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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XLVI


An old Fingalian Hero—His keenness of Sight and sharpness of Ear- Foresters and Keepers —Foxhunters—Donald MacDonald—His Dogs—Sandy MacArthur the Mole-catcher.

The hero of one of our most popular old Fingalian tales is described as very marvellously gifted. In order to secure the hand of a beautiful Scandinavian princess, whose locks are as the beams of the setting sun, about the time the summer sea is flecked and barred with gold, and with whom he has long been in love, he has to undertake the most strange and startling adventures; and not the least important of his qualifications for combating the frequent difficulties of his position is a preternatural acuteness of eye and ear, of sight and hearing. His keenness of sight, for instance, is indicated by his being able to count the beats of the swallow's wings in all the gyrations of its flight over the summer grove; and as for his acuteness of ear, enough is said when the veracious chronicler does not hesitate to assert that his hero could hear the grass grow? "We, in our unheroic and degenerate day, cannot boast of anything like this. We are content to know that the swallow skims the pool with a swiftness due to a motion of wing too rapid to be detected in its separate beats by the acutest eye, and that the grass does grow, and at times with marvellous rapidity, albeit the stir and tumult of its upward rush is inaudible to human ears. But if we cannot hear the grass grow, we can safely aver that in such exceptionally splendid seasons as this [July 1875], and without fear of being charged with any very culpable exaggeration, we can see it grow, not only from day to day, but almost literally from hour to hour—so rapid, so marked, and visibly perceptible is the progress towards a large and lusty maturity of grass and grain and every green herb of the field. Anything, indeed, to equal the sturdy vigour and upward rush of vegetation during the month of June last past we never did see before, and had it not come immediately under our own observation, we could hardly have believed it possible anywhere outside the tropics. The harvest must necessarily be a late one, though not quite so late as it was at one time feared must be the case. If we say that the season of ingathering will be later than usual by ten days, or a fortnight at the most, we are probably not far from the mark. But, late or early, it is sure to be an exceedingly abundant harvest, there being at present all over the West Highlands every promise of very heavy returns, the heaviest, perhaps, that, under any circumstances whatever, the land could safely bear, with the hope of an eventually fully ripe and lusty maturity.

Readers of our Nether Lochaber papers will in nowise be surprised to hear that we have all our lifetime made it a point to cultivate the confidence and friendly goodwill of keepers, foresters, and their followers, wherever we chanced to meet with them; nor would it be proper to suppress our grateful acknowledgment of the fact that to them we have been largely indebted in all our zoological studies for a long quarter of a century. We look upon foresters and gamekeepers as at the head of their profession, what the French call "princes of the game," and we have ever found them exceedingly courteous and kind, highly intelligent almost without exception, and not merely willing but well pleased to be examined, and cross-examined when occasion calls, on anything and everything appertaining to, or at all connected with, their office. With their humbler brethren of the craft, too, we have long been thoroughly en rapport; these humbler brethren being the fox-hunters, mole-catchers, and vermin-killers generally, by whatever name or designation known from the Moray Firth to the Clyde. Most readers of poetry will remember how Pope, in one of his finest poems (Prologue to the Satires), apostrophises his friend Dr. Arbuthnot as

"Friend to my life ! which did not you prolong,
The world had wanted many an idle song."

And if one dared to parody any couplet from a poem so beautiful, we should be disposed to address the first fox-hunter or mole-catcher of our numerous acquaintances among them who are deacons of their craft, we chanced to meet, in some such words as these—

"Friend to my mill! which did not you supply
With frequent
 grist, I'd wither, wane, and die."

A few days ago the Ardgour fox-hunter, Donald Macdonald by name, a Moidart man, and an excellent specimen of his class, called upon us with his quarterly budget of news from glen and upland, from hill and scaur, and den and corrie; and a wonderful season in his particular line he vows it has been. Since the middle of April last he has killed and bagged no fewer than fifty-one foxes all told, besides a number, both young and old, that were worried to the death by his terriers in the deepest recesses of their saobhies or dens, whence, when the turmoil of battle had ceased, and his dogs had emerged bearing very visible marks of the deadly conflict within, it was impossible to dig them out. All these foxes were got on the borders of three conterminous farms—Aryhuelan (Dr. Simpson's), Conaglen and Inverscaddle (the Earl of Morton's), and Glennahuirich (Mr. Milligan's). Donald, who has been a fox-hunter for upwards of thirty years, never before knew foxes so numerous, and this not in one or more favourite haunts within a given district, but generally over the country. He couldn't himself in any way satisfactorily account for the fox fecundity of 1874-75, and we could only regret that we were unable to enlighten him in the least, for he avowedly came for enlightenment on a subject that was very naturally exceedingly interesting to him. We were obliged to confess that the matter was as much a puzzle to us as to himself, but promised to think it over. Account for it as we may, it is in truth a fact that has attracted attention everywhere, that not for many years, if indeed ever before, have foxes been so numerous all over the Highlands. In the three adjoining districts of Badenoch, Lochaber, and Ardgour, the last including a part of Sunart, we are assured that no less a number than two hundred and forty-three foxes have been killed or captured since mid-April, besides, as already stated, a considerable number worried in the recesses of their big rock dens which could not be actually "bagged" or charged for after the fashion of the craft by brush or pad, though there was no doubt at all of their having succumbed after, in each case, a more or less desperate battle, to the assaults of their terrier assailants. And here, good reader, you must permit us, en parenthese, a slight disgression, not altogether, we hope, uninteresting. We wonder if in the great family of dogs anywhere throughout the- world there is anything to equal in hardihood, pluck, and all endurance the Highland fox-hunter's canine following] They are invariably a rough and ragged lot enough, and seemingly at sixes and sevens as to anything like assortment; no two of them exactly alike in colour, size, or breed; and they are usually low in stature, though of considerable bone and well developed muscle what there is of it; but be what they may in these respects, when you fall in with one of our fox-hunter's packs, six, seven, eight, or a dozen in number, as the case may be, be sure you have before you the gam est, varmint est little beggars to tackle otter, fox, or badger that the whole world can show. Our visitor of the other day had only one little fellow of his pack along with him. "What's his name, Donald?" we asked, pointing to his wiry follower, that we could easily see was, from the ink-black tip of his nose to the extremity of his tail, a "varmint" of the first order. "What do you call him?" "Speach," he replied, and speach, our non-Gaelic readers must he told, means a wasp or hornet, and, even like a wasp, we knew that that little fellow with his dander up in the labyrinthine recesses of a fox's den or a badger's garaidh, would fight against any odds until he was torn into ribbons, and on each and every occasion would prove himself

