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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XXXVII


The Delights of Beltane Tide—Bishop Gawin Douglas—His Translation of the Ćneid— The Fat of Deer—"Light and Shade" from the Gaelic—Mackworth Praed—Discovery of an old Flint Manufactory in the Moss of Ballachulish.

In the poetry and proverbs of our country you constantly meet with references which go to prove that alternations of sunshine and shower [April 1873] have for ages been held to be the meteorological characteristics of an April day throughout the British Islands, and most of all, perhaps, in Scotland. To go no further, you will remember Scott's concluding lines in Rokeby—

"Time and Tide had thus their sway,
Yielding,
 like an April day,
Smiling noon for sullen morrow,
 

Years of joy for hours of sorrow."

This, however, has been the driest April known in the West Highlands for at least a score of years past. Hardly any rain has fallen during the month, and with a bright sun overhead, and drying north-easterly winds, rivers and streams have seldom been at a lower ebb even in midsummer, while in some places you hear complaints of an absolute scarcity of water even for ordinary household purposes—a very rare thing, indeed, in the West Highlands at this season of the year, or for that matter of it at any season. There was, however, such a superabundance of moisture in the ground, from the heavy rains of the past winter, that vegetation has as yet suffered little or nothing from the drought, and the country is beautiful exceedingly in all its greenery of leaf and gaiety of expanding "blossom and bursting bud. Our wild-birds never had a finer nesting season, and they are now literally as merry as the day is long, for with the first flush of dawn in the east they begin their rich and varied song, which, with a short interval of quiescence and repose about mid-day, is continued without interruption until long after the sun has set and the earlier stars are already twinkling through the twilight gloom. April will be succeeded by the "merry month of May," which, with the exception of two, or at most three, cold days, with frost at night, about the 10th, is pretty sure to be an unusually fine month even for May. It was an article of belief in the hygienic code of the old Highlanders, and which you come across occasionally even at the present day, that the invalid, suffering under no matter what form of internal ailment, upon whom the sun of May once fairly shed its light, was pretty sure of a renewed lease of life until at least the next autumnal equinox, and how fine, by the way, and lightsome and cheery withal, Bishop Gawin Douglas' apostrophe (circa 1512):—

The Ćneid has been often translated into English, both in prose and verse, since the days of Gawin Douglas, but we doubt if the Mantuan bard has ever been more happily rendered than by the good Bishop of Dunkeld. The following is his rendering of perhaps the hest known and perhaps the most frequently quoted passage in Virgil:—

"Warton (History of English Poetry) says of Bishop Douglas' Ćneid, that "it is executed with equal spirit and fidelity, and is a proof that the Lowland Scotch and English languages were then nearly the same." "We may state that Douglas' Ćneid, irrespective of its many and great intrinsic merits, is especially interesting, as being the first translation of a Eoman classic into the English language either in verse or prose. "We have quoted above an old Highland belief in the exceeding efficacy, even in the most serious ailments, of the kindly beams of a May-day sun. Another belief of theirs was this—

That is—the fat of deer applied internally and externally, the invalid whose sickness that does not heal, why, then, there is no healing for him. The old Highlanders, you see, knew the value of deer : they hadn't a good word to say of sheep.

A few days ago we went into a cottage where a woman was sitting spinning, and singing a song we had not heard for many years, though we recollect hearing it frequently sung in hoyhood. The soft and plaintive air was an old favourite, and her style of singing pleasing. With a very sweet voice and much feeling, she sang it all on requesting her to do so ; and after tea in the evening we threw the verses into English, as follows. It is, however, rather an imitation than a translation. The original, which is probably known to many of our readers, beginning—

is old; how old we know not. Nor have we any clue to the name of the author, or more probably authoress. Of the authors, indeed, of many of our very finest Gaelic songs may be said what was said of the old nameless border-bard, that they—

"Nameless as the race from whence they sprung,
Saved other names and left their own unsung."

The song in Gaelic has no particular title. It is known by the two first lines quoted above, just as we say, "Of a' the airts the wind can blaw," and "Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon." In default of anything better, our English version may perhaps appropriately enough be entitled—

Light and Shade.

Dark and dreary is the world to me,
No sun, no moon, no star;
Vainly I struggle on my midnight sea,
No beacon gleams afar;
A wilderness of winter, frost and snow,
Sad and alone I hang my head in woe.

'Tis vain to strive against the will of fate
(No sun, no moon, no star);
"Where I had looked for love, I found but hate
(No beacon gleams afar);
I gave my heart, my all, to one who cares
Now nought for me—no one my sorrow shares.

