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Lewsiana
Fishes


OF birds, the eagle naturally occupies the first place, but the constant warfare waged against it by keepers, shepherds, and cotters, who have generally a few sheep, will no doubt soon exterminate it. Such a result would probably have arrived before this, if it were not that the rugged cliffs of Harris and the wilder parts of Uige afford them secure breeding-places. Even in the time of Buchanan, before 1790, he mentions that the factor, “Mr. Mackenzie, for every eagle killed in Lews gives half-a-crown;” and as the country north of Harris is flat and offers them no security, those found are generally from the west or south. Among the Barvas hills an eagle’s nest was recently destroyed by letting down burning bushes from the top; and in their immediate neighbourhood we have frequently seen a pair of white sea-eagles coursing in circles.

The golden and common eagles also speed north for an occasional breakfast during the lambing season, or hover in circles about some braxy-haunted hill-side.

Of hawks, the noble peregrine falcon is the most common and most beautiful, rivalling the eagle in grace and power of flight. How often have we seen them hovering over the sea-cliffs, scaring their peculiar prey, the blue rock-pigeon, bullying the croaking ravens who dared to dispute their reign, and driving them helter-skelter to shelter ignominiously in the crevices of the rocks. You daring brigands! how the savage in our nature “cottons” to you after all!

The sparrow-hawk and the kestrel skirt the brows of the lesser eminences, and pounce upon a weaker prey. The goshawk has been shot in the west; and we were informed of a single instance of the buzzard having bred in the Uige district, but saw no specimen.

Of the brown and barn owls vve saw none, but understand they are not unknown, although the want of congenial breeding-places no doubt prevents their multiplying. The snowy owl (Surma nyctea)has been frequently shot: the head-keeper procured three specimens in one morning at Ness. These large, handsome, finely marked owls may come south from Iceland or the Faroe Isles, or over from Norway.

Ravens (Corvus cor ax) are by far too numerous for the good of the cotters, farmers, and sportsmen; as their appetite for lamb requires no assistance from mint-sauce, and game-laws are as little regarded by these “blackbirds” as by Lanarkshire colliers. They have young in April, and require to place their nests in the most inaccessible rocks to escape the bold Lewis cragsman. We have dangled in vain over a sea-cliff, in our efforts to reach their eggs, the nest being unapproachable either from above or below. The grey crows (Corvus cor nix) go in troops of twenty to fifty together, and commit many a depredation put down to the debit of the cotter children. We have known them steal the hens’ eggs from about the farmyard, kill the chickens, and otherwise hang about like footpads, ready for any weak or unprotected victim that might turn up. Like all the crow race, they are far too shrewd to be readily caught napping, and, as Lewismen don’t show great ingenuity in securing them, they increase and multiply to the detriment of the sportsman and the farmer. Grouse eggs, young moorfowl, chickens, or weakly birds, are at once attacked; and let but a sheep show a sign of sickness, and the proverbial “Corby picks out its een.”

Rooks have been bred about the castle, eggs having been imported for this purpose, but they have not shown any attachment to the place, nor, so far as we saw, any intention to remain. We observed a flight of rooks crossing Loch Roag in September, 1871; these were probably straying from Skye or the mainland, as a large flock had been picnicing in the Uige district for some weeks before. They are said only to come with a severe gale of southeast wind, and to leave the first moderate weather, thus pointing to Skye as their home.

The rock-pigeon (Columba livid) is the principal representative of its family, and all around the rocky parts of the coast may be seen in great flocks, sometimes numbering several hundreds. They breed in the so-called pigeon caves everywhere plentiful, or in the numberless clefts among the rocks. As they seldom proceed far from the coast, and are always on the alert, passing like a flash from place to place, they rarely come in the way of the ordinary sportsman. The uncertainty as to their whereabouts, difficulty of approach, and their small size and little value when shot, prevent the sportsman seeking them in their haunts. Thus they increase and multiply and replenish the sea-board, forming a charming adjunct to the rude coast scenery, and only kept down by a reiving Hebridean or dashing peregrine. In the early morning we have often seen them settled among the seaware before our dwelling, feeding diligently. This was especially the case in the autumn about September. We have found their young as early as April.

A turtle-dove has been shot in the neighbourhood of Gress.

Of game birds we merely mention the names. The red grouse (.Lagopus scoticus) is now of more importance in the eyes of Scottish proprietors than the tillers of the soil. Great part of the Lews is comparatively well stocked with them : and, to the credit of the law-abiding people be it said, the loss by poaching is in general trifling.

Although the country may be said to be well stocked with grouse, still a sportsman need not expect to shoot his twenty or thirty brace in a stroll before breakfast. The great advantage of the country, indeed, to a true sportsman, lies in the fact that he will always get his eight to twelve brace after covering an extensive tract of moor. The birds too never get very wild even in November, so that you are always sure of a fair bag after a fair day’s hard work. The ground, although occasionally boggy, is not too trying to the pedestrian.

No doubt this fact of the moors not carrying too many birds, and heather never growing rank and strong, is favourable to the health of the birds, which have hitherto escaped disease to any extent.

