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Wild Life in the West Highlands
THE BEAVER AND SCOTTISH TRADITION


IT is but natural that the wolf, as the most recent of our extinct animals to be extirpated, should have left a considerable volume of tale and tradition; but another and most interesting species, the beaver, appears to have died out of popular memory entirely. This animal was formerly an inhabitant of England and Scotland; and to-day it is still to be found in a state of nature in several localities of the continent of Europe.

That the beaver once inhabited Great Britain is proved beyond doubt, not so much by the written letter of history as by the discovery of its remains, both in England and Scotland. Singularly enough, there seems to be no record of any such discovery in Ireland. The whole subject has been ably and exhaustively treated by Mr. J. E. Harting, who shows that the beaver was apparently not yet uncommon in Wales about A.D. 940; that the value of the skin was then very considerable. Mr. Harting also gives much interesting information as to place-names in Wales apparently derived from the Welsh words signifying the beaver; and a list of the remains of this animal which have been from time to time discovered in Great Britain.

Before entering on the question of the beaver in Scotland it may be of interest to advert to the matter of its present status in Europe. Writing in 1857, Blasius states that although then still to be found on the Elbe, they were already approaching extinction. Other localities mentioned by him are the Havel, the Oder and the Weichsel, East Prussia and Silesia ; but he states that they were more common in Lithuania, Poland, Scandinavia and Northern Russia. To come to the present time, the subject of the beaver in Europe has been well summarised in an article in The Field of 20th February, 1909, under the heading of 'The present status of the European beaver' and signed 'J. E. H.' For full details readers must be referred to this article ; here it may be sufficient to note from it that, according to the testimony of M. Mingaud, conservator of the Natural History Museum of Nimes, the beaver still exists in some numbers in the Rhone; but M. Mingaud calls for more adequate protection lest it be exterminated from this 'its last haunt in France and one of the last in Europe.' The present status in other European countries is also touched on ; and from the authoritative testimony quoted in this paper we find that as regards Russia the beaver exists to-day in the governments of Minsk, Moghilev and Volhynia, and is in less danger of persecution to extinction owing to the great fall in the price of `castoreum' - a product no longer valued in medical practice; the status of the animal in Norway is likewise dealt with.

Beavers still exist in the Elbe in spite of Blasius' fears in 1857 that they were even then in danger of extinction. In some places indeed, as in Prussian state forests, they are protected. In a letter on this subject to The Field,' Mr. Henry Scherren quotes Dr. Martens of Magdeburg as estimating the number of beavers in the Elbe and its tributaries, the Mulde, Saale, Nuthe and Ehle, in 1904 as somewhere between 150 and 200. As regards Norway a note to The Field, signed 'G. L.,' states that the beavers are said to be on the increase in South Western Norway, and mentions several localities where colonies have long been known or have recently appeared.

The beaver from earliest days has been the object of unremitting persecution. Apart from its value as food, the fur has ever been greatly in request ; the curious musk-like product, castoreum, was highly esteemed as a remedial agent for almost every ailment ; and at a later period its fur was extensively used in the manufacture of hats ; so that 'beaver' and 'castor' were both constantly used as synonyms for 'hat.' Fortunately for the beaver, the introduction of silk in hat-making and the decline in the demand for castoreum somewhat lessened the persecution; but the fur is still much sought after, and the beaver is, it is to be feared, everywhere a diminishing race. Whether our European beaver and that of America are to be considered as identical seems to be still in dispute ; but the differences, if any, are so slight that they are practically the same species.

The beaver bears its part in the science of heraldry, although that cannot be held to be any proof of its former existence in our country. In reply to enquiry, one of our chief authorities on that subject has courteously supplied a list of twenty-two families, some of them Scottish, who use the beaver as a crest; [Alexander, Baynham, Beaver, Beever, Bell, Bevers, Besook, Beynham, Brooks, Coram, Corham, Danskine, Dimsdale, Eaton, Fenwick, Howell, Maclagan, Molineux, Sadleyr, Symcock, Symcott, Trowell.] it also appears on the shield of three families, one in Cheshire appearing in 1595, when, however, the animal had been long extinct in the United Kingdom. It does not seem to have left any record of its former presence in the place-names of Scotland; those enumerated as occurring in England in the work above referred to are few in number and perhaps not always convincing. Nothing is more apt to lead to error in this connection than to infer derivation from similarity in sound in present-day form.

It must at once be admitted that the evidence of the existence of the beaver in Scotland as indigenous inhabitants, although indubitable, is both remote and exceedingly scanty. That at one time they did so exist is proved by the finding of their remains in different parts of the country. The late Edward R. Alston, F. L. S., F. G. S., epitomises the matter thus: [Fauna of Scotland, 1880.]

'The palaeontological and traditionary evidence of the existence of the beaver in Scotland has been investigated by Neil [Edin. Phil. Journ.] and by Dr. Wilson. The first recorded sub-fossil skull was one from Perthshire, presented by Dr. Farquharson to the Scottish Society of Antiquaries in 1788 ; others have since been found in Roxburghshire and Berwickshire. Of its range into the historical period the evidence is not very satisfactory. In the twelfth century Giraldus de Barri, who met with beavers in Wales, was informed that they still existed in one river in Scotland, but were rare. In a capitular of export duties of David I., 1124-1153, skins of Beveris are included; but they are not mentioned in a similar Act of 1424. The late Prof. Cosmo Innes, however, pointed out to me that too much trust must not be given to these documents, as the lists of commodities appear in some cases to have been adopted from similar English or foreign enactments. Boethius includes Fibri among the wild animals which were found round Loch Ness "incomparabile numero," and Bellenden follows him; but, as usual, little or no reliance can be placed on his testimony, which was probably founded on hearsay.'

