The Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay Grouse: The Heather Bird
To know the wind and weather will make the salmon
spring; To know the spot of heather that hides the strongest wing; To
tell the moon's compliance with hail, rain, wind and snow; Hat ha! this
is the science of Roger Goodfellow.Noctes
THE close association of grouse with the Heather
will afford, it is hoped, ample apology for the introduction of the
The existence of grouse among the Heather, and the
service rendered by the plant to the birds, attracted the attention of
the early historians of Scotland. Bellenden, in his translation of Boece,
writes: "In Scotland ar mony mure cokis and hennis quhilk etis nocht bot
seid, or croppis of hadder."
This statement is reflected in the following:
Within the fabric rude Or e'er the moon waxes to the full, The assiduous dame the spotted spheroid sees
And feels beneath her heart, fluttering with joy. Not long she sits,
till with redoubled joy
Around her she beholds an active brood Run to and fro, or through her covering wings
Their downy heads look out: and much she loves To pluck the Heather
crop, not for herself,
But for their little bills. Thus, by degrees, She teaches them to
find food which God Has spread for them in desert wild. And seeming barrenness.
Grouse were usually taken by hawking and netting
until shooting flying was introduced, which is said by Fosbroke to have
been in 1725.
Grouse, says St. John, generally make their nest
in pL high tuft of Heather. "The eggs are peculiarly beautiful and
gamelike, of a rich brown color, spotted closely with black. Although in
some peculiarly early seasons the young birds are full grown by the 12th
of August, in general five birds out of six which are killed on that day
are only half come to their strength and beauty. The 20th of the month
would be a much better day on which to commence their legal persecution.
In October there is not a more beautiful bird in our island; and in
January, a cock grouse is one of the most superb fellows in the world,
as he struts about fearlessly with his mate, his bright red comb erected
above his eyes, and his rich dark brown plumage shining in the sun.
Unluckily they are more easily killed at this time of the year than at
any other; and I have been assured that a ready market is found for
them, not only in January, but to the end of February, though in fine
seasons they begin to nest very early in March. Hardy must the grouse
be, and prolific beyond calculation, to supply the numbers that are
killed legally and illegally."
Another writer gives the following description of
the black grouse: "Although a forest-haunting bird, frequenting pine
woods and the shrubby glens of mountain ranges, the black grouse does
not confine itself to such locations, but visits the sides of the
heath-clad hills, or the wide, open moorland, where the bilberry plant
abounds, and also makes incursions into cultivated tracts for the
purpose of feeding upon the grain of oats, or rye, or often upon the
blades of corn.
"During autumn and winter the males, having laid
aside their mutual animosity, associate together in small flocks, apart
from the females; but in the spring they separate, and each chooses and
maintains his own exclusive territory. Here he calls the females around
him, but these soon wander away in search of sites for incubation,
where, unassisted, they rear their brood. The eggs vary from six to ten
in number. The young males are clothed in the garb of the females till
the autumnal months, when they acquire the glossy black plumage of their
own sex, with whom they associate till the ensuing spring.
"During the winter, when the snow is deep, the
black grouse feeds upon the tops and buds of the birch and alder, and
also upon the young and tender shoots of the fir and pine, as well as of
the tall heath.
"The red grouse, according to ornithologists, is
confined exclusively to the British Isles. As a rule, it may be said
that wherever in extensive hilly moorlands the Ling or Heather prevails,
there, unless driven from its asylums, the red grouse will be found in
more or less abundance.
"They pair in January and breed in March. The
nest, if we may so call it, is composed of twigs of Heather, wiry
moorland grass, often cotton grass intermixed with a few feathers or a
little coarse sheep's wool. Sometimes the nest is placed under a deep
covert of Heather; but we have seen it amid bilberry bushes; in patches
of cotton grass; and, occasionally, in depressions surrounded by low
herbage, such as wild thyme, etc., midway on the mountain side."
The industry of the birds, if it can be so termed,
is thus quaintly pictured by Wm. Black in "White Heather":
Ronald Strang, in conversation with Carry Hodson,
"There are sixsevenblackcocks; do ye see them ?"
"Oh.. yes. What handsome birds they are!" she
said, with a curious sense of relief.
