Picture of George Head

George Head

places mentioned

The Caledonian Canal

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A Mull Pony—Path round the Bay—Domain of the Laird of Col—A native Eagle—Mode of preparing Salmon for long Voyages—Establishment of a Lincolnshire Poulterer—Return in the Highlander to Oban—Re-embark on board the Maid of Morven—Tedious Passage to Fitzwilliam—A Handicap in the Dark —Bad Night's Lodging—Fall of Foyers—Royalty in an Omnibus.

SUCH is the extraordinary uneven surface of the Island of Mull, that though it abounds in granite, the very best material in the world for road making, it bids stern defiance to the art of Macadam: at all events, the day has not yet arrived for the science to be put in practice. The less is the wonder that, anxious to hire a horse for an inland excursion, I could find none but a long-backed pony of the cart breed, accustomed only to carry creels of turf upon his back from his infancy, so that in his old age he rolled in walking like a dromedary, and was so inveterately attached to early friendships, that on meeting perchance, no matter where, a troop of his old companions, no power on earth could prevent him from joining the drove; wherefore, to riding on the back of such a sorry beast, I preferred walking along the edge of the bay.

The mountains which surround this beautiful basin rise abruptly from the level of the shore, and extending at their bases in crags and rocky reefs, thence take root as it were in the sea. Free passage is consequently denied to the foot-passengers below upon the beach, but an elevated side-path cut upon the hill's side, and affording a most agreeable promenade, supplies the aforesaid deficiency; and this path, in some places apparently natural, at others ornamental and artificial, stretches both ways circuitously, a considerable distance from Tobermory; however, having been kindly furnished by my landlady with a key to the domain of the Laird of Col, I thither bent my way. How brilliant is the pungency imparted by saline particles to the vapid breeze; the air was replete with the purified exhalation of the sea, while the sun's rays were reflected from unruffled waters, as of an inland lake. Here and there giant rocks overhung the path, that meandered among nooks and hollows; shrubs and rich verdure sprouted from their fissures, while the rugged precipice above, and the smooth sea below, seemed to present the picture of bluff honesty, conciliating by stern, upright demeanour, the temper of Fortune.

A slight rude fence and gate, constructed of young fir poles, separates the domain of the Laird of Col from the adjacent country. The gate crosses the path, and the fence merely penetrates a little way within the copse, as if it were necessary only to shew, and not enforce, the line of demarcation; inadequate certainly to repel the wilful intruder, but, in a country where few are prone to invade the limits of domestic privacy, sufficient to consecrate the sanctuary. Within, a bridge of unfashioned logs is thrown across a stream, sparkling at different spots among the distant mountains, marking its tortuous course by glittering cascades bounding downwards from above; and finally, by aid of a waterfall somewhat enlarged by artificial means, making its last plunge and flinging itself into the sea. Farther on is a boat-house containing wherries, and affording a commodious landing-place for excursions on the bay. Approaching towards the mansion, as the rocks appear less perpendicularly rising from the path than before, the trees by their increased growth make manifest a greater proportion of alluvial soil. The more ancient tenants of these wilds, ash and oak, here send forth from their ivy-grown trunks, huge horizontal limbs that stretch across the path, and from these latter, at right angles, rising perpendicularly, grow other shoots that in size rival young trees. As one proceeds still onwards, the hand of culture by degrees prevails, blending gently and almost imperceptibly with that of nature. Fir trees at first appear among the wild tenants of the wood at irregular intervals, till finally gravel walks diverging into open space, conduct the wanderer through a shrubbery to the precincts of the lawn and flower-garden. The mansion rests on the banks of a picturesque lake, bounded on the opposite side by a precipitous mountain, clad with fir trees to its very summit, and calculated, from its extreme steepness, to display the wonderful property in nature, whereby the vegetative power, acting in the same line, though in a contrary direction to gravity, instead of tending towards the earth, points to the stars.

