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From Fox's Earth to Mountain Tarn
August in Scotland


AUGUST is Scotland’s month, as September is, perhaps, that of England. In one the grouse reigns, in the other the partridge. In August, Scotland appears as the joy of nations. The bustle, the portmanteaux, the fishing-baskets, the shooting-bags, all are so cheery, so hopeful, so virile. They who have been in the midst of it look forward eagerly, and backward with a sigh of regret. The story of August is the idyll of Scotland.

Natives feel all the charm without the freshness of novelty. They refrain from ecstasies because of a quiet sense of possession. Just as those who live in the sunshine are content to bask. Dwellers on the coast are not constantly snuffing up the sea-breeze. Children of the hills smile pleasantly on the eagerness of the climbers.

In August the breath of autumn is felt first, cool, but not cold. The sun shines through a soft silver, and lies golden on the golden harvest fields. In a sea of haze, cumulus masses float up from the west. The sky is oftener grey, clouding over of an afternoon. The breeze has a trick of rising suddenly, passing through the trees with a certain metallic rattle, suggestive of the fall. The hills are misty-outlined and purple-flanked, even at midday. The landscape sobers into brown shades. The setting sun has crept round to the southern side of yonder peak. The northern twilight is less lingering, and deepens into something more nearly approaching dark.

Young willow-warblers come in about the gardens to feed on the aphides, and utter at intervals their plaintive lay, not yet fully formed. Castanet sounds are heard, and, ere the second week has passed, young robins break into their autumn song and trill delightfully. The twittering swallows feed the young on the eaves; then young and old float in the air to a sweet chorus. Anon is a gathering on the telegraph wires, and on the morrow all are gone. Far aloft the swifts scream. The young arc on the wing, strengthening for the long flight, to be entered on at mid-month.

A yellow-hammer sings from the fence, but for the most part the singing has passed into something else. A charming family of whitethroats are talking to one another ever so delightfully in the bramble brake. How soft the tones even of a whitethroat can be when in its gentler moods, and how expressive. Some of the notes seem to be telling the young I am coming up the lane, and that they must lose themselves in the shadow, or among the twigs and the leaves.

The August linnet is a charming bird; it meets us in so many places and so many ways. It seems to take possession of the countryside. Here it is everything, and everywhere. Perched on the top bar of a fence, it sings its tinkling song almost without a break. It fills more of the autumn air with music than the robin, which sings but now and then, and with frequent breaks. In the late afternoon, when the shadows are falling westward, it flies to some favourite tree or trees, where it meets other linnets, and all sing their tinkling song in chorus. Wherein it differs from the robin, which never sings in company.

Now a family of rose-linnets are bobbing high over the fence, tinkling as they go, to light on the grain-field beyond. The most charming of Scots birds finds a golden cage—whose wires are the slender stalks of the single grains—in the most charming of Scots cereals. Others may laugh at the oats, because of the free use the nation is supposed to make of it when ground. But it is hard to beat full grown, and with the head shaken free; harder still in its golden tint as now. With how infinite a grace do the pendent grains drop round a linnet. Friendships are made there. It may be as the heads sway together from the weight. On the note of alarm, two families bob away as one.

With an evener dip in their motion, and a flight-note lower, sweeter, though not less charming - in autumn the characteristic sounds are flight-notes - pass families of greenfinches. Next to the linnet, they play the largest part in August country life. They are even more numerous, and more generally spread. They are more of a dominant species. But, inasmuch as the play of the greenfinch is less varied, as it moves about in larger or smaller groups, and seldom sits alone to sing, the linnet is more heard and felt in the scene.

From some convenient tree, the plebeian sparrows drop down on the uncut barley. If this, too, is in a sense a Scottish cereal because of its supposed popularity north of the Tweed, the nation can have no objection to acknowledge the soft impeachment, and own it. Among grains, it is second in grace to the oats alone. And it can lend of its charm even to the sparrows, as they swing on an elastic perch under the misty sweep of awns.

On level wing, a dozen or more starlings flit from place to place, or run over the pasture with inborn restlessness. The lapwings of all the Countryside have gathered together, and through the afterglow and in the twilight, wheel in two great flocks against the western sky.

Mating has passed. August is the month of families. Flocking has set in intermittently, and for a purpose. It is joyous work this raiding together, this dropping down from the deep shade, this tinkling through the coloured autumn sunlight toward the golden fields. The order is not yet so close, but that a family will drop in a corner by itself. They will gather in the morning to spend the day together; they will spend the day in families to gather in the evening. So these characteristic northern forms—the finches and the buntings—pass their charming August life, to fall again, it may be, into looser order when the harvest is past, until the coming on of the cold.

