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The Mountain Walk
by John Campbell Shairp
circa 1869

PART I

 

From beaten paths and common tasks reprieved,
My face I set towards the lonely grounds
Where Moidart and Lochaber, northward heaved,
Meet with rough Knoydart bounds.

And with me went an aged man on whom
Still lightly hung his threescore years and ten,
Intent to see once more before the tomb
His long-unpeopled glen.

O'er "Faeth," "Maam," "Gual," each shape of mountain-pass,
From morn to eve, an autumn day we clomb
A lone waste wilderness where no man was,
Nor any human home;

And looked o'er mountain backs, misty or bared,
Ridged multitudinous to the northern bourn,
Where high o'er all the great scours watch and guard
Loch Nevish and Lochourn;

Saw far to west through yawning gaps upleap
Dark Moidart mountains with their clov'n defiles,
And here and there let in the great blue deep,
With the far outer Isles;

While close beneath our feet clear streams were flowing
Down long glens walled the steep dark hills between,
With their long streaks of grassy margin glowing
Bright with resplendent sheen.

And by the stream's grass-mounds and grey-mossed heaps
Lay, once the homes where thriving men had been,
And far up corries, where the white burn leaps,
Were pleasant airidhs green.

But no smoke rose from any old abode;
From the green summer shealings came no song,
No face of man looked on us where we trode,
From dawn to gloamin' long.

Only high up hoarse-barking raven's croak
Knelled on the iron crags, or glead's wild screams, 
And down the awful precipices broke
The everlasting streams;

The while the old man told how times remote
Had named the balloch from some famous man,
Slain in old battle when the Camerons smote
Their foes of Chattan clan;

Or on "the squally shoulder" he would pause,
And, pointing to grey stones, would whisper, "Here
The mourners builded Evan's cairn, because
They rested with his bier  

"On the long journey from his native glen,
Down to his last home by the sea-loch side;"
And, "There by night and weariness o'erta'en,
Long since a shepherd died."

And then more lightly, "O'er these very knowes
I ran the browse upon my wedding-day
With other lads to win my young bride's house,
Now fifty years away."

Late in the afternoon my steps he stayed
On a high mountain pass, and bade me look,
Where the burn, plunging from the height, had made
One small and sheltered nook:

"Beneath that bank we rested us at eve,
The first day's weary journey ended, when
Full sixty years since we were forced to leave
For ever our dear glen.

"A day it was of lamentation sore,
As we set face against the steep ascent,
Slowly the loving cattle moved before,
Behind we weeping went.

"And well we might; the old folk from that day
Found never home like that they had resigned;
And we-thenceforth our happy childhood lay
In that far glen behind."

And so with talk like this the day wore on,
No rock unnamed, no cairn without its tale,
Till, from the western scours the last gleams gone,
To the deep-shadowed vale

Down through LeaŽna-vaata slow we passed,
"The hollow of the wolf," so named of old,
Since hunters there o'ertook and slew the last
Grim spoiler of the fold.

There where Loch Aragat hath his utmost bound
And from the western glens the waters meet,
Beneath the kindly shepherd's roof we found
Welcome, and warm retreat.

PART II

 

All night enfolded in the lap of Bens,
Around our sleep the loud and lulling sound
Of many waters meeting from the glens
Made lullaby profound.

Next day the westering morn our guide we make,
Where a strong stream in jambs of granite pent,
From pool to pool, down-plunging to the lake,
Hath grooved itself a vent.

That strait throat passed, back falls the mountainís bound,
Before us there out-spread in silence, lay,
With loop on loop of river interwound,
Long, green Glen Desseray.

A long, flat, meadowy, strath of natural grass,
Where calm, from side to side, the river flows,
After the turmoil of yon splintered pass,
Loitering in slow repose.

Each side steep mountain-flanks wall the green flat,
To west the long glen closes, grimly barred
By the stern-precipiced shelves of Scour-na-naat
And by dark Maam-clach-ard.

