Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott

Diary. Vol.4. 19th Aug. l8l4.

by J. G. Lockhart

After breakfast, took the long boat to see the remarkable natural curiosity, called 'Uamh Smowe, or the largest Cave. After rowing about 5 miles to the westward of the entrance to the sea from Loch Eriboll, we enter a creek, between two ledges of very high rocks, and landing, find ourselves in front of the wonder we came to see. The exterior parts of the cavern opens under a tremendous rock, facing the creek, and occupies the full space of the ravine where we landed. From the top of the rock to the base of the cavern, as we afterwards discovered by plumb, is 80 feet, of which the height of the arch is 55 feet; the rest, being 27 feet. is occupied by the precipitous rock under which it opens; the width is fully in proportion to this great height, being 110 feet. The depth of this exterior cavern is 200 feet, and it is apparently separated by an intermediate column of natural rock. Being open to daylight and the sea air, the cavern is perfectly clean and dry, and the sides are incrusted with stalactites. This immense cavern is so well proportioned, that I was not aware of its extraordinary height and extent, till I saw our two friends, who had somewhat preceded us, having made the journey by land, appearing like pigmies among its recesses. Afterwards, on entering the cave, I climbed up a sloping rock at its extremity, and was struck with the prospect, looking outward from this magnificent arched cavern upon our boat and its; crew, the view being otherwise bounded by the ledge of rocks which form each side of the creek. We now propose to investigate the farther wonders of the Cave of Smowe. In the right or west side of the cave opens an interior cavern of a difficult aspect. The height of this second passage may be 12 or 14 feet, and its breadth about 6 or 8 feet, neatly formed into a Gothic portal by the hand of nature. The lower part of this porch is closed by a ledge of rock, rising to a height of between 5 and 6 feet, and which I can compare to nothing but the hatch door of a shop. Beneath this hatch a brook finds its way out, forms a deep black pool below the Gothic archway, and then escapes to the sea, and forms the creek in which we landed. It is somewhat difficult to approach this strange pass, so as to gain a view of the interior of the cavern. By clambering along a broken and dangerous cliff, you can, however, look into it; but only so far as to see a twilight space filled with dark-coloured water in great agitation, and representing a subterranean lake, moved by some fearful convulsion of nature, How this pond is supplied with water you cannot see from even this point of vantage, but you are partly made sensible of the truth by a sound like the dashing of a sullen cataract in the bowels of the earth. Here adventure has usually been abandoned, and Mr Anderson only mentioned two travelers whose curiosity had led them farther. We were resolved, however, to see the adventures of this new cave of Montesinos to an end. Duff had already secured the use of a fisherman's boat and its hands, our own long boat being too heavy and far too valuable to be ventured upon this Coctyus. Accordingly the skiff was dragged up the brook to the rock ledge or hatch which barred the interior of the cavern, and there, by force of hands, our boat crew and two or three fishers raised the boat's bow upon the ledge of rock, then brought her to a level, being poised upon that narrow hatch and lastly launched her down into the dark and deep subterranean lake within.

The entrance was so narrow, and the boat so clumsy, that we, who were all the while clinging to the rock like sea fowl, and with scarce more footing, were greatly alarmed for the safety of our trusty sailors. At the instant when the boat sloped inward to the cave, a Highlander threw himself into it with great boldness and dexterity, and, at the expense of some bruises, shared its precipitous fall into the waters under the earth. This dangerous exploit was to prevent the boat drifting away from us, but, a cord at its stern would have been a safer and surer expedient. When our enfant perdu had recovered breath and legs, he brought the boat back to the entrance and took us in. We now found ourselves embarked on a deep black of irregular form, the rocks rising like a dome all around us, and high over our heads. The light, a sort of dubious twilight, was derived from two chasms in the roof of the vault, for that offered by the entrance was but trifling. Down one of those rents there poured from a height of 80 feet, in a sheet of foam, the brook, which, after supplying the subterranean pond with water, finds its way out beneath the ledge of rock that blocks its entrance. The other skylight, if I may so term it, looks on the clear blue sky. It is impossible for description to explain the impression made by so strange a place, to which we had been conveyed with so much difficulty. The cave itself, the cataract, the pool, would have been each separate places of wonder, but all united together, and affecting at once the ear, the eye, and the imagination, their effect is indescribable, The length of this pond, or loch as the people here call it, is 70 feet, the breadth about 50 feet at the narrowest, and it is of great depth. As we resolved to proceed, we directed the boat to a natural arch on the right hand, or west side of the cataract. This archway was double, a high arch being placed upon a very low one, as in a Roman aqueduct.

The ledge of rock which forms this lower arch, is not above 2½ feet high above the water, and under this we were to pass in the boat; so that we were fain to pile ourselves flat upon each other, like a layer of herrings.

By this judicious disposition we were pushed in safety beneath this low-browed rock into a region of utter darkness. For this, however, we were provided, for we had a. tinder box of lights. The view back upon the twilight lake we had crossed, its sullen eddies whirling round and round, and its echoes resounding to the ceaseless thunder of the waterfall, seemed dismal enough, and was aggravated by temporary darkness, and in some degree by a sense of danger. The lights, however, dispelled the latter sensation, if. it prevailed to any extent, and we found ourselves in a narrow cavern, sloping somewhat up from the water. We got out of the boat, proceeded along some slippery places upon shelves of the rock, and gained the dry land. I cannot say DRY, excepting comparatively.

We were then in an arched cave, 12 feet in the roof and about 12 feet in breadth, which went winding into the bowels of the earth for about 100 feet.

The sides, being like those of the whole cavern, of limestone rock, were covered with stalactites, and with small drops of water like dew, glancing like ten thousand sets of birthday diamonds under the glare of our lights. In some places these stalactites branch out into broad and curious ramifications, resembling coral and the foliage of submarine plants.

When we reached the extremity of this passage, we found it declined suddenly to a horrible gulf, or well, filled with dark water, and of great depth, over which the rock closed. We threw stones, which indicated great profundity by their sound; and growing more familiar with the horrors of this den, we sounded an oar, and found about 10 feet depth at the entrance, but discovered in the same manner, that the gulf extended under the rock, deepening as it went, God knows how far. Imagination can figure few deaths more horrible than to be sucked under these rocks into some unfathomable abyss.....

The mouth of this ugly gulf was all covered with slimy alluvious substances which led Mr. Stephenson to observe that it could not have any separate source, but must be fed from the waters of the outer lake and brook, as it lay upon the same level, and seemed to rise and fall with them, without having anything to indicate a separate current of its own. Rounding this perilous hole, or gulf, upon the aforesaid alluvious substance, which formed its shores, we reached the extremity of the cavern, which there ascend: like a vent, or funnel, directly up a sloping precipice, hideously black and slippery from wet and seaweeds. One of our sailors, a Zetiander, climbed a good way, and by holding up a light, we could plainly perceive that this vent closed after ascending to a considerable height; and here, therefore, closed the adventure of the Cave of Smowe, for it appeared utterly impossible to proceed further in any direction whatever.

There is a tradition that the first Lord Reay went through various subterranean abysses, and at length returned after ineffectually endeavoring to the extremity of the Smowe Cave.

Excerpt from the diary of Sir Walter Scott, published by J. G. Lockhart.