THE burn is in spate. It
swirls round a sharp curve, then sweeps on its course, with occasional
eddies. A burn is not a river, nor the miniature of a river. It is to a
river as childhood is to maturity. Its changes of mood are sudden. It is
volatile. It plays as children play. And this afternoon it is having a fit
of temper. It has for us much of the interest we feel in childhood.
It is very brown. The sides
fall in to make it browner. The worst is past. Against the far bank the
level is sinking. I n the gleams of sunshine it is like a child smiling
itself back into good humour. A dipper is flying up and down, lighting, for
a little, on the alder branch, where it bobs impatiently. Its perch on the
boulder is out of sight ; the larder at the bottom is closed. It is fain to
drop down where the bank softens into a sandy or gravelly stretch for such
larvae as are left by the shrinking water. Though birds like to feed in
their own way. Sweeter is that brought up from the dive. Silver runs-broken
and made musical by the gravel-and the clear shallow pools are the natural
haunt of the dipper. The northern streams are of this character. Though not
a Scots bird, perhaps it gets more of what it needs here, and is most at
home. A Scots stream without a dipper were almost a play without Hamlet.
It has its nesting area,
where it is found year after year. It may shift up and down the burn a
little as winter approaches. It has certain narrow limits of migration.
Though often the same pair may keep to their summer quarters all year round
; the food is perhaps more certain in the upper reaches. But hard weather
makes its own conditions.
A sedge-warbler is either
scolding or prattling, or both. The harsh notes sound like scolding, and may
well be meant for the stream which has been creeping up the grass stems,
floating out the long pendent twigs of the white willow, and coming within
measurable distance of its nest. Between the harsh notes is a long string of
prattle, much of it pleasant prattle, with some notes very like they had
been stolen from our sweetest singers.
Each summer the bird is
there, always at the same eddy. It comes in May; it sings all through the
lingering twilights of June, and intermittently throughout July. The young
flit about with the old, six or seven in all; then they vanish. They go
south, somewhere in Africa. Next year only a pair are in the willows. Does
it mean that this is the annual waste of life? Out of every seven only two
are left? Or do the young go elsewhere? Over the whole burn one season's
warblers are not greater than another. Whence the mortality? It is mainly in
the young. Buffeted by winds on the passage, or heedless of risks, do they
lose touch with the sage guides of the flight ?
This is our Scots warbler.
Each patch of marsh lodges its summer pair. On the watercourses which
network the land, it is familiar; save only where some wilful bend has left
a dry place. I have not yet been where it was absent. So rich in warblers is
the south that it may well afford us, who have so few, this one all to
ourselves. It has been named the Scots nightingale -not because it sings so
well, but because it is our only night-singing bird. The peasant, in the
country cottage near where water is, hears it, on his pillow, as a not
ungrateful lullaby. From its perch on the willow it catches the step of the
late wanderer by the streamside. It chatters to him as he passes, scolding,
with its harshest notes, that he is out at such untimely hours. Who has not
gone down in the delightful dim coolness just to hear, and could not point
out the very turn in the path where the first greeting note will sound; and,
when the scolding stopped, has not sent a little pebble at the bush that he
might begin again?
In Scotland, if we boast not
the finest singer, we have the most charming setting. What environment may
be to a song, and how the sweetest outpourings may suffer in a poor and
unhelpful scene, the prince of observers tells us :
Soft stillness, and the
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
The nightingale if he should sing by day
When every goose is cackling, would be thought
No better a musician than the wren.
The magic light of the lanes,
the deeper shadows under the hedges, the mystery, the stillness, disturbed
only by the passing moth, are all in the song. It is a poor imagination that
hears but the sound and finds no space for the rest.
If it be so in the sweet
south, how much may the magic of our northern night-drawn out and mystic,
and still, beyond the dream of those of other lands-add to the northern
night song? Almost enough to make a sedge-warbler's chatter by a Sutherland
stream arresting as a nightingale's lay in a Surrey lane.
A delicate lad is fishing.
The nervous hand drops the bait just where the burn surges out of the curve.
