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Scenes and Legends of The North of Scotland
Chapter III

“The wild sea, baited by the fierce north-east,
So roar’d, so madly raged, so proudly swell’d,
As it would thunder full into our streets.”—Armstrong.

The Bay of Cromarty was deemed one of the finest in the world at a time when the world was very little known ; and modern discovery has done nothing to lower its standing or character. We find it described by Buchanan in very elegant Latin as “formed by the waters of the German Ocean, opening a way through the stupendous cliffs of the most lofty precipices, and expanding within into a spacious basin, affording certain refuge against every tempest.” The old poet could scarce have described it better had he sat on the loftiest pinnacle of the southern Sutor during a winter storm from the north-east, and seen vessel after vessel pressing towards the opening through spray and tempest;—like the inhabitants of an invaded country hurrying to the gateway of some impregnable fortress, their speed quickened by the wild shouts of the enemy, and pursued by the smoke of burning villages.

Viewed from the Moray Firth in a clear morning of summer, the entrance of the bay presents one of the most pleasing scenes I have ever seen. The foreground is occupied by a gigantic wall of brown precipices, beetling for many miles over the edge of the Firth, and crested by dark thickets of furze and pine. A multitude of shapeless crags lie scattered along the base, and we hear the noise of the waves breaking against them, and see the reflected gleam of the foam flashing at intervals into the darker recesses of the rock. The waters of the bay find entrance, as described by the historian, through a natural postern scooped out of the middle of this immense wall. The huge projection of cliff on either hand, with their alternate masses of light and shadow, remind us of the out-jets and buttresses of an ancient fortress ; and the two Sutors, towering over the opening, of turrets built to command a gateway. The scenery within is of a softer and more gentle character. We see hanging woods, sloping promontories, a little quiet town, and an undulating line of blue mountains, swelling as they retire into a bolder outline and a loftier altitude, until they terminate, some twenty miles away, in the snow-streaked, cloud-capped Ben Wevis. When I last gazed on this scene, and contrasted the wild sublimity of the foreground with the calm beauty of the interior, I was led to compare it, I scarcely knew how, to the exquisite masterpiece of his art which the Saxon sculptor Nahl placed over the grave of a lady who had died in the full bloom of youth and loveliness. It represents the ruins of a tomb shattered as if by the last trumpet; but the chisel has not been employed on it in merely imitating the uncouth ravages of accident and decay; for through the yawning rifts and fissures there is a beautiful female, as if starting into life, and rising in all the ecstasy of unmingled happiness to enjoy the beatitudes of heaven.

There rises within the bay, to the height of nearly a hundred feet over the sea level, a green sloping bank, in some places covered with wood, in others laid out into gardens and fields. We may trace it at a glance all along the shores of the firth, from where it merges into the southern Sutor, till where it sinks at the upper extremity of the bay of Udoll; and, fronting it on the opposite side, we may see a similar escarpment, winding along the various curves and indentations of the coast —now retiring far into the country, along the edge of the bay of Nigg—now abutting into the firth, near the village of Invergordon. The Moray and Dornoch firths are commanded by resembling ramparts of bank of a nearly corresponding elevation, and a thorough identity of character; and, as in the Firth of Cromarty, the space between their bases and the shore is occupied by a strip of level country, which in some places encroaches on the sea in the form of long low promontories, and is hollowed out in others to nearly the base of the escarpment. Wherever we examine, we find data to conclude, that in some remote era this continuous bank formed the line of coast, and that the plain at its base was everywhere covered by the waters of the sea. We see headlands, rounded as if by the waves, advancing the one beyond the other, into the waving fields and richly-swarded meadows of this lower terrace; and receding bays with their grassy unbeaten shores comparatively abrupt at the entrance, and reclining in a flatter angle within. We may find, too, everywhere under the vegetable soil of the terrace, alternate layers of sand and water-worn pebbles, and occasionally, though of rarer occurrence, beds of shells of the existing species, and the bones of fish. In the valley of Munlochy, the remains of oyster-beds, which could not have been formed in less than two fathoms of water, have been discovered a full half mile from the sea; beds of cockles still more extensive, and the bones of a porpoise, have been dug up among the fields which border on the bay of Nigg; similar appearances occur in the vicinity of Tain; and in digging a well about thirty years ago, in the western part of the town of Cromarty, there was found in the gravel a large fir-tree, which, from the rounded appearance of the trunk and branches, seems to have been at one time exposed to the action of the waves. In a burying-ground of the town, which lies embosomed in an angle of the bank, the sexton sometimes finds the dilapidated spoils of our commoner shell-fish mingling with the ruins of a nobler animal; and in another inflection of the bank, which lies a short half mile to the east of the town, there is a vast accumulation of drift peat, many feet in thickness, and the remains of huge trees.

