Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 1

It wound as near as near could be,
But what it is she cannot tell;
On the other side it seemed to be
Of the huge broad-breasted old oak-tree. COLERIDGE.

Mrs. Bethune Baliol's memorandum begins thus:--

It is five-and-thirty, or perhaps nearer forty years ago, since,
to relieve the dejection of spirits occasioned by a great family
loss sustained two or three months before, I undertook what was
called the short Highland tour. This had become in some degree
fashionable; but though the military roads were excellent, yet
the accommodation was so indifferent that it was reckoned a
little adventure to accomplish it. Besides, the Highlands,
though now as peaceable as any part of King George's dominions,
was a sound which still carried terror, while so many survived
who had witnessed the insurrection of 1745; and a vague idea of
fear was impressed on many as they looked from the towers of
Stirling northward to the huge chain of mountains, which rises
like a dusky rampart to conceal in its recesses a people whose
dress, manners, and language differed still very much from those
of their Lowland countrymen. For my part, I come of a race not
greatly subject to apprehensions arising from imagination only.
I had some Highland relatives; know several of their families of
distinction; and though only having the company of my bower-
maiden, Mrs. Alice Lambskin, I went on my journey fearless.

But then I had a guide and cicerone, almost equal to Greatheart
in the Pilgrim's Progress, in no less a person than Donald
MacLeish, the postilion whom I hired at Stirling, with a pair of
able-bodied horses, as steady as Donald himself, to drag my
carriage, my duenna, and myself, wheresoever it was my pleasure
to go.

Donald MacLeish was one of a race of post-boys whom, I suppose,
mail-coaches and steamboats have put out of fashion. They were
to be found chiefly at Perth, Stirling, or Glasgow, where they
and their horses were usually hired by travellers, or tourists,
to accomplish such journeys of business or pleasure as they might
have to perform in the land of the Gael. This class of persons
approached to the character of what is called abroad a
CONDUCTEUR; or might be compared to the sailing-master on board a
British ship of war, who follows out after his own manner the
course which the captain commands him to observe. You explained
to your postilion the length of your tour, and the objects you
were desirous it should embrace; and you found him perfectly
competent to fix the places of rest or refreshment, with due
attention that those should be chosen with reference to your
convenience, and to any points of interest which you might desire
to visit.

The qualifications of such a person were necessarily much
superior to those of the "first ready," who gallops thrice-a-day
over the same ten miles. Donald MacLeish, besides being quite
alert at repairing all ordinary accidents to his horses and
carriage, and in making shift to support them, where forage was
scarce, with such substitutes as bannocks and cakes, was likewise
a man of intellectual resources. He had acquired a general
knowledge of the traditional stories of the country which he had
traversed so often; and if encouraged (for Donald was a man of
the most decorous reserve), he would willingly point out to you
the site of the principal clan-battles, and recount the most
remarkable legends by which the road, and the objects which
occurred in travelling it, had been distinguished. There was
some originality in the man's habits of thinking and expressing
himself, his turn for legendary lore strangely contrasting with a
portion of the knowing shrewdness belonging to his actual
occupation, which made his conversation amuse the way well

Add to this, Donald knew all his peculiar duties in the country
which he traversed so frequently. He could tell, to a day, when
they would "be killing" lamb at Tyndrum or Glenuilt; so that the
stranger would have some chance of being fed like a Christian;
and knew to a mile the last village where it was possible to
procure a wheaten loaf for the guidance of those who were little
familiar with the Land of Cakes. He was acquainted with the road
every mile, and could tell to an inch which side of a Highland
bridge was passable, which decidedly dangerous. [This is, or was
at least, a necessary accomplishment. In one of the most
beautiful districts of the Highlands was, not many years since, a
bridge bearing this startling caution, "Keep to the right side,
the left being dangerous."] In short, Donald MacLeish was not
only our faithful attendant and steady servant, but our humble
and obliging friend; and though I have known the half-classical
cicerone of Italy, the talkative French valet-de-place, and even
the muleteer of Spain, who piques himself on being a maize-eater,
and whose honour is not to be questioned without danger, I do not
think I have ever had so sensible and intelligent a guide.