Cares not my love though I were dead and gone
(No sun, no moon, no star!)
God help me, I am weak and all alone
(No beacon shines afar):
I dare not reveal my grief, I dare not tell;
The fire that burns my heart no tears can quell.

Traveller that passest o'er hill
(May
 thy night have its star!)
Acquaint my love that you have left me ill,
And seen my bleeding scar;
'Twere better to have killed than maimed me thus—
A bird with broken wing in the lone wilderness.

I once was happy, and how bright was then
Sun, moon, and every star!
Spotless and pure I laughed along the glen;
When, swift to mar
This happiness and peace, the spoiler came
And left me all bereft—the child of shame.

And yet I do not hate him, woe is me
(No sun, no moon, no star! )
But shun him, O ye maidens frank and free!
'Twere better far
That you were lifeless laid in the cold tomb,
In all your virgin pride and beauty's bloom.

But God is good, and He will mercy have;
(How bright the morning star!)
Even the weary-laden find a grave—
(The beacon shines afar!)
Bless, Father of our Lord so meek and mild,
An erring mother and a helpless child.

The moral of our song is obvious, though you will observe the story is told with all possible delicacy and good taste, a characteristic, by the way, of our hest Gaelic poetry. The reader may easily understand that, sung in proper time and place, and with proper feeling, such a song is calculated to have a good effect, and convey a healthy lesson in its own indirect way, when a sermon or moral exhortation, however well meant, would he altogether out of the question. There is much sound sense in Mackworth Praed's Chaunt of the Brazen Head, the first verse of which is this—

"I think, whatever mortals crave
With impotent endeavour,
A wreath—a rank-—a throne--a grave —
The world goes round for ever;
I think that life is not too long,
And, therefore, I determine,
 

That many people read a song.
Who will not read a sermon."

At a hridal, baptism, or other merry-making, such a song as the ahove is calculated to do more good than the most laboured, well-meant, and goody-goody sermon that ever was preached. As we rode away from yonder cottage door, the woman resuming her task, and chanting a gay and lively air in accompaniment, we were reminded of a verse quite apropos to the occasion :—

"Verse sweetens toil, howe\er rude the sound:
All at her work the village maiden sings;
 
Nor while she turns the giddy wheel around,
Revolves the sad vicissitude of things."

And we also thought of the simple and beautiful epitaph on the tomb of a nameless Roman matron:—

"Domum mansit, lanam fecit,"

which old Robertson of Strowan has so admirably rendered into our Scottish Doric:—

She keepit weel the house, and birlt at the wheel!

A discovery of considerable archaeological interest has recently been made by some people employed in trenching the moss of Ballachulish in our neighbourhood. At a depth of ten feet in the " drift" subsoil, underlying six or seven feet of moss, only removed within recent years in the ordinary course of peat-cutting, was found the remains of what, in the far past, must have been a flint instrument manufactory on a large scale. Within an area of twenty or thirty square yards was disclosed several cartloads of flint chippings, manifestly broken off in the manufacture of flint instruments, for we have been able to secure several arrow heads, two roughly finished chisels, and a hammer head of curious shape, with a hole in the centre, which must have cost the maker no small amount of time and trouble in the manipulation. What renders this "find" more interesting is the fact that the material must have been brought to the place of manufacture from a considerable distance, flint being of rare occurrence anywhere in Nether Lochaber. Underlying such a depth of solid moss and drift, such a discovery necessarily carries us back to a race of men who lived in a very remote period indeed; how remote, even geology is as yet unable absolutely to say. We were unfortunately from home at the time the discovery was made, and were thus prevented from examining the whole in situ,. This much, however, is certain, that under a diluvial bed of drift, gravel, and sand of upwards of two feet in thickness, underlying a thickness of at least six feet of solid moss, a flint instrument manufactory is found, the work of a people who lived before the deposit of that drift and the growth of that moss. How many thousands and thousands of years ago lived that flint-working race, who, in view of the extreme slowness of geological changes, can say? We know that in the celebrated case of the discovery of flint weapons at Abbeville and elsewhere in France the remains of extinct species of elephant, rhinoceros, and other mammals were found at an immense depth in the drift alongside of flint instruments unquestionably fashioned by human hands. Whether our Ballachulish discovery is to be held as a connecting link with a people of an antiquity as remote as those of Abbeville, it would be rush positively to assert; but the flint workers, some remains of whose labours have, as we have stated, been recently brought to light in our neighbourhood, must have lived at a period when the face of the country was geologically very different from what it is now; and remembering how slowly as a rule geological changes are brought about, we shall probably be still within the mark, if approximately we fix the era of the earliest flint workers at something like ten thousand years ago, and in the case of Abbeville, Continental archaeologists have had no hesitation in suggesting a still remoter antiquity.


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