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Nether Lochaber
Chapter LIX


October Storms—Cablegram Predictions—Indications of coming Storms—Geordie Braid, the St. Andrews and Newport Coach-driver—The Naturalist in Winter—Drowned Hedgehogs: Spines become soft and gelatinous—Lophius Piscatorius—Disproportion between head and body in the Devil-Fish a puzzle—An Itinerant Fiddler.

The storms of the latter days of October [November 1877] were exceedingly severe along our western seaboard, and terribly so, as more than one correspondent assures us, amongst the Hebrides. It is worth noting with what marvellous punctuality these Trans-atlantically telegraphed storms reach our shores. They are "up to time," with all the precision almost of our best appointed mail trains; quite as punctual, at all events, to their predicted time on several occasions lately as our ocean mail-carrying steam ships to their appointed dates of arrival. This last October storm, for example, was telegraphed as being due on our British shores on or about Saturday, the 27th, and so correct, considering all the difficulties of such meteorological vaticinations, was the prediction, that the storm actually reached us here on the evening of the 26th, increasing in intensity throughout the night and until mid-day of the 27th, the very day fixed upon, when it blew with all the force of a hurricane, and the rain fell in torrents, accompanied, too—that none of the essentials of a great storm might be wanting—by vivid lightning, and thunder peals loud enough to make the deafest hear, or at all events feel, for it is no exaggeration to say that the very ground seemed at times to will responsive to the aerial concussion. The 26th had dawned bright and clear, and so continued throughout the day; one of those "pet days," in short, not uncommon at this season,—the sea, too, calm, and glassy as a mirror. In the afternoon, however, we were called out from the tea-table to look at a phenomenon which had already attracted the attention of some of our more observant neighbours, and about which they wanted our opinion, as they had some thoughts of going a herring fishing. The phenomenon in question was this: Not a breath of ah' was stirring, Loch Linnhe was unruffled by the slightest zephyr, and yet a heavy surge quite suddenly began to break along the beach with a sudden boom that was remarkable in such a calm. A somewhat similar phenomenon, lasting but for a short time, however, is observed in our lochs when, on a calm summer evening, one of the Messrs. Hutcheson's paddle steamers—the "Chevalier," for instance—passes at full speed close in shore. What could this swell and surge, troubling a loch otherwise calm as a mill-pond, mean1? You might have safely carried a lighted candle exposed and lanternless along the beach on which that heavy swell with hollow boom was breaking —breaking in great green waves that showed not a hell or fleck of foam on their crests until they thundered on the shingle. It was, in a word, a phenomenon for which there was no apparent adequate cause. The sea, had it been in keeping with all its visible surroundings, should have been calm and still; on the contrary, it was restless and perturbed, and there lay the mystery. Even had we recollected nothing of the telegraphed storm, it was easy of solution, and our instant interlocutor, as the law courts have it, was this : "A storm in the Atlantic, my good friends. Calm as it is here, there is a storm, and a wild one, depend upon it, outside yonder island of Mull, for all it basks so peacefully in the golden sunset. Nothing else can adequately account for such a swell on our calm inland waters on an evening so summer-like and warm; and when I tell you that a storm likely to reach our shores to-morrow has been telegraphed from America several days since, I conclude that it is that very storm fast approaching us that causes this swell upon our shore. It must he just at hand; so haul up your boats high and dry; take down your nets from the drying-poles, and put them in a place of safety. Stay thankfully at home, and let the herring fishing stand over till the predicted gales have come and gone. Many a gallant fellow at this moment afloat would be glad to have his foot like you on terra firma: a chas air talamh tioramwere the words,—his foot on dry land. With some such remarks as these, we sent the men home, still wondering, however; and within a couple of hours the storm was upon us with a loud prolonged shriek, that showed how thoroughly in earnest it was. Timeously warned, no danger was done in our district, and we are now unanimous in speaking with the utmost respect of the Atlantic cable in connection with storm warnings from the Western Continent. These telegraphic warnings from America, by the way, of coming storms are of the utmost importance and value, more particularly to the western shores of the British Islands. We have no doubt at all that on the western seaboard of Scotland alone many valuable lives were saved, as well as much valuable property, by the submarine cable notice that put us all on our guard with reference to the gale that raged on the 27th of October, and for several days subsequently. We wonder if from Britain or the Continent any of the terrible easterly storms of last winter were telegraphed to America—timeously and purposely telegraphed, that is— so as to be of benefit to our Transatlantic cousins, as their recent telegrams have been to us. We fear not. But now at least it is surely a matter of the merest courtesy and cousinly goodwill that we be prepared and ready to send them betimes telegraphic messages of all our easterly storms, in return for similar favours on their part in respect to those that are icesterly.

