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THE LAD WITH THE SILVER BUTTON: THROUGH THE ISLE OF MULL
The Ross of Mull, which I had now got upon, was rugged and trackless, like the isle I had just left; being all bog, and brier, and big stone. There may be roads for them that know that country well; but for my part I had no better guide than my own nose, and no other landmark than Ben More.
I aimed as well as I could for the smoke I had seen so often from the island; and with all my great weariness and the difficulty of the way came upon the house in the bottom of a little hollow about five or six at night. It was low and longish, roofed with turf and built of unmortared stones; and on a mound in front of it, an old gentleman sat smoking his pipe in the sun.
With what little English he had, he gave me to understand that my shipmates had got safe ashore, and had broken bread in that very house on the day after.
"Was there one," I asked, "dressed
like a gentleman?"
He said they all wore rough
great-coats; but to be
sure, the first of them, the one that came alone, wore breeches and
while the rest had sailors' trousers.
"Ah," said I, "and he would have a
He told me, no, that he was bareheaded like myself.
At first I thought Alan might have
lost his hat; and
then the rain came in my mind, and I judged it more likely he had it
harm's way under his great-coat. This
set me smiling, partly because my friend was safe, partly to think of
And then the old gentleman clapped his hand to his brow, and cried out that I must be the lad with the silver button.
"Why, yes!" said I, in some wonder.
"Well, then," said the old
"I have a word for you, that you are to follow your friend to his
He then asked me how I had fared, and I told him my tale. A south-country man would certainly have laughed; but this old gentleman (I call him so because of his manners, for his clothes were dropping off his back) heard me all through with nothing but gravity and pity. When I had done, he took me by the hand, led me into his hut (it was no better) and presented me before his wife, as if she had been the Queen and I a duke.
The good woman set oat-bread before me and a cold grouse, patting my shoulder and smiling to me all the time, for she had no English; and the old gentleman (not to be behind) brewed me a strong punch out of their country spirit. All the while I was eating, and after that when I was drinking the punch, I could scarce come to believe in my good fortune; and the house, though it was thick with the peat-smoke and as full of holes as a colander, seemed like a palace.
The punch threw me in a strong sweat and a deep slumber; the good people let me lie; and it was near noon of the next day before I took the road, my throat already easier and my spirits quite restored by good fare and good news. The old gentleman, although I pressed him hard, would take no money, and gave me an old bonnet for my head; though I am free to own I was no sooner out of view of the house than I very jealously washed this gift of his in a wayside fountain.
Thought I to myself: "If these are the wild Highlanders, I could wish my own folk wilder."
I not only started late, but I must have wandered nearly half the time. True, I met plenty of people, grubbing in little miserable fields that would not keep a cat, or herding little kine about the bigness of asses. The Highland dress being forbidden by law since the rebellion, and the people condemned to the Lowland habit, which they much disliked, it was strange to see the variety of their array. Some went bare, only for a hanging cloak or great-coat, and carried their trousers on their backs like a useless burthen: some had made an imitation of the tartan with little parti-coloured stripes patched together like an old wife's quilt; others, again, still wore the Highland philabeg, but by putting a few stitches between the legs transformed it into a pair of trousers like a Dutchman's. All those makeshifts were condemned and punished, for the law was harshly applied, in hopes to break up the clan spirit; but in that out-of-the-way, sea-bound isle, there were few to make remarks and fewer to tell tales.
They seemed in great poverty; which
was no doubt
natural, now that rapine was put down, and the chiefs kept no longer an
house; and the roads (even such a wandering, country by — track as the
followed) were infested with beggars.
here again I marked a difference from my own part of the country.
For our Lowland beggars — even the gownsmen
themselves, who beg by
patent — had a louting, flattering way with them, and if you gave them
and asked change, would very civilly return you a boddle.
But these Highland beggars stood on their dignity,
asked alms only to buy
snuff (by their account) and would give no change.
To be sure, this was no concern of mine, except in so far as it entertained me by the way. What was much more to the purpose, few had any English, and these few (unless they were of the brotherhood of beggars) not very anxious to place it at my service. I knew Torosay to be my destination, and repeated the name to them and pointed; but instead of simply pointing in reply, they would give me a screed of the Gaelic that set me foolish; so it was small wonder if I went out of my road as often as I stayed in it.
