The Green Ray/Chapter XIV
LIFE AT IONA.
Meanwhile Iona— its ancient name being Isle of the Waves—rearing its cathedral hill about four hundred feet above the level of the sea, gradually grew more distinct as the steamer rapidly approached it.
About midday, the Pioneer came alongside a little jetty, made of roughly hewn rock, green with the constant wash of water. The passengers disembarked, some to return to Oban an hour later by the Straits of Mull, others—our friends being of that number—with the intention of remaining on the island.
Iona has no harbour properly speaking; a stone quay protects one of its creeks against the open sea, and that is all. Here, in fine weather, a few pleasure-boats, or fishing-smacks, lie at anchor.
Leaving the tourists to the mercy of a programme which obliged them to see the island in an hour. Miss Campbell and her companions went in search of suitable lodgings.
It was not to be expected, that they would find any of the comforts of an ordinary seaside place at Iona; in fact the island is not more than three miles long, and one mile broad, and can scarcely count five hundred inhabitants. The Duke of Argyll, to whom it belongs, only draws from it a revenue of a few hundred pounds. There is no town, hamlet, nor even village here; nothing but a few scattered houses, for the most part mere ruins, picturesque if you like, but very primitive, almost all windowless, lighted only by the doorways, with a hole in the roof for a chimney, the walls made of mud and pebbles, and a few huts of reeds and briars bound together with great withies of seaweed.
Who would believe that Iona was the cradle of the religion of the Druids, from the earliest ages of Scandinavian history? Who would have imagined that it was here St. Columba— the patron saint of Ireland, whose name it also bears—in the sixth century founded the first monastery in all Scotland for the preaching of Christianity, and that here the monks of Cluny lived up to the time of the Reformation! Where will one now find the great buildings which were, in a way, the seminaries of the bishops and great abbots of the United Kingdom? Wheie, amidst all the débris, shall one look for the libraiy, rich in archives of the past, in manuscripts of Roman history, and in which the learned of the day came to study? No; at the present time, there is nothing but ruins, here where the civilization which so greatly changed all the northern states of Europe had its birth. Of the St. Columba of olden times, there now remains nothing but the island of Iona, with a few ignorant peasants, who can, with difficulty, get a crop of barley, wheat, and potatoes off its sandy soil, and a few fishermen who live on the fish-abounding waters of the Hebrides!
“Miss Campbell,” said Aristobulus, in a contemptuous tone, “on first impressions, do you think this comes up to Oban?”
“It is much better,” replied Miss Campbell, although no doubt she thought that there would be one inhabitant too many on the island.
Meanwhile, in lack of better accommodation, the brothers had discovered a very passable kind of inn, where tourists generally stayed who were not content with the short time the steamer allowed them for visiting the Druidical and Christian ruins. They were thus able to take up their abode at the Duncan Arms the same day, whilst Oliver Sinclair and Aristobulus Ursiclos found lodgings in different fishermen's huts.
But such was Miss Campbell's frame of mind that she was as comfortable in her room, with its window looking towards the west, as on the terrace of the high tower at Helensburgh, certainly more so than in the drawing-room of the Caledonian Hotel. From here the horizon lay before her eyes, without a single islet to break its circular line, and, with a little stretch of imagination, she might have been able to see, three thousand miles distant, the American coast on the other side of the Atlantic. Truly the sun had here a fine expanse in which to set in all its splendour.
The every-day living was simply and easily arranged; the meals were partaken of together in the one long room. Dame Bess and Partridge sitting at the same table according to the old custom.
Perhaps Aristobulus showed some surprise at this, but Oliver Sinclair had nothing to say against it; he had taken a great liking to these two servants, who warmly returned the feeling.
Here our friends led the old Scotch life in all its simplicity. After walks on the island, after conversation on bygone times, in which Aristobulus Ursiclos always chimed in most inopportunely with his modern remarks, they all met at the midday dinner and eight o'clock supper. Then as for the sunset, Miss Campbell never failed to watch it were the weather fine or cloudy! Who could tell? There might be some rift in the clouds, a cleft or tiny gap through which the last ray could be seen.
And what meals they had! The most Scotch of Walter Scott's guests at a dinner at Fergus MacIvor's or a supper at the Antiquary Oldbuck's, would have found nothing to complain of in the dishes served according to the old-fashioned customs. Dame Bess and Partridge, carried a century back, felt as happy as if they had lived in the time of their ancestors. The brothers were evidently pleased to see culinary preparations such as they could remember of old in the Melville family.
