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Scenes and Legends of The North of Scotland
Chapter XIX

“I’ll give thee a wind.”—Shakspere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The place was darkened, as I have said, with smoke, but at intervals the flames glanced on the naked walls of turf and stone, and on a few rude implements of housewifery which were ranged along the sides, together with other utensils of a more questionable form and appearance. A huge wooden trough, filled with water, from whence there proceeded a splashing bubbling noise, as if it were filled with live fish, occupied one of the comers; and was sentinelled by a black cat, that sat purring on a stool beside it, and that on every louder splash rose from her seat, and stretched her neck over the water. A bundle of dried herbs; a table bearing the skeleton of some animal, round part of which a kind of red clay had been moulded, as if by a statuary; a staff, with the tail of a fish fastened to one end, and the wings of a raven to the other; and a large earthen vessel, like that in which Hercules sailed to release Prometheus, with a white napkin tied in the manner of a sail to a stick, which served for a mast, were ranged along the wall. As Macglashan surveyed the apartment, Stine seemed lost in a reverie, with her head bent, and her eyes fixed upon the fire; but as if struck by a sudden thought, she started into a more erect posture, and regarded him with a malignant scowl, clutched her hands into a hill of dried weed, and flung a fresh heap on the fire, which for a few seconds seemed extinguished. “Od, mother,” said the young fellow, nothing appalled by the darkness, “ye lead a terrible lonely life of it here; were I in your place I would die of sheer longing in less than a fortnight.”

"Lonely,” muttered the hag, who seemed in no communicative mood; “how ken ye that?” As she spoke the croak of a raven was heard from the chimney, accompanied by the flutter of wings. “Ug, ug!” ejaculated Macglashan’s companion; “let’s out, Mac, and see what’s keeping Sandy.” “Nay, here he comes,” said the other; and as he spoke Sandy entered with the stoup. “And now,” said Stine, rising and laying hold of it, “ye maun out, an’ bide at the rock yonder till I call.”

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

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

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

“The adverse winds in leathern bags he braced,
Compressed their force, and locked each struggling blast,
Bocurely fettered by a silver thong.”

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