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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XLII


Wounds from Stags' Antlers exceedingly dangerous—The old Fingalian Ballads—Number of Dogs kept for the Chase—Dr. Smith's "Ancient Lays" of modern manufacture—The Spotted Crake (Crex Prozana)at Inverness—Its Habits.

It is not generally known, we believe, that a wound from a stag's antlers, however slight—the merest scratch or abrasion of the skin, if only blood is drawn—is exceedingly dangerous. A short time ago [December 1874], on ascending from the cabin of a steamer, we went forward in order to enjoy an uninterrupted smoke in the fresh breeze that swept across the vessel, when we noticed a fine-looking young man, closely wrapped up in cape and plaid seated, in the shelter of the capstan, as if the breeze, to him at least, was, if anything, too brisk and keen. Glancing at him once and again, we observed that he was pale and sickly looking; and concluding from his dress and caste of features that he must be a Highlander, we went over to him and addressed him in Gaelic. It turned out that although we did not know him, he knew something of us, and we were soon on friendly terms. He told us he was going to Glasgow to consult the doctors about a stag's horn wound in the thigh that was daily, in spite of all the salves, ointments, and healing applications that he and all the "wise" people of his glen could think of, getting worse instead of better. About two months ago he was helping to take a stag off a hill pony's back, when, by some accident, the sharp point of one of the tines penetrated the thigh for a short distance, and then, by the force of the falling weight of the head, rasped downwards for about an inch and a half, leaving an ugly, ragged gash, though of no great depth. He thought hut little of it, he told us, having often had more serious wounds before, though not from a stag's horn, that gave hardly any trouble, and soon healed of themselves—of the first intention, as the surgeons have it. How it may fare with him among the Glasgow doctors we do not know: well, poor fellow, we sincerely hope, though we shouldn't wonder if the wound continued to trouble him all his life long. The subject of stag-horn wounds having thus been brought before us in a way that could not fail to interest us, we took the matter to avizandum, as the sheriffs say; and, in dearth of anything better at this dull season, we present our readers with the result of our inquiries in every direction whence there was the least chance of enlightenment. Dogs wounded by stags' horns usually die from mortification or gangrene of the wound ; and even if the wound heals, and they recover, it is only in an unsatisfactory sort of way, for they are almost always afterwards paralytic in the wounded limb, or they are epileptic. An old forester, who knows more about deer and deerhounds than anybody else we ever met, tells us that in very few instances has he ever known a dog that has actually bled at the touch of a stag's horn, recover in such wise as to be fairly serviceable again. "With the least drop of blood in such cases, they seem to lose all their courage. Another man, a shepherd near us, says that a very fine collie dog of his was once severely wounded by a stag in Glenarkaig, on Lochiel's estate, and that although the wound healed satisfactorily enough, and to the eye of an ordinary observer there was nothing the matter with the dog, it was, in fact, ever afterwards perfectly useless. "Chaidh e gbrach, le'r cead." A good dog before, "he became perfectly stupid, sir!" said the man. The above-mentioned forester says that the poisonous character of stag-horn wounds is well known to every one in the least acquainted with deer-stalking, as the sport was followed in the good old ante-breech-loading rifle days, when explosive bullets were yet unknown; and that rough contact with the tines of the animal, whether living or dead, was, in his younger days, avoided as one would avoid the tooth of a rabid dog or a viper's fang. A stag antler's wound, he avers, is dangerous at all times, but most so in the end of autumn—the rutting season—or, as he put it, "an £in dhaibh 'bhi dol 'san damhair," when they take to their "wallowing pools." Curiously enough, and by the merest accident, we have fallen in with the following proverbial distich from an old volume on Venerie, or Hunting of the Buck, published in London in 1622 :—

"If thou art hurt by boar's tooth, the leech thy life may save;
If thou art hurt by buck's horn, 'twill bring thee to thy grave."

So that the venom of a stag's horn wound seems to have been quite as well known two hundred years ago as it is now; better, indeed, for those who followed the chase in the olden time were more liable to such hurts than is possible in the case of the modem deerstalker, when the aid of dogs and the "gillie's" knife to give the coup de grace to the "stag at bay," are matters of comparatively little moment. It was a much more serious and risky affair in the days of the old "flint"-bearing musket. There was a paragraph a short time ago about a serious attack by a stag on some men in the island of Raasay. It would be interesting to know whether blood was drawn on the occasion, and if so, how the wounds have healed.

