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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XXVI


Harvest—Scythe and Sickle v. Reaping Machines — Potatoes — Garibaldi and Potatoes at Caprera—Fishing—Platessa Gemmatus, or Diamond Plaice—Mushrooms—The Poetry of Fairy Rings—Harvest-Home.

With such fine weather as we enjoy at present, September [1871] is one of the pleasantest months of the year. Harvest operations are now in full swing, and the redbreast—having moulted, and proudly conscious of the splendour of his scarlet vest—has already begun his autumnal song—more delectable now and more appreciated, because now, with the exception of an occasional voluntary from the wren, he only sings, whereas his vernal strains are lost in their amalgamation with the full chorus of a thousand performers. It is pleasant now, as you saunter or ride along, to listen to the merry laughter of the reapers afield, and to their song, as, more ma jorum, it floats in chorus on the gale : pleasant, too, to us at least, and far from unmusical, the frequent sound of the whetting of scythe and sickle in every direction—the bloodless weapons—as they are deftly handled in the process, glancing brightly in the sunlight! Reaping "machines" and "steam" ploughs may be very good things in their way, but we are not ashamed to confess that we are glad that, as yet at least, we know nothing of them in the West Highlands. The utilitarian must be content if we admit all their value and importance from his point of view, while at the same time we yet assert that wherever they appear all the poetry of agriculture incontinently becomes plain prose—Sir- transit gloria Cereris. "Very excellent, at all events, are our crops this season, and very excellently are they being harvested. A good deal has already been secured in barn and stackyard, and in such condition, too, as is but rarely possible under the weeping skies of the west coast. The weather is still so favourable that our people are working with a will, and making every exertion to have their harvesting concluded while it lasts. Potatoes still continue sound and untainted, although an occasional spottiness of the leaf in some fields shows that our old enemy the "blight" has not yet forgot the time of his coming. The crop is now, however, about ripe, and may be considered very much out of danger for the season. In our last, we had a good deal to say about this invaluable root, and how it should be brought to table; and to show that such a subject-matter is not quite so infra dig. as some of our readers might suppose, listen to what the Times says of Garibaldi's doings at Caprera. After recounting the General's failures in connection with his orchard, the acclimation of the silk-worm, &c., the Times proceeds:—"Garibaldi, however, points with exultation to his potato fields. No species of the favourite root is neglected, and there is no treat he so heartily enjoys as a dish of his own potatoes, baked with his own hand under embers, in the open air—a treat which calls up reminiscences of his camp life on the Tonale or the Stelvis, or of his pioneer's experience in the backwoods of the Mississippi or the Plate." We wonder if this "hero in an unheroic age," who yet disdains not to exult in his potato fields, or to cook his delicious "earth apples," as the French so happily term them, in the embers with his own hand— we wonder if he eats his fish with his fingers  We could lay a wager that he does; that in eating his ember-roasted potatoes in the open air, with some broiled tunny, let us suppose, as a fitting accompaniment—(the Thynnas ridgaris, in highest esteem with the ancients as with the moderns, abundant about Caprera and all the shores of Provence, Sardinia, and Sicily, and than which, indeed, there is hardly any better fish)—we could lay a wager, we say, that in eating his potatoes and fish al fresco he discards the use of knife and fork utterly, eating his fish with his fingers, and using the running brook beside him as a convenient finger-glass.

There is a lull at present in our herring fishing, rather because, however, of the paramount claims of harvest operations on the attention of our people just now, than from any dearth of the fish in our lochs. In a week or ten days, when all or most of the corn has been cut, the fishing will be resumed, and it is hoped with success. In an old Eingalian tale it is very beautifully said— "Rejoice, O my son, in the gifts of the sea; for they enrich you without making any one else the poorer." A rather rare fish in our western waters was caught a few days ago by our excellent neighbour, J. P. Grant, Esq., who occupies Cuilchenna House this season. Mr. Grant was good enough to send this odd fish for our inspection, and we determined it to be a species of plaice (Platessa) —and the handsomest of the family—the Platessa gemmatus of ichthyologists, commonly called the diamond or diamond-spotted plaice. This very handsome fish is quite as good on the table as it is beautiful when fresh from its native element. Another fish, rare on the west coast, was captured by ourselves with the rod while mackerel fishing last week. It was a specimen of the sapphirine gurnard {Trigla hirundo), one of the family of "hard-cheeked" fishes, of which the common red or cuckoo gurnard (Trigla cuculus) is a familiar example. A peculiarity in all the family is the abnormal development of the pectoral fins, so large in one species as to enable it to fly bird-like for short distances in the air. All our readers must have heard and read of the flying-fish (Trigla volitavs), even if they have never seen it. It is of the gurnard family—a very near relation, indeed, of our common gurnard. All the " hard-cheeked " fishes, without exception, are excellent eating. Our sapphirine gurnard was delicious.

