Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Scotland's Book of Romance
Chapter I - The Beach at Borrodale

In Arisaig - A Stranger from Argyll - I Explore the Prince's Cave - The Islets in Loch nan Uamh - I Set Out for Moidart - The Black Loch among the Hills - I Arrive at Loch Ailort.

THE road begins at Arisaig; and it was in low spirits that I watched the little Highland train steam noisily away from the station and disappear among the trees. I had been the only passenger to descend. The station-master, a strapping grey-eyed girl in a blue uniform, had directed me to the beach in a shy and lilting voice, and with a polite smile had left me alone on the platform. I am not sure whether it was Kinglake who said that a man can have a more acute feeling of loneliness in the crowded streets of London than on the Egyptian desert; and though I have had a deep draught of the one and a slight taste of the other, I have never known such a devastating pang of loneliness as I felt that morning on the empty platform among the trees at Arisaig. When the noise of the departing train had faded, the silence was eerie. It was sharpened to an even keener pitch when the engine, now far in the distance, hooted once like a prowling owl and went on its way around the mountainsides. So intense, so prolonged, was the silence that presently it seemed to become a living thing : you could almost detect its pulse-beat in the clear hot air of that autumn morning. I can remember my odd desire to talk to some human being, and, so far as I knew, the only one within miles of me was the young station-mistress. I had nothing particular to say to her, but I felt it would have been a relief to hear the sound of a voice-any voice-breaking that interminable stillness. It must have been reticence, I thought, that had made the girl turn on her heel and go swinging down the platform out of sight. If I'd had the Gaelic, the language she would have warmed to, she might have waited to pass the time of day; but she appeared to be so self-sufficing, so serene in the cool and shuttered hermitage of her own mind, that somehow or other I did not care to intrude with the rough battering-ram of a Sassenach tongue. And so I remained alone on the platform, feeling like a child cut off from his companions, feeling infinitely far away from the green South country and my pleasant, familiar, rhythmic life of work and books and sleep, and a little daunted at the thought that I had more than two hundred miles to cover alone on foot before I reached the end of my journey. To travel hopefully may be better than to arrive, but I did not think so then. I had lumped my rucksack, a dead weight, out of the guard's-van ; it lay on the ground beside me; and I swung it on my shoulders and set out along the road through trees towards the shore.

It was cheering, twenty minutes later, to come upon two or three tiny cottages in a row, and to see some children playing below the gable-end. So the stationmistress and myself were not the only human beings in Arisaig ! The children stopped their play and collected in a rigid group to stare at me, and I asked them to put me on the path for the shore ; but though I repeated the question, I could not get a word out of them. They drew a little closer together, with the look of startled colts: I felt that at any moment they might toss their shaggy heads and, with a whinny, gallop for shelter. A friendly smile flickered for a moment on the face of the eldest girl. She put a protecting arm round the shoulders of a little man of three in baggy corduroys, and nodded to a boy in the rear of the group, who detached himself and ran into the nearest cottage. Presently, a middle-aged woman appeared at the door, and I asked her the best way down to Prince Charlie's beach-the beach where he landed in the 'Forty-five.

Her sad dark eyes were a little puzzled. "Prince Charlie's beach?" She shook her head. "I'm a stranger here," she said; "but maybe Donald will know." She called into the house in her soft Highland voice, and then, excusing herself, went indoors.

I slipped off my rucksack, glad to be rid of the weight of it for a few moments, and dropped it on the grass by the roadside; and I saw it was this the children had been staring at. Perhaps they were a little surprised at first that I hadn't come to sell things out of it at the cottage doors. They came a couple of steps forward, still keeping in a compact group, still uttering not a word, even among themselves. One boy ventured to draw yet a little nearer to the rucksack, but was hastily pulled back and chided by the eldest girl. I liked the look of the youngsters; they obviously were well cared for; and their respectful and reticent manners were pleasant to see. When I thought of the children near some big towns in the South, and of the sharp-eyed little Edinburgh keelies, lovable in their way but with the manners of unleashed demons, it seemed to me that the Gael in solitude must be rather a fine fellow when he can breed youngsters like these.

