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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XV


The Ring-Dove—A Pet Ring-Dove—Its Death—Shenstone—The Belone Vulgaris or Gar-Fish—A Rat and a Kilmarnock Night-Cap—Extraordinary Roebuck's Head at Ardgour.

The -weather [October 1870] with us here on the West Coast continues wonderfully mild and open for the latter end of October. Were it not, indeed, for an occasional sprinkling of snow along the mountain summits of an early morning, and finding as you wander about the pathways everywhere bestrewn with fallen leaves, we might find some difficulty in persuading ourselves, in weather so bright and summer-like, that the season was at all so far advanced as it really is, that 1870, with its immediate predecessor—the anni mirabiles of the century—had already so nearly run its allotted course. A striking proof of the exceptional mildness of the weather since mid-August is the fact that a young wood-pigeon or ring-dove (Columba palumbus), not yet nearly full fledged, was brought to us a few days ago from a nest in the woods of Coirrechadrachan. We have kept it with the view of rearing it as a pet, though the chances are all against us, the produce of such late incubations having always less robustness and vitality about them than birds hatched in spring or early summer. There is a little difficulty, as a rule, in rearing the ring-dove, and getting it to become even troublesomely tame, until it purrs and kur-doo's about your feet, and rubs himself against you with all the familiarity and empressement of a kitten begging for its morning allowance of milk. It is, however, exceedingly quarrelsome and pugnacious among other pets, and so jealous of cuiy attention bestowed on any one but itself, that it will pout and sulk for half a day if it considers itself injured in this respect; and yet so little grateful is it for any amount of kindness you may show, it that when full-grown it will take the first opportunity that offers to escape into its native wild woods, never more to look near you. One that we reared from the nest several years ago had one very amusing habit. Every morning after "being fed he would watch the nursery door, which opened off the kitchen, until he got it ajar, when he would leap upon the dressing-table and spend a couple of hours in admiring himself in the looking-glass, preening his feathers and strutting about and kur-dooing to his alter ego with the most beauish, self-satisfied air imaginable, the poor bird being evidently under the impression that his own reflection was a Mademoiselle Ring-dove of irresistible attractions, and whom he persuaded himself he was on these occasions busily courting in the manner most approved of amongst the most fashionable circles of ring-dovedom. His death was a singular one. A large Aylesbury duck, with whom he used to have constant quarrels, he being invariably in fault and always the aggressor, got a hold of him one day near her ducking pond, and in a scuffle, which the ring-dove himself had causelessly provoked, dragged him into the water, and beat him with her wings until he was, like Ophelia, "drown'd, drown'd."

We never see these very handsome wild birds, or hear their soft melodious cooing of summer eve from the neighbouring woods, but we think of Shenstone's beautiful lines—

"I have found out a gift for my fair:
I have found where the wood-pigeons breed;
But let me that plunder forbear,
She will say 'twas a barbarous deed:
 

For he ne'er could be true, she averr'd,
Who could rob a poor bird of its young;
And I lor'd her the more when I heard
Such tenderness fall from her tongue.

"I have heard her with sweetness unfold
How that pity was due to a dove;
That it ever attended the bold,
And she called it the Sister of Love.
But her words such a pleasure convey,
So much I her accents adore,
Let her speak, and whatever she say,
Methinks I should love her the more."

In the same poem—the Pastoral Ballad—occurs this exquisite verse :—

"When forced the fair nymph to forego,
What anguish I felt at my heart!
Yet I thought—but it might not be so—
'Twas with pain she saw me depart.
She gazed as I slowly withdrew;
My path I could hardly discern:
So sweetly she bade me adieu,
I thought that she bade me return."

But alas, and woe the while ! "William Shenstone of the Leasowes, with his many tuneful contemporaries, are forgotten, or at least unread, by the present generation, and the poetasters of our day claim Parnassus, its Castalian spring and Temple of Apollo, for their own ! All we can is that in re poetica the taste of an age tolerant of "such an usurpation is little to he commended.

A gentleman in the opposite district of Appin sent us a message a few days ago begging us to go and have a look at what he termed a rarissimus piscis, a most rare fish that had been caught in a scringe net along with a lot of sethe and mackerel. In complying with such messages we can seldom be charged with dilatoriness, as most of our friends will bear witness. Nor was it otherwise in this case; Cha be'n ruith ach an leum, as the Highlanders say— it was not a run but a rush, with a leap and a bound—when they would emphatically characterise a person's conduct in going about anything with extraordinary alacrity. The fish in question we found to be an old acquaintance of ours, though so rare on the west coast that we never saw or heard of it before during a twenty years' residence in the country, and constantly, too, on the out-look for everything in the shape and semblance of a rara avis, whether encased in fur, feather, or scales. It was the gar-fish of British zoologists, known in ichthyological nomenclature as the Belone vulgaris of the family Scomberesocidce, having the body, which is covered Avith minute scales, elongated to a degree almost congerlike. It is frequently captured on the east coast, sometimes intermingling with mackerel and haddock shoals in considerable numbers. We have seen it in the Perth, Dundee, and Edinburgh fish markets; never, as we have said, on the west coast. It is said to be excellent eating when in proper season, although there is a prejudice against its use amongst the fishermen themselves; and it is a remarkable fact, by the way, that some of the finest fish in the sea—most in esteem, at all events, with the fish-eating public —are frequently rejected by their professional captors for their own eating in favour of what Ave should call the coarser and inferior kinds. For a long time Ave thought this was entirely a matter of economy, those that brought the largest price in the market being sold, and the inferior sorts kept for their own consumption. Subsequently Ave had abundant opportunities of finding out that it was far otherwise. An east coast fisherman will give the preference at any time, for his own eating that is, to a flounder, however flabby and flaccid, over a whiting or plaice; he will eat the hake rather than the finest cod or haddock, and considers the wing of a skate, dried in the smoke until it is of the colour of the darkest mahogany, with a bouquet the very opposite, be sure, of the ottar of roses, a tit-bit with which, in his estimation, neither sea-trout, mackerel, nor turbot can for a moment bear comparison. Fishermen, too, Ave have observed with some surprise, seldom eat their fish fresh; they prefer it salted—salted, moreover, as a rule to a degree that to other people would render it almost uneatable. For the prejudice against the gar-fish there is, however, some excuse. In popular superstition, "lang-nebbed " things have always been in bad odour; and the gar-fish's snout is greatly elongated, so much so that it bears no small resemblance to a curlew's bill, giving it a wicked, vicious look, that its structure otherwise, however, belies; for it is altogether incapable of hurting anything bigger than the very small fry and marine insects on which it feeds. The prejudice against the gar-fish is no doubt to be accounted for in part by the curious fact that its bones are of a dirty green colour, strange and perhaps disagreeable to an eye accustomed to the ivory-like whiteness of the osseous structure of most other fishes that are brought to table. We have seen specimens of the gar-fish captured by the St. Andrews fishermen that exceeded three feet in length : the fish more immediately referred to only measured nineteen inches. Our friend has since written us a note to say that on being shown to a gentleman, "professing to know something of ichthyology," he declared it to be a specimen of the pipe-fish, which is just about as correct as if a man said that a pelican was a parrot, or a pig was a giraffe.

