Oban, Staffa, And Iona
( Originally Published 1912 )
" WHY ! " exclaimed Betty, as she came down the steps of the Great Western Hotel, " truly it hurts my eyes, it's so bright and sparkly ! "
Betty's " it " referred to many lovely things. In the first place, the sky was deep blue and cloudless, with the bay hardly a shade less blue except where thousands of dancing sunbeams fell upon it, turning its surface into so shining a gold that the copper-colored sails of the little fishing-boats looked a dull brown in comparison. There were the green wooded shores and, in the distance, the soft, hazy outline of the island of Kerrera, which lies across the entrance of Oban Bay, making it appear almost like a lake; and it was not yet eight o'clock of a morning in June.
" See all the yachts ! " cried John, walking along Oban's prettiest street, which skirts the bay; " that's a dandy, that with the French flag ! And will you look at all the steamer? Where are they all going to'? "
So sang Mrs. Pitt, and her song met with instant approval from the children.
Oh, Mother ! Is it all about Oban? Sing us the rest, please ! "
" Wait until we are settled on the boat, Barbara. Here we are now at the pier. Fancy ! so many people at Oban, and it not yet July! It's because of the fine weather, I'm sure. It's well we took advantage of it and came straight away north.''
They made their way through the crowd on the pier and up to the boat which bore the sign, " Staffa and Iona," displayed near the gang-plank.
No wonder Oban is named the " Charing Cross of the Highlands." Here meet people of all countries, types, and tastes. Having secured good places in the bow of the boat, Mrs. Pitt and the others amused themselves by watching their fellow-passengers come aboard.
" There's the little Frenchman and his bride from our hotel," commented Barbara, "—the ones with such dreadful table manners ! She'll be cold in that thin lavender frock, and the wind will be sure to tear her chiffon hat to pieces."
" I think these chaps are from one of the universities," said Philip, pointing out some young men in knickerbockers, armed with walking-sticks and cameras.
" Can you guess who these men are, John? " inquired Mrs. Pitt. " Do you see their rough homespun clothes? If you were nearer, you could hear them talking Gaelic. They're sheep farmers from Mull, who have been over at Oban for fair day. Here come some botanists and geologists. You can always recognize the former by their queer leather pouches, and the latter by their hammers.
" That's all I can remember," she laughed, as they demanded still more. " See ! The Captain's at the wheel, and we're away ! "
There's one thing that gets me," remarked John, as the boat was passing through the narrow strait between Kerrera and the mainland, with its many villas, " where are all the kilts? Why don't we see them anywhere? I always thought they were thick up north here."
That's so, John. So did I," put in his sister.
Yes, I dare say you did," Mrs. Pitt answered ; " I suppose most people think so, and it's quite a pity that they have to be disappointed. You see, in 1746, just after the final defeat of Prince Charlie at Culloden Moor, three leaders, Lovat, Balmerino, and Kilmarnock, were beheaded for attempting to replace the Stuart line upon the throne, and many cruel measures were taken to subdue the Highlanders.
By what was called the Disarming Act, the wearing of the kilt was forbidden by Parliament, which evidently believed in the old proverb : ` Take the feather from a man's bonnet, and he won't look so proudly.' In these days you may see more kilts on the Surrey heaths, for example, than in all the Highlands. Thus has come the saying, ` If you see a fellow with a kilt in the Highlands, be sure he is either an Englishman or a fool.' "
I say, Mother! it is too bad, isn't it? " said Philip feelingly.
" Well," said Betty, " there's one comfort, the soldiers still wear them, and sometimes little boys do: I've seen one on this boat.''
" Here's something funny," she continued with a laugh, as she took up the guidebook. " It says here that we're now ` beating on the broad Atlantic ! ' "
" ` Beating ' is great," shouted John. " Don't see how the water could be much smoother, myself !
" You don't appreciate our good fortune, John. This trip is likely to be a fairly rough one; we're having such weather as is very rarely enjoyed here. Often people cannot be landed at Fingal's cave, but to-day Dear me ! whatever is that? "
The sound which so startled Mrs. Pitt seemed to issue from a lower deck, and its shrillness and jangle suggested a very much dilapidated mandolin. Somebody appeared to be practising for a concert, and a number of popular ragtime selections were played over and over.
I don't think I should much enjoy the concert itself, and the rehearsal is positively unbearable," said Mrs. Pitt, as they pulled their chairs to a distant part of the deck.
