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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 Ambrosanae.

THE close association of grouse with the Heather will afford, it is hoped, ample apology for the introduction of the present chapter.

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, remarks:

"There are six—seven—blackcocks; 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 sings:

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 dinner.

It has been recorded that the total sporting capital of Scotland is estimated at about Ł12,000,000 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 scene—all these appeal to that poetical spiritual faculty which is latent even in the most prosaic statistician of St. Stephen's."

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 ragôuts 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 nothing—no bread sauce, no crumbs, no chips—no, 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 thus—a'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 forever.


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