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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XL


Sea-Fowl—Weather Prognostics— Goosander (Mergus Merganser, Linn.)—Gales of Wind— January Primroses— Lachlan Gorach, the Mull "Natural"—A Dancing Rhyme.

"When a prophet's vaticinations are verified by the event, the world rarely fails to he reminded of it; when it is otherwise, however; when the vaticinations turn out to he the very reverse of true, people are rarely ever troubled with a note on the matter, least of all on the part of the disappointed vaticinator himself. The fact is that everything like vaticination had better, as a rule, be let alone; sooner or later, and in nine cases out of ten, or oftener, the prophet never fails to come to grief. So convinced, for our own part, are Ave of this, that while reserving our right to vaticinate and predict as much and as recklessly as anybody else, when it so pleased us, yet, as a matter of fact, we never do venture further into the treacherous territories of vaticination than the mere outskirts, so to speak, of what may well be called the debateable land of weather prognostics; and even there we tread as gingerly and cautiously as if at this moment Ave Avereon the banks of the Prah, in constant dread of a lurking ambuscade of fierce and fetish-valorous Ashantees. Our weather prophecies from time to time have often, as the courteous reader may remember, been fully justified by the event; but if the whole truth is to be told, we fear Ave must confess that they have almost as frequently turned out to be wrong, and it is not every weather prophet who will confess so much. It requires a larger share of magnanimity than the reader is perhaps aware of, to be able to confess one's errors with anything like complaisance, even in such a matter as weather prognostics, and we therefore trust that the following confession will he valued as it ought. Some time ago the number of Arctic sea-fowl in our creeks and hays, and the near approach of a rather early fall of snow to the sea line, justified us, as we thought, in predicting an early and severe winter, meaning by "severe"—for we scorn to be disingenuous in the matter—that it was likely to be excessively cold as well as unusually stormy. The experience of upwards of twenty years, during which we have been a keen and close student of meteorological phenomena and wild-bird life, seemed to us to warrant the conclusion at which we had arrived. But how at mid-winter stands the fact? Why, thus: that up to this date [January 1874], it has been, upon the whole, the "openest" and mildest season for at least a quarter of a century ! How, then, about your Arctic sea-birds ? the reader may exclaim, and we can only answer that their presence so early and in such numbers is to be accounted for by the almost incessant gales that have been sweeping over the Atlantic and northern seas, with such disastrous effects, for nearly two months past. Feeling the first blast of the approaching tempest, and assured of its prolonged continuance by a marvellous instinct, further and more correctly prescient of such matters than man, with all his boasted science, they fled to the shelter of our, to them in such cases, Friendly Islands; for an Arctic web-foot dreads an unusual severity of hyperborean storms, long continued, quite as much as it dreads an excessive intensity of hyperborean cold, and for the same reason—both equally interfere with the allotted comforts of its economy and due supply of food. The winter, besides, is not yet past; whistling before one is fairly out of the wood is proverbially foolish, and there is, after all, time enough yet betwixt this and the vernal equinox for the advent of any amount of cold, so that there is still a chance for our wild-bird friends and ourselves standing higher in the reader's estimation as weather prophets, ere the winter is ended, than we do at present. Our web-foot visitors from the far north, at all events, are still with us, and in large numbers, and a very pretty sight a flock of them is as you quietly approach them congregated in some sheltered hay, and with a good binocular watch their graceful motions, now disporting themselves and chasing each other in many a merry round over the surface of the water; now, as if by common consent and in obedience to some, to you inaudible, word of command, they seem to leap rather than dive into the blue depths beneath them, until not one is to be seen, then as suddenly reappearing, again to chase each other, and disport and dive, as if they knew you were looking at them, and admired and loved them, and would as soon cut off your finger as think of levelling a murder-dealing weapon at creatures so beautiful and harmless.