There as we stood on the mute glen to gaze
The old man pointed to the hillocks green,
Where, either side the strath, in former days,
The Clansmen's homes had been;

Homes that had reared the Camerons, who in old
Centuries of ceaseless battle, true and leal,
Against Clan Chattan had been brave to hold
His country for Lochiel;

Who, in the latest rising of the clans,
For King and Chief, devoted hearts and pure,
Had led the crashing charge at Preston-pans,
Died on Culloden moor .

For all those homesteads only here and there
A gaunt, grey, weathered gable-for the hum
Of many human voices, on the air
Blank, aweful silence dumb.

Only the hill-burns down the corries broke,
Only one hern harsh-screaming from the fen,
And but one shepherd's solitary smoke,
Far in the upper glen.

Then, one by one, the old man, sad at heart,
Pointed the stances, where in childhood time
From four blithe farm-towns, each a mile apart,
He had seen the blue smoke climb.

Two on the north side, dry on ferny knowes,
The noonday sun had welcomed with frank look,
The southern two, withdrawn 'neath high-hill brows,
Each cower'd in bielded nook.

Then closer drawing 'neath rank weeds he showed
The larachs of the homes, wall, hearth and floor,
Where in each town large brotherhoods abode,
Twelve families and more.

And as he traced each home, the names he told
Of men and women who there once had been,
How lived and died they in wild days of old,
What weirdly sights had seen.

And last he led me to his own farm-town,
Even to his father's home-there lay the hearth
Grey-lichened, walls around it crumbled down,
Till all but blent with earth.

"There yawned the window to the crag behind,
Through which my grandsire gallant burst away,
When two red-coats, who had him in the wind,
After Culloden day,

ďThe threshold crossed to seize him; fleet of foot,
He took the crag-they fired and missed their aim,
Then, throwing down their guns, in hot pursuit,
Fast on his track they came.

"He slacked his speed, and let the foremost near,
Then heaved a slag of rock, and laid him low;
The chase was over-he left free from fear,
Forth to the hills to go."

And then, with lowered voice and deepened feeling,
Pointing one spot upon the floor, he said,
"Here on these very stones we bairns were kneeling,
And there my father prayed,

"One stormy Sabbath-night, when wild winds hurried
A loosened snow-heap from the crag, and o'er
The rigging rolled it clean, and deeply buried
The house, and blocked the door

"With a great boulder." These and many more
Tales through the glen beguiled us west away
O'er Maam-clach-ard to dark Loch Nevish's shore
Down with declining day.

There, 'neath a roof, where people of the old kind
Still keep the ancient faith, through the deep calm,
All night we heard the cataracts behind
Down-thundering from the Maam;

The while they told how oft when no wind stirred,
Unearthly sounds the mountain stillness rent
At midnight , by belated travellers heard,
As through the Maam they went;

And apparitions when the spirit fled,
Crossing the gaze of melancholy seers,
And trystings where the living met the dead
By lonely mountain meres;

All the weird, visionary lore that lives
Still by the dim lochs of the western sea,
And to that region and its people gives
Strange eerie glamourie.

Next morn we clomb the Maam with eastward foot
And walked the higher ranges of the glen,
Looked on green summer shealings, long left mute
By old Glen-Desseray men.

One last look back-there lay the glen inlaid
Deep in its walling hills-a meadowy strath,
Through which in loop on loop the river strayed,
A slowly-winding path.

And all the west, jagg'd precipices riven
With gorge and gully and ravine black-gloomed,
Closed in-above them in the twilight heaven
The great peaks ghostly loomed.

All these days, as we wandered, morn to eve,
The old man, piece by piece, the tale unrolled,
How once the Cameron clansmen wont to live
Within these glens of old.

Things too his grandsire and his sire had seen,
After Culloden, till the ruthless time
That swept the glens of all their people clean,
Things mute in prose or rhyme.

Editor's Notes: We have dated this poem as circa 1869, since it was recorded as having been written "before 1870" in Shairp's "Glendessary and Other Poems, Lyrical and Elegiac," which was posthumously released in 1888, three years after his death.

Principal John Campbell Shairp of St. Andrews University (1819-1885) was also the author of another poem relating to the Camerons of Glendessary, an epic entitled "Glen Desseray, or The Sequel to Culloden."  The Mountain Walk, having been written earlier, might be considered his inspiration for his later grand poem.