"Donald will take you to Prince Charlie's beach, sir," said the woman's voice behind me. "He knows where it is - there's a cave there - it will be a mile from here." And Donald himself came out of the cottage. He was pulling on a jacket, apparently not wishing to insult a stranger by walking beside him in the dishabille of a blue jersey. It seemed to be his Sunday jacket, too: which I accepted as a double honour. He was a sturdy boy of twelve or thirteen, with corduroy trousers reaching half-way between knee and ankle, and was uncommonly agile in spite of his enormous iron-shod boots. When I turned to the woman and thanked her she made a gesture of deprecation ; and since she had mentioned that she was a stranger, it occurred to me to ask her what part of the country she came from.

"Argyll," she said, almost wistfully.

"And you've come to live in Arisaig for good?"

"Oh, yes." Her husband, she added, was a gamekeeper; and it struck me that she must find life a very lonely thing in these parts. When I ventured to say so, she wrinkled her brows and thought for a moment.

"It is very strange here," she replied slowly, "but I will get used to it. No, it is not too lonely - the place I have lived in all my life would be more lonely than this. Ah, it is the people here that are different, and so is the Gaelic. Yes, this place is very strange, but I will get used to it," she repeated.

When I asked how long she had been in Arisaig her reply startled me:

"Five years."

After five years this woman still called herself a stranger!" But I will be going home for a week in the Spring," she added, her eyes lighting up.

A little way down the road, the boy - a trifle stiff and self-conscious in his Sunday jacket - took me through a gateway and along a track which looked like a private avenue. My guess about the avenue was correct, for presently on our right I saw a long low white house with a veranda, set against a background of dark pine trees and rolling brown hillside. Some washing stirred gently on a line beside the house, and in the deep shadow of the veranda a white-faced woman lay motionless on an invalid-chair.

"No, it is visitors who are there-the big house will be further on, sir," Donald replied to my question; and on the shoulder of a low hill less than a quarter of a mile ahead I could see a large Scottish mansion-house of grey stone. "The laird lives up there," said Donald in a slightly awed voice. "He is on the hills to-day after a stag." He pointed to our left, in the direction the burn was flowing. "Prince Charlie's beach is down this way. His cave is at the beach-they call it prince Charlie's Cave."

We crossed a tiny pocket-handkerchief of a field where some thin pale corn stood in stooks, and followed the burn to the shore.

"I expect you're often down here at the cave," I remarked, but he shook his head.

"I have only been once before, sir."

"And you've lived here five years!" I exclaimed.

He did not answer, but his eyes strayed to the windows of the mansion-house that overlooked the narrow valley. Evidently Donald and his friends did not think it fitting that they should romp within view of the Laird, so I said no more. The morning sun was hot in our faces, and I was glad I had left my rucksack up on the roadside. The valley opened out, and the shadow of the birch trees that thronged the slopes on either hand looked inviting. Ahead, a strip of beach was moist with the tide and shimmered in the morning sun ; and Loch nan Uamh, which means the Loch of the Caves, was hidden behind a thin veil of mist. The boy beside me pointed. "That is where Prince Charlie came, sir." And as if his mission were at an end, he dropped a few paces behind.

I drew in a long breath. So this was where Prince Charles Edward Stuart first set foot on the mainland of Scotland. I had come five hundred miles by train so that I could set out on my travels from this place. My object was to go on foot over the ground the Prince had covered in the 'Forty-five. I was to take my own time on the road, I decided to loiter when I felt like loitering, to hurry on when I was bored. And I had often tried to picture this beach to myself, but I had never dreamt that I would experience the sudden glow that came to me when I saw it for the first time on that September morning. The depression I had felt at the railway station was forgotten. It was not merely that this narrow shore, with a glimpse of the misty sea-loch beyond and a rocky islet rising out of the placid water, looked lovely beyond words: it was not that the morning itself was one of God's best: it was something more than these things that quickened the blood. How easy it is to talk drivel about Prince Charlie ! Almost enough sentimental ink has been spilt about him to have floated the ship that carried him back to France, and around his portrait saccharine tears hang in cloudy crystals. He has been spattered with mud by truculent Whigs, and white-washed by Jacobites. The unco guid have held up their white hands at some of the stories about his later life, to find their knuckles rapped by Stuart loyalists. And if one tries to steer a middle course, to be judicious and level-headed, admitting faults and admiring virtues, how desperately easy it is to be patronising! And, that odious trap avoided, how easy to be merely dull ! I wonder if it is possible to be quite unprejudiced in our opinions about any fellow-being. A glance, a gesture, a word, some trivial impulsive act : so often we respond to these, or recoil from them, and the essential outlines of the picture are blurred. And the more one reads about Charles Edward Stuart in the records of men who knew him personally, and in the writing of those who are entitled by scholarship to an opinion, the more one finds it difficult to keep bigotry behind the door. For example, it has been said that in dragging the Highlanders of Scotland through a slough of blood, and leading them into years of more brutal suppression than they had ever experienced, Charles himself had nothing to lose and everything to gain. And the retort has been that he would not have come to Scotland if he hadn't been confident of saving his country from the Hanoverian usurper who was on the throne; and if Charles had everything to gain, he had certainly one thing to lose, and he was ready to lose it - his life.  More than two centuries have passed since he was born, and even today at the mention of his name wigs are on the green. And this is a hearty compliment to pay to any man: at least it is not paid to nincompoops or futile adventurers.

