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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
II. Notes on Natural History


The Rev. LACHLAN SHAW, in his History of Moray (1770), says:

"There were Wolves in this country 300 years ago, but now there are none. There are still in this province Foxes, Badgers, Martens, Squirrels, Weasels, Whitrats, Wild-cats." He adds "The ravenous and carnivorous wild fowls are numerous. Among them the Eagle is called with us the King of Birds. Hawks, Gleds, Stenchils, Ravens, Crows, Rooks, Magpies, &c., are numerous. The harmless wild fowls are the Swan, Caperkylic, called also the Cock of the Wood." The Wolf was at one time a terror, as appears from Acts of Parliament, and even Church Litanies. When the last Wolf was killed is a disputed question. Almost every parish in the north has its legend on the subject. Moy claims the honour for Macqueen of Poll-a-Chrocain, about the beginning of last century; Duthil, on the other hand, alleges that the feat was performed by a woman, the guidwife of Lochanhully, with no better weapon than a gridiron! Abernethy also has its legend connected with Coire Mhadaidh, the Wolf’s Hollow, in Kincardine Slugan. Of the animals mentioned by Shaw, some were extinct in his day, and some have since disappeared.

Sixty years ago the Wild-cal was not uncommon. It is now extinct. One of the last was killed at Eas-na-feannaige, the Water-fall of the Hooded Crow, on the Nethy, by the late William Grant, Balmeanach. Another was destroyed somewhat earlier at Sleighich. It had been preying on the poultry. One morning some ducks were missed. There was snow on the ground, and the cat was tracked to its den, which was under the gnarled roots of an ancient fir. It was dug out, killed, and laid on the bank before the house. The goodwife, Mrs Fyfe, who had been nursing her wrath, came hurriedly out, spurtle in hand, when she heard the news, and heartily belaboured the beast, accompanying each blow with cries of mingled rage and delight. Revenge was sweet sixty years ago.

Kites, called in the country Gleds (G. Clamham, from the forked tail), were common. It was a pretty sight to watch them hunting the stubbles in autumn— 

"Kites that swim sublime,
In still repeated circles screaming loud
"—(Cowper.)

—and to mark the unerring skill with which they struck their prey, though it might be only some tiny mouse or burrowing mole.

Sixty years ago the Woodpecker might be heard at work in the forest "making stiller by its sound the inviolable quietness."— (Shelley.) Nothing now remains to tell of its history but the oval-shaped holes, which may be found in some of the older trees.

Sixty years ago the Osprey was a yearly visitor. There is a knoll on the Alltmore, which was probably of old one of its haunts, as it bears the name of Torr-an-Iasgair, the Torr of the Fisher, or Fish Eagle. There were, at least, two other places in which the Osprey used to build down to the middle of the century. One of these was on the Nethy, near the Big Dam, where a pair had their nest on a solitary fir. It is said their favourite fishing-place was where the Nethy enters the Spey. James Glas (Grant), ferryman, Broornhill, used to watch them. When they had their young, the male bird came down morning and evening, and, after soaring about for a little, would make a dash at a fish, and seldom in vain. Holding its prey fast with its talons, it would rise up high in air, and sweep away grandly to its haunt in the hills. Once a curious thing happened. A young man of the name of Stewart took in hand to get the eggs for some greedy collector. The tree was hard to climb, as it was thick and branchless, but Stewart was equal to the task. Bit by bit he made his way up. The eagles at first kept aloof, but watchful. Soon they were roused. Their screams became loud and angry. Nearer and nearer they swept in their circlings, till the poor lad could feel the swoop of their wings. At last he reached the top, and, his head just projecting above the nest, he put out his hand to seize the eggs. This was too much. The mother-bird made a fierce dash at him. Fortunately, her talons only pierced his bonnet, which she bore off in triumph. But he got such a fright that he hurried down, glad to leave the nest unharried if he himself escaped. The other haunt of the Osprey was at Loch Morlich. The remains of the nest may still be seen on the bough of a hinge fir, overhanging the water, at the southeast side of the loch. The tree is called Craobh-na-h’ Iolaire, the Eagle’s Tree but it has been deserted for some years, the birds having been shot, or scared away by persistent plundering of the nest. Loch-an-Eilan, in Rothiemurchus, is now perhaps the only resort of the osprey. and long may it find the old castle a safe retreat and home for its young.

