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Chapter 10

TO THE PENTLAND HILLS.


ON three sides of Edinburgh, the country slopes
downward from the city, here to the sea, there to the fat
farms of Haddington, there to the mineral fields of
Linlithgow. On the south alone, it keeps rising until it
not only out-tops the Castle but looks down on Arthur's
Seat. The character of the neighbourhood is pretty
strongly marked by a scarcity of hedges; by many stone
walls of varying height; by a fair amount of timber, some
of it well grown, but apt to be of a bushy, northern
profile and poor in foliage; by here and there a little
river, Esk or Leith or Almond, busily journeying in the
bottom of its glen; and from almost every point, by a
peep of the sea or the hills. There is no lack of
variety, and yet most of the elements are common to all
parts; and the southern district is alone distinguished
by considerable summits and a wide view.

From Boroughmuirhead, where the Scottish army
encamped before Flodden, the road descends a long hill,
at the bottom of which and just as it is preparing to
mount upon the other side, it passes a toll-bar and
issues at once into the open country. Even as I write
these words, they are being antiquated in the progress of
events, and the chisels are tinkling on a new row of
houses. The builders have at length adventured beyond
the toll which held them in respect so long, and proceed
to career in these fresh pastures like a herd of colts
turned loose. As Lord Beaconsfield proposed to hang an
architect by way of stimulation, a man, looking on these
doomed meads, imagines a similar example to deter the
builders; for it seems as if it must come to an open
fight at last to preserve a corner of green country
unbedevilled. And here, appropriately enough, there
stood in old days a crow-haunted gibbet, with two bodies
hanged in chains. I used to be shown, when a child, a
flat stone in the roadway to which the gibbet had been
fixed. People of a willing fancy were persuaded, and
sought to persuade others, that this stone was never dry.
And no wonder, they would add, for the two men had only
stolen fourpence between them.

For about two miles the road climbs upwards, a long
hot walk in summer time. You reach the summit at a place
where four ways meet, beside the toll of Fairmilehead.
The spot is breezy and agreeable both in name and aspect.
The hills are close by across a valley: Kirk Yetton, with
its long, upright scars visible as far as Fife, and
Allermuir the tallest on this side with wood and tilled
field running high upon their borders, and haunches all
moulded into innumerable glens and shelvings and
variegated with heather and fern. The air comes briskly
and sweetly off the hills, pure from the elevation and
rustically scented by the upland plants; and even at the
toll, you may hear the curlew calling on its mate. At
certain seasons, when the gulls desert their surfy
forelands, the birds of sea and mountain hunt and scream
together in the same field by Fairmilehead. The winged,
wild things intermix their wheelings, the sea-birds skim
the tree-tops and fish among the furrows of the plough.
These little craft of air are at home in all the world,
so long as they cruise in their own element; and, like
sailors, ask but food and water from the shores they
coast.

Below, over a stream, the road passes Bow Bridge,
now a dairy-farm, but once a distillery of whisky. It
chanced, some time in the past century, that the
distiller was on terms of good-fellowship with the
visiting officer of excise. The latter was of an easy,
friendly disposition, and a master of convivial arts.
Now and again, he had to walk out of Edinburgh to measure
the distiller's stock; and although it was agreeable to
find his business lead him in a friend's direction, it
was unfortunate that the friend should be a loser by his
visits. Accordingly, when he got about the level of
Fairmilehead, the gauger would take his flute, without
which he never travelled, from his pocket, fit it
together, and set manfully to playing, as if for his own
delectation and inspired by the beauty of the scene. His
favourite air, it seems, was 'Over the hills and far
away.' At the first note, the distiller pricked his
ears. A flute at Fairmilehead? and playing 'Over the
hills and far away?' This must be his friendly enemy,
the gauger. Instantly horses were harnessed, and sundry
barrels of whisky were got upon a cart, driven at a
gallop round Hill End, and buried in the mossy glen
behind Kirk Yetton. In the same breath, you may be sure,
a fat fowl was put to the fire, and the whitest napery
prepared for the back parlour. A little after, the
gauger, having had his fill of music for the moment, came
strolling down with the most innocent air imaginable, and
found the good people at Bow Bridge taken entirely
unawares by his arrival, but none the less glad to see
him. The distiller's liquor and the gauger's flute would
combine to speed the moments of digestion; and when both
were somewhat mellow, they would wind up the evening with
'Over the hills and far away' to an accompaniment of
knowing glances. And at least, there is a smuggling
story, with original and half-idyllic features.

A little further, the road to the right passes an
upright stone in a field. The country people call it
General Kay's monument. According to them, an officer of
that name had perished there in battle at some indistinct
period before the beginning of history. The date is
reassuring; for I think cautious writers are silent on
the General's exploits. But the stone is connected with
one of those remarkable tenures of land which linger on
into the modern world from Feudalism. Whenever the
reigning sovereign passes by, a certain landed proprietor
is held bound to climb on to the top, trumpet in hand,
and sound a flourish according to the measure of his
knowledge in that art. Happily for a respectable family,
crowned heads have no great business in the Pentland
Hills. But the story lends a character of comicality to
the stone; and the passer-by will sometimes chuckle to
himself.

