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THE ISLE of MULL
A Cottager piling Peat
WHEN I left Dalmally my destination was Oban on the west coast. The journey was all the way through the tumbled ridges of the Highlands, a part of the time high on the sides of the bare, rocky hills, and again crooking along low down in the deep valleys. Often these valleys were just narrow defiles that left only room enough for the railway track, a cart path, and a stream. The brooks and rivers were swift and foamy, and there were many fishermen angling from their banks or wading about in their rapid waters. One odd remembrance of the trip is of seeing three stalks of Indian corn growing in a flower-bed at the edge of the platform of a little wayside station. They were no doubt cultivated as semitropical curiosities, for the climate had not heat enough to mature ears.
Oban is a port of some importance, and carries on considerable traffic with the northwest coast and the outlying islands. It was late in the evening when I arrived, and though there were certain steamers still coming and going, the day's work was in the main done, and I looked out on a peaceful harbor where many little rowboats and numbers of larger craft lay rocking gently at anchor in the golden twilight.
I had come hither with intent to visit some of the Hebrides. Of the straggling line of isles that make up the Inner Hebrides, Mull is one of the largest and most easily accessible, and I decided to begin with that. It lies directly seaward from Oban, and is in plain sight. I only stayed in Oban over night, and then embarked on one of the small coasting steamers for an island village by the name of Craignure. It was a half-hour's journey. As we proceeded the island grew more distinct, and I could see that it was very rough, everywhere rising into misty mountains, some of the highest of which reached in dreamy blue far up into cloudland. On the lonely island shores I now and then saw a house or an old ruin, but as a whole the outlook was so deserted and sombre it gave me a touch of homesickness.
I knew nothing of Craignure except that it had been recommended to me as picturesque and characteristic; and I was a good deal disconcerted when the captain told me to step down below to disembark. That meant Craignure was so minute a place the steamer did not go up to a pier, but signalled for a rowboat to come out to meet it. I glanced shoreward and saw a few houses dotted along just back from the beach, and I could see a boat with two men pulling at the oars leaving a small wharf. The steamer slowed up and churned the water with the backward dashing of its paddles, and when the rowboat approached, a rope was thrown to it. The little craft swung around beside the steamer, and in the stiff wind that was blowing it bobbed up and down on the waves and bumped against its ponderously swaying companion, offering a most uncertain foothold, I thought, as I looked out on it. No time was wasted. Two sailors took me by the arms and jumped me down, my luggage followed, and we cast loose and drifted astern. The steamer's paddles began to revolve, and the vessel was soon far away, while we labored over the waves toward the shore. The experience was a new and exciting one, and made my nerves tingle while it lasted.
I had been told there was a hotel at Craignure, and I had seen it from the steamer, stark and stiff, not far from where we were to land. It was a humble affair, and the sign across its front was so worn and faded as to be almost unreadable. I spoke to the boatmen about getting my luggage to the hotel, but they informed me that the building was vacant, and that its business had been discontinued for years.
Then what could I do?
Well, they didn't know; "but I might try at the lodge"; and they explained that all this part of the island was owned by a gentleman who had a mansion a mile back from the village, and the lodge of which they spoke was at the entrance to his park, only a short walk from the wharf. The woman living there had had some relative stopping with her, and this relative was going away that day, and perhaps now she could keep me.
The lodge proved to be a snug little cottage behind a fringe of trees standing just within the gates that guarded the entrance to the park driveway. A stout, talkative old lady, who had red cheeks, contrasting
pleasantly with a white, frilled cap, met me at the door, and my spirits rose at once when she said her relative had gone and I could have his room. I did not go inside, but started instead for a ramble that, as it happened, occupied nearly all day.
There was little to keep me in Craignure village. It consisted of a small church, a white manse, and scarcely half a dozen other houses all told, and it was so extremely quiet that I was half inclined to think that all the inhabitants had departed with the relative of the lodge lady. I soon turned away from the village, entered the park, and followed its winding roadway back a long distance through woods and opens. This brought me in time to a great rusty mansion. Near it, where should have been lawn, was a big turnip field, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, and the whole place was overhung with a strange and depressing air of dilapidation. Had some old tragedy cast its blight on the manor, I wondered, or was it the home of an unfortunate member of the gentry who was bankrupt?
I kept on past the mansion, and made a detour to get around an arm of the sea that stretched far inland; and a mile or two beyond that I came to a ruined castle on a cliff of the wild shore. It was a gloomy old wreck of mediŠval grandeur, and appealed strongly to the imagination, and yet I was more interested in a cottage I visited close at hand. This cottage had a thatched roof and thick, low walls of stone, laid, not in mortar, but simply chinked with peaty turf. In one end of the dwelling lived a harmlessly insane man and his sister, in the other end a lone old woman; though the entire structure was no larger than a moderate sized one-story ell of an American farmhouse.
