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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XXIX


The Vernal Equinox—Beauty of Loch Leven—Astronomical Notes—How an old Woman supposed to possess the Evil Eye escaped a cruel death.

The vernal equinox has come and gone, unaccompanied this year [April 1872], as it was unheralded and unannounced, hy anything like the storms that from the earliest times have been observed to be attendant on the sun's crossing the equator. It is by no means certain, however, that these storms may not even now be a-brewing, to make themselves yet felt in all their fierceness, for we have noticed in recent years particularly that what are called the " equinoctial gales" quite as frequently follow, as accompany or precede, the exact equality of day and night. We have just had a fortnight of genuine -March weather—clear, cold days, and frosty nights—the air snell and biting, to be sure, and keen of edge, as might be expected on the uplands; but in places sheltered from the east and north it is delightfully bright and sunny, the incessant song of birds, the hum of wild bees, and the gay fluttering of early butterflies, making one think of Whitsuntide rather than All Fools' Day; the twittering of swallows and the cheery notes of the cuckoo alone are wanting to make the illusion perfect, and these, unless the weather should undergo some extraordinary and unexpected change, must certainly soon be heard, much earlier this year, we should think, than usual. We are particularly favoured in this respect along the northern shores of Loch Leven. Here, to quote Burns—

''Simmer first unfaulds her robe, and here the langest tarry;"

and as we wander afield we often apply the words of Horace to our own little spot, as from some neighbouring height we view it cozily nestling in the sunlight—

Ille terrarum mihi prater omnes
Angulus ridit;

which may be rendered—

What e'er the beauties others boast,
This spot of ground delights me most.

Or, as we prefer putting it in our own case—

Of brighter skies and sunnier climes let others boast and jabber,
Give me the sunny, southern shores of mountain-girt Lochaber!

Or yet again, if you will have it still more literally in Gaelic—

'S anns' leam na spot eil' fo 'a ghrein,
M' oisinneag bheag, ghrianach fein.

During the present clear, cold spring nights the starry heavens are very beautiful. Jupiter, just below Castor and Pollux, is at his brightest, and very favourably situated for observation, his cloudy belts and bright diamond-point-like satellites being visible in an instrument of very moderate powers. If between nine and ten o'clock the reader will turn to the north-east, he will find a constellation pretty high up in the heavens, and consisting of five or six principal stars, none of them, however, of the first magnitude, opening towards the pole star in the form of a widely spread-out This constellation will be an object of more than usual interest during the present year. It is Cassiopeia, or The Lady in her Chair, the scene of a very startling and strange phenomenon in 1572, which, it has been asserted with some confidence, is not at all unlikely to be repeated in 1872. In 1572 a new star of great splendour appeared in Cassiopeia, occupying a place that had hitherto been blank. It was first observed on the 6th August, by Schuler, of Wittemburg, shortly after which it arrested the attention of the celebrated Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who watched its rapid increase of brilliancy night after night with the liveliest interest. Its magnitude at last rivalled, if it did not even exceed, that of Jupiter, with an effulgence equally bright and vivid. After shining with great splendour some time, and attracting the earnest gaze of the most distinguished astromomers of the period, its brilliancy began steadily to decline, changing its colour in a very remarkable manner as it became fainter and fainter, until finally it became invisible in March 1574, and has never been seen since. Sir John Herschel and other astronomers have suggested that its reappearance in 1872 is by no means an improbable event; and towards no constellation in the northern heavens, in consequence, will the observer's eye be so constantly turned throughout the present year as to Cassiopeia. The reappearance of such a star would be certain to give rise to the most startling theories. With the spectroscope in our possession, however, and the marvellous telescopic power at our command now-a-days, we could not fail to arrive at more intimate terms with such a stranger than was i possible in the days of Tycho Brahe. The interest and excitement in the astronomical world in connection with the sudden burst of splendour in the star in Corona a year or two ago was very great, but would be still greater in the event of the reappearance of the long absent stranger in Cassiopeia. In the one case it was only a remarkable increase of light and lustre in the star already existent and visible; but the reappearance of a new orb in a spot blank and starless in the most powerful telescopes for three hundred years, would be almost equal to the sudden creation of a new sun. Here, by the way, good reader, if you are ambitious, is a chance for fame. Be but the first to detect the reappearance of this remarkable star-stranger, and your immortality into all time shall be more secure than if you wrote an epic to rival the Iliad, or a tragedy equal to Hamlet or Othello. The name and memory of George Palitch, the amateur peasant astronomer, who was so fortunate as to obtain the earliest glimpse of Halley's Comet on its first return to perihelion after its periodicity had been so boldly, and as some thought so rashly asserted, is more secure in that connection than if, either as king or conqueror, he had all the honours of the most imperishable brass or marble.

