Mission Statement

To Submit Content

Excerpts from "Memoirs of an Ex-Minister"
by the Right Honorable The Earl of Malmesbury, G.C.B.

June 28th.- Left Chillingham Castle for the Highlands by Edinburgh and Glasgow, and embarked on board the steamer at Greenock.  Stayed on deck the whole time, as, in spite of the heavy rain and wind, the heat in the cabin was intense, all the passengers agreeing in keeping the ports shut.  We reached the Crinan Canal at midday, where, leaving the track-boat, we walked to the other end of it, about seven miles.  The boat was crammed.  This gave rise to a very absurd incident, for, as there was not room for each passenger to be seated in this barge, a number of women were obliged to stand between the benches, and the rope by which the boat was being towed having suddenly broken as we were entering the lock, the barge struck the side with great violence, and the whole row of women, a dozen at least, fell as if they had been shot one upon the other, amidst the roars of laughter of the rest.  We were two hours passing through the canal, which has nine locks.  We then embarked on board another steamer, the sea being quite smooth, and at five o'clock sat down to dinner in the cabin.  We reached Oban that evening.

August 1st.- We were very glad this morning that we didn't go to Staffa yesterday, as the party who went there in the steamer could not land owing to the heavy sea, and were very ill.  We left Oban in the morning, and reached Corpach, a small village on Lochiel (sic - Loch Eil), where we landed and took a conveyance to Achnacarry, ten miles, which we reached at 5 p.m.  The house is excellent, and the country around quite magnificent.  Loch Lochy is about a mile from the house, and Loch Arkaig less.  The latter is fifteen miles long and about two miles wide in its broadest part.  It is surrounded by mountains, the lower range nearly covered with the most picturesque woods of pine, birch, &c., of all sizes and ages.  The trees not growing very close allow one to see the heather, fern, and rocks that cover the face of the mountain, which add extremely to the beauty of the scenery.  Beyond these hills rise some much higher and more rugged, covered with rocks and heather and broken granite, and haunted by ptarmigan.  Achnacarry is situated in a deep glen between these two lakes, and with a beautiful clear river rushing over rocks, forming cascades close under the windows.  There are a great many woods round the house, and the hills on both sides of the valley are so thickly clad that there is a splendid shelter, and I think the storms which later in the year sweep down from the mountains would not be much to be feared in the glen.  Lord Ossulston and Mr. Parker went out deer-stalking.  The ladies in a boat kept up with them, as they were on the opposite face of the mountain.  At about a mile from the end of Loch Arkaig, but now almost covered with trees, is an island which was once the burial-place of the MacPies (sic - MacPhees).  A little farther on the river Maly runs into the lake, and a mile beyond that are the primeval forests of Gusach and Gerraran, where the heather is so strong that a walking-stick can be cut out of it, and the jungle so impenetrable that I have known a dead stag lost there as one might a partridge in a turnip-field.  At the farthest end of the lake Scournahat rises in the shape of a volcano.  The whole scenery is in such admirable proportion in reference to the mountains, forests, and water that it is certainly one of the loveliest combinations that can anywhere be seen.  On the bank of the river adjoining the two lakes there is a beautiful glen called "the Dark Mile," and a magnificent waterfall.  An excellent road runs through it and joins that to Fort William.  There is a cave in the rocks in this valley, in which Charles Edward Stuart concealed himself after his defeat at Culloden in 1746.  We found the traditions respecting his hair-breadth escapes still fresh in the memories of the Highlanders, it being just a century since the rebellion took place.  We got excellent ponies and very intelligent gillies ready to be engaged at five shillings a week and food, but no doubt if the fashion of going to the Highlands increases, they will not be found for that price.  The pines in this primeval forest are some of them twenty feet round, and stand like white skeletons that have died in their old age.  The natural growth of these forests at one time must have been oak, as some very large trunks are lying buried in the more recent growth of pine.  One I found was sixty feet long, and completely embedded in the stratum of bog.  It is what is called a "hind forest," stags not coming in till late in the year.  We seldom went out without seeing eagles, and Lord Edward Thynne killed one as it was soaring above him with a rifle and a single ball.

August 31st.- Some of my party went up Ben Nevis, which took them exactly twelve hours, it being fourteen miles off.  The greatest drawback to this beautiful country is the climate, which is so wet on this coast that it is said to rain 220 days in the year, and we found this unfortunately true.

September 22nd.- We accompanied the gentlemen and Lady Seymour to see the woods of Moich driven for deer.  We went there in a boat, and then ascended the hill where we were posted.  There we drew a blank.  We then descended to the shore and mounted our ponies, when another wood was driven two miles farther on, in which two stags were seen, and in a third a stag was killed.  The sun set before we descended the last hill, and I never saw such a glorious sight.  The mountains on one side were of the richest purple, while on the opposite shore of the lake the woods were as black as ink.  The rays of the sun were reflected in the most dazzling manner on Glen Maly (sic - Glen Mallie) and on the peaks of the mountains, which contrasted exquisitely with the intense darkness of the corries and the woods of Gusach and Gerraran.  The scene was so wonderfully beautiful that everything else was forgotten, and during the short time that the vision - for I can call it by no other name - lasted not a word was spoken.  We could only gaze in wonderment and admiration.  I never saw anything so surprisingly lovely before, and never expect to again.  We then returned home in the four-oar...          

