Now we’re going to catch it ! It’s raining like fun, and the fog’s all down over the mountains ! I tell you what, it’s going to be rough before we get to Portree ! ”
Mrs. Pitt and the two girls were writing postcards in the cabin when John came in from the upper deck, his wet ” slicker ” steaming, to give them the above discouraging news.
Betty promptly put down her pen and went to the porthole to see how much John’s report was exaggerated.
” It’s the worst night we’ve had on our whole trip so far ! ” she announced in despairing tones. ” And the Captain says we’re about two hours late ! Botheration ! ”
” Well,” advised Mrs. Pitt sagely, ” we may as well finish our writing. We’ve plenty of time.”
” Seems like two years since we were at Oban this morning ! ” muttered Barbara, the usually serene and unruffled, slowly sticking a half-penny stamp on each of her picture cards.
Having left Oban at seven o’clock on the most perfect of mornings, they had sailed for hours, quite content to be dodging in and out between the mainland and the innumerable islands, large and small. The smooth sea had been a lovely melting blue, sometimes changing to sapphire and opal where it ran far inland among the mountains; and as for those mountains, they were indescribably beautiful. Most of them were rugged and sharp-peaked, while others sloped gently down to the water’s edge; but all were alike wrapped in that veil which gives them the look of velvet, shading in tone from soft brown to softer heliotrope. Stretching far, far away in the distance, they looked ” like clouds that somebody has caught and held there,” as Betty expressed it.
Soon after passing pretty Dunollie Castle, they had steamed once again into Tobermory Bay, where the Duke of Argyll has some divers at work searching for sunken treasure, which he believes may have been there since the wreck of one of the great vessels of the Spanish Armada. A little later they had rounded Ardnamurchan Point, the most western bit of Scotland’s mainland; then they sighted Eigg, on which island there is a cave into which the revengeful McLeods once drove many Macdonalds, and, building a fire at the cave’s mouth, conveniently suffocated their troublesome enemies. Now, at five o’clock on this same day which had so completely changed to one of threatening storm, they were looking at Castle Moil, a jagged black point piercing the gray mist.
” It is said to have been inhabited by a Danish princess, called Saucy Mary,’ ” the guide-book told them. ” She stretched a great chain across the sound and allowed no vessel to pass without paying toll.”
They finally landed at Portree, on the island of Skye, about seven o’clock that evening, in a characteristic downpour. It was perfectly easy to see that the natives were entirely at home in such weather. On the little wharf was a considerable crowd, visiting fishermen and hunters, townspeople giving friends a hearty though necessarily a damp welcome, and a large proportion of Portree’s inhabitants assembled for enjoyment of the one exciting happening of the day. Dodging the drenched loiterers, Mrs. Pitt and the others, hurrying out into the mud and rain, climbed a steep, slippery path which led to the Royal Hotel, at the top of the bluff.
” You needn’t have worried about our not getting any rooms, Mother,” remarked Barbara; ” only one lady and gentleman are coming up from the boat; and I don’t believe there are many staying here for the week-end.”
Sure enough, only two English gentlemen, off on a tramping trip, and the French couple who had arrived with them on the Oban boat, assembled for dinner. Afterwards Betty stood long at the window of the cold, dingy drawing-room, looking out at the deserted village street and the gray, storm-swept bay below.
” I never felt so far away from things in all my life,” said she, and Barbara was not sure there were not one or two tears in her eyes.
However, the room was so cold and the whole party so very sleepy after the long day’s sail, that going-to-bed candles were soon lighted.
” Do you think it will be fine tomorrow? ” inquired Mrs. Pitt of the landlady, as she held her match.
I doubt it’ll no be verra fine in the morning,” was the not too cheerful answer, the good woman shaking her head sadly as she gave it.
But at breakfast time the sun actually peeped out from behind the mist, and it seemed as though their hostess had been mistaken. When she saw them come down clad in raincoats and rubbers, and carrying umbrellas, ” in case it should shower,” she smiled and said, ” Ay, you’ll maybe get a bit o’ a walk.”
