boot, might yet find herself the wife of a poor man—was, that he should be uninterruptedly fortunate in all his undertakings.  The third wish he never communicated to any one except the mermaid, and yet no one ever failed to guess it.  "Quit, and have," replied the creature.  Reid slackened his hold; and pressing her tail against the rock until it curled to her waist, and raising her hands, the palms pressed together, and the edge to her face, she sprang into the sea.  The spray dashed to the sun; the white shoulders and silvery tail gleamed for a moment through the green depths of the water.  A slight ripple splashed against the beach, and when it subsided, every trace of the mermaid had vanished.  Reid wiped his brow, and ascending by one of the slopes of the hill towards the well-known resorts of his town's-women—not the less inclined to hope from the result of his strange contest—he found Helen Stuart seated with one of her companions, a common acquaintance, on the grassy knoll over the Lover's Leap.  The charm, thought he, already begins to work.

    He bowed to Helen, and addressed her companion.  "The man of all the world," said the latter, "whom we most wished to see.  Helen has been telling me one of the strangest dreams; and it is not half an hour yet since we both thought we were going to see it realized; but you must assist us in reading it.  She had just fallen asleep last night, when she found herself on the green slope covered with primroses and cuckoo-flowers, that lies, you know, to the west of the Dropping-Cave; and there she was employed, she thought, as we have been this morning, in gathering May-dew.  But the grass and bushes seemed dry and parched, and she had gathered only a few drops, when, on hearing some one singing among the rocks beside the cave, she looked that way, and saw you sleeping on the beach, and the singer, a beautiful lady, watching beside you.  She turned again to the bushes, but all was dry; and she was quite unhappy that she could get no dew, and unhappy, too, lest the strange lady should snuffer you to sleep till you were covered by the tide; when suddenly you stood beside her, and began to assist her in shaking the bushes.  She looked for the lady, and saw her far out among the skerries, floating on the water like a white sea-gull; and as she looked and wondered, she heard a shower of drops which you had shaken down, tinkling against the bottom of the pitcher.  And only think of the prettiness of the fancy!—the drops were all drops of pure gold, and filled the pitcher to the brim.  So far the dream.  But this is not all.  We both passed the green primrose slope just as the sun was rising, and—can you believe it?—we heard from among the rocks the identical song which Helen heard in her dream.  It was like nothing else I ever listened to; and now here are you to fill our pitchers with gold, like the genie of a fairy tale."

    "And so you have really heard music from among the rocks?" said Reid.  "Well, but I have more than heard it—I have seen and conversed with the musician; the strange unearthly lady of Helen's dream.  I have visited every quarter of the globe, and sailed over almost every ocean, but never saw the mermaid before."

    "Seen the mermaid!" exclaimed Helen.

    "Seen and conversed with the mermaid!" said her companion; "Heaven forbid!  The last time she appeared at the Dropping-Cave was only a few days before the terrible storm in which you lost your father.  Take care you repeat not her words—for they thrive ill who carry tales from the other world to this."

    "But I am the creature's master," said the sailor, "and need not be so wary."

    He told his story; how he had first seen the mysterious creature sitting in the sea, and breathing exquisite music, as she combed down her long yellow tresses; how he had stolen warily among the crags, with a heart palpitating betwixt dread and eagerness; and how, after so fearful a struggle, she had lain passive against the cliff.  Helen listened with feelings of wonder and admiration, dashed with terror; and in returning home, though the morning was far advanced, and the Dropping-Cave a great way below, she leaned for support and protection on the arm of the sailor—a freedom which no one would have remarked as over great at May-day next year, for the sailor had ere then become her husband.  For nearly a century after, the family was a rising one; but it is now extinct.  Helen, for the last seventy years, has been sleeping under a slab of blue marble within the broken walls of the Chapel of St. Regulus; her only daughter, the wife of Sir George Mackenzie of Cromarty, lies in one of the burying-grounds of Inverness, with a shield of I know not how many quartering over her grave; and it is not yet twenty years since her grandson, the last of the family, died in London, bequeathing to one of his Cromarty relatives several small pieces of property, and a legacy of many thousand pounds.