At last, about eight at night, and
weary, I came to a lone house, where I asked admittance, and was
I bethought me of the power of money in so poor a country, and held up
one of my
guineas in my finger and thumb. Thereupon,
the man of the house, who had hitherto pretended to have no English,
me from his door by signals, suddenly began to speak as clearly as was
and agreed for five shillings to give me a night's lodging and guide me
day to Torosay.
I slept uneasily that night,
fearing I should be
robbed; but I might have spared myself the pain; for my host was no
miserably poor and a great cheat.
was not alone in his poverty; for the next morning, we must go five
to the house of what he called a rich man to have one of my guineas
This was perhaps a rich man for Mull; he would have
scarce been thought
so in the south; for it took all he had — the whole house was turned
down, and a neighbour brought under contribution, before he could
together twenty shillings in silver.
odd shilling he kept for himself, protesting he could ill afford to
great a sum of money lying "locked up."
For all that he was very courteous and well spoken,
made us both sit down
with his family to dinner, and brewed punch in a fine china bowl, over
rascal guide grew so merry that he refused to start.
I was for getting angry, and
appealed to the rich man
(Hector Maclean was his name), who had been a witness to our bargain
and to my
payment of the five shillings. But
Maclean had taken his share of the punch, and vowed that no gentleman
leave his table after the bowl was brewed; so there was nothing for it
sit and hear Jacobite toasts and Gaelic songs, till all were tipsy and
off to the bed or the barn for their night's rest.
Next day (the fourth of my travels) we were up before five upon the clock; but my rascal guide got to the bottle at once, and it was three hours before I had him clear of the house, and then (as you shall hear) only for a worse disappointment.
As long as we went down a heathery
valley that lay
before Mr. Maclean's house, all went well; only my guide looked
his shoulder, and when I asked him the cause, only grinned at me.
No sooner, however, had we crossed the back of a
hill, and got out of
sight of the house windows, than he told me Torosay lay right in front,
a hill-top (which he pointed out) was my best landmark.
"I care very little for that," said
"since you are going with me."
The impudent cheat answered me in
the Gaelic that he
had no English.
"My fine fellow," I said, "I know
well your English comes and goes.
me what will bring it back? Is
more money you wish?"
"Five shillings mair," said he, "and hersel' will bring ye there."
I reflected awhile and then offered him two, which he accepted greedily, and insisted on having in his hands at once "for luck," as he said, but I think it was rather for my misfortune.
The two shillings carried him not quite as many miles; at the end of which distance, he sat down upon the wayside and took off his brogues from his feet, like a man about to rest.
I was now red-hot. "Ha!" said I, "have you no more English?"
He said impudently, "No."
At that I boiled over, and lifted
my hand to strike
him; and he, drawing a knife from his rags, squatted back and grinned
at me like
a wildcat. At that, forgetting everything but my anger, I ran in upon
aside his knife with my left, and struck him in the mouth with the
I was a strong lad and very angry, and he but a
little man; and he went
down before me heavily. By
good luck, his knife flew out of his hand as he fell.
I picked up both that and his brogues, wished him a good morning, and set off upon my way, leaving him barefoot and disarmed. I chuckled to myself as I went, being sure I was done with that rogue, for a variety of reasons. First, he knew he could have no more of my money; next, the brogues were worth in that country only a few pence; and, lastly, the knife, which was really a dagger, it was against the law for him to carry.
In about half an hour of walk, I
overtook a great,
ragged man, moving pretty fast but feeling before him with a staff. He
blind, and told me he was a catechist, which should have put me at my
But his face went against me; it seemed dark and
dangerous and secret;
and presently, as we began to go on alongside, I saw the steel butt of
sticking from under the flap of his coat-pocket.
To carry such a thing meant a fine of fifteen pounds
sterling upon a
first offence, and transportation to the colonies upon a second.
Nor could I quite see why a religious teacher should
go armed, or what a
blind man could be doing with a pistol.
I told him about my guide, for I
was proud of what I
had done, and my vanity for once got the heels of my prudence.
