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First Visit 1875

Chapter I

Dunvegan—Recommendation to the Inn—Passage to St Kilda—First impressions—A child's funeral— Visit from the fair—The church—I get a sermon to myself, but do not feel flattered.

IN the 10th May 1875 I arrived in Dunvegan, Isle of Skye, having hurried thither post haste and regardless of expense by rail and mail gig from Edinburgh to catch the smack that was to sail, as I had been advised, next day for St Kilda, and on board of which I had been promised a passage. But having reached Dunvegan, I was informed that the smack would not sail until the wind changed and the weather became settled. I also learned from other sources that wind and weather were of no consequence, as the smack was not there to profit by a change should it occur, but was engaged in a cruise somewhere else.

This was rather discouraging ; but disliking to retreat, I took up my quarters in the inn, and I have much pleasure in recommending that house to any stranger obliged to live in Dunvegan, because there are no other lodgings to be had in the village or vicinity. The charges are strictly moderate, considering the accommodation, and the latter very good,—I mean for a place like Dunvegan,—and the goat-eyed landlord, who talks both English and Gaelic as if an ear of barley had stuck in his throat, is polite and courteous to your face. A rumour that fever raged on the premises caused them to be shunned by all except a few cattle-coupers, who would have had their whisky although Death himself had acted as waiter, and had brought in the stoups and glasses on a coffin lid.

This agreeable hotel is situated at a convenient distance from the churchyard, and thither I sauntered on the evening of the day of my arrival, in search of the antique or curious. There is a church in the middle of the graveyard, not old, although a roofless ruin. Whilst I was meditating amongst the tombs two women entered the ground. One was old, lean, pale, and haggard. She wore a black handkerchief over her white cap. The other was middle-aged, with a dark Celtic face, broad cheek bones, aquiline nose, and black eyes flashing under level brows. She had a dark plaid over her head, and carried a stick in her hand—picturesque figures both. The old woman tottered to a grave and knelt at the head of it, and in an agony of grief patted and embraced the grassy hillock with her skinny hands, muttering meanwhile some words, broken by convulsive sobs, in Gaelic.

The younger woman stood composed and erect at the side of the grave, and waited silently until her companion had given vent to her affliction. She then explained to me in imperfect English that the old woman was mourning for her son, a fine young man, who died at the age of twenty-one. Whilst I stood looking at them, the sunbeams breaking like a fan through the murky clouds, I thought that one might spend a lifetime in the lowlands and not find such a subject for a picture. The Gael, though more cautious and reserved in his ordinary demeanour than the Gall1,is more demonstrative in his grief. When his heart is pierced by, some deep emotion he flings off all disguise, as he used to fling off his clothes when he rushed into battle, and his soul stands naked before you.

The modern fashion of levelling the ground and decking it with flowers has not yet been adopted in Dunvegan, and I hope never will be. There the earth is piled up in bold relief, and I like the old style best. It gives assurance to the sight that the poor inhabitant below is actually there. Why should we try to efface all mark of him? The great majority of the graves have rough stones without any inscriptions at the head and foot.

1. Gall (plural goill) is the Gaelic for a lowland Scotchman, whom the Highlanders, I believe, never call a Sassunach, as has been erroneously asserted, this word being exclusively applied to an Englishman. This error originated, I think, with Sir Walter Scott, and has often been repeated since. In this manner history gets corrupted. The St Kildians call all strangers goill. If I am wrong let a Gael correct me.