The ptarmigan (Lagopus vulgaris) is shot on the hills, but is necessarily more numerous to the south. Snipes are widely distributed over the country, and, from the prevalence of marshy land, are often very numerous : like all the birds of this country, they are exquisitely tender.

The woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) arrives in numbers in September. Certain districts are noted for them, their habitats being exceedingly local. They have been known to breed in the island. Of the same family we have the curlew (Numenius arquata:), everywhere abundant. Before it has taken up its permanent residence on the sea-coast, and become a little fishy, there is no more delicate bird for the table; and we consider a slice from the breast of a curlew in good condition superior in every respect to a golden plover in the short days.

The whimbrel (Numenius phoeBopus\ a smaller species of curlew, arrives sometimes in April and May in its northern migration.

The sandpiper frequents the margins of the numberless pools.

In the winter golden plover [Charadrius filu-vialis) frequent the vicinity of the clachans in great numbers, and always, in the very shortest days, rolling in fat and in superb condition. In fine weather they retire to the more distant moors, where also they breed in summer. The dotterell (Charadrius morinellus) has also been shot in the west.

The lapwing (Vanellus cristatits) we have seen in the Uige and Barvas districts in small flocks. It only arrives in Barvas to breed, leaving immediately the young are sufficiently strong. Formerly they were in immense flocks, but are not by any means numerous to-day.

Grey herons (Ardea cinerea) are exceedingly common, as might be anticipated in such a land of fish-haunted pools. They are generally believed to be in best condition during full moon, when they have most success in their piscatory excursions. Their oil is considered capital for guns, and is obtained by the primitive mode of burying them in a manure heap, with their bill stuck in a bottle, into which the oil distils.

The starling (Sturnus vulgaris) may be said to be a Lews institution. They frequent the whole country in large flocks, roosting in chattering groups upon the rocks, and haunting the sea caves in myriads. We have often amused ourselves in the evenings rolling stones from the top of the cliffs over into some ocean cave, to bring out the excited, and vehemently expostulating, tenants. Around the lighthouse at Ness are ranged rows of horsehair nooses to catch the troublesome birds that will defile the purity of the surrounding glass, that dominates their rocky fastnesses. Like the pigeons they feed among the seaware, if not also upon it.

Another institution may be said to be the song-thrush (Turdus musicus\ whose name is legion around the coast. The double intimation of their presence everywhere greets the rambler, by the shore. Here, it is their ringing song re-echoed from the cliffs; there it is the everlasting tap, tap, as they break up the shellfish and gobble the unmailed mollusc. The destruction they caused among bur bed of mussels gave some idea of the infinite quantity of shell-fish these indefatigable songsters swallow, either following the example of more highly cultivated singers, or ordered by their physician to strengthen their chests. Whenever we hear the mavis now, it recalls the cracking of the homes of the winkles, sacrificed on the altar of song.

Blackbirds (Turdus merula) are by no means so common, as they are a much shyer bird, and have not accommodated themselves to living in this unclad land. About the castle woods they may be found, and we have seen a few about Limshider and the west, where there is a little cover, but none are seen in the Uige district.

The fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) and the redwing [T. iliacus) arrive in the Lews in December, the former being much the more numerous.

The corncrake (Crex pratensis) arrives in the west in May, and during the summer we have seen more in the Lews than in any other part of the country; indeed they showed a carelessness in exposing themselves to view we have never elsewhere observed in these usually shy and retiring birds. Mr. Caunter found a corncrake alive, deep in a peat boghole, near Stornoway, in winter: no doubt it had been unable to join its comrades in their autumn migration, and may have partially hibernated. Such instances in the case of swallows have been frequent. The cuckoo also appears in May, but not in any number. Wheatears, in Lewis miscalled “ Clacheran,” or stonechats, adorn the top of every rock; and their note is almost as ear-monopolizing on the moor, as the thrush’s by the “sad sea-shore.”

The grey wagtail arrives in March.

Redbreasts have frequented the west for twenty years; but, no doubt, like the various linnets, they only date from the plantations around the castle.

The snowfleck, or snow bunting (Pledro-Q phanes nivalis) is exceedingly common all along the roads in the winter, skipping along before the traveller ever a little further as he comes up. It is a beautifully marked little bird, and although seldom all white in this mild climate, yet shows so brightly white under the wings and on the body, as it suddenly lifts its wings in flight, that even here it well deserves its title of snowfleck. It retires into the moors to breed in the summer-time.

The wren is represented all over the country, and the golden-crested wren has been observed among the castle woods.

We have observed several specimens of a species of Hirundo, near Barvas, but have not heard of their nesting anywhere in the Lews; whether house-martins or land-martins could not be distinguished.

The wild goose (Anser ferus) sleeps with one eye open throughout the Lews. On the Flannan Isles it breeds in immense flocks, and often several hundred together may be seen in the Island of Pabba, on Loch Roag. They have favourite spots on the mainland where they proceed to feed, and there the ground, over a great extent, is rutted up by their strong bills, and often every sign of vegetation destroyed. If their eggs are hatched under domesticated birds, the young become quite tame, and little more given to rambling than their fellows of the farmyard. Still we have seen a flock of domesticated wild geese arrive among the domestic geese, and quietly live with them for weeks. When they gradually left, however, as leave they did, they withdrew several of the tamer ones from their allegiance, and carried them off with them, as a band of gipsies might some infatuated school-boys.