More interesting to the man of sporting instincts, as distinguished from the naturalist, is the grouping of the grouse. The family is known as a covey. August is the month of coveys. It is the form that lends itself to sport. It dots the heather all over—a covey here and a covey there. When many families pack—move about in one body and gather into one place—much of the heather is barren. During the period of family life the mood is comparatively gentle. In packing, another order of instincts come into play. Reports from the moors tell that the birds are difficult of approach. The season is not necessarily over, for, under changing conditions of weather, they will pack and dissolve again.

Hill birds pack sooner than birds of the plain. Indeed, in ordinary winters, lowland birds pack but loosely, or can scarce be said to pack at all. Upland conditions are harder, the gales ruder, the storms rush down from the heights; there is less of shelter save among themselves. Mountain linnet and golden plover leave the heather for the pasture and the stubble. Grouse stay. The gusty winds of autumn ruffle, the gun decimates, the thinned family ranks seek safety in numbers and readier flight.

Were the shooting later, the packing might be later. Were the birds stronger, the skill of the sportsman must be increased. In late seasons are many cheepers, which are no fitter for the game-bag than small trout for the fishing-basket. But it is hard to break the tradition of "the twelfth," or to pass on its glow and virility. The heather would have ceased to bloom; the charm of the environment would be wanting. A change in the day and the spell might be broken, the moors might cease to attract, and Scotland might no longer be the joy of nations. So great issues hang on little things. Shooting or no shooting, August reigns queen over the hills, not less for the flush of her heather than for picturesque grouping of her red birds, midway between the mating and the packing.

Ere the month is out the stalker is abroad. Many a stag has been grassed. Those who love the delicate bouquet, nor wish it to pass in repletion, leave the moor for the forest. The knocking over of grouse day after day does not appeal to them. They seek nobler game, go a step up the ladder.

If not a very reliable month, August fishing is very charming, and that is a good deal. From the hill burn, fringed with yellow and white saxifrages, and rushing, to the twitter of mountain linnets, through the glen stream flowing down between heather-flushed slopes, to the lowland water in its statelier course by green haughs and overhanging woods—all are equally delightful. The change of environment makes no change in the charm.

After all, the fishing depends much upon the season, so that there may be both environment and sport. This summer was dry, still, and bright. The water shrank till it dipped to the mud of slow-flowing streams, and made channels in the gravelly beds. Spring and summer were alike barren. With August the rain fell; not drenching, but just enough to flush; not continuous, but with long, bright intervals. After the rain came wind, not blustering, but strong enough to chase the flushed pools into ripples, and so add the last touch to perfect fishing conditions. The big trout rose in that determined way of theirs when feeding, sucking down the fly while scarce breaking the surface into rings.

Only yesterday, in the stream hard by, the rising was quite eager, in pleasant contrast with th€ sluggishness of months.

Night fishing comes earlier; indeed, it is the month of night fishing. It is no longer a waiting through an unfading twilight. One who does not care for a whole night of the stream may stroll out about eight o’clock, cast for two hours over the dimming surface, and then walk home through the dark. Perhaps the most delightful form of fishing while it lasts, and that which leaves the most charming impression. It deepens the mystery, which is the spell of the sport.

Trout are in perfect condition in August, fed upon summer flies into fatness and symmetry of mould. One is worth having. Anglers, like gunners, are too much given to the big-basket theory, to measure the day’s success by the weight and often by the number. And just so far they come short of being sportsmen. My most delightful day of late only yielded one fish, but it was large, lively, and lightly hooked. With that pleasing flutter within, I watched the Scouring of the line, felt the impatient tugging when he had got as much as I cared to give, followed the reluctant passage down the stream till the white side was turned up. How firm the flesh was, and what power of muscle as he curved in the hand. It was enough. With each fresh capture the delicacy of the sensation would have weakened. Though I made a few more casts, I soon went away. Next day the charm would be fresh again.

If the fish are dainty because of the variety of the fly, and slow because of the number, all the more art is needed, alike in the choice and use of the lure. Watch an old angler—shabby as only an angler can be—who has been baffled all the morning, and only gets the keener—with his eye on the rings which the trout are breaking, to see what they are sucking down. From his book of battered parchment he takes a bare hook, and fur or feather for fresh dressing. If the lure attract where others failed, a glow comes over his face. It is better than a basketful where the trout would not be denied. I have visions of such an angler who—after barren but delightful hours— came near to Ashestiel, where he cast again, and this time not in vain. The play of the trout is passing now; the faint gurgle where the water swirled, sounds; the glow on the face shines out.