A hundred years ago or more, when Highlanders were more superstitious than they are now, or when, to be more correct, they took less pains to conceal their superstitious beliefs than at the present day, a certain hamlet in a remote part of the country was sadly troubled by an " evil eye," whose unhallowed powers wrought "mickle woe," to the manifest loss and discomfort of the good people around. The cows no longer yielded their lacteal treasures in the desired abundance, nor did the calves grow and thrive, as calves in good keeping should. Churns, however shaken and jolted, refused to turn out their hebdomadal pot of butter; or if, after much weary labour, they did reluctantly yield any, it was found to be pale and rancid as unsalted suet in the dog-days. Stirks and other young " beasts," though the rents depended on them, sickened and dwined and died, without apparent reason ; and even children, hitherto in rude and ruddy health enough, were frequently prostrated by sudden and unaccountable illnesses. That an "evil eye" of more than ordinary virulence and power was at work was at last conceded even by the most sceptical as to such influences, and suspicion straightway fell upon a lone old woman, who lived in a hut on the outskirts of the township. Originally a stranger to the district, and of a taciturn and retiring disposition, she had long been looked upon with suspicion and dislike, and now a number of young men resolved to be revenged on her as the secret author of all that was amiss in the hamlet. At a late hour one dark night they proceeded to the poor old woman's hut, with the intention of setting fire to the roof and burning it about her ears, not caring very much either even if the "evil-eyed witch" herself, as they called her, should be buried under the burning rafters of her cottage. As the young men noiselessly surrounded the hut, they found that the old woman was just about retiring for the night, and as some of them stood at her window, and looked and listened, they could see her, by the light of a bog pine fire, kneel at her bedside, and after a little they heard her repeat the following prayer :—

Which, literally rendered into English, will read thus:—

"The day has now departed from us;
Dark night gathers around,
And I will lay me safely down (to sleep)
Under shadow of my Beloved One's wing.
Against all dangers, and death in every form,
Against each enemy of God's good Son,
Against the anger of the turbulent people,
And against the corruption of my own nature,
I will take unto me the armour of God—
That shall protect me from all assaults:
And in spite of Satan and all his following,
I shall be well and surely guarded."

The old woman's confidence in the Divine protection was not misplaced; the heart of youth is generous, and the beauty and solemnity of the scene carried it captive. The young men felt that one who could thus, on retiring to rest, commend herself to God and God's Son, could not be the "evil" old woman they had thought her. Awed and impressed, silently and on tip-toe, they departed for their homes, leaving the old woman in peace. By-and-by things went well again with the cattle of the hamlet, sickness disappeared from the district, and the old woman continued to live the same quiet, unobtrusive life a few years longer, and was as much respected and loved latterly, the story says, as she was at one time hated and feared. Nor did she ever know of the young men's midnight visit to her hut on an errand so happily frustrated.

The following are a couple of very excellent "toimhseachan" that were sent us a few days ago. Finding the correct solutions will afford some amusement to our Gaelic readers during the first idle half-hour—


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