A lull tempts me out again. Along the shores of "the Lake of Lowes" the mist-winged storm comes along worse than ever. Now all is natural. The sadness has dropped behind - only, the wild-ness is in the mountain fastness, from which the wind and the mist come forth, to play roughly on the plain.
The ascending road leads into the midst of the fray - into the very presence of the raider. The storm takes visible form in the mist which sweeps past - swirls, lifts for a moment to reveal a few yards of the hillside, and then, for a like brief interval, settles round, wrapping me to my very clothes.
Two hours later, when I am beginning to think that I have been the plaything of the elements about long enough, I come suddenly on shelter. I do not see the cottage until I can almost touch it. In some of the stiller moments of the storm I must have passed unawares; but the veil lifts, and there it is.
The thought of lodging had not troubled me when I started, nor in the earlier hours of the day. If it came, good and well; if not, then the earth was big enough. But I had not reckoned on this. Certain who preceded me, tell of their experience in the same neighbourhood: - ,
"As there were large quantities of the common bracken, we unanimously resolved to bivouac there for the night; and having partaken of our evening meal, and drunk from the clear gushing stream, we laid ourselves down to sleep, with the sky above as our curtain, and the majestic hill at our backs and on either side as our bed-posts. Our love for the romantic seemed now to be indulged to the full; and what strange thoughts came into our heads as we peeped out through the ferns which grew so thickly around us!
"One by one we dropped to sleep ; but scarce had we shut our eyes, whhen our hands, which we had left outside the covering as barometers, told us of a change of weather. We should soon have been drenched had we not taken up our beds and adjourned to a hut, which, to all appearance, served as a maternity hospital for all the sheep in the neighbourhood.
. "It was now twelve o'clock, with the rain pouring in torrents, and the wind whistling in fitful gusts through our fragile domicile, and one of our sorrowing friends was heard to whisper -
Sic a night As ne'er puir sinner was abroad in."
Sic another night was this, and such mayhap would have been my fate had the storm delayed its coming. In my weakness, the prospect of a tighter roof brings a sense of relief. I had been here before.
A shepherd's cottage has been converted into a sort of hostelry, for the behoof of passers through the defile. In old days it might have been called a "Spital." The house is full; there is not much to fill. I might not have been lodged at all, but that it was a night
Wherein the cub-drawn bear would couch, The lion and the belly-pinched wolf Keep their fur dry.
Even the four dogs are inside.
The shepherd's wife not only takes me in, but clothes me. The suit is her husband's. I never saw the wearer, who was away at Peebles Fair with the season's lambs; but I have good reason to suppose that he is twice my weight.
For two whole days I live and move and have my being in these clothes. I revel in them, tent in them, roll about in them, insist that my own are not dry, until the kindly lender laughingly asks if I would like to take them away with me.
Anglers gather in from the streams, or are blown in by the gusts which set every door a-rattling and every inmate a-shivering. No one has been successful. Rising water seldom yields a basket. Trout are too much concerned in looking after themselves, and in seeking the eddies which are last to be blotted out.
These men have been tempted up from Moffat by the rain-bearing clouds, which blew from that direc tion, and had got more than they wanted. The coach rattles up and takes them off The house is left to those who are to stay there.
"I would just hae to be doin' wi' a seat at the kitchen fire, as the room was let to a lady and gentleman frae Liverpool."
That is how my hostess puts it. Worse fate by far might have befallen me.
Happily, the gentleman overhears, and courteously invites me to join them. The blind is drawn, the lamp lit, and chairs placed round the table. In a rubber of whist we forget the storm, or only hear it at intervals, to the increase of our sense of comfort by contrast. The louder it raves, the more we hug ourselves. Had you ever a rubber of whist under similar conditions? If so, you will know all it means.
I am abroad, bright and early. Never fresher morning broke over these or any other hills. The son, a shepherd like his father, is called in, and gives minute directions how to go so as to avoid the peat-hags. I am sure I understand him, and so take my way up the slope. The sundew grows in moist places; so does the water forget-me-not, the rarest of its kind to be found on these hills.
Of course I do not avoid the peat-hags. Indeed I get into the very midst of them; and having once lost a track, at best so faintly indicated that only a shepherd could follow, I never recover it. More than once I have to descend my own height on to a treacherous-looking black bottom, rendered none the firmer by yesterday's rain. By sheer persistence I somehow bore my way to Loch Skene.
