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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XI


Sea Fishing—Loch and Stream Fishing—"Brindled Worms"—Rush-Lights—Buckie-Shell Lamps—The Weasel killing a Hare— Killing a Fallow Deer Fawn.

Though by no means everything that we could wish it, the weather of the last fortnight [July 1870] was a decided improvement on ^hat of the preceding, and people have managed to get their hay secured in tolerably good condition after all. No appearance of the much-dreaded potato blight as yet; pity that it should show its unwished-for face this year at all, for a finer crop never lay ripening in the ground. Something has been done in herring fishing, and there is some prospect of our having enough for local consumption at all events, and perhaps a little over, which is no small matter in those dear times. Other kinds of fish are plentiful, and, with sufficient leisure for the pastime, there is hardly anything of the kind more enjoyable in fine weather than an afternoon's or early morning's fishing with rod or hand-line. You never, besides, see the country so well as on these occasions, or so thoroughly understand the full force of the poet's beautiful line, that in such scenes

"'Tis distance lends enchantment to the view."

Any number of trout, too—few of them, however, of any size—may be caught at present in our inland lochs and mountain streams, and a dish of these speckled beauties, fresh from the basket, is a very good thing indeed, though the grilse and salmon eater may turn up his nose in contempt and derision of such "small deer." Let him; we shall be always prepared to take over his share along with our own! A curious request was made to us a short time ago by a well-known book "deliverer," who frequently passes this way, one of the keenest and most successful fishers on lake or river we ever knew, and a very quiet decent man to boot. "Will you allow me, sir, to put down some worms in your place?" "To put down what?" Ave exclaimed in surprise. "Worms, sir, brindled worms for fishing with, when the rivers are swollen after heavy rains." We begged to have a look at the worms, and they proved to be a variety of the common earth worm that we had never seen before, the difference consisting in their being rather smaller in size than the common earth worm, and prettily speckled and streaked all over their length, whence, doubtless, their name of brindled worms. A lot had been sent to him from Alyth, in Perthshire, very cunningly done up in a bunch of damp moss and, having a few left over after a week's most successful fishing, he wished to deposit them in this, a central part of his peregrinations, that they might multiply and be recoverable at any time he wanted them. Holding one by the middle, between index finger and thumb, in a manner that would have delighted the heart of old task Walton, the worm wriggling and twisting the while with all the liveliness of an eel in similar circumstances, "There, sir," he exclaimed, looking at the lively "brindled" as if he loved it, "there, sir, is a bonny ane no troot that ever swam could resist having a dash at that in a broad and swollen stream." In answer to our questions, he told us that the brindled colour of the worm had, he thought, a good deal to do with the trout's liking for it, but, in his opinion, the brisk and lively motions of the worm upon the hook was the main attraction. The thing was so manifestly alive and active, and likely to escape, if not caught at once, that the trout made a rush at it, with his eyes shut, so to speak, and only discovered how thoroughly he had been done, when, hooked and landed, he lay flopping helplessly about on the green grass by the burn side. Getting piscator a spade, he searched about for a suitable spot, and buried his worms beneath the turf as tenderly as if he were laying babies asleep in their cradles. "There now, sir," he remarked, as he finished his colonising, "they will breed fast, and soon be plentiful enough hereabouts, and they will destroy the common earthworm till not one can be found." So that you see we had an interesting lesson on bait angling and the natural history of earthworms very unexpectedly from a very unexpected quarter. "We still watch with interest if the assertion turns out to be true, that the brindled worm exterminates the common earthworm, notwithstanding their close relationship. Such a thing we know is quite possible, a notable case in point being the extermination of the old well-known black rat by the more modern coloniser, the brown.

