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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XVI


The "Annus Mirabilis" of Dryden—1870 a more wonderful Year in its way than i6£6 — Winter—Number of Killed and Wounded in the Franco-Prussian War—Battles of Langside, Tippermuir, Cappel—Carrier Pigeons—The Velocity with which Birds fly.

One of Dryden's best poems, and in many respects one of the most curious poems in the language, is the Annus Mirabilis, an effusion of historical panegyric, which, after the lapse of two centuries, no one can read unmoved or undelighted, so beautifully is it written, so masterly is the versification, and so vividly are its events portrayed. The year commemorated is 1666, and the "wonders" that entitled it to such pre-eminence were the naval war with the Dutch and Danes and the great fire in London. In 1666, however, was an annus mirabilis, surely 1870 is an annua mirabilior, a more wonderful year still, nay, an annus mirabilissimus, if you like, for you shall go back in our annals very far indeed—much farther, if you try it, than at the outset you might think at all necessary— before you meet its match. Just consider, first of all, the great Franco-Prussian war, with its countless hosts of slain; with its sieges of Strasbourg, Metz, and Paris, not to mention strongholds of less importance; its capitulation of Sedan and captive Emperor; the Empire ruined, and a Republic in its place, Avith all that may yet happen ere peace is proclaimed and the Germans have recrossed the Rhine. Think, again, of the promulgation of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, so speedily, and let us say unexpectedly, followed by the capture of Rome and the dethronement of this very infallible Pope as a temporal Prince, by the Catholic (proh pudor !) King of Italy. At home, a daughter of the Queen, Avith the royal consent and concurrence, marries one of that Queen's subjects, for we suppose we may regard the matter as a fait accompli, an event so unheard-of and unusual that we must go hack for an exact parallel for more than two hundred years, when the Duke of York, afterwards James II., "a man of many woes," married the Lady Anne Hyde, daughter of Lord Chancellor Clarendon, whose history of the Rebellion is one of the most interesting, and, on account of its inimitable portraiture, one of the most valuable works of its kind in the English language. If to all this be added such events as the loss of the " Captain," built and armed on a principle, the ultimate adoption or rejection of which will so materially affect the navy of the future; the revision of the Authorised Version of the Scriptures; and many other matters, both at home and abroad, that will readily occur to the reader, this may be regarded as a very wonderful year indeed. Occupying the centre, as it were, of all these events, Ave are too near them at present to appraise either their magnitude or importance at their legitimate value. Not the man at the base of a lofty tower, but he who stands at some distance from it can take its proportions aright, and we may depend upon it that the reader of the history of our period a hundred years hence will turn to the page that records the events of 1870 as at once the most interesting and important in the annals of many centuries. Reverting for a moment to the Annus Mirabilis of Dry den, it is but fair to acknowledge that they seem to have had one wonder to boast of in 1666 that we cannot claim for 1870, to this date at least; the wonder in question being two blazing comets in the nocturnal sky. Describing the English fleet advancing to attack the enemy at night, the poet, with a boldness of hyperbole for which he is always remarkable, says— 

"To see that fleet upon the ocean move,
Angels drew down the curtains of the skies;
And Heaven, as if there wanted lights above,
For tapers, made two glaring comets rise!"

But if we have no comets to boast of in 1870, let not thfe reader forget that the 14th November is nigh at hand, and that he who gets up betimes on the morning of that day, and watches till the daybreak, will assuredly witness a sight more startling, and grand and " glaring" than Dryden's comets, wonderful and startling as they doubtless were. We must be permitted one other extract from this extraordinary poem. It describes the state of the contending fleets and the feelings of their respective crews on their withdrawing for a time from an engagement that resulted in something like what at the present day we should call a drawn battle :—

"The night comes on, we eager to pursue
The combat still, and they ashamed to leave
Till the last streaks of dying day withdrew,
And doubtful moonlight did our rage deceive.

"In th' English fleet each ship resounds with joy,
And loud applause of their great leader's fame;
In fiery dreams the Dutch they still destroy,
And, slumbering, smile at the imagin'd flame.

"Not so the Holland fleet, who, tired and done,
Stretch'd on their decks, like weary oxen lie;
Faint sweats all down their mighty members run
(Vast hulks which little souls but ill supply).

