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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XX


Along the Shore after Birds—An Otter in pursuit of a Fish—Tame Otter at Bridge of Tilt: Employed in Fishing—His hatred of all sorts of Birds—"The Otter and Fox," a translation from the Gaelic.

November closed with a week of the most delightful weather one could wish for at this season [December 1870], cold, but crisp and clear; nor has December thus far shown any tendency to exceptional "rampaging" either, though come it must, if we are not much mistaken, and in a style we fear that will cause it to be remembered. Woodcocks, fieldfares, redwing thrushes, snow buntings, and starlings are at this moment more plentiful than we ever saw them before; while Arctic sea-fowl in great numbers crowd our creeks and bays, and immense flocks of grallatores, curlews, gedwits, purrs, dunlins, and oyster-catchers, may be seen all along our shores diligently attending the sea margin as the tide recedes, or with weird and wild scream urging their eccentric flights from an exhausted sandbank in indefatigable search of "fresh fields and pastures new." Creeping among the rocks on the back of Cuilchenna Point, a quiet, sequestered shore, seldom visited by anybody but ourselves at this season, one evening last week, watching a pair of web-feet that we finally decided to besmews, a species of merganser, we were unexpectedly treated to an exhibition of aquatic feats that wo had never before seen equalled, and that we thought no animal, biped or quadruped, could accomplish in an element not properly its own. Squatted on the beach behind two huge boulders, a narrow opening between which .enabled us to look seawards, and to see without being seen, we were watching the elegant smews as they preened themselves, floating gracefully the while, without the movement of a web, on the calm surface of the cold, clear sea, when right before us, and within less than a dozen fathoms of the shore, a dark object suddenly dashed to the surface with a flop and a splash, and as suddenly disappeared. We took it to be a seal in pursuit of some fish, as is his wont; but on its reappearance a minute or so afterwards, we were delighted to see that it was not a seal, but a large otter hard at work in chase of some favourite fish for supper ; and small blame to him for that same, for if one might judge from his exertions in the pursuit, he was dreadfully hungry and thoroughly in earnest, not yet having dined, perhaps, nor even broken his fast since the preceding evening, for your otter (Lutra vulgaris) is for the most part an evening and nocturnal feeder. Nothing could exceed the elegance and ease with which the otter performed the most extraordinary and complicated evolutions in pursuit of his prey, his long, lithe body, pliant and supple, as an eel's, twisting and twining in every direction as the fish darted hither and thither, or swept in rapid circles in its efforts to escape. Its tail, we noticed, seemed to act not merely as a rudder in aid of its owner's incessant perisaltations, but to be in constant motion like a propeller, as if to assist the broad and muscular web feet in every act of natation. For ten minutes or more, perhaps, did the chase continue, the fish, that seemed to be either a haddock or sea-trout of some three or four pounds weight, occasionally leaping bodily out of the water in its efforts to escape from the unfriendly attentions of its stern pursuer, the said pursuer, like a staunch hound, doubling as the fish doubled, circling as it circled, and diving as it dived, with a persistency and perseverance that it was impossible to elude, until at last, fairly beaten in his own element, the fish was captured in a pool of shallow water, whither it had darted in its terror and bewilderment, the otter instantly pouncing upon it and seizing it in his mouth, as you have seen a terrier deal with a rat. At this moment we rushed from our concealment with a shout, hoping to frighten the otter and get hold of the fish, hut Monsieur Lutra was too quick for us. With the fish in his mouth he plunged into the sea, and in a second had disappeared among some boulders that would probably have afforded him a secure asylum, even if we had a pack of otter hounds to aid in our attempt at the dislodgment of a gentleman so cunning.

With the common otter of our inland rivers and lakes wo have been more or less familiar since our school-boy days; but we cannot recollect having ever seen a marine otter until this occasion. Our naturalists seem to be very generally agreed that the sea otter and that of our rivers and fresh-water lakes are one and the same animal,—an opinion from which we are not at this moment prepared to dissent, though the animal referred to above seemed to us to be larger in size, blacker in colour, with more prominent ears, and a bigger, bushier tail than any specimen, living or dead, that had hitherto come under our notice. Certain peculiarities, however, of form and colouring in the individual are frequently attributable to accidental circumstances. We remember seeing a very fine dog otter many years ago, that its owner had succeeded in rendering comparatively tame, and of some use in the capture of fish for its master's table, as well as for its own sustenance. The animal belonged to the innkeeper at Bridge of Tilt, in Athole, and was usually kept chained in an empty stall in the stable. It was very good-natured and docile, and evinced its satisfaction on being stroked with the hand and patted by a curious purring, sort of half whine half bark, altogether unlike the utterance of any other animal with which we are acquainted. We saw it presented with a dish of milk, which it readily lapped up, using its tongue by way of spoon, as a dog does under similar circumstances. With a collar round its neck, to which a long rope was attached, it was frequently taken to the river, where it never failed to catch fish, first driving them, after the manner of a collie with a flock of sheep, into the nearest pool in which there was a considerable depth of water, when he pounced upon them with the agility of a wild cat, and seldom failed to secure two or three of the hest and biggest fish in the shoal ere they could manage to escape. We were assured, however, that the hest place to see the Otter at work was not the river, but one of the moorland lochs, in the depths of which he was perfectly at home. Here he exhibited the most astonishing feats of agility in pursuit of his prey; his activity and matchless swimming powers being backed by a pertinacity and cunning that left neither trout nor pike much chance of escape. Having marked out and selected the fish to be captured, it was observed that he stuck to it with the staunchness of a well-trained hound through all its doublings and windings, as if for the moment the loch contained none but it, until he had fairly run it down; the capture generally taking place among the reeds that bordered the margin of the mere, into which the fish always rushed on becoming sensible that its adversary was not to be eluded in open water. If left to himself, it was remarked that the otter was somewhat dainty and fastidious of taste, rarely eating more of a captured fish than a little at the back of the head and about the pectoral fins, when, after a short rest, he was ready to start in pursuit of another. If this be the habit of otters in their wild state—as there is reason to believe it is—one can fancy how terribly destructive to fish they must be, killing ten times more than they actually eat, and these, too, the best and biggest fish they can meet with in their depredations. Even a single pair of otters, with a family to rear, must be a terrible scourge on any river they may select to honour with their attentions for a season; nor is the marine otter, we may be sure—such as We saw the other day—less destructive when he takes up his residence in the vicinity of salmon fishings. Whatever the price of salmon in the market, depend upon it that the otter's larder is always well supplied.

