The British Isles: Wakeman Tells of Some of His Wanderings Through the Beautiful Parts of Ireland and Scotland-- Places Made Famous in History

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The British Isles: Wakeman Tells of Some of His Wanderings Through the Beautiful Parts of Ireland and Scotland-- Places Made Famous in History

from: The Atlanta Constitution (P. 5)  February 1, 1891

     Nottingham, Eng., January 14 [1891].—The longer one wanders in England, Scotland and Ireland, the more encompassing and impressive becomes that charm growing out of what may be termed literary identification.
     Over there in Ireland what can be more fascinating than a silent ramble about slumberous old Yonghal and up drowsy Kilcoman way? There Raleigh and Spenser lived, loved and wrought. Tramping from Killarney to Cahersiveen, one lingers lovingly at Carhan bridge; for beside it, the great O'Connell was born. Who but a bigot can climb the Rock of Cashel without a subdued and reverential feeling from the historic and sacred surroundings; or who, but an insensate, shudders not at Boyne and Aughrim where the life of a nation broke in its last wild throb upon river and morass? Then, at Slane, who can fail of awe in the presence of prehistoric monuments rivaling the pyramids themselves? To stand upon Tara's hill, in Meath, and in fancy see St. Patrick, unmindful of the treachery planning his death, with his eight devoted followers, coming up the royal hill, chanting his prayer, "May the word of God render me eloquent!" to forever dim the fires of Belltaine with the sacred flame of Christianity through the conversion of King Laeghaire, and the overthrow of paganism in Ireland, is to come with startling tenderness close to an inspired career of one who lived but to bless, nearly 1,500 years ago. Vague and far it was to you before. But you feel and know the story now.
     So, too, how illimitable seem human cycles, yet how compact and little, when you are stumbling among the remains of that tremendous pagan stronghold, Dun Ængus, on the remotest precipice of Aranmore, the most desolate of all Ireland's islands. The great archeologist, Dr. Petrie, termed it "the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe." The legend is that Dun Ængus and the five other great forts, or duns, of the Aran islands were built from 1,000 to 1,500 years before the Christian era, by the flying and fated Firbolgs. No matter about the legend. There they stand today, more weird, suggestive, and awe-inspiring in their dread secrets of the people that were, than ever could lie in the silence of the Lybian sphinx. And then, away in the north, over beyond old Derry, what a thrill flashes through one when standing alone upon the walls of the mighty Grianan of Aileach, whote[sic] existance can be definitely traced to the period of 1053 before Christ! Grinnan, the mighty dun, of which we read in the Dinnsenchas:
 
Aileach-Firin, plat of the king-rath royal of the world;
Dun, to which led horse roads, through five mighty ramparts.
 