It's worse than that girl we saw yesterday, —the one who sang Harry Lauder's songs while the boat went through the Crinan Canal on our way from Glasgow. Don't you remember, John, "
Guess I didn't see her. I was walking, you know. Couldn't stay aboard, the old boat crawled so. Was it in that mile where there were nine locks? Whew ! it sure was hot walking, though! " and John mopped his forehead again at the mere recollection of the previous day.
"Well," persevered Betty, " there was a girl in Highland dress, with a feather in her tam, who stood at each lock as we were going through. She played some tunes on a mouth organ, and danced at the same time, and there was a little boy who sang sometimes. It was awfully queer, but people threw her pennies just the same."
" Yes, but the greatest was when those five kids ran along by the canal-boat,—back there, before we had come to any locks. They didn't ask for pennies; people just threw them over to the bank, and those fellows were so stupid they lost lots of them in the tall grass."
And there were some sweet little girls who came along and sold milk," Barbara was beginning, when they all had to hurry to see why the boat was slowing down, outside a lonely harbor of the Island of Mull.
" There's a rowboat on our starboard side," announced John, proud of his vocabulary of nautical terms acquired during his acquaintance with a tall sailor who washed the promenade deck of the Oceanic. " There are two men in it, and they're taking some women and things off our boat." The " things " consisted of babies and barrels, boxes and mailbags of all sizes and weights. Leaning over the rail, John and the rest watched the entire proceeding until the Grenadier finally steamed away, leaving the tiny boat to struggle through the swell of the steamer's wake.
Wonder where those people are going," said Barbara thoughtfully, as they went back to their chairs. " I can see hills and valleys and woods on Mull, but there's only one house in sight. That seems to be a summer place, too; people in white clothes came out and waved to the steamer. Aren't there any towns on Mull, Mother? "
Oh, yes, there are a few. There's Tobermory. You'll see that later; I think we stop there on our return this afternoon. There are very few places of enough importance to have a pier, however, so the mail and passengers are landed in small boats, as you just now saw."
Is that Harry Lauder's ` Tobermory '? " interrupted John with a grin. " He sings about one, you know, but I didn't suppose it was a real place."
Oh, I imagine it is the same one, John. Why not? "
Although they felt sure that the day was a very warm one ashore, they found it delight-fully cool on the water, which remained as smooth as the poorest sailor could wish. On went the Grenadier, with the cliffs and mountains of Mull on one hand, and many small and rocky islands on the other. At length the steamer ran very close to one of these, which is called Erraid, and which is pointed out as the island on which David in Stevenson's " Kidnapped " was lost.
Oh, yes," said Philip, who greatly admired Stevenson. " I remember, don't you? David had been shipwrecked, and finally reached this little island, which really is not an island at all, because at low tide it is connected with the mainland."
" Oh, I've read that, too ! " broke in John, who was sometimes slow in connecting one thought with another. " David was fool enough to stay there till he almost starved; then some fishermen told him he could just as well go ashore as not. David's old uncle had him kidnapped, didn't he 7 But I wouldn't have cared ! He had some bully exciting times on that ship ! "
Very soon they came to Iona, a barren island with. a gray old cathedral standing high in a distant field. The passengers were helped into two small boats, and were rowed to a pier made of rough boulders.
" Did you ever see such lovely white sand ! cried Betty, as they stepped ashore and fell in with the big party which was following the guide up the village street.
Iona has a population of only about one hundred and fifty, but it can boast of having been a place of some importance when St. Columba landed there, perhaps as long ago as the year 563.
He and a few other monks set sail from Ireland in a small boat," said Mrs. Pitt.
They did not like to leave their country, but did it because they wished to carry the Christian religion to these wild inhabitants of the Scottish islands. Their little boat came safely across the waters, and brought them first of all to an island somewhat south from here.
Landing and going to the highest point, St. Columba shaded his eyes and looked towards the west. Dim on the horizon he could just see the coast of Ireland, and a great longing came over him to return to his home there, where his work. was well established, and where he had many faithful followers. Instead of this, he went back to his waiting friends and bade them push on still farther. At length the boat touched Iona's shore, and here they remained, purposely allowing their boat to drift away with the tide. There is no glimpse of the ` Emerald Isle ' to be had from gray Iona."
" But what did they do here on this lone-some island, all by themselves? " inquired Barbara, who, with Betty, was walking close by her mother's side.
