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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XIX


Winter—Auroral Displays in the West Highlands always indicative of a coming Storm— Corvus Corax—Wonderful Ravens—Edgar Allan Poe.

Snow continues to accumulate on the mountain summits [December 1870], which all around, from Ben Nevis to Ben Cruachan, and from the peaks of Glen-Arkaig to Benmore in Mull, now present so many Sierra Nevadas, while you are conscious at last, and to an extent that admits of no possible mistake on the subject, that the wind, which, whether it blows adown the glen or across the sea, has a chill and penetrating edge to it, is neither the breeze of autumn nor the zephyr of summer, but the breath of winter itself —the hoary-headed and icicle-bearded season, that, with all its drawbacks, has its uses in the general economy as well as its gentler confrers in the annual. With the exception of one or two pet days, the weather of the past fortnight has been stormy and wild, with heavy falls of rain on the lowlands, and sleet and snow among the mountains. In no one season since we first became a student of the heavens, now more than a quarter of a century ago, have we had so many splendid exhibitions of aurora bor calis as the last three weeks have presented us with in a series of tableaux vivants, which, while they charmed and delighted the intelligent observer, made the vulgar gape in astonishment and alarm. In every instance these auroral displays have invariably been followed within twelve hours by heavy gales of wind and much rain, and so constantly have we noticed this sequence throughout the observations of many years, that there is perhaps no meteorological prediction on which we should be disposed to venture -with so much confidence and boldness as that within twelve or fifteen hours of a bright auroral display there shall be a storm, and that that storm shall bo of heavy rain or sleet, as well as of high wind. We speak principally of the West Highlands, but we have no doubt that observation would prove the phenomena to be the same throughout the kingdom. If we were in command of a ship at sea, we should consider ourselves quite as justified in making all necessary preparations for a coming storm on the back of a brilliant aurora, as we should on observing a sudden fall in the barometer, the only difference being that the "merry dancers" give you longer notice of the approaching gale than does the mercury. The latter exclaims, " Look out !" and if you don't look out, and that instantly, calling all hands and making everything snug, you come to grief, while time enough generally elapses after the auroral warning, to enable you to prepare at leisure for the coming storm, and, if it catch you napping, the fault is all your own. The recent auroral displays seem to have been very general over the whole of Europe, and are said to have been unusually brilliant in Canada and the Northern States of America. A more than ordinarily severe and protracted winter may be expected after all these aerial perturbations, which, when a French savant remarked the other day to a compatriot, "Tant pis," replied the chassepot-beariug mobile, with the invariable shoulder shrug and grin, "Tant pis pour Messieurs les Prussiens!"—thinking, no doubt, of the disastrous retreat from Moscow, and hoping to see it repeated in a different direction at no distant day. Except the wren and redbreast, whose pluck is indomitable, and who are never altogether out of voice, our singing birds are now songless and silent, or if they do utter a note, it is but a cheep and a chirp, not a song, another sign that our winter is to be regarded as having fairly set in. We notice, besides, that some of our winter visitors from

Arctic seas have made their appearance along our shores, while we observe that the rook and grey crow have already begun to frequent the beach at low water in search of what may be picked up in the way of a meal, a sure sign that they also look upon it as already come, and that their food in more inland parts has disappeared until a kindlier season has come round.