"Impiger, iracundus, inexorabilis, acer," which old Robertson of Struan admirably rendered into our native Doric, without the loss of a particle of meaning or force—

"A fiery ettercap, a fractious cbiel,
As bet as ginger, and as stieve as steel!

"And is 'Speach' good, then, Donald?" we inquired. "Yes, sir," was the reply, "a very good little dog. He is but small, you see, and light; the smallest, indeed, at present in my pack, but he will take hold of fox or badger or otter at the readiest spot that offers, and, having once got hold, will never let go again while his antagonist is in life; at every dig only burying his muzzle deeper into his opponent. " We quite agreed with him that a dog that did that must be good indeed; and we are perfectly satisfied that he did not in the least exaggerate the indomitable pluck and never-say-die tenacity of his tiny favourite. Two very good things remain to be said in praise of our Highland fox-hunters' dogs. They are never known to bite, and very rarely even to bark at human beings; and no fox-hunter's dog was ever known to be affected with hydrophobia or canine madness. The exemption from canine madness may, perhaps, be largely due to their open air and natural mode of life, but it is difficult to understand why they should be so entirely free from any propensity to bite or otherwise annoy a human being, a vice common enough to dogs of unexceptionable character and breeding otherwise, and from which even the highly intelligent and much-lauded collie is by no means so free as his many admirers seem to suppose. Even a collie is always prepared to hark, and oftentimes to bite on very little provocation, or no provocation at all. The fox-hunter's terrier, whether he is pure or a nondescript cross, very rarely indeed barks at a stranger, and never under any circumstances offers to bite. We question if there is a human being to-day in life who can honestly assert that he has ever been bitten by a fox-hunter's dog. With Macdonald we had a long and interesting crack, in the course of which we touched on some matters of sufficient importance to be introduced to the reader on a future occasion.

We had also a visit some little time ago from Sandy Macarthur, a well-known mole-catcher in Lochaber and the neighbouring districts; a very intelligent and civil man, whose only fault is that when you have collared him there is no spontaneity in his crack. Even when you have got firm hold enough of him, you have to extract his frequently very valuable information from him by a process akin to that which an ingenious and learned counsel employs in the case of a recalcitrant and unwilling witness at an important jury trial. Sandy, however, is a good fellow all the same, slow but sure; and his quiet unobtrusiveness and reticence is perhaps to be attributed to the exigencies of his profession; a "rattling, roaring Willie" of a mole-catcher, with, to use a Gaelic phrase, his tongue constantly on his shoulder, would probably prove but an unsuccessful hunter of the velvet-coated quick-eared, and timid subterranean family of the MacTalpa. Sandy, on the contrary, goes to work in dead silence and a-tiptoe, and bags his mole as quietly as an angler baskets his trout from out the glassy pool, over which, if but his shadow moved, he would angle long in vain. Sandy assures us that moles are to be found this season where they were never seen before, and where he was at first a good deal puzzled to account for their appearance. On a full consideration of the case Macarthur's theory is briefly to this effect: Moles are mainly underground dwellers, and even their travelling and migrating from place to place are done subterraneously. If, however, they find themselves, as in the Highlands they must frequently do, in a district or part of district separated from other parts in-which they have never been by rocky spurs and ridges, they will not venture over these latter unless they carry sufficient earth to hide their tunnelling, which, it is needless to say, they frequently do not. The mole in such a case remains insulated, a prisoner, so to speak, within his present domain. Last winter and spring, however, according to Sandy's theory, the snow lay so deep and lay so long, that the moles took advantage of the fact, and making their tunnels under the snow, where it lay on spur and ridge, just as if it had been so much superincumbent soil, they easily got into fresh fields and pastures new. In this way alone can Sandy account for the appearance of moles this summer in places into which hitherto they had no means of ready access; and he may be right, though it is a point in the natural history of the Talpa well deserving further investigation. Sandy further avers that moles sometimes swim across rivers, fresh-water lakes, and even arms of the sea in their migrations; and this is just possible, though we took the liberty of expressing ourselves slightly incredulous. Sandy, however, ought to know; he has spent the best part of a life already approaching its grand climacteric in the careful and close and constant study of, as one may say, a single animal—to wit, the mole—and it is always hazardous gravely to doubt or contradict the deliberately expressed opinion of such a man on a matter strictly within his proper province. All the same we still venture to question the assertion that the mole ever voluntarily enters water deep enough to swim in, or ever dims the velvety sheen of its glossy pile even by such a luxury as a voluntary bath in the shallows, till we have some stronger proof for it than has yet been adduced.


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