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Reminiscences of the Lews
Chapter IX - Loch Trialaval and the Young Geese


THERE is one point I forgot to touch upon in dissertation on artificial floods, and it is this : that in a downright dry season you cannot do as much as you would like with them. You may assist, but you cannot counteract Nature. In a regular dry season you cannot get up an artificial flood, for the very springs dry, the lochs get low, and, as very little comes into, very little can go out of them. Very great care, then, should be taken to husband every drop of water you can command, and to let it off at the right time—i.e., when the fish are waiting for the water at the mouth of the river to meet the tide, and the wind is in the right “airt.” For, with all the water in the world, the fish won’t take the river with the wrong wind, whatever that wind may be. Now, as, unfortunately for fishermen in all countries, the latter end of spring and most part of summer are dry, except in large rivers, the water gets low—witness the Wye and the Usk in 1870; and, if dry weather can affect such rivers as these, what must be the effect in the smaller streams ? The fishing generally of the western and south-western coasts of Ireland, and those of the north-western coasts of Scotland and the Hebrides, resemble each other much in character, and are equally subject to over-droughts and over-floods,—at one time unfishable torrents, at another masses of stones with a little water. It is to remedy this evil that, if sluices are established, they should be watched with the greatest care as to the proper putting in and taking out; and this is no easy matter, for, if let alone, your true Hebridean, like your true Irishman, smokes his pipe over his peat fire, talks, and relates wondrous tales, but somehow always misses the proper time for attending to his work. Unless you watch him like a rat, your sluices are at sea when they should be snug in a corner out of the rush of the flood, or they are in when some little drop of water should be allowed to dribble out to keep the stones cool. By constant attention, however, we got to know of every available water we could shut up, and contrived little minor floods to get the fish a certain distance up the river Laxay as far as Loch Yaltos. I go over this ground too much, perhaps; but my wish is not to delude those who may adopt my plans into the false idea that all is done when a loch is banked up and a sluice put in. No so; you cannot counteract the effects of a decidedly dry season in very, very small rivers. I will add one last word of warning. If you have a good supply of water, never exhaust it, or fancy that, because you have brought the fish into the river, all is done. No such thing. Keep a litle water for them—as much as you can. Poor things ! they get thirsty; and bear this in mind, that there is nothing like a little fresh water to make fish lively, which means rising. I have generally found that the fish of the far west of Scotland and Ireland are as fond of refreshment as the natives.

I have already mentioned Loch Trialaval as a great resort of those pests, the gulls; but it also contained other denizens of a much more agreeable nature. The wild geese, who bred in some of the adjoining lochs, Loch Patagore, for instance—though, strange to say, they never did in Trialaval—brought their young there in the early part of the season, for reasons best known to themselves : I suppose to teach them the ways of the world. But, unfortunately, they learnt them too soon after my arrival at Soval. I had heard and seen a great deal of young geese in my life, but had never shot young wild-goose flappers; and, till then, I had disbelieved in the sport. It requires some arrangement, and lasts about two days, per-Jhaps three. You must here proceed with great caution, for a young wild-goose is not such a fool as he looks, and you must choose the exact time when he can just fly. It is not like flapper shooting, where you have plenty of sedge and cover, and consequently, to a certain extent, the birds lie. It is a species of stalking.

The loch being very large, I generally took two boats, and we proceeded very cautiously to stalk and spy the loch. Having found the geese, we then sent a party or two to secure the fords of the two or three streams that run into the head of Loch Trialaval from other lochs, for which the geese immediately make on getting sight of your boats. Having allowed time for your parties to get round, you get as near as you can without being seen; and manage, if possible, to do as the Prussians did with the French—outflank your enemy and cut him off, or force him towards the fords, when he is headed.. If you thus can keep them in the lake, it becomes sometimes a very exciting chase. The old birds stick most manfully to their young, who try to out-swim, and out-flapper, and out-dive you. The old birds don’t let their young take to wing, if even they can. They also don’t dive much themselves; or, if they do, only for a very short time, and not deep, as they never go far from their charge. Thus they frequently fall a sacrifice to their parental care. Part of the manoeuvring is to drive some of the young ones into the small islands that abound on the loch, and then land in them and walk them up; but the real fun is when they take to land somewhere near the fords, and cross the open for another loch. To see a goose flapper along, half-waddling, half-flying, squeaking for his life, is really a very absurd sight. Not so ludicrous, however, as his pursuer, a wild Hebridean, with naked legs and scant clothing, rushing after him with frantic gestures, and yelling out every sort of Gaelic anathema.