It was within sight of the beach at Arisaig that the prince's first battle was fought. I venture to think that it demanded more courage than any other battle he was engaged in, for it was fought with his own friends. He had arrived at Eriskay on 23rd July 1'745 with a handful of companions. His only hope of raising any army was among his loyal clans, but stern faces met him at every turn. Unless French troops were landed to back them up, the chieftains declared that a Rising would be, another fiasco like the 'Fifteen, with bloodshed and bitterness to follow. They urged him to turn back to France-to go home.

"I am come home, sir," Charles had replied to one of them, and a few days later he cried: "If I can get but six stout trusty fellows to join me, I would choose far rather to skulk with them among the mountains of Scotland than return to France."

The situation was critical. The Prince was on board the Du Teillay, which lay at anchor in the sea-loch. The voyage from France had been nerve-racking. Their convoy had been crippled in a fight off the Irish coast. At the first sight of a sail on the horizon, they had been compelled to clap on canvas and alter their course; and after dark, not a lantern did they dare to light except the one at the compass. Off the Hebrides, they had been chased by a British man-of-war. And now, at any moment, a King's ship might come around by Ardnamurchan and block their only way of escape. On their arrival at Borrodale, the party had given out to the country people that they were smugglers, but now it was known that the Prince himself was in their midst. A man of lesser fortitude would have ordered Monsieur Walsh to weigh anchor and turn back to France. His own safety, however, had never meant much to Charles. He had stood staunch under artillery-fire as a mere boy at Gaeta after the besieging Spanish generals had scuttled to safety. For years-and he was now twenty-four-he had prepared himself against the day when he would come to Scotland to fulfil what he believed to be his destiny, and he was inflamed with a conviction that the hour had come. He was disguised as an ecclesiastic, and for the previous month he had allowed his fair beard to grow. On the deck of the Du Teillay, he stood looking into the gloomy faces of the Highlanders around him. If he had not found it out before, he now saw the dourness of the Highlander. How near he was to despair we may never know. With a sudden impulse, he turned to a man who stood in silence on the fringe of the group, and cried: "Will not you assist me?"

Ranald Macdonald's eyes lit up. He had heard the Prince's arguments and the short gloomy replies of the chieftains. He knew that little help could be expected from the powerful island clans. It seemed that the end had come. And then: " Will not you - even you - assist me?"

The words went home like the stab of a dirk.

"I will, I will-though no other man in the Highlands will draw a sword !" [No doubt John Home heard the details of this incident in Moidart; Chambers, in quoting Home, carelessly called Ranald a "youth," and subsequent historians have followed suit. Ranald Macdonald, younger brother of Donald Macdonald of Kinlochmoidart, was in fact a man of about forty at the time of the Rising.]

A hot-headed fool: the others in the group must have called him that under their breath. But the cry of Ranald Macdonald set the heather on fire. One after another, the Macdonald chieftains gave their word, and discretion went whistling down the wind. An eagle, the royal bird of good omen, had hovered over the Du Teillay at Eriskay : perhaps some fanciful Highland eye may now have envisaged above the ship the form of the Fiery Cross that was to go through the glens calling the loyal clans to arms. And so the Prince won his first battle-a battle against despair in the hearts of those who regarded him with passionate devotion.

This was the scene in my mind as I stood on the shore looking out on the narrow loch. I am aware that the spot most closely linked with the 'Forty-five is Glenfinnan, where the Prince afterwards raised his standard and, to the paean of pipes, Highland bonnets were tossed in the air in an ecstasy. But as I lingered on the beach at Arisaig, where the Prince's long journey began, the place seemed to hold all the glamour and the sorrow of those four hundred and twenty-two days when the grandson of King James VII was among his own folk. Forty-three years later, the old decrepit body of Charles Edward Stuart was laid in a tomb at Rome, but his heart should have been buried at Arisaig.

