Waverley, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter XXII

Highland Minstrelsy

When the first salutations had passed, Fergus said to his sister, ‘My dear Flora, before I return to the barbarous ritual of our forefathers, I must tell you that Captain Waverley is a worshipper of the Celtic muse, not the less so perhaps that he does not understand a word of her language. I have told him you are eminent as a translator of Highland poetry, and that Mac-Murrough admires your version of his songs upon the same principle that Captain Waverley admires the original, — because he does not comprehend them. Will you have the goodness to read or recite to our guest in English the extraordinary string of names which Mac-Murrough has tacked together in Gaelic? My life to a moor-fowl’s feather, you are provided with a version; for I know you are in all the bard’s councils, and acquainted with his songs long before he rehearses them in the hall.’

‘How can you say so, Fergus? You know how little these verses can possibly interest an English stranger, even if I could translate them as you pretend.’

‘Not less than they interest me, lady fair. To-day your joint composition, for I insist you had a share in it, has cost me the last silver cup in the castle, and I suppose will cost me something else next time I hold cour pleniere, if the muse descends on Mac-Murrough; for you know our proverb, — “When the hand of the chief ceases to bestow, the breath of the bard is frozen in the utterance.” — Well, I would it were even so: there are three things that are useless to a modern Highlander, — a sword which he must not draw, a bard to sing of deeds which he dare not imitate, and a large goat-skin purse without a louis-d’or to put into it.’

‘Well, brother, since you betray my secrets, you cannot expect me to keep yours. I assure you, Captain Waverley, that Fergus is too proud to exchange his broardsword for a marechal’s baton, that he esteems Mac-Murrough a far greater poet than Homer, and would not give up his goat-skin purse for all the louis-d’or which it could contain.’

‘Well pronounced, Flora; blow for blow, as Conan 50 said to the devil. Now do you two talk of bards and poetry, if not of purses and claymores, while I return to do the final honours to the senators of the tribe of Ivor.’ So saying, he left the room.

The conversation continued between Flora and Waverley; for two well-dressed young women, whose character seemed to hover between that of companions and dependants, took no share in it. They were both pretty girls, but served only as foils to the grace and beauty of their patroness. The discourse followed the turn which the Chieftain had given it, and Waverley was equally amused and surprised with the account which the lady gave him of Celtic poetry.

‘The recitation,’ she said, ‘of poems recording the feats of heroes, the complaints of lovers, and the wars of contending tribes, forms the chief amusement of a winter fire-side in the Highlands. Some of these are said to be very ancient, and if they are ever translated into any of the languages of civilised Europe, cannot fail to produce a deep and general sensation. Others are more modern, the composition of those family bards whom the chieftains of more distinguished name and power retain as the poets and historians of their tribes. These, of course, possess various degrees of merit; but much of it must evaporate in translation, or be lost on those who do not sympathise with the feelings of the poet.’

‘And your bard, whose effusions seemed to produce such effect upon the company to-day, is he reckoned among the favourite poets of the mountains?’

‘That is a trying question. His reputation is high among his countrymen, and you must not expect me to depreciate it. 51

‘But the song, Miss Mac-Ivor, seemed to awaken all those warriors, both young and old.’

‘The song is little more than a catalogue of names of the Highland clans under their distinctive peculiarities, and an exhortation to them to remember and to emulate the actions of their forefathers.’

‘And am I wrong in conjecturing, however extraordinary the guess appears, that there was some allusion to me in the verses which he recited?’

‘You have a quick observation, Captain Waverley, which in this instance has not deceived you. The Gaelic language, being uncommonly vocalic, is well adapted for sudden and extemporaneous poetry; and a bard seldom fails to augment the effects of a premeditated song by throwing in any stanzas which may be suggested by the circumstances attending the recitation.’

‘I would give my best horse to know what the Highland bard could find to say of such an unworthy Southron as myself.’

‘It shall not even cost you a lock of his mane. Una, mavourneen! (She spoke a few words to one of the young girls in attendance, who instantly curtsied and tripped out of the room.) I have sent Una to learn from the bard the expressions he used, and you shall command my skill as dragoman.’

Una returned in a few minutes, and repeated to her mistress a few lines in Gaelic. Flora seemed to think for a moment, and then, slightly colouring, she turned to Waverley — ‘It is impossible to gratify your curiosity, Captain Waverley, without exposing my own presumption. If you will give me a few moments for consideration, I will endeavour to engraft the meaning of these lines upon a rude English translation which I have attempted of a part of the original. The duties of the tea-table seem to be concluded, and, as the evening is delightful, Una will show you the way to one of my favourite haunts, and Cathleen and I will join you there.’