A very large raven (Corvtis cor ax), the biggest specimen of this bird we have ever seen, was trapped at the head of Glencreran a few days ago by a bird-catcher that annually pays the West Highlands a visit at this season. It was a female, as fat and plump as a Michaelmas goose, and weighed within an ounce or two of four pounds. The plumage, as might be expected in a bird of such high condition, was perfect, with the exception of two of the upper alar feathers, which were perfectly white, an abnormality, however, that only rendered the specimen all the more interesting. The raven is the craftiest and shyest of birds, never venturing within shot of fowling-piece or rifle, and more difficult than any other bird, perhaps, to be outwitted or circumvented in any way. With all his craft and caution, however, the raven is, when occasion calls, one of the most courageous and boldest of birds. At the time of nidification, for instance, the male will fearlessly attack the largest falcon and drive him from what he considers his own proper territory, nor will he shun the combat, as we have often observed, even with the osprey or bald buzzard when they met in mid air on their predatory excursions, and a sufficient casus belli has been found or feigned by either belligerent. We remember seeing an encounter of this kind several years ago, which continued nearly an hour, and was a very pretty and interesting sight, the combatants performing the most beautiful aerial evolutions as they charged, and parried, and soared, and swooped in fierce and determined conflict. We noticed that the raven frequently uttered his hoarse and threatening croak, as if to intimidate his opponent, while the osprey fought in perfect silence. The combat finally resulted in a drawn battle, the belligerents separating as if by mutual consent, and slowly winging their flight in opposite directions. The probability is that the raven's pugnacity was excited on this occasion (March 1863) by the osprey's cruising about, however unwittingly, in the vicinity of the precipice in a cleft of which the female raven was at the time brooding on her nest. At such a time the raven will boldly attack the passing eagle, and harass and annoy it until the eagle, pestered and teased by the assault, rather than in any way alarmed, with great good nature evacuates the territory which the raven claims as its own. The raven has from the earliest ages been accounted a bird of evil omen, and an object of superstitious dread and awe, and allusions to the bird in this connection are to be met with in the literature of most countries, the raven being as cosmopolitan as man himself. Its croak, so disagreeable, and dismal, and hoarse, and startling; its colour, a funereal black ; its habitat, the lonely and demon-haunted mountain peaks, giddy precipices, and dreary solitudes; its lamb-slaying and carrion-eating propensities; its shy and suspicious manner, as if he knew that he had done evil and was apprehensive of well-merited punishment—all combine to render him in the first instance a noticeable and remarkable bird, and one sure to be selected for frequent reference in the days of bird divination, a superstition of which traces may probably be found in the early history of every country, and thus it would readily be raised to the "bad eminence" of a bird of evilest omen—

"The hateful messenger of heavy things,
Of death and dolour telling."

The Moor of Venice says— 

"It comes o'er my memory,
As doth the raven o'er the infected house,
Boding to all."

And you remember Macbeth, and cannot fail to catch the allusion—

"The raven himself is hoarse,
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements."

During his tour in the Highlands with Dr. Johnson, Boswell writes a highly characterestic letter to David Garrick, and, describing their visit to Macbeth's Castle, says—"The situation of the old castle corresponds exactly to Shakspeare's description. While we were there to-day, it happened oddly that a raven perched upon one of the chimney tops and croaked. Then I, in my turn, repeated 1 The raven himself,' &c." Now, if a raven in truth did so perch, all we can say is that it was a very curious place for a raven to be, or ravens, within a hundred years, must have very much changed their habits and nature. The explanation probably is that it was a tame raven, or a rook perhaps, or, likeliest of all, that it was a common jackdaw (Corvus monedula), a pert, impudent, and garrulous little gentleman in black—no bigger than a dovecot pigeon—that Mr. Boswell mistook (proh pudor /) for the grave, stately, and sagacious raven, who is as much bigger, and weightier, and wiser than his loquacious cousin the daw, as Samuel Johnson was bigger, and weightier, and wiser than his travelling companion, James Boswell. It is curious to meet with the following on the authority of no less renowned a personage than the valorous and puissant knight Don Quixote de la Mancha, the flower of chivalry. " Have you not read, sir," proceeds the knight, " the annals and histories of England, wherein are recorded the famous exploits of King Arthur, whom in our Castilian tongue we perpetually called King Artus, of whom there exists an ancient tradition, universally received over the whole kingdom of Great Britain, that he did not die, but that by magic art he was transformed into a raven, for which reason it cannot be proved that from that time to this any Englishman hath killed a raven."

