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Nether Lochaber
Chapter LVI


Rain in Lochaber—An Apple Tree in bloom by Candle-light—Mackenzie the Bird-Catcher— A Badenoch "Wise Woman" spitting in a Child's Face to preserve it from the Fairies!

"It never rains but it pours," and nowhere is the familiar adage in its utmost literalness truer than in Lochaber. During a long protracted drought of nearly a couple of months' duration [June 1877], we were constantly calling for rain; and no wonder, for the earth was hard and hide-bound as an Egyptian mummy; sheep and cattle finding little more to gather on the parched uplands than if they were nibbling at the bulge of an ironclad laid up in ordinary. For full five and twenty years—so far back, adieu and alas ! do our own individual meteorological records extend—we have had no May month so persistently ungenial and cold; nor, when one comes to think of it, is it much matter of surprise, for we have just been reading that in the North Atlantic, within a few hundred leagues of the British shores, and up to the very margin of the Gulf Stream, a ship recently arrived in port had to fight her way through quite a continent of drift ice, with occasional icebergs " from two to three hundred feet in height." With such grim, hyperborean neighbours on the one hand, and a keen-edged east wind on the other, it was impossible that it should be otherwise than cold and uncomfortable all round. On the 26th, however, came the long-looked-for change, the wind came slowly round to S.S.W., rain began to fall, and the effect was magical. There was ilitantly a blanket-like kindliness and a balminess in the air that was delicious. The birds, that a little before could only chirp dolorously, burst out into loud and jubilant song, the cattle lowed in their pastures, wild-flowers seemed to laugh with quiet delight, and the very boom of the big waves as they broke on the beach had a pleasant music in it. It has continued to rain more or less ever since, so that with regard to mere personal comfort one is ready to cry "Hold, enough !" but so far as the interests of agriculture and pasturage are concerned, not a drop too much has fallen. The fact is that, frequent as is the complaint about what people are pleased to speak about as our superabundant rainfall, we require it all. "We question if a diminution of our annual rainfall by a third, say, or even by a fifth of its amount, would, from a practical and utilitarian point of view, be any improvement, but the reverse. A shrewd south country shepherd, with whom we had a long crack on Saturday, was right when, speaking of the rain, he remarked that "it would be a puir country for sheep at ony rate, if we had much less o't frae year's end to year's end." How ill the drought of April and May agreed with us here may be understood from the fact that there was an unusual amount of sickness amongst the people; while the leanness of sheep and kine bore sad and emphatic witness to the scarcity of succulent pasture, and the general backwardness of the season is to this moment noticeable from our window as we write, for neither the lilac nor the hawthorn is yet in bloom, nor are potatoes, even the earliest planted, any more than just becoming discernible in regular drills. "We should say that vegetation is generally quite a fortnight later than usual, and only an exceptionally fine summer and early autumn can bring about a fairly seasonable harvest-time. Dum spiro, spero, however, is a good maxim, and we shall hope that, even if harvest is late, the ingathering may be all the more pleasant and abundant. The drought, however, and persistent east wind, it is but fair to confess, were rather favourable than otherwise to the fruit trees of all kinds in garden and orchard. Bud and blossom were, to use a military term, held in check until after the middle of May, thus escaping the night frosts usual in the early part of the month. All sorts of fruit trees and berry bushes are consequently only now in full bloom, and a large fruit crop may very confidently be looked for, though it may be a little later than usual in attaining to perfect ripeness. Did you ever, by the way, good reader, look at an apple tree in full blossom on a calm, dewy night by candle-light. Recently we had occasion to go into our garden towards midnight in search of a bird that had escaped from his cage during the day. Coming under a large apple tree in full bloom, we held up the open lantern in our hand and peered a-tip-toe among the branches in hopes of getting a sight of the foolish runaway. Him we did not find then, but the apple tree, bending under its weight of blossoms "dew besprent," was the most beautiful thing we ever saw, and we called everybody about the place to come and look at it, and they all agreed that the sight was as beautiful as it was new to them. If you have an opportunity try it for yourself, and you will thank us all your life long for calling your attention to a thing of beauty, which the poet is not wrong in assuring you "is a joy for ever."