In one particular, at least, we resemble Dr. Samuel Johnson. We have never during our whole lifetime once worn a nightcap. "I had the custom by chance," replied the "Rambler," with a growl at Boswell's inquisitiveness on the subject, "and perhaps no man, sir, shall ever know whether it is best to sleep with or without a nightcap." But if we don't wear a nightcap, some of our neighbours do, and to one of these useful articles of nocturnal toilette befell the following adventure a short time ago. One of our neighbours, a fine old Highlander, still straight as a pine tree, and strong and stalwart withal, though already past the grand climacteric, having had occasion to be in the south in the early summer, bought himself a speck and span new nightcap, which, neatly folded up along with some braws for the gudewife, formed a parcel of which, you may be sure, he was exceedingly careful on the return journey, constantly "keeping his eye on it" all the way from the Broomielaw to Ballachulish Pier, and watching over its safety as anxiously as if it contained the wealth of the Rothschilds in Bank of England notes, or the title-deeds of an earldom. When at last produced at home, and displayed before the admiring gaze of a select few in every imaginable angle of light, it was really a very fine nightcap, a sort of ribbed magenta-coloured "Kilmarnock," with a tassel at top, in which were intermingled all the hues of the rainbow, such a splendid tassel as was never before seen in Lochaber : Cardinal Antonelli might have been proud of it as a pendant to his hat. Having at last been sufficiently admired, the nightcap was duly put to its proper use, and was found to answer its purpose perfectly; but one night, while yet the gay Kilmarnock retained almost all its pristine bloom, lo! it was amissing at bedtime from its usual place of honour on the corner of its owner's pillow, greatly to his annoyance you may "believe, and not a little to the surprise and consternation of his amiable bedfellow. Then, and for weeks afterwards, all search for the missing nightcap was but so much fruitless labour; nothing could be seen or heard of it, and it was finally agreed on all hands that it must have been stolen by some person whose honesty became weak as water in view of the Kilmarnock's rare magenta colour and gay pendulous tassel. And the nightcap in very truth was stolen, though the thief was probably actuated less by the brilliancy of its colours than the cozy feel of its soft and silken texture. Some time in mid-autumn the mystery was cleared up in this wise. The nightcap owner was one day engaged in redding up his barn preparatory to the ingathering of his crops, when a large rat bolted from between his feet, and, scuttling across the floor, disappeared, rat fashion, in a hole in the divot wall. A spade was instantly got, and the hole dug about until its innermost recess was reached, in which was found a gigantic dam rat with a litter of a dozen or more young ones. These were all of them of course straightway despatched, and the cozy nest of moss, dried grass, and nibbled straw scattered about, when lo! as its foundation appeared the long missing bonnet de nuit, the incomparable Kilmarnock, without a rent or tear, and its colours as bright almost;, and its tassel bobbing as coquettishly as when first displayed on the points of the shopman's distended fingers over the counter in the Cowcaddens. There was great rejoicing over the reappearance of the nightcap, which is now again prized as highly and watchcd over as carefully as if it were the nightcap of Fortunatus; and the owner, a wag and humorist in a quiet way, as are most of our old Highlanders, has composed a song on the subject (Oran do m' Churrachd-oidhche), which, after some coaxing, we got him to repeat to us some days ago. It pleased us immensely, and made us laugh until our sides were sore. For the benefit of our readers we may dash off a translation of it some evening or other when we are "i' the vein."

Going to call at Ardgour House one day last week, and taking a short cut through the woods, we came across the keeper just as he had shot a roebuck, the largest we think we ever saw, and with the finest head. The horns were something extraordinary, both as to size and shape, so much so, indeed, that although we have in our day met with many fine ones, we never saw anything for a moment to be compared with these. We have, for instance, a roebuck's head of our own, kindly given us some years ago by Lochiel, the horns on which are allowed to be uncommonly good ones; but we find that they are nearly two inches shorter in the beam, and less by nearly a whole inch in circumference of root of antler at its junction with the skull than those of the specimen shot in Ardgour on Tuesday.


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