Una, having received instructions in her native language, conducted Waverley out by a passage different from that through which he had entered the apartment. At a distance he heard the hall of the Chief still resounding with the clang of bagpipes and the high applause of his guests. Having gained the open air by a postern door, they walked a little way up the wild, bleak, and narrow valley in which the house was situated, following the course of the stream that winded through it. In a spot, about a quarter of a mile from the castle, two brooks, which formed the little river, had their junction. The larger of the two came down the long bare valley, which extended, apparently without any change or elevation of character, as far as the hills which formed its boundary permitted the eye to reach. But the other stream, which had its source among the mountains on the left hand of the strath, seemed to issue from a very narrow and dark opening betwixt two large rocks. These streams were different also in character. The larger was placid, and even sullen in its course, wheeling in deep eddies, or sleeping in dark blue pools; but the motions of the lesser brook were rapid and furious, issuing from between precipices, like a maniac from his confinement, all foam and uproar.

It was up the course of this last stream that Waverley, like a knight of romance, was conducted by the fair Highland damsel, his silent guide. A small path, which had been rendered easy in many places for Flora’s accommodation, led him through scenery of a very different description from that which he had just quitted. Around the castle all was cold, bare, and desolate, yet tame even in desolation; but this narrow glen, at so short a distance, seemed to open into the land of romance. The rocks assumed a thousand peculiar and varied forms. In one place a crag of huge size presented its gigantic bulk, as if to forbid the passenger’s farther progress; and it was not until he approached its very base that Waverley discerned the sudden and acute turn by which the pathway wheeled its course around this formidable obstacle. In another spot the projecting rocks from the opposite sides of the chasm had approached so near to each other that two pine-trees laid across, and covered with turf, formed a rustic bridge at the height of at least one hundred and fifty feet. It had no ledges, and was barely three feet in breadth.

While gazing at this pass of peril, which crossed, like a single black line, the small portion of blue sky not intercepted by the projecting rocks on either side, it was with a sensation of horror that Waverley beheld Flora and her attendant appear, like inhabitants of another region, propped, as it were, in mid air, upon this trembling structure. She stopped upon observing him below, and, with an air of graceful ease which made him shudder, waved her handkerchief to him by way of signal. He was unable, from the sense of dizziness which her situation conveyed, to return the salute; and was never more relieved than when the fair apparition passed on from the precarious eminence which she seemed to occupy with so much indifference, and disappeared on the other side.

Advancing a few yards, and passing under the bridge which he had viewed with so much terror, the path ascended rapidly from the edge of the brook, and the glen widened into a sylvan amphitheatre, waving with birch, young oaks, and hazels, with here and there a scattered yew-tree. The rocks now receded, but still showed their grey and shaggy crests rising among the copse-wood. Still higher rose eminences and peaks, some bare, some clothed with wood, some round and purple with heath, and others splintered into rocks and crags. At a short turning the path, which had for some furlongs lost sight of the brook, suddenly placed Waverley in front of a romantic waterfall. It was not so remarkable either for great height or quantity of water as for the beautiful accompaniments which made the spot interesting. After a broken cataract of about twenty feet, the stream was received in a large natural basin filled to the brim with water, which, where the bubbles of the fall subsided, was so exquisitely clear that, although it was of great depth, the eye could discern each pebble at the bottom. Eddying round this reservoir, the brook found its way as if over a broken part of the ledge, and formed a second fall, which seemed to seek the very abyss; then, wheeling out beneath from among the smooth dark rocks which it had polished for ages, it wandered murmuring down the glen, forming the stream up which Waverley had just ascended.52 The borders of this romantic reservoir corresponded in beauty; but it was beauty of a stern and commanding cast, as if in the act of expanding into grandeur. Mossy banks of turf were broken and interrupted by huge fragments of rock, and decorated with trees and shrubs, some of which had been planted under the direction of Flora, but so cautiously that they added to the grace without diminishing the romantic wildness of the scene.

