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Nether Lochaber
Chapter LIII


Heat in Mid-August—Early Planting and Sowing - Over-ripening of Crops—Medusse— Stinging Jelly-Fish—The amount of solid matter in Jelly-Fish.

The unprecedented heat of mid-August lasted with us here precisely a fortnight [September 1876], Beginning on the 10th, it continued with little intermission or mitigation till the 24th, when the wind suddenly chopped round to the south-west, our rainy quarter; the sky assumed the threatening aspect, an ugly interminglement of black and dark grey, with which we are only too familiar, and rain began to fall with that dour, persistent pattering, and aimless horizontal drift, which sufficed to convince the most careless and unobservant student of our "West Highlands meteorology that it was neither a thunder-plump nor a mere passing shower, but a determined and regular "set-in" of probably some days, or, it might be, of some weeks' duration. The last ten days have accordingly been more or less wet, and as the corn over the country generally is about ripe for scythe and sickle, many an anxious eye is cast heavenwards with wistfullest glance, morning, noon, and night, in hopes of a change of wind and a return to fair weather. We are about tired of advocating the advantages of early sowing to our friends of the West Highlands. We are content with once again stating the fact that, having sown early, our own corn was cut in ripe and good condition on the 17th August, and safely housed without having once been touched by a single drop of rain. A single armful of such well-preserved provender is worth a whole back-burden of the washed-out and sapless stuff that usually goes by the name of "wintering" and "winter keep" in this and the neighbouring districts. It is proper to say, however, that, though so difficult to move to an earlier date in corn-sowing, our people here have of recent years been more amenable to good advice in the matter of potato culture. This year a large breadth of potatoes was planted in March and early April, and the consequence is that these are now nearly ripe, and of the best quality, stronger too, and in every way better able to resist the attacks of blight—absit omen!—should it unfortunately come their way, as we hope it won't; while the still green and half-ripe tubers of later plantings would probably suffer largely under a similar visitation. Not even when it is quite ready for the sickle do people generally cut their corn timeously. Too often it is allowed to ripen overmuch, till the straw is over-dry and sapless, besides the inevitable loss of grain in the stooking and subsequent ingathering. It is very much the same with hay. As a rule, it is left too long uncut, by which its quality is sadly deteriorated. Nor is this mistake in haymaking peculiar to the west coast, but much too common over all the country. Even in Morayshire and about Inverness the hay crop is, as a rule, allowed to ripen over-much. If it were cut ten days or a fortnight earlier it would weigh more, smell sweeter, be more nutritious, and better every way than under the present system, which allows it not merely to ripen, but to more than ripen, to wither up and lose most of its sap and seed before it is cut and secured. It may, perhaps, be laid down as an axiom that root crops cannot be allowed to ripen over-much; cereals and grasses most certainly may.