It was the voice of the boy behind me that broke into my thoughts.

"Prince Charlie's cave is up there, sir," he said, pointing to the rocks and birches of the steep slope on our right.

It was not until after Culloden, when Cumberland's troops were on his heels, that the Prince was forced to take refuge in holes in the earth. Hunted from glen to glen and from island to island, he was several times back at Arisaig among his friends, the Macdonalds. It is strange that when he left Scotland for the last time, a fugitive with 30,000 on his head, he embarked from this same beach where he had first landed. But the wheel had an odd trick of coming full circle with Charles Edward Stuart, and it was his destiny to die in the same room in the old palazzo at Rome where he was born.

Donald was uncertain about the exact position of the cave. We searched for nearly twenty minutes before we found it; for a grey boulder, to which you must scramble over steep rocks, perfectly conceals the entrance. To hunt for a cave is to become a boy again. At the optimistic age of ten in Edinburgh, I have helped others to rake Arthur's Seat from base to summit in search of a cave where we might cower in candlelight and share a romantic crust. But our luck was always out. The hollow under a red rock on the track over to the Hunter's Bog was the best we could ever find. Even in the heart of that little cavern, on Arthur's Seat, the wavering gleam of our candle was drowned by daylight, and we needed the dusk of a winter's afternoon to catch the authentic shudder of outlawry, while one of us guarded the entrance with a toy pistol at full cock. I remembered that old eyrie at Arthur's Seat as I lowered myself down into the entrance of the Prince's cave at Arisaig. But here was certainly the genuine article. A deep fissure in the rock-face opened out into a goodly chamber. The floor was powdered with fine black soil. I lit a match, and caught sight of a further opening at the distant end. Among the dust lay the stump of a candle, the relic of some previous pilgrim. Lighting it, I went forward and crawled down with difficulty into the inner cavern. This was high and narrow, and the air was as cool as a well. Though the floor was hummocky, a bed of bracken would have made as snug a couch as any wanderer could wish for ; and when the Prince lay here after Culloden, his thoughts must have gone back to many a wet night when he had shivered in an open corrie among the mountains, Cumberland's troops at times within a musket-shot. I rejoined my young companion in the dazzling sunlight, and we scrambled down the slope to the beach below.

I lay back on the grass near the shore, and lit a pipe of tobacco, and let the utter tranquility of the place soak slowly into my bones. The gods had certainly granted me a fortunate day for the start of my journey. As I lay smoking, I tried to picture that strip of beach on a wild winter evening. With a gale whistling among the birch trees that crowd the high ground on either hand, and Atlantic rollers racing in between the islands of Rum and Coll, tossing up the sea-weed on these dark rocks like wind-blown hair, it would be a bleak spot to the eye of a stranger ; but on that September morning the place was drenched in peace. The mist was now rising in the Sound of Arisaig, revealing the islets that are scattered along the northern shore of the sealoch, and below the mist the sea itself was as placid as a gold-fish bowl. Two buzzards passed high overhead, moving slowly as though the heat of the morning made flight a burdensome thing. I could hear no sound except the sibilant purr of the Borrodale Burn that splashes down fifteen hundred feet from a tiny loch perched like a bird's nest among the hill-tops of Morar.

When I looked at my map I found with surprise that Skye itself was less than a dozen miles away; and the gulls on the rocks before me could, if the whim took them, alight on the island of Rum in half an hour. Yet this little sea-loch seemed to be shut away in a fold of the earth inexpressibly far from familiar places. I looked out towards the Sound and tried to locate on my map the tiny islands that came glimmering like ghosts from the rising mist. Their Gaelic names sounded in my ear like unfamiliar music: Eilean nan Cabar; and Am Fraoch-eilean with scattered islets near it; and Eilean an Sgurra with its pinnacle of rock; and further out An Glas-eilean a bold fellow with a group of satellites at his back. Donald helped me to arrive at their meaning. The Island of Staves; Heather Island; the Island of the Rock, and the Grey Island. Somehow or other, Gaelic names seem always to fit their places like a garment, and for proof of the richness of the Celtic imagination, a man has only to open a map of Scotland with a Gaelic dictionary at his elbow. Nearly every name in the Highlands has its story, and the pity is that some chiel with a note-book cannot creep back into the centuries and pick up those that have been long forgotten.

