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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
XLII. Weather Signs and Saws


THE weather is an unfailing subject of interest. No wonder. Everybody is concerned. Life and work, health and pleasure, and all the goings on of humanity are affected by the weather. This holds true not only of individuals and families, but of communities. The rise and fall of prices, the movements of trade and commerce, the action of governments, the peace of nations, and the comfort and wellbeing of peoples of every country and clime are influenced by the weather. It's reasonable, therefore, that there should be much talk and guessing, and conferring as to a matter of such universal importance. It is reasonable, also, that signs and forecasts should have been established from observation and experience, and handed down from generation to generation. It is with such traditional opinions or judgments that we are to deal. We do not pretend to treat the subject scientifically; nor do we presume to speak as one versed in modern meteorology, with its daily "forecasts" and "warnings," and its yearly reports of percentages of "complete success" and "partial failure."

Our fathers were great observers of The Clouds. The Bull-Cloud was anxiously looked for on the last night of the year; and the aspects of the clouds, morning and evening, were carefully scanned at all seasons. Bynack, lying to the south and standing up prominently from the Lang, was watched. If the hill was cloud-capped in the morning, this was regarded as a sign of rain. " The currachd air a’ bheinn ; sid an l-uisge ‘tighinn," "The hen has its night-cap on ; that’s the rain coming." Similar sayings are common. "When Ingleboro wears a hat, Ribblesdale will hear o’ that." "When Cheviot ye see put on his cap, of rain ye’ll have a wee bit drap."

The sea is forty miles off, and not seen save from the hills; but the clouds, rising from the sea, are often well marked. One kind bears the curious name of Banif-Bailies. These white clouds rise in the north-east—big, bulging, protuberant, towering high, hut often toppling over into confused masses. In the drought of summer their appearance was hailed as a sign of rain. Another well marked cloud is that commonly called The Mackerel Sky. It takes the form of a line of small clouds, stretching across the sky generally from south-west to southeast, speckling it like a shoal of fish or a flock of sheep. It is regarded as a sign of good weather. There are two forms of the saying as to this cloud—one of the hills, the other of the seashore. " Broac-mhuilltein air an aihar," says the hillsman "Breac-rionnaich," says the mariner ; but in both cases the forecast is the same, "Latha math mŕireach," "A good day to-morrow." After stormy days, with rain, an opening in the clouds to the ~vest (over the garrison, Fort-Augustus, as was said in Abernethy), or in the north-east, if the clouds are moving southward, was regarded as a good sign. This is well put in the saying: "Tha lŕrach buain-fhoid air an a/thar; ni e latha math marcach," "There’s a mark of turf-cutting in the sky; ‘twill be a fine day to-morrow." The belief as to a red sky in the morning being indicative of storms, is tersely expressed in the saying "Dearg sa mhaduinn, fearg mu ‘n cadail," "A rosy morning, a wrathful evening."

The Winds were carefully watched. There is an old saying as to the direction of the wind on the last night of the year—

"Gaoth deas, teas ‘s toradh;
Gaoth niar, iasg ‘s bainne;
Gaoth tuath, fuach ‘s gaillioun;
Gaoth near, tart ‘s crannadh,"

"South wind, heat and produce;
West wind, fish and milk;
North wind, cold and tempest;
East wind, drought and withering."

The East wind was variously regarded, probably according to the locality. Its effects might he adverse in one place and favourable in another. Kingsley, in Devonshire, stands up for it boldly: "‘Tis the hard grey weather breeds hard Englishmen " ; and then, at the end of his ode, he says:-

Come; and strong within us stir the Viking blood,
Bracing brain and sinew
; blow, thou wind of God

This is like the words of the shepherd who reproved Lord Cockburn : "What ails ye at the east win’? It freshens the grass; it slockens the yowes—and its God’s wull." In the West Highlands it is said, Gaoth near, meas air chrannibh, "With East wind, fruit on the trees." In Wales the East wind is called the Wind of the Dead men’s feet. This beautiful and touching expression arose from the custom of burying people with their feet to the east, to wait the Lord’s coming, and at the resurrection to meet Him face to face. But with us the East winch bears a darker name. It is called Gaoth na maoirn, " Wind of the mearns," and G. na seicean, " The wind of the skins." This latter name is very significant. It brings up a picture of sore distress: blasted grass, starving flocks, and famine-stricken households. The rafters, once bare, are now crowded with skins, telling how death has been busy in the flocks and herds. Another wind that was disliked was that called the Slrathdearn Pipers, which made a whistling noise through crevices in the doors and windows in a way that foreboded a coining storm.

The backing of the wind, turning north and west, was regarded as a bad sign; but the movement of the wind, along with the sun (deasail).was looked upon as a favourable prognostic. There is a saying which marks the three coldest winds, Gaoth roimh ‘n aiteamh, ‘s gaolth troimh tholl; ‘s gaoth nan long tha dol fo sheol: na tri gaothan a b’ fhuaire dli' fairich Fionn riamh, "Wind before thaws, wind through a hole; wind of ship when hoisting sail : the three coldest Fingal ever felt."