I never shall forget an old boatman, poor Callum, and a gaunt, long-legged gillie of mine, pursuing two in this manner, who fairly beat them to a standstill. I never used a dog, except some sensible animal, like Old Tom or Whack, as I think that to do so frightened the birds more than anything. I once got thirty-three in one of these geese battues; but, generally speaking, from fifteen to twenty was the average. It was not destroying for destruction sake, for the birds were capital eating; and what you did not want yourself, were most acceptable to your neighbours. But all things come to an end. My success got wind, and in the spring-time continual searches went on among the natives for the eggs; and at last my friends, taking offence at these inroads, abandoned the country, and my geese battues died a natural death. The natives, and those who should know better, turn the, robbery of goose eggs to some account. They set the eggs under domestic geese, and, when hatched, pinion them before they can fly; and if they are fed well, they are excellent food. Also they cross these reclaimed wild birds with the tame goose, and the product succeeds uncommonly well.

So determined were the natives in their egg-stealing propensities, that I was obliged to remove my boats from my favourite Trialaval, for they broke open the boat-house, smashed the padlock of the boat-chain, and although we used to hide our oars, they invariably found them. There is in the Isle of Lewis a species of man called a ground officer, one whose business it is—or is supposed to be—to keep order in his particular district, prevent lawlessness, heather-burning and pulling, egg-stealing, and all petty crimes of the sort I have been describing. Now the ground officer of this district was a respectable farmer and a soi-disant particular friend of mine, and I applied to him —with what success may be imagined, when I found out that he himself gave his own shepherds directions to go and smash a new padlock I had put on the boat-chain, and carry my boat and oars off miles, away, for the purpose of moving some sheep. There they left it, and it was days before we ever got our boat again. Depend upon it, there are other places besides Galway where the Queen’s writ doesn’t run. There was also no more determined and successful goose-egg taker than this said ground officer. He reminded me * of an old story I heard at Eaith in years gone by, of a man driving from Brunt Island to Kirkcaldy, finding the whole road obstructed by quantities of straw, heaps of stones, and all manner of impediments. Among these was a most evil-looking and disreputably-clad man, who abused the traveller horribly for making his way through as best he could. This object accomplished, he turned on his abuser, and assured him that on his arrival at Kirkcaldy he would take care to have him up before the provost.

“You maun gang to,” was the response;

“I’m the provost mysal.”

On the west side, and about Dalbeg towards Sharbost and Arnhill, there were a good many wild geese, but it was a very difficult matter to get at them, except in very hard, stormy, foggy weather, and I am not certain if the game, even if won, was worth the candle. But exploring Trialaval, which was a very pretty loch, was to me a very great amusement. On some of the islands then there used to be snipes, and I once was in at the death of a hind that we spied and circumvented most artistically. I placed R. M. on the mainland, for which the deer, when moved, was sure to make, and then landed myself on the island and gave the deer my wind, who made for the ambushment, where my friend secured her. The swooping and screaming of the gulls, too, till I destroyed them, was a strange, wild sight to see, and there were always plenty of trout (brown), and in some places sea-trout; occasionally, too, a salmon at the exit of Laxay from the loch. I never went anywhere then without a rod—I should as soon have thought of leaving my flask behind—and I use# to bring home a strange medley of things. But times altered much. The geese, as I have said, disappeared; so did the deer, though that was to be accounted for by the foresting of the southern part of the Lews and the northern part of Harris. What deer would stay in the northern part of the island, where they were always disturbed, when they had the South Lewis and North Harris to go to ? But why the snipes went I never could account for, except that once I perpetrated an act that must have given offence to the fairies of the place.

I actually gave a party on this Deer Island, as I used to call it, a dejeuner: now, it would be termed a garden party. Over the fair waters of my wild Trialaval passed sundry boats, freighted with smiling, handsome faces, determined on pleasure for the day. The old story — “Youth at the prow, and Pleasure at the helm.” Not that I was a youth, or had much pleasure left in me ; still, I led the way—not in gilded galley, with silken streamers, but in my india-rubber boat, that looked exactly like one of the bottle-nosed whales I have been lately talking about—to my sacred island. We feasted, we made speeches, we gave toasts, we listened to the pipes; all seemed so pleased that even fair hands condescended to raise a cairn to my honour on my island’s summit. Unfortunately, we went a step too far—we ventured to rename the island. Alas ! my patron fairy took this amiss. Though we all separated enchanted with one another on the evening of that beautiful day, apparently happy and united, soon the scene changed, and strife and discord took the place of peace and harmony. An angry, spiteful fairy can play the mischief if she likes it, and my former friend did this. But what made her drive the snipes away? I never saw one there afterwards. I never had a day’s sport on the dear loch again, and there stands the solitary cairn on the lone island. When last I saw it, knowing that I was so soon about to leave my long-cherished home, I felt inclined to pull it down, it seemed such a mockery. “ But, no,” thought I; “let it stand, a monument of the uncertainty of all human things, and a warning to my successor against indulging in any fond dreams of fixity of tenure. If, however, I ever get a territory again—and I have visions of one in the far north-west of Ireland, where they say there is a river with a lake, with both coble and island upon it—if ever I offend another island fairy by giving another “disjune,” as my Lady Margaret

Bellenden calls it, may I be shot at seven times, as I hear the landlord of my supposed territory has been; and, what is more to the purpose, may I never catch another fish, kill another stag, or ride another run with his Grace of Beaufort’s hounds.


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