We do not know whether any of our readers has observed it to be the case elsewhere, but in this and the neighbouring districts we have again and again remarked how very plentiful all kinds of mushrooms—the whole family of Agarici—are this season. Never have we seen so many beautiful " fairy rings," many of them almost mathematically perfect circles. Although they are always interesting and beautiful, you cannot help being a little startled, and feeling a shade of awe mingling with your curiosity and admiration, as you suddenly come upon one of these emerald rings in burnside meadow or upland glade, and contrast the vivid green and well-defined periphery of the charmed circle with the general every-day colour of the surrounding verdure. We are not surprised—on the contrary, we can perfectly understand—how in the good old times, ere yet the schoolmaster was abroad, or science had become a popular plaything, people — and, doubtless, very honest, decent people too—attributed those inexplicable emerald circles to supernatural agency; if, indeed, anything connected with the " good folks" or " men of peace" could properly be called super-natural in times when a belief in fairies, and every sort of fairy freak and frolic, was deemed the most correct and natural thing in the world. Didn't these circles, it was argued, appear in the course of a single night? In the sequestered woodland glade, nor herd nor milkmaid could see anything odd or unusual as the sun went down, and, lo ! next morning, as they drove their flocks afield, there was the mysterious circle, round as the halo about the wintry moon. Was not the colour, too, of these circles green, and not only green, but a deeper, richer, and more vivid green than natural verdure is ever seen to be 1 and whose work, therefore, could it be but that of the fairies, whose own favourite, peculiar colour was green, that no mere mortal durst wear but at his peril, and who, it was well known, delighted to dance hand-in-hand in merry circles round, footing it featly, as the owl flittered ghost-like by the scene, all by the silvery light of the moon, until the dawn of day. As Tom D'Urfey has it—

"O how they skipped it,
Capered and tripped it,
Under the greenwood tree!"

The popular belief in the origin of these bright green circles, that they were caused by fairy feet in many a midnight merry-go-round, is frequently alluded to in the poetry alike of Celt and Saxon. Thus a fairy song of the time of Charles the First begins—

"We dance on hills above the wind,
And leave our footsteps there behind,
Which shall to after ages last,
When all our dancing days are past."

The reader will probably remember Queen Mab's very quaint and beautiful song in Percy's Reliqaes of English Poetry :—

"Come, follow, follow me,
You fairy elves that be:
Which circle on the green,
Come follow Mab your queen.
Hand in hand let's dance around,
For this place is fairy ground.

''Upon a mushroom's head
Our table-cloth we spread;
A grain of rye or wheat,
Is manchet which we eat:
Pearly drops of dew we drink,
In acorn cups fill'd to the brink.

"The grasshopper, gnat, and fly,
Serve for our minstrelsy:
Grace said, we dance a while,
And so the time beguile;
And if the moon doth hide her head,
The glow-worm lights us home to bed.

"On tops of dewy grass
So nimbly do we pass,
The young and tender stalk
Ne'er bends when we do walk;
Yet in the morning may be seen
Where we the night before have been."

Another poet says—

"O'er the dewy green,
By the glow-worm's light,
Dance the elves of night,
Unheard, unseen.
Yet where their midnight pranks have been,
The circled turf will betray to morrow."

Nor was the superstition unknown to Shakspeare ; was there anything unknown to him ? Listen :—

"And nightly meadow-fairies, look you sing,
Like to the Garter's compass, in a ring;
The expressure that it bears, green let it be,
More fertile-fresh than all the field to see;
And,
 Honi soit qui mal y pense, write
In emerald tufts, flowers, purple, blue, and white
Like sapphire, pearl, and rich embroidery,
Buckled below fair knighthood's bending knee!
Fairies use flowers for their charactery."