Sixty years ago the Badger was not uncommon. One of its best known haunts was at Lynmagilbert, near the Forest Lodge. Here at the foot of a steep bank it had its den, from which it sallied forth on its nightly excursions. It is now very scarce—if not extinct. Probably the demand for skins to make sporrans for Highland dresses hastened its destruction.

The history of the Hedgehog is curious. Sixty years ago it seemed extinct. The skin of one killed in Tulloch used to hang on a passage wall at the Dell as a great curiosity, and strange stories were told of the habits of the animal, and especially of its fondness for apples. Some years later the hedgehog quietly reappeared. Since then it is not uncommon, though from its nocturnal habits and shyness it is seldom seen. There is a Gaelic saying as to the hedgehog " Cnuasachd na graineig." This, says Armstrong, is "expressive of the folly of worldly-minded people who part with all at the grave, as the hedgehog is compelled to drop its burden of crab-apples at the narrow entrance of its hole." Shakespeare in "Measure for Measure" (Act III., I), has a similar sentiment:-

"If thou art rich—thou art poor,
For like an ass, whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear’st thy heavy burden but a journey,
And
death unloads thee."

There has been much contention as to Squirrels, whether they are indigenous or not. Mr Harvie Brown has considered the question with much care; but with people who knew the country well, there was never any doubt as to the matter. Three things may be stated. First, for the last sixty years it is consistent with the knowledge of persons still living that squirrels have existed continuously in Abernethy. They may have been less numerous at times, and in some districts, perhaps after severe winters, but in the old pine forests, and where cones were abundant, they were always to be found. Next Shaw (1770) says:

"The Squirrel is a pretty, sportive, harmless creature; it is a kind of wood weasel, haunts the fir trees; if you toss chips or sticks at it, it will toss pieces of bark back again, and thus sports with you; if it is driven out of a tree, and, skipping into another, finds the distance too great, it turns back to its former lodge, its bushy tail serving for a sail or wings to it." There may be doubt as to the accuracy of the Rev. Lachlan’s description of the squirrel’s gymnastic feats, but there can be no question as to the fact of its being in his day a common denizen of the woods. Then further back still there are proofs of the cornmonness of the squirrel in the place-names of the parish. To give one instance, there is a croft on the Altmore, a mile above the Manse, a bright sunny spot facing the south, admired by many, which is called "Ruigh-na-feoraige," the Ruigh or haunt of the squirrel, a name which can be traced back for more than two hundred years. The squirrel is sometimes very destructive to young trees, and is being mercilessly shot down; but we would miss it sadly if it were gone from our woods.

The Polecat or Foumart (C. Taghan) has disappeared. The last is said to have been trapped in Glenmore in 1860. The Pine-marten is also gone, but from its wandering habits stray individuals are occasionally seen. The Stoat and the Weasel (G. Neas) are still with us. So also is the 0tter. Its track may often be seen by the Altmore, and sometimes a dead salmon, from which it has taken the bite it loves best—--from the back of the neck—may be found lying on the bank of the Spey. The Fox still holds its own, notwithstanding the long and merciless war that has been waged against him.

