THE LAD WITH THE SILVER BUTTON: THROUGH
THE ISLE OF MULL
The Ross of Mull, which I had now got upon, was rugged and
trackless, like the isle I had just left; being all bog, and
brier, and big stone. There may be roads for them that know that
country well; but for my part I had no better guide than my own
nose, and no other landmark than Ben More.
I aimed as well as I could for the smoke I had seen so often from
the island; and with all my great weariness and the difficulty of
the way came upon the house in the bottom of a little hollow
about five or six at night. It was low and longish, roofed with
turf and built of unmortared stones; and on a mound in front of
it, an old gentleman sat smoking his pipe in the sun.
With what little English he had, he gave me to understand that my
shipmates had got safe ashore, and had broken bread in that very
house on the day after.
"Was there one," I asked, "dressed like a gentleman?"
He said they all wore rough great-coats; but to be sure, the
first of them, the one that came alone, wore breeches and
stockings, while the rest had sailors' trousers.
"Ah," said I, "and he would have a feathered hat?"
He told me, no, that he was bareheaded like myself.
At first I thought Alan might have lost his hat; and then the
rain came in my mind, and I judged it more likely he had it out
of harm's way under his great-coat. This set me smiling, partly
because my friend was safe, partly to think of his vanity in
And then the old gentleman clapped his hand to his brow, and
cried out that I must be the lad with the silver button.
"Why, yes!" said I, in some wonder.
"Well, then," said the old gentleman, "I have a word for
that you are to follow your friend to his country, by Torosay."
He then asked me how I had fared, and I told him my tale. A
south-country man would certainly have laughed; but this old
gentleman (I call him so because of his manners, for his clothes
were dropping off his back) heard me all through with nothing but
gravity and pity. When I had done, he took me by the hand, led
me into his hut (it was no better) and presented me before his
wife, as if she had been the Queen and I a duke.
The good woman set oat-bread before me and a cold grouse, patting
my shoulder and smiling to me all the time, for she had no
English; and the old gentleman (not to be behind) brewed me a
strong punch out of their country spirit. All the while I was
eating, and after that when I was drinking the punch, I could
scarce come to believe in my good fortune; and the house, though
it was thick with the peat-smoke and as full of holes as a
colander, seemed like a palace.
The punch threw me in a strong sweat and a deep slumber; the good
people let me lie; and it was near noon of the next day before I
took the road, my throat already easier and my spirits quite
restored by good fare and good news. The old gentleman, although
I pressed him hard, would take no money, and gave me an old
bonnet for my head; though I am free to own I was no sooner out
of view of the house than I very jealously washed this gift of
his in a wayside fountain.
Thought I to myself: "If these are the wild Highlanders, I could
wish my own folk wilder."
I not only started late, but I must have wandered nearly half the
time. True, I met plenty of people, grubbing in little miserable
fields that would not keep a cat, or herding little kine about
the bigness of asses. The Highland dress being forbidden by law
since the rebellion, and the people condemned to the Lowland
habit, which they much disliked, it was strange to see the
variety of their array. Some went bare, only for a hanging cloak
or great-coat, and carried their trousers on their backs like a
useless burthen: some had made an imitation of the tartan with
little parti-coloured stripes patched together like an old wife's
quilt; others, again, still wore the Highland philabeg, but by
putting a few stitches between the legs transformed it into a
pair of trousers like a Dutchman's. All those makeshifts were
condemned and punished, for the law was harshly applied, in hopes
to break up the clan spirit; but in that out-of-the-way,
sea-bound isle, there were few to make remarks and fewer to tell
They seemed in great poverty; which was no doubt natural, now
that rapine was put down, and the chiefs kept no longer an open
house; and the roads (even such a wandering, country by--track as
the one I followed) were infested with beggars. And here again I
marked a difference from my own part of the country. For our
Lowland beggars -- even the gownsmen themselves, who beg by
patent -- had a louting, flattering way with them, and if you
gave them a plaek and asked change, would very civilly return you
a boddle. But these Highland beggars stood on their dignity,
asked alms only to buy snuff (by their account) and would give no
To be sure, this was no concern of mine, except in so far as it
entertained me by the way. What was much more to the purpose,
few had any English, and these few (unless they were of the
brotherhood of beggars) not very anxious to place it at my
service. I knew Torosay to be my destination, and repeated the
name to them and pointed; but instead of simply pointing in
reply, they would give me a screed of the Gaelic that set me
foolish; so it was small wonder if I went out of my road as often
as I stayed in it.
