THE WIDOW OF DUNSKAITH.
Oh, mony a shriek, that waefu' night,
Rose frae the stormy main;
An' mony a bootless vow was made,
An' mony a prayer vain;
An' mithers wept, an' widows mourned,
For mony a weary day;
An' maidens, ance o' blithest mood,
Grew sad, an' pined away.
THE northern Sutor of Cromarty is of a bolder
character than even the southern one, abrupt and stern and precipitous as
that is. It presents a loftier and more unbroken wall of rock; and,
where it bounds on the Moray Frith, there is a savage magnificence in its
cliffs and caves, and in the wild solitude of its beach, which we find
nowhere equalled on the shores of the other. It is more exposed,
too, in the time of tempest. The waves often rise, during the storms
of winter, more than a hundred feet against its precipices, festooning
them, even at that height, with wreaths of kelp and tangle; and for miles
within the bay we may hear, at such seasons, the savage uproar that
maddens amid its cliffs and caverns, coming booming over the lashings of
the nearer waves like a roar of artillery. There is a sublimity of
desolation on its shores, the effects of a conflict maintained for ages,
and on a scale so gigantic. The isolated spire-like crags that rise
along its base are so drilled and bored by the incessant lashings of the
surf, and are ground down into shapes so fantastic, that they seem but the
wasted skeletons of their former selves; and we find almost every natural
fissure in the solid rock hollowed into an immense cavern, whose very
ceiling, though the head turns as we look up to it, owes, evidently, its
comparative smoothness to the action of the waves. One of the most
remarkable of these recesses occupies what we may term the apes of a lofty
promontory. The entrance, unlike most of the others, is narrow and
rugged, though of great height; but it widens within into a shadowy
chamber, perplexed, like the nave of a cathedral, by uncertain
cross-lights, that come glimmering into it through two lesser openings
which perforate the opposite sides of the promontory. It is a
strange, ghostly-looking place. There is a sort of moonlight
greenness in the twilight which forms its noon, and the denser shadows
which rest along its sides; a blackness, so profound that it mocks the
eye, hangs over a lofty passage which leads from it, like a corridor,
still deeper into the bowels of the hill; the light falls on a sprinkling
of half-buried bones, the remains of animals that in the depth of winter
have creeped into it for shelter and to die; and when the winds are up,
and the hoarse roar of the waves comes reverberated from its inner
recesses, or creeps howling along its roof, it needs no over-active fancy
to people its avenues with the shapes of beings long since departed from
every gayer and softer scene, but which still rise uncalled to the
imagination, in those by-corners of nature which seem dedicated, like this
cavern, to the wild, the desolate, and the solitary.
There is a little rocky bay a few hundred yards to the west,
which has been known for ages to all the seafaring men of the place as the
Cova Green. It is such a place as we are sometimes made acquainted
with in the narrative of disastrous shipwrecks. First, there is a
broad semi-circular strip of beach, with a wilderness of insulated piles
of rock in front; and so steep and continuous is the wall of precipices
which rises behind, that, though we may see directly over head the grassy
slopes of the hill, with here and there a few straggling firs, no human
foot ever gained the nearer edge. The bay of the Cova Green is a
prison to which the sea presents the only outlet; and the numerous caves
which open along its sides, like the arches of an amphitheatre, seem but
its darker cells. It is in truth a wild, impressive place, full of
beauty and terror, and with none of the squalidness of the mere dungeon
about it. There is a puny littleness in our brick and lime
receptacles of misery and languor, which speaks as audibly of the
feebleness of man as of his crimes or his inhumanity; but here all is
great and magnificent, and there is much, too, that is pleasing.
Many of the higher cliffs, which rise beyond the influence of the spray,
are tapestried with ivy. We may see the heron watching on the ledges
beside her bundle of withered twigs, or the blue hawk darting from her
cell. There is life on every side of us; life in even the wild
tumbling of the waves, and in the stream of pure water which, rushing from
the higher edge of the precipice in a long white cord, gradually untwists
itself by the way, and spatters ceaselessly among the stones over the
entrance of one of the caves. Nor does the scene want its old story
to strengthen its hold on the imagination.
I am wretchedly uncertain in my dates; but it must have been
some time late in the reign of Queen Anne, that a fishing yawl, after
vainly labouring for hours to enter the bay of Cromarty, during a strong
gale from the west, was forced at nightfall to relinquish the attempt, and
take shelter in the Cova Green. The crew consisted of but two
persons,—an old fisherman and his son. Both had been thoroughly
drenched by the spray, and chilled by the piercing wind, which,
accompanied by thick snow showers, had blown all day through the opening
from off the snowy top of Ben Wyvis; and it was with no ordinary
satisfaction that, as they opened the little bay on their last tack, they
saw the red gleam of a fire flickering from one of the caves, and a boat
drawn upon the beach.
"It must be some of the Tarbet fishermen," said the old man,
"wind-bound, like ourselves, but wiser than us in having made provision
for it. I shall feel willing enough to share their fire with them
for the night."
"But see," remarked the younger, "that there be no
unwillingness on the other side. I am much mistaken if that be not
the boat of my cousins the Macinlas, who would so fain have broken my head
last Rhorichie Tryst. But, hap what may, father, the night is
getting worse, and we have no choice of quarters. Hard up your helm,
or we shall barely clear the skerries. There, now; every nail an
anchor." He leaped ashore, carrying with him the small hawser
attached to the stern, which he wound securely round a jutting crag, and
then stood for a few seconds, until the old man, who moved but heavily
along the thwarts, had come up to him. All was comparatively calm
under the lee of the precipices; but the wind was roaring fearfully in the
woods above, and whistling amid furze and ivy of the higher cliff; and the
two boatmen, as they entered the cave, could see the flakes of a thick
snow shower, that had just begun to descend, circling round and round in
The place was occupied by three men, who were sitting beside
the fire on blocks of stone which had been rolled from the beach.
Two of them were young, and comparatively commonplace-looking persons; the
third was a gray-headed old man, apparently of great muscular strength,
though long past his prime, and of a peculiarly sinister cast of
countenance. A keg of spirits, which was placed end up in front of
them, served as a table; there were little drinking measures of tin on it;
and the mask-like, stolid expressions of the two younger men showed that
they had been indulging freely. The elder was apparently sober.
They all started to their feet on the entrance of the fisherman, and one
of the younger, laying hold of the little cask, pitched it hurriedly into
a dark corner of the cave.
"His peace be here!" was the simple greeting of the elder
fisherman as he came forward. "Eachen Macinla," he continued,
addressing the old man, "we have not met for years before,—not, I believe,
since the death o' my puir sister, when we parted such ill friends; but we
are short-lived creatures oursels, Eachen; surely our anger should be
short-lived too; and I have come to crave from you a seat by your fire?"
"William Beth," replied Eachen, "it was no wish of mine we
should ever meet; but to a seat by the fire you are welcome."
Old Macinla and his sons resumed their seats; the two
fishermen took their places fronting them; and for some time neither party
exchanged a word.
A fire, composed mostly of fragments of wreck and driftwood,
threw up its broad, cheerful flame towards the roof; but so spacious was
the cavern, that, except where here and there a whiter mass of stalactites
or bolder projection of cliff stood out from the darkness, the light
seemed lost in it. A dense body of smoke, which stretched its blue
level surface from side to side, and concealed the roof, went rolling
outwards like an inverted river.
"This is but a gousty lodging-place," remarked the old
fisherman, as he looked round him; "but I have seen a worse. I wish
the folk at hame kent we were half sae snug; and then the fire, too,—I
have always felt something companionable in a fire, something consolable,
as it were; it appears, somehow, as if it were a creature like ourselves,
and had life in it." The remark seemed directed to no one in
particular, and there was no reply. In a second attempt at
conversation, the fisherman addressed himself to the old man.
"It has vexed me," he said, "that our young folk shouldna,
for my sister's sake, be on more friendly terms, Eachen. They hae
been quarrelling, an' I wish to see the quarrel made up." The old
man, without deigning a reply, knit his gray, shaggy brows, and looked
doggedly at the fire.
"Nay, now," continued the fisherman, "we are getting auld
men, Eachen, au' wauld better bury our hard thoughts o' ane anither afore
we come to be buried ourselves. What if we were sent to the Cova
Green the night, just that we night part friends!"
Eachen fixed his keen, scrutinizing glance on the speaker,—it
was but for a moment,—there was a tremulous notion of the under lip as he
withdrew it, and a setting of the teeth,—the expression of mingled hatred
and anger; but the tone of his reply savoured more of sullen indifference
than of passion.