Our motions were of course under Donald's direction; and it
frequently happened, when the weather was serene, that we
preferred halting to rest his horses even where there was no
established stage, and taking our refreshment under a crag, from
which leaped a waterfall, or beside the verge of a fountain,
enamelled with verdant turf and wild-flowers. Donald had an eye
for such spots, and though he had, I dare say, never read Gil
Blas or Don Quixote, yet he chose such halting-places as Le Sage
or Cervantes would have described. Very often, as he observed
the pleasure I took in conversing with the country people, he
would manage to fix our place of rest near a cottage, where there
was some old Gael whose broadsword had blazed at Falkirk or
Preston, and who seemed the frail yet faithful record of times
which had passed away. Or he would contrive to quarter us, as
far as a cup of tea went, upon the hospitality of some parish
minister of worth and intelligence, or some country family of the
better class, who mingled with the wild simplicity of their
original manners, and their ready and hospitable welcome, a sort
of courtesy belonging to a people, the lowest of whom are
accustomed to consider themselves as being, according to the
Spanish phrase, "as good gentlemen as the king, only not quite so

To all such persons Donald MacLeish was well known, and his
introduction passed as current as if we had brought letters from
some high chief of the country.

Sometimes it happened that the Highland hospitality, which
welcomed us with all the variety of mountain fare, preparations
of milk and eggs, and girdle-cakes of various kinds, as well as
more substantial dainties, according to the inhabitant's means of
regaling the passenger, descended rather too exuberantly on
Donald MacLeish in the shape of mountain dew. Poor Donald! he
was on such occasions like Gideon's fleece--moist with the noble
element, which, of course, fell not on us. But it was his only
fault, and when pressed to drink DOCH-AN-DORROCH to my ladyship's
good health, it would have been ill taken to have refused the
pledge; nor was he willing to do such discourtesy. It was, I
repeat, his only fault. Nor had we any great right to complain;
for if it rendered him a little more talkative, it augmented his
ordinary share of punctilious civility, and he only drove slower,
and talked longer and more pompously, than when he had not come
by a drop of usquebaugh. It was, we remarked, only on such
occasions that Donald talked with an air of importance of the
family of MacLeish; and we had no title to be scrupulous in
censuring a foible, the consequences of which were confined
within such innocent limits.

We became so much accustomed to Donald's mode of managing us,
that we observed with some interest the art which he used to
produce a little agreeable surprise, by concealing from us the
spot where he proposed our halt to be made, when it was of an
unusual and interesting character. This was so much his wont
that, when he made apologies at setting off for being obliged to
stop in some strange, solitary place till the horses should eat
the corn which he brought on with them for that purpose, our
imagination used to be on the stretch to guess what romantic
retreat he had secretly fixed upon for our noontide baiting-

We had spent the greater part of the morning at the delightful
village of Dalmally, and had gone upon the lake under the
guidance of the excellent clergyman who was then incumbent at
Glenorquhy, [This venerable and hospitable gentleman's name was
MacIntyre.] and had heard a hundred legends of the stern chiefs
of Loch Awe, Duncan with the thrum bonnet, and the other lords of
the now mouldering towers of Kilchurn. [See Note 7.--Loch Awe.]
Thus it was later than usual when we set out on our journey,
after a hint or two from Donald concerning the length of the way
to the next stage, as there was no good halting-place between
Dalmally and Oban.