    There is on the northern side of the Firth of Cromarty, a shallow arm of the sea several miles in length, which dries during stream tides throughout almost its entire extent, and bears the name of the sands of Nigg.  Like the sands of the Solway, it has been a frequent scene of accidents.  Skirting a populous tract of country on both sides, it lies much in the way of travellers; and the fords, which shift during land floods and high winds, are often attempted at night, and occasionally at improper times of the tide.  A narrow river-like channel in the middle, fed by the streams which discharge themselves into the estuary from the interior, and which never wholly dries, bears the name of "The Pot," and was infamous during even the present century for its death-lights and its wraiths, and for the strange mysterious noises which used to come sounding from its depths to either shore previous to "a drowning."  Little more than half a century ago, a farmer of the district who had turned aside to see an acquaintance, an old man who lived on the northern shore of the sands of Nigg, found him leaning over the fence of his little garden, apparently so lost in thought that he seemed unconscious of his presence.  "What ails you, Donald?" inquired the visitor.  "There will be a drowning to-day in the Pot," replied Donald.  "A drowning in the Pot!—what makes you say so?"  "Do you hear nothing?"  "No'o—and yet I rather think I do;—there are faint sounds as of a continual knocking—are there not?—so very faint, that they seem rather within the ear, than without; and yet they surely come from the Pot;—knock, knock, knock—what can it mean?"  "That knocking," said the old man, "has been sounding in my ears all this morning.  I have never known a life lost on the sands but that knocking has gone before."  As he spoke, a horseman was seen riding furiously along the road which skirts the opposite shore of the estuary.  On reaching the usual ford, though the rise of the tide had rendered it impracticable for more than an hour before, he spurred his horse across the beach and entered the water.  "Surely," said the old man to his friend, "that madman is not taking the ford, and the sea nearly at full?"  "Ay, but he is though," said the other; "if the distance does not deceive me, it is Macculloch the corn-agent, in hot haste for the Tain market.  See how he spurs through the shallows; and see, he has now reached the Pot, and the water deepens—he goes deeper, and deeper, and deeper.  Merciful heavens! he is gone!"  Horse and rider had sunk into one of the hollows.  The horse rose to the surface a moment after, and swam to the shore; but the rider had disappeared for ever.  A story of nearly the same part of the country connects the mysterious knocking with the mermaid.

    In the immediate neighbourhood of the Old Abbey of Fearn, famous for its abbot, Patrick Hamilton, our first Protestant martyr, there stood, rather more than ninety years ago, a little turf cottage, inhabited by a widow, whose husband, a farmer of the parish, had died suddenly in the fields about ten years before.  The poor woman had been within doors with her only child, a little girl of seven years of age, at the time; and when, without previous preparation, she had opened the door on a hurried summons, and seen the corpse of her husband on the threshold, her mind was totally unhinged by the shock.  For the ten following years she went wandering like a ghost, scarce conscious apparently of any thing; no one ever heard her speak, or saw her listen; and save that she retained a few of the mechanical neatness of her earlier years—which, standing out alone on a groundwork of vacuity, seemed akin to the instincts of the inferior animals—her life appeared to be nearly as much a blank as that of the large elm-tree which stretched its branches over her cottage.  Her husband's farm, shortly after his death, had been put into the hands of a relation of the family, a narrow sordid man who had made no generous use, it was thought, of the power which the imbecility of the poor woman and the youth of her daughter gave him over their affairs; it was at least certain that he became comparatively wealthy, and they very poor; and in the autumn of 1742, the daughter, now a pretty girl of seventeen, had to leave her mother on the care of a neighbour, and to engage as a reaper with a farmer in the neighbouring parish of Tarbat.  She had gone with a heavy heart to work for the first time among strangers, but her youth and beauty, added to a quiet timidity of manner, that showed how conscious she was of having no one to protect her, had made her friends; and now that harvest was over, she was returning home, proud of her slender earnings, and full of hope and happiness.  It was early on a Sabbath morning, and her path winded along the southern bank of Loch-Slin, where the parish of Tarbat borders on that of Fearn.

    Loch-Slin is a dark sluggish sheet of water, bordered on every side by thick tangled hedges of reeds and rushes; nor has the surrounding scenery much to recommend it.  It is comparatively tame—tamer perhaps for the last thirty years than at any former period; for the plough has been busy among its green undulating slopes, and many of its more picturesque thickets of alders and willows have disappeared.  It possesses, however, its few points of interest; and its appearance at this time in the quiet of the Sabbath morning, was one of extreme seclusion.  The tall old castle of Loch-Slin, broken and weather-worn, and pregnant with associations of the remote past, stood up over it like some necromancer beside his mirror; and the maiden, as she tripped homewards along the little blind pathway that went winding along the quiet shore—now in a hollow, anon on a height—could see the red image of the ruins heightened by the flush of the newly-risen sun, reflected on the calm surface that still lay dark and grey under the shadow of the eastern bank.  All was still as death, when her ear suddenly caught a low indistinct sound as of a continuous knocking, which heightened as she went, until it was at length echoed back from the old walls; and which, had she heard it on a week morning, she would have at once set down as that of the knocking of clothes at a washing.  But who, she thought, can be "knocking claes" on the Sabbath?  She turned a projecting angle of the bank, and saw, not ten yards away, what seemed to be a tall female standing in the water immediately beyond the line of flags and rushes which fringed the shore, and engaged apparently in knocking clothes on a stone, with the sort of bludgeon still used in the north country for the purpose.  The maiden hurried past, convinced that the creature before her could be none other than the mermaid of Loch-Slin; but in the midst of her terror she was possessed enough to remark that the beautiful goblin seemed to ply its work with a malignant pleasure, and that on a grass plot directly opposite where it stood, there were spread out as if to dry, more than thirty smocks and shirts, all horribly dabbled with blood.  As the poor girl entered her mother's cottage, the excitement that had borne her up in her flight suddenly failed, and she sunk insensible upon the floor.  For a moment the mother seemed roused by the circumstance, but as her daughter recovered, she again relapsed into her accustomed apathy.

