Strathdawn, pp.1-5.

[Tales of the Highlands Contents]

WE left the Highland village of Tomantoul after an early breakfast, and proceeded to wend our way slowly up the pastoral valley of Aven. The scenery as yet had nothing peculiarly striking about it, but our faces were turned towards the Cairngorm group of mountains, and the closing in of the hills forming the termination of our present view, already excited interesting expectation regarding those higher regions which arose beyond them. This was especially the case with my fellow-travellers, who had not previously visited this elevated district. A certain air of tranquil repose that hung over everything around us, and gave an indescribable charm to the simple features of nature, rather disposed our minds to quiet and passive enjoyment, so that we walked leisurely along for some time, less inclined to talk than to ruminate each within himself. Our young friend Clifford was the first to break silence.

Clifford. – What a beautiful little plain! How animating the clear river that waters it, with its stream sparkling under the bright morning sun! And see how appropriate the few figures that give life to it. Those cattle there, so agreeably disposed, cropping the fresh herbage, with that boy so intent upon plaiting a cap of rushes for the innocent little girl who sits beside him. It would make a subject for a Cuyp or a Paul Potter. What a scene of simple happiness, contentment, and peace!

Dominie Macpherson. – It is indeed a quiet enough scene at this moment, sir. But peaceful as it is at this present time, it hath not been always so, for it hath more than once had its green turf trodden into black and dusty earth by the thundering hoof of the neighing battle-steed. The day has been, Mr. Clifford, when, as Maro has it –

                                                               “Agmine facto
Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum.”

Here it was, sir, that Montrose encampit with his army in 1645, after having defeated the godly sons of the Covenant in the bloody field of Auldern, and before marching to glut his cruel spirit by massacring more of them at Alford on the Don. And, as if the soil of this fair spot had not been thus sufficiently polluted, it so chanced that, in June 1689, the bloody Clavers also cumbered it with himself and his followers on his way to the Pass of Killiecrankie, where, on the 16th July thereafter, praise be to the Lord, his wicked existence was at last put an end to.

Grant. – Ha! These historical recollections do indeed give a new interest to the scene.

Clifford. – Only fancy the motley troops, in the varied military costume of the time, drawn up here in their lines, the tents and huts stretching along yonder in regular order, – the mingled sounds arising from the busy camp followers, – the trumpets clanging, – and the bold Dundee scampering across the plain on his gallant black charger! What a contrast to the figures which are now before us!

Dominie. – Aye; and if all tales be true, he was but an uncanny beast that black horse of his. But, my certy! the beast and the man were well matched.

Clifford. – You seem to have a great distaste at the Viscount Dundee, Mr. Macpherson, and yet he was followed by the great mass of your Highland clans.

Dominie. – That may be, Mr. Clifford; but that makes no odds to me, sir. I am in no ways answerable for the deeds of my forebears. If they turned out to support popery and yepiscopacy, that is not what I would have done. I reverence the manes of those sainted heroes who drew their good broad-swords for God and the Covenant, and who suffered all manner of tortures and all kinds of cruel deaths rather than abandon so glorious a cause, – a cause, let me tell you, with all due respeck to you, Mr. Clifford, – a cause in which I should be proud to die at this moment.

Clifford. – Your enthusiasm is not only excusable, but honourable to you, Mr. Macpherson. But will you tell me the name of this spot, that I may endeavour to remember it?

Dominie. – It is called Dell-a-Vorar, or the Lord’s-haugh, a name which it got from one, or may be from both, of these two lords I have named, though it is more probable that it was from Clavers, seeing that the place in Braemar to which he marched from here has ever since borne the same name.

Grant. – I know there is a place in Braemar so called.

Author. – By the bye, Mr. Macpherson, does not the dwelling of Willox the wizard lie somewhere in this neighbourhood?

Dominie. – Yes, sir, it does. Gaulrig, as the place is called, lies up beyond yon hollow in the hill on the right side of the glen which you see before us yonder, dipping into the valley of the Aven from the north.

Clifford. – Let us visit the old fellow by all means, Mr. Macpherson.

Dominie. – We may easily do that, sir, for the house is not much out of your way, and we are pretty sure of finding him, for he is too old now to be often or far from home.

A walk of some couple of miles brought us to the place where we found the residence of this extraordinary man, standing on the sloping side of the northern hill, immediately below a small tributary ravine, which ancient popular superstition has very appropriately consigned to the dominion of the fairies, and other beings belonging to the world of spirits, and in which there is one of those green artificial-looking knolls called shians, from their being supposed to be places of especial fairy resort. His cottage hangs on the edge of the bank facing the Aven, is of the most primitive architecture, composed of drystones and sods, and forms, with its humble outhouses, two sides of a small square. Near one angle of the house there is a rude stone, on which the old warlock is in the habit of sitting to enjoy the sun.