September 16th (probably October 16th).- Left Achnacarry by Glencoe and Loch Lomond.

September 6th.- Returned to Achnacarry.  At Mucomer (sic - Mucomir) Bridge we very nearly backed over the precipice, as the horse jibbed.

September 22nd.- I had been out deer-stalking, and as I was returning home alone, and by bright moonlight, I saw a hind on the hill a little above the road and shot her, but just as I was stooping over her with a knife, she sprang up and struck at me with one of her fore feet, hitting me in the forehead just between the eyes.  The blow was so violent that it knocked me down and stunned me for a short time, and on recovering my senses I found I was quite blind, but this was only from the blood.  Her hoof had cut a deep gash in my forehead and along my nose.  The animal was lying quite dead by my side.  I walked to the house, which was not far off, and the maid who opened the door was so frightened at my appearance that she fainted forthwith.  This laid me up for a week, but with no further consequences.

October 24th.- We left Achnacarry.  Our party had been composed of the Jocelyns, Calcrafts, Charteris, Herberts, Lord Cardigan, &c.

September 29th.- A tremendous gale and rain.  The whole party sat together in the drawing-room, each obliged to tell a story.  Mine was as follows, and was founded on the fact that Richelieu has refused to shoot with Loughborough in consequence of his always hunting his pointers down wind:-

There was once a young Highland shepherd, who was drinking at a burn, and being in the humour of desiring for all sorts of things that he had never seen or possessed, he wished that one of the fairies he had heard of, who haunted the place, would appear and give him whatever he wanted.  At that moment his dog howled, and a pixie stood before him.  "I have heard you," she said, "as I sat under that pebble in the burn, and I will give you whatever you wish for, but it must be one thing only and for ever."  "Thank you," said the lad, not at al alarmed, "I have only one desire in the world, and that is to go to sea and become a rich merchant."  This happened before steamers were invented, and the fairy answered most graciously, "Mr. MacGuffog, I will give you what is the most essential thing for a prosperous voyage and successful trading - namely, wherever you go you shall have a fair wind whichever way you turn yourself or your ship."  The young MacGuffog fell on his knees with gratitude, and having given the fairy a pull at his whisky-flask, went forthwith to Fort William, and enlisted as a cabin-boy on board a merchantman.  It was not very long before the fact became known that whatever ship he was on board always had the wind astern; all the trading captains hired him at any price, but he soon gained enough to sail on his own account, and by the time he was thirty, the rapid voyages he invariably made cut out everyone else, and gave him such advantages that he realized a large fortune.  He then remembered his native hills, and determined to buy an estate upon them.  This he did, but he felt that he was not really a Highland gentleman without a deer-forest, and therefore he extended his domain, took off the sheep, and hired the best stalker in Scotland.  All this being prepared for his happiness and amusement, he started with him to stalk in his own forest, but day after day he was disappointed by the perverseness of the weather, the wind constantly changing the moment he went out.  Whatever circuits he took he found himself always going down wind, so that, whether as single deer or herds, no animal allowed him to approach within a quarter mile.  He looked upon this merely as a piece of bad luck, till by chance, crossing the burn on which he had seen the pixie fifteen years before, he heard a tiny giggle and then a long low laugh.  Turning round, he saw the little woman, and then the terrible truth broke upon him that if he lived to a thousand years he never could possibly kill a stag.

This was my story, and as to that of Lord Loughborough and the Duc de Richelieu, which suggested it to me, it was as follows: That Lord Loughborough, being obliged to shoot in spectacles, could not face the rain and wind on a wet day, which was the case the Duke went out with him.

October 3rd.- This morning my stalker and his boy gave me an account of a mysterious creature, which they say exists in Loch Arkaig, and which they call the Lake-horse.  It is the same animal of which one has occasionally read accounts in the newspapers as having been seen in the Highland lochs, and on the existence of which in Loch Assynt the late Lord Ellesmere wrote an interesting article, but hitherto the story has always been looked upon as fabulous.  I am now, however, nearly persuaded of its truth.  My stalker, John Stuart, at Achnacarry, has seen it twice, and both times at sunrise in summer on a bright sunny day, when there was not a ripple on the water.  The creature was basking on the surface; he only saw the head and hind quarters, proving that its back was hollow, which is not the shape of any fish or of a seal.  Its head resembled that of a horse.  It was also seen once by his three little children, who were all walking together along the beach.  It was then motionless, about thirty yards from the shore, and apparently asleep, and they at first took it for a rock, but when they got near it moved its head, and they were so frightened that they ran home, arriving in a state of the greatest terror.  There was no mistaking their manner when they related this story, and they offered to make an affidavit before a magistrate.  The Highlanders are very superstitious about this creature.  They are convinced that there is never more than one in existence at the same time, and I believe they think it has something diabolical in its nature, for when I said I wished I could get within shot of it my stalker observed very gravely: "Perhaps your Lordship's gun would miss fire."  It would be quite possible, though difficult, for a seal to work up the river Lochy into Loch Arkaig.

