OUR VISIT TO BRITAIN.

 

EXCURSION TO HELENSBURG AND THE QUEEN OF THE HEBRIDES.

 

            The nervous debility consequent upon such frequent speaking, and more continued excitement than our physique was accustomed to—organic inaction, or irregular action, dependant on undue exertion—began to impair our general health. Acidity of the stomach, hacking cough, affection of the throat almost to loss of voice occasionally, and other symptoms, admonished us that we must seek repose of mind, and recreation. We accordingly accompanied a friend down the Clyde on a flying visit to Helensburg, about five miles in the distance opposite to Greenock on the bay shore. We dined there with a Mr. D., a retired Glasgow merchant, who is rusticating in the outskirts in the most pleasant manner possible. He has peculiar views on religion and diet. He believes in the personal advent and reign of Christ over the nations upon earth; but though immersed, he does not think, if we remember rightly, that baptism is at all essential. He preaches at a place of his own; the attendance is said to be small. In diet he is a “vegetarian;” though he was kind enough for our sakes’ to supply his board with a little meat extra the vegetables upon that particular occasion.

 

            Besides this pleasant excursion we accepted the invitation of another kind friend to spend a few days with him at Bowmore, “the commercial capital” of Islay. We set out for this island of the sea, so celebrated for its whisky all over the drinking world, on the morning after the “soiree” at 6. 30A. M. It lies about 20 miles west of the peninsular of Cantyre, sometimes called Kintyre, and about 14 hours steam from Glasgow. The following letter written to our daughter, the companion of our travel, then in London, will afford the reader a better idea of our excursion westward than we can give from memory at this distance of time and place.

 

Bowmore, on Lochendaul,

Islay, October 19th, 1848.

My Dear Eusebia:

 

            I arrived at this beautiful island, styled “The Queen of the Hebrides,” on Friday evening at 8 P. M. The voyage was very interesting amid the wild scenery of the Western Highlands. We steamed down the Clyde, touching at Greenock, Dunoon, and Rothsay, into the Frith, passing between the isles of Bute and Arran whose lofty mountains towered far above the sea. We put in to Loch Fine which runs up into the main land of Caledonia as far as to Inverary. I landed from the steamer bound for this place, at a small fishing town called East Tarbert, situated at the head of an indentation of the land, which, if it had been deepened about two miles more, would have converted the peninsula of Kintyre into an island. There is nothing remarkable about the town that arrests a stranger’s eye; though, it is probable, that many a deed of violence and blood has stained the page of its early history, when all such places on the coast were exposed to the incursions of marauders from the Scandinavian countries of the north. I may tell you, however, that a castle formerly existed here originally built by Robert de Bruce, which was repaired and garrisoned by James IV in 1494. But castles are of little use now; therefore, as in the case of Tarbert, their condition is mostly ruinous. Having engaged a boy to carry my carpet bag, “we twa paidelt o’er the braes” to another Tarbert at the head of West Tarbert Loch. We had not walked more than a quarter of a mile when a lady and gentleman, two travellers in an opposite direction, accosted me by name. Would not this have been alarming had I been on the wing escaping from pursuit because of evil deeds? To be addressed by name in such a remote and heathen corner of the earth, it was really puzzling to conceive how one could ever have been heard of there! The lady was from Port Ellen in Islay, and was acquainted with our excellent friend Mr. John Murdoch, whom she had seen that day; and from whom she learned that he was expecting a visit from Dr. Thomas, whom she might know, if she met him between the Tarberts, by wearing the beard. I learned this afterwards from him; and obtained from her on the spot the agreeable information, that he would meet me at Port Askaig to conduct me to Bowmore. You would be amused at the strange sounds they call language in these parts. They style it the Gaelic, which like the Welsh and the Irish, is a dialect of the ancient Celt. “Co fare ar shin?” inquired some Gaels of the boy beside me as we were jogging along westward. He uttered some uncouth sounds in reply which I am unable to turn into manuscript. “What was that he asked you, my lad?” “What person is that?” and he added “they set a great eye upon you, sir.” How so? “Because of the beard you wear.” The Gaelic I collected on my route is soon told. Tha signifies a house; nocght mah means “good night;” po, a cow; man, a woman (well there is some sense in that; for a woman is man, but a man is not a woman—“God made man; male and female made he them;”) oe signifies a point; moigne, peat; coel, coal; &c. Thus we beguiled the way until West Tarbert of miserable aspect appeared in view. Here I parted from my guide, and soon found myself on board the Islay steamer.