Shaw says of the Capercailie that it is "properly in Erse (Gaelic) ‘Capal-coille,’ i.e., the Wood Horse, being the chief fowl of the woods. He resembles, and is of the size of; a turkey cock, of a dark grey, and red about the eyes. He lodges in bushy fir-trees, and is very shy. But the hen, which is much less in size, lays her eggs in the heather, where they are destroyed by foxes and wild cats, and thereby the Caperkylie is become rare. His flesh is tender and delicious, though somewhat of a resinous taste." That the same high opinion of the flesh of the capercailie was entertained by others, and that it was thought a dish fit to set before a king, is proved from official letters at Castle Grant. Thus in a letter, 22nd March, 1617, addressed by the Privy Council to the Laird of Grant, it is said: "After oure verie hairtlie cornmendationics. By His Majestie’s letter whiche you shall heirwith ressave, you will persaeve how eirnist his Majestie is to haif some Capercaillies and termigants sent to his Majestie, and to meet his Majestie be the way in his comeing to this countrey, and thairfor we haif thoght meete to accompany his Majestie’s letter with this of ouris, eirnistle requeisting and desiring you to use the best means you can to gett some resounable provision and stoir of each kynd of thir foulis, and to haif thame in this toun freshe and callour, upon the XXV. day of Aprile next to come preceislie, quhich is the preceis day that we haif appointit thame to be heir, to the effect ordour may be tane for the tymous and seasounable dispatche of the same to his Majestie to New Castell; and to the effect you may come the better speid in this bussynes, thir presentis sal be ane warrant unto you and your servandis for shoiting and slaying of thir foullis with gunnis." The Goshawk was also in request. John. second Earl of Mar, in a letter to Sir John Grant of Freuchie, dated Holyrood House, 25th July, 1623, says—" I cannot all this tyme send you my sleuth biche, for shee is presetlie with hir quhelps, bott I shall prowyd aine for you, with all diligens. I will not be contented give ye send me nott ether a Halk or a tersell of Gosallk, an ye var never so scaunt, bott ether send thaem soon or nocht, and I shall give your man his drink sillar." In another letter, 1st May, 1624, the Earl says - "I pray you forgett nott sum of your halkis to me this yeir, and the souner I gett them (efter they may be caned) the better." Then the Earl of Glencairn, Chancellor of Scotland, writes with a similar request, 13th October, 1660, for, after thanking the Laird for keeping peace in his bounds, he adds in a postscript—" If yon can procure or send me one good tirsell of gooshauke xxith the first possible conveniency I shall accompt the same a speciall favour."

The Goshawk seems to be now extinct, but it existed so late as Colonel Thornton’s days, who says— "The forest formed by Glenmore and Rothiemurchus produces some noble fir trees, and is an asylum for stags and roe-bucks in it are also some eyries of Goos-hawks, some of which I saw." In 1849, Mr St John writes— "The only place where I know of its breeding regularly is the forest of Darnaway; but I am told that they also breed in the large fir woods near the Spey"; and again, later, in "Natural History and Sport in Moray," he says— "A few years ago it bred regularly in the forest of Darnaway, and it may still do so. It also breeds in the forest of Glenmore, near Grantown, on the Spey." The Goshawk and the Peregrine may have been sometimes confounded. The latter breeds on the Ailnag, and has an eyrie on the cliffs above the Green Loch, Glenmore.

The Golden Eagle is still a denizen of our mountains. One of its eyries is on the Ailnag, and there is another on the cliff called Stac na-h’ Iolaire, the Eagle’s Stack. Visitors may still, though rarely, be gratified by a sight of this noble bird in their rambles among the mountains. Perhaps they see it passing far overhead, and hear its scream mellowed by distance. Perhaps they watch with admiration its calm and majestic flight, till with a fresh impulse it sweeps fleetly forward, dips over a hill ridge, and is gone. Long may Hogg’s words prove true—

"Where the Eagle comes forth on the wings of the storm,
And her young ones are hatched on the high Cairngorm."

