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- ANGLING SKETCHES - 6/18 -


development in the years between 1820 and 1890, or whether the schoolmaster of Rannoch did not tell all he knew. It is unlikely, I think, that the siege of Seringapatam would have been remembered so long in connection with the Black Officer if it had not formed part of his original legend. Meanwhile the earliest printed notice of the event with which I am acquainted, a notice only ten years later than the date of the Major's death in 1799, is given by Hogg in "The Spy," 1810-11, pp. 101-3. I offer an abridgment of the narrative.

"About the end of last century Major Macpherson and a party of friends went out to hunt on the Grampians between Athole and Badenoch. They were highly successful, and in the afternoon they went into a little bothy, and, having meat and drink, they abandoned themselves to jollity.

"During their merry-making a young man entered whose appearance particularly struck and somewhat shocked Macpherson; the stranger beckoned to the Major, and he followed him instantly out of the bothy.

"When they parted, after apparently having had some earnest conversation, the stranger was out of sight long before the Major was half-way back, though only twenty yards away.

"The Major showed on his return such evident marks of trepidation that the mirth was marred and no one cared to ask him questions.

"This was early in the week, and on Friday the Major persuaded his friends to make a second expedition to the mountains, from which they never returned.

"On a search being made their dead bodies were found in the bothy, some considerably mangled, but some were not marked by any wound.

"It was visible that this had not been effected by human agency: the bothy was torn from its foundations and scarcely a vestige left of it, and one huge stone, which twelve men could not have raised, was tossed to a considerable distance.

"On this event Scott's beautiful ballad of "Glenfinlas" is said to have been founded."

As will be seen presently, Hogg was wrong about "Glenfinlas"; the boatman was acquainted with a traditional version of that wild legend. I found another at Rannoch.

The Highland fairies are very vampirish. The Loch Awe boatman lives at a spot haunted by a shadowy maiden. Her last appearance was about thirty years ago. Two young men were thrashing corn one morning, when the joint of the flail broke. The owner went to Larichban and entered an outhouse to look for a piece of sheepskin wherewith to mend the flail. He was long absent, and his companion went after him. He found him struggling in the arms of a ghostly maid, who had nearly murdered him, but departed on the arrival of his friend. It is not easy to make out what these ghoulish women are--not fairies exactly, nor witches, nor vampires. For example, three shepherds at a lonely sheiling were discoursing of their loves, and it was, "Oh, how happy I should be if Katie were here, or Maggie, or Bessie!" as the case might be. So they would say and so they would wish, and lo! one evening, the three girls came to the door of the hut. So they made them welcome; but one of the shepherds was playing the Jew's-harp, and he did not like the turn matters were taking.

The two others stole off into corners of the darkling hut with their lovers, but this prudent lad never took his lips off the Jew's-harp.

"Harping is good if no ill follows it," said the semblance of his sweetheart; but he never answered. He played and thrummed, and out of one dark corner trickled red blood into the fire-light, and out of another corner came a current of blood to meet it. Then he slowly rose, still harping, and backed his way to the door, and fled into the hills from these cruel airy shapes of false desire.

"And do the people actually believe all that?"

"Ay, do they!"

That is the boatman's version of Scott's theme in "Glenfinlas." Witches played a great part in his narratives.

In the boatman's country there is a plain, and on the plain is a knoll, about twice the height of a one-storeyed cottage, and pointed "like a sugar-loaf." The old people remember, or have heard, that this mound was not there when they were young. It swelled up suddenly out of the grave of a witch who was buried there.

The witch was a great enemy of a shepherd. Every morning she would put on the shape of a hare, and run before his dogs, and lead them away from the sheep. He knew it was right to shoot at her with a crooked sixpence, and he hit her on the hind leg, and the dogs were after her, and chased the hare into the old woman's cottage. The shepherd ran after them, and there he found them, tearing at the old woman; but the hare was twisted round their necks, and she was crying, "Tighten, hare, tighten!" and it was choking them. So he tore the hare off the dogs; and then the old woman begged him to save her from them, and she promised never to plague him again. "But if the old dog's teeth had been as sharp as the young one's, she would have been a dead woman."