In chilling solitude, chained by the leg in an open hut of heather, sat a native eagle, whose broad eye became suddenly swollen and dilated at the appearance of a visitor, retaining still, in captivity and misfortune, its inflexible ferocity. In regal dignity, a prisoner in chains, he sternly surveyed in the blue sky and mountain heights, a lost kingdom,—in sullen pomp, like Napoleon in exile, or a fallen angel,

"Ceu Lucifer, non spe priorem revisurus locum."

I had an opportunity of witnessing within a small building in the outskirts of Tobermory, the mode there adopted of preparing salmon so as to keep fresh, when packed in tin cases, for long voyages, an operation than which none can possibly be more simple, so much so, that where fish are to be had, it may be put in practice in any place and by any body; and in fact the artists in Aberdeen and elsewhere, whose trade is thus to preserve provisions for sea, afford to vend meat of all sorts, fish, and vegetables, at a price so reasonable, that, considering the bone is extracted, and nothing charged for the tin case, an ordinary housekeeper might almost, from motives of sheer economy, be tempted to become a purchaser. Preserved salmon especially, fetches at Aberdeen only twenty pence a pound.

The building in question is merely a shed divided into two compartments on a ground floor, between which a door forms the communication of one with the other. In the first of these chambers, the fish, brought in baskets fresh from the sea, were thrown in heaps upon the floor. Here two men were at work, one of whom gutted the fish and handed them to his companion. The other man standing at a heavy table or dresser, seizing a fish dexterously in his left hand, cut the head clean off by a single sweep of a broad knife, and then, turning it by a toss cleverly round, whipped off its tail in precisely the same manner. Not less adroitly he divided the rest in portions, as nearly as possible two pounds' weight each. He then split each slice, dividing the belly part perpendicularly; extracted the bone; wiped it dry with a cloth; shook a little salt upon it; rolled it neatly round; and placed it in an oval tin canister, in appearance like those commonly used for containing gunpowder. The canister then being put into the scales, the artist adjusted the weight, either more or less as the case might be. Nothing more remained in this apartment to be done, and the canister was handed to the man in the other chamber, for the purpose of being closed. This operator was employed continually in making the canisters, and soldering them in the usual way, without any farther care or precaution than is exercised by an ordinary tinman.

Mere chance, after all, conducted me to the above-mentioned building, of which the entrance being open, I walked in; in fact I should not probably have observed it at all, but for the loads of fish on men's shoulders then on their way from the boats, and the abundance of refuse and offal that lay on the shore. And thus, frequently, the identical cause that renders a spectacle interesting to a stranger, becomes the very reason that prevents him from seeing it, since people are wont to imagine things necessarily unimportant to others, merely because the same have long since ceased to be regarded as novel by themselves.

I was similarly indebted to the kindness of fortune on another occasion, the particulars whereof I will here introduce, not only in exemplification of the foregoing remark, whereby I was within an ace of passing through Lincolnshire without visiting a slaughter-house of the native geese, but since the subject I am upon is one of comestibles and provisions for the table. Two years ago, while remaining a day in the town of Boston, my attention being then chiefly directed to the gigantic operations that propel the stagnant waters of the fens in artificial rivers to the sea; I had intended to bend my way to whatever spot I might see to the greatest advantage the means and the effect, whereby the science of drainage has there been conducted to so vast an extent. And having previously visited the noble old church, whose eight spires, airily supported on lanthorn arches, springing from an octagonal turret, are only equalled by the architectural symmetry within the building, where the whole aisle and transepts, in unbroken space, and under one roof, are supported on lofty pointed arches of exquisite form, I had nothing in fact else to do, when by mere chance, as I have already hinted, my attention was called to the red field of blood, whereon hundreds of poor geese yield up their lives daily, and perish, generation after generation, for the benefit of mankind.