And if we know better now-a-days than to believe these green circles to be fairy rings, we also know better than to give the slightest credence to certain authors of our own day who have gravely asserted that they are caused by electricity. We prefer the fairy agency theory, as the more poetical and picturesque of the two, for, as to the truth of either, why, the one is every whit as true as the other. Fairy rings, as we continue for convenience sake to call them, are, in truth, caused by a species of mushroom (Arjaricus pratensis), the sporule dust or seed of which, having fallen on a spot suitable for its growth, instantly germinates, and constantly propagating itself by sending out a net-work of innumerable filaments and threads, forms the rich green rings so common everywhere this season. On the outer edge of this ring, and*sometimes also, though more rarely, on the inner edge, grows the perfect plant, the fruit, the mushroom proper itself; and if some of our modern wiseacres had only had half an eye in their heads and the least particle of gumption, they could easily have gone to the fields and seen all this for themselves, instead of lazily theorising on the origin of the apparent mystery in their dressing-gowns and slippers hy the fireside, and sagely ascribing the whole to the agency of electricity! There was a time, you may remember, when it was the fashion to ascribe everything that people didn't readily understand to electricity—very convenient certainly, hut if you pushed these savans a little, and asked them what this electricity itself was, they were incontinently dumb, or, if they talked, they were hound to talk nonsense. "We can forgive, and even admire, the fairy dance theory, for it is full of poetry and beauty, and in an age when people seldom troubled themselves to trace natural phenomena to their source, it was, upon the whole, a rather happy conjecture; if it was not the actual vrai, it had of vraisemblance about it enough to recommend it to the acceptance of the multitude. Grant but the existence of fairies, and the rest was easy of belief. The "electricity" theory, on the contrary, was unpardonable: it was not only false in fact, but it had nothing whatever about it to recommend it either to one's faith or fancy. Hardly more excusable than the electricity theorists themselves are those authors who tell us that the West received the first hint of the existence of fairies from the East at the time of the Crusades, and that almost all our fairy lore is traceable to the same source; the fact being, nevertheless, that Celt and Saxon, Scandinavian and Goth, Lap and Fin, had their "duergar," their "elfen," without number, such as dun elfen, berg-elfen, munt-elfen, feld-elfen, wudu-elfen, sae-elfen, and waeter-elfen—elves, or spirits, of downs, hills, and mountains, of the fields, of the woods, of the sea, and of the rivers, streams, and solitary pools—fairies, in short, and a complete fairy mythology, long centuries before Peter the Hermit was born, or Frank and Moslem dreamt of making the Holy Sepulchre a casus belli. It is a curious fact in connection with fairy lore, and we have not seen it noticed elsewhere, that although these anomalous beings are always credited with much capriciousness, and are constantly described as sensitive in the extreme to anything like slight or insult, keenly vindictive in their dispositions and easily irritated, they are never represented as encompassing the death of human beings. They tease, terrify, and torment in a thousand ways where they take a dislike, but they never kill. Their power is described as great, but it is also limited—the issues of life and death are beyond their reach. In the fairy song (temp. Charles L) first quoted, there are two amusing verses indicating such pranks as fairies could play on mortals, if mortals offended them. Thus concludes Queen Mab her song :—

"Next turned to mines in cheese, forsooth,
We get into some hollow tooth;
Wherein, as in a Christmas hall,
We frisk and dance, the devil and all!

''Then we change our wily features,
Into yet far smaller creatures.
And dance in joints of gouty toes,
To painful tunes of groans and woes."—

A pathology of toothache and gout that we recommend to the attention of the faculty. The fairy ring agaric is one of the British species of mushroom that may be eaten with safety. For our own part we abominate the whole tribe. Our table may be scantier at times than we could wish, but it will be scantier far than a kind Providence has ever yet permitted it to be before we shall think of dining or supping on funguses. Chacun a son gout, however, and if anybody wants mushrooms in abundance, now is the time, and Nether Lochaber is the place for them.

The new moon that comes in this morning (the 6th) will be the harvest moon of the year. It is full on the 20th, and for a few evenings before and after will be very beautiful, and well worth attention. If you can command telescopic aid on the occasion, so much the Letter, but even without it, it were strange if we could not view with admiration and delight the silver orb that probably at some such conjunction as that of the 20th, when walking in her brightness and her beauty, tempted the patriarch of old to kiss his hand in acknowledgment of her excellency, and bow before her in adoration.


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