Picture of George Head

George Head


places mentioned

Up the West Highland Coast

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CHAPTER VII.

STAFFA, IONA, AND THE CALEDONIAN CANAL.

Steam Communication from Liverpool to Glasgow—Packet Agent at Ramsey—Departure—Boarding a Steamer at Night —Sickness—Mull of Galloway—Ailsa Craig—The Clyde— The Broomielaw—Inland Navigation—The Maid of Morven Steamer—The Vessel en Deshabille—Voyage to Greenock— The Kyles of Bute—Lochgoilhead—Creenin Canal—Korryvrekan—Island of Eisdale—Arrive at Oban.

THE people at Douglas know, or care to know very little of the proceedings of the Liverpool steamers, that, twice a-week, wind and weather permitting, call for passengers at the sister port of Ramsey, on their way to Glasgow. Having made up my mind to travel by this conveyance, such were the obstacles thrown in my way with regard to information, when I enquired particulars at Douglas, that I was well nigh dissuaded from undertaking the voyage altogether. However, since contingencies so frequently control our comfort, and combine to retard our progress through life, any thing, to my mind, is better than a retrograde movement; therefore, I was averse to the counsel of an individual long resident in the island, who anxiously laboured to persuade me to return whence I came, and re-embark at Liverpool. Finally, I resolved to go and wait the arrival of a vessel at Ramsey, under all the chances of meeting with disappointment.

As the hour of arrival of the vessel off the port is usually in the middle of the night, I departed accordingly the preceding day, and took up my quarters under the auspices of the landlord of the inn, who, besides the functions of his hostelry at Ramsey, is entrusted by the steam packet proprietors at Liverpool with the agency of their establishment.

Upon enquiry, I immediately learnt that the packets, with an exception in case of rough weather, are regular and punctual in their visits; in fact, they arrive usually between the hours of midnight and two in the morning, lay to, fire a gun, hoist a light, and the passengers go on board from the shore in a boat. Five or six other passengers were already waiting in the house, all of whom had received intimation that little time would be allowed for preparation in the morning; however, they were told that a look-out would be had for the vessel, and at least sufficient notice given for departure. It was lucky I paid little heed to the latter comfortable assurance; on the contrary, I disposed of myself and luggage so as to be ready to start on an alarm at five minutes' warning; and, after having retired to my apartment at the top of a narrow flight of stairs, where all the doors in the same passage were immediately contiguous to one another, at an early hour all the inmates of the house were silent in repose.

According to appointment, at two o'clock in the morning sure enough, or thereabouts, up stairs hurried the landlord, vociferating all the way, as if the house were on fire, and flames bursting out of the windows. "Get up! get up! all of ye," he said; "you'll be too late—the packet's come— she has hove to—be down directly, or you'll lose your passage!" Then, thumping stoutly with his fist at every body's door, he presented a light to the proffered candle-end of each, ran down stairs again at the risk of breaking his neck, and thence disappeared out of the house, on his way to the beach. Thin partitions now began perpetually to creak, and the barefooted, newly risen from their beds, stamped heavily on the floor: some yawned,—others grumbled; but almost every one ejaculated either a want or a wish. One had lost a shoe, another had got a wrong boot, and the tallow stump of a third was crackling in the Socket. No one was in the way to render assistance, and the landlord's emphatic injunction rang in the ears of all. For my part, determined to take the best possible care of myself, I locked my door, snuffed my candle, set to work in right earnest, and in five minutes was ready on the landing-place. Thence I strode down stairs, out of doors, and away in the dark to the sea-shore, where, at the end of the jetty, a stiff rowing-boat, manned by three or four stout sailors, lay ready to receive us. In a few minutes the whole of the passengers had arrived; the rowers had taken their places; one by one the former stepped in, staggering and tumbling into their seats; the cockswain held on, tugging hard at the boat hook; and the phosphoric waves splashed heavily, like molten silver, over the boat's bows. Some people now sat upon wet boards, others on dry; the luggage was all on board; the cockswain pushed away from the jetty; the boat was trimmed; the oars set to work; and a dim lanthorn at the end of a boat-hook, a mere glow-worm in the dark, now marked the progress of our skiff through the waves towards the gallant steamer, whose resplendent blue light softly blazed in the distance like a little moon. On approaching the steamer, a hoarse grunting voice from above immediately greeted our arrival; a rope flung on board was quickly caught and made fast; hauling lustily thereon, in despite of rolling and heaving and hissing, we swang round against the vessel's huge black side, mounted the ladder, while the men still held on, and the luggage was taken on board; and then the toppling boat being again adrift, the steam was set on, and the vessel made progress on her way.

