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- Letters From High Latitudes - 1/46 -


LETTERS FROM HIGH LATITUDES

Being some account of a voyage in 1856 of the schooner yacht "Foam" to Iceland, Jan Meyen, and Spitzbergen.

By the Marquess of Dufferin Sometime Governor-General of the Dominion of Canada and afterwards Viceroy of India.

LETTER I.

PROTESILAUS STUMBLES ON THE THRESHOLD

Glasgow, Monday, June 2, 1856.

Our start has not been prosperous. Yesterday evening, on passing Carlisle, a telegraphic message was put into my hand, announcing the fact of the "Foam" having been obliged to put into Holyhead, in consequence of the sudden illness of my Master. As the success of our expedition entirely depends on our getting off before the season is further advanced, you can understand how disagreeable it is to have received this check at its very outset. As yet, of course, I know nothing of the nature of the illness with which he has been seized. However, I have ordered the schooner to proceed at once to Oban, and I have sent back the Doctor to Holyhead to overhaul the sick man. It is rather early in the day for him to enter upon the exercise of his functions.

LETTER II.

THE ICELANDER--A MODERN SIR PATRICK SPENS

Greenock, Tuesday, June 3, 1856

I found the Icelander awaiting my arrival here,--pacing up and down the coffee-room like a Polar bear.

At first he was a little shy, and, not having yet had much opportunity of practising his English, it was some time before I could set him perfectly at his ease. He has something so frank and honest in his face and bearing, that I am certain he will turn out a pleasant companion. There being no hatred so intense as that which you feel towards a disagreeable shipmate, this assurance has relieved me of a great anxiety, and I already feel I shall hereafter reckon Sigurdr (pronounced Segurthur), the son of Jonas, among the number of my best friends.

As most educated English people firmly believe the Icelanders to be a "Squawmuck," blubber-eating, seal-skin-clad race, I think it right to tell you that Sigurdr is apparelled in good broadcloth, and all the inconveniences of civilization, his costume culminating in the orthodox chimney-pot of the nineteenth century. He is about twenty-seven, very intelligent-looking, and--all women would think--lovely to behold. A high forehead, straight, delicate features, dark blue eyes, auburn hair and beard, and the complexion of--Lady S--d! His early life was passed in Iceland; but he is now residing at Copenhagen as a law student. Through the introduction of a mutual friend, he has been induced to come with me, and do us the honours of his native land.

"O whar will I get a skeely skipper, To sail this gude ship o' mine?'

Such, alas! has been the burden of my song for these last four-and-twenty hours, as I have sat in the Tontine Tower, drinking the bad port wine, for, after spending a fortune in telegraphic messages to Holyhead, it has been decided that B-- cannot come on, and I have been forced to rig up a Glasgow merchant skipper into a jury sailing-master.

Any such arrangement is, at the best, unsatisfactory, but to abandon the cruise is the only alternative. However, considering I had but a few hours to look about me, I have been more fortunate than might have been expected. I have had the luck to stumble on a young fellow, very highly recommended by the Captain of the Port. He returned just a fortnight ago from a trip to Australia, and having since married a wife, is naturally anxious not to lose this opportunity of going to sea again for a few months.

I start to-morrow for Oban, via Inverary, which I wish to show to my Icelander. At Oban I join the schooner, and proceed to Stornaway, in the Hebrides, whither the undomestic Mr. Ebenezer Wyse (a descendant, probably, of some Westland Covenanter) is to follow me by the steamer.

LETTER III.

LOCH GOIL--THE SAGA OF CLAN CAMPBELL

Oban, June 5, 1856

I have seldom enjoyed anything so much as our journey yesterday. Getting clear at last of the smells, smoke, noise, and squalor of Greenock, to plunge into the very heart of the Highland hills, robed as they were in the sunshine of a beautiful summer day, was enough to make one beside oneself with delight, and the Icelander enjoyed it as much as I did. Having crossed the Clyde, alive with innumerable vessels, its waves dancing and sparkling in the sunlight, we suddenly shot into the still and solemn Loch Goil, whose waters, dark with mountain shadows, seemed almost to belong to a different element from that of the yellow, rushing, ship-laden river we had left. In fact, in the space of ten minutes we had got into another world, centuries remote from the steaming, weaving, delving Britain, south of Clyde.