Already it was nearly noon. Where I was to sleep that night I had no idea, and I knew it was high time I was moving. Food did not worry me, for I had some dry rations in my pack. But I realised that to find a bed for the night was a riddle that would have to be solved every day of my journey. Though the weather was exquisite, the nights were sharp ; and a light rubber sheet, which I carried to use as a cloak when it rained, was not the ideal covering for a man compelled to spend a night among the heather. Later on in my journey, when I had entered more populous districts, a room in an inn or a farmhouse might not be very difficult to find ; but in this corner of Scotland, to get a bed or even a couch might prove the devil's own problem. If I had been tramping in these parts at the time when the poet Leyden made his tour, a night's shelter would have been a simple matter. A hundred years ago, between Loch Sunart and Loch Hourn, five or six thousand folk lived on this coast-more than were to be counted in the burgh of Lanark. But emigration has thinned down these people to a widely scattered handful. If I failed to find a bed before darkness fell, I knew I might be forced to pass the night without even the shelter of a haystack.

But there was a more immediate problem: the route I was to follow. I was making for Moidart, to which the prince had sailed from Arisaig in one of the Macdonald boats; and I knew that if I could not make the passage by sea, there was nothing for it but to tramp round on the shore. From the map I estimated that it was about five miles across the Sound of Arisaig, but more like twenty by road. Donald was watching me out of his big puzzled eyes.

"Is there any chance of hiring a boat here, and a man to sail it ?" I asked.

The boy shook his head. The laird had a motorboat, he said, but the Laird was up in the hills to-day, and he wouldn't be back until evening. That settled it. While the Prince had gone by boat, a party of Clanranald men had made the journey to Moidart on foot, and on foot to Moidart I must go. Knocking the ashes out of my pipe and folding up the map, I turned and headed back towards the road. It occurred to me to ask the boy in which direction Borrodale House lay, for there the Prince had stayed for a week with Angus Macdonald, a cousin of Flora Macdonald.

He had been entertained as royally as the farmhouse could afford. A guard of a hundred men had been provided. The news of the Prince's arrival had gone round like wildfire; and the district was shaken with enthusiasm. The doors of Borrodale House were thrown open. Men and women, young and old, were allowed to crowd in to see the Prince. The man who was the 'first officer to be commissioned in the Highland army was present and has described the scene. "H.R.H. drank the grace drink in English," he says; and when he proposed the King's health in Gaelic, the Prince turned to him and asked him to repeat the words slowly - Deoch slainte an Righ - so that he should never forget them. . . . But one's mind passes quickly to another picture. Ten months later Cumberland's troops had left the house of hospitality a blackened ruin, and Angus Macdonald was an outlaw in his own glens.

"That is Borrodale House," replied Donald in answer to my question, pointing to the long low house which I had passed on the way down to the shore. I had not realised that I had been looking at the site of the old Macdonald home. The place had been rebuilt in quieter days. Now dark pine trees stood behind it. The midday sun beat fiercely upon the white walls. The windows had been closed to shut out the heat, and the line of washing hung limp in the still air. Oddly enough, the sunlight gave the place a forlorn look. The only hint of life was the white-faced woman who lay on her chair in the deep shadow of the veranda.

The road from Borrodale to Moidart was execrably rough. I tried to keep to the grass at the side, but found it difficult to stride unevenly from tussock to tussock with a pack on my back, so in the end I held grimly to the road-metal. In places the surface was like the dry channel of a burn ; and since this was the only road from Fort William to Mallaig - not merely the bridlepath to some deserted hamlet - it struck me as rather medieval. The roadway follows the West Highland railway line, now leaping across a bridge above it, now suddenly ducking underneath, so that the two tracks wind together around these hillsides like twisted skeins of wool. The little railway station, as I passed it, was as silent as a mortuary chapel, and I smiled when I remembered the mood of gloom that had come over me on that narrow platform. At the brow of the hill I glanced back and caught sight of the stationmistress, a solitary figure, crossing the line. Was she married or single : how did she fill the long days of summer and the winter evenings: what did she think of the roaring Central Station in Glasgow, if she had ever seen it ? I shall never know now.

