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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XLIII


Whelks and Periwinkles—An Ossianic Reading—The Sea-shore after a Storm—The Rejectamenta of the Deep—An amusing Story of a Shore-Searcher—Severity of Winter—Wild-Birds' Levee—Woodcock—Snipe—Blue Jay.

It has been our habit for many years [January 1875] to take our morning walk along our beautiful sea-beach, one of the coziest and prettiest silver-sanded bays on the West Coast, descending now and again, when the tide is at ebb, to search for objects of interest in marine animal and vegetable life, in every likely spot along what Ossian calls "tràigh na faoch,"—the periwinkled shore. Our friend and neighbour Dr. Clerk, by the way, in his admirable edition of the great Celtic bard, renders it "the shore of whelks," and in a note gives us to understand that he thinks the expression so unpoetical, infra dig., and every way inappropriate, as almost to warrant its rejection as a corruption of the text. As a conjectural emendation, he suggests "traigh na faobh," the shore of spoils, as probably the true reading. Faoch, however, is not the whelk, but the periwinkle or wilk. The whelk is the Buccinum undatum, the cnogag or cnocagof the Gaels of the Western seaboard and Hebrides. The wilk or periwinkle is the faoch, or faochag; and to it and not to the whelk the passage clearly refers. The whelk or cnogag rarely allows itself to be left behind on the beach by the receding waters, even in spring tides, when ebbs are at their lowest. The periwinkle, on the contrary, sticks, regardless of the receding waves, to its place or stone or algae stem and frond, until the ebbing waters have returned, as return he knows full well they shall; so that at any time after half ebb, a suitable shore, rich in algae, presents a most interesting sight, every stone and smallest hit of sea-weed covered with millions of periwinkles at all stages of growth. It is to a scene of this kind that the poet refers, and very happily we think: "the periwinkled shore" is a thousand times better than the "barren, barren shore" of Tennyson. No one objects to "daisied mead" or "daisied lea," and "periwinkled shore," as we have seen it, and as hundreds, we make no doubt, of our readers have also seen it, is, to our thinking, every whit as poetical, and in no sense inconsistent even with epic dignity. Wilks having within recent years become an article of considerable marketable value, being carefully gathered on every beach, the "periwinkled shore" of Ossian is, of course, a rarer sight now-a-days than it used to be. Nearly as plentiful on our shores as the common periwinkle itself is its first cousin, the Purjmra lapillm of conchologists, or yellow periwinkle, one of those creatures that furnished the famous purple dye of the ancients. It has a bitter, astringent taste, and is in consequence not eaten like its congener, the wilk. We have said that our favourite morning walk is invariably, if we can accomplish it, along the sea-beach; and hardly a day passes but we can show something interesting and new, picked up in these our littoral perambulations. After a storm particularly, we endeavour, whatever our other engagements, to devote an hour at least to a ramble along the shore, and it is rarely we return empty-handed : some curious waif or other, cast up by the storm, seldom fails to be forthcoming as the reward of our matutinal diligence. After a severe gale one morning last week, we found a dead kittiwake, but perfectly plump and fresh, lying on the top of a mass of drift tangle. The bird itself was no great rarity, for the kittiwake (Larus rissa, Linn.), a very pretty little gull, is common on all our* shores, even in winter. The curious thing was that, on taking up the bird in our hand, we found that one of its feet was firmly held in the vice-like grasp of a large mussel, the mussel in its turn being anchored by its byssus to a tangle root (Laminaria digitata) of immense size. The poor kittiwake had evidently been fairly trapped : the case was clear. Walking along the beach at low-water, in search of food, it must have stepped inadvertently and unwittingly into the jaws, so to speak, of the open, or rather half-open, mussel, which, in resentment of the intrusion, instantly closing with a steel trap-like snap, held the poor bird firm and fast. There was no chance or hope of escape, and the unfortunate little gull, thus anchored to the bottom, was miserably drowned by the advancing tide. Its body