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Nether Lochaber
Chapter IV


Transit of Mercury—Improperly called an "Eclipse" of—November Meteors- Mr. Huggins— Spectrum Analyses of Cometary Light—Translation of a St. Kilda Song.

We were early astir on the morning of the 5th November [1868]; with little thought, be sure, of Guy Fawkes or the Gunpowder Plot, intent only on witnessing, if we might be so fortunate, the transit of Mercury over the solar disc. The phenomenon in question we have seen referred to as an "eclipse" of Mercury, which it certainly was not. A celestial body is properly said to be eclipsed when, by the interposition of another and a nearer orb, it is temporarily hid from view. A star or planet so hidden by the body of the moon, for instance, is said to be "occulted." The sun is truly said to be eclipsed when the new moon at a particular conjunction steps in between us and him, and temporarily intercepts his beams. AYhat again, for convenience sake, is called an eclipse of the moon, is really not an eclipse at all, so far at least as the terrestrial spectator is concerned; it would be more strictly correct to call it simply a lunar obscuration. The temporary appearance of Venus and Mercury as circular and sharply defined black spots on the solar disc, has hitherto always, and very properly, been called in the language of astronomers a " transit" of the particular planet by name, such as the " transit of Venus," or the " transit of Mercury;" and there is no reason to change the term, for it is expressive and true, which the word eclipse, applied to such a conjunction, certainly is not.

Be it called what it may, however—eclipse or transit—we were disappointed in not getting a glimpse of the phenomenon in question on the present occasion. Although duly at our post from before sunrise till the minute calculated for the last contact of the planet with the solar disc, we were unable to obtain anything more than the most momentary blink even of the larger orb, and, of course, the detection of the black button-like disc of the planet itself, in such circumstances, was altogether out of the question. The disappointment, however, was less annoying to us in this instance from the fact that we had already been privileged to witness all the phases of a similar conjunction from first to last on the 12th November 1861. The next visible transit of Mercury does not take place till the 6th of May 1878—ten years hence. There are several other transits during the present century, invisible in our country, however, and on the continent of Europe; but which will probably afford much delight to many an eager watcher over the length and breadth of the South American continent, and generally over the islands of the Pacific Ocean.

Nor, with us here at least, was the night of the 13-14th instant any way more favourable for observation than the dull beclouded morning of the 5th itself. The night was calm and rainless, to be sure, but a heavy impenetrable mass of dark grey clouds, so low as to envelop all the mountain summits around, obscured the vault from horizon to horizon, from sunset to sunrise, so that not a single meteor could be seen by the keenest eye, even if above that pall of cloud the display had been the most brilliant and splendid conceivable. From the fact, however, that in several places widely distant from each other, from which we have had communications on the subject, and where the sky was abundantly clear and unclouded throughout, no unusual display of meteors was seen, the probability is that we have on this occasion missed them in our country, either because they came into contact with our atmosphere in the daytime, when, of course, they would be invisible, or more likely because our contact this year with the meteorolithic annulus was of the slightest, and at a segment thereof where the meteoric bodies are least numerous, and thus we must patiently wait till we again dash through it at its densest before wo can hope for such a magnificent meteor shower as astonished and delighted us all in 1866. Only at Oxford, as far as our country is concerned, was there anything like a meteor shower 011 the present occasion, and even there the display seems to have been too faint and uninteresting to have attracted much attention. Intelligence has reached our country from New York, however, that over that city, and over the States generally, the meteoric display of the morning of the 14th was very splendid indeed, though, owing to the morning being further advanced before it commenced, less of it was seen by the people at large than on some previous occasions. The weather with our Transatlantic cousins seems to have been all that could be desired, as it is stated that " astronomers and others were able to make very complete observations." The worst thing about our insular position with respect to matters astronomical is the extreme uncertainty with which anything like continuous observation can be conducted. The chances always are twenty to one that in Great Britain, at any given hour in any given place, the weather should be such as to render an observation of a celestial phenomenon impossible, or at the least partial and unsatisfactory. One thing, at least, is now pretty certain—that annually, and at a date that falls somewhere between sunset of the 13th and sunrise of the 14th November, we may confidently look for greater or less displays of these meteoric bodies, the only thing likely to interfere with the interesting pyrotechnic exhibition being an unfavourable state of the weather at a moment when we are most concerned that the sky shall be clear and cloudless.

