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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XXIII


March—The Story of a Spanish Dollar—The Spanish Armada—The "Florida"—Faire-Chlaidh, or Watching of the Graveyard—Molehill Earth for Flowers.

A fall of snow on Monday, followed by keen frost during three consecutive nights, rendered the past week [March 1871], as to mere cold at least, the most wintry of the season; but with a bright sun circling at mid-March altitude, the frost had no time to penetrate the soil to any depth, and spring work has been steadily pushed on, with hardly any retardation. In the upland glens, however, the frost was for some days intense, and had it continued much longer, weakly sheep must have suffered severely. But solvitur hiems, the frost is gone; the weather is now again open, and mild and spring-like, and our wild birds—scores of them within a stone's cast of our window as we write—only seem all the more jubilant because of the past week's temporary dip of temperature to the freezing-point. "Speed the plough"—one of our very best Scotch reels, by the way—should now be the cry, at once earnest and cheery, of every one connected with arable land, for what says the old Gaelic proverb—

"Am fear naoh cuir 'sa Mhart,
'Sanmoch a bhuaineas e."

He that sows not in March shall have a late ingathering.

A coin was sent us for identification a few days ago, the history of which strikes us as interesting. We had no difficulty in determining it to be a silver Spanish dollar of the time of Philip II. It is much corroded and worn, but the following letters of the original inscription are distinctly legible :—Ph. II., D.G. Hisp: et Ind: Rex. 1585. On the reverse disc is what seems to have been intended for the prow of a ship between two palm trees. The owner of this coin tells us that it came into his possession in the following manner:—A brother of his, who owned and commanded a coasting schooner about fifty years ago, chancing to be becalmed while passing through the Sound of Mull, thought it best to come to anchor for the night. Next morning, when getting under weigh, the anchor, as it came to the bows, was found to have brought up a large mass of tangle. While clearing this away, the edge of the coin was observed sticking out from among a lot of sand and shingle attached to the tangle roots, and having been -secured and handed to the Captain, he ever after kept it in his purse as a "luckpenny," on which he set a high value, and all the more so, perhaps, that it happened to be found on the morning of Easter Sunday, a fact that to him, as a good Catholic, had a significance and meaning that the rest of the crew took no account of. Be this as it may, he was from that day an exceedingly prosperous and lucky man in all his undertakings, and till the day of his death he carried the coin about him wherever he went, as a " luck-penny " and talisman of extraordinary virtue. The present owner, too, sets a very high value on this numismatic talisman, which, he declares, hardly anything would induce him to part with. During the ten years that it has been in his possession, he assures us that he has been prosperous and successful as he never was before, with never a moment's illness ; and although too sensible and shrewd a man actually to assert that the coin has anything to do with it, it is a fact that he very seriously looks upon his Spanish dollar as a sort of "lee-penny," giving its possessor a fair chance of an amount of health and wealth, that without it he might struggle for in vain. This nonsense apart, however, the question remains, What business had a Spanish dollar in the bottom of the Sound of Mull. How came it there? Our theory is that the coin originally belonged to some one connected with the great "Invincible Armada" of 1588. It is a well-known historical fact that, after the defeat of the Armada, the already shattered and discomfited fleet, in attempting to return to Spain by sailing round Scotland and Ireland, was overtaken hy a dreadful storm, in which many of the ships were wrecked. One ship, named the " Florida," ran for shelter into the Sound of Mull, and while at anchor off Tobermory harbour, was captured and destroyed hy a body of Mull and Morvern men, under the command of Maclean of Thiart. This fact is sufficiently attested by a remission, under the Privy Seal, to that chief for his share in the somewhat questionable transaction, bearing date the 20th March 1589. The "Florida" was destroyed by being blown up, with all her armament and stores, and many of her crew—a treacherous and cruel act, for Scotland at least was then at peace with Spain—and it is probable that the Spanish dollar so recently examined by us reached the bottom of the Sound on that occasion, and there remained till fished up in the curious manner above related, upwards of two centuries afterwards. Some of the timbers of the submerged " Florida " have from time to time been brought to the surface, and a casket formed out of part of her windlass was presented by Sir Walter Scott to George IV., during his visit to Scotland in 1822.

An unsuccessful attempt, by means of divers, was made in 1740 to recover some of a large amount of treasure said to have been sunk in her; but some very beautiful brass guns were brought up, one of which is still to be seen at the Castle of Dunstaffnage, near Oban, and another, we believe, at Inveraray. These were last made to speak loud and lustily, not against a Queen of England, as was their original errand to our shores, but in honour of the marriage of the daughter of a Queen of Great

Britain with the son of a Scottish Duke, who now owns the lands which belonged to the Macleans, by whom the "Florida," carrying those very guns, was destroyed. Thus does "the whirligig of time bring about its revenges." Some years ago we were shown by a gentleman in Glasgow a large ebony-stocked pistol, beautifully carved and inlaid with mother-of-pearl and silver, which was said to have been secured from the wreck of the "Florida." We recollect that the corroded state of the barrel and lock abundantly satisfied us at the time that, whether it had belonged to the " Florida" or not, it had at all events long lain in water, and more probably, from the peculiar form of corrosion, in salt water than in fresh. As to the dollar, we have only further to state that-its owner now thinks more of it than ever: our suggestion as to its very probable connection with the Spanish Armada having largely enhanced its value in his estimation. Its mere intrinsic value as a bit of silver would, we think, be fully and fairly appraised at something like twenty pence sterling.

