Letter VI.

From: At Home and Abroad, or Things and Thoughts in Europe (1856)
Author: Margaret Fuller Ossoli
Published: and Company 1856 Boston


Inverary.—The Argyle Family.—Dumbarton.—Sunset on the Clyde.—Glasgow.—Dirt and Intellect.—Stirling.—“The Scottish Chiefs.”—Stirling Castle.—The Tournament Ground.—Edinburgh.—James Simpson.—Infant Schools.—Free Baths.—Melrose.—Abbotsford.—Walter Scott.—Dryburgh Abbey.—Scott’s Tomb.

Paris, November, 1846.

  I am very sorry to leave such a wide gap between my letters, but I was inevitably prevented from finishing one that was begun for the steamer of the 4th of November. I then hoped to prepare one after my arrival here in time for the Hibernia, but a severe cold, caught on the way, unfitted me for writing. It is now necessary to retrace my steps a long way, or lose sight of several things it has seemed desirable to mention to my friends in America, though I shall make out my narrative more briefly than if nearer the time of action.

  If I mistake not, my last closed just as I was looking back on the hill where I had passed the night in all the miserable chill and amid the ghostly apparitions of a Scotch mist, but which looked in the morning truly beautiful, and (I had not known it too well to be deceived) alluring, in its mantle of rich pink heath, the tallest and most full of blossoms we anywhere saw, and with the waterfall making music by its side, and sparkling in the morning sun.

  Passing from Tarbet, we entered the grand and beautiful pass of Glencoe,—sublime that with purple shadows with bright lights between, and in one place an exquisitely silent and lonely little lake. The wildness of the scene was heightened by the black Highland cattle feeding here and there. They looked much at home, too, in the park at Inverary, where I saw them next day. In Inverary, I was disappointed. I found, indeed, the position of every object the same as indicated in the “Legend of Montrose,” but the expression of the whole seemed unlike what I had fancied. The present abode of the Argyle family is a modern structure, and it boasts very few vestiges of the old romantic history attached to the name. The park and look-out upon the lake are beautiful, but except from a brief pleasure derived from these, the old cross from Iona that stands in the market-place, and the drone of the bagpipe which lulled me to sleep at night playing some melancholy air, there was nothing to make me feel that it was “a far cry to Lochawe,” but, on the contrary, I seemed in the very midst of the prosaic, the civilized world.

  Leaving Inverary, we left that day the Highlands too, passing through Hell Glen, a very wild and grand defile. Taking a boat then on Loch Levy, we passed down the Clyde, stopping an hour or two on our way to Dumbarton. Nature herself foresaw the era of picture when she made and placed this rock: there is every preparation for the artist’s stealing a little piece from her treasures to hang on the walls of a room. Here I saw the sword of “Wallace wight,” shown by a son of the nineteenth century, who said that this hero lived about fifty years ago, and who did not know the height of this rock, in a cranny of which he lived, or at least ate and slept and “donned his clothes.” From the top of the rock I saw sunset on the beautiful Clyde, animated that day by an endless procession of steamers, little skiffs, and boats. In one of the former, the Cardiff Castle, we embarked as the last light of day was fading, and that evening found ourselves in Glasgow.

  I understand there is an intellectual society of high merit in Glasgow, but we were there only a few hours, and did not see any one. Certainly the place, as it may be judged of merely from the general aspect of the population and such objects as may be seen in the streets, more resembles an Inferno than any other we have yet visited. The people are more crowded together, and the stamp of squalid, stolid misery and degradation more obvious and appalling. The English and Scotch do not take kindly to poverty like those of sunnier climes; it makes them fierce or stupid, and, life presenting no other cheap pleasure, they take refuge in drinking.

  I saw here in Glasgow persons, especially women, dressed in dirty, wretched tatters, worse than none, and with an expression of listless, unexpecting woe upon their faces, far more tragic than the inscription over the gate of Dante’s Inferno. To one species of misery suffered here to the last extent, I shall advert in speaking of London.

  But from all these sorrowful tokens I by no means inferred the falsehood of the information, that here was to be found a circle rich in intellect and in aspiration. The manufacturing and commercial towns, burning focuses of grief and vice, are also the centers of intellectual life, as in forcing-beds the rarest flowers and fruits are developed by use of impure and repulsive materials. Where evil comes to an extreme, Heaven seems busy in providing means for the remedy. Glaring throughout Scotland and England is the necessity for the devoutest application of intellect and love to the cure of ills that cry aloud, and, without such application, erelong help must be sought by other means than words. Yet there is every reason to hope that those who ought to help are seriously, though slowly, becoming alive to the imperative nature of this duty; so we must not cease to hope, even in the streets of Glasgow and the gin-palaces of Manchester, and the dreariest recesses of London.