By the side of a slender path leading down to a spring in a near hollow was a tiny garden barely two yards square. Here I found the old woman at work; but when I questioned her about the house interior, she desisted and led the way to the door at her end. The door gave entrance to a dark apartment where she stored her peats. It was unfinished and windowless, and open to the crooked sticks and thatch of the roof. Adjoining it was the smallest living room I had ever seen — about twelve feet by six, and just high enough for a man of medium height to stand upright under the boards of the loft above. To pass beneath the supports of this upper floor, stooping was a necessity. A small fireplace jutted out into the room, and a bed, on which two cats were dozing, reached clear across the far end. There were chairs and stools, a table, a stand, and some meagre shelves of crockery, so that very little floor space was left. Picture papers were pasted plentifully over the walls to make the apartment warmer as well as more beautiful, and a diminutive window furnished light. The occupant had reached the age of eighty, she said, and she had an allowance from the parish, but in the main she paid her own way by hiring out to work in the fields.
I noticed when I left the ancient cottage that the weather had turned more threatening. The mountain tops were hooded with mists, and these mists crept lower and lower down the ridges, until presently it began to rain. Not far away was a farmhouse, and I turned aside and hastened to it by a rough cart road, and rapped at the entrance to the kitchen. A woman responded, but when she saw I was a stranger, begged me to go around into the garden to the front door. There I was met and ushered into the best room. I explained how I happened to make this unexpected call, and the woman, with hospitable zeal, insisted that I must have some refreshment, and stepped out to prepare it.
While she was gone I looked about me. It was a stiff sort of room that I was in, apparently only invaded in housecleaning time, and on such special occasions as the present. The wall-paper was of an antiquated stripe, and the pictures were very old-fashioned, and included a sampler. Around the edges of the room a dozen or more chairs were arranged in frigid order, each with a tidy on its back. In one corner was a piano, and on a table were a variety of photographs and a few books.
The woman soon returned, bearing a tray loaded with scones, butter, jelly, a pitcher of new milk, and a pot of tea. She had changed her gown, meantime, and had run down to the hayfield and called in her brothers, Hugh and John. They were now in the kitchen making themselves presentable; but in a few minutes they came to the parlor. I stayed fully two hours, and these farm-folk never flagged in their kindly attentions, and gave up nearly the whole time to making things pleasant for me. They could not have done more had I been a friend of a lifetime; and they expressed the wish that I had come to Kilpatrick Farm to stay instead of stopping at the lodge, adding that they could have made me very bean (comfortable). They told me about the photographs on the table and the pictures on the wall, and John stood in a chair and took down the sampler that I might see it closer. The woman said it was worked by a sister who went to boarding-school, and she pointed out on it the initials of her parents and their twelve children, and told me all their names.
By and by my entertainers made a tour of the premises for my benefit. In the kitchen a fire of peats was burning in a rude little stove. Until comparatively recently they had used the wide fireplace, but it had no grate and smoked horribly, and so they bought the little stove. They wanted the proprietor to attend to the chimney and put in a range, but he would not, nor would he do aught to better their ceiling, which was black with soot and cracking off all over in minute flakes. This landlord, I learned from others, did not take much interest in Mull farming. He was a millionnaire, a keen business man who had made a good deal of money by his own efforts and gathered more to himself by marrying a titled lady twelve years his elder. In spite of his wealth he was a stickler for economy, and would pick up empty match boxes on the London streets, and he exacted his dues to the last halfpenny. Yet if anything took his fancy, he thought nothing of paying a thousand pounds for it. Hugh said the landlord had a fine mansion in London, and that this one in Mull was no more than a henhouse to that.
In the Kilpatrick Farm kitchen, the floor was of flat stones, all marked in a curious scroll-like pattern that covered them with a network of curling lines. This marking was renewed regularly every Friday by the woman, who would get down on her knees and scratch the pattern in with a sharp piece of soapstone. The decorative ornamentation of the floor was of course not very permanent, yet it lasted fairly distinct over Sunday. At one side of the room hung a "wag at the wa'" clock, with its weights and pendulum exposed, and near by stood a dresser full of old-time pewter and crockery. The woman said she would show me a bag of seaweed she had in the pantry — seaweed of a sort they used a great deal in making puddings. But she forgot that in the pantry she had prisoned a hen and twenty chickens. This family came running out when the door was opened, and the woman drove them on through the kitchen and scullery into the yard. The seaweed proved to be Iceland moss. They pulled it on the shore in summer at low water, brought it to the house in creels, and spread it on the grass for about a month to bleach and dry. They always gathered enough so that they could put away a bushel-bag full of the shrunken product for the year's use.