"William Both," he said, "ye hae tricked my boys out o' the
bit of property that suld hae come to them by their mother; it's no lang
since they barely escaped being murdered by your son. What more want
you? But ye perhaps think it better that the time should be passed
in making hollow lip, professions of good-will, than that it suld be
employed in clearing off an old score."
"Ay," hickuped out the elder of the two sons; "the houses
might come my way then; an', besides, gin Helen Henry were to lose her a'e
jo, the ither might hae a better chance. Rise, brither! rise, man!
an' fight for me an' your sweet-heart." The younger lad, who seemed
verging towards the last stage of intoxication, struck his clenched fist
against his palm, and attempted to rise.
"Look ye, uncle," exclaimed the younger fisherman,—a
powerful-looking and very handsome stripling,—as he sprang to his feet;
"your threat might be spared. Our little property was my
grandfather's, and naturally descended to his only son; and as for the
affair at Rhorichie, I dare either of my cousins to say the quarrel was of
my seeking. I have no wish to raise my hand against the sons or the
husband of my aunt; but if forced to it, you will find that neither my
father nor myself are wholly at your mercy."
"Whisht, Earnest," said the old fisherman, laying his hand on
the hand of the young man; "sit down; your uncle maun hae ither thoughts.
It is now fifteen years, Eachen," he continued, "since I was called to my
sister's deathbed. You yoursel' canna forget what passed there.
There had been grief an' cauld an' hunger beside that bed. I'll no
say you were willingly unkind,—few folk are that, but when they hae some
purpose to serve by it, an' you could have none,'but you laid no restraint
on a harsh temper, and none on a craving habit that forgets everything but
itsel'; and so my puir sister perished in the middle o' her days, a
wasted, heart-broken thing. It's no that I wish to hurt you. I
mind how we passed our youth thegither among the wild buccaneers. It
was a bad school, Eachen; an' I owre often feel I havena unlearned a' my
ain lessons, to wonder that you shouldna hae unlearned a' yours. But
we're getting old men Eachen, an' we have now, what we hadna in our young
days, the advantage o' the light. Dinna let us die fools in the
sight o' Him who is so willing to give us wisdom; dinna let us die
enemies. We have been early friends, though maybe no for good, we
have fought afore now at the same gun; we have been united by the lave o'
her that's now in the dust; an' there are our boys,'the nearest o' kin to
ane anither that death has spared. But what I feel as strongly as a'
the rest, Eachen, we hae done meikle ill thegither. I can hardly
think o' a past sin without thinking o' you, an' thinking, too, that if a
creature like me may hope he has found pardon, you shouldna despair.
Eachen, we maun be friends."
The features of the stern old man relaxed. "You are
perhaps right, William," he at length replied; "but ye were aye a luckier
man than me,—luckier for this world, I'm sure, an' maybe for the next.
I had aye to seek, an' aften without finding, the good that came in your
gate o' itsel'. Now that age is coming upon us, ye get a snug rental
frae the little houses, an' I hae naething; an' ye hae character an'
credit; but wha would trust me, or cares for me? Ye hae been made an
elder o' the kirk, too, I hear, an' I am still a reprobate; but we were a'
born to be just what we are, an' sae maun submit. An' your son, too,
shares in your luck. He has heart an' hand, an' my whelps neither;
an' the girl Henry, that scouts that sot there, likes him; but what wonder
o' that? But you are right, William; we maun be friends.
Pledge me." The little cask was produced; and, filling the measures,
he nodded to Earnest and his father. They pledged him, when, as if
seized by a sudden frenzy, he filled his measure thrice in hasty
succession, draining it each time to the bottom, and then flung it down
with a short, hoarse laugh. His sons, who would fain have joined
with him, he repulsed with a firmness of manner which he had not before
exhibited. "No, whelps," he said; "get sober as fast as ye can."
"We had better," whispered Earnest to his father, "not sleep
in the cave to-night."
"Let me hear now o' your quarrel, Earnest," said Eachan;
"your father was a more prudent man than you; and, however much he wronged
me, did it without quarrelling."
"The quarrel was none of my seeking," replied Earnest.
"I was insulted by your sons, and would have borne it for the sake of what
they seemed to forget; but there was another whom they also insulted, and
that I could not bear."
"The girl Henry. And what then?"
"Why, my cousins may tell the rest. They were mean
enough to take odds against me, and I just beat the two spiritless fellows
that did so."
But why record the quarrels of this unfortunate evening?
An hour or two passed away in disagreeable bickerings, during which the
patience of even the old fisherman was worn out, and that of Earnest had
failed him altogether. They both quitted the cave, boisterous as the
night was,—and it was now stormier than ever,' and, heaving off their boat
till she rode at the full length of her swing from the shore, sheltered
themselves under the sail. The Macinlas returned next evening to
Tarbet; but, though the wind moderated during the day, the yawl of William
Beth did not enter the Bay of Cromarty. Weeks passed away, during
which the clergyman of the place corresponded regarding the missing
fisherman with all the lower parts of the Frith, but they had disappeared,
as it seemed, for ever.
WHERE the northern Sutor sinks into the low sandy
tract that nearly fronts the town of Cromarty, there is a narrow grassy
terrace raised but a few yards over the level of the beach. It is
sheltered behind by a steep, undulating bank; for, though the rock here
and there juts out, it is too rich in vegetation to be termed a precipice.
It is a sweet little spot, with its grassy slopes, that recline towards
the sun, partially covered with thickets of wild rose and honeysuckle, and
studded in their season with violets and daisies and the delicate rock
geranium. Towards its eastern extremity, with the bank rising
immediately behind, and an open space in front, which seemed to have been
cultivated at one time as a garden, there stood a picturesque little
cottage. It was that of the widow of William Beth. Five years
had now elapsed since the disappearance of her son and husband, and the
cottage bore the marks of neglect and decay. The door and window,
bleached white by the sea-winds, shook loosely to every breeze; clusters
of chickweed luxuriated in the hollows of the thatch, or mantled over the
eaves; and a honeysuckle, that had twisted itself round the chimney, lay
withering in a tangled mass at the foot of the wall.
But the progress of decay was more marked in the widow
herself than in her dwelling. She had had to contend with grief and
penury; a grief not the less undermining in its effects from the
circumstance of its being sometimes suspended by hope; a penury so extreme
that every succeeding day seemed as if won by some providential
interference from absolute want. And she was now, to all appearance,
fist sinking in the struggle. The autumn was well-nigh over.
She had been weak and ailing for months before, and had now become so
feeble as to be confined for days together to her bed. But, happily,
the poor solitary woman had at least one attached friend in the daughter
of a farmer of the parish, a young and beautiful girl, who, though
naturally of no melancholy temperament, seemed to derive almost all she
enjoyed of pleasure from the society of the widow. Helen Henry was
in her twenty-first year, but she seemed older in spirit than in years.
She was thin and pale, though exquisitely formed. There was a
drooping heaviness in her fine eyes, and a cast of pensive thought on her
forehead, that spoke of a longer experience of grief than so brief a
portion of life might be supposed to have furnished. She had once
lovers, but they had gradually dropped away in the despair of moving her,
and awed by a deep and settled pensiveness, which, in the gayest season of
youth, her character had suddenly but permanently assumed. Besides,
they all knew her affections were already engaged, and had come to learn,
though late and unwillingly, that there are cases in which no rival can be
more formidable than a dead one.
Autumn, I have said, was near its close. The weather
had given indications of an early and severe winter; and the widow, whose
worn-out and delicate frame was affected by every change of atmosphere,
had for a few days been more than usually indisposed. It was now
long past noon, and she had but just risen. The apartment, however,
bore witness that her young friend had paid her the accustomed morning
visit; the fire was blazing on a clean, comfortable-looking hearth, and
every little piece of furniture it contained was arranged with, the most
scrupulous care. Her devotions were hardly over when the well-known tap
was again heard at the door.
"Come in, my lassie," said the widow; and then lowering her
voice, as the light foot of her friend was heard on the threshold, "God,"
she said, "has been ever kind to me; far, very far, aboon my best
deservings; and oh, may he bless and reward her who has done so meikle,
meikle for me!" The young girl entered and took her seat beside her.
"You told me, mother," she said, "that to-morrow is Earnest's
birthday. I have been thinking of it all last night, and feel as if
my heart were turning into stone. But when I am alone it is always
so. There is a cold, death-like weight at my breast, that makes me
unhappy; though, when I come to you, and we speak together, the feeling
passes away, and I become cheerful."