Hardly anything in our old Ossianic ballads, of which we have such an interesting and ably edited collection in Mr. J. F. Campbell of Islay's Leabhar-na-Feinne, is so curious as the great number of dogs employed by the Fingalians in their huntings,—that is, if we are to read the ballads with anything like literalness. Fifty, a hundred, two hundred, and even five hundred dogs are spoken about as freely as a modern sportsman speaks of couples. In one ballad, for instance, recovered by ourselves, ten men, one of them the balladist himself, the last remnant of the Fingalian host, are represented as going to hunt in the "Glen of Mist," attended hy fifty dogs a piece, or five hundred in all—surely an unnecessary, if not an impossible number. In these ballads, besides, you find frequent reference to scarcity of food, and the shifts the "heroes" were often put to, to provide for the barest wants of the passing day; and yet, if such an army of dogs was necessary, it also had to be fed, which one conceives must have been a matter of some difficulty, when the heroes themselves were, as the ballads inform us, frequently reduced to the necessity of splitting " marrow bones," when all the flesh that covered them had already been used up. The whole question of the natural history of these old ballads is well worth more attention than has yet been bestowed on it. Some day or other we shall devote a special chapter to it. Meantime, let us merely say that we decided many years ago against the authenticity and genuineness of one at least of Dr. Smith's so-called Ancient Lays, because of the incorrectness of a reference to the natural history of a well-known bird, the common pigeon. Here are the lines in Gaul which first made us shake our head in dubiety over the genuineness of the composition—

On which passage we would first of all remark that pigeons are not berry eaters, and even if they were, they would not carry them to (heir young in such wise as the poet clearly implies. A pigeon itself eats the food meant for its young, and only after undergoing a certain process of maceration and digestion in the parent's crop, is it again regurgitated in form suitable for the young. In genuine Gaelic poetry, the natural history is in a very remarkable manner almost invariably correct. Here it was not, and we recollect tossing the volume aside, and remarking that while much of Gaul might certainly be " ancient," quite as much was modern, and that, wittingly or unwittingly, Dr. Smith had been dealing in patchwork. Dr. Smith cites a parallel passage to the above from Thomson's Spring—

''Away they fly,
Affectionate, and, undesiring, bear
The most delicious morsel to their young."

But the context shows that Thomson is not referring to doves, but to Turdi and warblers that build

''Among the roots
Of hazel pendent o'er the plaintive stream."

And these do feed their callow young as represented in the poem, though the Columbidce certainly do not.

We observe that Mr. T. B. Snowie, of Inverness, has recently been so fortunate as to secure a specimen of the spotted crake or Grex porzana, a very rare bird indeed, of which we never saw a living specimen. It seems, however, to be a more regular visitor to our shores than is imagined, specimens having from time to time been met with in almost all parts of Scotland. Our friend Mr. Robert Gray, in his excellent volume on The Birds of the West of Scotland and the Outer Hebrides, writes of the spotted crake as follows:—"So far as I have observed, the spotted crake is a very uncommon species in the western counties; it is, however, more numerously distributed throughout the eastern counties, extending from Orkney to Berwickshire. In Aberdeen and Forfar shires, according to Macgillivray, it can scarcely be called very rare. ' In Scotland,' says Mr. More in the Ibis, the nest has been found only in Perth, Aberdeen, and at Loch Spynie, in Elgin; but as birds have been repeatedly taken in the breeding season in Banffshire, Fife, East Lothian, and Berwick, it is not unreasonable to infer that the species nest in these counties also. In the west of Scotland, the spotted crake has been taken in Wigtonshire, Renfrewshire, and Argyllshire; but I have no authentic instance of its occurrence north of the last-named district. In its habits this bird closely resembles its congener the water-rail, and, like it, is not easily flushed from its haunts. Although a migratory species, the spotted crake appears to come early, specimens being occasionally taken about the beginning of April; as a rule, it also lingers much later than other migratory birds, stray examples having been shot in November, December, and even January, so that it is absent not more than two or three months. It may, indeed, be yet found to be, in some of the southern districts, permanently resident. From its shy and unobtrusive habits, and its life of seclusion and silence in marshy places, from which it but rarely issues, it is much less frequently seen than birds which try to escape by flight when disturbed. Rather than take wing, it will thrust itself, when molested, into any hole or tuft of grass, and remain concealed until quiet is restored; and on this account the comparative numbers of the species cannot readily be ascertained.' "

The bird is, however, unquestionably a vara avis, a rarissima avis even, in the north of Scotland, and to have seen the bird as Mr. Snowie was privileged to see and handle it, we should cheerfully have walked ten miles, were it the coldest day in mid-winter.


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