    The spirits of the maiden were much flurried, and there was one to whom she would have fain communicated her strange story, and sought relief in his society from the terror that made her heart still palpitate against her side.  But her young cousin (the son of her unkind relation, the farmer), with whom she had so often herded on the same knoll, and wrought on the same harvest-furrow, had set out for neighbouring farm, on his way to church, and so there was no probability of her seeing him before evening.  She sickened at the gloom of her mother's cottage, where the scowling features of the mermaid seemed imprinted on every darker recess; and, taking her mother by the hand, she walked out with her to the fields.  It was now about an hour after noon, and the sun in his strength was looking down in the calm on the bare stubbly campaign, and the old abbey in the midst, with its steep roof of lichened stone, and its rows of massy buttresses.  The maiden could hear the higher notes of the congregational psalm as they came floating along the slope from the building, when—fearful catastrophe!—sudden as the explosion of a powder magazine, or the shock of an earthquake, there was a tremendous crash heard, accompanied by a terrific cry; a dense cloud of dust enveloped the ancient abbey, and when it cleared away, it was seen that the ponderous stone roof of the building had sunk in.  "O wretched day!" exclaimed the widow, mysteriously restored by the violence of one shock to that full command of her faculties which she had lost by another, and starting at once from the deathlike apathy of years, "O wretched day! the church has fallen, and the whole congregation are buried in the ruins.  Fearful calamity!—a parish destroyed at a blow.  Dear, dear child, let us haste and see whether something cannot be done—whether some may not be left."  The maiden followed her mother to the scene of the accident in distraction and terror.

    As they approached the churchyard gate they met two young women covered with blood, who were running shrieking along the road, and shortly after an elderly man so much injured, that he was creeping for support along the wall.  "Go on," he said to the widow, who had stopped to assist him; "I have gotten my life as a ransom, but there are hundreds perishing yonder."  They entered the churchyard; two-thirds of the roof had fallen, and nearly half the people were buried in the ruins; and they could see through the shattered windows men all covered with bloods and dust, yelling, like maniacs, and tearing up the stones and slates that were heaped over their wives and children.  As the sufferers were carried out one by one, and laid on the flat tombstones of the churchyard, the widow, so strangely restored to the energies of her better years, busied herself in stanching their wounds, or restoring them to animation; and her daughter, gathering heart, strove to assist her.  A young man came swaggering from among the ruins, his face suffused with blood, and bearing a dead body on his shoulders, when, laying down his charge beside them, he sunk over it in a swoon.  It was the young cousin of the maiden, and the mutilated corpse which he carried was that of his father.  She sobbed over him in an agony of grief and terror; but the exertions of the widow, who wonderfully retained her self-possession, soon recovered him to consciousness, though in so weak a state from exhaustion and loss of blood, that some time elapsed ere he was able to quit the burying-ground, leaning on the arm of his cousin.  Thirty-six persons were killed on the spot, and many more were so dreadfully injured that they never recovered.  The tombstones were spread over with dead bodies, some of them so fearfully gashed and mangled that they could scarce be recognised, and the paths that wended throughout the churchyard literally ran with blood.  It was not until the maiden had reached her mother's cottage, and the heart-rending clamour had begun to fall more faintly on the ear, that she thought of the mysterious washing of Loch-Slip, with its bloody shirts, and felt that she could understand it.

    There were lights that evening in many a cottage, and mourners beside many a bed.  The widow and her daughter watched beside the bed of their young relative, and though the struggle for life was protracted and doubtful, the strength of his constitution at length prevailed, and he rose, pale and thin, and taller than before, with a scar across his left temple.  But ere the first spring had passed, with its balmy mornings and clear sunshine days, he had recovered his former bloom, and more than his former strength.  The widow retained the powers so wonderfully restored to her; for the dislocation of faculty effected by one shock had been completely reset by another, and the whole intellect refitted.  She had, however, her season of grief to pass through, as if her husband had died only a few days before; and when the relations of the lately perished came to weep over the newly-formed graves that rose so thickly in the burying-place, and around which the grass and hemlock stalks still bore the stain of blood, the widow might be seen seated by a grave covered with moss and daisies, and sunk so low that it was with difficulty its place could be traced on the sward.  Of the ten previous years she retained only a few doubtful recollections, resembling those of a single night spent in broken and feverish dreams.  At length, however, her grief subsided; and though there were louder and gayer guests at the bridal of her daughter and her young cousin, which took place about two years after the washing of the mermaid, there were none more sincerely happy on that occasion than the widow.



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