Cavill's recent attempt to swim the Channel, in rivalry of Captain "Webb's feat, was a failure, and had medical aid not been so opportunely at hand when the swimmer, comatose and unconscious, was lifted out of the water by his friends in the attendant lugger, the venture, noteworthy, though unsuccessful, for its pluck and daring, would probably have resulted in something far more serious than mere failure. In accounting for his non-success, and his state of extreme exhaustion when taken out of the water, Cavill largely blames the jelly-fish or sea-blubber, through perfect shoals of which he had once and again to force his way; and although he wore a thin jersey, which must have been some protection, enough of the bare skin was exposed to contact with the cold, clammy, slimy Medusce, to make him exceedingly nervous and generally uncomfortable throughout a full third of the distance covered. The number of these Medusse to be met with at certain seasons all along the British shores is enormous; and towards the close of summer and early autumn they are more abundant, perhaps, in our western lochs than anywhere else. Looking over the boat's side on a fine day, we have seen them in our own Loch Leven in incalculable numbers, thick as autumnal leaves in Vallambrosa, or the stars in the Milky Way—of all shapes and sizes too, swimming about aimlessly by a slow but constant contraction and expansion, regular as the beat of a pendulum, of their umbrella-like bodies, fringed like a lady's parasol, with a close edging of' thread-like cilia, and frequently having long, pendulous tentaculse attached to their under surface, giving the healthy animal, when busy in its proper element, a very curious appearance. Though the jelly-fish is in constant motion—in perpetual motion, so to speak, for it never rests, that ever we could discover, either by night or day—its progress in the sea is rather due to the set of the wind and the tide-drift than its own exertions, its incessant labours of contraction and expansion being performed not so much for the purpose of shifting its place in the water, as for the purpose of grasping and sucking in at each contraction such microscopic organisms as form its food. It is true that in a calm and tideless sea its motions cause it to be carried in the direction of the contracting beat an inch or thereby at a time, but this progress is clearly accidental and unintentional, so far as it is concerned, the great object of the incessant contraction and expansion being, as we have said, not so much change of place as the capture and insuction of its ordinary food. The Medusae swim at all depths in the sea, but as a rule they seem to prefer feeding within a fathom or two of the surface, particularly if the sun is bright and the sea is perfectly calm. The mouth of the Medusa is in the centre of the under concave surface, and the animal's modus operandi in sweeping in its food towards this orifice is not difficult to understand. Stretch out your right hand, with its back or knuckle surface uppermost. First expand the hand and fingers to their full extent, then contract so as almost, but not quite, to close the hand, not quickly, but very firmly and decidedly. Continue in this way opening out and closing the hand and fingers, not quite so fast as a second's beating pendulum oscillates, and you have the perfect analogue, or more properly the homologue, of the Medusa's action. If you can fancy an orifice or mouth in the centre of your palm, and your fingers to be the fringe surrounding the jelly-fish disc, and if you perform the action indicated in a tub or pool of water, into which a little flour or fine oatmeal has been thrown to represent the animalculae forming the Medusa's food, so much the better: you will at once understand how the animalculae and food particles are swept and sucked in by the current created towards the animal's mouth, or gastric cavity, as it might be more properly termed. When one or more of these animals comes in contact with a swimmer's skin, the sensation is anything but agreeable, a feeling of indescribable loathing and horror being engendered by the touch of the cold, gelatinous mass, that you are yet conscious is not dead matter, but an animated pulsating organism. But though contact with the ordinary Medusa is bad enough, there is another species of jelly-fish not uncommon in British waters at certain seasons, accidental contact with which is a very serious matter indeed. These are known to naturalists as Acaleplue, from a Greek word signifying a nettle. They are not so numerous on our shores as the true Medusa, hut they grow to a much larger size, some of them measuring eighteen, twenty, or even twenty-four inches across the disc, and thick and heavy in proportion, large enough, when fresh from the sea, to fill a tub of considerable size. If one of these wretches comes in contact with the human skin, it is found to sting like a nettle, only much more severely, and hence its scientific name. A swimmer stung by contact with an acaleph feels not only the cruel smarting of the nettle-like and burning stinging, but he is in a few minutes frequently overcome by a feeling of languor and sickness, that lasts for a considerable time, and is sometimes only relieved by a violent fit of vomiting, just as if he was a sufferer for the moment under the influence of a powerful emetic. "We have more than once been stung by an acaleph, and can speak feelingly on the subject. Only last season a boy on the opposite coast of Appin was, while bathing, so severely stung by one or more acalephs that he was for some days confined to bed, seriously ill, and under medical treatment. This power of stinging seems to be a wise provision in the economy of the animal, for the purpose of rendering helpless and numbing its prey, to make them easier of capture and subsequent deglutition, just as the Mysotis, or electric eel, with like purpose puts to a very important and practical use its electro-battery shocks. The true acaleph may generally be distinguished from the more harmless jelly-fish by having a good deal of colour in its tissues, being striated with red, pink, and pale green, which gives it a very beautiful appearance as under the bright sunlight it floats about, contracting and expanding with the regularity of a pendulum beat, near the surface of the calm, unruffled sea. The amount of solid matter in a jelly-fish of any kind, however large, is amazingly small. Within a thin, filmy skin, they are entirely made up of water, with a few threads spider-net-wise running through it to keep it in shape, like the ropes on which was stretched the immense velarium of an ancient amphitheatre. After a summer storm we have seen the sea-heach covered with a considerable wall of jelly-fish that had been cast ashore, a yard in breadth, perhaps, and a couple of feet in height; and before the evening of the next day, during which the sun shone out hot and clear, the whole had melted away like so much snow, leaving only a thin film of gelatinous matter, which, if gathered together in a single heap, wouldn't have filled our venerable but still useful "Glachnacuddin" hat. There is a good story told of a farmer, somewhere from the altitudes of Druimuachdar, who took some land by the sea, not a hundred yards from our own neighbourhood. One morning he saw the beach covered with a deep ring of jellyfish as above, and being an eident body, he got his horses and carts in order, and commenced to cart them afield, in the belief that they could not but prove excellent manure for the land. After working at the job nearly half a day, a naturalist, who chanced to pass the way, astonished the farmer not a little by assuring him that some hogsheads of sea-water, and a single pocket-handkerchief full of manure from the nearest dung-heap, would fitly and fully represent all that he had on his land in the fifty odd carts of jelly-fish that had cost him so much labour ! The story goes on to say that that particular farmer looked askance at jelly-fish ever afterwards, and didn't care much to have their natural history discussed in his presence at kirk or market, at bridal or funeral, all his life long. The fact is, that a mass of jelly-fish sufficient to load the " Great Eastern " wouldn't probably yield a peat creelful of solid serviceable matter for any purpose or purposes whatever. The jelly-fish is known to the Gaels of the Hebrides and West Coast by a curious name—Sgeith an R6in for the smaller ones, that is, the seal's vomit, and for the larger ones, Sgeith na Muicamara, the whale's vomit, in the absurd belief that they were the vomits respectively of the uncanny Sealchs, of whom the Highlander had always a superstitious dread, and of the largest of marine monsters, after they had gorged themselves to repletion on a shoal of extra-oleaginous herring or mackerel. These names for the jelly-fish are doubtless absurd enough, and yet, in defence of the good old Gaelic name-givers, let us observe that they are not a whit more absurd than the Caprimulgus (goatsucker) of Linnaeus as applied to the night-jar, or the Frugilegus (corn-gatherer) of the same high authority as applied to the common rook.


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