They did. Philip and John were in their element, of course, and Mrs. Pitt and the girls held their skirts high and tramped along, first on one side and then on the other side of the muddy road, pretending to be enjoying themselves hugely. Although the metropolis of Skye, possessing four hotels, a post office, branches of certain banks, several small shops, and a jail, Portree is an uninteresting enough little place and was quite desolate on this particular Sun-day morning. They soon left it behind. After several wrong turns had led them only into unpleasant barnyards with no outlet, they did at length discover a road which ran out to the country, to the moorland.
” How far it stretches,” exclaimed Betty; ” and what funny little bumps it has on it ! ”
” Yes, these Skye moors always have just such bumps or hillocks,” Mrs. Pitt replied. ” Do you see the mountains, there in the distance? They’re almost covered with the heavy mist, though, and I’m afraid it’s coming nearer.”
By the time they reached a huddled group of three or four huts, with roofs of blackened thatch through which the peat smoke somehow found its way in the absence of chimneys, a typical Scotch mist was driving in their faces.
” I want to see the inside of this house,” announced Betty, starting toward the one which stood nearest the road. ” Do you think they’d let me in? ”
A woman appeared at the door just then, and Betty asked her some question by way of beginning a conversation, but the woman was preparing for the trip into Portree to church, she said, and her answer was very short.
Betty was quite taken aback. ” I hope they’re not all as cross as that,” she said; I wanted to see how they live. My, what a big pile of peat they have, up behind their house ! ”
” Oh,” cried John, who had been exploring, ” at the next house they have two ! They mean to keep warm. Where do they get the peat, and what is it, anyhow? ”
” Another name for it is ` the turf,’ ” answered Mrs. Pitt, as they turned back towards the town; ” it is cut from the bogs out on the moors and hillsides. I can show you plenty of peat-bogs, if this rain only stops for us. You’ll see how they cut it and then how they stack it up afterwards. It takes a long time to dry and to be right for burning. This summer’s peat people will not use until next year. Oh, children, do see those puppies ! ”
A long halt had then and there to be made, in spite of the rain, to admire the litter of little white puppies. These are called Skye dogs and are seen everywhere throughout the Highlands.
” But they aren’t like Skye terriers,” John objected, ” those with hair all over their eyes. These are long and they have short legs like dachshunds, but their heads are different. They’re like little pigs’ heads, I think. Don’t they have Skye terriers on the Isle of Skye, I should like to know?
” Oh,” said his sister, ” it’s probably like English Breakfast Tea, which they’ve never heard of in England.”
Mrs. Pitt, wishing to hear a service in Gaelic at one of Portree’s churches, stopped there, while the others went back to the hotel for luncheon. It was impossible to walk any more as the rain was steadily and heavily falling; and so it continued to fall throughout the rest of that Sunday and all the following day.
They tried to lie in bed on Monday morning and do that wholly delightful thing, sleep late, but they found their eyes to be provokingly wide open by eight o’clock. By early afternoon they had written all the letters they could, drummed upon the ancient piano, and read all the books which their luggage contained. Hearing that Portree boasted a library, Mrs. Pitt sent the two boys to see what it offered. The door was locked, the windows boarded, and a man informed John that the library was closed for the season, and was private at all times. For want of anything better to do, John was actually persuaded to join them at afternoon tea, an unheard-of concession on his part.
Afterwards, Philip made an important discovery during a talk with the solemn head-waiter.
” I say ! ” he exclaimed, bursting into the room; ” Prince Charlie came to Skye, and there’s a room in this very hotel where he slept ! ”
Off they all trooped to see it, and Mrs. Pitt learned from a book she had been studying that there also the Prince had said farewell to Flora Macdonald, a brave girl of Skye, who had several times helped him to escape dangers and had hidden him in a great cave, keeping guard at its mouth. It is related that the Prince could find no words to thank her, except these, just as he stepped into his boat: ” For all that has passed, Madam, I hope we shall meet yet at St. James’s.”
” Did he mean St. James’s Palace in London, where they hold the Court? ” asked Betty. ” Prince Charlie was trying to be king, wasn’t he? Some people thought he ought to be king instead of King William who came over from Holland.”
Just then Barbara remembered how she had once read that the Prince had had to dress in a woman’s clothes and pretend to be Flora Macdonald’s maid. ” They called him ` Betty somebody-or-other,’ ” said she, with a laugh.