;Mr. Huggins, whose researches with the spectroscope have already made his name famous, has recently communicated a most interesting paper to the Royal Society, giving an account of the spectrum analyses of one of the smaller and commoner class of comets that was -visible for a short time in the month of June last. Avoiding technical details, which might be uninteresting to some of our readers, we may simply mention that on testing the nucleus of this comet with the spectroscope, Mr. Huggins found that it was resolved into three broad " bands," precisely similar to the results obtained on examining with the same wonderful instrument such carbon as follows the transmission of electric sparks through olefiant gas. The conclusion arrived at by Mr. Huggins is, that the nucleus of the comet in question consisted solely of volatilised carbon. This paper of Mr. Huggins is altogether a most interesting one, and we may have something more to say about it on a future occasion.

The following is a translation—somewhat freely rendered—of an old Irst or St. Kilda song, the solitary island home of a score or two of hardy inhabitants, and by all accounts a happy and hospitable race too, who cling with an unquenchable love to their lonely rock, as if it were a perfect paradise, ocean-girt and storm-beaten though it be—

''Placed far amid the melancholy main."

Except another specimen given in a small collection of Gaelic songs, edited by the late Rev. Mil M'Callum of Arisaig, the original of the following is the only St. Kilda song that we have met with. Our copy was procured in this way: Some years ago we were dining on board H.M. Revenue cruiser "Harriet," Captain M'Allister. Going ashore on a fine moonlight night, one of the seamen who rowed our boat sang the song, which we had also hesitation in at once declaring to be of St. Kilda origin, which the man admitted was the case, he having picked it up many years before from an old woman Avho had spent some time on the island. Of the air, we can only remember that it was a wild, irregular sort of chant, very different from the soft low airs to which our mainland songs are for the most part sung, with the refrain or burden (represented by our Alexarulrines in each stanza) given in a shrill falsetto that was somewhat disagreeable to the ear, although abundantly appropriate, probably, in the circumstances in which the song was composed, and when sung amid all the surroundings of the scene depicted.

The St. Kilda Maid's Song

Over the rocks, steadily, steadily;
Down to the clefts with a shout and a shove, O;
Warily tend the rope, shifting it readily,
Eagerly, actively, watch from above, O.
Brave, 0 brave, my lover true, he's worth a maiden's love:
 
(And the sea below is still as deep as the sky is high above!)

Sweet 'tis to sleep on a well feathered pillow,
Sweet from the embers the fulmar's red egg, O;
Bounteous our store from the rock and the billow:
Fish and birds in good store, we need never to beg, O;
Brave, 0 brave, my lover true, he's worth a maiden's love:
 
[And the sea below is still as deep as the sky is high above!)

Hark to the fulmar and guillemot screaming:
Hark to the kittiwake, puffin, and gull, O:
See the white wings of solan goose gleaming;
Steadily, men ! on the rope gently pull, O.
Brave, O brave, my lover true, he's worth a maiden's love:
 
(And the sea below is still as deep as the sky is high above!)

Deftly my love can hook ling and conger,
The grey-fish and hake, with the net and the creel, O;
Far from our island be plague and be hunger;
And sweet our last sleep in the quiet of the Kiel, O.
Brave, O brave, my lover true, he's worth a maiden's love:
 
(Ami the sea below is still as deep as the sky is high above!)

Pull on the rope, men, pull it up steadily: 
(There's a storm, on the deep, see the scart claps his wings, O);
Cunningly guide the rope, shifting it readily;
Welcome my true love, and all that he brings, O!
Now God be praised, my lover's safe, he's worth a maiden's love:
 
(And the sea below is still as deep as the sky is high above!)

Our song needs but little elucidation. The reader who knows that the wealth of the St. Kildians mainly consists of the feathers and eggs of wild-fowl, to procure which they are obliged to hang suspended from ropes over the most dreadful precipices, in the clefts and along the otherwise inaccessible ledges of which the sea-fowl breed, will have no difficulty in understanding the general drift of the island maid's very spirited and very earnest song. It is, perhaps, unnecessary to say that as ling, conger, hake, and grey-fish are certain kinds of sea fish, so fulmar, guillemot, kittiwake, puffin, and scart are certain kinds of web-footed sea-fowl.


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