We didn't get our bird in the apple tree, but Ave Avere in great good luck notwithstanding, for who chanced to come the way next morning but Mackenzie the bird-catcher, who soon discovered the runaway's whereabouts in a neighbouring copse, and whistled him back to hand as easily as a shepherd whistles back his truant collie. It is a goldfinch, a magnificent singer, whom Ave have long had as a cage-bird ; and being unaccustomed to liberty, it was all the easier enticing him back to his cage, although Ave much doubt if any man in the kingdom could have done it so immediately and with such unfaltering confidence in his own power to do it as Mackenzie, who knows wild-bird music better than any one else Ave ever met, and can imitate it in its every twist and turn, chirp or cheep or chant, so deftly and unmistakeably as to deceive the birds themselves, each after his kind, the severest test to which such an accomplishment could he put. If there be any truth in the old doctrine of metempsychosis, Mackenzie, having shaken off the " mortal coil I of his present form, is pretty sure to reappear as a rock-linnet, redpole, or goldfinch. Like an honest man, who knows and acknowledges the value and force of an Act of Parliament, he hadn't on this occasion much to show us, but what he had was in part at least interesting, and captured in early spring. One curiosity was a linnet with one wing pure white, which he would insist upon was a different species from the ordinary linnet, because he had caught so many with a sinister or dexter, one or other, wing white or variegated. We fought a hard battle in trying to convince him that it was a mere accidental bit of colouring, due probably to some hurt received in its downy days, or at all events before its first moult; and made it no more a different species than an accidental hurt, which causes a man to go lame, makes him anything else than a specimen of homo sapiens all the same. Arguing, however, with men of Mackenzie's stamp is rather uphill work. He listened, to be sure, with a politeness and attention which seems to us to be inseparable from the character of the true practical naturalist, and seemed to give acquiescence in all we asserted, but we shouldn't wonder a bit if he remained of his own opinion still. A rather rare bird was a specimen, in excellent condition and feather, of the grey crow, at one time quite a common bird along the shores of the West Highlands, but owing to the incessant war waged against them by shepherds, gamekeepers, and vermin-trappers, now become so rare that we stopped our pony to have a good look at a pair that we saw the other day near Strontian, at the head of Loch Sunart. If you want a specimen of any British bird, just commission Mackenzie to get it for you. He will only bring you a specimen that is perfect of its kind, and if you only give him time he will succeed in getting it, even if he walked a thousand miles in the pursuit.

With reference to our explanation of the term study applied to a small plateau, a well-known spot at the top of Glencoe, a correspondent writes as follows:—"You do not seem to be aware that study is the word in common use in Lowland Scotland for an anvil as well as amongst the unlisping Celts. I wonder you forgot Burns' well-known lines—

'Nae mercy, then, for aim or steel;
The brawn ie, bainie, ploughman chiel,
Brings hard owrehip, wi' sturdy wheel
The strong forehammer,
 

Till block and .Huddle ring and reel
 

Wi' dinsome clamour.'"

We are much obliged to our friendly correspondent. The quotation proves that the Lowland Scotch as well as the Highlanders have a difficulty with the lisping sound of th, preferring the simpler and more natural sound of d.

A gentleman from Badenoch greatly amused us the other day by his account of a certain superstitious observance on the part of a "wise woman" in his neighbourhood. The gentleman's wife was sitting with her baby, only a few weeks old, in her lap. It was of course a marvel of a baby; for bigness and beauty the finest baby, like all babies, that ever was seen, and of which its parents were naturally and very excusably as proud as proud could be. The "wise woman" of the place had called to see the child, and congratulated the parents on their good luck. The crone got a chair opposite to that occupied by the happy mother, while the father looked on and smiled with becoming dignity and pride. As the old woman was looking at the child, it chanced to yawn, bored probably by the amount of attention paid to it, and getting sleepy. As it yawned, the old woman got up from the chair, and walking over to the "infant phenomenon," coolly and deliberately spat in its face ! The mother was horrified; the father in a rage asked what the deuce she meant by spitting in his son's face 1 The old lady quietly answered that the yawn was owing to an evil influence at that moment at work with the child, and her spitting in its face was the readiest and most effectual way of saving it from one or more of the mischievous tricks which ill-natured fairies are so fond of playing off on babies that are "beautiful exceedingly," and more especially when they are overmuch petted and bepraised by their parents and friends. The "wise woman" was at once liberally supplied with the refreshments usual on such occasions, and as soon as possible dismissed, care being taken the while not to offend her, which might have been a serious matter for baby and all concerned. It is not a little curious that although in all countries to spit at one is expressive of the utmost detestation and contempt, yet in the superstitions of the Lowlands of Scotland, as well as in the Highlands, to spit on a person or thing, under certain conditions and circumstances, is supposed to be counteractive of evil influences, and therefore a highly commendable act. We have seen a woman spit on the nets in a boat as it left the shore, to ensure a successful fishing; and when hand-line fishing, a man who has had little luck and is getting impatient, as he baits his hook afresh, spits on it before dropping it again into the sea, in, the belief that good luck attends the act. An old woman who has just bound up a bruised or broken limb, whether of man or beast, will sometimes finish the operation by spitting on the bandage. In the superstitions of most countries, such involuntary and apparently causeless acts as sneezing and yawning are attributed to supernatural agencies, and spitting at the sneezer or yawner is still sometimes practised as a counter-charm by the oldest and most learned professors of such lore, an older superstition probably than the more common practice of invoking the Divine blessing on the subjects in such cases. Questionable, therefore, and rude as at first sight seemed the act, we assured our Badenoch friend that the "wise woman," in acting as she did, meant his bairn no evil or disrespect at all, but the very contrary.


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