The mountain sorrel is everywhere. The small crowded flowers, rising above the kidney-shaped leaves, are effective, from the reddish tint they share with the rest of the family. Natural beauty owes much to lowly agents. The wilds could better spare many a brighter flower. This is a sub-alpine that passes into the lower alpine regions, and after that reappears, to give a welcome touch of colour to the arctic lowlands. It is thus interesting, as being one of the northernly tending arctic alpines.
The mossy saxifrage, so familiar in our gardens for its cushions of much-cut leaves, is the commonest of the few - three, I think - sub-alpine species growing on these hills. The other two are the starry and opposite-leaved saxifrages.
Still another plant - the alpine enchanter's nightshade - is characteristic. The ordinary species covers the floor of some of the woods lower down. Neither is to be regarded as strictly lowland ; and the alpine form may only be the other, modified by changed conditions. Both have in their fantastic flowers a certain weird suggestive-ness of their name, especially when growing in the shade.
Somewhere around, a friend, who had his home by the Tweed-side, once made an experiment. He was a rare man, such as one meets among the common herd only twice or thrice in a lifetime. Dearly he loved these alpine fairy plants; and he had a strong wish to get others to care for them as well, and to take a pleasure in climbing the hills to look at them.
Out of very unpromising elements he formed an Alpine Club, which exists to this day, although its pure and noble guide is gone. There are those who reserve such words as unpractical for such schemes as these; but this one, happily, for those who became a part of it, took shape. Some who ran the ordinary risks of becoming sordid, feel all the better for a day on the hills which overlook their homes and dwarf their everyday lives.
My friend, naturally, wished to see his favourites as often as possible, But it was a long way to come ; and, living so far apart as they did, he could visit only two or three at a time. He was, for all the world, like a man whose children are scattered, and who grieves that he can no longer have them all together as he used to do. So he fixed upon a common home, and spent a few summer days in tenderly gathering two or three of each, and placing them as near together as their differing habits would allow.
One can picture the scene. I think, by patient search, could pick it out. And it would be worth finding; for if ever spot on earth was hallowed by the purity and simplicity of man, that spot was.
It would be bordered by a channel, whose rocky shelving, laid bare by the rude torrent, gave root-hold to the starry saxifrage. It would include a marshy area, tender with the blue of forget-me-not, white with mountain avens, and touched with the red of sundew. It would possess a shadow, quaintly pretty with the spikes of enchanter's nightshade; and a rough track lit with the scarlet fruit of the stone bramble, and overrun with the white purple - tipped blossoms of the wood vetch. These at least.
Alas ! for the best laid schemes. His face wore a half-vexed, half-amused look as he told me the sequel. One day he reached his paradise, to find it despoiled ; and, some time afterward, he learned the cause. Certain botanists from Edinburgh, with vascula of greedy dimensions, came by chance that way, and doubtless reported the spot as an extremely rich floral area.
Loch Skene is flanked on one side by Whitcoom, which shows its summit just over the sub-alpine region - some two thousand six hundred feet above sea-level. This mountain is interesting as forming the culminating height in these parts; moreover, it stands at the touching point of Selkirk, Peebles, and Dumfries.
In these uplands, Whitcoom holds a position similar to that of those other culminating heights which at once attach and separate Aberdeen, Perth, and Forfar. It is the hilly centre and stronghold in the south, as they are in the north.
What is not found here need scarcely be looked for elsewhere. And yet the chief rarities its slopes have to offer are the alpine meadow rue, the cranberry, and the veined willow.
If they fell within the popular notion of wild flowers, it would delight me to talk about the ferns; the rather as I regard these hills as the fern garden of Scotland, just as I regard the northern hills as the alpine garden. If some of the rarer forms are absent, those which are there, abound.
The brittle fern, the most graceful of all the forms - and what is rarity, compared with grace, except to the dry - as - dust naturalist - is, in many places, as common as the bracken or the grass.
The male parsley fern waves above the wastes of stones, and hides away the rudeness under its feathery fronds; the oblong Woodsia is common here - a corrie or linn, in the flank of this same Whitcoom, is a favourite haunt; while the filmy fern, in countless numbers, seems to filter every drip of water.
Before leaving the hostelry, I open the visitors' book and run down row upon row of uninteresting names. On turning over a page, my eye is arrested by the sketch of a tourist's back, with fishing - basket and other belongings of sport and travel strapped thereon as if for final departure. The man who did this knew the use of his pencil.
The lines beneath, which I quote, less because of their literary merit - the author was not so much at home with the pen - than for the pathos and human interest behind a rude form, ran thus -
Scottish lakes are bonnie,
Scottish hills are high, So are Scots hotel bills -