The Brent goose (Anser Bernicla) is also found, sometimes in immense numbers, and is still the object of popular superstition as in days of old. Thus an authority writes in 1700: “The Barnacles, or Cluk-Geese, bred in logs of wood floating on the sea, according to the common opinion, though some authors think they are bred of eggs like other fowls, but that the eggs are fastened to the logs by some glutinous matter which comes from the goose. Those who eat of them say they taste perfectly of fir, and are certainly bred in that sort of wood.” They are certainly not very delicate eating. Hudibras confounds them with the Solan goose.

Wild duck, teal, and widgeon, besides many others of the same family, frequent the inland lochs, and we have seen several hundred of them together on a favourite loch near Dalebeg.

The wild swan (Cygnus ferus) may occasionally be seen sailing majestically on some quiet inland water, singly or in pairs. They cannot be said to be frequent, as a general rule, and being far less cautious and wary than the wild goose, have not the same chance to escape either observation or destruction. We once stalked a wild swan, on a quiet loch, with the dexterity of an Indian, and, after having reached a point of vantage behind a little rising knoll, over two miles of slippery, wet, splashy, mushy moorland, raised slowly, calmly, and steadily our head and fowling-piece. There, on the calm bosom of the loch, was reflected the graceful form and pure white swelling sail of a boy's boat. This was the only time we ever saw such a thing in the country. We reserved our fire for another occasion, which has not yet turned up, retiring from the field of action with all the dignity of the fox that lost its tail.

The eider duck frequents the Flannan Isles, where it also breeds, coming occasionally to the western lochs of the Hebrides. On occasion of such visits it is often shot.

Goosanders (Mergus Merganser) are by no means uncommon, more especially in the Uige lochs. Their breasts are greatly sought after for ladies’ bonnets, and most deservedly so.

The great northern diver (Colymbus glacialis) is everywhere common on the Atlantic coast of the Lews. Buchanan says of it, “The Bishop Carara, or Bunubhuachil, is larger than a goose.” The ordinary name for it is “the bishop,” and the natives aver that it retires when old to the freshwater lochs, where it can sustain itself more easily during the decay of its powers. Both its relations, the black and red-throated divers, are “companions of its solitude.”

The common guillemots (Uria troile) are very-plentiful, and quite as stupid here as elsewhere; we have shot them dozing on the waves at our door. But for interest and beauty their congenors (Uria gryHe) the black guillemots or sea-pigeons, as they are here called, far surpass them. Of the strong elegant shape of the pigeons, their glossy black plumage, patched with white on the wings, and red legs, show them off to advantage. Alike strong on the wing and in the water, while displaying but a small surface to the action of the shot, and their close plumage throwing it readily off, they are more wary, more difficult to shoot, and more difficult to kill. These birds must cause terrible destruction amongst the fry of all kinds of fish. A common guillemot we shot in December had several hundred young sand-eels in its crop.

The razor-bill (Utamania torda) at certain seasons seems to supersede the black guillemot as the common object of the sea-waves, the former being more common in summer, the latter in winter.

The puffin (Fratercula Ardica) breeds in immense numbers in the Flannan Isles—that feathered sailors’ home; but we never met a specimen straying to the mainland. Gulls are innumerable around the fishing-stations, and act as the scavengers of the sea-shore; many interesting species make night hideous with their cries during a storm.

The terns (Sterna hirundo) arrive about the latter end of May, when their graceful figures ever flit around the coast. Like the gulls they breed in great numbers on the small islands among the inland lochs.

The gannet or Solan goose (Sula Bassana) is a constant visitor, and may any day be seen turning its heels up and dropping with a splash into the sea. Or, after the general discovery of a shoal of fish, you may see these birds hurrying away with heavy wing, gorged to the beak with the successful “guzzle” their weight and size had gained them in the struggle for existence. They were formerly mentioned as one of the wonders of Scotland, from “hatching their young with one foot,” but they seem to have given over those careless habits today.

The cormorant, scaraf, or scarf (Phala-crocorax Carbo) is another characteristic bird in Loch Roag. Their numbers are particularly great along this rocky, cave-haunted coast, standing on the black sea-girt rocks like sailors manning the yards. Numbers fell to our gun, and were eaten by the fishermen with relish. Their nests were made in the sea-caves and on the ledges of the high cliffs.

The green shag (P. Graculus), a smaller and more elegant cormorant, is also numerous, and a score of them may be seen any day taking headers into the waves as you approach some spray-girt rock. Equally at home on sea or shore, it seeks its prey at great depths in the water, and, unless shot dead, generally escapes by skill and address in diving.

In such a land the marine products, whether fish or fowl, are naturally the most liberally bestowed; and, as the Lews is primarily a huge, unwieldly, tempest-ridden fishing-station, where the shoals are, there the seafowl follow.


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