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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XXXIV


Early sowing recommended—Vitality of Superstitions—Capnomancy—Hazel Nuts : Frequent References to in Gaelic Poetry—How best to get at the full flavour of a ripe Hazel Nut.

A fortnight's incessant rain [September 1872]—rain descending at times in solid sheets—not only wets the ground and puddles the roads, but makes one's very brains feel soft and sloppy and mashed-turnip-wise. You take up a book only to lay it down again. You fill your pipe and set it alight, but with less than half a dozen whiffs you are more than satiated. The weed has lost its flavour. You sit down to write "doggedly," as Johnson says, but with all your doggedness the pen totters over the sheet with pace uncertain and listless, as if even he felt disinclined for the task, and the sentences, like a squad of raw recruits, refuse to fall gracefully into their places, and stumble against each other in ludicrous confusion, to the consternation and grief of the most patient of drill-sergeants. You will not, perhaps, believe it, but it is true, nevertheless, that so persistent, penetrating, and inter-penetrating has been the last fortnight's rain, that in nineteen cases out of twenty a lucifer match, "vesuvian," or fusee will obstinately refuse to ignite by any other process than putting it into actual contact with fire, and in that case, why, a slip of paper is just as easily dealt with, as well as more efficacious for your purpose. Hay and corn luckily stand a good deal of rain without being completely spoiled, but Ave are afraid to estimate the amount of damage that another Aveek's wet weather will cause over the "West Highlands. All our own hay and corn has been snugly housed more than three weeks ago. Why shouldn't everybody sow in February or early March as we do, and have their ingathering in August, generally our best and driest month 1 In a climate so treacherous and inconstant as ours is, it is the greatest folly in the world to run the smallest risk that you can possibly avoid. W| have been preaching this particular doctrine for a dozen years past, and it has had some effect in our immediate neighbourhood; but it is sad to see the country at large at this moment—corn and hay rotting in the fields, that might, with ordinary prudence and a little effort, be long ere now snug and safe under "thack and rape."

The more one inquires the truer does he find the dictum of a philosopher of the last century to be, that " the superstitions, as well as the languages, of all lands and ages are linked together by mysterious bonds, which neither time nor distance seem able to destroy." In our immediate neighbourhood an instance of a very old superstition was brought under our notice a few days ago, such as, with all our knowledge of such matters, we had hitherto never dreamt of as existing in the "Western Highlands. A man went to market at a considerable distance to sell a good strong two-year-old colt. He did not return on the day his wife expected him, and she became uneasy, not so much for the well-being of her laggard liege lord and master—he had often gone the same errand before, and had always returned safe and sound, even if a little later than his better half had a right to expect—but as to whether he had sold the colt, and if for anything like the price settled between the twain as being his fair price before he left home. She put on a large fire on her hearth, placing, when it had reached a certain stage of ignition, a bundle of green alder boughs atop. When the whole was fully ablaze, she went outside and watched the direction of the smoke issuing from her chimney. The smoke was carried in an easterly direction, a lucky quarter, and she returned to the house and told her daughter that, whatever had come over the father— and she threatened to tell him a hit of her mind as to his doings on his return—the colt at least had been sold, and well sold, for the alder smoke had gone in the hest and luckiest of all directions, towards the east, in the direction of the rising sun; and she had never known the omen fail. The curious thing is that within an hour or so on that very evening the man returned, and counted into his wife's lap two pounds and four shillings sterling over and above the expected price of the colt, as agreed upon at home. The only other curious thing that we could gather in "connection with the superstition is that the alder branches must be cut specially for the occasion, and by a virgin. It was so in this case; and we are gravely assured that, if it had been otherwise, the ascending smoke would either have drifted hither and thither without a purpose, unsteadily, or have uselessly intermingled with that of the neighbouring cottages. The superstition, you must know, is a very old one; the Greeks and Romans practised it, and from them it spread widely over the European Continent. In books on magic and divination it is called Capnomancy, derived, as our friend Professor Blackie could tell you better than anybody else, from the Greek Capnos, smoke, and manteia, divination, witchcraft. The ancients paid attention principally to the smoke of sacrifices, as well as to the briskness with which the fire burned. If the smoke ascended in a straight columnar body zenithwards, it was a favourable omen ; if it was violently blown aside, or fell back over the altar and the sacrificers, it was of evil augury. Our Highland dame's notion of its taking an easterly course, towards the direction of the breaking day, of the dawn, and the morning sun, seems to us full of a rough and rude poetry such as you frequently meet with in carefully examining into the details of even the grossest superstitions. Having had occasion to be of some little service to the priestess in this rare act of divination, we had the whole from her own lips, though she was averse at first, as is generally the case when a clergyman is the inquirer, to entering upon the subject at all. How these practices root themselves among a people, defying eradication, is very extraordinary.

Did you ever, reader, crack a nut 1 Not the aristocratic walnut or filbert over your wine, but the far superior, rich, ripe hazel nut in its season from off the hazel bough, when the bright autumnal sun was overhead, and the autumnal breeze stirred the leaves around you, their multitudinous murmur resembling the far-heard music of the restless sea. A ripe hazel nut is good anywhere, but best of all when gathered by your own hand in its native wild wood from the overhanging branch, whence the beautiful cluster nods at you as if soliciting your attention, now and again, as you approach to pull it, seeming to delight in playing a game of bo-peep with you among the leaves, like as you have seen the Pleiades at times when, though the night be clear, many blanket-like clouds are chasing each other in wild career athwart the starry blue. Throughout the whole range of poetry, the hazel nut, though often mentioned, has never perhaps had so much justice done to it as by the Gaelic bard Duncan Ban Macintyre. In his Coire-Cheathaich, one of his finest poems, he says :—

Ewen Maclachlan, commonly styled "of Aberdeen," because he taught the Grammar School there, and there died, but who was, in tfuth, a Lochaber man—nay, a Nether Lochaber man, born and bred, and whose ashes rest in Killevaodain of Ardgour, without, we are ashamed to confess it, " One gray stone to mark his grave;" he, horn, at Tarrachalltuinn—the Height of Hazel Trees—in our parish, knew something of hazel nuts, and thus happily describes them in their season :—

Our nuts are unusually plentiful this year, and of a size and flavour that we do not recollect ever to have seen equalled. They are now at that stage of ripeness when they are most delicious to the taste, and one may indulge in any amount of them with perfect safety. Most people are fond of nuts, hut if the reader wants to enjoy the full flavour, to get out of a nut all that is in it, let him take the following recipe:—" First of all, let the nut he cracked, if possible, between your own molars, for these are, after all, the first and most natural and best of all nut-crackers, better quoad hoc than an instrument of the purest silver or steel; and there is besides, remember, something pleasant to the palate in the feel and flavour even of an uncracked nut. Having cracked your nut, then— and fairly placed between the grinders, a really good nut is not difficult to crack, the worst nuts being always the most difficult to deal with, for the more insignificant the kernel the thicker and dourer the shell—having cracked your nut and extracted the kernel, whole if possible, introduce it into your mouth, not per se, by itself, as is commonly done, but with a small fragment of the shell,—a bit of pin's head size will do. Proceed now to masticate the delicious morsel, and confess that there is a delicacy and flavour about a hazel nut that you knew not how to extract in full, although in your day you had cracked your bushels of them, until you were taught it from Nether Lochaber. The philosophy of the thing is that the particle of shell introduced with the kernel causes the act of mastication to be performed more thoroughly than it otherwise would be, setting free the full flavour and aroma—all, in short, that a nut has to give.


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