The era of this old coast line we find it impossible to fix ; but there are grounds enough on which to conclude that it must have been remote—so remote, perhaps, as to lie beyond the beginnings of our more authentic histories. We see, in the vicinity of Tain, one of the oldest ruins of the province situated far below the base of the escarpment; and meet in the neighbourhood of Kessock, at a still lower level, with old Celtic cairns and tumuli. It is a well-established fact, too, that for at least the last three hundred years the sea, instead of receding, has been gradually encroaching on the shores of the Bay of Cromarty; and that the place formerly occupied by the old burgh, is now covered every tide by nearly two fathoms of water.

The last vestige of this ancient town disappeared about eighteen years ago, when a row of large stones, which had evidently formed the foundation line of a fence, was carried away by some workmen employed in erecting a bulwark. But the few traditions connected with it are not yet entirely effaced. A fisherman of the last century is said to have found among the title-deeds of his cottage a very old piece of parchment, with a profusion of tufts of wool bristling on one of its sides, and bearing in rude antique characters on the other a detail of the measurement and boundaries of a garden which had occupied the identical spot on which he usually anchored his skiff. I am old enough to have conversed with men who remembered to have seen a piece of com land, and a belt of planting below two properties in the eastern part of the town, that are now bounded by the sea. I reckon among my acquaintance an elderly person, who, when sailing along the shore about half a century ago in the company of a very old man, heard the latter remark, that he was now guiding the helm where, sixty years before, he had guided the plough. Of Elspat Hood, a native of Cromarty, who died in the year 1701, it is said that she attained to the extraordinary age of 120 years, and that in her recollection, which embraced the latter part of the sixteenth century, the Clach Malacha, a large stone covered with seaweed, whose base only partially dries during the ebb of Spring and Lammas tides, and which lies a full quarter of a mile from the shore, was surrounded by com fields and clumps of wood. And it is a not less curious circumstance than any of these, that about ninety years ago, after a violent night storm from the north-east, the beach below the town was found in the morning strewed over with human bones, which, with several blocks of hewn stone, had been washed by the surf out of what had been formerly a burying-place. The bones were carried to the churchyard, and buried beneath the eastern gable of the church ; and one of the stones—the comer stone of a ponderous cornice—is still to be seen on the shore. In the firths of Beauly and Domoch the sea seems to have encroached to fully as great an extent as in the bay of Cromarty. Below the town of Tain a strip of land, once frequented by the militia of the county for drill and parade, has been swept away within the recollection of some of the older inhabitants ; and there may be traced at low water (says Carey in his notes to Craig Phad-rig), on the range of shore that stretches from the ferry of Kessock to nearly Red castle, the remains of sepulchral cairns, which must have been raised before the places they occupy were invaded by the sea, and which, when laid open, have been found to contain beams of wood, urns, and human bones.—But it is full time that man, the proper inhabitant of the country, should be more thoroughly introduced into this portion of its history. We feel comparatively little interest in the hurricane or the earthquake which ravages only a desert, where there is no intelligent mind to be moved by the majesty of power, or the sublimity of danger; while on the other hand, there is no event, however trivial in itself, which may not be deemed of importance if it operate influentially on human character and human passion.

It is not much more than twenty years since a series of violent storms from the hostile north-east, which came on at almost regular intervals for five successive winters, seemed to threaten the modern town of Cromarty with the fate of the ancient. The tides rose higher than tides had ever been known to rise before; and as the soil exposed to the action of the waves was gradually disappearing, instead of the gentle slope with which the land formerly merged into the beach, its boundaries were marked out by a dark abrupt line resembling a turf wall. Some of the people whose houses bordered on the sea looked exceedingly grave, and affirmed there was no danger whatever; those who lived higher up thought differently, and pitied their poor neighbours from the bottom of their hearts. The consternation was heightened too by a prophecy of Thomas the Rhymer, handed down for" centuries, but little thought of before. It was predicted, it is said, by the old wizard, that Cromarty should be twice destroyed by the sea, and that fish should be caught in abundance on the Castle-hill—a rounded projection of the escarpment which rises behind the houses, and forms the ancient coast line.