would, to a certain extent, act as a float or buoy to the mussel and tangle root, which, thus loosened, the storm would readily dislodge, and cast up on the beach, even as we found it. Web-feet of all kinds are, of course, as liable to death in all its forms, natural and accidental, as any other animals, but we dare to say that in any accurate return of the vital statistics of sea-birds, death by drowning, Ophelia-like, would be found about the rarest. In more ways than one, therefore, was our dead kittiwake a curiosity of no every-day occurrence, though, in nineteen cases out of twenty, the passer-by would probably be content to kick it aside as a dead gull, and no more, if, indeed, he condescended to notice it at all. We were lately told an amusing story about a Fort-William man who lived some fifty years ago, and was in his day a great shore-searcher after storms, incited thereto, not exactly in the interests of science, but by more mundane and prosaic considerations. Summer and winter, all the year round, he searched the shores (Bhi'dh e g'iarraidh nan cladaichan, was the phrase) of Achintore and Drumarbin after every gale of wind, wandering ghost-like in the grey dawn by the margin of the sea, and diligently picking up every conceivable article of flotsam and jetsam that came in his way. In all this there was perhaps nothing to object to; but this mild specimen of a Cornish wrecker had the habit of appropriating, without compunction, such oars, thwarts, baling-dishes, and other articles of boat gearing as came in his way, even though he knew that they belonged to his neighbours, and had only been carried away from their proper places by an unusually high tide or a gale of wind. This was a breach of the etiquette and good-neighbourhood prevailing among boatmen that could not be tolerated. A Drumarbin man, therefore, who had lost some oars in a storm, and suspected that the Fort-William shore-searcher had found and kept them, determined on reprisal, and in hope of curing him of such shabby peculations, to give him a good fright, which could be done the more easily, as the shore-searcher was a nervous, timid creature, brimful of belief in apparitions, ghosts, and ghost stories of the wildest and most improbable character. Getting up one morning after a storm, the Drumarbin man put on a pair of new shoes, and slipping to the shore, unobserved by the wrecker, whom he could see wandering along the beach, as was his custom, in the grey day-break, he lay down at length on the shingle, and covered his head and body down to his ankles with the drift-ware that had been cast up by the storm. All he left exposed was his feet, on which we have said there was a pair of good substantial new shoes. Meanwhile the "wrecker" was advancing along the beach, carefully searching about, and stooping from time to time, oyster-catcher or curlew-wise, in order to pick up such waifs and strays as he fancied worth the while. At last he reached the recumbent and sea-ware-covered Drumarbin man. The shoes at once caught his eye, and as he gazed wistfully on what he considered the most fortunate and valuable jetsam that had fallen to his luck for a long time, he was heard to soliloquise,—"A drowned man ! Poor fellow; but he has good shoes on, and as he can have no more use for them, I may as well take them now as anybody else later in the day." No sooner said than done. Throwing down his bundle of gatherings, he pulled the shoes evenly and steadily off the supposed "body's" feet, and was moving away with them, when a smothered sepulchral voice from under the sea-ware struck his ear—an ear painfully acute under the circumstances,—"Gahh mo chomhairl' 's fag na hrbgan sin!" " Take my advice, and leave these shoes alone!" At the same time he saw the mass of drift-weed heaving and moving. Dropping the shoes as if they had suddenly become each a mass of red-hot iron in his hand, he started off with a yell that frightened the sea-birds all the way to Camus-na-Gall, and ran a terrible race without once halting or looking over his shoulder, till, penitent and breathless, he reached his own fireside. He was completely cured of shore-wandering, for, as our informant told us, he soon after sickened and took to his bed, from which he never rose again. Told in excellent Gaelic, and with a large admixture of the seriocomic quiet humour so characteristic of an old Highlander, the story made us laugh heartily; and not the less so that it was told in sly reference to our own frequent sea-shore perambulations.