As I was strolling onwards in the direction of the fens, I had hardly proceeded clear of the suburbs of the town, when the busy hum of imprisoned thousands, was borne upon the breeze, as of those multitudinous throngs which, during the depth and intensity of winter, are seen gallantly piercing the snow storm in pointed column, and murmuring in gentle cackle as they plod along. For a moment I attentively listened, but a moment, to ears accustomed to rural sounds, was quite sufficient to reconcile localities, and account for the phenomenon. A few minutes more conducted me to the very spot from whence the sound proceeded, where, on a small plot of ground, a quarter of an acre in extent, a drove of five thousand geese were closely penned like sheep, cackling their sorrows to the winds, and awaiting their melancholy doom. From a thousand to sixteen hundred a week here die regularly by the hands of the executioner, and, as I learnt upon making enquiry, that, according to arrangement carried into effect by the proprietor of the establishment, three days in every week, of which the morrow was one, were set apart to slaughter, I made up my mind to go the next morning accordingly, and witness the ceremony.

Many a householder exists at the present day in the united kingdom, who, whether his income be large or small, and no matter what his religious and political persuasion, in conformity with irrefragable custom, and under the auspices of our benevolent King William, at least once in each year, at the head of an obedient family, like a mail-coachman mounted on the coach-box on a gala day, sits in the pomp of conjugal and paternal authority, knife and fork in hand, behind a fat, fragrant goose on Michaelmas-day. But little does he reflect, while with glistening eyes and watering chops, his nostrils regaled with exquisite odour, his chest inflated by the consciousness of powerful digestion, his fore-arm resting horizontally flat upon the table, and his implements pointing upwards at right angles towards the ceiling, he ponders and meditates on the first incision, while the eyes of his helpmate, roving anxiously around lest the pinafores of their hungry offspring slip perchance beneath their chins, with gesture more authoritative than elegant he beckons backwards with his thumb across his shoulder, and the perspiring handmaid presents to him the steel; while in anxious silence 'the wife and children sit patiently watching his motions and listening to the whistle of the bright blade, and the brisk rat-tat-tat-tat-tat of the aforesaid implement; and finally, though the bird squeaks and hisses on the table, as if it were alive, and the gravy springs at the first cut from its bosom like a stream of blood;—little does he reflect, I say again, as relates to the juicy martyr on his board, upon that dismal tragedy that I will now proceed to relate.

At ten o'clock the next morning, when I arrived on the premises, two hundred and sixty geese had been already barbarously assassinated out of six hundred, the number on that day doomed to die. The dead birds were all plucked, trussed, and laid in order, neatly ranged on shelves, wherewith this, the first and outer apartment, was surrounded. The said apartment communicated by an outer door through the back yard of the premises by a series of wicket gates, to the plot of ground already referred to, and also by partitions with two other chambers, in one of which the geese were killed, and in the other stripped of their feathers. In the first of the two latter chambers, three boys were employed. The first boy, by virtue of his office, drove the geese a dozen at a time from the grand depot into a pen parted off in one corner of the apartment, and these, batch by batch, were usually disposed of as quickly as he could go to the depot and return. The second boy, though in point of fact he acted the part of a hangman, did nothing more than, taking each goose one by one out of the aforesaid pen, prepare it for execution. To this end, by a dexterous twist, he entangled together the pinions of the bird behind its back, and inserted its legs in one of eight nooses that hung suspended five feet from the ground against the wall, over a long trough which rested on the floor to catch the blood. The third boy's business was simple and sanguinary,—merely that of cutting throats. Of this young matador, though scarcely twelve years old, the trenchant blade had not only passed across the weasands of all those geese that had already given up the ghost, but ere the sun had passed his meridian, the death-cackle of the whole devoted six hundred had sounded in his ears. His whole care and attention was necessarily occupied with the dying; though frequently unawares and in despite of his best efforts, he received a flapping from a gory neck, or a tingling stream of blood spirted in his eye; whereat his countenance would gleam with a ludicrous expression of alacrity and surprise; he would then compose the limbs of his victims in death with double diligence, yet only precisely so long as they showed by fluttering, in their last moments, a disinclination to behave decently. Afterwards, he allowed every goose to go out of the world in the best manner it could.