"Ah, my bairn," replied the old woman, "I fear I'm no your
friend, meikle as I love you. We speak owre, owre often o' the lost,
for our foolish hearts find mair pleasure in that than in anything else;
but ill does it fit us for being alone. Weel do I ken your
feeling,—a stone deadness o' the heart,—a feeling there are no words to
express, but that seems as it were insensibility itself turning into pain;
and I ken, too, my lassie, that it is nursed by the very means ye tak to
flee from it. Ye maun learn to think mair o' the living, and less o'
the dead. Little, little does it matter how a pair worn-out creature
like me passes the few broken clays o' life that remains to her; but ye
are young, my Helen, an' the world is a' before you; and ye maun just try
an' live for it."
"To-morrow," rejoined Helen, "is Earnest's birthday. Is
it no strange that, when our minds make pictures o' the dead, it is always
as they looked best an' kindest an' maist life-like; I have been seeing
Earnest all night long, as when I saw him on his last birthday; an' oh,
the sharpness o' the pang, when, every now an' then, the back o' the
picture is turned to me, an' I see him as he is,—dust!"
The widow grasped her young friend by the hand.
"Helen," she said, "you will get better when I am taken, from you; but so
long as we continue to meet, our thoughts will aye be running the one way.
I had a strange dream last night, an' must tell it to you. You see
yon rock to the east, in the middle o' the little bay, that now rises
through the back draught o' the sea, like the hull o' a ship, an' is now
buried in a mountain o' foam? I dreamed I was sitting on that rock,
in what seemed a bonny summer's morning. The sun was glancin' on the
water, an' I could see the white sand far down at the bottom, wi' the
reflection o' the little wavies running o'er it in long curls o' goud.
But there was no way o' leaving the rock, for the deep waters were round
an' round me; an' I saw the tide covering one wee bittie after another,
till at last the whole was covered. An' yet I had but little fear;
for I remembered that baith Earnest an' William were in the sea afore me;
an' I had the feeling that I could hae rest nowhere but wi' them.
The water at last closed o'er me, an' I sank frae aff the rock to the sand
at the bottom. But death seemed to have no power given him to hurt
me; an' I walked as light as ever I hae done on a gowany brae, through the
green depths o' the sea. I saw the silvery glitter o' the trout an'
the salmon shining to the sun, far, far aboon me, like white pigeons in
the lift; an' around me there were crimson star-fish an' sea-flowers an'
long trailing plants, that waved in the tide like streamers; an' at length
I came to a steep rock, wi' a little cave like a tomb in it. 'Here,'
I said, 'is the end o' my journey. William is here, an' Earnest.'
An', as I looked into the cave, I saw there were bones in it, an' I
prepared to take my place beside them.—But, as I stooped to enter, some
one called me, an', on looking up, there was William. 'Lillias,' he
said, 'it is not night yet, nor is that your bed; you are to sleep, not
with me, but with Earnest. Haste you home, for he is waiting you.'
'Oh, take me to him!' I said; an' then all at once I found myself on the
shore, dizzied an' blinded wi' the bright sunshine; for at the cave there
was a darkness like that o' a simmer's gloamin'; an' when I looked up for
William, it was Earnest that stood before me, life-like an' handsome as
ever; an' you were beside him."
The day had been gloomy and lowering, and, though there was
little wind, a tremendous sea, that, as the evening advanced, rose higher
and higher against the neighbouring precipice, had been rolling ashore
since morning. The wind now began to blow in long hollow gusts among
the cliffs, and the rain to patter against the widow's casement.
"It will be a storm from the sea," she said; "the scarts an'
gulls hae been flying landward sin' daybreak, an' I hae never seen the
ground-swell come home heavier against the rocks. Wae's me for the
"In the lang stormy nights," said Helen, "I canna sleep for
thinking o' them, though I have no one to bind me to them now. Only
look how the sea rages among the rocks, as if it were a thing o' life an'
passion! That last wave rose to the crane's nest. An' look,
yonder is a boat rounding the rock wi' only a'e man in it. It dances
on the surf as if it were a cork; an' the wee bittie o' sail, sae black
an' weet, seems scarcely bigger than a napkin. Is it no bearing in
for the boat-haven below?"
"My poor old eyes," replied the widow, "are growing dim, an'
surely no wonder; but yet I think I should ken that boatman. Is it
no Eachen Macinla o' Tarbet?"
"Hard-hearted, cruel old man!" exclaimed the maiden; "what
can be takin' him here? Look how his skiff shoots in like an arrow
on the long roll o' the surf! an' now she is high on the beach. How
unfeeling it was o' him to rob you o' your little property in the very
first o' your grief! But see, he is so worn out that he can hardly
walk over the rough stones. Ah me! he is down; wretched old man, I
must run to his assistance. But no; he has risen again. See,
he is coming straight to the house; an' now he is at the door." In a
moment after, Eachen entered the cottage.
"I am perishing, Lillias," he said, "with cold an' hunger,
an' can gang nae further; surely ye'll no shut your door on me in a night
The poor widow had been taught in a far different school.
She relinquished to the worn-out fisherman her seat by the fire, now
hurriedly heaped with fresh fuel, and hastened to set before him the
simple viands which her cottage afforded.
As the night darkened, the storm increased. The wind
roared among the rocks like the rattling of a thousand carriages over a
paved street; and there were times when, after a sudden pause, the blast
struck the cottage as if it were a huge missile flung against it, and
pressed on its roof and walls till the very floor rocked, and the rafters
strained and shivered like the beams of a stranded vessel. There was
a ceaseless patter of mingled ran and snow, now lower, now louder; and the
fearful thunderings of the waves, as they raged among the pointed crags,
were mingled with the hoarse roll of the storm along the beach. The
old man sat beside the fire, fronting the widow and her companion, with
his head reclined nearly as low as his knee, and his hands covering his
face. There was no attempt at conversation. He seemed to
shudder every time the blast yelled along the roof; and, as a fiercer gust
burst open the door, there was a half-muttered ejaculation.
"Heaven itsel' hae mercy on them! for what can man do in a
night like this?"
"It is black as pitch," exclaimed Helen, who had risen to
draw the bolt; "an' the drift flies sae thick, that it feels to the hand
like a solid snaw wreath. An' oh, how it lightens!"
"Heaven itsel' hae mercy on them!" again ejaculated the old
man. "My two boys," said he, addressing the widow, "are at the far
Frith; an' how can an open boat live in a night like this?"
There seemed something magical in the
communication,—something that awakened all the sympathies of the poor
bereaved woman; and she felt she could forgive him every unkindness.
"Wae's me!" she exclaimed; "it was in such a night as this,
an' scarcely sae wild, that my Earnest perished."
The old man groaned and wrung his hands.
In one of the pauses of the hurricane there was a gun heard
from the sea, and shortly after a second. "Some puir vessel in
distress," said the widow; "but, alas! where can succor come frae in sae
terrible a night? There is help only in Ane. Wae's me! would
we no better light up a blaze on the floor, an', dearest Helen, draw off
the cover frae the window? My puir Earnest has told me that my light
has aften showed him his bearing frae the deadly bed o' Dunskaith.
That last gun," 'for a third was now heard booming over the mingled roar
of the sea and the wind,—"that last gun cam' frae the very rock-edge.
Wae's me, wae's me! maun they perish, an' sae near!" Helen hastily
lighted a bundle of more fir, that threw up its red sputtering blaze half
way to the roof, and, dropping the covering, continued to wave it opposite
the window. Guns were still heard at measured intervals, but
apparently from a safer offing; and at last, as it sounded faintly against
the wind, came evidently from the interior of the bay.
"She has escaped," said the old man. "It's a feeble
hand that canna do good when the heart is willing. But what has mine
been doin' a' life lang?" He looked at the window, and shuddered.
