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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XIV


Herrings—Chimara Munstrosa— Cure for Ringworm—Cold Tea Leaves for inflamed and blood-shot Eyes—An old Incantation for the cure of Sore Eyes—A curious Dirk Sheath— A Tannery of Human Skins.

However unproductive the herring fishing season may he quoad herrings, and this has so far been the worst of a series of bad seasons [September 1870], it rarely fails to provide more or less grist for our mill in the shape of some rarity in marine life worth chronicling. A very ugly and repulsive-looking fish, extremely rare too, was sent us recently for identification. It was caught in Sallachan Ely, in our neighbourhood, having become entangled in the comer of a drift net which the fishermen were hauling into their boat in the grey morning, after a long, wearisome, and profitless night's labours. "We had seen the fish before, though not often, and had therefore no hesitation in recognising it as the Chimcrra monstrosa—a scientific name, by the way in which its lack of beauty is plainly enough indicated— a cartilaginous fish, two feet in length, and of somewhat elongated and hake-like form. The general colour is a dull leaden white, mottled on the under parts with small spots of rusty brown. On examining the contents of the stomach, they were found to consist of some very small herring fry, along with partly digested fragments of the adult fish, whence it may be concluded that the Chimcera's favourite prey, when they can be had, is herring; a conclusion at which we might also easily arrive from the fact that it is seldom or never met with on our shores, except when herring are more or less plentiful. At one time the Chimcera must have been a less rare fish than it is now, for it has a Gaelic name, "Buachaille-an-Sgadain," the Herring Herd or Herdsman. It was probably comparatively common in the good old times, when even our more inland western lochs swarmed annually with herring shoals, and so large was the capture, that the salt to cure them, on which there was a considerable duty at the time, was frequently retailed over a vessel's side at a shilling the lippy. The late Colonel Maclean of Ardgour, who attained a great age, with intellect clear and unimpaired, and who was most particular and exact in all his statistics, has repeatedly assured us that, in his younger days, say a hundred years ago, fifty thousand pounds worth of herring used to be captured annually in Lochiel alone. We don't suppose that for many years past herring to the value of a tenth of that sum have been caught in all the lochs between the Mull of Cantyre and the Point of Ardnamurchan.

The reader probably knows what ringworm is—a fungoid eruption on the skin, not uncommon in the spring and early summer in children and young people of plethoric habits. There is a very wide-spread belief over the West Highlands and in the Hebrides that ringworm can be readily cured by rubbing it over and around once or twice with a gold-ring—a woman's marriage ring, if it can be had, being always preferred. In our younger days we recollect seeing the cure applied on more than one occasion, whether with the desired result, or ineffectually, we do not know—we probably little thought in those days of kilts, cam-manachd, and barley bannocks, of inquiring. For many years we had neither seen nor heard anything either of the disease or of its popular cure, until, by the merest accident, it came under our notice a few days ago. Riding home one evening last week, we observed two little girls and a sturdy long-legged haflin lad sitting patiently in front of a cottage, the door of which was shut and locked. The youngsters, rather better dressed than usual, had come from a considerable distance, and we wondered what they could be doing there. On mentioning the matter next day, we had the story in full as follows:—The three were suffering from ringworm. The owner of the cottage has a marriage ring of wonderful efficacy in curing this epidermic distemper. They had come from one of the inland glens to be operated upon, but the possessor of the ring was away in Glasgow, and only returned home by steamer late that evening. When she did arrive, the young people were duly manipulated and ring-rubbed secundum artem; and in four and twenty hours thereafter we were gravely assured they were quite healed. Any gold ring is usually employed, but the particular ring referred to in this case is much sought after on such occasions, because, as our informant said, it is of "guinea gold," by which we suppose very pure gold, with the least possible alloy, is meant; and because it is the property of a widow who was married to one husband more than fifty years. A belief in the virtue of gold rings in cures of ringworm is, as we have said, very wide-spread and honestly held by many. Whether, in common phrase, there is "anything in it," or the whole affair is sheer nonsense, we shall not take it upon us to decide. We merely submit a common and curious article of popular belief for the consideration of our grave and learned dermatologists and the faculty at large. One thing is certain,—the owner of the marvellous ring makes no vulgar profit by her frequent use of it in such cases. She is in comfortable circumstances, and the whole affair, as far as she is concerned, is a mere labour of love.

