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Nether Lochaber
Chapter LII


Tourist Grumblers; how to deal with them—Sea Fishing—Superstition about a Gull— Josephus—Story of Mosollam and the Augur.

With a bright sun overhead, at noon as nearly vertical as it can ever be in our latitudes, and a steady, kindly warmth, and no lack now of genial showers, our West Highlands are now [June 1876] beautiful exceedingly, almost at the height and heyday of their summer loveliness, while crops of all kinds are at their present stage all that we could wish them. Tourists in considerable numbers are already on the move; and coaches and steamers alike are beginning to carry daily increasing crowds of passengers, so delighted with the attention paid them, and the elegance and comfort of their surroundings whether afloat or ashore, that a crack with them, as you chance to forgather of an evening, is always pleasant, for the essentials of a pleasant conversation are there to begin with; they are pleased, and you are glad that it is so; the rest is all smooth sailing. You meet an occasional grumbler of course; a wretch, miserable himself, and anxious to make every one else miserable also. An extraordinary curiosity, in truth, is your thorough grumbler. The faculty would probably explain it all away by a reference to dyspepsia or some serious derangement of liver. From frequent and close study, however, of a not uninteresting phenomenon, we are rather inclined to think otherwise. In the genuine grumbler the disposition to look at things obliquely, and from a false or foreshortened point of view, seems ingrained in and interwoven with his very nature. In everything he says and does you detect a perverseness of disposition and a thrawnness of temper that you cannot believe to be temporary or accidental, but a veritable part and portion of the man's being from the first. The old dictum about the poet, which after all is only true in a sense, is true of the grumbler absolutely. Grumblerus nascitur, non fit; he was born a grumbler, and if you put his mother in the witness box, and she chose to entertain you with reminiscences of his infancy, her testimony, we venture to say, would go to show that he kicked and screamed at existence and all the surroundings of his nursery at the earliest moment possible for such an exhibition, and that this disposition to hit out right and left indiscriminately at every one and everything, grew with his growth and strengthened with his strength, till in fulness of time he became the thoroughbred grumbler who sat opposite you at the table d'hote a week ago, or rode with you atop of the coach yesterday. With spur on heel, and once fairly in the stirrups, your grumbler is ready to tilt, in dearth of anything more substantial, at his own shadow. Any attempt to mollify him, however well-meant and carefully worded, only makes him worse. Do what you can, he remains a grumbler still—implacable, unappeasable. As we generally meet with him here, his grievances for the most part are as to the steamer or coach by which he has travelled, and the food that he has had to eat. Try to put him right according to your view of it, and you are sure to catch it hot and heavy for your interference in a matter which he declares concerns him alone, and yet with which he has been pestering everybody that would for a moment listen to him all the way from Oban to Staffa, or from Ballachulish to Tyndrum. Give a man of this kind the softest cushion in the coziest corner of Cleopatra's barge; the box seat in the victor's own chariot in a triumphal procession; a first and full supply of all the delicacies at the table of Apicius of De re Culinaria fame, and he would still be the same fault-finder and grumbler. One way of shutting up the inveterate grumbler, very effectual in most cases, is to fool bim to , the top of his bent—to give him line, in the piscatorial sense. If he complains that his seat on the coach is hard and the rails behind hurt his spine, assure him at once, in a confidential sort of way, that you believe the axle is horribly twisted, and is as likely as not to snap in twain just about half-way down the next incline. If he complains of the dust, give it as your candid opinion that the Road Trustees should be heavily fined for not allaying the nuisance by a properly arranged water-cart service all over the Black Mount. If he complains that the steamer trembles in all her timbers, and the steam, as it escapes at the calling-places, makes a horrible noise, agree with him at once, hinting that an explosion of the boiler is by no means an unlikely event through the carelessness of the coal-begrimed stoker, who is just then cooling himself at an open airhole, and wiping his brow with a wisp of tow. If at dinner he abuses the soup, ask him how it could possibly be good, seeing that the water whereof it is made was taken a week ago, by means of a tarry bucket, from the third lock of the Crinan Canal. Does he abuse his salmon? Shake your head sadly, and point with your fork towards the round of beef, hinting that at this season cattle sometimes die a natural death, and then their carcasses are to be had for a third of the market price of good beef. Go with him and beyond him in this sort of way for a little, and he will soon see that you are only poking your fun at him, and the chances are that he will cease troubling you at all events with his complaints for the rest of the day. After all, however, it is but justice to observe that even your inveterate grumbler is not infrequently a much more amiable person than he seems; kind, too, after a fashion, and amazingly liberal when a proper occasion offers.

Fish are now becoming plentiful along our shores, and with a little trouble in selecting a very early or a very late hour, and watching the state of the tides, they may be caught in considerable numbers with rod and line; and irrespective of their value as an article of food, the pastime is by no means contemptible even as a matter of sport, though, sooth to say, many people live within sight of the sea for years, and know little or nothing of the amusement that may be had so readily and cheaply in this way. Those caught at present are principally whitings, lythes, and seths, or coal-fish, with an occasional sea-bream. This last is reckoned a somewhat coarse fish, but it is by no means bad eating when properly cooked and served, and you recollect as you eat that the price of mutton is something like a shilling the pound, and frequently not to be had even at that.