Towards morning the wind fell, and the moon, in her last
quarter, rose red and glaring out of the Frith, lighting the melancholy
roll of the waves, that still rose like mountains, and the broad white
belt of surf that skirted the shores. The old fisherman left the
cottage, and sauntered along the beach. It was heaped with huge
wreaths of kelp and tangle, uprooted by the storm; and in the hollow of
the rocky bay lay the scattered fragments of a boat. Eachen stooped
to pick up a piece of the wreck, in the fearful expectation of finding
some known mark by which to recognize it, when the light fell full on the
swollen face of a corpse that seemed staring at him from out a wreath of
weed. It was that of his eldest son. The body of the younger,
fearfully gashed and mangled by the rocks, lay a few yards further to the
The morning was as pleasant as the night had been boisterous;
and except that the distant hills were covered with snow, and that a swell
still continued to roll in from the sea, there remained scarce any trace
of the recent tempest. Every hollow of the neighbouring hill had its
little runnel, formed by the rains of the previous night, that now
splashed and glistened to the sun. The bushes round the cottage were
well-nigh divested of their leaves; but their red berries, hips and haws,
and the juicy fruit of the honeysuckle, gleamed cheerfully to the light;
and a warm steam of vapour, like that of a May morning, rose from the roof
and the little mossy platform in front. But the scene seemed to have
something more than merely its beauty to recommend it to a young man,
drawn apparently to the spot, with many others, by the fate of the two
unfortunate fishermen, and who now stood gazing on the rocks and the hills
and the cottage, as a lover on the features of his mistress. The
bodies had been carried to an old store-house, which may still be seen a
short mile to the west; and the crowds that, during the early part of the
morning, had been perambulating the beach, gazing at the wreck, and
discussing the various probabilities of the accident, had gradually
dispersed. But this solitary individual, whom no one knew, remained
behind. He was a tall and swarthy, though very handsome man, of
about five-and-twenty, with a slight sear on his left cheek. His
dress, which was plain and neat, was distinguished from that of the common
seaman by three narrow stripes of gold-lace on the upper part of one of
the sleeves. He had twice stepped towards the cottage-door, and
twice drawn back, as if influenced by some unaccountable
feeling,—timidity, perhaps, or bashfulness; and yet the bearing of the man
gave little indication of either. But at length, as if he had
gathered heart, he raised the latch and went in.
The widow, who had had many visitors that morning, seemed to
be scarcely aware of his entrance. She was sitting on a low seat
beside the fire, her face covered with her hands; while the tremulous
rocking motion of her body showed that she was still brooding over the
distresses of the previous night. Her companion, who had thrown
herself across the bed, was fast asleep. The stranger seated himself
beside the fire, which seemed dying amid its ashes; and, turning
sedulously from the light of the window, laid his hand gently on the
widow's shoulder. She started, and looked up.
"I have strange news for you," he said. "You have long
mourned for your husband and your son ; but, though the old man has been
dead for years, your son Earnest is still alive, and is now in the harbour
of Cromarty. He is lieutenant of the vessel whose guns you must have
heard during the night."
The poor woman seemed to have lost all power of reply.
"I am a friend of Earnest's," continued the stranger, "and have come to
prepare you for meeting with him. It is now five years since his
father and he were blown off to sea by a strong gale from the land.
They drove before it for four days, when they were picked up by an armed
vessel then cruising in the North Sea, and which soon after sailed for the
coast of Spanish America. The poor old man sank under the fatigues
he had undergone; though Earnest, better able, from his youth, to endure
hardship, was little affected by them. He accompanied us on our
Spanish expedition; indeed, he had no choice, for we touched at no British
port after meeting with him; and, through good fortune, and what his
companions call merit, he has risen to be the second man aboard, and has
now brought home with him gold enough from the Spaniards to make his old
mother comfortable. He saw your light yester-evening, and steered by
it to the roadstead, blessing you all the way. Tell me, for he
anxiously wished me to inquire of you, whether Helen Henry is yet
"It is Earnest! it is Earnest himself!" exclaimed the maiden,
as she started from the widow's bed. In a moment after, she was
locked in his arms. But why dwell on a scene which I feel myself
unfitted to describe?
It was ill before evening with old Eachen Macinla. The
fatigues of the present day, and the grief and horror of the previous
night, had prostrated his energies, bodily and mental; and he now lay
tossing, in a waste apartment of the storehouse, in the delirium of a
fever. The bodies of his two sons occupied the floor below. He
muttered unceasingly, in his ravings, of William and Earnest Beth.
They were standing beside him, he said; and every time he attempted to
pray for his poor boys and himself the stern old man laid his cold swollen
hand on his lips.
"Why trouble me?" he exclaimed. "Why stare with your
white dead eyes on me? Away, old man; the little black shells are
sticking in your gray hairs; away to your place! Was it I who raised
the wind on the sea? was it I? was it I? Uh, u! 'no 'no; you were asleep,
you were fast asleep, and could not see me cut the swing; and,
besides, it was only a piece of rope. Keep away; touch me not; I am
a free man, and will plead for my life. Please your honour, I did
not murder these two men; I only cut the rope that fastened their boat to
the land. Ha ! ha! ha! he has ordered them away, and they have both
left me unskaithed." At this moment Earnest Beth entered the
apartment, and approached the bed. The miserable old man raised
himself on his elbow, and, regarding him with a horrid stare, shrieked
out, "Here is Earnest Beth, come for me a second time!" and, sinking back
on the pillow, instantly expired.
Why start at Death? Where is he?
Death arrived, is past; not come or gone, he's never here.
I KNOW no place where one may be brought acquainted
with the more credulous beliefs of our forefathers at a less expense of
inquiry and exertion than in a country lykewake. The house of
mourning is naturally a place of sombre thoughts and ghostly associations.
There is something, too, in the very presence and appearance of death that
leads one to think of the place and state of the dead. Cowper has
finely said that the man and the beast who stand together side by side on
the same hill-top, are, notwithstanding their proximity, the denizens of
very different worlds. And I have felt the remark to apply still
more strongly when sitting beside the dead. The world of intellect
and feeling in which we ourselves are, and of which the lower propensities
of our nature form a province, may be regarded as including, in part at
least, that world of passion and instinct in which the brute lives; and we
have but to analyze and abstract a little, to form for ourselves ideas of
this latter world from even our own experience. But by what process
of thought can we bring experience to bear on the world of the dead?
It lies entirely beyond us, a terra incognita of cloud and
darkness; and yet the thing at our side—the thing over which we can
stretch our hand, the thing dead to us but living to it—has entered upon
it; and, however uninformed or ignorant before, knows more of its dark,
and to us inscrutable mysteries, than all our philosophers and all our
divines. Is it wonder that we would fain put it to the question;
that we would fain catechise it, if we could, regarding its newly acquired
experience; that we should fill up the gaps in the dialogue, which its
silence leaves to us, by imparting to one another the little we know
regarding its state and its place; or that we should send our thoughts
roaming in long excursions, to glean from the experience of the past all
that it tells us of the occasional visits of the dead, and all that in
their less taciturn and more social moments they have communicated to the
living? And hence, from feelings so natural and a train of
associations so obvious, the character of a country lykewake, and the cast
of its stories. I say a country lykewake; for in at least all
our larger towns, where a cold and barren scepticism has chilled the
feelings and imaginations of the people, without, I fear, much improving
their judgments, the conversation on such occasions takes a lower and less
I once spent a night with a friend from the south—a man of an
inquiring and highly philosophic cast of mind—at a lykewake in the upper
part of the parish of Cromarty. I had excited his curiosity by an
incidental remark or two of the kind I have just been dropping; and, on
his expressing a wish that I should introduce him, by way of illustration,
to some such scene as I had been describing, we had set out together to
the wake of an elderly female who had died that morning. Her
cottage, an humble erection of stone and lime, was situated beside a thick
fir-wood, on the edge of the solitary Mullbuoy, one of the dreariest and
most extensive commons in Scotland. We had to pass in our journey
over several miles of desolate moor, sprinkled with cairns and tumuli—the
memorials of some forgotten conflict of the past; we had to pass, too,
through a thick, dark wood, with here and there an intervening marsh,
whitened over with moss and lichens, and which, from this circumstance,
are known to the people of the country as the white bogs. Nor was
the more distant landscape of a less gloomy character. On the one
hand there opened an interminable expanse of moor, that went stretching
onwards mile beyond mile—bleak, dreary, uninhabited and uninhabitable—till
it merged into the far horizon. On the other there rose a range of
blue, solitary hills, towering, as they receded, into loftier peaks and
bolder acclivities, till they terminated on the snow-streaked Ben Weavis.
The season, too, was in keeping with the scene. It was drawing
towards the close of autumn; and, as we passed through the wood, the
falling leaves were eddying round us with every wind, or lay in rustling
heaps at our feet.
"I do not wonder," said my companion, "that the superstitions
of so wild a district as this should bear in their character some marks of
a corresponding wildness. Night itself, in a populous and cultivated
country, is attended with less of the stern and the solemn than mid-day
amid solitudes like these. Is the custom of watching beside the dead
of remote antiquity in this part of the country?"
"Far beyond the reach of history or tradition," I said.
"But it has gradually been changing its character, as the people have been
changing theirs, and is now a very different thing from what it was a
century ago. It is not yet ninety years since lykewakes in the
neighbouring Highlands used to be celebrated with music and dancing; and
even here, on the borders of the low country, they used invariably, like
the funerals, to be the scenes of wild games and amusements never
introduced on any other occasion. You remember how Sir Walter
describes the funeral of Athelstane? The Saxon ideas of condolence
were the most natural imaginable. If grief was hungry, they supplied
it with food; if thirsty, they gave it drink. Our simple ancestors
here seem to have reasoned by a similar process. They made their
seasons of deepest grief their times of greatest merriment; and the more
they regretted the deceased, the gayer were they at his wake and his
funeral. A friend of mine, now dead, a very old man, has told me
that he once danced at a lykewake in the Highlands of Sutherland. It
was that of an active and a very robust man, taken away from his wife and
family in the prime of life; and the poor widow, for the greater part of
the evening, sat disconsolate beside the fire, refusing every invitation
to join the dancers. She was at length, however, brought out
by the father of the deceased. 'Little, little did he think,' he
said, 'that we should be the last to dance at poor Rory's lykewake.'"