We have just called the raven our "friend," nor are w| at all ashamed so to designate a bird whom we have known long, and regarding whom, if other people speak nothing but evil, we at least can speak a great deal that is good. There is a well-known proverb to the effect that a certain potentate of sable hue is not so black as he is painted, nor is the raven. First of all, he is an apt scholar, and a bird generally of much sagacity, of long memory, and ready wit. It is on record that on one occasion when the Emperor Augustus was returning victorious from a battlefield, a tame raven that had received his lesson, and remembered it to the letter, alighted on the conqueror's chariot, and saluted him in these words —Ave Ceesar, Victor, Imperator ! The Emperor was pleased, as he well might be, and ordered the raven a handsome pension for life. Bechstein, who probably knew more about the habits and economy of ravens, especially in their tame state, than any other ornithologist before his day or since, vouches for the facility with which they may be taught to speak, and for their sagacity and docility generally. He tells the following amusing story:—"A very clever raven was kept at a nobleman's residence in the district of Mannsfeldt. Among other things he could say, ' Well, who are you %' very strongly and distinctly. One day, as he was walking about among the grass in the garden, he observed a setter dog which remained near him, and kept constantly walking after him. Not liking to be thus watched and followed, the raven turned rapidly round and sternly exclaimed, ' Well, who are you 1' The dog was alarmed at this, hung his tail, and ran hastily away, and not until he had gained a considerable distance did he turn round and howl." The raven, besides, is a thorough anti-Mormonite, and wouldn't live in Utah for the world. If he visits the polygamist colony at all, it is always under protest against the institutions of that delectable land, and to be ready to pick the bones of the first many-wived "elder" he may catch in articulo mortis. Rather should the raven be elected to a seat upon the bench of bishops, for he is ever careful to fulfil the apostolic injunction to be the husband but of one wife ; and until accident or old age deprives him of her, he is the model and pattern of faithful and affectionate husbands, never violating his conjugal vows, not even to the extent of the most innocent of flirtations or the most Platonic of intimacies with a neighbouring raveness, even though she should be younger, and sleeker, and glossier than his own. The raven, in short, when he pairs, which he does at the earliest moment permitted by the laws of ravendom, pairs for life, and while his first choice is spared to him he will no more think of paying court to another, be her charms what they may, than he will of dying of hunger while there is a bone to pick, a tender lamb, or braxied sheep within a circuit of a hundred miles of his eyrie, in the most inaccessible cleft of yonder beetling precipice. "We might now say something if we liked of the raven's usefulness in the general economy as a hard-working and indefatigable inspector of nuisances, and how putrid animal matter of every description disappears, as if by magic, wherever he is known and appreciated; but this is a utilitarian age, and as we hate utilitarianism, we are content merely to hint that the raven deserves special regard as a sanitary reformer. We prefer insisting on the fact that the raven is a gentleman of very ancient descent, being able, in the clearest manner, to trace his pedigree in unbroken line up to the days of "Captain" Noah himself, as Byron irreverently styles the patriarch. When any one in our day becomes distinguished and attracts our special regard, we instantly set to work to trace his descent, and although he himself can hardly tell who was his grandfather, we are never satisfied until we have, by hook and by crook, traced his ancestry to the Bagman Roll or the Norman Conquest, and, having thus ennobled him to our own entire satisfaction, we cease not to pet and praise him until he is dead, and then the newspapers swarm with obituary notices of the distinguished man who has just departed, and a monument, erected by public subscription, concludes the farce. The raven's ancestor was unquestionably with Noah in the ark, and although he has incurred some odium in connection with the assuaging of the waters, we confess we cannot well tell why, for all that the ancient, and beautiful, and simple narrative says of him is this: "And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth." On the point of ancestry, in short, there is no bird that has a better right to hold up his head than the raven. And just consider: wasn't Dickens' stuffed raven "Grip" sold the other day for a hundred and twenty guineas! although if his portrait in the Graphic is to be depended on, he never was a handsome specimen of the family, or if he was, then the man who stuffed and "set him up" should have received a flogging for his pains. Should the reader wish to know more about our friend Corvus corax, we can confidently recommend him to make the acquaintance, the intimate acquaintance if he can, of "The Raven" to be met with in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the most weird and wonderful raven that has ever yet appeared in song or story.


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