  From Glasgow we passed to Stirling, like Dumbarton endeared to the mind, which cherishes the memory of its childhood still more by Miss Porter’s Scottish Chiefs than by association with “Snowdon’s knight and Scotland’s king.” We reached the town too late to see the castle before the next morning, and I took up at the inn “The Scottish Chiefs,” in which I had not read a word since ten or twelve years old. We are in the habit now of laughing when this book is named, as if it were a representative of what is most absurdly stilted or bombastic, but now, in reading, my maturer mind was differently impressed from what I expected, and the infatuation with which childhood and early youth regard this book and its companion, “Thaddeus of Warsaw,” was justified. The characters and dialogue are, indeed, out of nature, but the sentiment that animates them is pure, true, and no less healthy than noble. Here is a bad drawing, bad drama, but good music, to which the unspoiled heart will always echo, even when the intellect has learned to demand a better organ for its communication.

  The castle of Stirling is as rich as any place in romantic associations. We were shown its dungeons and its Court of Lions, where, says tradition, wild animals, kept in the grated cells adjacent, were brought out on festival occasions to furnish entertainment for the court. So, while lords and ladies gay danced and sang above, prisoners pined and wild beasts starved below. This, at first blush, looks like a very barbarous state of things, but, on reflection, one does not find that we have outgrown it in our present so-called state of refined civilization, only the present way of expressing the same facts is a little different. Still lords and ladies dance and sing, unknowing or uncaring that the laborers who minister to their luxuries starve or are turned into wild beasts. Man need not boast his condition, methinks, till he can weave his costly tapestry without the side that is kept under looking thus sadly.

  The tournament ground is still kept green and in beautiful order near Stirling castle, as a momento of the olden time, and as we passed away down the beautiful Firth, a turn of the river gave us a very advantageous view of it. So gay it looked, so festive in the bright sunshine, one almost seemed to see the graceful forms of knight and noble pricking their good steeds to the encounter, or the stalwart Douglas, vindicating his claim to be indeed a chief by conquest in the rougher sports of the yeomanry.

  Passing along the Firth to Edinburgh we again passed two or three days in that beautiful city, which I could not be content to leave so imperfectly seen, if I had not some hope of revisiting it when the bright lights that adorn it are concentered there. In summer almost every one is absent. I was very fortunate to see as many interesting persons as I did. On this second visit I saw James Simpson, a well-known philanthropist, and leader in the cause of popular education. Infant schools have been an especial care of his, and America as well as Scotland has received the benefit of his thoughts on this subject. His last good work has been to induce the erection of public baths in Edinburgh, and the working people of that place, already deeply in his debt for the lectures he has been unwearied in delivering for their benefit, have signified their gratitude by presenting him with a beautiful model of a fountain in silver as an ornament to his study. Never was there a place where such a measure would be more important, if cleanliness be akin to godliness, Edinburgh stands at great disadvantage to her devotions. The impure air, the terrific dirt which surround the working people, must make all progress in higher culture impossible; and I saw nothing which seemed to me so likely to have results of incalculable good, as this practical measure of the Simpsons, in support of the precept,

“Wash and be clean every whit.”

  We returned into England by the way of Melrose, not content to leave Scotland without making our pilgrimage to Abbostford. The universal feeling, however, has made this pilgrimage so common that there is nothing left for me to say; yet, though I had read a hundred descriptions, everything seemed new as I went over this epitome of the mind and life of Scott. As what constitutes the great man is more commonly some extraordinary combination and balance of qualities, than the highest development of any one, so you cannot but here be struck anew by the singular combination in Scott’s mind of love for the picturesque and romantic with the plainest common sense,—a delight in heroic excess, with the prudential habit of order. Here the most pleasing order pervades emblems of what men commonly esteem disorder and excess.

  Amid the exquisite beauty of the ruins of Dryburgh, I saw with regret that Scott’s body rests in almost the only spot that is not green, and cannot well be made so, for the light does not reach it. That is not a fit couch for him who dressed so many dim and time-worn relics with living green.

  Always cheerful and beneficient, Scott seemed to the common eye in like measure prosperous and happy, up to the last years, and the chair in which, under the pressure of the sorrows which led to his death, he was propped up to write when brain and eye and hand refused their aid, the product remaining only as a guide to the speculator as to the workings of the mind in case of insanity or approaching imbecility, would by most persons be viewed as the only saddening relic of his career. Yet when I recall some passages in the Lady of the Lake, and the Address to his Harp, I cannot doubt that Scott had the full share of bitter in his cup, and feel the tender hope that we do about other gentle and generous guardians and benefactors of our youth, that in a nobler career they are now fulfilling still higher duties with serener mind. Doubtless too they are trusting in us that we will try to fill their places with kindly deeds, ardent thoughts, nor leave the world in their absence,

“A dim, vast vale of tears,
Vacant and desolate.”

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