Understanding that Willox was at all times rather flattered by a visit from strangers, we made no scruple in requesting an interview with him; and, accordingly, he soon appeared from the door of his dwelling. Notwithstanding all that Mr. Macpherson had said to the contrary, I had found it a difficult matter to persuade myself that I was not to see a vulgar countenance, strongly marked with that species of sordid cunning, which one might suppose sufficient to enable a knave, of the lowest description, to impose on the most ignorant class of rustics. The figure of the man, indeed, who now showed himself, had nothing about it to do away with this preconceived notion of mine. He was rather under the middle size, and was dressed in the ordinary hodden grey clothes, which have now so generally usurped the place of the gayer tartans, and more picturesque highland dress. But I at once perceived that his low stature was to be attributed to the decrepitude of old age, for he was probably above ninety. The moment he put forth his head from the threshold, and perceived those who sought for an interview with him, an inconceivable expression flashed from his eyes, which, I might almost say, threw over him a certain light of dignity. We were all of us at once convinced that this was no common man, and our regard was riveted upon him. It seemed as if the native lightnings of an uneducated, but naturally very powerful mind, were bursting through the obscurity of those grey orbs, which had been dimmed by the gathering mists of many a long year. The half dormant spirit appeared to have been suddenly summoned to the portal of the eye, by this anticipated interview with people whom he had never seen before, just as, in the olden time, the jealous captain of a fortress might have been brought to its barbican by the bugle call of some knight of doubtful mien who wished to hold parley.

As he advanced to meet us, I was struck with the corselike paleness of his face, to which the glaze of his eyeballs, and the grizzly and tangled locks that strayed from beneath his bonnet, gave an inexpressibly ghastly effect. A transient gleam of electric fire shot from within his eyeballs into each of our countenances individually, as he was introduced to us in succession. We felt as if it had penetrated into the inmost recesses of our very souls. It appeared to us as if he had thereby been enabled, from long practise in the study of mankind, at once to read out several characters and thoughts, like so many lines of the great book of nature hastily skimmed over. To each of us in turn he bowed with a polished air, and a manner like that of a faded courtier of the age of Louis Quatorze, than the inhabitant of so humble a dwelling, in the simple and pastoral valley of Strathdawn; and strangely indeed did it contrast with the coarseness and poverty of his dress, and the squalid impropreté of his whole personal appearance.

After the usual preliminary salutations were over, I expressed a wish to see the far-famed magical kelpie’s bridle and mermaid’s stone, for the possession of which he is so celebrated in all the neighbouring districts.

“You shall see them both, sir,” said he, after eyeing me for a moment with a searching look. “To such gentlemen as you, I cannot refuse a sight of them, though they are hardly to be seen by vulgar eyes, and never to be handled by vulgar hands;” and, with a marked politeness of manner, he returned into the cottage to bring them out.

“Now,” said I to my companions, “you must keep him in talk, whilst I endeavour to steal a sketch of him.”

“Here are the wonderful implements of my art,” said he, as he returned, holding them up to our observation.

“They are very curious,” said I; “perhaps you will have the goodness to allow me to make a hasty drawing of them. I hope it will have no effect in taking away their virtues.

“Their virtues cannot be taken away by human hands,” replied Willox, gravely. “You are welcome to draw them if you please, sir, and I shall hold them for you so that you may best see them.”

I thanked him, and proceeded instantly to my work. My friends followed my injunctions so well as fully to occupy his attention in replying to their cross fire of queries, whilst I was myself obliged to interject a question now and then, in order to get him to turn his countenance towards me. The wonderful expression I have already alluded to appeared even yet more striking, on these occasions, by his ghost-like features being brought so closely and directly opposite to my eyes. I then looked in as it were upon his spirit, – and it was manifestly a spirit which, in ancient days, when superstition brooded as much over the proud castle of the bold baron, as it did over the humble cot of the timid peasant, might well enough have domineered over the minds of nobles and princes, nay subjected even crowned heads to its powerful control.

I did make sketches of the mermaid’s stone and the water-kelpie’s bridle, the two grand instruments of his art. As already described to us by Mr. Macpherson, we found the stone to be a circular and flattish lens, three inches diameter, of semi-opaque crystal, somewhat resembling, in shape and appearance, what is called a bull’s eye, used for transmitting light through the deck of a vessel into its smaller apartments below. The water-kelpie’s bridle consists of a flat piece of brass, annular in the middle, and having two lobe-like branches springing from it in two curves outwards, the wider part of each lobe being slightly recurved inwards, so that they present the appearance of two leaves when they are held flat. Attached to the ring part, but loose upon it, are two long doubled pieces of flat brass, and, between these, a short leathern thong is attached by a fastening so intricate that it might have rivalled the Gordian knot. It has not the most distant resemblance to any part of a bridle, and none of us could guess to what purpose, either useful or ornamental, it could have ever been applied. Willox’s own account of the acquirement of these two wonderful engines of his supernatural power, elicited by our repeated questions, was nearly as follows:-

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