Reading over the foregoing paragraph, which the reader may see was written currente calamo—at a gallop, as it were, and without a check, as the foxhunter says—we find that we have used the often-quoted Latin phrase terra firma: words which rarely fail to make us smile in their connection with an anecdote current in St. Andrews in our early college days. It was to this effect: The driver of a two-horse coach that ran at that time between St. Andrews and Newport was a George Braid, a respectable old man, familiarly known to everybody, and notably to the University students, as "Geordie," a liberty with his Christian name which Mr. Braid in nowise resented, for he was intelligent and shrewd, and knew that he was thus spoken of and addressed out of goodwill and kindly regard rather than otherwise. Frequently patronised on his route by learned professors and lively students, Geordie had picked up many big words and learned phrases, which he was fond of using in his family, and, as the Catechism says, amongst his "inferiors and equals." In connection with frequent storm and shipwreck on the wild east coast, it was the most natural thing in the world that Geordie should often have heard from the lips of some of his learned "fare" the words terra firma, with which he associated a general idea of protection, comfort, and safety. One terrible night of snow and storm, having driven a large coachful from Newport to the city, Geordie, when he had duly seen to his cattle, and paid a short visit to the bar of the "Cross Keys" hostelry, wended his way by the West Port to his home, which lay beyond the old city walls. His wife, a brisk and eident bit body, had a roaring fire and a cheery welcome for her goodman on his entrance, while his children gathered round him to help him off with caps, coats, leggings, and all the other belongings of the outer man of a driver in the good old coaching days. Reduced at last to something like his natural dimensions, Geordie, having sufficiently rubbed his purple hands before the fire, looked benignantly around and exclaimed, "Ah! Meg, my woman, you and the bairns hae muckle cause to he thankful to your Maker that ye hae terra firma abune your heads this night! Its just awfu' out yonder by the Guard Brig and Strathtyrum." "We have met with not a few in our day with a strange craze for using words and phrases of which they evidently knew as little of the real meaning and proper application as honest Geordie Braid with his terra firma.

The new moon of the 5th, aided by a wind that at times almost amounted to a gale, gave us along the western seaboard three very high tides in succession ; that of the afternoon of the 6th, however, being the highest. The naturalist who is fairly diligent on such occasions is pretty sure to meet with more or less interesting matter for thoughtful study; nor, so far as our own experience extends, need the entries in one's note-book, even for what is called the "dead" season of mid-winter, be fewer in number, or less interesting or instructive than those of the pages devoted to the summer season itself. We have known naturalists whose note-books presented little but a dreary succession of blank pages for the winter half-year, and who thought it odd that we should be surprised at it. It has been said that the laws of disease are as beautiful as those of health, and that peace has its victories as well as war, and we have no hesitation in saying that to the true naturalist the winter season, if fairly and diligently encountered, is in its way just as interesting as the summer, and that the observer who has all his wits about him, and who goes to work with a will, may have his "victories" even in the season of the winter solstice—victories as important in their way and gratifying as are those of midsummer itself, when the days are at their longest, when summer seas are calm and summer woods are green. In the course of half an hour's ramble on the beach the other day, we fell in with some curious waifs, each of which might be made the text of an interesting monograph. Three drowned hedgehogs, for example, was a somewhat startling "find" to turn up in a swathe of seaware that the advancing tide was slowly rolling up the shingle. One was full-grown, a female ; the other two, both males, were but half or three parts grown. "What brought them there? was the natural question; for a hedgehog, dead or living, on the sea-shore under high-water mark, is as odd and out-of-place an object as would be a mackerel far up the hills amongst the heather. The following is probably a satisfactory enough explanation of the mystery :—Hedgehogs, which twenty years ago were quite unknown in Lochaber, are now plentiful. A pair, captured on Lord Abinger's lands at Torlundy, were sent to us some dozen or fifteen years ago as a great curiosity; and in this district then they were a curiosity, so much so, that we can recollect that during the time they remained in our possession as exceedingly tame and most interesting pets, people from all parts of the country used to come in order to have a close look at the black-snouted, spine-armoured hedge pigs, as Shakespeare calls them, the graineag or repulsive one of the midland Highlanders of Athole and Strathspey, where the animal has always been plentiful. They have now become so common in this district that a hedgehog is no more accounted a rarity than is a stoat or a weasel. Hedgehogs are fond of making their cozy nests of moss, grass fibres, and fallen leaves, near the roots of trees and bushes growing on the banks of rivers and mountain streams. These last have of late been frequently swollen beyond their usual bounds by the heavy rains ; and in a spate of this kind poor Mrs. Hedgehog and her youngsters were caught napping, and carried away by the torrent to the sea, and ultimately cast ashore by the wind and waves, where we found them- in their winding-sheet of slimy sea-wrack, and for a moment wondered how it came to pass that they lay there, like poor Ophelia, "drown'd, drown'd." One remarkable circumstance connected with these drowned hedgehogs was this : we found to our surprise that we could handle them with impunity; their spines, so formidable in the living animal, being quite soft and gelatinous to their very tips. This is by no means the case with the spines of such hedgehogs as are killed by trap, or otherwise on land. In this latter case the spines retain their point and prickliness, as in the living animal, till in the process of decay they separate from their sockets in the skin, and drop in brittle, broken fragments to the ground. A question, then, for future investigation is this,—Do the spines of all drowned hedgehogs lose their prickliness and point, and become soft and gelatinous 1 If so, has fresh water alone this effect, or is it necessary that the animal should be some time immersed in salt water