The district is dear to the superstitious. Hard by,
at the back-gate of Comiston, a belated carter beheld a
lady in white, 'with the most beautiful, clear shoes upon
her feet,' who looked upon him in a very ghastly manner
and then vanished; and just in front is the Hunters'
Tryst, once a roadside inn, and not so long ago haunted
by the devil in person. Satan led the inhabitants a
pitiful existence. He shook the four corners of the
building with lamentable outcries, beat at the doors and
windows, overthrew crockery in the dead hours of the
morning, and danced unholy dances on the roof. Every
kind of spiritual disinfectant was put in requisition;
chosen ministers were summoned out of Edinburgh and
prayed by the hour; pious neighbours sat up all night
making a noise of psalmody; but Satan minded them no more
than the wind about the hill-tops; and it was only after
years of persecution, that he left the Hunters' Tryst in
peace to occupy himself with the remainder of mankind.
What with General Kay, and the white lady, and this
singular visitation, the neighbourhood offers great
facilities to the makers of sun-myths; and without
exactly casting in one's lot with that disenchanting
school of writers, one cannot help hearing a good deal of
the winter wind in the last story. 'That nicht,' says
Burns, in one of his happiest moments,-


'THAT NICHT A CHILD MIGHT UNDERSTAND
THE DEIL HAD BUSINESS ON HIS HAND.'


And if people sit up all night in lone places on the
hills, with Bibles and tremulous psalms, they will be apt
to hear some of the most fiendish noises in the world;
the wind will beat on doors and dance upon roofs for
them, and make the hills howl around their cottage with a
clamour like the judgment-day.

The road goes down through another valley, and then
finally begins to scale the main slope of the Pentlands.
A bouquet of old trees stands round a white farmhouse;
and from a neighbouring dell, you can see smoke rising
and leaves ruffling in the breeze. Straight above, the
hills climb a thousand feet into the air. The
neighbourhood, about the time of lambs, is clamorous with
the bleating of flocks; and you will be awakened, in the
grey of early summer mornings, by the barking of a dog or
the voice of a shepherd shouting to the echoes. This,
with the hamlet lying behind unseen, is Swanston.

The place in the dell is immediately connected with
the city. Long ago, this sheltered field was purchased
by the Edinburgh magistrates for the sake of the springs
that rise or gather there. After they had built their
water-house and laid their pipes, it occurred to them
that the place was suitable for junketing. Once
entertained, with jovial magistrates and public funds,
the idea led speedily to accomplishment; and Edinburgh
could soon boast of a municipal Pleasure House. The dell
was turned into a garden; and on the knoll that shelters
it from the plain and the sea winds, they built a cottage
looking to the hills. They brought crockets and
gargoyles from old St. Giles's which they were then
restoring, and disposed them on the gables and over the
door and about the garden; and the quarry which had
supplied them with building material, they draped with
clematis and carpeted with beds of roses. So much for
the pleasure of the eye; for creature comfort, they made
a capacious cellar in the hillside and fitted it with
bins of the hewn stone. In process of time, the trees
grew higher and gave shade to the cottage, and the
evergreens sprang up and turned the dell into a thicket.
There, purple magistrates relaxed themselves from the
pursuit of municipal ambition; cocked hats paraded
soberly about the garden and in and out among the
hollies; authoritative canes drew ciphering upon the
path; and at night, from high upon the hills, a shepherd
saw lighted windows through the foliage and heard the
voice of city dignitaries raised in song.

The farm is older. It was first a grange of
Whitekirk Abbey, tilled and inhabited by rosy friars.
Thence, after the Reformation, it passed into the hands
of a true-blue Protestant family. During the covenanting
troubles, when a night conventicle was held upon the
Pentlands, the farm doors stood hospitably open till the
morning; the dresser was laden with cheese and bannocks,
milk and brandy; and the worshippers kept slipping down
from the hill between two exercises, as couples visit the
supper-room between two dances of a modern ball. In the
Forty-Five, some foraging Highlanders from Prince
Charlie's army fell upon Swanston in the dawn. The
great-grandfather of the late farmer was then a little
child; him they awakened by plucking the blankets from
his bed, and he remembered, when he was an old man, their
truculent looks and uncouth speech. The churn stood full
of cream in the dairy, and with this they made their
brose in high delight. 'It was braw brose,' said one of
them. At last they made off, laden like camels with
their booty; and Swanston Farm has lain out of the way of
history from that time forward. I do not know what may
be yet in store for it. On dark days, when the mist runs
low upon the hill, the house has a gloomy air as if
suitable for private tragedy. But in hot July, you can
fancy nothing more perfect than the garden, laid out in
alleys and arbours and bright, old-fashioned flower-
plots, and ending in a miniature ravine, all trellis-work
and moss and tinkling waterfall, and housed from the sun
under fathoms of broad foliage.