The amount of viva voce information that one can pick up, not by going actually to look for it, but in the most casual and incidental manner, from all sorts of people with whom one may be brought in contact, is simply extraordinary. Some, to be sure, will have nothing to tell; they are as Dead Sea fruit, full of mere ashes, that never had sap or substance for good to themselves or anybody else. Others, again, may know much, but they are cautious and reserved, and never venture beyond the most superficial and commonplace chit-chat; but the great mass of people, if you approach them courteously and frankly, will be found communicative enough, and if you go deftly about it, you seldom work long in such mines without bringing some ore to the surface. A day or two ago, for instance, we were sitting on a rock by the roadside on the opposite shore of Appin, having rowed ashore from our fishing ground to have a smoke and a drink of sparkling water from one of the many rivulets that, like so many silver threads in some rich embroidery, twist and twine with a glad music of their own adown the green slopes of Benavere. An old man passing along the way, with a bundle of rushes under his arm, saluted us with the quiet and undemonstrative courtesy so characteristic of his class all over the Highlands. "We invited him to sit down beside us, and at once he sat down and entered into conversation with us about the weather, crops, fishing, and other such obvious matters as are seldom overlooked during the first five minutes of a roadside crack at this season. By-and-by we asked him about the bundle of rushes. There were too few of them to be of any use as thatch, and we observed that they were not of the kind generally used in basket-making—a common amusement for the idle hours of shepherds, herdboys, and others in the past generation, who made very pretty rush baskets for carrying eggs, butter, and other such light goods to the nearest shop, and bringing back the tea, sugar, &c., usually taken in exchange. What were his rushes for then ] He gathered them, he told us, from time to time, always selecting the largest and best, for the sake of their pith, which served as wick for his lamp; and he showed us the process of extracting the pith on the spot. He first split the rush longitudinally, by running his thumb-nail along its length, and then pressing his thumb transversely against the pith, he ran it along until the whole beautifully soft and white substance was gathered into a bundle free of its skin, the pith still remaining unbroken by the deftness of the process, and easily extended at will to its original length. This pith is inserted in the same manner as wick in the lamp, and answers its purpose admirably. We recollect seeing the thing before, but it is many years since, and we had thought that cotton had everywhere, even in the remotest parts of the Highlands, long since superseded the primitive rush pith as wick for lamps. "All the people about me," said the old man, "now these paraffin lamps and cotton Wicks, but although perhaps I could afford these as well as they can, I prefer the good old rush-light of my boyhood. I remember," he continued, " when all the people in our hamlet gave a day's work to the tenant of the adjoining farm for leave to gather rushes for their lamps in the proper season. Fish oil of our own manufacture was always used, and you will perhaps be surprised to hear, sir, that the lamp was often a "buckie shell." "A buckie shell!" we exclaimed, "how did you manage to fix it properly? You probably glued its keel to a piece of wood or something of that kind?" "No, sir," was the response, "we did not fix it at all. It was suspended from a cromag or hook of wood or iron projecting from the wall near the fire-place by a string, one end of which was firmly tied round the hollow dividing the whorl at the smaller end of the shell, and the other round the furrow at its larger circumference near the lip. The loop of the string was then thrown over the hook, and thus suspended, the shell was filled with oil and a rush pith inserted as wick, and it made a very good lamp indeed, at once economical and serviceable. I recollect," said the old man with a smile, "that my father, God rest him! who was a very economical man, and hated everything like extravagance or waste, allowed us just a shellful of oil for the winter's night. When that much was spent, we had to tell our tales, sing our songs, and go on with the work we might have in hand by such light as was afforded by the blazing peat-fire, or let it alone till the next evening, just as we pleased." Our friend concluded by declaring in very emphatic phrase that "the people now are less industrious than they were then; have more money in their hands, but use it less wisely; are less truthful, less honest, less to be depended upon in every way than were the people of his boyhood and their immediate predecessors." "Laudator temporis act," but there is some truth in it. You should have heard how grandly and with what an air of dignity the old fellow spoke that concluding sentence in the most beautiful and rhythmical Gaelic. The buckie shell referred to above is the Buccinum undatum, or common whelk, constantly to be met with on almost every shore. It is to be understood, we suppose, that the larger specimens only would be used as lamps in the manner described by our venerable friend.