 

            Having taken in her living freight, and in a short time cleared the rocks at the entrance of West Tarbert Loch, the vessel bore off towards the going down of the sun, leaving Kintyre astern and the north of Ireland to the south on her larboard side. After the haze of distance was dispelled by our nearing the land, we had a fine view of “the Paps of Jura,” two lofty mountain peaks, after the form of those of Otter in the Blue Range of Virginia, exalting their heads like giants towards heaven. We entered the Sound of Islay between 7 and 8 P. M. This is a narrow sea passage running between Islay and Jura, about a mile wide and fourteen long, and terminating in the Atlantic ocean, with which you have formed a tolerably intimate acquaintance. Port Askaig, our place of debarkation, is neither a Liverpool nor a Piraeus; but a miserable collection of huts at the foot of a steep hill, where cattle and other passengers are embarked for Glasgow. Uninviting as it is, we were glad to see its lights flickering in the windows, a token that our voyage was about to end.

 

            On landing I was rejoiced to find our friend there, as the lady had said, waiting with a policeman to conduct me to Bowmore. Surely Burns, who was of the same official fraternity as Mr. M., if he had seen me in such custody, would have said “The De’il hae got ye now!” Though I believe it was the devil ran off with the exciseman; be that as it may, “circumstances alter cases” you know, and I doubt not, that there are hundreds of Islaymen concerned in the running off of whisky, who would be ready to testify that a man in the hands of excise and police familiars might as well be possessed of devils for any good that would come of it! But our friend and his policeman were only “a terror to evil doers” in the island. I found them worthy of all praise; for instead of leaving me all night at Port Askaig Hotel (!) to recreate, and wish myself at Jericho instead of Islay, he had provided a gig and a policeman to drive me to Bowmore. This was “a friend in need,” and therefore not the De’il that had got me, but “a friend indeed,” as you have heard Mr. Murdoch is at all times. All being ready we set out, he on his pony and I and the policeman in the gig. The road was good, and the night bright moonlight. My “whip” drove as if in chase of a smuggler; happily, however, our Rosinante was sure footed, and the tackle sound. We passed Bridgend in the centre of the island, and the seat of government; for a Branch of the National Bank of Scotland is located there, and where the money power holds its court, there is the real throne of an earth-born dominion. After leaving Bridgend, Lochendaul opened upon our view, shining in all the light of “the silver moon;” or as Job more beautifully expresses it, in all the radiance of “the moon walking in brightness.” Bowmore was yet three miles in the distance. The road, however, along the Loch was soon travelled, and a flight of 12 miles from Port Askaig satisfactorily terminated by the side of a blazing peat fire at the hospitable dwelling of Mr. M.

 

            Bowmore, where I am now, is, I believe, the largest village in Islay. It is situated on the right shore of Lochendaul, and dates its origin with the Parish church in 1768. We have a good view of the Loch from the back windows of Mr. M’s house whence in the distance on the opposite shore we can descry Port Charlotte. To one accustomed to the elegant buildings of London, and other cities of Europe and America, Bowmore is a mere sepulchre of a place. It is the works of God only that are interesting here for their beauty, leaving man’s so completely in the shade, that we feel only pity and aversion to his deeds. Lochendaul and Lochgruinard are two indentations of the coast which penetrate so deeply into the land as nearly to divide the island in two. Lochendaul witnessed the shipwreck of my friend Alexander of Bethany, in October 1809, being forty years ago on the 9th instant. He was on his way to Philadelphia from Londonderry in the north of Ireland. Lochendaul, however, has witnessed more terrible scenes than this. It is famous for shipwrecks, murder, and piracy. On the fourth of October, 1813, a piratical vessel from the United States, called “The True Blooded Yankee,” arrived in Lochendaul about dusk. She was a fine man-of-war brig, pierced for 26 guns, and carrying 260 men. Having been boarded by two experienced pilots, she cast anchor near Port Charlotte. The harbour happened to be crowded with merchant vessels of all sizes. Duplait, the captain of the pirate, set them all on fire together; having previously rifled each of such articles as he coveted, especially the Registers. Between 20 and 30 vessels were either burned or stranded by his orders in one night, thereby occasioning a loss of private property amounting to about £600,000. She was afterwards made a prize of by the British, who carried her into the river Plata, where she was condemned.

