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Scenes and Legends of The North of Scotland
Chapter XX

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

Of all the old mythologic existences of Scotland—half earth, half air—there was none with whom the people of Cromarty were better acquainted than with the mermaid. Thirty years have not yet gone by since she has been seen by moonlight sitting on a stone in the sea, a little to the east of the town ; and scarce a winter passed, forty years earlier, in which she was not heard singing among the rocks, or seen braiding up her long yellow tresses on the shore. Like her contemporaries the river-wraiths and fairies—like the nymphs and deities, too, of the Greeks and Romans—she was deemed scarcely less material than the favoured individuals of our own species, who, in the grey of the morning or at the close of evening, had marked her sitting on some desert promontory, or frolicking amid the waves of some solitary arm of the sea. But it is not so generally known, that though in some respects less potent even than men—than at least the very strong and very courageous—she had a power through her connexion with the invisible world over human affairs, and could control and remodel even the decrees of destiny. A robust, fearless man might treat her, it is said, as Ulysses did Circe, or Diomedes Venus; but then, more potent than these goddesses, she could render all his future undertakings either successful or unfortunate, or, if a seafaring man, could either bury him in the waves or protect him from their fury. It is said, too, that like the Proteus of classical mythology (and the coincidence, if merely such, is at least a curious one), she never exerted this power in a good direction except when compelled to it. She avoided in the daytime shores frequented by man, and when disturbed by him in her retreats, escaped into her native element; but if he succeeded in seizing and overpowering her, she always purchased her release by granting him any three wishes he might form, 3onnected with either his own fortunes or those of his friends. Her strength, however, was superior to that of most men ; and, if victorious in the struggle, she carried the unfortunate assailant with her into the sea.

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

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

This dangerous, though shadowy rival of the true lover, who assumes in almost every feminine mind a shape of its own, was in the present instance handsome as Helen herself, with just such a complexion and such eyes and hair; and, excelling all men in fine clothes, fine speeches, and fine manners, he excelled them in parts, and wealth, and courage too. What had the robust, sunburned sailor of thirty to cast into the opposite scale 1 Besides, Helen, though she had often dreamed of courtship, had never seriously thought of marriage; and so, partly for the sake of her ideal suitor, partly through a girlish unwillingness to grapple with the realities of life, the real suitor was rejected.

Grave natures, says Bacon, are ever the most constant in their attachments. Weeks and months passed away, and still there was an uneasy void in the mind of the sailor, which neither business nor amusement could fill—a something which differed from grief, without affecting him less painfully. He could think and dream of only Helen Stuart. Her image followed him into Holland among the phlegmatic Dutchmen, who never break their hearts for the sake of a mistress, and watched beside him for many a long hour at the helm. He ever saw her as as he had first seen her on the hill; there were trees in the background, and the warm mellow flush of a setting sun, while in front there tripped lightly along a sylph-looking creature, with bright happy eyes, and cheeks glowing with crimson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seen the mermaid!” exclaimed Helen.

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

“But I am the creature’s master,” said the sailor, “and need not be so wary.”

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

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

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

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

The spirits of the maiden were much flurried, and there was one to whom she would have fain communicated her strange story, and sought relief in his society from the terror that made her heart still palpitate against her side. But her young cousin (the son of her unkind relation, the farmer), with whom she had so often herded on the same knoll, and wrought on the same harvest-furrow, had set out for a neighbouring farm, on his way to church, and so there was no probability of her seeing him before evening. She sickened at the gloom of her mother’s cottage, where the scowling features of the mermaid seemed imprinted on every darker recess; and, taking her mother by the hand, she walked out with her to the fields. It was now about an hour after noon, and the sun in his strength was looking down in the calm on the bare stubbly campaign, and the old abbey in the midst, with its steep roof of lichened stone, and its rows of massy buttresses. The maiden could hear the higher notes of the congregational psalm as they came floating along the slope from the building, when—fearful catastrophe!—sudden as the explosion of a powder magazine, or the shock of an earthquake, there was a tremendous crash heard, accompanied by a terrific cry; a dense cloud of dust enveloped the ancient abbey, and when it cleared away, it was seen that the ponderous stone roof of the building had sunk in. “ 0 wretched day!” exclaimed the widow, mysteriously restored by the violence of one shock to that full command of her faculties which she had lost by another, and starting at once from the deathlike apathy of years, “O wretched day! the church has fallen, and the whole congregation are buried in the ruins. Fearful calamity!—a parish destroyed at a blow. Dear, dear child, let us haste and see whether something cannot be done—whether some may not be left.” The maiden followed her mother to the scene of the accident in distraction and terror.

As they approached the churchyard gate they met two young women covered with blood, who were running shrieking along the road, and shortly after an elderly man so much injured, that he was creeping for support along the wall. “Go on,” he said to the widow, who had stopped to assist him; “I have gotten my life as a ransom, but there are hundreds perishing yonder.’

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

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

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