Few locomotive operations are more disagreeable than thus boarding a large steamer at sea in the middle of the night, particularly since the traveller, constrained to passive performance in the drama of life, feels dismally conscious that he no more contributes to the energies that propel him on his way, than one of his own trunks or portmanteaus. He stands, as it were, an interloper on board among men and things, faces that he never saw before, and whose outline he is unable to distinguish, and even deprived of the privilege of participating on equal terms with the passengers below in comfortable or uncomfortable sleep. Besides, the animal spirits, in despite of the philosophy of the mind, are prone at all times to resent capricious usage, either overflowing by their accelerated torrent the tranquil and pleasing images that fancy before had created, or, like a spent rocket deprived of its projectile force, falling to a lower point than whence they rose. Happy is man at any time to renounce vain-glorious notions of self-importance; and even as a being of the earth is overwhelmed among the magnitudes of creation, so does the landlubber find himself ten times more small when on board a steam-boat.

Hitherto I had not exchanged a word with the captain or any other individual. The former was lonelily pacing the deck enveloped in a thick cloak and cap, the lappets pulled down over his ears; the man at the wheel was silent and still, and like myself all the rest had withdrawn to one solitary spot or other. There I sat reclining rather disconsolately upon one of the benches, till the revolving light of the point of Ayre faded away in the distance, the grey tint of the morning began to appear, and finally, the paddles of our steamer thumped the waves of the Mull of Galloway. Here the boisterous heavings of the ocean, counteracted by the stupendous engine's power, inflicted every plank and beam of the vessel with a vibratory motion, while inexorable old Neptune whispered dismal forebodings in the ear of every fresh-water sailor, doomed now to undergo the worst of mortal trials and suffering. Tickling the inwards with his trident, all intestine matters were forthwith turned directly topsy-turvy, as the little Tritons, claiming the usual tribute for the fishes, remorselessly played their gambols in people's stomachs, and scampered upwards, and then down again like a riotous regiment of cavalry. In sheer mercy to the victims, kind pity at last, seated on the god's green locks, accelerated the awful catastrophe; thus hurling the assailants, disgorged pas de charge, helter skelter into their native element.

This troublesome portion of the voyage from Liverpool to Glasgow, where the struggle of conflicting currents torments the waves with perpetual agitation, being once passed, the remainder of the passage may be described as a smooth water excursion; in fact the sea was as calm all the rest of the way as the Thames at Southend. In case it were possible to compensate a traveller for the pain of sea-sickness by the splendour of a marine or inland landscape, it is here within the British dominions; where the changing horizon displays every variety of mountain scenery, and magnificent features of land and water in the freedom of range and distance, create in the mind an impression of transatlantic magnitude. I was particularly reminded, especially about the entrance of the Clyde, of the regions of the great St. Lawrence. The towering Ailsa Craig, a vast pyramid rising from the ocean, long rested a point for the steersman whereon to shape his course; then skirting its base, we left it far astern, and while the sun was yet high, entered the noble estuary.

Making rapid progress up the river, we rounded that angular point where, upon the banks of the Clyde, at this spot changing its direction with a bold and sudden sweep, stands the town of Greenock. Henceforward the diversity of the landscape presented to the view one uninterrupted, moving panorama, teeming with objects to amuse the senses, and make manifest the industry and opulence of the country. Hence, every half hour in the day, steamers regularly ply with passengers to Glasgow; others of unusual breadth, and uncouth build, fashioned for the express purpose of towing, dragging after them with powerful grasp three and more reluctant merchantmen lashed to their stern, move onwards at the rate of seven or eight miles an hour through the water. And lastly, besides small vessels passing to and fro of every description, occasionally a steamer of first-rate magnitude divides the cloven river like a spouting whale in the sea. The artificial means, by stone embankments and otherwise everywhere resorted to, to improve the channel of the river; and the steam scows with labouring buckets continually scooping mud from the bottom to deepen its bed, are among the many sights that display the vigilance and energy of commercial enterprize, whereby a river naturally shallow and prone to overflow the banks, is held subservient to the purposes of navigation, and retained by human science within a narrower boundary.