So soon as a goose appeared thoroughly dead, its legs were disengaged from the noose to make room for another, when the defunct bird was tossed out of the chamber of death, through a small square window or aperture, that communicated with the plucking-room. Here, behind a large table or dresser sat seven men and one woman, upon low seats, enveloped in a cloud of dust and down, and up to their hips in feathers; wherewith altogether they were covered with such profusion, that among the eight individuals, it was difficult at first sight to point out which was the woman. These people were paid for their labour, as I was told, at the rate of a shilling a score, whereat such is their dexterity and strength of thumb, that some are able at the aforesaid price, provided they have geese to pluck, to earn ten or twelve shillings a day. As near as I could judge, a goose was plucked naked as a needle in about six minutes; a plump fat bird at all events every forty or fifty seconds from either one or other of the operators, was pitched heavily on the dresser. Thus the artists, without favour or delay, vigorously pursued their work, while the noise of quills relentlessly ripped from their sockets, sounded like the crackling of a faggot in a baker's oven, or twigs snapped in twain by a lusty donkey, as he bursts through a thicket.

Each goose so soon as plucked was pitched by the plucker, as I have before observed, upon the dresser. Hence it was removed by the man presiding over the first outer apartment already mentioned, and then immediately scientifically trussed and deposited on the shelves.

After witnessing the various operations now described, I paid a short visit to the premises in the rear of these apartments, where a small steam-engine is continually kept at work in the double operation of grinding meal for the geese's food, and stirring and pounding the same into a compost together with potatoes. Three men, moreover, in the yard adjoining, sap green as high as their waistbands, were hard at work loading carts with shovels from a large heap containing at least a dozen waggon loads of pure goose manure.

The reader now will, I trust, have formed an idea of a Lincolnshire poulterer's establishment, although, than the one cited, there are others I believe considerably more extensive. From hence the geese are dispatched regularly to the London market, packed in baskets containing twenty-five birds each, of which baskets twenty-five also make a waggon load,—in weight, supposing each goose on an average to weigh eleven pounds, upwards of three tons. The waggons are forty-eight hours on the road, and the cargoes, on their arrival, consigned to salesmen, are disposed of to the poulterers.

Returning by the Highlander to Oban, the Maid of Morven, in the intervening time since I left her at that place, had performed the remaining part of her voyage to Inverness, returned to Glasgow, and now once more from the latter city, true to her point of rendezvous at Oban, was on her way to the North. I say true to her point of rendezvous, and so the Maid of Morven was, but though the Highlander arrived in the bay in conformity with general arrangements precisely at the hour of noon, the other was far from punctual in respect to the time. Wherefore the passengers reaped no manner of benefit from the captain's alacrity, and with regard to the other operations in progress, it began moreover to appear, that in comparison with the remaining portion of the whole excursion to Inverness from Glasgow, the agreeable part of the voyage was already over.

Matters seemed to be conducted even more untidily than before on board the Maid of Morven, for the vessel had again brought from Glasgow a heavy cargo, and, in addition to the multiplicity of business on hand in shipping and unshipping unwieldy goods, confusion was increased by the absence, and apparently the non-interference of any presiding authority; and finally, without redress, and in a state of appalling uncertainty, we remained no less, a period than five hours and a half at Oban. At last the captain made his appearance at the water's edge, accompanied by a small posse of wrangling companions. Some dispute, it appeared, had taken place about the cargo, whereupon he was heated, worried, and out of temper. Apparently anxious to be rid of the litigants, no sooner had he placed his foot on deck than the impatient waving of his arm caused the tinkling bell to ring, and then in fierce and gloomy silence betaking to his mull, the Maid of Morven waddled out of the harbour.