 

            While among the horrors I may tell you that Port Askaig locality is not without its interest. In the fall of 1778, the famous Paul Jones with his privateer of 50 guns, called “The Ranger,” made a descent upon Islay; and having entered the Sound seized the Packet which conveyed passengers and merchandise between West Tarbert and the island. Among these was the late Major Campbell, who had just returned from India with an independent fortune, the most of it being in gold bars and other valuables; so that as he was about to land on his native island the whole of his wealth was seized by Jones, and the Major, who a few hours before was vastly rich, landed penniless, though not so “poor as Job.” Thus it is that often-times “riches make to themselves wings, and fly away as an eagle toward heaven,” and the Major found experimentally that “they profit not in the day of wrath.”

 

            On Monday I accompanied Mr. M. over the grounds of the large and princely residence called Islay House, the dwelling place of the late Laird of Islay—a Mr. Campbell, who became bankrupt in the sum of £800,000, so that the island was to be sold on November 8, to pay his debts. The simple people of Bowmore amuse themselves with the supposition that I have come from the Far West to view the land before buying it. The price is not less than £500,000, and as much more as the bond-holders and personal creditors can get. The rents amount to £19,000 per annum, and with good management might be doubled. Islay House is situated about a quarter of a mile from Bridgend at the head of Lochendaul. It is surrounded by extensive plantations, and the pleasure grounds, private drives, and walks, around and connected with it, are ample and varied, and laid out with much taste and judgment, suitable in all respects for convenience and recreation. The gardens, hot-houses and fountains, are said to be superior to any private gardens in the West of Scotland. There is a fort mounted with guns, but no garrison, which well mounted would from its position prove rather inconvenient to visitors of hostile intentions.

 

            On Tuesday we procured ponies (mine was about the size of a donkey) for a day’s riding towards the west. We headed the Loch at Bridgend, and after riding along shore a while struck off inland over the hills to the western side of the island, about 15 miles by this route from Bowmore. We were near but did not visit the Sanaig cave, which is a perfect subterranean labyrinth. The entrance to it is difficult. The most remarkable peculiarity connected with it is its reverberation. By the discharge of a single gun a stranger would suppose that a royal salute had been fired. It was near this cave that the Exmouth, from Londonderry, bound to America, was dashed upon the rocks, April 27, 1847, when 248 souls, passengers and crew, perished. Three of the crew happened to be on the yards at the time, so that when she struck they dropped off on the land. She then bounded from the precipice and went down. These three were all that escaped.

 

            Our ride was highly interesting, but cold. My little short-stepping pony was very sure-footed, but gave me such a jolting as I had never experienced before. We went down hill at a rapid trot. If we had stumbled it would have been a ludicrous scene for a spectator; for the dog and its rider must have made a somerset together—I say dog, for I have seen a large Newfoundland almost as large; the ponies of these islands are remarkably small. You see many like them in London, imported from the Orcades, or Shetland isles, to the north of the Hebrides. We got some refreshment in the form of milk and biscuit at a hovel-inn. I know not what else to call it. My friend called to collect some excise dues from “mine host.” The sow, a large and gentle creature, was reclining in great comfort seemingly, on the earthen floor of the apartment. It appeared to be a place of call for the faithful where they might obtain lawful whisky after church. If not, I cannot tell why the only buildings on the land are the manse, the tavern, and the kirk. The minister’s manse was very pretty, and decorated with a happy combination of things, known as simplicity with neatness. But we had no time to linger here. The sun was fast hastening to his dip in the western wave, and we had fifteen miles to trot ere we could say we were “at home.”

 

            On Wednesday we set off in another direction. We mounted our ponies and rode over hills, along the sea shore, and over mountain ridges, then through a wretched looking place called Port Ellen, to Arbeg some two miles beyond. From the ridge overlooking the port we had a fine view of Rathlin, an island off the north coast of Ireland. We staid at Arbeg all night. In the morning, after breakfast, we walked about three miles to Ardimersay. This is a marine residence and hunting seat of the Laird, in the southeastern part of the island—a truly charming retreat, beautifully situated amid wood and rock scenery. After viewing all the points of interest here, we strolled off to the grave of Ella, in one of the most picturesque spots of the whole island. Her resting place is marked by two grey stones, about thirty feet apart, at Bealachdearg, to the north of the beautiful and well sheltered bay called Loch-a-Chnuic, which penetrates the hazel woods which adorn and shelter the Cottage of Ardimersay. She was the daughter of one of the Norwegian viceroys who resided in Islay when in the possession of the Danes. The natives generally suppose that the island derived its name from her; but of the origin of its name none have arrived at certainty. Having refreshed ourselves at the Ardimersay forester’s on excellent butter, milk, bread, and cheese, with an appetite such as exercise and sea air alone can give—an appetite with a relish—we returned to Arbeg, where we dined. At this place there are some fine old castle ruins, beetling the heights and frowning o’er the sea. Who the robber chieftain, and what his history, that built it for his strong-hold, I do not remember if I ever knew. It was doubtless famed at some time for its deeds of treachery and violence, for this whole island appears to have been a perfect field of blood. “Almost all its history,” says a native writer, “is taken up with the deeds of the great, the people being lost sight of almost entirely, excepting as so many passive creatures, fit for war or the payment of rent, and responsible to no authority but that of the owners of the soil. As the island passed from one lord to another, it did so with its unwilling compliment of serfs, called tenants, almost as completely and virtually as a South Carolina plantation does with its pack of Negro “servants.” The apologists of British slavery may say that “tenants” are at liberty to leave their country, whereas American slaves are not. True; and they are also at liberty to perish for want of food, whilst the land lies waste, because they cannot pay an exorbitant price for liberty to till God’s earth at home!” When things come to this, it is time that lairds become bankrupt, and the land be distributed upon easy terms among the poor.