Having bid adieu to our venerable and kind cicerone, we proceeded
on our tour, winding round the tremendous mountain called
Cruachan Ben, which rushes down in all its majesty of rocks and
wilderness on the lake, leaving only a pass, in which,
notwithstanding its extreme strength, the warlike clan of
MacDougal of Lorn were almost destroyed by the sagacious Robert
Bruce. That King, the Wellington of his day, had accomplished,
by a forced march, the unexpected manoeuvre of forcing a body of
troops round the other side of the mountain, and thus placed them
in the flank and in the rear of the men of Lorn, whom at the same
time, he attacked in front. The great number of cairns yet
visible as you descend the pass on the westward side shows the
extent of the vengeance which Bruce exhausted on his inveterate
and personal enemies. I am, you know, the sister of soldiers,
and it has since struck me forcibly that the manoeuvre which
Donald described, resembled those of Wellington or of Bonaparte.
He was a great man Robert Bruce, even a Baliol must admit that;
although it begins now to be allowed that his title to the crown
was scarce so good as that of the unfortunate family with whom he
contended. But let that pass. The slaughter had been the
greater, as the deep and rapid river Awe is disgorged from the
lake just in the rear of the fugitives, and encircles the base of
the tremendous mountain; so that the retreat of the unfortunate
fleers was intercepted on all sides by the inaccessible character
of the country, which had seemed to promise them defence and
protection. [See Note 8.--Battle betwixt the armies of the Bruce
and MacDougal of Lorn.]

Musing, like the Irish lady in the song, "upon things which are
long enough a-gone," [This is a line from a very pathetic ballad
which I heard sung by one of the young ladies of Edgeworthstown
in 1825. I do not know that it has been printed.] we felt no
impatience at the slow and almost creeping pace with which our
conductor proceeded along General Wade's military road, which
never or rarely condescends to turn aside from the steepest
ascent, but proceeds right up and down hill, with the
indifference to height and hollow, steep or level, indicated by
the old Roman engineers. Still, however, the substantial
excellence of these great works--for such are the military
highways in the Highlands--deserved the compliment of the poet,
who, whether he came from our sister kingdom, and spoke in his
own dialect, or whether he supposed those whom he addressed might
have some national pretension to the second sight, produced the
celebrated couplet,--

"Had you but seen these roads BEFORE they were made,
You would hold up your hands and bless General Wade."

Nothing, indeed, can be more wonderful than to see these
wildernesses penetrated and pervious in every quarter by broad
accesses of the best possible construction, and so superior to
what the country could have demanded for many centuries for any
pacific purpose of commercial intercourse. Thus the traces of
war are sometimes happily accommodated to the purposes of peace.
The victories of Bonaparte have been without results but his road
over the Simplon will long be the communication betwixt peaceful
countries, who will apply to the ends of commerce and friendly
intercourse that gigantic work, which was formed for the
ambitious purpose of warlike invasion.

While we were thus stealing along, we gradually turned round the
shoulder of Ben Cruachan, and descending the course of the
foaming and rapid Awe, left behind us the expanse of the majestic
lake which gives birth to that impetuous river. The rocks and
precipices which stooped down perpendicularly on our path on the
right hand exhibited a few remains of the wood which once clothed
them, but which had in later times been felled to supply, Donald
MacLeish informed us, the iron foundries at the Bunawe. This
made us fix our eyes with interest on one large oak, which grew
on the left hand towards the river. It seemed a tree of
extraordinary magnitude and picturesque beauty, and stood just
where there appeared to be a few roods of open ground lying among
huge stones, which had rolled down from the mountain. To add to
the romance of the situation, the spot of clear ground extended
round the foot of a proud-browed rock, from the summit of which
leaped a mountain stream in a fall of sixty feet, in which it was
dissolved into foam and dew. At the bottom of the fall the
rivulet with difficulty collected, like a routed general, its
dispersed forces, and, as if tamed by its descent, found a
noiseless passage through the heath to join the Awe.

I was much struck with the tree and waterfall, and wished myself
nearer them; not that I thought of sketch-book or portfolio--for
in my younger days misses were not accustomed to black-lead
pencils, unless they could use them to some good purpose--but
merely to indulge myself with a closer view. Donald immediately
opened the chaise door, but observed it was rough walking down
the brae, and that I would see the tree better by keeping the
road for a hundred yards farther, when it passed closer to the
spot, for which he seemed, however, to have no predilection. "He
knew," he said, "a far bigger tree than that nearer Bunawe, and
it was a place where there was flat ground for the carriage to
stand, which it could jimply do on these braes; but just as my
leddyship liked."

