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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XXXI


The Leafing of the Oak and Ash—Splendid Stags' Heads—Edmund Waller—Old Silver-Plate buried for preservation in the '45—Mimicry in Birds—An accomplished Goldfinch.

"While mild and May-like enough in the valleys and along the coast line, the weather [May 1872] is reported as having more of March than May about it on the uplands, owing to the prevalence of north-easterly winds, that are at once exceedingly piercing and unseasonably snell. It is pleasant at the same time to have to report that, so far, crops of all kinds look extremely well, and have seldom been seen so forward in mid-May. Potatoes have been distinguishable from field's end to field's end in regular drills for ten days past, and in some instances are already undergoing their first weeding and hoeing. Oats show a strong, healthy braird, and nothing but a deficiency of moisture in its present stage can prevent ryegrass from being the best crop that has been known in the West Highlands for many years. Much, however, will depend on the nature of the weather for the next fortnight: those who should know best say that the country would be all the better of more or less rain on every day for the remainder of the month, and we daresay they are right. The lambing season has hitherto been a highly favourable one, though the drought and the keen-edged easterly winds are beginning to be complained of by shepherds in charge of upland hirsels. As we write, however, there is appearance* of rain, which cannot fail to be attended by a change of wind to a more genial airt, and it is hoped it may fall abundantly. The summer, by the way, is likely to be a hot and dry one, if there be any truth in the popular belief that when the oak takes precedence of the ash in presenting its rich green foliage to the light, a cloudless, rainless summer is sure to follow. We observe that everywhere the oak is now in leaf, while the ash is yet budless and bare to its topmost bough, manifesting an unwonted dulness and drowsiness for mid-May, as if it was loth, even at the call of summer, to be roused from its hybernal repose.

We are indebted to the monks of the middle ages for the introduction into our country, and successful cultivation, of some of our choicest fruits and most beautiful flowers; nor is it any wonder that in times when herbalism and the culling of simples was universally practised and believed in, numberless shrubs and plants of real or supposed efficacy in the cure of particular ailments should also be imported and assiduously cultivated by the same benefactors. In some cases, however, the supposed plants of virtue then introduced have in our day turned out to be no better than noisome weeds, extremely difficult of eradication, and one of these—how it found its way into this district it would be difficulty to say—is becoming a perfect pest in some parts of Lochaber. We refer to the plant commonly known as Bishopweed, Goatweed, or Herb Gerard, which the botanists have honoured by the high-sounding name JEgropodium podagraria.Gout, as its botanical name implies, was the disease in which this rank and foul-smelling weed was supposed to be of extraordinary virtue, and for anything we know to the contrary, it may still possess all the virtues at one time so confidently ascribed to it; but then you see gout is altogether unknown in Lochaber—we are too poor, and perforce live too soberly, to be visited by such aristocratic ailments—and what business therefore this weed has to grow and spread amongst us, and become unto us a nuisance and a plague, we cannot imagine : not knowing the disease, we could get on very well without the unsavoury antidote. Bishopweed, if allowed free growth in suitable soil, will quickly cover the ground, to the destruction of everything else, its innumerable stalks, crowned with pinnated ash-like leaves, attaining to the height of a foot or more. "When a single plant once gets root-hold in pasture land, it spreads with amazing rapidity, damaging and crowding out the grass in all directions, so that whenever and wherever it appears its utter and thorough extirpation, whatever the labour and cost, should be insisted upon with the least possible delay. "When plucked by the hand the plant emits a foetid, sickening smell, all trace of which is only effaced from the fingers by a very thorough washing indeed. "We have observed that neither horse, nor ox, nor sheep will of choice touch it, though its being in many places called goat weed would seem to indicate that it is no more rejected by that animal than many other acrid and poisonous plants and herbs which our other ruminants will not touch even if starving. Of all the ground pests with which we are acquainted, bishopweed is the worst, and we warn our readers, if ever they meet with it in any neglected corner of garden or field, to show it no mercy at all, for it is of an unmerciful nature itself, killing every blade of grass it comes in contact with, and choking unto the death every other vegetable that it can surmount and master.

The finest stag's head and antlers that we have ever seen form a trophy in the possession of our neighbour, Mr. Bill, Kilmalieu, the magnificent " monarch of the waste " that bore them having fallen to that gentleman's own rifle in Glengour two or three years ago. The other day, however, we were shown a set of larger horns, though not quite so handsome perhaps, or so faultless in spread and curve, and unfortunately imperfect from the loss of one of the tines, which was picked up by a shepherd in the Black Mount Forest many year6. ago. The size of beam throughout was something extraordinary, and one could not help regretting that it had not the head and neck attached, that it might be set up in the style for which the good, city of Inverness has of recent years become so famous. Such a trophy of the chase, complete in all its parts, would have deserved the place of honour amid a thousand such trophies in the noblest hall in the kingdom. As we handled these antlers, and poised them at arm's length with admiration, the thought suddenly struck us that Edmund "Waller, the poet, must have had some such magnificent trophy before him when he burst into the following apostrophe, in which a well-known fact in the natural history of the animal is so happily interwoven with the old mythological legend:—

"O fertile head! which every year
Could such a crop of wonder bear!
The teeming earth did never bring
So soon so hard, so huge a thing:
Which, might it never have been cast,
Each year's growth added to the last,
These lofty branches had supplied,
The earth's bold sons' prodigious pride;
Heaven with these engines had been scal'd
When mountains heaped on mountains failed."