A person indeed must be fastidious, if not content with the excellent arrangements carried into effect on the quays and landing places for the disembarkation of passengers and luggage, at Glasgow. For my own part, my chief reason for coming to the city being in point of fact for the purpose of getting out of it, I had sufficient cause for congratulation in the effective services of a mild and intelligent steward, and porters remarkable for then: fidelity. And inasmuch as, to be quietly lodged, civilly treated, and readily supplied with local information, are the main points required by a traveller, so here of all places in the world he has the means of being gratified in all these particulars. The very possibility is agreeable, being in any place whatever, to be able to leave it at will, were it only once in the twenty-four hours, at the signal of the mail-guard's horn, to take post by his side, and for better for worse, to flee far away, in case one so wills, or let it alone. Multitudinous here are the points of peregrination, not only by long established lines of beaten roads, but over parts of the country arduous formerly to explore, but now divested of their natural obstacles by the power of steam. The windows in the agents' houses in the Broomielaw, and the walls into the bargain, are made patchwork by the numerous sliding boards in pannels, that serve to render information to the public of the departure of the various steamers from the port, and being easily moveable, are shifted accordingly at every successive change of the home navigation. In silence and at leisure, even without wasting a word in the way of enquiry, an individual may here determine a projected course, and gratify his feelings, without further labour and pains than stepping on board the chosen bark, by swimming as it were with the crowd along the current, and marking the progress of improvement, inch by inch, through the country.

Two lines of travel particularly present themselves to his notice. One direct to Oban, and thence by the Caledonian canal to Inverness; the other by the same route as far as Oban, and thence to the town of Tobermory, the Cave of Staffa, and the ruins at Iona in the western Hebrides. Both in their turn of the above routes I resolved to pursue accordingly, and to this end engaged a passage on board the Maid of Morven steamer, which vessel departs regularly on her way twice a week from Glasgow. Arrangements are made by the proprietors on these occasions, to afford to travellers an opportunity of changing their route at will from Oban; which place, the Maid of Morven, her sister steamer, moving in an opposite direction, and a third vessel that plies to the western Hebrides, make their point of rendezvous. The three captains contrive to meet as nearly as possible to noon at Oban, and thence also, after making their interchange of passengers, and completing other arrangements, depart at the same time to their different destinations. Progress also may be made as far as Oban by way of Inverary, which route a stage-coach performs over a rough and mountainous road; however, I preferred going the whole way by the Maid of Morven.

In due time, that is to say on the morning of departure, I had reason to know by experience that I had formed a too flattering picture of the ensuing voyage, and certainly I did feel at the moment when I stepped on board the vessel at the quay, a sensation of chilling disappointment. Placards and panegyrics everywhere set forth in the most flattering colours the delights of the expedition, and above all I expected at least to meet with persons, whose notions sympathised with my own as regarded a mutual party of pleasure. The poetic appellation "Maid of Morven," naturally created in the mind the semblance of a craft such as the lord mayor of London's barge, or that of Cleopatra, an airy swan-like galley, stealing through the balmy air, amid the wild land of mountain and of song, and bearing on her gilded decks fair woman's sylph-like form, her countenance melting to the harp's thrilling cords, and yielding up an elevated soul to the soft witchery of music. But, alas! in the estimate of fancy and reality, it little matters, whether the one wings inordinately high its upward flight, or whether the other descends proportionally low; therefore I will, as regards the Maid of Morven, simply describe the state in which I found her.