A bird generally rare in our inland waters is this year quite common on all our shores. "We refer to the goosander (Mergus merganser, Linn.), one of the handsomest and most interesting of sea-fowl. Of the Merganser family the goosander is the largest, and the whole order is remarkable for their serrated mandibles, the nearest approach to anything like teeth to be met with among birds, and admirably adapted for retaining firm hold, when seized, of their slippery prey, which mainly consists of eels, lampreys, &c., in dealing with which "kittle cattle" in deep water an ordinary unarmed duck-bill would be a very inefficient weapon. Once in the firm grip of the Merganser's serrated bill, however, the chance of such comparatively small fish as it can alone feed upon must be very small indeed. We saw a very fine male specimen a few days ago, which a young man had shot, believing it to be a "wild duck," as he termed it, and necessarily good for eating. We told him that he had been guilty of a piece of very unnecessary and indefensible cruelty, for that the bird in his hand was in truth a Merganser, and no more fit to be eaten than a ten-year-old herring gull or an octogenarian guillemot. He looked at us with a smile, in which we thought we detected a considerable shade of incredulity, and we do believe that the thought passed through his mind at that moment that we only spoke so disparagingly of the bird because we wanted to get hold of it ourselves, either by its being given to us as a present, or for the smallest possible money payment, and then what a jolly feed we should have at the expense of his ornithological ignorance and juvenile simplicity! Perhaps we do him injustice; but, at all events, he carried the bird away with him, observing that he "would try it at any rate." We met his sister a day or two afterwards, and on inquiring if they had cooked the "wild duck," and how they liked it, we confess that it was with an inward chuckle of intense satisfaction that we listened as she told us that, after having duly boiled and cooked it secundum artcm, until it ought to have been good and tender, it turned out to be so rank, and fishy, and tough, that no one could eat a morsel of it, and it had to be thrown into the dinner refuse basket as worthless ! These birds, though necessarily hardy, and able to outlive a vast amount of cold and storm, are exceedingly fond of still water, rarely resting or fishing when there is any surface disturbance beyond a slight ripple; and hence it is that you so seldom meet with them elsewhere than in the most sheltered bays, creeks, and estuaries, where the water is least liable to the surface turmoil and commotion of a storm. The finest stuffed specimen of the Merganser we ever saw is at Achnacarry Castle, Lochiel's seat in Lochaber.

We have said above that the winter has thus far been almost unprecedentedly open and mild, by which we mean only that the temperature throughout has been unusually high, not, by any means, that it has been calm. The very contrary is the case. It has been one continued storm, with an occasional breathing time, so to speak, of a fine day at rare intervals, for upwards of eight consecutive weeks. But the storms have, as to temperature, been rather the storms of early summer or autumn, than the boisterously cold and burly shriekings of the lone winter "Storm King," as we used to know and fear him. The reader -will best understand what we mean, when we say that, notwithstanding the storminess, anemometrically, of the season, not a single snowflake has fallen in the lowlands of Nether Lochaber this winter, except a little which fell last night, but of which there are no traces again this morning; nor, except twice, and then only for an hour or so, has the thermometer touched the freezing-point. We much doubt if the thickness of a sixpenny piece of ice could be gathered at any one moment from pool or puddle in our district of Lochaber during the present winter. The consequence is, that in all our gardens flowers are at this moment in bloom that perhaps were never known to be in bloom at the same date before. Our privet and elder hedges bear quite a close green vesture of young leaves; the columbine has already reached an April altitude of growth, and a woman who happened to walk from Fort-William early last week brought us a small bouquet of primroses that she had picked up while passing through the woods of Coirrechaorachan, as beautiful and perfect as if it were in truth the proper season of these favourite flowers, instead of the last days of the first month of the year. We shouldn't wonder, however, if we have to pay for it all yet, ere the truant schoolboy again begins to imitate the cuckoo's note, or "the voice of the turtle is heard in our land."

There is at this moment sitting in our kitchen a poor, halfwitted natural, "Lachlan Gorach," from Mull, whose conversation is always garnished with "Davie Gelletly"-like snatches of quaint song. Sometimes the rhyme is in English, and sometimes in Gaelic, and frequently has no connection whatever with what may be the immediate subject of conversation. On going up to have a crack with him a few moments ago—for poor Lachlan is, in a way, a great favourite of ours—he returned our friendly greeting of "Well, how are you, Lachlan?" with a hearty shake of the hand, and a how that, for close proximity of forehead to the ground and duration, might have graced the court of Louis the Fourteenth, and immediately on regaining the erect position, struck, to an air that was probably original, into the following verse, which we took down on the spot :—

''First the heel and then the toe,
That's the way the polka goes;
First the toe and then the heel,
That's the way to dance a reel;
Quick about and then away,
Lightly dance the glad Strathspey.
Jump a jump, and jump it big,
That's the way to dance a jig;
Slowly, smiling as in France,
Follow through the country dance.
And we'll meet Johnny Cope in the morning."

It was very amusing. Where he picked up the uncouth rhyme we do not know, and it was bootless to inquire. Having ordered him some dinner, we bade him good-bye, when we caught hold of the following verse of Lachlan's favourite ditties as we disappeared :—

"Kilt your coaties, bonnie lassie,
As you wade the burnie through;
Or your mother will be angry
If you wet your coaties now."

Poor Lachlan, always cheerful and perfectly harmless, is a welcome guest at every fireside throughout the many districts which he periodically peregrinates. We may have something more to say of himself and his quaint scraps of songs on a future occasion.


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