After a sail of about three hours, we reached the head of the loch, and then took coach along the worst mountain road in Europe, towards the country of the world-invading Campbells. A steady pull of three hours more, up a wild bare glen, brought us to the top of the mica-slate ridge which pens up Loch Fyne, on its western side, and disclosed what I have always thought the loveliest scene in Scotland.

Far below at our feet, and stretching away on either hand among the mountains, lay the blue waters of the lake.

On its other side, encompassed by a level belt of pasture-land and corn-fields, the white little town of Inverary glittered like a gem on the sea-shore, while to the right, amid lawns and gardens, and gleaming banks of wood, that hung down into the water, rose the dark towers of the Castle, the whole environed by an amphitheatre of tumbled porphyry hills, beyond whose fir-crowned crags rose the bare blue mountain-tops of Lorn.

It was a perfect picture of peace and seclusion, and I confess I had great pride in being able to show my companion so fair a specimen of one of our lordly island homes--the birthplace of a race of nobles whose names sparkle down the page of their country's history as conspicuously as the golden letters in an illuminated missal.

While descending towards the strand, I tried to amuse Sigurdr with a sketch of the fortunes of the great house of Argyll.

I told him how in ancient days three warriors came from Green Ierne, to dwell in the wild glens of Cowal and Lochow,--how one of them, the swart Breachdan, all for the love of blue-eyed Eila, swam the Gulf, once with a clew of thread, then with a hempen rope, last with an iron chain, but this time, alas! the returning tide sucks down the over-tasked hero into its swirling vortex,--how Diarmid O' Duin, i.e. son of "the Brown," slew with his own hand the mighty boar, whose head still scowls over the escutcheon of the Campbells,--how in later times, while the murdered Duncan's son, afterwards the great Malcolm Canmore, was yet an exile at the court of his Northumbrian uncle, ere Birnam wood had marched to Dunsinane, the first Campbell i.e. Campus-bellus, Beau-champ, a Norman knight and nephew of the Conqueror, having won the hand of the lady Eva, sole heiress of the race of Diarmid, became master of the lands and lordships of Argyll,--how six generations later--each of them notable in their day--the valiant Sir Colin created for his posterity a title prouder than any within a sovereign's power to bestow, which no forfeiture could attaint, no act of parliament recall; for though he cease to be Duke or Earl, the head of the Clan Campbell will still remain Mac Calan More,--and how at last the same Sir Colin fell at the String of Cowal, beneath the sword of that fierce lord, whose granddaughter was destined to bind the honours of his own heirless house round the coronet of his slain foeman's descendant;--how Sir Neill at Bannockburn fought side by side with the Bruce whose sister he had married; how Colin, the first Earl, wooed and won the Lady Isabel, sprung from the race of Somerled, Lord of the Isles, thus adding the galleys of Lorn to the blazonry of Argyll;-- how the next Earl died at Flodden, and his successor fought not less disastrously at Pinkie;--how Archibald, fifth Earl, whose wife was at supper with the Queen, her half-sister, when Rizzio was murdered, fell on the field of Langside, smitten not by the hand of the enemy, but by the finger of God; how Colin, Earl and boy-General at fifteen, was dragged away by force, with tears in his eyes, from the unhappy skirmish at Glenlivit, where his brave Highlanders were being swept down by the artillery of Huntley and Errol,--destined to regild his spurs in future years on the soil of Spain.

Then I told him of the Great Rebellion, and how, amid the tumult of the next fifty years, the Grim Marquis-- Gillespie Grumach, as his squint caused him to be called-- Montrose's fatal foe, staked life and fortunes in the deadly game engaged in by the fierce spirits of that generation, and losing, paid the forfeit with his head,


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