My ladyship did choose rather to look at the fine tree before me
than to pass it by in hopes of a finer; so we walked beside the
carriage till we should come to a point, from which, Donald
assured us, we might, without scrambling, go as near the tree as
we chose, "though he wadna advise us to go nearer than the

There was something grave and mysterious in Donald's sun-browned
countenance when he gave us this intimation, and his manner was
so different from his usual frankness, that my female curiosity
was set in motion. We walked on the whilst, and I found the
tree, of which we had now lost sight by the intervention of some
rising ground, was really more distant than I had at first
supposed. "I could have sworn now," said I to my cicerone, "that
yon tree and waterfall was the very place where you intended to
make a stop to-day."

"The Lord forbid!" said Donald hastily.

"And for what, Donald? Why should you be willing to pass so
pleasant a spot?"

"It's ower near Dalmally, my leddy, to corn the beasts; it would
bring their dinner ower near their breakfast, poor things. An'
besides, the place is not canny."

"Oh! then the mystery is out. There is a bogle or a brownie, a
witch or a gyre-carlin, a bodach or a fairy, in the case?"

"The ne'er a bit, my leddy--ye are clean aff the road, as I may
say. But if your leddyship will just hae patience, and wait till
we are by the place and out of the glen, I'll tell ye all about
it. There is no much luck in speaking of such things in the
place they chanced in."

I was obliged to suspend my curiosity, observing, that if I
persisted in twisting the discourse one way while Donald was
twining it another, I should make his objection, like a hempen
cord, just so much the tougher. At length the promised turn of
the road brought us within fifty paces of the tree which I
desired to admire, and I now saw to my surprise, that there was a
human habitation among the cliffs which surrounded it. It was a
hut of the least dimensions, and most miserable description that
I ever saw even in the Highlands. The walls of sod, or DIVOT, as
the Scotch call it, were not four feet high; the roof was of
turf, repaired with reeds and sedges; the chimney was composed of
clay, bound round by straw ropes; and the whole walls, roof, and
chimney, were alike covered with the vegetation of house-leek,
rye-grass, and moss common to decayed cottages formed of such
materials. There was not the slightest vestige of a kale-yard,
the usual accompaniment of the very worst huts; and of living
things we saw nothing, save a kid which was browsing on the roof
of the hut, and a goat, its mother, at some distance, feeding
betwixt the oak and the river Awe.

"What man," I could not help exclaiming, "can have committed sin
deep enough to deserve such a miserable dwelling!"

"Sin enough," said Donald MacLeish, with a half-suppressed groan;
"and God he knoweth, misery enough too. And it is no man's
dwelling neither, but a woman's."

"A woman's!" I repeated, "and in so lonely a place! What sort
of a woman can she be?"

"Come this way, my leddy, and you may judge that for yourself,"
said Donald. And by advancing a few steps, and making a sharp
turn to the left, we gained a sight of the side of the great
broad-breasted oak, in the direction opposed to that in which we
had hitherto seen it.

"If she keeps her old wont, she will be there at this hour of the
day," said Donald; but immediately became silent, and pointed
with his finger, as one afraid of being overheard. I looked, and
beheld, not without some sense of awe, a female form seated by
the stem of the oak, with her head drooping, her hands clasped,
and a dark-coloured mantle drawn over her head, exactly as Judah
is represented in the Syrian medals as seated under her palm-
tree. I was infected with the fear and reverence which my guide
seemed to entertain towards this solitary being, nor did I think
of advancing towards her to obtain a nearer view until I had cast
an enquiring look on Donald; to which be replied in a half
whisper, "She has been a fearfu' bad woman, my leddy."

"Mad woman, said you," replied I, hearing him imperfectly; "then
she is perhaps dangerous?"

"No--she is not mad," replied Donald; "for then it may be she
would be happier than she is; though when she thinks on what she
has done, and caused to be done, rather than yield up a hair-
breadth of her ain wicked will, it is not likely she can be very
well settled. But she neither is mad nor mischievous; and yet,
my leddy, I think you had best not go nearer to her." And then,
in a few hurried words, he made me acquainted with the story
which I am now to tell more in detail. I heard the narrative
with a mixture of horror and sympathy, which at once impelled me
to approach the sufferer, and speak to her the words of comfort,
or rather of pity, and at the same time made me afraid to do so.

This indeed was the feeling with which she was regarded by the
Highlanders in the neighbourhood, who looked upon Elspat
MacTavish, or the Woman of the Tree, as they called her, as the
Greeks considered those who were pursued by the Furies, and
endured the mental torment consequent on great criminal actions.
They regarded such unhappy beings as Orestes and OEdipus, as
being less the voluntary perpetrators of their crimes than as the
passive instruments by which the terrible decrees of Destiny had
been accomplished; and the fear with which they beheld them was
not unmingled with veneration.

I also learned further from Donald MacLeish, that there was some
apprehension of ill luck attending those who had the boldness to
approach too near, or disturb the awful solitude of a being so
unutterably miserable--that it was supposed that whosoever
approached her must experience in some respect the contagion of
her wretchedness.

It was therefore with some reluctance that Donald saw me prepare
to obtain a nearer view of the sufferer, and that he himself
followed to assist me in the descent down a very rough path. I
believe his regard for me conquered some ominous feelings in his
own breast, which connected his duty on this occasion with the
presaging fear of lame horses, lost linch-pins, overturns, and
other perilous chances of the postilion's life.

I am not sure if my own courage would have carried me so close to
Elspat had he not followed. There was in her countenance the
stern abstraction of hopeless and overpowering sorrow, mixed with
the contending feelings of remorse, and of the pride which
struggled to conceal it. She guessed, perhaps, that it was
curiosity, arising out of her uncommon story, which induced me to
intrude on her solitude; and she could not be pleased that a fate
like hers had been the theme of a traveller's amusement. Yet the
look with which she regarded me was one of scorn instead of
embarrassment. The opinion of the world and all its children
could not add or take an iota from her load of misery; and, save
from the half smile that seemed to intimate the contempt of a
being rapt by the very intensity of her affliction above the
sphere of ordinary humanities, she seemed as indifferent to my
gaze, as if she had been a dead corpse or a marble statue.

Elspat was above the middle stature. Her hair, now grizzled, was
still profuse, and it had been of the most decided black. So
were her eyes, in which, contradicting the stern and rigid
features of her countenance, there shone the wild and troubled
light that indicates an unsettled mind. Her hair was wrapt round
a silver bodkin with some attention to neatness, and her dark
mantle was disposed around her with a degree of taste, though the
materials were of the most ordinary sort.

After gazing on this victim of guilt and calamity till I was
ashamed to remain silent, though uncertain how I ought to address
her, I began to express my surprise at her choosing such a desert
and deplorable dwelling. She cut short these expressions of
sympathy, by answering in a stern voice, without the least change
of countenance or posture, "Daughter of the stranger, he has told
you my story." I was silenced at once, and felt how little all
earthly accommodation must seem to the mind which had such
subjects as hers for rumination. Without again attempting to
open the conversation, I took a piece of gold from my purse, (for
Donald had intimated she lived on alms), expecting she would at
least stretch her hand to receive it. But she neither accepted
nor rejected the gift; she did not even seem to notice it, though
twenty times as valuable, probably, as was usually offered. I
was obliged to place it on her knee, saying involuntarily, as I
did so, "May God pardon you and relieve you!" I shall never
forget the look which she cast up to Heaven, nor the tone in
which she exclaimed, in the very words of my old friend John

"My beautiful--my brave!"

It was the language of nature, and arose from the heart of the
deprived mother, as it did from that gifted imaginative poet
while furnishing with appropriate expressions the ideal grief of
Lady Randolph.

Sir Walter Scott

Sorry, no summary available yet.