There are few things in this world more stimulating than to begin a journey on foot. Each day the setting out is a trumpet-call mustering a happy squadron of sensations: but on the first morning, these sensations are rallied with a pleasure that is doubly sharpened by their novelty. There is the weight of the pack on your back: you wonder how soon that Old Man of the Sea is going to settle snugly on your haunches. You decide in the first mile that you should have lightened it a trifle. Yet it was a wrench to have left behind that volume of Dunbar, particularly when you agree with W. P. Ker that "Dunbar is my poet" - and a volume of Scott's Journal, that most perfect of bedside and wayside books, now so portable, thanks to Nelson. The mind goes back to those hours of indecision when you weighed an extra pair of shoes against the Oxford Book of Verse, and a woollen jersey against Humphry Clinker. I recalled the pangs that had attended my final choice: Thackeray's Four Georges because I wanted to read it for either the seventh or eighth time, and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land because I always open it with a thrill of expectation and the hope that at last I may be able to make head or tail of it, and the little old thin green Heinemann edition of Hamlet, for I find that Hamlet has a knack of being most urgently desired when it is not available. And after toying with these I had in the end replaced on my shelves the Dunbar, the Scott, the "Q" and the Smollett, leaving regrets with each; and according to the kitchen-scales, my pack was the lighter by three pounds two ounces.

The glen around me was green with birch-woods. Every forty or fifty yards the trees came huddling down close to the road, making a long splash of shadow in front of me. Each shadow was a cool oasis, and I found myself slyly shortening my step so that I could taste the coolness for as long as possible. On either hand, gritty peaks of rock jutted high out of the trees and stood sharp and grey against the sky. According to my map, Loch nan Uamh was less than a mile away, but so shut in was this glen that I might have been a day's journey from the sea. Too soon for comfort I came out into the open, and pegged on in the heat. When the road wound southward again, and Loch nan Uamh once more came into view, I would fain have scrambled down to the shore and waded out after the ebbing tide to wallow like a duck in the shallow water. Not a breath of air was stirring. I remembered Barrie's remark about the great Professor Stuart Blackie : when all Edinburgh was sweltering in heat, fanning itself behind its venetian blinds, the Professor would swing along Princes Street in his Highland plaid, carrying his own breeze with him. I wished then that I was striding out at the tail-end of Blackie's breeze ; and when my road crossed a noisy burn, I halted on the hump-backed bridge, and realised that I was not only hot but desperately hungry.

A thought struck me : since there was no shelter anywhere, it would be pleasant below this bridge. In a trice I was over the fence and crawling below the stone arch. It was as cool as a cellar there, and the shadow on the clear brown water was soothing to the eyes after miles of bright sun. With the stone vault above me, I ate my luncheon like a crouching hermit in his cell. But my likeness to a hermit began and ended with the vault. There was no nibbling at a tough ascetic crust. Though oat-cakes and cheese, dried dates and an apple, may not call up a picture of the Carlton Grill, I will wager that even the worshippers of Bacchus had never entered upon their orgies with a sharper zest. And I could have trolled a stave or so to old Bacchus himself as I drank the cool water that tumbled down from a hill-loch above. I look back with a fleshly joy, on that banquet below the bridge, just as I look back with horror on the miles that followed it.

Before luncheon I had accepted the roughness of the road with equanimity. But now, before I had gone a mile, I was cursing it from the depths of a full heart. I have said that the road in places was like the dry bed of a stream ; gradually it began to resemble the redhot bricks over which Eastern priests are said to walk with unbaked soles. Vague discomfort became positive pain ; and though I trudged on, hoping that it would improve, I was wincing at every step. I made slowly round the long shoulder of Ben Chaorach, and when at last a clump of trees showed up on the roadside, I crawled among them, and, pulling off my shoes, leaned back in relief against my rucksack.

There was a little loch below me, less than a mile in length, and I spent half an hour in contemplating it. From my map I saw that it was called Loch Dubh, or the Black Loch, and the reason for the name was obvious. Glancing back in the way I had come, I could discern an inlet of the sea, and it was as clear and blue as the sky overhead. But though the sunlight lay full upon the quiet loch-water below me, it was as black as a well. On the opposite hillside, there were graceful trees in orderly platoons like little green soldiers set ready for a children's game. Whether they had been planted in that formation, or whether the woods had been thinned by some forester with a mathematician's soul, I do not know; but below a skyline that had been drawn by the slap-dash hand of nature, their neat effect was bizarre. My eyes wandered again to the west, where a sharp peak pricked over the edge of the horizon, and a little to the north of it I made out mountains which must have been on the island of Rum. The pictures on every side of me were lovely ones; but I was in no mood to appreciate their glories. Before going further, I decided to replace my shoes with an old pair I had in my pack.