Even the subject of the unfortunate Prince and Flora Macdonald was at length exhausted, and then there seemed nothing for it but to hope and plan for the morrow. And this time they were not to be disappointed.
” I have seen it finer, yes, even in Skye,” remarked Mrs. Pitt, as she critically viewed the heavens before breakfast, ” but I think we may safely start out. Philip, will you order the motor? Be sure to make the landlady under-stand that we want to go to Dunvegan by way of Sligachan.”
” Fancy ! Motoring in Skye ! ”
” But why not, Barbara? It’s quicker and easier than driving, and the cost is no greater. This hotel has several motors, I am told.”
So they were off about ten o’clock, following for a time the same road they had tramped two days before. But, after crossing the little bridge near the new brick schoolhouse, they turned towards the south and sped on and on across the wild moorland.
The road was narrow and rough, now stretching over level bits of country, level except for the ever-present hillocks; now zigzagging its way to dizzy heights, on a mountain-side; now dipping suddenly and crossing a rushing stream, only to begin another steep climb. Over the moors, just beginning to be tinged with the pinkish-purple of the bell heather, the sheep scampered in terror at sound of the motor car. All the ten miles to Sligachan, there were no houses, no people, no trees.
Some one has called Skye ” a land of little sun and no shade.”
Slowly the mountains grew steeper, sharper, sterner until Sligachan was reached, a famous spot in the midst of the giant red ” Coolin Hills.” They whirled past the one hotel and the chauffeur rushed for another hill. The Coolins proper were over there, he said, taking one hand from the steering-wheel and pointing; they could not see them that day, because of the mist. The great clouds moved rapidly, now revealing an undreamed-of jagged peak here, now entirely covering another which had just been visible there. Now and then they found themselves whirling along through one of these clouds of mist, so thick as almost to cut of all view; the next moment the mist had vanished and a warm ray of sunlight had quickly dried them off.
” Barbara, please untie my veil for me; I must wipe off my glasses “; and Barbara obeyed, only to find that the veil had stuck fast to some flowers on her mother’s hat, much of their color coming off with it.
” Here’s another loch ! ” cried Philip. ” Skye seems to be all lochs and mountains, and moors with hillocks on them ! ”
” That’s very nearly true, Philip,” said Mrs. Pitt; ” and it’s not strange that we see lochs everywhere when we read that, although the
island is fifty miles long and from seven to twenty-five broad, there is no spot in it which is more than four miles from the sea or one of its long arms.”
Then they came to Struan, a village with huts straggling along both sides of a long, narrow loch. Conditions have been much improved for the peasants of Skye, and many of their huts now have good chimneys and roofs of slate or of galvanized iron painted black; but occasionally one still sees a miserable, hut with thatched roof and no chimney, so low and black that, coming upon it suddenly around a corner, one might almost mistake it for a part of the bog land upon which it stands.
” See that woman ! ” cried John suddenly. ” What’s she got on her back? ”
” That’s a creel, a kind of basket in which she carries home her peat. Do you see how she sets the bottom of the creel on that stone wall while she rests a moment? She never wastes her time, you notice ; she is always knitting a stocking.”
At the end of the loch the road crossed a bridge ; then it turned and followed the opposite shore. They passed more huts from which children, dressed in the customary scanty kilt, ran out to see the motor car.
They don’t seem to be at all surprised to see us,” commented Betty.
At the top of a long hill they came upon some men cutting peat from a bog, and the chauffeur obligingly stopped so that they might watch the process. A long, deep ditch was cut across the moorland, and from the sides of it a man was slicing off oblong pieces of the moist black earth.
” That shovel of his is a dandy ! ” cried John approvingly; ” it’s long and narrow, and it makes the pieces just the right size. My, it doesn’t take him a jiffy to do it! It looks like a cinch ! I’d like to try it.”
” There’s another man who is standing the pieces of peat up on end, in little groups. I guess that’s how he leaves them to dry, isn’t it, Mrs. Pitt? Oh, John, there’s a pony carrying two panniers full of peat! Do you see him?”
But they could not spend too long a time in watching this fascinating peat-cutting. The car started up again and by early afternoon brought them to the inn at Dunvegan, on the opposite side of the island from Portree.