We reached the cottage and went in. The apartment in
which the dead lay was occupied by two men and three women. Every
little piece of furniture it contained was hung in white, and the floor
had recently been swept and sanded; but it was on the bed where the body
lay, and on the body itself, that the greatest care had been lavished.
The curtains had been taken down, and their places supplied by linen white
as snow; and on the sheet that served as a counterpane the body was laid
out in a dress of white, fantastically crossed and re-crossed in every
direction by scalloped fringes, and fretted into a species of open work,
at least intended to represent alternate rows of roses and tulips. A
plate containing a little salt was placed over the breast of the corpse.
As we entered one of the women rose, and, filling two glasses with
spirits, presented them to us on a salver. We tasted the liquor, and
sat down on chairs placed for us beside the fire. The conversation,
which had been interrupted by our entrance, began to flow apace; and an
elderly female, who had lived under the same roof with the deceased, began
to relate, in answer to the queries of one of the others, some of the
particulars of her last illness and death.
THE STORY OF ELSPAT M'CULLOCH.
"ELSPAT was aye," she said, "a retired body, wi' a
cast o' decent pride aboot her; an', though bare and puirly aff sometimes
in her auld days, she had never been chargeable to onybody. She had
come o' decent, 'sponsible people, though they were a' low enough the day;
ay, an' they were God-fearing people too, wha had gien plenty in their
time, an' had aye plenty to gie. An' though they had been a'
langsyne laid in the kirkyard,—a' except hersel', puir body,—she wouldna
disgrace their gude name, she said, by takin' an alms frae ony ane.
Her sma means fell oot o' her hands afore her last illness. Little
had aye dune her turn, but the little failed at last; an' sair thocht did
it gie her for a while what was to come o' her. I could hear her, in
the butt end o' the hoose, a'e mornin' mair earnest an' langer in her
prayers than usual, though she never neglected them, pair body; an' a' the
early part o' that day she seemed to be no weel. She was aye up and
down; an' I could ance or twice hear her gaunting at the fireside; but
when I went ben to her, an' asked what was the matter wi' her, she said
she was just in her ordinar'. She went oot for a wee; an' what did I
do, but gang to her amry, for I jaloused a' wasna right there; an' oh! it
was a sair sicht to see, neebors; for there was neither a bit o' bread nor
a grain of meal within its four corners,—naething but the sealed up
graybeard wi' the whiskey that for twenty years an' mair she had been
keepin' for her lykewake; an', ye ken, it was oot o' the question to think
that she would meddle wi' it. Weel did I scold her, when she cam'
in, for being sae close-minded. I asked her what harm I had ever
done to her, that she wad rather hae died than hae trusted her wants to
me? But though she said naething, I could see the tears in her e'e;
an' sae I stopped, an' we took a late breakfast thegither at my fireside.
"She tauld me that mornin' that she weel kent she wouldna
lang be a trouble to onybody. The day afore had been Sabbath; an'
every Sabbath morning, for the last ten years, her worthy neeboor the
elder, whom they had buried only four years afore, used to call on her, in
the passing on his way to the kirk. 'Come awa, Elspat,' he would
say; an' she used to be aye decent an' ready, for she liked his
conversation; an' they aye gaed thegither to the kirk. She had been
contracted, when a young lass, to a brither o' the elder's, a stout,
handsome lad; but he had been ca'ed suddenly awa atween the contract an'
the marriage, an' Elspat, though she had afterwards mony a gude offer, had
lived single for his sake. Weel, on the very mornin' afore, just sax
days after the elder's death, an' four after his burial, when Elspat was
sitting dowie aside the fire, thinkin' o' her gude auld neebor, the cry
cam' to the door just as it used to do; but, though the voice was the
same, the words were a wee different. 'Elspat,' it said, 'mak'
ready, an' come awa.' She rose hastily to the window, an' there,
sure enough, was the elder, turning the corner, in his Sunday's bonnet an'
his Sunday's coat. An' weel did she ken, she said, the meaning o'
his call, an' kindly did she tak' it. An' if it was but God's will
that she suld hae enough to put her decently under the ground, without
going into any debt to any one, she would be weel content. She had
already the linen for the dead-dress, she said; for she had spun it for
the purpose afore her contract wi' William; an' she had the whiskey, too,
for the wake; but she had naething anent the coffin an' the bedral.
"Weel, we took our breakfast, an' I did my best to comfort
the puir body; but she looked very down-hearted for a' that. About
the middle o' the day, in cam' the minister's boy wi' a letter. It
was directed to his master, he said; but it was a' for Elspat; an' there
was a five-pound note in it. It was frae a man who had left the
country mony, mony a year afore, a good deal in her faither's debt.
You would hae thought the puir thing wad hae grat her een out when she saw
the money; but never was money mair thankfully received, or ta'en mair
directly frae heaven. It sent her aboon the warld, she said; an'
coming at the time it did, an estate o' a thousand a year wadna be o' mair
use to her. Next morning she didna rise, for her strength had failed
her at once, though she felt nae meikle pain; an' she sent me to get the
note changed, an' to leave twenty shillings o't wi' the wright for a
decent coffin like her mither's, an' five shillings mair wi' the bedral,
an' to tak' in necessaries for a sick-bed wi' some o' the lave. Weel,
I ' did that; an' there's still twa pounds o' the note yonder in little
"On the fifth morning after she had been taken sae ill, I
cam' in till ask after her; for my neebor here had relieved o' that
night's watchin', an' I had gotten to my bed. The moment I opened
the door I saw that the haill room was hung in white, just as ye see it
now; an' I'm sure it staid that way a minute or sae; but when I winked it
went awa. I kent there was a change no far off; and when I went up
to the bed, Elspat didna ken me. She was wirkin' wi' her han' at the
blankets, as if she were picking off the little motes; an' I could hear
the beginning o' the dead rattle in her throat. I sat at her bedside
for a while wi' my neebor here; an' when she spoke to us, it was to say
that bed had grown hard an' uneasy, an' that she wished to be brought out
to the chair. Weel, we indulged her, though we baith kent that it
wasna in the bed the uneasiness lay. Her mind, puir body, was
carried at the time. She just kent that there was to be a death an'
a lykewake, but no that the death and the lykewake were to be her ain; an'
when she looked at the bed, she bade us tak' down the black curtains an'
put up the white; an' tauld us where the white were to be found.
"'But where is the corp?' she said; 'it's no there.
Where is the corp?'
"'O, Elspat! it will be there vera soon,' said my neebor; an'
that satisfied her.
"She cam' to hersel' an hour afore she departed. God
been very gude to her, she said, a' her life lang, an' he hadna forsaken
her at the last. He had been gude to her when he had gien her friens,
au' gude to her when he took them to himsel'; an' she kent she was now
going to baith him an' them. There wasna such a difference, she
said, atween life an' death as folk were ready to think. She was
sure that, though William had been ca'ed awa suddenly, he hadna been ca'ed
without being prepared; an' now that her turn had come, an' that she was
goin' to meet wi' him, it was maybe as weel that he had left her early;
for, till she had lost him, she had been owre licht an' thochtless; an'
had it been her lot to hae lived in happiness wi' him, she micht hae
remained light an' thochtless still. She bade us baith fareweel, an'
thanked an' blessed us; an' her last breath went awa' in a prayer no half
an hour after. Puir, decent body! But she's no puir now."
"A pretty portrait," whispered my companion, "of one of a
class fast wearing away. Nothing more interests me in the story than
the woman's undoubting faith in the supernatural. She does not even
seem to know that what she believes so firmly herself is so much as
doubted by others. Try whether you can't bring up, by some means, a
few other stories furnished with a similar machinery,—a story of the
second sight, for instance."
"The only way of accomplishing that," I replied, "is by
contributing a story of the kind myself."
"The vision of the room hung in white," I said, "reminds me
of a story related, about a hundred and fifty years ago, by a very learned
and very ingenious countryman of ours, George, first Earl of Cromarty.