     So they did. You can trace them to this day as clearly as the paths in your own garden. On the crests of those circling mountains burned the signal fires in the dim days, a tiara of flame to wake the helots and their herds. Thither to the Grianan they streamed, those skin-clad hordes. Within those very ramparts huddled the affrighted women and the flocks. Within those very walls kings watched over battles. There were the feasts of victory; the wailings and lamentations; the weird, wild rites; all 1,000 years before barbarous man looked beyond the god of day to the one infinite God. But you did not believe this until your own feet had pressed the same earth theirs had trod, and your eyes had looked upon lone Errigal, like a cone of steel in the west, and, through the grim, dark passes, to the purple mists above Armagh and Tyrone.
     In all that can be read of the "Land o' Cakes" how the true feeling is lacking, until one weds presence and actuality with the toneless tales of words! To know the weird straths and glens of the north, to breathe their air, drink in their wild and gorgeous colorings, to listen to the roar of their glorious waterfalls, to call over their silent lochs, to tremble in their mighty storms, is to come very close in thought and sympathy to that grand and noble race which all the Roman legions could not conquer. Its desperate, fateful loyalty to the house of Stuart can never be fully understood until you have tramped from the western ocean to the German, and wandered on Culloden Moor. Macbeth, King Duncan and Malcolm Canmore are mere creatures of Shakespeare's fancy, until you find in the musty records of old Inverness that they once walked its streets with all of your own passion, hope, ambition; and until you have stood on Tomnahaurich, by the Ness-side, you have never really known Hugh Miller, stone mason, great heart and sage. Despite Dr. Johnson's matchless apostrophe on Iona, the story of Columb's saintly isle, of the Christian enlightenment emanating from it to the whole British isles and the greater part of Europe, when nearly all the scenes lighted by the first fires of apostolic sacrifice had partially relapsed into superstitious barbarism, is as dreamful as the legends of the Holy Grail, until you have stood among the majestic ruins of Iona and wandered along its "Straid-na-Marbh," where lie countless chiefs, friars, abbots and kings. After you have passed an hour in the ancient churchyard of Greyfriars, in Edinburgh, you will begin to realize who were the Convenantors of Scotland, and what they endured for their consciences' sake. When you have come to the ruins of Lochmaben, Robert the Bruce, patriot king and warrior, first leaves the mists of legend and tradition, and welcomes you as a man of flesh and blood to his old home by the sedgy lake. Melrose, Dryburg and all the grand monastic structure of the sunny, murmurous Tweed are poets' phantasms until you wander among their ruined cloisters and touch with your own hands the brave old stones of their majestic arches. Scott, the "Ettrick Shepherd," Carlyle, even Burns himself, are half ideal, until you have stood by the Ettrick and Yarrow, sadly left the princely Abbottsford, shuddered at the dolorous dearth and meanness of Carlyle's boyhood home at Ecclefechan, and heard with your own hearing the melodious songs of the Nith and the Doon.
     If this is true of Ireland and Scotland how infinitely more impressive is this identification to the average American pilgrim in England, the motherland of our own race and tongue. A mighty volume, and a sweet and tender one withall, could be made, relegating apparent realities to their home in mythland, and beckoning from the realms of legend and tradition the actual beings whom imagery first swept from reality, and whom successive centuries of poetic fancy, shared alike by us from childhood to manhood, have placed farther and farther behind the ever-loved veilings of mystery and song. No two characters in the semi-mythology of Britain are better illustrations than those of King Arthur and Robin Hood. Antitypes as they were and are, the one the embodiment of the loftiest and noblest qualities in ruler and man, the other, jocund anarchist and Puckish freebooter and "leveler" of his time, both are objects of equal, though unlike, devotion not only in the literature of centuries, but in the breasts of millions who speak the English tongue.
     The most curious thing about those two characters is that the least aids to the identification are found among the high-minded and learned. Literature universally places them in shadowland. But go where you may among the English lowly, King Arthur is really there; Robin Hood with his faithful Little John, Friar Tuck and their hundred archers bold, are over a goodly company, a helpful, unconscious, ethical counterpoise, it has sometimes seemed to me, where burdens and impositions of caste and condition are most grievous and sore to abide. A few years of wandering among the British lowly, more than all reading and study, have convinced me that both King Arthur and Robin Hood once really existed and lived much the same manner of lives as the song ballad makers, altogether responsible for their legendary character, have shadowed forth. I can take you into thousands of cabins in Devonshire, Cornwall, and in Brittany—for King Arthur is even more a god to the Britons than to the west of England Armorican Celts—where books are unknown; where no manner of literature ever came; where history of clan and sept have been preserved from father to son; where the Arthurian legends live more bright and glowing than in all the printed tales of the Round Table. These absolutely bookless folk will take you to the very landing place of King Uther; show you the real remains of the twin castle[s] Tintagel and Terrabil; relate how Uther Pendragon besieged the duke of Cornwall, slew him, and the same day wed his widow, Ygrayne, to whom the child, Arthur, was born, and reared by the enchanter, Merlin, under good Sir Ector's care, who restored to him the kingdom of Cornwall on Pendragon's death; how the noble King Arthur instituted the order of the Knights of the Round Table, whose saintly acts in the service of God and man, until they fell into sin, were deeds of good and glory; how Arthur loved only and wed Guinevere, receiving his death wound in battle with his rebellious nephew's forces at Camelford (which the poets make Camelot). Arthur bade the royal knight, Sir Bedever, carry him to Dozmare Pool, fling his sword Excalibur therein, when a boat, rowed by three queens, appeared. Into this Arthur was lifted and borne away to the island-vale of Avillion, that his grievous wound might be healed. These folk say, and believe that Arthur is still in fairy land; that his spirit often returns in the guise of a bird, the chough, hovering about the old scenes with pathetic murmurings; and that he will surely "come again,"  
     wearing the white flower of a blameless life,
 
