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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XVII


Signs of a severe Winter—The Little Auk or Auklet—The Gadwall—Falcons being trained by the Prussians to intercept the Paris Carrier Pigeons—Balooning—The King of Prussia's Piety—John Forster—Solar Eclipse of 22d December 1870—The Government and the Eclipse—Large Solar Spots— Visible to the naked eye—Rev. Dr. Cumming— November Meteors.

It must have been in view of some such scene [November 1870] as the early morning presents to the eye at present „that Horace began his celebrated ode to Augustus—

"Jam satis terris nivis, atque dirae
Grandinis misit Pater"—

Enough, enough of snow and direful hail! Or if you prefer the wintry scene in the ninth Ode—

"Vides, ut alta stet nive candidum
Soracte, nec jam sustineant onus
Sylvae laborantes: gelflque
Flumina constiterint acuto?"

Which our countryman Theodore Martin thus renders—

"Look out, my Thaliarchus, round!
Soracte's crest is white with snow,
The drooping branches sweep the ground,
And, fast in icy fetters bound,
The streams have ceased to flow."

The snow-clad Soracte itself could not wear a colder or wintrier aspect than does our own Ben Nevis at this moment. "We have, in truth, had a great deal of sleet and snow and rattling hail showers of late, with bitterly cold winds and frost enough to induce one to don his warmest habiliments when venturing abroad, and thoroughly to appreciate the comforts of a bright and blazing fire within doors. Winter, in short, has fairly sot hi; and we must just battle with its inclemencies as best we may until a more genial season has come round. And an unusually inclement and severe winter is this likely to prove. Our lochs and estuaries are swarming with Arctic sea-fowl, that already venture quite close to the shore, and seek their food in the most sheltered bays, a sure sign that much cold weather, with heavy gales from the north and north-west, cannot he far away. Among these web-footed visitors from the far north we have observed two that are extremely rare on our part of the. west coast, even in the severest winters. One of these is the ratch or auklet (Atca alle, Linn.), a very pretty little black and white diver, the smallest bird of the genus with which we are acquainted, a little more rotund in form and of a robuster frame than the well-known dipper of our streams, but otherwise very like it. Another is the gadwall (Anas strepera), a species of duck very rare in our north-western waters—a very pretty little duck, with a remarkably loud and harsh voice, so loud that on a calm frosty day it reaches you over a sea surface distance of several miles. We have only identified the latter at a distance by the aid of a powerful binocular. It is not a difficult bird to recognise, however, on account of its distinct markings, and we are as confident that wo have repeatedly seen it during the present month as if we had it in our cabinet. And talking of birds, what does the reader think the Prussians are up to now? Annoyed at the ballooning and pigeon-carrying by means of which beleaguered Paris manages to keep up communication with the outer world, the Germans are training falcons to be employed in coursing and capturing such caliper pigeons as may be observed passing over their outposts and siege works. Such at least is one item in the last batch of news notes from Versailles. If the Prussians really mean this, all we can say is that it is "a fine idea, but impracticable," as Hannibal said of Maharbal's suggestion to push on to the capture of the Capitol after the battle of Cannae. In the first place it is allowed on all hands that a few months at most, probably a few weeks, must decide the fate of Paris one way or other, while a hawk, to be employed as proposed, requires years of carefullest training ere it can be depended upon as an aerial cruiser in any way subject to human control, nor, even if it were otherwise, could a sufficient number of falcons for the purpose be procured in Europe or elsewhere. Such an attempt at an aerial blockade must prove a failure. Even from a well-trained hawk, under the most favourable circumstances, a carrier pigeon ought to be able in nine cases out of ten to make good its escape by reason of the velocity and altitude of its flight. Depend upon it that in all time to come ballooning and pigeon carrying will be employed by a besieged city, as Paris employs them now ; and while gas can be had to inflate a balloon, and a carrier-pigeon is available, there is nothing that a besieging force can do to prevent the constant voyaging of such aerial messengers. One result of this war will be that carrier pigeons will be bred in larger numbers, and more highly valued than ever —carrier pigeon dovecots in each city at the public expense—while aerial navigation by means of balloons, having lost much of its terrors, will more and more become a common and every-day mode of locomotion. There is an "Aeronautical Society" in England, which boasts the names of many distinguished men on its roll of members, but which, nevertheless, couldn't in twenty years have done so much for aerial navigation as the Franco-Prussian war has done in little more than a month. Most people, by the way, have been disgusted with the Iving of Prussia's repeated appeals for Divine aid and pretended recognition of Divine guidance, while wading at the head of his forces knee-deep in a mare magnum of bloodshed and carnage from the Ehine to the Seine. One anecdote, apropos of a king's pretended piety and close alliance with the Divine powers in all his undertakings, we have not seen quoted. It is this: some person once calling on John Forster, took occasion to remark that the Emperor Alexander (of Eussia) was a very pious man. "Very pious, indeed," observed Forster, with tremendous sarcasm, "Very pious, indeed; I am credibly informed that he said grace ere he swallowed Poland!"

Preparations on a large scale are being made on the Continent and in America for observing the great solar eclipse of the 2 2d December, with a care and precision never known in the examination of a similar phenomenon. Never before, indeed, could a solar eclipse be observed and analysed in its every phase as this one will be. Aided by the spectroscope, polariscope, photometer, and photograph, with the most powerful telescopes, and meteorological and magnetic instruments of the utmost delicacy and exactness, it will be strange, indeed, if our knowledge of the chemistry and constitution of the great central orb is not very largely increased on this occasion. In our country the eclipse will be a partial one only. At the moment of maximum obscuration, supposing the sun to consist of twelve digits, about nine digits, or three-fourths of the disc, will be occulted. According to Edinburgh mean time the eclipse will begin at 10 h. 54 m. morning; maximum observation, 0 h. 8 m. afternoon; and of eclipse, 1h. 22 m. afternoon. A glass of very moderate powers is sufficient for observing such partial eclipses. Partial though this eclipse is, however, no phenomenon of the kind of equal magnitude will be seen again in our country till August 1887, when the eclipse will be very nearly, though not quite, total.

Never, perhaps, has the solar disc been so constantly and so ^argely crowded with maculce, or " spots," as during the present year! Some of these spots have recently been very large. On the 9th of the present month, for instance, there was an immense circular spot as nearly as possible on the centre of the solar disc, like a bull's-eye in a bright target of living light, which a little before sunset was plainly visible to the naked eye. It was the evening of the Fort-William market day, and we drew the attention of several people returning from the fair to the unusual phenomenon. One jolly old fellow, who had probably been largely patronising the "tents" on the market stance throughout the day, would insist upon it that he saw, not one big spot on the sun, but two or more —and perhaps he did. A few days previously a perfect stream of maculas of all sizes might easily be observed along the solar equator, looking for all the world as if a flock of ravens were at the moment passing, in struggling order within the telescope's field of view, between us and the sun. At the moment we write these lines, there is a very large spot half-way between the solar centre and its western limb, that towards sunset, if the sky is clear, might, we think, be discerned by the unaided eye. Auroral displays, too, still continue to render our nights, though at present moonless, and frequently cloudy withal, bright and cheerful by their broad and mysterious effulgence.

The November meteors of the present year seem to have made little or no display anywhere. Here it was wet and cloudy, so that we could not have seen them even if the sky was ablaze with them.


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