His lordship, a steady Royalist, was engaged, shortly before the
Restoration (he was then, by the way, only Sir George Mackenzie), in
raising troops for the king on his lands on the western coast of
Ross-shire. There came on one of those days of rain and tempest so
common in the district, and Sir George, with some of his friends, were
storm-bound, in a solitary cottage, somewhere on the shores of Lochbroom.
Towards evening one of the party went out to look after their horses.
He had been sitting beside Sir George, and the chair he had occupied
remained empty. On Sir George's servant, an elderly Highlander,
coming in, he went up to his master, apparently much appalled, and,
tapping him on the shoulder, urged him to rise. 'Rise!' he said,
'rise! There's a dead man sitting on the chair beside you.'
The whole party immediately started to their feet; but they saw only the
empty chair. The dead man was visible to the Highlander alone.
His head was bound up, he said, and his face streaked with blood, and one
of his arms hung broken by his side. Next day, as a party of
horsemen were passing along the steep side of a hill in the neighbourhood,
one of the horses stumbled and threw its rider; and the man, grievously
injured by the fall, was carried in a state of insensibility to the
cottage. His head was deeply gashed and one of his arms was
broken,—though he ultimately recovered,—and, on being brought to the
cottage, he was placed, in a death-like swoon, in the identical chair
which the Highlander had seen occupied by the spectre. Sir George
relates the story, with many a similar story besides, in a letter to the
celebrated Robert Boyle."
"I have perused it with much interest," said my friend, "and
wonder our booksellers should have suffered it to become so scarce.
Do you not remember the somewhat similar story his lordship relates of the
Highlander, who saw the apparition of a troop of horse ride over the brow
of a hill and enter a field of oats, which, though it had been sown only a
few days before, the horsemen seemed to cut down with their swords?
He states that, a few months after, a troop of cavalry actually entered
the same field, and carried away the produce for fodder to their horses.
He tells, too, if I remember aright, that on the same expedition to which
your story belongs, one of his Highlanders, on entering a cottage, started
back with horror. He had met in the passage, he said, a dead man in
his shroud, and saw people gathering for a funeral. And, as his
lordship relates, one of the inmates of the cottage, who was in perfect
health at the time of the vision, died suddenly only two days after."
THE STORY OF DONALD GAIR.
"THE second sight," said an elderly man who sat
beside me, and whose countenance had struck me as highly expressive of
serious thought, "is fast wearing out of this part of the country.
Nor should we much regret it perhaps. It seemed, if I may so speak,
as something outside the ordinary dispositions of Providence, and, with
all the horror and unhappiness that attended it, served no apparent good
end. I have been a traveller in my youth, masters. About
thirty years ago, I served for some time in the navy. I entered on
the first breaking out of the Revolutionary war, and was discharged during
the short peace of 1801. One of my chief companions on shipboard,
for the first few years, was a young man, a native of Sutherland, named
Donald Gair. Donald, like most of his countrymen, was a staid,
decent lad, of a rather melancholy cast; and yet there were occasions when
he could be gay enough too. We sailed together in the Bedford, under
Sir Thomas Baird; and, after witnessing the mutiny at the Nore,—neither of
us did much more than witness it, for in our case it merely transferred
the command of the vessel from a very excellent captain to a set of low
Irish doctor's-list men,—we joined Admiral Duncan, then on the Dutch
station. We were barely in time to take part in the great action.
Donald had been unusually gay all the previous evening. We knew the
Dutch had come out, and that there was to be an engagement on the morrow;
and, though' I felt no fear, the thought that I might have to stand in a
few brief hours before my Maker and my Judge had the effect of rendering
me serious. But my companion seemed to have lost all command of
himself. He sung and leaped and shouted, not like one intoxicated,
there was nothing of intoxication about him,—but under the influence of a
wild, irrepressible flow of spirits. I took him seriously to task,
and reminded him that we might both at that moment be standing on the
verge of death and judgment. But he seemed more impressed by my
remarking that, were his mother to see him, she would say he was fey.
"We had never been in action before with our captain Sir
Thomas. He was a grave, and, I believe, God-fearing man, and much a
favourite with at least all the better seamen. But we had not yet
made up our minds on his character,—indeed, no sailor ever does with
regard to his officers till he knows how they fight,—and we were all
curious to see how the parson, as we used to call him, would behave
himself among the shot. But truly we might have had little fear for
him. I have sailed with Nelson, and not Nelson himself ever showed
more courage or conduct than Sir Thomas in that action. He made us
all lie down beside our guns, and steered us, without firing a shot, into
the very thickest of the fight; and when we did open, masters, every
broadside told with fearful effect. I never saw a man issue his
commands with more coolness or self-possession.
"There are none of our continental neighbours who make better
seamen, or who fight more doggedly, than the Dutch. We were in a
blaze of flame for four hours. Our rigging was slashed to pieces,
and two of our ports were actually knocked into one. There was one
fierce, ill-natured Dutchman, in particular,—a fellow as black as night,
without so much as a speck of paint or gilding about him, save that he had
a red lion on the prow,—that fought us as long as he had a spar standing;
and when he struck at last, fully one half the crew lay either dead or
wounded on the decks, and all his scupper-holes were running blood as
freely as ever they had done water at a deck-washing. The Bedford
suffered nearly as severely. It is not in the heat of action that we
can reckon on the loss we sustain. I saw my comrades falling around
me,—falling by the terrible cannon-shot as they came crashing in through
our sides; I felt; too, that our gun wrought more heavily as our numbers
were thinning around it and at times, when some sweeping chain-shot or
fatal splinter laid open before me those horrible mysteries of the inner
man which nature so sedulously conceals, I was conscious of a momentary
feeling of dread and horror. But in the prevailing mood, an
unthinking anger, a dire thirsting after revenge, a dogged, unyielding
firmness, were the chief ingredients. I strained every muscle and
sinew; and, amid the smoke and the thunder and the frightful carnage,
fired and loaded, and fired and loaded, and, with every discharge, sent
out, as it were, the bitterness of my whole soul against the enemy.
But very different were my feelings when victory declared in our favour,
and, exhausted and unstrung, I looked abroad among the dead. As I
crossed the deck my feet literally splashed in blood; and I saw the
mangled fragments of human bodies sticking in horrid patches to the sides
and the beams above. There was a fine little boy aboard with whom I
was an especial favourite. He had been engaged, before the action,
in the construction of a toy ship, which he intended sending to his
mother; and I used sometimes to assist him, and to lend him a few simple
tools; and, just as we were bearing down on the enemy, he had come running
up to me with a knife which he had borrowed from me a short time before.
"'Alick, Alick,' he said, 'I have brought you your knife; we
are going into action, you know, and I may be killed, and then you would
"Poor little fellow! The first body I recognized was
his. Both his arms had been fearfully shattered by a cannon-shot,
and the surgeon's tourniquets, which had been fastened below the
shoulders, were still there; but he had expired ere the amputating knife
had been applied. As I stood beside the body, little in love with
war, masters, a comrade came up to me to say that my friend and
countryman, Donald Gair, lay mortally wounded in the cockpit. "I
went instantly down to him. But never shall I forget, though never
may I attempt to describe, what I witnessed that day in that frightful
scene of death and suffering. Donald lay in a low hammock, raised
not a foot over the deck; and there was no one beside him, for the
surgeons had seen at a glance the hopelessness of his case, and were
busied about others of whom they had hope. He lay on his back,
breathing very hard, but perfectly insensible; and in the middle of his
forehead there was a round little hole without so much as a speck of blood
about it, where a musket-bullet had passed through his brain. He
continued to breathe for about two hours; and when he expired I wrapped
the body decently up in a hammock, and saw it committed to the deep.
The years passed; and, after looking death in the face in many a storm and
many a battle, peace was proclaimed, and I returned to my friends and my
"A few weeks after my arrival, an elderly Highland woman, who
had travelled all the way from the further side of Loch Shin to see me,
came to our door. She was the mother of Donald Gair, and had taken
her melancholy journey to bear from me all she might regarding the last
moments and death of her son. She had no English, and I had not
Gaelic enough to converse with her; but my mother, who had received her
with a sympathy all the deeper from the thought that her own son might
have been now in Donald's place, served as our interpreter. She was
strangely inquisitive, though the little she heard served only to increase
her grief; and you may believe it was not much I could find heart to tell
her; for what was there in the circumstances of my comrade's death to
afford pleasure to his mother? And so I waived her questions
regarding his wound and his burial as best I could.
"'Ah,' said the poor woman to my mother, 'he need not be
afraid to tell me all. I know too, too well that my Donald's body
was thrown into the sea; I knew of it long ere it happened; and I have
long tried to reconcile my mind to it, tried when he was a boy even; and
so you need not be afraid to tell me now.'