Something may be said of such birds as are miore commonly met with. By our streams the stately heron may often be seen stalking in the shallows, or winging its flight to the Heronry at Carn-chnuic; or you may catch a glimpse of the Was it steals in and out from the deep shady pools; or you may watch with delight the lively movements of the Dipper (G. Gobhainn dubh), as, with a cock of its dumpy tail, it flits from stone to stone, or pursues its prey, diver-like, under the water. If there be a steep sand-bank, it is sure to be haunted by Marlins. The Ring Ouzel (G. Lòn-dubh) loves the upper reaches, and here and there one may be seen perched on a boulder, or flitting about, with ceaseless chatter, by the side of some mountain stream. It is this bird, seemingly, which Dr Paterson has denounced as a thief in that delightful book, "The Manse Garden" — "A most pestilent fellow, a moor blackbird, without any coral on his bill, sooty, tuneless, and ill-shaped, has of late years, like the old invaders of Italy, found the fruit of our gardens better than that of his native wilds, and, having once tasted the cherry, he cannot forget the flavour of it. He comes, a host, exactly at the season of ripe fruit, and never fails, with an angry chatter when he is disturbed, to intimate that you are as annoying to him as he is to you."

The whistle of the Plover, the shrill cry of the Curlew, and the bold "burr" of the Grouse-Cock may be heard on our moors. The lochs and lochans swarm with Gulls and Ducks, and sometimes a Swan may he seen on the Spey or Loch Garten, as on

"Still St Mary’s lake,
Float double, swan and shadow."

Our pine forests are for the most part rather chill and wanting in life; but now and again you may start the Black Cock; and where the birch and the alder grow, and in the clumps of wood and juniper, you may find abundance of Tits, and be cheered by the song of the Linnet and the Thrush.

Five species of Tits are described by Harvie Brown as frequenting Speyside. In Abernethy the most common are the Blue Tit and the Cole Tit. The Great Tit, the handsomest as it is the boldest, visits our gardens and farm steadings, and is often a guest at our windows in winter. The Long-tailed is not common, but now and again it appears in companies in our birch-woods. The Crested Tit is called the rarest of all, as it is so limited in its range; but in this parish it can hardly be regarded as very rare, as it is pretty generally distributed. Wherever a troop of Tits are seen feeding, with their companions the Creeper and the Golden-crested Wren, there will be found also one or two Crested Tits, and the birds themselves may often be fallen in with, in pairs, in quiet nooks by the Altmore and the Nethy and in Glenmore. The nest of the Crested Tit, like others of the species, is made in the holes of trees, generally decaying birches and alders. Harvie Brown describes one "in a powdery, decayed pine stump, barkless and bleached. The nesting site faced the east, but the entrance hole the south. Upon a basis of powdery dust, the nest (with five eggs) was composed of green dry moss, with a superstratum of red deer’s hair. The lining was formed of blue hare’s fur. The old nest had also feathers of the grouse in the lining, and tufts of cotton grass in the structure" (v. I., 258).

Some of the other rarer and more interesting birds may be mentioned. The Blackcap and Red-poll breed in our woods. The Cross-bill frequents our firs and spruces. Its nests have been found as early as March. The Brambling, called by some the "Cock of the North," has been caught on the Nethy. The Wax wing, or Bohemian Chatterer, is an occasional visitor, and is supposed to be a premonitor of a severe winter. Two birds of this species, that had been feeding on rowan-berries, were shot in 1865 at Rivoan, on the verge of Cairngorm. The Roller (coracias garrula), very common in Palestine, has been seen once or twice, and a specimen was killed, in 1875, on the moors beyond Craigmore. The Kingfisher is rarely found north of the Grampians; but there is record of one having been seen some sixty years ago on the Croftmore burn, Kincardine, and another on the Nethy at Coulnakyle in 1890.

"Among the more interesting birds breeding in Abernethy," writes Mr. Hinxman, "are the Snow-bunting and Dotterel, a few pair of these birds nesting annually among the high Cairngorms. The Greenshank is seen about the ‘forest lochans,’ and the large and handsome diving duck, the Goosander, is increasing as a breeding species in Glenmore, where it nests in hollow trees in the woods around Loch Morlich, the nest being sometimes situated twelve or fifteen feet above the ground."

