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Nether Lochaber
Chapter LXIII


March Dust—Moons of Mars— Planetoids—Occultation of Alpha Leonis—Zodical Light-Snow Bunting—Old Gaelic Ballad of "Deirdri:" Its Topography.

If for the first few days March [1878] seemed inclined to emulate the peaceful calm and sunshine of its predecessor, it very suddenly assumed a more warlike aspect; a change came over the spirit of its dream; it became boisterous and rude; snow, and sleet, and rain, and storm battling in wild comminglement. It still continued what is called " open " weather, however; there was no frost, no razor-edged and biting winds, and vegetation was rather temporarily checked than seriously hurt or hindered. After this wild burst, in vindication, it is to be presumed, of the month's right to be called after the bellicose Mars, things slowly but steadily improved, and the weather is now such as permits us to get on with our spring work uninterruptedly and pleasantly enough. "We have not yet, however, had a sufficiency of the "March dust," so proverbially invaluable at seed-time; and nowhere perhaps so invaluable, so absolutely essential indeed, in its proper season, as in the "West Highlands. The day, however, is now lengthening apace, and with a bright warm sun overhead, and brisk north-easterly breezes, we shall doubtless soon have dust enough and to spare.

Our reference to Mars the war-god, reminds us that Mars the planet, with whose fiery effulgence every one is familiar, has recently had an accession of dignity such as the old-world star-gazers never dreamt of in connection with the ruddy orb. It is found to have at least two attendant moons, small, and so exceedingly difficult of detection even by the aid of the best instruments, that it is only under the most favourable circumstances that they can he observed. It is more than suspected that a third, and even a fourth satellite, exists, and the planet will in consequence be subjected to the closest possible scrutiny at all the observatories at home and abroad for some time to come, in order to determine with certainty the number of its attendant moons, and whether they be two or more, to decide their sidereal revolutions, their diameters, masses, and inclinations of orbits. By reason of his retinue of satellites, Mars is now exalted to equal dignity with Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune; and by the discovery another point is scored in favour of the nebular hypothesists. It was on the night of the 1st January 1801 that the first of the planetoids, Ceres, was discovered by Piazzi of Palermo. Next year Olbers of Bremen discovered the second planetoid, Pallas, and so constant and searching has been the scrutiny to which the planetoidal zone, situated between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, has been subjected, that the number of these minor worlds is now no less than 182, the last three in the series, Nos. 180, 181, and 182, having been discovered since the beginning of February last. Of these three, two were discovered by French observers; the third by Professor Peters of Hamilton College, U.S., America. This last, however, is suspected to be only a rediscovery, so to speak; to be identical with Antigone, discovered five years ago by the same indefatigable observer. If this be so, the asteroidal series amounts at present date to 181. In favour of the ingenious hypothesis that accounted for the existence of these minor orbs by suggesting that they might be the fragments of a large disrupted world—of a large planet rent asunder by some terrible internal convulsion—a great deal could be said while the number of fragments was under half a dojcen or even double that number, but when the fleet of orblets began to be counted by the score, the disrupted world theory was dropped as no longer tenable in the circumstances. The hypothesis of Olbers, however—for it originated with the discoverer of Pallas —led to a great deal of curious research that resulted in no little gain to astronomical science; and if it had to he given up as insufficient in the case of a planetoidal zone, it left us a legacy that may yet he turned to good account, that such a catastrophe, namely, as the disruption of a planetary world into fragments that in the shape of minor orbs would continue to revolve in orbits coincident with that of the parent globe, is not only possible, but, under certain easily enough conceivable circumstances, a probable enough occurrence.

