“I limped on silently in the rear, leaving at every few paces a blotch of blood upon the road”. Hugh and his cousin, Walter, realised getting home was going to be more difficult than they anticipated.
It was about 1818 and the teenagers had spent their summer holidays with relatives in Gruids, near Lairg. On one of the final days before they had to return, they went fishing in the River Shin. They could hear the roaring of the salmon-leap three miles away at Hugh’s uncle’s house and had been inspired by stories of skilful fishermen. Cousin William agreed to take them. He looked askance at their bare feet and muttered that his mother had never allowed them to visit relations unshod. The boys didn’t tell him that their mothers had indeed sent them out shod but “deeming it lighter and cooler to walk barefoot, the good women had no sooner turned their backs than we both agreed to fling our shoes into a comer, and set out on our journey without them.” That journey had been thirty miles from the Cromarty ferry to Gruids.
The walk to the River Shin was less onerous. “We passed through the woods of Achanie, famous for their nuts; startled, as we went, a herd of roe deer and found the leap itself far exceeded all anticipation. The Shin becomes savagely wild in its lower reaches. Rugged precipices of gneiss, with scattered bushes fast anchored in the crevices, overhang the stream, which boils in many a dark pool, and foams over many a steep rapid; and immediately beneath, where it threw itself headlong, at this time, over the leap … there was a caldron, so awfully dark and profound, that, according to the accounts of the district, it had no bottom; and so vexed was it by a frightful whirlpool, that no one ever fairly caught in its eddies had succeeded, it was said, in regaining the shore. We saw, as we stood amid the scraggy trees of an overhanging wood, the salmon leaping up by scores, most of them, however, to fall back again into the pool – for only a very few stray fish that attempted the cataract at its edges seemed to succeed in forcing their upward way.” Later, the salmon run was blasted with gunpowder to make easier for the fish. The boys spotted a “hut, formed of undressed logs, where a solitary watcher used to take his stand, to protect them from the spear and fowlingpiece of the poacher”.
Excited, Hugh jumped from a tall lichened stone. His right foot smashed against a sharp-edged fragment of rock hidden in the moss. He managed to control his scream and clutched his foot as it lost feeling. He limped back to his uncle’s house, but that evening it throbbed badly. However the lad, later an unsuccessful poet but a good newspaper editor and author of prose (as well as a renowned geologist and leader of the Free Church), distracted his mind by composing some verse about the waterfall at Shin.
However, his foot got worse. Next morning it was “stiff and sore; and, after a few days of suffering, it suppurated and discharged great quantities of blood and matter.” Cousin Walter was impatient and getting bored, so after a few days the boys ignored their elders’ advice to stay put and tried for home. Hugh’s aunt supplied them with a “bag of Highland luxuries – cheese, and butter, and a full peck of nuts”. As Walter had to carry everything, he required his cousin to entertain him. Hugh’s “long extempore stories … were usually co-extensive with the journey to be performed: they became ten, fifteen, or twenty miles long, agreeably to the measure of the road, and the determination of the mile-stones; and what was at present required was a story of about thirty miles in length, whose one end would touch the Barony of Gruids, and the other the Cromarty Ferry. At the end, however, of the first six or eight miles, my story broke suddenly down, and my foot, after becoming very painful, began to bleed. The day, too, had grown raw and unpleasant, and after twelve o’clock there came on a thick wetting drizzle.”
Injured and far from home, the boys were in a predicament.
To be continued…
Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1889), 117-120.