There was at one time a large rookery in the alders at Coulnakyle. Captain Macdonald, then holding the farm (1826), vowed its destruction. He hired a squad of men and boys, and set them to work. The boys tore down the nests, and the men kept up a constant fusilade, so as to prevent the rooks from settling. The war went on for some days. Now and again a bird came too near and fell a prey to the marksmen, but the most were wary, and kept at a safe distance. At last the rooks seemed to recognise that they were beaten. They held a gathering in a neighbouring field. There was much cawing and conferring, hut no reporter to give their speeches. The question was in due time settled. The rooks, as if acting under orders, arose and flew towards the alders, but instead of settling on the trees, they mounted up high above, so as to be safe from all harm. Then they went through a kind of march, sailing calmly to and fro, and doubtless casting many a longing glance on their old homes. By and by they altered their tune. The march became a quickstep, merging into a wild, whirling, commingling dance. It was, as a spectator described it, for all the world like a Reel of Tulloch":-

"The dancers quick and quicker flew,
They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cheek it."

Then suddenly there was a stop — with a great caw-cawing. Then utter quietness. Out front the rest flew a leader, took his place in front, and, like an arrow from a bow, started off. The others fell into line and followed. Silently the whole body winged their flight straight for the Boat of Cromdale, where, in the fir-wood over the Spey, they established their new home, and where, unmolested, they have dwelt from generation to generation ever since. The Highlanders hold that it is unlucky to disturb a rookery; and it was noted that Captain Macdonald, some years after, had reluctantly to flit from Coulnakyle, and to make his home at Clury, which he never loved so well.

BOTANICAL NOTE.

The parish, from its centrical position, and as including land and water, and low and high grounds ranging from 700 to upwards of 4000 feet above sea-level, has rather a varied flora. Some of the more interesting plants may be named. The Rock Rose (Helianthernurn vulgare), the Sol Flower of the Highlands; the Loose Strife (Lysimachia nemorum); the Golden Rod (Solidago virguarea) and the delicately-tinted Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia pulustris), with fine specimens of the Bird Cherry (prunus padus), conspicuous in June for its sprays of snow-white blossoms, may be found on the Alltmore. The Globe Flower (Trollius Europoeus), the Cowslip (primula veris), the Bedstraw (Galium verurn, G. Borcale), and the Briar (Rosa inodora, R. eglanteria) grow on the banks of the Spey, opposite Boat of Garten. The Sweet Gale (Myrica gale) scents our bogs, while near it may be found the Cotton Grass (Eriophorum vaginaturn), the Asphodel (Narthecium ossifra gum), and the two varieties of the Sun-dew (Drosera rotundifolia and D. Anglica). In our woods flourish the Goodyera Orchis, rare in England, the Oak Fern (polypodium dryopteris), and the lovely little Winter Green (Trientalis Europea), one of the stars that in earth’s firmament do shine. Other orchids that occur are Listera Cordata, among heather in woods and moors; Orchis Latifolia and O. Maculata, in moist meadows; gymnadenia conopsea, Habenaria albida, and H. viridis, in dry pastures ; also H. bifolia, in most meadows and woods. The Gromwell (Lythospermum officiale) grows at Nethy-Bridge, where it is said to have been introduced by the York Company in 1730. The mystic Moon-wort (Botrychium lunaria), the Lady’s Slipper (Alchemilla vulguris), and the rarer and prettier A. Alpina are found in our hill pastures. If a leaf of the Alchemilla be immersed in water, and examined, it will shew the most delicate rainbow tints flashing over the surface. The Bog-bean (Menyanthes trifoliata), the roots of which are used for making a tonic bitter, the Yellow Iris (I. pseud-acorus), the Lobelia (L. dartmanna), and the glorious Water Lily (Nyrnphoea Alba) flourish abundantly in some of our Lochans.