The hamlet behind is one of the least considerable
of hamlets, and consists of a few cottages on a green
beside a burn. Some of them (a strange thing in
Scotland) are models of internal neatness; the beds
adorned with patchwork, the shelves arrayed with willow-
pattern plates, the floors and tables bright with
scrubbing or pipe-clay, and the very kettle polished like
silver. It is the sign of a contented old age in country
places, where there is little matter for gossip and no
street sights. Housework becomes an art; and at evening,
when the cottage interior shines and twinkles in the glow
of the fire, the housewife folds her hands and
contemplates her finished picture; the snow and the wind
may do their worst, she has made herself a pleasant
corner in the world. The city might be a thousand miles
away, and yet it was from close by that Mr. Bough painted
the distant view of Edinburgh which has been engraved for
this collection; and you have only to look at the
etching, * to see how near it is at hand. But hills and
hill people are not easily sophisticated; and if you walk
out here on a summer Sunday, it is as like as not the
shepherd may set his dogs upon you. But keep an unmoved
countenance; they look formidable at the charge, but
their hearts are in the right place, and they will only
bark and sprawl about you on the grass, unmindful of
their master's excitations.

* One of the illustrations of the First Edition.

Kirk Yetton forms the north-eastern angle of the
range; thence, the Pentlands trend off to south and west.
From the summit you look over a great expanse of
champaign sloping to the sea, and behold a large variety
of distant hills. There are the hills of Fife, the hills
of Peebles, the Lammermoors and the Ochils, more or less
mountainous in outline, more or less blue with distance.
Of the Pentlands themselves, you see a field of wild
heathery peaks with a pond gleaming in the midst; and to
that side the view is as desolate as if you were looking
into Galloway or Applecross. To turn to the other is
like a piece of travel. Far out in the lowlands
Edinburgh shows herself, making a great smoke on clear
days and spreading her suburbs about her for miles; the
Castle rises darkly in the midst, and close by, Arthur's
Seat makes a bold figure in the landscape. All around,
cultivated fields, and woods, and smoking villages, and
white country roads, diversify the uneven surface of the
land. Trains crawl slowly abroad upon the railway lines;
little ships are tacking in the Firth; the shadow of a
mountainous cloud, as large as a parish, travels before
the wind; the wind itself ruffles the wood and standing
corn, and sends pulses of varying colour across the
landscape. So you sit, like Jupiter upon Olympus, and
look down from afar upon men's life. The city is as
silent as a city of the dead: from all its humming
thoroughfares, not a voice, not a footfall, reaches you
upon the hill. The sea-surf, the cries of ploughmen, the
streams and the mill-wheels, the birds and the wind, keep
up an animated concert through the plain; from farm to
farm, dogs and crowing cocks contend together in
defiance; and yet from this Olympian station, except for
the whispering rumour of a train, the world has fallen
into a dead silence, and the business of town and country
grown voiceless in your ears. A crying hill-bird, the
bleat of a sheep, a wind singing in the dry grass, seem
not so much to interrupt, as to accompany, the stillness;
but to the spiritual ear, the whole scene makes a music
at once human and rural, and discourses pleasant
reflections on the destiny of man. The spiry habitable
city, ships, the divided fields, and browsing herds, and
the straight highways, tell visibly of man's active and
comfortable ways; and you may be never so laggard and
never so unimpressionable, but there is something in the
view that spirits up your blood and puts you in the vein
for cheerful labour.

Immediately below is Fairmilehead, a spot of roof
and a smoking chimney, where two roads, no thicker than
packthread, intersect beside a hanging wood. If you are
fanciful, you will be reminded of the gauger in the
story. And the thought of this old exciseman, who once
lipped and fingered on his pipe and uttered clear notes
from it in the mountain air, and the words of the song he
affected, carry your mind 'Over the hills and far away'
to distant countries; and you have a vision of Edinburgh
not, as you see her, in the midst of a little
neighbourhood, but as a boss upon the round world with
all Europe and the deep sea for her surroundings. For
every place is a centre to the earth, whence highways
radiate or ships set sail for foreign ports; the limit of
a parish is not more imaginary than the frontier of an
empire; and as a man sitting at home in his cabinet and
swiftly writing books, so a city sends abroad an
influence and a portrait of herself. There is no
Edinburgh emigrant, far or near, from China to Peru, but
he or she carries some lively pictures of the mind, some
sunset behind the Castle cliffs, some snow scene, some
maze of city lamps, indelible in the memory and
delightful to study in the intervals of toil. For any
such, if this book fall in their way, here are a few more
home pictures. It would be pleasant, if they should
recognise a house where they had dwelt, or a walk that
they had taken.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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