A Kitchen Corner
They had to depend very much on themselves for the food they ate. No grocer's or baker's cart ever visited them, and no "flesher" with "dead meat." To a considerable extent the sea was their larder. The stalwart brothers often went fishing of an evening, and they would easily catch a hundred apiece, and sometimes between them brought home half a thousand. A part of the catch they ate fresh, a part they salted for winter, and a part they fed to the pigs. They did not think much of fish as a food for human beings.
The doors were open from the kitchen through the scullery into the dairy, and I was invited to step into the last named apartment and look about. It had a stone floor, and its one window was much shadowed by ivy, so that it must have been dark and cool in the warmest weather. On the shelves were rows of heavy pans full of milk, a tall earthen crock for cream, and several wooden firkins packed with butter. Lastly, there was a wooden churn of the slim, upright type, broad at the bottom and small at the top, with a long handle that worked up and down. The dairy was clean and wholesome, and the farm folk said their butter always took first prize at the fairs.
Not only did my hosts show their house, but they took me to the barn and byres. The inspection ended with the barn loft. Here was not much just then save high-piled bags of meat (grain) for the cattle, protected by an occasional clumsy trap set for rats, and the loft's chief claim to interest lay in the fact that years ago the people of the neighborhood frequently used it for a ballroom. On such occasions it was all trimmed with evergreens, and lit with "paraffine" lamps; there was music of harps, pipes, and fiddles, and they had very merry times. But they never had such gatherings now. There was no one to come to them. Formerly nearly twoscore crofters had their homes right on Kilpatrick Farm, and all of them had large families. To-day there was not a single croft family left.
In a corner of the barn loft lay a heavy round stone, something like a cheese, with a hole in the middle. Hugh explained that it was the upper half of an ancient grinding stone, a relic of the days when the old wives ground their own oatmeal by hand. He had seen them do it when he was a lad, and they did it yet in the remote Highlands. If the supply of meal ran low, the woman would bring in a measure of oats, dry them in a pot over the fire, grind them, and make the flour into cakes, all within two or three hours. He had seen butter made in a bottle, too. One day, while in another part of the island, he had stopped at a cottage, and a woman in the kitchen was shaking something white in a black bottle, and she said it was cream. The bottle method of churning is adopted by crofters who do not usually make butter, and who take this way of providing a little for expected company or for a family treat.
My entertainers used excellent English in conversing with me, but ordinarily they talked the Gaelic, which is the common language of the island, and which they considered, as compared with English, decidedly finer and more expressive. When I intimated that I must be getting back to my lodging-place, they insisted I should lunch again, and after that they escorted me out the front door as far as the gate, and the woman picked me a bouquet from her flower garden. At the final handshaking they begged me to write from America to assure them that I reached home safe. From the end of the lane I looked back and saw the three standing beside the garden gate watching me out of sight, and I went on with a heart warmed by their hospitality more than I can tell.
It began to rain again by the time I reached the lodge, and evening came early, with a steady downpour. I sat in the best room next a diamond-paned bay-window that had a wide sill set full of potted plants. The rain pattered on roof and roadway, and rustled through the leaves of the trees, and I heard the low roar of the sea pounding along the shore. For a time I had the company of my landlady, who talked with hardly an interruption until her work took her to the kitchen. Then her husband came in — a withered ancient who was as reticent as she was garrulous. He soon adjourned to the kitchen, and I saw him no more. The wife, as she stepped around, busied with her evening tasks, groaned at frequent intervals, and she had a most distressing way of saying, "Oh dear! Oh dear!" over and over again. She had lumbago and stomach trouble, she informed me, and things were always very bad with her in stormy weather. She had been saying yesterday that to-day would be rainy, and her husband had thought it would be fair — he could see well enough now that she knew best! Perhaps next time he would take her word when she told him things would be thus and so! But it was just like a man to think he knew all there was to know!
When I looked out next morning the clouds still hung low and threatening, but the rain had ceased, and I early prepared to go out to the steamer that would take me away. A brisk wind blew, and the waves were crested with whitecaps, and dashed into high-leaping spray along the rocky shore. The rowboat careened and bounded finely when it got beyond the cover of the pier, but the embarking was safely accomplished, and the spice of adventure which it furnished was not by any means the least agreeable feature of the day spent on this far-away Scotch island.
An Old Farmhouse