The Ailnag, the Garvault, Bynack, and Cairngorm, are our finest grounds for Alpine flora. The following plants have been found in these localities: The Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria reniformis), Alpine Rock Cress (arabis petreoa), Marsh Speedwell (Veronica scutellata), Alpine Speedwell (V. Alpina), Mossy Cyphel (Cherleria sedoides), twisted podded Whitlow Grass (Draba incana), and the still rarer D. rupestris, the Scottish Asphodel (Tofieldia palustris), Scurvy Grass (Cochlearia groenlandica), Dwarf Cornel (Cornus suecica), Bladder Fern (Cystopteris fragilis), Holly Fern (polystichum lonchitis), Spleenwort, Aspleniurn viride, A. trickornanes, and the A. Ruta-muraria, at Castle Roy and the Ailnag. Alpine Polypody (p. alpestre), Saxifrages (S. Stellaris, S. oppositifolia, S. Rivularis, S. Aizoides, S. hypenoides), Stonecrops (Sedurn villosurn, and the beautiful purple S. rhodiola), Rushes, the Three-leaved (Juneus trifidus), the Curved Mountain Rush (Luzula spicata, and the rarer L. arcuala), Grasses (Phlearn Alpinum, Poa Alpina, Aira Alpina, Garex approximata, C. limosa), Dwarf Willow (salix herbacea), and Dwarf Birch (Betula nana), the true Cranberry ( Vaciniurn oxycocos), also the Great Bilberry (V. uligjnosurn) ; Iceland Moss (Cetraria Islandica), and the beautiful white Lichen (C. nivalis) the former fruits freely on the moors at the foot of Bynack, but the latter occurs always barren ; the Quillwort (Isoetes lacustris), and Awlwort (Subularia aquatica).

Among other Alpine and moorland plants may be mentioned the Mountain Bramble or Cloudberry (Rubus Chamoemorus), Azalea procurnbeus, Genista Anglica, Silene acaulis, Utricularia interrnedia, Ernpetrurn nigrum, Arctostaphylos-uva-ursi, Ranunculus flammula, and Herb Paris (paris quadrifolia), found near the Green Loch in 1883. There are certain plants which have the remarkable peculiarity of growing both on mountain tops and on the sea-coast. "As examples may be named the Rose-root Stone Crop (Sedurn Rhodiola), which grows in various localities from 2500 feet upwards, and also near the Bullers of Buchan, on the coast; the purple Mountain Saxifrage (S. Oppositofolia), not scarce on the higher hills, and again occurring on rocks at Aberdour, on the coast; and the Common Thrift (Arrneria Maritima). Possibly such peculiarities of distribution may be explained by the plants in both localities finding the competition with other plants for food and space less severe in their favourite haunts than elsewhere" (Professor Trail). The Thrift is called by the Celts " Cluasag Muire," Mary’s Pillow. Our most prized and rarest plants are the Linnoea borealis, with its lovely pale-pink bell flowers, which grows amongst the ancient firs of Craigmore; the Lysimachia Vulgaris, which was found by Dr Mactier of St Andrews, near Pytoulish; the Dwarf Orchid (Malaxis palludosa), which grows on the Dorback; and the single-flowered Winter Green (pyrola uniflora), which was, till lately, growing profusely on the south side of Loch Morlich (p. secunda and p. rotundifolia, are also found in Glenmore (see Druce). We say "till lately," for the place has been ruthlessly plundered, and few plants left. An English clergyman is said to have carried off whole basketfulls. He has merited the scorn hurled at the "British Botanist" by a certain rhymster:-

"Were it the sweetest plant that ever bloom’d,
If it were rare, and he found the spot,
He’d make it rarer; nay, it would be doom’d,

His spud would soon eradicate the lot."


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