Man owes much of his ingenuity to his misfortunes; and who does not know that, were he less weak and less exposed as an animal, he would be less powerful as a rational creature? On a principle so obvious, these storms had the effect of converting not a few of the townsfolk into builders and architects. In the eastern suburb of the town, where the land presents a low yet projecting front to the waves, the shore is hemmed in by walls and bulwarks, which might be mistaken by a stranger approaching the place by sea for a chain of little forts. They were erected during the wars of the five winters by the proprietors of the gardens and houses behind ; and the enemy against whom they had to maintain them, was the sea. At first the contest seemed well-nigh hopeless;—week after week was spent in throwing up a single bulwark, and an assault of a few hours demolished the whole line. But skill and perseverance prevailed at last;—the storms are all blown over, but the gardens and houses still remain. Of the many who built and planned during this war, the most indefatigable, the most skilful, the most successful, was Donald Miller.

Donald was a true Scotchman. He was bred a shoemaker; and painfully did he toil late and early for about twenty-five years with one solitary object in view, which, during all that time, he had never lost sight of—no, not for a single moment. And what was that one?—independence—a competency sufficient to set him above the necessity of further toil; and this he at length achieved, without doing aught for which the severest censor could accuse him of meanness. The amount of his savings did not exceed four hundred pounds; but, rightly deeming himself wealthy, for he had not learned to love money for its own sake, he shut up his shop. His father dying soon after, he succeeded to one of the snuggest, though most perilously-situated little properties within the three comers of Cromarty—the sea bounding it on the one side, and a stream, small and scanty during the droughts of summer, but sometimes more than sufficiently formidable in winter, sweeping past it on the other. The series of storms came on, and Donald found he had gained nothing by shutting up His shop.

He had built a bulwark in the old, lumbering, Cromarty style of the last century, and confined the wanderings of the stream by two straight walls. Across the walls he had just thrown a wooden bridge, and crowned the bulwark with a parapet, when on came the first of the storms—a night of sleet and hurricane —and lo! in the morning, the bulwark lay utterly overthrown, and the bridge, as if it had marched to its assistance, lay beside it, half buried in sea-wrack. “Ah,” exclaimed the neighbours, “it would be well for us to be as sure of our summer’s employment as Donald Miller, honest man!” Summer came; the bridge strided over the stream as before; the bulwark was built anew, and with such neatness and apparent strength, that no bulwark on the beach .could compare with it. Again came winter; and the second bulwark, with its proud parapet, and rock-like strength, shared the fate of the first. Donald fairly took to his bed. He rose, however, with renewed vigour; and a third bulwark, more thoroughly finished than even the second, stretched ere the beginning of autumn between his property and the sea. Throughout the whole of that summer, from grey morning to grey evening, there might be seen on the shore of Cromarty a decent-looking, elderly man, armed with lever and mattock, rolling stones, or raising them from their beds in the sand, or fixing them together in a sloping wall—toiling as never labourer toiled, and ever and anon, as a neighbour sauntered the way, straightening his weary back, and tendering the ready snuff-box. That decent-looking, elderly man, was Donald Miller. But his toil was all in vain. Again came winter and the storms; again had he betaken himself to his bed, for his third bulwark had gone the way of the two others. With a resolution truly indomitable, he rose yet again, and erected a fourth bulwark, which has now presented an unbroken front to the storms of twenty years.

Though Donald had never studied mathematics as taught in books or the schools, he was 'a profound mathematician notwithstanding. Experience had taught him the superiority of the sloping to the perpendicular wall in resisting the waves; and he set himself to discover that particular angle which, without being inconveniently low, resists them best. Every new bulwark was a new experiment made on principles which he had discovered in the long nights of winter, when, hanging over the fire, he converted the hearth-stone into a tablet, and, with a pencil of charcoal, scribbled it over with diagrams. But he could never get the sea to join issue with him by changing in the line of his angles; for, however deep he sunk his foundations, his insidious enemy contrived to get under them by washing away the beach; and then the whole wall tumbled into the cavity. Now, however, he had discovered a remedy. First he laid a row of large flat stones on their edges in the line of the foundation and paved the whole of the beach below until it presented the appearance of a sloping street—taking care that his pavement, by running in a steeper angle than the shore, should, at its lower edge, lose itself in the sand. Then, from the flat stones which formed the upper boundary of the pavement, he built a ponderous wall, which, ascending in the proper angle, rose to the level of the garden; and a neat firm parapet surmounted the whole.— Winter came, and the storms came; but though the waves broke against the bulwark with as little remorse as against the Sutors, not a stone moved out of its place. Donald had at length fairly triumphed over the sea.