Occultations by the moon of planets and first magnitude stars are always interesting phenomena, and for many years we have rarely missed observing such conjunctions as they became due, even if the hour was otherwise inconvenient, if only the weather chanced to be favourable. Last week there were two occultations, which for particular reasons we were very anxious to observe, and as the weather was clear and bright we had but little fear of disappointment. The stars to be occulted were Alpha and Delta Leonis, the one on the night of the 16th, the other on the night succeeding. Alpha Leonis is of the first magnitude, distinguished, like some others of its class, from the mere alphabetical order of stars by its proper name of Regulus. Up to within a quarter of an hour of the computed moment of occultation or disappearance of the star behind the moon's disc, the sky was clear; and as we stood at our post everything promised a highly satisfactory and successful observation; but alas, as the moon and star, in nautical phrase, were close aboard each other, a huge bank of cloud, driven by a north-westerly breeze, swept over the scene, effectually occulting moon and stars alike from the most penetrating gaze. It was provoking enough, but there was no help for it. An observer in our climate must make up his mind to frequent disappointments of this kind. We were still in hopes that although the immersion was thus hidden from us we might he more fortunate in the case of the emersion—the reappearance, that is—of the star on the moon's western limb. But it was no use. Two or three times, indeed, the moon shone forth for a minute or two together from through an old cathedral porch-like rent in the intervening wall of cloud, but only to be agam obscured; and thus it continued so tantalisingly promising, that we stood to our post until a glance at the clock showed that the moment of emersion was already past, and it was useless waiting or watching any longer. The great object in closely watching these occultations is to observe, with all possible certainty, if there is any distortion or momentary projection on the moon's disc of the planet or star occulted at the instant of immersion and emersion, in order to decide if the moon has an atmosphere or not. We have seen enough, we think, from our own observations during the last five and twenty years, to lead us to the couclusion that such distortion and projection is occasionally to be seen, and that therefore, contrary to the general belief of astronomers, a lunar atmosphere very probably exists, though it may be of greatly less weight and density than our own. Looking over our astonomical note-book, we find that the winter just past— let us hope that at this date we may so speak of it—was remarkable for two things—the almost total absence, namely, of auroral displays, and the exceeding brilliancy of the zodiacal light. We have only two recorded instances of the occurrence of the aurora borealis, both in December, and both but partial, faint, and ill-defined. The zodiacal light, on the contrary, was remarkably bright and noticeable on almost every evening in February and early March, its apex reaching up to and beyond the Pleiades, and with an outline clear and sharply defined as ever was sheaf of the brightest auroral light. So noticeable was it on several occasions, that all the people of the hamlet began to speak about it, and inquire what it could mean, for its perfect quiescence, its appearance night after night in the same quarter of the heavens, and the absence of anything like accompanying storms or aerial disturbance, satisfied even them that it was not the fir-chlisor " merry-dancers " as they used to know them. Let us assure our Celtic readers that an attempt on our part to explain the nature of the zodiacal light in Gaelic was no easy task; and if the truth were known, we fear onr prelection quoad hoc was a sad failure.

We have received the following note from "A Constant Reader:"—

"Sir—Would you kindly let us know, through the columns of the Inverness Courier, the proper name of the accompanying little bird, and what part of this country it is properly a native of. It is never seen in Ross-shire but during very heavy snow, and then they fly about in large flocks, and disappear again as soon as the snow is gone.—I am, yours respectfully,

"A Constant Reader."

Neatly packed in a couple of lucifer match-boxes ingeniously conjoined, the bird reached us, and the locale of its being shot or captured we can only approximately indicate by the fact that the package bore the post-mark "Garve" There was no difficulty in at once recognising the bird as the snow-fleck or snow hunting, the Emberiza nivalis of Linnaeus, a common enough bird in early winter over the whole of Scotland. Although it has been known to breed in Scotland, a few being found all the year round along the summits of the Grampians, and other mountain ranges to the north and north-west, it is probably a bird of considerably higher latitudes than ours; visiting our shores as a migrant in October or November, according as the winter is early and severe or otherwise, and leaving us again in March or April. It is a hardy little bird, of plain and rather sombre plumage, prettiest in the act of flight, when the white on the edges and tips of the tail-feathers, and quills, and secondaries, comes out in pretty bars, contrasting pleasantly with the dark and chestnut brown, which may be said to be the prevailing colour. The snow-fleck has hardly any song beyond a tremulous twittering, and a few call-notes so loud and shrill that in the strange and solemn calm that sometimes precedes a snow-storm, they may be heard at a great distance. Our correspondent should have stated where, when, and how the bird was got, a knowledge of such matters vastly enhancing the interest and value of a specimen, especially if it has any claims to be accounted a rara avis.

