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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XLVII


Autumnal Night—Meteors—The Spanish Mackerel—Professor Blackie's Translations from the Gaelic—The "Translations" of the Gaelic Society of Inverness.

"On the Rialto, every night at twelve,
I take my evening's walk of meditation."

So says the love-sick knight in Venice Preserved. "We have never, much as we should like it, had an opportunity of enjoying a Rialto midnight meditation ramble. There is poetry and romance in the very thought of it; hut Ave know something more poetical and in every way better still, namely, a midnight meditative stroll along our own beautiful silvery sanded beach, what time the sea is so calm that its breathings are low and soft as the respirations of a child whose sleep is undisturbed save by angel-whispered dreams; the cloudless sky above, with its waning moon and thousands of sparkling stars, each star a living intelligence; its sparkling speech, and no sound to disturb the solemn silence, except now and again the wakeful sea-bird's eerie scream, and the voice of many waters, as the mountain torrents leap adown their channels to the sea, a voice so mellowed by the distance that it becomes solemn and musical as the fast-falling concluding notes of a grand organ hymn—the Pentecostal "Veni, Creator Spiritus, for example. During the fine weather of this exceptionally fine season [August 1875] Ave have rarely gone to bed before midnight, more frequently, indeed, long after, and our last thing at night has been a sea-shore stroll, a half or quarter hour so thoroughly enjoyable that Ave have come to miss it sadly, if by adverse weatlier, absence from home, or any other cause, we are obliged to forego it. In addition to all the other attractions of a midnight sea-side stroll in such weather as the tropics themselves might be proud of, the reader must remember that August is one of our meteor months—the second week particularly being remarkable for the number and brilliancy of the Perseides, so called from their seeming mainly to radiate from the direction of the constellation Perseus. Never was there a finer season to observe them than this; and although they have, perhaps, been less numerous than usual, the brilliancy of many of them was so remarkable, and their paths throughout so easily followed, that their very infrequency only added to the eagerness and interest with which one watched and waited for them. The finest display of the season was from midnight on to nearly two a.m. on the night of the 11th and 12th, in which time we counted thirty-three noticeable meteors—of which seven were what might be called first-class meteors of a nucleus brilliancy equal to or exceeding that of first magnitude stars, with broad, bright, well-defined trains, that wholly or in part, in three or four instances, remained in sight, mapping out the meteor's trajectory for several seconds after the disappearance or extinction of the parent orb or meteor proper itself. Mr. W. B. Symington, who was among the Hebrides at the time on a yachting cruise, writes on the subject as follows :— "Notwithstanding your injunction to be on the qui vive as to the August meteors, I am sorry to say that I forgot all about it on the nights of the 9th and 10th, although the weather was beautifully clear. On the 11th, 12th, and 13th, however, the sailing-master and myself were sharply on the look-out, and our watchfulness was rewarded by the sight of some really very splendid examples. There were on each night scores and scores of the more common, lesser, and fainter meteors, but our attention was of course principally directed to the more brilliant ones.

Of these latter we had, during about an hour and a quarter's observation, four very fine ones, with long bright tails, on the 11th; nine on the 12th; and one magnificent fellow, that lighted up the deck, sails, and rigging of the yacht with a strange greenish glare, on the 13th. This last was at 11.5 P.M. One of the men said that before daybreak on the 12th there were some very large and bright meteors. As far as my observations went, the course of these meteors seemed to be mainly to the west and south-west, although two at least of the larger ones rushed in a directly opposite path, namely, to east and north-east. As I am likely to be at sea in November, though in a very different kind of craft, I will endeavour to give you a more careful and satisfactory account of the meteor display of that month. I may tell you that one of the men caught a scad of large size, the biggest, I believe, I ever saw. It weighed nearly four pounds. I thought it not bad eating, though the rest of them in the cabin said it was coarse and tasteless. It was caught by a long line and herring baited hook, that was allowed to drag after the ship in a breeze that gave us at the time a speed of at least eight knots an hour."

The fish referred to by our correspondent is also called the Spanish mackerel, it being very common on some parts of the Spanish coast. It belongs to the order Scomberidce, and is a cousin of our own better known mackerel proper, though a considerably larger fish, and not nearly so good for the table as its beautiful congener. The Spanish differs from the mackerel proper in one very remarkable particular; it has an air bladder which the true mackerel of our shores has not, and yet the latter is one of the readiest and swiftest swimmers, and at all depths, of any fish in the sea. The fact is that the real use of the air bladder in the economy of fish still continues an unresolved and seemingly an unresolvable puzzle.