It is very strange that an animal in many ways so peculiar and so valuable, and one from its habits and mode of life bound to come under observation, should have left so little trace of its former presence in Scotland. In such Gaelic literature as is left to us, in song, folk-tales or living tradition, reference to it seems to be absolutely wanting. It is true that there are said to be traditions as to its existence; but on examination these do not seem to be very satisfactory. We are told that it has left its name, Los-leathan or Dobhran los-leathan, the broadtailed otter; and Stuart [Lays of the Deer Forest.] says that it has left its radical Gaelic name, Dobhar-chu, the water-dog; but we are not told where the first mentioned Gaelic name, Los-leathan is to be found; it certainly would seem to point to the beaver. Dobhar-chu, on the other hand - literally water-dog - appears equally applicable to the otter, or rather more so, for the otter is certainly more dog-like than the beaver.

The Rev. George Calder of Strathfillan, an acknowledged authority, writes to me that Leas-leathan is given in the Highland Society's Dictionary as 'beaver,' and los as rarely meaning tail by Armstrong; that loss, as meaning tail, is not infrequent in old Irish. He goes on to say that 'out of dictionaries one seems to get some gleanings; but in the language itself I have never seen any trace of beaver.' Another well-informed correspondent, the Rev. Charles M. Robertson, Craighouse, Jura, refers to Shaw's Gaelic Dictionary, 1780, as giving Dobhran-leaslathan, a beaver, and to Armstrong, 1825, who has Dobhranleaslan, an otter, otter being probably a slip of the pen. He continues: `Leas-leathann, a beaver, is given on the authority of common speech in the Highland Society's Gaelic Dictionary as Gaelic for beaver. Leas-leathann is given along with Dobhran-donn and Dobhar-chu in the English-Gaelic part of the same work, and with Dobhar-chu in MacLeod and Dewar's Dictionary. Macfarlane's Vocabulary, 1815, has Beaver-Douran, Leasleathann. "Dobharchu, a kind of otter supposed to be the king of the species," is given by the Highland Society's Dictionary on the authority of Llhuyd's Archaeologia Britannica. In Dinneen's Irish-English Dictionary, 1904, the name is stated to be pronounced Dobhrachu in County Donegal, and used of a mythical animal like an otter.

'There is nothing here to prove that the beaver ever existed in Scotland or in Ireland. All that is certain is that the Gael had a traditionary knowledge of the animal, but whether the knowledge was derived from travellers' reports from abroad, or from a time when the animal existed at home, there is nothing to show.'

As already said, all evidence, so far as it at present goes, points to the probability that the existence of the beaver in Scotland must be referred to a very remote period. Mr. Robertson, to whom I am much indebted, writes that he finds no mention of the beaver in the enumeration of the animals and birds of Ireland in one of the Ossianic ballads in the Book of the Dean of Lismore, and concludes:

`The impression left on my mind at present by the resemblance of the Gaelic los leathann, a beaver, to the Welsh llost-lydan, is that the Gaels were not familiar with the animal in Ireland, that they found it in Scotland on their arrival there, and that they borrowed a name from the native Pictish inhabitants. That view may, of course, be overturned or confirmed when further light is obtained on the origin of the names leas-leathainn and llost-lydan.'

By far the most interesting of the various dictionary references seems to be that to be found in M'Alpine's Gaelic Dictionary, `Dobhar-chu, a kind of otter which has no existence but in Donald's imagination; the price of its skin, which can heal all diseases, is its full of pure gold when made into a bag-a Chimera.' Now here, at last, we seem to have an undoubted traditionary recollection of the beaver, extending down to quite recent times; for the 'healing of all diseases' points surely to the mediaeval belief in the medicinal virtues and great value of the castoreum, and the skin itself in ancient days commanded a very high price; yet the tradition was already so dim that it had no significance for M'Alpine, who dismisses it as a` chimera.' To the most intelligent and well-informed Gaelic-speaking Highlanders of to-day the words Dobhar-chu or Dobhyan-losleathann appear to have but the vaguest or no significance ; at most one will be told ` a kind of otter.' Such is the experience at least of those who have kindly undertaken to assist in investigating the matter recently. One cannot but infer that the existence of the beaver in Scotland must be relegated to a very remote period indeed, and that they were extinct long before the time when they disappeared from Wales. Possibly, too, they may have been always sparsely distributed, and confined to a few favoured localities.

In 1875 an interesting attempt was made by the then Marquis of Bute to establish a beaver-colony in that island. A suitable piece of wooded ground, through which runs a stream, was fenced in, and in 1875 the first beavers placed in it. For many years the colony increased and throve. A very interesting account of this experiment was published by their keeper in 1880, and is reproduced in full in Mr. Harting's work mentioned above. Enquiry recently made has brought the information that the beavers did very well for a time in semi-captivity, but having been, perhaps, somewhat neglected, died out about eighteen years ago. A correspondent who was intimately acquainted with the whole course of the experiment writes that the first beavers arrived in January, 1875; that the keeper who had charge of them is now dead, but the writer remembers that they seemed to die out one by one, and feels sure that they were all dead long before it was known, as it was always very difficult to see them at work. He mentions that they did wonderful work in plastering the breast-wall of their dam in the stream to keep the water from getting through. Willow, ash, and elm were their favourite trees ; they liked clean bark, and they cut a few larch and Scotch fir, but not many.

It would be interesting if some of our Scottish proprietors were to try this experiment again. There must be many places well adapted by nature for such a purpose, and one can imagine that a beaver-colony would be a fascinating addition to a Highland estate. If a site were chosen so as to be commanded from a retired spot where a concealed shelter could be contrived, a novel and interesting occupation would be found in watching, with a powerful telescope, the work of these animals in what might practically be a state of nature.


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