"In dreams they fearful precipices tread,
Or, shipwreck'd, labour to some distant shore;
Or in dark churches walk among the dead;
They wake with horror, and dare sleep no more."

We do not know whether the reader will agree with us, but we look upon these verses as wonderfully fine, and upon the Annus Mirabilis as, of its class, amongst the finest, if not the very finest, poem in the language.

Even from a meteorological point of view, this year, in our part of the country at least, has had not a little of the mirabilis about it. Byron, we know, awoke one morning and found himself famous, and we awoke one morning last week and found ourselves in mid-winter, albeit the previous day had been mild, and calm, and sunny, and bright as if it were "Whitsuntide, rather than the Eve of St. Luke the Evangelist. Since then we have had incessant storms, shifting about and sometimes blowing from every point of the compass within the four-and-twenty hours, with such deluges of rain as Lochaber alone can supply in season, or sometimes, entre nous, out of season as well. The mountain summits are, at the moment we write, covered with a lamb's-wool-like coating of virgin snow, and the air has become so chill and raw that we were fain some days ago to don our winter habiliments for the season. We have no right or reason to complain, however; a finer summer and autumn were never known in the Highlands, and since winter must come some time or other, it is better that it should come in season. The fourth week of October is not a bit too early for snow, and sleet, and storms, so that when we hear the winds howling over ferry and firth, and the waves breaking with sullen roar upon the vexed strand, and listen to the rattle and the dash of rain and sleet upon the window panes, we shall, first taking care that the shutters are properly closed and the curtains drawn, just draw our arm-chair a little nearer the fire, which our " lassie," you may be sure, has trimmed betimes, like Horace's boy, large reponens peats and coals thereon, and then, with the Courier, Scotsman, or Standard on our knee, or a stray copy of the Saturday Review or Spectator, which some distant friend has kindly sent us, or some fresh volume from Ardgour's library, the worst we. shall say will be in the words of poor old Lear, "Blow wind, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!" blessing God the while that if our lot be a humbler one, it is also a happier one than the poor old king's.

A good deal has been written about the enormous numbers of killed and wounded in the present Franco-Prussian war, the fact being nevertheless, as we learn on competent authority, that notwithstanding the improvements made of late years in arms of precision, there were, considering the numbers engaged, quite as many men disabled as in the good old days of "Brown Bess" in the wars of the first Napoleon and in our battles in India. Mr. Hill Burton, in one of his recently published volumes of the History of Scotland, and an admirable and very impartial history it is, tells us that in the battle of Langside, an historical combat on the issue of which so much in the after history of England and Scotland depended, 10,000 men were engaged for three-quarters of an hour, with a loss to the Queen's party of 300 hors de combat, while the victors only lost one man ! A very extraordinary fact certainly; but a more wonderful fact still, and neither Mr. Burton nor his reviewers seem to be aware of it, is that of the battle of Tippermuir, fought in 1644, between the Covenanters and the famous Marquis of Montrose, in which Montrose was victorious without the loss of a single man on his own side, although of the Covenanters between four and five hundred were killed in the battle and pursuit. Another curious thing connected with the battle of Tippermuir was this : a body of Highlanders, keen enough for the fray, were without arms of any kind, when Montrose, pointing to the stones that thickly strewed the field, advised them to try these to begin with, and they did, appropriating the arms of their enemies as they fell, and using them with such effect that the battle proper was over in less than half an hour. The only other battle that we can recollect in which such primitive weapons as stones were employed by the combatants was that of Cappel, fought in 1531, between the Protestants of Zurich and the Catholics of the neighbouring cantons. It was in this battle that the celebrated reformer Zwingle, or Zwinglius, met his death. He was first of all knocked down by a stone that, fiercely hurled, struck him on the head, and then, with the exclamation, "Die, obstinate heretic," the sword of Fockinger of Unterwalden pierced his throat, and the reformer was no more.