I watch the line in its swift career in the straight run, and round the
eddy, where the tall grasses grow, and the white willow bends. More than
once the line surges down. Each time it swirls in the eddy, the
sedge-warbler scolds, because its nest is there.
At length is a check. The
hook may have caught on something in the bottom. If a bite, it is a slow
bite. The angler watches the tremor curiously; so do I. When the strain is
put on, it comes away like a twig ; and like a black twig it appears on the
surface-only it is a living twig. It is an eel which has lived in the eddy
where the white willow leaves dip just under the nest, and in a kind of
summer comradeship with the sedge-warbler.
It is the penalty for
dabbling in brown water; at any time unsportsmanlike. Eels are alive in a
spate. The rush and swirl stir up the muddy bottom, and there is so much to
eat. The angler gazes helplessly at his catch; it is a yard long, hopelessly
hooked and twisted in a dozen coils round the gut cast. The only resource is
to make a present of so much as it has swallowed and give it a chance. No
use in killing even an eel.
A look of disgust comes into
the sensitive face. There is a natural shrinking from anything so
snake-like. It is hardly fair. We owe some return. Before I have done I hope
to invest the wriggling form with a wonder, absent from its brighter
stream-mates. So that next time we may look with a curious and more kindly
eye. The eel will be avenged.
Further fishing is hopeless.
The burn swarms with such. Had we not watched them coming up in the
spring-myriads of wriggling needles? So many that when they grew bigger the
water would not hold them. And what enemy had they, save a solitary heron,
or an otter journeying from the water beyond the ridge?
A long-time wonder was where
the elvers came from. If the hatching is done amid the gravel, or the mud,
why should they not appear singly, or in small shoals, as the trout do? Why
crowd up the current in an almost unbroken phalanx from the sea, like
travellers who were eager to be at their journey's end? The puzzle was to
make a life cycle of the big eels in the burn, and the elvers which appeared
so strangely and suddenly in the spring-to fill up the gap between. From
elver to eel was a matter of growth; between eel and elver lay the rub.
The rustic had his theory, as
he has of all things recondite. So arose folk-lore, and countryside natural
history, so childlike, so past belief, and yet so attractive. Hid from the
wise and prudent, these charming half-truths or whole fables are revealed
unto babes. If an explanation holds the field, so long as it is alone, then
the rustic's view had its day. Science might pooh pooh, but could find
nothing to take its place. Say it is unlikely that elvers came from horse
hairs, and that the link of connection must be sought in the tail of the
steed grazing on the rich streamside grasses. Nor is there any such thing as
spontaneous generation. Life comes out of life, and a break means death.
That is all negative. How much more can the savant tell?
That the big eels went down
stream in the autumn was known. Men forecast the time, and prepared traps
which they set facing up current, whence the rush of migrants would come.
Before they left, they were seen to pass through certain changes. The eyes
grew bigger, so did the ears; as though they were preparing for a place
harder to hear and see in; going to deeper and dimmer wastes than the
shallow spring burn.
A certain sheen came over
them, the promise of something brighter, a faint glory of attire, such as
other creatures don on the eve of wedding. Plainly they were bound on a
fateful journey, fraught with a faint sense of bliss, increasingly dawning;
every stage of which brought them nearer to a promised land. Many wildlings
set themselves for the same land ; but not so steadfastly, nor over so dim
or mysterious a way. So far can we follow, to the kiss of burn and salt
wave, where the eel vanishes in the autumn, and the elver appears in the
spring. They were going to spawn. But where? And when? Not near, nor soon.
Spawning was distant, where
neither male nor female was ripe. Why, then, start so early, if it be not,
that the mating and the spawning were far off, many weeks and long miles
away. Thus unripe, they pass out, where the brown of the autumn flood
broadens and finally loses itself in the blue of the deepening sea.
The North Sea seemed
tenantless. Amid its multitude of eggs and larvae was no egg nor larva of
eel. A little light was thrown elsewhere. The warring currents in the
Straits of Messina cast up ripe eels on the shore. It was concluded that
they spawned at depths of not less than 500 metres, under great pressure of
water, and died in the spawning. But it is a far cry to Messina.