A brief outline henceforward will be sufficient of a tardy, heavy, and laborious peregrination; an expedition attended from beginning to end by delay and disappointment, and marked altogether by such total absence of all manner of comfort, that not even the majestic presence of Ben Nevis and the adjacent scenery, could compensate the deficiency. Whatever, as a national work, be the demerits of the Caledonian canal, or the want of return hitherto received for the outlay, it cannot at any rate I think be denied, that it were a disgrace to England not to have completed by art a water communication so nearly earned through by an extensive chain of fresh water lakes, and huge mountains cloven by the hand of nature, from sea to sea. And I think, moreover, that this great work, whatever be the grounds whereon the northern circuitous passage in the case of vessels of adequate tonnage, has never been relinquished in favour of the inland navigation; were it only with a view to the advantages of communication afforded thereby between the Highlands and their capital, will, after all, in the end, yield the public compensation. Wherefore it is consolatory to reflect, that although a temporary monopoly of the steam navigation may inflict discomfiture on those persons who travel merely for the purposes of pleasure,—yet, from the very instances already cited of inconvenience and delay, the consequence of overloading the Maid of Morven,—is to be traced the unquestionable germ of future wealth and prosperity to the poor of the Highlands.

A great deal, in relating the troubles of life, may fortunately be expressed in few words; which maxim I shall keep specially in view as I pass over categorically and succinctly the events of this and the succeeding day. The entire period from half-past five, when we set steam at Oban, till half-past eleven at night, was expended in heavily labouring along that arm of the sea called Linhe Loch, and which extends as far as Fitzwilliam. Even at the latter unseasonable hour the passengers were not permitted to go on shore, but, on the contrary, constrained to remain on board amid the hoisting and trundling barrels to and fro, besides other attendant nuisances of disembarkation. We then slowly moved to the commencement of the first artificial cut of the Caledonian canal, and entered the first lock of the great series called Neptune's Staircase. Here, at nearly one o'clock in the morning, all the passengers were turned out of the vessel to make the best of their way on foot, a mile and half along the towing path of the canal, to the place of the night's repose; and since we were thirty or forty persons altogether, and the point of destination merely a small alehouse, incapable of providing beds for half the party, it followed that those who possessed long legs turned the same on the present occasion to special account. With fair prospect of success, I would in former days have immediately started in the handicap, yet I derived equal satisfaction, perhaps, without the means of serving myself, in rendering a little assistance to others. I therefore attached my fortunes on the way to a married couple, travelling en suite with all their incumbrances, that is to say, two nursery maids, and four or five young children. Of these I carried one, a little creature of two years old, in my arms; a short period of time, and distance, one would think hardly worthy of being considered. Nevertheless, during the aforesaid space of a mile and a half, I found my right arm, from the want of usage in the office, ache most grievously. Meanwhile the infant, lost in the placid intensity of sleep, appeared to me to gain every five minutes successively a year's growth in weight.

Arrived at the inn, as might be anticipated, not a bed was to be had; the first comers being all served, none remained for the last. Nevertheless, though sleep be the unbought gift of heaven, I found means to purchase it on the present occasion; and by the aid of a fee properly applied, was introduced to a parlour below stairs, occupied by a party of whiskey bibbers, who by dint of drink, and tobacco, and spinning long yarns, were already nodding and prosy. In conformity with arrangements, they received notice to depart, and in a few minutes, I was alone in the room, extended at length on three chairs placed in a row, to rest for the night.

The Maid of Morven having performed progress through the remaining locks of Neptune's Staircase during the night, at half-past seven o'clock the next morning we were summoned to embark, thus to commence the labours of another day. The extraordinary dimensions of this artificial cut, one hundred and twenty feet at the surface, fifty feet at the bottom, and twenty feet deep; the banks moreover descending for the most part by a regular slope from the mountains, as of a natural river, display to the sight as a work of art, a magnificent spectacle; yet the sluggish stillness of the water, and the insufficient steam-power of our vessel, retarded in a combined degree our toilsome progress. At a quarter before two we reached Fort Augustus, performing the distance twenty-nine miles in six hours and a quarter; and here having five locks to pass, the period of delay was extended to an hour and a half. At half past three we started again, having now thirty-two more miles to go.