"Ay," said he, "the lads are very friendly amongst
themselves just now; but soon there will be wars and rumors of wars when
they begin to set up house each for himself. There will be many a
pitched battle on those knolls there. Handsome? Ay, they're handsome
enough; but handsome is as handsome does. The blackcock is not nearly as
good a fellow as the grouse-cock, that stays with his family and
protects 'them, and gives them the first warning if there's danger.
These rascals there wander off by themselves and leave their wives and
children to get on as they can. They're handsome, but they're ne'er-do-weeIs.
There's one thing: the villain has a price put on his head; for a man
would rather bring down one old cock thumping on the grass than fill his
bag with gray hens."
Grouse shooting in Scotland and other parts of
Great Britain has long been classed among the most enjoyable of sports.
It commences on August 12, ending on the 10th of December, and so great
is its hold on British lawgivers that it has been facetiously remarked
that "the grouse season rules the Parliamentary recess," although
Professor Blackie, with equal facetiousness, has told us: "A London
brewer shoots the grouse. A lordling stalks the deer." And, as the poet
Who treads on the heather will ne'er feel the
gout, Though to health he has been a wild sinner; Nor die of a
surfeit, though after a bout With some chief at a true Highland
It has been recorded that the total sporting
capital of Scotland is estimated at about £12,000,000 sterling. The
sporting rental of the shire of Inverness alone is estimated at L5o,000
a year, in calculating the rental of a moor, and this allows a guinea
for every brace of grouse shot on it. Or, as another writer puts it:
"'The Heather is cheap enough,' we are sometimes told; 'it ranges from
about seven pence to eighteen pence an acre;' but the extras amount up
to a tidy sum before the season closes. * * * No good shooting with a
comfortable residence upon it can be obtained much under two hundred and
fifty pounds for the season; but the expenses concomitant largely
augment that sum."
The Rev. Hugh Macmillan thus pictures the
associations of the sport: "The fresh, exhilarating air of the hills,
laden with the all-pervading perfume of the heather bells; the
magnificent prospect of hill and valley stretching around; the blue
serenity of the autumnal sky; the carpet of flowering Heather glowing
for miles on every side, and so elastic to the tread: the vastness and
profundity of the solitude; as well as the strange and unfamiliar sights
and sounds of the sceneall these appeal to that poetical spiritual
faculty which is latent even in the most prosaic statistician of St.
The diseases of the grouse and their causes have
long given concern to the ardent sportsman; and the matter has been
frequently discussed. About half a century ago several contributions on
the subject appeared in "Chambers' Journal." One writer remarked: "It
would seem from a series of articles that sheep are in excess, which is
very naturally the case now in Scotland on many moors. The Heather must
be burned to a great extent to make room for them and to produce fresh
food, which is depriving grouse of shelter. In the next place, as sheep
are perpetually in motion, they constantly disturb the ground, and in
the breeding season unquestionably destroy the nests, and in the autumn
they are dressed with an ointment composed of butter, tar and mercury.
The question then arises as to whether the dressing so far affects the
constitution of the sheep for a time that the soil and herbage are
influenced thereby so as to be prejudicial to grouse."
Another writer, in the same journal, says: "Let
Scotland return to its natural state, as I found it in 1832, and feed on
its grouse portions the Highland black-faced sheep in place of its
foreign usurper, the white-faced Cheviot. The black-faced requires less
care, less burning of the Heather, less gathering and driving, less
grease and tar, stains the ground less. travels less in bodies, and with
its quick eye and light, careful tread, respects the nest and eggs of
its native companion."
Colonel Whyte, an authority, remarks: "The place
the grouse loves to feed on is knolly ground, with the young, short
Heather sprouting up; and this is precisely the spot which the sheep
selects for his nightly resting place. Can we wonder, then, at the
livers of grouse being diseased, feeding, as the birds do, on Heather
besmeared with mercury?"
"The diseases of the grouse," says an authority,
"a contagious epidemic like cholera, scarlet fever or measles; bad
Heather; the consequences of overstocking unwholesome food; atmospheric
influences; tape worms dropped from sheep in embryo form and taken up by
the grouse in their food; and liver complaint. Disease proceeded from
lead poisoning, caused by the grouse eating shot. Shot, by oxidation,
becomes the color of whortleberries; it is thought that the grouse
picked them up in mistake for these berries.