The behaviour of animals was thought to be significant, as they were supposed to have some secret premonition or knowledge of coining changes of the weather. It was said of the Bee: Tha ‘n sellean /b dhion : thig gaillion ‘s sian,-. "The bee keeps close ; storm and showers are coining." Of the Cat, it was said, Tha ‘n cat san luath; thig frasan fuar, "The cat’s in the ashes it’s going to rain." The Leech was supposed to he specially weather-wise. It was believed to keep the bottom of the bottle, in which it was kept, in calm weather; to move restlessly before wind, and to cling to the side, near the top, before rain or snow. The Gaelic proverb is, Tha ‘n deala snamh , thig frasan blath roimh fheasgair, "The leech is swimming; warm showers will come before evening." Grouse coming down to the low grounds, and wild fowl shifting to the coast were regarded as signs of a severe winter. Plants also were noted. The shutting-up of the flowers of the daisy, the wood-sorrel, and the pimpernel was held to be sign of approaching rain. It was said, Tha t-seamrag a pasgadh a cornhdaich roirnh thuiltean doir teach, "The shamrock is folding her clothing before heavy rains." The Moon was much studied. Changes of weather, for good or bad, were thought likely soon after full or new moon. One saying was, Ceo ‘n t-sheann sholus; cath ‘n solus ur, "Fog with the old moon drift with the new." It might be said that the old belief referred to by Virgil was universally cherished: " Ipse Pater, statuit quid menstrua Luna monerit," "The Great Father hath ordained the monthly warnings of the Moon."

The Seasons were characterised by special names. Spring began with the Faoillteach, corresponding with February. The word is supposed by some to mean the Wolf month (faol, a wolf); but others, with more probability, derive it from faolidh, joyful. Some time in this month three warm days were supposed to come in exchange for three cold days lent to summer. Hence the saying, Tha tre lŕ luchair san Faoillteach, ‘s tre lŕ Faoillteacli san Iuchair, "There are three of the Dog-days in February, and three days of February in the Dog-days," Then came a week called the Feudag, or plover, probably so called from the chill, whistling winds then prevalent. After the Feudag came the Gearran, or gelding, which was the worst by far of the two.

" Is mise an Fheadag lom, luirgneach, luath;
Marbhain caora, marbhain uan.
Is mise an Gearran bacach ban,
‘S cha mhi aon bhonn a ‘s fhearr;
Cuirearn a bho anns
an toll,
Gus
an tig an tonn thar a ceann,"

I’m the Plover, bare, leggy, and swift
I will kill both sheep and lamb.
I’m the Gelding, lame and white,
Not one bit better;
I’ll put the cow
in the hole,
Till the wave comes over her head."

After the Gearran came the Cailleach, or Old Woman, which lasted a week in April. She is described as a wicked wretch, trying hard to beat down every green thing with her beetle (slachdan). Then came the three days of the ewes (tre la nan oisgean), which the Highlanders held were mild days given in mercy for the sake of the ewes and lambs. "After the withering Cailleach comes the lively Sguabag, the Brushlet, or Little Blast, and thenceforth the Spring goes on merrily—Suas e ‘n t-Earrach, ‘Up with the Spring.’ Last of all came the pleasant Ceitein, foretaste of Summer, supposed to include the three weeks up to the 12th May, followed by the cheery note of the Cuckoo on Yellow May-day—-’ La buidhe Baallthuin ‘—when the powers of cold and darkness have been overcome once more, and the world is gladdened by the returning reign of Light and Warmth."—(Nicholson’s "Gaelic Proverbs," p. 414).

The wearing away of the snow on the mountains was noted. Burt describes "the deep, wide, winding hollows ploughed into the sides" of the hills, and says : "When the uppermost waters begin to appear with white streaks in their cavities, the inhabitants who are within view of the height say, ‘ The Grey Mare’s tail begins to grow,’ and it serves to them as a monitor of ensuing peril, if at that time they venture far from home, because they might be in danger, by waters, to have all communication cut off between them and shelter or sustenance" (Vol. I., p. 284). Humboldt tells that on the Andes the people mark time by saying, ‘‘ 7he Cross begins to bend" ; that is, the constellation called the Cross. With us the comming of summer is noted by a sign, not from the heavens but the earth, the state of the great snow wreath on Cairngorm, called the Cuidhe Crom, "The bent or crooked wreath." It is said, " The Cuidh~Crom begins to break." The break commences at the middle, extending upwards, and to each side, till the whole wears gradually away. It is counted a late season if the Cuidh-Crom does not break in May, and if the whole wreath has not disappeared by the middle or end of June.


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