Lovers of living, healthy poetry—healthy as the mountain breeze, and free and sparkling as the mountain stream, and more especially our Celtic friends who have been taught to honour and reverence the "kilted" muse—will be glad to know that Professor Blackie has in preparation the materials of what cannot fail to prove a very interesting volume, consisting of translations of some of the most admired compositions of our modern Gaelic bards. Macintyre's Ben. Dorain, Alasdair Macdonald's Berliun, with many of such lesser popular lyrics, as Am Breacan Wallach, Failte na Mor-Thir, A Bhanarach Dhoun a Gruidh, &c., will thus appear for the first time in a becoming Saxon garb; not—to use the milliner's phrase—too tight a fit, observe, but natural and easy, though "made to measure," and we venture to predict that our English readers, who as yet know them not at all, and our Gaelic friends, who know them well and have long known them, will alike be pleased with the results of the learned Professor's gallant raid into bard-land. The Professor has been visiting us here lately, and we can honestly say that such specimens of his work as he was good enough to read to us—and there are few better readers than Professor Blackie—seemed to us admirably done. His version of Ben. Dorain particularly, which we had an opportunity of hearing twice, and of which we can thus speak most positively, is thoroughly well done; so well, so faithfully, and with such spirit and verve as must delight not only the ordinary reader, but the very "ghost" of the original author—Macintyre himself—if, like the Ossianic departed heroes, he is permitted to know and appreciate sublunary affairs from out the bosom of "his cloud." The Professor translates these Gaelic poems into English verse just as, in our opinion, they should be translated; not too literally, but with all necessary freedom and elbow room, and yet so literally that any one knowing the English version may rest assured that he knows also the original quite as intimately and correctly as it is possible in the circumstances for any mere outsider to know it. Johnson, in his Life of Dryden, referring to the latter's version of the Ćaeid, &c., has a paragraph which is worth quoting in this connection:—"When languages are formed upon different principles, it is impossible that the same modes of expression should always he elegant in both. "While they run on together, the closest translation may be considered the best; but when they divaricate, each must take its natural course. Where correspondence cannot be obtained, it is necessary to be content with something equivalent. 'Translation, therefore,' says Dryden, is not so loose as paraphrase, nor so close as metaphrase.'" With all this we entirely concur, more especially when such widely different languages as the English and Gaelic have to be dealt with. We do not know that Professor Blackie ever read the paragraph quoted, or, even if he did read it, that he now remembers it; but to his translations from the Gaelic, to so much of them, at all events, as were submitted to our notice, Dryden's dictum is entirely applicable—they are not so loose as paraphrase, nor so close as metaphrase. They strike a golden mean very difficult of attainment in such efforts; and on the appearance of the volume itself, we shall be disappointed if nine-tenths at least of the many readers it is sure to command do not entirely agree with us. But nous verrons, if we live we shall see.

The Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness for 1873-4 and 1874-5, have reached us. The Secretary's paper on "Coinneach Odhar," the Brahan seer, is most interesting, containing as it does the best account that we have met with of that uncanny Ross-shire worthy. That he was an impostor, and a vulgar impostor too, there can be no doubt; but the story of a man—clever, shrewd rascal as he was—in whom the people so thoroughly believed, is worth the telling, and Mr. Mackenzie tells it very well. He should, we think, give us, if possible, a second paper, containing the many other wonderful vaticinations attributed to his hero, who seems to have latterly been too clever by half; for he who could foresee the misfortunes of others—the death even of a cow—couldn't evidently foresee the well-merited fate "that awaited himself; for he was hanged, and we have no doubt at all that he richly deserved that species of exaltation. What Thomas the Rhymer—him of Ercil-doune—was in the south of Scotland at a much earlier period, this Coirmeach Odhar, comparing small things with great, seems to have been in the North-West Highlands during the latter half of the seventeenth century. "True Thomas," however, was a gentleman and a scholar; whereas Coinneach was, of course, utterly illiterate, conducting his scheme of imposture solely by the aid of natural talents, which must have been considerable, and a large and ever-ready stock of impudence and cunning, nicely calculated to impose upon the vulgar. He made his grand mistake when he flew at such high game as Lady Seaforth and her domestic affairs. She was too clever, too intelligent and well-educated to be imposed upon. She ordered him to be hanged, a doom to which many were led at that period who probably less richly deserved it than such a prying, meddling, mischief-maker as was Kenneth the Seer.


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