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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XII


Extraordinary aspect of the Sun—Sunset from Rokeby—Mr. Glaisher—"Demoiselle" or Numidian Crane at Deerness—The Snowy Owl in Sutherlandshire—Does the Fieldfare breed in Scotland?—The Woodcock.

We have just had a week of the finest weather imaginable, dry, bright and breezy, and with uninterrupted sunshine. The greater part of our hay crop has, in consequence, been secured in splendid condition, without a drop of rain, in fact—a piece of rare good fortune in Lochaber. We do not know if the extraordinary aspect of the sun at its rising and setting on Monday, the 13th instant [June 1870], was noticed elsewhere by any of our readers. On the morning of the day in question it presented a strangely mottled, yellowish copper-coloured disc, so singularly unusual as to induce an old seaman, nearly eighty years of age, in our neighbourhood, to call our attention to the circumstance. In the evening a little before its setting, it assumed a lurid blood-red colour, which was very remarkable, and forcibly reminded us at the moment of Scott's lines in Rokeby—

"No pale gradations quench his ray,
No twilight dews his wrath allay;
With disc like battle-target red,
He rushes to his burning bed,
Dyes the wide wave with bloody light,
Then sinks at once—and all is night."

We were-unanimous in predicting an immediate and violent storm of wind and rain, but the next morning came in bright, breezy, and cloudless, and such it has continued ever since. Such phenomena, and the nature of the weather following them, are always worth recording. Virgil, in his first Georgic instructs the husbandman to confide in those indications of the weather afforded by the aspect of the sun, for the rather curious reason, however, that the obscuration of the solar orb gave faithful warning of the impending fate of Caesar ! A very striking instance of a form of sophism, well known to the logician, in which an accidental circumstance is assumed as sufficient to establish efficient connection. On the morning of Wednesday last we had a smart touch of frost here in exposed situations—a strange and anomalous phenomenon in the dog-days truly ! But when we remember that Mr. Glaisher (who for purely scientific purposes has put his life into greater peril than any other living man), in his recent aerial ascent met with a regular snow-storm at the elevation of only about one mile above the earth's surface, we shall not wonder so much, perhaps, that a frost current should, under certain circumstances, occasionally penetrate earthwards even in the dog-days. We should have stated above that on the 13th we carefully examined the solar disc with an excellent four-feet telescope belonging to Ardgour, when it presented only two "spots" or maculce, and neither of these of remarkable size or form, situated close together on the orb's southwestern limb.

We are are glad to observe that the "Demoiselle" or Numidian crane recently shot at Deerness has been preserved, and is to fall into careful keeping. Its feeding on oats, however, is very extraordinary, and only to be accounted for by the supposition that its natural food was so scarce in a locality so unlike its own sunny clime, that it was fain to fill its crop with the readiest possible edible that presented itself. The snowy owl, a specimen of which is stated to have been recently shot in Sutherland, is by no means a rare visitor in Britain. A pair, male and female, in full plumage, were shot on the links of St. Andrews, by Captain Dempster, of the Indian Army, in the winter of 1847, and are now, we believe, to be seen in the University museum of that city. They have been known to breed in Shetland, but never, so far as we are aware, on the mainland, or anywhere, indeed, farther south than 59° or 60° of latitude. Is the specimen in Mr. M'Leay's possession male or female 1 What is the colour of its plumage—pure white, or slightly barred and mottled with brown 1 These are important questions, and every account of such rare visitors should be as minute in such particulars as possible. The snowy owl, like the Arctic fox, hare, ermine, &c., his supposed to change its plumage with the season, the immaculate white of its winter dress being exchanged for a summer garb of mixed, spotted, and barred brown and white. It is highly important that such a point as this should be decided. The scientific name given it—Surna nyctea—is incorrect. It is probably a misprint for Strix nyctea, so styled by Linnaeus, and after him continued as most appropriate by succeeding naturalists without exception. In Sweden, where it breeds and is very common, it is said to feed principally upon hares, hence Buffon calls it La Chouette Harfang, the latter word being the Swedish for the white or Alpine hare. It was the French naturalists, also, who first gave the name Demoiselle to the Numidian crane, its symmetry of form, tasteful disposition of plumage, and elegance of deportment, in their opinion, fully justifying the complimentary appellation. Its economy was first carefully studied, and a correct description of it given, about the beginning of the present century by the naturalists who accompanied the French expedition to Egypt under Napoleon, who, whatever his faults were, was at least neither indifferent to, nor neglectful of, the interests of the arts and sciences. Does the fieldfare breed in Scotland 1 We are afraid the reply must still be in the negative. We have little doubt that the bird seen by Mr. Fraser of Hamilton was the missel-thrush, and that the nest and egg in his possession belong to the same bird, that is, the Tardus vixivorus, and not to its congener the Turdus pilaris. We are led to this opinion hy the fact that the female missel-thrush is very like the fieldfare in plumage, and not very noticeably different in size. The nest referred to by Mr. Eraser was, he says, situated in the fork of a tree, about fourteen feet from the ground, exactly about the height the throstle generally fixes upon for its nest, whereas, according to our best authorities, the fieldfare builds at the top, or very near "the top of the tallest pines." We give but little weight to the shape and markings of the egg as described, for it frequently happens that the eggs of different birds, even of the same species, differ in a very remarkable manner. The hint, however, that the fieldfare may sometimes breed in Scotland is worth attending to, and we have marked it down for future inquiry and investigation. It was for long a question of fierce debate whether or not the well-known woodcock bred in this country. The matter has, however, been of late years completely set at rest by the researches of naturalists, clearly bringing out the fact that it not only breeds in Scotland, but that such an event, instead of being rare, is, on the contrary, of comparatively frequent occurrence. This very season, about the middle of May,, one of Ardgour's keepers brought us the wings of a young woodcock, with the quill feathers still pulpy and soft, which, of the original bird, was all he could secure from the clutches of a hawk that was breakfasting on the dainty morsel in the woods of Coirrechadrachan. We also understand that at least two woodcock's nests, with eggs in them, were known to some parties in this neighbourhood at the beginning of the season. It is, therefore, possible that the fieldfare may yet be proved to breed in Scotland, but the evidence for the establishment of such a fact must he much stronger than that brought forward by Mr. Fraser.


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