Further progress has been
made. A second area has been discovered. To the west of the British Isles,
where the water lies to the depth of several thousand feet, was evidence of
a great company of spawning eels. The larvae are ribbon-shaped, and named,
from the smallness of their heads, Leptocephali. In one sweep of the net as
many as seventy were caught. To the discoverer of this promising area, it
seemed as though he had come upon the breeding ground of the eels of
From the Baltic, from the
rivers that rush, the burns which trickle into the North Sea, the descending
eels launch out with a confidence that allows of no hesitation. Through the
English Channel, they seek their way to the westerly goal. Those from the
more northerly streams may choose the shorter route round the north of
Onward they go, with the
precision of an army on the march, or a flight of migrant birds, which
follow the same route, year by year. By ocean valleys, or along water-dimmed
slopes they go. Possibly they join forces by the way, to swell the number of
the main body. Of the marked specimens caught at the various stages of the
journey, one was found to have covered upward of four hundred miles in
This little flooded burn is
an unconsidered item in the drainage system. Still it has the beginning and
the end of the story. So that, whatever takes place elsewhere is gone
through here. The eel just put back, if it survived, would-with all the
other eels-leave by and by. When they reached where the current met the
waves, they would turn to the right, or to the left. Being so far north,
they would be likely to choose the left. At the rate of fifteen or twenty
miles a day, they would pass up the east coast. I n three weeks they would
round Cape Wrath. A month later they would reach the deep water and the
There they would shed their
now ripened eggs, to float midway between the bottom and the surface-and,
having done so, would die. In due time and order, would come the hatching,
and the early larval changes. The needle-like and transparent elvers would
start on the momentous journey. They would retrace the way the adults had
come-would repass Cape Wrath-coast down the North Sea. And-assuming the
young revisit the scene their elders left-arrive some day in March or April,
at the mouth of the burn. Thence they would crowd up the current to complete
All this is very interesting.
But, if a theory is to be tried by its weakest part, then there are one or
two weaknesses. There is a marked tendency in some observers to push their
little discoveries unduly. Scientific imagination is an excellent thing,
meant to span gaps and connect what stand apart, but it must be skilfully
used. Were engineers to span chasms so, the structure would collapse. Were
business men so to speculate, they would be bankrupt in a week. In the
library of science is no place for an Arabian Nights.
The adult eels from the North
Sea burn die far out in the Atlantic, and leave their young in the waste of
waters. By what means do these young find their way back? Do they come,
these fifteen miles a day through the unknown, in the directest route to an
unknown destination, by reason of something within that no one understands?
Of course, anything is possible. But this does not differ from the many
baseless things which modern thought killed out. Science, it seems, may be a
mystery-monger. For my part, I should be extremely hard to convince that an
elver could find its way out of the Atlantic, much less round the north of
Scotland and into the mouth of an obscure burn.
When the elver grows into an
eel, and the autumn flood bears it down to the sea, it may seek the deep
waters where it was hatched: it is just possible. More probable is it that a
single journey in the elver stage would prove insufficient.
If the breeding ground for
Northern Europe is thus out in the Atlantic, some filling up is needful. The
story is not quite told. Between the elver and the eel some chapters are
wanting. In any case, a mystery does not solve a mystery.
Common sense comes to the aid
of a somewhat wild imagination. Possibly all the breeding eels do not die.
Enough may be left to guide the young back. Or immature eels may accompany
the breeders, and so come and go more than once. Anything seems reasonable,
compared with finding a way never before traversed.
Migration is no more than
unbroken habit. It is the same in eels as in birds: it is not a mystery. Did
all the breeding sedge - warblers die, the young would never leave our land,
or, if they did, would not know which way to turn, and surely be lost. The
old birds guide; the young learn the way against the time when they in their
turn will be guides. And so the lesson is handed down from generation to
generation. If the elvers come back to the eddy, it will be as the
sedge-warbler comes to the long grass under the willow, where it has its