Of British quadrupeds—perhaps of all existing quadrupeds— the pluckiest, and, according to its size and weight, by far the strongest, is the common •weasel (Mustela vulgaris). The other day a man in our neighbourhood brought us a common brown hare, large and in excellent condition, that had been hunted and killed by a weasel in a very extraordinary manner. In the evening the man was going up a green glade on the wooded hill-side in search of his cows, when he heard what he took to be the screaming of a child on the other side of a small hazel copse which he was passing at the moment. Supposing it to be a child searching for cows like himself, that had fallen and hurt itself, or that had perhaps been attacked by some stirk or quey, angry at being disturbed in a favourite bit of grazing ground, he ran forward, and hearing the screaming repeated, was astonished to find that it proceeded from a hare that toilsomely and with staggering steps was struggling up the steep. On closer inspection, about which there was no difficulty, for by this time the poor hare was, in race-course phrase, about "pumped out," and could barely stagger along, he was more than astonished to observe that a weasel was extended couchant along the hare's back, with his muzzle deeply sunk into the vertebrae of his victim's neck, a position from which no exertion on the hare's part could possibly dislodge him. Picking up a stone, the man rushed forward and threw it with all his might, not so much at the hare as at its lithe and blood-thirsty rider. The hare, however, was hit, and fell, and with a gasp or two was dead; less from the blow than from the terrible injuries inflicted by the weasel's teeth, from which, under any circumstances, it was impossible that the poor animal could have recovered. Before the man and a dog which accompanied him could get at the wary weasel, it had with proverbial agility made good its escape. On examining the hare, we found that it was in truth dreadfully wounded, the ruthless Mustela having manifestly gone to work in a very scientific manner, the little red-eyed wretch's motto being "Thorough!" Once fairly on the back of his victim, he anchored himself firmly by his teeth right in the centre of the nape of the neck, just where the head is articulated to the cervical vertebrae; and as no exertion of the hare could shake him off, he leisurely dug down, drinking the blood and eating as he dug, until the poor hare, faint and exhausted, could only stagger about in response to each cruel dig of the dental spurs of its terrible rider. That a creature so diminutive—weighing only about as many ounces as a hare weighs pounds—should be able thus to mount and master an animal so much bigger than itself, seems extraordinary, and is only to be accounted for by a lithe agility in the assailant, to be met with in no other creature perhaps, coupled with indomitable courage and instinctive blood-thirstiness. "We recollect some years ago that an old man, a James Cameron, belonging to Achintore, near Fort-William, was savagely assaulted by a colony of weasels, and very severely wounded before he could get rid of his assailants. He was employed by a neighbour to remove a cairn of small stones from a grass field, in which it had long been an eyesore, from the centre of which cairn, when he had wheeled away several barrows-full, six or seven weasels rushed out and attacked him. So sudden and unexpected was the attack, that before he could do anything to defend himself, his hands and chin and cheeks—for they instinctively flew at his throat, which was luckily guarded by the thick folds of a homespun cravat—were severely bitten. One or two he killed by taking them in his hands, dashing them to the ground, and trampling them under his feet; but the others stuck to him with the pertinacity and viciousness of angry bees, and it was only by running into a house that was at hand, for aid and protection, that they ceased their attack and left him. Happening to be in Fort-William that day, we recollect examining the man's wounds, and getting the story of the weasel assault from his own lips. We remember remarking how astonishingly deep and formidable were the wounds, to be made by the comparatively small teeth, short though sharp, of the weasel; and what was worse, they festered again and again, and gave the man much pain and trouble ere they fully healed up and disappeared. An old gamekeeper tells us that he once saw a fallow deer fawn, upwards of six weeks old, killed by a weasel in one of the Callart parks precisely as this hare was killed, and a fawn at that age will weigh three times as much as a brown hare in ordinary condition. In common with most people, Ave have rather a dislike to the weasel, though one cannot but view with respect the courage and pluck that carry him safely through such exploits as these.


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