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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XXIV


The Beauty of the West Highland Seaboard—Dr. Aiton of Dolphinton—Dr. Norman Macleod—Specimen of Turtle-Dove (Columba Tartar) shot in Ardgour—The belief on the Continent of its value as a Household Pet—Bechstein—Male Birds dropping Eggs in confinement.

If somewhat over-showery for the comfort of tourists, whose season [June 1871] may now he said to have fairly commenced, the weather with us on the west coast is at least all that the agriculturist and sheepowner could wish it to he, for pasture everywhere is rich and abundant to a degree that has rarely been known even here, while crops of all kinds never perhaps presented a healthier or more luxuriant growth. The truth is that a certain amount of rainfall, and that amount a large one, is absolutely necessary for the wellbeing of our crops in the "West Highlands, and the longer we live the more do we feel the truth and force of the saying of a shrewd old gentleman, at his own dinner table many years ago, to the effect that he had always observed that the season in which there was some difficulty in getting peats secured in good condition was invariably the best for Lochaber and the neighbouring districts from a pastoral and agricultural point of view. This is particularly observable this year, for while you cannot as yet see a stack of this season's peats anywhere, the country is clothed in richer, greener verdure, the woods are leafier, and crops of every description more luxuriant than we can recollect to have been the case for at least a dozen years past. If anybody wishes to see the West Highlands in all their magnificence and beauty, now is the season, for, go where you may, turn whithersoever you will, wander forth at any hour and in any direction, you cannot fail to he charmed "with the infinite variety of pictures that present themselves for your admiration, pictures which, while they only charm and enchant the ordinary beholder, delight at once and distress the artist—delight him by their marvellous beauties, but distress him not the less, because he cannot with all his cunning transfer these beauties in their entirety to canvas. An American gentleman whom we met the other day candidly confessed that, although he had gone over most of his native land, and made the tour of Continental Europe and the East, he had not in all his travels seen anything more beautiful than the shores of Loch Linnhe, Loch Leven, and Lochiel at sunset on a fine evening in June. The late Dr. Aiton of Dolphinton told us on his return from Palestine that he had seen nothing at all to equal Loch Linnhe on a summer's evening. In all the breadth of his native Doric, which he always employed in familiar conversation, he declared there was "naething in a' the Archipelago till touch't," and we have heard Dr. Norman Macleod on his return from India express himself very much to the same effect. The Queen says in her Journal that "the scenery in Loch Linnhe is magnificent—such beautiful mountains."

A specimen of a very rare bird, shot by the keeper in Ardgour Garden a few days ago, has been kindly sent to us by Mr. Maclean. It turns out to be a male in beautiful plumage of the turtle-dove (Columba turtur, Linn.; La tourterelle of Buffon), a bird rarely seen anywhere in Scotland, and which, except in this instance, has never, so far as we are aware, been met with in the "West Highlands. "We remember seeing a young bird, a female in immature plumage, that was said to have been shot somewhere near Falkland Palace in the summer of 1847, from which it was reasonably concluded that a pair of these beautiful birds had in that year at least nidified and reared their young somewhere in the Howe of Fife. Except in the case of the specimen now before us, we are not aware that it has ever been met with anywhere in the north or north-western counties. The turtle is, as we have said, an exceedingly beautiful and handsome bird, the breast of a delicate vinaceous tint, and a black patch on either side of the neck, each feather of which is tipped with a crescent of pure white, giving it a very elegant and striking appearance. It is less bulky and less rotund in form than the common dove, its shape more nearly resembling that of the blue jay or throstle cock, which latter it also about equals in size. "We have never seen this bird in confinement, but it is said to exhibit a remarkable degree of tenderness and sagacity, whether as a cage or chamber bird. On the Continent it is kept not only for its tameness and beauty, but because it is a common belief among the people that it attracts to itself bad humours, and is to a family in the matter of diseases what a lightning-rod is to a building in a thunderstorm. Buchstein, a shrewd and intelligent man, seems to think that the belief in question, absurd as it may appear to us, is not so ill-founded after all, for he says quietly, "Thus much at least is certain, that during the illness of men it readily becomes sickly." The explanation probably is that, being a tender and delicate bird, the odour and effluvia attendant on certain human ailments affects it as described. Other birds are occasionally similarly affected; thus, when our own children were laid up with a very bad kind of scarlatina, our cage-birds, gold and green finches, were out of sorts for some time, drooping and dejected and unable to sing as usual, though the month was April, when they should have been in all respects at their best and in full and free song. You may be sure, by the way, that we were not a little pleased with a paragraph which appeared the other day about the male cockatoo that dropped the egg, very much, no doubt, to the astonishment of his amiable mistress. When some years ago we ventured to assert that males of various birds, notably the common domestic cock, sometimes dropped an egg, the thing was scouted as ridiculous, and from Dan to Beersheba, from London to John O'Groat's, the cry was that it couldn't be, that it was impossible; one writer going so far in his scepticism as plainly to declare that "he would as soon believe that a bull had given birth to a calf." Much was the chaffing that we had to endure in connection with the subject, and our most intimate friends could hardly believe that we were serious in it at all. And yet we were perfectly in earnest; we had known the thing happen repeatedly, and since then a very fine cock goldfinch of our own, one of the best singers, too, we have ever heard, laid an egg in his cage which is still in our possession, and several of our correspondents having had their attention directed to the subject, have assured themselves that, not only is the thing possible, but in the case of the domestic cock at least, and of many cage-birds, of rather common occurrence. It is a very odd and curious thing, no doubt, and difficult of explanation, but there are thousands of undisputed facts in natural history in the same category, the existence of which is beyond all question, though the how, and why, and wherefore is a mystery.

From our window, as we write these lines, we can see quite a fleet of herring boats sailing up Loch Linnhe on their return from the fishing stations at Barra, Lochmaddy, and the Lewis—a very pretty sight—not less than two hundred or more boats under full sail, stretching in one long line from Corran Ferry to the Sound of Mull, looking at this distance for all the world like the notes in a line of complicated printed music.


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