At half-past eight o'clock in the morning, after making way with much difficulty across two or three other vessels that lay nearer the quay, I finally succeeded, by walking along a rough plank, in getting on board the steamer. The morning was more than usually cold for the time of year, and a stiff gale blew steadily, directly ahead of our course, up the river. So far was unfortunate. When told I was on board the Maid of Morven, I could hardly give credit to the information, such was the scene of dirt and confusion, such the quantity of packages, and the mob of owners wrangling about stowage, that disturbed the thoroughfare. A few quarter-deck passengers meanwhile stood disconsolately regarding each other, as if lamenting the untoward fate that had brought them together, each unable for a moment to stand still, without being molested, or molesting others. A multitude of poor folks from the Highlands, busily arranging their own property, jabbered together in Erse so loudly and fluently, that the captain, unless shouting at the full extent of his lungs, was unable to make himself heard. The Maid of Morven was a very Cinderella in her working dress, as black as a Newcastle collier, and crammed full till she rolled with stores and packages of every description. There were sacks of oatmeal and barley, sugar-hogsheads, crates, deal cases, trunks and band-boxes, stoves, frying-pans, scythes, hoes, and sickles; besides all sorts of agricultural implements and hardware. Among the fore-deck passengers were lads and lasses from the mountains, shepherds with long poles, and plaids folded across their shoulders; and especially, as is usual among crowds under the most forbidding circumstances, plenty of mothers with young children. When the hour of departure, protracted to an unusual period, at last arrived, the authority of the captain was seriously exerted to oblige the shore-people to conclude their leave-taking and quit the vessel. Several, as no other argument would suffice, he finally pushed out by the head and shoulders. When we began to move, it was at once evident the vessel was grievously ill-trimmed and top-heavy; in fact she reeled and swung from side to side, as if really about to rest on her beam-ends; whereupon the captain filled his nostrils with snuff, disposed of the crew in the way of equilibrium, and placed heavy plugs of iron on the deck to serve as ballast. In spite of all these measures, always a heavy mover through the water, and furnished with an engine weak in proportion to her dimensions, she was considerably weighed down by the head, and sensibly quivered by the concussion of the waves. Meanwhile the more lively craft overtook us with the utmost facility, as we tardily weathered the head swell, and others meeting us with wind and tide in their favour, flew upwards before the gale with inconceivable rapidity; a confused semblance of forms and features in a row along the bulwarks, joint property, as it were, of a string of tall, upright, staring figures, ranged in order for inspection.

Four hours of toil and trouble were expended on the way to Greenock, and there, fast to the quay we remained another full hour, while the exchanging of passengers, the shifting the cargo, embarkation and altercation proceeded as strenuously as before. In one place knots of men stood wrangling together without an ostensible object; in another, bales and packages were handed from one to another without apparent presiding authority, and in every direction, coils of rope were flung across the deck with no heed to bystanders. We were hustled by porters, plagued by bare-legged children with baskets of "berries;" absolutely without the enjoyment of a single moment's security, or a dry spot whereon to stand or sit down; and finally, a rampant steamer alongside belched black smoke and cinders on board in a continued cloud, whereat the Maid of Morven, hissing as if to cool her impatience, bespattered the passengers' clothes with her spare steam. Altogether, with the sounds of puffing, blowing, and panting of the engine, and the sights of ashes, fire, and. smoke, ours for the present was the den of the salamander, or the Cylops' cave.

Matters however, fortunately, had actually arrived at the worst, and as it frequently happens in the affairs of life, they afterwards began to mend. Clamour had subsided; preparations were made for departure; the hoarse voice of our noble captain croaked forth a pleasing mandate, and the tinkling bell forthwith confirmed the joyful tidings. Once more we were actually under weigh, and once again in the middle of the stream, the Maid of Morven pressed the waves with her swelling bosom. ? From the bottom of the Clyde old Neptune looked upwards and smiled. ? Literally, the aspect of the weather during our detention at Greenock had undergone a total change. The air became mild, the wind lulled, and the sun, lastly, from behind a dense curtain of cloud, enlivened us by his appearance. The late vigorous proceedings with regard to the cargo, had not a little improved our general accommodation; families in groups collected on the forecastle—people were provided with seats—children ceased to cry—women employed themselves with their infants; the whole after-part of the vessel was now in decent order, and the captain, having time to spare, willingly bestowed attention on all his passengers.

The remainder of the day was made cheerful by incessant changes of scenery, as, passing through a tortuous channel, each moment placed the various objects in a different position, thus embellishing the landscape with ever-varying tints and outline. Meanwhile we glanced along in our course from point to point, peacefully as the shadows of clouds on the distant hills. The whole way from Rothsay, through the Kyles of Bute, a series of striking images appeared one after another. Sometimes we found ourselves among broken islands, scattered abroad as it were at random in the ocean, at others we steered among abrupt rocks; and again, in a more inland course, as if within the channel of a gallant river, whose mountain banks are tufted to the water's edge with bright alluvial verdure. And finally, we passed between the main land and the coast of Cantyre, skirting Loch Fyne, renowned for herrings. After all, the voyage, owing to the previous delay in the morning, was more protracted than on ordinary occasions, so that it was past ten o'clock at night before we arrived at the end of our first day's voyage, at the village of Lochgoilhead. Here again it was our lot to taste the vicissitudes of life and peregrination, the place at the head of the Creenin canal, where we were now about to pass the night, being ill calculated to afford even a single traveller decent accommodation. Having made our way through the first lock of the canal, we disembarked at the principal alehouse, where being so far fortunate as to obtain a bed, I was conducted to my apartment. Here indeed I might have slept, had the desire of rest been a unanimous feeling with the inmates; but such was the noise of talking and disputing among those who, having no beds of their own, cared not to disturb those who had, and so crazy and thin were the partitions, that no sooner had a mouse rattled a teacup in one room than he was heard in all. Owing to various disturbances of one sort or another, I had hardly closed my eyes when I was aroused, at four o'clock in the morning of the next day, by a continued blast of a tin horn. It was indispensable to start thus early, in order to overcome the delay of passing the other locks of the canal, so as to arrive at twelve o'clock, the time of rendezvous with the other boats at Oban. Besides those persons in the public-house, were several others out-lodgers in the village, wherefore the man, till all had assembled, never for a moment ceased to blow.