Here, like one of those lovely forms which decorate the landscapes of Poussin, Waverley found Flora gazing on the waterfall. Two paces further back stood Cathleen, holding a small Scottish harp, the use of which had been taught to Flora by Rory Dall, one of the last harpers of the Western Highlands. The sun, now stooping in the west, gave a rich and varied tinge to all the objects which surrounded Waverley, and seemed to add more than human brilliancy to the full expressive darkness of Flora’s eye, exalted the richness and purity of her complexion, and enhanced the dignity and grace of her beautiful form. Edward thought he had never, even in his wildest dreams, imagined a figure of such exquisite and interesting loveliness. The wild beauty of the retreat, bursting upon him as if by magic, augmented the mingled feeling of delight and awe with which he approached her, like a fair enchantress of Boiardo or Ariosto, by whose nod the scenery around seemed to have been created an Eden in the wilderness.

Flora, like every beautiful woman, was conscious of her own power, and pleased with its effects, which she could easily discern from the respectful yet confused address of the young soldier. But, as she possessed excellent sense, she gave the romance of the scene and other accidental circumstances full weight in appreciating the feelings with which Waverley seemed obviously to be impressed; and, unacquainted with the fanciful and susceptible peculiarities of his character, considered his homage as the passing tribute which a woman of even inferior charms might have expected in such a situation. She therefore quietly led the way to a spot at such a distance from the cascade that its sound should rather accompany than interrupt that of her voice and instrument, and, sitting down upon a mossy fragment of rock, she took the harp from Cathleen.

‘I have given you the trouble of walking to this spot, Captain Waverley, both because I thought the scenery would interest you, and because a Highland song would suffer still more from my imperfect translation were I to introduce it without its own wild and appropriate accompaniments. To speak in the poetical language of my country, the seat of the Celtic Muse is in the mist of the secret and solitary hill, and her voice in the murmur of the mountain stream. He who woos her must love the barren rock more than the fertile valley, and the solitude of the desert better than the festivity of the hall.’

Few could have heard this lovely woman make this declaration, with a voice where harmony was exalted by pathos, without exclaiming that the muse whom she invoked could never find a more appropriate representative. But Waverley, though the thought rushed on his mind, found no courage to utter it. Indeed, the wild feeling of romantic delight with which he heard the few first notes she drew from her instrument amounted almost to a sense of pain. He would not for worlds have quitted his place by her side; yet he almost longed for solitude, that he might decipher and examine at leisure the complication of emotions which now agitated his bosom.

Flora had exchanged the measured and monotonous recitative of the bard for a lofty and uncommon Highland air, which had been a battle-song in former ages. A few irregular strains introduced a prelude of a wild and peculiar tone, which harmonised well with the distant waterfall, and the soft sigh of the evening breeze in the rustling leaves of an aspen, which overhung the seat of the fair harpress. The following verses convey but little idea of the feelings with which, so sung and accompanied, they were heard by Waverley:—

There is mist on the mountain, and night on the vale,

But more dark is the sleep of the sons of the Gael.

A stranger commanded — it sunk on the land,

It has frozen each heart, and benumb’d every hand!

The dirk and the target lie sordid with dust,

The bloodless claymore is but redden’d with rust;

On the hill or the glen if a gun should appear,

It is only to war with the heath-cock or deer.

The deeds of our sires if our bards should rehearse,

Let a blush or a blow be the meed of their verse!

Be mute every string, and be hush’d every tone,

That shall bid us remember the fame that is flown.

But the dark hours of night and of slumber are past,

The morn on our mountains is dawning at last;

Glenaladale’s peaks are illumined with the rays,

And the streams of Glenfinnan leap bright in the blaze. 53

O high-minded Moray! the exiled! the dear!

In the blush of the dawning the STANDARD uprear!

Wide, wide on the winds of the north let it fly,

Like the sun’s latest flash when the tempest is nigh! 54

Ye sons of the strong, when that dawning shall break,

Need the harp of the aged remind you to wake?

That dawn never beam’d on your forefathers’ eye,

But it roused each high chieftain to vanquish or die.

O, sprung from the Kings who in Islay kept state,

Proud chiefs of Clan Ranald, Glengarry, and Sleat!

Combine like three streams from one mountain of snow,

And resistless in union rush down on the foe!

True son of Sir Evan, undaunted Lochiel,

Place thy targe on thy shoulder and burnish thy steel!

Rough Keppoch, give breath to thy bugle’s bold swell,

Till far Coryarrick resound to the knell!

Stern son of Lord Kenneth, high chief of Kintail,

Let the stag in thy standard bound wild in the gale!