to reign as a king should and might over his beloved England. Literature never provided a hundred thousand bookless folk with this. It remains, because in it has been preserved, without books, a fadeless actuality.
     In like manner Robin Hood's land becomes the whole of England. Piercing their armor of sodden reserve, you will find that the sober English peasant and the grave English workman have minds full enough of chivalry and romance. Robin Hood is immortal with these, because of a "leveler" of rank and class, he represents an undefinable yet certain power to buffet the church and the nobility. He is a rescuer of maids in distress and men in duress. He embodies the unconscious yet universal leaning towards communism among the English lowly. Above all, he is the luminous type of that dearest thing to every lowly Briton's heart, "fair play," whether in frolic, free-booting or fight. Fairly defined, Robin Hood's land comprises the shires of Nottingham and Lincoln, with the southern half of Yorkshire. There is not a ploughman, forester, game-keeper, and, I would almost venture to say, any human being among the lowly outside the factories, in this portion of England, who has not a clearer conception of the life, character and exploits of the merry outlaw than all books could give. As is well known, the manuscript and old record researches by the Rev. Joseph Hunter, an assistant keeper of the public records of England, made public in 1852, placed fairly within the domain of authentic history the facts concerning the actual existence and career of Robin Hood. He was born about 1290. His family were of some station, and seated at Wakefield. With many others he became an outlaw from having espoused the cause of the unfortunate earl of Lancaster. He retreated with a hundred or more of his comrades to the depths of Sherwood forest, not a score of miles from his birthplace. By their unequaled skill in archery, godless pranks with lords and bishops, robberies of the high to share with the lowly, and their adequate wits in all exegencies, they secured the loyalty of the peasantry roundabout and put to defiance the entire forces of the crown. At this juncture King Edward wisely pardoned Robin Hood, giving him service as one of the "valets porteurs de la chambre," in the royal household. Here he remained more than a year; to which existing vouchers for his payment attest. But the hunger for the greenwood was too strong. Begging the king for permission to visit the old chapel at Barnsdale it was granted "for a s'ennight." Having once rejoined his comrades, he could not again be persuaded to leave them; and he continued the old outlaw's life until, resorting to the priory of Kirkless for surgical aid, he died from loss of blood, and was buried in the grounds of the priory, now Kirkless hall, four miles north of Huddlesfield, and the seat of the noble family of Armytage.
     But, precisely as I have found with the Cornish and Devonshire peasantry in identification of King Arthur and his land, it is among the lowly of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire that are discovered innumerable proofs, in tradition, ballad, and nomenclature, of the merry outlaw and his men. Literature has not created these for the delectation of an ignorant peasantry. The peasantry themselves have furnished, by word of mouth, the material—and but an infintesimal portion has been utilized—enabling writers old and new to transfer the real Robin Hood to the Robin Hood of fiction and song. A close defining of Robin Hood's land would give it the area of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire and Barnsdale forest in Yorkshire, with a narrow strip of country leading northeast, through southern Yorkshire, to the sea, near Scarborough, the latter being occasionally traversed by the outlaws when too closely pressed by the king's soldiery. In the outlaw's time but one highway traversed the region. That was the old Roman road from London to Berwick. Perhaps half a dozen hamlets, the one ancient city of Nottingham, so old that its history has been traced back 950 years before the Christian era and its inhabitants dug holes in the rock for homes, and a few chapels, abbeys and priories of the rudest construction, could have been found in all the area. Today a forest of chimneys stands where stood the giant English oaks. You can look from no open spot within it, without your horizon being clouded with their black silhouettes against a smoke-laden sky. As many hundreds of towns and hamlets are in Robin Hood's land now as there were single ones in the archer-outlaw's time. But near the roaring of the forge, the clatter of the looms and the mournful songs of millions of spindles, like the tiny nests of the meadow larks escaping the blades of the reapers, are little nests of English peasants' homes, bits of English copse and hedge, and patches of ancient English oak, which modern industry and modern landlordism have not quite effaced; and it is among these, seeking the wraiths and traditions of the olden Robin Hood's land and the new, that we will go pilgriming in our next.