The ones I had been wearing were new; they had been made and fitted in London, with much palaver, by a man who should have known his job; and I began to wonder whether their newness, rather than the stony road, was the cause of my discomfort. I shoved my hand into my rucksack, and then in bewilderment emptied out its contents on the grass : underclothes, books, spare shirt, cardigan, woollen scarf, pyjamas, flannel trousers, two pairs of socks, shaving tackle, soap, tooth-brush, and a small box of food. But shoes ? Not even the tag of a lace. Yet I could have sworn I had packed an extra pair, and I realised that they must have been left behind with the rest of my kit in Edinburgh. There was nothing for it but to bite the bullet. With gloom in my soul, I laced on the instruments of torture and went up the hill, brooding upon things like thumb-screws and the rack.

By the time the head of Loch Ailort hove into view, the pain had dulled somewhat: or perhaps it was that I had come to regard it as an essential part of me, like the weight of the pack on my shoulders and the grip of the ash-stick in my hand. I can remember how heartened I was to see a solitary house on the roadside. Slowly I drew nearer to it, a square stone house, with a grey slate roof, and I wondered what kind of folk lived there. Perhaps they could tell me where I might find shelter for the night. Perhaps, on the other hand, there was nobody at home, and I would hammer on the door in vain. As I limped towards it, my hopes went up and down like the contour of the road over which I had been tramping since noon. And then I drew level with the house, and halted.

That was a blessed moment. Above the door was a sign-board, and it told me that the place was an inn. An inn ! I stared at the sign, almost terrified that it was a dangling mirage and would melt before my eyes.

"Hullo," said a voice.

I turned. At the corner stood a young man, with a briar pipe in his mouth. He was tall, bare-headed, fair, and he wore light grey flannel trousers, a tweed jacket, and old and comfortable-looking shoes-shoes at which I shot a covert glance of envy. "Walking?" he said affably, moving the pipe to the other corner of his mouth.

"Trying to," I admitted, inwardly liking him because he had not used the detestable verb to hike. "Can one stay at this place?"

"Rather! I'm staying here myself for the night."

There was something charmingly open about this stranger. It was the first thing that struck me; and within decent limits it is an engaging quality both in life and in letters. They say you can never really know a Macrimmon, unless you are a Macrimmon yourself, and only a Macrimmon can understand the dark reserve that is the spiritual inheritance of that kingly race of pipers. But there was no reserve of any kind about the young man with whom I chatted on the road outside the inn. He dumped my rucksack in the porch for me, and went in to fix me up with a bedroom, then rejoined me at the door. During the next fifteen minutes I learned that his name was Gillespie, that he had been educated in Edinburgh, where his people lived, and that he had a job in a Chartered Accountant's office in London - a job he told me he was very lucky to have because the head of the firm, who was a relative, loathed the sight of him. He was nearing the end of a fortnight's holiday which he had spent messing about - as he put it - in the Highlands, and from the vigour of his talk, I was sure that he had messed about energetically. Having freely opened the ship's log, as it were, for my inspection, he proceeded to tell me about his next port of call. "I'm going down Loch Shiel to-morrow," he said. "I've to meet a man at Acharacle for a couple of days' fishing, then home."

I pricked up my ears at the mention of Loch Shiel, and said that I too was heading for there, but intended to walk across Moidart.

"Across Moidart?" he repeated, puzzled. "Why?"

His candour about himself was disarming, and I explained that I was travelling on foot over the road Charles Edward Stuart followed in the 'Forty-five.

"Prince Charlie ! Lord, one's always bumping up against Prince Charlie in this countryside. I met an Australian in the train to-day who has a brooch the Prince gave Flora Macdonald. Fact. He said he got it in Australia from a man called Graham. Queer, meeting you, just after that. . . . You said something about Edinburgh just now. You weren't at school there, by any chance? . . . Heriot's? I was at Watson's. Remember those old snow-fights in the Meadows?" His eyes twinkled. "D'you know, at some time or other, I've probably hit you on the ear with a snowball! Fancy meeting in this God-forsaken place a chap you've once winged with a snowball!" The jingle of a bell interrupted him. "Tea!" said Gillespie cheerfully. "Want a wash first? Then come on, you damned Herioter." And turning with a friendly gesture, he led the way indoors.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus