Waverley, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter XVII

The Hold of a Highland Robber

The party preserved silence, interrupted only by the monotonous and murmured chant of a Gaelic song, sung in a kind of low recitative by the steersman, and by the dash of the oars, which the notes seemed to regulate, as they dipped to them in cadence. The light, which they now approached more nearly, assumed a broader, redder and more irregular splendour. It appeared plainly to be a large fire, but whether kindled upon an island or the mainland Edward could not determine. As he saw it, the red glaring orb seemed to rest on the very surface of the lake itself, and resembled the fiery vehicle in which the Evil Genius of an Oriental tale traverses land and sea. They approached nearer, and the light of the fire sufficed to show that it was kindled at the bottom of a huge dark crag or rock, rising abruptly from the very edge of the water; its front, changed by the reflection to dusky red, formed a strange and even awful contrast to the banks around, which were from time to time faintly and partially illuminated by pallid moonlight.

The boat now neared the shore, and Edward could discover that this large fire, amply supplied with branches of pine-wood by two figures, who, in the red reflection of its light, appeared like demons, was kindled in the jaws of a lofty cavern, into which an inlet from the lake seemed to advance; and he conjectured, which was indeed true, that the fire had been lighted as a beacon to the boatmen on their return. They rowed right for the mouth of the cave, and then, shifting their oars, permitted the boat to enter in obedience to the impulse which it had received. The skiff passed the little point or platform of rock on which the fire was blazing, and running about two boats’ lengths farther, stopped where the cavern (for it was already arched overhead) ascended from the water by five or six broad ledges of rock, so easy and regular that they might be termed natural steps. At this moment a quantity of water was suddenly flung upon the fire, which sunk with a hissing noise, and with it disappeared the light it had hitherto afforded. Four or five active arms lifted Waverley out of the boat, placed him on his feet, and almost carried him into the recesses of the cave. He made a few paces in darkness, guided in this manner; and advancing towards a hum of voices, which seemed to sound from the centre of the rock, at an acute turn Donald Bean Lean and his whole establishment were before his eyes.

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The Hold of a Highland Robber — Original Etching by R. W. Macbeth

The interior of the cave, which here rose very high, was illuminated by torches made of pine-tree, which emitted a bright and bickering light, attended by a strong though not unpleasant odour. Their light was assisted by the red glare of a large charcoal fire, round which were seated five or six armed Highlanders, while others were indistinctly seen couched on their plaids in the more remote recesses of the cavern. In one large aperture, which the robber facetiously called his SPENCE (or pantry), there hung by the heels the carcasses of a sheep, or ewe, and two cows lately slaughtered. The principal inhabitant of this singular mansion, attended by Evan Dhu as master of the ceremonies, came forward to meet his guest, totally different in appearance and manner from what his imagination had anticipated. The profession which he followed, the wilderness in which he dwelt, the wild warrior forms that surrounded him, were all calculated to inspire terror. From such accompaniments, Waverley prepared himself to meet a stern, gigantic, ferocious figure, such as Salvator would have chosen to be the central object of a group of banditti.40

Donald Bean Lean was the very reverse of all these. He was thin in person and low in stature, with light sandy-coloured hair, and small pale features, from which he derived his agnomen of BEAN or white; and although his form was light, well proportioned and active, he appeared, on the whole, rather a diminutive and insignificant figure. He had served in some inferior capacity in the French army, and in order to receive his English visitor in great form, and probably meaning, in his way, to pay him a compliment, he had laid aside the Highland dress for the time, to put on an old blue and red uniform and a feathered hat, in which he was far from showing to advantage, and indeed looked so incongruous, compared with all around him, that Waverley would have been tempted to laugh, had laughter been either civil or safe. The robber received Captain Waverley with a profusion of French politeness and Scottish hospitality, seemed perfectly to know his name and connections, and to be particularly acquainted with his uncle’s political principles. On these he bestowed great applause, to which Waverley judged it prudent to make a very general reply.

Being placed at a convenient distance from the charcoal fire, the heat of which the season rendered oppressive, a strapping Highland damsel placed before Waverley, Evan, and Donald Bean three cogues, or wooden vessels composed of staves and hoops, containing eanaruich,41 a sort of strong soup, made out of a particular part of the inside of the beeves. After this refreshment, which, though coarse, fatigue and hunger rendered palatable, steaks, roasted on the coals, were supplied in liberal abundance, and disappeared before Evan Dhu and their host with a promptitude that seemed like magic, and astonished Waverley, who was much puzzled to reconcile their voracity with what he had heard of the abstemiousness of the Highlanders. He was ignorant that this abstinence was with the lower ranks wholly compulsory, and that, like some animals of prey, those who practise it were usually gifted with the power of indemnifying themselves to good purpose when chance threw plenty in their way. The whisky came forth in abundance to crown the cheer. The Highlanders drank it copiously and undiluted; but Edward, having mixed a little with water, did not find it so palatable as to invite him to repeat the draught. Their host bewailed himself exceedingly that he could offer him no wine: ‘Had he but known four-and-twenty hours before, he would have had some, had it been within the circle of forty miles round him. But no gentleman could do more to show his sense of the honour of a visit from another than to offer him the best cheer his house afforded. Where there are no bushes there can be no nuts, and the way of those you live with is that you must follow,’

He went on regretting to Evan Dhu the death of an aged man, Donnacha an Amrigh, or Duncan with the Cap, ‘a gifted seer,’ who foretold, through the second sight, visitors of every description who haunted their dwelling, whether as friends or foes.

‘Is not his son Malcolm taishatr (a second-sighted person)?’ asked Evan.

‘Nothing equal to his father,’ replied Donald Bean. ‘He told us the other day, we were to see a great gentleman riding on a horse, and there came nobody that whole day but Shemus Beg, the blind harper, with his dog. Another time he advertised us of a wedding, and behold it proved a funeral; and on the creagh, when he foretold to us we should bring home a hundred head of horned cattle, we gripped nothing but a fat bailie of Perth.’

From this discourse he passed to the political and military state of the country; and Waverley was astonished, and even alarmed, to find a person of this description so accurately acquainted with the strength of the various garrisons and regiments quartered north of the Tay. He even mentioned the exact number of recruits who had joined Waverley’s troop from his uncle’s estate, and observed they were PRETTY MEN, meaning, not handsome, but stout warlike fellows. He put Waverley in mind of one or two minute circumstances which had happened at a general review of the regiment, which satisfied him that the robber had been an eye-witness of it; and Evan Dhu having by this time retired from the conversation, and wrapped himself up in his plaid to take some repose, Donald asked Edward, in a very significant manner, whether he had nothing particular to say to him.

Waverley, surprised and somewhat startled at this question from such a character, answered, he had no motive in visiting him but curiosity to see his extraordinary place of residence. Donald Bean Lean looked him steadily in the face for an instant, and then said, with a significant nod, ‘You might as well have confided in me; I am as much worthy of trust as either the Baron of Bradwardine or Vich Ian Vohr. But you are equally welcome to my house.’

Waverley felt an involuntary shudder creep over him at the mysterious language held by this outlawed and lawless bandit, which, in despite of his attempts to master it, deprived him of the power to ask the meaning of his insinuations. A heath pallet, with the flowers stuck uppermost, had been prepared for him in a recess of the cave, and here, covered with such spare plaids as could be mustered, he lay for some time watching the motions of the other inhabitants of the cavern. Small parties of two or three entered or left the place, without any other ceremony than a few words in Gaelic to the principal outlaw, and, when he fell asleep, to a tall Highlander who acted as his lieutenant, and seemed to keep watch during his repose. Those who entered seemed to have returned from some excursion, of which they reported the success, and went without farther ceremony to the larder, where, cutting with their dirks their rations from the carcasses which were there suspended, they proceeded to broil and eat them at their own pleasure and leisure. The liquor was under strict regulation, being served out either by Donald himself, his lieutenant, or the strapping Highland girl aforesaid, who was the only female that appeared. The allowance of whisky, however, would have appeared prodigal to any but Highlanders, who, living entirely in the open air and in a very moist climate, can consume great quantities of ardent spirits without the usual baneful effects either upon the brain or constitution.

At length the fluctuating groups began to swim before the eyes of our hero as they gradually closed; nor did he re-open them till the morning sun was high on the lake without, though there was but a faint and glimmering twilight in the recesses of Uaimh an Ri, or the King’s Cavern, as the abode of Donald Bean Lean was proudly denominated.

40 An adventure very similar to what is here stated actually befell the late Mr. Abercromby of Tullibody, grandfather of the present Lord Abercromby, and father of the celebrated Sir Ralph. When this gentleman, who lived to a very advanced period of life, first settled in Stirlingshire, his cattle were repeatedly driven off by the celebrated Rob Roy, or some of his gang; and at length he was obliged, after obtaining a proper safe-conduct, to make the cateran such a visit as that of Waverley to Bean Lean in the text. Rob received him with much courtesy, and made many apologies for the accident, which must have happened, he said, through some mistake. Mr. Abercromby was regaled with collops from two of his own cattle, which were hung up by the heels in the cavern, and was dismissed in perfect safety, after having agreed to pay in future a small sum of black-mail, in consideration of which Rob Roy not only undertook to forbear his herds in future, but to replace any that should be stolen from him by other freebooters. Mr. Abercromby said Rob Roy affected to consider him as a friend to the Jacobite interest and a sincere enemy to the Union. Neither of these circumstances were true; but the laird thought it quite unnecessary to undeceive his Highland host at the risk of bringing on a political dispute in such a situation. This anecdote I received many years since (about 1792) from the mouth of the venerable gentleman who was concerned in it.

41 This was the regale presented by Rob Roy to the Laird of Tullibody.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29