Within a short distance of the drowned hedgehogs, lay a large angler or fishing-frog, the Lophius piscatorius of ichthyologists, and a frequent waif on our shores after a gale. It had evidently been caught by the storm in shallow water, and been beaten to death by the weight and force of the waves, for it was in excellent condition, and there was nothing to indicate death in any other way. Why in this fish such a huge head, with its formidable array of recurved teeth, and such a cavernous, capacious gullet, should be joined to a body comparatively so diminutive, is a puzzle that has never yet been satisfactorily solved ; nor can we ourselves, up to this present moment, advance even a plausible conjecture in explanation of an anomaly that must have attracted the attention of thousands. The disproportion between the immense head and the small and slender body is as great as if you erected a porch lofty and wide enough to serve as the main entrance to a cathedral, and vestibule to correspond, in order to enter a dwelling consisting after all but of a single bedroom. Or, to put it in another way, it is as if you built a large mill, with the most powerful machinery possible, in order to grind sufficient meal for the daily consumption of a single dyspeptic customer. The-fishing frog, has, we believe, been of late successfully introduced into more than one of our many aquaria, but we are not aware that any satisfactory explanation of the difficulty which we are considering has as yet been arrived at. A full and sufficient explanation, however, you may be sure there must he, if we only knew enough of the animal's economy to get at it.

But we must stop ; for hark ! an itinerant fiddler has this moment struck up "Bob of Fettercairn" just in front of our study window. He plays admirably too, lovingly caressing the polished base of his instrument—his bread-winner, poor fellow—with his wan and withered cheek, and wielding a powerful, yet light and delicate, bow-hand; and we must go and have a crack with him. Nor must you sneer at us for so doing, gracious reader. The arrival even of a peripatetic, out-at-elbows fiddler is an event of some importance in such a place as this on a cold, grey November afternoon. We shall order him a big bowl of tea, with something to eat, satisfied that if in so doing we are not entertaining an angel unawares (though there is no reason that we know of why an angel should not appear in peripatetic fiddler guise, as well as in any other form), we are at all events entertaining one who by his appearance manifestly needs something warm and comfortable, and a little rest by a cheerful fireside at this season, not forgetting the while that he is a capital fiddler—of some intelligence, too, and full of capital stories we warrant him. Depend upon it that Homer, who was after all but an inspired gaberlunzie, has many a time and oft appeared in quite as sorry a plight, and with as little externally to recommend him as this same itinerant fiddler; and think how proud and glad you and we should be to have a chance of entertaining the blind old Chian, wandering ballad-singer as he was ! You must, therefore, let us have our way with this poor old man, who, by the way, is not blind, but, on the contrary, has a good large dark brown eye of his own, so common, wc have noticed, in people musically inclined, that it may be called the musical eye; and if he is all we take him for, and he and we got on well together, you may perhaps hear of him again.


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