May the race of Clan Gillean, the fearless and free,

Remember Glenlivat, Harlaw, and Dundee!

Let the clan of grey Fingon, whose offspring has given

Such heroes to earth and such martyrs to heaven,

Unite with the race of renown’d Rorri More,

To launch the long galley and stretch to the oar.

How Mac-Shimei will joy when their chief shall display

The yew-crested bonnet o’er tresses of grey!

How the race of wrong’d Alpine and murder’d Glencoe

Shall shout for revenge when they pour on the foe!

Ye sons of brown Dermid, who slew the wild boar,

Resume the pure faith of the great Callum-More!

Mac-Neil of the islands, and Moy of the Lake,

For honour, for freedom, for vengeance awake!

Here a large greyhound, bounding up the glen, jumped upon Flora and interrupted her music by his importunate caresses. At a distant whistle he turned and shot down the path again with the rapidity of an arrow. ‘That is Fergus’s faithful attendant, Captain Waverley, and that was his signal. He likes no poetry but what is humorous, and comes in good time to interrupt my long catalogue of the tribes, whom one of your saucy English poets calls

Our bootless host of high-born beggars,

Mac-Leans, Mac-Kenzies, and Mac-Gregors.’

Waverley expressed his regret at the interruption.

‘O you cannot guess how much you have lost! The bard, as in duty bound, has addressed three long stanzas to Vich Ian Vohr of the Banners, enumerating all his great properties, and not forgetting his being a cheerer of the harper and bard — “a giver of bounteous gifts.” Besides, you should have heard a practical admonition to the fair-haired son of the stranger, who lives in the land where the grass is always green — the rider on the shining pampered steed, whose hue is like the raven, and whose neigh is like the scream of the eagle for battle. This valiant horseman is affectionately conjured to remember that his ancestors were distinguished by their loyalty as well as by their courage. All this you have lost; but, since your curiosity is not satisfied, I judge, from the distant sound of my brother’s whistle, I may have time to sing the concluding stanzas before he comes to laugh at my translation.’

Awake on your hills, on your islands awake,

Brave sons of the mountain, the frith, and the lake!

‘T is the bugle — but not for the chase is the call;

‘T is the pibroch’s shrill summons — but not to the hall.

‘T is the summons of heroes for conquest or death,

When the banners are blazing on mountain and heath:

They call to the dirk, the claymore, and the targe,

To the march and the muster, the line and the charge.

Be the brand of each chieftain like Fin’s in his ire!

May the blood through his veins flow like currents of fire!

Burst the base foreign yoke as your sires did of yore,

Or die like your sires, and endure it no more!

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Flora MacIVOR At the Waterfall — Original Etching by R. W. Macbeth

50 In the Irish ballads relating to Fion (the Fingal of Mac-Pherson) there occurs, as in the primitive poetry of most nations, a cycle of heroes, each of whom has some distinguishing attribute; upon these qualities, and the adventures of those possessing them, many proverbs are formed, which are still current in the Highlands. Among other characters, Conan is distinguished as in some respects a kind of Thersites, but brave and daring even to rashness. He had made a vow that he would never take a blow without returning it; and having, like other heroes of antiquity, descended to the infernal regions, he received a cuff from the Arch-fiend who presided there, which he instantly returned, using the expression in the text. Sometimes the proverb is worded thus — ‘Claw for claw, and the devil take the shortest nails, as Conan said to the devil.’

51 The Highland poet almost always was an improvisatore. Captain Burt met one of them at Lovat’s table.

52 The description of the waterfall mentioned in this chapter is taken from that of Ledeard, at the farm so called, on the northern side of Lochard, and near the head of the lake, four or five miles from Aberfoyle. It is upon a small scale, but otherwise one of the most exquisite cascades it is possible to behold. The appearance of Flora with the harp, as described, has been justly censured as too theatrical and affected for the lady-like simplicity of her character. But something may be allowed to her French education, in which point and striking effect always make a considerable object.

53 The young and daring adventurer, Charles Edward, landedat Glenaladale, in Moidart, and displayed his standard in the valley of Glenfinnan, mustering around it the Mac-Donalds, the Camerons, and other less numerous clans, whom he had prevailed on to join him. There is a monument erected on the spot, with a Latin inscription by the late Doctor Gregory.

54 The Marquis of Tullibardine’s elder brother, who, long exiled, returned to Scotland with Charles Edward in 1745.

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