In the slight air-chill, flies are not so many. Forms drop and pass. Other forms, touched with richer shades, come in their stead, but do not quite fill their place. The heyday of insect life has gone by. Whereas the water was a maze of spinners half hidden in drowning forms, one spins or drowns here and there. As in spring, insect life awakens not all at once, but a few appear in advance. So in August it goes to sleep, not all at once. A few remain after the rest. There is a sort of second spring, where are flies, but not enough to sate. The rise is not, as in chill April, that of hungry, half-fed trout, wherever March Brown lights, but a sullen wallop for change of diet. In a season of dry, hot, forcing weather, is a gap after the passage of summer forms—when the later insects appear, the rising is eager enough.

As a further charm, August closes the fishing. The trout have matured into their perfect mould, only to change. Though the form is generally maintained to the last day of the month, through the early weeks of September the deterioration becomes plain. Even yesterday, the 20th of August, a trout, full and perfect as trout could be, still showed a tell-tale margin of white on the fins. The season may have forced the fish as well as the flies. It was the first hint that sport was drawing near an end.

Some fish on to the last lawful day. They go by book. The angler’s book is nature; he guides himself by what he sees there. As a general rule, he finds that August is as long as he cares to fish for trout. No one year is like another, so he may fish on a few days longer, or stop a week earlier, as he finds the trout slower or faster in passing their best. In no case does he care to trouble fish which have on them the marks of early spawning.

For the angler are the same divisions as in shooting. August is a precious, and somewhat of a sad month. Its weeks are numbered, then its days, finally its hours. And when the reckoning is reduced to the fingers of one hand, he might well pose for the "Knight of the rueful countenance." To have the trout at its best and yet at its latest. To be bound by that angler’s conscience of his, that unwritten agreement as between him and his quarry, that debt of honour to Nature for her largesse, not to fish after the hour has struck, or the first sign of change appeared.

That last day of grey cloud and wind-chased pool; that last night of shortening twilight and early-coming dark, which—linger as he might— would come to an end. That day and night too which—as though to try to the utmost what manner of man he was—the trout rose, as they had done no other day nor night for many weeks. I have come with him along the shaded road, entered his house, and watched him place his rod on the pegs where he would see it from his arm-chair all winter through, and muse through the curling smoke on the last time of using, when the trout rose so freely in the darkening.

Coast life in August is very full and very charming. The sands are not so hot as in the earlier months. The white light of July is pleasantly shaded and tinged, flushing the breaking waves into a delicate pink. It is then that the crowd, whose instincts are in the main right, seek the seaside; it charms and exhilarates as at no other time. Their demands are few, the conditions elemental; they give themselves up to the simple joy of living. Once a year it is well to return to nature. Mature hands splash the water in the frolic of childhood. Their natural history is confined to the donkeys up on the dry sand, which they mount for a penny ride— after the cold snap of bathing—to the ripple of the old girlish laughter. But even donkeys are part of a very delightful picture, and by no means banish other forms for those who have eyes to see.

If the bird life, on the flat stretches where the visitors go, is not so rich nor so varied as in winter, neither is it so grave. It is bright and sparkling, vivacious and sympathetic. The terns mimic the bathers, but with ever so much more perfect an art. They are sunlight, motion, virility, joy incarnate. They dive and splash, and emerge, not to shake the drops off, but with the purpose which runs through all the doings of wild life. For the children, how delightful a first lesson in nature, to have such bright associates for bathing, with whom they take dive about. They may forget many things, but scarcely the bright days with the terns among the August ripples. If, hitherto, they have been so absorbed with their own little ring formed by chubby hands, next August let them make new friends.

Paddling in the rush of the breaking ripples are many gulls, which scarce take the trouble to get out of the wader’s way. As a change in the puzzles weekly propounded in the children’s corner of magazines, it might be well to ask how many different kinds of their fellow-waders there were. They can scarcely fail to make out three— the herring-gull, the common gull, and the black-headed gull. In August the difficulty is greater than at any other time, but that only makes the puzzle so much the more interesting. They are in process of changing the summer for the winter plumage. The black-headed gull is imperfectly named after its summer hood. And now that it has no longer a black head it is hard to tell. Only it is the smallest of the three, and has red legs.

Certain returning divers sail close in to add to the list. Many waders pipe along the coast, whose notes should be easy to distinguish. And altogether the circle of new acquaintances on an August day is fairly large.

In the sterner conditions of marine life flocking comes hard upon, harder even than on the hills. The three phases, moulded by the environment, are of exceptional interest. In the vast and lonely areas of buffeting winds and warring seas, the living forms at once mass into flocks, and cling together in pairs. The family relation is no lasting phase. The solitary life is well-nigh unknown.


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