When this witch died she knew she could never lie in safety in her grave; but there was a very safe churchyard in Aberdeenshire, a hundred and fifty miles away, and if she could get into that she would be at rest. And she rose out of her grave, and off she went, and the Devil after her, on a black horse; but, praise to the swiftness of her feet, she won the churchyard before him. Her first grave swelled up, oh, as high as that green hillock!

Witches are still in active practice. There was an old woman very miserly. She would alway be taking one of her neighbours' sheep from the hills, and they stood it for long; they did not like to meddle with her. At last it grew so bad that they brought her before the sheriff, and she got eighteen months in prison. When she came out she was very angry, and set about making an image of the woman whose sheep she had taken. When the image was made she burned it and put the ashes in a burn. And it is a very curious thing, but the woman she made it on fell into a decline, and took to her bed.

The witch and her family went to America. They kept a little inn, in a country place, and people who slept in it did not come out again. They were discovered, and the eldest son was hanged; he confessed that he had committed nineteen murders before he left Scotland.

"They were not a nice family."

"The father was a very respectable old man."

The boatman gave me the name of this wicked household, but it is perhaps better forgotten.

The extraordinary thing is that this appears to be the Highland introduction to, or part first of, a gloomy and sanguinary story of a murder hole--an inn of assassins in a lonely district of the United States, which Mr. Louis Stevenson heard in his travels there, and told to me some years ago. The details have escaped my memory, but, as Mr. Stevenson narrated them, they rivalled De Quincey's awful story of Williams's murders in the Ratcliffe Highway.

Life must still be haunted in Badenoch, as it was on Ida's hill, by forms of unearthly beauty, the goddess or the ghost yet wooing the shepherd; indeed, the boatman told me many stories of living superstition and terrors of the night; but why should I exhaust his wallet? To be sure, it seemed very full of tales; these offered here may be but the legends which came first to his hand. The boatman is not himself a believer in the fairy world, or not more than all sensible men ought to be. The supernatural is too pleasant a thing for us to discard in an earnest, scientific manner like Mr. Kipling's Aurelian McGubben. Perhaps I am more superstitious than the boatman, and the yarns I swopped with him about ghosts I have met would seem even more mendacious to possessors of pocket microscopes and of the modern spirit. But I would rather have one banshee story than fifteen pages of proof that "life, which began as a cell, with a c, is to end as a sell, with an s." It should be added that the boatman has given his consent to the printing of his yarns. On being offered a moiety of the profits, he observed that he had no objection to these, but that he entirely declined to be responsible for any share of the expenses. Would that all authors were as sagacious, for then the amateur novelist and the minor poet would vex us no more.

Perhaps I should note that I have not made the boatman say "whateffer," because he doesn't. The occasional use of the imperfect is almost his only Gaelic idiom. It is a great comfort and pleasure, when the trout do not rise, to meet a skilled and unaffected narrator of the old beliefs, old legends, as ancient as the hills that girdle and guard the loch, or as antique, at least, as man's dwelling among the mountains--the Yellow Hill, the Calf Hill, the Hill of the Stack. The beauty of the scene, the pleasant talk, the daffodils on the green isle among the Celtic graves, compensate for a certain "dourness" among the fishes of Loch Awe. On the occasions when they are not dour they rise very pleasant and free, but, in these brief moments, it is not of legends and folklore that you are thinking, but of the landing-net. The boatman, by the way, was either not well acquainted with Marchen-- Celtic nursery-tales such as Campbell of Islay collected, or was not much interested in them, or, perhaps, had the shyness about narrating this particular sort of old wives' fables which is so common. People who do know them seldom tell them in Sassenach.

LOCH-FISHING

LITTLE LOCH BEG

There is something mysterious in loch-fishing, in the tastes and habits of the fish which inhabit the innumerable lakes and tarns of Scotland. It is not always easy to account either for their presence or their absence, for their numbers or scarcity, their eagerness to take or their "dourness." For example, there is Loch Borlan, close to the well-known little inn of Alt-na-geal-gach in Sutherland. Unless that piece of water is greatly changed, it is


ANGLING SKETCHES - 6/18

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