THE Highlands of Scotland, like many greater things in the world, may be said to be unknown, yet well-known. Thousands of summer tourists every year, and from every part of the civilised world, gaze on the romantic beauties of the Trosachs and Loch Lomond, skirt the Hebrides from the Firth of Clyde to Oban, trundle through the wild gorge of Glencoe, chatter among the ruins of Iona, scramble over the wonders of Staffa, sail along the magnificent line of lakes to Inverness, reach the sombre Coolins, or disturb the silence of Coruisg. Pedestrains also, with stick and knapsack, search the more solitary wildernesses and glens of the mainland, from the Grampians to Ross-shire and Caithness. Sportsmen, too, have their summer quarters dotted over the moors, or scattered on the hill-sides and beside clear streams, with all the irregularity of the boulders of the great northern drift, but furnished with most of the luxuries of an English home. All these, it must be admitted, know something of the Highlands.
Tourists know the names of steamers, coaches, and hotels; and how they were cheated by boatmen, porters, and guides. They have a vague impression of misty mountains, stormy seas, heavy rains, difficult roads, crowded inns, unpronounceable Gaelic names, with brighter remembrances of landscapes whose grandeur they have probably never seen surpassed.
Pedestrians can recall lonely and unfrequented paths across broken moorlands undulating far away, like brown shoreless seas, through unploughed and untrodden valleys, where the bark of a shepherd’s dog, and much more the sight of a shepherd’s hut, were dearly welcomed. They can also recall panoramas from hill-tops or from rocky promontories, of lake and river, moor and forest, sea and island, of lonely keeps and ruined homesteads, and of infinite sheep-walks and silent glens which seemed to end in chaos. And these remembrances will flit before them like holy days of youth, and “hang about the beatings of the heart,” refreshing and sanctifying it, amidst the din and worry of a city life.
Sportsmen, when they visit old shootings, hail from afar the well-known hill-sides and familiar “ground.” They can tell twenty miles off where the birds are scarce, or where, according to the state of the weather, they can be found. They have waded up to the shoulders in Highland lakes, nothing visible but hat swathed with flies and hand wielding the lithe rod and line. They have trodden the banks and tried the pools of every famous stream, until the very salmon that are left know their features and their flies, and tremble for their cunning temptations. The whole scenery is associated in their memory with the braces that have been bagged, the stags which have been killed, or—oh, horrid memory!—missed, “when the herd was coming right towards us, and all from that blockhead Charlie, who would look if they were within shot.” The keepers, and gillies, and beaters, and the whole tribe of expectants, are also well-known, as such; and every furrowed face is to these sportsmen a very poem, an epic, a heroic ballad, a history of the past season of happiness, as well as a prophecy of the morrow, hoped for with a beating heart, which blames the night and urges on the morn.
There are others, too, who may be expected to know something of the Highlands. Low-country sheep-farmers, redolent of wool; English proprietors, who, as summer visitants, occupy the old castle of some extinct feudal chief; Highland lairds, who are absentees save during the grouse season; geologists, who have explored the physical features of the land; and antiquaries, who have dipped into, or even studied profoundly, its civil and ecclesiastical antiquities.
Nevertheless, to all such, the Highlands may be as unknown in their real life and spirit as the scent of the wild bog-myrtle is to the accomplished gentleman who has no sense of smell; or as a Gaelic boat-song is to a Hindoo pundit.
Some readers may very naturally be disposed to ask, with a sneer of contempt, what precise loss any human being incurs from want of this knowledge? The opinion may be most reasonably held and expressed that the summer tourist, the wandering pedestrian, or the autumnal sportsman, have probably taken out of the Northern wilderness all that was worth bringing into the Southern Canaan of civilised life; and that as much gratitude, at least, is due for what is forgotten as for what is remembered.
Perhaps those readers may be right. And if so, then, for their own comfort as well as for mine, I warn them that if they have been foolish enough to accompany me thus far, they should pity me, bid me farewell, and wish me a safe deliverance from the mountains.
Is there any one, let me ask, who reads these lines, and yet dislikes peat-reek? any one who puts his fingers in his ears when he hears the bagpipe—the real war-pipe—begin a real pibroch? any one who dislikes the kilt, the Gaelic, the clans, and who does not believe in Ossian? any one who has a prejudice to the Mac, or who cannot comprehend why one Mac should prefer a Mac of his own clan to the Mac of any other clan? any one who smiles at the ignorance of a Highland parson who never reads a London review, who never heard about one in ten of the “schools of modern thought,” and who believes, without any mental suffering, that two and two make four? any one who puts his glass to his eye during prayer in a Highland church, and looks at his fellow-traveller with a sneer while the peasants sing their psalms? any one who, when gazing on a Highland landscape, descants to his local admirers upon some hackneyed Swiss scene they never saw, or enumerates a dozen Swiss Horns, the Wetter Horn, Schreckhorn, or any other horn which has penetrated into his brain? Forbid that any such terribly clever and well-informed cosmopolitans should “lose ten tickings of their watch” in reading these reminiscences!
[The man] who owes all that makes him tolerable in society to the Celtic blood which flows in spite of him through his veins;—for this man to be proud of his English accent, to sneer at the everlasting hills, the old kirk and its simple worship, and to despise the race which has never disgraced him—faugh!
One other class sometimes found in society, I would especially beseech to depart; I mean Highlanders ashamed of their country. Cockneys are bad enough, but they are sincere and honest in their idolatry of the Great Babylon. Young Oxonians or young barristers, even when they become slashing London critics, are more harmless than they themselves imagine, and after all inspire less awe than Ben Nevis, or than the celebrated agriculturist who proposed to decompose the mountain with acids, and scatter the debris as a fertiliser over the Lochaber moss. But a Highlander, who was nurtured on oatmeal porridge and oatmeal cakes; who in his youth wore home-spun cloth, and was innocent of shoes and stockings; who blushed in his first attempts to speak the English language; who never saw a nobler building for years than the little kirk in the glen; and who owes all that makes him tolerable in society to the Celtic blood which flows in spite of him through his veins;—for this man to be proud of his English accent, to sneer at the everlasting hills, the old kirk and its simple worship, and to despise the race which has never disgraced him—faugh! Peat-reek is frankincense in comparison with him; let him not be distracted by any of my reminiscences of the old country; leave them, I beseech of thee!
I ask not how old or how young those are who remain; I care not what their theory of political economy or their school of modern philosophy may be; I am indifferent as to their evening employment, whether it be darning stockings, sitting idle round the winter fire in the enjoyment of repose, or occupying, as invalids, their bed or their chair. If only they are charitable souls, who hope all things, and are not easily provoked; who would like to get a peep into forms of society, and to hear about customs differing greatly from what they have hitherto been acquainted with; or to have an easy chat about a country less known, perhaps, than any other in Europe,—then shall I gladly unfold to them my reminiscences of a people worth knowing about and loving, and of a period in history that is passing, if, indeed, it has not already passed away.
— Norman Macleod, D.D., Reminiscences of a Highland Parish, “Preamble,” London, 1867.