Lines, by the way, that would form a most happy and appropriate inscription for any really fine trophy of this kind.

Calling upon the Misses Macdonald of Achtriachtan the other day at Fort-William, we were shown some very fine old silver-plate, having a history of its own, to the recital of which we listened with no small interest. After the battle of Culloden, a party of "redcoat" soldiers entered Lochaber, and employed themselves in pillaging and plundering in all directions. Hearing that visitors so unwelcome were in the neighbourhood, Mrs. Cameron of Glenevis, a lady of great spirit and decision of character, had all her silver-plate, china, and other valuables buried deep in the ground outside the garden wall, after which she removed, with her children and personal attendants, to a spacious cave called TJaimh Shomhairle (Samuel's Cave), far up the glen, in the south-western shoulder of Ben Nevis. Meanwhile the soldiers visited Glenevis House, hut, disappointed at not finding the valuables they looked for in such a residence, they burned and plundered the glen without mercy, the terrified inhabitants taking to the mountains, only too glad to escape with their lives, while their homesteads were in flames, and their cattle either driven away or slaughtered on the spot. Lady Glenevis was at last discovered in her cave by a party of soldiers, who had somehow heard of her place of retreat, and had to undergo much rude treatment at their hands, because, in defiance of all their threats, she refused to tell where the valuables of which they were in search had been hidden away. As they were about to leave the cave, one of the soldiers, observing that she had something bulky in her breast, of which she seemed very careful, and over which her plaid, fastened with a silver brooch, was carefully drawn, made a snatch at the trinket, and, when the lady resisted, drew his sword and made a thrust, which cut open the plaid at its point of fastening, wounding her infant son at the same moment in the neck; for the hidden treasure in her bosom, though the soldier doubtless thought it might turn out to be something of more marketable value, was a child only a few months old. The soldiers at last departed, carrying with them the brooch and plaid as the only trophies of their victory over the defenceless lady of the cave. The wounded child recovered, though he bore the mark of the sword-thrust to his dying day. He lived to be laird of Glenevis, was father of the late much-respected Mrs. Macdonald of Achtriachtan, and grandfather of the ladies above mentioned. We remember hearing our friend, the late Dr. Macintyre of Kilmonivaig, repeating some very fine Gaelic lines to a waterfall, something in the style of Southey's address to Lodore, which he said was by the Mrs. Cameron of Glenevis above mentioned, and composed by her while in hiding in the cave. When quieter times came round, the buried valuables were of course exhumed, and were found to be none the worse of their temporary interment.

Most birds are endowed with considerable powers of mimicry, the exercise of which, under favourable circumstances, seems, we have observed, to alford them great delight. The bird most celebrated in this respect is, perhaps, the mocking-thrush of America, the singularly expressive and appropriate name of which, among the Mexican aborigines, is Cencontlatlolli, which means four hundred tongues or languages, conferred upon it in honour and acknowledgment of the fact that, with a rich and varied song of its own, it correctly imitates all other songs and sounds as well. Though we have nothing equal to the four-hundred-tongued wonder of America, many of our native British birds are in truth excellent mimics, particularly after they have been some time in confinement, the tedium and irksomeness of their imprisonment being probably alleviated by a constant exercise of their gifts in this way, until individuals sometimes attain to a mastery in the art that is perfectly astonishing. Amongst our pets at present is a goldfinch cock, a very fine bird, still perfect at all points, though he must be at least a dozen years old, during ten of which he has beeu in our possession as a favourite cage-bird. He is a magnificent singer, and the wisest little fellow in the world; you only wonder, indeed, how such a rich flood of song, clear and long sustained, can issue from such a tiny throat, and how such a little scarlet-capped head can contain so much intelligence and sagacity. "Cowie"—for so he is called, after the bird-catcher from whom we purchased him—is above all things an extraordinary mimic. "We have never, indeed, known any bird to equal him in this respect. The chirping of the sparrow in the hedge opposite the window at which usually hangs his cage; the twittering of swallows, as they flit past on their zigzag insect cruise; the fink, fink of the lively chaffinch; the chirr of the ox-eye tit; the bell-like jingle of the blackbird scolding a prowling cat; the lugubrious notes of the corn bunting's evening plaint; the love-cheep of the lesser white-throat; and the quick rasping utterances of the excited wren, into whose proper territories a rival has dared to intrude;—these are each and all imitated by our little pet with marvellous exactness of note, emphasis, and tone. The querulous cheeping of a chicken that has met with some little accident, or for the moment lost sight of its mother, he mimics to the life; and he will on such occasions stand on tip-toe, stretch his neck to the utmost, or cling parrot-like to the topmost wire of his cage, in order to catch a glimpse of the victim of his ridicule. When tired of this, the commoner and coarser part of his art, he will burst suddenly into song, which he will continue sometimes for an hour on end, introducing voluntaries and variations without number, in which you can readily distinguish longer or shorter strophes from the songs of almost all the birds he has ever had a chance of hearing. Any one, indeed, thoroughly familiar with bird-music could easily name the principal songsters in the district immediately around us solely from the singing of our talented little polyglot, so faultless is his imitation of the songs as well as "conversational utterances," so to speak, of all such birds as he is in the habit of hearing and seeing from his cage at the frequently open window. You may be sure that "Cowie" is an immense favourite with us all, and that his weight in diamonds would hardly induce us to part with him.


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