We were the other day accidentally brought into contact with a curious superstition, which, although not peculiar to this district, . but common, we believe, over all the Highlands, was yet quite new to us. We were sailing past the beautiful island of St. Mungo, in Loch Leven, the burial-place for many centuries of the people of Nether Lochaber and Glencoe, when the following conversation took place between ourselves and an old man who managed the sails while we steered. It was all in Gaelic, of course, but we give the substance in English:—"You were at the funeral on the island the other day, sir?" interrogatively observed our companion. "I was, indeed," we replied. "John -," he continued, naming the deceased, "was a very decent man." "He was a fine old Highlander, shrewd and intelligent," we replied, "and, what is more, I believe a very good man." "Donald," naming a person we both knew, "is very ill, and not likely to last long.' "I saw him to-day," we observed, "and I fear that what you say is true: he cannot last long." "Well, sir, it will be a good thing for John-(the person recently buried); his term of watching will be a short one." "I do not understand what you mean," we observed, with some curiosity. "The man is dead and buried; what watching should he have to do?" "Why, sir, don't you know that the spirit of the last person buried in the island has to keep watch and ward over the graves till the spirit of the next person buried takes his place?" "I really did not know that," we replied. "Is it a common opinion that such is the case, and do you believe it yourself?" "Well, sir, it is generally believed by the people; and having always heard that it was so, I cannot well help believing it too. The spirit whose watch it is, is present there day and night. Some people have seen them : my mother, God Test her ! once pointed out to me, when I was a little boy, an appearance, as of a flame of light on the island, slowly moving backwards and forwards, and she assured me it was the watching spirit going his rounds." "What particular object has the spirit in watching?" we asked. "Well, I don't exactly know," was the answer. "He just takes a sort of general charge of the Island of the Dead, until his successor arrives." We have since found that a belief in this superstition is common among the old people. The spirit or ghost is supposed to be to a certain extent unhappy, and impatient of relief while in the discharge of this office, and thus, it is considered, that the sooner after a funeral there is occasion again for the opening of a grave, the better it is for the spirit of the last person interred, who then, and not till then, passes finally and fully to his rest.

We have to warn such of our readers as dwell by the sea, and all "who go down to the sea in ships, and see His wonders in the deep," that unusually high tides may be expected in connection with the new moon of the 18th. The highest tide, however, is not likely to be exactly coincident with the change of the moon, but at the time of the second or third flood thereafter. Along our Scottish coasts the tidal wave will probably be highest on the morning of the 20th, so that this notice may yet be sufficiently timeous. Much, however, will depend on the state of wind and weather, as to the height the tide may attain at any particular place. In any case, it can do no harm to be prepared.

To such of our readers as may be engaged in the rearing and tending of flowers at this season we very willingly communicate a hint that may be found useful. And it is this. In filling flowerpots or window-sill boxes, there is frequently considerable difficulty in procuring soil that will be at once sufficiently rich, free of weed seeds, and finely pulverised. The despised and sadly persecuted mole provides the very thing wanted, and in little round heaps, waiting only to be gathered, commonly called molehills. For flowers, whether in pots or borders, there is nothing so good as molehill earth. The rationale of the thing is, as is well-known to every one in the least acquainted with the natural history of the interesting velvet-coated subterranean tunnelists, that they live on worms and insect larvae. These are always found in the best soil, which is hurled to the surface in round heaps by the industrious little animal while in pursuit of his prey, and in so pulverised a state, and so free of weed seeds, as to be above all others the soil most suitable for all manner of ordinary floriculture. With such soil we have grown the purest dahlias and wallflowers we ever saw anywhere. The old Royalist toast, "To the little gentleman in the black velvet coat!" Was in sly allusion to the death of a high personage from injuries received by his horse stumbling over an insignificant molehill, and whose name by the way is disagreeably connected with a dark deed done heretofore in Glencoe, whose wild gorge and frowning precipices are in view as we write. But if any of our readers will feel cause of gratitude to the mole on the hint above given, as they bend over a moss rose or dahlia which has grown in soil so procured, why, we shall be glad for all our sakes. For our reader's, in that he or she has been gratified in such a delightful and holy taste as flower culture; for our own, that the secret w as ours to divulge; and for the mole's sake, poor persecuted fellow, for he sadly needs a friend.


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