" They built rough huts to live in, and a little chapel of some sort. After a while St. Columba began to make expeditions to the main-land, and people were converted to Christianity. The story of these holy men who lived alone on this remote island spread to distant countries, and other holy and learned men joined them here. The years went by, and gradually Iona became a favored retreat for kings and scholars, knights and pilgrims, —for those who were ill and those who sought quiet and comfort. At one time there were one hundred and fifty men living here. When not off on trips to convert pagans, St. Columba was shut up in his tiny, bare cell here at Iona, which he loved, making copies of the Psalms and the Gospels for his followers to carry out on their missionary trips. He was at work thus on the night before he died. At dark he closed the book and said : ` Here I make an end. What follows Baithene will write.' There are dozens of beautiful legends about this saint, who did much good for people in other ways than religious ones."
" Well, what's this, I'd like to know? It wasn't here in old Columba's day! " John did not intend to be disrespectful to the saint; he was simply tired for the moment of listening to so much serious talk about him.
They had turned in at a little gate, where-upon they found themselves face to face with a shop which displayed for sale the most fascinating of silver wares. Close at hand was the picturesque ruin of the former nunnery of the island, the charter for which, dated 1203, may still be seen in the Vatican Library at Rome. But few are the tourists who have eyes for the thirteenth-century ruin until they have ad-mired and purchased at the twentieth-century shop. Well did the guide realize this important fact,—he who himself designs and makes the silver articles ! There was a long halt here; this official guide, appointed by the Church of Scotland, to which the late Duke of Argyll left the ruins at Iona, did not once become impatient or urge his party on.
" This is a dandy ! " cried John, picking up a scarf-pin made after the pattern of the old Celtic swords,—the swords which are so often seen on ancient tombs. " Let's buy it, Betty ! "
I simply must have this little silver cross ! " his sister was just then exclaiming. " The man says it's a copy of St. Martin's cross, near the cathedral. We're going to see it now. He says there were once three hundred and sixty crosses at Iona, but there are only two whole ones now. It's only eight and six, and it's real silver! "
Then, the bills having been paid, on they went past the nunnery, with its crumbling walls and arches, up a narrow lane between high walls, where the ancient McLean Cross still stands, until they came to the oddest cemetery which they had ever seen.
In a rough field is a tiny chapel supposed to have been erected by Queen Margaret Canmore, Scotland's sainted queen, who lived in the eleventh century; and not far away are two groups of flat gravestones, each in two long rows.
" There are forty-eight Scottish kings buried here, so 'tis said, four Kings of Ireland, eight Norwegian princes, several royal infants, and many Lords of the Isles, bishops, abbots, priors, and chiefs of various powerful clans, such as McLeods, McLeans, Mackinnons, Macquarries, and " On and on went the guide with his astonishing facts.
" See the lovely old ship on that one," whispered Betty, pointing as she spoke. " It's like a Roman galley."
" Yes," replied the guide. " It marks the grave of a famous pirate. And this stone covers a McLean, whose ghost rides a black horse, carries his head under his arm, and is always seen before a death occurs in the McLean family. The McLeans owned Iona for centuries, you know."
" Give me that fellow without a head ! " cried John.
" Betty, do you realize that King Duncan is buried here,—he whom Macbeth murdered? "
" Really! " gasped poor Betty, who was al-most speechless by this time.
" And," continued the guide, " we also have here the grave of King Coil of Ayrshire,—' Old King Cole ' of the song, you know," he re-minded them, seeing that they failed to be properly impressed. " Now I'll have to ask you to step this way; your time is limited."
Iona Cathedral is rather disappointing, especially from the outside, because of very recent restorations which make it appear almost modern; but inside there are some exceedingly ancient arches and pillars which convince one that the building really was erected in the early part of the thirteenth century. St. Martin's cross, which some believe to have remained in the same position, near the Cathedral's western door, for about one thousand years, is altogether delightful, both in its beautiful Celtic design and in the exquisite grayish-green effect which the dampness and the clinging lichens have given it.
" How is it possible for the cross to have been so marvelously preserved " Mrs. Pitt asked the guide.
It's Iona's climate, madam. We have no snow nor frost here in winter, only terrible winds. I know, for I've lived at Iona: all my life."
The guide escorted his party back to the pier and assisted them into the rowboats. Arrived once again on board the Grenadier, they found lunch awaiting them in the saloon; no sooner had they finished than the strange island of Staffa came into view. And stranger and stranger did it appear as they drew nearer.
I think it must look like some heathen temple, don't you," said Betty; "an old temple on the Nile, you know? "
Staffa's steep cliffs rise abruptly from the water, and they are formed of innumerable pillars which march, one after the other, all around that part of the island. The top which these pillars support is quite flat, and has green grass and a few sheep grazing there.
"Looks like a great whopping toadstool with millions of stems," remarked John.