At the mention of the five shillings he cried out so
loud that I made up
my mind I should say nothing of the other two, and was glad he could
not see my
"Was it too much?" I asked, a
"Too much!" cries he. "Why, I will
guide you to Torosay myself for a dram of brandy.
And give you the great pleasure of my company (me
that is a
man of some learning) in the bargain."
I said I did not see how a blind
man could be a
guide; but at that he laughed aloud, and said his stick was eyes enough
"In the Isle of Mull, at least," says he, "where I know every stone and heather-bush by mark of head. See, now," he said, striking right and left, as if to make sure, "down there a burn is running; and at the head of it there stands a bit of a small hill with a stone cocked upon the top of that; and it's hard at the foot of the hill, that the way runs by to Torosay; and the way here, being for droves, is plainly trodden, and will show grassy through the heather."
I had to own he was right in every
feature, and told
"Ha!" says he, "that's nothing. Would ye believe me now, that before the Act came out, and when there were weepons in this country, I could shoot? Ay, could I!" cries he, and then with a leer: "If ye had such a thing as a pistol here to try with, I would show ye how it's done."
I told him I had nothing of the sort, and gave him a wider berth. If he had known, his pistol stuck at that time quite plainly out of his pocket, and I could see the sun twinkle on the steel of the butt. But by the better luck for me, he knew nothing, thought all was covered, and lied on in the dark.
He then began to question me cunningly, where I came from, whether I was rich, whether I could change a five-shilling piece for him (which he declared he had that moment in his sporran), and all the time he kept edging up to me and I avoiding him. We were now upon a sort of green cattle-track which crossed the hills towards Torosay, and we kept changing sides upon that like ancers in a reel. I had so plainly the upper-hand that my spirits rose, and indeed I took a pleasure in this game of blindman's buff; but the catechist grew angrier and angrier, and at last began to swear in Gaelic and to strike for my legs with his staff.
Then I told him that, sure enough, I had a pistol in my pocket as well as he, and if he did not strike across the hill due south I would even blow his brains out.
He became at once very polite, and
after trying to
soften me for some time, but quite in vain, he cursed me once more in
took himself off. I
striding along, through bog and brier, tapping with his stick, until he
the end of a hill and disappeared in the next hollow.
Then I struck on again for Torosay, much better
pleased to be
alone than to travel with that man of learning.
This was an unlucky day; and these two, of whom I
rid myself, one after the other, were the two worst men I met with in
At Torosay, on the Sound of Mull
and looking over to
the mainland of Morven, there was an inn with an innkeeper, who was a
it appeared, of a very high family; for to keep an inn is thought even
genteel in the Highlands than it is with us, perhaps as partaking of
hospitality, or perhaps because the trade is idle and drunken.
He spoke good English, and finding me to be
something of a scholar, tried
me first in French, where he easily beat me, and then in the Latin, in
don't know which of us did best. This
pleasant rivalry put us at once upon friendly terms; and I sat up and
punch with him (or to be more correct, sat up and watched him drink
he was so tipsy that he wept upon my shoulder.
I tried him, as if by accident,
with a sight of
Alan's button; but it was plain he had never seen or heard of it.
Indeed, he bore some grudge against the family and
friends of Ardshiel,
and before he was drunk he read me a lampoon, in very good Latin, but
very ill meaning, which he had made in elegiac verses upon a person of
When I told him of my catechist, he
shook his head,
and said I was lucky to have got clear off.
"That is a very dangerous man," he said; "Duncan
is his name; he can shoot by the ear at several yards, and has been
accused of highway robberies, and once of murder."
"The cream of it is," says I, "that he called himself a catechist."
"And why should he not?" says he,
"when that is what he is. It
was Maclean of Duart gave it to him because he was blind. But perhaps it was a
peety," says my host, "for he
is always on the road, going from one place to another to hear the
say their religion; and, doubtless, that is a great temptation to the
At last, when my landlord could drink no more, he showed me to a bed, and I lay down in very good spirits; having travelled the greater part of that big and crooked Island of Mull, from Earraid to Torosay, fifty miles as the crow flies, and (with my wanderings) much nearer a hundred, in four days and with little fatigue. Indeed I was by far in better heart and health of body at the end of that long tramp than I had been at the beginning.Click here to continue to the next chapter of Kidnapped