The semi-domesticated otter above referred to, after leading a not unuseful life for a year or two under the careful and always kindly superintendence of its intelligent owner, managed at last somehow to break its chain and escape, and was never more seen or heard of. The only other curious thing about this animal that we can recollect was his deadly aversion to every feathered creature that came near him. "Whether goose or duck, barn-door fowl or pigeon, he seemed to detest them all, and would readily, and with every sign of anger, kill such as he could get hold of, not to eat them, observe, for that he was never known to do, but just because he disliked them. To all other animals he could be easily reconciled, and was on good and even friendly terms with all the dogs, cats, and pigs about the place, particularly manifesting his love for his stable companions, the horses, by whining in his strange fashion and straining on his chain to the utmost, as if he would fain welcome them with a caress, when after a day's work in the fields they returned to the stable of an evening. "We are not aware that, except milk, which it would readily lap and seemed to enjoy, this otter was ever known to touch anything in the shape of food except its natural fish diet. In the old Sgeulachdan, or fireside tales of the ancient Highlanders, we frequently meet with the "dun otter" or dobhran donn, as one of the dramatis personce. He is generally introduced to us under an amiable character, rescuing neglected merit from obscurity, relieving distressed damsels, or succouring the widow and orphans with bountiful supplies of silvery fish from the tarn amongst the mountains, or the eddying pool beneath the cascade in the glen. The amiable and friendly otter sometimes turns out to bo an enchanted prince, who, timeously released from the spell that has doomed him to amphibious habits and quadrupedal form, assumes his proper shape, and marries the always virtuous and beautiful, though frequently humble, heroine of the tale. In the Hebrides to this day the otter is looked upon with some degree of superstitious reverence, and a bit of otter skin worn by way of charm is regarded as an antidote against infection in fever and small-pox, a preservative from death by drowning, and of singular efficacy in bringing the labours of parturition to a happy issue. A mole on a person's skin, whatever its place or proportions, is in the Hebrides never reckoned a deformity. It is regarded rather as a "beauty spot" than otherwise, and believed to betoken a long life and good luck to the fortunate possessor. In the "West Highlands and Hebrides such a mark on the skin is called a ball-dobhrain, an otter mark or otter spot, and is no more accounted a blemish or deformity than was the mole on the right lip of Dulcinea del Toboso by Don Quixote, though it looked "like a whisker, and had seven or eight red hairs in it above a span long!" In some places a piece of otter skin placed on the head under a woman's coif, and worn inside a man's blue bonnet, is supposed to relieve the headache and prevent baldness, while gentle friction along the affected part with the furry side of a bit of otter skin is esteemed of sovereign efficacy in erysipelas or "rose." The following is a somewhat free rendering from the Gaelic of a fable occurring in an old Sgeulachd, with which many of our west coast readers at least must be acquainted. The moral is obvious.

The Otter AND Fox

The otter had caught in the pool below
A silvery salmon so full of roe,
And clambering bore it over the rocks,
When who should he me^t but his cousin the fox.
"Friend," quoth the wily fox, ' pray go
And bring me a fish from the pool below— 
I've not tasted fish for a year or mo
Leave here thy salmon; go, haste thee back,
We'll dine together and have our crack;
Believe me, dear otter, that over one's food
The face of a friend is always good."

The otter tumbled into the stream
Where the floating foam was white as cream ;
He sought and searched in each cranny and hole,
But not a fish could he find in the pool.
"Well," quoth the otter, "I'll hasten back
To my cousin the fox, and we'll have our crack
Over the salmon I left above;
One fish will go far that is eaten in love;
'Tis large, and fat, and full of roe,
And, fairly divided, will serve for two."

Clambering over the rocks in haste
The otter returned to join his guest;
But guess his surprise when he reached the spot;
Where the fox had been—the fox was not,
And nought of the salmon that could be seen
But some silvery scales where the salmon had been
The otter but said, "Tis my belief
My cousin the fox should be hanged for a thief;
He'll never again make me his tool,
For myself alone I'll haunt the pool."


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