We are indebted to our excellent Celtic friend, Mr. William Mackay, Inverness, for a copy of his exceedingly interesting monograph on The Glen and Castle of Urquhart, one of the most interesting spots in the Highlands. Mr. Mackay attempts to make Glen Urquhart classic ground by associating the story of Dearduil and Clann-Uisneachean, as related in the mediaeval Gaelic ballads, with the locality, by pointing out that there is a Dun Dearduil in the neighbourhood—a place so called after the hapless heroine of the ballad story. But in the old and unquestionably authentic ballads her name is not Dearduil but Deirdri ; Deirdir and Daordir. Dearduil is a much later form of the name, not older, Mr. J. F. Campbell hints, than the Darthula of "Ossian" Macpherson. But there are other Dun Dearduils besides that referred to by Mr. Mackay; one, for instance, near us in Glenevis; and it is to be observed that all the places so called are vitrified forts. An old man in our neighbourhood, one of our best seannachies, always speaks of the Glenevis vitrified fort as Dun Dearsail or Dearsuil, and this is probably the correct form of the term, closely connecting it with dears and dtarsadh, to shine, a shining; to beam and be etfulgently aglow like flame of fire. Remembering that all the places so called present more or less marked traces of vitrifaction, in the formation of which fire and flame, on a large scale, must have been the chief and most remarkable agents, the name comes to have a fitting and appropriate enough meeting, without the necessity of taking in the name of Deirdri or Dearduil at all. Mr. Mackay next gives a translation of a couple of quatrains from the oldest known version of the Clann-Uisneachan ballad; that, namely, of the vellum manuscript in the Advocates' Library, bearing the date 1238, and quoted in the Highland Society's Eeport on Ossian :—

"Beloved land, that eastern land,
Alba, with its lakes;
Oh, that I might not depart from it;
But I go with
Naois.
Glen Urchain, O Glen Urchain,
It was the straight glen of smooth ridges:
Not more joyful was a man of his age
Than Naois in Glen Urchain."

Mr. Mackay will have it, of course, that this " Glen-Urchain " is his Glen TJrquhart. The Gaelic name of Urquhart, however, is invariably a trisyllable; but this apart, the Glen-Urchain of Mr. Mackay has no existence in the ballad from which he professes to translate. The quatrain stands thus in the original :—

It is Glen Urchaidh, observe, not Urchain; the Glenurchay of Argyllshire, in short, not the Glen Urquhart or Urchadan of Inverness-shire. This is further proved by the context, the immediately preceding and succeeding stanzas, which speak of Glen Mason and Glendaruel in Cowal; of Duntroon; of Innisstry-nich on Loch Awe; of Eite or Etive, &c. In so far, in short, as this story of Clann-Uisneachan of Ireland has to do with Scotland, we find it connected with Argyllshire, where indeed we should most naturally look for it; and chiefly with Glen Etive and Loch Etive, where we have Dun-Mhac-Uisneachan; Grianan Dheirdir; Caoille Naois; Eilean Uisneachan, &c. &c. In Argyllshire, too, it was that the Clann-Uisneachan hallads were preserved till discovered and taken down from oral recitation hy the collectors. And if Dun-Dearduil and "Glen-Urchain" must he given up as having no connection with the ballads in question, so would it seem to follow that some other etymology than any connection with the name of Naois, must be found for Loch Ness, Inverness, &c.


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