At last, about eight at night, and already very weary, I came to
a lone house, where I asked admittance, and was refused, until I
bethought me of the power of money in so poor a country, and held
up one of my guineas in my finger and thumb. Thereupon, the man
of the house, who had hitherto pretended to have no English, and
driven me from his door by signals, suddenly began to speak as
clearly as was needful, and agreed for five shillings to give me
a night's lodging and guide me the next day to Torosay.
I slept uneasily that night, fearing I should be robbed; but I
might have spared myself the pain; for my host was no robber,
only miserably poor and a great cheat. He was not alone in his
poverty; for the next morning, we must go five miles about to the
house of what he called a rich man to have one of my guineas
changed. This was perhaps a rich man for Mull; he would have
scarce been thought so in the south; for it took all he had --
the whole house was turned upside down, and a neighbour brought
under contribution, before he could scrape together twenty
shillings in silver. The odd shilling he kept for himself,
protesting he could ill afford to have so great a sum of money
lying "locked up." For all that he was very courteous and well
spoken, made us both sit down with his family to dinner, and
brewed punch in a fine china bowl, over which my rascal guide
grew so merry that he refused to start.
I was for getting angry, and appealed to the rich man (Hector
Maclean was his name), who had been a witness to our bargain and
to my payment of the five shillings. But Maclean had taken his
share of the punch, and vowed that no gentleman should leave his
table after the bowl was brewed; so there was nothing for it but
to sit and hear Jacobite toasts and Gaelic songs, till all were
tipsy and staggered off to the bed or the barn for their night's
Next day (the fourth of my travels) we were up before five upon
the clock; but my rascal guide got to the bottle at once, and it
was three hours before I had him clear of the house, and then (as
you shall hear) only for a worse disappointment.
As long as we went down a heathery valley that lay before Mr.
Maclean's house, all went well; only my guide looked constantly
over his shoulder, and when I asked him the cause, only grinned
at me. No sooner, however, had we crossed the back of a hill,
and got out of sight of the house windows, than he told me
Torosay lay right in front, and that a hill-top (which he pointed
out) was my best landmark.
"I care very little for that," said I, "since you are going
The impudent cheat answered me in the Gaelic that he had no
"My fine fellow," I said, "I know very well your English
and goes. Tell me what will bring it back? Is it more money you
"Five shillings mair," said he, "and hersel' will bring ye
I reflected awhile and then offered him two, which he accepted
greedily, and insisted on having in his hands at once "for luck,"
as he said, but I think it was rather for my misfortune.
The two shillings carried him not quite as many miles; at the end
of which distance, he sat down upon the wayside and took off his
brogues from his feet, like a man about to rest.
I was now red-hot. "Ha!" said I, "have you no more English?"
He said impudently, "No."
At that I boiled over, and lifted my hand to strike him; and he,
drawing a knife from his rags, squatted back and grinned at me
like a wildcat. At that, forgetting everything but my anger, I
ran in upon him, put aside his knife with my left, and struck him
in the mouth with the right. I was a strong lad and very angry,
and he but a little man; and he went down before me heavily. By
good luck, his knife flew out of his hand as he fell.
I picked up both that and his brogues, wished him a good morning,
and set off upon my way, leaving him barefoot and disarmed. I
chuckled to myself as I went, being sure I was done with that
rogue, for a variety of reasons. First, he knew he could have no
more of my money; next, the brogues were worth in that country
only a few pence; and, lastly, the knife, which was really a
dagger, it was against the law for him to carry.
In about half an hour of walk, I overtook a great, ragged man,
moving pretty fast but feeling before him with a staff. He was
quite blind, and told me he was a catechist, which should have
put me at my ease. But his face went against me; it seemed dark
and dangerous and secret; and presently, as we began to go on
alongside, I saw the steel butt of a pistol sticking from under
the flap of his coat-pocket. To carry such a thing meant a fine
of fifteen pounds sterling upon a first offence, and
transportation to the colonies upon a second. Nor could I quite
see why a religious teacher should go armed, or what a blind man
could be doing with a pistol.
I told him about my guide, for I was proud of what I had done,
and my vanity for once got the heels of my prudence. At the
mention of the five shillings he cried out so loud that I made up
my mind I should say nothing of the other two, and was glad he
could not see my blushes.