By reason of having to pass through fifteen locks and four draw-bridges, we now commenced a tedious, crawling voyage of nine miles through the canal, for which distance the channel from Loch Fyne to the Sound of Jura, has been cut a great part of the way, by excessive labour, through solid rock; whereas the former circuitous route proceeded either south of Cantyre, or across the narrow neck of land bounded at the opposite sides by East and West Tarbet. After heavily toiling along for three hours in confined space, it was the more agreeable to be again refreshed by beholding the open sea, where, among the first objects wherewith we were now gratified, was the famous whirlpool or gulf of Coryvrekan, the said torrent bearing about half a mile distant on our larboard bow. Here the two frowning headlands of Scarba and Jura, one on each side, seem as it were to take post opposite each other, and extend their bluff crags in menacing attitude over the fierce struggle of land and water. Notwithstanding a full confidence in the power of steam, it is not without a feeling of respect that one glides silently along within the precincts of an awful and unseen power, from whence, if once predominant, there is no retreat; tradition, moreover, relates a numerous catalogue of men and vessels that have perished in the whirlpool. Clusters of islands, disposed in this part of the ocean in irregular masses, resemble the remains of a shattered continent, and receive a still wilder aspect from the variety of impetuous bubbling currents wherewith the intervening channels are infested; however, the Maid of Morven soon left astern this western Charybdis, and now began to receive frequent increase of passengers by small boats from the shore. Some of these, inhabitants of the adjacent country, hence took passage to Oban; others left us in exchange, on an inland excursion of business or pleasure. Young ladies in straw bonnets, some with green veils, others with white, now clambered daintily up our vessel's side; and now many a damsel, rejoicing in agility and youth, repaid with ill-repressed laughter and blushes, the too zealous assistance of her swain below. A scene of cordial hand-shaking and affectionate leave-taking then ensued among members of the present happy generation, who in these remote regions, formerly living apart and in solitude, now enjoy facilities of social intercourse till of late years utterly unknown. How different the picture of a summer's day now on this spot, when beauty, transported by the giant power of steam, skims the waters in sunshine, and the period in the olden time when poor Johnson, in an open skiff, heavily breasted the waves.

The little island of Eisdale, in population is like an emmet's nest; half a mile long and a quarter broad, containing three or four hundred inhabitants, all busily employed in quarrying and preparing for market slate-stone, of which it is a solid mass. The appearance of our steamer infused into the little colony a wonderful degree of alacrity. Men, women, and children poured forth in haste from their low-roofed cottages, and collecting together in a swarm, peopled the projecting crags like cockchafers on a bough. Many boat loads of slate lay piled in heaps on the shore, ready for embarkation.

Punctually arriving at the specified time of rendezvous at Oban, at a few minutes before noon, the Maid of Morven lay alongside the quay and town, the latter consisting of a row of exceedingly small, low, newly built houses, at the head of a circular bay. The Highlander, the small steamer on board which we were now about to proceed to Tobermory, had arrived at Oban an hour before; but the Highland Chieftain, the sister boat of the Maid of Morven, had not yet made her appearance on her way from Inverness. Delay at all events was at present our doom, amid an unfelicitous blending of business and pleasure. Many stores shipped here from Glasgow were now to be unladen, and bags, boxes, and barrels, bandied from our vessel to the shore. At last the passengers bound for Tobermory, Staffa, and Iona, stepped on board the Highlander, which vessel, the little bell having rung its welcome peal, gaily led the way out of the harbour. The Highland Chieftain, having some time since arrived, departed to pass the night at our old quarters at Lochgoilhead; and the Maid of Morven to proceed to Fort Fitzwilliam, on the Caledonian canal.

George Head, A Home Tour through various parts of the United Kingdom (London: John Murray, 1837) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2012.

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