August 11th.- Left London for Achnacarry.  We travelled all the way by land.

September 1st.- I went to the Forest of Gusach, killing three good stags.  I was obliged to help to carry them down the hill, so that I did not get home till ten o'clock.

September 19th.- Duke of Manchester's servants arrived, bringing the news that the Duke and Duchess had reached Tomadown, and, being unable to procure ponies, had started on foot across the mountains.  They had no guide and no gillies, so we could not help fearing that they had either lost their way or that the Duchess had knocked up and been unable to proceed, for they started at eleven and ought to have arrived by five.  I immediately sent off ponies, and Mr. Bidwell went with them; but returned saying he had gone three miles along Glen Keich to a point where he could see five miles along the road to Glengarry, and with the exception of a stag, which he put up, there was not a living creature visible.  Upon this I despatched John Macdonald, the stalker, though one might as well look for a boat in the Atlantic as search for anybody in these wild hills.  We therefore remained very anxious until nine o'clock, when we heard the door-bell ring.  We all rushed into the hall, and the Duke and Duchess were gladly welcomed by the whole party.  They had walked the whole way from Tomadown, mistook the path, and found themselves overlooking Loch Lochy, eight miles from Achnacarry.  They descended Clunes with great difficulty and some danger, and came along the shore of the lake, where there is a safe road.  It was a most imprudent expedition.

September 30th.- Lady Chesterfield and Lady Evelyn Stanhope arrived.  The former caught several salmo ferox in Loch Arkaig.

October 6th.- Sir James Hudson arrived yesterday, and to-day went out and killed an enormous stag in Gerraran, not getting home until eleven at night.  The wind was contrary, and so strong that the men could not pull down the lake against it, and were obliged to beach the boat in a sheltered place, and walk eight miles along the shore...

October 10th.- Sir James Hudson went to Glen Kamachray, intending to sleep at the shepherd's hut in order to be on his ground early the following day.

October 11th.- Sir James returned for dinner, having killed nothing, and gave a very amusing account of his night at the bothy.  He said there were seven men, five dogs, three women, and a cat in two small rooms, more like hencoops than rooms, and only three beds for the whole party.  The maid-of-all-work asked him with whom he would like to sleep, and he answered that if he couldn't sleep with her he would prefer Macoll, the stalker.  The latter, however, replied. "Methinks you had better sleep alone."  So Sir James had a bed to himself, as far as I know.

October 15th.- Mr. Ogle, the photographer, arrived, and made some excellent photographs of the beautiful scenery here and of our party.  The cold is intense, and we are buried in snow.

October 20th.- A heavy snowstorm came on, lasting all day.  The mountains in all directions are covered with snow...

October 21st.- News of Lord Westmoreland's death arrived.  I went to the Pine Forest and had it driven.  The twelve-pointer, alias "the enchanted stag," came out, and stood staring at the beaters several minutes at not more than ten paces, but I did not get a shot.  The Highlanders are more than ever convinced that the life of this enormous beast is charmed.  Saw a flock of wild swans going south - a _ hint to me to do the same.

October 25th.- I beat the woods of Auchnasoul (sic - Achnasoul), and killed six woodcocks, twelve blackcocks, also the stag whose leg I broke two days ago.  This good day's sport and luck has closed my connection with Achnacarry, which has lasted for fifteen years of the prime of my life.  I rowed home from Moich with a heavy heart.  Loch Arkaig was motionless, and of the colour of obsidian.  The sun, after a bright day, had set behind a heavy mass of clouds, against which the mountains of Scaurnahat and Murligan (sic - Murlaggan) looked ghastly in their garments of snow, whilst the northern slopes and corries of the Pine Forest retained every flake that had fallen.  The stags, as is usual in a hard frost, were roaring with redoubled passion in the wilds of Gusach and Gerraran.  The herons were screaming as I disturbed them from their shelter in the islands; and then again the roaring of the harts re-echoed through the forest.  As I landed at the pier, a freezing mist fell over the whole scene, and thus we parted.  Vale!  

Editor's Notes:  James Howard Harris (1807-1889), the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury, was a British statesman who rented Achnacarry from Cameron of Lochiel during the summer and early autumn months of 1844-1859.  The son of the 2nd Earl, he spent several years traveling and making acquaintance with famous people.  In 1841 he had only just been elected to the House of Commons when his father died and he succeeded to the peerage. His political career attracted a good deal of contemporary attention, partly owing to his being Foreign Secretary (1852, 1858-1859) and Lord Privy Seal (1866-68, 1874-1876).