The paddles of the Maid of Morven now continued unceasingly to buffet these inland waters, till we arrived at that point on our way immediately opposite the celebrated Fall of Foyers. Here the steam was let off, and we lay to, according to established custom, in order to allow all those passengers inclined to avail themselves of the opportunity, to visit the waterfall. The favours of fortune on this inauspicious day, in every separate instance relating to the expedition, were sparingly bestowed. The identical cataract, that in other seasons, nourished to the plenitude of its strength by the winter's floods, and engendered amid the chaos of mist and foam, bounds like a raging lion from his den, now dribbled lazily through the inverted arch, its aperture, a mere garden cascade. Nevertheless, in our progress to and from the boat, notwithstanding our present disappointment arose from drought, we were doomed, during our walk, to penance caused by stormy weather. A steady mizzling rain, had some time since set in, whereby as we passed through the thickets we unavoidably came in contact with large still drops of water as big as peas, wherewith the twigs of the bushes were heavily laden, and our shoes were thoroughly saturated by grass under foot, wet enough wherever we trod to drown a snipe.

At half-past ten o'clock at night, after accomplishing in the two succeeding days, taking the voyage from Oban throughout, twenty-three miles by the artificial canal, and thirty-seven miles by the natural lakes, we finally cast anchor one mile distant from the town of Inverness. Here, on every voyage, as the steamer proceeds no farther, she remains all night, and departs the next morning on her way to Glasgow, thus avoiding the labour and delay of passing the intervening locks between the resting place and Inverness.

A capacious omnibus was here awaiting our arrival to convey us to the end of our journey, into which carriage persons recklessly crowded to the imminent danger of it upsetting; for since it was incapable of containing more than half the present party, personal safety, owing to the lateness of the hour, was sacrificed for the sake of expedition.

Having fortunately or unfortunately obtained an outside seat, among the first detachment, I am precluded from the necessity of relating the further adventures of the rest of the travellers, who remained pacing backwards and forwards on the towing-path of the canal, like ghosts on the banks of the Cocytus, till the return of the vehicle. But I may observe as relates to myself, on the present occasion, that not withstanding we arrived without the slightest accident at the point of our destination, and even before the Inverness clock struck eleven were received by the sleek rosy landlord of the Caledonian hotel, I never remember in any other wheel carriage, and within equally short space of time and distance, to have encountered more peril.

An infernal machine, it might really and truly be called; like Charon's leaky boat, groaning under surplusage of substantial perishable lumber, and like Charon's boat particularly, inasmuch as it wag laden indiscriminately, in total disregard and disrespect of persons. Literally speaking, among auld wives, Highland swains of every degree, wearers of the kelt and fillibeg, especially one ambulating performer on the bagpipes, or doodlesack as the instrument is provincially termed in this part of the country, no less than a royal personage, such is the uncertain will of fate, sat inside, crammed and squeezed promiscuously with all the rest, among the heterogeneous group. Prince Adalbert, brother to his majesty the king of Prussia, then travelling incognito in the guise of a private English gentleman, was among the passengers brought by the Maid of Morven from Glasgow to Oban, and submitted without murmur to all those miseries of peregrination, which, in the detail of the present voyage, I have laid before the reader. And I recall to mind with feelings of pleasure, that in numerous instances on the way, without knowledge of the prince's high rank and station, I witnessed his affability arid benefited by his conversation. At the period I am relating, while sitting on the box of our ponderous and preponderating vehicle, whose weak springs were well nigh weighed down by gravity and oscillation, and whose still weaker horses were driven helplessly scudding on their haunches down a steep descent; while I looked at our coachman, a small Scots boy, not exceeding in weight a good sized Norfolk turkey; and finally while I cast a glance on the prince's tall aide-decamp, sitting in the middle between us, enveloped in an ample blue cloak, his mustachios curling towards the moon;—while I regarded all these sights, I say, and thought of difficulties and discomfitures from which not even royalty itself is free, my imagination for a moment wandered towards the many tinted allegorical picture of the ancients, that symbol of mortality and immortality, the stagnant lake,

"Scilicet omnibus
Enaviganda sive reges
Sine inopes erimus coloni."

Princes and farmers squeezed together, glide in
A "bus," fit coach to t'other world to ride in.

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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