"The most wholesome food for the grouse are the
young and tender shoots of the Heather. Old, rank Heather, and decayed
fibers, lack the conditions requisite for a healthy condition of grouse,
and are not duly assimilated in the system of the bird; disease of the
liver, from the results of which they speedily die. When there is not a
sufficiency of young Heather for the grouse to feed upon they will take
other food which does not agree with them. Scottish Heather, again, is
of great importance for the nests of the grouse. Grouse never hatch in
long Heather if they can avoid it; nor do they lie in it. Nests are
rarely found in Heather of more than a foot in length. When amid close,
rank heath, the young birds eat the decayed fibers and die of
indigestion. They are also liable to disease from the damp, unhealthy
position when they leave the nests."
Those who have eaten this feathered product of the
Scottish mountains and moors will readily indorse Voltaire's following
characterization: "L'oiseau du Phase et le coq de brujčre de vingt
ragōuts I' appret delicieau charment Ic nez, le palais, et les yeuz."
The following description of "How to Eat Grouse"
is by the famous French chef, M. Soyer: "There is a wonderful gout in
your bird of the Heather which baffles me; it is so subtle that I fail
to analyze it. It is, of course, there, because of the food that it
eats, the tender, young shoots of your beautiful heath; but it is
curious, sir, that in some years these birds are better than in others.
Once in about six seasons your grouse is surpassingly charming to the
palate; the bitter of the backbone is heavenly, and the meat on the
fleshy part of short and of exquisite flavor; but for common I feel no
difference. In all other years the best is mediocre, and not any
attentions of my art will improve it. In such years I leave it alone;
but in the years of its perfection I do eat one bird daily, roasted, and
with nothingno bread sauce, no crumbs, no chipsno, nothing, except a
crust of bread to occasionally change my palate. Ah, sir, grouse, to be
well enjoyed, should be eaten in secret; and take my experience as your
guide: Don't let the bird you eat be raw and bloody, but well roasted;
and drink with it, at intervals, a little sweet champagne. Never mind
your knife and fork; suck the bones, and dwell upon them. Take plenty of
time. That is the true way to enjoy a game bird."
The love of the Professor, as portrayed in Notes,
for the royal sport is well known, a love not wholly shared in by the
more poetic and sensitive Shepherd, who thus addressed some unfortunate
victims of the Professor's skill with the rifle: "The bonny gray hens. I
could kneel down on the floor and kiss ye, and gather ye up in my airms
and press ye to my heart till the feel o' your feathers filled my veins
wi' love and pity, and I grat to think that never rnair would the hill
fairies welcome the gleam o' your plumage risin' up in the morning licht
amang the green plots on the sloping sward that, dipping down into the
valley, retains here and there, as though loth to lose them, a few small
stray sprinklings of the Heather bells."
The Gaelic term for the male bird is
Coileachfraoch, i. e., heather cock; and for the female Cearcfraoch, i.
e., heather hen.
The cry of the grouse sounds like the words, "go,
go, go, go back, go-o back!" But Mr. McGillwray (British Birds, I., p.
181) says "that the Celts, naturally imagining the moor-cock to speak
Gaelic, interpret it as signifying, "co, co, co, co, mo-chlaidh, mo-chlaidh
1" i. e., "Who, who, who, who (goes there?), my sword, my sword!"
Mr. Campbell, in his "West Highland Tales" (I., p.
227), explains it thus: "This is what the hen says: 'Faic thusa'm la
ud's'n la ud eile.' And the cock, with his deeper voice, replies: 'Faic
thus an cnoc ud s'n cnoc ud eile.' 'See thou yonder day, and yon other
day,' 'See thou yonder hill, and yon other hill.' The grouse
occasionally furnished inspiration for Burns, as in the following:
Now westlin' winds and slaughtering guns Bring
autumn's pleasant weather; The moorcock springs, on whirring wings
Among the blooming heather.
Again, in that feeling composition where he calls
on his feathered friends to mourn the demise of Captain Matthew
Henderson, "a gentleman who held the patent for his honors immediately
from Almighty God,"
Mourn, ye wee songsters o' the wood; Ye grouse
that crap the heather bud, Ye curlews calling thro' the dud; Ye
whistling plover; And mourn ye whirring paitrick brood; He's gane
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