It is many years since our wild birds have had to encounter a winter of such unmitigated severity as the present. Dead rooks, blackbirds, chaffinches, and hedge sparrows are only too common in copse, hedgerow, and open field, stiffened and starved all of them, nothing but the bones, skin, and feathers remaining as you take them up and handle them, so that one only wonders how it is they did not drop and die long before reaching such a sad state of utter fleshlessness and emaciation. A whole month, however, of intense frost, making every one exposed to its direct influence, even for a moment, put their fingers to their mouths with a " poor Tom's a-cold" attitude and grin—of intense frost, in which the enrth became hard and resonant as iron, clearly accounts for it all. Some idea of the keenness of the frost at times may be gathered from the following facts :—On Friday afternoon we had occasion to go to look if our boat on the beach was all right, for the darkening heavens threatened an immediate storm, a not uncommon end to such, rare meteorological phenomena as long continued frosts on the West Coast. Sitting on the end of a log of wood that lay on the beach, a little above high-water mark, was a rook or crow, which, as we approached, attempted to fly away, but could not. It stretched itself, and strained, and flapped its wings frantically as we drew near, but there it was, tethered firm and fast, manifestly unable to budge an inch, unless it carried the immense log bodily along with it. We wondered for a moment what in the world could be the matter, for we could not recollect ever seeing a rook, of all our birds the most knowing, perhaps, and self-possessed, act so absurdly. Running forward and laying hold of the bird, we had a ready solution of the mystery in the fact that the poor, struggling creature's feet were firmly frozen to the log—more firmly than the best bird-lime or glue could have held them. Thawing the frozen feet with some little trouble by the warmth of our hand, we had the pleasure of setting the poor bird at liberty. He—for it was a male—did not certainly weigh more, as we poised him in our hand, than six or seven ounces, though the ordinary weight of a rook in fair condition is nearly a couple of pounds. Even within doors the frost was unusually intense. In a small room off our own kitchen—and in the latter there is, of course, always a fire, and generally a large fire, burning—the night's milk was frequently found frozen into a hard and solid mass in the morning; so thoroughly frozen that the servant girl could, by tilting up the vessel and smartly tapping its bottom get the solid contents of frozen milk into her hand, and carry it, for the amusement of the youngsters, about the house, from one room to another, as if it were a Dunlop cheese. Such a frost we have not had on the West Coast for at least a score of years. Our wild-bird levee of a morning is a most interesting scene—the most pleasant episode, perhaps, in the necessarily dull routine of a winter's day in the country. On these occasions we can depend on the presence of such hirds as redbreasts, wrens, finches of all kinds, the lively and ubiquitous chaffinch, however, being most numerous; coral-billed blackbirds, shy at first, but easily made familiar and friendly enough; ox-eye tits, very pretty birds, but nervous and fidgety always; house and hedge sparrows, with a self-assertion and impudence that is most amusing, and a bold familiarity that would always place them in the front rank of bread-crumb recipients, if the redbreasts, seldom otherwise than quarrelsome and testy, did not drive them back. Most of those birds, when they found an open door or window, would boldly venture into the house, and eagerly pick up the bread crumbs from olf the floor or table, undisturbed by anything one said or did, provided only you refrained from any attempt to lay hold of them; in that case they were off and out instantly, and in a manifest pet at your rudeness and inhospitality, shy to trust you again until the matter was forgotten, or perhaps only overlooked perforce of the inexorable logic of intense cold and gnawing hunger. All the birds that we have handled for more than a month past were but the merest skin and bone, emaciated to a degree altogether unknown in less severe winters. Curiously enough, however, we had a brace of woodcocks a few days ago which were as plump and fat as one could wish them ; and some brace of snipe, shot in the neighbourhood of Inverness, kindly sent to us as a Christmas present, were in excellent condition, and good in every way. Why these long-billed, sucking birds should be fat, when all other birds are unnaturally lean, is to be accounted for by the fact that the intense frost drives the worms and minute animals which constitute their food into the open "eyes" and rivulets, which never freeze, like sheep in a fank; and thus the woodcock and snipe have their food with rather less trouble in frost than in more open weather. Some ten days ago, a very fine specimen of the jay (Corvus glandarius, Linn.; the Scriachan-Coille of the Gael) was sent us. This is one of our handsomest birds, and we are glad to say that it has within recent years becoming comparatively common in Lochaber. Like its congener the magpie, it is looked upon with considerable suspicion as an enemy to game; eating up, it is alleged, grouse, and partridge, and pheasant eggs as a favourite bonne bouche, and even devouring the newly hatched young. It is a shy and solitary bird, even where it is common, and we do not know its habits and economy sufficiently to entitle us, much as we are inclined, to enter on its defence under such an indictment; but, from all we have been enabled to gather on the subject, we should meantime be disposed to record the tertiam quid verdict of "Not proven."


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