The progress of character is fully as interesting a study as the progress of art; and both are curiously exemplified in the history of Donald Miller. Now that he had conquered his enemy, and might realize his long-cherished dream of unbroken leisure, he found that constant employment had, through the force of habit, become essential to his comfort. His garden was the very paragon of gardens; and a single glance was sufficient to distinguish his furrow of potatoes from every other furrow in the- field ; but, now that his main occupation was gone, much time hung on his hands, notwithstanding his attentions to both. First, he set himself to build a wall quite round his property; and a very neat one he did build ; but unfortunately, when once erected, there was nothing to knock it down again. Then he whitewashed his house, and built a new sty for his pig, the walls of which he also whitewashed. Then he enclosed two little patches on the side of the stream, to serve as bleaching-greens. Then he covered the upper part of his bulwark with a layer of soil, and sowed it with grass. Then he repaired a well, the common property of the town. Then he constructed a path for foot-passengers on the side of a road, which, passing his garden on the south, leads to Cromarty House. His labours for the good of the public were wretchedly recompensed, by, at least, his more immediate neighbours. They would dip their dirty pails into the well which he had repaired, and tell him, when he hinted at the propriety of washing them, that they were no dirtier than they used to be. Their pigs would break into his bleaching-greens, and furrow up the sward with their snouts : and when he threatened to pound them, he would be told “ how unthriving a thing it was to keep the puir brutes aye in the fauld,” and how impossible a thing “to watch them ilka time they gae’d out.” Herd-boys would gallop their horses and drive their cattle along the path which he had formed for foot-passengers exclusively : and when he stormed at the little fellows, they would canter past, and shout out, from what they deemed a safe distance, that their “ horses and kye had as good a right to the road as himser.” Worse than all the rest, when he had finished whitening the walls of his pigsty, and gone in for a few minutes to the house, a mischievous urchin, who had watched his opportunity, sallied across the bridge, and, seizing on the brush, whitewashed the roof also. Independent of the insult, nothing could be in worse taste; and yet, when the poor man preferred his complaint to the father of the urchin,- the boor only deigned to mutter in reply, that “ folk would hae nae peace till three Lammas tides, joined intil ane, would come and roll up the Glach Malacha ” (it weighs about twenty tons) “frae its place the sea till flood watermark.” The fellow, rude as he was, had sagacity enough to infer that a tide potent enough to roll up the Glach Malacha,, would demolish the bulwark, and concentrate the energies of Donald for at least another season.

But Donald found employment, and the neighbours were left undisturbed to live the life of their fathers without the intervention of the three Lammas tides. Some of the gentlemen farmers of the parish who reared fields of potatoes, which they sold out to the inhabitants in square portions of a hundred yards, besought Donald to superintend the measurement and the sale. The office was one of no emolument whatever, but he accepted it with thankfulness ; and though, when he had potatoes of his own to dispose of, lie never failed to lower the market for the benefit of the poor, every one now, except the farmers, pronounced him rigid and narrow to a fault. On a dissolution of Parliament, Cromarty became the scene of an election, and the honourable member-apparent deeming it proper, as the thing had become customary, to whitewash the dingier houses of the town, and cover its dirtier lanes with gravel, Donald was requested to direct and superintend the improvements. Proudly did he comply ; and never before did the same sum of election-money whiten so many houses, and gravel so many lanes. Employment flowed in upon him from every quarter. If any of his acquaintance had a house to build, Donald was appointed inspector. If they had to be enfeoffed in their properties Donald acted as bailie, and tendered the earth and stone with the gravity of a judge. He surveyed fields, suggested improvements, and grew old without either feeling or regretting it. Towards the close of his last, and almost only illness, he called for one of his friends, a carpenter, and gave orders for his coffin; he named the seamstress who was to be employed in making his shroud ; he prescribed the manner in which his lyke-wake should be kept, and both the order of his funeral and the streets through which it was to pass. He was particular in his injunctions to the sexton, that the bones of his father and mother should be placed directly above his coffin; and professing himself to be alike happy that he had lived, and that he was going to die, he turned him to the wall, and ceased to breathe a few hours after. With all his rage for improvement, he was a good old man of the good old school. Often has he stroked my head, and spoken to me of my father, a friend and namesake, though not a relative ; and when, at an after period, he had learned that I set a value on whatever was antique and curious, he presented me with the fragment of a large black-letter Bible which had once belonged to the Urquharts of Cromarty.

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