The reader has, of course, seen in the papers how beleaguered Paris keeps up communication with Belgium and the provinces, by means of balloons and carrier pigeons. Of balloons and ballooning we have no practical experience; of carrier pigeons we do know something, the bird being as well-known to us as is a robin redbreast to a gardener. We kept them for some time, but were obliged to get quit of them on account of their ineradicable propensity to purloin our neighbours' turnip seed from the drill immediately after being sown and before they got time to sprout. All pigeons have this habit, but the carrier worse and more persistently than any other. The speed and power of wing appertaining to the carrier pigeon is extraordinary, and if not well attested would be deemed incredible. We remember, for instance, that at the Christmas of 1845, when a student at the University of St. Andrews (hest as well as oldest university in Scotland, gainsay it who may !) we spent our holidays at Kirkmichael, a pleasant little village in the Highlands of Perthshire. On leaving St. Andrews we took with us a carrier pigeon, a magnificent bird. On the 1st of January 1846, at the hour of noon precisely, we gave this bird, with a bit of narrow blue ribbon tied under his wing, his liberty on the bridge of Kirkmichael. When let out of his basket he instantly soared up in a sort of spiral flight, ascending and ascending cork-screw fashion until he seemed to the eye no bigger than a wren, then straight and swift as an arrow from a bow he urged his flight southwards, and became lost to view. On returning to St. Andrews, we found that our bird had reached his dovecot, eagerly watched and waited for by his owner, as the College bells were chiming one o'clock on the same day, so that it must have done the distance, about fifty-four miles as the crow flies, in about one hour, or very nearly at the rate of a mile a minute. Now, it must be remembered that this was the bird's ordinary flight. He doubtless sought his distant home in what one might call a brisk and business-like manner, nor swerved, we may be sure, an inch from his course, nor loitered by the way. He was going well—very well, if you like—throughout, but not going his best. The probability is that under extraordinary pressure, with a falcon in chase, for instance, the same bird could and would have gone twice as fast, or at a rate of something more than a hundred miles an hour. If the reader likes to experiment in this direction, he can easily try it with the common domestic pigeon, as we have done more than once. Years ago we recollect a brother of ours taking, at our suggestion, a common black and white pigeon from the dovecot here to Oban, where, at a preconcerted hour on a day agreed upon, he set it at liberty. The bird took nearly two hours to do the distance, some twenty-three or twenty-four miles as the crow flies; but it probably lingered some time the way to feed, as, instead of being well fed, which should always be strictly attended to, it received no food at all on the morning of its liberation at Oban. The house-pigeon, however, is useless except for comparatively short distances, and even then is never to be much depended upon. His extreme domesticity predisposes him to pay a visit to every dovecot 011 the route, and to fraternise with every flock of brother pigeons he may happen to fall in with. His peculiar mode of flight, besides, and his extreme timidity, mark him out as an easy and desirable prey for any keen-eyed hawk or falcon that may be at the moment impransm, as Johnson in his early days once signed a note in London—dinnerless. The common pigeon, too, wings his flight at a comparatively low altitude, and becomes an easy shot to any one with a gun ready to hand when it passes by. Not so the true carrier pigeon, which flies at a great height, far out of range of needle-gun or artillery—out of range of human sight, in fact; so that it is never in danger of being brought to grief, as was poor Gambetta in his balloon when passing above the Prussian lines the other day. The velocity with which some birds fly is almost incredible. A hungry falcon, with his blood up and in eager pursuit of his quarry, will fly at the rate of 150 miles an hour, and keep it up too until his object is attained; and the tremendous impetus of the bird at such a speed accounts for the dreadful wounds that a falcon inflicts when it strikes its prey, sometimes ripping up a grouse, or blackcock, or mallard, from vent to breastbone, as if it had been done by the keen edge of a butcher's cleaver. A goshawk (Falco palumbarius) belonging to Henry of Navarre—the Henri Quatre of after days—having its royal owner's name engraved on its golden varvels, made its escape from Fontainbleau in 1574, and was caught in Malta within four-and-twenty hours afterwards—a distance of 1400 miles, or at the rate of sixty miles an hour, supposing him to have been on the wing the whole time. But a hawk never flies by night, so that, on a fair computation, the bird's speed in winging the enormous distance must have been at the rate of at least 100 miles an hour. "We have calculated that a snipe, thoroughly alarmed, and going its best, can fly at the rate of a mile a minute, and there are other well-known birds equally fleet of wing. Xor must it be supposed that the velocity of birds is a mere " flash-in-the-pan," so to speak—a "spurt," as it were—which could not be kept up. The long-sustained flights of migratory birds proves the contrary—that birds are not only inconceivably fleet, but, to use a racing term, that they can stay as well. Of our more familiar birds, we should say that the common wild duck of our meres flies with greater velocity than any other bird with which the reader is likely to be well acquainted.


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