And this is something like the conversation during meal-time, in the long room, transformed into a dining-room.
“Take a few of these oatmeal cakes, they are very different from the sweet things they sell at Glasgow!”
“Do have some sowens; the mountaineers of the Highlands still eat this old-fashioned dish!”
“Some more ‘haggis,’ which our great poet Burns worthily celebrated in his verses, as the first, best, and most national of Scotch dishes.”
“A little of this ‘cockyleeky.’ If the cock is a little tough, the leeks it is dressed with are excellent.”
“And another helping of this hotch-potch, which beats any soup we get at Helensburgh!”
Ah! They fed well at the Duncan Arms, stocked with provision every two days by steamers going round the Hebrides! and they drank well also!
It was a sight worth seeing to look at the brothers talking together over their huge mugs, which held at least two quarts, and in which foamed the “usquebaugh,” the national beverage, par excellence, or “hummok,” better still, which was brewed especially for them! And the whisky made from barley which seemed to go on fermenting after it had been drunk! And if there was no strong beer, were they not content with the simple “mum” distilled from wheat, were it but the “twopenny” which can always be improved by a little gin! With such drinks they scarcely missed their port and sherry.
And if Aristobulus Ursiclos, accustomed to his modern comforts, was never tired of complaining, no one troubled to listen to him.
If he found the time pass very slowly on the island, it went quickly enough for the others, and Miss Campbell made no more protest against the mists which clouded the horizon every evening.
Certainly Iona was not a very large place, but does any one, who is fond of walking, want such extensive grounds? Cannot the whole of a royal park be contained in the end of a garden? They took long walks, and here and there Oliver Sinclair made sketches, Miss Campbell would watch him painting, and thus the time went on.
The 26th, 27th, 28th, and 29th, of August, followed each other without one moment of ennui. This wild life was in keeping with the wild island, against whose great desolate rocks the sea broke with a continuous roar.
Miss Campbell delighted to have got away from the inquisitive, noisy world one meets at sea-side towns, walked out as she would have done in the park at Helensburgh, with her “rokelay” wrapped around her like a mantilla, and her hair tied up with the ribbon or “snood” so becoming to young Scotch girls. Oliver Sinclair was never tired of admiring her grace, her charming person, and fascinating ways. They often wandered along together, talking, looking around, and searching among the sea-wrack left by the last tide, till they had reached the farther end of the island. Whole flocks of divers would fly up before them, scared by their approach, herons in search of small fish thrown up by the tide, and solan geese, with their white-tipped wings and yellow heads, which especially represent the class of palmiped's found in the Hebrides.
Then, as evening came on, after the sunset which was invariably veiled in mist, nothing pleased Miss Campbell and her friends, more than to wander down to the solitary shore, and spend the evening there! The stars shone out, and with them came memories of the poems of Ossian. In the stillness of the twilight, Miss Campbell and Oliver Sinclair heard the brothers reciting alternate lines from their favourite poet, the unfortunate son of Fingal.
“Star of descending night! fair is thy light in the west! thou liftest thy unshorn head from thy cloud: thy steps are stately on thy hill. What dost thou behold in the plain?
The stormy winds are laid. The murmur of the torrent comes from afar. Roaring waves climb the distant rock. The flies of evening are on their feeble wings; the hum of their course is on the field.
What dost thou behold, fair light? But thou dost smile and depart. The waves come with joy around thee; they bathe thy lovely hair. Farewell, thou silent beam! Let the light of Ossian's soul arise!”
Then silence followed, and they all went back to the little room at the inn.
Meanwhile, however short-sighted the brothers might be, they could well see that Oliver Sinclair gained exactly as Aristobulus lost in Miss Campbell's estimation. The two young men avoided each other as much as possible, the uncles did their utmost, and not without some difficulty preserved harmony among the little family.
Yes, they would have been glad to see Ursiclos and Sinclair seeking, instead of avoiding each other's society, and maintaining as they did a contemptuous silence in each other's presence.
Did they think that all men regarded each other as brothers, and as such brothers as they themselves were?
At last they managed so cleverly that on the 30th of August, it was agreed that they should all go together to visit the ruins of the Cathedral and monastery, and the cemetery, situated to the north-east and south of the cathedral hill.
This excursion, which tourists make in less than two hours, had not yet been taken by the new-comers on the island. It was a sad want of deference towards the legendary shades of those hermit monks who dwelt in the huts along the coast, a want of respect towards the illustrious dead of the royal houses from Fergus II. to Macbeth.