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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XXV


Thunderstorm—Potato Field in Bloom—The Hazel Tree—Hazel Nuts—Potato Shaws for Cattle—Ferns for Bedding Cattle—Marmion—Scott.

With an occasional fine day [August 1871], the past fortnight must, we fear, he characterised as having been upon the whole wet -—very wet, a stranger would say—and not a little stormy withal. We had a tremendous thunderstorm early on Sunday morning, with the most magnificent display of forked lightning that we have ever seen, while the very earth seemed to quake and tremble under the crash of peal upon peal of thunder, so near and loud at times as to he absolutely terrible. It is no wonder that the soundest sleepers were awakened from their midnight slumbers by the hurly-burly. We ourselves got up for a time, and sat at our window, watching the lightning that darted incessantly among the mountain summits with startling vividness, revealing their serrated peaks at times through the very heart of the thunder-cloud as distinctly as if it were clearest noonday. Rain, too, fell the while in torrents, that instantly filled river and mountain stream to overflowing; and as the storm passed away, and we retired to rest in the grey, uncertain twilight of the early dawn, we were lulled into a sleep, that lasted well nigh until noon, by the weird and wild music of "the noise of many waters." We thought, as we sat alone in the midst of that magnificent storm, of him (was it John Foster?) who, on a similar occasion, turned round to his companion and remarked, in a tone of deep solemnity, "It is a fine night; the Lord is abroad!" Crops, though generally further from maturity than is usual at this date, continue to grow rapidly, and everywhere present a strong and1 healthy appearance,—"a guarantee," as newspaper editors say, "of their good faith " and honest intentions in the direction of a bounteous yield when cometh the season of ingathering. Potatoes are now in full flower; and a very pretty sight, if you deign to look at it with an unprejudiced eye, is a potato field in blossom at this season. If the incomparable esculent were not cultivated for its utility and value as an article of food, it would still deserve a place in our gardens for its elegance and beauty simply as a flower. Nothing but its commonness causes its beauty as a flowering plant to be so constantly overlooked. We are in the midst of our hay season, and we are only anxious about good weather for securing it in tolerable order. Eight consecutive days of dry, breezy weather would be of incalculable value to us at this moment. Anything will grow, and grow luxuriantly, on the "West Coast: our difficulties only begin with the season of ripening and after preservation. If there be any truth in the old Scottish saying, that " a year of nuts will also be a year of corn," then may the grain-growers of the West Highlands at least already congratulate themselves, for we have seldom seen the hazel boughs so laden with nut clusters; and a prettier sight than a hazel wood so laden, either now or when decked in its autumnal robes, it would be difficult to conceive. It is, besides, a fragrant, cleanly wood, through which you can at any time dash fearlessly and at will, all the better of your contact with the leaves, branches, and nut clusters, when you have reached the open beyond. There is not a leaf in the woods so thoroughly clean, so fragrant when you have crushed it in your hand, so soft and pleasant to the touch in its every stage, as the leaf fresh plucked from the hazel bough. And apropos of hazel nuts, a gentlemen from the south of England, at present resident in our neighbourhood, told us something the other day that we did not know before. "In our part of England," observed our friend, "the hazel is common, and grows to a larger size, has more pretentions to the name of tree, in fact, than here with you; and our nuts, I should say, must he larger, juicier, and in all respects better than yours." (A "soft impeachment," at which, for the honour of Nether Lochaber, we took the liberty of gravely shaking our head in token of dissent)." "We seldom, however," he went on, "can get a ripe hazel nut in autumn, the reason being that in many places they are gathered while yet in a half-formed and green state. You look surprised, but the reason is this : the husk of the green, unripe hazel nut is rich, as you must be aware, in a bitterly sharp and astringent acid, that must have often made your teeth water when you have essayed to crack a nut in a state of immaturity. This acid, then, you must know, -is valuable as a mordant (a technical term) in the printing and dyeing of cotton and other fabrics, and it commands a high price in the market accordingly. It is a maxim in commerce that demand creates supply; and the consequence is, that every year in the month of July, when the nuts are at their greenest, and the acid in their husks at its acridest, women and children plunder the woods of their hazel nut clusters, which are sold to the manufacturers, who, by a process of crushing by machinery, and washing and maceration, extract all the acid, to be employed, as I have already mentioned, in cotton printing and dye works." So far in substance, if not in ipsissimis verbis, our friend. All we could reply was that we should be sorry indeed to see our own bonny hazel woods similarly despoiled. Another thing told us by this friend somewhat surprised us. He observed our servant girl carrying a bundle of potato "shaws" into the byre, and asked us what they were for. On our replying that these were the shaws of the potatoes taken up for dinner, and that they were thrown before the cows, and devoured by them with avidity on their return from their hill pasture in the evening, he earnestly advised us never