Another popular cure, which for the first time came under our notice recently, and which in many cases is really efficacious, as we have heard averred by those who have been benefited by its use, is the application of a poultice of cold tea leaves to an inflamed or blood-shot eye. A handful of the leaves is taken from the pot, and placed between two folds of thin cotton or muslin, and applied to the eye at bed-time, kept in its place, of course, by a handkerchief or other band tied round the head. In cases of weak or inflamed eyes from any cause, this is reckoned, in this and the surrounding districts, "the sovereignest thing on earth." And one can quite understand how tea leaves, at once cooling and astringent, employed in this way, may benefit a hot and inflamed eye. It is a simple application at all events, and always at hand; and when more pretentious remedies are not readily attainable, one would be unwisely prejudiced, if not actually foolish, to suffer long without giving it a fair trial.

A less simple and less readily available cure for sore eyes is the following in old Gaelic verse :—

In English, literally—

(Take of) St. Columba's wort and dandelion,
(Of) mint and a perfect plant of marsh trefoil,
(Take of) milk from the udder of a quey
(That is heavy with calf, but that has not actually calved),
Boil, and spread the mixture on a cloth;
Put it to your eyes at noon-tide,
In the name of Father, Son, and the Spirit of Grace,
And in the name of (John) the Apostle of Love, and your eyes shall be well
Before the next rising of the moon, before the turning of next flood-tide.

We were recently shown a great curiosity—a dirk sheath said to be made of human skin. Its history, as related to us by the owner, is as follows :—In the summer of 1746, about two months after the battle of Culloden, a detachment of Saighdearan Dearge, red (coated) soldiers, or Government troops, was passing through Lochaber and Appin on its way to Inveraray, the men amusing themselves, and enlivening the tedium of the march, by burning and plundering as they had opportunity. When passing through the Strath of Appin, a young woman was observed in a field, busily engaged in the evening milking her cuw. A sergeant or corporal of the band leaped over the Avail into the field, and putting his musket to his shoulder, shot the cow dead upon the spot; after which gallant exploit he began the most brutal ill-treatment of the woman. She, however, defended herself with great courage, and as she retreated towards the shore, she picked up a stone, which she hurled at her persecutor with such good aim that it struck him full on the forehead, stretching him for the moment senseless upon the grass. She then fled towards a boat that was afloat on the beach, and leaping in, rapidly rowed towards Eilean-bhaile-na-gobhar, an island at a considerable distance from the mainland, where she was safe from further annoyance. The tradition is so minute and precise that the heroine's name is given as Silas-Nic-Cholla, or Julia MacColl; and our informant declared himself to be her great-grandson. The sergeant, stunned and bleeding, was picked up by his comrades, and carried to the place of halt for the night, near Tigh-an Ribbi, where, before morning, he died of his wound. His body was buried in the old churchyard of Airds, but was not allowed to rest there. On the disappearance of the soldiers from the district, the body was exhumed by the people, and cast into the sea; not, however, before a brother of Silas-Nic-Cholla flayed the right arm from the shoulder to the elbow, and of the skin thus flayed was made a dirk sheath, and this sheath we saw and handled with no little curiosity a week or two ago. The sheath is of a dark brown colour, limp and soft, with no ornament except a small virle of brass at the point, and a thin edging of the same metal round the orifice, on which is inscribed the date "1747," and the initials "D. M. C." There is no reason, we suppose, to doubt the genuineness of the article, though we hardly expected to find human skin—if it be human skin—of such thickness. It may, however, be partly the result of the tanning process which it probably underwent, and of time. In connection with this strange relic of a past age may be stated the extraordinary fact—incredible, indeed, if it were not thoroughly authenticated— that during the horrors of the French Revolution there was a tannery of human skins for many months in operation at Mendon. The raw material, so to speak, of this strange manufacture, was the skins of the scores and hundreds that were daily guillotined. It is asserted that "it made excellent wash-leather." Montgaillard, a prominent character of the period, who had the curiosity to visit the works, and saw the tanning process in full operation, makes the following curious observation :—"The skin of the men was superior in toughness and quality to shamoy; that of the women good for almost nothing, so soft in texture, and easily torn, like rotten linen !" We have had some rebellious revolutions, civil wars, and all the rest of it in Great Britain and Ireland, with their attendant iniquities, bad enough in all conscience, but the French may fairly boast of having beat us; a tannery of human skins is a venture and enterprise that no one has been pushing and patriotic enough yet to undertake amongst us, even when axe and gallows wrought their hardest in days happily long since passed away.


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