 

            Though “after dinner” it is well to “sit awhile,” (Abernethy used to say sleep three hours,) we were under the necessity of riding fourteen miles to supper. I confess I did not like the prescription, but there was no help for it. We therefore mounted our ponies and set off. Five miles of the way were along the sea shore, upon hard sand, as smooth and level as a floor. We gave our land-clippers the bridle here to enjoy their own speed. Having soon cleared the sands, we turned off to the in-land; over hill and dale we sped our way. The legs beneath us knew they were going home, and gave us the satisfaction of sitting by a cheering fire in Bowmore before the twilight was altogether gone. This was my last night in the Ebudes, as the ancients styled these western isles. In the morning a conveyance was at the door to convey me to Port Askaig, whence I was to re-embark for West Tarbert. I left Bowmore at 7, in company with Mr. M. We arrived in good time, indeed, too soon, for the steamer was detained much after her appointed time, by the perverseness of the cattle, who instead of going on board in a peaceable and orderly manner, manifested a decided inclination not to tread the gang-way at all. The sheep occupied the quarter-deck. There were none in the cabin, it is true; but little room remained, between flocks and herds on deck, for men, women, and children, of whom there were “a good few.”

 

            While they are belabouring the beasts, twisting their tails, and hauling them by the horns, one by one, to compel them to embark for market, I will conclude this long letter by informing you that the extreme length of Islay from the southern point of Oa to the northern projection of Ru’mhail is nearly 31 English miles: and its breadth from Ardmore point, on the east to Sanaig, is nearly 25 miles. The superficies of the island is estimated at 154,000 imperial acres. It extends to 500 square miles, of which about 35 are covered by lakes and rivers. The coast is generally bound by low rocks, or by flat shores and sandy bays; and is justly regarded as very dangerous to shipping. The surface is hilly on the east side, and in some places wooded to the water’s edge. The mountains here attain to an elevation of nearly 1500 feet. The greater part of the island, however, is sufficiently level to be susceptible of cultivation to the summit of the highest hills.

 

            In 1841 the population was 18,071, whilst in 1831 it was 19,700. Emigration has drained away a considerable number of the best of the population, so that now it is reduced to about 15,000. The Total Abstinents do not reckon Islay among their conquests. Barley is raised in large quantity, and is mostly used by the Distilleries, of which there are eleven in different parts of the island. “Islay whisky,” and black cattle, are the chief articles of export. Sheep are exported in great numbers, and of the cattle, about 3,500 are sold annually. Talking of cattle, the steamer’s bell is now sounding, the herd is all aboard, and those who are not fellow-travellers with the cattle must go ashore. The best of friends must part, and I am happy in being able to number Mr. John Murdoch, of Islay, among the best I have. He is a lover of the truth, which is the ground of our friendship and the bond of union between us. His poetical and musical talents you are not a stranger to. To him, and a professional friend of his, I am indebted for all that may interest you in this concerning Islay. I bid him adieu regretfully, and under lasting obligation to him for his kindness, and the gratification he had afforded me during my sojourn among the Gaels. Our moorings being loosed, we put out into the sound; Port Askaig was soon far astern, and by degrees both Islay and the Paps of Jura receded behind the veil of heaven’s azure hue.

 

            Hoping to see you soon in London, in the mean time accept this as an assurance that, though far away, you are ever in the heart of your affectionate father,

JOHN THOMAS.