to do so again; that in England it was never done, because it was found that potato shaws given to milch cows not only lessened the quantity of milk yielded, hut actually vitiated the milk itself, giving it a disagreeable taste, and making it decidedly unwholesome. All we could answer was that we had known potato shaws given to milch cows all over the Highlands since ever we could remember, and that we had never known or heard any of the evils stated to result from the use of them. What says the reader? It is true, no doubt, that the potato belongs botanically to a family of plants many of whom are highly poisonous—such as the common deadly nightshade of our lanes and roadsides, for example—and it is averred that, although the tubor of the potato is healthy and nutritious when cooked, it is a poison in its raw state, and that its stem, leaves, flower, and "apple" are all more or less poisonous; and yet we have known boys, while the blight was yet unheard of, and when potatoes were more prolific of apples or plums than they have ever been since, eat the large, soft, full, ripe apples with relish, and they never suffered the slightest inconvenience in consequence that ever we heard of. As a boy we have often ate them ourselves, and very saccharine, juicy, and pleasant flavoured we recollect they were, not at all unlike the purple plum of our gardens in taste and flavour, and hardly inferior to it as a pleasant succulent bonne bouche. Cattle, as we know, will greedily eat the fresh shaws, as they will a decidedly poisonous plant, the hemlock (Celtich., Iteotha); and it is a well-known fact that in severe cases of scurvy on board ships that have to go long voyages a feast of raw potatoes is an immediate and certain cure; so that after all it would seem that if the potato is originally a poisonous plant, cultivation has eradicated all, or almost all, traces of the evil. As to the deleterious effects of the shaws on the milk of cattle we have our doubts, our amiable and learned friend abS.ve mentioned to the contrary notwithstanding. And while on such subjects let us record a piece of information received from an old woman in our neighbourhood a few days ago. We were cutting some green ferns on the hillside, when the old lady in question, who happened to pass the way at the time, stood to have a crack with us about the weather and crops and things in general, said crack concluding somewhat as follows:— "You are cutting fems, sir," said the old lady, "what are you to make of them if you please, sir?" "They are for "bedding," we replied, "bedding for the cows and pony." "Well, sir," she rejoined, "there is no harm in bedding the pony with them; they will do him no evil; but take an old woman's advice, and don't put them under your cows." "Why so," we asked in astonishment. "What can be cleaner, fresher, fragranter for bedding, whether for horse or cow, than these nice green ferns. Just look how beautiful and soft they are." "Still, sir," she persisted, "you must not place them under your cows, particularly your milch cows; if you do, their udders will assuredly fester, and they will go wrong in their milk. I have known it happen often, and no sensible person in the country ever does such a thing now-a-days. Terns cut in autumn when brown and ripe make excellent bedding for milch cows as for all other cattle, but July cut ferns, green, juicy, and unripe, should never be used for bedding milch cows. I do not pretend to tell you why they should produce the evils I have mentioned, but I do know that if I had fifty cows I had rather have them without bedding at all than put such green, fresh ferns as those under them." We stood for the moment aghast at this piece of information, which was perfectly new to us, and from the positive and decided tone of the old lady, a shrewd intelligent woman of her class, we felt that there must be something in it. On inquiry we have since found that the old lady's belief in the evil of ferns—green, unripe ferns, that is—as bedding for milch cows, is common among the people of this part of the West Highlands. Whether the whole affair is a mere superstition, the fern having always been accounted a sacred plant in the Highlands, or whether there is really some foundation in fact for the belief that a bedding of green ferns causes the udders of cows to swell and fester as is alleged, we are not at this moment prepared to say; perhaps some of our readers may be able to throw light on the subject. It is just possible that green-cut ferns, when pressed by the recumbent animal, may exude an acrid juice that, coming in contact with the tender udder, may be absorbed with the effects alleged. Meantime we doubt it. One thing we know is this, that cattle are fond of lying down among growing ferns in their every stage, and that both roe and red deer frequently make their lair among growing ferns at this season. Do you remember, by the way, Scott's magnificent description in Marmion of a fern-couched deer roused from his midnight lair by the awful tolling of the passing bell over the living entombment of poor Constance in the monastery of Lindisfarne—

"Slow o'er the midnight wave it swung,
Northumbrian rocke in answer rung;
To Walk worth cell the echoes roll'd,
His beads the wakeful hermit told.
The Bamborough peasant raised his head,
But slept ere half a prayer he said;
So far was heard the mighty knell,
The stag sprung up on Cheviot Fell,
Spread his broad nostril to the wind,
Listed before, aside, behind,
Then couch'd him down beside the hind,
 

And quaked, among the mountain fern,
To hear that sound so dull and stern."

Than the whole of the trial and doom of poor Constance, who "loved not wisely but too well," in the second canto of Marmion, even Scott never wrote anything more solemn or terrible.


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