"'And how,' asked my mother, whose curiosity was excited,
'could you have thought of it so early?'
"'I lived,' rejoined the woman, 'at the time of Donald's
birth, in a lonely shieling among the Sutherland hills,—a full day's
journey from the nearest church. It was a long, weary road, over
moors and mosses. It was in the winter season, too, when the days
are short; and so, in bringing Donald to be baptized, we had to remain a
night by the way in the house of a friend. We there found an old
woman of so peculiar an appearance that, when she asked me for the child,
I at first declined giving it, fearing she was mad and might do it harm.
The people of the house, however, assured me she was incapable of hurting
it, and so I placed it on her lap. She took it up in her arms, and
began to sing to it; but it was such a song as none of us had ever heard
"'Poor little stranger!' she said, 'thou hast come into the
world in an evil time. The mists are on the hills, gloomy and dark,
and the rain lies chill on the heather; and thou, poor little thing, hast
a long journey through the sharp, biting winds, and thou art helpless and
cold. Oh, but thy long after journey is as dreary and dark! A
wanderer shalt thou be, over the land and the ocean; and in the ocean
shalt thou lie at last. Poor little thing, I have waited for thee
long. I saw thee in thy wanderings, and in thy shroud, ere thy
mother brought thee to the door; and the sounds of the sea and of the
deadly guns are still ringing in my ears. Go, poor little thing; to
thy mother. Bitterly shall she yet weep for thee, and no wonder; but
no one shall ever weep over thy grave, or mark where thou liest amid the
deep green, with the shark and the seal.'
"'From that evening,' continued the mother of my friend, 'I
have tried to reconcile my mind to what was to happen Donald. But
oh, the fond, foolish heart! I loved him more than any of his
brothers, because I was to lose him soon; and though when he left me I
took farewell of him for ever,—for I knew I was never, never to see him
more,—I felt, till the news reached me of his fall in battle, as if he
were living in his coffin. But oh! do tell me all you know of his
death. I am old and weak, but I have travelled far, far to see you,
that I might hear all; and surely, for the regard you bore to Donald, you
will not stiffer me to return as I came.'
"But I need not dwell longer on the story. I imparted
to the poor woman all the circumstances of her son's death as I have done
to you; and, shocking as they may seem, I found that she felt rather
relieved than otherwise."
"This is not quite the country of the second sight," said my
friend; "it is too much on the borders of the Lowlands. The gift
seems restricted to the Highlands alone, and it is now fast wearing out
"And weel it is," said one of the men, "that it should be
sae. It is surely a miserable thing to ken o' coming evil, if we
just merely ken that it is coming' an' that come it must, do what we may.
Hae ye ever heard the story o' the kelpie that wons in the Conon?"
My friend replied in the negative.
THE STORY OF THE DOOMED RIDER.
"THE Conon," continued the man, "is as bonny a river
as we hae in a' the north country. There's mony a sweet sunny spot
on its banks; an' mony a time an' aft hae I waded through its shallows,
when a boy, to set my little scantling-line for the trouts an' the eels,
or to gather the big pearl-mussels that lie sae thick in the fords.
But its bonny wooded banks are places for enjoying the day in, no for
passing the nicht. I kenna how it is: it's nane o' your wild
streams, that wander desolate through desert country, like the Avon, or
that come rushing down in foam and thunder, owre broken rocks, like the
Foyers, or that wallow in darkness, deep, deep in the bowels o' the earth,
like the fearfu' Auldgraunt; an' yet no ane o' these rivers has mair or
frightfuler stories connected wi' it than the Conon. Ane can hardly
saunter owre half a mile in its course frae where it leaves Contin till
where it enters the sea, without passing owre the scene o' some frightful
auld legend o' the kelpie or the water-wraith. And ane o' the maist
frightful-looking o' these places is to be found among the woods o' Conon
House. Ye enter a swampy meadow, that waves wi' flags an' rushes
like a cornfield in harvest, an' see a hillock covered wi' willows rising
like au island in the midst. There are thick mirk woods on ilka
side: the river, dark an' awesome, an' whirling round and round in mossy
eddies, sweeps away behind it; an' there is an auld burying-ground, wi'
the broken ruins o' an auld Papist kirk on the tap. Ane can still
see among the rougher stanes the rose-wrought mullions of an arched window
au' the trough that ance held the holy water. About twa hunder years
ago,—a wee mair, maybe, or a wee less, for ane canna be very sure o' the
date o' thae auld stories,—the building was entire; an' a spot near it,
where the wood now grows thickest, was laid out in a cornfield. The
marks o' the furrows may still be seen amang the trees. A party o'
Highlanders were busily engaged a'e day in harvest in cutting down the
corn o' that field; an' just aboot noon, when the sun shone brightest, an'
they were busiest in the work, they heard a voice frae the river exclaim,
'The hour, but not the man, has come.' Sure enough, on looking
round, there was the kelpie standin' in what they ca' a fause ford, just
fornent the auld kirk. There is a deep, black pool baith aboon an'
below, but i' the ford there's a bonny ripple, that shows, as ane might
think, but little depth o' water; an, just i' the middle o' that, in a
place where a horse might swim, stood the kelpie. An' it again
repeated its words, 'The hour, but not the man, has come'; an' then,
flashing through the water like a drake, it disappeared in the lower pool.
When the folk stood wondering what the creature might mean, they saw a man
on horseback come spurring down the hill in hot haste, making straight for
the fause ford. They could then understand her words at ance; an'
four o' the stoutest o' them sprang oot frae amang the corn, to warn him
o' his danger an' keep him back. An' sae they tauld him what they
had seen an heard, an' urged him either to turn back an' tak' anither road
or stay for an hour or sae where he was. But he just wadna hear
them, for he was baith unbelieving an' in haste, an' would hae ta'en the
ford for a' they could say hadna the Highlanders, determined on saving him
whether he would or no, gathered round him an' pulled him frae his horse,
an' then, to make sure o' him, locked him up in the auld kirk. Weel,
when the hour had gone by,—the fatal hour o' the kelpie,—they flung open
the door, an' cried to him that he might noo gang on his journey.
Ah! but there was nae answer, though; an' sae they cried a second time,
an' there was nae answer still; an' then they went in, and found him lying
stiff an' cauld on the floor, wi' his face buried in the water o' the very
stane trough that we may still see amang the ruins. His hour had
come, an' he had fallen in a fit, as 'twould seem, head foremost amang the
water o' the trough, where he had been smothered; an' sae, ye see, the
prophecy o' the kelpie availed nothing."
"The very story," exclaimed my friend, "to which Sir Walter
alludes, in one of the notes to 'The Heart of MidLothian.' The
kelpie, you may remember, furnishes him with a motto to the chapter in
which he describes the gathering of all Edinburgh to witness the execution
of Porteous, and their irrepressible wrath on ascertaining that there was
to be no execution,—'The hour, but not the man, is come."'
"I remember making quite the same discovery," I replied,
"about twelve years ago, when I resided for several months on the banks of
the Conon, not half a mile from the scene of the story. One might
fill a little book with legends of the Conon. The fords of the river
are dangerous, especially in the winter season; and about thirty years
ago, before the erection of the fine stone bridge below Conon House,
scarcely a winter passed in which fatal accidents did not occur; and these
were almost invariably traced to the murderous malice of the
"But who or what is the water-wraith?" said my friend.
"We heard just now of the kelpie, and it is the kelpie that Sir Walter
"Ah," I replied, "but we must not confound the kelpie and the
water-wraith, as has become the custom in these days of incredulity.
No two spirits, though they were both spirits of the lake and the river,
could be more different. The kelpie invariably appeared in the form
of a young horse; the water-wraith in that of a very tall woman, dressed
in green, with a withered, meagre countenance ever distorted by a
malignant scowl. It is the water-wraith, not the kelpie, whom Sir
Walter should have quoted; and yet I could tell you curious stories of the
"We must have them all," said my friend, "ere we part.
Meanwhile, I should like to hear some of your stories of the Conon."
"As related by me," I replied, "you will find them rather
meagre in their details. In my evening walks along the river, I have
passed the ford a hundred times out of which, only a twelvemonth before,
as a traveller was entering it on a moonlight night, the water-wraith
started up, not four yards in front of him, and pointed at him with her
long skinny fingers, as if in mockery. I have leaned against the
identical tree to which a poor Highlander clung when, on fording the river
by night, he was seized by the goblin. A lad who accompanied him,
and who had succeeded in gaining the bank, strove to assist him, but in
vain. The poor man was dragged from his hold into the current, where
he perished. The spot has been pointed out to me, too, in the
opening of the river, where one of our Cromarty fishermen, who had
anchored his yawl for the night, was laid hold of by the spectre when
lying asleep on the beams, and almost dragged over the gunwale into the
water. Our seafaring men still avoid dropping anchor, if they
possibly can, after the sun has set, in what they term the fresh;
that is, in those upper parts of the frith where the waters of the river
predominate over those of the sea.