More prone, perhaps, to superstition in every form than their more inland brethren, our maritime population have quite a number of freits, forms, fancies, and superstitious observances, most of them only silly and harmless enough, in connection with all their sea-fishing adventures, whether with rod, net, or line. A few evenings ago, as a party of four, douce and decent men enough, were preparing to launch their boat to go a-fishing, we chanced to pass along the beach, joining them, as has long been our habit in such circumstances, for a few minutes' conversation. Suddenly, as we were speaking, a large black-backed gull (Larus marinus) wheeled towards us out of a flock that were lazily circling about at a considerable distance seawards. Eight towards us, as if on some express and special errand, came the gull, one of the largest and most beautiful of sea-birds, until he was within less than fifty yards of us, when by a change of poise, and a scarcely perceptible movement of wing, he slowly swept round our heads, screaming the while as only a black-backed gull can scream—a wild and eerie note that may be heard for a league. The gull's business, whatever it might be, was so manifestly connected with one or all of us, or with the boat, perhaps, round which we were standing on the beach, that it could not but attract attention and provoke comment from the most unobservant. After circling some half-dozen times round and round and right above our heads, the bird, with one loud parting scream—and yet scream is not the word either; the Gaelic guileag is nearer it—and with an upward oblique sweep, so beautifully easy and effortless that it seemed the result of a simple act of volition rather than a grand pas in volitation, flew away to join his companions, who were now heard clamouring over a coal-fish goil or boil, as the Highlanders call the ebullition of the surface play of a shoal of sea-fish. The men looked at each other and at us meaningly; and at last out it came. "Small chance," said one of them, "have we of anything like a good fishing this evening: better for us to stay at home." "Why so?" we quietly inquired. "Well, sir," was the response, "I never knew a gull act in that sort of way but it meant bad luck in fishing, and the non-accomplishment of one's errand afloat, whatever it might be." The rest agreed with the speaker, but we persuaded them, after some trouble, to proceed to their fishing-ground, to give it a trial at least; and when, at a much later hour, they returned, we were on the beach to meet them, and found that after all they had made an excellent fishing. There and then we sat down beside them as they were dividing their fish into equal shares, and told them the following story from Joseph us, Against Apion. Quoting from Hecatseus, the great Jewish historian proceeds:—"As I was myself going to the Red Sea, there followed us a man, whose name was Mosollam; he was one of the Jewish horsemen who conducted us. He was a person of great courage, of a strong body, and by all allowed to be the most skilful archer that was either among the Greeks or barbarians. Now, this man, as people were in great numbers passing along the road, and a certain augur -tfas observing an augury by a bird, and requiring them all to stand still, inquired what they staid for. Hereupon the augur showed him the bird from whence he told his augury, and told him that if the bird staid where he was, they ought all to stand still; hut that if he got up and flew onward, they must go forward; hut that if he flew backward, they must retire again. Mosollam made no reply, but drew his bow and shot at the bird, and hit him and killed him; and as the augur and some others were very angry, and wished imprecations upon him, he answered them thus:— 'Why are you so mad as to take this most unhappy bird into your hands for how can this bird give us any true information concerning our march, which could not foresee how to save himself? For had he been able to foreknow what was future, he would not have come to this place, but would have been afraid lest Mosollam the Jew would shoot him as he has done, and kill him.'" The men, who had listened most attentively, smiled as we concluded, and agreed that Mosollam must have been a very sensible man; and vowed that for the future they would attach no more meaning or importance to a circling, screaming gull, than to the chirping of a wren in the elder bushes at the cottage doors. And what after all, the reader may ask, brought the black-backed gull circling and screaming over your heads 1 Well, from its great and immense spread of wing, it was probably the leader and guardian of its own particular flock, and as such thought it his duty to reconnoitre in person, in case the five men about the boat on the beach should have sinister intentions as to him or his. His scream orguileag was just his way of telegraphing the results of his observations to his distant companions; or he may have been scolding us in his own manner for our manifest intention of leaving the land, and invading what he considered his own proper element and territory, the sea. A more prosaic explanation, if it please you better, is perhaps to be found in the fact that the boat was internally largely incrusted with fish scales, and smelt strongly of fish, and that that, to one of his sensitive olfactory nerves, was the only or main attraction, the rest being mere idle curiosity, from which birds are no more exempt than men. One thing only is certain, if difficult to be accounted for, and that is, that individual gulls frequently act as this gull acted when a boat is about to put off from the shore in the fishing season, which being occasionally connected, as must sometimes happen, however accidentally, with an unsuccessful fishing adventure, gave rise to the silly superstition which, by the aid of Flavius Josephus, we were able in this instance at least successfully to combat.


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