Once more their steamer was at a standstill, and two large lifeboats came to take the passengers to Fingal's Cave.
" Who was that fellow Fingal, anyhow? Why did he live in a cave? "
" Oh, Fingal was a famous giant, John. You hear a great deal about him in both the Scotch and the Irish fairy tales. There was a rival giant, too, who once challenged him to combat. Fingal was more than ready for his enemy, but how was he to cross the Irish Sea to meet him? It was finally agreed that they should build a great bridge between the two countries; so Fingal began on the Irish shore, while the other giant worked at this end. Here is all that is left of one giant's work, and the Giant's Cause-way in Ireland alone remains of Fingal's labor. Both have these same queer pillars, each of a different shape, you know."
Staffa means " the isle of columns," and in it are six caves, of which Fingal's is the largest. The men rowed their passengers to the mouth of this most wonderful of the caves, with its huge high entrance overhung with patches os a kind of brilliant yellow lichen; here people left the boats and entered the cave on foot by a narrow and slippery path over these rocks, or broken-off pillars.
" I never saw such green water ! " announced Betty emphatically, stopping and peering into the cave as far as she could see. " I don't think it's very beautiful, really," she added; " its roof and sides are so pointed and rough and queer. Are they what you call stalactites? "
" Evidently you don't share the point of view of a certain Frenchman who once visited Staffa," began Mrs. Pitt, holding fast to the iron rail to prevent herself from slipping. " He was so overcome by the grandeur of this cave that he fell down upon his knees and thanked God who had created it."
" I thought the waves would be pounding in here and dashing up over the rocks and making no end of a booming noise," said Philip.
" Yes," agreed John, " I thought it would be more exciting somehow. I wish the water wasn't so smooth to-day; I wish the boat really would ` beat on the broad Atlantic.' Come on; let's climb around outside."
The children enjoyed the scramble over the uneven pillars; they chased each other, ran races, and each sat seriously down in Fingal's Wishing Chair to make his three dearest wishes. Climbing slowly along in the hot sun, Mrs. Pitt reached the rowboat before the others, whom the big boatmen threatened to leave behind, so long did they linger.
The next few hours were quietly spent upon the boat, watching the small white birds which flew in procession over the water, numbers of long-necked black birds which performed truly remarkable feats of swimming and diving, and, best of all, some very large fish which, from time to time, lashed their great tails above the waves. John insisted that they were whales, and this, of course, caused considerable excitement among the party. A stop was made at the pleasant, sheltered harbor of Tobermory, and soon the square pile of Duart Castle, high on its rocky point, was reached.
" It was the chief stronghold of the Mc-Leans," explained Mrs. Pitt. " They were my mother's people, you know, Betty, and I am very proud of them all. Of course, there were some great thieves and villains among them, but I admire those, too. These McLeans of Duart always did things on such a grand scale ! If they were going to steal sheep or cattle belonging to some foe, they did not bother to carry away a few; they took hundreds,—droves, whole flocks ! Ah ! they were brave people,-the Duart McLeans ! "
They had now passed the ruined castle, and a lighthouse was in sight on their left.
It is Lismore Light," Mrs. Pitt went on enthusiastically, " and the Lady Rock close by is connected with these same ancestors of mine, the McLeans. No, John, I know; we can't see the rock at high tide, but it's there where you see the iron beacon. One of the Duart McLeans took his wife to the Lady Rock and left her there for the tide to sweep her away. Triumphantly he set out for Inveraray to announce . her death to her brother, the Duke of Argyll; but, even as the two men talked together, the lady herself appeared in their presence. She had been rescued by some fishermen. Yes," laughed the loyal descendant of the McLeans,
I even glory in that deed ! His method was such a bold and original one that it only added to the clan's fame ! "
" Hope the Duke did something to him that served him right ! "
Oh, he had his deserts, John; never fear. He made his escape to Edinburgh, but his wife's second brother, Campbell of Cawdor, followed him there and killed him. But see, we're opposite Dunollie Castle, and Oban is already in sight."
Oban was just as gay and just as radiant at six o'clock in the evening as it had been when they left it at eight o'clock the same morning. Its villas are built in long terraces on various levels of the hill which rises at the back of the town; and above them all is the strange, unfinished Coliseum-like building, called " McCaig's Folly." This eccentric but kind-hearted individual had the building started to provide abundant work for the men of his native town, but it was never completed.
" The street is crowded now," cried John; " I hear some pipers ! Come on ! "
All things considered, Oban is a delightful place to which to return after a long day's jaunt.