"Was it too much?" I asked, a little faltering.
"Too much!" cries he. "Why, I will guide you to Torosay myself
for a dram of brandy. And give you the great pleasure of my
company (me that is a man of some learning) in the bargain."
I said I did not see how a blind man could be a guide; but at
that he laughed aloud, and said his stick was eyes enough for an
"In the Isle of Mull, at least," says he, "where I know every
stone and heather-bush by mark of head. See, now," he said,
striking right and left, as if to make sure, "down there a burn
is running; and at the head of it there stands a bit of a small
hill with a stone cocked upon the top of that; and it's hard at
the foot of the hill, that the way runs by to Torosay; and the
way here, being for droves, is plainly trodden, and will show
grassy through the heather."
I had to own he was right in every feature, and told my wonder.
"Ha!" says he, "that's nothing. Would ye believe me now,
before the Act came out, and when there were weepons in this
country, I could shoot? Ay, could I!" cries he, and then with a
leer: "If ye had such a thing as a pistol here to try with, I
would show ye how it's done."
I told him I had nothing of the sort, and gave him a wider berth.
If he had known, his pistol stuck at that time quite plainly out
of his pocket, and I could see the sun twinkle on the steel of
the butt. But by the better luck for me, he knew nothing,
thought all was covered, and lied on in the dark.
He then began to question me cunningly, where I came from,
whether I was rich, whether I could change a five-shilling piece
for him (which he declared he had that moment in his sporran),
and all the time he kept edging up to me and I avoiding him. We
were now upon a sort of green cattle-track which crossed the
hills towards Torosay, and we kept changing sides upon that like
ancers in a reel. I had so plainly the upper-hand that my
spirits rose, and indeed I took a pleasure in this game of
blindman's buff; but the catechist grew angrier and angrier, and
at last began to swear in Gaelic and to strike for my legs with
Then I told him that, sure enough, I had a pistol in my pocket as
well as he, and if he did not strike across the hill due south I
would even blow his brains out.
He became at once very polite, and after trying to soften me for
some time, but quite in vain, he cursed me once more in Gaelic
and took himself off. I watched him striding along, through bog
and brier, tapping with his stick, until he turned the end of a
hill and disappeared in the next hollow. Then I struck on again
for Torosay, much better pleased to be alone than to travel with
that man of learning. This was an unlucky day; and these two, of
whom I had just rid myself, one after the other, were the two
worst men I met with in the Highlands.
At Torosay, on the Sound of Mull and looking over to the mainland
of Morven, there was an inn with an innkeeper, who was a Maclean,
it appeared, of a very high family; for to keep an inn is thought
even more genteel in the Highlands than it is with us, perhaps as
partaking of hospitality, or perhaps because the trade is idle
and drunken. He spoke good English, and finding me to be
something of a scholar, tried me first in French, where he easily
beat me, and then in the Latin, in which I don't know which of us
did best. This pleasant rivalry put us at once upon friendly
terms; and I sat up and drank punch with him (or to be more
correct, sat up and watched him drink it), until he was so tipsy
that he wept upon my shoulder.
I tried him, as if by accident, with a sight of Alan's button;
but it was plain he had never seen or heard of it. Indeed, he
bore some grudge against the family and friends of Ardshiel, and
before he was drunk he read me a lampoon, in very good Latin, but
with a very ill meaning, which he had made in elegiac verses upon
a person of that house.
When I told him of my catechist, he shook his head, and said I
was lucky to have got clear off. "That is a very dangerous man,"
he said; "Duncan Mackiegh is his name; he can shoot by the ear at
several yards, and has been often accused of highway robberies,
and once of murder."
"The cream of it is," says I, "that he called himself a catechist."
"And why should he not?" says he, "when that is what he is.
was Maclean of Duart gave it to him because he was blind. But
perhaps it was a peety," says my host, "for he is always on the
road, going from one place to another to hear the young folk say
their religion; and, doubtless, that is a great temptation to the
At last, when my landlord could drink no more, he showed me to a
bed, and I lay down in very good spirits; having travelled the
greater part of that big and crooked Island of Mull, from Earraid
to Torosay, fifty miles as the crow flies, and (with my
wanderings) much nearer a hundred, in four days and with little
fatigue. Indeed I was by far in better heart and health of body
at the end of that long tramp than I had been at the beginning.
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