"The scene of what is deemed one of the best authenticated
stories of the water-wraith lies a few miles higher up the river. It
is a deep; broad ford, through which horse men coming from the south pass
to Brahan Castle. A thick wood hangs over it on the one side; on the
other it is skirted by a straggling line of alders and a bleak moor.
On a winter night, about twenty-five years a servant of the late Lord
Seaforth had been drinking with some companions till a late hour, in a
small house in the upper part of the moor; and when the party broke up, he
was accompanied by two of them to the ford. The moon was at full,
and the river, though pretty deep in flood, seemed no way formidable to
the servant. He was a young, vigorous man, and mounted on a powerful
horse; and he had forded it, when half a yard higher on the bank, twenty
times before. As he entered the ford, a thick cloud obscured the
moon; but his companions could see him guiding the animal. He rode
in a slanting direction across the stream until he had reached nearly the
middle, when a dark, tall figure seemed to start out of the water and lay
hold of him. There was a loud cry of distress and terror, and a
frightful snorting and plunging of the horse. A moment passed, and
the terrified animal was seen straining towards the opposite bank, and the
ill-fated rider struggling in the stream. In a moment more he had
THE STORY OF FAIRBURN'S GHOST.
"I SULD weel keen the Conon," said one of the women,
who had not yet joined in the conversation. "I was born no a stane's-cast
frae the side o't. My mither lived in her last days beside the auld
Tower o' Fairburn, that stands sae like a ghaist aboon the river, an'
looks down on a' its turns and windings frae Contin to the sea. My
faither, too, for a twelvemonth or sae afore his death, had a boat on ane
o' its ferries, for the crossing, on weekdays, o' passengers, an' o' the
kirk-going folks on Sunday. He had a little bit farm beside the
Conon, an' just got the boat by way o' eiking out his means; for we had
aye enough to do at rent-time, an' had maybe less than plenty through a'
the rest o' the year besides. Weel, for the first ten months or sae
the boat did brawly. The Castle o' Brahan is no half a mile frae the
ferry, an' there were aye a hantle o' gran' folk comin' and gangin' frae
the Mackenzie, an' my faither had the crossin' o' them a'. An'
besides, at Marti'mas, the kirk-going people used to send him firlots o'
bear an' pecks o' oatmeal; an' he soon began to find that the bit boat was
to do mair towards paying, the rent o' the farm than the farm itsel'.
"The Tower o' Fairburn is aboot a mile and a half aboon the
ferry. It stands by itsel' on the tap o' a heathery hill, an' there
are twa higher hills behind it. Beyond there spreads a black, dreary
desert, where ane micht wander a lang simmer's day withoot seeing the face
o' a human creature, or the kindly smoke o' a lum. I dare say nane
o' you hae heard hoo the Mackenzies o' Fairburn au' the Chisholms o'
Strathglass parted that bit o' kintra atween them. Name o' them
could tell where the lands o' the ane ended or the ither began, an' they
were that way for generations, till they at last thocht then, o' a plan o'
division. Each o' them gat an auld wife o' seventy-five, an' they
set them aff a'e Monday at the same time, the ane frae Erchless Castle an'
the ither frae the Tower, warning them aforehand that the braidness o'
their maisters' lands depended on their speed; for where the twa would
meet amang the hills, there would be the boundary.
"You may be sure that neither o' them lingered by the way
that morning. They kent there was mony an e'e on them, an' that
their names would be spoken o' in the kintra-side lang after themsels were
dead an' gane; but it sae happened that Fairburn's carline, wha had been
his nurse, was ane o' the slampest women in a' the north of Scotland,
young or auld; an', though the ither did weel, she did sae meikle better
that she had got owre twenty lang Highland miles or the ither had got owre
fifteen. They say it was a droll sicht to see them at the
meeting,—they were baith tired almost to fainting; but no sooner did they
come in sicht o' ane anither, at the distance o' a mile or sae, than they
began to run. An' they ran, an' better ran, till they met at a
little burnie; an' there wad they hae focht, though they had ne'er seen
ane anither atween the een afore, had they had strength eneugh left them;
but they had neither pith for fechtin' nor breath for scoldin', an' sae
they just sat down an' girned at ane anither across he stripe. The
Tower o' Fairburn is naething noo but a dismal ruin o' five broken
stories, the ane aboon the ither, an' the lands hae gane oot o' the auld
family; but the story o' the twa auld wives is a weel-kent story still.
"The laird o' Fairburn, in my faither's time, was as fine an
open-hearted gentleman as was in the haill country. He was just
particular gude to the puir; but the family had ever been that; ay, in
their roughest days, even whan the Tower had neither door nor window in
the lower story, an' only a wheen shot-holes in the story aboon.
There wasna a puir thing in the kintra but had reason to bless the laird;
an' at a'e time he had nae fewer than twelve puir orphans living about his
house at ance. Nor was he in the least a proud, haughty man.
He wad chat for hours thegither wi' ane o' his puirest tenants; an' ilka,
time he crossed the ferry, he wad tak' my faither wi' him, for company
just, maybe half a mile on his way out or hame. Weel, it was a'e
nicht about the end o' May,—a bonny nicht, an hour or sae after
sundown,—an' my faither was mooring his boat, afore going to bed, to an
auld oak tree, whan wha does he see but the laird o' Fairburn coming down
the bank? Od, thocht he, what can be takin' the laird frae hame sae
late as this? I thocht he had been no weel. The laird cam'
steppin' into the boat, but, instead o' speakin' frankly, as he used to
do, he just waved his hand, as the proudest gentleman in the kintra micht,
an' pointed to the ither side. My faither rowed him across; but, oh!
the boat felt unco dead an' heavy, an' the water stuck around the oars as
gin it had been tar; an' he had just eneugh ado, though there was but
little tide in the river, to mak' oot the ither side. The laird
stepped oot, an' then stood, as he used to do, on the bank, to gie my
faither time to fasten his boat, an' come alang wi' him; an' were it no
for that, the puir man wadna hae thocht o' going wi' him that nicht; but
as it was, he just moored his boat an' went. At first he thocht the
laird must hae got some bad news that made him sae dull, an' sae he spoke
on to amuse him, aboot the weather an' the markets; but he found he could
get very little to say, an' he felt as are an' eerie in passin' through
the woods as gin he had been passin' alane through a kirkyard. He
noticed, too, that there was a fearsome flichtering an' shriekin' amang
the birds that lodged in the tree-taps aboon them; an' that, as they
passed the Talisoe, there was a collie on the tap o' a hillock,
that set up the awfulest yowling he had ever heard. He stood for a
while in sheer consternation, but the laird beckoned him on, just as he
had done at the riverside, an' sae he gaed a bittie further alang the
wild, rocky glen that opens into the deer-park. But oh, the fright
that was amang the deer! They had been lyin' asleep on the knolls,
by sixes an' sevens; an' up they a' started at ance, and gaed driving aff
to the far end o' the park as if they couldna be far eneugh frae my
faither an' the laird. Weel, my faither stood again, an' the laird
beckoned an' beckoned as afore; but, Gude tak' us a' in keeping! whan my
faither looked up in his face, he saw it was the face o' a corp: it was
white an' stiff, an' the nose was thin an' sharp, an' there was nae
winking wi' the wide-open een. Gude preserve us! my faither didna
ken where he was stan'in,—didna ken what he was doin'; an', though he kept
his feet, he was just in a kind o' swarf like. The laird spoke twa
or three words to him,—something about the orphans, he thocht; but he was
in such a state that he couldna tell what; an' when he cam' to himsel' the
apparition was awa'. It was a bonny clear nicht when they had
crossed the Conon; but there had been a gatherin' o' black cluds i' the
lift as they gaed, an' there noo cam' on, in the clap o' a han', ane o'
the fearsomest storms o' thunder an' lightning that was ever seen in the
country. There was a thick gurly aik smashed to shivers owre my
faither's head, though nane o' the splinters steered him; an' whan he
reached the river, it was roaring frae bank to brae like a little ocean;
for a water-spout had broken amang the hills, an' the trees it had torn
doun wi' it were darting alang the current like arrows. He crossed
in nae little danger, an' took to his bed; an', though he raise an' went
aboot his wark for twa or three months after, he was never, never his ain
man again. It was found that the laird had departed no five minutes
afore his apparition had come to the ferry; an' the very last words he had
spoken—but his mind was carried at the time—was something aboot my faither."